Want Software Product Success? Narrow the gap between the User and Technology!

Guess what’s the #1 Business Intelligence Tool in the world is?

Oracle BI?

Microsoft BI?

Informatica? Cognos?

None of the above! The ugly and the real truth is that the #1 Business Intelligence tool in the world today is…..

…… The Spreadsheet!

Yes! The lowly spreadsheet is the most used BI tool in the world, including every Indian IT company that we have come in contact with.

Companies invest millions of dollars (or rupees) on expensive Data Warehousing and BI tools but secretly everybody is using spreadsheets to download the data from these data sources into spreadsheets and doing their own Business Intelligence!

The simple secret is that the lowly spreadsheet bridges the last mile gap between the USER AND THE TECHNOLOGY!

The formalism is very simple – you, as the user can get very far by doing your own programming, as long as it is something simple, with formulas and macros!

Now with support for Pivot tables,  they allow this self-programming to go even farther than that! You can drill-down and see how composite numbers are made of simpler numbers!

That’s the real secret of software product innovation. Bridge that last mile gap between the user and the technology and you have a winner!

I have personal experience with this!

BPO and Call Centers in India were struggling with Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and SLAs. Clients in the US and Europe write BPO and Call Center contracts with Incentives for meeting SLAs with KPIs and penalties for not meeting them!

There you go – if your product is directly tied to money, you have a winner already!

If your Average Handling Time for a call is within 3 minutes you get an additional incentive. If not your total payment got a penalty deducted from it. If your Customer Satisfaction Index average for a process is less than 3.0 on a scale of 1  to 5, you got a penalty. If it is more, you got an incentive!

Every large BPO company had anywhere from 1 to 20 clients, each client has 1 to 20 processes, each process had about 5 to 20 KPIs, each KPI was calculated with about 2 or 3 pieces of information.

That was a lot of information to process, more so, when the information came from backend databases, excel spreadsheets and just simple text information reports or CSV file extracts from clients’ systems in the US and Europe.

So we built an ETL framework that handled inputs from may different sources, we used Microsoft SQL servers, built automated tools that built data cubes automatically and populated them automatically using MDX queries. Drill-down Queries got translated into MDX queries automatically.

When you queried stuff or imported raw data , we built tools that were friendly with Excel spreadsheets, allowed export/import, since we knew that was the most popular mechanism used.

Yes. we were successful in selling enterprise licenses to Indian companies that were trying to find a comprehensive solution for this problem for a long time.

We bridged the gap between the user and the technology and were successful!

That’s always the secret, whatever your passion is, software product innovation for the consumer or business!

Figure out what that gap is , between the user and the technology, and bridge it, you have a winner!


Is Software Innovation an Art or a Science? It’s Artful Science or Scientific Art!

When we think of Software Product Innovation, we imagine getting “Eureka!” moments 3 am in the morning, getting up and writing down inspired thoughts and coding them the next morning!

Reality is much more mundane and is more of evolution rather than sudden insprirations from the sky!

Yahoo started because Jerry Yang and Filo just wanted to create a searchable directory of information first at Stanford University and then San Francisco in general!

facebook started as a teenage testorone-fueled comparion site for Harvard students to post pictures of fellow girl students and rate who’s hot and who’s not! From there it evolved into directories of students in universities to find each other for dating more than anythingelse. For a long time, facebook signed up university by university and not the general public-oriented thing it is now!

This stands for enterprise software products also – Oracle Relational Databases were less expensive, clumsy knock-offs and replacements for Digital Equipment Corporation’s RDB/VMS relational database system.

Before Microsoft Word and Excel spreadsheets, there were Lotus Ami Pro and Lotus 123!

Before Google search, there were DEC Alta Vista search engine and Yahoo!

What made all the successful ones innovations in their own right were not just technical superiority but they took useful innovations and products before them and fixed annoying problems with their usages or expanded the concept of who can use them additionally or fixed usability problems with them.

Or they took an older concept and applied it to a new platform!

Or took an older concept and applied it to a newer market!

So if you want to innovate, you don’t necessarily to invent something new. You can innovate by doing one of these:

—- Is there something useful but not so easy to use? Can I fix it by making it easier to use? (Google’s single search box in the middle is a great example – Alta Vista got lost in boolean searches and requiring ANDs and ORs when specifying search. Google said – don’t worry about all of that stuff. We will take care of it. Just type in what you want into that box!)

— Can I take something useful and apply it to a new market? eBay India was another company before it became eBay bought it and made it eBay India. Flipkart is India’s Amazon. Cleartrip is India’s Expedia! Make no mistake. They are not just copies. Flipkart uses courier delivery. Cleartrip is useful for buying train tickets less painfully than when going to the IRCTC website. They all add some value and difference!

— Can I take something in one platform and make it suitable and applicable to another platform? Mobiile versions of applications may need to be differently designed and executed than an online, browser version of something.

— Can I build a family of products around one idea with more features? Personal, Professional, Enterprise versions of software is a fairly standardized way of adding additional features but orienting them towards different markets.

— Can I build a family of products that are related to each other but different from each other in functionality? Word, Powerpoint, Visio, Excel are all examples of slightly related products but providing different kinds of functionality.

Many times, we think that innovation is coming up with something completely new,. Successful innovations have all fixed or fine-tuned something useful but had some problems that were preventing widespread adoption.

Sometimes it is as simple as figuring out what these are and fixing them. And also thinking about related things so that you are thinking about a “family of products” rather than a single “one hit wonder”.

Wikipedia provides a clear definition of Innovation:

Innovation is the development of new customer value through solutions that meet new needs, unarticulated needs, or old customer and market needs in new ways. This is accomplished through different or more effective productsprocessesservices,technologies, or ideas that are readily available to marketsgovernments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different (Lat. innovare: “to change”) rather than doing the same thing better.

Be There or You Will regret it – Product Conclave 2012

NASSCOM Product Conclave (NPC) 2012 is an exclusive forum for product entrepreneurs looking to get actionable takeaways and learn from experts, peers and practitioners on their Go-to-market strategy. NPC 2012 promises to motivate, inspire and educate. An all star cast of product entrepreneurs, including Ram Shriram (Sherpalo Ventures), Sajiv Sidhu (i2 technologies) will share their proven techniques for product success. Over 60+ hours of goal oriented track sessions in the areas of product management, marketing, sales and business development will help you learn from people who have previously built, are currently building or are looking to build global product organizations.

The frustration of “lack of progress” with your product

On the outside looking in, its extremely frustrating to hear of product teams shipping product multiple times a day.

I tend to often question: “What in devil’s name am I doing wrong”?

  • Is it that I have not defined the product requirements right?
  • Have we hired the wrong people? Does our team not have enough experience?
  • Is our culture not supportive of mistakes?
  • Are we not focusing on the right things?
  • Do we not have the capability to get stuff done quickly?

Experience with multiple startups has taught me that its ignorant to compare your company with others (who might have stated at the same time) who have more “visible progress” than yours does.

But I hate that experience.

Its hard not to compare and question why is someone else doing so well with a smaller team than you have.

Experience has also taught me that startups for most parts (like kids) have a step function in progress. Its rarely a smooth “up and to the right”.

I hate that experience as well.

Should all that experience not make the next go around a lot smoother?

So the question – “What the value of all that experience”?

There’s only one answer – Its overvalued.

There’s one solution to most of these questions and although it is a cliche and often repeated, the answer is “Hire right” – whether its consultants or contractors or full-time employees, you need to constantly evaluate and hire the right people.

So, how do you hire right? And how do you define “right”?

So lets start with not the job description, but with your culture and values. Hire the right person that fits your culture and can align with your values.

If you culture is defined by moving fast, hire and attract people that can do that.

How do you determine if someone “fits” your culture if all you can do is interview them for 1 hour or so?

Write down questions to situations where you feel your culture will make them act one way versus the other. Ask those questions during the interview.

Depending on the answer to those questions you can determine if they can align.

What I have learned is people rarely change. So its hopeless to expect someone who is not a good cultural fit, to come in and get “religion”.

Original Post can be accessed at BestEngagingCommunities.com

The new age startup – Build a feature not a product

Its a well known fact that the infrastructure costs of building a software / Internet startup have dramatically reduced. Although the costs of developers have dramatically gone up by the same percentage, the productivity per employee hired has also gone up dramatically. Given that a developer can now manage instances, push to production etc., the need for DevOps is moved to a much later day, lowering the number of people needed at a startup.

A decade ago most companies were focused on building a business – long term focus, building processes to scale and grow.

5 years ago companies started to focus on building a good product.

The new law of the valley startup (2012) is build a feature.

See if there’s any traction.

Build next feature.

See if traction has increased.

<Rinse & Repeat>

Why has this happened?

1. MVP: Most people are taking the Minimum viable product to its extreme (or bare minimum) and valuing a shipping feature over a feature rich product delivered later.

2. Try your idea out: Most of us have a idea (we think) is going to change the world. The world though, has other plans. It does not like change. Small, incremental changes are acceptable (maybe) but large ones, take time. So lets push a simple small change to the user (customer) and see their reaction.

3. Too small to fail. If all a feature takes is 3-4 weeks to build, the cost of the development is low. Amazingly low. And at that point, failure (or lack of traction) does not matter. Its okay for the product to not fit the market, because the product  was not built anyway. Its just a feature that was built.

4. It helps with prioritizing features of your product. If all you build is one feature, the next one is customer driven (mostly). If a feature does not get traction, it does not matter. Remove it to add another.

5.There’s no long term without short term. I heard PG say this from another friend. If you dont get some short term traction or wins, there’s no point in thinking what the world would look like when you are dominating it.

So my fellow entrepreneurs, build a feature.

Ship. See if it gets traction. Build more. Keep shipping.

>>Original Post can be accessed at BestEngagingCommunities.com

The Product Business is Like the Movie Business

I read the cover story in Forbes on the success of Dropbox, which is set to do about $240 million in sales in 2011, with only 70 employees. As Forbes points out, that is about 3x the revenue per employee of Google, which is no slouch in the revenue per employee department itself. First, congratulations, Dropbox! This is the type of breathtaking number that makes the ordinarily successful companies like, well, Zoho, to wonder “What are we doing wrong?”

In our 15 year history in Zoho Corporation – which is bigger than the Zoho product suite itself – we have shipped over 70 products, of which we would say about 30 have been successful in the sense of being nicely profitable. Yet, even with that group of 30 products, we have seen the 10x effect: a set of two products that have taken approximately the same amount of effort to build, by similarly situated teams, yet one of them does 10x the sales of the other, with both of them being profitable. Of course the 10-bagger is much more profitable but the key point is that both of them could be counted as successful in the sense of being profitable. We have even seen 100x difference for approximately the same effort, but in our case, that is the difference between doing only $100K a year in sales vs $10 million a year, and I would not count that as 100x because the $100K product either grows up or we would eventually discontinue it because it is not profitable.

Dropbox is a logical extension of this phenomenon, where a product does 100x the sales, without taking much more by way of engineering effort than a profitable 1x product. And then the grand daddy of them all – Google search, which in its heyday reached $1 billion in sales, on not much more than the effort of a single engineering team – the headcount gets added later to diversify the company but the original search was a small team. I believe there has only been one Google search so far, so the ordinarily successful (ahem!) shouldn’t feel too bad.

Y Combinator, which has funded over 300 companies so far, is a perfect illustration. All these teams are similarly situated, with similar founder profiles and they all get similar initial funding, and they spend similar initial effort. If we consider only the universe of profitable YC companies, my guess is that so far there is only one 100-bagger i.e Dropbox, in the YC portfolio. Based on Zoho experience, I would estimate YC has about ten 10-baggers, and about fifty one-baggers (i.e just about profitable).

Welcome to the product business, which looks very much like the movie business!

Enterprise Applications – Thousands of app “snacks” instead of “full meal” applications?

Today was the second time I am hearing that the future of applications in enterprises are thousands of small apps instead a hundred or two applications!

I was listening to the CTO of Computer Associates who forecasts the future of applications in enterprises as stringing together lots of small apps that do something very well rather than developing something from scratch fully!

Here is the article that covers his talk that is provocatively labelled “Video Killed the Radio Star and Cloud Computing Will Kill the Programming Star”

Donald Ferguson, CTO of Computer Associates makes the very interesting point that you can STITCH together bigger applications with small focused apps together to do something larger in an enterprise.

Very true! Here is the website I created for our local networking group Healthcare Innovation Programs – Kentucky which is a networking group to educate each other about innovations happening here in Kentucky.

I put this together in 30 minutes! THIRTY MINUTES! Ten years ago this would be a three month project with hacking HTML by hand!

About a year ago I put together another website for another networking group usingNing that took me three hours to figure out and set up!

Here is the second article that argues for enterprises using thousands of small apps rather than developing large apps! – On Deploying Tablets in the Enterprise

The discussion panel in this article also makes the same point – “Don’t turn tablets into PCs,” Todd Barr said, meaning that IT departments shouldn’t try to manage them as closely. Since apps are cheap, organizations should encourage experimentation and individual work styles.

Seems like that’s where things are headed – small apps stitched together to do something bigger!

It’s happening in mHealth already – Withings Body Scale enters into partnership with BodyMedia FIT Armband.

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies. – Mother Teresa.

Indian Software Startups Similar to Excitement of Late-90s Silicon Valley

Editor’s note: Sharad Sharma and M.R. Rangaswami are co-hosts of the NASSCOM Product Conclave 2011 (November 8-10, 2011), a must-attend event for software product startups. Now in its eighth year, more than 1,200 delegates from 600+ companies are expected to attend. Sharma and Rangaswami share with SandHill readers their insights on what’s happening in this dynamic market – and why U.S. buyers and software execs should keep the Indian startups on their radar screen.

One of the keynote speakers at the NASSCOM Product Conclave a couple of years back was Guy Kawasaki. In his recently published his book, “Enchantment,” he wrote that our Conclave was one of the most interesting that he had attended in the last few years because of the energy at the conference. And the energy this year is already really high. That’s because, in some respects, the Indian software products industry today is where Silicon Valley was in the 1997-98 time frame.

The Valley then was in a different era of entrepreneurship. There was enormous excitement about where the future of the world was headed and the role that the Valley could play in that. India is somewhat like that in the context of what’s happening now and the role that its software products industry can play in the economic future of India and the rest of the world. It’s a very exciting time.

Original Post at Sandhill.com