Wanted: Smart Phone Seeks Dumb Devices for Friendship, More

As a matter of fact, I do have a Master's in refrigerator programming. Why do you ask?

As a matter of fact, I do have a Master's in refrigerator programming. Why do you ask?

You're surrounded by computers. Think about the myriad devices in your life that have their own processor, memory and I/O: electric toothbrush, electric razor, TV, remote, coffee maker, scale, watch, kitchen thermometer, car infotainment center, multimeter, light and sound meters, medical diagnostic devices, thermostats, microwaves and more.

You also have near you right now a shockingly small computer with a CPU exceeding that in your desktop computer of just a few years ago, storage measured in gigabytes, a gorgeous high-resolution display and the ability to connect to anything in the world...wirelessly.

So then why does everything from your coffee pot to your washing machine attempt to replicate the computing and display functions of a smartphone, a device whose capabilities will forever exceed what can be embedded in a television or blender? Doesn't it make more sense to offload to a smartphone or tablet all functions superfluous to the device's core purpose? With the growing prevalence of low-energy Bluetooth 4.0, inexpensive, low-power-consumption, wireless I/O is available.

For example, I have written before about the idea of personal weather stations. Kestrel wind meters are extremely capable, but they are also quite expensive, in part because they have their own processors, chips, memory and displays. It's not a difficult mental exercise to imagine a weather meter distilled to its essence: measuring weather. All else would be offloaded to a smartphone, resulting in a simpler, lighter, cheaper and ultimately more capable device.

Isn't this a more useful display than what could fit on the scale itself?

Isn't this a more useful display than what could fit on the scale itself?

Where this brain-offloading is starting to appear in bulk is in the kitchen. If you see The Orange Chef's Prep Pad sitting on a counter, you'd never know what it was. No display or buttons, too thick to be a cutting board. But it's a perfect example of smart offloading: A kitchen scale that connects to your smartphone or tablet via BT 4.0. Their Countertop App displays not only the weight, but also the nutritional breakdown. The scale does the thing a smartphone can't and leaves the rest to the phone or tablet.

In addition to eliminating superfluous cost and size, a key benefit of offloading the brains is the ability to easily add and upgrade features via an app. Imagine an Orange Chef recipe book that instead of a book or app listing ingredients, the app shows you what to add and when to stop, weighing your additions real-time via the Prep Pad. Or a weather meter's app that aggregates your personal readings with all other users, yielding a comprehensive, hyper-detailed forecast. Or your coffee pot could brew the perfect cup after you enter the specific type of coffee and grind in its phone app.

That's great for the consumer, but what about the companies building these devices? Wouldn't the SKU reduction from Smart Offloading hamstring their revenues?

Is that a ti400? ti300? Maybe a ti200? That's the problem.

Is that a ti400? ti300? Maybe a ti200? That's the problem.

Well, which is more efficient and profitable? Designing a new thermal camera every time the product team identifies a new market, tooling it up, contracting manufacturing, submitting to and waiting for UL, and then struggling to find a way to differentiate it from the rest of the lineup? Or identifying the minimally needed variations of form factor, ruggedness and thermal sensitivity and designing only those hardware models, handling the myriad use cases through a connected app (and, by the way, using the phone or tablet's much-higher-resolution display)? The first case yields 14 consumer-grade models, while the second might be less than half that.

"But customer segmentation is part of our revenue model!" Wrong tactic. Your customers waste time discerning the difference between models and resent your charging extra for what appears to be the same hardware. That's what in-app purchases are for. In the device-only model, your customer must make ill-informed decisions on functionality. In the smart offloading model, your customer will pay to unlock features as their needs are realized. Happier customers and your margins will be higher across the board. (Think about the staff and expense to support high SKU counts, regulatory costs, redundant packaging and marketing, inventory carrying costs, write-offs, returns and support.)

It's a trap. You make coffee machines, customers want to customize their morning coffee experience, so you respond with what you know: coffee makers. You reflexively design a new, insanely programmable coffee maker, wasting size, weight and money with a standalone device that accommodates every use case your product marketing team can imagine over a long corporate retreat.

Escape the trap by recognizing you're not actually in the business of building coffee makers, but rather of giving your customers their perfect cup of coffee (however they define that). Then design the best way to do it.

Distill to its essence the purpose of your product. Design in the features and functionality that can't be replicated by a phone or tablet. All else gets eliminated or offloaded. Your current and future customers will thank you for smart offloading.

How The America's Cup and The Weather Channel Can Help You Nail Product/Market Fit

Product/market fit isn't just building a better mousetrap. You have to have a crystal-clear idea of what your product actually is (hint: it isn't the mousetrap) and why your customers want it. Then, use all the capital and resources you have to facilitate customers' access to your product.

Compare two organizations using data to ensure their products fit their markets' needs. First, the America's Cup that took place last summer. (Oracle Team USA won over Emirates Team New Zealand in an extremely exciting series, if you want to check it out.) The race and U.S. team were primarily financed by Larry Ellison and Oracle. Ellison's goal was to broaden the appeal of sailboat racing and he believed the best way to do that was to make the boats faster—which also means more dangerous and exciting—and the coverage more extensive. It would be the first America's Cup designed for TV and the Internet, with multiple cameras and microphones per boat and graphical data laid over the broadcast (from the same company that does the first-down markers for NFL broadcasts).

13 stories tall, 85 feet long, 13,000 pounds, all screaming across the water at over 50mph

13 stories tall, 85 feet long, 13,000 pounds, all screaming across the water at over 50mph

The boats they used in the finals, the AC72s, each produced a gigabyte of raw data per day, in addition to 200 gigabytes of video per day. Each team used this data for its own purposes, of course. But what was surprising was the extent to which the data was made available to the public. Not just detailed stats and clever video overlays, but the raw data itself. And it's even cooler than that. The team behind the Cup built an API to access the live feeds, with extensive documentation and step-by-step instructions. It's not an exaggeration to say that the documentation was more extensive than the majority of enterprise apps. And the API was available to anyone on the planet, totally free.

For the first time, a lightly-skilled hobbyist could access a sporting event's API and add live race data to their own website or app.

Compare this set-the-data-free approach with that of The Weather Channel. Certainly, The Weather Channel collects and creates at least as much data per day as the America's Cup did. They also make that data available and have an extensively documented API, but they charge for and manage access.

Why the different approaches? It's not simple supply and demand, even though demand is high for weather information vs. relatively low for sailboat racing coverage. Nearly half of TWC's revenue comes from their apps and website, yet they still enable competitors by licensing their core data. They could quickly reduce the supply side of the equation by shutting off the data spigot if they really wanted to leverage their market position. The reason they don't is because of their product/market approach.

Ellison's goal is to get more viewers of the Cup and more sailors on the water. You do that by encouraging engagement, which the free and expansive data feed facilitates. People are "hiring" the data to do the job of teaching them more (or enabling others to help them learn more) about the core product, the sailing. Data enables context, which leads to understanding, which begets viewership. So you spend capital to facilitate that viewership.

For TWC, their product is their data, but also the additional value they add, in the form of analysis, expertise, on-site coverage and historical perspectives. TWC needs to facilitate access to that data and expertise, but they cannot be on every phone, computer and television, so they make their data available to other apps and outlets to meet customers' immediate needs. They charge for this access, but it's a fairly modest amount, one assumes just enough to cover the expenses to create and maintain the data and feeds, while enforcing control via the licensing.

The resulting tighter control allows TWC to manage how their data is used and presented, which is why they differ from the America's Cup approach. Data ubiquity meets immediate customer needs, which reinforces the brand, which is backed up by additional value, which begets continued engagement. So you spend capital to enable data access but you retain control so the market is encouraged to engage with your added value.

Learn the lesson taught by The America's Cup and The Weather Channel: know exactly why your customers are or will be using your product, and then do whatever is necessary to eliminate friction and encourage engagement. If you're an un-followed sport, make it approachable and understandable, and make your data as extensive and unencumbered as possible. If you're selling a freely available raw material (weather), make sure you're adding needed value, and make your brand ubiquitous via your data.

Design a Solid Product, Create an Evangelist

a-few-of-my-favorite-things-jan-7-2011.jpg

A good product is more than functionality. It certainly has to solve a need (or "job to be done" or "product/market fit", depending on your business strategy persuasion). But a superior product will also make it easier/faster/more enjoyable than its alternatives. That's where design comes in. Not just industrial design, but the design of the entire experience, from availability to aesthetics, functionality, customer service, personality and even little surprises. It's not enough to delight your customers, your solution should embarrass your competitors, forcing them to admit you nailed it.

I'll write more on this topic in a future blog post. In the meantime, how about some solid examples of products/services that nail it? I recently got into coffee, so you may notice a heavy coffee emphasis.

First is Squarespace, where this blog is hosted. I've experimented with Wordpress, customized Drupal and coded an entire social web app from scratch. But if any person or business asked me how to get a basic-to-moderately-advanced site created, I'd point them to Squarespace and call it a day. Easy to use, beautifully designed templates and CMS, flexible, focused on service, and very reasonably priced. Why make your life more difficult than it needs to be? Just sign up already.

Come on, son! Time to upgrade.

Come on, son! Time to upgrade.

Are you still rocking that Microsoft travel mug you got at CES eight years ago? The one that leaks when you drive around a corner? Then let me introduce you to the Zojirushi stainless steel mug. This thing will keep your coffee lip-scorching hot for over six hours and stays securely sealed even if you take that turn a little too fast and end up with the wheels facing the sky. The finishes are attractive and you'll look like a grownup carrying it into the office instead of that chrome sippy-cup you've been rocking. And for only 30 bucks? No brainer.

Oooh, pretty!

Oooh, pretty!

To my non-surprise, I've found a super-geeky culture around coffee, just like exists in computers, phones, apps, cars, boats and probably even tulips. Any time you have a category with more than one large player, you get strongly held opinions. Think Ford/Chevy, Mac/PC and iPhone/Android and how dangerous it is to wade into the opposing camp's forums and mention an alternative. So it is with coffee. "Pour-over delivers the best coffee." "No, French press, you idiot." "You're both neanderthals. Aeropress is the wave of the future." And so it goes. I experimented and decided it all took too much work but I want to enjoy coffee produced with more nuance than my ability to discern, so I went with the Technivorm Moccamaster. Sure, it costs $300, but I'll use the clichéd analogy: If you typically buy a cup of Starbucks every day, the payback period for the Technivorm is less than four months. And you get consistently great coffee out of a stylish, bombproof maker.

Yes, the NSA is listening to your singing.

Yes, the NSA is listening to your singing.

At the other end of the price spectrum is the Sound pOp bluetooth speaker from AudioSource. I've been looking for a bluetooth speaker for the shower for a while and coincidentally got one of these as a Christmas stocking stuffer. It's odd looking, has a silly name, is underpowered vs. most competitors and will never be accused of B&O-levels of audio fidelity. But it fits my needs well. It pairs quickly, puts out enough volume to listen to podcasts in the shower and is rechargeable. It's merely water resistant, not proof, so you don't want to dunk it. But if your soapy, clumsy hands drop it in the tub, so what? It's only about 30 bucks.

Finally, what's better than a product recommendation from CNET, Consumer Reports, tech blogs or forum trolls? An honest opinion from a friend. If you had a buddy who inherited a bunch of money and had an insatiable appetite for buying and testing every gadget on the market, you could just drop by his house whenever you were considering a new phone, backpack, vacuum or food scale. We're not all so blessed, but we have the next best thing in The Wirecutter. It was started by Brian Lam, a Gizmodo refugee, and Lam's approach is that of a buddy who's tried all the options and will tell you what HE would buy. Speeds and feeds are helpful, but The Wirecutter is a refreshingly candid and useful resource. (Guess where I found out about the Zojirushi.)

How Long Does It Take To Torch $4 Million? 30 Seconds

Here's a marketing tip that applies to not just Super Bowl commercials but any advertising or content you're creating: Assume your audience doesn't know as much as you do about what you're pitching.

Obvious, right? If so, why do companies continue to waste money ignoring such a simple lesson? Why Did Maserati and Intuit blow $4 million every 30 seconds of their Sunday night commercials when it would have been easy to make their ads pay off?

Look at Maserati's commercial for their new "affordable" sedan, the Ghibli. Maserati sold fewer than 5,000 cars in the U.S. last year. Given that, is it possible that the brand is not in the forefront of viewers' minds when it comes to car companies? Wouldn't it be smart to spend your millions communicating what the Ghibli actually is? Then why does Maserati's commercial sound like a trailer for a sci-fi movie before incongruously springing the Ghibli on you at the end?

The world is full of dragons. They have always been here. Lumbering in the schoolyards. Limping through the alleys. We had to learn how to deal with them. How to overcome them. We were small, but fast...
— Maserati Ghibli Super Bowl Ad Voiceover
"Ooh! I bet this is a commercial for the new Ghibli" --No one

"Ooh! I bet this is a commercial for the new Ghibli" --No one

The video accompanying the voiceover includes a wave, a tornado, a firefighter, a welder, sailboat racers and other myriad, unconnected imagery. I spent the entire commercial trying to figure out what the heck they were pitching, which comes 20 seconds from the end of the 1:30 commercial with an engine rev and the reveal of the Ghibli.

It's a beautifully produced commercial and I like the pitch that Maserati is the new, smaller, more nimble competitor. But I spent over 2/3 of the ad trying to figure out if it was for a movie or some new, pretentious video-sharing app. When the reveal comes, it's such a non sequitur that I can't immediately make the connection. I don't remember what the narration said and now the next commercial is stealing my attention. It was only upon rewatching it for this post did I understand what they were trying to do. (By the way, Apple's 1984 ad also had a surprising reveal, but it told a visually evocative story that was easy to ingest and understand, and the build up and reveal were connected very explicitly: "You'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984.")

Intuit made a related mistake with their TurboTax commercial. The majority of the pitch is pointing out that your team's not in the Super Bowl and then making comparisons to other examples of your having it "rough." Like, "Seeing that girl you love and watching her dance with some guy who isn't you!" The buildup to the reveal is, "This isn't your holiday! Somebody stole your holiday! You need to take it back!" And how do you do this? Why, by hopping on TurboTax and filing your tax return, of course! Wait, wha?

Don't sit there like a loser. Go file your tax return!

Don't sit there like a loser. Go file your tax return!

Again, a big reveal that is a complete non sequitur and as a result falls completely flat. Maserati's mistake was having a captivating narration with mismatched imagery that captured your curiosity, only to throw it away with the unconnected reveal. TurboTax's was having a silly, throwaway buildup leading to what they probably thought was a clever, ironic punchline but was really unrelated nonsense.

Either way, neither marketing team considered how far in one direction their buildup took viewers before yanking them back to the brand. This isn't clever or even smartly manipulative, it's confusing. And confusing doesn't sell products.

Compare the TurboTax ad with the Doritos time-travel ad. It was a shallow, puffy commercial with no pretense. What humor it had hinged on a punchline, but the build up actually included the product, so the viewer didn't have to expend mental energy figuring anything out. Just sit back, chuckle and have a fleeting yummy thought of Doritos. Mission accomplished.

In closing, here are three tips to avoid this mistake, whether it's in a Super Bowl commercial, blog post or even a tweet:

  1. Don't make the reveal a total non sequitur. Surprises are fine, twists are terrific and good punchlines need a bit of misdirection. But don't take the viewer or reader far down a road that ends at a cliff and expect them to care about the journey.
  2. Unless your brand or product is a household name and already associated with the premise of your content, include it from the beginning. The Maserati commercial would have been much more effective had they simply included a Ghibli lurking in the background of the various imagery, or had the video montage subtly telegraphed what the reveal would be. After all, everyone knew the Budweiser puppy would end up with his Clydesdale friend. That didn't make his struggles any less heart tugging. Not everything needs to be a surprise.
  3. Understand what your viewer or reader needs to know. By all means, be creative with lovingly crafted metaphors and witticisms that would earn you a starring role in a Mad Men movie. But give the customer what they need in order to want your product or service. If you're Bud Light, everyone knows what your product is and what it tastes like. Your job is to re-imprint your brand on brains and you do this by entertaining. If you're Beats Music your job is to explain what your product is and how it's different, which they did, very entertainingly.

How Apple TV May Finally "Crack It"

I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.
— Steve Jobs

Based on this Steve Jobs quote from the Isaacson biography, there's long been speculation of an iTV, with rumors periodically emerging from China that Company X is working on it for Apple. Of course, Apple could introduce a TV tomorrow if it were interested in jumping into a mature, crowded, commoditized, low-margin business where differentiation is nearly impossible. Anyone who tracks the industry at all will tell you the hardware is trivial. The challenge is the content.

Jobs saved the music industry, but TV and movie moguls don't see the parallels with their businesses. They have reliable revenue sources and wield immense power. Why unilaterally cede your individual, corporate and industry control to Apple if you don't have to? Arguably, Jobs is the only person who could have stood a chance of convincing video owners to engage in a different business model, and he couldn't do it. Obviously, no one's been able to do it since.

So then what is the Apple solution to which Jobs alluded? It could be that Jobs was simply wrong or overly optimistic at that point in time. But I'd argue the solution, as always, is content and if you can't work with the system, you work around it.

The future of TV?

The future of TV?

In that light, Apple TV, that long-running "hobby", could prove to be the answer. Late last week, 9to5Mac posted a sourced rumor that a new Apple TV is coming the first half of this year, with beefed up internals and an operating system based on iOS. Games, an app store and new types of content are some of the rumors swirling. This could be what cracks the industry wide open.

The beauty of the Internet is that it enables niche interest areas to reach a critical mass that allows for meaningful interaction, content creation and revenue. TV and movies have to introduce product that appeals to the largest addressable markets possible to make the economics work. But while some niche that interests you may appeal to only five people in your city, on a global scale that interest group comprises hundreds of thousands or millions of like-minded folks. And a website or mobile app that caters to that niche has a very nice business opportunity, which is why we see such a multitude of apps and sites.

But what about TV? YouTube, Vimeo and others do a great job of housing all manner of niche content, but to watch it on my TV I have to stream it from my iPad or computer, or else use some janky television app. I want channels that offer exactly what interests me, not be at the whim of network producers or have to browse through thousands of inane videos. This is where a more open Apple TV could change the market.

Imagine if Apple released a robust SDK for content owners to create apps--each app essentially a "channel"--for the Apple TV, which are then available through an app store. (The current SDK is little more than guidelines.) Yes, Roku has private channels but they're generally low quality, not professionally produced and only quietly supported. While Roku could pursue this direct-to-app model, Apple has the reputation and power to make it successful. (Set aside for a moment that Apple desperately needs to fix discoverability in its app store.)

As an example, Motor Trend has a content creation team that is very sophisticated (although they seem to be slacking on the show frequency lately). You can watch their videos on their website or YouTube, but a Motor Trend app on Apple TV would take you directly to their expertly produced content in full HD glory. No AirPlay, no HDMI cables, no watching on a 5" screen. And for Motor Trend, no YouTube ads overlaying their videos, no revenue shares with Google, more control over the experience and less dilution of their brand.

Or what about sports leagues themselves? MotoGP sells a season-long video pass for all the practices, qualifying sessions and races, which is a blessing for anyone into motorcycle racing. But you have to watch on your computer or tablet, or connect said device to your TV. A MotoGP app on AppleTV is a race fan's dream and it keeps MotoGP closer to their customer base than via cable and satellite networks.

You don't have cable? You'd like to give us money directly for a sub? Tough cookies.

You don't have cable? You'd like to give us money directly for a sub? Tough cookies.

Does this work immediately for all content creators? Of course not. HBO already has HBO Go on Apple TV and in mobile app stores, which is limited to subscribers to HBO via cable or satellite providers. And it will be a long time before the NFL gives up its $4 billion a year TV revenue.

But the ease of directly accessing HBO's content via their app on Apple TV points the way to the future of television. A future that gives the viewer more options and the content creator more opportunity. A future of using whatever piece of glass you want to watch a show or movie, not what's dictated by the cable company. A future of direct relationships between the creators and consumers of content. A future with a simple user interface, a connection to the cloud. A future where the current video distribution model is well and truly cracked.

Whether Weather Is The Next Data Layer

I made an offhand mention in a blog post last week about making weather status and forecasting more precise and granular by using Square-sized dongles with smartphones, or using the sensors in the phones themselves. Getting down to the individual-person level and then aggregating the data would yield much more precise data than anything currently existing.

Exploring that idea a bit further, what would these products look like, what would they do and--most importantly--why would we care?

If you want to talk portable weather, Kestrel Meters is where you start. Nielsen-Kellerman has been making Kestrel portable weather meters for over 10 years. They're used in everything from construction to shooting, with pricing running the gamut from I-could-see-myself-getting-one-to-play-around-with to not-unless-I-can-expense-it.

Artist's rendering of an iPhone-powered wind meter

Artist's rendering of an iPhone-powered wind meter

But why do they have to be a distinct product? I'll be writing more on the topic in a future post, but there's a whole new class of products coming that use your smartphone as their brain. This dramatically reduces cost, decreases size, shortens support and upgrade cycles, and is more convenient for the user.

If you look at all but the top-grade Kestrels, the sensors are quite small, other than the wind impeller. The bulk of the device is screen, buttons and the PCB inside. Guess what? If you use your smartphone as the brains and controller, all that's left is the impeller. Now attach that to a 3.5mm plug and insert it into your phone's audio jack and you have a $9.99 personal weather station!

But other than the weather nerds, who cares? As I mentioned last week, there is money to be made with ultra-granular weather status from general consumers, farmers, traders, shippers and more.

Beyond commerce, though, weather is a social layer that is currently under-used. It's an aspect of our lives that we read about, watch on TV, talk about, complain about and even sometimes enjoy. Look at some of your old pictures and videos. I bet you can remember the smell of the rain on that camping trip, the sound of the wind thrashing the house that Christmas, the scalding heat of the sun during your trip to Phoenix.

Weather adds color to our stories, meaning to our memories and common ground to our conversations.

Weather is a data layer for our pictures and social lives, much like location is. But weather inherently includes location, so weather metadata can work with web services to give you so much more. Imagine having a granular weather layer available for any location, so that while you're planning your May trip to Kauai you can see not just average rainfall and temps, but the exact weather at that exact beach on those days each of the last 10 years. Or the depth that's added to your friend's Facebook status when you have the context that she posted it on a gray, damp day. Or the benefits of a weather report that's accurate down to a square yard, not extrapolated from a few weather stations scattered about the city.

It sounds a bit odd on its surface, but weather is a market that is under-exploited. Sure, weather apps are consistently among smartphone owners' most-used apps, but these apps are competing on aesthetics, not content or function. Nearly all of them get their data from the same few sources, such as the NOAA and Weather Underground. We need a new, more reliable, more omnipresent source of weather data. We need to take advantage of the smartphones sitting in 60%+ of all pockets and purses in the U.S., some of which already have barometers. Leveraging each of those phones, either with internal sensors or inexpensive dongles, would yield benefits we can't even conceive of yet.

Besides, weather's just cool. 

YoWDIA! You Were Doing It Anyway, A Business Model

What if I told you there was a business model you could employ where the product content generation and enhancement were virtually free? And how much more interested would you be if I also told you that your users would actually appreciate the free work they're doing for you? Well, such a land of business nirvana exists and other companies are already taking advantage of a particular type of crowdsourcing. We might call it YoWDIA: You Were Doing It Anyway.

"Morning" or "Thanks, sucka"?

"Morning" or "Thanks, sucka"?

Most readers of this blog likely already know the background on reCaptcha. For the rest of you, the various Captcha methods are designed to prevent bots from filling out web forms while infuriating you by making you type in a couple words from a hazy, grainy image. reCaptcha has a secondary purpose: the digitization of documents. When you dutifully figure out that that fuzzy, barely discernible smudge is "pomegranate" and type it in, you are unwittingly fixing the interpretation of some scanned document in the Internet's basement. It's human-powered OCR. You have to be tested anyway, so why not get some use out of your humanity verification? Freebie.

"Why yes, I'd love to report traffic jams for you in exchange for some meaningless points."

"Why yes, I'd love to report traffic jams for you in exchange for some meaningless points."

How about your GPS unit, Waze app or any other traffic-and-directions product? You were driving to work anyway, so why not capture your speed and location, compare them to the known speed limit for that stretch of road, and report the traffic to everyone else? You get the beneficial awareness of everyone else's commute time at no cost and everyone benefits from your data. Some kind of virtual hippie commune where we're all paying this forward? Nope, because while you and the other Waze users are generating (and receiving) value for free, Waze is collecting extremely valuable data and selling location-based ads as well. You get a free app, Waze (now Google) makes money, advertisers get location-based ads placed efficiently. And You Were Doing It Anyway!

Probably the best example is Duolingo, a clever product combined with an innovative business model. On the web or mobile, you learn another language by translating sentences, with the whole thing designed to be friendly, effective and gamified. No ads, fees or subscriptions. How do they do it? You're translating text that some company (like CNN or Buzzfeed) is paying Duolingo to translate. You get to translate Buzzfeed articles for free, make Duolingo some cash...and you will thank them for the privilege!

Street level? Is that really the best you can do?

Street level? Is that really the best you can do?

So what else do we do anyway that could be turned into a profitable business? Checking weather is one. Most Android phones have barometers, so an app that accesses users' phones isn't just crowdsourcing weather, it's gathering weather data at an extremely localized level. In exchange for submitting your current weather, the entire weather status and forecast is enhanced, much like Waze's traffic reports. Secondary benefits accrue to farmers, commodity traders and retailers. (I'm surprised no one has given away Square-style phone plug-ins that have a thermometer, barometer and other -ometers. Freebie dongles scattered across the country would create the most precise, localized and real-time weather in the market. You can send me the royalties for the idea via Square Cash.)

Another example is outdoor activities. There is no shortage of apps that will track your hiking, running and cycling routes. Good ones enable other people to see routes you've uploaded. But a YoWDIA hiking app would automatically track your hikes, compare and contrast with other local hikes, algorithmically create optimal hikes based on frequency of hikers on each stretch, and even show you a map of all potential hikes with real-time foot traffic. And the data can be used by city planners, forestry workers, bike manufacturers and many others.

These examples teach us what a successful YoWDIA business model requires: it has to be an activity people are already doing, the product has to be nearly friction-free to use, the product has to provide benefit to each individual user, the collective usage must yield additional or enhanced benefits to the user, and the collective usage also provides a secondary benefit.

Keep in mind that the secondary benefit could be capitalistic (Duolingo's translation service) or altruistic (a bird watching app's aggregate data used by ornithologists tracking migratory patterns). Either way, YoWDIA is a powerful business model with built-in network effects and the potential for disrupting a multitude of industries.

Five Secrets of A Great Twitter Presence

As one is wont to do, I tweeted a silly photo of my temporary setup at work, including a very high-tech stand-up desk.

"Why yes, it is an adjustable-height desk."

"Why yes, it is an adjustable-height desk."

Within about 20 minutes, I got a DM from UpDesk, an adjustable-height desk manufacturer with which I was unfamiliar.

So I checked out their site. I have a very nice adjustable desk at home so I'm not currently in the market, but I DM'd them back, telling them I'll keep them in mind. Their response came two minutes later.

So what can we learn from this brief exchange?

  1. UpDesk monitors not just their own feeds and hashtags but is actively monitoring tweeted terms.
  2. They may or may not have someone dedicated to social media, but someone has been given ownership. Nothing happens if someone's not given responsibility and held accountable.
  3. They speak in a casual, authentic voice. Just from a couple tweets you have little doubt that if you visited their office you'd find a laid back yet professional and non-silly atmosphere.
  4. Conversations and authenticity do a better job selling than "selling" your product. Plenty of other manufacturers would have responded to my first tweet with something along the lines of, "Nice setup! If you ever want to upgrade from cardboard, let us know!" Or if they really lack a soul, "Good for a temp setup, but it looks too low. For true ergonomic benefit, look at our..." But UpDesk is the company I'll remember to tell my friends about.
  5. You don't have to be Oreo to do Twitter right. 

Is Barrett-Jackson the Most Under-Leveraged Brand in The Auto Industry?

Even if you're not a car geek, odds are you've heard of Barrett-Jackson. Their eponymous auctions are the best known in the collector car world, with their flagship Scottsdale auction chewing up 36 hours of live Fox Sports TV this January. Their auctions feature multi-million dollar muscle cars alongside '81 Cadillac Sevilles. Something for everyone.

So you'd be forgiven for assuming that since Barrett-Jackson has access to the most sought-after versions of a product that can make grown men drool, you would find the brand all over the web, everywhere car guys and gals congregate. But you don't.

Their website is all about the auctions, which is understandable as that's the revenue source. But come on, just a handful of owner-submitted pics of upcoming cars? A membership section is a great idea, but again, it's simply a vehicle (heh) for pushing the auctions.

Would it kill you to have some video of the Cobra, even if it's a re-creation?

Would it kill you to have some video of the Cobra, even if it's a re-creation?

So, nothing wrong with pushing the auctions, but imagine how easy it would be to generate content that not only builds interest in the auctions but also brings new customers to the brand. Videos, books and blogs about restoring cars. A Barrett-Jackson host that shoots a video for YouTube each week with rare or interesting cars and their owners, sharing the car's origin story, showing the owner's love for the vehicle, testing the car's valet-parking status. A series of e-books on detailing a car (partner with Griot's Garage for this one). These are marketing vehicles that can also generate revenue.

If in-house video seems daunting, partner with Motor Trend (who does YouTube right) to do a regular show on classic car hunts, restoring or detailing. Brand the hell out of it. (Guess what's on Barrett-Jackson's YouTube channel. Yep, 30-second videos for just a few to-be-auctioned cars. They've done a few non-auction videos but they're now four years old!)

Go check out their Twitter feed. Nothing but auction hype. Again, I'm advocating building on this, not replacing it. Barrett-Jackson should be THE source for classic car knowledge, answers and help on Twitter: help people find rare parts, answer auction prep questions, get involved in restoration conversations. They should also be scheduling Meetups at restoration shops, having contests for guess-the-most-likely-future-collector car, sponsoring auto podcasts. These are all inexpensive, easily implemented tactics.

Car guys and gals are the most passionate people on the planet and Barrett-Jackson is the preeminent brand in collector car auctions. It's time for Barrett-Jackson to recognize--and leverage--the power of their brand.