October 2010 Archives

This is a story of what your company should not do when you're attempting to "engage" with customers. It's an all-too-familiar example of the kind of bean-counter mentality where you measure eyeballs and pageviews and unique visitors and you know nothing about your customer and you clearly don't care to, and you wonder why your customers don't come back.

AudiForums site logo

This morning I got an email from Internet Brands, the LA company that owns, you guessed it, a lot of internet brands. One of the lesser-known "brands" they own is AudiForums.com, a web forum for Audi owners and would-be Audi owners.

Here's the email.

Email from Internet Brands' AudiForums site

Note the fact that the email is from "ib.upgrades@gmail.com", not from the audiforums.com domain. Dumb move number one.

"We haven't seen you around lately," it says, amid, I might add, broken HTML that showed up in the actual email. OK, I thought, that's interesting. They're trying to draw me back to the site. This is the first email I've ever gotten from these people, other than the confirmation email I got when I joined the forum back when I was thinking about buying an Audi car.

But get this: the reason I joined the forum was because of my surprise at finding out that there was no specific discussion area for the model of Audi that I was specifically interested in:

AudiForums discussions on each model except the Q5

Despite a lot of hunting all over the site, I could find no specific forum on the Q5 model. Every other model is represented in the list above, but no Q5, one of their most popular models! So, I signed up for the forum so I could post a question in their "Welcome New Users" discussion asking where the heck is the Q5 discussion:

Specific post on AudiForums asking about Q5

I posted that on 9/23/2010. I got the email from Internet Brands at 10/24/2010 at 00:00:29, meaning, 29 seconds after the strike of midnight. Now, it doesn't take too many neurons firing together to realize that the most likely explanation is that a month had passed since I'd posted the inquiry on AudiForums, and that Internet Brands has a server with a bot running on it, checking the database, scanning for users who have not posted any more messages within 30 days, and that the script runs at midnight every night, and 29 seconds into running the script, it got around to sending an email to me.

Fine. But here's dumb move number two. Nobody had replied to my message. My message was asking why there was no Q5 forum within AudiForums. Not a single person replied. Not even a moderator or staff member from AudiForums or Internet Brands. Instead, a bot contacts me saying "we haven't seen you around lately." Well, gee, I wonder why.

But there's more. I thought, gee, well, maybe I could contact someone at AudiForums directly. So I went and found a "contact us" link and clicked it and found this page:

audiforums.com contact page

No names. No contacts. Just a form. With a captcha on it. Because, after all, you might be a bot.

Dumb move number three.

In the big scheme of things these particular issues with this one particular super-niche site are mere trifles and posting at length, with screen shots, would be a waste of time. But I bet you, like I, have seen this kind of thing all over the place in your daily Internet usage. Dumb moves by dumb companies that pay lip service to the idea of engaging with customers when in fact they don't really have customers at all, and most of their so-called customers would not even view themselves as customers of that service, and may not even remember visiting the site or signing up with it. If this is the way your company runs, then you will fail. You probably don't care; you're in it for the money, for the flip, who gives a shit about these stupid users. But your customers do care, and they remember crap like this (when their spam filters fail, like mine should have done -- ib.upgrades@gmail.com? wtf?). And you will fail. And you deserve to fail.

p.s. By the way, if you're into Audis, skip AudiForums.com altogether and head over to AudiWorld.com. That's where all the Audi people are hanging out. But please don't tell Internet Brands; those doofus MBAs are likely to acquire it and kill the community.

In response to news about the "sFund" article here: Hey, Entrepreneurs: The $250 Million Poem on Mashable:

Hey, Investors

We think you think too much of yourselves.
You think you're Santas, and we, your elves.
You may be rich, for sure you had luck,
It doesn't mean we have to give a

Funds like yours, new dough for firms so tiny,
Admit it, the 's' in your name stands for "shiny."
To make the world better, it's our turn to hack it,
Only a fool believes the goal's to get to your tax bracket.

To be on stage with the likes of
Zuckerberg, Pincus, Bezos & Doerr
is not our aim; though they're welcome to sit
in the audience. And hey, theirs are not
placenames for where the Internet is headed,
but where it has already stopped along the way.

We don’t have Zuckerberg's or John Doerr’s genius,
but they lack ours. We may not have Pincus's intensity,
or Bezos' laugh, but all of us have our own superpowers.
Hey, investors, we think we can reach ubiquity,
and do so while retaining most or all of the equity.

Hey investors, you're sitting on a quarter of a billion George Washingtons.
It's good to know where that money has been.
Of AWS, virtual goods, and Connect you are proud,
but lo, those are fleeting droplets in the collective cloud.

The gardens to come will not have any walls,
Think upon that when your empire falls.
It is the way of the Net, then, now, and to come.
We do not deny your experience has much to teach,
But we entrepreneurs, mobile and free, shall remain out of your reach.

Steve Jobs' widely reported scripted statements yesterday during Apple's quarterly earnings conference call have been gleefully discussed in the techie blogs; verbs like "trashes", "rips", "shreds" are commonly deployed.

Google's Andy Rubin, who heads up the Android division, recipient of much of Jobs' commentary, then in a classic geeky way, via Twitter, with a Unix command line used to explain what being "open" means. "Oh, snap!" you can just hear Jon Stewart squeal.

All this silliness got me thinking about Apple and Google as corporations. It occurred to me last night that Apple reminds me of the Republican party. And Google reminds me of the Democratic Party.

Think about it: the Republican party is a top-down "integrated" organization. Astute observers note this every day. A new talking points memo emerges from the central GOP office. It gets propagated at light-speed to every GOP political operative and candidate, as well as to the media. Within minutes, they are prattling off those talking points into the waiting microphones of a media who then pass it on to a waiting audience. Candidates attempt to control the message with such ferocity that arresting reporters or kicking them out of press conferences, or if need be, walking out of a press conference, are standard operating procedures. Control the message, control the perception. it's all about control. If the best way to manipulate the media is to leak information, then so be it.

This describes Apple pretty well. Ideas may generate from the bottom up, but the decisions and directives are pure top-down. The message, the perception, the design, everything about Apple and its products is very carefully controlled. Leaks are apparently justified to help control the public perception of things. Nothing can disturb the momentum and the growth. Participants and constituents in the Apple ecosystem are carefully vetted in the name of quality control, but perhaps mainly in the name of control, period. (Ask any IOS app developer.)

Then we come to the Democratic Party, where it often seems that chaos reigns: the right pinkie doesn't seem to know what the right ring finger is doing, let alone the right hand knowing what the left hand is up to. Everything is fragmented. Everything seems grass-roots / bottoms up; top-down messaging and control simply doesn't work; there is seemingly no control of the message, the perception, the media, or, and especially, the voters. Certainly no centralized, vertical control. All sorts of things (policies) are tried; some stick, some don't. Most don't. The legislation of FDR and LBJ is what keeps the lights on and what pays the bills.

Which brings me to Google, home of the relatively flat organization, twenty-percent side projects, bean bags and free lunch entitlements. Where all kinds of projects are attempted, open-source is embraced, trying out different stuff is rewarded, failures are okay, but in the end, it's search and ads that pays the bills. Where the products are kinda goofy, geeky, wonky sometimes, and take time for people to embrace them.

I'm the first to state that this is not a perfect comparison. I'm not implying that Apple is politically conservative and Google politically liberal. If anything both companies are probably pretty liberal/progressive/libertarian as are most techie organizations. And in many ways Apple and Google co-exist in a larger ecosystem where millions depend on both, and both depend on each other. But it strikes me that sometimes they do have tangible differences in how they approach the marketplace and the media.

Apple's method seems far more Republican, and Google's seems far more Democratic. Apple fans are completely utterly bought into the Apple Way, perhaps just as conservatives embrace whatever is the latest Republican talking point. Google seems far less focused, more vulnerable, far more proud of technical prowess. The Andy Rubin geek tweet is pure Google. The Valley chuckled, perhaps, but did The Rest of Us? Google's Nexus One which I've written about in the past is another classic example. It satisfied Google itself, but the marketplace was "huh?" and the product was abandoned. Same with Google Waves.

Who wins in the end, Google or Apple? Whose approach is better? Maybe it doesn't matter. I'm glad both companies are out there duking it out. I just find it interesting to see how differently they duke it out, they can't help it, it's who they are, and they are different.

In honor of Solomon Burke, who I only discovered when his incredible cover of Van Morrison's "Fast Train" was featured on the TV show THE WIRE. He passed away today.

Great music mashup

Funny VC pitch

Here's an interesting presentation a friend sent me, that offers Frank Levinson's list of top ten must-haves for any startup company:

The video is a little dated (eek! made in 2001! how many web-centuries ago is that?), and while I agree with almost everything Levinson says, the presentation got me thinking. Some observations:

1. B2B. Levinson bases his advice on his own experience -- always a good thing -- where in his case he did a huge B2B play (Finisar). If you're doing B2C or C2C, most but perhaps not all of his advice makes sense. For example, if Facebook, or even Google, had strictly followed all ten of his steps would they have ever gotten anywhere?

2. Projects vs. Businesses. The reality, imho, is that "startup" no longer necessarily equals "business". Many "startups," even well-funded ones with luminary VC and angel backing, are "projects" and are not businesses. Projects don't have customers, they have users (if they're lucky). Lots of startups start as projects -- sometimes derisively called hobbies -- and if they're lucky they become businesses later. Few startups, it seems, at least in the consumer web 2.0 and mobile app spaces, start as businesses but if they do they sometimes do spectacularly well with revenue right out of the gate (an example would be Groupon). Often, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but often it is, a startup project is based on an underlying idea where the idea is essentially nothing but a "missing feature" of some other company's product. Usually these types of "feature" projects fail. Sometimes the other company learns about and likes the feature and implements it itself, leaving the startup in a precarious state.

3. Execution. Startups start with an idea, a vision. Ideas and visions on their own are not startups. Only when you add execution do they become startups. Execution is focused energy, and the energy comes from the talent. When you have a huge amount of energy and you can focus it really well, the result should be really great execution. You can have a supremely well-executed project (Google, Facebook) that takes years before it becomes a business. But startup ideas never become projects which never become businesses, without execution. Most projects do not have great execution (perhaps the project lacks great talent, or lacks focus, or both), hence the predominance of failed startups. As has often been said, great execution is far more important than having a killer idea. Sometimes having even a so-so idea, but having killer execution, is the key to making a great business.

4. Ecosystems. Successful internet projects are ones that create thriving ecosystems -- or figure out how to position themselves well and prominently within an existing thriving ecosystem -- or figure out how to make themselves the missing ingredient that takes an existing dull ecosystem and turns it into a thriving one. The ecosystem then helps the project transition into becoming a business. I'd argue Eventful followed this path, partially creating an ecosystem (Demand it!), and partially inserting itself into an existing one (entertainment biz).

5. Achieving Sustainability. Someone once said, "the difference between a hobby and a business is that a business has a billing system." Perhaps the "project" to "business" transition is akin to the famous "Crossing The Chasm" model. Some entities that start as projects never find a way to turn users into customers, or never are able to identify/invent other entities in the ecosystem as the "customers" (the ones, as Levinson correctly points out, who actually fill out PO's and write checks) while the users continue on their merry way (for example the Google/Facebook model of the service(s) being free, and the "customers" being the advertisers). If you can't figure out how to turn your startup project into a business, it probably will won't be sustainable.

Doug Imbruce responds re @brianstorms blog post on @qwiki

Hmm, a new title: Dialogue Inspirer. Snazzy, but the pay is lousy.

I could cynically say, nice spin. Or, I could give Doug & Co. the benefit of the doubt and declare "mission accomplished." My mission was to call attention to the potential negative ramifications of a service like Qwiki and hopefully make an impact and get them to think twice. Maybe I've done that. I truly hope so.

Then again, maybe they will forget it all inside of a week. After all, visions are like cruise ships. It's really hard to turn 'em once they're going full speed.

We'll see.