Archive for the 'Entrepreneurs' Category

Online strategy and the Renaissance

I’ve stumbled upon an unlikely metaphor to illustrate the polarity in approaches often applied to implementing online strategies at established behemoths of industry, and eager upstarts with little more than a domain to their name.

A couple of years ago I found myself navigating the stonewalled alleys of Florence, close on the heels of our tour guide who substituted Pied Piper’s flute with an orange umbrella. Deftly, she’d use the beacon to draw our attention to the bronze baptistery doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti, make note of the outdoor art adorning the Piazza della Signoria, and by day’s end lead us to the entrance of the city’s famed San Lorenzo leather market.

This partially engaged and desperate attempt to “do Florence” with minimal fuss or stress resulted in the city’s inescapable dome and postcard-perfect bridges being mere geographical points of reference – devices to help find our way back to our hotel, or locate that orange umbrella should we get lost.

Earlier this year, my Father’s Day bounty included tomes on the Renaissance, on the Medici family who had a dark and complex relationship with the city of Florence and bequeathed it an indelible legacy, as well as first-hand accounts of life in the city.

Suddenly, that gargantuan dome became Brunelleschi’s dome, whose improbable construction is an audacious miracle of architecture.  Bridges like the postcard-perfect Ponte Vecchio had their own history.  And as for that leather market, tucked away around the corner waiting to be explored stood a façade-less chapel adorned with Michelangelo’s first dome.

So what is the allegoric relevance of my travels to how traditional organisations execute online strategy, and how start-ups succeed at capturing our imagination?

So-called anointed champions of online at many organisations are akin to the disconnected and fleeting tourist I was in Florence.  They opt not to stray too far from the security of their comfort zones, rarely embracing the online habitat of their customers.  They rely on others to create a new experience for customers, content with extending their already impressive vocabulary of jargon the way I collected postcards and fridge magnets.

Contrast that with entrepreneurs at start-ups, who are like immersive travellers spending months learning a new language, studying the history and culture of the towns and communities they’ll encounter on their itinerary.  At the end of their journey, they come away with richer experiences and new found perspective.

Everyday, countless visitors to Florence are fortunate enough to enjoy the murals adorning the walls of the Hall of 500 at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s city hall.  Only a handful would be aware that it’s most precious treasure just might remain invisible.  On a hidden wall behind Giorgio Vasari’s paintings of the Medici’s military victories is believed to be Leonardo da Vinci’s largest painting ever – The Battle of Anghiari.

Wonder if the orange umbrella toting guide would know where to look?

Eschew Innovation

When a word is excessively used to represent anything and everything, it ultimately means nothing. What irony when that word is “Innovation”.

Used to be we’d make overt references to “innovation” when talking up our products and services. Now we feel incomplete if the word doesn’t appear in self-aggrandizing platitudes used to describe ourselves.

Let me momentarily get off my high horse to confess than I too have been complicit in devaluing its meaning. After all, isn’t it infinitely easier to sum up our intent to create something in a single word, than to demonstrate it through actual results and experiences?

Recently, I participated in an unfortunately named “Innovation Forum”. Meticulously planned, participants were arbitrarily assigned topics and given access to financials, reports, org charts, etc. Their task? To come up with the Next Big Innovative Idea.

I’d found my casus belli.

Attempts to template innovation in the workplace are perilous and obscenely counterproductive. So here’s an alternative – Eschew Innovation. Ignite Passion.

Real passion has an implicit sincerity – it allows employees and dorm room students alike to slave away and often create something far greater than the sum of the status quo.

Fluff?

Check out the New York Time’s story on four friends who’ve set out to outdo Facebook by tapping into the privacy backlash against the behemoth. Relying heavily on crowd funding website Kickstarter, they set themselves the goal of raising $10,000 in 39 days for their own social networking software called Diaspora. 12 days later, they’ve raised $100,000. Did they set up to create an innovative service to compete with Facebook? Or did they demonstrate overwhelming passion for an idea that resonated with their many benefactors?

How about Secret London. Tiffany Philippou set up a Facebook group devoted to sharing worthy experiences around the city of London. Within a couple of weeks the group had amassed 195,000 members. Having outgrown its patch on Facebook, Tiffany reached out to the rapidly growing community, asking for volunteers to donate a weekend to help migrate Secret London – the Facebook group – to its own website. 48 hours and £3,000 later http://secretcities.com/london/ went live. When Tiffany queried her volunteers as to what motivated them to sacrifice their time with no obvious reward, they replied it was the opportunity to “be part of something amazing”. (Read Tiffany’s post on TechCrunch Europe).

Will Diaspora outmanoeuvre Facebook? Will Secret London be the next Yelp? The outcome is irrelevant. The lesson that both examples share, however, is invaluable. Their pursuit is powered by an indefatigable passion that is contagious, consuming not just them but as evidenced, investors and their wider communities.

How innovative.

I Giorni Migliori

It is an irony of the internet age that its biggest enabler, the telecommunications industry, is often perceived as being dormant as those around it have disrupted, innovated and reinvented themselves.

To be fair, few industries have escaped ridicule when evaluating the merits of their internet strategies.  Consider the much maligned print media industry which has had its fair share of criticism over the years, but only because the web so dramatically levelled the playing field for every armchair wannabe journalist.  Or the financial services industry, where the most innovative ideas have come not from bellwether financial institutions, but from new entrants – think PayPal, Mint, and Kiva.

And yet, within both the print media and financial services industries, old world players have made significant progress towards meeting their customer’s ever-evolving expectations.  Old world brands who’ve survived the transition from a pure bricks-and-mortar existence to providing services in the Cloud may lack creativity and rarely excite you, but chances are you know how to navigate your favourite online newspaper site to get the scoop on your favourite sports team, and can schedule monthly payments for all your household utilities using internet banking with aplomb.

So when I read on my Twitter feed that eBay was “offloading” Skype – not to a pipes-and-tubes Telco, but a venture capital firm – it got me thinking.  Are Telco’s truly content playing plumber to the Googles of this world?

Here are five things that should start to change, as Telco’s work hard to earn online cred with customers –

  1. Transition focus from “dotcom” to “platform” – It matters not how many websites we build and maintain, it’s platforms that deliver a complete customer experience across channels (think Google Applications and iTunes), and provide opportunities to monetize in spades.
  2. Build a strong social media competence within the enterprise – Social media is being recognised as less of a fad, and more as a way of interacting, collaborating and building communities, not just with customers, but also within an organisation.
  3. Offer real-time experiences – The immediacy afforded by the internet has meant that businesses can anticipate and respond to customer needs like never before.  LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are not websites, but platforms that allow businesses to tap the stream of conversations across social connections for targeted offers, incentives and myriad value-adding services.
  4. Develop new customer personas around unique experiences – Existing market segmentation strategies quite often take a myopic view of customer circumstances and preferences.  Today’s customers are evolving, and existing segmentation profiles are becoming less valid.
  5. Pursue disruptive innovation – Services like Google Voice will significantly impact how traditional Telco’s market their products and services.  Telco’s will start to revaluate what their cost and revenue drivers are, and challenge existing theory on how they provide value to customers.

The future is anything but bleak for Telco’s.  In fact, now is the time to leverage the gains across other industries – to learn from their foibles and glean insights from their successes.

Finally, apropos of nothing, I should mention that as I type, I’ve been listening to an Italian song by the group Taramancino called “I Giorni Migliori”.  A Google translation reveals it roughly means “Best Days”.  It’s a song I first heard on an internet radio station, and subsequently bought via Apple’s iTunes store. I did all this on my iPhone.  It’s one helluva platform – really.

Innovating, by embracing the past

Over at the apnakoi blog, I wrote about how traditional matrimonial websites have failed to leverage existing social connections amongst its users.

Here’s an excerpt…

Long before the internet became a household utility – in fact long before dial-up connections, or even the humble dial-tone – families indulged in matchmaking by tapping into far reaching social networks within their existing communities.  Chances were a relative, neighbour, or co-worker knew someone, who in turn knew someone, perfect for their son or daughter. Due diligence was reasonably effortless, with shared acquaintances between the two families vouching for the prospective bride or groom.

With each new generation, the fundamentals of this matchmaking model have evolved to keep pace with the changing times. Today, matchmaking is an indulgent pastime not just around family kitchen tables, but across college and corporate campuses alike.

Read the complete blog post here.

Blogging break over

Late last year I took a prolonged break from blogging, to focus on a new website aimed at the increasingly global ‘Generation Y’ South Asian.   On Jan 20th, we did a beta release of our cost-free, social matchmaking website – apnakoi.com.

I’m excited about the possibilities ahead, and look forward to sharing the ‘apnakoi story’ with regular readers of my blog.  We’ve  launched the apnakoi blog where you’ll find updates about our website, including new feature launches and an ongoing discussion with our member-base.

Stay tuned!

Conference presentation on SlideShare

To view my presentation slides from last month’s USID Conference in Bangalore, India, head to – http://www.slideshare.net/vmalhotra/usid2008-presentation

USID2008 Conference on Design Innovation & User Experience

In our personal space, we artfully manage a constant dialogue across our networks – whether on Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, or via tools like Twitter and Friend Feed. We effortlessly forge new communities of interest, and participate in a wider conversation.

In contrast, our workspaces are far better at enforcing hierarchy than they are at fostering a sense of community. Our workspace tools help control the message, rather than start a dialogue that would encourage collaboration and participation.

What can businesses do to adapt and thrive in this new environment? And how can smaller businesses take advantage of these new tools and technologies to compete globally?

I will be discussing the above themes in detail at the USID 2008 Conference on Design Innovation and User Experience, being held in Bangalore, India from 4 – 6  September, 2008 (via a video link).  If you happen to be in Bangalore and would like to attend the USID conference, please register at their website.

And if you happen to have any specific queries based on the themes discussed above, drop me an email and I’ll try and cover it in my presentation.


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