January 16, 2006

Search Tech Opportunities- Improvement #4: Quickly Find What I am Looking for

Posted in innovate this!, Innovation, management at 2:06 pm by scottmaxwell

Following up my post on the opening of the search tech chain, the fourth opportunity that I see is with getting back from a search exactly what I am looking for (a.k.a., user intent). There seem to be various issues and approaches to resolving this issue. I love Google (it looks like Fred Wilson likes Yahoo even more), but I think there are a lot of improvement opportunities available for getting me what I want a lot more quickly (of course, this cuts down on opportunities to show me advertising which could be an EXTREME disincentive for the large search engines to execute well here).

Some thoughts:

  • The current search approach is word-based. If I choose the right words, I get the right set of results. If I am clever (negative words, quotes, etc.), I will get even more accurate results. But what if I don’t know the right words (or, perhaps the sites don’t know the right words) and what if I am not clever? Quintura has a new solution to help me in certain ways (at least if I have a Windows machine at this point). Perhaps there are other, better ways as well, such as search engines offering up concept search in addition to word search, (and some other features that I will discuss in a later post). btw, I met with Quintura guys on my last trip to Moscow. Really smart team and making a lot of rapid progress with their product.
  • Even if the word-based search with the current word search, the SEO crowd has crowded out many of the sites that I am really looking for, so I still have a problem finding what I am looking for first. The Quintura-like solution will partially solve this problem, but one or more of the mashers (actually, most of the mashers) should allow me to take my starter set of URIs and allow me to reprioritize it in any way I like. How about by amount of traffic OR what my network thinks is good, OR what the bloggers (even better, technorati rated bloggers for this topic) talk about most OR anything else some clever person comes up with. I would also like the approach that allows me to combine different rating techniques in different ways to truly understand the “best sites” for me from various angles.
  • Of course, once there are enough pico-domains, the pico aggregator should allow me to find the pico-domain which should pretty quickly point me to the right resource (this is not a replacement, but rather another approach to the basic search approach).

Lots of room for innovation here (and I am sure I missed a lot)…

Search Tech Opportunities- Improvement #3: Mashups

Posted in innovate this!, Innovation at 2:00 pm by scottmaxwell

Following up my post on the opening of the search tech chain, the third opportunity that I see is with search-related mashups of various kinds (this is where the fun comes in!).

If the search tech system becomes more open, perhaps at least partially in the manner that I describe in my prior posts, it should give the foundation for mashups of various kinds (that I can not begin to imagine at this point). I am really impressed with the mashups that already exist and the amount of innovation that is going into them (see the Web 2.0 mashup matrix, which I mentioned last month, as a good source for the current innovation), but they all start with the same small set of useful APIs that currently exist. A host of new APIs will bring a host of new mash-ups (today there are 56 on Programmable Web. Adding one new API will bring a lot more than 56 new possibilities (as the two dimensional matrix implies) due to the possibility of using n of the APIs together (n is equal to or lower than the number of APIs).

One extreme version of this would be every Ajax desktop being able to be configured and released which covers a complete pico-domain, the pico-agregators (i.e., a tiny portion of the overall world that is homogenous in some way chosen by the aggregator) in a way that is not possible today. There are a lot of attempts to do this type of thing now, with domain specific directory sites, About.com, and, more recently, Squidoo (and others), but all of them would have a great number of more complete and better approaches to presenting the best most complete and organized information with the foundation in place.

(Somewhat circular) Their should also be some great opportunities for pico-agregator search engines, which would allow a user to find the pico-aggregators of interest (this is done to some extent by Squidoo for its own lenses, for example, but needs to be extended to include all pico-aggregators).

Clearly, this is only one angle into mashups and many, many more exist. The bus is headed in this direction and I see nothing but a few speedbumps, detours, and stops at the gas station to stop it from reaching this destination. Lot’s of opportunities for innovators here!

Search Tech Opportunities- Improvement #2: Micropayment System

Posted in innovate this!, Innovation at 11:50 am by scottmaxwell

Following up my post on the opening of the search tech chain, this is a second improvement that I would like to see:

My last post was on opening up the APIs. While I would hope that we can start in beta or have some level of usage for free (ala Amazon’s API), I expect that at some point there will need to be a parallel effort to sort out the micropayment issues. Some thoughts:

  • The current RSS feed model of the user going to the content site works fine for the content site, but it is difficult for the search engines to create a revenue stream this way.
  • The Feed-plus-ad approach seems to be another approach, but the problem is that cascading value-add services will end up with a tremendous amount of ad space (unless there is some sort of coordination).
  • The Amazon model of a small payment per use seems like a fair one to me (and relatively easy to execute on)
  • Perhaps there is a more advanced one with respect to sharing advertising revenue or giving some real estate on the ultimate browser view for advertising to be delivered by the originating site.

Like the Blog and RSS feed approach, I would hope that some innovative companies could get this ecosystem going without the need for a payment system right away (free beta and ongoing small usage for free), but It seems to me that longer term there is a lot of innovation potential in this area!

Search Tech Opportunities- Improvement #1: APIs From Everyone

Posted in innovate this!, Innovation at 11:33 am by scottmaxwell

Following up my post on the opening of the search tech chain, I thought I might give a number of the things that I would like to see in search.

The first improvement is relatively simplistic. Give me an open API so that I can feed data into an aggregator, mix in some processing, and output a mashup for consumption.

  • From traditional search vendors, OpenSearch is a great start. I would like to be able to put in a search query, and get back all of the resources (URIs) that are aligned with that query. I would also like you to append any metrics that you have calculated on each resource (e.g., links in, links out, metrics associated with each.  Even better, whatever network attributes surrounding the URI that you are willing to offer).
  • From the social tagging sites, I would like to be able to input a list of URIs (probably from my search above) and get back the information that you have on each. For example, the tags that people are using for them, the number/percent of people that have tagged them (more advanced, the number of “experts” that have tagged them), etc. If you are really creative, you will come up with a lot of useful metrics for me.
  • From sites that measure/monitor traffic (this includes the ISPs, Alexa, Google, other search engines etc.), I would like to be able to input a list of URIs, and get back all of your statistics.
  • From sites that measure security risks, I would get back your security view on each URI.
  • From the “owner” of the URI, I will take any metadata that you want to provide, so long as it is relatively organized into some standard approach.
  • From the Domain Registrars, I would like to get your information as well (by domain in this case).
  • I would also like similar input/output information from the message boards, forums, blog sites (or possibly the Feedburner’s of the world), Ajax desktops, and any other site that cares to offer an opinion on a URI (or the objects associated with the URI, such as person, organization, product, etc.).
  • If I ask really nicely, perhaps I can also have the request information from the DNS servers (yes, I know this is a major issue. But as long as I am asking…)
  • I am sure that I missed several classes of sites. If you have data to offer up related to a URI, I would love to get it (assuming it has information value).

In terms of the API, my first request is URI input and data back, but each site has a lot of other useful API calls (e.g., tag in, URLs out). It would be great if over time each class of site had some standards emerge that had robust APIs associated with them.

I would also like to see some intermediaries (ala Feedburner) form that will reduce some of your server load and mine and, perhaps, find some value add processing to the combined data streams.

Okay, now I have a pretty nice set of possibly interesting URIs and the possibility of getting a lot of useful information that others are gathering on each. It is probably obvious what I want to do with all this, but I will be more explicit in a later post.

January 14, 2006

Opening Up the Search Tech Chain- Opportunities for Mashers and Pico-Agregators

Posted in innovate this!, Innovation at 5:09 pm by scottmaxwell

This post from Kid Mercury nails the future openness of the search business model. It seems to me that the innovation potential of search is best done by breaking open the value chain and allowing individual components to be innovated and recombined with mashups of various kinds (which is going to lead to a massive number of domain-specific search engines/portals, among other things).

Google does an awesome job with search (and, separately, an awesome job executing on Bill Gross’s advertising model), but the entire system will (eventually) work better as individual components get exposed, improved, and mashed by many rather than few. Also, Google already has a lock-up on the general search users. Few would switch for a service that was just equal, so why not open up and improve the world of search? I point to at least some of their issues in my post on innovation (yes, Google is quickly becoming Goliath).

Interestingly, just as IBM has helped to bring Open Source to the mass market to (at least in part) help reduce Microsoft’s strength in the market, Microsoft may be quietly starting to promote an open search model to help reduce Google’s strength in the market (Kid Mercury points to IE7’s announced use of OpenSearch, but I am sure that Microsoft has many many additional initiatives to either win the game or at least break Google’s economic model by changing the gamel).

Even more aggressive is Amazon as the lead open search innovator, with A9’s development and promotion of OpenSearch (smart strategic move!) and, as Michael Parekh points out, the Alexa web search platform. Check out the (pico-domain-specific) example that Alexa offers up, the camera Image search. Not a mashup, but a good example of things to come.)

I can’t help but think that this trend (and end-game) offers a great set of opportunities for innovative companies to distill, aggregate and mash. Clearly, a lot of issues to work out, but it makes a lot of sense that the open search world is coming. They only question in my mind is “how soon?” (actually, I have another question swirling, which is how fast will new company formation in this area lead to good investment opportunities for the VCs.)

January 13, 2006

What Would You Do For a Rolex?

Posted in management, Sales at 3:39 pm by scottmaxwell

We are approximately 2-weeks into the new year. How are you going to make sure that your emerging growth business gets off to a great start this month and this year? If you are like most companies, your team probably has the mindset that this is a slow quarter for sales, so why not save your energy for when the fish are biting? Well… mostly because you still need to figure out how to eat even when the fish aren’t biting!

I just finished a board meeting where this was the exact situation. The Sales head does not have the conviction that he will be able to have a reasonable first quarter due to seasonality. The CEO came up with a solution that is an old sales trick:

Offer up a Rolex watch to the top salesperson for the quarter (as measured by sales relative to quota to normalize for larger territories). The incentive should help get the sales force focussed on winning a prize AND put some fun in the day-to-day grind. The fact is that the sales group does not need to believe they can hit large numbers…they only need to believe that they might be able to do it and they need to undertake all the activities necessary to do the best that they can. Like the little engine that could, all they need is the incentive to try.

The salesperson perception of getting a Rolex for being the best sales person has much more perceived value than actual cost, and the net cost of $5k for the Rolex is far less than the motivational gain for the salesforce (even if you only have 2-3 salespeople). Also, the salesperson who wins will wear it as a badge of honor.

Other approaches, such as giving a stack of one dollar bills or a dinner out, have similar motivational effects for the salespeople, but the Rolex incentive is my favorite (the other ideas do, however, allow you to scale the idea to your budget). If you don’t have a salesforce, consider doing the same for your head of e-commerce or whoever needs that extra spark to get the year off right!

Think about it. What would you do for a Rolex?

January 11, 2006

Does the Web 2.0 tag reduce innovation?

Posted in Innovation at 11:34 pm by scottmaxwell

I was sitting at lunch yesterday with Firas Bushnaq, co-founder and CEO of eEye Digital Security (one of my portfolio companies). Part of our discussion centered around Ajax and Web 2.0. Firas had an interesting point that perhaps the Web 2.0 themes tend to reduce innovation as they make people think about a specific set of themes rather than what they are truly trying to accomplish and then expressing their desire in the best way possible with available technologies (or creating new technologies).

Perhaps getting too stuck on the themes creates a “box” that developers live within? Perhaps also, the themes create the desire to utilize as many of the themes as possible so that they live within the entire box, thereby adding complexity without adding utility (rather than the volume inside and outside the box that best expresses the intent of the developers)?

I am sure that the original intent of the term “Web 2.0” was to give a theme for a conference, which turned into a “tag” for innovative web apps. Perhaps at this point, the “tag” has outlived its usefulness of expanding innovation and now does create constraints as many of the themes have played out? Or, perhaps the themes continue to resonate and will help innovators brainstorm new ideas that will lead to better services?

Interesting questions.

7 Habits of Highly Successful Developers

Posted in Innovation, Product Development at 10:13 pm by scottmaxwell

As long as I am on the topic of development, I recently found a great number of links to Phil Chu‘s great set of resources for programmers, including Seven Habits of Highly Effective Programmers. Great material for emerging development teams…

Patent Process and Resources- some practical steps to take

Posted in Innovation, management at 9:51 pm by scottmaxwell

I mentioned our Insight Development Forum in my last post. Another topic for our forum was patents. (I am becoming increasingly concerned with the patent system, but it seems that the pragmatic approach for most companies is to seek patents at this point.) I had a post on patents in my David vs. Goliath series, but continue to try to determine the absolute simplest and most effective approaches to resolving patent issues.

In December I was talking to a senior lawyer from BMC about the topic, and he told me about Wong Cabello, a boutique IP law firm, that has the kind of expertise and lawyers that have the right fit and expertise to help emerging growth technology companies with patents. I was originally introduced to Coe Miles, a Ph.D. with deep technology expertise and start-up experience. I had a great conversation with Coe, and thought that he would be a great guy to work on some of these issues with our portfolio companies, starting with a presentation at our Development Forum. Coe’s back went out at the last minute, so he asked his partner (and founder of the firm), David Cabello to present in his place.

I asked David to give the “101” of patents, as I was not sure what the common denominator was for the group (I also think that everyone has pre-conceived notions of IP legal issues which aren’t always correct). David shared his thoughts as well as some war stories from his days at Compaq.

My takeaways (filtering out all of the patent law issues and all of the traps and opportunities that good patent lawyers can tell you about):

David recommended two basic patent strategy points:

  1. Develop a strategy for pursuing patent protection. What are the core technologies that you wish to protect and why? Revisit this strategy periodically.
  2. Develop a strategy for pursuing foreign patent protection. There are a lot of countries (read more costs!). Where are your major competitors and where is your customer base. Revisit this strategy periodically.

I particularly liked several of David’s very practical steps for managing the day-to-day patent process:

  • Give incentives for each member of the development staff to submit short “invention disclosures” that describe the problem, the solution, and why the solution is novel. David suggested $25 or a dinner out for each disclosure. (I have also heard of larger companies having a quota for disclosures as well as patents…not sure which is best.)
  • Set up an IP group to review the invention disclosures periodically and decide which to move forward with. David pointed out that it will probably be budget that sets the bar for the number of disclosures to move forward with (assuming innovation in the company and an incentive to create the invention disclosures).
  • Do not bother reviewing third party patents (it will take too much resource and you won’t necessarily get to a meaningful answer).
  • Contact a good patent attorney to prosecute the patent application (Wong Cabello comes highly recommended).
  • A basic patent will cost about $8-10k if done regularly and if you build a relationship with the right firm.

I can easily see this process being executed at emerging growth technology companies without consuming too much in the way of resources.

The Wong Cabello group is very accessible and helpful. They are more than willing to offer up advice and come with great recommendations. Going forward, I will be offering up these process steps and Wong Cabello to my portfolio companies who are looking for help in this area…

Development Process Tool- Check out Rally’s Product

Posted in Product Development at 8:46 pm by scottmaxwell

We had our annual Development Forum yesterday in Cambridge (Don Dodge has a post on some of his take-aways). This forum is one of several that we put on each year for our portfolio companies (and a small number of others) to promote best practices in various areas.

One of the special attendees and presenters was Ryan Martens from Rally Software Development. I was first introduced to Ryan by Brad Feld of Mobius Venture Capital, as Brad is an investor in Ryan’s company (and has become a friend through our work together as VC advisors to Microsoft) and was interested in gaining an introduction to one of my portfolio companies. I checked with our CTO, Steve Rabin, after the introduction and Steve told me that he had evaluated Rally for another portfolio company and was a “huge fan” of the product. I had a follow-up conversation with the guys from Rally and both Steve and I thought that they would be great to include in the forum yesterday (they rang all of our bells).

I spoke to the Rally team (Ryan as well as Tim Miller and Don Hazell) before our Monday night cocktail party, and they told me more about the Rally product and services and the traction that they are getting with customers. I then went to our cocktail party and met three companies (two of which are my portfolio companies) that are using Rally’s product, all giving glowing reviews (this is a critical group, so I took the comments pretty seriously).

Net net, by the time Ryan presented at the conference (he gave an excellent presentation), I was a huge believer in what they are doing and am recommending that all development groups at least take a look at it (which will probably lead to a lot of new users). While many companies compare themselves to Salesforce.com, these guys truly are the Salesforce.com for developers. They not only have the on-demand (SAAS) product for managing the agile product development process, but also have a top notch professional services group to help companies implement the agile process AND they can connect to products that the development group is currently using. The other nice thing about their product is that it is easy to get started with and relatively low cost (similar to the Salesforce.com pricing model).

Take a look at their site and the Rally quick tour demo. Let me know what you think…

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