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Archive for August, 2011

Faster Than a Speeding Earthquake

August 24, 2011

Brad Svrluga

I was sitting in my office at 20th and Broadway yesterday at 1:53PM when I saw a Tweet pop up from my brother (@barrysvrluga), who is a sportswriter at the Washington Post. His Tweet, sent from Washington Redskins training camp, said:

Um, so, we just experienced an earthquake at #Redskins Park.

“Holy sh@#,” I thought. “An earthquake in DC? That’s crazy!” I picked up my phone and started to call him when, maybe 30 seconds after his Tweet popped up, the building began to sway back and forth like a boat rolling on mid-sized waves. The earthquake had hit New York.

Normally, I would have first thought that there was some sort of construction going on that was shaking the building. But knowing it was felt in DC, my mind went immediately to an earthquake, which is not something we think about in NYC every day. So then what was my first reaction? I Tweeted the following, also time-stamped 1:53PM:

woah – earthquake in NYC moments after seeing tweet about earthquake in DC!

And then I searched “earthquake NYC” on Twitter to see what else I could learn. I instantly found maybe a dozen results, then quickly it was dozens, and then hundreds. Clearly I wasn’t crazy.

A few more seconds of searching and I found Tweets reporting folks feeling the quake in North Carolina, Boston, and Cleveland.   And a few moments later, someone had a report from the USGS that the quake measured 5.8 and was centered in Virgina.

By 1:57PM, less than 4 minutes after the quake rumbled through NYC, Twitter had told me that (a) there was an earthquake on the east coast, (b) how big it was and where it was centered, (c) how far from the center it was felt, and (d) that there didn’t appear to be any reports of major damage or harm.

Somewhere around 2:10PM, at least 15 minutes after I felt it, the CNN.com page put up a Breaking Story alert above the rest of their news saying that a 5.8 magnitude quake had hit Virginia. I stopped checking around 2:20, and they still offered no further details.

All this prompts a handful of observations:

First off, It’s really freakin’ amazing that Twitter carried news of the earthquake the 280 miles from Mineral, VA to NY faster than the actual quake traveled.  Maybe I’m just geeking out too much here, but when you really stop and think about it, isn’t that unbelievable? Both technically – a little human interaction plus some simple technology beat this massive force of nature; but also in what it says about how Twitter has impacted human behavior. The first reaction upon feeling the quake of my brother, and then me, and then thousands of others was to pull out some sort of device and Tweet.

Gee, do ya really think this Twitter thing is gonna be important?

Second, this behavior is in many ways worse news for traditional web media (CNN.com, HuffPo, etc.) than it is for traditional regular media (print, TV, etc.). In just a few minutes of searching I had enough information, albeit unverified, that I could’ve written a quick Breaking News story. Yes, almost all of those Tweets were from otherwise unreliable sources, but there was enough volume, fast enough after the event, from enough different places, that it looked pretty damn reliable. As a result, I never went back to CNN.com or anywhere else to read their full stories. Where web news properties had previously been my source for real time news, that is no longer the case. I had the information I needed in the moment, and so I went back to work.

Late last night I watched a few minutes of CNN and got a broader story. This morning I heard/read some more reports from NPR and the NYTimes. Looking at my behavior, traditional media didn’t get hurt at all by Twitter inserting itself into the landscape as the go to provider for real time news – I used them for the same things I used them for a year ago. But how many readers, and how many ad impressions, were sucked away by Twitter from CNN.com and the like in the moments immediately after the fact? It must’ve been a ton.

Third, while initially I thought “man, this is huge for Twitter’s business!,” I think that’s somewhat limited in it’s truth. It’s no doubt a massively powerful illustration of Twitter’s impact, but I don’t know that this sort of behavior is specifically helpful to them from a business model standpoint.

It’s hard to directly monetize this kind of burst of activity in any premium way. To get super-premium ad buys you need to offer advertisers highly targeted audiences who are expressing meaningful purchase intent (think KitchenRemodeling.com) or broad audiences around high profile events (Super Bowl or Oscars TV ads). Things like earthquakes are neither, so offer advertisers nothing better than any other collection of traffic. That said, I would think the folks at Twitter must be working hard to construct revenue opportunities around more predictable spikes like the winning goal at the 2010 World Cup Final, which at the time set a new record for Tweet volume and consumption.

I’m also sure that yesterday’s event, and the effectiveness of Twitter at spreading valuable information will, as the events of the Arab Spring did before the quake, lead more and more people to turn to Twitter first in the future. And that, most certainly, will drive new users, higher levels of activity, and ultimately, much more revenue.

So congrats once again to the folks at the corner of Folsom & 4th in San Francisco. You’re changing the world for the better. But please, be careful not to completely destroy the news media. My brother the print writer still needs to feed his sweet little daughter.

Going Public: Accountability & Feedback Loops in Startups

August 17, 2011

Brad Svrluga

I’ve been thinking a bunch about the power of feedback loops recently, ever since my wife sent me this very interesting Wired piece by Thomas Goetz. Effectively designing and implementing accountability and feedback loops is an enormously important and powerful tool of organizational management. And it’s something that early stage companies don’t often give enough thought to.

Sales teams have always had it pretty easy in this regard – the feedback loop there is time-honored, simple and straightforward – commissions. Management wants the sales team to sell more stuff. So they pay them a piece of every sale. Sales guys want to make money, and they know how to do it. They’re often said to be “coin operated.” Show them the money, and they go to work. It’s simple.

But startup managers frequently ignore the importance of creatIng effective feedback loops for other parts of the organization, where the outcomes might not be quite so objective or, at least, are not as public and obvious.

I’ve seen a couple of really effective implementations in recent weeks of very public feedback loops that I thought were worth sharing. First is from our portfolio company TxVia, which has built the leading platform for managing transaction processing in alternative payments (prepaid debit cards, peer-to-peer payments, etc.). The platform that these guys maintain processes tens of millions of dollars of transactions every day, and the clients who sign up to work with TxVia are literally betting their business on the company. If TxVia goes down, the business of their partners goes down. It’s high stakes stuff.

The operations team at TxVia had been struggling a bit, and while client downtime hadn’t yet been an issue, management was worried that the team wasn’t sufficiently focused on the importance of their task – keeping a payment system relied on by millions of consumers around the world up and running. So they came up with a simple and very effective means to make the impact of the work the team was doing very clear. The head of the ops team ordered a few large computer monitors, hung them on the wall around the office, and set them up to show a simple running tally of that day’s transaction volume. The numbers were big, and they moved up fast. It was a simple, stark reminder of just what was at stake for that ops team. No longer were they doing a non-specific task, trying to keep a system up for the sake of keeping it up. They could see the stakes every minute. And lo and behold, it worked. The team has renewed focus, is motivated, and their performance is better thane ever.

The second, and even simpler example, I saw a couple of weeks ago at NYC tech accelerator program DreamIT. Like most of these accelerators, the setup at DreamIT is beehive-like: a big open room full of tables, with teams of 2-8 people crowded around them. There’s nowhere to hide in that environment, and the teams really get to know each other, help each other, and there’s a sense of shared mission in the room.

The companies in accelerator programs like DreamIT are generally engaged in 10 week sprints to make enormous progress. Business models can change dramatically over the course of a few weeks as the result of early product feedback, market testing, and guidance from mentors. I’ve seen teams in these programs accomplish more in a week than larger startup teams can pull off in a month.

Mark Wachen and the guys at DreamIT NYC have gone a step further in encouraging an accountability-driven, high performance environment, and it’s a brilliant example of using a very public feedback mechanism. When you step off the elevator into the big, open DreamIT offices, staring you in the face is a whiteboard with the names of every DreamIT company written down the left side. On the right side is space where each company records their next milestone and target completion date. These might be product releases, business development deals, or key hires. Whatever is most important to the company at a point in time, it’s written up on this whiteboard for everyone to see – visitors and resident co-founders alike.

For each individual team, this drives a serious raising of the stakes around achieving each milestone. You can’t just quietly miss a deadline anymore. And for the group of teams as a whole, it gives them all a public sense of each other’s goals and promotes a very supportive environment where achievement of those milestones is publicly celebrated. The teams I spoke to at DreamIT love the shared awareness of their goals and the environment the constant reminder of those goals create.

Two great examples of very simple, very effective feedback and accountability mechanisms. The sorts of things that every startup – or any organization, for that matter – would do well to give more thought to.

I’d love to hear more examples of startups driving this sort of accountability – let me know what you’ve got.

Directions Needed: The Latent Opportunity in Social Travel

August 8, 2011

Brad Svrluga

Question: why the heck hasn’t anyone gotten the social web for travel right yet? And by that I mean, why, in a world where I can find out who amongst my friends knows the senior brand manager for Tide at P&G, or get an infinite array of music or movie recommendations from friends and people with similar tastes, yet when I’m planning a trip or trying to imagine where to go, I can’t tap into my existing networks and find out who’s been where and what they thought of it? It should be so simple, and it would be so valuable to those of us who are avid travelers. The social web needs to do this. Not necessarily through a fully online experience, but by helping us make online connections that can lead to offline discussions and information sharing.

I’ve had two recent experiences that highlight the opportunity and need. First, I was very late in the game planning the specifics of my family’s recent trip to the UK. We had four unscheduled days in Scotland to fill, no ideas, and no time to do a bunch of research. Fortunately, I happened to mention to a casual acquaintance that we were going. He promptly set me up with Anne, an old friend of his whom it turned out lives very near where we were going to be. She subsequently had a 45 minute phone call with me, a follow-up call, and we had probably 5 pages worth of email correspondence (with Anne filling up 4.5 of the pages). I got incredible inside scoop, steered to the right place to stay in the right little village, and a ton of ideas on what to do once we were there. It was radically better than any guidebook could’ve been, and it was customized just for me. If I hadn’t stumbled into that conversation, I never would’ve made the connection.

Then last week, just after we got back, my friend Adam reached out and told me that a good friend of his was planning a trip to South Africa. I lived in South Africa for a year in my 20s, traveled all over the country, and took my wife there 5 years ago on a “South Africa’s Greatest Hits” tour. I have incredibly passionate feelings about the place.

Adam asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing some thoughts with his friend. As I’ve done many times before, I shifted into voyeuristic traveler mode, and did exactly for this guy what Anne in Scotland had done for me. And I loved it.

Travel can be one of the most emotional, soul-stirring, and memory creating experiences in our lives. It is something that people love to talk about, and which many people are very opinionated about. When we’ve been somewhere and had a good experience, there can be great joy in sharing that experience with others and nudging friends to go do what we did. And for people who live or have lived somewhere that’s a tourist destination, the feelings can be even stronger. I have a love for South Africa that leaves me wanting to help others experience the very best of it; and Anne clearly felt incredibly passionate about showing off some of Scotland’s gems to me.

When I think of other life experiences and activities that can stir the emotions like travel and place, food and music come to mind. Like travel people have deep passions about them, love to share their experiences around them, and are avid recruiters of friends to listen to their favorite bands and eat at their favorite restaurants. The social web is working hard, and pretty effectively, on both of these markets.

On the music side, the array of social music streaming services – Spotify, Last.fm, Rdio, turntable.fm, etc. – has proven the ability of social to drive music discovery and exploration, leading millions of consumers to listen to a whole lot more music than they were listening to before. And our portfolio company Ticketfly is bringing social to the live music ticketing business with great success.

On the food/wine side, Snooth is doing a nice job of creating a social experience around wine, and is now expanding beyond that. Dinevore is doing for restaurants much of what I’m looking for on the travel side.

What I need a simple, LinkedIn type experience – something that is built right on top of Facebook, most likely – that very simply let’s me enter in a place and then tells me who in my social graph has been there. Ideally, maybe it has some self-ascribed qualitative ranking of expertise and a statement of the recency of the experience. No need to build a lot of information into it – I don’t actually want a user-generated guidebook. Just a simple directory that tells me who to reach out to in my network for advice and ideas. Just like LinkedIn will help me find my way to people in my network who have worked at Google or Procter & Gamble, I want a guide to who in my network knows something about traveling with kids in Scotland.

TripAdvisor, one of the great online travel success stories (but which has a product I quite dislike), just recently bought a company called WhereI’veBeen. These guys have a simple little app that let’s me tag all the countries/states/cities I’ve been to as “I’ve been” “I’ve lived” or “I want to go.” That’s the right data. WhereI’veBeen then encourages consumers to build photo albums from the places they’ve been and write some commentary. So if I go search on a place I’ll get a whole boatload of pictures and comments from people I don’t know – not that helpful. But inexplicably, WhereI’veBeen doesn’t take the obvious next step and make it easy for me to find out who amongst my friends actually know something about a place. They got great early traction because the app is cool and fun to use when you’re entering your travel history. But usage has since slid precipitously, because there’s not much to do there. Note to TripAdvisor: if you want to get me using this service a lot and help stop the sliding usage of the WIB app, make this feature change. Do it well, and there will no doubt be a robust lead gen and advertising supported business model to be had.

Bottom line here. . .this fairly obvious little example provides a good bit of proof of the fact that – bubble or no bubble – we remain a long, long way from having fully tapped the opportunities inherent in the social web. Both from a consumer value standpoint and a business opportunity standpoint.

And so my partners and I remain eyes peeled, looking for our next Ticketfly – a social enabled service that doesn’t create a new network, but builds a valuable business on the back of the networks and platforms that already exist and dominate. Who knows, maybe we’ll find it in the travel world. The opportunity is there, for sure.

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