Archive for category Product Marketing

Hubris

In classical mythology, the concept of hubris is often illustrated by the story of Icarus. The son of the master craftsman Daedelus, Icarus let his pride overpower his humility and paid dearly for his mistake. Wikipedia says it best:

Before they took off from the island, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, nor too close to the sea. Overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax. Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms.

How many times have you been in a meeting where the topic of competitive threats come up? And how many times are those threats answered by assertions of “Maybe, but we’re better!” Better technologically, better in some specific attribute, or just downright better overall. Whether or not the customers believe you (and one only look to the sales and market share numbers to quickly learn the answer to that question), some people will forever hold on to the idea that being better is enough.

This morning Dave Winer posted on Google+ and an incumbent’s ability to innovate against the status quo. It’s an interesting piece, especially when he argues that the incumbents become too enamoured with the status quo (aka “Why would we leave money on the table?” syndrome), while anyone they could bring in to shake up the status quo would probably fall prey to office politics.  I’m not sure how much I agree with those conclusions, but they are interesting food for thought.

The larger question here is whether it’s possible to get out of your own way long enough to attack the big issues head on. While it might be true that your product is technically superior to the competition’s, if the customer is buying the competition’s products, you’ve got a problem in desperate need of solving (viz: Kris’ piece on Being Good Enough).

If you’ve got yourself convinced that you’re infallible, impervious, or otherwise untouchable, you might spend some time thinking about what happened to IBM, Microsoft, and DEC, or what’s currently happening to Nokia and RIM, or will no doubt ultimately happen to Google, Facebook, and even my beloved Apple, when a young, small, agile upstart comes along and puts a technically superior product out of business.

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Skype: An option for a brain drain

UPDATED 12:01, Monday June 27, 2011:

According to Silicon Alley Insider, the executives who were let go will be receiving some/most of the equity compensation in question.  While it’s still difficult to know exactly what’s going on or the motives behind it, it’s still a good illustration how bad publicity and the appearance of impropriety can travel very quickly.  I still think what I wrote below applies: the changing tide of compensation, and how it’s perceived in the market, could severely stifle innovation in this country, at least as much as any tax, levy, or tariff.

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A few weeks ago news broke of Microsoft’s purchase of internet VOIP/VidOIP service Skype. At the time I wrote about what the strategic play might be for Microsoft, what they might consider doing with the service, and how I’d like to see it incorporated into my work digital lifestyle. Now, a few weeks later, news about Skype is again breaking acrosss the interwebs, but this time it paints the service – and specifically it’s management team and a key investor – in a much different light.

Sunday morning Michael Arrington wrote on TechCrunch about stories of Skpe employees being terminated and their stock options being reclaimed by the company (he uses the word “worthless” in the title). Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing had similar thoughts on the matter (he invoked the word “screwed” in his title). Over on AVC.com, Fred Wilson had slightly more tempered thoughts on the matter but does recommend the entire system be rethought.

The intricacies of employee stock options in general and these stock options in particular aside, there’s a larger issue that Skype and Microsoft need to consider. Whether or not it’s true, it appears as if Skype terminated a bunch of people just before a big payday and then took away one of the major incentives that convinced the person to work at Skype in the first place. What’s more, they did it in a way that has been called disingenuous and perhaps even actionable.

At some point, the current Skype management team is going to want to start another company, and they’re going to have this reputation to overcome.  Their other investors are going to want to invest in another technology company, an organization who’s employees might flee the moment the deal is announced. Ninety nine times out of 100, acquisitions and investments are for the people, not the technology.

We talk alot about the impact of taxes, tarrifs, levies, and other monetary vehicles on innovation and advancement. But what of the impact of this type of behavior on technological innovation? Silicon Valley, one of the major hotbeds on American innovation, has long depended on the promise of equity compensation in lieu of cash. If employees no longer trust equity compensation, start-ups and small businesses might be forced to switch to more traditional cash-based compensation, which could severely limit their ability to bring enough people on staff to get things done as quickly as necessary, thereby stifiling technology innovation.

The people that really have to be carefule here are Microsoft. If Skype’s people start to view their options as completely worthless, then there becomes very little incentive for them to stay. Since the talent should be at least as much of a concern as the technology in any acquisition, Microsoft could find themselves holding a shell of a company worth much less than the $8.5B they paid for it.

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HBR: The Risks of Quantification

The Risk of Quantification

Admitting uncertainty means facing reality — and our own needs for security. But admitting uncertainty is not enough. We must learn to actively embrace uncertainty and work with ambiguity.

As I sit in a two day meeting about drawing insights from data quantification, this article is very timely.  Obviously there’s merit in looking at your data and trying to draw as many insights as possible, but we as marketers can sometimes end up hiding behind the data, using them as an excuse to take no action in favor of gathering and analyzing more data.

There comes a time, however, where you have to accept whatever level of ambiguity you’re willing to accept, make a decision, and take action.  The question then becomes: When is the right time?  A better question might be: What do I get by delaying and gathering more data?  Am I falling prey to the law of diminishing returns?

As the ever-prescient Merlin Mann likes to say, “How do you know when you have enough [information] to get started?  What can you not do with the [information] you have right now?” 1

How do you overcome “Analysis Paralysis”?


  1. You can read more here or watch here.

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RIM: One more nail in the coffin?

RIM recalling over 900 faulty BlackBerry PlayBooks, is yours on the list?

Sadly, no explanation of what, exactly was faulty in the devices nor has any official communication come across as of yet…

Yet another nail in the coffin of a company that was too late in admitting it had competitive problems. 1

While it seems clear that RIM isn’t ignoring iOS or Android, per se, what does seem clear is that RIM is caught in the unenviable position of having to choose between what they know – their existing consumer base – and what they should know – that the future isn’t going to embrace their past with open arms (see ComScore link above).

MacWorld has a nice write-up of some of the other “nails” in the coffin.

So why bother? That’s the only conclusion to draw from RIM’s latest grand plan. It should stop pretending it has any other strategy than to hope it will wake up one morning to discover the iPhone and Android phenomenon was just a bad dream. That storyline doesn’t even work in soap operas, much less the real world.

Ouch …


  1. If you scroll down in the commeents, you learn that the problem is that the software license agreement won’t load, rendering the device useless. Ironic, isn’t it?

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Simplicity Sells

Flip CamPeople who own Flip cams will tell you how much they love(d) them. I’m one of them. If you are too, ask yourself one question – are you carrying around your flip? Do you have it within an arm’s length of you right now? Probably not. And that my friends is why Cisco ended up closing up it’s Flip business. In it’s heyday it was pure cinematic magic. It fit in your pocket, was easy to use and may have even recorded in HD.

Today, those things are still important but now you’ve got your iPhone, your Android or (gasp) your Blackberry. Mine is 8 inches away from my left hand and it’s rare for it to be much further than that. And oh besides pics and movies, my smartphone also has music, texts, apps and this crazy thing called e-mail.

Do you know who is the #1 manufacturer of cameras in the world? …wait for it…. Nokia. That’s right. The world’s #1 camera maker also happens to be one of the worlds top cell makers. Now you could quickly interpret this as a blog post advocating feature integration, and it is to a degree, but simplicity doesn’t have to be about integration. In fact – adding more features isn’t necessarily a good thing. But it’s important to note that simplicity of yesterday may quickly become the inconvenience of today (which I surmise is why flip struggled to make it in today’s environment).

So here are three more products besides the Flip, who in my opinion, are on similar paths. At one time great products, these now face some serious issues in simplifying their functionality, whether it be a more integrated experience, changing market dynamics or simply better competition.

1) Rhapsody Music. I love the idea of Rhapsody. I never have to actually “pay” for music. For a flat fee, I download as much music as I want to multiple devices and I never have to worry about backing it up. That said, Rhapsody to-go, due to digital rights management, only works on a select number of handheld devices. It’s great if most of your consumption can be via computer and streaming but bad if you are a commuter or frequent traveler. And it should come as no surprise that Rhapsody and Apple haven’t really figured out how to play ball on this particular issue.

2) Time Warner Cable – or cable companies in general, at one time a must have in every American household. The advent of DVR and on-demand programming likely helped stave off some user attrition but cable companies are in for some rough times as most of the major networks are already giving content away for free and on demand. Then add in services like Netflix. Paying for cable and DVR subscriptions is quickly becoming more of an annoyance than a convenience. Most services still haven’t figured out how to let people access their recorded content remotely, not to mention we as consumers have gotten use to getting content for free.

3) Healthcare providers. I’m continually shocked by how few providers actually provide value added services like remote consultations via video conferencing. How few actually let you schedule appointments online. How many still confirm appointments by phone rather than text or email. Healthcare is in a sorry state. The only saving grace right now is that everyone is more or less in the same boat – competing against mediocrity. But sooner or later, that will shift and the winners will quickly be separated from the losers. Here is a great article from Fast Company that paints a very encouraging picture for the future of the patient experience.

I’m sure collectively we can think of dozens more but these are the products/services I use today that I believe face some serious challenges if they are to compete in today’s integrated market, one where consumers in a singular voice are demanding simplicity. Marketers can no longer create products in a vacuum where they address a singular need. Needs are converging and the lines are becoming blurred. What others can you add to this list?

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Disruptive thinking

Great article at Harvard Business Review’s HBR Blog about the difference between Big 1 and Small Companies’ approaches to changing tides in their industry.

A big problem is that these [big] companies tend to treat nascent opportunities the same way that they approach established businesses. They want data, even though data on non-existent markets is inherently fictional. So they focus on the market as it is today, where data are more easily obtained, and they employ the most conservative estimates about new sources of growth. They may also concentrate exclusively on what their customers want, which biases them toward incremental improvements of current solutions. As Henry Ford reputedly said of his industry, “If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

When they do go after an idea, big companies can pursue it so cautiously that opportunity slips through their fingers.

Entrepreneurs follow a different path for a simple reason: they have to.

A great analysis, which in turn generated a couple of other questions I’d love to see addressed in a follow-up, including:

  • What happens when the Big Company buys the Small Company to “Level Up” in product innovation?
  • Should the Big Company even try to pursue product innovation in the same manner that the Small Company can?  Can the Big Company innovate in the way the Small Company can?
  • Is the role of the Big Company to be the ones to buy the small company when the technology gets to the right place?
  • Is it better to approach Small Company as a  Strategic Partner or to buy them outright?  What happens when the Strategic Partner Small Company turns into a Direct Competitor Small Company?
  • This type of behavior is well established in Big Pharma … the Small Company does most of the preliminary development and shoulders nearly all of the risk.  When the product/medicine progresses far enough, the Big Company buys the Small Company, essentially trading their in-house R&D for M&A.  What can the broader business community learn from this?  When is this not the right model?

  1. Full disclosure: I work for one of those Big Companies. That said, any opinions expressed or inferred from this post are solely mine.

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8.5 billion? DOLLARS?

New is breaking across the interwebs of Microsoft’s purchase of VoIP provider Skype, the audio and video conferencing tool that has always had a hard time defining a truly profitable business model.

Much of the commentary I’ve read thus far is either very critical of MSFT paying that much for Skype, fearful that MSFT will do to Skype what it does to, well, everything they make (MS Windows Vista Ultimate Home Small Business Premium Deluxe anyone?), or that MSFT will make Skype proprietary/paid/non-free.

The more interesting question, I think, is what does MSFT get from the deal?  Andy Ihnatko has a good take on the different reasons “Very Big Tech Company A [buys] Tech Company B.”

Microsoft makes operating systems, business software, and consumer hardware and Skype helps them out in all three of their businesses. Now, Windows can offer its developers a videoconferencing toolkit for enhancing pretty much anything they’ve got going; Microsoft Office now has fundamental tools for business conferencing and online collaboration, and the Xbox becomes a phone network.

As Kris pointed out before, good marketing and good business are much more than just good ideas; they’re all about the execution.  Unless you can turn those great ideas – and in MSFT/Skype’s case, the great potential – into flawless execution, then you’re just stacking up scribbled-upon cocktail napkins … which is fun, right up until the point that you run out of money.

Hopefully MSFT and whatever remains of the Skype team (assuming that the MSFT lawyers negotiated their payout clauses correctly) can turn the potential into some good execution, because I for one would love to see them actually deliver on the promise.1


  1. As an avowed Apple fan-boy, you might read some sarcasm in this sentence … I can assure you that there is none. I honestly am looking forward to what MSFT can do if they can just get out of their own way first.

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