I’m mid 2011 I wrote a post titled Competition. Things in my universe had heated up and many of the companies I was an investor in were facing lots of competition. It’s 18 months later and there’s 10x the amount of competitive dynamics going on, some because of the maturity, scale, and market leadership of some of the companies I’m an investor in; some because of the increased number of companies in each market segment, and some based on the heat and intensity of our business right now.
I wrote a few more posts about competition but then drifted on to other things. But I came back to it this morning as I find myself thinking about competition every day. Yesterday, I was at the Silicon Flatirons Broadband Migration Conference hosted by my friend Phil Weiser. I go every year because it’s a good chance for me to see how several of the parallel universes I interact with, namely government, academics, broadband and mobile carriers, incumbent technology providers, and policy people think about innovation in the context of the Internet.
News flash – most of them think about it very differently than I do.
One thing that came up was the idea of creating the best product. This has been an on and off cliche in the tech business for a long time. For periods of time, people get obsessed about how “the best product will win.” Then, some strategy consultants, or larger incumbents, use their market power to try to create defenses around innovation, and suddenly the conversation shifts away from “build the best product.” And then the entrepreneurial cycle heats up again and the battle cry of the new entrepreneur is “build the best product.”
This isn’t just a startup vs. big company issue. I remember clearly, with amazement, the first time I got my hands on an iPhone. Up to that point I was using an HTC Dash running Windows Mobile 6.5. It was fine, but not awesome. I remember Steve Ballmer in a video mocking the iPhone.
We all know how this story has played out.
I remember a world when Microsoft and RIM were dominant. When Apple and Google didn’t have a product. And when people talked about “handsets”, WAP, and we squinted at our screens while pounding on keyboards that were too small for our fingers. Next time you are in a room full of people, just look around at the different phones, tables, and laptops that you see.
In my startup world, the same dynamics play out. Building the “best product” doesn’t only mean the best physical product (or digital product). It doesn’t just mean the best UI. Or the best UX. It includes the best distribution. The best supply chain. The best customer experience. The best support. The best partner channel. The best interface to a prospective customer. I’m sure I’ve left categories out – think about the idea of “the best complete product.”
This is getting more complicated by the day as technologies and products increase in interoperability with each other at both the data, network, application, and physical level. That’s part of the fun of it. And being great at it can help you dominate your competition.
Give me the best product to work with any day of the week. But make sure you are defining “product” correctly.
An email was forwarded to me this morning that had the following text in it (I’ve anonymized “The College” but it’s a large, well-regarded four year university.)
The College is Going Google! What does this mean? How will it impact teaching and learning at The College? Many K-12 school districts are using Google Apps for Education, providing their students with access to Google productivity tools as early as primary school. Students coming to The College in the next five years may never have opened Microsoft Word, but will be familiar with sharing, collaborating, and publishing with Google tools. Are you ready?
I spend time at a few universities, including MIT and CU Boulder. I’m teaching a class this semester at CU Boulder with Phil Weiser and Brad Bernthal called “Philosophy of Entrepreneurship.” We had our first class last week – Brad Bernthal led so Phil and I sat in the back. I noticed a bunch of students with their email open during class – almost every one of them was using Gmail.
A meme went around a few years ago that kids using Facebook would never use email and that Facebook would replace Microsoft Outlook and Gmail. This never really made sense to me, especially since I’d already heard that text messaging would replace email, and then I heard that X would replace email, and now it was going to be Facebook. As much as email frustrates us, it’s still by far the most ubiquitous comm channel.
But as someone who switched completely from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps a few years ago, it seemed clear to me that Microsoft was going to come under incredible pressure on this vector. Office 365 was one of Microsoft’s reactions to this, but I still haven’t met any company that uses Office 365 as it’s primary infrastructure, although Microsoft has a nice site called NowOnOffice365.com that lists a bunch.
Now, it appears that Google is taking a page from the Apple playbook and focusing on higher education. Apple did this magnificently in the 1980’s when I was in college and did this again in the past decade. Jobs was always focused on universities – I still remember “computers are bicycles for the mind” and the 50% discount off of retail promotion that MIT had in 1984 or 1985.
I don’t focus on market share dynamics (I’m sure there are teams of people at Microsoft and Google focused on this) but the anecdotal evidence I’m seeing is powerful. And when The College switches to Google Apps because the students coming to The College are already well steeped in it and “may have never opened Microsoft Word”, something really interesting is going on.
If your organization is on Office 365, I’d love to hear from you in the comments to understand how you are using it. Are you using document collaboration via SkyDrive, or just Office 365 as the backend service for Email instead of Exchange?
If you are a college student using Microsoft Outlook instead of Gmail, tell me why.
I expect many of you have read at least one book on Steve Jobs and Apple since Jobs’ death. If you, like me, grabbed and consumed a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I have a recommendation for you. Go buy a copy of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works by Adam Lashinsky. It’s much better, much more interesting, and in many ways, more revealing.
I’ve long admired Lashinsky’s writing in Fortune. Sometimes he makes me want to scream when he missed the mark, but often he gets under the surface of what is going on an covers it in an interesting and compelling way. He doesn’t write puff pieces while at the same time avoiding the trap of always writing nastiness, especially unfounded stuff, that many journalists seem to have fallen into the trap of (which – I expect – was prompted by competition from bloggers and the endless fight for headlines and link bait.) Lashinsky has avoided this trap, which makes me enjoy reading him even more.
I wrote a short but extremely positive review of Isaacson’s bio on Jobs. I liked it a lot, but as time passed I felt mildly unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on it until a dinner conversation with a friend who knows Isaacson and some of the back story of the book. It came up randomly in our conversation and after I told him what I thought he responded that he thought it was a huge disappointment. He said that Isaacson totally blew it and his publisher, and the pressure of “publishing now” undermine the potential for what he was working on.
My friends suggestion was a simple, yet profound one. Isaacson should have publicly stated that he was delaying the book for a year and then gone back and re-interviewed many of the people he’d talked to. He should have probed deeper on the character of Jobs and explored things that people might not have been willing to say – both good and bad – when Jobs was alive. And he should have taken his role as official biographer more seriously – rather than rushing a book out on the heels of Jobs’ passing, he should have paused, thought hard about how he was trying to portray Jobs, and worked incredibly hard to nail it.
His words rang true. And, as I read through Inside Apple I kept thinking about what my friend said. We all know that Apple is an intensely secretive company and the external (and internal) messages are tightly controlled. By Jobs. Now that Jobs is no longer around, the dynamics around this might change. It certainly would change in anonymous conversations with an official biographer. Regardless, another level of research, thought, and analysis would be powerful.
This is what makes Lashinsky’s book so interesting. He doesn’t focus on Jobs, he focuses on Apple. But by focusing on Apple, he does a magnificent job of exploring and revealing Jobs. As a bonus, this isn’t yet another story of Jobs’ progression from adopted son to the Apple II to Next to Pixar to Mac to iPhone to iPad. Instead, it’s a contemporary look at the company, what makes it tick, and how it really works.
Lashinsky gets to some provocative stuff. In a section about “the narcissist (Jobs) and his sidekick (Cook)” he discusses how the narcissist / sidekick relationship can be incredibly effective. In this one section, he nails the notion of a productive narcissist, which captures part of the psychology of many successful entrepreneurs I know. It’s much more subtle – and useful – than the normal “pathological narcissist” discussion that follows many entrepreneurs around. A tweet about this section in the book from me generated an email exchange with an organizational psychologist friend which gave me an even deeper understanding of this dynamic.
Overall, I give this book an A+. If you are into Apple, curious about it, use their products, or are curious about Steve Jobs and the other leaders at Apple, I highly recommend this book. And yes, I read it on an iPad.
Last night, during dinner with the Return Path board, Fred Wilson interrupted the discussion we were having to tell us that Steve Jobs had just passed away. All of us were stunned silent for a minute as we reflected on the amazing impact that Steve has had on our lives. While I don’t have a personal relationship with Steve, he’s been a hero of mine since I was a teenager when I bought an Apple II computer with 16K of RAM in 1978 with my Bar Mitzvah money. To this day I still remember the sound the disk drive made when I typed PR#6 and how excited I was when I got a Silentype printer.
After dinner, as I reflected on what I knew about Steve and watched as my Twitter stream revealed link after link in tribute to him, I thought about the contemporary moment that meant the most to me. I recalled watching his Stanford Commencement Speech from a few years back and having chills. So – in tribute to the passing of this amazing man, I encourage you to spend 15 minutes and hear something powerful, in his own words.
Steve – while you didn’t know me, thank you for everything you’ve done that has inspired me and impacted my life.
One more thing…
I was reminded of the importance of starting with the customer experience while I was watching this brilliant video from WWDC 1997 of Steve Jobs. In the video, Jobs appears to be responding to attack by a troll, but is actually doing something much more interesting. Rather than take the bait and react, he thinks carefully in real time and makes a critical philosophical point about his – and Apple’s – approach to creating new products.
The punch line happens early when he says “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology.” It’s five minutes long and worth watching, if only to see how incredibly durable Jobs’ philosophy has been over the past 15 years.
When I think about the companies we’ve invested in, some of them embody this philosophy deeply in their culture. Oblong, MakerBot, Orbotix, Fitbit, and Cloud Engines immediately come to mind. The entrepreneurs running these companies are completely and totally obsessed with the consumer experience of their products, even though their products embody an incredible amount of technology (in each case, both hardware and software innovations.)
As an investor, I often lose sight of this, especially when I’m working on non-consumer facing companies (e.g. enterprise software companies). But I believe very strongly in the consumerization of IT – namely the notion that innovation in software is now being driven by consumer applications, and correspondingly by consumers, not by enterprise IT organizations and enterprise software vendors. If you accept this, it means that if you are working on enterprise applications, you also need to be obsessed with the customer experience.
When I think about this abstractly, especially in the context of “software eating the world” or my view that the machines have already taken over and resistance is futile, I completely buy the premise that the consumer experience trumps all technical decisions in any context. Apple has proven this throughout the entire customer experience, including being exposed to the product, buying the product, implementing the product, upgrading the product, and getting help with the product. And I think it’s going to get a lot more important going forward.
Now that my Apple and Google experiments have been huge successes, I thought I’d try an Android phone one more time. I like my iPhone 4, but it’s pretty weak with all the Google apps. Specifically, I badly want better contact integration, clean email sync, and Google voice. Plus, AT&T still blows in Boulder.
Any suggestions out there for the “best Android out there today.” I was using a Sprint EVO for a while (and liked it a lot) until it was stolen by my assistant Kelly. So, I open to any choice – suggest away.
On June 20th, I declared that I was going to try A Month of Mac. I took my Macbook Pro (an older model from about 18 months ago) up to Alaska, left my Lenovo x300 in Boulder, and went native Mac.
I’m typing this on my brand new spiffy MacBook Pro 2.66 GHz Intel Core i7 with 8GB RAM, with a 500GB solid state hard drive. I can’t figure out why I’ve been so stubborn about really switching to the Mac. This is a beautiful computer.
The key to this switch was that the native mac apps (Mail, iCal, and Address Book) sync seamlessly with Exchange. So I don’t have to deal with the abortion that is Entourage but at the same time I don’t have to mess around with our email server and impact everyone else in our organization. That’s sweet. I had a feeling this would work this time since it works flawlessly on my iPhone and iPad, and it did. The only thing missing is Tasks, but I started using Evernote instead which actually worked even better than the Outlook Task manager.
So – no Parallels or Fusion – I don’t even have a Windows image on this machine at this point. I didn’t use Windows a single time in the last month and now that I’ve rewired my brain for Mac shortcut keys I think it’d be a pretty amusing thing to watch.
I’ve found peace and happiness with iWork as a replacement for Microsoft Office – it’s more than adequate for what I do. MarsEdit is a spectacular blog post editor, Chrome works happily on the Mac as does Skype and TweetDeck, and Adium replaced Digsby. Pogoplug works just like it did before – all my files are where I want them to be. Best of all, my iPhone actually does what it’s supposed to with iTunes.
Did I say that this is a beautiful piece of hardware? Sleep mode – check. Flawless super high resolution screen – check. Super fast everything – check. Find a piece of software you want to play around with – download and run.
The most remarkable thing was the transfer of all my data, applications, and settings from my old MacBook Pro to my new MacBook Pro. I connected them by Firewire. I restarted my old MacBook and held down the T key. After the transfer started, I went and had a meeting for a hour. I came back and my new Mac was set up exactly like my old Mac. Perfect.
Ross – you owe me $100.
My post yesterday titled Rethinking The Laptop resulted in three very specific pieces of feedback followed by me taking one specific action. The feedback was:
- Dump Outlook
- Get a solid state drive
- Get a Mac
After mulling things around for 24 hours, I decided to once again try my annual switch to the Mac. Fortunately, I have a very nice Mac from last year’s effort (a MacBook Pro 2.4 GHz with 2 GB) so I fired it up, configured Mail and iCal to work with my Exchange server, downloaded Chrome, Xmarks, and Tweetdeck, and away we go. I’m still getting used to the option key and trying to learn all of the key sequences that my cool Mac friends use, but I’m enjoying the screen and so far haven’t reached for my Lenovo x300 once today.
While I was swimming I decided that since I was going to be in Alaska for July, I’d bring only my MacBook, my iPhone, and my iPad. As much as I like my HTC EVO, I figure that if I’m going to really give the Mac a try, I need to go cold turkey (or – well – cold non-Mac) and see if I get over the shakes during my four week exile. I’ll either come back a Mac user or not.
As one of my friends tweeted, “get a Mac – friends don’t let friends use Windows.” So – be a good friend and remind me of all the fun apps that I need for my Mac to be extra cool. And where’s a tutorial for all those fun keystrokes that make the windows fly around the screen? Oh – and is there a great blogging client for WordPress or do I have to use WordPress’s web UI? And what about Digsby – is iChat good enough or should I try something else for all of my various chat accounts. Yeah – the list goes on, but what the hell.
Ross (my IT guy) bet me $100 that I’d beg him to ship my Windows desktop to me within a few days of getting to Alaska. Help me win the bet.
Google gave all 5000 Google I/O attendees an HTC EVO (I guess it’s a Sprint EVO) running Android. For the past two years I’ve been using an iPhone and have become increasingly disgusted by AT&T’s service which is horrible (and deteriorating) in the cities I frequent – most notably Boulder, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, NY, and Boston. So – I decided to give the EVO+Android a real shot and use it for a week as my permanent phone.
When I wrote my post Open Android vs. Closed iPhone right after Google I/O a few folks took shots at me for pimping a free phone that I got at a conference. Given the amount of money I regularly shell out to screw around on hardware and software (I’m one of those guys who happily buys things just to try them out) I shrugged this off but figured it was worth pre-empting since I’m sure this nonsense will come around again. So – there’s the disclaimer – I got this phone for free (although I did sit on two panels and spent a day and a half talking to people at Google I/O.)
While there has been plenty of fan boy and anti-fan boy chatter about this phone, I can only find one thing to complain about – the battery life. It’s still running Android 2.1 so I expect there will be plenty of battery tune up in Android 2.2, but out of the box the battery only lasts about six hours. I’ve tuned my settings so I can get a full day out of it, but am still carrying my USB cord to grab some juice from time to time. There a few tricks (like charge it with it turned off) that help a lot, but it feels like the iPhone 3G did when it first came out where I was always paying attention to how much charge I had left. Fortunately this will get better with software (quickly) and – since the battery is removable, I can just carry a spare around.
Ok – that’s literally the only thing I don’t like. The screen is phenomenal. All of the apps I run on my iPhone are available on Android – I even found a few new ones. The camera is killer. The email client is much better than the iPhone. Search for anything is lightening fast. Voice recognition – er – recognizes my voice. I have a phone that tethers and – if I want – I have a hotspot (bye bye MiFi.) My applications remember their state and come up instantly because they are still running in the background. The browser is fast. Google Maps + Navigation is incredible, especially for someone who can’t read a map to save his life. I can dial a phone number, look up an address, and get directions from within the calendar. The weather app knows where I am. Google Voice works great and is tightly integrated.
And – for the payoff – I can make a fucking telephone call on this thing. I can’t remember the last time I looked back after a day and thought “wow – I didn’t drop a single call today.” Now the only dropped calls I’ve had are when I’m talking to someone on an iPhone and they drop.
I’m looking forward to iPhone 4.0 coming out so I can see how it compares. My guess is that I’ll get the Android 2.2 upgrade at about the same time so I’ll have both to play around with in June and July. The real result will be to see which phone I’m using when I get back from Alaska in August. In the mean time, the HTC EVO is a winner and – as a result – the smart phone thing is going to get interesting now that Apple has some real competition and can no longer just walk all over Microsoft and Palm.
Did I mention that I can’t wait to get my hands on an Android Tablet?
I just finished up spending the past two days at Google I/O. On one of the panels I participated in yesterday (VCs Who Code), the endless discussion about open (e.g. Google) vs. closed (e.g. Apple) came up with Dave McClure stating “Open is for losers.” We had a short but spirited debate about a topic that could easily consume an entire panel before Dick Costolo (our moderator) quickly moved us on. Of course, we got bogged down again later in “native apps vs. web apps” question (which I think is irrelevant in the long run, and said so.)
When I woke up this morning I was still thinking about the open vs. closed thing. I’ve been using a Droid for a week (Google gave one to everyone that came to I/O) and I’ve been loving it. I’ve been an iPhone user for several years and while there are a bunch of things about it I love, there are several that I hate, including the pathetic AT&T service, major limitations in some of the applications such as email, the restriction of Flash, lack of tethering, lack of statefulness, lack of multi-processing, and the unbearable shittiness of iTunes for Windows. But, I never really considered an alternative until I started playing with Android 2.1 on a Droid on Verizon.
I’d basically decided to switch to the Droid. The keynote on Day 2 was split between Android 2.2 and Google TV. I was completely blown away by Android 2.2. It doesn’t merely address each of the issues I have with my iPhone, it demolishes them. Google wasn’t bashful during the keynote about taking shots at Apple, which was fun to see. And as I sat there, I kept thinking about how far Android has come taking an entirely open approach.
While Google “had me at Android 2.2”, they sealed the deal by giving every attendee a brand new HTC EVO 4G (running on Sprint). There have been plenty of complaints about Android handsets; the Droid was good although I
have had a Droid Incredible on order. But, now that I have my HTC EVO, I’m completely hooked. The physical device is magnificent, the Android implementation is awesome, and it is still only running Android 2.1 so it get even better when the over the air update is released and automatically upgrades.
I’m now in a position where I can dump my Verizon MiFi since can use my HTC phone as a hotspot. One less $60 / month bill, one less thing to schlep around. And I never have to use iTunes for Windows again. Apple just lost me – again.
The most amazing thing to me when I reflect on this is how much of a complete non-event Microsoft in this discussion. Before the iPhone, there was a different discussion and Windows Mobile (or whatever it was called) was regularly in the middle of it. Not only is it no longer in the middle, it’s no longer in the discussion. Google focused their sights directly on Apple and – with an open approach – is now in a position where it can legitimately threaten the iPhone’s long term position.
I love this stuff. Plus I now have two cool new phones.