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.

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.

Why VCs don’t invest in women led startups – my perspective

I just noticed lots of tweets citing me as an example of VCs investing in women led startups, and felt that I had to speak up about the issue. First of all, some VCs do invest in women led startups and don’t distinguish between women and men leaders. The VCs who funded SlideShare for example. Venrock has a history of funding women. Specifically, for David Siminoff and Dev Khare who funded SlideShare – a woman leading the company was never an issue. David Siminoff has funded other women as well, e.g., Lisa Stone from Blogher (I knew about that when I met him, and it did influence my going with Venrock). All our angel investors, Dave McClure, Hal Varian, Ariel Poler, Saul Klein, Mark Cuban – none of them cared one way or the other that SlideShare CEO is a woman.

So note to women entrepreneurs – there are VCs out there who will fund you. My biggest takeaway – look for a history of funding women. If someone has been a VC for 10 years and has never funded a woman, chances are they will not fund you. If a VC firm cannot speak of women entrepreneurs they have supported, take that as a sign and move on. If you find out that they have replaced their women founders as CEO’s, take that as a sign and move on.

In looking for funding for SlideShare, there were a few VCs who I knew after one meeting – that they would never fund a woman. In looking back, what was common to these VCs? I don’t think they understood the leadership style of women. Women can have a different leadership style and if you don’t understand that style, it can be a blocker in funding women. I felt this time and again – they don’t how I operate, how I lead. I think they felt I was weak, when it was just a different style. I don’t think they were against women CEOs, rather it was the particular leadership style they did not want to fund.

This is something I know through my psychology background as well – men and women can have different leadership styles. Culturally, we are sensitized to identifying a male style as a leadership style. And VCs in particular, seem to most understand leadership styles of 22 year old, male Stanford students (yes, I am stereotyping here :-)).

Having said that, I want to emphasize that overall I don’t feel discriminated against. I know that statistically speaking women have a lesser chance of getting funded. But I also have lots of male entrepreneurs friends – it can be hard for them as well. And some of the stylistic biases can operate against them as well.

Women Entrepreneurs: there are VCs out there who do fund women. Look for them. Look for a history of funding women. The best way to predict the future, is to look at the past. Ask them for a list of women entrepreneurs they have funded.

Running a scrappy startup – what would you like to hear about?

Next Sunday, I am giving a talk at Entrepreneur Trek at Stanford on a topic close to my heart: how to run a scrappy startup. It is something I know a lot about, having run SlideShare on a small budget. We took a modest round of funding in our second year, post funding, we remain a scrappy startup.

I will cover a whole gamut of startup issues from when to spend on marketing and bizdev, how to get started with sales, how to choose a lawyer and accountant, how to negotiate the best rates for every service you spend on. But most of all how to do this without compromisng the quality of the product and keeping up a fast pace of growth. At the end of the day, it would not matter how scrappy you are if your product is not great and if you are not growing fast. So the trick is knowing what to spend on (great developers, designers, good hardware) and what to skimp on (marketing, PR).

If you are running a startup or thinking of one, what topics would you like to hear about? What startup issues do you always have questions about?

What the Yahoo-Microsoft deal might mean for startups

There has been a lot written about what a Yahoo-Microsoft deal might mean for startups. Most of it is focuses on how it takes out two out of the three players who compete for buying startups. Yahoo and Microsoft will be preoccupied for a little while, to say the least. I just saw a contrary viewpoint from Marc Andressen and find myself in agreement with him. Marc points out that the triumverate (Google, Yahoo & Microsoft) are not the only ones who do the acquiring. He lists Amazon, AOL, CBS, Cisco, Viacom and several other acquirers. So its not as if the startup M&A market is suddenly drying up. Second and more importantly, he points out that building a startup to get acquired is foolishness anyway. And to want to get acquired by particular companies is even more foolish. I often meet entrepreneurs and realize that they are hoping to flip their startups in a year or two, and turn a neat profit. In fact, when I heard Paul Graham speak at FOWA, that seemed to be his message as well. The picture he painted was of two twenty-year olds who build something, move to Silicon Valley, live on Ramen noodles and flip the startup in 2-3 years. If that is your model, then you will mourn the preoccupation of the two potential acquirers (especially if you were targeting them for the flip). But if are focused on really building a great product and a great company, then this does not change anything.

For SlideShare, we made a decision early on that we want to change the way that people share presentations, and build a great company. This news did not change anything for us.

Goodbye Basecamp, hello Fogbugz

I have written before about my growing frustrations with Basecamp. We had been looking at alternatives and finally made a shift about 15 days ago. The reasons for moving off Basecamp are threefold:
1) Terrible search and findability. Its hard to find anything that goes into Basecamp. One of the purposes of collaboration is knowledge generation and recording and Basecamp does a terrible job of that. They did a search redesign recently and I was hopeful. But it did not improve core search.

2) Crappy integration with email. It is not possible to reply to reply to a Basecamp thread from email. You have to go to the website to reply. This really hinders collaboration.

3) Writeboards are no replacement for wikis. I seriously gave writeboards a chance. But once again, there are no ways to organize them. Information that goes into them feels like its lost forever.

What did we shift to: a mix of Fogbugz and SlideShare private groups.
We are using Fogbugz for bugs, features, all project related (structured) communication. The nice thing about Fogbugz is that you can make a case out of anything, a bug, a feature idea, a customer support request. Once its a case in Fogbugz, it can be assigned and tracked. When I spot a bug, I add it to Fogbugz. When I think of a change in the design, I create a new case in Fogbugz. Fogbugz is not perfect, but its much better than managing the project using Basecamp and Trac (our previous bug tracking system). And I especially like how easy Fogbugz makes it to filter and find information. The whole concept of shared filters is great.

For other informal communication, we have started using SlideShare private groups. We launched private groups just about a week ago and want to “eat our own dogfood”. Its working quite well for internal communication and sharing of documents. Its especially nice because we are uncovering lots of bugs and quickly make minor changes that we need. One of the first needs we have uncovered is search inside a group! Expect that soon.

One of the things I like about using a SlideShare group is that we designed it to support lightweight communication – it encourages short, almost twitter like posts. Also, it interweaves conversation with objects (or slideshows). Most of the time with mailing groups, there is a conversation thread and you can attach a file to that. But the file and conversation are not interwoven. SlideShare allows me to weave the object in with the conversation. Since we use PowerPoint for conceptual design at an early stage this works very well.

So here is a list of systems we are using internally and with customers
Customer Email: Fogbugz (earlier Gmail)
Bugs: Fogbugz (earlier Trac)
Wikis: Fogbuz (earlier Basecamp writeboards)
Features and designs: Fogbugz (earlier Basecamp)
General file sharing and project communication: SlideShare private group (earlier Basecamp)

“4 hour workweek” is for those who don’t love what they do

At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up the copy of “4-hour workweek” that had been languishing on my bookshelf. While its an interesting read, I think I disagree with one of its central messages. Tim Ferriss mentions this again and again – what he does for fun and profit are two different things. I try to live my life so that there is lot of overlap between what I do for fun and profit. I did science because I enjoyed it, I did user experience design because product design is fun. And I run SlideShare, because there is nowhere else I would rather be at this moment.

That being said, I am more convinced by Ferriss’s second message – don’t micromanage, and free yourself of the details. You can have a lot more time in the day if you do that. As SlideShare grows, this is something I need to do better. Its simply impossible for me to be involved in every detail and I need to hand over more responsibilities.

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BarCamp goes to India – BarCampDelhi is on March 4th

barcampdelhiHere is the description from their website:

BarCampDelhi is BarCamp’s first foray into Asia and we are proud to be the torch-bearers.

BarCamp is a new kind of technology ‘unconference’- organized by attendees, for attendees. It’s an open, welcoming, once-a-year event for geeks to hang out with wifi and smash their brains together. It’s about love and geekery and having a focal point for great ideas.

The theme of BarCampDelhi will be “Next Generation Internet: Web 2.0, mobile computing, and other cool stuff”.

Go to the BarCampDelhi website or to Amit’s website to learn more.

I am personally very excited that there will be a Delhi BarCamp. Let me count the reasons…

Delhi is the city I am most connected to in India – Its the city I have been attached to since childhood. I love the city, love the history, the vitality.

So far, tech in India has mostly been a South and West thing. In the South we have Bangalore, Madras, Hyderabad. And Mumbai and Pune in the West. Delhi has many BPO’s. But far fewer of high tech companies.

We (Uzanto) made a leap of faith when we decided to setup in Delhi. Apart from pragmatic reasons such as the fact that I know Delhi best, we figured that Delhi has good tech people. Its just that they need to go to the South to find good jobs. If you do interesting work (especially when you are building cool products), and are a good place to work – you will be able to find good people. So far, that has been true. We have been able to find good people in Delhi and look forward to growing there. And its been great to see other startups like Tekriti .

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How to build a software product on the cheap: Open Source + Usability

Joe Krause recently wrote that “Its a great time to be an entrepreneur“. Yes, it is. Joe talks about cheap hardware, free infrastructure software, cheap global labor markets, and search engine marketing. There is another reason that its a great time to be an entrepreneur – an excellent example of which is Joel Spolsky’s latest project: CoPilot.

Take a good open source software. Something really useful. Something well built, that solves a real problem. Something like VNC. You can take your pick from the many flavors of VNC – Tight VNC, Real VNC, Ultra VNC …- . There is no better way to share your screen with someone – if you are willing to deal with the usability problems that come with it.

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