Considering Your Stakeholders

I was listening to a final demo at NYC Startup Weekend recently when one of the presenters uttered a muffled word that sounded a bit like "ushers".  One of the other judges quickly chimed in, "Did you say.. 'Users'?" to which the presenter said, "Yes".  "Do you mean 'Users' or 'Clients'?" was the next question, and the presenter responded: "Uhh.. Clients, yes."

This got me thinking a lot in the days that followed.  We work with lots of teams that are providing value at varying spots on the Services vs. Product continuum, where the definitions of "Client", "Partner", "Customer", and "User" often get conflated.  A famous letter-writer once said, "No man can serve two masters", but as companies, particularly on the Service end of things, are finding: businesses need to deliver value to multiple parties, all of whom may play a critical role in growing a company's levels of engagement, loyalty, and revenue growth.

These parties are company Stakeholders.

Of course investors are Stakeholders, as well as management teams, employees, and advisors.  But in today's climate of lightning-fast product cycles and information and pricing transparency, it's incumbent for Product Managers, Engineers, Marketing Heads, and CEOs to remember that developer partners, design contractors, and distribution agents (among others) are all Stakeholders in the business, sometimes as much as paying clients/customers and end users are.

Consider HP's recent decision to shelve the webOS TouchPad after just 48 days on the market, and this open letter to HP on an "investment in your DeadPad product".  The dollar-value of his investment in HP's product and brand is merely one method of evaluating his Stake, while his time, effort, and obvious willingness to broadcast (positively or negatively) are others.

And what about the Developers, Designers, and Strategic Partners that sunk thousands of hours and millions of dollars creating and delivering the apps whose unique content and user experiences would be equally crucial drivers for customer adoption of the TouchPad in the first place?  Those Stakeholders will have to consider that immense investment largely a write-off, and a painful one.  How will they look at the prospect of building future apps, tools, and services for HP in light of this recent sting?

Users, Partners, and Customers are Stakeholders whose actions, time, money, and voluntary evangelism ought not to be looked at as simply "click-throughs", "conversions", "lifetime values", and worst of all, "churn".  Mature businesses and startups alike would do well not to forget their constituents have made tangible and significant investments in their products and services, and to address decision-making from the top-down in this light.

Lest we also forget: Stakeholders often wear many hats -- Content Partners can be Marketers, Lessors are often Lessees, and power Sellers are often active Buyers.  Acknowledging these cross-value chains and paying close attention to optimizing any one significant Stakeholder's interests will very likely improve many other core business functions: stronger content partnerships gets you wider readership/viewership, more and varied inventory attracts larger and more diversified buyers, while pulling out all the stops in customer service for a loyal User sometimes gets you massively valuable PR.

(Not to mention, one of your satisfied product or platform partners may just well end up being your Largest Stakeholder one day..)


GN | 23 Aug 11



Hotlist: Time + Space Social Decision-Making, or, Where are We Going Friday Night?

(I am always impressed with those Investors who A) Work closely with current and future portfolio companies on strategy, product, and bus-dev, B) Review dozens of startups a week and give useful feedback, C) Make frequent and valuable introductions across businesses, D) AND have time to Tweet, much less BLOG.  Much respect.  I have loads of trouble finding time for the last one, in particular..)

If you are like many people across major cities, college campuses, and even small towns, you have several Pain Points, among others:

  • I'd like to do/try/see something new -- Where should I go?
  • I'd like to meet new people with common values, interests, and behaviors -- How can I find them?
  • I really want to mingle with people representing a diversity of backgrounds and passions -- What are the crowds like at _____ place?

These are Pain Points because 1) These questions take up a disproportionate amount of time to answer, and 2) The answers are often inaccurate, of dubious credibility, and unhelpful.

Social Discovery using Chrono-Location* Broadcasts like Check-Ins, Tweets, and Place Posts have largely been solved for Real-Time uses, or the Now.  The Near-Future Time, or, "Where are We Going Friday?" (for example), is a social problem that is universal, recurring, and ready to be addressed in a manner that delivers useful, actionable information and saves people countless hours of aimless web wandering.

We have recently invested in Hotlist to support Co-Founders Chris Mirabile and Gianni Martire's vision of providing valuable Social Decision-Making Utility across Place, Interests, and Social Gatherings for the time to come -- the Near-Future.  Hotlist enables Users to take a peek inside bars, parties, special events, concerts, restaurants and more to Discover crucial aspects of both the Crowd that will be attending and the Venue itself, in order to make the best, most relevant plans for being out and about.  

I won't get too technical on the data and parsing problems that the team is solving but suffice it to say they are not small (we are very glad Hal Stern is an Advisor).  Over 100 million Plans and RSVPs are indexed and relevantly surfaced to individuals by Hotlist everyday.  But Users only care about how easy it is to use and how much value they get from Hotlist in improving their Social Experiences and Plan-Making.  

Hotlist aims to build on its robust current platform to become the Social Discovery Engine that generates targeted, relevant, useful suggestions on where you might like to go and what to do next, and we believe the team's focus on delivering decision-making, time-saving, experience-enhancing Social Utility will keep the Hotlist community growing and very happy.


*The term "Geolocation" bothers me.. in general I believe people are mostly trying to reference space AND time.  


Catalyzing Events And User Acquisition

This past Monday evening, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a fireside-format "Experts for Entrepreneurs" hosted by Tipping Point Partners.  There were 4 startups at early stages of development (just launched or just about to, in all cases), and despite some variance around their service/product and customer/user focus, common themes (and problems) were of course, User Acquisition and Engagement.

While these topics can and do merit deep reflection and rigorous testing, one thing that kept surfacing in my mind and throughout the discussion was a focus on Catalyzing Events.  In one case, a "friend-of-friends" dating site conveyed having early traction but wondered aloud how best to both grow and sustain their User Base.  In another, a site that links travelers with locals also pondered these issues.  

Many companies iterate on an intuitive idea and successfully build great services/products around them and but neglect the fact that the Calendar may sometimes be a powerful tool at their disposal.  Particularly in these cases, where the two startups are focusing on solving friction around actual interpersonal and experiential activity, it's very possible that Time and Event-based initiatives might drive higher engagement and encourage Users to share and broadcast more with their networks.

In the case of the dating site, we contemplated that one of the most common and effective enviroments for "setups" is a group dinner, or small party.  Why not organize one, (or better, several, with specific relevant hooks like cultural/activity interests), revolving around the arrival (albeit slowly!) of Spring in NYC?  Then Users would have a clear Call to Action, a finite time horizon for specific engagement, and a compelling reason to share with friends and possible New Users.

In many cases, venues and brands would be more than happy to foot the bill for food, beverage, and space for these kind of events (and of course, pay up in the future for cross-marketing.. Monetization anyone?) so the cost of acquisition can easily end up being at or close to zero.

Catalyzing Events provide a well-formed reason to act and engage as well as something concrete to share with networks and can work wonders for User Acquisition as well as deeper and more sustained engagement.


GN | 13 Apr 11



"Figur[e] out what the core issues are and then iterate against them."

I'm re-reading a piece on Palantir from June 2010, and this sentiment struck me deeply:

“If you are iterating on a product that you want to be important three years from now, it’s better to have engineers figuring out what the core issues are and then iterate against them. If you want to optimize on revenue [for the] next quarter…you want to be heavy on a sales force. We’re long on dealing with the most important problems…and short on what happens in the near term.”

     - Alex Karp, CEO and Co-Founder

Obsessive attention to core problems, core pain, and a rigorous, laser-like focus on solving these problems seems intuitive enough, but exceedingly rare in commercial enterprises of any size or thematic focus.  On the other hand, not everything that is best or optimal or beautiful in the world finds its way into the experience of (or purchase decisions by) individuals and organizations.  Sometimes the shape of the message and its delivery are as crucial as the message itself.  For example, Harvard College has made huge strides to improve financial aid as long ago as 2007, including the elimination of student Loans as a financing method in favor of ALL GRANTS based on financial need.  Yet to this day hundreds of high school students in NYC alone complain of "how expensive it is," and "how many loans you have to take on" in order to attend!

Much digital ink has recently been spilled over the debate between product focus versus marketing/messaging focus.  It would be difficult to make the case that absolute attention to one to the exclusion of the other is the "right" way.  What we have found in working with and speaking to entrepreneurs and founders is a recurring anxiety around a product that is extremely tight, reliable, and intuitive to use (and whose value is clear once used), and that very few People/Users know this.  Marketing, or the process of broadcasting to the world that you have a solution to a problem (whether it be analyzing massive data sets, deciding where to eat dinner Saturday, or financing a liberal arts education), isn't trivial, and it doesn't have to cost anything (on a net basis).

Do we really believe that the only reason one widget company has $80mm in revenue versus one that has just $5mm in revenue is that its product/solution is incontrovertibly superior?  On the other hand, if a venture is not hyper-aware of and surgically-focused on solving a problem or reducing friction, any amount of marketing may lead to an early exit, and not the liquidity-creating kind.


GN | 16 Feb 11


"The whole experience of communicating identity is up for redesign"

The above is a RT @annekejong, via @jack, who spoke at Stanford on Feb 9th and is very much on our collective mind in recent time.  

The dynamics of communicating identity are shifting faster than Chris Lee held office.  And identity has come to = check-ins, clickstreams, retweets, followers (and followings), tags, and likes as much as it = hometowns, ethnicities, college degrees, job titles, and genealogies (if not more).

Communication of these data may be on the precipice of becoming not so much an opt-in process as much as an opt-out.  It may be leaning towards inbound discovery rather than outbound broadcast.  And while this may seem concerning at first blush, it just may be as useful and serendipitous as seeing someone at a bar in March wearing Tar Heel Blue, overhearing someone order Pad Thai without nuts, or hearing the familiar accent of your parents' province in Pangasinan.  

We like the idea of a "redesign".  These are processes that could use a little upgrade.  Many smart and enterprising folks are concentrating loads of IQ-hours on indexing, mapping, and delivering identities cross-referenced for chrono-location and with lots of attention on past and real-time.  We are just as excited about identities as they will take shape (= discovery, utility, and choices in the time to come), and may have some neat things to talk about in the not-so-distant time ahead..


GN | 10 Feb 11