Obsessive Focus To Product Market Fit – Tricks of the Trade and 5 Case Studies

As we begin 2019, for many startups the big question is – have they reached Product-Market fit or what should they do to reach Product-Market Fit.

Market it is!

There are 3 important ingredients for making a product – the actual product, the people who build this product and the market for which the product is built. The point of getting the right intersection of the three with success gets you to product market fit.

Marc Andreessen, whom I consider as the Father of Product Market fit, describes Market as the most important of the above 3, and Product Market fit is more likely to be achieved when you have a market – “In a great market – a market with lots of real potential customers – the market pulls product out of the startup”.

So the most important thing in your journey is to identify what market you are addressing. Basically, it means customers – businesses or consumers – who are seeking a solution, a better solution or cheaper solution to a problem.

The market definition has to be very clear and focused – as that would drive the product directions and help you get to the product – market fit.

Here are some questions you can get answered to validate the existence of the market:

Why need? – why do the customers want to solve the particular problem – what’s the real need. Is the problem that you are solving is a painkiller, vitamin or vaccine?

Why buy? – are they ready to pay for it – many solutions are liked by customers, but they could back off if they have to pay for it. So value hypothesis of this would help. Also if you are not expecting the users to pay for it, who will pay for it e.g. ads pay for social media users

Why now? – is this the right time for the product – timing is very important as customers have many solutions and many problems, and they care to address only some problems that have higher priority for them to solve – so timing is an important element to understand if there is a market that exists.

It’s happening vs not happening

How do you know if your product has hit the product market fit? Here are some nice indications

Isn’t Happening It’s Happening
Not getting any customers Customers are buying your product – at least few in B2B and many in B2C
The problem you are solving is not a high priority for your customers Usage is growing
Word of mouth is not happening You have to hire sales and support people
Customer feel your product price is not giving them enough value You are called out by the press, analyst – get good social media mentions
Press reviews are not happening, no tweets or mentions Customers send feedback and complaints – issues

Obsessive focus for Product-Market Fit

For any entrepreneur or product leader, there should be an obsessive focus to get to product market fit. The below is a Create > Prove > Iterate process that can help you to get to product market fit. Also, it’s not going to happen very fast, it needs perseverance and constant focus to move the needle – it’s a long-term journey.

During the process, you may have to do any of the following change to get to the product market fit

  • Rewrite your PRODUCT
  • GO AFTER a Different MARKET
  • REPLACE your PEOPLE or Hire SPECIALIST
  • IMPROVE THE USABILITY
  • CHANGE THE TECH ARCHITECTURE
  • UPDATE YOUR Deployment MODEL
  • Revisit PRICING STRATEGY
  • Fix Quality issues or Customer grievances

5 Takeaway case studies of Successful Product-Market Fit

I wanted to lay out few examples, all Indian, on things that will help you validate your market hypothesis as well as give some references on some generic areas that have worked. I am picking three examples in software tech and two non-software to broaden the horizon of how we should think product-market fit.

Transformation of Existing Product: Royal Enfield – You may notice in the Indian roads a lot more Royal Enfield Bullets plying which was not a case for many years when the 100cc bikes became the hot thing. This is a huge success story when it comes to finding the right Product Market Fit. Royal Enfield was in a do or die situation in the early 2000s – the discussion was around whether to sell off or shut down and its next-gen leader Siddhartha Lal stood up and asked for the last chance to revive. Here are the things they did to reach product-market fit – and the success is big case study now

  • Leisure Segment – The bike had its reputation, a cult following, an instantly recognisable build, and aspirational value. So it was given not to go to the commuter segment
  • Innovate with new tech but still keep the old charm that customers loved. They changed the engine which had 30 % fewer parts, and 30% better power, plus fuel efficient
  • Fix the quality process and problem – formed a field quality rapid action force to bridge the gap between customer expectations and the reality
  • Sales Experience had to be improved – new company-owned showrooms were launched and dealer network was expanded
  • Get the best talent – the company hired top talent – a new CEO who had enormous experience in transformation and revival, with auto experience

So as you can see over the years, there were very visible actions taken and we know how Royal Enfield is such a huge success. You can read the full case study here

Clear Definition of Market and Problem Statement: Career360 – When I was doing some innovation projects to leverage big data a few years back on EduCareer, I bumped into this startup that I thought had a very clear differentiation of their market and huge potential in India which has a huge number of young students – seeking to know what, where, why and how they should study something in order for them to reach their dreams.

The problem that they laid out to solve, is a huge one – as every student and parents of the student have this as their top priority – which validates the market need.

The objective as laid out by their founder Peri Maheshwar really makes the problem statement very clear – “

– To ensure that every student makes an informed career choice.

– To force institutions to greater transparency with their data and achievements

– To create an Information eco system suited for the 98% Indians than the 2% most meritorious one’s.

For us, a career is a life. A student isn’t any other customer. He is a life. He needs to be protected.”

As the market is clear and exists, once the focused founder is on a mission to build a product for this market (Student), they were naturally able to get there. Offcourse their journey has been with a lot of hard work, innovations – it’s been great to observe from what they have started out with to how they have really transformed their product and tools to address the market. With a high school going daughter, we have been personally benefitted by them, so are the millions of students/parents in India. The best part of their offering is that they are multi-platform – Careers360’s has been reaching out to students through multiple platforms viz. print, web, mobile and TV. So it’s a case of great omnichannel experience for the student through traditional and tech channels.

Career360 is a clear example of how Marc A says “In a great market – a market with lots of real potential customers – the market pulls the product out of the startup”.

Leverage similar idea to validate market: SeekSherpa – I met this startup in one of the Google Launchpad events, and I straightaway was blown away with the idea. I have been personally tracking the travel industry very closely and how tech is helping this further. In that Airbnb, story is amazing, as it really was a huge vaccine product to address a market that existed for the “tired of hotels”travellers. SeekSherpa was a great offshoot of Airbnb type idea – in the same industry but for a different product offering. SeekSherpa connect “real” local tour guides and Sherpa’s for the “tired of regular guides” travellers.

So with the market validation, obviously the offering/product has to be compelling – and I saw their Lazor focus on great UX being a killer differentiator initially, and the ability to connect the local guides to travellers as a way to get to product-market fit. Its been a fantastic journey by Dhruv and Sukhmani who founders of this great startup, they have also addressed different channels that appeals to connect the traveller with the sherpa.  And once again, the most important thing here is that the market existed, very well validated with a similar idea which makes it easy to explain, and it’s a problem better addressed by tech.

 

Expanding product capabilities to reach market: Schoolpad – I met with this startup through iSpirit, and what really caught my attention was the way the founder Abhiraj Malhotra explained to me how he transformed his product features to make it a viable option for Schools to buy it. Schoolpad started off with a USP of improving the Parent – Teacher collaboration. Soon they realized that while this is a great capability, it cannot on its own sell. So they expanded the product to include the core School management features. So essentially it became a solid School ERP with the differentiator of the collaboration feature which was the original capability. This has helped them reach a great market – as Schools are now willing to embrace this solution.

A great story of innovating and expanding the product to get to the market – and therefore reach product-market fit.

Price point to reach market: Xiaomi Mi – Apple products are aspirational, but many cannot afford it or they don’t see the value. So customers are always looking for alternatives that are cheaper and provides near equal features. This is where a company like Xiaomi comes in, where they really penetrated into the mobile market with a great product at a very affordable price, as that then opens up a huge market.

In order to do that, they had to initially sell through only online channels – Mi sold only through Flipkart initially. Also, they couldn’t spend a lot on marketing, so they leveraged the flash sale idea to promote their products. Over the years, as others started copying their model, they have now gone into the physical store – to sell through new channels. They also make a lot of the parts locally to get a cost advantage. Finally, now they are looking to penetrate rural markets as their phones are affordable.

To read more on their story, look for their original china story and then the India story.

So again here, the market is the winner – the market here is affordable smartphones, which was not addressed by Apple.

Products do not have to be original, you can always build products to address market based on Price.

In summary, getting to a product market fit is a journey, it may take time, but most important is to identify and get the market definition right, and channel your resources to build the product to address that market.

Happy New Year 2019!

What lies beyond the horizon: Digital Sky & the future of drones in India

Drones have been around for a long time, going back as far as World War II. For most of their history, they were considered part of the military arsenal and developed and deployed almost exclusively by the military.

However, the past decade has seen a tremendous amount of research and development in the area of using drones for civilian purposes. This has led industry experts to predict that drones will be disrupting some of the mainstay industries of the global economy such as logistics, transportation, mining, construction and agriculture to name a few. Analysts estimate a $100 billion market opportunity for drones in the coming few years  [1]. In spite of the overwhelming evidence in favour of the value created by drones, it has taken quite a few years for the drone industry to take off in a commercial sense globally.

The main reason for this has been the regulatory challenges around what is allowed to fly in the air and where is it allowed to fly. A common theme around the world is the unconventional challenges that old governmental structures have to face as they try to understand and regulate new technologies. Hence the default approach so far for governments has been reactionary caution as they try to control what are, essentially, flying robots in the sky.

However, with electronic costs coming down, the hardware becoming more accessible and the software interpreting data becomes more powerful a number of humanitarian, civilian and industrial application have emerged and as governments across the world are realizing the potential of drones, we are starting to see the first version of regulations being drafted and adopted across the globe.[2]

Closer home India has a relatively adverse approach to drones or more lackadaisical rather. [3]

But as India continues to drive to become a more technology-oriented economy the role of drones in the worlds fastest growing economy and the potential benefits it can bring are hard to ignore.[4]

However, India’s approach to drone regulations cannot be that of other major economies that have the luxury of friendly neighbours and a large network of monitoring apparatus, India has had to take an approach that has to be novel and robust. Something that balances the security landscape while also being designed to allow maximum utilization of the potential that drones offer. Out of this need to both regulate secure how and where a drone can fly and keep multi-ministerial stakeholder interests accounted for was born the Digital Sky, India’s foundational framework for all things drones.

What is the Digital Sky and how does it work?

What the Digital Sky accomplishes beautifully is to fill the institutional void that needs to be collectively fulfilled by so many institutions and make it easier for the industry and consumers to interface with the government legally through one platform. Permission to fly drone no longer requires a 90-day intimation with an arbitrary number of NOCs to be approved by umpteen number of ministerial bodies at the central and federal level. The industry and the public now know one place to interact with in order to register their drone, get recognised as a certified operator and apply for permissions and all concerned government agencies ensure their overarching interests do not interfere with the large-scale adoption of drones.  

There are crucial components required for the Digital Sky concept to work, the most central being that drone operators should not be able to fly drones if they are not approved by the government. To accomplish this the Drone 1.0 regulations revolve around the concept of No-Permission-No-Takeoff (NPNT).

Our maven Tanuj Bhojwani explaining NPNT at the DigitalSky RoundTable on 4 Dec 2018 in Bengaluru

What this implies is that unless a drone has got valid permission for a particular flight through tamper-proof digitally signed permission tokens, it will not be able to take off. The Digital Sky is the platform to automate the processing of these permission tokens as they flow in from different parts of the country without overwhelming the authorities through a flight information management system (one of only three countries to build this nationally after China and the USA). In order for this vision to come true, there will be an enormous change in the way drones are manufactured and operated. Entire new industry verticals around getting existing drones compliant, developing interfaces that interact with the Digital Sky platform and making applications for India’s needs will develop. Hence this begs the question.

How are the current state of the industry are changing with 1.0 regulations

Until the introduction of the regulations companies especially in the UAV operations were doing non-restricted work and end up becoming the jack-of-all-trades. Companies in the manufacturing domain were unclear of who is their target customer and what they needed to build. All the companies in this domain were working with no clarity on the safety and permissions.

With the introduction of the Drone Policy 1.0, there is a buzz which has been created and efforts are being made to understand the regulations by all the entities who are set to gain from it. They understand that there will be a new aspect that needs to cater to i.e. the sense of accountability.

For manufacturer’s The NP-NT mandate will be the most immediate requirement, the most common route to implement the mandate will be through changes to existing firmware architecture. The changes themselves are being driven by open source initiatives with various operators, system integrators and manufacturers contributing to the shift to NP-NT for all major drone platforms in the country. The Digital Sky has inadvertently catalysed the first industry-wide initiative to bring together all members of the ecosystem. Other requirements such as ETA bring in much-needed standardisation in the hardware space, this allows benchmarking of products, easier availability of information about the standards to look out for end users.

For operators, a massive increase in the volume of business is expected as they can now focus on getting certified drones into the air, and not so much on getting approvals. The Digital Sky brings in much-needed certainty and predictability into an industry that will be focused on balancing demand and supply of drone-related operations in a market that has a huge need for drones and their data but limited expertise to acquire and process it. This also puts onus an industry to become security and privacy conscious and insurance agencies will play an important role in this regard. It will also immensely help in changing the thought process of the companies providing services and their customers. Customers will start understanding that they also need to have a defined plan, process and execution instead of a haphazard existing process of execution.

How industry/playground will change over the coming years?

With the introduction on the regulations and a platform like Digital sky enabling the ease of doing business for the companies who are serious stakeholders in this domain, there is no limit to what developments will occur in the coming years. It opens up possibilities for utilization of Drone and its related technologies in Agriculture, Medical, Energy and Infrastructure and transportation.

The existing players will become more mature and more focused. They will understand that with regulations in place a more focused approach is the key to scale. They will look at opportunities to compete with the global market also as the solutions that are developed around the Drone Regulations 1.0 and 2.0 will be key factors that contribute to the Indian ecosystem to becoming a global standard to test, adapt and innovate drone applications and management.

What are the opportunities? What does that mean for the current and new players?

UAV/ Drones as a business was a far-fetched thought for many entrepreneurs and has been a struggling industry in the past in India. Going forward it is guaranteed that it will be one of the biggest markets in the world for UAV as a business. What the regulations and Digital Sky platform will enable is a new levelled playground ground for the UAV companies to initiate good scalable business models both existing and the ones entering new to the sector.

The existing companies with the right resources can now plan to scale their operations and also have the added advantage of doing work for the private sector in India. Due to the restrictive method of operations adapted previously the solutions to private agencies was unavailable. Now going forward the companies will shift their focus from being a B2G entity to a B2B entity. Many new businesses for UAV air traffic management, surveillance, AI and ML-based UAV solutions and deliveries will emerge out of India with technology specific to India.

The blog is co-authored by Anurag A Joshi from INDrone Aero systems, Abhiroop Bhatnagar from Algopixel Technologies and Gokul Kumaravelu from Skylark Drones

Tête-à-tête with Ram Shriram

A mentor and guide to many, Ram Shriram, managing partner at Sherpalo Ventures and one of the first investors at Google, addressed a rapt audience last week at the Bangalore office of [24]7.  Opening the hour long session with his reaction to the start up scene in India, Ram Shriram applauded the dynamic vibe of the IT capital of the country, even as he lamented the lack of infrastructure and the paucity of good Universities to channel the talent of the nation.
A few snippets from the conference for those who missed it.

Does Mobile Only strategy point to lack of Design Thinking?

The runaway success of Indian e-commerce show is driven by the single biggest attraction of hefty discounts available almost on all products! More than any other value proposition of e-commerce such as more choices, convenience, 24×7 availability, payment options and faster deliveries, the Indian customer was lured to e-commerce by the sheer scope for discounts she would not get elsewhere! The intense competition over market share among the e-commerce players ensured that there is always a counter offer for any blockbuster offer from one player. The eternal discount chasing customer is smart enough to sense this opportunity to compare prices of every item on offer with other vendors and settle on the maximum discount offer. While this was the modus operandi of the average online buyer, e-commerce players were sweating out on how to better their offer by attempting to do enormous scales that would only push their quest for profitability farther and farther.

Gme Changer or - Image_1As the dog fight continues to grab market share, e-commerce players are trying to outdo one another by introducing newer business models and innovations; the latest being Mobile Only format. Though there have been many successful experiments that defined the online buying culture in India such as Cash on Delivery, easy hassle free returns and EMIs, the latest experiment’s success is not pronounced yet, while many of the digital enthusiasts are upbeat about it.

Sorry, Mobile Only -Image_2Here comes the Mobile Only strategy!  While all the arguments for Mobile Only strategy evangelize the potential of the native app technology and innumerable values it promises to the marketer, an honest assessment of the anticipated compromises on the side of the customer is yet to come i.e what possibilities it takes away from the customer in order to cut short longer sales cycle.  Ironically, the deterrents for marketers to sell more are also the very value drivers for the consumers to buy more!

What is undisclosed about the real motive behind the Mobile Only strategy? Is it just Customer apathy?

During the years Indian e-commerce players took their baby steps to entice the buyers, this space also spawned innumerable deal aggregators and price comparison sites in empowering the value hunting customer to gleefully snap the best deals in the online space because of customer’s sheer capability to compare and choose across multiple vendors offering products of same specification. While online customers enjoyed this newfound freedom and capability, e-commerce players dreaded this unfettered nature of competition. This had made e-commerce players’ life a nightmare and the only possibility to woo customers was to settle for lowest price and provide faster delivery – both demanded extreme back-end efficiency and truckloads of money to operate at wafer thin margins; if not at loss.  Every e-commerce vendor had been eagerly looking for an effective way to fortify his customer from being weaned away by a better offer from competition. In these circumstances some enthusiasts find the Mobile Only format a perfect antidote for limiting customer’s newfound capability.   Lets look at how the Mobile Only format plays out!

  • In a Mobile Only format, the ease and speed of operation make the customer blind to the loss of the market options- i.e. to compare and weigh the market offers and to arrive at his maximum discounted vendor decision!
  • Deprived of option to compare the customer would be less confused about product choices with other competing products – the bliss every marketer longs for.
  • Customer decision cycle will be relatively short and quick compared to an open market situation like many players offering competing and comparable products as in the case of web.

Thus, effectively marketers are trying to cage customers to the controlled environment of their app and subtly cut off customer from the open market and invisibly condition and constrict his buying behavior for the benefit of the marketer, hoping that customer would fall in place as per their design!

However, what boggles the mind is the unpredictability as to how the customer would react to this stealth move by marketers!

The Mobile Only format yet to sink into the customer mind!

Hostile UX- Image_3
The inevitability of Mobile Only customer experience

Despite all hype around personalized content spiced with data analytics, the user experience remains the single largest bottleneck for going Mobile Only format. A large section of online users, especially those who have access to PC still consider viewing the products on large screens and doing one’s own market study before placing orders. A lot of online buying is driven by such consumer behavior born out of web format capability, but this turns out to be a huge challenge in Mobile Only format as SEOs are still at nascent levels in indexing app pages effectively to provide actionable comparison. Moreover for the user it becomes quite tricky to compare different sites considering the smaller screen of mobile device, while for the marketer app based approach opens up plethora of possibilities. That brings us to the cross roads in deciding how to navigate between marketer opportunities versus customer centricity?

The behavioral profile of online buyer and the Mobile Only format – a case of mismatch?

  • One of the main characteristics of online buyer is his appetite for best deals with maximum discounts available across vendors.
  • He also derives satisfaction that the deal is actually the best by comparing it with other offers. Therefore he is a value hunter and much less brand loyal.
  • Similarly, the app only promotions may not entice the buyer as buyer may feel the buying experience to be incomplete without going through this essential buying process or may remain non impulsive to respond to a targeted notification in the app.
  • The idea of enhancing personalized buying experience and brand building may be misplaced here, as there is a mismatch between vendor offering and customer expectation.
  • Majority of the mobile Internet users have been using online buying just recently and are yet to realize the compromises they have to make while on a Mobile Only format. Eventually they would conclude that the benefits of web may outweigh those of the Mobile format.
  • When the buyer realizes that marketers are effectively limiting the possibilities of the buyer, the disenchantment may lead to a lot of anguish in the minds of customer and eventually she may look beyond Mobile format.

While we have so much pointers to customers’ buying process already on the table, a complete disregard to customer behavior and expectation will have serious implications in winning a pie from the increasingly discretionary customer participation. On the one hand all the leading e-commerce players claim that 70% to 80% of their total orders come through their mobile platform; on the other hand they admit that 25% of these orders are originally discovered in PC platform and the mobile platform was used only at the clinching stage of order execution. Hence ignoring this huge market will be destroying the value they have hopefully awaited over the years.

Thus, only time will unfold whether Mobile Only format is a game changer in delivering value or a big value destroyer? The early reports suggest that Myntra had mixed response to their app only strategy. Interestingly Myntra’s parent Flipkart has put on hold Flipkart’s app only format originally scheduled from 1 September 2015. In the just concluded Big Billion Day sale in October 2015, Flipkart continued the web format and was heavily promoting the app platform by offering app exclusive launches and additional discounts on app based purchases indicating that despite all the best efforts to push consumers to app only format there is considerable volume coming from web format and marketers cannot ignore consumer preferences.

Going by Flipkart’s main competitor Snapdeal’s founder & CEO Kunal Bahl’s admission, Myntra’s app only strategy has greatly helped Snapdeal’s fashion business ever since Myntra shut down the website from May 15, 2015.   Is Myntra’s case a straw in the wind vis-a-vis the Mobile Only strategy? Industry is watching this space very keenly for more signals!

If Mobile Only is overkill, what is the right balance?

Given the growth of Indian Internet users at YoY growth rate of 32%, the 375 million users (as per IAMAI November 2015) augur well for e-commerce players. More than 60% of these 375 million users are mobile Internet users and the share of mobile Internet users are set to grow at faster rate given the continuous reduction in smart phone prices and more and more 3G & 4G network availability. Apparently, this paradigm shift in net access point very much endorses the idea of going Mobile First strategy. However the Mobile Only strategy is self-inflicting to all categories of products especially for high involvement category products. Categories those are low involvement and completely transaction based and used frequently such as taxi hailing services, bill payment services, travel booking sites, event ticket booking and restaurant services may have a case to go Mobile Only at the risk of losing a small portion of their business, as even those category demands multi channel access points simply because of heterogeneous customer behavior.

Mobile Only, does it sound lack of Design Thinking?

According to IDEO’s President and CEO; “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Where does Mobile Only falls short in integrating needs of consumer and requirements of business with possibilities of technology?

Understand your customer really well: There are many reasons cited for going Mobile Only such as better maintainability, cost savings, huge data mining capability which in turn can power data analytics driven marketing functions like greater segmentation, contextual targeting, user engagement and rapid personalization at scale. While all these are the possibilities for the marketer to embrace the new format, the same possibilities turns out to negate the possibilities of the consumer that is essential for a sustainable growth of ecommerce category. Mobile Only enthusiasts seems to be missing the plot by ignoring customer decision journeys to understand what motivates people and what puts them off and apparently loses opportunities for creating delightful experiences.

Empathize your customer with customer advocacy: While more and more businesses are waking up to the real world business need of ‘empathy’ mapping by putting the customer at the center of problem solving equation, the Mobile Only format looks highly skewed towards the marketer. Apparently we are still not finding a holistic reason for Mobile Only format apart from the ulterior motive of customer confinement, rather born out of customer apathy or total disregard for customer preferences. Building this wide gap requires rallying customer advocacy and customer centric empathy across all functions of business to deliver value and keep customer experience as the most important metric.

Device Option- Image 4Design to delight: Instead of Mobile only format, to fully capitalize rapidly growing net users the e-commerce players should repurpose all the touch points rather than limiting to only mobile touch points. Marketers should offer all options of net access points including web along with mobile, with all screen options and continuously reexamine the new touch points of value creation.

It is very important to explore all the digital channels for effective customer outreach when we are talking about bringing in all the 375 million net users to meaningful online purchases. A deep understanding of customer experience across all channels is just the starting block of the long process. To assume that customer’s interaction with a brand can be effectively managed only through an app (in an app only ecosystem as envisioned by Mobile Only enthusiasts) seems like an incomprehensive view as customers preference to multiple digital channels such as web & mobile advertising, email, search engines, social media and video are increasingly playing a decisive role in customers decision journey.   To capture the multiple touch points of customer interactions every e-commerce company should aspire to capture a comprehensive view of its customers, by implementing mature systems for collecting and organizing those deep insights. It is all the more important for ecommerce vendors of high involvement categories to provide a feel of the product through multiple and large visual interactions that is closer to actual physical experience to reassure the expectations of the product to user. Such affirmative and inclusive measures would increase the adoption of ecommerce at even faster rate.

The need is to remain attuned to customer decision journeys and understand how to use new capabilities to serve customers better. This is possible when marketers prioritize to understand each step of customer’s purchasing journey and design and deliver best experience across all formats. Every marketer’s goal should be to continuously discover efficient frontiers of value delivery without undermining superior user experience essential for occupying the numero uno position in customers’ mind space.

What the Uber-Lyft war teaches us about success and failure in the on-demand economy

This article is based on the book Platform Scale, written by Sangeet Paul Choudary. Platform Scale is available for free download for a limited period between October 5th and October 9th. To access additional bonus content, check the book website here.

The on-demand economy is bringing together technology and freelance workers, to deliver us services in exciting new ways. We are increasingly using our cell phones as a remote control for the real world.

Every week, we see a new platform come up that connects consumers with freelance labor. New companies are forming in almost every service vertical. But not all these companies clearly understand what determines success and failure of on-demand business models.

Success in the On-demand economy

There are two critical factors that will determine the success of a company in the on-demand economy: multihoming costs and interaction failure.

MULTIHOMING COSTS

In computer networking parlance, mutihoming refers to a computer or device connected to more than one computer network. In the world of platforms, this notion is an important one. If your producers and/or consumers can co-exist on multiple platforms, you face a constant competitive threat. Eventually, it may be difficult for clear winners to easily emerge.

Multihoming costs are relatively high for developers to co-develop for both Android and iOS. Multihoming costs are high for consumers also because of the cost of mobile phones. Most consumers will own only one. However, multihoming costs for drivers to co-exist on Uber and Lyft are relatively low. Most drivers participate on both platforms. Given the ease of booking rides, multi-homing costs are very low on the consumer side as well.

In a previous article on TechCrunch, I had elaborated in detail how multi-homing could be prevented by creating long-term stored value within the platform.

For on-demand platforms, this is important because multihoming allows producers (service providers) to co-exist on multiple platforms. With a limited supply of service providers available, this can lead to interaction failure.

INTERACTION FAILURE

Interaction failure happens when the producer or consumer (or both) participate(s) in an interaction, without the interaction reaching its logical, desired conclusion. Imagine a merchant setting up a listing on Ebay that never gets any traction, or a video enthusiast uploading a video on YouTube that fails to get a minimum number of views. Quite often, these outcomes could be the result of poor quality listings or videos, but they could also be owing to the platform’s inability to find the right matches. Producers and consumers who experience interaction failure get discouraged from participating further and abandon the platform.

If reverse network effects set in, this can eventually lead to an implosion of a platform. In the initial days, interaction failure regularly leads to the chicken and egg problem. To understand these phenomena better and how they could impact your platform, I’d recommend this post on reverse network effects and this one on the chicken and egg problem.

Bringing it together – The Uber-Lyft war

Interaction failure is especially important for on-demand platforms. Imagine a consumer requesting for a service and the service never arriving. Imagine, in turn, a producer receiving a request, preparing to fulfill that request, only to find that the request gets cancelled. In both cases, the consumer or the producer may decide to abandon the platform.

This is exactly what Uber had in mind when it waged its war on Lyft. Unethical as that was, I’d like to focus on that to glean lessons for building the next Uber for X.

In some of the largest cities we see drivers drive for both Uber and Lyft, and other competitors. It’s not uncommon for these drivers to switch between the two platforms multiple times a day. With a limited supply of drivers in a city and the cost for a driver to connect to an additional platform so small, we see drivers multihoming on both Uber and Lyft. This has naturally led to intense competition between the two companies and Uber infamously resorted to a playbook to create interaction failure on Lyft using questionable tactics.

Uber decided to target interaction failure on Lyft, by contracting third party employees to use disposable phones to hail Lyft taxies. Before the Lyft taxi arrived at its pickup location, the Uber contracted employee would cancel the ride. With so many cancelations on the Lyft platform, drivers would become frustrated driving for Lyft and, in some cases, switch over to Uber. Lower drivers would lead to further frustration for consumers as they would have to wait longer for their requests for cabs to be fulfilled, eventually spurring them to abandon the platform. This loop is illustrated below.

When multihoming costs are low, producers and consumers will connect to many platforms. With multiple platforms sharing the same producers and consumers, it is difficult for a business to build defensible networks. Thus, it is difficult for a clear winner to emerge in the market. With many platforms operating and defensibility low, interaction failure becomes a key factor in determining long-term winners.

What does this mean for you?

SangeetpaulblogIf you’re building the Uber for X, you need to ensure that you’re tracking a metric that helps you determine the degree of interaction failure on your platform. Freelancers that don’t get business within X days, requests that don’t get satisfied within Y minutes, may all be indicative of interaction failure. The exact measure of interaction failure will vary by platform and the importance of tracking interaction failure will, in turn, depend on the multihoming costs.

About the author: Sangeet Paul Choudary is the author of the book Platform Scale, available for free download for a limited period between October 5th and October 9th. He also writes the blog Platform Thinking.

Startups!! Do You Know Your Customers Well?

A business exists only till the time it has paying customers. The day your customers cease to exist, or have no reason to pay you for your products or services, your business is in deep trouble. So, if we consider all the stake holders in a corporate, an i.e. employee, executive management, investors and customers, the customer is the most important. Now the chances are that you know all other stake holders reasonably well due to daily interactions in the office or board meetings. The question is that do you know your customer well? If not, what can you do to know them well?

Especially important for a startup to know, as his starting up, sustainability and scaling up are directly dependant on the customer !

There are several stages of knowing one’s customer. What business they are in and which industry they belong to are the easier ones. The more challenging aspects are:

  • Who are your customer’s competitors in the industry? What are the competitor’s differentiators vis-a-vis what your customer is offering?
  • What is their vision of the industry that they are a part of? Where do they think the industry will be in 2 years and 5 years from now?
  • What is preventing your customer to secure a larger market share in their industry?
  • Who is your customer selling to, i.e. your customer’s customer. (By the way, this is the end customer from your perspective). What is his ask? In which industry is he sitting and how’s that evolving?
  • How is your customer’s roadmap evolving with respect to the developments in the end customer’s industry? Are the two aligned or are they diverging? If they are aligned, you are in good shape but if they are diverging, you may go out of business because your customer will go out of business.

To summarize, knowing your customer is a three-tier process: I) knowing the immediate (paying) customer, II) knowing your customer’s industry and its trends and III) knowing the end customer’s (your customer’s customer) industry and how it is evolving?

The problem is that in most of the organizations sales owns the customer and acts as a heavy-handed gatekeeper for any and all customer interactions. Since sales is transactional by its very nature, knowing the customer stops at the very first step of knowing who is making the purchase decision, who will issue the purchase order and release payment. Mostly knowing the customer stops here! Unfortunately, none of these guys can give you long term visibility into the customer’s business which is so essential for long term sustainability of your own organization.

What you need is a three-tier customer relationship, each focusing on one aspect of knowing the customer.

Starts with sales at step (I) where a relationship is built around a transaction and customer organization is mapped.

Then your product manager (for products) or domain expert (for services) has to focus on step (II), i.e. reach-out to its peer at customer’s end and engage him on a product and industry-centric discussion.

The common pitfall here is that product managers tend to get far more engineering (inside) focused in delivery. Their external interaction is mostly limited conferences and exhibitions to collect generic inputs about the industry. They really don’t spend enough face time with their customers directly to get to know customer’s industry, competitors and the customers’ customer industry. Most of the time they depend upon sales to provide the inputs against questions (a)-(c) above, but that’s a wrong expectation. It will never happen.

Now coming to step (III), i.e. knowing your customers’ customer industry. This is where a free exchange of ideas at the executive level starts to matter. The CTO/CEO of your company has to engage his peers at the customer’s end (could be CTO/CEO or BU head) and understand the industry trends. Your executive management needs to collect this information from threads picked across all of their key customers and then make a sound call on how they expect the very end customer (customers’ customer) to evolve. It has to be more than a gut feeling or some internet-based research. Their assessment has to be based on hard data collected from discussions done with your customers.

Once you have a sense of changes in end customer’s industry, address the question (e) above, i.e. is your customer helping to shape the industry or is he trying hard to catch-up? Once you know which customer is sitting in which bucket, you know what to do for your own long term growth and survivability.

Unfortunately, what happens in CXO-CXO meetings is that it gets limited to resolution of tactical issues which couldn’t be resolved at lower levels like price, contract legality, delivery issues etc. It rarely goes outside of this sphere, of never-ending business issues and any discussion to get a deep understanding of their future gets sidelined. In turn, your future gets compromised as it is directly dependent on your customer’s future!

Everything starts with the customer – June Martin

Gues post by Suresh Kabra – Founder, PriceMap

Owning the Transaction – Why Marketplaces Need to Think Like SaaS Businesses

Marketplaces are difficult businesses to get off the ground. A marketplace without buyers cannot attract sellers and vice versa. In fact, the infamy of this proverbial chicken and egg problem detracts entrepreneurs from the challenges that a marketplace presents after it has successfully gained adoption and is successfully matching buyers with sellers. After all, marketplaces for products, like Ebay and Etsy seem to have it all working for them once they gain adoption.

Why the EBay of Remote Services Behaves Differently

Services marketplaces, however, present a unique challenge. Most services marketplaces cannot facilitate a transaction before the buyer and seller agree on the terms of the service. Also, actual exchange of money often follows the delivery of the service and the delivery of the service requires the buyer and seller to directly interact with each other. Connecting buyers and sellers directly before facilitating the transaction cut weakens a marketplace’s ability to capture value. The party that is charged is naturally motivated to abandon the platform and conduct the transaction off-platform.

Marketplaces that fail to capture the transaction often resort to a lead generation, paid placement or subscription-based revenue model. The classifieds model has traditionally worked on paid placement. Dating websites and B2B marketplaces work on a subscription-based model while several financial comparison engines work on a lead generation model. However, lead generation models are attractive only at very high levels of activity and subscription-based revenue models make the chicken and egg problem worse than it already is. If your monetization model involves extracting a cut from the buyer-seller transaction, you need to figure out a way to own the transaction.

Solving the buyer Decision-Making Problem

Services marketplaces like Fiverr, Groupon and Airbnb try to solve this problem by preventing the users from directly connecting before the actual transaction. These marketplaces typically try to provide all the information that a buyer needs to make a transaction decision. Groupon features services from sellers that are largely standardized. While less standardized, Airbnb and Fiverr try to provide enough information for the buyers to make a decision without having to contact the seller.

Additionally, some marketplaces charge the buyer ahead of the transaction and remit money to the service provider after the provision of services, thus providing some insurance to the buyer, encouraging her to transact.

The Two-Pronged Challenge of Professional Services Marketplaces

Unfortunately, the above strategies fail with professional services marketplaces for two reasons.

First, it is much easier to take the transaction off-platform in the case of marketplaces connecting professionals. Freelancer marketplaces like Elance or expert marketplaces like Clarity are particularly prone to off-platform transactions for two reasons:

a) Clients need to know information about service providers before making a transaction decision

b) Once the end users know each other, they can potentially connect directly on LinkedIn or other networks, thus avoiding the platform cut

Second, professional services marketplaces require discussions, exchanges and workflow management during the provision of services before the actual charge can be levied. As a result, charging the buyer ahead of the transaction is all the more complicated.

So how do professional services marketplaces own and retain the transaction?

To own the transaction, professional services marketplaces need to think like SAAS businesses!

This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, a marketplace’s goal is to connect the two sides, complete the transaction and get out of the way, isn’t it?

Clarity’s early success illustrates that a marketplace’s role may be a lot more than just connecting buyers to sellers. Clarity connects advice seekers with experts. Traditionally, such marketplaces would connect the two sides, charge a lead generation fee and allow them to transact off-platform. Clarity provides additional call management and invoicing capabilities that serve to capture the transaction on the platform. Since the call management software manages per-minute billing, advice seekers have the option to opt out of a call that isn’t proving too useful. For the experts, the integrated payments and invoicing provides additional value. There is enough value for both sides to prevent them from leaving the platform to avoid the cut.

Clarity is one of many examples of platforms which are using workflow management solutions to capture the transaction. Services marketplaces like Elance focus on providing work-tracking and billing solutions that provide value to both sides and capture the transaction on-platform.

When marketplaces behave like SAAS businesses, the following design principles are commonly observed:

1. The SAAS workflow tools should create additional value for both sides, not just for one. This prevents either side from abandoning the platform for the transaction.

2. The SAAS tools should remove frictions in the interaction.

3. The interaction management tools should feedback into some form of on-platform reputation. Reputation is an added source of value that ensures stickiness to the platform. Clarity calls are followed by a request for rating the other side. Over time, the rating increases discoverability of an expert on the platform and acts as social proof for further callers.

The Added Benefit of Engagement and Stickiness

Workflow and interaction management tools also help make the platform more sticky. The traditional marketplace model has a very transactional use case. There is no need for a user to return often to such a marketplace. Users turn up only when they’re looking for something specific. With workflow management tools, the post-matching interactions are also captured on the platform, which encourages users to return often and to actively use the platform.

Secondly, a marketplace is only as good as the liquidity of available suppliers. As a result, there is no real need for a buyer to stick to a particular marketplace, transaction after transaction, especially if two or more competing marketplaces have similar liquidity and choice. Workflow management solutions help create stickiness because the requirement of on boarding on and learning new workflow management tools acts as a greater barrier to switch and can potentially keep users loyal to a particular marketplace.

The SaaS-First Marketplace

In recent times, we have been seeing the model flipped. Businesses are now building SAAS workflow solutions first to get entrenched among the demand side and then opening out the marketplace, to get suppliers in. An invoicing service spreads out to become a B2B order management platform. A payroll software provider expands to append a marketplace that can bring in freelancers which are then managed using the same payroll software. This also solves the chicken and egg problem by staging the launch of the marketplace.

Summary

In general, if you run a marketplace that requires services to be exchanged remotely, provisioning workflow management solutions to facilitate this exchange is a great way to own the transaction and create greater engagement and stickiness for users.

Tweetable Takeaways

Owning the transaction is the key success factor for a marketplace. Tweet

SAAS tools for workflow management help retain the transaction on a marketplace. Tweet

The new durable marketplace model: Start with a SAAS business, open up one side to create a marketplace. Tweet

This article was first featured on Sangeet’s blog, Platform Thinking (http://platformed.info). Platform Thinking has been ranked among the top blogs for startups, globally, by the Harvard Business School Centre for Entrepreneurship

100 minds – 8 mins with each.

In simple maths, every one of the 100 who saw the videos, was kept engaged for at least 8 minutes. Assuming they didn’t see all of the videos – a sales guy was around to continue conversations.

Humans have recently surpassed the attention span of a goldfish. And you thought keeping a goldfish engaged was easy….

Knowcross sells a service automation and management software to Hotels. It’s called Triton. Some of the world’s reputed hotels are their customers. For good reason – the tool is just remarkable to see at work.

Recently they attended HiTec – world’s largest and most expansive hospitality technology event.

“We were one of the last to book our space and we missed the best spots on the floor. Even with that, we managed to get about 200 people to the booth in 3 days. And about half of them we kept engaged through a touchscreen that played the 8 videos.”

Neha Singh | Senior Manager Marketing at Triton

 

Here are the 8 videos in their glory.

Triton EngineeringTriton MobileTriton SupervisorTriton Attendant

 

 

 

Content is one of those things a marketer has to spend money on. The pursuit, however – is to find the highest ROI from content. 

Here are 3 things that made their conference content investment a high return exercise:

1. Spray it. Don’t just say it.

Pepper your audience with multiple small bite sized information.

When you are expecting guests – as in a trade show particularly – try to put up more than a single piece of information.

So 100 brochures is great. But a choice between 20 each of 5 types of brochures – is a better idea. Within the first audience set (5 – 10 people), you’d know which brochures to send the mascot with.

“The 37 inch touchscreen had an application running. So after they see one video, they’d be presented with another one, and then another. This allowed us to comprehensively cover the product and its propositions without them getting bored with one long video. ”

– Neha Singh. senior Manager Marketing at Triton.

2. Address different causes.

If you can solve my problem – tell me how much you’ll charge. You’ve got 8 seconds. Go.

So Engineering has its own problems. Housekeeping has its own problems. The management has its own problems. And individuals within these units – have their own problems.

For Engineering – they made a different story – connected to the engineering’s cause. See this.
For Housekeeping – they made a different story – connected to the housekeeping’s cause. See this.
And for Senior Management – they made a more overarching story – connected to the business’ cause. See this.

So if Joe the CEO wanted to check with Bob the CTO – they would both just huddle at the booth. There’s a bunch of smartie pants ready to answer questions.

Instant gratification as many cultures call it.

3. Consistent and simple visuals

We eat with our eyes – as taught in culinary schools. That’s why plating is important.

Did your eyes catch the variation in the color RED above ?

In their case, the characters were simple with little detailing. So there was no distraction. And the colors and icons are consistent.

See the image to the left – there are 3 slides one below the other.

Did your eyes catch the slight change in color?

Imagine how distracted you’d get if the characters, scenes, music, or even narrator’s voice changed on each video. 

They got this done from a single creative team. A set of minds that didn’t change during the production process. This ensured visuals and audio and the look n feel and the sounds and voices – were all synchronized. Everything looks and sounds in sync.

Its like Ballet.

So the costumes were same colors. The characters were similar. The situations and icons were similar. Think different episodes of a television series.

If you have dabbled in Video marketing, what kind of results have you got from your initiatives? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Building a Customer Focused Technology Business

Building a successful technology business requires an organization to have a clear strategy that connects several dots. From Market Place Relationships, Technology and Product Capabilities, Empathizing and Understanding Client Needs and Building Successful Business Models that create win-win-win relationships.

Strategizing in a dynamic ever changing market place requires several sub-strategies working with each other. These sub-strategies are united in their orientation by a strong team that delivers value and ROI to customers and fundamentally use that value to drive the strategy train to create a superior business organization.

These sub-strategies can be powered by groups within a single business unit or groups working across multiple business units. In fact, it is entirely possible that different process teams may work together simultaneously powering market place strategies focused on different markets and solutions.

To a client looking at the organization, what is visible is a perfectly choreographed interaction with a relationship manager that offers a compelling business and technology stack that comprises of a well defined problem space, a compelling well positioned solution based on a product and technology platform that delivers value at each level of the stack.

The business itself is organized into technology, product and solution groups simultaneously working on multiple business opportunities through carefully orchestrated business processes.

Such a customer focused organization delivers the rich feeling of a customized solution with the efficiency of a generalized product.

You can build a customer focused organization and yet win in the competitive market place through a generalized delivery platform. Here are some useful guidelines to follow:

  1. Clearly define the market places in terms of problem space, competition and your own solution position. Make a list !
  2. Have a dedicated business development manager well versed with at least 1, possible more of the solutions located close to the market
  3. Put a solid workflow management process in place to receive problem statements and create solution proposals driven by the business development manager acting in concert with the customer
  4. Build agile solution teams that build customized solutions quickly from verticalized solution platforms
  5. Build strong technology and product groups that work with solution teams and ship frequent product releases every 6-8 weeks
  6. Build a powerful support group with a mature director that can provide strong pre and post-sales support
  7. Invest in R&D, raise R&D funding and look out for collaboration opportunities.
  8. Build a strong and disciplined inside sales force

That for you is a text book approach for building successful technology companies.

About The Author(s):

Prasad Bulusu is a CFO at Sankhya Technologies Private Limited. He is a blogger and offers consulting services to hi-tech organizations. He also mentors startups. You may reach him at [email protected]

Gopi Kumar Bulusu is the CEO and Chief Technologist at Sankhya Technologies Private Limited. He may be reached at [email protected]

Bootstrapping Products with Services

Because it’s often so difficult for entrepreneurs to obtain seed funding for their startups, bootstrapping is one of the best methods to self-fund their projects. If outside investment capital is for whatever reason undesirable or unobtainable, bootstrapping a product by offering a service is one of the best ways to go. This, by the way, remains a controversial point-of-view, and most industry observers will take the position that companies get distracted if they try to bootstrap a product with a service. At 1M/1M, we take a pragmatic and contrarian position, and back it up with numerous case studies. From where we sit, bootstrapping products with services is a tried and true method.

RailsFactory, a consulting and app development company that provides solutions for the web application framework Ruby-on-Rails, was co-founded by Senthil Nayagam and Dinesh Kumar in 2006. RailsFactory provides numerous services—primarily focusing on app development for the Ruby on Rails platform, but also including Rails version migration, E-commerce solutions, Email campaign system implementation, and iPhone and Android app development.

Senthil and Dinesh bootstrapped RailsFactory themselves, starting with about $1,250 in seed money. When they needed to, they each utilized other personal resources: Senthil reached into his savings, and Dinesh turned to his parents. But they started generating revenues fast—thanks to the services they offered, they were generating revenue by their second month, and they’ve been growing since. To date, RailsFactory has executed over 100 projects and have worked with clients in the US, Canada, India, Australia, Singapore, and the UK. Their services revenues have crossed a couple of million dollars, and the company has recently built a product that they have started validating with those 100 services customers. The productized offering enables them to offer a support package to the SME segment based on packs of trouble tickets.

Similarly, Mansa Systems is a SaaS-based IT company, founded by Siva Devaki in San Francisco in 2006. Siva founded Mansa Systems to focus specifically on cloud computing. Currently, Mansa Systems publishes a number of apps to be used in conjunction with Salesforce.com through Salesforce’s AppExchange app marketplace.

AppExchange allows partners to create apps to enhance Salesforce for business, and Mansa Systems currently offers eight different apps for Salesforce. Each of the apps is designed to address a limitation with Salesforce; for example, cloud storage app Cloud Drop gives users additional cloud storage space, MassMailer allows users to circumvent Salesforce’s bulk email limitations, and EaglEye provides Salesforce users with secure, trackable document filesharing. Mansa Systems remains entirely self-funded via the company’s service business, and there are currently no plans to use outside funding. The company already has achieved $2 million in annual revenue, and enough profitability to be able to develop and launch its apps at a steady clip.

AgilOne, a company that provides cloud-based predictive customer analytics, was founded by Omer Artun in 2006. Initially, the company relied entirely on services to get close to customers, understand and address their problems, and in the process generate revenues. Today, AgilOne’s product is a software-as-a-service platform. Much of what the company learnt about its customers in the services mode have been productized, although a percentage of revenues still comes from services.

AgilOne’s platform is designed to make it easier for companies to see how their customers are interacting with their products. For example, a company’s online retail customers can be broken into different “clusters” based on their search and shopping preferences. These clusters then enable the company’s marketing department to more accurately target those users with specific promotions.

Omer bootstrapped his company from no revenue or employees in 2005 to about 45 employees and over $15 million in revenue by the time AgilOne partnered with Sequoia Capital in 2011. Silicon Valley’s top venture firm made a sizable investment at a high valuation in a company that was bootstrapped using services.

I have often heard that capital intensive businesses are difficult to bootstrap. There is some truth to this observation. However, Finisar offers the counterpoint.

Finisar produces optical communications components and subsystems and was founded 25 years ago by Jerry Rawls and Frank Levinson. Jerry and Frank bootstrapped Finisar by first providing consulting services while doing product development in high-speed fiber optics for computer networks. They searched for a need in the computer industry that wasn’t filled, and discovered that need in the early 1990s when they pioneered a low-cost gigabit optical link that economized the standards for optical drives. By 1994, their product had changed the fiber channel standard, and following that year, the sales of their optical components doubled every year for seven years in a row.

Even while Finisar was taking off, the company remained fully self-funded. Jerry and Frank bootstrapped Finisar for the first ten years of its existence and received no outside funding until 1998. In 1998, they were approached by TA Associates and Summit Partners, two private equity firms who bought 20% of Finisar in anticipation of an IPO. Jerry estimates that the company’s sales pre-IPO were in the $30 million range in 1998 and, by the time the company went public in 2000, sales were around $67 million. Finisar went public at $19 and closed at $86.

Optical communications components and sub-systems, for all practical purposes, are considered to be extremely capital intensive. Yet, Frank and Jerry, obviously, managed to bootstrap their venture using services almost all the way to an IPO.

Each of the four companies I have introduced you to bootstrapped to profitability via services. Not only is this a viable method of getting your startup off the ground, it’s a proven method of reaching profitability, as well. In some cases, it can take you to the enviable position of Sequoia Capital knocking on your door. In other cases, you could even have investment bankers come calling, wanting to take you public, and a whole slew of late-stage funds wanting to shower you with funds.

All those are desirable outcomes!

Why #Hashtags are the future of monetizing social media

You can’t invite people to a party and try to sell them stuff. Pretty much every starry-eyed startup that went after eyeballs gets it by now. Over the last seven years the web has moved away from a consumption medium (think NY times) to a creation-consumption medium (think Twitter, Facebook). But we’ve been very tardy in reshaping business models for this new model of the web. Interestingly, the solution to this monetization problem may lie with a small insignificant key on your keyboard. Read on.

Why are we failing at monetization today?

Traditional online media worked on a Pipe model, targeted only consumers and got away with monetizing eyeballs. Social media works on the Platform model, supports both creators and consumers, and has tellingly failed with trying the same old monetization strategies. 

Media Monetization 101

The monetization of any form of media is driven by mining of context and using that (or some other consumer action) as a proxy for intent. Advertisers then pay to have their ads matched with the right intent. Here are a few examples:

Keywords on a page: Context E.g. AdSense

Search query: Intent E.g. AdWords

Location: Context E.g. FourSquare

Monetization works by harvesting user intent and serving messages/information relevant to that intent. The better you are at harvesting intent, the more effective your monetization is going to be. 

Why is this model breaking down?

Mining context and intent goes for a toss in the world of social platforms. Users are the new content creators and content isn’t necessarily structured. With the older media model, the content creators (typically the media houses) were creating content to cater to search engines. The content was designed for text mining algorithms right at the point of production. With social media, the creators of content (all of us) don’t care about structure. In fact, online conversations are getting more unstructured by the day. Consequently, mining these conversations for context and intent is a crazy task, riddled with false positives. And false positives always lead to spam.

This is why the Hashtag is so important to the future of the web. 

Enter the Hashtag

Engineers would like to be known for the tech innovations that they engineered but Chris Messina will probably go down in history as the guy whose random blog post helped structure a new era of media. In a 2007 post, Messina suggested the use of Hashtags for the first time for Twitter.

This week, Facebook rolled out Hashtags.

It’s interesting to revisit that original blog post and figure out how Platform Thinking is so rare (and important) and how most of us just prefer to think in Pipes. 

Hashtags and Platform Thinking

If you think of media as a Pipe where content creators create stuff and push it out for us to consume, the content creator takes great pains to structure the content. Every piece of content will be carefully drafted in a category, will be peppered with keywords for search engines to gobble and will be structured so that the context can be easily mined.

If you look at the proposals from Stephanie and Brian, they advocate the use of pre-defined groups to regulate conversations around certain contexts. This is a typical Pipe Thinking model. Provide the constraints and force the creators to work within those constraints. It works very well when media is created within the boundaries of a firm.

When media is created by users, as it is today, one cannot afford to think in terms of constraints anymore. This is where Messina’s advocacy of the Hashtag is so brilliant. If you’re thinking in terms of Platforms, you’d want to make the creation process as easy as possible for users, yet ensure that they leave you with enough hints around intent and context. This is what Flickr did when it allowed users to tag pictures instead of forcing them to fit pictures into pre-defined categories. This is what Messina advocates in this post when he argues against users having to operate within groups and allows users to define context and intent on the fly.

Through Hashtags!

Top-down classification and forcing creators to fit within categories or groups is a hangover from Pipe Thinking; an editorial view of the web. A social view of the web requires a more bottom-up approach.

If you think of the social web as a flow of information, pre-defined categories and groups limit the channels in which information can flow. Hashtags, instead, allow creation of channels on the fly to suit the needs of the information creator. 

If you’re still thinking Semantic search alone, you’re in the wrong game

When the world first saw an explosion of user-generated content, people realized that Google’s keyword and link-driven approach to ranking information wasn’t going to work forever. Semantic search was hailed as the next savior.

I have nothing against semantic search. I just believe algorithms are still fairly limited in mining human intent from unstructured conversations. And the web is gradually, but definitively, moving towards unstructured conversations.

The solution to mining unstructured information doesn’t lie in creation of more sophisticated algorithms alone. It lies in, first, solving the problem at the point of production and allowing the new creators to easily append some structure to the information.

That is exactly what the Hashtag does!

If you’re building a platform that enables and promotes unstructured conversations, and you want to go beyond just being a communication tool, to creating a corpus of sticky content, hashtags can help transform unstructured conversations to structure, right at the source.

Tweetable Takeaways

Hashtags are the new keywords, and the key to monetizing social media.

Tags are the new categories, hashtags are the new keywords!

This article was first featured on Sangeet’s blog, Platform Thinking (http://platformed.info). Platform Thinking has been ranked among the top blogs for startups, globally, by the Harvard Business School Centre for Entrepreneurship

The Great Facilitation ballgame of Multi-sided Business Platforms

Let me start with a simple question. What is common among these, as of 2006 (and, for that matter, even as of today)?

– Visa
– Sony Playstation
– Orbitz
– NASDAQ
– Microsoft Windows

All of these are known examples of facilitation based multi-sided business models. These are not just products or businesses; these are platforms, in the true sense of the word. These platforms have, some even in industrial and so called traditional businesses, created value by “facilitating interactions & transactions” among various groups involved. They depend on network effect to kick in, and then thrive big time.

The concept of the two-sided markets is not new. In fact, the newspapers might have been among the first to exploit it, through low-priced subscription subsidized by the sponsors paying for advertisements.

Networking Events and conferences have been a great example of a non-tech two-sided platform, and they are sold on the same direct benefit as well. The sponsors subsidize the participants’ fees, and hence get presumably higher visibility. Participants get to network; sometimes get direct information or sales leads; and pay for it unless in some cases, fully subsidized by the sponsors.

However, these business models, as represented by the examples above, were still very few & far in between until few years back.

The business world, since, has changed. And, drastically so!

Google and Apple have become the most valuable brands in the world. Amazon, that revolutionized the Books & Publishing market through the e-Commerce strategy, has since transformed itself into a Platform company. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and recently Pinterest have become the household names, beyond the tech world. Travel, Hospitality & Commute have become well-integrated platforms driven businesses – driven through online technologies and ground-level operational integration.

HOW SONY FALTERED, AND HOW APPLE & GOOGLE PROPELLED

Let’s take an example of two companies that seem to be very similar on products stack otherwise. Apple and Sony. Sony actually brought upon the concept of music that you could carry, with its revolutionary Walkman. Apple came in very late, with iPod. Sony has had a premium quality tag in computing machines (with Vaio) for a long time, while Apple’s Mac slugged it out in its own creative/designer/geek space. Sony even had the earliest starts with its Reader as long back as in 2006! They even had a great idea of Reader being the platform, and got the leading publications in Japan to take note that time. Sony, a very relevant company even today in tech world with the quality and huge brand image to boot, (interestingly, it has had at least one product in platforms category in Playstation) has fallen to 31-Year lows. They continued selling products in silos on their own standalone benefits. They are a product company, still a great one, but that doesn’t seem to be enough!

On the other hand, Apple had an iPod – as a standalone “take your music with you device”, around 2001-02. With iTunes, it took the first steps into a platform around 2003. However, it has since transformed into a true platform company, with its formidable all-integrated business strategy that brings together computing, entertainment, and business. iTunes is a comprehensive AppStore, and not just a music store. Apple is a multi-dimensional company at its best – it brings multiple beneficiaries together in this multi-facets products business. iOS developers and Applications users. Musicians, music companies and Music lovers. Local or global businesses and their customers and fans. We’ve even started seeing the serious Enterprises making Apple devices the central to their CoIT (Consumerization of IT) and collaboration strategy. iPod, iPhone, iPad, Mac, iCloud – they sell products but they’re a platform! And, in Feb 2012 Apple became the most valuable company in the world!

Google is an obvious name in the multi-sided platforms strategy. They took forward the newspaper ads model and applied it to search beautifully. And now, with the Enterprise businesses as well as their ever-growing list of vehicles – in GMail, Google Apps, Android, Chrome, Maps, Drive, and so on – have established themselves as an formidable Multi-sided platform. At this time, there doesn’t seem to be a limit on what vehicles Google can choose to drive their platform strategy. Microsoft is now fighting it out on its own turf while Google and Apple make inroads into its huge Enterprise foothold. (This also points to another trend that I’m planning to write about – the blurring of lines between Business & Personal Technologies).

SO WHAT?!

This era clearly belongs to the multi-sided Platforms based business. It’s important, however, to not confuse this with the traditional definition of platforms in technology space. The true business platform is the one that is driven by facilitation and network effect, and which actually has multi-sided business model in the sense of heterogeneous set of beneficiaries that are not directly connected to each other. It is also important to note that this disruption has been caused not only by technological evolution, but also the interlinked effect of the other disruptive patterns such as “Long Tail” and “Free”, both terms made popular by the very respectable Chris Anderson. I will touch upon these in the next couple of posts as noted in my cover post on Game-Changer trends.

If you’re in a business – whether technology or not, whether e-commerce or not, whether products or services – don’t ignore this trend. Think about how you can leverage on this model, or be part of this ever-growing multi-cog machine that benefits all its gears. But, if you really think details, it’s not just a marketing gimmick, and it’s not just a tweak in the product. It should become the foundation of how business of your product is conceived, strategized and operationalized.

PS: This post originally appeared on my blog, but I thought it’s worthwhile to post it here. Very relevant, hope you find it too!