Don’t bet your company on one platform

There has been a lot of recent conversation about services built on top of a platform, and the problems that follow when that platform changes its strategy. Or in the case of Craigslist, when they remain stuck with their strategy of not becoming a platform.

Companies change their strategy all the time. The problem is when you exclusively rely on one platform to build the foundation of your service, and that platform no longer sees services like yours as useful. Or worse, it starts seeing such services as harmful.

I have always been suspicious of platforms. Especially platforms that are giving away a lot. I keep on thinking – there is no free lunch. It is why I never buy things on sale – I am sure there is a catch.

What this means for SlideShare is that we work with all the platforms that make sense but don’t rely on any particular one. Yes, we build on top of Twitter, on top of Facebook, and Google Plus. And we were on the LinkedIn platform way before the acquisition. But we balance our efforts on all of them and don’t rely too heavily on any one of them.

I also deeply believe in the web as a platform. And we make sure that SlideShare’s core foundation is built on the web as a platform rather than any of these individual platforms.

A few years ago, I remember talking to entrepreneurs building apps on the Facebook platform and admiring their steep growth curves. Our growth curve was not too shabby, but it was nowhere near as heady as a Facebook app climbing the Appdata charts can be.

Of course, a few months down the road, the same Facebook or Twitter apps came crashing down when Facebook decided to change its design or Twitter changed its attitude.

I have seen a lot of posts about whether to build on top of platforms or not. I simply want to point out that the answer does not need to be either rely completely on a platform or not. There is a third way – where you rely partially on multiple platforms.

Notes on Zipcast design: exchanging control for engagement

This is the first of several notes about design of Zipcast.

When thinking about Zipcast design, we thought a lot about why people feel trapped in the online meeting experience. After talking to users and observing how users behave in online meetings, I’ve come to believe that one of the core reasons people feel trapped is that meeting participants don’t have any control over the experience. Their screen is taken over, they cannot do anything else on the computer, they are merely observers not participants. So a core design question for Zipcast was – how could you let users feel more in control of the experience? Here are some ways we tried to let meeting participants feel more in control of their experience.

First not take over their screen. Zipcast is just another tab in your browser. You can go back and forth with your email, Twitter or anything else you are doing. Zipcast does take over your computer.

Second, though the presenter controls the slides, you can also navigate slides on your own, checking out whets coming ahead or reviewing what you missed. This small tweak has huge implications. When showing Zipcast to reporters for briefings, I would tell them about this feature and they would be surprised. I would suggest they try it out and immediately they loved the experience. Within minutes, instead of my driving the conversation, they would start asking me questions about the part of the conversation they found interesting. Instead of being this one-way briefing, this simple tweak turns it into a two-way conversation where the participant is engaged.

The third tweak was to make it a social experience where the participants have an effective way to express themselves. The chat channel in Zipcast is very engaging. People actively participate and talk. As my friend Livia Labate pointed out: “Chat is where the action is in Zipcast”.

What do you think? Do you feel that Zipcasts are more engaging as a participant than a regular online meeting / webinar? Any feedback about the experience?

The problem with Groupon

We have been early adopters of Groupon – the group buying site that recently got a valuation of 1.2 billion. Jon especially loves Groupon and is constantly looking for good deals through it. But after our experience last night, I decided never to use it for a evening out again.

We called the restaurant for reservations (mentioning that we were using Groupon – as the coupon instructed). We were given an appointment pretty late in the evening (though we called early). Once we got there, we were told there was a further delay. I don’t know for sure, but I think restaurant staff don’t really like Groupon users and treat them like they are free-loaders.

Back to restaurant – The food was mediocre. The atmosphere not the sort we would have chosen otherwise. In short – the only reason for trying this restaurant was the coupon.

We did not even eat enough to use the whole coupon (which is very unusual for Sushi). We had paid $25 for a Groupon coupon worth $55. At the restaurant, we paid $15 tax and tip (so we spent $40 total). If we had not used Groupon, we would have paid about $55 (tax, tip included). So we saved $15.

For $15 lesser, we ate rather mediocre Sushi at a place we did not like.

My previous uses of Groupon have been different – we often use half off coupon for a place we love to eat anyway. The problem is that we have to buy more food than we need and eat leftovers later. While I love that restaurant, the food does not work well for leftovers.

I have never been a coupon clipper – I don’t buy things at the grocery store just because they are on sales, or go to restaurants because they are having a half off promotion. Instead, I prefer to consume only what I need – if its on sale, that’s great. So maybe you argue I am not the right sort of user for Groupon.

However, I am price sensitive – if I am buying something online, I will always search for the best price. This is why I love shopping and price comparison engines – they let me find a great price for an item I already want. That is crucial – I find an item I want, then search for best price.

Groupon inverts that – it invites you to buy things you don’t want and gives you a discount on them. You find the discount at the same time as hundreds of people, so the restaurant (or other establishment) is overwhelmed and staff often treat the coupon holders as free-loaders. Does not lead to great experiences.

I will still try Groupon, but only for things I already want. And I will use it with groups, so we actually benefit from the volume you have to purchase.

Social networks need time to grow up – thoughts on Buzz

Email is the ultimate social network. There is no doubt about that. And yet not many companies have attempted to unwrap that opportunity.

Google made a big, bold move in that domain last week. Which is remarkable considering Google does not play (or play well) in the social domain. Buzz has unleashed all sorts of reactions and social gaffes (including pretty serious ones).

While I am looking forward to Buzz for my company (we use Google Apps), there are some fundamental problems with the Buzz approach for personal email, and even more so, with the way it was launched.

Most social networks do not launch fully developed. They start small, plant the seeds, watch it grow, react and build on it. At birth, the social network is a newborn baby which slowly learns to crawl, then walk, then run. This is how every successful social network has been built.

In contrast to a newborn social network which develops in relation to its surroundings, Buzz is a fully developed adult who popped out of the (Gmail) womb one fine day. It received 9 million messages in two days (how many did Facebook/Twitter receive in first two days). Buzz has not had time to adapt to users or let them adapt to it before getting scale.

Turning the Google firehose on means instant growth – a huge advantage for other types of apps, but a huge disadvantage for a social system which needs a strong foundation and to get the fundamental of social interations right. Think of how important it was for Twitter to the sociality of the basic tweet right, before letting it grow.

Secondly, not all social networks are the same. We have our private social networks and there are public social networks. Email is a public soical network – with me as the center of my network. Which is why a tool like Xobni can expose that network and fit in, without disrupting the basic nature of email.

In contract, Buzz makes our personal social networks public. This is huge – its a problem (or an opportunity) not just for Buzz but also Gmail itself. The question in my mind is less about user acceptance of Buzz, but more about changes in perception of Gmail. Will people start seeing Gmail as less private because of Buzz?

Is Buzz going to succeed? I honestly don’t know. But its sure interesting to watch Google trying to be “social”.

Is it time to reimagine your product / service?

In his on stage interview with Michael Arrington (at the Crunchies), Mark Zuckerberg made the most insightful observation of the evening. On being asked about privacy, Mark said that Facebook default settings from private to public since that is what it would have been like if it started today. Things were very different when they started 6 years ago in his dorm at Harvard. People were questioning the basic concept – why should I share my info on the web. Things have changed a lot since then. People share a lot of their life online on different places on the web.

If Facebook started today, they would take where the web is today into account. The default would be public rather than private. And this is why they changed defaults from private to public since they want service to remain relevant. Mark added that it was not an easy move – from a technical or a user perspective – to change a service with 300 million users on such a core dimension.

I have been very critical of Facebook’s change from private to public, but as a owner of a web service, I completely understand where Mark is coming from. How many of us are stuck at the point where we started – not been able to imagine what our service would be like if we started today. Our services are vintage the year which they started. Flickr is vintage 2004 when it started. Basecamp is vintage 2004. Delicious is vintage 2005. While they remain great services, there has been no re-imagining of the service so that it fits into the web of 2009-2010.

The problem with being the vintage of your launch year is that the domain gets reimagined. You get left behind even if you are doing everything right. This is the classic problem that so many companies face – they are innovative when they launch. They continue on the path they launch with, which they get traction with initially. At a certain point, they are executing so well, that they get left behind. Their success contains the seeds of their becoming obselete.

Facebook is avoiding that problem by constantly imagining what it would be like if it launched today. It might face criticisms and even loose some users with such moves, but it fits better into the web today. And ultimately this is why Facebook will survive and prosper.

Ask yourself – what would my service be like if it launched today? Is it substantially different than what you are now? It might be time to reimagine it.

What is a startup? Is Facebook still one?

The question came up post-crunchies where Facebook won the best startup and Twitter was runner up. The post crunchies conversation in the group I was in quickly turned to what is a startup and when does a company stop being a startup. Clearly Google is not a startup anymore. People also generally agreed Facebook is not a startup. About Twitter, there was mostly consensus that it is a startup at least for a little while more.

The question is what makes a company a startup
1. Is it the number of employees (Zynga has 750!, Twitter has less than 200 – from what I know)
2. Is it the valuation (post billion dollars – you are not a startup?)
3. The company does not have “professional management”. Has a more startupy feel?
4. When company is still figuring out its business model

What other criteria defines a startup? What do you think?

Why Google is acquiring DocVerse or the Microsoft – Google web office battle heats up

Interesting news today – Google, which has been on a buying spree recently is acuiqring a startup in the Office document space called DocVerse. The startup was founded by Microsoft veterans, and lets people collaborate on the web, from within Office documents itself.

The reason is not hard to understand – Google is going headlong into competition with Microsoft Office, and having an effective way to share documents from within Office itself will hit Microsoft hard.

Right now, many companies (including the SlideShare team) use both Google docs and Microsoft Office. We use Microsoft Office for the richer documents that don’t need to be worked on by many people. And we use Google docs for documents that have multiple owners and need to be edited all the time. Having a way to share documents in Google apps, while from within office itself, might get a lot more people using Google docs simultaneously, making a final switch easier.

In the meantime, Google will keep making docs richer and faster, obviating the need for Microsoft Office.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft responds to this. They keep making noises in the web sharing of office documents, but I don’t think any of those initiatives have really gained traction. They have however, not made any acquisitions in the space, which is interesting.

If memory serves me right, this is the fourth startup in the Office space that Google is acquiring. The others JotSpot, Zenter, (there was one more startup which had plugin for PowerPoint – whose name I forget).

Will be interesting to watch the next moves in this epic battle.