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My New Year Story

A few weeks ago, I woke up in Norway, within the city of Stavanger. It is a beautiful city with a long, rich history but is still vibrant enough to allow itself to grow and evolve. It is a city that has been in the process of rebuilding itself after oil, its principle industry has fallen out of economic favor.

Throughout the city, there are construction projects. Some focus on the refurbishment and modernization of old, 100+ year old wooden homes, others on more progressive undertakings such as the construction of the longest underwater tunnel in the world.

It’s funny how the site of homes being rebuilt or new buildings going up or new tunnels going down create this sense of progress; of looking to the future at what could be rather than be mired in what “it” is. Whatever “it” is.

Seeing all this construction brought back memories of my childhood, when my father and his business partners were building homes in San Diego. San Diego was not always the built up place it is today. I grew up with open fields, where I enjoyed shooting model rockets off and having what seemed like miles of ground to cover to get them back.

But I’m reminded of the construction sites when I’m in Stavanger. When I was a boy, I used to visit construction sites with my father. This was a big event for me because he would let my brother and I run through the open walls and jump off large mounds of earth pushed by excavation equipment. To a young boy, this was freedom. It was probably also a bit dangerous given all of the equipment and power tools, but when you feel young and invulnerable, you are never concerned with these things.

The best visits to the construction sites was always over the holidays. My brother Gary and I were off from school and because so many people were on vacation, we always had this incredible, indescribable feeling that we were alone to do as we pleased…and ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN.

It was hope. That incredible realization that our experiences and our future were ours to shape.  And we did. We played our favorite characters from Star Wars, Heroes, Good Guys, Bad Guys...and kids.

It’s what I always think about when I see construction sites or find myself remodeling our house and why I enjoy designing products for people to use. Its that terrific feeling that with a bit of hard work and a little optimism, you can hit any goal; achieve anything.

It comes back for me every holiday season when I think about what the year has been and have hope for what the year could be.

 

Happy New Year.

 

Mark Robinson

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Why I Invested in Captario

The multi-billion dollar drug industry brings to market scores of new products each year. The research that goes into these medicines involve cutting edge technology that is often implemented across the globe.

Ironically, the tools that the drug industry uses to assess the risks and opportunities within drug trials are anything but cutting edge. Most drug companies today use a combination of Microsoft Word and Excel to assess decisions in an effort to lower development risk and maximize their returns.

Enter Captario. Captario provides the drug companies with a 3-dimensional view of risk, not only for individual drug development efforts, but for their entire portfolio. Rather than focusing on individual decisions, drug companies and more importantly, their individual teams, can look at the likely outcome for scores of decisions simultaneously, and then determine the best path to maximize their return.

With no other alternatives on the market, Captario is a highly disruptive approach to assessing the path that drug and drug portfolios can take on their way to market.

What I found even more attractive is that the same methodology could be applied to other industries. In a trial with the Swedish Government, Captario was successfully used to assess various options in a transportation project, and make a concrete recommendation as to how the project should be approached.

Across industries, the companies and organizations that use Captario have saved millions (moving quickly to billions) of dollars, and avoided difficult problems that would have had a dire impact on the outcome of numerous projects.

This and their small, likeable team compelled me to invest in Captario.

To learn more about the company, product and the team, go to https://captario.com.

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Why I Invested in SmartRail

I am not a traditional tech investor. Investments that I make are infrequent at best. And as someone who is careful about where I place money, I think it’s important to have a strong rationale for the investments that I do make.

A little over a year ago I was approached by Johan Kohmann, the CEO of SmartRail, to discuss my assuming a seat on the company’s board of directors. Since then, I have been on an enjoyable business odyssey with my fellow board members to help buildwhat I believe will become a great company.

This past month, the board made a collective decision to invest in the company, and I thought I would share why I found it so attractive.

SmartRail produces a glass railing system.  This system is used in homes and office buildings for balcony rails and in-wall glass. If you’re asking, why this is a tech investment?…I am getting to that.

It might interest you to know that there is almost no endurance testing on railing systems. Many are made out of materials that rust or deteriorate from shifts in temperatures and weather. If you search news on “Balcony giving way” you will find a lot of stories.  Here are just a few:

ABC News Video

NYOOOZ Article

New York Times Article

The point is that these disasters, and many others present an opportunity to create something safer and more enduring. 

Enter SmartRail. SmartRail is stress tested to the highest standards ever applied to a glass railing system. The image below shows the system being hit by a 1600 kilo pendulum, something no other glass railing system has to our knowledge survived.

This solution not only shrugs off tremendous amounts of stress, but can also be assembled in a few hours using a Lego-like system with pieces made out of aircraft grade aluminum.  The combination of materials, glass reformulation and design makes SmartRail the most revolutionary re-design of such systems to take place in the past 30 years. It is safer, costs less to manufacturer, and is easier to install than other railing systems, providing a dramatically lower cost of installation and ownership than other solutions on the market.

Check it out at www.smartrail.no.

 

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Apple’s Latest Laptop Release May Hurt Sales

This past October, Apple announced its newest line of laptop computers. As with most new laptops, they featured faster performance, longer battery life and less weight to heft around.  However, these were not the features that captured the attention of the audience.

Apple introduced something entirely new that enveloped two thirds of the event.  These models deliver an unusual feature- a Touch Bar. It allows the user to have a more intuitive experience with applications by replacing the function keys with a control set that adapts to what features you are using in an application.

If you take the time to watch Apple’s event video, they demonstrate the Touch Bar and how it works with a wide array of applications. This Touch Bar replaces the traditional function keys and adapts to the features you are accessing in an application. For example, if you are editing a photo, it might show you a color adjustment bar but if you are cropping that same photo, it will change to present resizing tools.  After watching these events for several years, I have to admit that this was one of the most compelling demonstrations I have seen since the original iPhone.

With that said, I see a significant problem for Apple concerning their timing. The new Apple MacBook Pro line, which takes advantage of the Touch Bar technology, will be released during the next three weeks. I am sure that Apple enjoyed a great many pre-orders. Where I see the problem is that there was no mention of their desktop line, the iMac.

The entire iMac lineup is based upon the old paradigm of function keys. If I were in the market for a new iMac, I would consider waiting until the desktops are refreshed with this new interaction paradigm.  My atypical concern as a consumer is: how long will this expensive thing that I am buying last?  By touting that the change is revolutionary (and many would of course agree), Apple is by definition saying that Macs without this interaction model are out of date.

The day after the event, I was in the Apple Store in Palo Alto looking at the systems and indeed, I heard people ask when iMacs were going to be refreshed with the new Touch Bar technology.

As a general rule for product managers, my advice to all is to shift usability paradigms as a fleet rather than by individual products. It avoids creating orphans out of various aspects of your product line and avoids revenue drop-offs.

This does not mean that iMac sales will fall off. There are lots of criteria that consumers apply for making a purchasing decision that can keep sales flying high…but…you will not see me betting money that sales will be as colorful and explosive as the future of the Touch Bar.. 

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Does Full Transparency Work in Small Business?

Not many people outside of Norway know this, but all Norwegian citizens have their taxes openly declared for all to see. It’s an interesting concept. The idea that anyone can view any citizen’s income creates a level of transparency that is socially blending. It essentially eliminates need to guess where in the economic strata someone sits.

But like any system that promotes full disclosure, there are unintended consequences. Two years ago I found myself in Tromso, a city in the northernmost reaches of Norway, having dinner with a friend and fellow entrepreneur. His business was failing and over our long dinner I suggested that he might be better off by shutting it down. His immediate response to me was, “But everybody would know of my failure.” His concern was that he would be judged on that failure and never be able to recover in the eyes of Norwegian society.

He went on to explain that in Norway, there are no secrets because of the level of disclosure in both the tax system and the exposure that one gets when they live in a small, insular society.

As an American I can reflect back on our conversation and say to myself,  “what an unusual problem,” knowing full well that in my country people rebuild themselves everyday.

Since that discussion in Tromso I have had at least a half dozen similar conversations-each steeped in the fear of being labeled in a society with almost total transparency.

As someone who spends a great deal of time working with small businesses, I would like to share my view on what total transparency means for entrepreneurs.

Being an entrepreneur requires an ability to see possibility where others see obstacles. It requires an ability to look beyond the potential for failure in favor of the possibility of success. A system that openly promotes fear of discovery of a failure creates a lasting inhibition to entrepreneurism. Such a policy does not acknowledge that failure is a stepping-stone on the road to success.

One of greatest entrepreneurial examples of this is Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. Thomas Edison is responsible for over 1000 different patents and  is arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurial minds of any decade.  The story goes that "Thomas Edison failed more than 700 times when trying to create the light bulb." When asked about it, Edison said, " I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work."

The idea  is that when even when you fail, you learn something that you can take to heart and eventually create success. My grandmother used to say that the road to success is often not a straight one.

Luckily Edison did not have to contend with being admonished for each failed experiment as it took place. He was afforded the luxury of success through perseverance, and didn’t have to justify his continuing faith in his ability to succeed.

It is demoralizing to think that there are people in any country that are afraid of being judged for a single failure (What many would call a very expensive educational experience). It is an unintended consequence of such a broad government policy (and one that I hope will be rectified for the sake of entrepreneurship across Norway).

For those of you wondering what prompted this article, my answer is that I was reminded of these experiences when Fareed Zakaria on CNN recently discussed Norway’s policy on full tax disclosure and related it to Donald Trump’s lack of transparency on taxes. By the way, I firmly believe that all candidates for the office of President of the United States should have to disclose their taxes and be subjected to background checks. U. S. citizens must understand who their leaders are and whom they do business with. The same level of disclosure is not necessary for those who are living private lives. I believe there is no equivalency to the implication that Mr. Zakaria is making about the importance of transparency for a presidential candidate and for an average citizen.

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The Life and Death of Flickr

Flickr

For almost a decade I have been a devoted user of Flickr. I’ve long enjoyed capturing photos and sharing them with friends. Late last year the Flickr service was updated to include several sought after features, such as nearly unlimited photo storage and a drag and drop up-loader. Unfortunately, they also fundamentally changed how their service is integrated into social networking sites such as Facebook.

This change highlights the conflict between Yahoo (owner of Flickr) and the social networks that have overtaken them. Previously when a user added photos to Flickr, the photos would be uploaded to Facebook automatically in a slide format. This made it easy for users to share large numbers of photos, allowing Flickr to operate seamlessly within the Facebook experience.

I am sure that Yahoo had concerns about this feature because it essentially eliminated the need to go to Flickr’s website to view photo albums. The feature minimized Flickr as a social website, and relegated it into a supporting role for other social websites such as Facebook. It is no wonder that Yahoo was motivated to make a change.

At this point, you are probably wondering what was this change that Flickr made. Rather than upload photos in a slide show, they now upload one photo as a header with an embedded link that would bring the user back to Flickr. The problem is that a user who was looking at the Facebook would never know that there were additional photographs and an entire photo album available for them to view outside of Facebook, so very few people clicked on photos. In other words, they broke an essential service that Flicker once provided to users.

This change eliminated Flicker’s value as a social networking site. If Twitter, for example stopped working with Facebook, they would probably lose the majority of their users. The greatest virtue of a Social networking service is that they provide open communications and (with few exceptions) interoperate.

Flickr has lost sight of this. Like so many other Flickr users, I am now forced to decide if I would like to continue to use Flickr as a storage vehicle for my photos.

This is precisely what happens when a company loses site of the inherent value of its products. Over time my expectation is that Flickr will decline.

The lesson to be learned here is that as good entrepreneurs we must never lose sight of the true value that our product creates. There are two fundamental questions that you should always ask about your products:

First, what is the expectation the user has about your product’s role in the market. If the consumer expectation is that your product is an enabler for other services then you should consider the impact for changing that relationship. Yahoo lost sight of the fact that by making this change to their service, they are pulling users away from the dialogue that I want them to have within Facebook. Therefore, changing this feature is damaging to the role that I expect them to maintain as a product.

Second, you should consider if the user wants you to change your role in your market. Google for example has set an expectation with their users that they retain the role of big brother with respect to data. If they suddenly announced that they were going to take over the management of tax return information, the US government would likely be greatly concerned.

Back to Flickr- by altering the value the service had within social media, it is damaging the dialogue consumers are having about the photos the service hosts and thereby ruining expectations for the Flickr.

Hopefully they will reconsider their approach before they drive all of their users away and melt into history.

The Ghost of Flickr's Past

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9/11 and the Need to Retain Our Optimism

- Joe Jankowski, September 11, 2001

Joe Jankowski, September 11, 2001

Last night, I was sitting down and watching a recap of the ceremonies surrounding the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I was forced to consider how much has changed since then and how different my perspective is as a businessperson, a father and as an American.

On September 10th, 2011, I was flying to Düsseldorf, Germany for a negotiation with Vodafone on behalf of Openwave. I landed early on the morning of September 11th (8am) and had time to check into my hotel before heading to my first meeting. The meeting went well and ended early and I found myself back at the hotel ready to turn in early when I found several messages had been left for me with the front desk. All from my wife, Alicia.

I called her and she immediately told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We sat on the phone while I turned on CNN just in time to see the second plane hit the other tower.  At the time, I remember thinking that the video of the second tower being struck must be a mistake because there was already a fire at the World Trade Center. It took a few minutes to sink in that the United States was under attack…and that I was not where I wanted to be.

Alicia and I spent many hours on the phone through the evening with breaks to call family and friends.

The next morning, I found myself confronted with the reality of not being able to travel home. All air traffic to and from the United States had been grounded. Realizing that I was not going anywhere quickly, I found myself walking around Düsseldorf, considering what I should do. The city was completely empty. The military had been turned out to show that there was law and order, and no one was on the streets. There is something disconcerting about seeing a machine gun nest in front of an airport.

It took less then 1 hour for the United States to feel the weight of the attack and less than 24 hours for the world to change.

I was in Europe for several weeks after 9/11 and when I returned, the San Francisco, Bay Area looked very different to me. The energy seemed drained out and there was a strong feeling of uncertainty.

As I fast forward to today, I believe that the feeling of uncertainty has returned. I hear it in the presidential election…in the news…in a lot of people’s view of the world.

I also think that this is our new reality. Terrorism is here to stay for the foreseeable future. To some extent, we should take a page from other countries that have learned to live with this uncertainty and accept that terrorism is now an ugly part of life.  With that acceptance, we will find a way to carry on and not let it cloud our culture, our view of who we are and our optimism.

I think that America was built on optimism and diversity…they are the foundation of almost every business ever started and it is certainly what drives our greatest achievements as a nation.

I hope you agree.

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Email Campaigns Part 1: Testing Your Marketing Message

Many companies take valuable time to create new products without considering how they are going to actually market to their consumers. All too often an entrepreneur will think that his product is so unique that consumers will be enamored with it, which will drive sales.

However the truth is often quite different. In order for consumers to make a purchasing decision about a product they must first find that product and have an understanding of its benefits to them.

As entrepreneurs come to grips with this reality they start to ask, how do I promote my product and drive sales.?

Lately, I have been getting a lot of questions about how to promote a product using email. I thought that it would be a good idea to cover some of the basics.  This is the first of a multi-part series on this topic.

The first thing you want to consider is that no one gets marketing right the first time. Every new product takes some trial and error to reach its audience. This is because there are a lot of nuances to help convey value to an audience. What appeals to one person might not appeal to another. To market your product for success, you have to consider what message is going to reach the most consumers.

To find that message you should set up a series A/B tests. An A/B test is when you send out a small number of emails in two discrete tests in order to gauge the effectiveness of your potential marketing messages. This approach helps you avoid sending out ineffective messages to your audience and burning up your opportunities to make sales.

You should focus on finding the message that the majority of your audience will respond to, and use that message to motivate them to a particular action (usually a click). To avoid burning up your email list on messages that are ineffective, you should test a message on a small number of people and determine if that message is being successful. You would do this by creating two potential marketing messages and send them out to a small number of people.

Let’s say for example that you have an email list of 17,000 names. Rather than send the same email to 17,000 names, set up two separate limited tests.  Each test should have a different marketing message, and should involve 100 to 150 recipients. Afterwards you should gauge the effectiveness of each message. If neither of these messages is effective and you didn’t get the response rate that you were hoping, you should rerun the tests with different messages.

The most common question that I get at this point is: what is a good response rate? The answer is that it varies by industry, but if you have an open rate of 20% and a click-through rate of 3%, you are in the ballpark.  According to the Mail-Chimp, this is the approximate national average for email campaigns.

The term open rate refers to the number of recipients that have opened and viewed email. The click through rate refers to the number of people who have clicked on a link in the email.

The overall email statistics from a 2014 survey performed by Mail-Chimp are as follows:

 

As you can see from the survey results, email response varies greatly by industry, and you should set your expectations accordingly.

It’s vital that you run an email marketing campaign using an email engine capable of tracking the results applicant. Without it you will never understand the effectiveness of the campaign, nor will you understand how you should course correct the campaign if it is not effective.

Let me know if you need a recommendation for a good email campaign service.

My next article will cover how you should compose marketing emails, and some helpful tips be a more effective campaigner.

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Closing The Loop On Your Business Model

Over the past 2 months, I spoke with two entrepreneurs who shared the same general story for their companies. They both built companies that were based upon publishers and consumers. They had both explored ways of finding publishers without incurring the expense of doing so…and they had both failed.

The entrepreneurshad something else in common. They were both optimistic about their ability to acquire customers if they had the proper publisher content. It is that optimism that drove them to push the boundaries of what is possible with respect to acquiring content. They were both exhausted from the effort.

Here is the advice I gave them…I hope you can benefit from it. The prize of a successful company goes to the company that can close the loop on their business model. What I mean is that it is not enough to simply be good at driving traffic. A successful company must fuel that effort with the right product and in this case, content to offer to their consumers.

A friend presented the problem to me as:

(Consumer Reach x Publisher Content) x Effective User Experience / (Capital Requirements x Time) =  Success

Its not a literal formula (one designed to spit out a number), but more of a guideline for building an effective publisher related service.

It’s designed to help you have cover all your bases and achieve eventual success.

Consumer Reach refers to your ability to connect to potential consumers. It implies that if you have it, you are capable of persuading your potential customers to become actual users of your product. The factors that impact it include: the ability to market to them, a price point that is attractive and above all, a product that provides a compelling benefit.

Publisher Content is the fuel for your engine. Do you have access to the publisher content that your consumers want in a way that enables your business model? Note that this is where a lot of businesses fall down. The ability to gain access to content in an optimal way is crucial to supporting any business model. The is where both of the businesses I mentioned earlier had problems. Both were unable to secure content licenses at an affordable price point, which resulted in low profits. As a general rule, it is better to obtain publisher content  at a fixed cost.,  When you know that you must pay $30,000 per year for content, then you know your business must clear that cost before revenue can be applied to other aspects of your business.

Effective user experience is another critical area for most publisher related businesses. If users cannot get to the content you want them to see, it is difficult to make money from them. In fact, this applies to most products (even outside of publishing). Case in point, some time ago, I launched a tool that allowed consumers to edit image recognition scripts. The tool was a text based editor that was prone to user error when editing scripts. Because of this, most of the users we tested with were not able to use the tool in spite of the fact that it was more accurate than most of the other tools on the market. We could see the flaw in the tool after testing which gave us an opportunity to fix it by wrapping the editor in a structured user experience that confined the user entry to pull down menus and data entry fields…resulting in greater usage.

Consumer Reach, Publisher Content and an Effective User Experience all have a multiplicative effect on adoption. Improvements to any one benefit the rest. Hence the portion of the formula says:

(Consumer Reach x Publisher Content) x Effective User Experience

...because it dramatically impacts the potential for success of the product.

The lower half of the equation is quite different.

(Capital Requirements x Time)

It represents the constraints on your business that can either enable or disable your efforts. Hence they are the divisor in the equation. Capital and time are the most significant constraints (other than the availability of a great team). If you run out of capital or must limit your product according to your available capital, it can impact the product’s outcome. Likewise, if you don’t have time to develop the product you need, that constraint can force you to release a product before it is truly ready.

Managing all of these variables can dramatically improve your chances for success. I think if most people look back on where they were able to succeed with a product, they can acknowledge that they were ultimately able to master each aspect of this formula. I say ultimately because most people (including myself) never get it completely right the first time around. Usually there is a great deal of pivoting and failure on the way to success. :)

 

 

 

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Design For Edge Cases

Have you ever experienced a feeling of dread when you purchase a product and later discover that it is not well thought through? You turn it on and realize that the product designer did not consider an essential use case.

Last week, my home’s lighting control system failed. It was under warranty which was great. The manufacture stood by the product and offered me a free replacement. What’s not so great is that the system required re-programming which is expensive and time-consuming. This was not covered by the warranty, so I had to hire someone to come over to my house and reprogram it. Since the system is connected to the internet, the manufacturer could have stored my program in the cloud, but they didn’t consider this use case and therefore, I had to spend more money to use the lighting system.

Good product design does not end with designing the product. That is because all products have to play in an ecosystem. The best products are built with this understanding and designed for an ecosystem. The product has to play well with others. J

There are three great rules to consider when you are designing a product.

First, consider customer service can influence the product. Many great product managers forget this rule. They design a terrific product with little or no consideration for how to manage it in the field.

Recently, I took my family to Disney World. At one point in the sales process, Disney suggested we purchase a meal plan. It was marketed as a great way to manage the costs of dining in the Magic Kingdom. We purchased the plan and took our trip.

It was really a wonderful trip for us all. I was constantly surprised at how wellthought through the entire experience was. Everything except for the meal plan. The problem with the meal plan is that there was no clear way to know how to purchase your meals. The plan includes three different types of credit: quick-service meals, snacks and table-service meals. The problem was that restaurants did not indicate what type of meal they offered. For example, you might enter the restaurant and find that you had to order at a counter, but they served you at a table. Is this a quick-service or a table-service meal? It changed from restaurant to restaurant.

This forced us to ask a Disney representative each time we went to eat. As table-service meals were more expensive then the other types, we often felt trapped into paying more for a meal then we wanted.

This was an edge case that was lost in the planning phases of the Disney Dining Plan.  The point is, when you are designing a product, consider how straightforward it is for the user and to what extent they might need help to navigate your product.

Second, consider what will happen if the customer does not want to use your product as intended. I will continue to beat on the Disney Dining Plan. When I took the family to Disney World, there were five of us. As it turned out, we all had different eating habits. I often wanted a salad for a meal, but the plan only allowed for entrees. At one restaurant, I asked if I could have a salad (considered an appetizer) instead of a full meal, and was told that it would not be covered under the meal plan. I had to purchase a more expensive meal to get only the salad that I wanted. Not only was this more expensive, but it meant that to eat lighter meals, many people had to order more food then they wanted- a waste of money and food.

To improve this experience, Disney should allow people to substitute meals for lesser items at some discounted rate. Perhaps an entree is worth 2 appetizers. Perhaps a dessert is worth an appetizer. By not establishing this exchange rate, the servers were left to resolve it (often to the annoyance of the customer).

Over the course of our stay, we witnessed several arguments between customers and servers regarding the meal plan.

A good product manager understands that customers are not always predictable and they will often use a product in unexpected ways. I doubt that the folks at Apple fully understood all the ways people would use their devices – which I am sure was a pleasant surprise to them.

Finally, understand that the best products allow people to self manage. Towards the end of our trip to the Wonderful World of Disney, I wanted to make sure that we used up our entire meal plan. Disney does NOT give refunds. The problem was that I had no mechanism to check this without asking servers to look up our account and tell me.

Disney has a web application called MyDisneyExperience. It allows you to set up reservations and make plans throughout the park. Disney has done a great job at training their customers to use this application to navigate all of the services at the park,  except for the meal plan. An obvious way to make the meal plan easier would have been to integrate it into the MyDisneyExperience application. It would allow customers to manage their meal plan accounts and eliminate the need to question meal servers about their plan.

Edge cases like these are important. They help you ensure that your customers are successful with your products, and have an experience that keeps them coming back. 

I am quite certain that I will take my family back to Disney World some day. It was an enjoyable experience for all of us and one that I would wish to repeat. I am also quite certain that I would not purchase the meal plan again.

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What Does A Successful Team Look Like?

Like many people, I have been on some really solid teams. I have also sailed on the proverbial Titanic as well as with a crew that resembled the Pirates of the Caribbean more than a Disney Cruise.  Why are teams successful? What are the warning signs that you’re not on the right team? These are age old questions for most entpreneurs that I will try to answer.  Today, I will start with why some teams work well.  There are a lot of attributes that make up a successful team but there are three qualities I always look out for:

1) Driven by milestones rather than time. Most people drive themselves using a clock. They consider time the essential currency that work is valued upon, and focus on deadlines. I work eight hours a day. I take 2 weeks off a year. I will only apply myself for 1 year before I give up. These are all common statements from time driven people.  However, a successful business does not run on time.

A successful enterprise is driven by milestones. Earning over a million dollars. Winning 1500 customers. Getting a release out. Getting the minimum viable product out. Those are all meaningful milestones that most businesses find relevant. These are things that drive the success of a business and are clear determiners of value (and in many cases, the valuation of the business).

The preoccupation with time comes when a team member does not take a strategic view of the business or the value that they personally placed on their time. If someone does not consider what they achieve as being more important than their time, you are considering the wrong person for your team.

2) Understanding that a good business results from experimentation. The sad truth is that most people view a failed experiment as a failure rather than a learning opportunity. Recently, my company put out a product that arguably had a horrible user experience. The functionality was there, but the user had to take an extraordinary journey to find it. Redoing the experience set us back about 2 months (not a great amount of time in the life of a business). My team was very divided about having to redo the user experience. The fact is that the only failure that is significant is one that kills the company. All others are expensive learning experiences. The most succesful people will understand this and not try to associate blame with failure. Ultimately, we ended up learning a great deal from the issues with our user experience and formulated a far better one.

3) The need to move forward rather than assign blame. Bright people learn from experimentation. I have yet to see a product launch out of the gate that did not have some issue with it. When I was a student at Anderson, one of my professors made the comment: “If you’re not a little embarrassed by the product you released, you have over built it.” The message being that the product does not have to be perfect. It only needs to cover the basic market need, the minimum viable product if you will.

The problem is that only a small number of people understand this. The majority assigns blame to making mis-steps in getting a product to the market. When you run experiments, you will have to correct mistakes, delay the product and constantly re-evaluate. Experimentation is when you test your assumptions about the product. That is part of the life cycle of most any product release. That is why when you start a project and put together a schedule, it is only an estimate. Things change when you get on the ground – when you are in the fight to get a product to market.

If someone does not understand this concept,if they believe that a schedule is written in stone, that they day you started working on a project, you had your best and most complete outlook for the future, then you might want to re-consider if they should be on your team. And they should probably re-consider if they belong in a start-up.

Beyond all of these thoughts of how to participate on a team, there are two other critical qualities necessary forpeople in a successful team: drive and realism.

Driven people care more about the journey then the destination. They focus on what they need to do to create a successful outcome. They focus on using mistakes as learning opportunities and focus on keeping mistakes from killing that which they would create.

They also understand something else that is difficult for most people to understand. Smart teams understand when the product cannot win. They are not afraid to look at the entire picture and say “I learned something here and what I learned is that I have the wrong approach to the market.” Sometimes, it is not about trying more methods to fix the product. It can also be about understanding that you are simply on the wrong path. This is the realistic outlook that so many want to have but often cannot attain because to do so, they must overcome their desire to succeed with what they have.

Put another way, so many people keep pushing forward with what they are doing without considering that what they are doing it not really desirable. You can see this in product development as well as life in general. There is a difference between being driven and idealistically stubborn. 

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Product Opportunities: Finding the Crossroads

There are a lot of factors which go into building a successful product, not the least of which is finding the right idea to pursue. Every idea you have burns cycles to validate. By this, I mean that if you have a vision for a product, you have to take the time to figure out if the opportunity is real. This is called market validation. The problem is that market validation is a time consuming and often expensive process. Before you undertake such an effort, you want to apply some kind of sift to know that it addresses some minimal criteria.

I have found that the first of these criteria is to answer the question “Does this product sit at a crossroads?”  A traditional definition of a crossroads is a place where roads meet. With respect to products, it refers to something that a lot of people must do or replace or create in order to perform a specific task.

A practical example of this is the fact that all SaaS (Software as a Service) portals need to support payments. Working with the individual credit card companies plus other services such as PayPal means that each payment service must be integrated one by one. Many companies caught on to the fact that this is an extremely long and expensive process, so centralized payment gateways started offering the services in one easy to integrate process. The cost savings and easy integration meant that companies such as Stripe found a lot of willing participants. They found the crossroads: the problem that a lot of people needed to solve to have a successful business.

The beauty of this outlook is it applies to almost any market.

It is not the only criteria to apply to a good business idea, but it is an important one. Most of the successful products we have seen and experienced have addressed this issue. MINT.com addresses the essential problem of how finances are managed. This is a crossroads that all consumers who are concerned with managing their finances come to. My own father used to manage his finances on hand written spreadsheets – can you imagine the time it takes to do that?  How much time could he save by simply using automated software to replace pieces of paper?

Zendesk addresses the essential problem of how companies manage their customer documentation. In the past, when creating software, a company would have to create manuals and web pages to present them. The funny thing is that most companies had to solve the same problem through their own development efforts. ZenDesk saw that problem and said; “Your time is better spent creating your software rather than inventing ways to host your documentation.”

The best crossroads are the ones that add economies of scale to the businesses or people that use them.

Consider finding your crossroads and developing a product that fits it. But, keep in mind that before you do, you look at other elements of what makes a great product - features, price, available market, etc.

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Product Design Does Not End With Designing a Good Product

Designing a good product is a tough undertaking. It generally involves a lot of trial and error and above all, patience. It is also expensive.

So why do so many products fall short of meeting their potential? Microsoft launched its new Windows phone via Nokia, and it failed to resonate with customers. The movie The Interview was launched by Sony pictures, and in spite of a ringing public endorsement from the North Korean Government, it failed to hit its targets. GM failed to resonate with consumers this year and found itself trailing most car manufacturers in each major category. Sometimes it is about having a good product. Other times, it is in the packaging around the product.

If you look closely at many of the products that fail, you will notice something very important. The products that fail started on the path to failure by not fostering a community for their users.

Throughout my career, I have tried to act under the assumption that good product design does not end with building a good product, but includes many other factors that can be influenced around the product – community being an important one.

Here are a couple of examples to frame what a successful community looks like.

Recently, I purchased a new BMW. Part of the process of purchasing a BMW includes registering on their website. Once you have done that, you are given a series of updates on how your car is progressing. Essentially, they are building your expectations regarding the delivery of the car. At some point, you are notified that your car is ready and available at the dealership. When you go in to pick it up, you are given a lengthy orientation of the vehicle. This is followed by a call and an invitation to joint a BMW expert at a future date to help you further orient yourself with the car. This is followed up by invitations to BMW events, parties, speakers and driving classes. All of these events and communications are aimed at two very important objectives. First, they want you to be a happy owner of a BMW. Second, they want you to join their community. They know that as a member of the community, you are likely to feel that you are giving up more than a car if you choose to purchase a Mercedes on your next go around. They are creating stickiness.

A great product has a great communications plan that works in harmony with it.

When I design products, I design a communications plan that addresses what happens when customers purchase, use and leave my product. The goal is to create stickiness and leave your customer feeling like they will lose more than just a product if they leave. They will lose the community they live in.

Other companies have similar views, although they might manifest themselves in different ways.

DirtyBit, a gaming company in Bergen, Norway is a producer of excellent multiplayer games. Their most successful game, Fun Run has over 45 million users. Dirtybit uses not only the game to communicate to their user base, but also social media and self- hosted public events. Their relationship with their users extends outside of the traditional boundaries of their product and into the social experiences of their audience. The result is that people are painting their vehicles with Fun Run scenes to show their solidarity with the game.

How many of you can say; “My customers repainted their jet ski to look like my product?”

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Starting Something New in Scandinavia

This week concludes my last days at Innovation Norway. Officially, I am part of the dearly departed this Thursday. I will still be contributing to several companies in that region of the world but not as an Innovation Norway employee.

A little over a month ago, I sent out an email to the colleagues and companies that I worked with over the past two and a half years, and among the many responses that I received, one question resonated with me:

What advice would you give to Norwegian (and Scandinavian) entrepreneurs who are trying to start a business?

It’s a great question. So many of the entrepreneurs that I know in Norway struggle with how to approach their market. It is a complex question with a lot of possible answers that I will try to boil down to something digestible.

Accept that your market (Norway and the rest of Scandinavia) will mislead you.

On some basic level, most of the people in Norway should realize that they live in a bit of an economic bubble that distorts their view of the rest of the world. This distortion originates from the fact that Scandinavian companies and consumers are biased toward local products. If given a choice between an inferior, more expensive local product and a superior cheaper product, most will choose the local product. Part of this stems from the fact that Norwegian is not a common language globally, and few international companies focus on Scandinavia as an early target market. This leaves most consumers finding local products before they find global products and the result is that it’s easier to pursue local goods and services. But there is more to it than that. There is a great deal of pride in Norway about what is built in Norway. People from that region want to support local products.

So you might ask…what is wrong with that? The answer is nothing, if you understand that what you are seeing is not representative of global demand for products.

I visited MESH (an incubator in Oslo) about a half year back, and a young entrepreneur approached me with an application that he felt should drive a great deal of investment. He said to me, “I have 4,000 users, and that demands a high valuation and proves that it has the potential to go global!” The sad truth is that it means very little on an international scale. 4,000 users move the needle in Norway, with a population of 5.1 million people, but it is not representative of the sensibilities and demand of a global market.

Go where the money is.

One of the most interesting and disturbing aspects of working in Innovation Norway is the fact that the vast majority of the companies who walk in and ask for money are in for a tough education. Innovation Norway is not set up to financially support all of the fledgling businesses in Norway, let alone the ones that it has already funded. Many of the businesses that I have seen live from one grant to the next, and find themselves perpetually starved for capital. Once you have started your business, the best advice anyone can give you is to figure out where in the world funding is available for your product or service, and go there to raise money. Many markets may not be funded in your region, outside of initial seed capital from the government.

Furthermore, the venture funds are most likely too small for most companies. Many of the larger investment funds receive a significant portion of their capital from the government. This is the government’s way of injecting capital into the system to enable and fund innovation. The problem is that it is like putting a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem. The investment community cannot raise sufficient capital on its own from local (government) sources without such intervention. This means that the pool of institutional investors is far too small for many industries.

You should also understand that competition is good when you are raising money. If you only have one potential source of capital, that source can make all sorts of demands on you, and there is little you can do about it. Find the market that is funding what you are doing, and drum up as much interest as possible. Many of you will find this a difficult suggestion, as most investors want you to live where they fund companies. This has to do with the fact that most of them do not want to travel for board meetings. Regardless….this is a price for raising money that many of you will have to pay.

Find help from people who operate in your market…rather than simply live in your neighborhood. 

Many companies bring on advisors and board members from a local pool of people. This can work if you live in an area where there is a large pool of highly qualified experts in your chosen field. It does not work when your pool is more limited. If I were looking for experts in fishing, shipping or energy, Norway is one of the first places that I would look. However, that would not be the case if I needed an expert in telecommunications, because the pool of people simply is not big enough.

Look at the regions of the world that have the best talent pool for what you are doing, and draw from that pool. To the extent you can, bring “known” people into your company. Almost all of my start-ups have been drawn from the same talented groups of people. However, I do reach outside of that when I need experience that my immediate team does not offer. Working with people who are simply on-hand often leads to hardship. When I look back on my own failed endeavors, I can usually trace back the problems to the people who were involved (user experience designers who did not have the drive or talent to design a product, or marketing people who did not know how to drive a users attention). And yes…on occasion, I was not the right fit for what I was trying to do. Surround yourself with the right people, and you are more likely to have a successful outcome.

Learn from failure rather than hide from it.

This is the hardest piece of advice for people to follow in Norway. One of the advantages of living in the Silicon Valley is that it has a culture that accepts failure. The general idea is that if you are going to fail, fail fast. And if you fail, learn what you can from the experience. Anyone who tells to you that success is not driven from the lessons of past failures is not being honest with you. Embrace failure for what it is…a learning experience.

With that said, it is particularly hard to follow this advice in Norway because the culture is not particularly accepting of failure.

I am of the opinion that when you live in a relatively small society, where everyone knows what is happening with…well…everyone; there is a natural desire to avoid embarrassment or condemnation. I once asked a friend in Tromso what he thinks drives this desire to hide failures, and he responded by telling me, “Norwegian’s are not empathetic about failure…they are critical of it”. I do not know if this is simply one person’s opinion, but I do know that tolerance of mistakes does come from empathy.

So my advice is simple. Help people to learn from their mistakes, as you would have them do with you. Embrace failure by saying…this was an expensive lesson that I know how to avoid in the future.

As many of you are on vacation or are returning from vacation, I hope that you will find my words comforting, and that they will help you grow with the opportunities you are pursuing. J

I wish you all every success.

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Defeating Darth Vader In Your Office

Over the holidays, a close friend shared a very difficult situation with me.  One of the members of his company found a way to hold his company’s IP hostage in return for additional compensation.  It started with this nefarious individual asking for administrative access of the company servers  for some changes that needed to be made.  An innocent enough request in a small startup. Things went very wrong when he logged into all of the access accounts and changed the passwords.  He then phoned my friend and threatened to leave (with the company IP) if he was not granted additional stock.  This was a few months after he committed to staying after he received a large allocation of stock options.

This is where my friend found himself with a very difficult decision.  He was forced to ask himself two very difficult questions…

Do I give him more stock? or  Do I fight him and deplete the company’s scarce capital?

My friend decided to give in and provide the options.  The consensus at the time was that the risk was too great for the company and the employee could be managed (even after his transgression).

My friend was wrong.  Two months after receiving the new options (and burdening everyone with a great deal of drama), he left anyway and tried again to hold the company hostage.

I was very glad he shared this with me and empathized with his situation.  I think that most people who work in hi-tech can identify with someone who had to deal with an aspiring Darth Vader.

This is what I have learned from my own experience.

First, you should never put yourself or your company in a position where it can be held hostage.  If you are in that position, you have already lost more than you are likely to understand.  One of the most common mistakes people make is not putting into place some simple safeguards to protect the company.

Second, if someone attempts to hold your company hostage, you should remove that person regardless of the costs.  In the heat of the situation, it is hard to understand that companies can be reincarnated with some creativity and very little financial costs.

Third, once you negotiate with a terrorist, you will always be negotiating with terrorists.  People are conditioned by their experiences.  Once you give in to someone’s poor behavior, you are letting them know on some fundamental level that what they did is OK.  The behavior will likely continue or even get worse.  In the case I mentioned above, it got progressively worse and ultimately drove some good people out of the company.

Fourth, get your board and your personal advisors involved at an early stage. Many people look at this sort of problem as something they should be able to handle on their own and try to keep from others. This is almost always a mistake.  As it turned out, many of the people whom were advising my friend had dealt with similar situations and could have provided him with insight as to what his options were and how to best handle this sort of situation at an earlier stage than he did.

Here is how you can identify the problem before it starts…

Corporate “Darth Vader”(s) do not always look the part.  Often, they are capable people who feel that they have not been fairly compensated.  Regardless of their motivation however, here are a couple of ways that you can identify them.

1)   They often compare their value to others in the company and highlight that they are the only people who can make the company successful.  Everyone else in their view is expendable.

2)   They often insist on absolute control of their area.  If they are an engineering lead, they will insist that all communications go through them and nobody else.

3)   They will try to assassinate people who threaten their authority by delivering ultimatums to remove these people or by shutting off help to the people they do not like so that their perceived competition will fail.

4)   They blame others for their failures.  If they are late on their deliverables or are going to miss their deadlines, it is someone else’s fault.

5)   They hold back critical information about their work to gain additional leverage or control.

6)   They do not “train” their team members for leadership roles.  Why should they? It is not necessary if they intend to make all of the decisions.

This is how you prevent the problem from ever starting.

The most concise answer I have is hire good people, and treat them with respect, but put reasonable safeguards in place that are difficult to circumvent.  For those Reaganites out there, the operative phrase is “Trust but verify”.

Here are five easy steps I always follow.

First, every employee (or contractor) of the company should sign an IP Agreement.  This agreement stipulates that whatever IP that is developed for the company stays with the company and cannot be removed without the express permission of senior management or the board.  This protects one of the two key assets of the company.

Second, all employees (or contractors) should sign an agreement saying that they are not allowed to poach employees of the company.  Often when people leave a company under less than ideal circumstances, they will try to “help” other employees to leave.  This protects the other key assets of the company.

Third, administrative control should be maintained by at least 2 key people at all times.  This means that if the administrative interface is accessed, the ability to modify access should be based on an authentication that the CEO holds but his key people can utilize.

Fourth, all IP should be automatically backed up to a system that only the CEO and the board can access.  As with the first measure, this protects your intellectual property.

Finally, the greatest asset of any organization is its people.  You must always maintain the viability of an operational team for the company.  This means cultivating back-up options for critical roles in the company to reduce risk.  It also means that you have to protect your people when you have a less-than-honorable person in your midst.

Where people are concerned, there are always complications.  Looking back on my experience (and that of my friend), there were plenty of warning signs and opportunities to prevent this type of situation from occurring.  What hinders you here is faith that people will always do what is right.  That is simply not the case.  Most will, but some simply do not live by a moral compass or will justify their extreme behavior with their view of what they deserve.

An ominous first article for the year but an important topic nonetheless. Don’t give in to the Dark Side. :)

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A Simple Way To Save The U.S. Postal Service

The Post Office is really in dire straits.  Recently, there was an announcement that over 100,000 postal workers were going to be laid off because of a significant budget short fall. In addition, to cut costs, the U.S. Postal Service will make big changes by closing as many as 3,700 small post offices.  I find this a bit depressing because the Post Office has been the backbone of the American communication infrastructure for over 200 years.  A couple of interesting facts about the post office:

Its decline is also a indicator of a greater problem.  Economists believe that declining mail volume is a symptom of the weak national economy, particularly related to the financial and housing industries, and to trends toward the use of electronic mail. First-Class mail volume (which is protected by legal monopoly) has declined 29% from 1998 to 2008, due to the increasing use of email and the World Wide Web for correspondence and business transactions. Lower volume means lower revenues to support the fixed commitment to deliver to every address once a day, six days a week.

In response, the USPS has increased productivity each year from 2000 to 2007, through greater automation, route re-optimization, and facility consolidation. Despite these efforts, the organization saw an $8.5 billion budget shortfall in 2010 which is now going to drive significant downsizing.

So the question I pose is: How do we protect this valuable institution which has served the citizens of the United States for so long?  Right now, the Postal Service is prohibited from competing with companies like UPS or Fedex.  In fact, to cut costs, it has been forced to use Fedex as an express delivery service.  So they really cannot grow their market.

I do not think we need to look at drastic measures or a Congressional Bail out.  We do not need to look at significant deregulation or hiring expensive consultants. I have a simple answer to problem which will not only address the $8.5 billion shortfall but also produce over $500,000,000 in additional revenue.

So what is the answer to this great problem?  How do we protect over 500,000 jobs in this down economy?  To answer that question, you need only look to your own mailboxes.

6 years ago, I found myself diligently registering myself with all of the junk mail no-fly lists I could find.  I hate receiving credit card offers, book club offers and particularly mail asking if you want to purchase limited edition collectors cups. I finally gave up. The volume was too great…my options for stopping them too ineffective….my shredder was worn out.

Then…it occurred to me.  I can use these offers to save the post office.  I started sealing postage paid envelopes and sending them back empty.  Imagine my joy in finding a means of addressing two problems with one simple action.  Capital One can now be punished for offering me another credit card I do not want and the post office receives the needed volume.

With several years of doing this under my belt, I can now report that if we all do this, we can save the Post Office.

Here is how the math works.  Every month, I send an average of 24 postage paid envelopes.  Postage paid envelopes generates $.20 of revenue to the post office per ounce.  So my action generates an additional $4.80 per month in revenue for the post office. That’s $57.60 per year.  With over 157,000,000 households in the United States, that should generate $9,043,200,000 of additional revenue for the Postal Service.

Check my math…

$.20 (per envelope) x 24 (envelopes per month) x 12 (Months per Year) x 157,000,000 (households) = $9,043,200,000

This could change everything for our beleaguered Postal Service. If you really want to have an impact, you can also paste the envelope on a package with a brick inside.  A 6 pound brick can generate $19.20 in revenue for the post office.  Now if every household in America did that, it would generate over $3 billion in additional revenue. There are plenty of websites that can explain how to send a brick using postage paid envelopes.

There you have it.  We can now all contribute to American History, culture and preserve jobs by using to tools junk mailers have provided us.

Or….we could all stop sending emails to each other.  :)

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Failure Is Your Best Teacher And A Roadmap For Success

As the New Year approaches, I find myself embracing the cliché and reflecting on 2013.  Over the year, I have seen some striking successes such as companies receiving funding, products launching, and new teams coming together.  I have also witnessed the failure that is inevitable with those who attempt to do what is new.

In most cases, I watched those who failed over the past year be consumed with their troubles…they let their failure own them.  They entered that dark world where they think they cannot come back from their situation.  The solution is not to focus on what went wrong, but rather what they need to understand from their failure.

This message is addressed to those people who need to understand the value of failure.

There are three things that we should all try to remember about failure:

Failure should be embraced.  Its necessary to grow.  I believe that most fail before they succeed in business.  The more adept people learn from those failures and call them lessons…occasionally, they might refer to their failures as an expensive education.

After failing over and over again to perfect the light bulb, Thomas A. Edison stated “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Failure is about discovery and understanding would you would not do again.

Failure is about strategy.  I have failed over the course of my career many times but I have learned that the key is to leave yourself with options to recover.  In other words, it is important to have contingency plans.

I learned this lesson the hard way

While working at Kadoink, we found ourselves running out of cash.  During the 2008 downturn, there was a pullback from one of our financial backers and we were forced into a massive downsize and ultimately the sale of the company.  The lesson learned from this is that we should have cultivated more alternatives for financing and been more sensitive to the economic environment.  The other lesson I learned from Kadoink is that revenue is the best Venture Capitalist.

Try to look at each decision point and ask, “What will I do if it does not work out?”

Failure is a good roadmap.  If you look out to the universe of companies you are competing with, you will generally see a landscape dotted with failure.  Facebook stuck with a one size fits all solution, opening the market up for vertical solutions like Pintrest to come in and win market share.  Similarly, Apple’s recent announcement to launch a low cost consumer phone (5c) is now diluting its premium brand while lowering the overall cost of its products and leaving the company vulnerable to low-end competition.  Microsoft is focusing its advertising campaign for tablets on Apple rather than Samsung, leaving the majority of the market un-countered.

Looking at the companies around you, you will see failure everywhere…and you will see opportunity.  Use the failures of the other companies in the market to avoid the same pitfalls.  Let their disasters be your education, your roadmap and ultimately your success.

I wish you all a happy holiday and hope that you will learn from failure and find success and the market of your choosing.

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Never Under Estimate the Last Mile

Having grown up in La Jolla, California, I have fond memories of bike riding with my friends down to the beach during summer break.  I remember that during the summer of my 12th year that an ice cream truck broke down about a quarter of a mile from the beach and the ice cream man was selling all the ice cream for 75% off to anyone who would buy it.  The problem was that the refrigerator on the truck was also broken and everything was going to melt.  The only thing he could do was to sell to people who happened to walk by his truck.

Looking back at that day, I realized that my neighborhood ice cream man did not have a back up plan.  He did not have an answer for two essential questions:

1)   What can I do if I cannot get to the beach with my ice cream?

2)   What can I do (in an age prior to cell phones) if my truck breaks down?

He did not have a good plan for the “Last Mile” of his delivery.

Every business should have a plan that addresses how a product is delivered to its target audience.  That plan should also account for what can go wrong as well and what the response will be.

It is a difficult thing to react to a problem when your feet are to the fire and you have to find a way to deliver. However, prior to that moment, when you are not under the intense pressure of a delivery, it is easier to put together a comprehensive plan.

Here is what everyone should consider regardless of the product you are trying to deliver.

Understand what it means to miss a deadline.  Have a back-up plan should your delivery fail and be prepared to follow it.  If your engineering team is late to deliver a product.  Know what adjustments you will make to sales and marketing and how you will deliver the news to your existing or potential customers.  All too often, a company will slip a delivery date and not communicate the issue with their customers which ultimately leads to a crisis of confidence.

If you look at Apple Computer’s announcement of the iPad Mini in 2013, it was clear that they were having a delivery issue.  To address it, they announced the product in anticipation of the holidays and provided a new, accurate release date.  Detaching the shipments of iPad Minis from the shipments of the iPad Air likely caused some logistical challenges but those costs were far outweighed by their maintaining consumer confidence.

Postpone the launches that can kill you.  If the product is not what it should be and will likely undermine consumer confidence in the company, postpone the launch until the problem can be corrected.  If you look carefully at the majority of the mishaps in the marketplace with respect to product launches, most of them could have been avoided if the companies had not held fast to their delivery dates.

Not to pick on Apple, but they have one of the more infamous examples of this problem.  Apple Maps was launched with significant quality control issues.  It curtailed the growth of the platform and ended up costing the jobs of several of the key individuals involved.  In addition, hundreds of news articles were released condemning the release.  Certainly a problem to be avoided.

I have been in the position several times of having to make the difficult decision to sacrifice the launch date for product quality.  As a general rule, I tend to favor quality above most other areas of the delivery.

Prepare for what will likely and unlikely go wrong.  Plans often go as far as delivering a product to the customer but what happens next is often a surprise.

Case in point, Nikon produced the D600 Full Frame SLR Camera in 2012.  The product is extremely competitive and by all accounts, one of the best performing cameras on the market.  But, it was not perfect.  Soon after shipping, it was found that the camera sensor was showing oil spots and an excessive amount of dust.  Consumers started to complain but the company did not have an adequate plan to address the problem. The problem got worse and was exacerbated by the fact that the company chose not to publically acknowledge the flaw.  The result was the loss of consumer confidence and a large number of customers changing allegiances to Nikon’s rival Canon.

Formulate a plan for how to make the customer experience a palatable one.  Work out what you will do if the unthinkable does happen, and understand that the last mile of delivery is critical to the success of any product. Good product people understand this problem and make sure that the outcome of a product launch is as predictable as possible.

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How Politics is Losing Sight of Good Business

I have always viewed people who discuss politics in a business environment as being a bit annoying.  I truly do not care if someone is a Republican or a Democrat.  What I do care about is if they do their job and how they get along with other people in the company.

However, today, with a government shutdown looming and for a brief moment, I will join the ranks of those who discuss politics and make a “political statement”.

I believe that the single most destructive group of laws passed by politicians on both sides of the aisle relate to Gerrymandering.  For those of you not familiar with the concept of Gerrymandering…it is the process of setting electoral districts.  This is where you look at the social and political demographics of a region and you redraw who is voting in each region according to “like preferences”.

On paper it sounds good…I get to vote for people who share my interests.  It assures that I am represented by someone who also believes in my interests.  It might mean that people from a predominantly Catholic region might have a Catholic representative…or maybe an area that dislikes gun control can vote for a representative who also dislikes gun control.

But there is a problem.  One of the powers of a good democracy is that our elected officials have to strike a balance to meet the needs of all of a nations constituents rather than just their own.  The problem with having all of the same social/political demographics in a voting district is that diversity is lost.  It means that if one region has extreme political or economic views, the elected representative has to adhere to those views or risk their next election.

The result is what we have today.

  • Representatives who have to make constituents with very particular interests happy rather than being forced to find the compromise in any situation.
  • Pandering to the lowest common denominator rather than following the greater good.
  • Focusing on winner take all rather than we can all win together.
  • Ideology above diversity.

So why does this discussion belong on a website that covers business issues?

The United States (arguably the greatest country in the world) is moving towards another moment in history where we will fail to shine.  Where a group of elected officials will move us ever closer to economic ruin over ideology and religion rather than recognize that politics is really about compromise and making tough choices that keep the economy going.  A good economy gives enables us with freedom to buy things like cars, guns, food and common necessities.  It also provides fuel for education, arts, business and yes…even religion.  A poor economy undermines all of it.

In other words, our Congress is on their way to making choices that are bad for business.

Let us all hope that our elected officials listen to fewer of THEIR constituents and pay attention to the needs of ALL constituents.

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The Opportunity For Norway

Years ago, my father said to me that “you often have to embrace change or get crushed by it.”  At the time, we were talking about people who fight progress within a neighborhood because they are afraid of change. Those words stuck with me and I think of them often when there is an opportunity for improvement that should be embraced by many.

I do a great deal of work with Innovation Norway…an organization responsible for funding and advising start-up organizations throughout Norway.  The organization maintains offices all over the world that operate under the premise that it is important to facilitate the movement of Norwegian companies to other regions of the world.  But…there is more to it then simply enhancing an already booming oil drenched economy.  It is also (at least in part) responsible for instilling a sense of entrepreneurism into the Norwegian culture.

It is the topic of entrepreneurism that I find most relevant to this article.  Today, the number of students going to college (and being massively subsidized to do so) has never been higher.  At the time they graduate, they have some interesting career options that students in most countries would find enviable.  Do they go to work in an economic environment that can easily employ all of them with lucrative positions in energy and other areas of national significance or do they look at striking out on their own and starting a company (a start-up).

Because of the widespread availability of cloud services such as the Amazon Cloud and the availability of ready to use market places such as iTunes, many soon to be graduates are turning to hi-tech and in particular, mobile application to start their career.  It is a natural choice given that the barriers to entry in such companies are extremely low and, for an audience (former college students) that can live on soup noodles and hot dogs, very inexpensive to start.

This audience presents an opportunity for Innovation Norway that it has not tapped into.  That is…the opportunity to support and convert 1000s of would be entrepreneurs to “real” entrepreneurs.

To accomplish this, Innovation Norway would have to focus some seed capital towards “non-essential” sectors as well as guidance and advice for the new companies.  By focusing specifically on recent college graduates, Innovation Norway would start to compete in an area of innovation that has previously been reserved for the rest of the Nordics (Sweden, Finland and Denmark).

In addition, it would also have to focus some energy on supporting investors to continue funding into this area.  This is most crucial to the success of the endeavor.  In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Innovation Norway was criticized for providing inadequate support for technology start-ups.  What the article missed is that it is not the responsibility of one organization/government to change the entrepreneurial behavior of a country to its people.

Even in a nation where the citizens of a country have a very high expectation of the performance and services of their government, change takes time and it takes the enlistment of many generations of people.  What Innovation Norway can do is enlist its youngest generation to be an agent of change for the country and for the future of its people.

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