Monthly Archives: March 2010

Persevere – it’s the only way

By now you have probably heard about the explosions that shook the Moscow metro yesterday.

I am in Moscow now, and I’ve been living here for three and a half years. Every single day I change trains at the metro station where the blast took the lives of 25 people yesterday. I travel past the other station where another 14 lives were lost on my way to and from work.

I pass by two candlelight vigils now.

In the aftermath of such an event one is naturally preoccupied with the future and the new uncertainty it suddenly represents. How do we go about our daily lives? How are our lives going to be affected by this attack, and what, if anything, would change? The experience of being so close to acts of arbitrary and senseless violence is numbing at first and only then sobering.

The immediate response to live news coverage of yesterday morning was one of sheer helplessness. This feeling has now had 24 hours to fade, and if I am to extract any salient lesson from this experience it would be to always try your best to squash the paralysis, look for an actionable plan, avoid sitting idly and dwelling on the horror, continue to live, do something, persevere.

This is the same advice I would give to entrepreneurs, although I swore not to use this blog for imparting advice.

Don’t let adversity and hardship translate into inaction and paralysis. Don’t let it overwhelm you.

Why are you in a situation you are in? What can be changed to avoid this happening in the future? Learn, formulate a plan, execute it. Calculate new risks, live with them.

Inaction, paralysis, and helplessness are the worst. This is what has the greatest potential to undo your enterprise and your sanity. It’s not the hardships that ultimately unravel plans, it’s most often our inability or unwillingness or sluggishness in brining our actions in line with the new circumstances.

Just keep at it..

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What we learned by polling people (part 1)

As you might already know we recently ran a poll to help us decide what the name of our future application should be. This itself was an eye-opening experience that yielded some unexpected results.

What we did

We started by crafting our prompt and creating a poll with the names we have shortlisted. You can see the result of that work here.  I then tweeted about the poll and what were trying to do. I’ve also had a couple of friends ask their friends on Facebook to take the poll.

I am a recent Twitter convert and I am not by any stretch of imagination someone who has a lot of followers. There are 43 (as of now) to be exact. I asked for retweets explicitly and I managed to get a total of 1 retweet from one of my followers who in turn has 700+ followers. I also DM’ed 2 people (who (a) have a lot of followers, (b) are very influential in the community and (c) follow me) asking them to retweet. This yielded nothing. I also tweeted the message (or variants thereof) repeatedly to get good timezone and day of week coverage.  In total I think the tweets alone might have had few hundreds of impressions. My estimate would be around 300. Facebook might have yielded another 100. I am actually being generous with both numbers.

This brings the total of impressions to 400 for which we got 82 page views of the poll itself. Of these, 35 people voted. You can compute corresponding “conversion” rates yourself.

Things we learned and/or confirmed

  1. Facebook was the top referrer, which is as expected since it’s usually easier to compel the people you know to do something. People you don’t know are more reluctant to respond.
  2. It is difficult enough to get people to click, but I was more surprised by how difficult it is to get people to vote. About 43% of people who ended up on the page voted. And we are not talking about a multipage survey. It’s just one simple question with 3 options – that’s it! Perhaps the problem is the message. Perhaps the problem is the medium. My intuition tells me it’s neither, it’s just people’s nature. There was no incentive for taking the poll. The results are de-personified and there is no immediate value in this for the voter.
  3. Don’t count on retweets. They will not come unless people you ask to retweet have a vested interest in your enterprise. Good will is rare. I am not sure about DMs. The sample (2) is far too small to comment.
  4. Grabbing attention is hard. The message needs to be repeated but not to the point of annoying your followers/readers. Further messages bring less and less traffic and cause more and more frustration. The less and less part was confirmed by the wonderful WordPress analytics.

In conclusion

This was a good experiment which exposed what were were trying to accomplish (because we had to explain the main idea behind the application, albeit briefly) and forced us to confront real people with all their unpredictability and inertia. Needless to say the overlap between this sample and who we think are userbase will be is unlikely to be very large, but it was still instructive in that we had to put together a public announcement and talk openly about what we are up to.

In the next post, I will tell you about the actual poll results and what surprised us there.

Reflections on tweeting and blogging

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I’ve already mentioned here how the value of Twitter was lost on me at first. I now want to talk about why I think Twitter makes sense and where it fits in.

First let’s separate the users by what they do with the application. There are two roles any one participant can play. At any given point in time they are either a reader or a writer. This is true for any publish/subscribe set up, so we can now consider the application or any other traditional medium (like human conversations) from the reader/writer perspective.

It’s no surprise that the effort required to create a single tweet is extremely small, so the barrier to entry for a writer on Twitter is also extremely low. A writer can generate a tweet in a matter of seconds. Not only can this be done rapidly, but it’s also be done on the go. In effect this drives up the number of writers in the system.

Now compare that to a typical blog writer. Maintaining a blog requires a huge, and often contiguous allocation of time. A decent blog post probably takes 30 minutes to 2 hours to create, that’s several orders magnitude more than what is required for creating a tweet.

I believe this is to be the main limiting factor depressing the number of blog writers. There are just not many people with this level of dedication and amount of free time to blog in a sustainable manner and to be successful in having a sizable following of readers.

So, yes, Twitter has a lot more writers, which in my view compensates for the relative shortness of messages. But it also drives up the barrier to entry for the reader since the reader must now process more disparate pieces of information. Whereas blog readers’ time is distributed among a handful of blogs with are updated daily, tweet readers’ time and attention must be distributed over a much large set of tweets which appear every minute.

So how does Twitter solve the reader problem? Well, Twitter makes it really easy to filter tweets and go from one tweet to another. The filtering thing for blogs is too coarse-grained and even if keyword searches are used they can only get us so far since it’s often difficult to express the filter in terms of keywords only. On Twitter, every person is a filter. Collectively the people you follow are a distributed content filtration system. As a reader, you tune this filtration system by selecting the people you follow.

In essence I see two fundamental differences of tweeting vs. blogging:

  1. High ratio of writers to readers, and less overhead for writing
  2. More natural person-oriented filtering capacity for the readers

Then what about blogs? Have their relevance been gobbled up by our shortening attention spans as readers and our laziness as writers?

I like to think of it as snacking versus having a complete N course dinner. You get your calories just the same, but you when you sit down to dinner what you eat is hopefully more balanced, nuanced, and thought out. It’s a more wholesome and a more lasting and altogether memorable experience.

If we now turn to the evolutionary component of this (which incidentally I know very little about, so I am opening myself up to ridicule here), humans are conditioned by evolution to like stories. They offer a lesson that can be internalized that that can prove beneficial or even vital later on down the road.

Likewise our survival often depends on short messages or alerts that tell us, roughly speaking, when danger or reward is on its way. I am obviously oversimplifying this since there are many different types of short messages that we could possibly be conditioned to care about besides the danger and reward ones.

The psychological divide between blogs and tweets, from the reader perspective,  is that the former offer lasting lessons and the latter succinct smoke signals for what may be right around the corner. Obviously, both must represent some value to the recipient.

Help us name our startup and app!

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We are building an online social application that lets you stay on top of and enjoy things that your friends find interesting, good, likable, cool, irresistible and noteworthy, or things they just liked for no reason.

“Things” in this context include places they visit, foods they try, music they listen to, books they read, etc. There is really no limit what one may enjoy in life, is there?

Needless to say we are looking for something that has that special ring to it, that is easy to remember and not too lame.

For now we have shortlisted the following three names. Please help us decide!

If you have other ideas or suggestions, you can let us know in the comments.

*Domain names would be irresistib.ly, likewisely.com or likewise.ly, and justliked.com.

5 cultural memes antiquated by Kindle (or profound ways products impact lives)

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Disclaimer: This is not another Kindle review.

I’ve been using an Amazon Kindle for couple of months now, and I think I realize what revolution means.

  1. My children’s children will probably not understand that different books can have different weight and thickness. I am almost done readying Ulysses by James Joyce, and it suddenly dawned on me that I’ve never even seen the book in its traditional format. I can sense from reading it on Kindle that it’s really long, but I don’t know how long it is. It’s perfectly fine with me not knowing but there is something profound about this context being lost.
  2. Large print books will be first to go. Every e-book is in all possible fonts from regular to enormous, and it simply makes no economic sense to have a separate printed large print edition of any book that is available in e-book format. A few years from now the familiar image of an old man in his recliner with a magnifying glass bent over a book would cause just as much curiosity as a horse-drawn carriage.
  3. Insanely heavy backpacks will be a thing of the past. I remember suffering all through high school hauling my textbooks around, having to think twice about which books I really needed that day. I would shuttle them between the locker and the classroom, between the house and the locker, stashing them at the wrong place for the time being and missing the book I needed when I needed it on the weekend.
  4. The whole term out-of-print is becoming meaningless. All books are going out of print. Out of print is in, in print is on its way out.
  5. No more dog ears, frayed paper bookmarks falling out of place and all over. No more ugly highlighting that soaks through the page. It’s like the vessel that carries the book’s contents is becoming devoid of any personality. No scribbled notes in the margin left by the previous owner. No coffee stains or greasy fingerprints. No bookmarks. Yes, but you can now actually find all your underlines without flipping through the book. Did I mention flipping itself (and fanning yourself in the process) is a relic too? Opening to a random page is gone.

Alright, don’t get me wrong. I am not lamenting the disappearance of these cultural memes from the lives of generations to follow. It’s fine with me. I am simply reflecting on the fact that I am witness to nothing short of a revolution. I am also not crediting Amazon or any particular e-reader for bringing this about, and this is not meant to extol the virtues of any one of these devices.

And yet the power of products to affect our lives is incredible. That alone should make anyone in product management feel the staggering responsibility that lies before us in the product business. Our products will change and better lives of people, and that’s an exciting and equally intimidating thing to think about when I power on my next book.

Incidentally, it says “Opening” when I power it on. How is that for a cognitive dissonance?