Comcast is the new AOL

Eight years ago Vincent Ferrari tried to cancel his AOL account while a customer service rep, “annoyed the shit” out of him vainly trying to stick to his script.

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In 2014, Ryan Block, formerly of Engaget (purchased in 2005 by AOL btw) hits a similar wall while he’s pummeled by rep from the “customer retention” department.

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Harley-Davidson’s Electric Motorcycle – Project LiveWire

Electric Harley

Harley-Davidson is touring the United States getting customer feedback on a prototype of their first electric motorcycle. It’s unlike any motorcycle that they’ve ever produced. Rather than try and simulate the classic Harley potato-potato idle of their air-cooled V twin they have wisely gone with something totally new.

If you’ve ever been surprised by a Prius sneaking up on you in a parking lot you know electric cars do not need to make any sound. For their motorcycle, Harley-Davidson has engineered a sound that is unique and sounds more like something out of Tron than a factory floor in Milwaukee. No dials, this bike features a touchscreen display and LED lights.

No word on availability or pricing. Harley-Davidson even refuses to list specs but I hear that it can go from 0-60 in 4 seconds and tops out at 93 MPH. Find out more at the Project LiveWire site.

Project Livewire

True University

Running a start-up can be a lonely. What is glamorized in media are the high points, revenue and usage going up and to the right, the launch party, the high-fives when you close a big deal, the opening of your first office.

The reality is more gut wrenching. The late night realization that you may not make a revenue target. The early morning notification that your server is offline. The sinking feeling when a key prospect tells you they cannot work with you. The difficult meeting with an employee when have to tell them you have to let them go.

The life of an entrepreneur is a series of peaks and valleys that can whip you from euphoria to depression and back again in the course of a few days. But it’s when you’re starring into the abyss that you find out who your true friends are, when you find out if you picked the right group of investors, that believe in you and will help you work it out.

After spending two days at Stanford University with 250 other individuals who work at True Venture portfolio companies, I have a new appreciation for why someone would want True Ventures as a backer.

Once a year, True,  an investor in my company, Gigaom,  hosts a  True University for its portfolio companies. It’s an incredibly generous offering. Two days rich with talks and workshops on how to run a business. A sample of the sessions include:

  • Steve Blank talking about how to develop a business model and product/market fit
  • Army Major Aram Donigian talking about negotiation tactics learned while in Iraq
  • Robert Brunner, the designer of Beats headphones, talking about design experience
  • Reverend Cecil Williams and his sharp as a tack wife Janice Mirikitani talking about the mission of GLIDE
Robert Brunner on design process
Design should be more than just a phase between marketing and engineering – Robert Brunner

And that’s just the highlight. In between were smaller workshops with folks like Hooman Radfar (the right and wrong way to let someone go), Lars Nilsson (how to set up and run an inside sales team), and Braden Kowitz (how to run a design sprint).

Negotiation Lessons Learned from West Point
Negotiation Lessons Learned from West Point

But it’s more than talks and workshops. I came away with a feeling of community. True University is an environment of complete trust and collaboration. I spoke openly about challenges I was facing and shared with others lessons I have learned. We were all working to build something and we wanted each other to succeed. True Ventures is more than a collection of investments, it’s a platform from which tomorrow’s leaders can take a leap and know that you’ve got a community of like-minded folks are behind you.

True Venture's Jon Callahan  on trust and risk
True Venture’s Jon Callahan speaking on trust and risk

Thank you True Ventures for being an investor and thank you for an amazing couple of days!

Further: videos from past True University sessions are posted at on TrueTube

Oh the Agony!

writhing time

The Wall Street Journal quantified the number of minutes spent watching men roll around in the grass glancing sidelong at the ref. I’m surprised to see the Italian “men of glass” so far down the list. In the 2014 World Cup it is the host nation who currently holds the title with Neymar who, “had five such “injuries,” the most on his team. In every case he was back on his feet within 15 seconds.”

The World Cup Flopping Rankings

Lighthouse Found

Photo by Maurice Ramirez
Photo by Maurice Ramirez

There is a tradition of public mischief and random acts of art in the Bay Area. From The Cacophony Society, to The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Billboard Liberation Front all the way back to Coyle & Sharpe, the people of San Francisco have delighted themselves by poking at authority with a wink and a smile. As Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane famously said, “San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.

It was in this spirit that a group of “guerrilla artists” carefully installed beautifully-crafted replicas of famous lighthouses around Alameda Island where I live. There was no explanation, no release party, just a curious mention in the local paper of a Lighthouse Model Assemblers Organization (LMAO) written by a Honorable Admiral Banyan Azimuth, (Retired) Most shrugged it off as an April Fool’s prank but upon further investigation, after spotting another lighthouse on the other end of the Island, further layers of the onion peeled away and it was very, very real.

We take our performance art seriously here. If Chicken John runs for mayor, he is not only doing it to have some fun but also to make a statement. My journey to uncover the four lighthouses of Alameda took me to the nether corners of the Island all along the coastline into hidden corners and pocket parks that I didn’t know existed. I discovered that Alameda was a major destination for steamships bringing fruit to North America where they were packaged by Del Monte before being loaded on to the trans-continental railway. The puzzle forced me to reach out to others to try and connect the dots.

Art exercises the mind, public art exercises society.

My progress was tracked until finally a totem was left on my front doorstep. Later, I received a text message asking for my presence at an awards ceremony where I, along with Eddie Cruz, another local Alameda resident, were presented with secret elixers and a ceremonial chalice while we were inducted into the Alameda Lighthouse Appreciation Society (ALAS). There is a group of elves in Alameda, at play with the world around us. If you want to join them, leave a note below and they will find you.

ProductSF 2014

Photo by Ritu Raj
Photo by Ritu Raj

Last week I attended the 2014 edition of Building Better Products, an invitation only conference hosted by Ty Ahmad-Taylor of Samsung Electronics and Josh Elman of Greylock Partners. As with last year’s conference, it was an agenda packed with interesting speakers that came to share their perspective on the role of a Product Manager at a tech company, sharing lessons learned and what it takes to succeed. The format was updated to include a mix of pechakucha-style lightning talks interspersed with longer presentations and panel discussions.

Because of a morning SFO drop-off run, I missed the “palette-cleanser” talk that kicked things off for the day (a history of Treasure Island) and Julie Zhuo‘s talk on how to work with designers. I’m sorry to have missed Julie’s talk but you can read her many excellent talks about the design process on her Medium page.

I took notes on some of the presentations and here were my favorites.

Mina Radhakrishnan shared her experiences as one of the first Product Managers at Uber during their first international expansion and the growing pains the company went through to develop a process which now lets them spin up multiple locations each week. We learned of design challenges as the nomenclature for hired cars vary from city to city. An SUV in London is a “big car” while a private car is a “black car” but tabs for “Big” and “Black” don’t really work so other solutions were needed.

A template that might work in one country falls apart in another so you need to, “design for flexibility” and use templates that can be adopted to fit local needs. Because of the need for speed and scale, these templates need to be designed in a way that local operations teams can unleash their “operational creativity” without having to check in with headquarters.

What struck me most was the intense drive and ambition of Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, enabled the team to roll over technical and legal challenges that would have sidetracked most companies. In the drive to launch Uber in Paris in time for Le Web, they slammed a product together that had to be re-built from the ground up post-launch. It is rare to find a start-up that would knowingly build something they know they are going to tear apart and build again and support for that way of working has to come from the top.

ubercade

While talking about Uber’s various publicity stunts (ubercade, uber ice cream, uberkittens) Mina reminded us that Uber is not strictly a transportation company and that their mission, “to get you where you want to go” should be interpreted broadly.

Vince Maniago from Mint gave an abbreviated version of the talk embedded below to explain specific actions he took to improve sign-ups. As a financial service, his challenge was to get people to connect their banking accounts with the mint.com aggregation service. By putting his name on follow-up emails to anyone who didn’t complete this action, he was able to significantly improve completion rates and get people over the trust factor.

Some other tips Vince shared included use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service for user-testing and Mental Notes cards (note: sold out) as inspiration for the types of message variations you can test.

David Hahn, who was at LinkedIn during the early days, spoke about the freemium business model upon which that service is built and the evolution of their landing pages. The page has gone through many iterations but each time they have tried to add something new, they have found that the obsessive simplification of the erroneous was the best contribution to their conversion rates. “The best optimizations are getting rid of things.”

Wook Chung works with brand advertisers for Samsung and shared humorous anecdotes about working with Madison Avenue and the importance of continually checking in with your customer whose needs are like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Advertising trends are continually in motion so freezing requirements and then going off to build them will, by definition, obsolete anything you launch. Better to involve your customer at each stage and get them invested in your solution and inform your development.

A series of short talks followed. Ken Norton (Google Ventures) on using Don Lowry’s True Colors rubric to build teams and modulate communication. Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, gave a rousing comparison of UX/Product archetypes as Game of Thrones characters and reminded all of us to, “respect the craft” when giving feedback.

During the panel discussion on Product Development in the Enterprise Sol Lipman, who was CPO at TomFoolery, shared lessons learned as a start-up trying to change enterprise software (“we made consumer-grade products for the enterprise”). One of their early lessons (and we’ve heard this before) is that you need to focus on utilization because, “just because someone is going to pay you doesn’t mean their people are going to use your product.”

One other tidbit was Sol’s singular vision that the all products for the enterprise should be built “sideways” to allow collaboration across traditional networks. Do not build your product around a company domain and allow for self-defined networks which will be how workgroups form in the future (think Dropbox). Email, which is usually dominated by company domains, is not a useful unique identifier as it locks each customer into their silo. On the other hand, a cell phone number, which everyone has and usually carries from job to job, allows for infinite connections which will persist and retain their viral effectiveness.

tomfoolery hats

Ellen Chisa from Kickstarter shared the eight-month journey to a new start page. Reminding us all that Kickstarter is primarily a platform for artists so the founders were concerned less with a metrics-driven design process and more with the embodiment of a vision. If forgot the name of the poet she quoted but, to paraphrase, if Kickstarter was going to set out to build a ship, they would not instruct them the details of woodworking, they would, “teach men to yearn for the sea.”

In the end, there were 11 major designs for the front page with hundreds of iterations in between until they found a design they felt worked. But all was not lost, many of the ideas hashed out made their way into other areas of the product. Perhaps less efficient, the Kickstarter way was more holistic.

Shiva Rajaraman, from YouTube, gave a great talk, “Product Management: From Meh to Awesome” that was not about use cases or tips and tricks but about approach. A Product Manager is the one that has the spotlight. No product is the result of a single person’s output and the PM should take pains to shine attention to all those that work on the product. And with a community-driven product such as YouTube it is especially important to point out what’s awesome about your community.

Check out the Likes/Dislikes on the Futurama Neutral Response clip below. Finding out that there is a community of people that obsessively maintain this delicate balance, “made his week.”

futurama neutralness

Thinking of YouTube as a platform transformed the way they have approached music companies and brands. Music fingerprinting and content ID was originally developed to go after copyright violations but when flipped around from a negative to a positive, it helps musicians understand how and where their music is being played. Harem Shake got such tremendous exposure through the fan videos that when it debuted on the charts, it was #1.

Shiva tells the story of Molly Kate Kestner who recorded her self-composed song on a broken iPhone that, within weeks becomes a top single on the iTunes charts.  An open platform  allows these stories to write themselves and a good Product Manager will look for them and hold them up for others to celebrate.

Thank you Josh & Ty for organizing a great day of talks, picking a great venue, and, as always, keeping everyone on schedule.

Further Reading:

The Digital Revolution in Charts

The New York Times  data blog, The Upshot has a data-dump piece illustrating the impact of the recession on various sectors of the economy. You can see the full hairball image at the top of the post but what I’ve highlighted is how the digital transformation of publishing has impacted the media business.

publishing1

Up top you see that jobs associated with the printed word (as in, on paper) have suffered while those jobs involved with digital production have spiked upward. More specific details in the image below.

publishing2

I had coffee with someone today and we got to talking about the economy in Japan. From what I was reading, the recent consumption tax hikes were hitting the Japanese economy hard but what this person told me was more nuanced. While old manufacturing jobs, the traditional backbone of the economy that Western journalists look to for an indication of health, were suffering (think Sony, Hitachi, Panasonic), newer businesses around design, software development and mobile advertising were booming.

Broad brushstrokes always gloss over the finer details.

a blog by Ian Kennedy