Nov 032014
 

She looked up at me, smiled and shrugged, as if to say “Yeah, so?”

I’d just asked my five year old daughter to take a listen to some new speakers I’d installed. It was a 2.1 stereo system with subwoofer and integrated amplifier, all for less than $80 delivered. The reviews on Amazon offered a lot of praise about the sound quality despite the low price. Once hooked up I was surprised how good they sounded on a reference audio source. Especially for their diminutive size and low price. At that moment my daughter had bounced into the room and I wanted to share the experience of being so pleasantly surprised by a new product. And that was where things went off the rails.

As the impressive sound flowed around us and she stared blankly back at me, I realized “She doesn’t even know what bad audio sounds like. To her, great sounding audio is just audio.” Kids under a certain age simply don’t experience crappy sound often, or perhaps at all. To them, audio reproduction is either ‘great’ or ‘broken’, there is no middle-ground of ‘everyday bad sound’. When I was a teenager, bad audio was pretty much the expected default. Most places we went generally had lousy audio, except perhaps a concert, a theater or an audiophile’s house. The bad sound wasn’t just from terrible speaker design, it was also from substandard materials, poor placement and abysmal audio sources. Whether it was the snap, crackle, pop of an LP on my dad’s $500 turntable, the smeary, muddled sonic mess created by an audio cassette, or the incessant background hum on my cousin’s vintage dashboard 8 track player, it just sounded bad. But it was the kind of bad we were used to.

I did a quick mental rundown of the persistent audio sources in my daughter’s life. She watches a little bit of TV in the living room which has a 5.1 Dolby Digital sound system. Our home theater has a THX certified 7.1 system. The sound systems in our cars are standard manufacturer equipment, which these days sound quite good. She even has a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones for her iPad. The sources feeding into these systems are all at least 44.1 Khz, 16-bit digital recordings compressed with recent generation codecs. Kids these days simply have no experience with how bad a fuzzily modulated sound source over-driving cheap speakers can sound. Yes, I just said “Kids these days” but I’m not devolving into a rant of “In MY day we used to have to…” It’s actually a nice reminder just how far the march of progress has carried us in an area we don’t think about as much as ‘modern wonders’ like computers and mobile phones.

Even setting aside the impact of digitization of sound sources, over the past couple decades the typical quality of sound reproduction per dollar has scaled up dramatically. Although sound design used to be largely a black art, the knowledge of how to engineer low-cost speakers and amplifiers at high quality has become ubiquitous. The cost of components and materials has fallen to the point that even ‘cheap’ gear sounds remarkably good and ‘cost effective’ gear can sound amazing. There’s little additional value in paying top dollar for audiophile-grade equipment. The improvement over well-chosen mainstream gear is negligible. Audio purists used to pay $1,000 and up per speaker. Today, entire 7.1 speaker systems with outstanding quality cost less than $1,000 total. And that’s pretty awesome.

Jan 272014
 

idea-lightbulbWhen I talk to young entrepreneurs I’m always impressed by the enthusiasm and passion they have for their new business ideas. While I want them to be excited, I also want them to succeed in the long-term. Unfortunately, excitement doesn’t always map to success. There are two questions that should be asked of any idea before an entrepreneur unleashes their enthusiasm. First, “Can this idea disrupt the status quo?” If it’s not going to disrupt someone’s existing business, the idea may not be valuable enough to drive a successful new business.

The second question is “Will this be a feature, a product or a business?” This is about defining scope. Many interesting ideas are really new features for existing products. The risk is whether these features generate enough value to differentiate an entire product. When considered in isolation, these cool features can appear monumental. However, when seen from the context of busy customers who are difficult to reach and resistant to changing what works, it’s clear the value on offer must reach epic proportions. It’s better to focus on an entire new product experience.

Many new products replicate some existing product functionality but the most successful products redefine the overall experience to such an extent they create a new category. Yet, even this is not always enough. If this new product is successful, are there adjacent problems and customers to drive a string of hit products? One successful product can be the basis of a new venture but successful entrepreneurs think about building businesses not just products.   

Mar 262013
 

I got an interesting question via email today:

Mark,

You said something that touches on a struggle I’ve had my whole life. I’m hoping you could offer some advice.

The gist was “There’s nothing more dangerous than an entrepreneur with just one idea.” I’ve got the opposite problem entirely. I have real difficulty not working on an idea, and I latch on to a lot of ideas at once. The result is pretty predictable – if I was doing this on a workbench, there would be a dozen things that are about 1/3rd built.

I know intellectually that it doesn’t work that way – that seeing things through is the important bit, that keeping focused is key if you want to build success, and that you aren’t doing wrong by your ideas by not spending energy there – that you take focus from one idea in service of another. I think I get it, in my brain at least.

But I’m lousy at putting that into practice. It’s really easy for a novel idea to catch my passions and I have a really hard time putting that idea in the book and coming back to it later. Short of hiring someone I could hand my half-solved puzzles to so I could half-solve a new one, do you have anything you can offer me here?

 My reply:

This is a standard problem for creative people. One solution is enforcing a more granular workflow. Any time you contemplate “starting” something, you should set a clearly defined “stop” point. That doesn’t mean it’s stopped forever, just that you are stopping for now. You need to define one unit or increment of work with a clear end state that will allow you to move on. This increment or unit should be short. Don’t start anything else until you’ve reached the stopping point, hence the short duration. Having a bunch of projects all simultaneously in mid-flight is draining and task switching will eat time. Redefine each “flight” as a much shorter hop. Then you can leave one idea conceptually in the hanger and avoid going insane trying to simultaneously pilot all of them.

Apr 252012
 

By popular demand, here is the Table of Strategic Elements slide from my keynote at The Next Web conference in Amsterdam. You can subscribe to updates of this table and other posts in the sidebar. If you remix this table with new categories or layouts, I’d enjoy seeing it.

Table of Strategic Elements

Apr 132012
 

Hypothetically, there are two customer segments we are considering targeting for new product development. We haven’t really started searching for the product idea yet. First we’d like to decide which segment we’d prefer. Let’s suppose one customer segment is a small, hard to reach market that doesn’t have much money and the other customer segment is a huge market with deep pockets that’s easy to reach. Now imagine the product solution we eventually come up with for the smaller market revolutionizes the world of that customer but the best product idea we can come up with for the bigger market is just a so-so, nice-to-have.

Which market should we choose to pursue? It’s not even a contest. Go for whichever market you have a revolutionary product for. Even if that market doesn’t have much money and they are hard to reach. If the product rocks their world they’ll crawl over broken glass to get it. We can build on that passionate adoption and branch out to more products and even cross over to adjacent markets. Do you know how many people on food stamps somehow find the money to support a $1,000+/yr iPhone habit? Create the right product and customers will find the money. Create the right product and you don’t have to reach the customer, they will find you. Google has still never run a product ad. Continue reading »

Mar 212012
 

Books
The Startup Owners Manual
by Steve Blank
http://www.amazon.com/Startup-Owners-Manual-Step-Step/dp/0984999302
The first part of Steve’s previous book for free: http://www.scribd.com/doc/36002151/Four-Steps-to-Epiphany-by-Steve-Blank-PDF-excert
Steve Blank’s slide presentations that cover some of the material in the book: http://www.slideshare.net/sblank

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
http://www.amazon.com/Lean-Startup-Entrepreneurs-Continuous-Innovation/dp/0307887898

Running Lean by Ash Maurya
http://www.amazon.com/Running-Lean-Iterate-Plan-Works/dp/1449305172 Continue reading »

Mar 032012
 

Canon made a “brilliant mistake” with their 5D mkII camera unleashing a profitable market disruption. Now they’ve released the 5D mkIII and, unfortunately, they’ve “fixed” that mistake instead of building on it. Canon could learn a thing or two from Intel. Note: This my personal opinion and unrelated to my employer’s views. 

I’ve always loved Canon’s consumer DSLRs cameras, starting with the digital Rebel, arguably the first truly ‘consumer’ DSLR because it was priced under $1,000. Three and a half years ago Canon launched the 5D mkII, a new flagship camera in their mid-high end professional line. It sold for about $3,000 or nearly $4,000 with an included lens. Normally I would never have noticed this kind of camera. I was happy with the price and performance of cheaper DSLRs. But a few months after release the 5D mkII started generating a lot of buzz from video shooters and indie filmmakers. The camera included a video mode that was rather primitive but the camera’s still photography strengths, including the large 35mm imaging chip, low-light performance and high-quality interchangeable lenses made the imperfect video mode capable of some truly sensational results. You had to crawl over some pretty big flaws to get those results but there had never been anything like it anywhere near the 5D’s price point.

As great as the results could be with the 5D, the shortcomings in the video mode were serious. It could only shoot in auto mode which caused the camera to change brightness in the middle of a shot, the external audio input was nearly unusable due to high noise and the frame rate was wrong, 30fps instead of the film standard of 24 or even the video standard of 29.97. But what the camera could do was so appealing, clever users started working on the problems and came up with a variety of hacks and workarounds to solve the worst of the issues. With these tricks, indie filmmakers and adventurous hobbyists started shooting truly sensational scenes and posting them online. Canon noticed that sales were skyrocketing and thousands of requests were pouring in from users begging Canon to fix a few things with the camera to make it more suitable for video and films. A few months later Canon released a downloadable patch for the camera that allowed users to disable the auto mode, improved the audio recording and let users select 24fps. The day Canon released that update, I started shopping for my 5D. Continue reading »

Feb 282012
 

Ever wonder why Amazon can’t offer a cheaper bundle including print, audio & e-book versions? Is it accountants vs. book lovers? Amazon is good at figuring out what we want before we even know it. That’s why I like the company. So it stands out when they miss an opportunity. I buy a lot of books from Amazon. I also buy audiobooks from their Audible division which I listen to while driving. Sometimes I’m torn between buying the printed version of the book, an e-book or an audiobook. They are all ideally suited for different things. When actually reading, I prefer a printed book if it’s a title I think I’ll want to keep, refer to or possibly loan out. If it’s typical Tom Clancy long-flight fodder, then I prefer it as an e-book since longevity, shelveability and loanability are trumped by portability. If I have some drive time coming up, I’ll want to go for the audiobook.

But what if I have a book like Matt Ridley’s excellent Rational Optimist sitting in my Amazon shopping cart? This is a book I’ll definitely want to shelve, refer to and loan out. If I’ve got a two hour drive tomorrow and a cross country flight the next day, I’m confronted with a lousy choice. It seems wasteful to pay full price for the same book three times over. Yet I’d be happy to pay something more to have e-book portability, print book longevity and audiobook convenience. This is a perfect opportunity for Amazon to up sell me. There are upsides for Amazon beyond more revenue. Since I have the electronic copy available immediately as a download, I don’t care if they save money by shipping the printed copy to me slow-boat, instead of second-day. Since I’ll have the printed copy for long-term reference I don’t care if they restrict the digital copy to not be transferable to other devices. This would also open opportunities to implement cross-platform features further solidifying Amazon’s position, such as the ability to pause the audiobook when I drive up to the hotel and have the e-book open up to the correct page later that night in my hotel room. Continue reading »

Feb 242012
 
(c) Jonna Bell

My creativity does not need to be exercised.

Want to kick off your meeting with “a fun little creativity exercise”? Don’t. Please. You seem nice, so stop now before the love is gone.

Yesterday I was in a meeting that started this way and it reminded me I need to write this letter to all meeting organizers. If you feel the same, you can use my letter too.

Yesterday’s meeting began with an outside consultant brought in to “facilitate the process”. Process? Warning bells started going off in my head. The team that called this meeting is working on a hard problem. They invited a small group of creative thinkers from across the company to this meeting to help. It’s an interesting problem. It’s also a high value problem. I accepted the meeting invite because I want to help this team succeed. I like hard problems. I like helping.

But now this nice lady wants to kick things off with “a fun little creativity exercise”. I look around the room. There are some pretty damn sharp business ninjas assembled here. Serious heavy hitters with Costco family-sized “slam-dunk your problem with a kick-ass creative solution” skills. Is a “creativity exercise” really necessary? Creative problem solving is what these people do. All day, every day. If this was a pick-up basketball game and we’d invited the L.A. Lakers, would this lady feel the need to organize a “fun little basketball exercise” to kick things off? Maybe a quick game of horse to set the mood? Or would she maybe figure Kobe and the boys already have their own exercises and processes along with the experience to know when to apply them? Here’s the rest of my heartfelt love letter to all meeting organizers: Continue reading »