Archive by Author | Semil Shah

Nontechnical Hustling in the #Wilderness

During my #wilderness period, I was approached by many who were also in the #wilderness looking for direction. I don’t really understand why they would have approached me. Perhaps they were tricked into thinking I had figured something out, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Perhaps they thought I knew something because I was writing about it on TechCrunch. I still don’t get it, but I was always happy to return any genuinely crafted email request with my raw feedback, for better or worse.

In the summer of 2011, my friend @jamesrapoport from Livestream in NYC sent me an email to help this kid @vjtorres11. Somehow over one email, Victor persuaded me to have a quick phone call — and I hate the phone. Victor was just out of school and looking to get into startups. I could tell he was polite, thoughtful, and very hungry — and he also understood that because he wasn’t technical, he’d have to cut his teeth a bit and pick a focus to add value right away. I gave him advice that’s hard to give: Basically, if you’re young, nontechnical, and don’t have relevant experience, to get into an early stage startup requires a different type of risk — you probably have to be willing to work for free. And, even if you perform, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the job.

Immediately, Victor agreed. So, surprised, I made some calls and put out the word on Twitter. My friend Rohit, CEO of Syfto, contacted me and said he’d be interested in having Victor try his hands at some light web analytics and marketing. After a few weeks, Syfto contracted with Victor and he worked there a few months. He eventually realized that he was young and wanted to live in San Francisco, so instead of continuing his commute down to the Valley, he was able to land a real job with Zaarly, an up-and-company company with lots of buzz around it. Throughout the whole time, Victor always sent me pertinent updates, asked for advice in the most polite way, and found himself in another good position, riding the wave.

Victor’s recent story is a case study for what hungry, nontechnical people need to do to crack into the ambiguous early-stage startup world. Perhaps what inspired me so much about Victor — and why I root hard for him — is that I was taking the medicine at the same time I was doling it out. It was pretty bitter, let me say. Victor always emailed me to tell me “thanks,” but I’m sure I learned more from him than he learned from me. Make sure you keep an eye on @vjtorres11 — I’d love to work with him some day.

Graphing My TechCrunch Posts by Shares

I started to keep track of the circulation of my posts to TechCrunch, now that I’ve been contributing content there for over a year. These sharing stats are imperfect for a number of reasons (such as the site changing, or losing comments, etc.), but over the course of the year, it’s interesting to see the trends and shares per network. The stats that really matter are the number of times a post is referenced in a Tweet, from which you can get a sense of the reach. The highest ones were about Google’s six-front war and illusions in social networks (random!), but also Klout. Since January 5, 2011, I’ve contributed close to forty (40) posts on a variety of topics.

The @Path Less Traveled

About a year ago on TechCrunch, @arrington reported on a new fundraising round for one of San Francisco’s most high-profile startups, Path. Being Arrington, he also uncovered that Google allegedly offered to pay $100m for the startup, plus an additional 20% on top in the form of an earn out. Path is believed to have turned down Google’s offer, raised money instead at a valuation about a third of the acquisition price, and suffered through the heat of TechCrunch commenters and the chattering class, most whom — myself included, to a degree — couldn’t understand their justification for that decision.

Now, Path is slowly building up steam. Path has received enough ink, so instead of writing about it again on TechCrunch, I just wanted to share a few thoughts with the benefit of a year of hindsight.

First, Path understands two things that Facebook doesn’t: (1) intimacy; and (2) mobile. I am a fan and regular user of Facebook, but it’s just plain difficult to know what actions are truly private and contained, that won’t show up in some Open Graph ticker. It’s also a terrible mobile experience. If I had to calculate my ratio of using Twitter mobile vs. Facebook mobile, it would be about 1000:1.

Second, Path is built around information vectors that a mobile device picks up more naturally than Facebook could. Yes, I know that Facebook “could” get all this information, but they don’t, and until they do, it’s open season. Path isn’t the only one, as you have Instagram, for instance, but they make it far easier for users to record and share moments at various levels of privacy.

Third, Path has a simple yet powerful mission. Sure, it may never reach the masses in time, or it may be gobbled up by one of the founders’ previous employers, but there’s at least at chance that its bet is right, and after giving a stiff-arm to Google’s offer and releasing products and services at a torrid rate, there’s a real chance — low, but real — that Path will build a truer reflection of our lives and connections.

Today, this is indeed a Path less-traveled, and it will be exciting to watch unfold.

On Blogging and Comments

I told myself I wouldn’t chime in on this subject, but it’s too tempting.

  • On blogging: Earlier this week, @cdixon started an interesting conversation about tech startup bloggers. Chris has one of the most widely read/cited blogs in tech. His feeling is that bloggers shouldn’t pile on and criticize startups because (1) startups are really, really hard (90% fail); and (2) the market is the ultimate critic. On top of this, he assigns more credibility to bloggers who have at least been founders or around small startups because they’ll have more experience and empathy when the highs are high and when the lows are lows.
  • On comments: Later that day, @parislemon started what has turned into an awesome attack on blog comments. MG obviously is a prolific tech blogger, and has suffered years of attacks in the comments section of TechCrunch, where he contributes — and where I contribute, as well. And, now that he contributes less frequently to TechCrunch and is using his Tumblr more (which has sharp content/opinion), he’s using his blog to share his points of view. However, he’s disabled comments on his blog, despite his large audience, asking those who do want to comment or get in touch with him to use traditional channels like e-mail or Twitter. Basically, he doesn’t want it in his backyard.

I thought I’d use this debate to briefly share my own point of views on these matters, given that I have been a contributor to TechCrunch now for over a year (and enjoy it!). I should underscore that there are no rules of tech startup blogging and that, ultimately, the reader decides for him/herself whom to read and trust.  So, for each blogger, the calculation is different. Here are mine:

  1. Anyone can blog about tech startups. Even people who haven’t built a company or worked at a startup can do this. Conversely, some folks who do have this experience may not have the analytical and communications skills to share their knowledge and perspective. In this medium, the written word is powerful and, if one can create and/or synthesize insights and explain context succinctly, there’s a good chance more and more people will read since good information is scarce and disparate. Excessive cheerleading or excessive criticism will simply erode one’s credibility.
  2. Comments are a mixed bag and depend who you are and who your audience is. Fred Wilson relies on them heavily, but he has one of the most engaged audiences out there and happens to be one the greatest single investors of the last five years, so demands strong attention (and manners). In a way, Dixon is on a similar trajectory with his blog and portfolio. Wilson and Dixon are able to receive interesting ideas, feedback, and possibly even information about a new company in the comments section of their blogs. For MG, because much of his audience discovered him via TechCrunch, and because MG shares his opinions strongly, the trolls who inhabit TechCrunch will simply follow him to his own blog (as they do to mine), and he simply wants his blog to reflect his own content and point of view, cleanly, rather than a smattering of random peoples’ opinions or spending the time to moderate a discussion with a filter.

For me, as a personal matter, I blog whenever I want to, either here or on TechCrunch. If it’s just here, I write quickly and say whatever is on my mind. If it’s TechCrunch, I’m obviously more careful. No matter where I post, I try to be respectful and always remind myself that startups are really, really hard. If something warrants criticism and I feel strongly about it, I’ll try to convey it as directly as possible. As for comments, I don’t really use them on my blog. I don’t care. On TechCrunch, I will try to answer any comment that seems reasonable or offered with sincerity — for any others, I will make sure they know I’ve read their comments.

Uber’s New Year’s Eve Surcharges Demonstrate The Harsh Reality Of Dynamic Pricing

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011…

I woke up this morning to tweets from Uber customers nationwide who felt taken for a ride, literally and figuratively, after requesting an Uber on one of the busiest nights of the year. Despite the fact the company said as such on their blog and communication channels, riders were apparently not expecting the surcharges to be so exponentially high, ranging between three to over six times the normal fares.

In exchange for providing cars on demand, Uber used its system to find equilibrium within a market where demand outstripped supply, especially a few hours before and midnight. (I’m not a frequent Uber customer, but I used them three times over my recent holiday trip, and each time was flawless; I’ll continue to use the service when I need to.)

Uber’s hangover this morning is more of a harbinger for consumers in general, especially when it comes to goods and services delivered online. Uber’s “surcharges” last night were a classic example of dynamic pricing, or adjusting the price of something relative to the demand and supply, down to the minute or second. The more data a provider has on these inputs, the more likely they are to leverage that data to extract more value from providing equilibrium between supply and demand. Most every consumer is aware of this through searching for and buying airline tickets online, where fares seem to change magically, even mid-search.

Over the past few years, dynamic pricing provided value to consumers, for example, through daily deals. Companies providing these deals help vendors manage inventory and excess supply, using the power of discounting to gin up demand. Starting now, consumers should also prepare to experience the underbelly of this phenomenon, a world where prices for goods and services that are in demand, either in quantity or at a certain time, aren’t the same price for each of us.

Online, dynamic pricing is gaining momentum. eBay auctions and Priceline hidden bids are the overt expression of this. More subtly, items in my Amazon shopping cart went up a bit each day as the holidays approached. Imagine the intricate data companies like Groupon and Living Social have as it relates to how quickly a hot deal “sold out.” All that data could be used just as the airlines have for years, and potentially with even more economic precision. Tickets to Broadway musicals are being sold this way. The National Hockey League is doing it. Companies such as TellApart andHotelTonight, for instance, are already doing this kind of stuff, and upstarts like Black Locus andPredictive Edge are also in the hunt.

In the not-so-distant future, consumers may see more routine goods and services readjust to dynamic pricing. Want a dinner reservation at a specific time at a choice restaurant? Want to book a room on Airbnb in Austin during SXSW, right now? Want to see The Dark Knight Rises opening night, on IMAX? Or, simply, do you want an Uber right away at 8pm every Saturday night, when demand peaks? It’s becoming increasingly apparent that for items with spiked demand around specific times are all susceptible to these kind of extractive calculations.

This reality is the other side of the daily deal market, one not driven by discounts and demand, but rather premiums for things that are scarce. Which brings it all neatly back to Uber. Some riders last night wanted the combination of a guaranteed ride at a time of their choosing, but also at a price that they deemed “reasonable.” Unfortunately, since everyone else also wanted rides around 10pm and 2am last night, the demand so far outstripped the supply that what seem to be gross surcharges were actually automatically generated to make sure a consumer’s willingness to pay matched the good offered. You can’t have your Uber on New Year’s Eve and eat it, too, folks — unless you’re willing to pay up. Brenden Mulligan analyzed the communication breakdown and makes areasoned, design-inspired case that Uber’s in-app notification of surcharges should have been cleaner, more direct and easier to read.

Uber will no doubt try to make sure this doesn’t happen again (the tweets are not pretty), and people nationwide will continue to use the service, though will now be more careful. Uber still has a strong brand with a loyal following and a strong team. However, this is also a wakeup call for consumers, those who use Uber and in general. As devices and ecosystems enable us to share more and more data about our location and what we truly want at any given time, time-based pricing is simply a natural extension of this grand bargain and is coming to a theater near you. Happy New Year!

Despite Attacks, Klout Is Poised To Boost Its Influence

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011…

If you even so much as whisper your Klout score within specific circles, you’re likely to be met with a piercing stinkeye. Based in San Francisco with a small pot of funding, there’s something about Klout’s mission — to rank online influence — that ironically draws the ire of many influential people.

A few months ago, TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis kicked things off with a great, provocative post (check out the comments, too) arguing results don’t match up with the offline reality of one’s influence. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram artfully pointed out Klout is being used by companies for promotions and even in hiring. Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote a short post describing how Klout provides value, helping him sort various Twitter feeds by ranking accounts. There’s also a fascinating Quora thread detailing a host of other sentiments. Whether you’re a fan of the service or not, there’s clearly something polarizing about Klout which generates a range of reactions.

Despite the sentiments, Klout continues to roll with the punches because our online identities are fragmented across different services. These different sites rank their own users, of course, but typically only factor inputs tied down within their own gardens. The main forces, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, certainly weight their own users’ activity for various reasons, but Klout has built one single, unified score based on its own independent algorithm across these services.

Of course, this “PeopleRank” subjects the company to scorn, yet immunizes them against any changing winds within the different social services people use. A few months ago, Klout announcedan algorithm adjustment that seemed to lower many Klout scores, which generated even more suspect reactions. In the the follow-up to that announcement, Klout hinted that integrating Quora was on their product roadmap, but Quora hasn’t been shy about wanting to rank people, too, so if Klout is able to pull this off, it would be a significant signal toward their own growing clout.

I see no problem with Klout’s aggressive expansion. In fact, in the absence of any viable alternative, it seems to work, more or less. Even PR giant Edelman wants a piece of the space, as does new competitor Kred, but Klout has a great head start. While critics bang the drum for more transparency around the algorithm or hold their nose toward the idea of comparing their rank with others, Klout has been able to manufacture an incredibly simple, strong brand in a relatively short period of time. Larger companies and brands have taken notice, running campaigns with Klout and helping the small startup actually earn money and test revenue models, so much so that they have already hired an experienced Chief Revenue Officer.

Klout is a relatively young company. It is not perfect. It is going to make mistakes, and will continue to rub some people the wrong way. In the future, the company may elect to be more transparent about their algorithm, or expand their “perks” offering, or simply soften their onboarding pop-ups. Just as numerous brands are testing the effectiveness of routing messages through the service, Klout itself is experimenting with a range of ways to make this better for users and, in the process, attract more brands. This kind of ad-targeting is already in full-swing on many other sites—it’s just that it’s more overt on Klout.

All of this tends to bend back to semantics. “Clout” is a powerful word, which has various definitions, and in this context, we think of “having pull” or “influence.” With that connotation comes the impression of power, and that triggers different reactions. It’s worth remembering that Klout only claims to measure one’s online influence, and I tend to think that much of the backlash against the company is rooted in the misconception that one’s Klout score maps to the offline world. It’s easy to grandstand and take a publicly moral stance against what Klout is doing, but as it is with entrepreneurship and certainly the web, there are no rules. Companies and users are making the rules as they go, and that’s just the way it should be.

On the eve of  2012, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Klout move into scoring so-called “expert pundits” in high-value content verticals such as sports, politics, and even technology reporting, as well as partnering with startups themselves to help better tune their initial social-proof marketing efforts. They may also begin to experiment with ad campaigns outside U.S. borders, and could even be an influential social media player as attention focuses around the upcoming American presidential election.

Finally, I believe there’s something about the founder Joe Fernandez and team that positions them for success and will help them weather these current and future storms, embodied in the story of how their domain was obtained in the first place (Fernandez tracked down the previous owner of the domain via Twitter, showed up at a restaurant, and plunked down $5,000 in cash on the table). In fact, I’d argue Klout will get bigger and grow even more influential itself in 2012. With all the “newsfeeds” out there driving the information we consume, and as that content surfaces to mainstream channels, every feed will need some mechanism for surfacing consistently relevant and trustworthy content. If Klout can figure out a way to keep making money via brands and help people find the most relevant signals, it will not only grow, but secure its place within the fiber of the social web.

IFTTT Triggers Loyal, Nerdy Following

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch in 2011…

One of my favorite services to pop in the second half of 2011 is “If This, Then That,” or if you’re really dorky, IFTTT. Among a small group of faithful nerds on Twitter, IFTTT is a simple yet powerful service that generates warm, fuzzy feelings among those who are hooked. Based in San Francisco, the company has received funding from Betaworks and is closing out 2011 with momentum.

If you haven’t tried it yet, please give it a whirl:

Briefly, IFTTT is a service that allows users to set a number of alerts, or “tasks,” that will “trigger” a preset function based on what you set. For example, you can set IFTTT to send you an email every time a specific user on Twitter sends a tweet or have a copy of every Instagram photo you snap to be automatically sent to your Dropbox, which I wish I would’ve set before the last iOS5 update wiped clean two months of my pictures. The different permutations of “triggers” you can set are sort of endless. To help you wade through them, you can browse different IFTTT “recipes” and browse thisthread on Quora.

For some inexplicable reason, IFTTT seems to have endeared itself to nerds who love to cook up and share their own little recipes for triggers. The service’s name is also not all that elegant, which seems to bolster its street cred. IFTTT sounds like some secret web protocol that only a select few understand.

Stepping back, it’s becoming easier to see why IFTTT is gaining steam. First, there are just too many services to keep track of. If you’re monitoring a series of brands across many channels, IFTTT enables you to track and route all relevant messages to a specific place, especially Dropbox. There’s no easy way for a nontechnical mind like me to connect all these random APIs between disparate services, so IFTTT makes it both easy and, strangely, fun and addictive with its big bold letters and slick interaction. You can also temporarily turn off tasks without losing the recipes entirely.

If you want to get even more serious under the hood, you can actually view a historic “activity” feed of every trigger action you’ve set. I like to call this the “nerdfeed.”

Where to go from here?

That’s a tricky question. On the one hand, we’ve been told the future of business development on the web and in mobile is establishing connections among various APIs, where new products and services can be built on top of existing data. On the other hand, while I set many Google Alerts, I’m not sure I’d pay that much for them. Maybe companies and brands would be more willing to pay for this ability to monitor and archive, or maybe they could charge a traffic toll between these APIs?

Before that, they’d have to get beyond the nerdcore for wider adoption and usage. If they could suggest some basic triggers for more casual users, perhaps ones that monitor their names or companies (much like someone may set a Google search for their name), that could start to spread as folks want to keep tabs on their mentions and reputation. Or, they could tailor the initial triggers to be tied to Facebook actions, considering their massive user base and lack of tools for monitoring.

Finally, and it’s kind of strange to write this, but I just really like the site and service. Perhaps it has something  to do with giving users a bit more control over the social web. For being such a stale dashboard of tasks, I don’t understand why I’m using it so much. And, I’m not the only one. Every now and then on Twitter, I’ll talk about IFTTT and get up to 10 @replies of someone who says they are “addicted” to it. IFTTT could slowly become a type of “connective tissue” between various services, creating channels between walled gardens and linking data in fascinating and fun ways within a web that’s currently too fragmented to manage on our own.


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