April 2006 Archives

Luck

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As heard at the Artiman Ventures Concepts 2006 conference:

There are 3 things you need to do to be successful as an entrepreneur:

1. Get your product almost right. Don't obsess over getting it perfect. You'll potentially waste time or the window of opportunity may pass as you try to reach perfection before going live.

2. Hire well. As you achieve item 1., you must have a great team to help iterate towards perfection. If your team is mediocre, you'll never get there.

3. Be lucky. Luck brings opportunity.

If you master item 3., it supercedes items 1 and 2.

As told by Basil Alwan, panel moderator and President of IP Products at Alcatel and Founder/CEO of TiMetra Networks.

I have always thought deeply on the role of luck in career, business, and in life. I have always thought that luck is a huge modifier in whether you'll be successful in those 3 areas. It can supremely increase your chances, or likewise it can severely limit them too.

As you go through life, observe the people around you. It seems as though there are people who walk through life with luck following them wherever they go. No matter what they do or where they go, they seem to have good things happen to them no matter what. They lead charmed lives.

Then there is the other group. These are the people that seem to never have things go right. Bad things happen to them, or they never seem to get it right. They always seem to have things going wrong. It doesn't mean they are bad people. Some of them are decent citizens and great friends. But fortune always seems to make them roll snake eyes.

Is this phenomenon fate or controllable? Some would say that luck is part of fate, and some higher power has granted you this power. Others would say that it is somewhat controllable, that you may manipulate events around both in large and in subtle ways to influence the overall outcome of things in your life.

I, for one, am in the camp that you can influence the odds. I believe that you can subtly and greatly influence events in your life to stack things in your favor. Think of the ways you can build your career, by carefully walking through companies, gaining promotions, and building your personal brand, so that you can actually craft success. Reducing impulsiveness and being more deliberate about how and where you invest can again stack the odds in your favor. These are just two examples - It is certainly better than just sitting around and waiting for things to happen, is it not?

As you go through life, can you pick out the lucky and unlucky people? Is it possible to surround you and your activities with lucky people to increase their chances for success?

Are you yourself lucky or unlucky?

AdTech 2006: Major Confusion?

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This last week I was up at AdTech in San Francisco. It was the first time I had ever gone to AdTech. I had always felt that being in the business (while I was at Yahoo!), that it wasn't worthwhile to go. But this year, I decided to go as I had heard there were many friends who were attending and I wanted to catch up.

There was one thing that stood out. As I walked through the exhibition floor, I felt very confused. I imagined myself as a publisher website looking for interactive advertising services. I scanned the booths as I walked by. And I saw the same messages over and over again:

"Interactive Marketing"
"Search Engine Marketing"
"Click Fraud"
"Rich Media Advertising"
"Optimization"

Every booth said exactly the same thing as every other booth. It just goes to show that the Internet marketing space is hugely crowded. It seems as though there are so many firms doing exactly the same thing. Yes, potentially doing it a little better, or a little different. But as a naive conference attendee, I had no idea who was better and who was not.

Some notes:

1. If you're going to market something, you need to figure out messaging that stands out from the rest. Escaping conference floor "blur" is critical.

2. If you're going to start a company, don't start one in a crowded space with many competitors.

Just recently, I've been thinking about the women's market on the Web. I had been fortunate enough to meet a number of women entrepreneurs and as I saw what they were working on, it got me thinking about women's products and services on the Net.

When I thought of women focused Internet products, all I could see were sites dedicated to men, fashion, shopping, and baby care. Why is that? These may be the most prominent of all topics that women *seem* to focus on, but they also seem very shallow and very stereotypical. Surely women must be interested in other things too?

I suppose entire industries have been built around these categories, and thus maybe they are a faster path to profits as product manufacturers want to advertise around those content areas. You talk about fashion and gain a following, and voila! you've got fashion advertisers wanting to buy ads on your site. Seems pretty easy to me.

So do women think about anything else but the "big 4"? I would think that women weren't so shallow as to think about nothing but the "big 4" and there must be opportunity for women focused products and services beyond these topics. I think the problem is two-fold.

First, I don't think people are thinking broad enough about women's products and services.

As soon as you try to target women for your site, you immediately think about the stereotypical things that women think about all day. I think this is missing the boat. You can definitely focus on the "big 4" and there is much improvement that can happen in those categories. But I think there must be more content areas than these. Are women interested in NOTHING else but men, fashion, shopping, and baby care? COME ON. Doesn't it sound ridiculous just to read a statement like that?

I also think there is much that could be done beyond content.

For example, what if you put a feminine spin on email? Is there some optimization in the way women communicate that hasn't been capitalized on yet? This can be in functionality, the GUI, visual design (and I'm not talking about making it pink), and other subtle or visible modifications. My belief is that this is hugely unexplored, and that sometimes taking the functionality and tweaking it slightly, can have a huge effect on the users. If this is done correctly, it is possible that women will all of a sudden find your product a little more attractive, a little more fun, a little more everything and may not even be able to articulate it.

Look at the difference between Windows and Mac OS. At a gross level, you could say that they were both icon-driven windowing systems with menus and mostly controlled by mouse. But once you start playing with either, you'll find it's the subtle differences that make the Mac OS so much better than any Microsoft product.

Second, I think the lack of women entrepreneurs on the Net, both in management and in engineering hampers the development and exploration of women's products and services.

If you look at most development teams, they are primarily male. Today's universities are just not turning out nowhere near as many women engineers as there are male engineers. So what happens. Whole product teams are working on products that subtly become more male oriented because that's where their natural sensitivies lie. They're men, so they design things that resonate with themselves.

So you see the problem I have with women's products today. Women should be designing women's products, not men. And while many women's product teams are led by women, I still don't think there are enough women on the team to really make the differences seen and felt. Products are simply rehashed men's products - I would even argue that today's gender neutral products are inherently men focused simply because they are designed by teams that are largely composed of men. That doesn't mean that women can't use them; but it does mean that the subtle optimizations that could occur, aren't.

So let's ask ourselves: what if a gender neutral Web product today were designed and engineered solely by a team of women? Would it come out the same or different?

Is it a Hobby or a Business? The Web 2.0 Dilemma

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My Hobby

In looking at all the new Web stuff that's out there, I am amazed at the diversity and also at the number of rehashes of old applications. I am beginning to get to know some of these entrepreneurs and trying to find out what their motivations are for building whatever it is they're working on. Some of them clearly have more defined goals in terms of problems they are trying to solve, what opportunities they see.

Others...don't have such clearly defined goals. You ask them some standard questions about business models and user retention, or scalability and it is clear that these issues have not been thought through yet.

But no matter what, there is huge interest and determination in working on these apps, and the passion is evidently there. Just like having a hobby.

So yes, these apps pass the hobby test. But they can they go beyond being just a hobby?

Because I can...

I suspect that some entrepreneurs build these things because they can. Because the world of Web 2.0 it is really easy to build some really complex applications and you don't need an entire team of engineers to do some very interesting things. You weld maps with some other app and get a new way of approaching the same problem. Never know if you'll come up with something totally disruptive and it takes off.

Certainly many build them also because they are trying to satisfy some need that they have. They see some specific problem in the world and they solve that problem. These can be services or parts of technologies, or even reinventing some old thing again.

Almost universally, they have this hope that they will make the big score by selling their little app to some big company and live the life of luxury forever.

Does the world need yet another Google Maps mashup?

Sometimes I wonder about creativity in this new Web 2.0 entrepreneurism. There seem to be multiple versions of almost every app out there. For example, one way to be "cool" is to do something interesting with Google Maps. So, yes, creativity in mashing-up maps with some other app, but creativity in services? It seems like people take the same service or some existing and redo it in their own image.

As a user, how I am supposed to distinguish between one app or another when they look almost the same? Sure, I could sit at every app and try it out for an hour, but I don't think I would spend my time to do that to figure out why something was better in some tiny but important way.

Money Making Hobby?

Some people make money off their hobbies. You do something you love doing for the sake of doing it, and then a business springs out of that. But many people have hobbies that don't make money.

The big question is: in the world of Web 2.0, how does one take their hobby and make the leap to business? On the internet, users can't distinguish if something they encounter on the Web is a "hobby" (in the context of what we're calling hobby in this post), or a real business. So that's one problem.

Another problem is that it's really hard to execute. Putting your website up is one level; staying in it, developing a business model, and keeping it going for a long time is another level.

I think the main goals of our venture fund will be to discover:

1. If this is a "hobby", can it become a business, and one that has big enough potential for us to invest in?

2. Does the entrepreneur have enough vision, experience, or potential to be able to evolve this from a "hobby" to a business?

Last night, I went to the Silicon Valley Meetup held at Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) in Menlo Park. These have become wildly popular following a New York Times article about the New York Tech Meetup, which was standing room only due to its new publicity.

I found the meeting to be an interesting group of people. I was only 1 of 2 venture fund folks there, the other person being the DFJ guy who donated the conference room. The rest of the people were all entrepreneurs and seemed to span the range of experience, from novice to those who had done many startups.

It started out by everyone giving a short introduction (which was when I found out I was 1 of 2 venture fund folks). Then they began the presentations. The 4 companies were very interesting and ranged from very early-test phase-virtually no users to more developed business plans and lots of funding. They are:

Meetro.com - a location based IM client
Zooomr.com - a location based photo sharing service
Rrove.com - a tagging service for physical locations
Prosper.com - a community managed service which allows individuals to provide lending capital to others

Some impressions of the meeting:

1. Why aren't there more VCs at these meetings? I need to ask around and find out why. Maybe they don't want to get inundated by entrepreneurs. Me, I like to build things and like to hang out with people with great ideas.

2. It was interesting to see what Web 2.0 has wrought. Lots of tools and functions to build but hard to define a business model.

3. Naming is a real problem. Rrove was an example of that. I am certain we'll see lots of names like that.

4. There seems to be many people attempting to be entrepreneurial these days. It's nice to see, but also I can see where the learning curve can be really tough without guidance and experience. I did find a whole bunch of resources for new entrepreneurs. I hope to hit a few of these to see how they operate - My thanks to Chris, an entrepreneurial engineer who sent me these, in his own words:

SVASE.org
This one is pretty good. I've seen entrepreneurs, angel investors and VCs attend these events. There's a StartUp-U group that helps entrepreneurs in different areas in the startup process.

eBig.org
This group has several SIGs and each SIG concentrates on specific areas. Since you’re into web opportunities for your fund, you may want to look at the Blogging & RSS SIG, Java SIG, Start Ups / VCs SIG and the Web Development SIG.

TVC (techventures.org/)
This one really helped me understand the Startup world. They have this one program made up of 6 events which helps entrepreneurs start their ventures. Entrepreneurs, angel investors and VCs attend these events. This group is funded by Lockheed and is more organized compared to the other groups in events. This has probably helped more than any other group and usually has a bigger audience than any other of the listed groups.

VC Task Force (vctaskforce.com)
This one seems to be popular in the VC world, I haven't attended any of their events because it's a little pricier compared to the other groups.

Stirr.net
This is a new one.

Very exciting time to be an entrepreneur now.

Naming in the Year 2006

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About 3 weeks ago, our venture fund was named Neuron Ventures. Then we had to change it. We spent $500 to do a trademark search and found at least two other people with names close to ours and in our industry.

What a completely saturated world of names this has become.

Between cybersquatters, the limit of our vocabulary, and the creativity of wordsmiths there is very little left.

So to name something, you first brainstorm a whole bunch of names. Then you do domain name searches. After all, how can you do business in 2006 without a website? Once you find an unused domain name, it doesn't stop there. You need to search for close prefixes and word portions and also potential variants in combinations with the name. Any variants close enough to be possibly associated or mistaken for your name need to explored then for working in your industry.

For our previous name, Neuron Ventures, there was already a Neuro Ventures out there, as well as a Platinum Neuron Ventures. Both were venture funds so we had to ditch our name and get a new one. Thus, we did not want to risk a cease and desist letter from someone who feared we could be infringing on their name, and we did not want others mistaking us for them and vice versa.

If only we had done the name search in the beginning....spending $500 to save ourselves from this grief would have been a small price to pay.

At some point, it will become a serious problem for the entire Web. The namespace is getting extremely filled up. How long before 99% of the words you could come up with are already taken? It's almost getting as bad as trying to pick a new email name on Yahoo! Mail or AOL. Would Neuron Ventures have to become Neuron_Ventures_2938182? You'll have to spend a million bucks to hire a professional naming firm just to come up with a new name!

The new name for our venture fund is Chroma Ventures.

..when companies care less about profit and more about doing something good for the community.

On April 2, the New York Times published an article entitled, "Death by Smiley Face: When Rivals Disdain Profit". It talked about how all these new Web companies came into being to provide a great and much needed service to the Web community and focus on doing it well, rather than turning a profit.

It brought me back many years, when Gmail was first launched with 2 GB of free space in it. At the time, Yahoo was selling via yearly fee 1 GB of mail space. Yahoo became almost neurotic in anxiety about it! I was amazed. After all, Google, their biggest rival in search was about to threaten a huge premium service revenue stream by offering something that many people were paying for....for FREE - and then some!

And now, according to this NY Times article, many other examples exist where companies will provide a great service but not have profit generation as a primary goal. It certainly provides an interesting point of disruption to new Web businesses, and old traditional businesses too.

I thought back to one thought I had during that Gmail 2 GB/Yahoo Mail 1 GB for a fee time. And that was: What if Google were to offer everything that Yahoo had for free? What if everything Yahoo did for profit, or any other company on the Web for that matter, was, all of a sudden, available for free AND the service was as good or better? What if a whole population of users suddenly flocked to these free services and the profits of Yahoo dropped preciptiously, as well as many other Web companies? My fear was that with the profits from search marketing, Google could have stuck it out much longer than any competitor by offering their services for free and killed every company whose livelihood depended on profits generated from those very services that Google decided to put up for free.

And now with the Web 2.0 way of doing things, you can build pretty complex stuff for almost no cost at all. So two guys in a garage can truly put up something that would have taken many (expensive but talented) engineers to write from scratch.

So tell me, what if everything on the Net were available for free?

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