Evan at Millennium Park

Originally uploaded by dreeves.

My nephew (when your cousin has a baby, how are you related?) enjoys the fountain at the Millenium Park in Chicago.

Chicago is a fun place to be, especially when the weather is as nice as it was last weekend. For a Bostonian, Chicago seems very spacious — apartments are bigger, streets are bigger, there are more vacant lots, more unused space. It had an urban vibe that I hadn’t really experienced since C and I were in Berlin two years ago.

And there’s a lot Chicago shares with Berlin; a great music scene, small shops, and most importantly: space.

When space isn’t so precious, things can happen. It’s all about having some kind of critical balance of creative people in an environment that *isn’t* precious, so they can try things without huge amounts of debt, or watchdogs with too much time on their hands breathing down one’s neck.

Apple. the ROKR phone and what it means to lead

In the week or so since the joint Motorola and Apple announcement of the new iTunes-enabled ROKR phone, the knives of the early adopter bloggers and tech pubs have been out. If you haven’t been following the coverage, a quick summary: the ROKR phone is basically a typical Motorola phone, with the addition of an Apple-supplied interface for playing MP3s and iPod-like integration with Macs and PCs through iTunes.
As far as I can tell, the criticism breaks down basically as follows:

  • It’s an ordinary-looking phone, and doesn’t reflect Apple’s typically brilliant industrial design
  • The experience of using the phone is largely typical Motorola — underwhelming.
  • Apple’s iTunes imposes an artificial limit of 100 songs, even if the phone’s hardware can store more.

I’m not one to be an apologist for Apple, and I’m the first to say that this phone isn’t for me. It’s uninteresting, crippled, and I’d rather visit the dentist than be forced to use a Motorola mobile phone interface. But I do think it’s useful to consider this phone in the context of how companies bring new products to market. Consider the following:

  1. MP3 players have been widely available on mobile phones for over a year.
  2. Despite their broad availability, customers tend not to use them very much.
  3. No one, including Apple, knows for sure why this is. Some possible reasons:
    • Is it too hard to transfer music onto your mobile phone?
    • Are phone interfaces for playing music not good enough??
    • Do customers prefer simpler devices that do one or two things well over more complex devices with multiple functions?
      • A number of industry watchers see increasingly capable mobile phones as the greatest threat to the iPod franchise and margins

Apple is probably pretty confident they can solve the interface and transfer problems — that’s largely what made the iPod such a success. But *if* there is a real customer preference for single-purpose devices, that can be pretty hard to overcome.
So if you’re Apple, you have a number of unanswered questions. How do you start to figure out the answers? By putting a real product on the market that you can learn from. And most importantly, do it quickly (before the your competitors) and cheaply (without having to engineer a whole new device). Focus on the problems you can solve, avoid cannibalizing your existing products as best you can, and partner with a company that can do the things you’re not good at.
Hence, the ROKR phone. If their experience with that phone reveals that a better interface and PC integration is the key to opening up a whole new market for music-enabled phones, you can bet that Apple will start to invest more — up to and including the entire experience of the phone, from hardware design to the phone interface. But to get to that point, they have a lot to learn first.
If the ROKR doesn’t fly — Apple learns that there’s not a burning need for MP3-capable mobile phones — they can think of it as cheap insurance. Better Apple invests a small amount and fails, rather than not trying at all and watching a competitor disrupt the whole iPod business.

Acceptable Downtime

Brad Feld has a great post about the difficulty in quantifying the acceptable unexpected downtime for software sold as a service, and the delicate ongoing balance between minimizing risk (investing in redundancy and infrastructure) and driving demand (new features).
At QuickBase, our umbrella term (coined by Jana, the GM) for these efforts was “Business Reasonable.” Vague? Yes. But the important idea behind it is that any notion of reliability and redundancy has to be defined relative to the kind of customers you have at the time, and how they’re using the product. So instead of reflexively falling back on axioms like 5 nines, you use your empathy and sense of the customer to try to answer the question: what sort of downtime they will they consider reasonable? Just as Geoffrey Moore’s early adopters and visionaries are willing to overlook holes in a product’s functionality, those same customers are often, by temperament, willing to give away more more “free passes” than later stage customers.
During our periods of early rapid growth, we definitely used up one or two of those precious free passes. We all spent time calling customers to explain. And ultimately, after some incredible efforts by our engineering and operations team, we became a service our customers could depend on.

Google hijacked?

Strange coincidence after my last post: Suddenly, I can’t get to Google anymore. It seems to have been replaced by ‘’
Update: Odd. I restarted my computer, and it’s working again. Guess the problem is on my end — which raises another question: is there any way for others to affect the OS X routing table? I’m using OS X 10.4.2, Firefox 1.0.5.

Google Credit Card Fraud

Earlier this month, I noticed a strange charge for $160 on my credit card for advertising in Google’s Adwords program. As I’ve never done any advertising on Google, I sent them an email to let them know and see if they could reverse the charge.
Turns out that was just the beginning; in the next two days, my credit card (still physically in my possession) was hit with additional Google charges for $677 and $699. I cancelled my credit card, and shortly thereafter received a nice email from Google saying they had closed the account that made the charges.
With all the overseas gaming and porn sites desperate for everyone’s attention, I couldn’t help but wonder if many of the credit card numbers stolen in the recent breach were being used to buy Google ads.
And, for investors in GOOG, what does this mean about the quality of their earnings?

Bonnie CLAC

Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of helping an awesome non-profit out with their website and marketing. Yesterday, we just launched a substantially revamped website.
Nominally, Bonnie CLAC’s mission is to help lower-income people buy cars. Typically, when many people with shaky credit need a car, they head straight to their local used car lot. You’ve heard their ads on the radio: “WE FINANCE EVERYONE!!!”
And they do — by selling their customers old cars at exorbitant interest rates. The monthly payment is affordable — barely. But when the car inevitably breaks down or a major repair job is needed, they often can’t afford to pay it. Worse, they have no way of getting to work.
So they default on the car loan, and the cycle of a paycheck-to-paycheck existence and bad credit continues.
This is where Bonnie CLAC helps. Their goal is to help their clients buy a new car — usually, a Honda Civic. To qualify, clients have to take financial fitness courses, and sometimes build a payment history for several months on a “bridge” loaner car.
Once the client has qualified, Bonnie CLAC will guarantee a car loan, and negotiate for a new car on behalf of their client.
So a new car is the carrot, but the end result for the clients is often a completely new, longer term and vastly more informed approach to their personal finances.
Right now, they have four offices in New Hampshire: Keene, Lebanon, Manchester and Portsmouth. Longer term, they think this has the potential to get much larger. I agree. It’s one of the rare cases where the incentives for everyone involved are aligned in exactly the right way. Even better, they have a tremendous team and do great work. I’ve been lucky to be able to help them out.
Final note: they provide a no-hassle car buying service for everyone, even for those with good credit. If you’re around New England, and know someone who needs a new car but doesn’t want to haggle with a dealer, send them their way. You’ll be supporting a great cause.

QuickBase Fall 2004 Release, Part I

It’s been two weeks since the Fall 2004 Release of QuickBase. Now that the usual post-release dust has settled somewhat, I want to take a moment to describe some of the features in a little more detail.

The first:

Spreadsheet-Style Create


When many business users have to deal with lists — whether it’s a task list they need to send around, or a list of project issues, the tool they usually turn to is the one already at their disposal: the spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are fantastic tools, and they make it very easy to quickly bang out a list and send it around by email. For most people, the breakdown happens when you have to change it, or when you’re expecting more than one person to make edits to it. More often than not, this sends many people straight to ‘where-is-the-latest-version’ hell, even if they’re equipped with more advanced geekery like shared network drives.

Here’s why people tell us they like spreadsheets:

  1. Speed. Nothing beats opening up Excel and hitting the arrow keys to move between cells. Fill down, across, copy columns — there are few better ways to work with your data.
  2. Simplicity. No need to develop a new mental model — the entire structure is right in front of you, putty in your hands.
  3. Malleability. When you’re starting out with something like a task list, you’re very often not sure what you’re going to need. There’s no better way to figure that out than to start entering the data at the same time that you’re working with the structure. If you need a new field to track “Contact in Helsinki for this task,” just add a new column. Done.

Spreadsheet create comes from one simple idea: Creating spreadsheet-based lists obviously works for business users. How can we make creating a QuickBase as easy as creating a spreadsheet?

The Economist Endorses Kerry

As Mr Bush has often said, there is a need in life for accountability. He has refused to impose it himself, and so voters should, in our view, impose it on him, given a viable alternative. John Kerry, for all the doubts about him, would be in a better position to carry on with America’s great tasks.