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.

Can Facebook change from a private to public social space?

In another gutsy (though perhaps misguided) move, Facebook is encouraging all its users to go public with their and statuses and other information. The motivation is clear – take on Twitter, and partly Google. Become a bigger part of the open web.

I will leave others to analyze the privacy implications (which are many). I am interested in a different aspect – is it possible to change from a private social space to a public social space. Can a living room become a bar, or a nook become a public park? Yes, you can encourage individual users to change their preference, but a social space is more than the sum of individual user preferences. For example, Twitter lets users be private. But it is predominantly used as a public space. Similarly social spaces are generally public or private.

If I change my statuses from private to public, then do the expectancies of those around me change as well? What about the interactions between someone who is private and another person who is public?

I think its going to be hard for Facebook to make this change and remain the type of trusted social space they have become. Time will tell, but I am predicting that either the change will not have a major impact (people will stay private), or there will be a backlash.

Why I removed Google toolbar

Today, after having Google toolbar on my browser for more than two years, and an integral part of my web browsing experience, I removed it. I did this after I suddenly noticed Google Sidewiki on browser pages (image below, look on left corner) and realized that Google had turned on Google Sidewiki without my permission. Sidewiki is not just another button on the toolbar. It takes space on every browser window – on the left. I know the designer of the Sidewiki and think it looks like a good product. But I did not request it on my browser, and I don’t want my web experience hijacked in this way.

The second thing I noticed was that Google toolbar was taking over new tabs I opened in Firefox. Image attached. Once again, this is invasive – taking over a webpage without my permission. I have setup Firefox for new tabs to be blank. Even if Google provides useful information – I don’t want them to alter my web experience without my asking for it.

The third and final straw was when I noticed that Google was also taking over 404 pages. Image below of what I see when I visit this URL. I was told that Google has been doing this for sometime, but I have not seen it before. While I can imagine this is useful, I did not ask for this option – I asked to see what the website publisher put up, not Google’s helpful 404 page.

Time was when Google products used to stand on their own two feet. We use Google Docs since it is the best way to solve document collaboration for a small company. Gmail – since it is the best web based email service out there. Google Maps since its the best web mapping service. And Google search since its the best search engine. These services did not grow because Google sneakily turned on some options on user’s toolbars. They grew since they are great services (similar to Android which is gaining buzz and I am looking forward to trying it).

But for other products, seems like Google has left that discipline behind and is using invasive marketing tactics to grow new products and grab real estate on people’s browsers. I expect such tactics from sleazy companies like OfferPal, not from Google whose products I love.

Instead of making excellent products that users love (which Google knows how to), they often opt for the quick path. Millions of toolbar installs are an easy way to grow Sidewiki and many people will not even remember that they never turned Sidewiki on. But its a lazy way to grow and sooner or later users will not accept the latest feature / product you impose upon them, or just start ignoring the toolbar options altogether.

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.