Why I started Bluenose

Why take the risk of starting a software company?

I could answer this question with something trite, like “I want to save the world from crappy products”. But the reality is a bit more nuanced.  I’ve had 3 formative experiences in the last 12 years that convinced me there was a big problem worth solving with a packaged application.

Frictionless Commerce

At Frictionless, we built a SaaS company from pre-revenue to its sale to SAP in 2006. One of the most interesting things we did was to share adoption and usage data with the sponsoring executives of our customers during account reviews.  It wasn’t pretty; we wrote SQL queries to extract usage metrics for each customer. We made charts and graphs in Excel, then pasted them into Powerpoint decks. But the data didn’t lie. And it provoked all sorts of healthy conversations about the expectation gap between executive vision and actual user adoption. This experience made me an early believer in usage data and its healthy effect on customer relationship management.

RSA, the Security Division of EMC

My flagship product was a security appliance that was distributed to four corners of the world across many thousands of units and customers. The product was getting “long in the tooth” (my kind words) and we experienced availability issues at an increasing rate. The problem is that we didn’t have any data about the use of the product in customers’ environments.  This lack of data inhibited our ability to spot root cause drivers across our customer base. And it was made worse by the growing variety of customers by size and use cases. There was no “archetype” customer that we could build and test for.

Another challenge was to depict the health of my product line during each quarter’s internal business review. Was the average selling price the same in Germany via the re-seller channel as it was in Brazil via direct sales? Was our customer renewal rate the same across every geography, customer tier, customer vertical and distribution channel? Of course not.

We struggled to de-construct the global business to spot the outliers that inevitably exist. For both the sake of spotting things to fix and finding the most successful segments in order to replicate the winning formulas.

AVG

AVG is a provider of freemium security and related products to consumers and small businesses. Most of its revenue comes via online distribution. When I arrived, I had a team member inventory all of the customer data sets we had; reducing churn and increasing cross-sell of our newly expanded product suite were strategic imperatives for me. I was certain the data held the clues. What I found was a lot of data, but living in silos. Marketing had lots of clickstream data from the website. Engineering had lots of product usage data from constantly tuning the anti-virus product’s protection algorithms. We also had a huge self-care community online. And an e-commerce system.

I spent 2 years building an internal analytics team, starting with hiring. Then we collated all of this data into some emerging technologies with which we had little experience (“Hadoop”, “Datameer”, etc.). Then we started producing basic reports and metrics out of it. Then we built some early statistical models to discover relationships in the data. 2 years later and we were still scratching the surface in terms of understanding the user behaviors that drove churn and cross-sell, and how to operationalize the findings.  There had to be a better way.

What’s in common across these experiences?

Each experience was the same in several ways:

  • important data about our customers was locked in many silos
  • the effort to overcome that was expensive, time consuming and required real executive commitment
  • as a company, we lacked key insights about who our best customers were
  • we were trying to improve business metrics that everybody cares about: customer retention, Lifetime Value, ARPU, customer success and customer advocacy

Ultimately, it was these common themes that led me to believe this was a widespread issue for companies, and that a packaged solution could be the answer.

Why I support EARN

In the last year, I’ve become a supporter of an organization called EARN.  EARN is a charitable organization that partners with people of modest means to help them achieve the goal of saving money.

How?

The simple answer is that EARN offers matched savings accounts.  Save $2000 in a defined time period?  EARN will match it with $4000.

The more complete answer is that EARN has learned, through years of trial and error, the techniques that enable behavior modification in the form of savings.  And this recipe enables people to reach goals they never thought possible.

What I love most about EARN is how they focus on empowering the individual.  You need only read the customer stories about how reaching small goals enabled them to reach even bigger goals over time; you’ll be moved by the life-changing outcomes.

A year ago, I heard Ben Mangan tell the story of EARN to a gathering of potential benefactors.  I was inspired.  But then my cheeks flushed in embarrassment.  I didn’t have money to contribute; I was just getting a startup off the ground with my own time & money.

The story Ben told was about their journey of learning how to partner with their savers to enable the behavior changes that are so powerful.  And how Ben was literally re-constructing his entire organization to take it from a local provider in San Francisco to a national platform.  His “BHAG” is to serve 1 million Americans in need.  And he thinks there are 30+ million Americans on the edge of poverty.

The only way EARN can reach 1 million Americans is online.  Which is the area that I’ve been helping ,with my advice and my time.

Check out EARN and consider how you might help them, too.

In memoriam: 3 friends lost in 3 weeks

It’s not supposed to happen this way.  Clent Richardson dies at age 52 or so.  Bonnie Swymer at 52.  Klaus Kjaer in his early 70’s.  They all passed away in the last 3 weeks.  Like a wave of mortality crashing over my otherwise serene life.

It gives you pause.  And makes you reflect on how precious – and short – life can be.

My advice: follow your passion.  Happiness is about pursuing your dreams and passions.  Say no to shit jobs, shit bosses, shit towns, shit whatever.  Period.  No excuses.

It’s also time to celebrate these people and what they gave to the world.

Clent was the best business partner I ever had, with the exception of my current one.  He and I were engaged in an effort of transforming a company.  Having somebody you can trust completely makes the effort of driving change so much easier.  And tolerable.  He was a loyal and devoted husband and father.  He lived in several places around the world, and was worldly as a result.  In a good way.  He grew grapes that apparently make for awfully good wine.  How do you match that?

Bonnie was somebody I knew less.  But I know her husband, and know the truth in the adage that behind every good man stands a great woman.  When a man worships his wife as Rob did Bonnie, you know there’s something special about her.  I bore witness to both their good times and times they were building for something better.  She was the same supportive person, always.

Which leaves Klaus. They broke the mold for him.  For 25 years in a row, with a couple exceptions, I spent a long weekend with him and a couple dozen buddies playing golf in the mountains of New Hampshire.  Klaus helped define what the trip is all about: brotherhood, jokes, learning to swear in Danish, drinking good wine (Amarone was a particular vice of his), gorging on lobsters and steak.  This trip is a highlight of the year.

Klaus was as close to a playboy as I ever met.  He knew the intimate details of living “la dolce vita”.  From the best towns to stay in Switzerland to the best vineyards in Italy, to ski areas in the Alps that only a local would know about.  Or Klaus.

Klaus was such a strong personality that I can only imagine living with him.  Which explains why three women each took a try at it.  In all seriousness, Donna was a source of strength, love and stability that made Klaus a whole person.

In the swirl of sadness, memories, funny stories and all the feelings of loss, I can only hope that these people inspire me to live my life to the fullest.  Every day.

Godspeed.

The ghost of my father lives in Silicon Valley

ghost ship[Father’s Day, 2015.  I added a few thoughts at the end.] Father’s Day.  A time to reflect on my Dad and the three years since he passed. You can read about that here.

About a year ago, I relocated from Prague to Silicon Valley.  One warm sunny afternoon, I was in the backyard chipping some golfs balls around with my son, and I had a powerful memory of my Dad.  One that has re-occurred many times since.

Many years ago, he told me how he almost moved our family to Silicon Valley in the early 1970’s.  Following his naval career, he was an executive in the aerospace & defense industry.  That industry was a huge part of Silicon Valley’s growth at the time.

Standing in my back yard, I imagined how happy he would have been here.  He loved golf; here you can play year round.  He loved sunny weather, probably because it was golf weather.  Plenty of that here.  He loved his industry; lots of innovation was happening here.

So what kept him from coming?  Probably what keeps many of us from pursuing our desires.  Other priorities.  The preferences of our spouses and partners. In his case, he had strong family ties to New England and Eastern Canada.  His wife (aka my Mom) was even more rooted in the East.

But the essential question remains: how can you know what makes you happy without change, experimentation, or exploration?

I’ve been fortunate to somehow do what my Dad didn’t (or wouldn’t) do.  My wife has been a willing partner in the adventure that led us from Boston to Prague.  And Prague to San Francisco.  I’d like to think we’ve been rewarded for the risk we took.

Maybe my Dad planted the seed for my eventual move here.  That would be cool.

UPDATE: it’s Father’s Day 2015.  Two years since I wrote this.  I’ve been working on my start-up for the last 2 years, in dogged pursuit of the Silicon Valley opportunity that’s a Siren Song for so many.  Including my Dad, who didn’t end up doing so.  One additional thought: without my wife’s support, none of my journey would be possible.  Even as we celebrate Father’s Day, we’re really celebrating the spouses behind the man.

Breaking my work silence

fingers on lipsSince leaving AVG and Prague last year, I’ve been pretty quiet on the blogging front.  Which makes sense given I was writing about living in Prague and working in the Freemium consumer software world.

In the meantime, I researched and ultimately co-founded a new company in San Francisco called Bluenose Analytics.  And attracted a kick-ass venture investor as partner.  Details on all of this will come with the company and product launch later this year.

A few hints: we’re building an analytics application in the cloud using a Big Data stack.  The application will help companies with subscription business models keep their customers longer and earn more recurring revenue.

This is a huge market opportunity.  I repeat, huge.

In the meantime, we’re hiring.  User experience designers, Java developers and Big Data stack developers.  If you’re interested to know more, contact me.  Or, share this with some friends.

My contact details are on my “about me” page and all over social media platforms.

Pandora, our divorce is pending….

pandora logoI love Pandora.  I use it on my iPhone while driving around the San Francisco area.

I’ve tried almost all of the others.  But Pandora’s music matching algorithms have exposed me to lots of new & cool artists from genres I already like; better than the other services.

So why are we getting divorced (maybe)?  Because the streaming of a song in progress is often interrupted by the start of another song.  Or an ad.  Both interruptions are a huge bummer (Ads are ok between songs.  I use the free version, after all).

I tweeted Pandora’s CTO pleading for help in fixing their app.  And he was incredibly responsive.  But I ultimately got put into a process designed to make the user go through all of the hoops.  The latest email I got after previously being directed to uninstall & re-install the app and re-boot my phone:

Sorry for the continued trouble, but thanks for giving those steps a shot. I noticed that you aren’t running the latest version of iOS on your iPhone, which helps address bugs and provides you with new features. 

You can install the free update by connecting your iPhone to your computer. Now, click ‘Update’ on the main iPhone screen in iTunes. You can also update your phone by installing the update directly by going to Settings -» General -» Software Update (it’s recommended that you plug your phone in during the update). 

If the issue still continues, then network congestion or a signal strength issue is the most likely cause.

If you’re having trouble when using a 3G or EDGE connection (in other words, not Wi-Fi), you can often get better performance with the “higher quality audio” option turned off. (Tap the arrow in the upper left of the Pandora “Now Playing” screen to reach the Station List page, then tap “Settings” -» “Advanced” -» “Higher quality audio” -» Off). This will ensure the minimum bandwidth is used to stream music when using a cellular-data connection (Wi-Fi connections are always automatically streamed in “higher quality audio” whether this option is on or off. For best results, use Wi-Fi whenever possible — e.g. at home, work, a coffee shop or a friend’s house).

If you are still having issues with “higher quality audio” turned off, then this is almost always due to poor cell reception. Note that the “number of bars” is often not an accurate measure of bandwidth. You can test your actual iPhone bandwidth by visiting http://www.testmyiphone.com on your Safari web browser. It will tell you your upload and download speeds. A consistent download speed of over 80kbps is generally required to stream Pandora smoothly. If you have less bandwidth than this, please change location — even a few feet can sometimes make a difference — or wait and try Pandora again later.

The user – me – isn’t the issue.  Half of these steps don’t even address the fact I’m using 3G networks.  And the problem has been occurring for months on a state-of-the-art phone over 3G networks around San Francisco that are amongst the densest in the world.

The issue is something much more technical and out of the user’s control.  It’s probably rooted in cacheing and compression algorithms that deliver data to my phone.

Anyone try Skype 10 years ago?  Remember the crappy sound and video quality?  Skype has since spent tons of time and money to write great algorithms that now deliver a wonderful service that overcomes lots of network problems.

Pandora has yet to, based on my experience.

I’m the kind of person that probably would have installed diagnostic software on my phone to give Pandora a hand.  Instead, I get asked to do a bunch of stuff that skirts the real issue and ignores the actual usage scenarios.

Is Pandora alone in delivering technical support this way?  Certainly not.  I’ve seen it in companies I worked at too.  But it doesn’t make it right.  Vendors delivering support should take an active role in troubleshooting instead of exhausting the users’ efforts (and loyalty) before owning the problem.

I’m not worthy! Or am I?

I was surprised to randomly discover that I was nominated for the following award:  http://boston.blogger.cbslocal.com/most-valuable-blogger/vote/misc/

It proves that one’s readership can reach into many unexpected corners of the Internet.

Given my blogging has been silent for a few weeks (massive corporate strategy project followed by long vacation in mental recovery mode), maybe I’m not so worthy of a vote.  But if you’re willing to vote for me, by all means do.

I promise to be a better blogger real soon.  😉

The probabilities of success?

There are several ways you can succeed.

For example, let’s say Hope has a success rate of 5%.  Prayer might also have the same odds of 5%.  Now multiple these two powerful forces together.  Hope times Prayer = 25%?

Actually, no.  It’s .25%

You might sense the sarcasm here.  Though I literally have seen organizations multiply low-probability tactics and believe that overall success is more likely. As they say, hope & prayer are not a strategy.