Monthly Archives: June 2007

Heroes in our Midst


I’ve, oddly, had very little interaction in my past with people from Israel.  In fact, even more candidly, I’ve never been face to face with an Israeli.  I certainly know some of the history of the country and read the stories of the daily saga that is life in Israel regularly.  But, it was only recently that I had a chance to meet someone from Israel. 

In late May, nine injured Israeli soldiers were in Seattle as part of a mission to connect with the people of Seattle as well as provide them with a spiritual and mental rehabilitation environment.  Many of these soldiers have undergone traumatic life experiences over the past few years including days of painstaking physical rehab to cope with the injuries of war.   They spent much of their visit studying, praying, touring beautiful areas of Seattle, going to baseball games, speaking at schools and elsewhere and generally enjoying themselves.   

This recent article in the Jewish Times nicely captured the experience, purpose and trip:

I had the good fortune of getting to spend some time with this group of guys during their visit.  And, we’re now putting together a DVD of their trip to Seattle which provides me the chance to remain introspective about the subject.  Simply put, these gents were impressive.  I repeatedly found them to be fun, intelligent, sophisticated, cultured, mature and grounded.  Many of them had suffered greatly, both during their time as soldiers as well as during their daily lives in Israel, and their indications of pain were effectively on display on a number of occasions.  They have also have a great appreciation for life.  They were often quick to break-out sporadically in to singing and guitar playing, as one example.  These men could have easily grown up with me in the United States and, yet, they seemed different in many ways–as if they had seen things both good and bad about life, that I hadn’t nor would likely ever experience.  It was, at once, both a humbling and cool feeling.  (I was also surprised how much they liked Crocs.  Israel is a small country but it’s a nice market these days for those shoes I have a feeling.)  

I was honored to be in their presence and am grateful for the service they have provided to Jews around the world and Americans.  I only hope I can repay them in some small way by providing them a memento, in the form of a DVD, that effectively captures for them what was a great exercise in rehabilitation and peace for everyone involved. 


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The Platform

diving platform-another good example of Fascist architecture

A brief review of both present day and, the past twenty years or so of technology, repeatedly reveals one stark observation:  the big winners are, often times, the best platform plays. 

A post today in TechCrunch about LinkedIn and the Facebook says this exact point:

This post says the following:  LinkedIn helped define the professional networking space, and yet today it faces the real risk of long term irrelevance as Facebook becomes the social networking platform of choice for professional networkers. Like Nick O’Neil, nearly all my professional networking requests lately have come through Facebook, and although in many ways LinkedIn provides a more focused business networking tool, its niche to Facebook’s broader offering has become its weakness. 

LinkedIn is a great product and a networking/referral tool that continues to evolve nicely over time.  But, the Facebook, which appears to have taken a major leap forward recently with its developer integration efforts, is rapidly becoming THE social utility and network platform of choice in an overly saturated environment.  So, the niche play gets swallowed up by the larger platform.   

Here are other stark examples of companies becoming the dominant platform in a particular area of technology:

  • Microsoft:  Windows emerged as THE computing platform of choice particularly with the release of a more advanced GUI system with Windows ’95.  Microsoft became synonymous with the way one navigated their computer.  
  • Amazon:  I’ve struggled to understand the true core competency of Amazon until recently when I began using its Associates program for Affiliate links.  I couldn’t determine whether the company was a tech play or a retail play…that sold just about everything online under the sun.  And then, recently, I figured out while watching their continually well performing stock that they have become THE online retail platform and, in so doing, are hugely valuable. 
  • Google:  At the end of the day, I imagine Google defines its ambitions and value these days as being THE internet platform.  The emergence of tools like Google Maps, Reader, Gmail and Blog Search bring one back to Google day after day. 
  • Apple:  Apple has been around and has been well regarded for a long time but is now, generally stated, experiencing its greatest moment of time.  It has emerged as THE digital media platform.  As itunesU, the iPhone and other innovations continue in the months and years ahead, it’s likely to see that position and platform achievement solidifying even more.
  • Blackboard:  A lesser known company compared to most of the others above but an 800-pound platform gorilla in the education space.  The company’s acquisition of WebCT in 2005 established them as THE player online in educational technology as it relates to users accessing relevant coursework information.  It’s position is made even stronger these days through its efforts in the commerce area where college students, at schools around the country, use Blackboard powered debit cards for purchasing goods ranging from late-night snacks to textbooks.   

Yahoo, who was once likely to be mentioned on a list such as the above, is presumably struggling in part because they are no longer a major platform play for anything.   

For the entreprenuers creating new ventures out there, the notion of platform establishment should be front and center in the mind and business plan.  And, if the plan doesn’t call for platform achievement in some manner, or doesn’t realistically achieve the goal in a short period of time, selling what you’ve built to one of the larger platform plays becomes the most likely and desirable exit to consider. 


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Elwood, the Sweet Horror Dog

I really can’t believe the look of this dog.  And I also can’t figure out why this woman chooses to let the drool seep from this animal’s mouth the way it does…

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Anyone Interested in Catching a Flic?

Raging Bull


The American Film Institute released an updated version this week of their “Top 100” American film list of all time.  It’s described as a “ten year” re-release effectively of their 1998 list, which is slightly odd given that it’s only been nine years.  I believe the larger rationale behind the new release is the 40-year anniversary of the AFI.  Oh well, no matter. 

The list is included on this CNN news piece on the subject:

Needless to say, I have a few movies to rent in the near future including #1 and, shockingly, #2 on this list.  I’m truly ashamed that I’ve never seen either of these movies but just watched the 40-year old virgin (why isn’t that on the list BTW?!) for the 40th or so time last week. 

I am pleased to see the jump of Raging Bull on this list although I am a tad surprised to see it aging like a fine Malbec over time.  It’s clearly one of both DeNiro and Scorsese’s finest films though.  Editorially speaking, I also believe Shawshank  should be moving up higher on this list over time, Sixth Sense is a good film but not one that should be on here and both Traffic and chicago should have probably made the list if films like Lord of the Rings  are going to be as prominent on here.  Clearly, a live and passionate debate could ensue, and likely will, on this subject, for hours…Where in the world is Benicio del Toro BTW these days? He would make a heck of an actor as Pablo Escobar in Medellin, the Entourage mock film, if that movie ever got made.  

I’ve got a little spare time, plus a lot of interest, in seeing a number of these movies so ping me if you’re interested in joining me for a viewing or three.  Or, an animated debate on the topic. 


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On Founders, Leadership and Tech Companies

The announcement this week regarding Terry Semel’s departure from Yahoo and planned replacement by Jerry Yang as CEO has me thinking about the subject of founders.  It’s a subject that is close to my heart and the leadership components of it are also layered in complexity.  

The events are well documented by now but to quickly recap, Yang, one of the founders of Yahoo, will be taking over the reigns again of the struggling technology company from Semel, a former big wig in Hollywood circles.  The company has performed well, at times, under Semel’s leadership over the past six years but, on the other hand, appears to have lost its way over the 18 months and is not performing anywhere near the level of principal competitor, Google.  Yang will receive day to day support from Sue Decker, who will become the company’s President having served in a variety of positions including CFO over the years.  This is a tall task of sorts for Yang, who has never run a company of the size of Yahoo ’07.  That said, the markets seem to think, thus far, that he has what it takes to get the ship turned around.   

As one review’s the history and current status of technology companies, a through-line emerges regarding the notion of founder’s often times, being the better person to run an organization then the “grey-haired” and more experienced “CEO-type.”  Yahoo is the latest example of a trend which can also include Apple, Google and Microsoft.  Recent performance and associated comments now even lump the Facebook in to the crowd, a much less established company today but one that is expected to make over $100M in revenues this year and is being run by a 22-year old founder. 

Jason Calacanis, a technology entreprenuer, reporter, publisher and essential jack of all trades in the tech biz, stated today in an e-newsletter the following:  “What this move shows is that–like Facebook, Apple and Google–the founders are often times the best folks to run the business.  Wall Street and investors are too caught up in the ‘professional CEO’ who knows how to ‘talk the to Wall Street’ and gets deals done.  The fact is, our business is about one thing:  product.” 

It’s certainly premature to lump Facebook in to the category described herein but the essence of the quote is solid.  One could also argue, as is being stated with Yang at Yahoo, that the founder not only better represents the product but is, often times, the heart and soul of an organization.  To draw that bloodline out of the organization and attempt to substitute it with a different source is an invariable recipe for struggle and, in the case of Apple mid-90s, near death.  Alan Meckler added today the following commentary:  “Early on, Yahoo brought in Tim Koogle to be CEO and then of course Terry Semel.  I always wondered what Jerry saw in these people.  Now its crunch time for Yahoo and the new captain is the founder of the company.  Perhaps Jerry will be able to pull a ‘Steve Jobs ala Apple’ and bring back the glamour and originality Yahoo had from 1994 until 2002 or so.”

A founder, often times, will not have the professional experience of the seasoned executive investors would like to see in place.  But, the founder has passion, juice and an indominatable will to see the company succeed.  In that sense, (as I eluded to in a piece a few weeks ago,) they are better positioned to take a company further than the hired hand.   

This subject matter had me thinking about Good to Great the past couple days, the highly regarded book by Jim Collins.  The Collins book discusses the subject of leadership first and foremost above all other subjects, spending extensive time analyzing what is referred to as ‘Level 5 leadership.’  In many senses, the lessons of the case studies from the book seem paradoxical to the subject matter of a single individual founder being able to successfully build a great company, or restore a struggling company to that state.  The ‘Level 5 Executive” in the book is described as a person of great humility and professional will who builds enduring greatness for their organization via their leadership.  Whereas people like Gates or Jobs will forever be etched in the business annals of the 20th and 21st centures, leaders of the businesses spotlighted in Collins book, which include organizations such as Fannie Mae, Gillette and Kimberly Clark, will not have anywhere near the same legacy.  Those companies, on the other hand, have succeeded far longer than more ‘recent’ successes like Apple and Microsoft of the past 25 years.       

The one consistent theme between my raw analysis of tech company leadership and Collins book Good to Great is the notion of internal versus external leadership.  In his book, Collins describes how ten of the 11 ‘good to great’ CEOs came from inside the company whereas the comparison companies tried outside CEOs six times more often. 

There is no final, Jack Handy-esque deep thought to conclude this rant other than stating that this is clearly a topic worthy of more study.  And, perhaps it can also be noted that, while folks like Gates or Jobs or Brin/Page, have been impactful to their companies and the world over the past few decades, and Yahoo hopes that Yang can return the ‘exclamation point’ to his organization, the reality is that all those companies still face the challenge of standing the test of time.  So, while one’s will can transform an organization in to greatness during their tenure with the company, it takes something even more to help it acheive ‘eternal greatness.’  I’d still venture a guess that, even there in most cases, the founder is better prepared to enable such success when compared to the hired hand.     

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One Giant Step?

As significant as this announcement might have been this week, I was surprised by the relatively small scale coverage it received.  Perhaps its an announcement that was lost in the iPhone and AppleTV buzz or it may be because Bebo is a small scale social network in the US.  It has over 8 million reported users in the UK and Ireland however. 

Knowing how shrewd Apple is with marketing and PR, one can deduce that much of this was intentional–that is, the integration with Bebo first beyond all other related options and the limited US news coverage.  The truth is, this may be the beginning of a much bigger push by iTunes to seed itself in the social network environment and other related means of expanding its vast platform potential even further.  Apple is a company who has been, historically, unwilling to integrate with most folks.  This was not a random or casual move from my perspective.

Apple’s vast ambitions may be reflective of something even larger here–the beginning of a positioning for Apple a next generation label.   With physical sales expected to dip below $30B this year and digital music not currently making up the difference, Apple’s position continues to become stronger daily.  They have been relatively forthcoming about plans to become a primary platform and publishing tool via the Internet and mobile but perhaps there is something even more transformational on the horizon. 

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The Verticalization of the Web

Having just peripherally experienced the dot-com wave of the late ’90s, I am only able to refer to that era on a loose basis.  One of the trademarks, as I understand it though, of the times was a near chaotic amount of activity and websites. 

With the current Web 2.0 era in full throttle these days, a similarly disjointed Internet has reappeared.  This blog site I found today does a nice job in several instances of capturing the current chaos:

I have significantly more time these days to peruse many of the nooks and crannies of the Internet than I had in years past and I’m having a tricky time in some cases still keeping up.  There are websites for just about everything and those sites are complimented or expanded with microsites, blogs, wikis, widgets, podcasts, personalized versions, developer’s sites, yada, yada.  The vernacular itself is sometimes hard enough to keep up with let alone a comprehension of the products and innovation’s themselves.

One particular area of the Internet that appears to be taking more shape these days, however, is the notion of verticalization.  I refer to this term, which I may or may not have just coined, in regards principally to search and social networks.  Vertical search is a fairly self-explanatory concept.  There are search sites for travel these days, the blogosphere, media and much more.  The recently launched Mahalo  is a human powered search platform that searches across a variety of verticals.  I presume that Google, and maybe one to two others, will consolidate these opportunities if their aggressive M&A activity continues or will simply built better technologies themselves to render them moot (as has started to occur to some degree with Google Blog Search vs. Technorati.)   

More personally interesting to me right now is the notion of vertical social networks.  I find this concept interesting in large part because I’ve never truly grasped the on-going appeal of the social network platforms of yesterday or even today (eg Friendster, Facebook, MySpace.)  One builds a profile, interacts with friends, joins groups, posts interesting stories but then what happens over time?  There is no arguing at this point that a couple of the social networking platforms have built something very valuable for the short and long term but, beyond one or two of them, how do they truly provide purpose, usage opportunities and value? 

There are two principal solutions being developed and funded these days to answer that question:  virtual worlds/avatar plays and vertical social networks.  Virtual worlds seem like they will be an important part of the future Internet, particularly as they become more mainstream, but there remains the pervasive problem of operational scale and heavy capex funding for those plays.  The question for vertical social nets is more fundamentally a question regarding niche versus mainstream.  With so many verticals to consider and capture (business, moms being moms, music and other media, professor ratings, lawyer ratings, etc) very few folks out there in the pervasive Internet have the time to spend hanging out in such a non-consolidated environment.  Hence, not all concepts will win even if the purpose and objective is arguably more succint, defined and “valuable” than on a major community platform. 

That said, I have no question that certain “niche” networks will work in the world of verticalization.  This article about the 11 million plus users now actively on LinkedIn speaks to that in the business vertical:

Further, if the vertical social net is able to be constructed in such a manner that the model is cash efficient, the product is engaging but simple and the marketing plan is heavily viral, one can select a more bootstrapped route of funding (ala Craig’s List) or a more institutional heavy route depending on their profile and preferences.  Fred Wilson’s blog speaks to this type of model from a 2006 post: 

This is an exciting time for technology and the Internet but it’s also a time where structure and consolidation is becoming necessary to wade through the chaos.  Verticalization is one of the keys to that occuring.  And, those social networks that are vertically focused yet expansive enough to reach critical mass will likely be those, in part, celebrating before any future bubbles burst in the 2.0 era. 

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