Tech trends and business ideas

All things that motivate entrepreneurs

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Buttress your email with some `serios’ dough, or risk a response….

Damn! This idea is worth more money than you and your ancestors altogether all the way up to Jesus...c'mon guys, be serios' [sic] – was the thought which crossed my mind when I first read about a cure for e-mail attention disorder [ Hat tip : John Murrel, GMSV ].

I am talking about Attent, an enterprise productivity application introduced by Seriosity, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based start-up that has come up with an e-mail management system that borrows heavily from the virtual economies and currencies found in WoW and other large-scale online games.

Under Attent, people would receive weekly allowances of Serios, most likely 100. That number would be the same for everyone, no matter who they are. But the idea is that managers and higher-level executives would accumulate more of the currency because they receive more messages. That means, in turn, that they have more Serios to spend on responses.

Further, people can sort messages by numbers of Serios attached, allowing them to sift through the hundreds of e-mails they may get every day and see which ones that senders have deemed the most important. In effect, you can quickly and easily sort the thousands of messages and read only the ones that they really care about -- the ones they put Serios on."

"The real value of the 21st century organization is in its people, and the organization only does what the people put their attention on," says Edward Castronova, a leading expert on virtual economies who is consulting for Seriosity. "Yet in the age of e-mail, pagers, IMs and cell phones, our attention is like roadkill. My argument was that if a synthetic currency gets people to trade gold pieces for (virtual items), it could get them to trade Serios for attention. When you pay for a (virtual item), you're just asking for attention: 'Cast this spell on me' is the same thing as 'Read my e-mail.'"

I exchange so many e-mail a day and if this signaling solution based on ROI ever worked, I would give an arm and a leg for that idea.

But my money will have to wait.

I already spend too much time trying to properly communicate with other people I work with and now I have to *buy* their attention? This is simply not the way to improve productivity. Just get rid of spam, if you can.

The number of office emails can be reduced by adding some intelligence into the message. We stream so many emails to clarify or to follow-up because the original message did not get a reply.

If an email while asking a question, builds in an automatic response widget such as `Yes / No’ or `will respond in x hours if I don’t have that info’, is useful enough.

Seriosity, which currently has 12 employees, is functioning off of a $6 million investment by Read's Alloy Ventures and is seeking a second round of funding. The trick for the company will be not only to prove that Attent works, but to manage its newly formed virtual economy.

Ultimately, for Castronova, the creation of a new economy for managing e-mail overload is no different than the creation of any new economy. And that's why he believes the system can work.

"Never again will you read the e-mail warning you to take your food out of the company refrigerator by Friday," Castronova says. "It will be forever relegated to the bottom of your inbox, because with the Serio, you can quickly and easily sort the thousands of messages and read only the ones that they really care about--the ones they put Serios on."

This whole thing beats me as I think “why send something that merits nobody’s attention ?!”

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bad times for tech startups - great times for Patent trolls

It rests on just two words in an obscure federal law, but billions of dollars may hang in the balance.

U.S. software makers and Web site operators will find themselves in an unusual position this week: rooting for Microsoft Corp.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Microsoft vs. AT&T, a complex transnational patent infringement case that the software industry says, if upheld, could threaten its business and drive thousands of jobs overseas.

Here are the bare bones. Windows has long included some sound recording and playback technology on which AT&T held a U.S. patent that was active until 2001. The companies reached a settlement on Microsoft's liability for all U.S. sales of Windows, but AT&T says Microsoft should also shell out for all the infringing copies of Windows sold overseas, and so far the courts have backed it up. Critics say Congress never intended U.S. companies to be held liable both here and abroad while foreign companies violating a U.S. patent would face damages based only on U.S. sales.

Companies that normally focus on thwarting the world's largest software company stand to benefit if it defeats AT&T Inc. in a U.S. Supreme Court case that may give software makers new protections from patent lawsuits on exported products.

AT&T won in the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals, so Microsoft appealed to the Supreme Court.

The key to the decision will come down to an interpretation of section 271(f) of the U.S. patent statutes: if software is a ”component'' of AT&T's patented invention, and if Microsoft is a ”supplier'' to the foreign computer manufacturers. If Microsoft convinces the court that either one of those statements is false, then Windows software sold in computers overseas is not legally infringing on AT&T's patent.

Small companies whose patents are being infringed upon by gorillas like Microsoft could gain from a pro-AT&T ruling, although innovative start-ups might be litigated out of existence if sued for both their American and foreign operations.

If Microsoft does win the case, some say it's unlikely it will do so on its ``component'' argument, which essentially asserts that the 1s and 0s of software code are unpatentable, a controversial statement even in an industry frustrated by the headaches of decades of IP litigation.

``For small companies depending on venture capital funding based on software patents, if software all of a sudden was considered unpatentable, it might have a negative impact on VC funding,'' said Victor de Gyarfas, a partner and patent attorney in Foley & Lardner's Los Angeles office. ``A lot of big companies would be fine with that, though, as they worry about lawsuits from patent trolls.''

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Primer for India VC practice

When you scroll down this blog, you’ll find several posts which suggests what customizations Indian VCs could bring about in their setups / mindsets, on the basis of the feedback I got from several startup entrepreneurs.

Wake up and smell your coffee. This is India, not your father's economy.
I was in fact thinking of putting up a summary post as a one point referencer for VCs looking at India to do business when I chanced upon this superb K@W interview with Netcore CEO Rajesh Jain.

[ Excerpts ]

[Rajesh Jain] “I believe we need a new approach to venture capital in India. There is a very limited legacy, so it's not going to evolve the way the U.S. did or even perhaps the way China did. In India there are lots of gaps across multiple value chains. Sometimes a service fails to take off because some parts along the value chain are not appropriately digitized. What ought to happen is a large amount of investment across building out an ecosystem of companies. Instead of waiting for an entrepreneur to come up with a business plan, venture capitalists need to be much more proactive. They should say, "The capital is available, now let's find a CEO for this business and back that person with funding. Let's start multiple companies based on what we have seen in other countries, and what we think the opportunities are in India."

This is a very different, inside-out approach, where you end up flipping the model around. That requires much more work. It will not work if the core venture capital team lives abroad and just comes to India once in a while. We need people on the ground who understand the realities of India today, who understand how the technology is evolving, and who can make bets on what the future is going to be.

Sometimes the VCs tend to behave more like private equity firms by investing in companies that don't need the capital, or which are pre-IPO companies. For example, the investment by Kleiner Perkins into [a job-search web site] was a pre-IPO investment. There was really nothing "venture" about it. Westbridge's investment in Times Internet was of the same type. Those things need to change. You need to really get in there, work with people and focus on building out the ecosystem. Most of these things don't exist, and that's the great green-field opportunity across this space. How can education be done differently with digital technologies? How can health care be done differently? We need to look at different industry verticals and think about how to transform them given the presence of broadband, of computers, of mobile [devices], of software sitting on the network. We need to rethink how business gets done. I think that is the real opportunity.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the principal risks?

Jain: This is a "build-it-and-they-will-come" approach. If you build it and they don't come, that's a problem. If you are too early, you lose. If you are too late, you lose. The risk is that you may be too early or too late. But that's what all the great successes in the entrepreneurial world have faced. You need luck on your side also to make it work. Basically as an entrepreneur, you have to live in the future. You have to imagine what is going to happen. You have to create the future and make others come to it.

I recommend it as a must read for all VCs who are seriously looking at India to do business.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Getting into Forbes Midas List of VCs

Remember Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, ( now a Forbes Midas VC focusing on clean energy ventures thro Khosla Ventures ) amongst others ? The Silicon Valley venture capitalist who hit it big during the telecom boom in the 1990s, turned two years ago to embrace green technoloy. Everyone thought his outlandish bets on untested technologies such as celulosic ethanol - which most experts caution will be only be commercially viable in two years, at the earliest — would take some time to show results.

Vinod paid no heed to that advice and went straight ahead with his investments in the space and got rewarded handsomely. He knew it was an opportunity when he saw one in in Cambridge, Mass.-based Celunol last year as part of a $60 million venture capital round. Biotech company Diversa announced Monday it will acquire Celunol in a deal worth roughly $182.45 million. Cellulosic ethanol is a process that uses non-food plants and other waste to make ethanol, and it is much more efficient, and thus better for the environment, than regular corn-based ethanol.

Normal refrain of all VCs is that they are interested in funding Ventures where they have a clear domain expertise. Point taken. I had always argued that what separates a great VC from a good one is the level of their prescience in seizing an early opportunity and their deftness in moving along the vetting and mentoring processes including roadmap for execution to deliver a multi-bagger. With the first few hits and misses, the great one gets the picture right. Then it’s only a question of taking an early intelligent bet than having a direct domain expertise. They assess the strength of the idea, the management team and help the founders reinforce that team with outside talent drawn from wherever. That’s how they get into Midas list.

Vinod has done just that. He’s not been much on clean energy to begin with but has done his home work well before he took the plunge. Clearly the stuff VC legends are made of.
Do you think other VCs can take a leaf out of this and make a difference ?

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Mile-high networking and Green n’ guilt free ride

How important is a mile-high networking for you ?
Ask the valley techies. Even if it means enduring an economy middle seat, it’s well worth the effort.

Advantage : networking in the clouds.

The Lufthansa flight ( combo Flt.455 & 754 – SF-FF-BLR ) won the title “Bangalore Express” because it was the first to cash in on the Silicon Valley-Bangalore tech connection with the most direct route.
The 9,000 mile, under 22 hours jaunt, (including a two-hour-or-less layover) grueling trek doesn’t seem to bother them even as they shell out $2,000 more on an average. All they care for is to stock up well on business cards.

As interest in global warming and hybrid vehicles rises, taxi and luxury car services are shooting for an eco-friendly image that draws customers, according to Alfred LaGasse, executive vice president of the national Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.

While living in the chaotic city of Mumbai, India - I stick with using public transport / hired cabs / rickshaws as much as possible. The twin advantage is of tension free ride that it offers at an economic price ( the driver thrown in for free ) and not having to detour finding parking lots. I don't have to worry about soaring car insurance premia, parking fares and not so infrequent road rage.

To what lengths would you go to demonstrate your eco sensitivity…?

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

How to screen internet startups

I have read many articles on this, but nothing came close to the post that I read recently in VentureBeat, written by Nissan Gabbay. The full article is here.
Normally the criteria applied while screening the internet startups are evidences of high entry barrier, unfair advantage etc., which have become hard to get lately - since everything in internet has become a low hanging fruit, accessible to all. Greater user involvement enabled by web 2.0 applications have left little for the founders to think up and innovate. You just enable user participation and he does the rest. Volume of traffic determines its success.

This is a re-post of Gabbay’s own post in startup review in which I find some later mark ups. I suggest you may please read that too.

Some of the comments have also been from informed stalwarts like Mike Brown. In addition to the points suggested by Gabbay, Brown has the following add ons.

a) Instant (or near instant) gratification

This means I don’t have to download something and get a ton of friends on the thing before I actually get some goodness from the product/service.

b) Clear use case.

Some sites are impossibly hard to understand when you show up for the first time. If I can figure out what to do there in about 10 seconds, forget it. You’ve lost me.

c) Improve an existing user behavior rather than require a new user bahavior.

d) Non-linear economies of scale.

Obvious example is communication products but it could apply to cost reduction as well as user adoption.

e) Previously unknown ability to personalize.

Personalizing shopping, media, medical recommendations, restaurants, etc. The beauty of the web is in finding new ways to get ME exactly what I want.

f) New or proprietary access to data presented in simple ways.

It’s cool when companies take previously unknown, inaccessible or complex data and make it usable for consumers to make decisions. Zillow, Farecast, and lots of others do this.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Save R&D millions – Go launch a Placebo !

Obviously you don’t call the carpenter to fix a broken limb. Or would you summon the plumber to get some portfolio advise…?

I was really amazed when I read about this in Bessemer VC David Cowan’s blog. Cowan was ranting about Airborne a hit pill in the US, “ to be taken when you get the first symptoms of common cold ” ( note – they don’t advertise it anywhere as a `drug’ to “cure common cold ).

Cowan while acknowledging Airborne as a phenomenal success ( sales have topped $ 100 million ), classifies it as a “highly scalable theft“ by a Second Grade School Teacher who developed it. According to Cowan, the pill itself is nothing but some placebo vitamins, some commercially tired herbs and the electrolytes you get from a swish of Gatorade. But Airborne's success springs from a remarkably shrewd and sinister campaign that employs a number of diversions to mislead the public without blatantly violating any laws. Essentially, the clever marketing messages and packaging suggest that Airborne cures the common cold, without ever actually saying so.

While I read the comments on that Cowan’s post, I could find more people endorsing the curative properties of the product. Proof of the pudding, may be.

There’s also this feature article by Skeptic columnist Michael Shermer endorsing Cowan’s observations. Shermer consulted a retired surgeon on this and was advised to stick with chicken soup instead !

When Ranbaxy and Dr.Reddy’s Labs have had to fight several million $$ lawsuits overseas ( winning some, losing other ) to manufacture and distribute several patent expiring drugs in the US, how come such artful dodgers escape all regulatory traps and hit it off in those markets…?! In this case, Airborne CEO Elise Donahue goes on Air in Good Morning America and even admits that “ We don't know if Airborne is a … cure for the common cold ”. Bravo, land of the free indeed !

Sauce only for the goose ? I don’t intend to trigger a debate. Can’t stop wondering just yet. Is it not protectionism of a different kind, the tariffs on imports and the agriculture subsidies in the third world which the US reps shamelessly rattle against at every GATT / WTO rounds to ensure the talks fail ?