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Pitching a Startup, Vermont Style

In Silicon Valley, you have the well-known and lesser know hotspots – From Buck’s to Quattro. In Boston, the locations are harder to pin down, not quite the same culture. But in Vermont, we get it done on the ski slope (or in the pub, with a micro-brew!  On March 6th, 2014 Peak Pitch Vermont will be held for the 9th time at Sugarbush Ski resort. My personal interest,  a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem in Vermont. I am on the Advisory Board of StartupVT and enjoy the energy within the startup scene.

In preparation, since I have not been before, I needed a good way to learn about the Startup scene.  As part of StartupVT, I started doing podcasts with Cairn Cross of Freshtrack Capital and decided to extend that with a Q & A specific to Peak Pitch.  I plan to follow it up a similarly formatted post taking some points from Cairn’s partner Lee and it is already interesting to see the differences (I cheated, I have Lee’s answers).

Yes, this is a bit of a promotion – but not for a product, service or otherwise. It is a promotion of Entrepreneurship, learning new things and, well, hitting the slopes. I do plan to bring a long my new GoPro camera, for some filming, a perspective on VC pitches probably not seen before…stay tuned!

Here is a YouTube Video

Going on a Data Diet, my New Years Resolution

As New Years resolutions go, they are fun and provide an opportunity to reflect,  to set a course for the next year. About 45% of Americans make them, while only about 8% of those that do are actually successful in achieving the resolution. That said, 75% of us to do make it through the first week!

new-years-dietHere are a 7 of the top ten New Years Resolutions for 2012 (link):

  • Lose Weight
  • Getting Organized
  • Spend Less, Save More
  • Enjoy Life to the Fullest
  • Staying Fit and Healthy
  • Learn Something Exciting
  • Quit Smoking

My perspective (and the relevance to the title of this post):

Losing weight, more often than not, is an outcome of the next four in the top five, and anathema to number seven and might be simply the wrong focus.  Yes, food provides sustenance, but in life and in tech we do need to watch what we eat. If we listen to all the advice givers, we can keep consuming data (personally and in business) that will somehow provide value. Disk space is cheap, collect it now and we will figure out later what to do with it. The fun question is whether all data is created equal. Like the physical counterpart, are we talking fruits and vegetables or empty calories?

Likes and follows are the empty calories of the data world. Spend the time focusing on the data that will actually help you to achieve your goals, not just the vanity metrics.  This might mean consuming less not more, and spending some time looking at the menu and deciding what to eat. Some of the traditional metrics still apply, as a matter of fact, friend Sameer Patel shared some interesting statistics about email (nope, not going away and there is an indirect food reference as well). It is hard work to read the menu and determine what it nutritious and what is not.

It is not only about what is consumed, it is how you use it

Exercise is the activity where you put physical or mental energy towards a task – yes, the same in business; it takes effort and energy to determine what needs to be done. There are no easy answers, getting fit will take trial and error, persistence and determination. Like many activities we do for fun, this kind of work is better suited for collaborative efforts, not in isolation.

Just as you do in life, if you want your business to stay healthy, focus on the activities required to keep fit. I am not suggesting to overhaul everything that you are recording, measuring and consuming. A full about face will cause the same type of rejection as a full overhaul of your personal diet. Take it slow, make changes slowly and do not expect results in the first few weeks.

Best of Luck….

Mitch

 

Giving up Control for a Connected Culture

I applaud the efforts that some have made to champion the need and reduce the effort to connect with friends, neighbors, peers, colleagues and family (companies large and small). Whether they live around the corner, or around the globe, we are networked, in-tune, connected to peers through a device tethered to our hip. A Skype chat here, Google Hangout there, Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, SMS; sharing thoughts, images, videos on your favorite digital channel.

Are We Better Off?

Or as Jim Stogdill surmises in a recent post:

“You can live a rich, fulfilling expanded life experience outside of the constraints of physical space, without fourth amendment protections (or even locks on your doors).”

This question has been asked with more frequency. Are we [really] better off? The unqualified answer is: We are not sure. Mr. Stogdill continues (this was written after a debate, take a look), he puts a point to the conversation:

“The connected world is a world that is both more democratic and more concentrated, at the same time. Which of these forces “wins” — and under what circumstances? … Like our universe, does the connected world keep expanding with forces of democratization? Or does it collapse into concentrated plutocracy under those who have privileged positions on the network? We don’t even know what dark matter to weigh to answer the question.”

I do not try to hide the fact that I have a few issues with certain “service” providers in my local state. The words above accurately represent my opinion, stating it better than I ever could. Certain individuals and companies do sit in ‘the catbird seat‘ and have a bit too much say in how the connectedness manifests itself; the government is quite enough, I do not need more ‘big brothers’. Yes, I am in support of maintaining decorum, such as no porn, stalking and other safeguards that are required (and would be helped by identity management). That said, please do not stand the way of conversations that are fair and need to be had.

When conversations are controlled, that is when things get a bit unnerving. In a recent Twitter conversation I had with former (Burlington) City Councilor, Ed Adrian, we went back and forth (in 140 characters or less). Two very important points: I have a high level of respect for Councilor Adrian and we are allowed to have a disagreement over an idea without attacking an individual. Interestingly, no one intercepted the conversation, moderated it or censored it. The Councilor made very interesting points and near the end of the discussion shared this “The creator of the community gets to set the standard period & the smaller the community the more narrow the standard“-  true, and a bit scary.

Who is the creator of the community? Does a community define a platform, or does a platform define the community?

From Business worlds to Personal Worlds, what we can learn.

In the business context, this exact same issue is making an appearance. Dion Hinchcliffe put together the following diagram, as well as some thoughts. If you are more of the consumer type, feel free to ignore the words as they may simply confuse. However, if you look at the picture, it should be clear that silos exist, outside of the corporate 4 walls.

“in the process of mDionaking many short term decisions in the name of reach and convenience, many of us have given away our social capital, and along with it much of our online autonomy and freedom.”

Imagine, for example, that after a storm or some other natural disaster, your city or town is in the awkward position of needing a facility to hold town meeting. A local real-estate developer comes to the rescue and offers her building to use, for “free”. The only conditions are that she is allowed to put advertising on the wall  and she may dictate the flow of the conversation. That said it is “free”. The world is increasingly digital and digital conversations need to play by the same rules as in-person conversations – they are just a bit different. Facilitate, do not censor.

“Should we cave in and trust that the corporate owners of the social world will be benevolent, even when they clearly have business models that are very often at cross purposes to our needs and desires?”

Dion points out that the fragmentation which occurs when smaller more autonomous networks. It becomes increasingly difficult to communicate and/or collaborate across “social islands”. Even worse if the controls on the smaller ones are artificial and driven by a vague purpose. Can’t we all just get along….

Nothing is Free, Privacy is an Illusion

A series of recent online conversations, published articles and broadcast news led to this short post, which might give some folks something to think about. Or, maybe you will stop reading after the first few words. This post is also about online properties, such as Fprivacyacebook, Twitter and local providers like Front Porch Forum, where data and information are traded for a service. This is not always a direct trade, there are sometimes 3rd parties involved, but if you see advertising, there is a trade, guaranteed. The key point is that these services need to be transparent about how their business is designed. Do you really understand the terms of service?

If you are not the Customer, you are the Product

I did not come up with this statement, if I knew the original source, I would certain give proper attribution. The truth is, it is hard to dispute. Certain elements are very clear,  companies who advertise on Front Porch Forum (FPF) are absolutely their customers; they pay money so members (email recipients, pseudo-customers) will see the offer contained within the emails. Thus, the product that FPF is actually selling to its customers is a person reading the advertisement. The value that they provide to members is outlined on their website, connections to neighbors.

Do not get me wrong, there is value in this endeavor. While the idea of creating community is a good one, the fact remains that the more emails sent, the more members in the system, the greater the value to advertisers (hint: this is why Neilsen ratings are so important for TV viewership). The business model is clear, a for-profit enterprise that is advertising based; more eyeballs, more money. This does beg the question, why are donations requested? Is the model flawed?

If I am the Product, can I make money here?

One question that comes to mind, to kick off this discussion, is whether privacy is a right or a preference. For example, if it is my preference to be used as a ‘face in the crowd’ an image, a blog post, whatever, should I be allowed to request payment? In the case where Tax dollars are being used to create something, should the rules be different, or the same? It is called the right of publicity and a recent Mashable article is full of some really interesting points regarding the monetization of personal data and likenesses. One of my favorite authors on the topic is Doc Searls (Cluetrain fame and a great guy to talk to!) The following is a quote from the Mashable article, part direct quote of Doc part interpretation:

“…the current Internet economy is built largely on contracts of adhesion, referring to a legally binding agreement where one side has all the bargaining power, thus, an advantage over the other. This “take it or leave it” bias toward agreements is how we’ve been trained to accept most of the services we use today. While these aren’t illegal, they also aren’t transparent. And these types of relationships don’t provide a realistic model for an environment where everyone has the right to monetize his identity because of his right to publicity.”

In the end, it is about transparency, true representations of how a company makes money, how they charge their customers, and their financial model – ESPECIALLY if they are asking for donations of money when they are a for-profit entity. Would you donate money to Facebook? Nah, I did not think so.

(* Note, Seven Days has a very interesting article about the censorship element of Front Porch Forum, which you might want to take a look at, as well)

There is a Big Difference Between Can’t and Won’t

A series of recent experiences on the customer side shed light on what I believe is a growing problem, possibly made worse by the public nature of communications – or possibly just poor grammar.

Cannot or Can’t is an expression of inability or incapacity – “I can’t take the garbage out”

Will not, or Won’t is also deliberate choice not to act – “I won’t take the garbage out”

For those of you with kids, those phrases are really quite different if they are used in response to “hey, would you please take out the garbage”. My reaction would be (has been?) very different in each case. Yes, I realize that some kids will use improper grammar and use one, and actually mean the other, so please look beyond that point.

When someone in customer service says “I cannot help you”, I believe that what they often mean is that they won’t help you.  However, if those words are used, while they might be honest, they might incite a much stronger reaction. Think offering a hotel voucher due to a delayed flight, or a refund for a poor experience or some other scenario. Read between the lines of ‘ I could help, but I am choosing not to help, so I won’t’ – yeah, probably not going to fly.

The unfortunate use of “Can’t” is when a subordinate is acting as a face for a more senior person or larger organization. Is this an act of proper deflection, a way to defuse the situation? “My boss says I can’t” Which is a proxy for, my boss can, but won’t and I will get in trouble if I let you talk to him (this exact scenario happened to me last week).

This may simply be a game of semantics, but it is a bit more complicated when the social web becomes involved. I cannot think of many more examples, or maybe I simply won’t try :-)

Thoughts?