Thursday, February 14, 2013

Barnes and Noble: An Omni-Channel Fumble

This morning I was looking for a reference book on Hadoop. My go-to source always starts with Amazon. I'm an Amazon Prime customer, their search is already filtered / optimized to help me find relevant books, their prices are always competitive, and usually the reviews are very useful.

Amazon Book Price

However, with some spare time today, I wanted to start reading it today. My choices therefore were to download it to my Kindle or to buy at a brick and mortar retailer. I usually prefer to have a physical copy of technical reference books, so over I popped to Barnes & Noble and found the same book at a comparable price:

Barnes and Noble Book Price

Given Amazon's usual lock-in, this was a golden opportunity for B&N to earn a piece of business that would 9 times out of 10 go to Amazon. The big font "Pick Me Up" told me the item was in stock at my local store. So, I was ready to buy it and head downtown right now. The problem arose, however, when I clicked through to buy it:

Barnes and Noble Store Pick Up

The price had reverted to $49.99. Now as much as I want to buy this book today, I'm not prepared to pay a 44% surcharge for that convenience, particularly when I have free two day shipping with Amazon via my Prime membership. While I can understand that B&N carries the additional real estate overhead and needs to somehow pay for those storefronts, frankly that's not the customer's problem. I'd be just as happy if they were flogging the books from the back of a flatbed off the side of the road if it meant I could avoid this levy.

So, here we have a situation where the brick and mortar retailer has done so much right to grab that sale in a way that Amazon cannot - immediate gratification. Barnes & Noble should win this head to head every single time. Instead, it's treating me differently based on where its inventory is ultimately being picked and is losing a sale in the process.

I saw a similar situation a few weeks ago when my downtown Banana Republic had a 40% off sale on everything, but didn't have my size on a particular item. When I got home, I was able to order the item online in the correct size but at a 30% discount. In that case, I went ahead with the sale even though I was a bit annoyed that they were extending different discounts across channels.

As retailers commit to omni-channel, the customer has to remain foremost in the decision-making process, particularly in a world where Amazon has done such a great job of locking-in most categories. In the case of Barnes & Noble, their business model is hobbled by the legacy costs of what's essentially a commoditized category and as much as I'd like to see them remain in business, if only to ensure that Amazon has competitors, it's hard to envision a scenario where they can compete effectively, particularly when they score own-goals with an otherwise loyal Amazon customer.

Curious to see if the in-store folks at B&N would do anything if I pointed out their online price, I went to the store and after pointing out the price discrepancy to the cashier, he said he wishes they'd raise the prices online to eliminate confusion in-store!! Upon telling him such a policy was doomed to fail, he pointed to the long line behind me (there was only one cashier on duty) and said that plenty people don't seem to mind such pricing discrepancies. Not exactly a very enlightened attitude but about what I expected.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Facebook Books: The Future of Social Reading

Facebook today announced that their next big priority categories are movies, books, and fitness. Never mind that Amazon and Apple realized those were priority categories years ago, and in the case of Amazon, as early as 1998 with their acquisition of IMDB. What struck me about the declaration is not that they are late to the game but rather that their definition of success is so modest.

Success for Facebook in any given category is to open it up to mass content sharing - gaming, news, and music were all cited as success stories and indeed, more content --> more engagement --> more ad revenue. The Facebook flywheel is a well oiled machine by now with likes and recommendations. However, i can't help but feel that it could be so much more...

In the case of books, Facebook seems to have missed an opportunity to innovate with the acquisition of Push Pop Press. Whether that was because of IP issues is unclear, but instead of solely thinking about recommendations on what books to read, it seems that there's an opportunity to optimize the activity of book reading itself and completely redefine the category. In other words, a recommendation engine focused on intra-book comprehension AND inter-book discovery would be much more useful and valuable.

For example, it's well established that people learn in different ways. Further, research shows that our preferred learning style is situationally dependent versus an immutable fact. So, what if the future of books is adaptive where the content is dynamically served, based, in part on the feedback loop we create? Metrics to consider could include;
  • Descriptive Metrics - average words read per minute, dwell time per page, highlights per 1,000 words, average session length, dictionary usage, books read per month, etc.
  • Interactive Metrics - built into the books could be optional polls and pop-up quizzes that test comprehension, the result of which would influence the content to follow.
Since it's Facebook we're talking about, all of the above metrics could of course be shared back out to each user's news feed, so instead of just knowing that Jason is reading A Scots Quair, I could also share notable quotes from the book, and publish the results of various quizzes I'm taking as I read. We could go one step further and Facebook could create dynamically assembled book clubs where I can chat with other people who are reading the same book as me at the same time. 

The other big opportunity is to view interactive books as a launching-off point to dynamically linked 3rd party content. Continuing with the A Scots Quair example, Facebook knows my hometown is Dundee, Scotland which is near the setting of this book. So, when I highlight the word Dundee in the book, I get a set of personalized search results - maybe an offer to buy Dundee University gear or a link to their Facebook page, whereas someone else highlighting the word who's not from Dundee gets more tourist-oriented content.

Regardless of monetization opportunities, the key point is that we're talking about an optimized reading experience based, in part, on Facebook's social graph. There are undoubtedly many who would argue that reading should remain a solitary activity, but one only need to look at how Twitter has augmented the TV viewing experience to understand that the future of reading is social and dynamic. My bet is that it will be intra-book in addition to the more generally accepted inter-book experience.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Harnu Live

Since we started Harnu, we've gone through a couple of pivots. The first was an early realization that we had no hope of growing Harnu if everything was one to one conversations off the bat. We still believe that empathy has the best chance of taking place in a one to one conversation, but that just can't be the starting point. The second has been a realization that people asynchronously asking questions to other nations is also unlikely to grow into anything meaningful. And so, we've started pivoting Harnu towards something called Harnu Live.

Harnu Live is about giving people the ability to create their own global conversations, invite their own audience, and decide if they want to open it up to a wider audience on Harnu. A good comparison might be Huff Post Live where they host discussions with experts. On Harnu, we're giving that power to the people themselves.

But you have to crawl before you walk and run etc. So, yesterday we hosted our first Harnu Live session ourselves, and what an amazing moment it was. Not sure what to expect, we invited a great student from Tripoli called Asem Mahmod to be our inaugural guest. Suffice to say, multiple global conversations happening simultaneously and hosted by people themselves is our path towards empathy and of course, growth. Without further commentary, here's the transcript (and yes, we need to make it easier to present these transcripts externally.) Baby steps ;-)

And if you read this far, here's a copy with just the text in case you want to cut and paste it:

Harnu Live Transcript with Asem Mahmod from Tripoli

November 27 2012

@asemmahmod, i want to ask what is the generally perceived idea of a successful person in your country? for example in india, the stereotype is like good job, kids, family and that's it. how's it it there?

I can't deny that we don't have stereotypes here, but not for a successful person. Everyone basically chases their dreams, no matter what they are @saifwilljones

I'll start. Asem - would love to know what the major sports are in Libya. Are there major leagues in the country? 
@brent Do you have any idea how Brazilians love football/soccer? Well, Libyans are completely in love with football. I'm actually not a fan of this sport, but everyone I know plays football all the time. At school, after school, and even before school! No exaggeration!

What is the music scene like in Libya? and what kind of music do you really love? 
Stefenymarie, music plays a huge role in our culture. Everybody loves our traditional Libyan music, and we play it every time. When we have weddings, when we celebrate the revolution's anniversary. And pretty much each time we want to have fun and dance. The only kind of music I like is pop. That's not traditional :)

Hi @asem, I have a question. Your parents and elders may remember what life in Libya was before Gaddafi, but you were born in that world so all you may have heard are stories about the old times. After last year's conflict and with Libya taking a new path, What was the impact on a 16 year old soon after the country's sudden change of direction? What kind of opportunities you now see that may have opened (or closed) to someone like you?
armando, great question! I feel so lucky and blessed after the revolution. It really opened a lot of opportunities to people like me. This change has affected me deeply. I have to say that I was desperate when Gaddafi was ruling the country. There's nothing to do. Young people were basically wasting time hanging out around the corners of streets. I can't respond to that in regards of politics, but in general, I believe that a bright future is waiting for our nation, and I'm very optimistic about that.

@asem: U may take this as your third question, How is the study structure there designed??? 
Like, More of the schools are from private sector or government sector??

Governmental free schools are more popular. Private schools are a little bit expensive. However, private schools have more efficient teachers than public ones. Is that what you asked about syedbarkat?

Hi, Asem-Are women encouraged to go to college and seek careers?
Brentsmom, yes they are. And that encouragement increased even more after the revolution. I have a sister who works and studies at the same time. Women are not forced to stay home or something like that.

Is education an important part of "success" in Libya?
Tamara, answering your question, I have to say no actually. Many many Libyans here have dropped out of school at a very young age and worked on developing a certain craft and now they are as successful as the educated.

What did the revolution mean to you, or do for you? Did it change your perspective or view(s) on life as a young man in Libya? 
Tamara, the revolution means a lot to most Libyans. This revolutions stopped a dictator from ruling a country for 42 years. After the revolution, I realized that I can take a part in building the new Libya, and I know I can make a difference, which was impossible under Gaddafi. However, I can't deny that there are Libyans who still support Gaddafi and his regime even though he's dead now.

What is the general feeling in Libya toward the United States?
I personally love the United States. All I know is that Libyans are looking forward to co-operating with the United States in building the country. And we're all excited about this since the US is probably the most civilized country in the world.

Cześć Asem! Jaki instrument muzyczny jest najbardziej popularny w Libii?
Andrzej, what musical instrument is most popular in Libya? Hmm.. Do you know what a goblet drum is? Well, that's it. We take it with us everywhere even when we go on picnics!
Asam, anytime I travel anywhere I like to try out local traditional food. Is there any specific food dish you love or that Libyans love? If so what would that be, I'm just wondering what that is in Libya. 
My favorite traditional food.. Well, I like "mbakbka", don't waste your time pronouncing this. It's basically pasta but in our own Libyan way. We love pasta here and I think the reason why is because we were colonized by Italians many years ago. There's also Bazeen which is popular also, but a bit difficult to make.

What are the most popular television shows in Libya?
Brent, that's a hard question. I don't want to generalize, but there's one show that is popular during Ramadan. It's called Bab Al-Hara. It's Syrian :)

@asem:This is a problem faced by me in India,So, I'm interested in this. What r people's perceptions about the friendship between Opposite sexes????
Syed, friendship with the opposite sex exists, but not publicly. It's just something we talk about with family. Unless they are a family, it's not common to see a boy and a girl walking in the middle of the street and talking. That's simply because of our religion which is Islam.

What do you do during Ramadan? Help us understand what that looks like!
Ramadan is a 29 to 30 day long month in which we fast from sunrise to sunset. No eating, no drinknig and no sexual relations or any kind of sinful speech and behavior. When the sun sets, the whole family gathers at one table, eats, prays, and have fun!

@Asem, If I want to go to Libya as a tourist, what are the top 2-3 places you would recommend?
You gotta visit the Old City in Tripoli. The first time I actually visited it was a few weeks ago and I'm still amazed!

Here's one from us Asem - What’s the economy like at the moment? What sort of opportunities are there for young people to get a job in Libya?
Oh. The economy means oil to me :) All I know is that oil production is increasing and it's even better than before the revolution now. I don't know about jobs in Libya, sorry!

@Asem, Do you have starbucks yet in Tripoli?? :)
armando, no :( and that sucks! They're actually not even thinking of opening a branch here after I contacted them.

Ok, if no more questions, we’d like to thank everyone once again for coming to our first Harnu Live. I think it's fair to say that for the Harnu team we’ve learned quite a lot on how to make the next ones even better, and really appreciate everyone’s willingness to try this out. If you have ideas for future Harnu Live sessions please let us know by sending a Private Message to the Harnu connection or emailing us at 

Special thanks to Asem for agreeing to be our first guest. Really appreciate the chance to learn even just a little about Libya. Thank you! By the way, you can always keep in touch with Asem by sending him a private message on Harnu. 

I appreciate this chance so much. I'm glad I taught people from all over the world a little bit on Libya, and that only happens on Härnu. Thank you everyone!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Why Startups Need a Narrative

The mobile web has given us the power to answer almost any question in real-time. However, forming an opinion is usually something that takes a bit longer than a quick Google or Siri search, particularly so if it's a complex topic.

Take for example the recent violence between Israel and Palestine. Who's to blame? What really happened this time? Why now? What's the history of this conflict? Is there any hope for a long-term peaceful solution? If you live in America, chances are you'll read a version of this conflict in mainstream media that strongly supports Israel with the narrative being that they are defending themselves against terrorists.

Against this backdrop, when we originally thought of Härnu, one of the canonical use cases we imagined was the scene of a teenager sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table having to listen to that drunk uncle who has an opinion on everything, drone on about those arabs and muslims in less than friendly terms. In our fantasy world of Härnu, our teen pulled out her phone and rebutted her uncle's baseless assertions by recounting conversations she'd had with her Egyptian, Palestinian, and Pakistani friends she'd met on Härnu. Take that Fox News!

Fast forward a year and millions of Americans are sitting down to dinner where inevitably some of those tables will include that uncle and unfortunately for those teens (and for us), our ambition for Härnu remains unfulfilled. In the past year, we've formed a company, we've created a product, and we've built a community in more than 100 countries. However, we've also dealt with more than our fair share of setbacks as we've worked so hard to build momentum.

I've come to learn that what most people warn is in fact true - building a consumer-facing startup is unbelievably difficult. Indeed, if it wasn't for our steadfast belief in our vision for the world, it's quite possible we'd have given up long ago. 

So, on this Thanksgiving, despite the difficulties that we've faced so far and the many obstacles that lie ahead of us, I'm thankful that the Härnu narrative has persisted. Maybe next year, if we continue to work hard, we'll realize our ambition of American teens everywhere being able to chat with anyone around the world, gain a whole new world of perspective, and perhaps shut that uncle up once and for all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Keep Calm and Carry On

Well, like most things, if I don't maintain a regular schedule, it just doesn't get done. And so it goes with this blog. I had resolved to jot down the lessons along the way. Sometimes though, the lessons are hard to comprehend. To do so requires a period of quiet reflection, and frankly, when you're driven by fear such as I am, any pause to reflect is a chance for my fears to catch up. So, I keep going - moving forward to maintain a sense of progress, regardless of whether that progress is real or imagined.

However, a real leader is not driven by fear. A real leader is driven by a sense of purpose. While people driven by fear can accomplish much in their life, their fear holds them back from accomplishing their true potential.

At Härnu, we've managed to gain members from more than 100 countries in a couple of months, we've radically improved the product, and we're ready to take the company to the next level. Right now, we're in the middle of sorting out proper roles among the founders and adjusting the cap table accordingly.

It's a stressful time but I'm sure glad we have a leader on our team who's taking on the role of CEO and has been there and done that. As for me? The answer is clear...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Trouble With Social

When Seattle hip-hop duo, Common Market, penned Trouble Is, they defiantly asked "...this is hustle biz, what the trouble is?" While for them, the "...trouble is love don't want you," in social, the trouble is the hustle has been focused on all the wrong things. Paul Kedrosky said it best in a recent tweet and judging by the number of favorites and retweets, it obviously struck a chord.

Whether the payload is news, apps, games, or search results, the prevailing approach today is to mine someone's friends, apply some simplistic model that presupposes that we are like our friends, and call it good. While it's well established that similarity breeds connection, it's worth remembering that our homophily merely occurs at a higher rate than between dissimilar people. In other words, while our friends are similar to us in many ways, we all have outliers, and it's these outliers that social search has done a really poor job of addressing so far. This is true of not just friends but also interests.

The question though is how hard someone like Paul is willing to work for his content? Most techies believe that curation is the answer and the frustration expressed by Paul is solvable with more data and better algorithms. However, what they tend to discount is that curation is always going to be imperfect because no algorithm can anticipate my need without fail. Hypothetically, if such an algorithm were possible, would a tech company even implement it? If we found what we wanted 100% of the time on Google's first page of results, what would happen to their revenue? Could any increased CPC compensate for the loss of impressions on subsequent results pages? I doubt it. I believe Google's in the business of optimizing, but not too much. Speculation aside, the problem is that we're complex and sometimes unpredictable. Our needs are fluid and we push ourselves to discover the unknown. 

So, if curation nor search are the silver bullets, might social search be? Facebook would have the world believe that we are like our friends because that's the sandbox they currently have to play with and they need brands to believe that. Almost everyone else in the space is following them with their friend based recommendation engines. Bing, anyone? At Harnu, we're taking a different approach by trying to encourage new connections. Want to know what's going on in Syria right now? Talk to a Syrian. Get a local's perspective. I don't know about you, but my friends are not useful for this class of discovery. That's why we built Harnu. 

For us, while we may be taking a novel approach to social discovery, our uphill battle is going to be achieving scale for the foreseeable future. Facebook obviously has the scale. The question is whether they'll take a novel approach to social search or serve up the same old friend recommendations as everyone else. If they expand results to consider people that are not friends and let people connect with these strangers, then folks like Paul Kedrosky may get their wish as a massively long tail of people and content starts to come into play with the trade-off that Paul would have to do a some content sifting himself.

Most likely though, this would have the potential to alienate a lot of Facebook users unless they specifically opted in to that sort of feature. However, it'd also have the potential to dramatically expand Facebook's social graph. In my case, instead of the 460-something friends I have today, I'd set out to add at least one friend from every country in the world - something I'm able to do today on Harnu in the quest for perspective and knowledge that none of my friends is talking about.

As an example, on Harnu, I learned from someone in Belarus last week that it's now illegal there for anyone to gather information without accreditation. Crazy but true...

В последнее время дошло до того, что в стране запрещено незаконно собирать информацию. Только при аккредитации. Вам будет смешно, но это так.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Ask The Hard Questions Before Integrating

I love Etsy. That might sound strange coming from a guy who cringes every time he steps into a store, but I do. I love the site's aesthetic, I love the community they've empowered, and I love the brand they've created for themselves. What I don't love, however, was Harnu's integration with Etsy.

This statement has nothing to do with Etsy's technology or any other short-coming, and instead has everything to do with our not fully thinking through the implications of that integration.

When we launched Harnu in August, we had built a web app that showed Etsy products from around the world on the map. Anyone could then find products from around the world and start a discussion with people in the country of the product's origin. This followed the same format that we have done with news that enables you to seek a local's opinion, or with music that enables you to get a local's recommendations.

Upon completing the integration, our app was listed in the Etsy gallery - on the front page, actually.

What happened next should not have been a surprise, but we were pushing hard to just get Harnu launched, and although we were not crazy about the Etsy integration, we thought it was kind of cool, and would give our users another way to learn about the world. However, instead of our users discovering Etsy products, the opposite happened - the sellers on Etsy discovered our users. Upon launching the app, we were seeing quite a number of new user signups that were obviously Etsy shop names. Initially, we thought that'd be good so they could participate in the conversations around their products. Our opinion quickly soured though when the Etsy shop owners started creating posts that basically said, "Visit my shop!" with a link to their shop.

For any new service that's building a community and relies on user-generated content, it was a nightmare. We tried at first to just coach them that our users would find their products and to instead participate in the conversations about their country. The coaching didn't work though, and we continued to see these random posts advertising Etsy shops. Eventually, we shut the whole integration down, and de-listed our app from the Etsy gallery.

Contrast that experience with this week, where Harnu is now chock full of students and educators posting content, finding collaboration partners, sharing music, and discussing the world, and it's fair to say we've learned a lot in recent weeks.

I don't fault Etsy sellers at all. They have their own motivations which is to sell their products, and that I think is the key point when you're seeding a community.

Take a moment to ask yourself the right questions:

  • Who are you targeting and why? 
  • What are the use cases?
  • What are the actors' motivations? 

Not exhaustively examining these questions will almost certainly result in unintended consequences that could set your startup back. The list above is just an example. You of course need to ask a whole host of other things not least of which is acquisition strategy for that channel and monetization opportunities

As for us? We quickly recovered, and we're having a blast seeing people share their favorite sounds and genuinely expressing a sincere curiosity to learn more about each other's culture.