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My new role at WHERE…

28 Feb

I have been happy to be a board director of WHERE for the past several years. Now I am very excited to be taking on an additional role as Executive Chairman as announced today.

WHERE is the leading location media company and provides a hugely useful mobile service that helps you find and share your favorite places, at home or on the road. My view is such mobile, location-aware services are at the forefront of the next-generation of consumer and business marketing, media, advertising and technology. Innovating a breakneck pace, WHERE sits at the crossroads of the local, social, mobile and technology ecosystem.

WHERE’s latest product release reflects all that. I’ve commented before about the usefulness of features that help you store, manage and share the places you like. With the current release (updated last week for Android and iPhone) WHERE now is starting to recommend local places that you and your friends are likely to find most alluring, based on algorithmic analysis of you and your friends’ preferences. It’s very cool.

And the company is on a tear! In addition to reaching four million mobile customers monthly, WHERE is also the biggest location-aware advertising network — (that hasn’t been snapped up by Apple or Google) — serving more than two billion monthly mobile advertising impressions. Although a private company that doesn’t release its financials, WHERE is both growing revenues fast (in the double-digit millions) and has been profitable for the past six consecutive quarters. That kind of performance reflects the fact the company is a great team, led at its top by a terrific CEO – Walt Doyle.

What does an executive chairman do? I’ll be working on corporate development and strategy with the team, who are doing great things in the relationships with carriers, handset manufacturers and other important partners. Mostly, I will try to be helpful to the WHERE team and its stakeholders, just as WHERE tries to be helpful to its customers. And I’ll continue with my board roles at several other private companies I am equally enthusiastic about.

I am excited to be off on the next phase of the WHERE ride!

Creating Sustainable Online Revenue and Profit Growth

5 Nov

With apologies to Charles Dickens, our current economic “worst of times and best of times” provide an inkling of an uneven future across the global economic landscape. Just ask someone trying to sell a home in southern Florida these days, or looking for work in the developed world. Times are difficult indeed.

But when it comes to global consumers benefiting from advances in technology, media and telecom (my professional “workshop”) I find it hard to be anything other than optimistic.

Here’s why: We are at the beginning of another major wave of innovation, which promises to accelerate changes that will enhance the business and personal lives of producers and consumers alike. And in terms of “manufacturing growth online” or “accelerating” such growth, I am focusing on companies, products and services that leverage three dramatically innovative technologies that are forever going to change the we use and interact with content, people, locations and commerce.

That’s my conclusion from my involvement with several emerging internet, online-video, telecom and consumer-technology businesses in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, (and after four years in the southeastern U.S. focused on internet, media and telecommunications issues in the U.S. and globally).

To start at the beginning: In recent posts, I have discussed the importance of saving users’ time, money and delighting customers when it comes to designing winning products.

These are the most important building blocks of great online products. And at the start of the consumer internet, there was an “architectural” reason why the most successful brands (for instance, Yahoo!, EBay, and Amazon, to name just three) became so: They used the basic “building blocks” of the medium — hypertext markup language (HTML) – to usefully link related text documents in a manner that delighted, and saved time, and saved money for their millions of customers.

(To be sure, they also took advantage of the power of the distributed architecture of the internet-protocol (IP) network to ensure point-to-point communications, regardless of the route the digital packets take to reach their destination. But that’s another story, for another time. This post is already “geeky” enough ;-).)

Today, dramatically new ways are emerging to usefully link information and thereby create the building blocks of sustainably successful online businesses.

In my view, the three that are most profoundly meaningful are the social graph, the location graph (a “graph” for places), and the video graph: more about each of them below. Amid evidence that “silos” are emerging that threaten to render these three radically new approaches less effective than they otherwise might be, there is emerging great business opportunity in “mashing up” and merging technologies that take the best of each and drive value from all — or a synthesis of several — of them.

That’s where I am focusing my investment attention and board leadership. Each of the four companies on whose boards I sit (WHERE, Coincident TV, Success Television and MotiveCast) are playing innovative roles in meshing these various silos of user engagement and attention. And they are generating meaningful revenue, engagement and customer growth as a result.

The first of the new methodologies is the “social graph,” or social ecosystem, which is linking many of us through our “friends” and expanded contact lists. Both Facebook and LinkedIn are two companies exploiting the social ecosystem very effectively and with great success. OK, perhaps now it is not so “new,” but it’s worth keeping in mind that 500 million-member Facebook is still less than a decade old, and we are only beginning to see its impact on the social graph.

In the social-graph organizational construct, I know you, and you know me – with the appropriate nod to privacy settings, and familiarity, we share a web of interests, web objects and social “relationships,” and we can benefit from each other’s networks. The net result from a business-process improvement perspective is — among other benefits — dramatically lower customer acquisition and retention costs, as well as dramatically higher-value relationships with your customers (largely because businesses have the potential to know so much more and have such closer relationships with those customers).

There are similar business-acceleration benefits when it comes to the “location graph.” A number of companies are using location awareness to drive customer gratification and revenue generation. Location-based Service (LBS) leaders such as WHERE, Foursquare, Groupon and Gowalla are using location as the key-building block of a new “location-centric” web. Their applications – helping users find valuable local businesses and offers – is providing another organizational theme for distributed information.

At MotiveCast, the team has built a powerful platform for branded advertising in a location-centric, social gaming environment. They recently were selected by PepsiCo as one of the 10 most innovative online companies as a result.

Finally, there is video. Although online video is now a mass phenomenon (and Success TV and before that MyPrimeTime were true pioneers in that), online video in my view remains stuck in a very “1.0” experience.

That’s starting to change. Coincident TV has created a new programming language, along with a software editor and API set, that allows owners of online video to link that video in context to another other distributed objected on the internet.

In just six months after shipping its first product, Coincident TV has developed dramatic performance enhancements for its customers (including MTV,Fox’s GLEE franchise and Audi) in terms of generating more clicks, more Facebook “like”-button adoption and more search.

I’m betting that applications and software that leverage these new ways of “navigating’ across the social, location and video grid (as well as text of course) will deliver tremendous new growth for those companies smart and innovative enough to deploy them in ways that save user’s time, money or delight them in some way.

We are already seeing it at WHERE, CoincidentTV, MotiveCast and Success Television. And my view is we have only just begun.

(Note: This is an expanded version of some remarks I delivered at Landmark Ventures recent conference on Media and Technology in Los Angeles. I want to thank the Landmark folks for giving me an opportunity to assemble these thoughts. Some coverage photos of the event are here.)

How Online Video Is Creating the Movie Hits of Tomorrow — Today

11 Oct

Few experiences are more gripping for an audience than cinema. Throughout the past century or so of motion picture history, technology has constantly enhanced the movie-going experience, from the advent of “talkies” (when sound was introduced) to the cutting-edge, big-budget 3D releases of today.

But the marketing experience for filmed entertainment simply has not kept pace with the constant transitions and advancements of filmmaking. The audience that saw the trailer for “Casablanca” would be entirely comfortable watching the trailer for this season’s “The Town.” Marketers still employ this “one-way” promotional technique – directly from the producer to the audience – offering film highlights but not much else. Until now, studios still unroll the traditional and dated film trailer for every new cinematic release.

With the launches of the interactive trailers for 20th Century Fox’s “Machete” and “Wall Street – Money Never Sleeps”, Coincident TV (CTV) is changing things — bringing its interactive, immersive video technology experiences to a new audience – the film-going public.

The Coincident TV bet (I am on the board; please look below for a disclaimer) is that movie marketing and promotion will never be the same. Rather than simply providing an internet-distributed video of edited film highlights – as in an online trailer – CTV is partnering with 20th Century Fox to create an interactive experience designed to promote the film well before the ticket-buying window opens, and to carry that immersive experience well beyond the actual cinema viewing of the film.

How is it done? Basically, the idea is to use the interactive power of CTV’s programming language to create relevant links, or cue-points, for the audience that go well beyond the linear highlights of the film. These can include:

• Links to the online “social-grid” involving stars and their characters, as a way of including producers and talent and allowing the audience to interact.

• Links to the merchandising opportunities created by the film, including access to ancillary products ranging from soundtrack albums to logo-merchandise.

• E-ticketing. This one is obvious but CTV provides a direct way for interested audience members to pre-book their seats with all the various popular ticketing platforms.

• Brand extensions and franchise development. This is a major enhancement of the film marketing experience. Through the CTV online platform, film-goers can continue to engage with the characters, stars and brands that are created in the magic of the movie theater well after the lights have come back up.

Indeed, the interactive film trailers hold the prospect of becoming ongoing destinations in and of themselves, with a lifecycle that could continue until a sequel or a new franchise is underway.

These two titles also underscore the ability of CTV technology to “write once, run anywhere” as they function seamlessly on Apple, Android or Flash technology. With the combination of new technology and interactivity, CTV is helping Hollywood and movie-marketeers worldwide take that big next step to the future.

To be sure, not everything is currently appearing in our apps for these two trailers. Some of the above features are still “world-of-tomorrow” enhancements that CTV’s team of creative minds and engineers are diligently working to create.

Still, as Humphrey Bogart says in “Casablanca,” CTV believes its partnership with Hollywood marks “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

(Note — This is a slightly expanded version of my post on the CoincidentTV blog. I am on the board at CTV, whose new video technology (which basically does for video what HTML did for text) is currently powering interactive sites for Fox, MTV, Audi and several other media and consumer companies).

Great Products Do Three Things….

2 Mar

Yahoo! is a complex place to build products, and I recall early in my tenure trying to focus our Media and Information Division on three core objectives that would be clear, undebatable and useful in building better consumer products.

I won’t go into the details of how we got there (although that’s an interesting story). But get there, we did. And we believed then, as I do today, that a great product:

1. Saves customers’ time.

2. Saves customers’ money.

3. Delights customers in new ways.

Seems simple? Well, in my experience this is far easier to say than it is to do.

I am reminded of this today because after some very hard work, the WHERE team (full disclosure: I am a board member) has launched a feature called Placebook in its new location-based app build that does all three. And thank heavens, because the pain relieved by this new release is large and longstanding.

Placebook is a constantly updatable ‘Rolodex’ of your (and your friends) favorite spots. You can use it on your IPhone. You can access it on the web. (They sync)! And you can FORGET having to REMEMBER all those names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.

You might be wondering “what’s the excitement?” Please let me answer that, from a personal POV.

Have you ever had the experience of knowing that the restaurant you love, in a city you visit frequently, is just around the corner somewhere. But you can’t recall the address, or exactly the route to get there, or even the restaurant’s name? Frustrating? Time-wasting? Totally useless?

The problem is solved. Go to a restaurant, or any favorite spot. Click once in the WHERE app to store it to your Placebook. Click again to give it a rating. And from now on, you can simply forget about having to remember. Once stored, your profile and Placebook will remember for you.

Now, the WHERE guys are not the first folks to think of this. There are countless listing and reviews services. There are competitors. Once upon a time there was a clever startup called Vindigo that did something similar. It was useful, too.

But Placebook is a big step forward, right now.

Of course, simply building such great features as Placebook are no guarantee in and of themselves of a huge business success. Building better products is simply a gating issue that allows successful companies onto the battlefield that will determine their ultimate ability to go from ‘Good to Great’ as Jim Collins puts it.

But it is a great start to have a great product, filled with useful features. And — on behalf of busy, forgetful people all over, thank you to the WHERE team for solving this particular problem.

It is perhaps, as a great leader once said, ‘The End of the Beginning’

18 Feb

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we have reached “the end of the beginning” of the online revolution.

A recent week in Europe, including the wonderful Burda DLD Conference, followed by subsequent meetings in SF, LA and NY provides an intriguing glimpse of what comes next:

To me, the omnipresence of broadband in the developed world, coupled with ubiquity of mobile computing (over smartphones, iPads or other portable devices), a generational shift towards e-engagement and the growing power of massive data in the “cloud” are changing every business assumption in the media, telecom and internet economy. These powerful forces are all coming together to create conditions for a huge new wave of innovation that will forever disrupt the information, entertainment, communications and technology economy.

While challenging to navigate, this is an unprecedented opportunity for better products for consumers. There should also be very interesting new business models. And finally, all this should mean intriguing opportunities for investors.

A couple of focus areas – for me:

1.Platforms: The next generation of technology is now being developed that enables media companies to mesh diverse programming assets (video, social media, commerce and communications) into radically new engaging products (For shorthand, think ‘Avatar’ Meets ‘Bloomberg’). Also, technologies will also enable the same media owners to distribute these valuable new programming assets over the bundle of distribution channels (broadband internet, wireless, television and telecom). More on this to come.

2.In the Enterprise and Professional Media sectors, a new generation of opportunities is arriving as the social and real-time web (Twitter, Facebook) meet the Enterprise. This will revolutionize marketing, advertising, and much of the content business. It will also lead to business process reengineering in sectors ranging from content creation and product development to procurement and HR and Training/Talent Development Retention. Mark Benioff’s SalesForce Chatter which went private beta yesterday is a timely example.

3.Business model opportunities: Mobile and Location-specific targeting and monetization. Think lead generation and couponing with increased effectiveness at the point of purchase.

4.Product-Line Opportunities: Hyper-Verticalized Initiatives. Both hyper-local (geographic) and hyper-targeted (Demographic/Psychographic).

It is somewhat early days with all of these themes. But my prediction is they – and others – will keep us all busy for some time to come.

PS: Let’s all watch with great interest as the US FCC unveils the results of its multi-quarter analysis of the broadband opportunity in America. That, too, will surely have some interesting after-effects.

Evolution -> Revolution

8 Jan

In our global online journey, there are occasional epiphany moments: incidents that make you realize how much technology is changing our civilization.

One comes for me today: I am flying transcontinentally at 36,000 feet today, on an airliner with free wifi. My Mac is running SlingPlayer, which allows me to watch my home television over the internet.

I am live-blogging about watching the College Football Championship Game live, in real-time, as I make my way across the country. I am IM’ing about the game with pals; I am getting real-time game update and stats from various websites, and absorbing a great deal of social media from a variety of great websites. I have a virtual newsroom operating at Seat 3D.

A contrast: This month 19 years ago I was in the Mideast covering the Persian Gulf War. I had a TRS-80, (a Tandy machine that was virtually indestructable and which we affectionately called a ‘Trash 80’). I used an accoustic coupler — earmuffs that attached to a landline phone handset that frequently didn’t work. When it malfunctioned, I used my Swiss Army knife to unscrew the hotel phonejack faceplate. I stripped the wires of the twisted pair and ran a phone line tester to check which was red and green, then I attached alligator clips to the copper wire landline to file my copy at the breathtaking rate of….wait for this…300 Baud…..AND I FELT LIKE A PIONEER IN THE WORLD OF TOMORROW!

In the subsequent decades, there have been other epiphany moments. And much of the change of technology continues to evolve, rather than change things overnight. I have learned profound change does take time.

That said, tonight’s epiphany moment to me feels equal to a Town Crier seeing the first electronic stock ticker in the late 19th Century, or the linotype operators of the 1930s seeing WYSIWYG electronic publishing of the 1980s.

It is breath-taking, and so I chose to take a moment here at 6 miles above the surface of the earth, to watch Alabama face Texas and to say:

What Hath God Wrought, Indeed…

Search Engine Wars V: Local Personal Awareness

8 Dec

A holiday dinner last night with some of uLocate’s senior team and the leadership of a major telecom carrier raised an interesting discussion of where search is going.

My view: the next big battle in search is going to be about providing search results BEFORE you even ask a question. The next big frontiers for Search include knowing your location without you having to provide it, knowing your likely queries before you type anything into the searchbox, and knowing your behavioral profile (needs, wants, interests) without you having to do anything.

This is the battlefield for Search Engine Wars V — and it is going to be a major showdown, pitting such behemoths as Google and Microsoft against each other, and with smaller armies from the Facebooks, Twitters and uLocates of the world making alliances and contributing arms and assets to the fray.

A quick recap to point out how we got here. The search wars began in the mid-1990s, when the Infoseeks, Yahoos, Excites, Lycos’s and Alta Vistas brought text search to the mass consumer market via the public internet. Before then, text search and data retrieval had been a large, lucrative backwater — a paid product in the business-professional world (remember such brands as Dialog, Lexis-Nexis, Dow Jones News Retrieval — now known as Factiva?)

Those first search companies went public, made millions, were sometimes acquired (Disney-Infoseek, @Home-Excite) or sometimes went under. After that, search became a feature in what became known as the portal wars. I call this period Search Wars II. Many of the technical leaders thought text search was a finished product, and lost their focus on improvements while turning instead to such important initiatives as personalization, feed syndication and e-commerce tools.

This inattention left open search world to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who did a brilliant job of improving search and threw down the gauntlet of Search Wars III: The Rise of Google. And, more recently with the launch of its vastly improved Bing service, Microsoft has at long last battled back — and, coupled with its Yahoo search deal — is fighting hard in Search Wars IV.

That’s why I believe it is time to think about what’s next. And to my mind, the next battle in search is going to be about saving users time and effort by providing knowledge about likely searches before a customer has to type anything into the search box.

We can already see some of this, with services such as uLocate’s WHERE, which begins to understand some basic information about you (e.g. your location) from your voluntarily-supplied data on your mobile device. With that information, uLocate can tell you the location of nearby businesses (Starbucks, a gas station, the closest Fedex Office or UPS store) as well as provide you with tips and reviews about local restaurants, nightspots, etc. The user doesn’t have to DO anything, other than turn on their mobile device and launch the application.

There is much improvement ahead. Some may argue that the big fight today is about real-time search, but I think that is only a new skirmish in the current Search Wars IV. Only the barest outlines of the battle formations for the big next thing are apparent today. But I am putting some of my bets on those businesses that are preparing for this world of next-generation search.

Let the battles commence….

Note: Danny Sullivan had a related post on Google’s personalized approach here.

Why I am Joining uLocate’s Board of Directors…

5 Oct

….because it is one of the nation’s most exciting digital information and engagement companies. It’s that simple.

Press release is here Craig Forman Joins uLocate Communications’ Board of Directors

The high-energy location-based services startup has over 1 million uses on its flagship WHERE, which is the leader in the emerging space of combining mobility with useful information and data. And it has a fast-rising new app TRAFFIC which does the same for your daily commute or travels.

It is early days, these services are quickly going from experimental to essential. A quick anecdote: On a recent cross-country trip in the US I found myself in Amarillo, TX for the first time — (great town by the way). In the old days, figuring out where to go would have required maps, guidebooks, maybe even a trip to a bookstore or library. With WHERE, I instantly had access to all the local information I need (dining, gas stations, movies, yellow pages, etc.) in a very intuitive and easy-to-use format.

Usefulness goes well beyond GPS data and driving directions (though that is included, of course). uLocate is pioneering new integration of location and social information that are changing the ways we ‘navigate’ our lives.

Further on the ‘Growth’ Theme – Procter & Gamble Edition

10 Sep

Growth will be the new holy grail of business as we emerge from this downturn: how and where to find it, profitably.

The point is that organic growth (unlike M&A synergy growth) will result from the hard work of innovation, and investment in products and services. Confirmation comes today from Procter & Gamble, which now expects to rebound to organic growth in its fiscal second quarter due to demand for new products.

Says the packaged-goods giant’s CFO Jon Moeller: “The innovations we are launching and the investments we are making are having an impact in the market.” P&G thus confirms its guidance for its first half and fiscal 2010, saying it expects the decline in its organic sales to come a halt.

This news sends P&G 4 percent higher, to above $55, in early trading today.

Another tea-leaf….

Growing Pains…..

7 Sep

There is lots of talk as Labor Day recedes in our collective rear-view mirror about the end of the recession and the start of a rebound. The mixed economic statistics suggest we may have a very uneven recovery. Regardless, as we emerge from the downturn, there will be a premium on business results that have been hard to come by in recent years. The top priority? Growth, both in revenue and profits.

It’s easy to understand why. So much of the focus of business in the developed world in the past several quarters has been cost reduction, synergy-expense recognition and restructuring. All that is vital, of course, to healthy companies and healthy economies. While we have experienced some skilled and finely tuned cost-cutting, there is precious little evidence of the only things –- revenue and profit growth — that will really enable employment expansion, new job-creation and increased capital investment, which are critical for long-term economic growth.

But there is reason to be optimistic if you read a few recent tea-leaves.

Exhibit One is the experience of an exciting startup that is a leader in location-based services for mobile consumers and whose board of directors I am joining. Using their application, anyone anywhere in the U.S. can quickly find nearby businesses, people, movies, pizza, taxis, weather, news, you name it.

This company is experiencing explosive usage growth, and revenue is coming along with this increase in demand for their innovative product, which was not possible before the omnipresence of wireless networks and smart mobile devices. The revenue is sourced both from consumer subscriptions sources (in a hybrid model where network operators pay a fee to subsidize their customer use, and where subscribers pay for preferred content and access) as well as advertising.

Exhibit Two: Another company on whose board I sit, is seeing demand is increasing for its leadership training and development courses. These areas unquestionably were cut during the downturn, and companies are now looking hard at retaining their key employees through development programs as well as creating an alluring ‘HR’ brand by investing in talent.

The start of any growth strategy begins with your customer. We are in the battle for customer’s time and attention in any industry involved in this “convergence” world – telecommunications, information, entertainment or internet. Because this such a competitive world – we must be uniquely respectful of the time that our users have to spend with us.

So, starting with the customer, the primary thing to be concerned with is their happiness or satisfaction with our products and services. At EarthLink, where I ran the $1B consumer business, we tried to organize the entire company around our 2.5 million customer relationships. Satisfied customers tend to positively influence other customers, and – especially in such subscription businesses as telecoms – since so much of the shareholder-value-killing churn happens early in the life of the customer, taking care that your newcomers are feeling positive is extremely important.

Of course, big catalysts for growth are such innovative products and services and the location-based products I was discussing a moment ago. And surely, as growth returns, much of it will be based on new products, services and features that might not have existed even months ago. Among these: increased personalized services, reflecting your unstated wants and needs, based on what we can know about your location, or habits or behavior. Also, expect enhanced aggregation services, marrying much of your diverse data and deriving intelligence about what to recommend you do next.

This is not “crystal-ball” stuff; many of these applications are starting to emerge as personal data goes to the cloud and then value is added by companies or other customers. One innovative example of this comes from Nike. Their new Nikeplus website allows users to store all sorts of data about their workouts (distance, speed, even their mood) to a profile that can be protected or shared with other users. Nike brings coaching and even encouragement from other users to their individual customers, and allows the customer to control the extent to which they want to participate.

The companies that will grow fastest in the next upturn are those that deeply understand their relationship with their consumers, and those who can deepen that relationship measured by time spent, use and attention. The borders between network services, hardware, applications, content and software are becoming more fluid, and that will continue to evolve. But those companies that triumph will be those who really profoundly understand their customers’ wants and needs and supply products and services that rise to meet that demand, whether articulated or not.

For more on this topic, check out a recent interview I did as part of my membership on the Customer Experience Board, a group of global executives. The report can be downloaded here. Please click on the link to download the Benchmark Report on Competition and Convergence in the Communications Space, where I was a featured contributor.