Emax Norge Conference, 2013

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Norway

Continuing my enjoyable business trip to Norway, I will be speaking on August 7th at Emax Norge in Lillehammer (about 2 hours outside of Oslo).  I will be presenting to an audience of students and young people from 15:00-1600.  My brief talk will cover a bit about my past, what I do for Innovation Norway and some Silicon Valley Trends that we are seeing.

I hope you can join me in Lillehammer.

-Mark Robinson “Productdude”

The Norwegian Venture Capital Conference, 2013

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Norway

Continuing my enjoyable business trip to Norway, I will be speaking on June 19th at The Norwegian Venture Capital Conference, 2013 in Trondheim Norway.  I will be presenting at Dukkhuset, street address Dokkparken 4, Trondheim.  My brief talk will cover Silicon Valley Trends and new opportunities in the market.  The content for this topic was the result of several discussions we had with the Silicon Valley venture community as well as key industry players throughout the Bay Area.

I hope you can join me for what I hope will be a lively discussion.  For those of you who would like a copy of the presentation, you can find it at Silicon Valley Trends Talk (TRONDHEIM).

-Mark Robinson “Productdude”

The Opportunity For Norway

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One Stands Holding Change, Others Crushed

Years ago, my father said to me that “you often have to embrace change or get crushed by it.”  At the time, we were talking about people who fight progress within a neighborhood because they are afraid of change. Those words stuck with me and I think of them often when there is an opportunity for improvement that should be embraced by many.

I do a great deal of work with Innovation Norway…an organization responsible for funding and advising start-up organizations throughout Norway.  The organization maintains offices all over the world that operate under the premise that it is important to facilitate the movement of Norwegian companies to other regions of the world.  But…there is more to it then simply enhancing an already booming oil drenched economy.  It is also (at least in part) responsible for instilling a sense of entrepreneurism into the Norwegian culture.

It is the topic of entrepreneurism that I find most relevant to this article.  Today, the number of students going to college (and being massively subsidized to do so) has never been higher.  At the time they graduate, they have some interesting career options that students in most countries would find enviable.  Do they go to work in an economic environment that can easily employ all of them with lucrative positions in energy and other areas of national significance or do they look at striking out on their own and starting a company (a start-up).

Because of the widespread availability of cloud services such as the Amazon Cloud and the availability of ready to use market places such as iTunes, many soon to be graduates are turning to hi-tech and in particular, mobile application to start their career.  It is a natural choice given that the barriers to entry in such companies are extremely low and, for an audience (former college students) that can live on soup noodles and hot dogs, very inexpensive to start.

This audience presents an opportunity for Innovation Norway that it has not tapped into.  That is…the opportunity to support and convert 1000s of would be entrepreneurs to “real” entrepreneurs.

To accomplish this, Innovation Norway would have to focus some seed capital towards “non-essential” sectors as well as guidance and advice for the new companies.  By focusing specifically on recent college graduates, Innovation Norway would start to compete in an area of innovation that has previously been reserved for the rest of the Nordics (Sweden, Finland and Denmark).

In addition, it would also have to focus some energy on supporting investors to continue funding into this area.  This is most crucial to the success of the endeavor.  In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Innovation Norway was criticized for providing inadequate support for technology start-ups.  What the article missed is that it is not the responsibility of one organization/government to change the entrepreneurial behavior of a country to its people.

Even in a nation where the citizens of a country have a very high expectation of the performance and services of their government, change takes time and it takes the enlistment of many generations of people.  What Innovation Norway can do is enlist its youngest generation to be an agent of change for the country and for the future of its people.

Focusing On What Is Important Can Be Difficult

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Focus

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking a tour of the Tesla automobile plant in Fremont.  It was one of the more enjoyable factory walkthroughs that I have had in my career.  The factory is highly automated and has a continuous movement that makes it appear as if it is alive.  I was one of a group of 50 people.  In the middle of the tour, someone asked if it was safe to keep the production line moving during such a large tour.  The response: “We measure ourselves on how many cars we complete in a day…if the President of the United States were here…production keeps moving.”

What this means to me is that you always have to keep things focused on what the company is rewarded for.  This past week, I had the pleasure of giving a lecture on establishing business milestones.  This lecture is all about focusing on what is important to your business and asking yourself the essential question “Is what I am doing now going to be what helps to move the company forward?”

All too often, the answer is “no”.

Here is an example.  If your company is rewarded for attaining users, focusing on public relations activities that do not impact customer acquisition is not a reasonable activity.  In most cases, a business is rewarded from doing one or maybe two things really well.  Activities that do not enable what you are rewarded for are usually a waste of time.

Part of the class that I put together around milestones has an activity that allows entrepreneurs to sit down in groups of three and discuss what activities they have undertaken that have not met the requirement of helping their business objectives.  This is followed by a discussion of what 3-5 activities they would like to undertake that will help their business.  At the end of the activity, I ask them all what they thought of the exercise and the answer thus far has been universal.  “It is really hard to set priorities and target milestones.”  They are right…it is.  🙂

Part of the challenge comes from not knowing what many of them are trying to achieve with their business. This is the plight of many young entrepreneurs.  I think that the answer is relatively simple.  When you are small…you need to focus on what matters.  Every company has at least one thing that matters.  For a consumer application company, it is usually acquiring users.  For business to business…it could be about licensing.  What I try to make sure my class walks away with is to find the metrics that matter and put your energies around them.

Food for thought.

Business Bootcamp in Norway

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BootCamp

For the past year, I have been spending a great deal of time with a large portfolio of Norwegian companies focused on the high-tech space.  During this experience, my team and I have identified several areas where their entrepreneurial education has fallen a bit short.  After a great deal of discussion, we decided to launch a new program in Norway called Business Bootcamp.  This program is designed to give entrepreneurs a crash course on how to run an international business.

This program will be presented in a wide variety of cities throughout Norway:

  • Bergen (5/21-5/22)
  • Stavanger (5/28-5/29)
  • Oslo (6/3-6/4)
  • Bodo (6/10-6/11)
  • Trumso (6/13-6/14)
  • Trondheim (6/17-6/18)
  • Alesund (8/12-8/13)
  • Kristiansand (8/15-8/16)

This program will be a good way to jump start early stage start-ups and…a lot of fun.

I hope you can all join me.

-Mark Robinson “Productdude”

Improving the Role of Alumni Associations

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Today’s world is inundated with social networking opportunities. If you look at our business lives, most people in the technology space use LinkedIn to stay connected with business associates, while others use Plaxo contacts up-to-date. There are many other services available which could be even more effective but we often overlook, such as our alumni associations.

Like many of you I’m sporadically involved in my alumni association. It’s not that I don’t want to be more involved, but rather suffer from a lack of insight about how I should be involved. This past week I’ve had a lot of discussions with people who have had various levels of involvement in their alumni association. Some of these people are affiliated with Stanford, some with Harvard and others with my own alumni association, Anderson.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that my own alumni association should bear some responsibility for my lack of involvement. I think if they made it easier to become involved, such as allowing me to volunteer as a coach to other graduates, I would have a conduit to fulfill my desire.

This conclusion left me thinking about what activities alumni associations should engage in to better utilize their members. I think there are five to consider:

  • If it happens here it happens everywhere. When many of us finished graduate school we scattered to the winds. Some of us ended up moving abroad, others ended up working in different cities, but we all have a connection to our school that is forged in a great deal of hard work and hopes about the future. If an alumni association wants to hold the attention of its members, one it should allow remote alumni to participate in local events. If there is a guest speaker at UCLA, the presentation should be captured on video or audio and made available online. Likewise, the event should be televised over WebEx or some similar service. I am often invited to alumni events in cities where I am unable to attend. In other words, the policy should be the opposite of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
  • Differentiated channels of communication. I think it’s fair to say that all of us are inundated with many forms of communication. Messages really do get lost in the volume. One of the problems I’ve noticed with my own alumni communications are that fundraising, advertising for products and services, and events are all provided from the same e-mail source. I’ve had no real opportunity to distinguish the type and method of the communications I’ve received. If someone wants to sell a puppy, it receives the same weight as a career opportunity or alumni event. An effective alumni association should practice what they teach in business; the communication should be direct and focused. Keeping each type of communication highly differentiated enables the recipient to selectively focus on what’s important to them. If they receive what they want, they will be more likely they are to participate in the program.
  • Regional welcome committee. As many of us relocate for work or travel for work, it is crucial for the success of the alumni association that people know how to remain in touch and stay involved. An effective alumni association should organize groups in each city and elect an ambassador. When alumni moves to a new city the ambassador should send them an e-mail providing them with contact information and a list of events in their area. Likewise, if someone wants to move to a particular area and they are looking for a job, the ambassador or committee should help make contact with other alums who could help them advance their careers. Alumni associations, particularly those for business schools, need to focus on expanding the regional influence of their programs. If for example, I would’ve moved to Singapore, someone in the Singapore-based alumni association should reach out to me and introduce me to other alums. I should get a good understanding of the business environment, the social aspects of the region and start to establish an understanding about how to build my career in that area.
  • Corporate conduits. Careers have become far more fluid than they have in the past. Many people change jobs as a means of driving their own advancement. As the success of an alumni association is driven by the success of its members, it stands to reason that it should help to facilitate its members into various key positions within companies. For each of the Fortune 500 companies, an alumni association should identify corporate conduits. These are people who help alumni get hired into the company. The goal should be to drive as many alums into key positions within the organization to facilitate not only the success of the company but also the success of alums. These members should be tracked in a database which is tightly managed by the alumni association and accessible through the alumni career counselor. For example, if I were focused on moving my career to Intel, I would have someone in the alumni association who could identify key executives within my target company and use them to gain access to the position.
  • Indoctrinate for Life. Looking back on my experience in business school one thing that I believe was missing was being indoctrinated into the alumni association. Throughout my two year stay at the school, I never heard the words “you are alumni for life” with a speech that reinforced why it was important to participate in the school once I left the program. It was only after many years and a great deal of networking that I realized I already had a terrific opportunity to meet key people in various industries. I’m quite certain that all alums would benefit from learning this lesson earlier in life rather than later.

I think the success of many alumni associations is driven from good planning and assuring that its members understand the value of participation. For many, it has to be about what they can contribute as opposed to what they get in return. As I sit in the Silicon Valley I can see the role of alumni associations in the careers of many Alumni associations can be instrumental in propelling the success of their members as well as reaping benefits for the university such as increased donations, prestige and resources.

Food for thought.

The Facebook Dilemma

Facebook’s recent IPO has received lackluster reviews from the press. It is no wonder why it should. With such a disappointing stock performance on its first day and all of the hype leading up to that day, it is not surprising that the press and, more than likely, the investors are disappointed with the stock’s performance.

To me the question is not really about the stock’s fundamentals, but rather what role Facebook plays in the market. Facebook is in the unfortunate position of having moved first into the market, succeeded initially, and is beginning to suffer from a lost identity. When Facebook started it hardly had any competitors. With the market wide open and a clear need for friends to communicate, it is easy to understand why Facebook had such strong initial success.

Now the market is far broader. Companies such as LinkedIn and Pinterest are on the scene and are fragmenting the market. LinkedIn, for example, allows the business community to stay in touch regardless of where their careers take them. Pinterest has appeal to people who collect things and wish to share them with their friends. In essence, it’s the service that allows people to share the things that most interest them. If one can die from 1000 cuts, LinkedIn and Pinterest represent two of the largest cuts possible, with many more to follow.  I would argue that there are many more to follow.

The Facebook dilemma is not that its stock is underperforming, but rather the core service it provides is being marginalized by competitors who have designed their solutions around solving specific problems. LinkedIn helps our careers. Pinterest helps us to collect things. Twitter keeps our friends up to date. Facebook provides a jack of all trades service that doesn’t target a number of specific needs.

There is another way to look at this problem. General Motors recently pulled all of their advertising dollars from Facebook a few days before the company went public because the ads weren’t effective on the Facebook platform. They feel their money is better spent elsewhere. Consider this: people respond to advertisements when they are relevant to them. An ad is irrelevant when it appears in a location or in a context where we are not prepared to respond. If you are selling cars you want your ads to be around a site that focuses on automobiles or other products that have synergy with automobiles. Pinterest will likely have more appeal to General Motors than Facebook will (assuming Pinterest attracts automobile collectors).

For Facebook to overcome this dilemma, it will have to find a way to target its audience and provide a differentiated experience for each of its major market segments. Careerists must be differentiated from collectors, just as collectors must be differentiated from students.

Nokia’s Precarious Position in the Market

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I think we all have moments in our lives where we received certain surprising news.

  • I was at a surprise birthday party (mine) when the Challenger space shuttle exploded.
  • I was in a Hilton Hotel in Dusseldorf when the twin towers when down on 9/11.
  • I was speaking in the Deuitsche Telekom (T-Mobile) booth when Nokia announced that they were going to adopt the Microsoft platform over Android.

Ok…the last is not as severe as the others, but I predict that it will be devastating to Nokia.  The announcement did not come as much of a surprise. Nokia had a sudden influx of Microsoft executives, a company that had a renewed push into mobile.  It makes sense that those new executives brought with them a BillGatesian sense of the market.

What does not make sense is why Nokia would situate themselves in the middle of a battlefield between two of the largest companies in the space.  In essence, they are a shield for Microsoft.  In order for Microsoft to take casualties, Nokia must be hit first.

Imagine this…Nokia has launched the Lumia 900 phone.  It is a good handset but not a game changing device.  It is competing with the iPhone, arguably one of the greatest lifestyle devices of all time, and Android- a platform that has won the support of almost every device manufacturer in the world.  Even with the Lumia 900 hitting the top ten list for mobile devices, it is not enough to rescue Nokia.  If anything, it makes them more vulnerable.  With fewer device manufacturers and no way for the ones that are adopting Windows to contribute to the betterment of the platform, Microsoft’s platform is simply outclassed.  And to make matters worse for Nokia, it is their only bet in the game.

A far better strategy would be for Nokia to adopt both the Android and Windows platforms.  It would reduce their exposure and allow them to focus on what they are good at: building hardware inexpensively and at a reasonable level of quality.  With global manufacturing costs going up, this could be the silver bullet that enables Nokia to significantly differentiate itself and win over the market.

Nokia’s participation into the mobile OS wars will only put them in a position to take casualties for the benefit of other companies.

The Importance of Good Maps When You Go To Battle

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Many people don’t realize that several of the most distinguished generals from the American Civil War started out as engineers.  These are not engineers as you and I would think of them today, but rather people who studied the ground, its layout and how to use it to great effect against an enemy.  General Robert E. Lee, one of the most beloved figures of his generation, was such an engineer.  He made his career sighting locations for gun emplacements during conflicts with the Spanish under very difficult circumstances. .  In fact, Revolutionary General (and later President) George Washington started his career in the army as a map maker.

If you look at the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the Civil War, you will find a great focus on cartography.  The ground you fight on is a great ally if you use it correctly.  If your enemy has to climb a hill to attack you, the ground works for you by depleting their strength.  If your enemy has to cross a river, the ground works for you by slowing them down.

My experience has been the same with products.  The best battles are fought over ground that you are familiar with.

Several months ago, I had to redevelop the user experience for a product.  It was a consumer facing product and there were many complaints regarding its usability.  The challenge was that the product was mature…so mature that most of the engineers who worked on it were no longer available.  To make matters worse, there was no documentation of the product.

After considering the problem, I concluded that the best approach would be to start with a flow of the entire user experience.  This would give us a good map of the ground where it was built so that we could use to determine what direction we wanted to take the product.  With several hundred thousand people using the product on any given day, I knew that any changes we made would have to be incremental and measured.

My team assembled and I laid out a few simple but essential rules for the exercise:

  1. We will create a complete flow of the client that will include all of the entry points and exit points.
  2. If there is an exit point to a function that will end up back in the client, we must create a flow for that.  For example, a messaging client on a device may use a media gallery to pick a picture and then send message with that picture.
  3. All of the functions represented on the screen must be represented in the flow of the client.
  4. If there are special transitions from one UI screen to another, they must be noted in the flow.

The UI for the product turned out to be approximately 200 screens.  The effort took three people about 1 week to complete.

At the end of the exercise, we had a very complete UI flow.  I then sat down with the team with our new UI flow/battle map and posed three questions:

What can we do to shorten the journey for the user?  In the mobile space, fewer clicks is preferable.  My goal was to tighten up the UI and reduce the amount of time and effort it took users to perform tasks.  Like many smart people, my team was prepared to address this question right away.  The view was that by consolidating several of the functions into a new menu structure, we could reduce the UI by approximately 15% and subsequently the flight time for the user (the amount of time they spent performing a task).

Can we remove functions in the product to enhance the user experience?  This ignited a debate about the importance of specific functions in the product.  We evaluated the use of a sync technology that we had developed to work specifically with tethered tablets.  Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality has significantly reduced the need to use this function and we simplified the product by removing it.

Are there gaps in the features of the new UI that affect the user experience? This was a little more difficult to answer.  Several weeks earlier, we had performed a UI test to determine how users used objects such as images in messages.  The primary conclusion was that many users had trouble managing their media.  Looking at the user flow, we decided to add functionality that enabled the user to grab and catalogue media off incoming communications more easily.  The path to complete these functions was easier to address now that we had the map in front of us.

If I had to sum up the moral of this tale, I would say this:

“You will never find your way if you don’t know where you started from.”

This holds true in war, in business and in life.

Five Ways to Go Wrong With Contracts Your B-School Professors Forgot to Mention

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I had lunch with a few friends last week and we settled on the topic “what makes a good contract in business today.”  The fun part of the conversation is that it ultimately led to what makes a bad contract as well…and with that, there were a lot of funny stories that we could all share.  When I got home, I decided to sit down and write down a few thoughts…

If you do not know what you agreed to, you should not have signed it in the first place.

In general, a contract should be template-driven.  Most of the terms in one license agreement should reflect the terms that you have in other license agreements.  Where I find people getting into trouble is when each contract is a complete departure from every other one.  Even worse, when the contract is not widely understood by the people who need to enforce it and the contract departs from the company norm, it is not likely to be followed.  One of the stories that was shared with me was about a company that had a series of very different contracts related to professional services work.  None of the people taking calls from customers understood the warrantee obligations guaranteed by contract.  The officer in charge of them felt that the team should come to him each time they had a call from the customer so he could determine what they should do.  Putting aside this person’s need to control things, and the lack of trust it implies regarding his team, it had the result of slowing down and removing efficiencies from the system.  In general, not understanding your obligations can cost you time, the ability to scale and ultimately upset the customer.

Likewise, if the people who have to follow through on the contract do not understand what they are obligated to do, they likely did not knowingly agree that the work was even possible.  Something I can recall from my own history was a company obligating its employees to perform monthly builds of software for a customer when the feature sets did not scale to fit in one-month increments.  This resulted in enormous amounts of wasted efforts and a great deal of hardship for the company’s employees.

If you need an attorney to translate, you’re in for a bad day.  It’s funny how often people don’t understanding what they are signing, but they often need someone to translate for them the contracts they signed.  I was told a funny story that a few months ago; one company sent a contract to their attorney four times to figure out what their warrantee obligations were for a contract that had been in place for over a year.  Items like warrantee, milestones and exit clauses are fundamental to any agreement and if someone needs an attorney to explain these obligations, they are either in trouble with the customer or are about to be.

If you do not have a way out, you need a better map.  One of the most interesting parts of a contract that people seem to omit is what will happen when something goes wrong.  Many people look at contracts as a sunny day scenario where you are more worried about payment terms than how do you get out of the contract.  As a general rule, you should always have an exit plan for any agreement you sign.  Interestingly enough, this can go in the other direction, too.  I was in a contract negotiation about three years ago where the other party stated that they would agree to any state of jurisdiction for the contract other than the state that I was in.  The point being that they had offices nearly everywhere and in the event that they wanted to violate the agreement, they wanted to make it as expensive as possible to litigate.  Clearly some take this a bit too far… and you want to avoid getting into bed with companies like that.  Regardless of where on the spectrum you sit, you should always have a plan to get out of a contract.

If you are being abused before you sign the contract, you’ll need therapy after you try to fulfill it.

I think it is safe to say that if you have not had a tough contract negotiation, you have not worked in the Silicon Valley.  We have all had them and given how litigious our society is, they are likely to become more difficult.  However, difficult does not mean abusive.  Very recently, I found myself in an extremely unpleasant contract negotiation.  The other party took to making personal insults to our engineering team, whom they did not hold in high regard.  After several weeks pushing back on the behavior in meetings, I drove to their office for a face-to-face.  I said that I was running out of people who were will willing to attend meetings with them and that we needed to continue under a more professional dialogue.  The response was “You’re here to meet my needs regardless of what they are. ”  Without a basic level of respect, this is a relationship you do not want to enter.

Generally speaking, most people are under their best behavior during a contract negotiation. If they are this abusive during the negotiation, you can only expect it to get worse afterwards.

If your obligations continue after a contract, so will your costs. 

One of the most common rookie mistakes that someone negotiating a contract will make is around maintenance.  This is particularly the case in the software industry where bugs and porting is perpetually required (at least until the product reaches its end-of-life).  The circumstances around making mistakes in this area are pretty common and should sound familiar to most of the people reading this article as we have all seen them:

  1. A small company is desperate to close a deal at all costs (usually with a larger company) and ignores the long term implications of not charging for maintenance.
  2. The company does not understand its own business model and enters an agreement assuming only the best case will occur.  This is often the case when someone has never operated as a vendor before.
  3. The company fails to properly estimate the costs of maintenance or underestimates them.

Regardless of the circumstances, the result is the same… runaway costs with little or no income.

I think that there are a few takeaways that you should leave with.  The first is that taking the long view of a contract is almost always the right thing to do.  When you cannot, you should start questioning what is forcing you to only look at the short term and push back.  The second is that you should never sign something that you do not fully understand.  I know that this seems a bit obvious but if you look back at your own careers, you will find that this is often the case. The third is that the best contracts are the ones that address the needs of both sides.  Consider this… if you have a contract with another party where you have dictated all of the terms (in your favor), what will keep this person doing their best to fulfill the contract once their situation has improved.  They will likely look for the nearest exit…as they should (assuming they left one open to themselves).