Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shopping for Horus

Walking through the Khan al-Khalili Market in Cairo I met a clairvoyant merchant.  He welcomed me into his shop and let me peruse around at his amazing collection of ancient Egyptian graven images.

At one point my eyes alighted on a delightful sculpture of Horus.  He said, "You probably can't afford that one," and pointed me to another one that he thought was in my price range.  I asked, "How do you know what I'm able to afford?"  He said, "Because I watched what you paid attention to when you came in, and they were all items within a very specific price range.  My guess is that you have less than $10 in your pocket right now."  He was right.  He was able to assess my liquidity as easily as a doctor estimating visual acuity using a Snellen chart.  It left me with an interesting concept, you can measure a man by how he limits his vision.

There have been tech projects I've worked on over the last decade where I believed the scope my colleagues were considering was due to their perspective on what they thought was within their grasp.  (Either restrictions of wallet, market scalability or marketing potential)  Often what we think is possible is constrained by our perceptions of our resources.  Within an individual company, your perception of your own resources and your potential is often definite.  It can limit your thinking.

What I like about being in business development is that we don't have to constrain our thinking by immediate "build vs. buy" decisions within the company, which tends to limit your ambition by your existing pool of assets/capital.  Instead we can look for partners in the market who offer us scale of marketing that we ourselves do not have and offer them in trade resources that we have which they lack. 

In my field, entrepreneurs tend to dream scenarios of market saturation with their product.  That's unrealistic, but their drive leads to the invention of disruptive technology advances that can get us part way there.  In actuality you can get further through synergistic partnerships than you can by Pinky & the Brain's "Try to take over the world!" mentality.  As Charles Darwin put it: In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed."

It is collaboration, not competition that wins the day.  While I am fine with haggling, I prefer the collaborative synergistic negotiation.  I prefer to trade in a way that makes my counterpart much better off than I can in a haggle over fixed resources.  Collaboration can't happen in a merchant transaction.  The merchant and I had to compete in our negotiation until we found an appropriate margin for him that was palatable to my skimpy wallet.

In the world of direct commerce there aren't many synergistic trades.  I might have dreamed for an alabaster Horus, but it was clearly beyond anything that was likely to happen.  Merchant transactions are one to one ratios of assets.  His flexibility on price was limited by the margin he needs atop what it took him to acquire the product himself.  Little in this transaction can lead to him being exponentially benefited from the transaction.  He said that he wanted me to have a Horus, so we haggled to about $5, at which point we were both happy.

Fortunately, in the world of technology, we can render services to each other that are far greater than our limited capital resources. That's why it's my sandbox of choice.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

If someone tweets in rural Haiti, and they're using a feature phone, does anyone read it?

During the recent Tsunami in Japan, the internet infrastructure upon which Twitter and Facebook (including their mobile equivalents) are based, was taken offline in eastern Japan near the epicenter of the earthquake.  However, social networks that were built on the widely distributed feature phones in Japan continued to transmit messages over GPRS (General Packet Radio Service).  As a result, 80% of short message communication during the disaster was made on the social network maintained by Gree, a leading social network which is embedded on these feature phones distributed in Japan. *

This brought me to realize that other internet initiatives in markets dominated by feature phones could leverage similar approaches to get communities onto the web grid.  Most networks in the developing world are feature phone-dominated.  Though they may lack the GPRS network of Japan, they do have the ability to distribute bundled apps pre-loaded into the widely distributed low cost mobile handsets.  Though these networks are mostly dominated by voice and SMS messaging, there is a potential to use data hubs that would synchronize with web-based servers to deliver some compelling internet based applications in these markets.  (For an example of this SMS-based concept see Mobile-XL)

Last year I had the opportunity to consider this problem with Random Hacks of Kindness which hosted a hackathon around the United Nations Global Pulse initiative.   Our challenge was to consider how current internet technology could reach markets like rural regions of Haiti post-quake for monitoring and dispatching disaster-relief initiatives.  The motive was to enable commercial tool sets run by for-profit businesses like Twitter and Facebook to be used in markets currently beyond their reach.  Naturally its easy for the most privileged in any society to use social communication tools to reach out for help.  The voices that sometimes most need to be heard though are those without access to these tools.  If we find a way for communities that have access to feature phones to "get on the internet grid" by connecting SMS gateways to web servers that then render these messages into internet protocol, the for-profit community can go the rest of the way in developing the algorithms necessary to watch for trending signals that deserve attention from aid organizations. 

During South by Southwest Interactive convention Kate Schnepel of WildlifeSOS presented on how their organization is using a cumbersome workaround to just this problem.  Kartick Satyanarayan (pictured above with one of his rescued animals) is their main activist on the ground in India, often dispatched in parts of the country only accessible via voice and SMS communications.  He therefore sends updates from the field via SMS to someone with Internet connection who in turn tweets the update in real-time.  It's easy to see why it would be valuable for those in rural areas to have access to distributed SMS gateways that would obviate the need for this to be a two person task. 

Once we solve the hurdle of getting the signal to the web, which is purely technical, the matter of looking for signals from those in need of aid in the developing world can be addressed separately.  For example, the UN Global pulse hopes for a platform that could pick up mentions of the word "cholera" in a place that it has not been heard before which would allow its local branches to address the problem swiftly before it becomes a regional crisis.  This could be a simple signal amplification algorithm that analyses the linguistic landscape of chatter social/business communication for statistically uncommon signals.  If you apply tracking just to new phrases that come onto the scene, normalized for internet memes and news topics, then pay particular attention to those that spread the way diseases or word of disasters might, the UN Aid organizations and NGOs should then be able to respond to the crisis in a way that could prevent lasting damage to the community.

The Gree model of feature phone social networking applications on widely distributed devices, or the Mobile-XL method of providing SMS gateways to the web, may be just what under-served markets need to bring the boon of social media platforms to all regions of the globe.  As the popular revolutions in the Middle East have proven, it is crucial to have access to these advanced tools to bring attention and aid to areas of need.  Tunisia and Egypt had the benefit of these tools to amplify a signal that might otherwise have been mute to those outside their borders.  More people in the world can benefit from these amplification platforms.  The hurdle to bring it to them is not prohibitive.

*Presentation by Eiji Araki, VP of Product, Gree International speaking at the Japan Mobile Leaders Forum

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Kundun Moment

Last week an executive of a prominent internet company took stage in a prominent venue in San Francisco and laid out a product strategy that was identical to one I had penned one year ago.  He hailed this new platform as a vision of the future that would change the way all of us shop.  It took me back in time to my company's formation.  There were several product visions my colleagues and I had hatched over a few dinners and coffee/scotch sessions.  We filed several patent applications and began the search for engineers to develop our products.  We found one particular developer who had the requisite skills and had passion to realize our vision.  We disclosed everything about our platform concept.  Suddenly, with little explanation other than citing a conflict of interest, he bowed out of the project.   Unfortunately he had all the details of our product plan and marketing strategy and we had not yet put an NDA in place.  He hasn't returned emails since to inform us further on the development of his conflicting product.

The moment I heard the executive describing our product vision as his company's own, I felt the normal sinking feelings.  The circumstances of my experience with the engineer were so suspicious.  Of course I believed he had taken our ideas and presented them as his own to get hired into this company.  I realized that my competitor has much more resources than I did to bring the product to market swiftly.  In the moment that I realized that it might have been me on stage, announcing this product, I had a second realization.  In a sense it was me on stage, as I am a shareholder in his company!  This realization struck me like the moment in Martin Scorsese's film Kundun, where the Dalai Lama is able to understand with compassion the perspective of his Chinese attackers as they invade and overthrow his country.

Ideas and business models often do crop up simultaneously in isolation in Silicon Valley.  We're all exploring opportunities to address the same business needs of the market with many of the same approaches and tools.  Here entire business models do crop up like pre-Pasteur concepts of spontaneous generation.  It's just a matter of who can build them fastest. 

With this realization I am freed up to pursue other even larger opportunities that remain unsolved…

Monday, April 4, 2011

Drive Into the Tsunami

This morning I was struck by the story of Susumu Sugawara on CNN who said that when he heard the tsunami sirens on Oshima, he jumped into his boat, riding into the oncoming wave to avoid losing his boat and risking his island's isolation in the aftermath.

The fact of his survival is miraculous.  The testament of his humble dedication to his community and his boat, to whom he said, "If we live or die, we'll be together," is profoundly touching.  (As he fled land he bade an apologetic farewell to all his other boats whom he could not save.)

It is amazing to think how many stories were lost in this tragedy.  I wondered this morning if we might be able to develop personal or device black-boxes (the way that all airplanes have to prove as record of what happened to them).  I say this not to be morbid as in the case of the posthumous/forensic case of airplanes. 

When I was in Jordan last month I irresponsibly hiked up a mountain late in the day.  When night fell faster than anticipated due to cloud cover, I was able to use my photographic history of my hike to piece together where I had been and the geology around me to help me find my way back to the road.  But if my phone had been dropping geotagged pins as I hiked, that would not have been necessary as I could have just retraced my steps.

App developers could take note of this use-case.  As it could be easily developed using Skyhook or other background geo-lookup tools already existing in most smartphones.  And perhaps in the future we'll all have devices with us that communicate actively to servers to state our last-known position and current well-being if we are ever trapped in earthquake debris needing timely help.