Creative Destruction

Internet of Things

There is a lot of fear and denial floating around as industries, companies, and careers are disrupted by the accelerating growth of technology. I embrace that change and the possibilities it represents. Why not? It’s going to happen whether or not I (or you) choose to participate, and the things that are becoming possible are really quite breathtaking.

One area that holds both promise and threat is “the internet of things“. We tend to think of IoT in terms of store shelves that communicate to a retailer’s inventory system when it’s time for a new shipment, or refrigerators that remind us when it’s time to buy milk.

This sounds like the start of the PC era when the most significant use the average non-technical person could think of for PCs was organizing recipe cards. Take a look at Postscapes’ 2013 Internet of Things award winners for a small taste of where this is really going. The future belongs to those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and hack it.

One threat is that bad actors or well-intentioned but short-sighted organizations will misuse this potential in a way that hands too much power to the already powerful. Think NSA with capabilities magnified a hundred-fold. One can argue that large companies have the potential to misuse this power as well, as individual ethics are easily overwhelmed by shareholder imperatives.

But I’m not as concerned about the potential misuse of IoT by faceless organizations as I’m excited by the possibilities of creativity by brilliant individuals. The sensor technology is already cheap and accessible enough that individuals can begin to hack IoT in ways we haven’t yet imagined. I can’t imagine what that looks like but I’m looking forward to being astounded.


Platform vs. product: Teespring

It’s nice to have concrete examples of sometimes theoretical concepts. I recently read a post on Venturebeat about Teespring, a YCombinator startup that pulled in $750k in April selling t-shirts.

Teespring t-shirt

A Teespring user’s design

Well, actually they don’t sell t-shirts, they provide a risk-free platform for people to design, market and sell their own t-shirts using a Kickstarter-ish crowdfunding model. Make your material, design and quantity selections and the base cost changes accordingly. Set your selling price and see how much you’ll clear per shirt. Run a campaign for up to 21 days and when enough people have pre-ordered the shirt, Teespring prints and ships.

When the transactions clear, you get your money, and Teespring gets theirs. If your design didn’t attract the minimum number of pre-orders, Teespring lets everyone know, and nobody is out any money. No risk save for a bit of time.

Teespring has built a brilliant platform and focused their effort on making the use of that platform as frictionless and pleasant as possible. I’ve given my 13-year old a challenge of developing his own shirt and campaign, and told him he can keep all the proceeds. It’s a fun little economics lesson that lays out the relationships between COGS, price, demand and marketing in a stunningly clear fashion.

It’s a perfect example of the power of a platform vs. a product.

You can see the test campaign I put up at

Big data for humans

Nearly every company is getting more data about customers, sales and interactions than it can quickly put to good use.  One fascinating solution is the development of artificial intelligence platforms that can extract insight from large datasets and communicate those insights in narrative form.narrativescience

For several years I’ve been following Narrative Science, a company that has pioneered an algorithmic approach to turning datasets into clearly-written, useful content designed for humans to read and understand. While their early efforts focused on taking  high school sports scores from thousands of games and turning them into instant articles indistinguishable from a local reporter’s efforts, their new Quill product is focused on business intelligence.

So why does this matter?  Think about the parts of your business that generate data; web analytics, ad ops, ecommerce, sales or customer service for example. How many of these generate (either manually or automatically) regular spreadsheets or charts for senior management to review? How often do these reports result in deep thinking about opportunities hidden in the data? Almost never. Unless the person assembling the reports is very good, their “insights” are unlikely to be very penetrating, and are therefore routinely ignored.

We already know that software can analyze and find useful connections and outliers in data far faster than people can. When software can also communicate those insights in clearly-written, logically presented prose, big data becomes a lot more interesting to mere humans.

Think how valuable it would be to deliver concise, insightful campaign summaries and recommendations every week to each of your advertisers, without hiring more people. How about a data product that delivers far more than just…data? Financial services and marketing automation companies are beginning to use tools like this, but the potential for competitive advantage is there for a great many companies. Do you have data that could be turned into a business-transforming product?

Content marketing: Embrace the chaos

John Bethune recently interviewed Paul Conley for his B2B Memes blog, in which Conley laments the way in which content marketing has devolved into self-serving marcomm crap from brands, and much the same from publishers.

This mess is to be expected, because there are a lot of people who have devoted their professional lives to the ideas of traditional advertising and marcomm. Content marketing proceeds from the assumption that useful, engaging content will fill your sales pipeline more reliably than ads, and generate far more repeat sales in the bargain.

So while CMOs may want to do more content marketing, the marcomm folks tasked with execution are simply not equipped for the job. They then hire out of work journalists or a marketing services agency to create authentic content, but can’t resist the marcomm urge to control the message. Yes, copy and journalism can both generate business, but they are not the same thing.

Here are 3 possible paths to success for marketers who are serious about leveraging content marketing: (more…)

Will mobile commerce steal Black Friday?

Online retailers like Amazon and Gilt Groupe are set to sneak behind enemy lines en masse on Black Friday this year, and there is little brick & mortar retailers can do to defend themselves. Bored shoppers waiting in long lines for a chance to pay will naturally pass the time by playing with their smartphones. Online only retailers are looking to exploit that opportunity, offering the same products for less in mobile-only deals targeted to the times people are expected to be in those long lines. Result? Frustrated shoppers put their purchases back on the shelf, having ordered the same thing for less on their smartphones.

While this may not have a huge impact on share this shopping season, it does begin training consumers that maybe camping out for 2 nights in the Best Buy parking lot is a stupid idea. That will not be good for traditional retailers who count on the amped-up bargain hunting frenzy they’ve managed to create over the years.

If traditional retailers want to survive long-term against companies like Amazon, they’d better crack the code on an in-person shopping experience that trumps the convenience and low prices of online retailers. If Nordstrom can’t do it, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for Best Buy. As for me, I think I’ll bargain hunt from bed next Friday morning. My iPhone is always close by.

Gatekeepers: Your days are numbered

Amazon, for all that it seems to be riddled with inefficiencies and discontented employees from the inside, is turning industries upside down. Book publishers are terrified of the online retailer, and with good reason. Amazon already makes it easy for authors to self-publish Kindle editions of their books and sell them through Amazon, while earning a bigger share of any revenue generated. Now Amazon is acting like a traditional publisher, giving advances and handling editing, production and marketing for authors. (more…)

Don’t build 50 products, build one platform

Xcommerce platform

eBay's Xcommerce platform

If you haven’t read Steve Yegge’s eye-opening rant about the power of platforms vs. products, you should. He rambles and gets a bit technical (he is a Google engineer after all) but he brilliantly explains the value of building platforms that can be extended by others vs. building stand-alone products. This matters to much smaller companies as well, even publishers. Taking a platform approach to infrastructure you already need (like a customized web CMS) will at minimum save money, and could turn into a business in its own right for you. (more…)

Amazon’s brilliant power play: Kindle Fire

The new Kindle Fire, with the Silk browser.

Jeff Bezos, quoted in the NY Times, said about Amazon’s new tablet “Part of the Kindle Fire is of course the hardware, but really, it’s the software, the content, it’s the seamless integration of those things.”

Well, actually, it’s about Amazon’s new lightweight Silk browser, which is about to give them amazingly complete, detailed information about users. Privacy concerns? You betcha. Actionable consumer insights? Billions of dollars worth if this takes off the way other Kindle products have. (more…)

Five keys to uncovering a profitable data business

Many B2B publishers are sitting on a gold mine of rich data disguised as dusty old directories, sold to libraries and a dwindling population of industry customers who order more out of habit than need.  Even when those directories are turned into an online application, they rarely deliver on their potential to be significant revenue drivers.  Directories often get moved online in ways that make them hardly more useful than the printed product, with clunky interfaces that discourage users from digging into the information.  That’s a shame, because even a moderately successful data product generates 50% margins.

I can’t tell you what your publication’s gold mine will look like, but I can help you find it.  Here are five basic rules about turning a sleepy directory business into a serious data products business.