Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Long Tail of Social Networks

Yesterday I received a post on Tech Crunch regarding a company called Ning, that now has now modified their tool for creating online social networks without any development knowledge. I created one myself in about 5 minutes and also sent the link around to a few at work. One of my colleagues also created one, and we started talking about what this means. A tool like this that any web-savvy user can create with, the long tail of social networks will start. They have as Chris Anderson stated 'democratized the tools of production'. No longer is one forced to mold into one of the big existing social networks. These now mainstream social networks have critical mass in terms of size but little to no focus, on anything besides creating large friend lists and an online communication portal. I have already stated that I think large social networks will reach a tipping point. Ning's tool will allow social networks to be created on any topic/interest that one can imagine. And just like the long tail has proven for niche content creation through blogging, I expect the same to happen here.

Of course these long tail social networks will not build memberships in the 10's of millions, but that is not their purpose. Their goal is not to compete against MySpace or Facebook. They offer what the mainstream social networks can't, due to their large size. They allow small focused groups to form, bond and socialize on specific topics of interest. Think about the potential for knowledge sharing and networking that could be done now. Personal blogs started two way conversations. Long tail social networks will create focused many-to-many conversations. They may become a natural extension of active blogs, where blogs test the waters to see if the conversation is worth having, and niche social networks extend these conversations. The long tail has proven that if one person has interest in a topic, there are others.

From an advertising perspective, long tail social networks could be an untapped goldmine. A few hundred eyes or possibly a few thousand eyes, that are part of a long tail social network that has a narrow focus, it likely more valuable than 100,000 eyes in a mainstream social network, where all you really know is that these people are social and they are likely under 30.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Growth in Never Static

Something to think about: With your own personal growth and development you are either moving forward or moving back. There is not standing still. Which direction are you moving?

Always be moving forward. In our wired world today there is no excuse not to be.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Understanding Social Media

Social media is often used to describe tools that are available for people to produce content and share it, but don't forget that the key word in this term is 'social'. Stowe Boyd has created a great summary of what social media is. His key tenants are:

1. Social media is not a broadcast medium
2. Social media is many to many
3. Social media is open
4. Social media is disruptive

Probably my favorite 'sum it up' quote is the following:
it is the way that we are organizing ourselves to communicate, to learn, and to understand the world and our place in it.

In business it is important to really understand this concept and how it can impact you in a positive or negative way. Media impacts everybody.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Personal Information Aggregation

When the internet first came out the problem was finding what you wanted. Then search started to evolved, as more and more content came online in the form of web pages. Browser bookmarks became the tool of choice. Then at some point information overload started to occur and people wanted to find tools to find and filter. Search got better, RSS came on the scene, and a plethora of tools to help you sift through the growing information haystack came on the scene and continue to do so today. Tagging tools, feed readers, personalized home pages, widgets, etc etc. We are now at a point where we even need filters for our filters, or ways to collect and better assimilate out of our various filter points. I can't tell you how many times I am in a conversation, and I remember a an interesting topic I read recently, but cannot pinpoint where it was that I saw it - was it in my rss reader, as i scanned the backlog quickly, and if it was - what blog was it from... did i flag it, tag it and post to delicious? Was it an amazon review, or just something that somebody emailed to me?

At one point I had this idea for a personal web based data warehouse - a place in which you could store content, pointers and references, that could be categorized, tagged and it would work seamlessly across files on my hardrive as well as the web and accessible from any point, and it would 'learn' my interests and start looking for other items that match what interests me. It would also allow me to connect ideas to formulate new ideas.

To my knowledge this doesn't exist, but I have recently come across Google Notebook from Google Labs. I am finding it to be very useful at least for information aggregation. It gives me a tool to capture snippets from blog posts, websites or anything online and it brings the URL with it. You can create different notebooks which can be shared out, and within notebooks create different tabs, and its online, accessible any location and searchable with Google's powerful search engine. Yes its not perfect but its free and will likely evolve with more features. I quickly created a notebook for work related topics which I shared with a colleague. I also created a personal notebook with tabs including 'items I want to blog about', 'items that I find, but want to read later', etc. If you are looking for something new to try to help manage your information overload check it out, and let me know if you have found other useful information aggregation tools. (be aware - it doesn't work with the new IE 7)

Monday, February 19, 2007

Thinking on the Edges

Thinking on the edges is finding that line between control and chaos, that can create breakthroughs for you and your business. I would suggest that it means even delving into chaos and pushing the line a little further and coming back to transform this into something that can be used effectively.

Growth can come from here
, and as Karl Long suggests so does talent. As a job searcher, your online presence is now screened by any prudent employer so why not utilize this space to show your talents. I have stated before that a blog can be an extension to your resume.

If you are a company looking for talent don't just use Google to find dirt on candidates to screen them out (although this can be very effective), also think about using online sources for scouting talent. For example, if you are looking for .Net developers, don't just post on monster, Craig's List or other job boards - try looking on the edges for talent. Try using Google Blog Search or Technorati and look for bloggers with a passion for .Net development. Start by narrowing it to your city or region and then you can branch out from there. Depending on your business needs, you may also find candidates in YouTube or online communities.

There is so many more ways for people to show and present their talents beyond a resume and some references, but unfortunately they are very disparate and difficult if not impossible to link together. I feel like there is an opportunity here to build a talent scouting networking that can build informal resumes on candidates and match these to job opportunities through non linear connections. Keyword based filtering just doesn't cut it anymore. A startup idea I was working on in 2006 involved linking customers with ideas to companies that needed innovative ideas (that actually met customer needs). There are now a couple of startups now doing something very similar. Anyhow, one of the concepts we had was creating user innovation profiles. Among many uses of this concept was an application in the talent market where we could use these profiles to identify candidates that showed strong innovation potential in areas that companies were trying to find and hire for. An example of finding talent on the edges.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Online Existance

This image from lynetter caught my eye and got me thinking about how this not only applies to individuals but also businesses. Existing online does not mean having a static web page. A tombstone is static content, but it doesn’t mean you will get any interaction. To be part of the new economy you need to exist in some way in the environment that is supporting it. This environment is the internet. It doesn’t really matter what your business is, communication and interaction has always been and will continue to be a cornerstone in any business. It’s not about having a MySpace page or having online chat support into your business – it’s about existing online in a way that makes sense for you and your customers.

Take it even one level higher… watch this amazing video I saw last weekend about how the web is changing our world, and how WE are the machine. (By the way if you like the background music it is a band called Deus and you can download the song for free)

It is one of those things that you will likely need to watch twice for it to start sinking in, and will change the way you view the online world. I have been thinking about it the entire week. People get so wrapped up in web minutia, and they either forget or don’t even see the bigger picture. This presentation offers what I feel is the 100,000 foot view of what is really going on with the web, and it should bring a smile to your face. Often we dwell on the negatives and miss-uses of the internet, but there is always bad with the good, and this will help you see the amazing forward trend that is taking place.

So exist online for yourself, for your business, for your online community, and support the interaction, growth, and sharing of knowledge in this world.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Slow Down

As the pace of our lives get faster and faster, and information comes at us from every angle we sometimes forget that there is more to life than work, getting through the backlog of RSS feeds, making a dozen calls as you drive from here to there.... This morning as I was rushing to get ready for work, I looked out my front window and noticed that the sky was on fire. I could have just took a quick look and kept moving but I decided to go outside and enjoy the brief show of beauty. As I did this 5 deer came up out of the draw below our house and crossed about 50 ft in front of me, crossed the street and headed further up the hills. I knew then it was going to be a good day, and realized that it is worth it to slow down once in a while.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

User Control Balanced With User Capability

In the new economy it seems like giving users more and more control is the way to enrich the user experience. Although mostly applicable to software, I feel that this is happening in many business outside of software, but often users find out that more control isn't exactly what they need.

In our business we just started a new development sprint that includes the start of some new functionality that we have been hashing through for a few weeks now. Its not a technical problem but a business problem, where we are trying to build functionality meant to handle the needs of different types of users through a single model. The architecture to support the model wasn't near as difficult as trying to determine the most effective business model and whether or not the model would/will work for our customers since there are no existing frameworks in this space.

A post by Kathy Sierra entitled How Much Control Should Users Have sums up much of our more recent conversations along with efforts to strike a balance between over-engineering and flexibility to handle different user needs. Its a great post which I encourage you to read, but a key take away for me was the following summary statement:

So we should be trying to give users more capability and control...and encouraging them to take it. But we must balance that with the learning they need to take that responsibility without being overwhelmed.

Like everything else, it all comes back to user education. The more we help them learn and improve, the more control they can handle... and appreciate. By putting the user first, it's our job to give them the responsibility they want, but only when we know they're ready to handle it.

This is exactly what we are facing - this balance between building functionality that will enable them to feel empowered and control, but also not confuse the heck out of them when their first see it. In our case we have had numerous discussions about how to help ease users during their transition. Some of the items we came up with in a short brainstorming session were the following:

  1. online help driven by user wants over forced usage (similar to how turbo tax works where they explain what a function will do, and then asks you if you need this, and want to know more)
  2. interactive demo/help to walk them through actual business scenarios - not technical functions
  3. building the application so that the user is not required to use the feature to get up and running.
  4. have the application do some of the work by default until they are ready to take more control on their own.

Its not the results here that are important - its the practice of actively going through this exercise. I feel that the same type of exercise can and should be performed in all businesses - especially services based business. We often assume that the user is always right and/or wants full control over decisions, but there is a difference between being empowered and being in control. If they wanted full control they likely wouldn't not have hired you in the first place.

Think about your users and different needs they may have so that you can strike the right balance between control and capability, and how you can recognize traits associated with these needs to ensure the highest level of value to your user/customer.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Franchise Model Is Not The Only Model For Growth

I am currently about half way through The E Myth Revisited by Micheal Gerber. The book published in 1995 is considered a classic read for the entrepreneur, and while I have found many concepts in the book to be right on, I feel that others are showing their age and/or don't work as well in the new economy.

One of these items is his concept of the turn key revolution, and franchise model to grow your small business. In the (only) presented model the goal of course is to design repeatable processes and procedures for the lowest common denominator. Yes, this has worked well for companies like MacDonald's, but these concepts do not apply as well for business in the new economy. Yes, if you are trying to create and grow yet another fast food business, grow a carpet installation business or other manual labor based business this book will provide you some decent guidance, but unfortunately the running dialog with a woman who is trying to grow a pie baking business just doesn't ring home to me and likely any other entrepreneurs building thought/knowledge-based businesses.

Profitability does not have to mean growth in numbers, and being forced to build a business that can be executed by the lowest common denominator. Remember that small is the new big in the new economy and business model innovation is what is propelling the next wave of profitable companies. Think about ways you can grow without having to create a huge unskilled labor force following procedure manuals. You don't have to look at technology companies - think about successful companies such as Southwest Airlines. Yes, there are procedures, but the employees are taught to be entrepreneurial, and solve problems on the front lines that satisfy and create value for their customers. Even in our startup we selectively implement process and procedures in certain cases as we grow and depending on the skill of the people doing the work, but the goal is not to build a turn key/franchise. It is to create efficiencies and build business value with the smallest team possible - not create a monotone business model that can be 'stamped'.

Seth Godin blogs about a concept he calls sheepwalking. I think of it as the lemming effect. If you hire people to just follow the procedures thats all you get. If that is all it takes for your business to be successful, great, but in the new economy I would like to find a company starting up that will be successful with this model. Compliance doesn't alway create exceptional customer server and definitely does not create new innovative business value for your company. Gerber states that the franchise model is how you as a small business owner/entrepreneur get away from having to do the work yourself, but in times when innovation is what is driving successful companies and you have built a shop or franchises full of lemmings, ultimately you are still stuck in the driver seat forced to be the one that helps the business grow. No you aren't doing the physical work, but if everyone is taught to follow the manual, who is left to innovate to take the business to the next level?

Growth doesn't have to always come from adding bodies, and building to the lowest common denominator so you can expand a business of flat thinkers that follow the status quo. Look for rhythmic thinkers. Those that eb and flow with the melody of business. Those that don't get frazzled with a sudden change in tone or pitch, and quickly adjust if they fall out of key. Those that can beat to your drum, but also know how to adjust when the song changes.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Thinking Networks

A lot of people join work related networks, but the majority of the time the intent is either to help find people that you may want to hire, or in the event that you are looking for work hopefully your search will be more fruitful and efficient. These are great reasons to have networks. Linkedin is a great online network, and most communities have networks to help meet and link up with other professionals. Many people also join what are often called 'leads groups' which are usually smaller, but are focused on helping find leads in whatever field you are in.

For over a year now, I have been part of a group that can probably be best described as a thought network. A small but diverse group of individuals that get together to discuss business related topics. We get together typically once a week for coffee/breakfast at 6:30AM. The agenda is rarely defined, and the group size changes week to week based on availability, but the discussions are always interesting ranging from someone asking for advice on terminating an under-performer, to business productivity tools to startup ideas to name a few. It is often referred to as the safe haven group - a place where you can be free to ask questions, and discuss topics as a peer group, where the intention is for everyone to learn and grow.

The great thing about the group, is that it is often self correcting. New people come in through existing members, but sometime with a misunderstanding of group's purpose or with different intentions. People that come in looking to sell business or find a job often stop coming after a while. When people come in with a self serving intentions they are often disappointed. Leads do happen in this group, but its all about the intention of the individuals. People build up trusting relationships with other members of the group through meaningful and well intended discussion to help each other.

Most people reading this belong to the more superficial work related networks but I urge you to think about trying to create a small thinking network. I was once told by a great management trainer: 'In your professional development, you are either moving forward or moving backwards. There is no standing still.' Business is changing so fast these days, it is crucial to create peer groups across different types of businesses and job types to assist with forward progression. This diversity, will help you grow professionally as well as personally in ways that simply cannot be done with people in the same company, same industry or profession. Also remember the key tenants of trust and caring. Its not just about who has the best ideas or solutions to problems - its about genuinely taking an interest in the development of others, and they in you.