Is AOL’s history analog to Facebook’s future?


I attended AdWeek last week in NY and spent time at the OMMA Global conference.  The conference was explicitly about the rise and impact of social media on ad agencies, brand marketers, and media in general.  I found it interesting that by and large the de-facto definition of social media was Facebook.

Facebook is sort of like the Internet with training wheels.  I mean you can connect with people, chat with them, send them updates, share photos, etc. on the regular old Internet internet.  Facebook just lets you do all that stuff easily and with bubble-wrap for safety.  I’m a fan of Facebook for all the stuff I just said, but its companies like Twitter that really seem to be defining an agnostic Internet.  If Twitter is an example of agnosticism and functionality yet to come, then the Facebook Michelin Man had better figure out a way to not succumb to its own success.

The movie “You’ve Got Mail” came out in 1998.  At the time AOL was the Internet.  Fast-forward.  Today, Facebook is social media.

Don’t over-think it

My experience in most things is that simpler is always better.  Whether that’s a business deal, investment terms, or training for a cycling event.

Eddy Merckx when asked about his secret to being the best bike racer of all time was simply: “Ride Lots”.

When things work, they generally are super-simple, easy to understand, obviously of value to their constituencies, and most of all easy to explain to others.  Maybe best expressed in Occam’s Razor for those of you who like the philosophical or ‘intelligencia’ version of Keep it Simple, Stupid.

WTF are they thinking…?

An article / post caught my eye this morning.  I typically read / skim the MIT Technology Review’s daily email and from time to time Brad Feld (a Lijit investor) writes a piece.  This morning he has a good one on the failure of marketing spam in Twitter.

A very similar story is in today’s Ad Age although this one points out a social email flap.

Each of these stories represent a trend that is likely to continue and will absolutely get worse before it gets better.

At Lijit we live in the world of hyper-engagement and conversation.  Our search widget is primarily installed on both blogs and commercial sites that engage readers in very deep and specific contextual ways.  The engaged audience of internet readers is increasingly moving away from glossy mega-sites like CNN, NYT, USA Today and more into where the real conversations are occurring.  These sites for example include: Mommy Blogs, VeloNews, MLB Trade Rumors, and on and on – all places where real people connect and converse about real interests – in real time.

Conversational sites like these leverage not only their respective websites, but also outlets like Twitter, Flickr, Digg, YouTube, and so on.  Each of these are fantastic audience engagement tools and techniques.  And of course they offer marketers a level of interaction and presence they’ve never had before.

The challenge for Marketers is that they can royally fuck it up.  Yes the audience is engaged and yes the audience is ripe for the message, but the sensitivity and attention doesn’t suffer fools as Brad points out in his piece.  The “how” is becoming at least as important as the “when” and “where”.

Can a company predict turnover with an algorithm?

The WSJ reported an interesting story yesterday.  Google is apparently concerned about employee turnover so they’ve developed an algorithm to calculate the likelihood that a given employee will depart.

I assume stuff like:

– age

– gender

– education

– option vest schedule

– current position

– salary history

– life changes

– commute time

Some might say that developing an algorithm for turnover is sort of like the argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Or maybe, like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

I think Google is a fantastic company.  Having been in multiple meetings across many different groups and departments there, I found the company is filled with really smart people that by and large are mostly interested in doing cool stuff and enabling partners like us to benefit.  And they generate nearly $2B a month in revenue!

But.. like any company, its real asset is people, and people are human.  Some are political, some are ladder-climbers, some are real go-getters, some like to coast, some only get jazzed by a thorny challenge, you get the point.  An algorithm is nifty, but I think most experienced managers that have been around awhile can predict an employee departure or likelihood of departure on gut feel as well as or better than any algorithm.  Isn’t that a managers primary job?  To hire, motivate, and retain the best employees?  Creating an algorithm like this, says to me that Google might have deeper systemic issues.

Sales is perhaps the most important thing you can screw up

Salespeople are typically one of the best ways to find where the real opportunity sits.  The question: who buys it and why? is timeless in not only its simplicity, but also in its ability to cut to the chase on where value really sits, why, and what alternatives are in play.

I’ve learned over time is that hiring really good salespeople and then focusing their motivation (compensation, success, results, etc.) in a straightforward and meaningful way will ultimately uncover the really interesting and critical information about your business and the real value vector of your offerings.  The trick is you have to hire smart and hungry salespeople and be really clear about the motivation piece.  Screwing up either prerequisite up will render horrible results.

A few years ago, I had a fantastic sales guy that worked for me.  He was a bit of a prima-donna and demanded more from me (by far) than anyone else on my team.  He wasn’t afraid to call me anywhere or anytime, and call me out if he thought it was appropriate, even if it wasn’t.  He wasn’t afraid to ask really hard questions of anyone, anywhere regardless of title, rank or position.  He was incredibly passionate about succeeding both personally and professionally.  He also possessed a strong dose of equal parts skepticism and optimism.  At times I couldn’t stand his brash attitude or bluntness.  He demanded a lot of attention (and money).  Eventually he left for greener pastures and the loss to my team and the business in general was huge, way more so that I had expected.  I’m not saying his leaving was preventable or for the wrong reasons.  People move on and things don’t work out.  It was the after-effects that left a lasting impression on me.

I learned something important.

Great sales people don’t always do or act exactly the way you want or hope they would.  At the end of the day, results are the real and true measure of their value to the business.  Strong performers in this world demand a lot from the company and the company’s leadership.  They want and need leadership that listens, acts, motivates, and doesn’t mince words.

What kind of company are you?

There are (4) different types of companies:

1. Sales driven

2. Engineering driven

3. Finance driven

4. Market driven

The first 3 are by far and away the most common.  This often evolves over time with new leaders, manager, and macro economic shifts.  Mainly I think this stems from the personal biases of the leadership team.  People naturally gravitate to what they know and what has gotten them to where they are today – too often with no regard for the fact that what made them successful is not necessarily what will make them successful in the future.

The sales-driven organization:

Focus is on the customer.  What could be wrong with that?  Every customer demand is sacrosanct.  Problem with sales driven companies is that they end up building 42 different products for every customer corner-case that comes up.

The engineering-driven organization:

AKA: building cool shit.  You build what your developers think is the most kick-ass way to solve a problem even if the problem is something either no one cares about or worse, not enough people care about or even worse doesn’t fit in the real-world way your customers behave.  How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Answer: no one cares..

The finance-driven organization:

You don’t actually build anything because it costs too freekin’ much.  kidding.. But seriously, the finance group rules the roost and everything has to pass through the ‘viability filter’ which by definition means you never go out on an innovation limb.  These companies save their way into irrelevance.

The obvious answer is the market-driven organization.  The trick here is that its easy to say, hard to do.  Most of us will always suffer from our own biases and past experiences.  The market-driven group has an uncommon ability to view a business holistically – sort of like keeping multiple competing ideas in your head at the same time.  Tons of optimism with a thick layer of realism baked in.

2 in a row down the drain

Cyclists racing the snow

First it was the Koppenberg circuit race just out side Boulder.  Cancelled due to snow and mud.  Not that the course is that technical, its really that the cornerstone to the race is a short, steep (17% grade) rough dirt climb in the middle of a fast and smooth part paved – part dirt road race.

Next (my prediction) is the Haystack TT.  Set for tomorrow.  It will no doubt be cancelled due to snow and freezing rain.  This is a little slice of hell.  A 17 mile rolling course that I had my ass thoroughly kicked on last year.  My no-so-blazing time of 48 minutes was a full 14 minutes off the pro-level pace.  Of course that may have something to do with my pre-race ritual of Jack Daniels on the rocks, or perhaps just my heavy feet.

Chalk it up to a very odd start to 2009 in Colorado.  The weather for most of the past 9 months around Boulder has been unseasonably dry and warm.  Strange that during the first 2 major cycling events here we get hit with a freakish weather event that cancels each of them.  Is that Murphy’s law or what?