Podcast with Supernovahub about designing SlideShare

I was a guest on Christopher Carfi’s podcast for Supernova this morning. We spoke about the design of social systems using SlideShare as a case study. We talked about social networks and the difference between professional and personal identities (read differences between Facebook and LinkedIn approaches). We also discussed object-mediated social sharing sites such as Flickr, YouTube and SlideShare. Was a fun discussion.

Go here listen to the podcast to hear the discussion.

Thanks for the opportunity Chris!

I will be participating in a panel at Supernova on Wednesday at 11 AM (moderated by Dave McClure). Come by!

Beyond A/B testing: hypothesis testing for startups

We do a lot of A/B testing at SlideShare. Such tests (or at least the ones we run with Google website optimizer) are mostly tactical. They are about getting your call to action, the size of your button, or the copy of your landing page right.

While it’s important to do these experiments, they are mostly useful for refining ideas. As Andrew Chen would put it, you can get caught in local maxima if you focus only on them. The substantive decisions : to try a different product strategy, to build new functionality are not tested by A/B tests.

Coming from a scientific background, I have often wondered what other type of testing makes sense for startups. Scientists are used to testing major ideas, and significant advances through a rigorous, metrics based approach. Why should testing with startups be about simple refinements?

After talking Steve Blank and Eric Ries about testing at a Startup2Startup dinner, I had an Aha moment. I realized that the type of testing they advocate is about testing your vision against reality. This is very similar to what goes on in science, where you have to articulate your hypothesis in clear terms, identify your independent and dependent variables, and then test it.

For startups, that first articulation (or the core hypothesis) is often the founding vision. For example, we (founders of SlideShare) envisioned SlideShare to be a particular kind of sharing place. While that vision has evolved, but in many ways, SlideShare is what we first imagined it to be. I remember when Jon described the idea to us. The three of us had been bouncing startup ideas for months, but this was the first idea we completely agreed on. I remember the first mockups (done in paper then powerpoint strangely), and that guides us even today.

For the scientific community, that first articulation is the hypothesis. It could be very simple. X will lead to Y. For my PhD work, my hypothesis was that people with damage to hippocampus (a part of the brain related to memory) would be impaired at categorization tasks. (Yes, I came to startups from cognitive neuroscience!).

A founding vision for a startup is similar to a scientific hypothesis. It’s an articulation of a relationship between a product and a market. For SlideShare, the hypothesis was “People will want to share presentations on the web and with each other, and prefer this to email.” The first version of the product (what we launched with) was a test of this hypothesis. We built a basic product (very simple, just basic uploading, viewing, few social hooks).

The answer we received from the market (in a very short time) was a yes, “People do want to share presentations on the web”. But we could have received a different answer. For example, the answer could have been, “People are too sensitive about their powerpoint and will not share it in a public forum on the web”. In that case, we should have gone back to the table, and figured out how to share while taking care of concerns about public sharing.

The goal of the Minimum Viable Product should be to test the founding vision or initial hypothesis. You need to be open to different answers – the answer might be a yes, a qualified yes, or a no. By framing the founding vision like a hypothesis, you remain open to multiple answers.

However, hypothesis testing is not just relevant at the time of founding. It comes into play everytime you make a significant move, a change in direction, a new feature or product.

If you’re a startup, go beyond A/B testing. Think about testing your hypothesis.

Why I don’t worry about competiton

Often when talking to press or VC’s, they ask a million questions about competition – about Google, Microsoft, and other document sharing sites. I tell them, that’s not what worries me. What worries me is not being able to execute on our own plans, not delivering on the promise to our users, not figuring out what the right strategy should be, not being nimble and agile enough to change as the field evolves, or not focusing on our customers enough.

That’s what keeps me up at night.

Sridhar Vembu from Zoho has written a brilliant post: Companies don’t get killed by competition, they commit sucide about this issue – he is referring to a post about Microsoft Office 2010 which spelled out the death of Zoho.

He points out that people have been asking Zoho the survival question from the beginning. How will you survive after large company does X or Y?

We used to have the same question about Google. Before they launched Google Presently, we used to keep getting asked – what will you do when Google launches their presentation app. Well, it was great once they launched Presently. No one asks us about Presently anymore.

Now they ask about Microsoft – are you not afraid that Microsoft will launch a sharing app? Yes, they might launch a presentation sharing app. No, I am not afraid. They are about collaboration and will focus on that in their sharing site. Our natural strength is presentations as social media. And like Sridhar points out for Zoho, we are small and nimble (only 20 people). We use that to our advantage and adapt.

Often when talking to VC’s, I get the feeling they think I am too blasé about competition. Thing is, I have heard from the beginning. First they told us, a presentation sharing site traffic can never get so much traffic (this is when we only had 2 million monthly uniques). Now we have 18 million monthly uniques.

Then they told us, Google would kill us with their presentation app. They did not.

Then they told us other presentation authoring apps would kill us. They did not. We are thriving.

If you worry too much about competition, you are always playing the follower game, following in their footsteps. You stop seeing the lay of the land since you are so focused on what your competition. Instead of leading the company with your own strategy, you start driving based on someone else’s strategy which you might not understand, and which does not focus on your strengths.

Focus on what you do well, for your customers. Do that better, do it for more people. Differentiate yourself.

Competition is a good thing. It makes things better for the customers. It gives them options. Stop being afraid of it, and focusing on it at the expense of focusing on your strengths.

User Acquisition in the Era of App Platforms panel at TiEcon tomorrow

If you are going to TiEcon, then come by to our panel in the morning tomorrow. Dave McClure is moderating.

Panel description: From entrepreneurs working on new applications to established firms looking to gain scale, effective customer acquisition strategies remain of paramount importance and vital to success. The massive scale of application platforms today combined with the acceptance of modularized content/functionality have resulted in new options for those looking to crack the consumer adoption nut. What are the pros and cons of an apps only strategy? What are the best practices around a hybrid website/app approach? And, is there still such a thing as a website only strategy? Join us as we bring together an exciting panel to revisit the ins and outs of customer acquisition.

Panelists are David Hornik (August Capital), Net Jacobsson (Former Facebook), Jason Oberfest (MySpace), and yours truly.

I think Dave asked me to be on the panel because I represent the “Don’t just be on apps” perspective. While SlideShare has a multi-pronged strategy (we are on all major platforms where professionals are), but we have chosen to focus on the slideshare.net and build it upto to be a destination site. To some extent, its because of timing. We launched SlideShare before Facebook launched its platform, and MySpace was never suited to us. So we did not have a choice. If I launched an app now, then I would consider launching on Facebook and other relevant platforms.

However, I do think there is something to be said about embracing the biggest platform out there: the WEB. On the app platforms, often you are dependent on the vagaries of the platform. One day, Facebook might change the rules on you. Also, the advantage you get from platforms depends on when you launch on them. Early facebook apps had an unfair advantage which later apps did not.

What do you think? Platforms / web / both?

Slumdog Millionaire: Brilliant yet flawed

Finally watched Slumdog Millionaire. Really enjoyed it – it was an energetic, well directed journey. The child actors especially played their roles brilliantly and made you love them.

The flawed aspect was the over dramatization of slum life. Jamal as a child encountered pretty much every bad thing you hear about slums (riots, child beggar exploitation, prostitution, slum lords). You could see how the movie was catering to Western audiences, to every stereotype about India – you could see the calculation that for an Indian movie to do well in the west, it has to tell a certain story. (Its not a coincidence that the after Salaam Bombay (which is also about life in slums), this is the next movie about India to break out into the world stage.)

It did break out of that mold somewhat after the middle when the focus was on Jamaal’s life as a young man, with life as a chaiwala in the call center. I think the first half of the movie could have been been much less dramatic and still managed to get across the range of life experiences picked up by this child from the slums.

But in spite of the pandering, the movie had a certain joi de vivre. Every moment of the movie was enjoyable. The music (by AR Rahman) was brilliant. India has been in love with his music for many years now, but this is his entry to the world stage. Overall, a lovely movie, less pandering next time please.

Blogging on the weekends

I have been missing blogging. Someone pointed out that my last post was Nov last year. Thats too long ago. But I also know that I don’t have a moment during the week to blog. Twitter is about all I have time for during week.

So from now on, I am going to become a weekend blogger. Will try to do at least one post every weekend. (this one does not count).

And Happy 2009!

At Web 2.0 Summit

Its been a while since I was at a conference (startups often get you into hibernation mode). But I am really enjoying Web 2.0 Summit. I participated in Guy Kawasaki’s TechHunch Thrifty panel (Guy comes up with the best names). He invited a bunch of startups (Disqus, RescueTime, InfinityBox, Posterous, PollsEverywhere, MightyQuiz and SlideShare) who started with little or no funding. It was a fun panel. I enjoying demoing SlideShare and seems like at least a few of you enjoyed the demo.

Now at Incubator 2.0 panel.

If you use SlideShare and have a question, comment, idea, please come by and say hi.