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 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.

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.

Twitter trending topics and the danger with real-time statistics

Everytime I see Twitter trending topics, it reminds of the scientific adage that when we observe something we change it. It is a recognized effect in physics (see Wikipedia for an explanation of Observer effects). By allowing us to observe trending topics in real time, Twitter gives us the opportunity to change them. Contrast that with post-hoc analysis like Google Zeigeist. It is way past the event, and as such, harder to influence.

This is not just Twitter, this is the danger (and opportunity) with real-time statistics. When we find out about something in real time, we don’t just observe, we also participate and change the phenomenon itself. Recall the type of information and misinformation that spread when Swine Flu was a trending topic on Twitter.

It goes beyond the observer effect: real time statistics also facilitate herding behavior even more than the internet typically does. The analogy is to crowd behavior more than anything else. As decades of research in psychology have shown and as James Suoweicki pointed out in his book “Wisdom of crowds”, you need certain conditions under for the behavior of crowds to be wise.

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This is an opportunity: one can design social systems where wisdom of crowds is more likely to prevail. I am hoping folks at Twitter and anyone else playing with real-time statistics will give Suroweicki a read and rethink the design of trending topics.

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?

Sleeping through the launch of SlideShare mobile app

Last night we went out for St Patrick’s day and I completely forgot that our mobile app was being launched. I woke up this morning to check my feeds and realized that the app had been launched, was generating a bit of enthusiasm, and had been TechCrunched – all while I was sleeping!

This is the day every startup founder lives for – when smart, capable folks are taking the ownership for the app. I am lucky that we have such an awesome team! As you might have read the SlideShare mobile app was a skunkworks project – some of SlideShare team members decided to build a mobile app for Yahoo hackday. They started building it, rest of team pitched in as needed, and pretty soon it was ready to launch.

Thanks Kapil, Prasanna, Mani, Bhups, Cju, Ashwan, Arun and the entire team!

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?

Book review: Gang Leader for a day

Just finished reading Gang Leader for a day by Sudhir Venkatesh. I had first read about this book in Freakonomics where Levitt & Dubner talk about the economics of a drug gang and how a low level worker in a gang barely makes minimum wages. It had piqued my interest even at that time, so I picked it up next time I was heading for a long flight. Its the best sociology book I have read for a long time (maybe ever), that makes a group, a lifestyle come alive. Its not fiction, but its absorbing enough to rival great fiction.

It is written by a graduate student at University of Chicago, Sudhir Venkatesh. He is doing a survey on poverty in the projects (the infamous Robert Taylor Homes in South-side Chicago) in 1989. Some gang members from the Black Kings think he is from a rival gang and hold him overnight. He becomes friendly with the gang leader JT and spends the next six years hanging around with the gang, learning how they operate, how the economics work, what lives in the projects is life, how the gang thinks of itself not as a “gang” but a “community group”, how well-meaning governmental plans never end up helping the poorest, how the police is often working in hand with the gangs.

Venkatesh articulates some of my own dissatisfaction with academic life. When I was at Brown University and at UC Berkeleu, it felt too isolated, too ivory tower. When I discovered the web, and how you could build for it and constantly iterate, it seemed a far more exciting prospect than sitting in a lab doing made up experiments on people. He writes about this again and again, how to isolation of researcher from the very people they are studying bothers him.

Please add a comment if you have read this book. Would love to know what others thought.

Women speaker Wednesdays on SlideShare

Ever so often the topic comes up of women speaker at conferences. All of us notice the small number of women (especially speakers) at tech conferences. I hear such discussions, but so far have been a silent observer. This time, I felt like I had to do something.

And its not just at tech conferences, I was just at a venture conference in New York, and the proportion of women (even women attendees) was even smaller than at tech conferences.

We feature presentations on the SlideShare homepage everyday. It drives a fair bit of traffic and conversation. From now on, every Wednesday, we will make it a special point of featuring women speakers. So if you are a woman who speaks at conferences (or want to speak at conferences), please upload your presentations to SlideShare and tag them “womanspeaker“. We will look here when we feature presentations on Wednesday.

Also, please complete your profile so we can see who you are. Tagging your presentation does not guarantee you will be on SlideShare homepage, we will look at everything with the tag and make an editorial judgment. But this tag will help identify women speakers for everyone (especially conference organizers) and I am personally (and publicly) committed to highlighting it in every way I can.

Please pass this on to your friends and colleagues. Ask them to tag themselves “womanspeaker”.