Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Data Makes the World Go 'Round

Data.gov is one of my favorite new websites. I work in a job where data is vital for making recommendations and Data.gov is a valuable new tool that enables quick but powerful research. The website is a government resource with the purpose "to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government."

Governments are often a vital first resource of macro-economic data, and Data.gov takes that to the next level. This type of organization and openness is well worth the investment as it benefits the overall economy. If I can save 30 minutes a week (which is a very reasonable estimate) then others must be saving time as well. And as we all know: "time is money."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Your Email Can Predict the Future

An examination of emails sent by Enron senior staff, for an 18-month period until the company's downfall, seems to show that email-patterns can be a good indicator of impending organizational-demise. The investigators didn't read the emails but instead only looked at exchange-patterns.

The study claims that the main indicator of crisis seems to be the growth of email cliques - small and isolated groups that exchange emails amongst themselves. The logic is that before times of trouble, people tend to communicate with those that they trust most within an organization. Of course, further investigation will be required to confirm these initial findings.

If these patterns are proven to be valid signs of future problems, then this could represent a substantial leap forward for social-predictive technology. This information might be used for positive purposes such as predicting man-made disasters or impending epidemics. It could also be abused by over-zealous security agencies or evil-doers to foresee threats or public discontent.

With basic social interaction quickly shifting to the digital world (primarily Internet and Mobile), real-time digital records can be easily collected and stored. I predict major debates in the near-future on how to apply these heaps of new and valuable social-data.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

To Measure Your Life, Click Here

We love to know where we stand, how we compare to our peers and non-peers, and what our social status really is. We desire to relatively and objectively measure and signal to others our social influence, finances, intelligence, reputation, etc.

This fundamental human need has traditionally been displayed through the signaling-significance of material possessions such as homes, cars, boats, etc. In the past, warriors have used their size, speed, and number of kills in battle to show military might. During the Middle-Ages, land ownership usually signified real societal standing. For the past century, intellectuals have grown their reputation by publishing books and papers.

For my generation, childhood objective-evaluation usually came in the form of points scored - arcade and video games ingrained this additional layer to the innate need for life-scoring. Corporations and marketing firms realize this particular desire for objective clarity and scoring - this is why Credit Cards and Banks offer accounts based on acquiring various forms of points and rewards.

The Internet has been able to fundamentally leverage this innate human need to supply new forms of life-scoring:
  • Social Influence. The number of friends on Facebook, contacts on LinkedIn, or followers on Twitter has given us new ways to score and display our social reach.
  • Personal Success. Through the emergence of personal blogs we are able to share our romantic, intellectual, and even cuisine-related conquests. Flickr allows us to present visual evidence of our experiential success. Foursquare gives us virtual points and badges for going out and having fun.
  • Financial Prowess. Websites like Covestor allow others to view and mimic our investment moves and broader strategies.
  • Reputation. Pinnacle Digest is an investment forum that gives users the power to grade the comments of other users. This type of feedback has been prominent for years on techie/programming websites. Even Facebook has begun to implement a similar system.

Life-measuring and signaling is just one of many ways in which the Internet has utilized, reshaped, and augmented the fundamental ways we communicate and signal to each other. I suspect that any new website or digital tool that leverages this social need in some way will potentially reach a deeper connection with users and trigger a faster adoption rate.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Get Them While They're Young

When I was a child I remember being able to eat near infinite amounts of junk food - primarily sweets. Although my sweet tooth seemed insatiable, I was more picky about real food and would reach a state of fullness much sooner when eating a regular meal. On the other hand, eating an entire chocolate-bar was completely effortless.

Today, I can control my junk food intake. I can reach a point of satiation after a reasonable portion. This transition doesn't seem to be atypical and marketers/food producers know this very well. This is why sweet food is one of the top products advertised and sold to children. It's easiest to produce and sell a cash-cow product like Froot Loops to children and then hope that nostalgia will bring them back as adult-consumers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

From Steel to Gold - Part III

So what? Why does the whole concept of the Utility-Luxury grid really matter? Well it's important because a product's placement on the grid influences nearly all of its characteristics.

I'll take the liberty to apply a slightly modified version of Four Ps model to demonstrate this fact:

  1. Product. The physical characteristics of a product determine Utility-Luxury placement, perception, and expectations. More luxurious products are often associated with quality and durability - whether this is factual is irrelevant. On the other hand, silly putty isn't expected to last forever.
  2. Price. Price serves as both an actual result of the market, but also as a signal - often a higher price screams that a product is really useful/necessary, that it's very luxurious, or both.
  3. Placement. This usually refers to the physical or digital point of sale. I often expand the definition to include customer placement - i.e. segmentation and targeting. A new Mercedes is never sold to low-income individuals via a multi-brand car dealership in an inner-city setting.
  4. Promotion. The public image of a product is the most direct way of communicating where the product is on the Utility-Luxury grid and where it wants to be.

The Four Ps are the vital components that make up a product or service. The past, present, and future placement of a particular offering along the Utility-Luxury grid directly influences and is influenced by the product's particular characteristics.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

From Steel to Gold - Part II

I realized that the themes surrounding the movement of products and services along the Utility-Luxury grid require a bit more analysis. So I will dedicate one or two more posts to try to dig deeper into this topic.

I've been thinking about potential catalysts that might spark a movement between any of the four squares shown below (in Part I). Here is what I've come up with so far:
  • The introduction of new substitutes. This explains what happened with the wristwatch. As mobile phone penetration grew, the watch's practical value declined.
  • The introduction of new complements. This partially explains how the Internet became a very valuable tool. With the development of better modems, networks, and more powerful personal computers, the Internet's potential usefulness and appeal grew.
  • Increased ubiquity. This of course begs the "chicken or the egg" question, but I believe that the growth of the Internet's ubiquity strengthened its network effect and thus created a positive cycle that continues to push the Internet up the Utility line.
  • Changing tastes and norms. This drives movement in a lot of industries, especially in fashion, art, and cuisine.
  • A change in the level of scarcity. This is pretty self-explanatory. For example, certain types of fish are now a luxury due to a decrease in their population.
  • Laws and other government regulation. The legalization of narcotics would most likely decrease their price and thus diminish many of their luxury-qualities.
  • Demographic changes. As the population ages at a faster pace in the U.S., Florida real estate might become more of a luxury.

I'm sure that I've only begun to scratch the surface. What other catalysts for change can you think of?

Monday, June 22, 2009

From Steel to Gold - Part I

I forgot to bring, and thus wear, my wristwatch on a recent business trip. I missed my watch very much. But what I realized from this haphazard experience was that I didn't miss the watch because of its usefulness or because I had trouble ascertaining what time it was; I missed the watch because of how it made me feel, because of how it looked and felt on my wrist.

This minor event has made me realize that the wristwatch has nearly no actual utility in a modern world. Between our mobile phones, computer clocks, and wall-mounted time-pieces, the wristwatch isn't really used to tell time. It has become an accessory. It is a luxury used to complement a wardrobe, distinguish status and wealth, or to be worn because of social norms.

As our society has evolved technologically, the wristwatch has transitioned from being a tool that offered a high level of utility to now become a wardrobe accessory with little practical value. This has happened in a relatively short amount of time - probably most strongly correlated to the proliferation of mobile phones (which have digital clocks included) over the last ten years.

I believe that it's important to think of products and services through this relatively common and simple lens - on the spectrums of utility and luxury. It's especially useful to look at how different offerings have evolved and transitioned. It's these transformations (in any direction) that often unlock the greatest opportunities and that offer the greatest potential for innovation and profit.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day to Nikola Tesla

Being that it's Father's Day and that I already spent most of the day with my father, I would like to dedicate this post to Nikola Tesla and to wish him a Happy Father's day. Although Tesla never had any children and was widely considered to be celibate for most of his life (he said that celibacy contributed to his scientific output), Tesla is finally being widely accepted as the father of modern technology.

Nikola Tesla was a Serb born in Croatia in the mid 1800s. He was a worldly person who conducted his most prolific work in Western Europe and the United States. He is most recognized for developing and popularizing alternating current (AC) electric power - the form of electric energy that powers nearly all homes and businesses. His second most important work contributed to the development of wireless communication as Tesla built the first wireless radio - his technology was later utilized by Marconi. Other notable contributions to modern technology included his work in X-rays and the creation of the AC electric-motor.

Tesla took a more revolutionary and eccentric route in his later years as he attempted to develop a system for wireless transfer of electricity. Although Tesla's legacy was overshadowed by Edison and Marconi for over 50 years, Tesla is finally receiving the true credit that he deserves (even having his name attached to a modern electric car company). Nikola Tesla can now justly be regarded as having a role in the development of nearly all the branches of modern technology that power our interconnected lives. Happy Father's Day Nikola Tesla.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twitter will be very monetized.

It's been argued by some that Twitter won't be able to monetize its services and create a profitable business model. I completely disagree with this assertion. To prove my point, I took just 15 minutes to brainstorm potential revenue-generating activities for Twitter. I organized my thoughts by loosely clustering different ideas around general concepts.

Here is what I came up with in 15 minutes:

Clearly the ideas range from widely known to absurdly illogical. But if it took me only 15 minutes to come up with a few reasonable thoughts, I'm quite sure that teams of well paid professionals will come up with a good way to make money from Twitter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fuzzy Fear

I recently read about a study that indicates that the feeling of fear allows humans to see larger, less defined shapes better, while hindering our ability to see finer details. This is probably due to the fact that the evolutionary benefit of seeing a blurry beast running in our direction is more important than the benefit of recognizing whether the beast is a wolf or a bear.

What does this mean for our current world reality? Maybe this shows why stock market busts are often more reckless and more rapid than stock market booms - once enough fear is created, the details become less important. The big picture of potential financial catastrophe is sharpened while the positive details of particular companies are temporarily forsaken. Ignoring the details for too long is costly. Fear might save us in the short-term, but details are vital for long-term prosperity.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lost and Found In Pop Culture

Lost is one of my favorite television shows. It's just an extremely well made television extravaganza that allows complete and utter immersion into fantasy. The premise is far-fetched - depicting the adventures of a group of airplane-crash survivors on a mystical and tropical island. The acting is usually solid but occasionally borders on melodrama. The plotlines are often extreme but always engrossing.

What makes Lost relevant is how it conquered television. The show represents a prime example of counterculture creating fresh ideas, producing a high-quality product, and quickly gaining such popularity that the program itself morphed into popular culture. During the early 2000s, when game shows and reality television ruled the airwaves, Lost was a breath of fresh air, an ensemble science-fiction drama. It was a real production with real cameras and real investment.

As we all know, history repeats itself and Lost is just one example of many counterculture-to-popular culture uprisings. From Nirvana, to Punk Rock, to the Internet, we've seen it many times before and we'll see it many times again. What will offer such a threat to the kings of current entertainment, to digital social media like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.? Will it be a National Park movement, some sort of museum revolution, or maybe some unimaginable new platform that will connect us in completely new ways?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sometimes we just have to scrub the tub.

I despise cleaning - wait, I know what you're saying: "I hope this won't be a whiny post by some little brat!" - just hear me out, it won't be. So, I loathe cleaning, it's often messy and the results are always temporary. I feel that it's a waste of time, energy, and brain cells (due to the chemicals in the cleaning-materials). The vacuum is too loud and lets out more dust than it sucks in. Dishes get dirty so quickly that it seems like I'm fighting a never-ending battle with them. Ditto for the trash. But what I despise most is cleaning the bathtub.

The tub is relatively large. I need to be a gymnast (which I'm not) to reach all the little nooks and crannies where mold and dirt and grime like to hide. I don't need to clean it too often but the task takes longer than all other forms of cleaning (which you know that I hate). But as the filth accumulates, showers lose their magical appeal and cleaning the tub becomes the only option.

I think you know where I'm getting with this - tonight was the night. I said "screw it" and I washed the damned cauldron of crud...and what I realized is that every once in a while, I just need to do the deed. It might be just the fumes going to my head, but I felt empowered afterwards, my pride/laziness conquered for a short instant.

So sometimes we all need to get over our pride/laziness and do the deed, fight the fight, solve the health care problem, or begin a revolution. Or sometimes we just have to scrub the tub.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Wilderness Training - Part IV

I've returned from the secluded off-site corporate training with the realization that life isn't reality television. This might seem like an obvious statement, and to some degree it is, but it's also a valuable lesson for those members of my generation.

There were no dramatic exchanges or arguments. There were no explicit emotional outbursts or romantic encounters. Events developed at a much slower pace and no clear plotline was to be seen.

Usually things were much more subtle than I expected. Nuance was the name of this game.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Catalyst Coffee

Coffee is an integral part of my productivity. I would estimate that for 4 hours in the 8-hour day (2 of which are in the morning and 2 of which are in the afternoon) coffee boosts my productivity by at least 20%.

If this trend holds for most other professionals, what does that mean for the whole U.S. economy?
  • Professional and business services accounted for $1,806 Billion of the total U.S. GDP in 2008 (which is around $14,000 Billion)
  • 50% of Americans regularly consume coffee
  • Coffee affects workers positively for 50% of their day (2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the afternoon)
  • Lets say that most professionals are like me and experience a 20% boost in productivity during the 4 hours of positive influence, which ends up equaling about 26% of all output during those 4 hours
  • That results in: $1,806 x 50% x 50% x 26% = $117 Billion

It seems that coffee is conceivably responsible for indirectly generating $117 Billion, or slightly less than 1%, of the total U.S. GDP. This is without considering how coffee positively influences other industries such as health care, education, or manufacturing.

This means that coffee could be responsible for as much as 5% of the U.S. GDP.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wilderness Training - Part III

The greatest business hurdles I've encountered were usually self-created and self-sustained. Fear, doubt, complacency, and laziness have come from the inside.

The greatest business successes I've achieved were usually self-created and self-sustained. Bravery, certainty, achievement, and enthusiasm have come from the inside.

Not to be too philosophical, but I have a lot more influence over my accomplishments than I thought.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wilderness Training - Part II

Much has been said and written about successful teamwork by people much smarter than I - so I won’t beat a dead horse too much. The three to seven person team-unit has been considered as the preeminent problem-solving instrument for organizations for decades by management “experts,” but has existed in nature for thousands of years. It’s no wonder that most predators hunt in packs; it’s a natural way to solve complex tasks.

It’s tough to list all the ingredients that make a well-functioning team. But there are a few things that will definitely decrease chances of real team-based success:

  • Arrogance. If even one member feels that he is generally superior to the rest, cracks will quickly appear. There will always be experts, but arrogance is a deadly state of mind and not a matter of actual experience.
  • Ignorance. If there is not a minimal level of mutual understanding then the team will not excel. Being able to put oneself in the shoes of another (for even an instant) miraculously boosts results.
  • Selfishness. The most obvious team-based malady, selfishness can never be hidden or even masked. It’s also highly contagious.

There are definitely more issues that can hinder teams, but these three are on the top of my mind.

The Pleasant Tune of Technology

Great new technology is like a great new song. It makes us say "wow" in the best kind of way, it's positively addictive, and there is a touch a familiarity - as if we've listened to it in the past (but which of course is impossible).

[I posted this first on Fred Wilson's blog in response to his recent post - it seems to resonate.]

Monday, June 8, 2009

Wilderness Training - Part I

I am spending this week at a secluded off-site conference center/training facility in rural New Jersey - I know, it sounds like a blast. The management consulting firm that I work for is very good about providing its employees with regular training and development courses and this week it's my turn to join a small group, to improve, and to be improved.

Off-site personal-dynamics are fascinating. The group is about a dozen people, including two company trainers. Right now, after the first day, morale is quite high and everyone is trying very hard to be friendly and to get along. It's not the most diverse group but there is definitely a sense of newness, networking, and unity. The secluded location has brought us together for a single purpose. We'll see for how long the smooth sailing prevails.

I'll take this week to document what happens at an off-site corporate training - who knows, there might be intrigue or there might just be the usual business developments.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mobile Matters

With the Palm Pre being released this weekend and the upcoming Apple announcements concerning new iPhone versions coming this week, I thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to give some advice to handset manufacturers and the mobile network operators that release the phones on their networks.

Since I won't be so arrogant as to assume what others value in their phones, I will give my personal top-ten phone features in regards to usage. I am a professional in my mid-20s, living in New York, and this is what I care most about in my mobile handset:
  1. Voice. This is why I will never purchase the Palm Pre in New York as long as it's on the Sprint Network (my negative perceptions of the Sprint Network are a whole different story). With the mobile phone quickly replacing landlines, voice quality and reliability will grow in importance.
  2. Keyboard. I type a lot. Unless a phone has a full QWERTY keyboard or something as simple and easy to use, I won't even consider it - important for 3, 4, and 5.
  3. Corporate Email. This is one of the main features keeping me from getting an iPhone (besides the keyboard). Although the iPhone does support enterprise email capabilities - my company's IT department doesn't. I will not carry two phones.
  4. Personal Email. This primarily includes Gmail but also my personal BlackBerry email.
  5. SMS (Texting). All phones support this now. Pricing-plans might affect my decisions.
  6. Mobile Internet. Reading the NYTimes.com and CNN.com fills idle time and is still in front of downloading applications for either of those two news sites.
  7. Mobile Applications. Games, location-based services, and other types of apps are quickly rising on my list. This will be at #6 soon.
  8. Performance. Speed and memory matter more and more as the Mobile Internet and Mobile Applications are beginning to push my phone to the edge.
  9. Battery Life. I've learned to live with bad battery endurance.
  10. Sexiness. Appearance does matter a little.

I know that a student or a soccer mom might have different preferences. For example, price isn't close to being in the top-ten for me. I also know that the list is somewhat messy, but so is the mind of a typical consumer.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

What does fun do for you?

New technology has given us thousands of new activity-options. More specifically, we've been given the ability to entertain ourselves and be entertained by an immeasurable amount of content, in numerous shapes and forms, and through various new channels. From the Nintendo Wii, to the iPhone, to IMax theaters, time has become the greatest bottleneck slowing total digital nirvana.

Thus we pick and we choose our entertainment ever-more carefully. No longer is fun enough to justify an entertainment activity. Additional utility is required to justify new forms of amusement. We demand to be bettered and entertained at the same time. Leisure time must move us forward in life.

This is why the Wii Fit has become such a success - fun and fitness at the same time. This is why the Nintendo DS offers users the ability to improve the mind through playing mind-exercising games. This is why Malcolm Gladwell's books are so popular - the ability to learn complex ideas through a lightweight and pleasurable way. This is also why television options such as The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, History Channel, Food Network, and Home & Garden Television have all substantially grown their ratings and cultural significance.

Future forms of entertainment will greatly benefit from providing productivity in addition to fun fluff.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Would you rather be on Taxicab Confessions or Cash Cab?

Taxicab Confessions is a television show about passion. A secret camera documents the taxi ride of interesting people in their most genuine form - usually at night, occasionally under the influence of various mind-altering substances, terribly talkative, and painfully honest. In the newest episode "a disparate group of revelers, fetishists, imbibers, romantics, and lonely hearts let down their guard, spilling their innermost secrets to anonymous cab drivers - and to each other." What results is usually absurd but occasionally brilliant.

Cash Cab is about sugar-coated profit with a hint of fun. The show gives regular people the ability to make a quick buck while riding in the back of a moving game show - a rigged-up New York City taxi. Each correct question is worth $25 to $100 dollars and three incorrect answers leave the passengers stranded at the destination of their third strike. What you usually get is a bit of wholesome entertainment, a productive journey, and a minimal amount of risk. The ride is relatively smooth.

Which ride would you get into?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Real Sustainability

I like to think of information as a form of energy. It fuels our emotions, thoughts, decisions, and actions. Information is valuable; it can be misused; wars are fought over it; lives are changed by it.

But information is unlike most other forms of energy. Typically energy dissipates as it travels further away from its source. Light, heat, sound, etc. all grow weaker and weaker as the distance from their origin grows.

In our aggregated world, information grows stronger and more valuable as it moves away from its source. Ten beat writers write about a basketball game, one-hundred website writers base their analysis on the beats, one-thousand blogs dissect the analysis, and ten-thousand tweets praise, criticize, romanticize, and collectively create a virtual Picasso from the ingredients of the original event. I'm not sure what that means, but I am sure that it's powerful and that I'll revisit this subject.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My Own Digital Jesus

In a recent talk on disruption, Fred Wilson, the successful and quite popular venture capitalist, speaks about how he and his venture capital firm evaluate whether an industry is a target for large-scale disruption due to the emergence of the Internet and other digital enablers. An oversimplified summary of his test is: If the industry can be digitized from end-to-end, then it will be at some point disrupted by the Internet. Some of his examples of current and future target sectors include media (which has already been heavily changed), consumer finance, education, energy, health care, and government.

I believe that religion could be added to that list. The mechanics of many mainstream religious activities could be theoretically digitized. With the proliferation of more immersive digital experiences (i.e. virtual worlds such a
Second Life), certain religious activities could soon be fully global across the Web and could be made to mimic significant portions of a live service within a digital place of worship. The ubiquity of mobile devices adds a whole new layer to the wider reach that religion could have - literally following worshipers at all time. It's difficult to imagine how or why this could be monetized, but such a trend would have direct consequences for numerous other industries and the world that we live in.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Where are the holograms?

It was the summer of 1993 and I couldn't stop playing Time Traveler. The game was an oasis of fun at a boring and shady strip-mall on Long Island, New York. In a dark and empty hallway near the Marshalls where my mom shopped, Time Traveler was the most incredible arcade game I have ever played. The plot was generic, but the experience was extraordinary - a real, 3D cowboy fighting bad-guys throughout history (and the future).

Time Traveler is considered to be the first holographic arcade game. It was released in the early 1990's and there hasn't really been anything like it since - the economics of making it just didn't make sense at the time. I would play and my dad would watch. One day, when we went back to the mall, the game was gone and I was sad. Like a mirage, the game appeared and disappeared within one formative year in my life. Ever since, I've been waiting for a game or a TV show or a movie or a smartphone to recreate the experience I had with Time Traveler.