Thursday, January 17, 2013

Shadence.com - Discover unique and interesting experiences in your city

As you might have noticed, I have stopped blogging for some time now, and won't be blogging on this website in near future. That is not because of procrastination, but because nowadays all my time and energy is going into my new venture - Shadence.comShadence is a platform to discover unique and interesting experiences in your city. For now we are only focusing on London, as finding out unique experiences is a job much harder than it seems, but we plan to expand into other cities.

Shadence was born because I decided to scratch my own itch. There were many times when I wanted to spend my weekends and holidays in an interesting way, but ended up going to the same places and doing the same things. Later I realized that it is not just me, and that this is a common problem. Though there are many players in the market that help you discover places, there were a lot of problems with them 

  • Primarily these players cover places, not experiences, so while they might talk about Covent Garden and all sorts of restaurants and bars in it, they rarely cover other various interesting things we can do in Covent Garden. I mean, come on! How much can one eat? Obesity is already a big problem 
  • Second, they cover everything under the sun, so while there is some good stuff on their websites, most of the time it is just loads of crap covering every single places you can think of. And because of this we have to sift thought a lot of crap to find out an interesting place to go to (again, not experience, as they mostly cover places)
  • Their web applications are badly designed not helping users with discovering good experiences

Shadence, on the other hand, makes sure that it does not do any of the above. We make sure that not only do we share most unique and interesting experiences with you (and not everything under the sun), but also that we provide you with a user interface that is intuitive, clean and simple. 

While, we have done well till now, there is still lots to be done to make Shadence the go to place for everyone to discover interesting experiences around them.

Well, I got to stop writing this blog now, as I better get back to work. But please do browse Shadence to discover interesting experiences, register with us if you want to get regular updates on new experiences and share your comments and feedback with us (info@shadence.com).

Take care.
Deepak Nayal
Shadence.com


Friday, August 10, 2012

The Legal Stuff

Almost everybody hates the legal stuff. They slow things down, cost a lot and the language...well the language is just awful. I am not sure why lawyers cannot use normal sized comprehensive sentences like other human beings, and what do they have against full stops. I am certain that even many lawyers do not like the labyrinth that is the legal world. However, no matter how much we hate the legal stuff, it is a necessary evil, especially in the world of technology, as is evident in the patent wars. 
Patent Wars
While we might think that creating new products and applications is all nice and creative and does not have to get into the legal mess, the legalities can actually affect your product design, and I recently learned this first hand. 

While working on my product I had initially settled on a backend data provider, and did the mistake of not reading through its legal documentation thoroughly. After integrating the provider with my product, I stumbled upon a legal term of service that highlighted a major constraint. Now, here I did another mistake. Instead of writing to the provider and clarifying/working things out, I just switched to another provider. Because of this, I had to make some changes to my product design as the new provider had its own constraints, which affected the interface and performance of the product. This switching of providers obviously costed me a lot of time and effort. 

Finally I got some sense into myself and approached the original provider clarifying my doubts about some of the terms and constraints, and it turned out that those weren't as bad as I had originally thought and that things could be worked out. I will now be switching back to the original provider - it has been my primary choice for a lot of reasons - and have learnt my lessons. 
  1. ALWAYS READ THE LEGAL STUFF FIRST. While you might want to start with a proof of concept first, make sure you read through the legal terms thoroughly before working on the actual thing. 
  2. If you come across a term or condition that seems to be a constraint, just clarify with the service provider whether it actually means what you think it does, and if it can be worked around/out. 
  3. Make sure that you keep the written proof of your discussions with the service provider. You never know when you might need it - hopefully never.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Every Job Is A Sales Job

All jobs are sales jobs and everyone has to sell. The things that change are how often and how much of selling you have to do. Sales is one common aspect that can be found in every job - from accountant to software engineer to CEO to the Prime Minister of a country. Now, selling does not have to be in exchange for money. You are selling if you are pitching an idea or trying to get someone's buy-in or explaining why you did what you did. You got the idea - everyone sells. 


I have played many roles throughout my career - software developer, project manager, consultant and business developer. The one common thing that I had to do in all these roles was selling - either to my peers or my juniors or senior management or clients. And this is true for all of us. We all sell - at one or the other point in the day. And if you think that you just work on your computer and are not really involved in selling anything, then you are wrong. You might not realize that you are selling, but you certainly are. If your job requires you to be in contact with another human being, then you have got to sell. 

Everyone thinks that their job is important and that others should learn about and understand it as well. Software engineers think that their jobs are very important since software is changing the world and so everyone should learn how to program. Finance guys think that they make the world go round as they deal with the flow of money. HR guys think that they ought to get more importance as people are the most important asset of an organization in this information age. The list can go on and on. However, in my view, sales is the only true horizontal job function, that everyone needs to learn.

Considering the amount of selling all of us have to do, it is a pity how less effort is put into building sales skills in our education system. I am not suggesting that everyone should be turned into a salesman, but considering the importance of sales in our everyday lives, it is an important [life] skill to learn and work upon. I am also not suggesting that we try to build sales skills like the ones of a stereotypical pushy car salesman. I have noticed that the best salesmen are good at human psychology, and I propose that is what we try to learn.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Does Invite-Only Registration Make Sense For Your Product?

Lots of tech startups are popping up nowadays launching new products; most of them seem to opt for invite-only registration process. I couldn't help but think if these guys have really thought it through or are they just copying others blindly. While in some cases it does make sense for a product to have invite-only registrations, I do not think that all products need to follow this approach. Before you decide whether such a closed registration process makes sense for your product, you need to analyze its pros and cons. 

PROS
  • I think having invite-only registration works best when you do not really have a working product. It helps you in getting the users even before your [minimal viable] product is ready to be launched and used 
  • We all know that first few releases are full of bugs and problems. Invite-only registrations ensure that only a small number of users get affected with these problems. This helps keep the bad publicity in check
  • Another good reason for an invite-only registration is when your architecture or systems are not robust enough to bear the load of more users. And till the time your application isn't ready, you would prefer to collect the email ids of users instead of turning them away
  • Such registrations can create a shortage of supply and in doing so can help in generating buzz around the product. Having said that I have seen this work better for more famous products. For almost all startups that I know personally, that have implemented this strategy, it did not really help much if at all

CONS
  • The biggest problem that I see with invite-only registrations is that they stop users from reaching out to your product. The fact is that users opened your website or app to see what it does or what it will do. Now instead of showing the product if you ask them for their email id so that you can reach out to them in a few weeks or months, they are going to get disappointed. In addition to that most of the users are not going to want to just share their email id with a stranger just so you could spam them later. They need to see something to share their contact. Quid pro quo. Though I do not have the data to prove this, I think for most products with invite-only registrations actually lead to fewer registrations than if the product had open registration. Sure, the user might get disappointed seeing the early versions of the product. But that is going to happen anyway when all they see is a message asking them to share their email id and come back later. At least in the case of open registrations users will share their email id readily in order to see what the product is all about
  • Look, there are millions of web and mobile apps out there. It is already hard to make someone reach out to your product. Why do you wanna make it even harder by adding invite-only registrations? If you think that if you opt for open registration process users will start rushing in and crash your application, then first of all wake up buddy, you are not that popular, and second of all that is a problem you really want to have. If I have to choose between less users with no applications crashes and more users with application crashes, I will happily go for the latter. Users are generally more forgiving than we think. They understand that new applications have problems. 

The general trend nowadays is to have invite-only registrations for web products. While it does make sense for some new product launches, I believe it actually hurts most of them, making users turn away. I think product managers/entrepreneurs need to think through and make sure that invite-only registrations make sense for their product, instead of following a trend blindly that can cost you your product. Probably, instead of going for one now they should go for it later in the product growth phase or may be never. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Vertical Discovery Engines

The internet is vast. With millions of websites and now hundreds of thousands of apps, there is just too much out there. With so much data and information available on the internet, getting the stuff that you need has been and still is one of the biggest problems of the web. While search engines such as Google and Bing do help us with this discovery problem, they only solve a part of it. 

The biggest drawback that these search engines have is that they are generic in nature. While these are good at crawling web pages and searching links, they can only do so much. To be more effective these search engines will need to understand domain-specific aspects not just for searching but for consuming as well. This leaves a huge gap to exploit for vertical specific players, not just the existing ones (such as Pandora - and its Music Genome Project - in music, Netflix in movies, and Amazon in books) but new entrants as well. 



Good News For New Players 
While people will always ask new players, "What if Google gets into it?"(to be honest, I think it is a really stupid question to ask in current times), the reality is that it is not easy for a giant such as Google to get into domain specific discovery game. Their technical, infrastructural and cultural baggage does not allow them to change, at least not fast enough. On the other hand,  vertical players can take advantage of their position and help users not just with discovery but close the loop with consumption as well. 
  • Discovery - Vertical players can allow discovery of the entity based on domain specific attributes. For example, in music it can be the song, artists, albums, genres etc. Similarly for deals, it can be location, type, number of people, cost, etc. In addition to that, vertical players are in a much better position to provide answers to search queries, instead of coming back with links to webpages. 
  • Consumption - This is where the vertical players can provide additional value - the cherry on the top - and get far ahead of the generic search players. By providing users to consume the information as well, these players can close the loop. Taking our discovery examples again, in case of music, such engines can allow for listening to songs and downloading them; and for deals, these can allow users to purchase them. 

We can already see growth of vertical discovery engines such as Indeed.com and Kayak.com. While these currently focus on discovery, I will not be surprised if they start closing the loop at their end as well. In fact, Indeed.com has already started doing that by allowing users to not just search jobs but apply for some of them as well. While this certainly does not mean that general search players will fade away, it sure does mean that with growing pool of information and assets on the internet, we will see growth of more vertical engines, that will not just help users with discovery but with consumption as well.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Sources Of Competitive Advantage On The Web

The question "What if Google or Facebook develops something similar?" will be answered very differently today than if it were asked 5 years ago. Today, it is not just Google or Facebook that can do something similar, but hundreds or thousands of other developers, startups, and companies can also pretty much make something exactly similar to what you are doing on the web. 

Sources of competitive advantage in the technology world (particularly web) have changed in the past few years, and, off course, the old sources are very different than the new ones. These changes are much more stark between the Web 1.0 and current web-based companies, and have been pioneered by modern online successes such as Fab, Pinterest, Foursquare and Twitter. Following is a brief of both, old and new, sources of these competitive advantages in the world of internet. 

OLD FACTORS
  • Technology - With the proliferation and adoption of open source technologies and cloud computing - unless you are a company like Google that has some kind of hard to replicate technical IP - technology is no longer a source of competitive advantage anymore. Almost every company has access to similar technologies and platforms, and most of the online initiatives do not require super complex algorithms. 
  • Business Model - Dell was able to get ahead of its established competitors because of its business model. It was revolutionary in its time, so much so that even Apple copied it later. While it worked then, it is rare nowadays for web-based companies to have a strikingly different business model that can be used as a competitive advantage. Pretty much all technology [web-based] companies are using existing business models, where they apply incremental improvements or exploit a niche. 
  • Suppliers and Partners - APIs have revolutionized the whole supplier/partner relationship model. While such relationships are still established and managed the old way for bigger ventures, APIs can allow you to put together a working (and probably scalable) project in order to get started. Some of the reasons for this change are the rising importance [and base] of user data and advancements in data-processing technologies, along with the rise of mashups and app economy. 

NEW FACTORS
  • Design / User Experience - One of the major changes in recent times has been the emergence of design as a key competitive advantage. User-centered design and user experience have been exploited by new companies to differentiate from the incumbents. This has not just led to emergence of beautiful but also powerful desktop-class web applications. Technological improvements in the field of browser technology, cloud computing and mobile computing have helped in design improvements, and players like AirBnB, Fab and Pinterest have leveraged them well. 
  • User Base / Network Effect - Most of the recently successful web companies exploit the social aspect of human nature and leverage the network effects. This has now become one of the most important and hard to replicate competitive advantage for web-based companies. In fact, it has become so important that it is now considered one of the primary factors for valuing early-stage stage and private web-based companies. 
  • Focused Approach - Just because Google or Facebook can develop something, does not mean that they will. And even if they do, that might not sit at the core of their business. And in addition to that, their existing baggage does not allow them to move fast enough as far as new decisions and changes are concerned. On the other hand, smaller companies are much more nimble and focused. Instead of focusing on 10 different things, they have only one thing to worry about, and a small number of people to get onboard for new ideas, which makes them much more nimble than the Googles of this world. 

These are some of the factors that came to my mind; I am sure there are others that have not been captured here. The bottom-line is that the factors that give competitive advantage to organizations on the web have changed drastically. And if you look closely enough, you will observe that these have turned towards softer aspects from their more hard predecessors. I believe these also reflect our growth as economy from manufacturing-oriented to services-oriented one to now a more experience-oriented one.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Responsive Website, Mobile App or Mobile Web?

I have met many people recently who want to leverage the growth in mobile space. For most of them the default way to enter the mobile space is an app. Now while that might be true for some cases, I wonder if they have even thought about other options as well. 

While on one hand, Financial Times has become kind of a poster child for how people can bypass the walled gardens of app stores and still be successful with their mobile HTML5 application; on the other, some people swear by the wonders of responsively designed website. I have been thinking about the options for my own application and thought of capturing some points I have considered for each option in this blog. Please feel free to add or comment on it. (Note that I am considering hybrid and native apps as one - Mobile Applications - because they need to be downloaded from app stores.


Responsive Web Design Mobile Application Mobile Web
PROs
  • Making just one [responsive] website that can perform and look beautiful in all devices (PCs, tablets, TVs and mobile phones) is the ultimate dream, and hopefully we will get there some day

  • Given the various kinds of screens we have nowadays, it is pretty much a no-brainer to have a responsive web design

  • Having a single site for your PCs, tablets, mobiles and TVs, saves a lot of investment (time and money) in device specific design
  • Mobile apps are able to leverage device specific features (such as GPS, offline access and local storage)

  • They provide faster, sleeker and more optimized app experience

  • They can leverage the distribution and payment channels of the app stores
  • A lot of users will try to go to your website at least once before downloading and using the app. TO serve such audience, it makes a lot of sense to have mobile website

  • No sharing of revenue. It's all yours to keep!

  • Single mobile website for all mobile apps. Requires less effort and cost for maintaining the application

  • [HTML5] mobile web apps can leverage some device specific features, such as offline access and local storage
CONs
  • Responsive apps are not able to leverage the capabilities of a mobile applications, and serve the same content to mobile as is meant for a PC, hogging more than required bandwidth

  • No matter how good the concept of responsive design is, the reality is that the way a user interacts with a PC, tablet and mobile phone is different. Bottom line is that, currently, while responsive design might work for basic websites (like for a shop, blog or partnership), it is still a compromise for proper web applications
  • The federated mobile environment means that you need to build an app for each type of mobile OS, which is a costly and time consuming affair

  • Sharing revenue with app stores is one of the biggest and most irritable problems for developers and companies

  • The app store approval process (particularly in iOS) is a big pain for the developers and companies

  • App discovery (with hundreds of thousands of apps published) remains a big problem

  • Danger of vendor-technology lock-in
  • Does not provide access to all device specific features

  • Unable to leverage the advantages provided by an app store (such as distribution and payment systems)

  • HTML5 is still an evolving standard and not all mobile browsers fully support it yet

For some types of apps the decision to go with one of the above options is more obvious than others. For example, for high performance gaming apps a native app is a better choice. For a small pastry shop making a responsive website might be better and cost effective. Whereas, for an app which requires online access, is not into too much into graphics and where revenue sharing is not an option, mobile web is the option to go with. With app discovery still remaining a problem in app stores, I personally do not see much advantage in going with a native app (considering the revenue sharing constraint as well) - as HTML5 web apps are more than sufficient for most of the applications out there. With increasing browser support and developer adoption for HTML5, I am very hopeful that mobile web is the future.