Saturday, November 17, 2007

Beating the Wal-Mart Effect

My wife and i spent a romantic Friday night watching The Corporation,

and Wal-Mart: The Hight Cost of Low Price,

and though we known it before, it became even more clear what the mission of is, and that is to do our part to prevent two things:
  1. The "Wal-Mart Effect" on small business (small businesses dying off as a result of large businesses moving into a community and exerting their pricing influence past where smaller businesses can compete), and
  2. Corporatization of America (consumers and employees becoming less aware and less involved in the organizations that shape our lives)
These two things have exerted a heavy influence on SMB's in America for quite a while, and many have gone out of business by trying to beat big businesses at their own game. It's our idea that the game needs to change altogether - especially where SMB's are concerned. Here is a little graphic of the two forces i seem to see exerting influence on the SMB today. On the right is the still-dominant paradigm for business. On the left is the new paradigm we're proposing:

BigTreeTop's contribution to the solution is by starting with small and mid-sized businesses and organizations, to provide a platform that will help them to more easily adopt co-creative practices with their employees, customers, and business partners, by involving them in some decision making, story-telling, community and partnership-building and creation of value itself. We are sure it will have at least the following two effects on small business in local economies:
  1. It will help to stave off the Wal-Mart effect on SMB's and their local economies by improving the advantages they already have over large businesses trying to exert their influence: real community, adaptability and customer loyalty beyond just product and service value
  2. It will provide consumers with increased ownership of the success of their local businesses and economy
..and we are reasonably sure that it will have the following two effects on the big businesses in the national economy:
  1. Large organizations will be forced to involve employees and customers in deeper co-creation as a source of real competitive advantage.
  2. Deeper co-creative involvement of customers and employees in large organizations will lessen their ability to take part in unsustainable business practices.
What we're proposing is a pretty radical new way of thinking about organizations and their boundaries which suggests that, with the right platform and process in place, an organization which blurs its boundaries and emphasizes the deep involvement of its community of employees, customers and business partners will be more successful than an organization which does not. We think that SMB's and smaller non-profits can benefit more naturally from co-creation, since it merely magnifies what they do already - which is to be a part of a real-live community of people who are concerned not only about the cost value of a business's products and services, but about the business itself, its people and its existence within a local and national economy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reifying HCI (Part 2) - Personal Connections

Personal connections are a key in any field - design, the academy, business. Everyone admits this publicly, but i've noticed a slight negative subtext in conversations where it became clear that folks still don't like the idea that "it's not what you know but who you know." This subtext betrays a feeling that, while folks know that personal connections are important, they still want to land the job or the deal or the publication completely on their own merit without having leveraged a connection to get it done.

This notion is complete hog-wash. The myth (except in a few edge cases) of the iconic, seminal designer or author is just that - a myth - that we hold dear because we want to think that we are important, special and unique. Except for a few edge cases, this is not the case. If i really were the iconic, seminal designer or author, i would have no need to feel negatively toward the notion of personal connections at all. In fact, those connections would be coming to me.

There is a rising need for personal connections, in my opinion, and it is due to 2 increasingly necessary things:

  1. Trust (Digitization makes it increasingly easy to fake resumes, plagiarize work and purchase degrees. Trust is at a premium)
  2. Character (Character is what ensures that a person will thrive in any environment - regardless of the changes around them - much more than will a skillset. See my previous post
about what VC's look for in a team)
The importance of these things - and the resulting importance of personal connections - occurred to me again yesterday as i sat in a meeting with the Managing Partner of a VC firm to discuss BigTreeTop. Her fund is in the Life Sciences, and therefore not a potential investor. She graciously offered, nonetheless, to take the time to give me her advice and perspective - which was the end result of a long line of personal connections that served, for her, as a guarantee of my reputation (whatever that is), and as a signification of my character. The string of connections goes back over 10 years, and includes former employers, family friends and colleagues. Without those connections, no amount of genius would have gotten me into her office, since her time is extremely valuable, and she wouldn't have known me from a hole in the wall.

For those of us in any profession (academic, business, interpretive dance), there are therefore a few imperatives that will serve to grow and keep connections that can later serve as a guarantee for those wondering if they should take the time to meet with us.

  • Be Genuinely Interested - Never, ever use people for their "connection value." The human brain can detect all but the most clever forms of sycophantry in an instant. Be genuinely interested in the people you meet. Find common ground and explore it - both as a connection opportunity and a chance to learn.
  • Keep Bridges - Never, ever burn a bridge from your end. When leaving an organization, don't leave them until you can leave on good terms. One of my former employers is now an investor in BigTreeTop, and another is funding work in the School of Informatics.
  • Connect with Fish of all Sizes - There is no such thing as "little fish who grow up to be big fish." People are connected along many different dimensions. I have seen many instances where the administrative assistant of a corporation is among the most influential in hiring decisions, by virtue of his or her direct, conversational access to the CEO.
  • Character is Key - With forward-thinking folks, character trumps skill every time. If your network knows that you have character (adaptability, integrity, etc), they will want to connect with you. If they aren't sure, they won't. Anyone can gain skills - and pretty quickly. Character is harder to come by - and therefore more imperative.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Erik Pukinskis, Skip the PhD

Erik, if you're out there reading this, drop the silly PhD dream and fulfill your destiny at MC Hammer's "Dance Jam"!

ReifiyingHCI (part 1) - Investment in Team

This series of posts will be a sort of ecclectic collection of thoughts and observations from my dual-life as an entrepreneur and academic. They will be posted in fairly random order, and in fairly random order of importance. Some of these observations and personal discoveries may be common knowledge to those of you reading this, but others may find them surprising. Here goes:

Having lived (on cans of tuna - no bread - for lunch) through the dot com crash of the early 2000's and watched first-hand the startup investment game, one of the things i always wondered about was how any investor - angel, venture, institutional - made such a large decision to invest millions of dollars in an unproven concept. There are of course a number of factors that go into the decision (investment horizons for their fund, the way a prospective investee fits into their existing portfolio of companies, acceptable rates of failure, etc), but perhaps the most interesting fact that i learned is that investment folks invest less in the concept than they do in the team that came up with it. In HCI/d education, we speak very little about the character, the personality and the charisma of the design team, but in fact the people with the most money to lose actually place the highest value on these things.

..and when considered for more than a second, this makes sense. Markets change. Economies change. Societies change. When an investor puts money into a venture, they are betting against a 3-5 year future which, in a society that is, according to Marshall McLuhan, moving at electric speed (very fast), is likely to be completely and unpredictably different in 3-5 years than it is today. Therefore the concept that an investor sees in front of them today is likely to be obsolete tomorrow. They expect this. Therefore the thing that is the most likely to provide a good return on their investment is the team that came up with the concept - and especially their energy, process and smarts to be able to keep coming up with more concepts to adapt to the rapidly changing environment.

In a fairly recent presentation, Idris Mootee, CEO of Idea Couture - a strategy/design firm, showed the following slide with the characteristics of highest importance to Angel and Venture Capital investors. From my talks so far with investors and entrepreneurs, it appears to be pretty accurate:

Some potential implications of this:
  • A hyper-efficient iterative design process that can communicate well to all stakeholders (including investors) is clearly more important the one or two good epiphanic designs.
  • Investors may want to understand your process. If they can see how you got to today, they can plot a trajectory to where you might be tomorrow, which is what they really care about.
  • Investors are more design-oriented than is obvious at first glance. They just speak a different language.
  • Trustworthiness is more important to investors than either sales potential or the entrepreneur's experience. People who don't have their ethical house in order probably will have a hard time surviving.
  • Choosing and managing a team is of primary importance when starting any organization

ReifiyingHCI (part 1)

The process of starting a business has been extremely intense and interesting. It has forced me to learn about design and the reification of design (a.k.a. business) by drinking from the firehose of practice as well as from the water fountain of books. I would highly recommend the process to anyone who wants to learn at a rapid rate. Over the next few months, i will be blogging more about the process of starting from an HCI/d perspective. I have been relatively quiet about our business until now because a) just about every spare moment is taken up with other academic and business activities, and b) i wanted to first, before writing, ensure that i had a good handle on what is smart - from an intellectual property perspective - to write about publicly (if i had my way, all IP would be out on the table for the world to kick around, but people better-versed than am i in the ways of current legal/business practice convinced me that this would have been a bad idea).

To my colleagues at IU Informatics: If i've been a bit distracted in classes and meetings over the course of the past 6 months, i hope that you won't take it personally. The thousands of tasks around getting an idea like BigTreeTop off the ground are pretty good at pushing themselves consistently to the forefront of one's consciousness, especially when paired with simultaneous PhD work. This will probably continue for a while longer, but my hope is that, in time, the effort will produce a living, breathing organization that that we can all use as a test bed for HCI/d research, as well as an experiment the result of which we can analyze and from which we can all learn.

I hope that the upcoming series of musings is interesting information for those of you currently studying HCI/d, for those of you now practicing it, and for those of you who have an idea that you would like to some day make a reality in the form of a real live organization.