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Will VC backed startups create new mass brands?

27 January, 2014 (19:25) | branding, business design, technology | By: Shannon Clark

In the past few years there has been a rise in the number of VC backed firms that are building businesses designed to compete with some of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the world. From VC backed shaving companies, diapers, soaps, eyeglasses and more there is a new wave of ventured backed consumer products companies that have arisen to prominence in the past few years. Many of these firms are raising vast amounts and seem to be doing quite well.

However reading the press about these companies I think many, perhaps including some of the entrepreneurs and investors, are missing key  opportunities.

See an article from TechCrunch on Jan 27th – which talks about venture backed companies such as Madison Reed, The Honest Company competing with Procter & Gamble, Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club that compete with Gillette (and though the article doesn’t mention them Schick) and a bunch of other firms. As the article notes venture backed consumer goods companies have raised over $1.1B in recent years with many companies that were distributors of products from other businesses moving into direct manufacturing. Harry’s recently raised over $125M to purchase their 90+ year old German manufacturing partner and Fab which has raised a lot of money recently purchased a supplier of custom furniture to bring that manufacturing capabilities in house.

What the article misses and what most startups in the space seem at least publicly to be missing is that great consumer products companies actually serve TWO (at least) customers.

Their marketing and brands are built to sell to individual consumers – with marketing and branding frequently being among the largest expenses of many consumer products companies (for at least some products likely being a larger component of the prices those goods sell to consumers at than the actual costs of to make say the soap). These are companies that have had a rich, often 100+ year history of building up their brands on a national and international scale.

But  all that work to build brands that consumers seek out are done, for the most part, to sell the goods once they are available in retail stores (or these days available online via ecommerce sites). While consumers see the individual brands and marketing efforts the big retailers see distribution integrations, inventory and order management, payments for shelf space and in-store marketing/promotions, volume discounts, special packaging or product variations and more. All designed to help retailers make more money selling the consumer products business’ products (and in the case of goods sold in grocery stores to attempt in many cases to be as attractive or more attractive for retailers than those retailer’s house or generic alternatives).

Few VC backed startups building consumer goods are focusing on distribution of those products into the larger retail marketplace. Harry’s via their recent acquisition is somewhat of an exception – the company they just bought makes private label razors for many retailers across Europe (primarily). A recent CNBC article about the deal also notes that they have a distribution deal with J Crew and Standard hotels.

Integrating with large retailers is a very different business than selling to individual consumers one at a time via a website (or mobile application). It involves integration into ERP systems. Capabilities to take orders from retailers with potentially 1000’s of locations, distribution warehouses and many other complex logistics and payment processes. All while selling at a wholesale price that allows for an attractive retail price point (with pressure from many retailers like Walmart to drive down the retail prices – often by driving margins to be as slim as possible). All while also expecting that partners will build global brands as well as targeted marketing to drive in-store (or online) sales of the brand via the retail partners.

Very tricky stuff – but if companies like Harry’s or The Honest Company really want to scale to take on the consumer goods giants they probably have to master the art of relationships with large retail channels. It is possible that one or more startups will find a way to reach mass scale via a digital only direct channel – but most likely they will require leveraging the investments in time (and brand) of mass retailers to reach truly mass scale of sales.

An alternative approach may be for some startups to take on the mass retailers with some new approaches that will help drive mass sales without the drawbacks of the big box model. Whether this is via crafting a network of retail channels from smaller stores (an approach that many smaller coffee roasters are starting to take as a national network of small cafes has started growing that buy beans from national smaller roasters) or whether it is via building up a startup into a mass scale, likely online first business. for example but there are 100’s of other large scale online retailers.

Some of the newer same-day delivery businesses may offer yet another opportunity – potentially a startup brand might find a way to bypass physical retail stores via offering inventory to such same day delivery services directly. (Ebay, Amazon, even Google all might be open to this). Though it would have to products that compliment those business’ existing retail partners and such an approach may have complications around local taxes and costs of warehousing/inventory management.

Business idea – feed of actual marketing messages

28 June, 2013 (19:54) | branding, business design, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

Discontinuation_notice_displayed_on_Google_ReaderGoogle Reader dies in a few days

I have been an avid user of Google Reader for years, at one time I had probably 500 or more RSS feeds I was subscribed to inside of Google Reader, at present i have culled this down to only 217. These include many customized feeds I created for specific purposes – monitoring Craigslist in my local area for specific items for sale for example.

But while individual posts have sometimes shown ads (depending on the relationship between the publisher and their advertisers) clearly Google Reader as a product has had an issue with how to monetize it. There are a bunch of companies creating alternatives at the moment many of which I will be testing out – however I haven’t yet settled on a perfect replacement (I like a lot of Digg Reader’s features but their iOS app isn’t working for me – it fails when trying to import my Google Reader feeds). A few feeds I subscribe to have a great model – they have a sponsored post once a week that goes into their permanent feed and is clearly shown as a sponsored post – here is this week’s sponsored post from Collaborate for Daring Fireball

Here is my big idea – what if you could get a customized for you feed of sponsored messages, that you could read how and when you want, and as you do so supported the apps and blogs you value??

The way this would work is that advertisers whether big or small, local or national, would publish a rich media post or series of posts containing the marketing message(s) that they want to share. These posts could be far richer than current banner ads, video ads or search ads. They could embed video, images or even attachments in the same way that any RSS post could (so could contain media ala a podcast or files of any form). But you wouldn’t subscribe to these raw feeds (unless you were a huge fan of a given brand – and yup, these could also be feeds to/from a group on a site like Google+ or Facebook) instead you would subscribe to a customized feed.

The advertisers would PAY to be on these feeds – paying on a per subscriber basis (potentially split into a baseline amount for being in such feeds and a further amount when selected actions are taken by users – such as reading/staring/sharing/viewing the content in a given post). This revenue stream could then be shared with the apps that incorporate it into their user experience – and could further share this revenue back to sites that provide other content to those apps (i.e. content publishers) potentially following a user-driven model ala Humble Bundle.

Sounds a bit complex and there is a lot of scaling issues to overcome – but as a user the effect would be that I could see highly targeted, rich content from advertisers that paid to reach me (but whose content I see when and how I want to see it) and which I could then interact with like I do with any other content – i.e. share it, star it to find it quickly later, email it to my wife etc. And if via doing so there is a viable business model that evolves for the apps that build services I use daily and content creators that actually create original, valuable and interesting content this would be a big win for everyone (and far better for me as a user than the current ad overloaded slideshows that masquerade as news on all to many websites – or the long form articles split into ten pages with interstitial ads that break on my mobile browsers.

Does something like this exist already?

If not, why not?

And how could we get started on building it?

What is a Network?

14 May, 2013 (16:58) | meshforum, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

new_meshforum_logoIn 2004 I began to organize a conference on the study of Networks, MeshForum to answer this seemingly simple yet surprisingly complex question.

“What is a Network?”

Everyone I asked to speak or invited to attend had a different answer – each person drew upon the perspectives of their field of study and their life’s work and each arrived at a unique and different set of answers. The mathematicians answered from a technical perspective citing Graph Theory to arrive at mathematical models that represented networks in the abstract. Yet even the math differed depending on the “things” you choose to measure and define when modeling a specific network.

Transportation experts focused on the Flow – in lay man’s terms they were less interested in the structure of the networks they modeled (since roads, bridges and even buildings change slowly) and more interested in the movement across that network – and how that movement varied over time (i.e. how cars and people “flowed” across the transportation grid of a given area.

Social Network experts were, generally, more interested in the structure of the network and to a degree how that network structure changed over time. They would model people as nodes (typically though some focused on larger groupings of people – i.e. organizations), arrive at some definition of “link” for a given population (couples that had dated, co-workers that exchanged emails, people who claimed each other as friends – remember that in 2004/2005 this was before the rise of Facebook, etc) and then seem to show snapshots of the network structure at points in time. They would typically be interested what the network structured revealed – how it might show groupings within the larger network or how it could reveal key people to the organization based on their network structure.

But at MeshForum in 2005 and 2006 we had many other experts on Networks across many other fields. We had speakers who focused on Logistics (in one case for the Pentagon – among the largest most complex logistics challenges on the planet). Their interests in understanding networks were on a very different scale than social scientists studying dating patterns in a high school or social network experts mapping the political divide in the US based on relationships between books via data from Amazon (that link from a past MeshForum speaker, Valdis Krebs is his updated study from 2008).

Besides consultants, logistics experts and academics Networks matter to nearly everyone – we are all embedded within many different networks and we are all dependent upon many unrelated but often dependent networks in our professional and personal lives. From the financial networks that enable global credit to flow (and currencies to trade) to supply networks that connect global companies to global markets to the true social networks we are deeply apart of both families and those networks we choose for ourselves.

Not to mention the technical networks we increasingly rely upon for our professional and personal daily lives – the networks that connect our cellphones and that run the Internet and enable you to read this post, to share it on Facebook or send out a link to it via Twitter.

NetworkmovieIn the media a Network has long had yet another meaning – a complex business that delivers entertainment – but which does so by combining the creation of new content (“shows”) with the actual running of broadcast signals across the country (or in many cases increasingly to a global audience). This form of a “Network” encompasses many of these other meanings yet also carves out it’s own unique meaning.

What are the Networks that matter to you?

What Networks do you participate in every day? (or every week/month/year)?

How do Networks matter to you professionally? 

I will be conducting a series of video interviews about Networks over the next few months – if you are interested in being interviewed leave your name and contact links below (or send them to me privately). I’m interested in people in all industries and fields of study – whether you are a published author, a university professor, or a student, intern or parent.

These interviews will be shared publicly – and will help shape the next MeshForum conference perhaps as soon as this Fall. Watch this blog for more information about that conference and the video interviews.

Revisiting my thoughts on what Apple should do with cash hoard – Feb 2013

7 February, 2013 (17:32) | business design, technology | By: Shannon Clark

A bit over a year ago I posted my thoughts on what Apple should with their cash hoard, at that time it was nearly $70B. While I stand by most of my thoughts then, now they have over $130B in cash, even after planning to disburse over $45B in dividends over the next 3 years.

Earlier today my friend Ben Parr was on CNBC to discuss his thoughts about what Apple should do with their cash hoard now – his suggestions echo many of mine. Instead of trying to issue more stock or pay even higher dividends he suggests that Apple should be using (and probably are) their cash hoard to reinvest in the components they current use and plan on using the future like Flash Memory.

I still stand by my core suggestions from a few years ago with some updates:

  1. Apple should invest in the Enterprise. Apple’s Enterprise successes are not as well known as their consumer successes. But they have made significant traction in getting iOS adoption within enterprise companies and the willingness of Enterprises to support Macs has been growing. However Apple’s Enterprise offerings in terms of servers and large scale enterprise purchasing and deployment of computing devices is not as well known or well managed. There are many opportunities for Apple inside of the Enterprise to build on the popularity of the iPad and the iPhone to expand upon their successes. Innovative firms and startups as well as independent consultants have for many years now be early adopters of the MacBook line, especially the MacBook air and more recent Retina Display models.
  2. Apple should consider buying Foxconn (if possible) and buying more of their supply chain in general. Apple since their switch off of Intel processors and onto their own processors has seen their biggest years ever. Buying Foxconn may not be possible due to Chinese laws (and the costs) but they should be looking closely at ways to continue to own much of their core components and their full supply chain as they have shown the very big value they can extract when they do so.
  3. There is a growing window for an Apple gaming console not (just) an Apple Television. I still think that Apple has a major opportunity to dominant the living room if they were to seriously explore a new gaming console (which also embeds all of the functionality of the latest generations of the AppleTV devices) and which might be paired (though would not require) any new screen that Apple offers as an Apple Television. In 2013 we almost certainly will see the announcement of new consoles from Sony and Microsoft, though whether those will arrive in time for the holiday season in 2013 or won’t show up until 2014 is still open to debate. In either case Apple has an opportunity to explore a new platform to compete with the WiiU, Playstation and next gen Xbox. I said this could happen years ago, I stand by that – in particular the growing power of iOS for immersive games suggests that Apple could do something interesting with a game console. And imagine if instead of a proprietary controller w/screen (ala WiiU) if Apple could allow iPads and/or iOS devices like the iTouch or iPhone to pair with the games console and be used for navigation, data entry and at times as a second (secret) screen. Apple could look at buying a new firm like Ouya (for their controller designs more than their device) or swinging even bigger and far more costly look at trying to buy Valve (and get Steam in the process). There were rumors to this effect in April of 2012 after a visit to Valve by Apple’s CEO but I think it should be given serious consideration. I would, however, guess that the cost might be in the multiple billions.
  4. Apple should consider buying PayPal from Ebay. Okay this is a wild speculation and new (not part of my previous speculation) but I think that Apple should look at buying PayPal from Ebay. The intersection of a global payment processor with the iOS device global ecosystem (and the new Passbook offering) could be quite significant. Apple could potentially help PayPal find a route into use by millions (hundreds of millions actually) consumers and integration with thousands of developers building upon the iOS and Mac platform. PayPal however suffers from a UI and UX problem (for consumers, merchants and developers) which Apple could potentially help through allocation of Apple designers and developers (and management). What Apple could get is a further extension upon their massive payment processing – i.e. the millions of payment cards linked to iTunes accounts. And among payment processors and applications PayPal is among the most global and Apple is very much a global company today.
  5. Apple should expand even more globally. Apple is very global already with stores globally and manufacturing on a global scale, but this suggestion is that Apple should also be looking to aggressively hire staff at all capacities globally. This suggestion isn’t, I should note, that Apple should be looking to do this as a cost saving method. In fact I would argue that this should be done whether or not the staff hired globally is cheaper than US alternatives. Instead I’m suggesting that to keep up with a global demand for Apple products Apple should be looking to hire the smartest technologists, designers and business people wherever they live and whatever languages they speak. And I would bet that if they do this aggressively it will be an idea sparked by one of these non-US employees that will lead to their next $1B+ (many times plus) product line. LIkely a type of very Apple product that might never occur to their US based staff (either in type or in the business potential)
  6. I still think Apple should attempt a national (at least) Wifi network. Legal issues and barriers may make this functionally impossible (liability for open Wifi hotspots in particular) but if Apple could find a way to help support the richer spread of municipal wifi networks as well as the overall expansion of actually good broadband throughout the US that can only help their ongoing sales (in all categories). However there may be too many issues around this for them to consider.

What are your suggestions for how Apple should spend their billions? 

TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2012 – initial thoughts on day one

11 September, 2012 (01:54) | branding, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

I have just returned from the first day of a packed day at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco and while I am exhausted I am also exhilarated at the quality and breadth of the startups onstage and offstage at this year’s show. I have attended nearly every TechCrunch Disrupt conference – almost every one since the first in San Francisco and many though not all of the conferences in New York City. This year’s conference is by far the biggest yet and if Day 1 is any sign it is also one of the highest quality shows done by TechCrunch yet – I saw many companies on stage today which I think will prove to be successful businesses whether or not they win the Disrupt Cup.

This is just a quick and short post highlighting of few of my observations from the day via my Tweets, I will add photos and more detailed thoughts in upcoming days as well as more details about the project I worked on this past weekend at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon – that project, Track Deadlines is one that I plan on continuing to work on after TechCrunch Disrupt concludes. In fact you can go and sign up to be part of my eventual beta when it is fully ready. And go read my earlier blog post (on my personal blog) about what I was planning to work on at the Hackathon.





(the last one was my most retweeted and replied to tweet of the day)



The Intention Economy and thoughts on VRM

22 June, 2012 (15:07) | social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

Earlier this week I attended a talk by Doc Searls for his new book, The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge [and yes semi-ironically that link is to Amazon w/my tracking details – feel free to buy your copies anywhere you like]. I haven’t yet finished reading the book (full disclosure all attendees were given a Kindle copy of the book by Weber Shandwick the PR firm that organized the event) but I have been following the VRM space for year and Doc Searls is an old friend.

At the talk I observed the following and Doc requested that I share my observation publicly to the Project VRM mailing list so here it is:

There are TWO important parts to what the VRM movement is talking about.

Part one is about individual intentions being shared and routed via some means to the entities that could fulfill those intentions with the goal of connecting the two parties to enable transactions to occur. Done well this can reshape business at the local, national and international level.

Part two is the discussion around Internet privacy and security of individual data. This is the part that geeks geek out about, the stuff that involves observing the volume of tracking cookies and technologies on many websites, the privacy concerns of the policies of many companies and the sheer volume of data being created around every individual’s activities online (and offline for that matter). This stuff is important to be sure but it is also of only vague interest to most individuals and the connection between “personal data stores” and the broader ideas of “share your intentions and get help fulfilling them” is tenuous at best.

To move forward I would encourage the VRM community to think about how to split the focus between the technology challenges of personal data capture and sharing and the business challenges of thinking about how intentions can be expressed (and documented in some means), shared broadly, filtered and routed to the entities that could potentially fulfill the intentions and then those parties connected via some means to enable transaction(s) to occur. All of which could, in fact, take place without any technology.

For example imagine the non-technology enabled version of the Intention Economy. A group of us walk around a large crowd – say of 100 people and captured everyone’s Intentions for lunch today. Some folks have very broad goals (“spend less than $10 for something tasty – but could be any type of cuisine with no restrictions” while others have very precise Intentions – “spend less than $10 for a gluten-free, vegetarian lunch w/o red peppers and with something spicy”.

These intentions could then be clustered into similar categories and we could go call up a bunch of local restaurants and compare menues and current deals and offers to find and connect people to restaurants that could fulfill their Intentions for lunch today. How this last bit happens could be any number of means (we could place a number of delivery orders, we could send folks out to each local restaurant to place orders and pick up food, each individual could decide whether to call for delivery, send a friend or leave the building to go get lunch in person etc).

Nothing about this imaginary intention-driven set of transactions would require personal privacy focused technology. Yes, it could leverage such systems if they were in place – perhaps to transparently and securely collect payments from everyone for what they order plus delivery charges all without exposing each person’s personal data to the restaurants – who just need payment. But equally such a system could just rely on non-technology means such as collecting cash from each person individually.

The point is that the power of the narrative of large pools of people sharing their Intentions and getting them fulfilled is lost when the conversation is only about complex to grasp technical points. Shared intentions leading to actions can inspire business people to build new businesses and reshape old businesses.


What Apple could do with $70B – my alternatives to Jason Calacanis’ LAUNCH suggestions

13 September, 2011 (17:58) | branding, games, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

Earlier today Jason Calacanis sent out his latest edition of his Launch email newsletter with a bunch of alternative suggestions for what Apple should do with their $70B+ warchest. Apparently earlier this week a Wall Street analyst made the stupid suggestion that Apple should pay a dividend (which in my opinion as well as Jason’s would be a massive mistake by Apple and a negative signal to the market).

While some of Jason’s suggestions are good ones, a few are, I think, mistakes as well. Jason also misses the biggest and most valuable moves Apple could (and is) making with their warchest – namely ongoing investments into their supply chain efficiency and scale as well as the highly profitable investments they have been making in opening up additional Apple stores (which have the highest per sq. ft sales of nearly any retailer anywhere in the world).

To be specific I think Jason’s suggestion of offering a massive discount on the iPad for the educational market is a mistake (and based on a bunch of faulty ideas). Any discount beyond what Apple already offers if big enough will be gamed and used to fuel resellers (i.e. students and others buying at 60% and selling at 30% off on eBay). Apple is relatively unique amongst all consumer electronics businesses in rarely offering any sizable discounts and likewise they are unique in being amongst the most profitable of consumer electronics companies. I don’t think this is coincidental. Apple maintains strict price controls on their small set of goods for sale and in place of deep discounts offers new, better products on a regular schedule as well as bundles of goods for the educational market (notably this year they offered $100 iTunes credit in place of their more traditional offer of a free iPod to students). Apple has massive volume without massive discounts – and they already do have millions of tablet users (if not quite yet 100M they are selling iPads nearly as fast as they can make them) and they do have well over 100M iOS devices (a lot more).

I also don’t fully agree that Apple should pay 100% out to developers. Apple’s 30% does more than just pay Apple. It covers credit card payment fees, it pays (small) affiliate fees and it means that the App store (and iTunes) are viable, more than self-sustaining businesses. This rigor is good for Apple. It also helps curb, a bit, the general downward pressure on prices (since most businesses are bad at setting prices Apple’s floor of $0.99 for apps which aren’t free is a good thing). I think that the Mac App store as well as the iPad have started to slowly shift sales off of the $0.99 price point to higher prices which is better for developers. In-App purchases also have been very successful for many developers. Apple could, perhaps, waive fees on certain CLASSES of sales – for example perhaps paying out a higher percentage on in-app purchases of CONTENT (magazine subscriptions, music, videos) while retaining the 30% on the sale of apps and app functionality. Sure the line between content and app can be blurry but I think this could help grow the app market even further (and let Amazon as well as many music companies turn back on sales of content inside of apps). Apple could also waive or eliminate any requirement to clear content sales (with a process to ensure that if an app claims to be for all ages it doesn’t offer adult content – if it does the app could face a penalty)

Apple is about to “pull a gmail” with the pending launch of iCloud, though the actual figures for size are a bit more complicated than Jason’s proposed 50GB. Apple will be offering 5GB for free with additional space available. However since Apple has stated that music and photos don’t count (if you sync them to the cloud) it is a bit hard to compare directly to Dropbox etc. See The Next Web’s coverage in August for some more details on the pricing.

I like Jason’s suggestion for buying Boingo Wireless and for investing widely in a nationwide (and ideally global) network of free (for Apple devices at a minimum) hotspots. This make sense though Apple would likely need to invest more than Jason estimates to buy wireless hotspots Internationally. Also there is a valid argument for paid hotspots in meeting the business needs of the venues where those hotspots are located – but perhaps Apple could find creative alternatives to compensate venues and minimize freeloading (or overloading of a hotspot from neighbors). This is less of a concern in locations such as airports where most people are passing through, but it is an issue in urban venues where people may live upstairs or next door. It is also a case that wifi hotspots get used for less-than-legal purposes or just for uses that tie up significant bandwidth – such as large downloads. Apple, however, does have a business need to promote high bandwidth use cases (such as downloading large OS updates, downloading purchased apps and movies, streaming content from iCloud etc) so Apple might have a business reason to upgrade the wifi networks. If Apple does this purchase they might also face carrier pushback (though since Boingo likely purchases bandwidth from some of those carriers this may be muted).

While I see the argument for Apple investing $10B in building their own search engine to compete with Google (Jason suggests offering this without ads – I don’t see why that would be so compelling however as ads against search is now a clear and interesting business). But that isn’t, actually, hitting Google where they are strongest.

What Apple SHOULD do if they really want to all out compete with Google is invest $10B (or more) in building out their iADs platform into a valid competitor for Doubleclick. This would be hard but the profits in building up a valuable ad serving business on a massive Internet (and mobile Internet) wide scale could be immense. This would require likely some highly creative purchases as well as deep investments into core technology and into a massive salesforce and agency outreach. Apple might start by looking to buy parts of Yahoo and AOL (but likely not all of both companies) though there is an equally strong argument that the industry needs new approaches not the same old approaches.

My personal suggestion beyond the billions in supply chain investments which Apple is already making – buying up capacity and funding the building of new plants and manufacturing capacity for the components that go into Apple’s devices would be to look at the following additional investment options.

  1. Consider, if Chinese law permits it, the full purchase of Foxconn. Yes this would mean adding 1M+ employees to Apple’s books and yes this would mean that Apple would “own” the working conditions. But it would further ensure that Apple fully owns their supply chain and manufacturing process in a manner that few other companies do at the moment. This might, however, have downsides. Not least of which is that it could limit their ability to use new suppliers in the future and it could have major legal hurdles (as Chinese law may not permit the foreign ownership of big Chinese firms). Baring this Apple should continue to invest in improvements in the working conditions of their manufacturing processes and look at ways to diversify their manufacturing into other countries than just China (to minimize future supply chain disruption risks). If any company in the world could figure out how to profitably manufacture in the US (or other “Western” countries once again it is likely Apple).
  2. Many pundits have suggested that the next logical move for Apple is to offer an Apple TV. I don’t think this is bold enough. I think Apple should look at investments in a home gaming console – one that builds on the Apple TV (and iOS) but which is a full fledged competitor to the XBox, Playstation and Wii (including the next generations of each of those consoles when they come out). One possible approach which would be “different” would be for Apple to buy OnLive which would likely cost $2B or more especially if they also purchased the related Reardon Companies whose Shannon’s Law breaking wireless technology if it works and can be deployed could go far beyond Onlive (or Boingo) in applications and value to Apple. Onlive isn’t riskless in the least but if Apple purchased them and made a massive investment in growing them as well as in adding Apple TV capabilities to the Onlive box (and leveraging Onlive’s successes in being integrated into other devices) it could be a really really big shift in the gaming landscape. And if, as has been rumored, OnLive becomes more than just a PC (as in Windows) gaming platform this shift could be even larger. The potential in the Onlive model exists for games that run on hardware that dwarfs that of any modern (or even future) console system – while displaying on today’s laptops and TV’s.
  3. Apple should invest in “getting” Social. For all that Apple is design focused the one area of modern design they haven’t cracked is Social. The deep Twitter integration into the Apple platform that is coming is a good starting point but it shouldn’t be the end game. Apple should invest in ways to leverage their massive brand value as well as deep consumer relationships and touchpoints into a real, engaged and valuable social experience. Already iTunes (and the credit cards and credits in iTunes) represents a massive network of users – albeit one that hasn’t been socially engaged – yet. Ping doesn’t count. Apple could and I think should make some bold moves to get Social. They could buy some social assets on the cheap (MySpace for example) and work on migrating those social experiences to better run and better designed Apple experiences. However a counter argument could be made that Apple’s lack of “Social” has left room for massive innovation by iOS developers leveraging Apple platforms as well as the web in building new social experiences and that any move by Apple might disturb this valuable ecosystem.
  4. Apple should invest in the Enterprise. Apple’s Enterprise story is far larger than most pundits understand – the iOS and iPad platform is seeing massive corporate deployments all the time and I suspect IT departments everywhere are seeing greater demand for Apple devices as alternatives to PC platforms (and as the price competitiveness and performance of Apple devices keep growing the IT arguments against Apple computers in the Enterprise diminish rapidly). The shift of many corporate software platforms from internal networks to SAAS (software-as-a-service) also minimizes the need for a uniform enterprise platform. That said, Apple’s Enterprise story could be far larger – they could offer more from their server offerings and they could invest in SAAS offerings themselves (Salesforce however might not be a great fit though it might be worth exploring).
I think as Apple continues to grow they will also, soon, be competing with some companies few pundits expect them to be competing with. Game companies for example (though the iOS devices already are seen as winning against dedicated portable game consoles) but also more Enterprise and niche companies such as Salesforce, Cisco and others. I could see Apple, perhaps via an investment in/purchase of a company such as Boingo and/or Rearden Companies suddenly being a competitor of many networking companies. Apple might also purchase additional chip companies to further control the supply chain for their devices – a company that makes radios and other networking chips for devices from the iPhone to the iPad to the Macbook Air might be a very logical (and relatively small) purchase for Apple to make in the near future. If Apple also purchases an IP shop such as Reardon Companies they might further compete via offering better devices for a better price than a company such as Cisco can offer today.
These are my suggestions – what are yours?

What is missing from Social Networks is the social

13 September, 2010 (16:25) | social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

I have been active in Social Networks online for multiple decades, long before the first sites that described themselves as social networks were formed and long before the current major sites – Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace etc were created. But increasingly I think there are some vital missing elements to actual social behaviors which are missing from most so-called social networks online.

In the past month I have started to get spammed on many social networks, not spammed via the messages but spammed by friend/connect requests on both Facebook and increasingly LinkedIn. On LinkedIn I am now getting about 10 but at times more than 20 connection requests a day with well over 99% of them being from complete and utter strangers, individuals with whom I share at most one connection on LinkedIn and individuals who claim that either “we are friends” or that “we have done business” occasionally they claim that “we are colleagues” at a company I have never heard of.

In all cases they are indicative that a large number of people on LinkedIn are connecting with strangers and that the claimed descriptions of connections are suspect at best.

I’ve also gotten similar, though at a lower volume, friend requests on Facebook – again from near total strangers. In the case of Facebook most of these were clearly spammers, accounts that were nearly identical but with a different photo and a single spam link to an external site. That type of spam was a problem for a few days then nearly completely died away which is a sign that Facebook probably caught on to how the spammers were creating these accounts and blocked them.

However as I have been playing a lot of “social” games on Facebook I have found myself wishing for a way to connect, myself, to near (or actual) strangers, to form new connections around a shared interest in a given game, most of which at most one person in my large Facebook network have even tried in the past let alone are actively playing.

What Social Networks need is a new form of connection – not a friend or colleague but a new, future connection

This new form of connection would be in the case of LinkedIn an appropriate way to share some information with a potential client, a new business contact, without making a stronger or permanent connection. On Facebook this new form of connection would be for making friends, it might be limited to a shared interest or application with by default only a limited exposure of your additional social information.

Sure if you are a truly advanced Facebook user you might achieve a variation of this today with careful use of lists and privacy settings, but even highly technical users of Facebook get befuddled by the privacy settings and very few people have set up complex sets of groups of friends on Facebook and set varying permissions for each group. I know I haven’t.

The idea would be to help prune the explosion of truly weak ties which appear to these networks to be the same as stronger, deeper ties. In a professional context this would be used for those folks you have just met and exchanged business cards with – increasingly this may happen via exchanging social network information (Twitter handles, LinkedIn/Facebook profiles etc) but today this results in often very weak ties cluttering up our social graphs.

For me my criteria for social network connections are fairly strict.

  • Facebook – people I would invite to my house for a dinner party
  • LinkedIn – people whom I would accept a referral from and would refer new business

Yet I find myself wanting to connect with many more people, people who I don’t yet know well enough to decide whether I would have them over for a dinner party or whether I would work with them or trust their business judgment. I also have many people whom I might not know well enough to have over for dinner or to work with but whom I would connect with in another context. People with whom I might want to play casual social games with or people whom I want to follow and get to know professionally.

In short social networks both personal and professional should support the making of new friends, the growing of your professional network, the landing of new clients. But at the moment they do not and the efforts to fudge them, to overload the connections is, in fact, reducing the value of these networks.

Ending dull but starting strong day one at TechCrunch Disrupt

24 May, 2010 (14:50) | social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

This afternoon I am at TechCrunch Disrupt in NYC, the conference is in a very cool space – an vacant office building, like most past TechCrunch events there are perhaps too many companies offering demos at small tables throughout the hallways and across the venue and in the main space there is a mix of conversations, interviews and short demos for a small panel of judges. All in all a great conference and format.

That said, the end of the day today has been a painfully weak panel of companies competing as part of the Disrupt Battlefield. Six companies who all had pretty weak presentations and buzzword heavy presentations which focused on the nitty gritty details of their applications but ignored what you need to pitch in a short demo, namely why anyone, anywhere would want to use the application, why it solves a real problem (which can be a fun one i.e. “make music”) and from that why they are a team that can deliver it.

Instead in the last session what we have been seeing this afternoon so far is just a bunch of technology without real problems or technologies in search of a real problem.

The first Battlefield session, in contrast, had many great and interesting companies, even the weakest of the presentations was better than the best of the last group.

All that said, there is a palpable buzz in the air here at Disrupt and a great selection of companies who are not all based in Silicon Valley. I am going to dive deeper in the companies that have presented here as well as the sessions which I missed this morning in later posts.

A few general observations and trends.

  • Still lots of “me to” companies which are just a feature or a single application not always a real business
  • A recognition of the problem but still too white male dominated in the sessions & judges (though not as bad as many other events)
  • The iPad is the prize of choice (basically the only prize being offered for the countless and too many location based check-in games happening at the conference)
  • Mobile is clearly a major focus with many almost all of the presenting companies having at least some focus on mobile aplications
  • Some only in NYC businesses have presented here, for example a company which is a registered broker/dealer

More, much more over the next few days.

LinkedIn should launch LinkedIn Connect

14 May, 2010 (15:24) | social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

This week I am at TieCon where today’s afternoon keynote was a conversation with Reid Hofffman and Deep Nishar of LinkedIn. I have been a long time LinkedIn user, among the very first users of the network, joining almost at the very beginning. However in the past few years my engagement on LinkedIn has been minimal, likely lower than it should be. A few years ago LinkedIn started allowing LinkedIn users to embed applications inside of LinkedIn Profiles which was a step which had been demanded for years and is quite welcome.

But this afternoon I was struck by a simple question: Why hasn’t LinkedIn launched LinkedIn Connect?

That is, why isn’t LinkedIn looking to be the Identity layer for not just a few applications running inside of LinkedIn or a very small handful of LinkedIn Partners, but instead to offer a strong, business focused identity layer for 1000’s of business applications across the Internet? Including applications on mobile platforms exactly as Facebook Connect and Twitter Oauth are used today to allow people to use Facebook or Twitter as an identity layer and a quickstart social network for a new application and to avoid needing to create new usernames and passwords as well as to rebuild social networks to use a new application.

I don’t know the answer but I think this would be a huge opportunity for LinkedIn.