Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Web Innovator group demo companies

The Web Innovators Group started by David Beisel been one of my favorite Boston startup events for several years. I last went to one in 2008, and one event in which PunchBowl presented. Now having moved back to Boston, I found myself at the Web Inno 32 meeting.

The event maintains the same format: there are 3 main dishes: startups that present on the main stage, and several side dishes that have demo tables available to them. Selections are made by David, I assume.

The event has grown massively in size since 2008, reflecting the enthusiasm for startups in the Boston area. The caliber of the entrepreneurs presenting also seems to be much higher. Here are my reviews of the main dishes:

1. Best Vendor helps people discover business applications for tasks ranging from marketing to accounting; from note taking to personal productivity. Sign up is simple; you mention your 3 favorite apps, log in via LinkedIn, and you get application recommendations. The more you add applications and fill in your profile, the better your recommendations become.

The platform solves a legitimate problem; for businesses, it is not easy to find the best applications for a given category; for the companies making these applications, the cost of customer acquisition is pretty high. While the revenue model for Best Vendor is a little unclear, presumably they will likely depend on fees from the application providers in return for cheaper customer acquisition.

The one thing that was a bit lacking was the demo itself; I love demos that tell a story and present the application in Clayon Christensen's 'Job to be done' format. The idea is simple, but profound. Every product is hired to do a job. Present what job your product is doing, and then demo how it is doing that. Demo done. Instead, the demo featured on a bunch of features and moved haphazardly through different screens.

2. Kibits Labs was probably the coolest of the bunch; it is a IPhone application that enables rich group messaging. You really need to either see the demo or download and use it to experience it. The demo itself was presented very well; the CEO Matt Cutler discussed some real life use cases;he is a very successful serial entrepreneur and mentor at Techstars, and it is obvious that he has done this before. In particular the Thanksgiving case appealed to me. Let's say you have extended family, all of which cannot get together to celebrate. Instead, you invite everyone to a Kibits group, and its easy to share pictures, videos and keep it separate from all your other texting/email junk. The application shows updates, shifts between items effortlessly. With the coolness factor. Kibits won the Audience Choice award by a narrow margin.

3. My favorite was restaurant reviews site Tasted Menu. It solves a legitimate problem; how often have you asked a friend, or the server at the restaurant 'What is good here?' Well, hello Tasted Menu. It is very easy to find restaurants on the site, and look up top rated menu items. They are coming up with a mobile app soon as well. Currently they are based in Boston, but will expand to other cities shortly.

I find the team to be pretty impressive; a pretty young HBS grad as CEO, a UI designer from TripAdvisor, a Ranking and Reputation engineer from Google and a Food Anthropologist (yes, those exist) managing the food taxonomy. They have been around since 2009, and are likely to do very well.

So here is to the next batch of Kick Ass Webb Inno companies!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Real Work

I am always questioning myself - how can I do better work in a better manner? A TED talk by Jason Fried of 37 signals and author of Rework, talks about why work doesn't get done at the office. The first premise is that work is like sleep; when you go to sleep, you actually go to sleep in different phases till you actually hit deep sleep. The same is true of work, especially creative work. It is very hard to do high quality work when you are being constantly interrupted by managers and colleagues.

So what's the solution? The first step is to recognize that its these involuntary interruptions that are often more of a problem than voluntary interruptions like Facebook and Twitter. Jason rightly points out that no one would stop you from taking a 15 minute cigarette break. Why should companies stop you from taking a 15 minute Facebook break.

The next step: solve the problem by:

1. Encouraging uninterrupted work periods by using more passive methods of communication like email and IM rather than tapping someone on the shoulder and interrupting them. Doing so requires two aspects: using these methods, and also not being interrupted by these methods all the time. If you are someone like me who is constantly checking email (and trying to get rid of the habit), then an email interruption is as bad as someone tapping me on the shoulder

2. Set expectations: emails will not be answered instantly. As a manager, don't hold a grudge against an employee who did not drop everything and respond to your email. If there is something truly urgent, call the person.

3. Hold less meetings. Invite fewer people to meetings. Think of how much time is wasted in meetings. Schedule meetings at a more appropriate time e.g., early mornings might be a better for people to get their work done, so schedule it later in the day.

For more, see the video below...

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Now I admit it, I am not the biggest sports fan. Monday night football - what football? Baseball? Check once a month - I am all set. But my mind went back to one instant my life where sports - specifically, the game I love most, Cricket - taught me several things.

I was in the 11th grade. Or maybe 12th. I was part of the cricket team of my section vs. other sections. We played in a cricket field between the junior and senior school buildings. The ground was relatively small, so batsmen enjoyed hitting bowlers - especially fast bowlers - for lots of runs. Lots and lots of runs.

I was probably the shortest of the medium pace to fast bowlers. I didn't have the swing or the pace to trouble batsmen on that pitch, and my peers were being hit left, right and center for lots of runs. That is when I decided to take a different strategy.

Rather than run in and bull with full pace, I ran in slowly, bowled at a slow pace and kept a good line and length. The ball would typically stay low, and batsmen found it harder to hit than the other fast bowlers.

My team did pretty well, and my performance as a bowler was pretty steady throughout the season. Our captain trusted me, and the umpire - who also happened to be our class teacher - came and complemented me on my work. Until the crunch time.

In the last match of the season, we were playing against the odd-on favorites. They were close to a victory and needed a few runs off the last over of the day. Our captain trusted - ME! I was delighted at this opportunity and ran into bowl, confident that I could contain and even bowl out the other team. The first ball I bowled was - well, it was wide. That's when I began to lose my cool. The second ball was - again, wide! The next two were rather easy to strike and the opposition team hit a couple of boundaries to win the match.

It was a rather embarrassing moment for me - after a season of doing well, I had failed when it mattered most. But now that I look back at that episode, I realize several things:

1. It is hard to decide whether a particular event is good or bad. On the surface, this was a terrible outcome - my team lost, and I was to blame. But if we hadn't lost, I don't think I would remember this instant some 13 years later, and I certainly wouldn't have learned much. They say failure is a great teacher. I agree

2. Second, I remember the incident as great not because of the outcome, but because of the process. In that season, I gave it my all. In general, I came up with a pretty good performance, but also failed. What matters to me at the end of the day is the process I went through - deciding a different strategy than other bowlers, being consistent and persistent - rather than the outcome. And so I am happy - and follow the philosophy of investing in the process, not the outcome to this day