Archive for August, 2007

Human-Powered Search Engines: The Hoards of Talent for Good use?

Jason Calacanis has started a new pet project which he is determined to drive to the scale of the Yahoo, Google or Microsoft search in the area of web information categorization. It’s the Mahalo Project.

The case apparently seems to be simple: There are lots of algorithm based search engines that, thanks to all the SEOs, you get a lot of junk which isn’t meant to be there. We are starting to slowly see a reliving moment of how the web used to be till Google came along and put things in some sort of order. It might all be unravelling back to chaos yet again. [Needless to say, Jason calls all these SEO optimizers by very interesting and radical names – none of which are pleasant.]

Mahalo aims to sort through information for 10,000 of the top keywords, using people. Their task is to look up for specific and accurate information using google or any search engine, create the page and then manage it. It’s going to be a full-strength manual work involved here. Apparently with the venture already funded with Sequoia, the concept has gained steam and is already available in some format – though nowhere close to the envisioned experience.

Jason is also looking at crowdsourcing the entire deal, so that individuals can take up work, to create such pages with accurate information. They get paid for doing that.

Now, crowds of people contributing.. hmm… where does that sound familiar. Yep, Wikipedia. It is a well known fact that Jimmy Wales is working on a search engine project named Wikia. The correlation between Wikipedia and Wikia is that they’d both be contributed by the general public of users and consumers. Given the success of Wikipedia and the learnings in managing and stabilizing the quality of the content, the same can be put to very good use within Wikia.

So the question remains, Is Jason Calacanis going after Jimmy’s Project? And if this is the sort of future we are looking at, ventures which to leverage the “human” aspect and touch, what is the possibility of opportunities that countries such as china and India bear, with that context?

Radio Stations: Pervasive Entertainment Everywhere

It seems that Mumbai is the only place in India which has a 24/7 English Radio station. Most of the other cities have these partial stations where there is english programming in certain times of the day, mixed with other regional-language programming.

First question: Why is that?

Secondly, Let me go to a bit extreme. If there were radio stations that played specific genres’ of music all day long, would it work. If not why? Or would it be “Slicing the Market too thin”?

Please post your comments here.

PS: I have something in mind while posting this. Will make a post on that once there is some discussion on this.

Canaan invests $5.25m in Cellcast Asia

Happy to share our investment in Cellcast Asia Holdings – Cellcast is in the business of participation content. They create interactive shows that run across TV, internet, radio and other media, and allow consumers to participate through SMS and IVR. The users pay to participate.

Quite of few mobile VAS investments have been in aggregation plays. It is my belief that in order to create sustained value, the business needs to be more than an intermediary – it needs to own at least either the content/application (a la T-Series), or the consumer relationship (a la 8888). Cellcast does both — it has a proprietary real time platform to enable participation content, develops its own shows on top of it, and owns the customer relationships. It still uses the telco for billing, but services a larger part of the value chain than most other players we have seen in VAS space.

Why are we not gaga over Zoho?

Zoho is arguably the ONLY global product to come out of India from ANY company, and its a sweet product. It gives mighty Google Apps a run for their money; and Zoho’s Creator is a path breaking innovative product.

So why is VentureWoods not talking more about Zoho? Is it because of lack of awareness of Zoho? Or is it because of lack of glamor due to being non VC funded?

1. Have you used Zoho?
2. Will you consider using any of their products for daily work? Why? Why Not?
3. Do you think Zoho can take on Google Apps or is the Google brand too big and Google quality too good?
4. What is the marketing advise you would give Zoho to gain a fair share of the applications space?

Note: I have nothing to do with Zoho, don’t know anyone there, but do use their products and I think they are brilliant.

21 August: Techcrunch reports Zoho making their services available offline; and check out what poster no. 8 in that thread has to say:


We have taken the first baby step in what we hope will be a long journey to build a global world class company in India . ( Kind of like Don Quioxte tilting at windmills)

We are still in stealth mode . On our website you can find details of our team and vision.

We see service providers and members as customers and one of the main planks of our thinking is “Delighting Customers”

Facebook app sells for $3m

It had to happen! We have talked about widget apps and the facebook platform on venturewoods before. A pure play facebook app “Where I’ve been” reportedly got acquired for $3m. It might seem like a small amount compared to the billions that make headlines these days, but IMHO its just the starting point — this thing is going to get more momentum.

So what do you think? Is someone calling a beginning of a bubble 🙂 There is an arbitrage here – if you have a smart facebook idea, and can bootstrap it well (remember, very little marketing money required here), this might be your first million bucks!

Debtor Nation

A good overview from the Harvard Magazine of the building debt crisis in the USA, and its implications for the global economy.

Consumerism is as American as cherry pie. Plasma TVs, iPods, granite countertops: you name it, we’ll buy it. To finance the national pastime, Americans have been borrowing from abroad on an increasingly stunning scale. In 2006, the infusion of foreign cash required to close the gap between American incomes and consumption reached nearly 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), leaving the United States with a deficit in its current account (an annual measure of capital flows to and from the rest of the world) of more than $850 billion. In other words, the quantity of goods and services that Americans consumed last year in excess of what we produced was close to the entire annual output of Brazil. “Brazil is the tenth largest economy on the planet,” points out Laura Alfaro, an associate professor of business administration who teaches a class on the current account deficit at Harvard Business School (HBS). “That is what the U.S. is eating up every year—a Brazil or a Mexico.”

Whether this practice is sustainable—and if not, how it might end—are questions that divide scholars and investors alike. We have borrowed so much from abroad—between half a trillion and a trillion dollars a year for the past six or seven years—that in 2006, our investment balance with the rest of the world (what we pay foreign investors on their U.S. assets versus their payments to us on our investments abroad, historically nearly equal) tipped to became an outflow for the first time in more than 50 years. We are a debtor nation swiftly heading deeper into debt.

Idea Generator

An amusing take on generating new ideas — try your luck, this might work better than a slots machine.

On a more serious note, there are several “structured innovation” techniques that actually work — the one that I had a chance to study sometime back is TRIZ. Check it out!

Viral Marketing and Community Building: The Basics

Startups bet their money – quite literally – on economical and cost-saving means of operations. Atleast thats the straight forward and in many cases, the right way of doing it.

Raising capital to market makes sense when you are in the growth curve, the opportunity is clearly identified and you want to capitalize on the market that you have been preparing, but otherwise it could be a little too early to make that move and you could end up hurting yourself, than benefitting. The worst case scenario is when a company moves in too early, burns out loads of cash in preparing a market and failing to monetize it, and the second mover uses it to its advantage and plays it economically and reaps all the benefit.

So, in coming back to the topic, Viral Marketing is still the best way to go when it comes to launching a startup product, in creating that buzz, and in getting filtered and quality feedback before making the big bang of unleashing your product/service into the world.

There are a few things you want to keep in mind to evaluate if Viral Marketing is even a scope for you to consider, or you might have to look at alternatives. Here goes the list:

THE BASIC: You can’t create a viral marketing strategy, or a community without a way for people to contribute. Pepsi can never have a viral marketing campaign, simply because it is a direct consumer product and that is that. They can take feedbacks, but whether they get incorporated or not, is simply not guaranteed and such a stance can extinguish any spark of community or viral initiatives among its consumers.

You don’t build a product and try to viral market it. Your product has to be built from the core on a problem that is viral and hence the solution will prove to be viral in being used.

1. Build a product that people can tell stories about.
The best case scenario is when a user or a blogger picks up your product, understands what all it can do and then starts coming up with scenarios as to where all your product would be relevant and would make sense. When they start coming up with stories, or even can relate to their own travails of life and how your product is a life saver, you are all ready for a viral marketing campaign to begin.

Rule #1: There is no viral marketing without everyone who picks up your product also becomes ambassadors for your product.

2. Manage the supply. Keep the Demand.

This is also a crucial thing when building a product and going through the feedback process. One of the things you come across when building a web service is that you will quickly realize that most of your beta invite applications will be from people who possibly are from a certain genre of people – either hardcore developers looking for extension APIs, people scouting for new applications, or people who are bloggers. In all cases they are extremes, and the feedback you receive will also have that flavor in them. It is very important to ensure that your reviewers don’t run the roadmap of your product, but are mere guidelines and a voice in your head. It should be your vision that should drive the development and releases.

That said, you also need to listen and incorporate some of the needs of these first adopters. So, I would strongly suggest to pick who your first reviewers are going to be, ensure that they can represent whom your primary customers would be, and incorporate most of their reviews and requests. Be picky about who gets to see your product first, and be serious about their feedback.

The second point is that, limited supply also lets them know that they are not reviewing a product that has already gone mainstream, but they feel part of the process.

Rule #2: Involve those who are crucial.

3. Build the Brand. Make it easy to identify.
You can cite this as a direct applied example from the blogging world – blog badges. People are willing to stand for something that they lend their names towards. Make it easy for people to announce their stance.

Rule #3: Make it simple.

4. Build a community. Let people vocalize. Make it Transparent.
There are users, developers and there are folks from the media… and then the pyramid rises merging with it the higher users that you can eventually target, mostly formed of conglomerates of the primary users. People like to know what others are saying.
In many cases, a community is very much a fibonacci series. The third step doesnt come unless one adds the other two numbers in front of it, and so on – and that cant happen unless everything is out there in the open.

Rule #4: Promote, push, and encourage transparent community. This is the premise upon which Facebook survives today – they were not afraid of making an open apology, which stole the hearts of many and propelled them to a bigger arena

5. Count your lucky Stars. Credit them.
Within every community there is a volunteer who is quite active. They say the general rule is that the community is divided by the 80 – 19 – 1 proportion. The 1% are those who are actively contributing and make it a cult to be part of what you are doing. The 19% are those who occassionally contribute and the 80% are those who are mere consumers. You need the 80% and cant expect much. But how effectively you translate the 19% to add to the 1% and grow them will make a difference.

Let me give you an example. The entire wikipedia work is a result of 1% of its community. We all know the size and quality that they keep up within that community. Imagine 19% more adding to that. You can expect an exponential of 19x in return. That speaks for itself.

Rule #5: blur the lines between your core team and the 1% of active contributors.

Truth be told, there are very few products that can truly benefit from this marketing strategy. There are a fair bit of Forced Viral Strategies that companies lately have adapted, which focuses on luring one with a bait and forcing the next one to adapt to benefit from the service. Most facebook applications seem to follow that trend. I will write about that more in the days to come.

Disclaimer: The post is a repost from the Author’s Personal Blog.

Happy 60 years of Independance – and welcome to 250 Square kilometre SEZs…

Firstly Happy 60 Years of Independance…
God Bless those who made sacrifices and even the Supreme Sacrifice for our nation’s Independance…

I recently read a announcement in newspaper some days back about our honorable commerce minister mooting the idea of ultra-large SEZs… 250 sq kms and more.

Some thoughts strike one’s mind, and one feels a impulsion to speak up. This is topic that gets strong responses- and I’d love to know your own thoughts and opinions on this subject…

(1) Talking of 250 sq km SEZs or even 250 acre SEZs- what strikes one is the assumption that big business and big investments are the way forward. Is big business really the future ?
Is this really the way the world is moving ? Not so it seems looking at the Silicon valley- where Johnathan Schwartz’s first mandate as Sun Microsystems CEO was to massively cut costs- and the solution he carried out was to ‘persuade’ 70% of sun’s workforce to work from home…
Sun Microsystems to me is interesting, because it’s a prototypical example of a startup that went on to become a big corporation and dominate it’s segments of the market.. the kind of company we ourselves would like to see rise out of India’s tech landscape…

(2) Historically, have big investments by big-money actually been the engine of growth in a technology driven economy (as ours is shaping up to become and as the US’s economy has been for some decades now) ?

Not so- given that 40 % of US’s GDP growth since 1950 has been because of the tech industry- and many of the ripest ideas in the tech industry came in through Silicon Valley startups- that in timespans of less than a decade- went on to dominate their respective segments of the Industry. (Source: Vinod Khosla, Founder of Sun Microsystems)
Think about it… in 1980, how big was Microsoft ?
In 1980, how big was Sun Microsystems ?
In 1980 had anyone heard of Cisco ? (no, because Cisco was founded much later)
In 1980 had anyone heard of Palm ? of Symbian ? of Nokia ? of Blackberry ? you name it- and the industry was different then…

(3) Is the use of state authority to enforce centralized planning really something that encourages local companies to try to conquer the world ?
Does the use of state authority to forcefully create or kill ecosystems actually give local companies confidence that they can one day compete at a world scale, and that too purely on the merity of their products and market position rather than political support ?

Would love to hear your views on the above… but yeah… where I’m coming from is the situation in India’s capital city of Delhi.

Here in Delhi, there’s been a wave of judicial activism since early/mid 2006– and a lot of shops, commercial offices and other establishments operating out of land designated as non-commercial or residential have been sealed.

There are parts of Delhi whose appearance and local-economy has been totally altered by the government’s sealing drive.

Enforcing a rule of law is good– but what when the cost is at the cost of the entrepreneurial spirit that has characterised our city’s history ?

What when ecosystems– that underly markets- both tech and old-economy- are totally destroyed- and what when a market is trampled upon to the point it loses it’s earlier vibrance ?

When web development and smalltime application companies that could have one day conquered the world close down before they see their hour of glory ?

A purist may say that it is buildings and architecture that define a city… but is that also also what folks that are passionate about business and startups would say ?

In the last year, I’ve seen atleast a dozen small tech companies– owned by or managed by or employing friends and acquaintainces either downsize and shrink OR just fold-up– or atleast pull their capital out of the market— and try something else.

Each time a corporation lands inside a neighbourhood or a office park that was hitherto removed from IT- and IT folks start walking in and out of environs that had hitherto not smelt IT workers– it starts a trend of neighbouring landlords looking for IT industry tenants and over time, IT money- and the 24×7 IT lifestyle sparks a ecosystem– of tea-shops, snack joints, coffee-shops and watering holes frequented by IT industry folks- with their tendency to have long discussions; pop-in at odd hours- and search for third-place hangout joints that are homes away from homes…

I saw that in Bangalore– wherein a open air South-Indian restaurant next to our office was the work-hours and even after-hours hangout for folks from Hughes, Oracle, iFlex, Phillips, HP and more… and how over a cuppa of coffee one could actually run into interesting tech discussions– and even get exposed to market trends, problem solving methodologies and ideas far removed from one’s current reality… which would expand one’s mind.

And one could see that happen in Delhi too… in Adhchini, where the presence of EHPT (Ericsson Hewlett Packard Telecom) gave a fillip to the neighbourhood– with Turqoise Cottage (a restaurant and pub) sprouting up and really growing next door– and neighbouring buildings and offices– even the village next door also seeing buildings getting rented out to IT and related activities– including in a village 150 metres away- where low-end web development outfits, placement consultants and cyber-cafes sprouted up– apart from Dhabas which served good non-veg food.

And one could stand by hand-cart vendors selling greasy street-food and listen to a discussion on how to implement a certain kind of parser- including thoughts on why a lexer built a deterministic finite automata could not parse certain types of constructs… which would make the heart of any tech minded professional swell with pride…

That same office was later used by a string of companies- as the ownership of EHPT changed hands… and subsequently, by a company called which went on to in it’s own way to command a sizeable chunk of the online travel market….

Today though… the story is different… and as the Delhi government ran through it’s sealing drive, first the offices were served notices and the companies moved out… and then Turqoise Cottage (restaurant and bar) was sealed….

The same story repeated itself in various parts of Delhi– in south extension; in malviya nagar; in the areas opposite-to and adjoining IIT-delhi… and the areas adjoining JNU and others…..

Personally while someone might out-shout me OR not agree with my points… I wonder… what would have it been like if these IT hubs had been allowed to develop and grow at their own pace ?

What if small startups had been allowed to mushroom in cheap rented accomodations around these bigger corporations- at a stone’s throw from IIT delhi and JNU ?

What if the tech ecosystem of Delhi had been allowed to shape itself; to a point where this informal tech ecosystem threw up companies and products that stood-out and put India on the world map ?

Frankly… we’ll never know the answer to that particular what-if… but ok; a lot of the tech-industry is about trust networks; about ecosystems; and about informal hangouts where the people who actually work on the ground building tech rub shoulders- and crunch up new ideas… and if India continues to move this way, then there’s a good chance that these tech-ecosystems never will shape-up well enough to give birth to another Adobe or another Microsoft or another Cisco from Delhi itself!!!

…atleast some of these thoughts were inspired by the inability of me and 2 colleagues who had gone on a business visit to a associate company in the Greater Noida SEZ… and after entering the SEZ(that SEZ is secure… with armed guards at the check-post manning it’s entrance) and we discovered there was no decent eating joint or coffee shop within 2-3 kilometres… just a 2-3 dhabas next to a stinking drainage ditch opposite the SEZ’s gate and frequented by drivers.
And that set me remembering the comment of a bhai-sahib whose shop had been broken and whose basement had been sealed, wherein shedding tears and screaming even 6 months later he had cried “jahan karobar nahin hota… sir woh jagah baazar nahin shamashan ghat hoti hai… ”

Comments welcomed… and apart from comments in this blog; I can be reached thru email on nsnsns(at)gmail(dot)com