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La La La

In the spirit of my last blog rant post, I’m attempting to view technologies with a slightly different eye these days. And that eye is decidedly mass-consumer. Would my next-door neighbor use this product? Will my suburban-mom friends have time and inclination to give it a whirl? If the answer to both is no, then your company needs to re-think its consumer strategy. As we attempt to move the tech industry out if its insular bubble and into the real world, these are questions we absolutely must start asking.

[Caveat: this reasoning shouldn’t be applied to DEMOfall applicants, as the goal is to identify companies on the cutting edge of the industry.]

I looked at two music-focused sites this week, thesixtyone and LaLa. LaLa has been around for a while but I didn’t check it out until I noticed it on Facebook Connect. My music fanatic friend, stepwinder, pulled me into thesixtyone and it only took me 20 minutes to discover that thesixtyone wins hand down from a consumer perspective. The site got me involved immediately from sign-up. And I still haven’t figured out what to do with LaLa.

Upon signing up for LaLa, the service spent most of the morning pulling songs from my hard drive into its site. That’s about as far as I have progressed. It isn’t immediately obvious what I’m supposed to be doing on LaLa. From an analyst perspective, I would dig into the FAQs and About section to gauge the benefits of using LaLa. But from the viewpoint of a consumer, I don’t have time or inclination to do so and would move on to a site whose benefit is more readily apparent. If I can’t figure out in half an hour why I need this technology, I clearly don’t have a real need for it. Or at least you haven’t convinced me I do.

thesixtyone, on the other hand features ingenious “quests” that give the user immediate tasks to accomplish while also familiarizing them with the site’s key features. Through nifty little pop-up bubbles and an interface that never pulls one away from the music, thesixtyone integrated me into its universe in no time flat. This is not something a lot of sites or services can boast, either. Even such mainstream services as Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed require a certain level of ramp-up time. Hell, my husband still hasn’t figured out the point of Facebook and he’s a software engineer.

Though thesixtyone isn’t for every consumer in the land – you need a desire to seek out new music – it is an excellent example of how to involve your user base and ramp them up quickly. It’s one of the most ignored aspects in the technology business and yet the simplest: teach your users, in an engaging and immersive manner, how to use your technology. I know – it’s bizarre I even have to type that, isn’t it?

So, LaLa, forgive me if I missed something – in fact I’m sure I did. But you had the unfortunate luck of arriving on my computer at the same time as thesixtyone. Now I must get back to upping my reputation points


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Guidewire On… Travel

Market Sector: Online Travel Sites

Primary Players: TripAdvisor, Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity

Startups in our Sights: Mobissimo, TripJane, Citiport, TouristR, TravelMuse, Joobili, Liligo, Bluewalks

Latest Entrant: Ruba

Market Analysis: Crowded. Kludgy. Disparate services scattered across myriad sites. Online travel is one of the messiest sectors in the Web information services market today. There are many solid reasons for this – huge number of carriers and destinations, federal regulations to navigate, and differing travel philosophies across cultures, to name a few – but we should be farther along in the process than we are currently. Travelers must navigate at least three types of sites just to book the basic logistics. When you throw in destination highlights and items for the itinerary, it’s enough to make the most seasoned traveler run for a travel agent and tour book.   That’s not to say that we don’t see plenty of opportunity for the site that gets it right, but at this point we don’t see a complete package anywhere.

Analysis of Newest Entrant: is an easy-to-use, visually engaging destination source, offering mini-tour-guides in a variety of themes. Relying primarily on user-generated content, Ruba makes it super-easy to throw together your own trip highlights and share with others. It’s key advantage is integration with Facebook Connect, allowing users to post trip guides to their profile and, more importantly, source their Facebook friends for travel advice. We like that Ruba’s VP of Engineering comes from Google Chrome and that company revenue plans include partnering with sites like Orbitz and Expedia, rather than battling them. Making their mark in this crowded space, however, is going to require some super-savvy marketing and positioning tactics.

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Silicon Ivy and Main Street: Both Need a Thriving Ecosystem

Last week, my friend Ami Kassar posted a Facebook note coining a phenonomon he called the “Silicon Ivy Bubble.”

He wrote:

In the Silicon Ivy bubble, there is a perception about entrepreneurship. In Silicon Ivy, an entrepreneur tends to look like this:

1. You need a unique proprietary idea that could grow into a billion dollar company;

2. You must raise rounds of capital – b, c, angel, bridge. There is an entire ecosystem built around supporting this bubble.

3. You must follow these steps.

Ami’s conclusion, though, is that these Silicon Ivy startups are far outpaced by businesses that “start on Main Street” where there is “typically no ‘secret sauce’ at the core of the business.”

Main Street businesses are traditional companies where an entrepreneur’s recognition of the need to provide for family and a need in the community coincide.  They are businesses funded by savings or maybe, if the entrepreneur is both lucky and good, a bank loan.

Ami sees plenty of Main Street businesses at his ideablob site, where entrepreneurs post business ideas and receive business advice in return.  The site is the kind of ecosystem that Ami laments is missing from the Main Street business arena, a vibrant ecosystem of support akin to that which supports those Silicon Ivy businesses.

As I thought about Ami’s post, my first inclination was as you might expect: the dynamics and metrics of a venture-fundable business are vastly different from those of the sort of lifestyle businesses that pop up on on Main Streets everywhere. Silicon Valley – or Silicon Ivy – is home to a high-stakes ecosystem exactly because the stakes are so big. It takes a lot of heavy lifting to build a $100M company, then grow it some more.

It’s different on Main Street.  A sole proprietor, a banker, maybe a real estate agent.  Set up shop. Hang out the shingle. Get to work. Bring home the bacon, fry it up the pan.  Feed the family. Pay the mortgage.

As if there is something wrong with that.

Yes, venture-backed businesses require a certain scale and ambition. They are bigger businesses, potentially, than Main Street businesses.  But not necessarily better businesses.  Main Street businesses, or what some folks describe (often with derision) as “lifestyle businesses,”  are good businesses. Some are even great businesses.  They simply don’t scale the way a venture capitalist requires in order to make an investment.

Main Street businesses, writes Ami, “need a place to feel the energy that exists in Silicon Valley coffee shops. They need access to financing for their businesses. They need mentors and cliques like the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. They need hip, cool resources that keep them inspired.”

I’d argue that they also need our respect.  These businesses deserve a vibrant ecosystem of support because they are, in fact, the life blood of the global economy.  They create jobs and drive productivity.  They are arguably the lever in economic recovery.

And, oddly enough, many – and I might argue, most — of Silicon Valley startups are Main Street-scale businesses masquerading as venture-investable enterprises simply because they are based on that spit of land between San Francisco and San Jose.  These are business that won’t find success with the venture community, but wouldn’t dare to identify themselves as Main Street businesses.

Maybe in all of this discussion, though, is the realization that a large part of Silicon Valley is Main Street. . . and a block or two of Main Street in most every global business center is, in fact, Silicon Valley.

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Changes at DEMO: Chris Passing the Torch

Who could ask for a better job? For the past 13 years, I’ve spent my days talking with some of the smartest people on the planet. People passionate about technology and the art and science of molding that technology into products and services that address real challenges and bring new capabilities to people’s lives.

I’d be hard pressed to make an accurate count, but I’d guess that since taking the reins of DEMO in the spring of 1996, I’ve met no fewer than 15,000 entrepreneurs, inventors, and innovators, and helped about 1,500 of them launch their products to market on the DEMO stage.

DEMO has given me the opportunity to travel the world; meet with government officials and business leaders; interview certified geniuses and a few certifiable nut cases, and through newsletters (back in the day), blog posts, speaking gigs, interviews, and the DEMO conference itself share back a bit of what I’ve learned and the realizations that learning sparked.

DEMO, with its emphasis on product innovation, is an amazing lens and filter through which to gauge the future of the information technology industry and the markets as they open, undulate, and fold over time. The conference is a tremendous reviewing platform for new ideas and a lookout post for emerging and impactful trends.

It may not be surprising, then, to learn that after all these years, the lookout perch that is DEMO gave me the opportunity to see a new future for myself and for my company, Guidewire Group.

So early last year, I began the process of transitioning from DEMO so that I could start my next career in earnest. The first step, of course, was making sure that this was the right new path for myself, my family, and my Guidewire Group colleagues. DEMO has been a big part of all our lives for a long, long time. We all did a lot of soul searching and determined that, yes, we were ready to put our full energies behind the Guidewire Group business: working with technology companies during the critical transition points in their businesses to identify opportunity, define strategy, and accelerate the path to success.

The next step was more difficult: working with our partners at IDG and Network World to identify a successor. DEMO is a great job and a challenging one, and it’s not an easy post to fill. We found the most perfect fit in an accomplished journalist, entrepreneur, and kindred spirit, Matt Marshall. Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and get to know Matt and his team at Venture Beat. He is a talented, smart, deeply ethical journalist and he and his writers have created a remarkable, respected brand and business. And he is the perfect person to pick up the reins of DEMO as I lay them down after the DEMOfall event in September.

Matt and I share many of the same values, foremost of which are the respect for entrepreneurs and the process of innovation and the commitment to act with integrity and fairness as we serve our customers and communities. But Matt and Venture Beat are more than a pin-for-pin replacement for me and Guidewire Group. They bring new perspective to DEMO. While much about DEMO will remain the same, surely Matt will make a wonderful impression on the brand and the business. The new partnership between DEMO and Venture Beat promises a broader platform for the DEMO community and a richer conversation that will span the events. Together, Venture Beat and DEMO have an exciting future, and I’m eager to see it unfold.

I’m equally eager to unfold the future of Guidewire Group, a company I co-founded in 200 with Mike Sigal. In the past four years, Guidewire Group has evolved into an analyst firm laser-focused on startups. We work with young companies in the U.S. and Europe at key transition points, to develop and deliver business strategy and monetization and market validation. Through custom projects, events such as Innovate!Europe, and Guidewire Studio, our exclusive in-residence program, we’re doing the work I love most – helping startups thrive.

We have an exciting future planned for Guidewire Group and I look forward to sharing our vision with you in the months ahead. We have been privileged and honored to work with this great brand and the amazing people who have been associated with DEMO across the last 13 years.

And we’re looking forward to the next six months as we work just as diligently as we always have on DEMOfall 09, while transitioning the Executive Producer mantle to Matt and his team.

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The Continuing Evolution of Twine

By now, you’ve no doubt read multiple posts on Twine opening to the public with version 1.0. Though breaking news isn’t my strong suit, I have a special affinity for Twine and had to put in my two cents.

I’ve been using Twine for over a year now and wrote about its beta launch back in March. In that post, I called it “an incredibly deep, incredibly smart app that hasn’t yet found its ultimate form,” and said that “in order to ‘get’ Twine, you need to jump into it with both feet and play around.” The former statement still holds true, though version 1.0 takes several big steps in a positive direction. The latter, though, is completely off the table with this launch, a fact that will no doubt take the product further into the mainstream.

There is no longer a barrier to entry with Twine, as there is with so many other online services. I mentioned in a recent unrelated post that “users don’t get the value [of a service] without a large circle of connections and you don’t gain connections without a deep level of involvement.” There is no such problem with the new Twine, which shows you value almost immediately, without signing up. Just plug in a few interests on the homepage and Twine builds your interest feed. Theoretically, one wouldn’t even have to sign up for Twine to get some value out of it; use it as a search engine on steroids. But that would leave its real value on the table, ignoring its ability to organize your content in ways no other service today can.

Chris Morrison at VentureBeat wrote an excellent piece on Twine today, calling it a “modern-day Dewey Decimal System.” For a detailed description of how exactly Twine works, I recommend Chris’ piece, but his Dewey Decimal label gets right at the heart of the site’s real potential. Yes, at its most basic, it’s a bookmarking service, but the broader view reveals a mass categorization and organization system that requires little effort from the user.

Ultimately, I’d like to see Twine as one giant repository for online content – almost another level of the Internet. And that’s not unachievable either, when you consider the services that could plug into Twine. Let’s say that Twine develops plug-ins/partnerships with Facebook, MySpace and other walled-garden environments. You’d still interact socially on Facebook, play your Scrabble games and write on walls. But you would also have at your fingertips in Twine every note, status update, photo, and chat, automatically tagged and categorized and easily searchable. Say you’re planning a trip to Italy and are able to use Twine to find relevant content submitted by other users, alongside personal anecdotes from your Facebook friends. Read the travel article on top restaurants in Italy and see your best friend’s pictures from her Italian honeymoon, all in one place. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, as walled-garden integration is obviously not available in Twine’s current version. But I’m trying to lay the groundwork for where I think Twine could go, an important point for many who still don’t ‘get’ the service.

The path to an “a-ha” moment in Twine looks different for each user. Mine came with my private Twine, into which I dump notes on startups I meet with. I need to recall companies, people and technologies quickly in daily conversations and there aren’t any services that know my content as Twine does. My key complaint here is that I want the search refinement to improve. It’s not wholly intuitive, can be a bit slow, and I’d like more filter choices. But even with those nits, I’m still able to zero in on the precise information I need. And as a bonus, I also get other applicable articles, comments and conversations from which to draw.

Twine continues to innovate on an impressive trajectory and even more feature upgrades are planned for the next several months. As you delve further into the service and watch its tagging capabilities, think about the other online services you use frequently and what that content would look like in Twine. It could mean a whole new era in information interaction online.

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Address for the Job You Want Done

The iconic business book, given to me as I started my career those many years ago, was Women’s Dress for Success. In it, the author prescribed a wardrobe of “power suits” augmented by silky bows, pumps, and pearls.  As I looked around the newsroom at men and women dressed in denim, loafers, and baggy sweaters, I knew I’d chosen the right profession. I am, decidedly, not the silky bow type.

Still, I was admonished to “dress for the job you want.”  I did.  Jeans, a black turtleneck. (And yet I’m not the CEO of Apple.)  I realized pretty quickly, though, that while I was completely comfortable at work, I wasn’t dressing for the job my parents wanted me to have. Still, I’ve done a pretty good job emulating the wardrobe of a tech analyst and, well, nearly 25 years later, here I am.

I was reminded of all this early this week when I sat down to catch up with Soujanya Bhumkar, CEO of Cooliris.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an adviser to this incredible company.  More often than not, though, I come away from my visits with Soujanya energized by his thoughtful and insightful leadership of his company.   This visit was no exception.

After reviewing the status of the company (it’s on a roll) and getting a peek at the product roadmap (heading in exciting directions), Soujanya talked about the new hires he’s planning:  a VP of User Growth and a VP of Partner Distribution. Huh?  Not the normal titles you’d see on an org chart, to be sure.

“I call them what they are responsible for,” Soujanya says. “I’m not hiring a VP of Marketing, because you can be sure that person will come up with a plan to spend money on tradeshows. I want my guy or gal focused on growing the user base.”

It’s not a new idea, perhaps:  Reward the behavior you want.  But with a twist: Name the job for the performance you must have.

It’s easy for  a new company to throw up a traditional org chart and label boxes VP of Engineering, VP of Marketing, VP of Business Development.  Oddly enough, it’s harder to talk about what you want those people to do, what you want them do day to day, for what you want them to be responsible.

“I won’t hire a Biz Dev guy,” Soujanya told me.  “What does that person do?  I’m hiring a VP of Partner Distribution because those partnerships are critical to our success.  We need partners to distribute our product. The VP of Partner Distribution is responsible for that.”

Especially now, with daily admonitions to startups to tighten their belts, control costs, and stay focused,  young companies need to hold every employee responsible for the success of the company, and ensure that every day, every employee knows exactly what he or she should be doing.  Forget fancy titles; address for the job you want done.

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DEMOfall 08: Our Top 10 to Out Perform

This week marks the start of our search for the companies and products that will make their debut at DEMO 09, March 1 to 3, in Palm Springs, California.  But before DEMOfall 08  becomes a distant spot in the rear view mirror, it’s imperative that Guidewire Group puts the cap on that event by selecting the 10 companies of DEMOfall 08 that we think will outperform among this remarkably talented group of companies that presented at the event in September.

The practice of highlighting 10 companies was spurred on by IDG Ventures’ Pat Kenealy, who challenged me at DEMO 08 to identify the companies at the conference that would out-perform typical venture portfolio metrics.  And thus began what with this second issue is a new tradition: Guidewire Group’s list of the 10 companies we predict will prove  most fundable, and most profitable, of the portfolio that is the demonstrating class of each DEMO Conference.  This is no easy task.  Carla and I spent months screening hundreds of companies in order to identify the Class of DEMOfall 2008.   In each company, we found something innovative and important, so calling out just 10 companies is a bit like asking a mother to identify her favorite children.

As with the DEMO 08 Top 10 List, I decided to wait a few weeks for the post-DEMO media to play out so as not to influence coverage of any of the 72 DEMOfall 08. But now, the time has come. So here, in no particular order, are the Guidewire Group Top 10 of DEMOfall 08: Read the rest of this entry »

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