strategy


Perhaps I’m missing something.

English: The Tesla Roadster is the only all-el...

With regard to the issues being argued around Tesla’s direct-to-consumer sales model and the legality of such – while the concerns of auto dealers (profitability, sales guidance, and service facilities for customers) have merit, the lower maintenance architecture of all-electric vehicles do give rise to the need for new “thinking” in terms of the models that manage and regulate the related activities and processes.  The point of this post though is NOT to argue those merits, but to suggest what seems a relatively straightforward solution for Tesla.

 

State laws at issue appear to prohibit the sale through other than an independent intermediary. It is not unusual for companies to have exclusive contractual arrangements which also include many other stipulations.  In that regard, would it not be a reasonable solution for the “galleries” through which it displays and facilitates remote-purchase of its vehicles to be independent, to have territorially exclusive ability to non-electronically “show” the product, in exchange for being bound to strict operating requirements.  And included in such contract could be the payment by Tesla of the operating costs they would otherwise spend on the Galleries had they been owned by Tesla – protected by the operating requirements (which may be subject to revision yada yada yada).Electric discharge showing the lightning-like ...

 

Perhaps this is too naive as an outsider perspective, but in essence, the facilities would be light-weight and lean virtual art galleries with physical examples as well.   Disruption is sometimes mostly in mindset.  In looking at the requirements (on the Motor Vehicles pages of a few states – for example NJ or VA) there are specific requrements, but they do not seem insurmountable (NJ requires TWO vehicles) relative to what may already be in place in an existing Tesla Gallery.

 

 

 

 

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Bicycle stand

Bicycle stand (Photo credit: Superburschi)

Having spent much of the last year focused on  startup work, analysis, and angel investing, I wanted to briefly outline a focal point of the efficiency technology segment that I gravitate toward.  In particular, the most interesting opportunities revolve around existing activities that contain friction and inefficiency, and where the markets and providers seem comfortably numb –  and where entrepreneurs with a blend of critical and strategic thinking have seen beyond existing models and methods.

By evaluating issues facing each of an engagement’s constituencies, and re-thinking the engagement mechanisms of the activities involved, revisions for reducing or eliminating friction can be made to the processes so as to also elicit valuable inputs from participants, unlock additional value — even for bystanders, and/or open doors for new constituents.  Entrepreneurs and companies who are doing this with a vision for what lies beyond initial disruption are the ones that really pique my interest.

A great example lies in one of my earliest individual angel investments (outside of the Soundboard Angel Fund that I am involved with — which also subsequently invested). The company is Social Bicycles  (a.k.a. SoBi), led by Ryan Rzepecki.  Their focus at this point is in the bikeshare space, which is generally outlined pretty well in this article.   Some of the key issues around bikeshares (beyond those for the operator, such as reliability/repair/maintenance, loss of bikes, and fleet management and flexibility) tend to involve: ability for users to locate bike availability where they want it, and importantly, knowledge that there is space at their destination station to receive their bike.  This is due in large part to bikeshares generally being “station” based.

 

Citi Bike Share

Citi Bike Share (Photo credit: ccho)

Such station-based systems have their “smarts” in the kiosk and rack assemblies that hold the bikes.  Once you take a bike from such a system, you’re on your own until you bring it back into the system by parking it in another of the system’s smart racks.  Obviously, the destination rack won’t always be at the exact location you’d like to go to, and when you arrive at the one closest to your destination, it may well be full — meaning you have to find another of the system’s racks in order to park/return it.  Chances are, particularly if you’re using the bike for commuting purposes, you don’t have a lot of time to hunt for a parking space, nor do you have the flexibility to show up late because you were doing so.

 

In contrast, (and not to oversimplify all that Ryan and Social Bicycles have done), SoBi has shifted the smarts and locks, from residing within the rack system to the bikes themselves, integrating GPS into the bikes, and using the cloud for procurement — and in so doing, they’ve evolved bikesharing to an un-tethered state.

Image representing Social Bicycles as depicted...

Image via CrunchBase

Ring and post bicycle stands in Toronto, Canada

Bike stands, Toronto, Can (Wikipedia)

This means you can pull out your smartphone and find the bike closest to you, reserve it before you get there, unlock it on arrival, and take it wherever you want to go, without worrying that there might not be a space at your destination because, while they prefer you lock it to a designated regular old bike rack, in a pinch you can lock it to a tree or parking meter (local rules allowing).

With reduced infrastructure requirements, other added benefits of this revised approach include significantly lowering the cost of entry, not to mention lowering the hurdle for any necessary approvals.  The cost per bike is about a fifth that of a station-based scenario, and can be eased into and adjusted relatively flexibly in response to what is learned in regards to demand and patterns through operation.

There are many other details to this particular system, and there are many other realms to which this approach of constituency analysis is unlocking real value.  In future posts, I plan to share more about some of the other companies I have found to be doing this good work.

(SoundBoard Angel Fund is a democratic fund, with members active in selection and analysis of companies and in ongoing relationships with its portfolio, which is primarly focused in education, consumer products and services, and efficiency technologies).

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The Newegg.com logo.

Newegg.com from Wikipedia

Remember 1984 and the launch of CompuServe Mall?  Well here’s something you can still get from it: Freedom!

Here’s a great writeup of how Newegg cracked the shell on this patent boondoggle that has been siphoning off millions based on “shopping cart” network sales patents US5715314 and US5909492 and this access monitoring and control patent US7272639.

In a nutshell, the fact that the same such commerce was facilitated by CompuServe Mall nearly 15 years prior to these patents means that buying/selling stuff electronically (regardless of whether it was dial-up or always-on) was “obvious” or not novel.

Wow.

 

 

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This is absolutely genius.

You have to watch (and listen to) it twice in order to really appreciate it.

A friend pointed me to an interesting post in the Atlantic today, called “Take My Money, Please! The Strange Case of Free Web Services“.  It makes the interesting case that “many companies don’t want to take on the obligations to the customer that come from selling a service” as a basis for their not charging for services.  This is not to say companies don’t want to provide support for their services, but rather that they don’t want to have to heed to end-user demands for features, functionality, policies…

Banksy in Boston: F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶...

Banksy in Boston: F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶E̶A̶M̶S̶ CANCELLED, Essex St, Chinatown, Boston (Photo credit: Chris Devers)

While avoidance of answering to end-users may well be a factor in the decision to provide services for free, I would argue that this is a manifestation of another driver, which highlights the complexity involved in today’s business models:  Offering services without charge is also a strategy for addressing the risk that another provider will undermine the hold on a user-base simply by offering a free substitute for it – where the new provider derives value from another constituent (most basically, the ad-driven model).

So, by not charging their end users for use of the service, they are in a sense pre-emptively “leveling the field” for themselves.  In so doing, they compete on what they determine to be in best satisfaction of a balance of the constituencies of the particular engagement scenario (users, advertisers, customers…).  This raises the bar for any competitors by forcing them to create a better service or a new value-model to justify engaging that user-base.

Translating value across constituencies — i.e. leveraging a user base for the knowledge derived from their traffic — is always a balance.  This can be seen, at the lowest end, in the context of freemium models where, for example, a paid user may be ad-free.  Having many masters can be a complex and conflicted existence.  Ask any publicly traded company.  Not taking payment from one constituent (end-users, in this case) allows a company to prioritize more clearly and stay truer to their mission than they might otherwise.

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Español: Delfín nariz de botella English: - Tu...

Image via Wikipedia

Our latest Semantic-Link discussion was interesting in that it touched on some distinct but deep topics that tend to recur in our discussions, namely: usability, privacy and the old standby – the definition of semantics itself.

I won’t spend any more time on the definition of semantics beyond that the consensus (for purposes of this discussion) was that it means “meaning”, with contexts including: linguistic/NLP related word-meaning semantics; and the other being compliance with W3C standards – or architectural Semantics.  In essence, the latter is what enables a machine version of the former.

The focus was actually a conversation with guest Nova Spivack, and his more current efforts, including Bottlenose and StreamGlider. (Next time we’ll have to let Nova do more of the talking, as we only really had time to dig into the first of those.)  Bottlenose is intended to help people manage and interconnect their interaction across the multiple electronic realms in which they operate.  While Nova mentions that the system doesn’t currently make use of W3C standard architectural Semantics, it does use ontologies to relate topics and navigate meaning.  This is particularly visible in Bottlenose’s Sonar – which renders a visualization of the active topics, hash-tags, and people around you, with adjustable time-horizon.  If you’d like to try it out during the private beta, visit Bottlenose.com and you can Sign Up using the Invite Code: semanticlink.

Listen to podcast here: Semantic Link Podcast – January 2012

As mentioned above, two key items arose from the discussion – the matters of privacy, and the question of transparency.  In the case of privacy, would it become an issue, from a business intelligence standpoint, that others could more easily see the topics that someone is discussing or investigating – especially if such a tool could cross multiple networks/platforms in finding patterns.

As is often the case in these Semantic-Link discussions, the question of “how much should be exposed about the use of semantics” arose.  There is of course a balance between active vs viral evangelizing of semantics, and the cost of exposure is simplicity and usability, while the benefit is flexibility and control, for those who can handle it.

The answer itself is complicated.  On the one hand, technologies need to evolve in terms of leveraging semantics in order for people to really benefit from the underlying semantic capabilities.  At the same time, those same people we’re talking about getting the benefit shouldn’t have to understand the semantics that enable the experience.  Paul Miller, host of the podcast, also wrote about this issue.  I’ll add that Investors do to like to hear that their company is using unique and valuable techniques.  So too, though, is it the case that any company making use of semantics likely feels it is a competitive advantage to them – a disincentive to sharing details of the secret sauce.  .

As mentioned during the podcast, this is a matter of which audience is being addressed – the developers or the masses.  And in terms of the masses, even that audience is split (as is the case with almost all other software users).  There are the casual users, and there are those who are hardcore – and when we’re talking about masses, there are many many more people would fall into the casual camp.  So from a design standpoint, this is where usability really matters, and that means simplicity.

So in the case of Bottlenose, for the time being they’ve chosen to hide the details of the semantics, and simplify the user experience – which will hopefully facilitate broader adoption.  There may too be room for a power-user mode, to exposes the inner workings of the black-box algorithms that find and weigh associations between people, places, things… and let users tweak those settings beyond the time-frame and focus adjustments that are currently provided.

Mentioned by Nova was the LockerProject in which personal data could potentially be maintained outside any one particular network or platform.   This of course helps on the privacy side, but adds a layer of complexity (until someone else comes along and facilitates easy integration – which will no doubt chip some of the privacy value).

Personally, I’d love to see the ability to combine slices of personal activity from one or multiple platforms, with tools such as Bottlenose, so that I could analyze activity around slivers or Circles (in the case of Google+ usage) from various networks, in any analytical platform I choose.

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Marbles - Schulenburg, Texas

Image by adamj1555 via Flickr

While I’m still actually waiting to get “in”, I have a couple of comments regarding Google+, from outside the Circle.

From descriptions of this Google Social Networking effort (following Orkut, Wave and Buzz), key elements as of now are: Circles (think of them as groups of people within your network); Sparks (which are topics or areas of interest); Hangouts (video chat rooms); Huddles (group chat); and Instant Upload (automatic mobile photo syncing).

Considering potential for integrating capability across product areas has always been most intriguing to me.  In serving them up “together”, G+ makes it that much more likely for capabilities to be used together.

First, and I think most interesting, is the way that the concept of Circles melds the idea of a network of friends/connections with tagging/categorization so that, without having the clunky thinking of classifying or inviting people to groups, the user is able to achieve the elusive sense of having multiple personas representable within one system.   Some people maintain their professional network in one system (LinkedIn, for example), and their personal network in another (e.g. facebook).  Others maintain multiple accounts in a single system in order to segregate their “work” online presence from their “family” or “personal play” selves.  For those who already maintain multiple Google accounts, G+ lets you log into multiple accounts at once.  I have yet to see how well you can interact in ways that cross over account lines.
Image representing Twine as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

The second area of note is the way that Sparks re-frames the idea of Alerts in a way that subtly shifts the nature of the material that results from them from being one-off emails or links — that you might dig into or forward on — to material that relate to particular areas of interest, which presumably parallel or align with groupings of people you associate with around those topics.  Twine had used the approach of integrating topic areas and social groupings for alerts – but these were groups that potential recipients would have to join.  In G+, the “proximity” to the Circles aspect, and the fact that those Circles are unique to the individual, and don’t require reciprocation, make for a compelling scenario for the “push” side of the equation. (At the same time, I see some potential issues in terms of “pull” and management by those on the receiving end).

Together, Sparks and Circles could take us a lot closer to a dream system I yearned for a few years back, that I referred to as a Virtual Dynamic Network.  In this, rather than having defined groups that you would need to join (which would send you related material along with much you would prefer to do without), material you both receive and send would be routed based on what it is about and how it is classified. I would love to see distinct sets of controls for in-bound vs out-bound content.
I won’t know until I get to try it, but ideally G+ will enable you to tie Sparks to Circles for you.  I’m also hoping you’re able to group your Circles – to relate and arrange them even hierarchically (consider: a large Circle for your work persona, which might contain multiple Circles for various client or team categories; or a large personal Circle, with sub-Circles for family, local friends, remote friends, classmates – all with overlap management to avoid multiply-sent content).

Hangouts and Huddles are by nature “social” already, for which you’ll presumably be able to seamlessly leverage Circles.  As with topical material, Instant Upload brings your photo content automatically one step closer to where you are sharing.  Success of all this as a social platform depends significantly on integration between the parts for seamless use by a user across capabilities – for example, adding someone who is participating on a video call or chat right into one or more of the Circles touched or represented by the other participants on that call or chat.

Ripples

Image by Bill Gracey via Flickr

Leveraging other capabilities such as linguistic processing of AdSense (and G+ may already have this in the works) it would not be a stretch for the content in your interactions to generate suggestions for Sparks which you could simply validate — places or people in photos, words in chats, terms that show up in content within Spark items.  From there, it wouldn’t be far to being able to interact with your life through what I might call a “SparkMap” — reflecting relationships between terms within your areas of interest.

 

UPDATE: I’m now in, as of Friday afternoon, July 8. So now I’ll be playing, with more ideas to come…

Additional links:

  • How to Get Started with Google+… (socialmediaexaminer.com)
  • A good ScobleEncounter listen (scobleizer on cinch.fm)
  • Quite a collection of tips growing on this public google doc
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    Semantic Web Light Beer

    Image by davidflanders via Flickr

    This was to be a pre-conference post to give an overview of what to expect during the week-long, 150-or-so session Semantic Technologies Conference – a gathering of all things semantic.

    I wanted to mention a few “views” by which you can consider the landscape, to help navigate the more than 150 sessions:

    • Sector / Industry (such as e-gov, health/life science and pharma, publishing, financial…)
    • By stack-/layer-cake component (the individual technology or standard)
    • By function performed (search, data integration, dynamic categorization…
    • Technical Level – from highly technical, to purely business focused
      W3c semantic web stack

      Image via Wikipedia

    And there are related “tracks” that can help you follow any one of these. Whether you’re interested in what the Semantic Web is in general, intricate architectural aspects of the various segments of the semantic web layer cake/stack (RDF, OWL, SPARQL…), it’ll be covered during the week.

    Since it is now under way, I’ll mention a few of the points made during the Semantic-Link live podcast on Sunday, an opening sessions that I was part of.  In particular, I wanted to touch on the “Advice to new attendees” (who represented a surprisingly massive portion of those who had already checked in for the week) included [full mp3 here]:

    • Talk to anyone about anything.  This is an extremely diverse, giving, open and accessible group of people.  (Andraz Tori of Zemanta added: while it is great to see people you haven’t seen in a year, don’t talk to the ones you know.  Meet and talk with new ones!).
    • Try to sample from the uniquely WIDE variety of topical material covered.  It is rare that you’ll find the range of material that is accessible.
    • Don’t try to get deeply into the intricacies of each component of the stack.  Instead, get enough of a sense of how each of the components relates to one another – so you can then consider the context of anything you encounter here.
    • Don’t be afraid to walk out of a session you determine is not for you, and head into another you were considering.
    • Value the hallway conversations as much as the sessions themselves.
    • Decide whether you are trying to learn everything and anything you can – or if you are seeking out specific solutions or material to justify an agenda – and navigate accordingly.

    One topic released too recently to be on the agenda, is the schema.org arrangement between Google, Bing and Yahoo around the common use the Microdata vocabulary (vs RDFa or Microformats), which is less expressive and easier to implement.  The question put out during the opening panel discussion was whether this good, bad, important, unimportant… to the Semantic Web community.  The only consensus of the panel was that it will generate much discussion on all sides of the matter during the week – and that is a good thing.  Christine Connors added that the SEO world will likely jump on this standardization for annotating – and a cottage industry might emerge around people offering to annotate pages.   From my own relatively non-technical perspective, it is strategically positive for the Semantic Web.  To the extent that this opens up the floodgates and generates masses of annotation, there is then much more to be worked with, for RDFa to be added where higher degrees of expressiveness are still desired – and these will surely emerge.

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    This is an update to the Drupal-related portion of my 2/7/11 post:

    Semantic Web Bus or Semantic Web Bandwagon?

    Image by dullhunk via Flickr

    Stéphane Corlosquet posted some background regarding his research, and a link to his masters thesis, on and paving (or at least mapping) the way to inclusion of RDFa in Drupal 7.

    The latter does a good job outlining the matter being addressed — in a a pretty digestible way even for the lay person — along with the way to get there.  Of particular note is the emphasis on facilitating the leveraging of it, as evidenced by the existence of its Chapter 4, focused on usability and adoption.

    After all, this effort finally represents the technical equipping of content — through the work flow and processes of non-technicians  to generate that content — so as to be technically consumed.  This is how most of our every day systems operate (think about the behind-the-scenes code that is incorporated into Word, for example, when the bold or italics button is pressed.

    Once we arrived at the participatory phase of the Web, this type of invisible facilitation/enablement within everyday processes — in a usable way, no less — became an essential pathway to its semanticization.

    Artist's impression of the US Gerald R. Ford-c...

    Image via Wikipedia - (turning the big ship)

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    Image via CrunchBase

    I’m finally getting a break from chipping ice and shoveling snow, so before the next round comes in, I wanted to get this post up about our second episode of the Semantic Link podcast.

    A hen chicken (Gallus gallus)

    Image via Wikipedia

    In brief, we had an interesting discussion around how we anticipate Drupal 7 will impact the landscape and why – specifically its built-in ability to generate semantic annotation of content. To date there has been a chicken-and-egg situation, where the development of semantic-consuming applications has been waiting for consumable content – while efforts to generate semantic content have been awaiting the incentive of there being systems to consume, digest, and expose it. Call it CM-antics or C-Mantics – either way it is easier than saying “CM Semantics” – but perhaps it’ll reduce some of the antics.

    Some green and a brown egg standing on end wit...

    Image via Wikipedia

    Other parts of the conversation included discussion of how semantic solutions find their way into companies; and about the way that semantics has influenced the division of labor and the definition of IT roles within companies (CTO vs CIO) due to its changing the nature of information itself, and making it more of a technology – or part of the machine itself.
    Other parts of the conversation included discussion of how semantic solutions find their way into companies; and about the way that semantics has influenced the division of labor and the definition of IT roles within companies (CTO vs CIO) due to its changing the nature of information itself, and making it more of a technology – or part of the machine itself.

    The logo used by Apple to represent Podcasting

    Image via Wikipedia

    Give a listen, and enjoy: Semantic Link – Episode 2

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