Big Shot: Changing the IoT Game

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In this blog, I am interviewing guest, Davyeon Ross, currently a Co-founder of ShotTracker Inc and a Partner at BlackOps Dev, a software development and investment firm. Prior to founding ShotTracker, Ross was Founder/CEO of Digital Sports Ventures, an interactive technology company with rights to Division I college sports video across seven major conferences. DSV exited to Digital Broadcasting Group, a top-5 video ad network, in 2011. Davyeon, born in Trinidad and Tobago, came to the States via collegiate basketball scholarship. Ross earned his B.S. in Computer Science from Benedictine College and an MBA from Mid-America Nazarene.

SR: Name your top 3 favorite mobile apps?

DR: Calendar, Evernote and ShotTracker.

SR: How does a boy from Trinidad become a rising wearable tech star in the Midwest?

DR: I’ve been so blessed. I got the opportunity to come to KS on a full basketball Scholarship. Had a great hoop career but also studied Computer Science and Math at Benedictine College. Sprint offered me the opportunity to be an engineer and a tech lead later on while helping me stay in the US. It’s been an amazing experience, lots of hard work and God’s favor.

SR: You have built and sold a few companies in your career.  Which do you enjoy more: building or selling? Why?

DR: Woah!! It’s hard to separate building and selling. For me the whole experience is exciting. I enjoy creating something from nothing. If you do that right and you focus on building a sustainable company there is a small chance that someone will want what you have built. The whole process is gratifying for me but I must admit I do thrive off of the challenges that come with building something awesome.

SR: Your latest venture ShotTracker feels very personal as you used to play college ball and could have gone pro. Does a business have to be personal to be successful? 

Not necessarily. However, I’ll say this. If you are passionate about your business and what you are doing, just like anything else, it makes it much easier. It’s easier to go that extra mile, it’s easier to work that extra hour it’s just much easier when it’s a product or domain you are passionate about.

SR: What is the process for a successful product launch? Recently you made a splash at the Consumer Electronics Show 2016, where Shaquille O’Neal gave you props.  Any insight?

Launch early and iterate. Get it in the hands of your customers as soon as it doesn’t suck. As product guys we think we know, but we really don’t have any idea how people will utilize our product. Of course you don’t want to launch a half baked product but you want to launch early, get feedback and iterate. Many of the most successful companies today are different products from when they initially started. Shaq and Adam silver at CES was an awesome experience.

SR: Would you hire street smarts or book smarts? Why?

Depends on the role. I don’t need my engineers to have street smarts I need them to be able to deliver an awesome product and execute technically. Having a business guy or a sales guy with street smarts always seems to work out well. Experience is a great teacher.

SR: How do you define leadership? And how has yours grown with every company you have run?

Leadership is the ability to lead, motivate, inspire, educate, coordinate and collaborate with individuals to achieve focus and alignment on the same goal. My leadership skills over the years has definitely grown. I learned much of my leadership from sports. Whether it was making sure i was working hard in practice or doing the right thing. A lot of my leadership style is leading by example, capitalizing on the opportunity to teach while not being afraid to say when I’m wrong. Additionally in my mind the best idea always win. No matter who it comes from.

SR: What’s the difference between a good product and a great product? Any examples?

DR: I always tell my team that perfect is the enemy of great. I believe that good and great products solve a problem. Great products take the users through a streamlined delightful experience while solving a problem. I remember Uber’s first version of the app. It was clunky it was annoying but it did one thing and it did it well. When you clicked the reserve button a car showed up .

SR: You have a comp science background and have often said you are a “math” guy. What advice would you give to tech dreamers that are not math guys and want to launch an amazing tech product?

DR: Find a math guy.  It is very important to have a math/techinical guy you can trust as you build a tech company. It’s critical and could be the difference between success and failure.

SR: IoT has struggled to gain mass adoption, how has ShotTracker been able to break the trend? What did you do differently?

Well, I’m not sure it’s safe to say we have mass adoption yet. We are still trying to break the trend and get ShotTracker to the masses. When we think about ShotTracker we believe that ShotTracker is to gyms as wi-fi is to coffee shops. Just like wi-fi today we want to be in every gym.

SR: What’s next for ShotTracker?

We are very excited about ShotTracker team. We previewed the tech at CES and it will be available for sale late summer.

SR: Thanks man! I look forward to seeing more big shots from your company.  Visit www.shottracker.com to learn more.

At the KC Crossroads of Silicon Prairie

Kansas-City-SkylineIn this blog, I am interviewing guest, Erik Wullschleger, local hero in the Kansas City tech scene. Erik is self-described mobile tech geek, corporate intrapreneur and KC Sherpa, committed to making KC the greatest city on earth for millennials. He is Director of LiveKC and Managing Partner for The Collective Funds, an early venture capital fund.

SR: What are your 3 top favorite mobile apps?

EW: I feel like I’ve become extremely utilitarian in my phone use lately. I love Feedly/Podcasts for keeping up to date, GroupMe for messaging with various groups of friends/recreational sports teams and reminders/calendar to keep me on track 🙂

SR: You once told me that you stumbled upon your passion for tech working in a retail store.  I never get tired of that story. Tell it again.

EW: I was working at a bar in college and came home one night to what seemed like an abnormally high bill from my cell phone provider (cellphones were a new thing in 2002 and the fees were crazy). I went into the Sprint Store steaming mad and the rep explained all of the charges. I still didn’t think it was fair and casually asked him if he had to pay all of these crazy fees on his bill. He replied that he didn’t have to pay for his phone and I asked him if they were hiring.

I started at the store the same day the very first camera phone launched in America followed quickly by bluetooth, blackberries, sms, mobile data and the smartphone. It was an era in technology where major advancements were made literally every couple months and easy to get caught up in the excitement.

SR: Would you describe career as a ladder or a jungle gym? Why?  

EW: I would guess everyone expects the ladder but the challenge is there’s really only one way to climb a ladder and I found out early in my career that I wanted to get to the top but not by someone else’s rules.

Maybe instead of a jungle gym I would describe my career path more as a massive McDonald’s Play Place. There isn’t just one place at the top there are a whole bunch of different towers and if you don’t like the tower you’re in, you can use the rope bridge to a different one or slide to the bottom on a fun twisty slide to play in the ball pit for a while and then try a new way.

I feel like the modern day career enables the people who want it the opportunity to dream up new ways of doing things and I embrace that with enthusiasm.

SR: What is LiveKC? And how is it changing the game?

EW: We’re a 2 year old organization founded by Cliff Illig (co-founder of Cerner and an owner of Sporting Kansas City). He recognized an image problem with Kansas City in the eyes of new Cerner recruits and found that a lot of other companies were having the same problem.

KC is the greatest city on the planet for the people who want to blaze their own path but it’s largely viewed by outsiders as “fly-over” country. LiveKC is here to change that perception by helping people find fun stuff to do, plug into local politics, find a cause they care about, etc…

At the end of the day an attractive city starts with people getting out there to experience the amazing people/places/things that make it unique. You can’t do that while sitting at home so we like to say we’re at war with your couch…whatever that takes!!

SR: You once said the worst advice you got was living in Silicon Valley. What did you mean?

EW: I think for context’s sake the worst advice I got was someone telling me I should move to Silicon Valley. I trusted them and started looking for jobs out there. I got to the end of my 4th in person interview with Google and headed back to the airport.

On my flight home I tore through this book by Clayton Christensen called “How Will You Measure Your Life.” The book was a total gut shot with some tough questions…I realized that while Silicon Valley would offer me some new options in my career what truly made me happy was the relationships and balance I have always had in the Midwest.

Upon return I also found out that a lot of what I thought only existed in Silicon Valley was happening on a smaller scale right here in KC so I dove in!

I’m not dissing Silicon Valley…it’s a great thing for a lot of people. For me, living in a city where I can spend my time building great relationships (not sitting in an hour long commute) and spending my free time & money with impactful causes not an overpriced apartment were the right thing for me.

SR: Define innovation in a 140 character tweet. 

EW: Solving a really old problem in a brand new way.

SR: What are the most innovative start-ups in KC, crushing it?

EW: I don’t know if “Crushing It” is something that translates well here in Kansas City. If you look at the major employers around town they were all startups built through long term sustainable growth and a lot of them still have the founding family dynasties involved in the day to day business.

There are a lot of companies to be excited about, from Blooom or Edge Up Sports on the technology front, J. Rieger or Torn Label bringing us tasty new beverages, or companies like Charlie Hustle, Rightfully Sewn and Niall pushing new boundaries in the world of fashion.

SR: It seems as if in order to produce a billion dollar company like Facebook you need to create the right tech ecosystem. What are the necessary ingredients of a vibrant tech ecosystem?

EW: I can tell you the one thing missing in Kanas City is organized capital for companies in their seed or early series stage. We are blessed to have amazing educational programs like e-scholars at UMKC or FastTrac at Kauffman Foundation and a host of incubators around town (including Sprint’s Accelerator). We also have a vast amount of wealth that spends a lot of their investable income on big private equity deals.

We’re missing the gap in between there…when a company exits an incubator and starts to generate revenue we don’t have a dedicated place they can go to raise growth capital. I’m working on that with a few other entrepreneurs in town…more to come.

SR: What is standing between KC and it becoming the next great city for tech start-ups? Other than amazing barbecue?

EW: KC’s deeply seeded hometown pride was never more apparent than the show of almost 1million people invading downtown on November 3rd for the World Champion Royals.

What if we could rally just a fraction of that support to begin the task of improving the KC school districts?

What would happen if just the people standing on the 2.3 mile long parade route decided to visit a new local restaurant or bar in the next month?

Can you imagine if 1/2 of that crowd crossed the invisible line that exists in our city to go listen to Jazz sometime over the course of the next year??

Being hometown proud has never been easier…aside from throwing on a blue cap there are so many ways to help grow this city and make it even better for everyone (not just tech startups). Get out there and experience something you’ve never done in KC…and bring a friend. The world will notice.

SR: I have taken notice…Love the attitude.  I look forward to seeing the fruits of your passion take KC to the next level.  Check out more on Erik via www.erikwullschleger.com/ and www.livekc.org.  

Connected Things: Confessions from a Midwest Entrepreneur

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In this blog, I am interviewing guest, Claude Aldridge. Claude is a senior executive, business leader, and entrepreneur. He most recently was the Cofounder and CEO of Trellie, a wearable technology firm focused on creating Luna Smart Jewelry which filters out the noise and notifies the user of important calls, texts and calendar events, providing her with the “power to be present”. Previously, Claude spent time in various technology startups, was an Associate in a VC firm and successfully built and sold a financial advisory practice. He lives in Kansas City with his wife and two kids.

SR: What is internet of things in your opinion? Is it things talking to things?

CA: To me the IoT is simply the interconnection of physical “things” through technology that can send and/or receive data.

SR: What are the best commercial applications of IoT? Google Glasses? Driverless cars?Nest Thermostat?

CA: I think there are a ton of really big, hairy audacious IoT projects going on by company’s like HP, Cisco, IBM, and Google which have the potential to change the planet as we know it today. We will talk to our cars and they will listen. There will be smart cars, smart cities, smart buildings and factories. In the fashion-tech world where my company Trellie lived, we paid close attention to Ringly, Fitbit, and Misfit who were doing incredible things considering the space was still young.

SR: What drew you to this industry and why did you start Trellie?

CA: I co-founded Trellie with a long-time friend of mine, Jason Reid, after we both discovered our shared frustration with the inefficiencies of mobile communication. Specifically, the day we happened to be meeting for lunch, I showed up really frustrated that I couldn’t reach my wife on her phone even though I knew she was available. We started talking about if others were having similar frustrations and possible ways to do things better. What really started the wheels turning was a study we came across commissioned by Nokia that basically said most women carry a handbag and this is where they store their phone…and because of that, they miss half of their incoming calls. This was eye opening to us, not because my wife was missing my calls but because I thought about what happens if my son gets seriously injured at school and the teacher can’t reach her in a timely manner. This led us to develop the Trellie Classic, which was a very simple Bluetooth wireless charm that hangs on the outside of your handbag and lights up when you get an incoming call or subsequently miss a call. It was insurance that you weren’t going to miss that important call.

SR: They often say pioneers have arrows in their backs? Is it too early to jump into IoT without being slain?

CA: I am familiar with this saying as Trellie was really early in the space. In fact, when we first started we referred to ourselves as consumer electronics for women because the terms “wearables” or “IoT” didn’t really exist in the main stream yet. We knowingly jumped in early because we were solving real problems. As things progressed it became apparent we were going to need some “staying power”, meaning capital reserves, to make it through the maturing process of the space in general. Unfortunately we failed at securing capital. A great example of an early pioneer who was successful is Misfit Wearables who just sold to Fossil for $250 million. They started right around the same time as us. As for starting now, I’m a big believer that you can’t time the markets including the IoT space. If you can build it now, then build it now…the rest will sort itself out.

SR: What core competency do you need to succeed in this space? Software or hardware expertise? Business acumen? Leadership?

CA: Well this is a loaded question. Going forward as a startup in the IoT space, I think you need product differentiation, something special that makes your product unique. This past year, I met with a lot of venture capitalists that basically told me they had stopped investing in the IoT space because there were so many products and so many companies jumping in so instead of trying to pick winners, they were observing and letting the space evolve…kind of a survival of the fittest thing.

Product differentiation and staying power (capital to overcome inevitable hurdles) are big ones. I think the main core competency is knowing your hardware. We worked with multiple teams of engineers on our products, some were good and most were bad. There are only so many quality engineers that you have access to who can work on electronics small enough to fit in IoT type of products and do it well. We learned the hard way and at the end of the day this delta probably contributed to the failure of our company.

SR: What one factor is necessary for accelerating IoT in the consumer market?

CA: I’ll give you two. First, batteries have to get smaller and more efficient. I don’t know how that happens or even what the physics are around that challenge but it has to happen if you really want IoT to blend into your daily lives which is the ultimate goal I think. Second, I think the consumer products need to take that next step and really use the data they are collecting in a meaningful way for the user. One cool thing we were working on was using your data to help you capture time back in your day. It’s probably a whole other discussion but if you could pull that off, that is life changing to a lot of people.

SR: Recently you had to shut down your business.  Any lessons learned? If you did it all over again what would you do differently?

No regrets! We had an amazing 3.5 year run and are very grateful to our family, friends and investors who supported our vision. Unfortunately, we couldn’t overcome a costly engineering challenge, a fundraise gone bad and a 5 month acquisition that didn’t materialize…all simultaneously. We are still taking personal inventory, but at this point, for me, the biggest learning was that a consumer product idea like Trellie, which combined female fashion and IoT technology was too untraditional for most Midwest investors. We successfully raised the first rounds of investment from friends, family and some local angels but that well quickly dried up.   As I mentioned earlier, with a product in this space, you need staying power when things get tough. And that requires risk capital that just doesn’t exist in the Midwest in my opinion. Hardware products that have a little higher cost structure and may not generate meaningful cash flow for a while frankly scare Midwest investors. We actually learned this early on which is why we shifted our fundraising focus to New York City and Boston. The problem we encountered there is unfortunately we are still fighting the stigma that innovation does not come from the flyover states. There is a pervasive bias that you can’t possibly build a company, find the talent or get the support you need to build a billion dollar company in the Midwest. I think that thinking has started to evolve in a positive manner on the coasts but we aren’t there yet. So my take away would be to know where you are going to get your capital to carry you through the tough times and start working those relationships early in the process before you actually need the money.

SR: Good advice. I look forward to hearing about your next venture. I have a feeling we have not heard the last of your big ideas!

#HackingVideoStorytelling

storytelling11-resized-600[1]In this blog, I am interviewing guest, Alex Kruglov. Alex is the co-founder and CEO of Smiletime, a video platform for premium content that allows audiences to serve as an integral part of the storytelling, driving, interacting and engaging with content on screen. Prior to co-founding Smiletime, Alex spent six years at Hulu overseeing all of its content acquisition efforts. Alex graduated magna cum laude from Brown University and received his M.B.A from Harvard Business School, where he graduated in the top 5 percent of his class as a Baker Scholar. Alex lives in Santa Monica, Calif. with his wife and two daughters.

SR: I have known you for a while as a content junkie. How do you have enough time in the day to watch all the content you do?

AK: I don’t play golf… Haha….All jokes aside, I consume more than your average bear. For me, it’s both a job and a passion. Throughout the day, I am constantly reading, watching, and listening. I have been driving a bit more lately, so that’s podcast time, a new category for me. After the kids go to bed, I generally watch serialized shows.

For what I do, staying on top of the latest and most cutting edge content is absolutely crucial. But I also love every moment of it. To be able to work in a field that delights and gives me energy after all these years is absolutely magical. 

SR: What are your favorite content mobile apps?

When it comes to really watching video, I do so more in the living room or on my PC. Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now are my go-tos there. When it comes to mobile, I limit my viewing to shorter clips. I will get more to it later, but I generally find that most video distributors are not doing nearly enough to create an experience that feels native to the mobile device footprint. Smiletime changes that, so I guess from my incredibly biased perspective, that’s my favorite mobile video app.

I do love to read on my mobile device, so my favorite content-specific app is the Kindle. Otherwise, Facebook and Twitter dominate as my source for articles and short-form video.

SR: How is the delivery of broadcast content going to continue to change with media consumption being so multi-screen, mobile and ubiquitous?    

Most of the developments have been purely good news for both consumers and creators. As recently as 10 years ago, if you found yourself at home on a weekday at 4pm, you would have to settle for watching a Soap or a daytime talk show. Now you can watch anything you want, old, new, live, long or short. You can pick a new series to binge or watch a live broadcast on Al Jazeera.

What broadcast networks continue to do well is make big, broad TV shows, spectacles.  Just as with big movies where big budget comic book films and sequels dominate and continue to provide returns, with some exception the broadcast networks are still the best at making big loud shows like The Voice, Empire and Quantico.

That said, the traditional business model of a broadcast network (appeal to tens of millions of viewers and earn revenue through advertising) has ended some time ago. Broadcast networks are all now paid subscription fees by the carriers. Some have already launched direct to consumer OTT apps with exclusive programming only available online (including CBS and Star Trek).

The concept of “broadcast content” is not relevant to most young consumers. They just watch stuff they like when they want to. As gatekeepers and audience-aggregators, networks continue to have strong ability to gather audiences and market to them. Over time, where and how they gather, and how they monetize will change. But to this day, the studio system remains best at making big and loud productions that reach mass audiences.

The more interesting question is what comes next. When television first came around, there was a real concern that it would be a major hit on the feature film business. Instead, it became a fundamentally new art form. Our obsession at Smiletime is how to facilitate the creation of that new art form that feels native to the Internet and its device footprint. Traditional TV and film isn’t that.

4. Has the line between content and distribution completely disappeared? Amazon and Netflix have hit series like Hand of God and Orange is The New Black.  Verizon purchased AOL this year. What’s going on?

AK: I don’t think who owns who matters all that much. Netflix is what HBO would have been if HBO could get directly to the consumer without the cable company. The name “Home Box Office” essentially means just that. Of course, HBO Now is precisely that today. News Corp has owned Sky for years. Comcast owns NBC Universal and before that tried to bid on Disney. Before owning a media company, Comcast launched multiple networks including E!

SR: What is innovative storytelling? I keep thinking of non-linear techniques that Quentin Tarantino applied in Pulp Fiction, but is that realistic on a consistent basis?  Can American audiences appreciate a disjointed narrative or are we too addicted to beginning, climax, end?

Pulp Fiction blew everyone’s mind because it was really good. There are plenty of great films (Memento, Mulholland Drive, and Inception immediately come to mind) that follow very different narrative threads, but I wouldn’t be too fast in dismissing stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. The major issue today isn’t that the formats are stale but rather that too many movies and TV shows get made. John Landgraf, one of the most impressive network heads working today, presented an analysis recently that showed how many scripted TV series are made every year. The number today is unsustainable primarily because, simply put, there aren’t enough genius creative people out there to make that much.

Same concept applies to books. The cost of writing a book is the writer’s time. It doesn’t require armies of people to coordinate something impossible. That said, the number of good books every year doesn’t grow significantly. Moreover, when you have innovative new formats (like “Choose Your Own Adventure”), they generally only apply to a limited subset of books rather than becoming dominant.

Long story short, I don’t believe that the appetite for amazing storytelling is any less now than it has ever been. If anything, it is much higher. And the format is driven by the demand of the story and the storyteller. Full stop.

That said, today’s world offers creators more opportunities to better suit their narratives to a medium. Smiletime, for example, allows creators to deeply engage their audience in real time, something live performers have been doing for many centuries. Smiletime also allows audiences to connect not just with the performer, but with each other, creating real time passionate forums around shared interests. While Smiletime allows ubiquity, more exploratory formats, like VR, have allowed genius creators (like Chris Milk) to reimagine narratives that are no longer restricted to the rectangle of the screen and allow 360-degree views.

I have never been more excited about storytelling and audience delighting opportunities than I am today.

AK: Skipping traditional video is not new. Youtube has been facilitating prosumerism for a decade, where video content is co-created, tagged, shared, and rated.  What is the new video form around the corner? And what business models other than advertising against it will make it viable?

I don’t think I would consider YouTube’s videos themselves to be so untraditional. If you take a close look at what’s working on YouTube, you get a pretty large swath of very traditional stuff: music videos, late night TV clips. You also get many dozens of newly minted megastars that are skipping traditional gatekeepers and going directly to consumers. These new celebrities are making videos that are shorter than film and TV and released in different patterns, but I would argue the videos themselves aren’t an order of magnitude different from what other programmers have created in the past to appeal to younger audiences. Do you remember MTV in the 80s and 90s?

The lack of gatekeepers, however, is a really big deal. YouTube created an unprecedentedly simple large scale experience. There is a nontrivial number of stars that are making millions of dollars a year, taking advantage of their strong grasp of their audiences and declining costs of production. This is a big deal because we are seeing a new category of creators who are also entrepreneurs. And we are seeing a lot of them. These men and women own their programming and know their audiences better than anyone. I’d make an analogy to Martha Stewart, a savvy performer who’s also a world class businesswoman. YouTubers are that on steroids. And there are many of them.

SR: How is your company Smiletime changing the game of innovation in video that we should be on the look out for?

I started Smiletime with my co-founders Jace Hall and Sharon Chang due to our shared frustration over the limitations of video. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and yes, YouTube, are not differentiating their programming from each other, instead investing in exclusive programming, playing the same game that broadcast and cable networks have been playing for years.

Having exclusive programming is crucial, but it’s just as important to create a user experience around both content creation and consumption that differentiates your platform from all others. Smiletime does that. We offer creators and consumers an opportunity to connect and lean into programming in a way no other video services do. Engaging in a Smilecast is as similar to playing a video game as it is to watching a TV show. Not surprisingly, I think of that as the “new video form around the corner.”

SR: Thanks for your conversation. Good luck with your new project!

It's a Mad App World

Mobile_AppsIn this blog, I am interviewing guest, Chidi Afulezi. Chidi is a product and mobile guy who is currently building aKoma (akomanet.com), a media and content startup focused on Africa. A maker and teacher, he has worked on well-known digital and mobile products from CNN, Time Warner and Sony Music amongst others. Chidi is also a product management teacher at General Assembly.

SR: Name your top 3 go-to apps? Why?

CA: Right now, these three apps get the most love from me on my iPhone: Slack, Flipboard and Waze. Slack has essentially revolutionized my communications with all the teams I work with at aKoma, General Assembly, and even groups of friends that like to share topics and opinions. All about virtual teams and management. Flipboard is my daily magazine. That’s how I keep up to date on everything. I curated it, so it hits me on all the right spots in terms of my interests. Waze is the baddest transportation app out there. Consistently gets me where I need to go without drama.

SR: Hindsight is 20/20 but what killer app would you have loved to birth as your brainchild?

CA: Medium. Medium speaks to my belief that content is best consumed as part of a network of like-minded folks. The content on Medium is perfect, and tailored to me. They just launched new updates to the product. Ev Williams is killing it. aKoma is built in the same spirit as Medium.

SR: Which mobile device is crushing it right now?

CA: Apple TV. You may not consider it a “mobile device”, but it is. I can take my Apple TV with me and watch my programming wherever as long as I have a connection to a TV. However, it is my ability to use Apple Play on the device to extend my iOS or OSX device to the TV that makes it awesome. When I teach or present, I use Apple TV to put Keynote on the screen. That is truly a device that I see doing serious work right now.

SR: What kind of device/platform will be the next big thing? Wearables? Internet of things?

CA: Next big thing. Man, now you’re asking me to ball like Crystal. I do believe that personal dashboards are becoming more and more important. This concept of the quantified self or lifelogging is real, and I don’t think it is only limited to body inputs, states and performance. I see a platform that also integrates your calendar, travel, social networks with your quantified self to create these dashboards that allow you to really have true retrospectives on your life, and give you data to improve it.

SR: Did you have any prior coding experience  in HTML, CSS, or PHP and how important is that to running technical teams?

CA: Well, as an engineering undergrad major, we had to do some coding. However, my coding skills are very minimal. I am a technologist, however, and understand technology fundamentally. It is just what I do. I will say that knowing how to code is not a primary requirement for running tech teams. Understanding and being able to talk the technology is definitely key to running technical teams. You have to know the stacks used by your organization, the stacks used by your competition and clients. Being able to go through the flow of front and back end systems running your product is very important or you lose the respect of your team rapidly. Actual coding experience is not as important. I am also a big proponent of great communications, ownership, grit, and high EQ skills for tech team leaders.

SR: Aside from programming skills what other skills are necessary to deploy a commercial app?

CA: I’m a product guy, so I see a strong combo of tech, design and business skills as necessary to build an app that is of value to an audience. It is easy to just burn a bunch of dollars and build an app, but will it take with the audience? That’s where the user design and business case piece is important. I’m a big proponent of Lean Product Management – make sure you have a market, that you have a legitimate pain point or need that you are fulfilling for the audience before you go all out building a product. Talk to potential customers, get some insights into their needs, put together a basic solution to test if you’re on the right track, and measure and learn from the market response. You keep this loop going, and you have a great recipe for a successful app launch.

SR: Tell me about your current project? How can we find out more?

CA: I am working on aKoma, a storytelling and content publishing platform created to fill a gaping hole in the portrayal of the African continent in words, images, audio and video. It is primarily a user generated content platform, enabling our users to immediately create or consume aKoma content on any connected device of their choice including smartphones. aKoma is currently in private beta, and a focus on written content to start. Go to aKomanet.com and see what we are doing. It is quite exciting.

SR: What recommendations do you have for anyone wanting to launch an app? There is an app for everything. Several thousand get launched daily  on iOs and Android, but less than half get updated, reviewed or downloaded …Should folks give up now and save their disappointment for something else?

CA: I say go for it. Take that leap…the app ecosphere is actually quite democratic. Your app rocks? Money. Doesn’t rock? At least you took a shot at it. If you have a great idea, then put the pieces in place to get it done. However, big however, make sure to do your due diligence. In the startup world, Lean Startup is a well-known methodology for de-risking the process of building an app. Don’t blow all your cash building something no one wants. Do customer development, talk to potential users, find out what’s missing in their lives in the context of your idea. And then build, but not the spaceship, start with the shuttle and see whether that takes. Also study the market, see what the competitors are doing, make something that pops. All in all, I say go for it.

SR: Thanks for your conversation. Good luck with your new project! Sounds exciting.

The Commercial Future: Artificial Intelligence

spark-of-lifeIn this blog, I am interviewing guest Nikolai Pereira, an entrepreneur and founding partner of Leova, an AI system that voice-enables mobile apps.  He is an algorithm junkie, computer science and electronics engineer expert with direct knowledge on the future of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. Let’s begin:

SR: Many of us have a notion of Artificial Intelligence as a giant leap into Science Fiction, a cold, ominous voice echoing in the chambers of a satellite station, omnipresent, omniscient.  What is it exactly? Are we there yet?

NP: I’ve gotta admit, the movies are pretty frightening. The thought of a HAL-like entity watching me coldly, from my ‘smart washing machine’ haunted my younger years. But reality is pretty far removed. This fear originates from our tendency to project our human selves onto machines. As humans, it is our genetic programming that orients and drives us.

I’d like to subject you to an example: Ralph and Macy are co-workers in a company where dating your co-worker is prohibited. Irrespective of that, they may still choose to go out with each other. That’s because office directives are ‘rules’, whereas their genetic directives, to procreate – is part of guiding programming that’s wired into them to ensure survival of species. Unfortunately, this survival of species has led us to where we stand in terms of unmanageable population levels in various parts of the world, uncontrolled exploitation of our planet’s resources as well as climate change.

Machines, however, are driven differently. Just like your iPhone, every program, every algorithm is given a purpose by its designer. I’ve discussed this in great detail in a post on my blog: http://17e.in/mD . The power steering in your car is driven by a singular purpose – to make your steering experience more convenient, within the constraints of safety, et al. At no point in time can it change its ‘mind’ about what it does and become a music system (if that example sounds absurd, it is – but it’s also extremely analogous to the possibility of a machine behaving any way other than the way it was programmed).

So what we’re projecting onto machines is the fear that they might behave like us, and then compete with us for natural resources. If you’re worried about machines spontaneously deciding to do this, then have no fear. If you’re worried about a human being programming them to procreate like us and compete for our resources, well, then you’re onto something. If you’re worried about some hacker breaking into the control system of your car and disabling the brakes, you’re not paranoid. These are real – but they’re not caused by the AI going nuts. But then again, computer viruses have behaved in that exact same way for the past 20 years or so; and we worry less about them every day than we ever have before. Remember, as a species, we’re supremely qualified to survive almost everything that might come our way.

SR: How different is it than Big Data which is a concept that has floated around for a long time?

NP:  Big Data is completely something else; and is related to AI in only a supplementary way. Big Data is the ability to process large amounts of data and then derive some insight from them. Companies have been collecting data about their customers for a long long long time; and it’s only recently that the tools to process and sort this data has emerged into affordability and accessibility. While Big Data offers amazing possibilities, it also offers a disappointing insight; that maybe we’re not as unique as we’d like to think we are; and that our preferences resemble that of many other people. And that a lot of our actions are predictable based on the previous actions of people who could be grouped into our demographic.

For example, when you search for X movie on NetFlix and NetFlix offers you recommendations to watch Y and Z, based on what you’ve watched, that’s big data processing in action. And those recommendations come from NetFlix seeing that other people who’ve watched X also tend to watch Y and Z. And more often than not, NetFlix is usually right – I do want to watch movies Y and Z.

Big Data is being used to empower decision making everywhere. Companies like GoodData and Mu Sigma crunch data to provide their customers with insights from this data. An example of this as a value add to a customer like Target could be to identify buying habits of a particular demographic (such as college students) and then cluster their frequently bought products contiguously in a store so that they don’t forget to buy something. This makes the customer more likely to have higher dollar totals at checkout. Big Data is used to make commercial decisions about many things – and as the ability to crunch big data becomes more commonly available, it will be used by ordinary mortals to make better decisions regarding their daily lives and well-being.

SR: What are commercial applications that we can see in use of AI today?  The other day I was joking that buying a phone will be analogous to interviewing for a personal assistant. Voice, tone, readiness will be as important as accuracy of data.  Right now Siri, Google Now and Cordova lead the pack.  What am I missing?

NP: Actually, right from your washing machine, which makes decisions about how much water to fill in its drum, all the way to ‘smart’ thermostats in the office place to Google Ads being served to you – AI is ubiquitous. Associating it with an interface (such as voice or a blinking red light in the case of HAL9000) is limiting and takes away from how omnipresent ‘smart decisions being made by machines’ are.

As time goes by, and computing power becomes cheaper and more affordable to inventors and scientists, you will see more visible manifestations of AI in our world. A fantastic case of AI showing off its computing chops is in Google’s self-driving car. This car (actually a set of roughly 25 cars) has driven over 1 million autonomous miles across the country, without a single accident that wasn’t caused by external human error. I could argue that if all cars were switched to self-driving technology, with zero human interference, our grand-children may never know a road accident in all their lives.

Right now, the most obvious and in-your-face use of AI would be Google Now, which uses AI, often coupled with big data, to try to predict the rest of your data and show you information related to your schedule. Siri isn’t really AI, except in the most rudimentary sense of the term.

SR: It seems technology is seldom consumed in one serving.  Different parts come together over time to solve a problem.  For example the internet was the marriage of PC, telephone, and browser technology advances over a period of 30 years.  What needs to come together for AI to accelerate user adoption?

NP:  I’d actually say that we’re all already using AI in one way or another. If you’re not consuming it directly, that’s because AI-output, in its current state and form is error-prone, and best consumed and ‘cleaned’ before being sent to the end-user.

SR: Talk to me about your product, Leova and how it can crack the AI riddle?

NP:  Well, Leova is an algorithm that is able to understand naturally spoken language. This is a big step forward, because Leova doesn’t need you to use or memorize keywords; and its ability to manage a conversation is a big big deal. To explain what this means: Leova’s travel implementation allows you to ask for a flight in your first sentence; and then in the second sentence you can change the date of the flight; and then you can change the destination city; and then you can tack on a return flight. We spent a lot of time studying human interactions to arrive at an understanding of how human beings talk to each other before attempting to build a system that is able to handle interactions of that nature. All our work can be boiled down to hard science and our ability to understand spoken human interaction.

SR: It was great talking with you! Good luck.  I am excited about your new algorithm!

Change The Channel

montehallSetting up a new sales or distribution channel is like the Monte Hall problem on the game show, “Let’s Make A Deal.”

There are 3 doors: one of which has a large prize like a Ferrari, two of which have a stubborn goat.

Monte Hall, the host, knows which door has which item and after the contestant selects one, he discloses a goat behind one of the two remaining doors.

The question: Do you stick with the gut of your first choice or do you switch?

The answer: Unless you have fantasies of goat-herding in the mountains, you should always switch doors.  Even if you have been shown one of the doors behind which exists the car,  the probability of success jumps from 1/3 to 2/3 if you switch. (Please research the proof I will not explain it in this piece)

Many technology incumbents struggle with the Monte Hall dilemma and do not change their sales channel even when the odds are favorable for them to do so.

In the case of consumer packaged goods, brands are challenged by retailer private labels and the multiplicity of brands on the counter, blurring options for the consumer.  It seems obvious that brands need to switch from the first door of “retail” they picked and select the other door of “digital”, setting up a new direct channel strategy to get closer to the voice of customer.  A digital add-on to an analog enterprise.  The internet has low overhead plus global distribution.  But many CPG brands fail to commit due to fear of cannibalization, where their traditional dealer network and retailers may reduce order volumes to protect their own revenue streams.

On the other side of the deal, with digital brands like Amazon, setting up a new channel or “picking another door” means the opposite.  They have to front high fixed retail expenses and sacrifice financial agility.  According eMarketer, by the end of 2015, about 7% of sales will come from online shoppers, and 1% will stem from people shopping on mobile devices.  The e-commerce era was an intoxicating time when you didn’t have to visit a store to get what you wanted– but let’s face it– most transactions like cars, clothes and groceries require a human touch.  If a firm is not leveraging the four walls and layout of retail, it is leaving a sizeable chunk of the market on the table.  Interestingly enough, it is rumored Amazon is setting up a physical retail store as a new channel for the 2015 holiday season.

For the longest I have been bullish on digital, calling all businesses emerging and established,  to change the channel to digital.  I have an all-in approach, but Digital is not enough.  Although Digital channels are dominating the conversation of channel thinking–  ‘human-assisted’ channels will always be relevant. When a sales cycle is long and  complex or the majority of consumers prefer call centers and face to face storefronts, the approach has to be Omni-inspired, seamless.

Thus the question most of often is not just which Door has the car behind it, it is where can the car take us? We are scratching the surface in regards to sorting the differences between and within channels.   For example, online customers tend to have different buying habits and pathology than those who are motivated by a print catalog to order online, by phone, or by mail.  A telecom provider located in the heart of a metropolis with a customer base that is interested in on-the-go data products cannot be supported similarly to a telecom provider in a sparsely trafficked rural town interested in money transfers. As mobile becomes more ubiquitous, brands have start to use segmentation to customize their channels to match local needs better, more intelligently.   Otherwise no matter the door they pick or how many times they switch, the prize will be a goat. Epic fail….

Without Walls

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” – Shakespeare

For mobile shoppers, the world is a showroom without walls and their devices merely players.

Advances in mobile computing and augmented reality are liquifying the shoreline between physical and virtual reality, casting new shadows of enlightenment in the cave of Plato — like information, transactions and brand communication.

There was a time, when the department store was the epicenter of all things sales. For instance, when the Transformers Constructicons (6 construction cars that transformed individually and merged into one massive robot) came out, kids had to dig deep in retail crates with other miscellaneous toys to get all the parts.  And if unlucky they bounced from store to store until all the parts were found and purchased.  Otherwise the painful alternative: kids would have to confront derision from friends for their transformer robot missing an arm, a leg or worse, a head.

Today, big-box retailers like Best Buy are showrooms for Amazon, and marketers are trapped under the Omni-channel wheel.  Customers browse aisles with their fingers walking on glass interfaces, not their feet.  Mobile is a concierge to numerous channels — websites, stores, kiosks, call centers, social media, game consoles, and TV. According to a 2014 study by Deloitte Digital, digital interactions will influence 50 cents of every dollar spent in retail stores.  Merchants must adopt a one-click, one stop shopping mindset that seamlessly integrates all these disparate channels.

However, one line continues to calcify against the trends of mobile shopping and Omni-channel surfing: it is the line of channel conflict, where new revenue streams threaten to cannibalize existing revenue sources at the same business.  While digital is a more cost effective way to manage supply chain, directly engage consumers, fatten margin and generate instant cash, it can undermine other lines of business.

Digital is the one horizontal that enables cost savings across all channels, but the economics of retail does not always agree with it.  Merchandisers are measured by how many products can be sold per hour, same store sales, and four wall contribution. High fixed costs of retail have to be spread over large customer traffic.  If Digital takes traffic from retail stores, the return on capital invested is low.  In many ways digital cannot take away from retail otherwise money is lost.  Without a positive return on capital retailers are wasting money.  Thus retailers have to lower fixed expenses to their lowest level while managing the growth of variable expenses to increase profits.

The truth is that even although Digital can cannibalize retail sales, once a customer is in your store they are yours to lose.  No excuses.  And the line of channel conflict between physical and digital, if leveraged properly can cause positive tension.  Yes smartphones have torn the four walls of retail stores down, providing price comparison and shopping assistance to fickle customers.  But a company’s sites and apps should work in harmony with the human touch of a sales clerk to provide the perfect sensory, omni-channel experience. With the proliferation of device to device connections over the next 5 years, more channels will open up for conversations with brands, not less.  If your brand is strong and stands for something, customers will flock to it.  No business worth its salt will want to put up walls to block customers from doing that.

Banner Blind

blind-leading-blindWho’s got banner blindness?

Do you got banner blindness?

I got banner blindness.  We all got banner blindness.

In fact, in 2013, Infolinks released a proprietary study that 86% of consumers suffer from banner blindness, yet some marketers choose to remain blind to this fact — a sad case of the banner blind leading the banner blind.   And I am guilty as well….

I used to work for an ad tech start up that served up banner ads on publishing sites.  In defense of that company we made beautiful video banner ads that did not suck!

Like any start-up, ambling towards growth, there were long days and nights. Fears of ad inventory shortage, and workers churning and burning out.  But life was simple. The business model, and the math was straight forward.

High click through rates for pennies on the dollar piled up fast into gobs of money and secured growth for acquisition.  Content was king and page views were the holy grail of ad effectiveness, birthing millions of robot sites hungry for a click.  DoubleClick (now part of Google) ate the lion’s share of page impressions, organizing the web with its millions of pages into a standard ad unit.

Since then the ad tech ecosystem has evolved immensely with more players like Verizon, an old guard mobile carrier purchasing AOL for its ad stack and audience reach.   Facebook as well with its universal id and fund of user data is automating buys and retargeting across its ad network and exchange. Consequently, I am excited that marketers are surfing the technology wave beyond the banner ad and seeing the value of surgically reaching audiences at scale.  They are building a better customer mouse trap, with buzzwords like “automation” and “big data” leading the way.

Advanced ad tactics like programmatic ad buying are mainstream, no longer the private asylum of tech-geeks, trading algorithm notes around a water cooler.   According to eMarketer, in 2015 programmatic will comprise of 1/3 of the $60B total digital ad spending pie.   Marketers have become mad data scientists applying data to everything–ad campaigns, social media, PR and sales techniques.

At the same time as machines rise up to streamline the buying and selling of digital media,  ad agencies (paid on commission of spend) are being disintermediated.  For instance, the promise of programmatic ad buying removes the need for  RFPs (request for proposal), FTE negotiations, manual insertion orders, paperwork and trafficking.   It is software using machines to buy ads, place them on websites and optimize them against inventory available.

The online advertising world is so much more complex and variable than I remember it, in a way that makes it impossible for individuals to make targeted ad insertion decisions.  Ad serving is but a tiny slice of an ecosystem which now includes ad exchanges, analytics platforms, ad networks and then some; more akin to trading desks on Wall Street than a 30 second compelling video ad during the Super bowl.  There are a plethora of acronyms of technologies one must master before setting bids and campaign budgets:

  • DSP – Demand Side Platform
    • Decision engines that calculate the best value of an ad impression
  • DMP – Data Management Platform
    •  Facilitates access, organization, analysis and segmentation of data
  • RTB – Real Time Bidding
    • Real time auctions of online ad impressions
  • SSP – Supply Side Platform
    • Facilitates the buying and selling of inventory from many ad networks
  • PMP – Private Market Place
    • Private closed premium exchange where buyers and sellers interact

It is simply not enough for agencies to launch sexy creative campaign unless it generates measurable sales.  The old adage, “I know half of my advertising works, but I don’t know which half”, is unacceptable as agencies sit atop of ad exchanges and technology, crunching real time data for brand clients to use in cross-device campaigns.  I don’t miss invasive pop ups and ad units blinking neon and spinning like a pinwheel.  With consumer pressure to deliver the right messages on time,  data science with some good story telling can bury the banner ad for good.  Stop the blindness.  The data shows it is dead.

Like Its 2099

Screen-Shot-2014-09-16-at-15[1]Some brands are partying like “it’s 1999.”

And it shows in their marketing tactics in how they connect to the consumer – from emailing to content publication to media purchasing.

It’s 2015 and Prince wants his perm and bellbottoms back.

For example, email blasting inconsistent messages to untargeted audiences from Outlook in a Rambo-like manner and customer list building for quantity rather than quality worked in the past, because media distribution used to be owned by a few conglomerates.   Consumers received product information from a handful of sources, predominantly TV advertising.

However, the rate of tech innovation, media fragmentation and consumer habits have been evolving so rapidly and non-linearly on happy path to purchase, it would make a spinning top or Dreidel dizzy.    As a result, brands are struggling to keep up and attribute conversion through marketing funnels with the onset of digital, mobile and social activity.

The old marketing playbook is broken.

Prospects are deciding anonymity, skipping TV ads and clicking on Unsubscribe and Do Not Call lists. When they are engaged, they are finicky gymnasts jumping in at any stage of the purchase funnel(i.e. awareness, consideration and purchase) dragging items into shop cart on an ecommerce site or clicking to a car-sharing service suggested by a friend in Twitter.  In a 2015 survey done by Mindshare Shop, “47% of Millennials(18-35) intentionally leave items in an online cart in expectation of an offer via ad or email.”  This means that the next generation of digital-first consumers will be even more A.D.D. expecting marketers to understand them and medicate with always on, ubiquitous advertising that is relevant, rich and meaningful.

Although marketers can track everything that happens on the internet, the data remains enigmatic and partially unusable as content is no longer owned and solely pushed by the brand.  Consumers are participants in the storytelling and can push content back, sometimes brand favorable, sometimes not.  They have a voice and can amplify the tentacles of their influence in the echo chamber of social platforms like Facebook, etc.

Therefore, emerging and established brands must refresh their business models, strip away bureaucracy, and automate the manual measurements/processes of their marketing.  The focus should manifest in two major investments to connect with customers:

  • Customer experience as the engine of growth.  It is not 1999.  Although emails deliver the highest ROI, blasting emails from outlook will fail to build long-term relationships. Simplistic tactics and journey builders that generate binary, yes/no outcomes are not scalable and automatic on a campaign-to-campaign basis.  Firms need to invest in Marketing Automation tools like Marketo, Eloqua, and Hubspot. This includes a configurable email platform that feeds off customer data and life cycle information, to sequence and coordinate personalized 1:1 messaging no matter if the customer is on Instagram, email, texting, in the store or in the web shopping cart.
  • Media buying as more science and art form.  For the longest, the old adage was  “I know half of my advertising works I don’t know which half.”   As media budgets shrink for TV advertising, it is crucial to harness 1st and third party data to build the right audience profiles for precision targeting.  Additionally, it is crucial to understand the ROI of promotional and marketing initiatives, and how it drives demonstrable top-line revenue growth.  Thus, firms must fearlessly push into Omni-channel measurement and get more granular about understanding what media contributes to sales. They must invest in multi-touch attribution modeling and data management platforms for automatic ad buying.  It is not 1999.   Many firms are running tired propensity models that are like blunt instruments, resembling a sledge hammer hitting a tiny nail in the corner.   Ad spend has to move along the performance curve more efficiently to be considered a COG (Cost of Goods Sold) and active input to producing results rather than a discretionary expense that is sunken.

Brands can no longer be dancing on rooftops like its 1999, out-of-touch with their consumers and the trends that drive conversation.  By building self-sustaining, multi-stage programs that drive surprising and meaningful conversations with consumers, marketers can focus less on the mundane, like insertion orders and ad tagging, and more on testing and iterating good ideas, sound strategy.  Making these key tweaks will drive more revenue and deepen the customer relationship to party like its 2099.