Author Archive for Niraj

CC is Evil

Well not all, but some of it definitely is. To know why we say that, lets dig into why we CC people on emails in the first place:

 

1) The “You must know this CC” – There is nothing wrong with this one. Example: I direct a question to someone in the To list, and put some people who can answer the question for find the answers immediately helpful in CC. This is done mostly when the people in CC might be able to add to what is being discussed, or might derive immediate benefit from what is being discussed.

 

2) The “I just want to cover my back CC” – This is where it starts to get shady.  Example: The support team CCing their Head on every support email they respond to. The Head would probably not look at all the emails unless there is an exception and her attention is required. The people who are receiving the mail because they were in the CC list have nothing to add to the discussion, nor do they derive any direct immediate benefit out of being a part of the discussion.

 

3) The “You should probably know we talked about this CC” – This is the most evil of all CCs.  Example: In a team of 50 people, every member writing to everyone about what they are working on. People do this because, for good reasons or bad, they want everyone to be on the loop about whats going on. When its a 50 people team, it generates very serious clutter. If you open your work inbox in the morning and go through 50% of the email leaving them unread, you know what we’re talking about here.

 

CC, and its first cousin mailing lists are the prime culprits for a lot of the email clutter and overload we face today. But at the same time, there are reasons why they continue to exist and be heavily used and abused. We need to figure this out and find a solution to this. This would make a lot of people happy about the time the spend with their inbox.

 

 

Note: This is reposted from the GrexIt Blog.

Launching GrexIt – Your shared email memory

I have been working for the last couple of months building this tool: www.grexit.com. If you use Google Apps for your email, you’ll most likely find it useful. A small description of where we are trying to get at with GrexIt follows (It uses a browser plugin that we currently build only for FF 3.x):

This is what you can do with GrexIt:

  • When you have an email thread in your inbox that you think can be of importance/relevance to other people you work with, now or sometime in the future, you can add the email thread to GrexIt by pressing the “Send to GrexIt” button on your email interface.
  • This also triggers an email to all participants of the email discussion. You can continue your discussion on email by responding to this automatically triggered mail, and the complete discussion keeps getting saved in GrexIt.
  • You can search the content on GrexIt by typing in the box that is rendered just above your chat box in Gmail/GoogleApps mail.
  • You can also login to GrexIt at http://grexit.com and access the content that your group has added.

How to use GrexIt: http://blog.grexit.com/using-grexit

The kind of content for which GrexIt is relevant (some generic points):

  • Technical set-up/configuration information that might be needed later by anyone in the team
  • Announcements that might be of relevance to people who join the team later
  • Discussions where someone asked a question and the problem got resolved on email
  • Links to articles etc. on the internet which might be useful later – example: all the gang discussions that we have
  • As a thumb-rule, anything in your inbox that you think might be needed by others now/later, belongs in GrexIt

Currently, the plugin works only on FF 3.x and is for Google Apps users. Also, you might see some problems with the attachment support as of now. We’re working to fix it.

Would look forward to knowing from the community here what they think about the tool. A lot of features, including gmail like labels, but shared within the group, are coming soon.

Enterprise Collaboration tools: Adoption and Benefits?

There’s been a lot of noise about online collaboration tools / Enterprise 2.0 / Knowledge Management, and we have seen a lot of products in the space. There are players ranging from the traditional Enterprise tools vendors like IBM and Microsoft with all encompassing heavy products, to a bunch of start-ups with their wares trying to get a share of the pie by solving a piece of the problem. The following is a list of a few tools in the Enterprise 2.0 space:

Sharepoint by Microsoft
Lotus Connections by IBM
SocialText (A ‘social wiki’ wiki with sharepoint integration)
ConnectBeam (Social Bookmarking that integrates with search)
Atlassian (Enterprise wiki with a lot of social features)
and many others

While Sharepoint is a last generation tool in its AJAX-y avatar, IBM’s product and those by the start-ups are true blue web 2.0 products which supposedly adhere to the web2.0 tenets of openness, sharing and usability and attemp to bring them to how people collaborate at workplaces. Such a tool can, potentially, help an enterprise:

1. Unlock knowledge hidden in day to day interactions
2. Make knowledge available for later use which would otherwise have been lost
3. Discover people with expertise
4. Promote retention, cohesion within the work place

While the potential use cases of these tools are very interesting, enterprise wide adoption and utility is something that I think is still to be proven. I would really like the inputs from the community here about their experience with using these or similar tools. Maybe we can have the discussion around the following points:

1. Which tool have you tried, and what have been the benefits.
2. How has the adoption been? How keen are employees to leave their previous ways of interacting, and shift to these collaboration tools?
3. Do you have a wish-list of features that you would like to see in a collaboration tool for your workplace?

And of course, anything else that you might want to add.

Judging a really early stage start-up

From REALLY early stage, I mean a bunch of guys 3 or 4 years out of college, having quit their highly paying techie jobs, wanting to build the next big thing and get rich soon. I can really relate to the picture, as an year back, I really did fit the description. You know these people when you meet them. They have hazy ideas in their heads which they think are profound, and are filled with enthusiasm and determination to fight it out and “make it work”.

While someone who is “seasoned” can bludgeon these guys’ theories to death in 10 minutes flat, we can see that traditionally in the west, its guys with these kind of profiles who have gone on to create the biggest tehnological successes. While some amount of bludgeoning is definitely justified, I have a feeling that the “seasoned” lot misses one point while dealing with these start-up guys: Judging by reason, start-ups hardly have a chance of succeeding. Start-ups have disbalanced teams, no money, no background in business, and still, some of them go on to become phenomenal successes.

Then how does one judge a startup? On what parameters? My take is, a start-up should really be judged on three parameters that I have written about below. I’d love to have a discussion about this here, and see if we can add to this list. Here’s my list of parameters (in no particular order):

1. The Market: Start-ups trying to solve a problem that does not exist are so common. There should be a clearly defined market/need/demand for whatever the start-up is trying to do, whether it is a consumer internet portal, or an enterprise service or electronic gadgets. The “seasoned” lot must first look at the existence of the market, and estimate the size of it.

2. The Techonology: Most techies will try to solve problems with extreme use of extreme technology, because thats what they are good at. Now that, in many cases, causes problems. For instance, it might increase costs so much that it might make the product or service prohibitive for the market. Its very critical to correctly judge the technology the start-up is using.

3. Enthusiasm/Guts/Desperation-To-Succeed/Human-Qualities: This is what separates the men from the boys (Sorry, I didn’t intend to be sexist here :) . An assessment of this again comes from the gut, and you know these guys when you see them, and have talked to them for just five minutes. This is the magic sauce that makes a start-up succeed. It is very critical to correctly evaluate this.

Other than these, I know that an infinite number of holes can be punched into any start-up’s theories. Is doing that right? I would love to know what you think.

The Consumer Internet Dilemma: Users or Customers

I’ll start with a broad, sweeping generalization about consumer internet:

1. The user never pays. I would consider it to be not only true to a very large majority of consumer internet ventures, but actually a defining characteristic of consumer internet.

2. Since the user doesn’t pay, and the business exists to make money, there should be another set of entities who actually pay the venture. They might be advertisers, marketers or sellers selling goods to the users. From the perspective of the venture, lets call them customers.

So from what we see, a consumer internet venture deals with two sets of entities, namely Users and Customers. These two sets of entities have completely different reasons behind engaging with the venture,. Also, the venture needs to have completely different strategies for engaging, attracting, and dealing with these two sets of entities.

Here are some observations:

1. In most cases, customers would follow users. Meaning, a website must have users for someone to come and try to sell something there.

2. A start-up works with severe bandwidth constraints. It is impossible to deal with both users and customers initially.

3. Too much focus on customers, and hence, on selling and marketing on the website in its initial days almost always drives away users.

Keeping these in mind, I think it is very important for a consumer internet start-up to focus primarily on users in the initial days. Without dedicated, loyal users, the venture makes no sense.

What do you think about this?

Banking on a Buyout: Is it really such a bad thing?

“Whats your Revenue Model?”. It sounds like such an informed question to ask an entrepreneur. I have been asked this question not only by the people who really matter, but even by people who are far from gathering even 5% of the courage required to start up. Its a glamorous question to ask, and its so much fun to show contempt when one doesn’t get a convincing answer, or when one hears that “advertisements” are going to be the revenue generator.

That brings me to think: How relevant is this question for an early stage start-up venturing into Consumer Internet. I have the following reasons to think it is not a very relevant question:

1. In consumer internet, the user never pays. If we look at start-ups outside India, in their initial days, they concentrate on creating value by getting a large number of users, engaging them deeply, and making a lot of them return to their service. They hardly ever concentrate on monetizing very early, and that, probably is behind the success of many start-ups.

2. When the user does not pay, but is engaged by the service provided by the start-up, then it makes Advertisements not only the only, but also the most lucrative way to earn money. Various innovative ways of Advertising and Promoting on web apps have evolved, and if one looks at the top 30 internet startups in the world today, a very large number of them are banking on Ad revenues as their primary revenue stream.

3. In my opinion, the raison-de-etre (The Reason to BE) for a consumer internet start-up is to create value by deeply engaging a very very large number of users. This is probably the only value that a consumer internet start-up can create today. Very few of them really succeed in doing this, probably just 1-2%. For those who are confident of doing this, it is a good thing to bank on a buyout by an established company which really knows how to monetize this huge user base.

This, I think, is the rationale that consumer internet start-ups abroad have followed.

Would love to know what you guys think about this. Whether it is, and is going to be any different in India? Why, and How?

Facebook: Really using the Social Graph

The number of Applications on Facebook has risen continuously since Facebook announced its Developer API in mid 2007. While there has been a slew of applications, it is very easy to see a clear trend. As much as 50% of the applications on Facebook are identity definition applications like Characteristics and Compare People, where people characterize their friends, and get characterized in various ways. A big share of the rest of the pie is taken by communication enabling applications like FunWall and SuperPoke which identified the limitations in Facebook early-on and made a field-day of the lower restrictions on spamming in the early days of the Facebook Developer Platform.

Is that all? Can a Facebook Application go beyond the fun to be had out of throwing cows at people, and try to do something that is useful, engaging and fun at the same time? Is there much sense in trying to do anything like that on Facebook? Why not an independent site? These are big questions. And questions any one launching a web-app today must answer.

On taking a close look, it seems it makes  sense for a lot of web-apps to start out on Facebook, and here’s why:

1. An existing Social Graph: Any web-app that needs connections between its users to be established should consider being on Facebook. It makes a lot of sense to utilize the connections that people have already built on Facebook with their friends, family and strangers, than to try building it all over again from scratch in a stand-alone web-application.

2. Diverse user demographics: While almost all of the current most successful applications on Facebook have ridden on huge activity of teenagers on Facebook, there is a continuously rising base of users who are post their mid twenties, are college grads, and are not really interested in xMe and SuperPoke. A “useful, engaging and fun app” sure might appeal to them.

3. Freedom to Developers: Facebook allows developers to do pretty much anything inside their applications as long as they do not bother Facebook users who don’t want to use the application. This allows developers to do just about as much they could have done on an independent web-site, at a place the user frequents often.

The above three factors, combined together, offer a very exciting possibility for anyone launching a web-app today. Your web-app might be of the “serious” kind, and not as much “fun” or “viral” as a FunWall or Compare People, but it would still make a lot of sense to launch it on Facebook. What more, a “serious” application can potentially put the Social Graph to more interesting, beneficial and directly monetizable uses.

Of course, the opportunity comes with its own set of hazards. More later!