Creative Destruction At Work Again

The so-called creative destruction is a natural process that is currently eliminating many businesses such as newspapers. One can argue with it, one can try to deny it, but that’s about what you can do with it.

Creative destruction has many forms. It can mean market elimination, such as when Craigslist destroys the market of classified ads. Or, it can mean commoditization, which is what Fotolia, iStockPhoto, and now PhotoXpress are doing to the business of stock images.

The last one being the first to give away A LOT of images free-of-charge.

I worry about the photographic profession. It used to be that you had to pay upwards of $500 to purchase a single photo for your presentation. These days, I can feed an entire slide-deck with rich media for less that $20.

What’s really happening, though, is that amateurs* being equipped with affordable digital equipment are entering a market that has previously been closed to them. Crowding the market with supply, they drive the prices down with each shot they take. That’s how PhotoXpress can now offer 600 thousand freebies.

True art is not going to depreciate as a result, but anything less-than-awesome is an enormous pressure to price at or close to $0.

If I were a non-Pullitzer-winning photographer, I’d be deeply worried about my financial outlook. If I were a product manager at any of these companies, though, I would be worried as well. Being in the commodity business is not bad per-se (just ask your phone company about their profit margin from every SMS you send!) but you have to be big or get big enough very quickly AND customers are not really interested in your product innovations. Not as much as they would be if your product were not a commodity.

And I don’t think that the business of stock images is at a point where further innovation wouldn’t matter. My opinion is, then, that the commoditization / creative destruction has happened too quickly and too rapidly here.

Then again, one can argue with it but that’s not going to change anything. Here is hoping that the guys won’t stop innovating even as they are busy slashing prices every day.

The importance of being earnest

You can’t screw around and expect to make it BIG TIME.

What I’ve seen today at the WebExpo 2009 was just that: a somewhat serious attempt at delivering a talk, or a pitch, with hope that it’ll stick. And I liked all of them; after all, I wanted to learn from what they had to say. The trouble is, anybody can be “kind-of” successful after giving it some effort, but: if you’re about to make any effort at all, why don’t you give it your best? How about knocking some socks off?

Easier said than done, I readily admit.

What prompted me to blog this was the talk by Peldi about his story of bootstrapping a ‘successful’ microISV. I put successful in quotes because Peldi is, of course, a mini-Microsoft in his own right; a wildly successful entrepreneur that we can’t really take any advice from without being misled. However, what was worth following and imitating and what could truly benefit every one of the hopefuls in the room was this: his passion and seriousness.

You could miss the seriousness because he was so funny but it was there. No screwing around; focus. Determination.

We in the tech business are easily distracted by the latest fad and acronym but clearly what counts isn’t just technical savvy but putting all things required to make it work together. Values, learning, passion, skills, you name, you’ve got to have it – and want to be good in it. It takes some serious work and concentration.

Passion glues it together. Not just wanting to ‘make it’ but actually wanting to do something great. Something valuable.

Bottom line for me was, testing and trying it out makes no sense. Dive in and do all you can; that’s what’s going to make the difference. A useful lesson indeed.

Requirements defined – the fun way

What’s the difference between an entrepreneur and a consultant?

No, this is not a lead-in to a joke.

Both get things done, but the entrepreneur has the ownership of the problem. The consultant can always walk away.

I’ve been in consulting long enough to know – and feel – the difference. Inasmuch as I love to solve other people’s problems, I’ve felt compelled to create some for myself; then solve them, for myself.

And so I did.

WHY

The #1 problem software project team face is not knowing what to do.The #2 problem is knowing it.

Communicating “what needs to be done” is hard. So hard that there are specialists (requirements analysts, business analysts, etc.) whose sole job is to translate information flowing between the so-called “stakeholders” (people with desires and money to satisfy them) and developers (designers, vendors, …) Even though they all speak the same language. Many times, the developer (and not just a software guy: in the broadest sense anyone who’s making stuff someone else desires) will either not know what the client wants or think he does but be utterly wrong.

No software or tool can make that effortless. Defining the product, the scope, the vision, or the requirements, all that will always be a human activity where tools can merely help.

Or, they can stand in the way, forcing their way of thinking and methodologies and “best practices” down everyone’s throat. Which has been the case with many “requirements management” systems out there.

And so I set out on a mission: to help people get the right things done by creating and tracing their ideas the fun way, or at least the suck-free way, and doing so together so that everyone is in the loop.

WHAT

It wasn’t about building a better mousetrap.

There’s quite a lot of good-enough tools for “managing” the “software lifecycle” and such (throw in your favorite buzzword). I did not set out to compete with DOORS. Or with Basecamp, for that matter.

Instead, I’ve focused on the process of formulating and perfecting ideas, weeding out those that won’t make it in the sunlight, and deciding which ones will.

This usually happens on paper. And in email. And no matter what, it gets messy pretty quickly. Changes get lost, intentions forgotten or mis-shapen, and even when there’s a nice Word document at the end, the time-span between handing it over to the developers and testing out a live product tends to be so long that those ideas that you want to help come true change many, many times (and not just because the world keep spinning – you do, too).

Keeping track of shit and knowing when shit changes is crucial to getting shit done.

And so I’ve begun to think and prototype a tool that would help me and you along the way.

HOW

I am just starting out. That’s after maybe a year working on it. Sounds pretty ridiculous considering the startups that put the shit out after a 72-hour sprint. But hey, it’s a one-man attempt at world domination. And that takes time.

The website has been out for about 4-5 months. The app started looking barely-good-enough about 2 months ago. At this point I’m re-thinking most of it, and making it a real business in the process. Just learned the LLC that’s behind it is – finally! – established and in Good Standing  in the state of New Hampshire, US of fucking A.

What’s next?

Next, I must come out. It’s not an easy thing to do, and this post is one of the first things I’m doing to do that.

I am putting myself out there to re-think and re-define and pro-mote the way people gather and perfect ideas and make them happen. Not an easy task but as Hugh McLeod said in his Microsoft cartoon, “Change the world or go home.” How’s that for raising the bar, eh?

If you’ve gotten this far, the problem I’ve described sounds familiar to you and you’re probably looking for a solution to it. Well then, why don’t you go ahead and test-drive Playground, the application that I’ve made, so that you know if the solution I am proposing is one that could help you?

It is my intention to do this the right way, the customer-driven way. I am working with people who are trying Playground out to make sure that they can define, plan, and implement the ideas they have in a effective (and not just efficient) way.

Let me know what you think.

Game on

Joel Spolsky delivered a rather painful blow to Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman and other pushers of wishful thinking. He says:

[W]hat’ts been driving me crazy over the last year… an unbelievable proliferation of anecdotes disguised as science, self-professed experts writing about things they actually know nothing about, and amusing stories disguised as metaphors for how the world works. Whether it’s Thomas Friedman, who, it seems, cannot go a whole week without inventing a new fruit-based metaphor explaining everything about the entire modern world, all based on some random gibberish he misunderstood from a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur, or Malcolm Gladwell with his weak theories on tipping points, crazy incorrect theories on first impressions, or utterly lunatic theories on experts, it all becomes insanely popular simply because the stories are fun and interesting and everybody wants to hear a good story.

Ouch.

Add to that the recent backlash against the Long Tail, and we’ve finally got a discussion going. And that’s great.

The last couple of years have been incredibly productive in terms of new thinking, experimenting with approaches to business problems, etc. – but we’ve perhaps got too carried away. As it happens when one is in a middle of a “creative rush”, the critical mind gets to stand by and wait for its moment.

I am as guilty as the next guy of milking analogies and anecdotes to examine trends and arrive at conclusions that were at the time of writing speculative at best. It’s the nature of punditry. Whether or not there’s an agenda involved is besides the point: pushing the envelope always includes holding your breath and hoping your assumptions work.

I believe in the need of advancing unproven ideas, and I don’t mind stretching it way too far; it just makes for a great topic for discussion. You’ll never get far enough if you just crunch numbers. Numbers are boring – by themselves.

But – but but but – at some point the discussion must get real. Call it reality check, it needs to happen. Not too soon and not a minute later.

There is not a better testing ground for ideas than the marketplace. The Long Tail is an idea that is going to be either proven or refuted in the marketplace. So is the “flat Earth”. So is “CRM 2.0″.

What the critics of the above-mentioned ideas are saying is that the marketplace has rejected them, or not proved them enough anyway. Good stories aside, these ideas either have enough merit to survive (and adapt, morph, etc.) or they will die a natural death. Hopefully not without a good fight.

Bring it.

Quote of the day

A commercial company’s ability to innovate is inversely proportional to its proclivity to publicly release conceptual products. – Kontra

Certainly a well-pointed argument. I would think, though, that creating conceptual products is a way of having your engineers and designers release their frustrations from the innovation race where every victory is hard-fought yet short-lived.

What will Amazon stand for in 20 years?

What does the word Amazon evoke in your mind?

Could be the river in Brazil. That’s if you are a nomad who’s been traveling the jungles of South America for the past 15 years without having met a human being (except for those pesky cannibals).

Otherwise, it’s probably books.

Or, it could be the cloud computing platform Amazon provides; that’s if you are a software developer.

These two don’t seem to be complementary services you would expect from a large web retailer. Yet, as Nicholas Carr writes, Amazon Web Services have happened almost inevitably. As Amazon’s gross margins are quite low, the company has needed to build a very efficient and open computing platform. Which, in turn, turned out to be a new revenue opportunity on its own merits.

IBM used to sell typewriters; and I still remember the old IBM clocks telling time on Czech railway stations.

Nokia used to produce bike and car tires.

They didn’t cling to their business models when an opportunity arose. Great companies don’t; they grab the opportunity by the neck, go with it, and change along the way. And so it’s quite possible Amazon will be the undisupted leader in [fill in your computing fantasy here] in 2020; books long gone.

Take a look at your incumbent of choice: old Telcos, licensed software vendors, city councils. Which one seems to get it? Does Microsoft? Does your government?

Why “good enough” is good enough

Humans strive for perfection. Or do we? David Schatsky of Jupiter Research reviews the trend to towards cheaper and less-than-perfect goods and finds it interesting. I find it symptomatic of a well-known phenomenon – Moore’s Law.

Compact cassette was introduced in 1963 and hasn’t been end-of-lifed until early 00′s. Compact Disc is about 20 years younger, and is already on the verge of obsolesce. While MP3 is nowhere close to be unseated as the current format of choice, it will eventually meet the same end.

When standards change too quickly, it doesn’t make sense to invest too much in “getting it right” since we’ll have to be getting something else right very soon. Continue reading

Small is the new… small

When it comes to innovation, it pays to be small. Or does it?

I think sometimes programmers forget how much work it is to create software at large companies. What may seem like a no-brainer five line code change to us on the outside is perhaps five man-weeks of work once you factor in all the required process overhead. – Jeff Atwood

And the same goes for any other ideas; those who are represented by a programming code, and all the others. If you run a one-man shop, you only have to convince yourself to do such-and-such. If you have five bosses, you have to convince them and their bosses and a dozen more stakeholders, etc. So, how come big companies are still able to innovate at all?

Maybe it’s got something to do with the millions of dollars and man-days.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to a man with a vision. And the guts to make his vision a reality. Some of these men, despite the popular misconception, work at big companies. And somehow, somehow, they disrupt the existing order and by-pass the processes, regulations, compliance, and make shit happen.

And when they do, they have resources that small-timers can only dream of. That’s why Silverlight was developed at Microsoft and not in someone’s garage. Having the money and/or the clout helps.

Small it beautiful. Small is also… small. It’s only those times when markets change, completely, when a single guy with an idea and determination can change the world on his own, such as Wozniak did with Apple. As much as it pains me, those times are far and few in between.

Shooting the duck blindfolded

I’m reading Founders at Work, a rather chatty collection of interviews that Jessica Livingston made with 25 software startup founders. It will be an even more interesting read 5 years from now, given that not all companies covered are, uh, current heavyweights (Apple – sure, Excite – wwwwhoat?)

There’s an interesting thought in the chapter about Adobe. Charles Geschke (co-founder) explains Adobe’s continued success and market leadership by “shoot[ing] at where the duck is going to be, not where the duck is.” (p. 290).

Now, the story of Adobe’s success was that of 80′s and 90′s. Look at the market now: release cycles are no longer counted in years and perhaps not even in months anymore. Can you still bet real money on where the software market is going to be in, say, 5 years from now? My hunch is – not that much. Which could explain the amount of copycats in the Web 2.0 arena and not much real innovation in terms of truly new products, experiences, etc. Everyone’s waiting to see where the platforms will be, what business models will emerge, what kind of real value is there waiting to be created and distributed.

Which doesn’t invalidate Geschke’s notion, not by any measure; it just makes the shooting the duck even more difficult, as if the duck was going in several directions at once and you were blindfolded. Good luck with that.

“Me, Inc.” revisited

What if all cubicles had a security camera streaming a live feed to YouTube? What if they do? What if the cubicle-dwellers are playing theatre as if they were, in fact, being broadcasted to unknown masses?

Via Johnnie Moore – “64 per cent [of Brits] said they in effect became somebody else as they reached their desk.” (Financial Times) As opposed to a third of the straight-talking Dutch, and I suppose the number doesn’t get any lower than that.

And come performance review time, there is no actual person in the room: only avatars.

I have just finished the Free Agent Nation, so count me biased. As much as I’d like to blame The Man, I can’t: we do it to ourselves voluntarily. Accepting the caste system (Junior Widget Cranker, Senior Widget Cranker, Vice President Of Widget Cranking), feeding on the corporate new-speak (team-player, goal-oriented, place-your-dash-separated-slogan-here), separating work (as in creating value to be exchanged for another value) from life itself; such is the unfortunate legacy of the Industrial Age. So yes, it’s only natural to play Kabuki theater while being “at work”. An actual human being wouldn’t survive there.

It will take a generation of free agents to change that.