Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In Memoriam

My dad died over the weekend. He gave me many things in life, but I remember him most for his constant, enveloping and unqualified love. He was a giant to me and I miss him terribly. Goodbye, Dad - I love you.

Update: here are links to his obituaries in various papers / news outlets
P.S. - Yes, he did cast his absentee ballot before he died. And as anyone who heard him cracking wise at a friend's memorial service a few weeks previous ("you Obama supporters can have these nice seats here, anyone voting for McCain can just watch it on video in the lobbby..."), it's a safe bet he voted for the good guys.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Does Android Even Need Mobile Carriers to Succeed?

As I follow the early press on the HTC / T-Mobile G1 (a.k.a., "the Google Phone"), I'm struck by how little attention the phone features are getting, as compared to the IP-based tasks made possible by the open developer marketplace. One application that got me thinking about where this is all headed is iSkoot, a voice app enabling VOIP calling over the Skype network via WiFi connection.

How long it will be before a device manufacturer announces an Android-powered touch-screen handheld computer with WiFi VOIP calling as the default mode of voice communication (as opposed to mobile carrier integration)? I know Apple has a similar device in the iPod Touch, but the closed platform and unwillingness to cannibalize iPhone sales has (so far) blocked use of the Touch as a VOIP calling device. Android has no such restrictions, and this seems like the inevitable next step now that Google has officially open-sourced Android and the Android Market is open for business.

I don't think the general consumer market is ready to part with their cellphone just yet, and public WiFi coverage is nowhere near as good as even the worst mobile network. But I bet there's a big audience of early adopters who would gladly trade spotty coverage for a well-designed mobile communications device with no service contract, no data fees and free VOIP calling with any Skype user worldwide...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Distribution, Distribution & Cooler Planet

One of the first things we look for in an investment opportunity is a unique insight about how to secure low-cost distribution for the idea. Absent that insight, even the most compelling software execution can languish in obscurity; if it's present, the resulting momentum can turn a good idea into a category killer by giving it the time, information and cash needed to improve.

Securing distribution deals can be a chicken-and-egg problem for early-stage companies: until you have something to offer, it's tough to get the attention of prospective partners; the more momentum you have as a business, the less distribution help you need. Seeking, negotiating and implementing distribution deals can also be hugely time-consuming, so early-stage teams need to choose their prospective partners with care to avoid burning scarce resources on deals that don't create more value than they consume.

One of our portfolio companies, Cooler Planet, just served up a fresh case study on the subject. They've been in business for a little over a year, and have steadily built their reputation as the highest-quality matchmaker between consumers and alternative energy contractors. This week they announced a partnership with the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), owner and operator of FindSolar, the definitive online consumer resource for residential solar energy.

By bringing their proven technology and process expertise to bear for the benefit of FindSolar customers, Cooler Planet gains access to a significant new source of consumers actively seeking an alternative energy solution for their home or business (to date, over 700,000 home- and business-owners have used FindSolar to find a solar installer). For their part, ASES will now be able to maintain and advance their position as the leading online resource for solar, while completely eliminating the cost of operating and maintaining this complex and high-traffic web application from their annual budget. Like any good relationship it will take time and effort to put this deal into effect, but the anticipated benefits are real, tangible and will create lasting value for both parties.

Congratulations to ASES and Cooler Planet on a deal well done.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Placing Bets On The Mobile Web

Om Malik has a great post up today titled "Why Windows Mobile is in Trouble." In it, he cites a recent Gartner study on smartphone market share that helps put the iPhone phenomenon in perspective, and also shines a light on prospects for Blackberry's much anticipated Storm model.

As the table below indicates, worldwide iPhone share of total smartphone shipments through 2Q08 sits at 2.8%. Despite impressive growth and a market-defining user experience, Apple's share is - and will likely remain - just a slice of the total market. By contrast, Blackberry parent Research in Motion more than doubled share in the same period to nearly 20%. And if early reports are to be believed, T-Mobile has already booked 1.5MM preorders for the Android-powered G1, a stronger-than-expected showing for Google's mobile OS offering.

Apple hasn't been standing still, with a rumored 10MM iPhone units to be shipped in 2008. But while the App Store is currently the best way for software entrepreneurs to place a bet on the mobile web, it's by no means the only one, and in the medium term is likely to be matched or eclipsed by competing alternatives Android Market and the Blackberry Application Center.

Neither Blackberry nor Android is likely to steal the spotlight from the iPhone in the short term, so a smart strategy would be to:
  1. Pick a thesis about an under-served market within the current iPhone user base,
  2. Flood the App Store with applications targeting different high-value use cases for that segment,
  3. See what sticks, and
  4. Quickly pivot to offer versions of the most successful apps for both Android and Blackberry.
If you're running this play and are looking for a little seed capital to help you move faster, drop us a line...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Paul Kedrosky's Global Economic Forecast

I've long been an avid reader of Paul Kedrosky's Infectious Greed, a "finance" blog covering everything from micro- (e.g., early stage VC and individual stock analysis) to global-scale macro-economics. His recent posts on the global credit meltdown have been some of the best and most lucid writing I've come across on the subject, but today's post is hands-down the most concise and believable macroeconomic forecast I've come across.

I encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the subject to read the full text (it's not long), but here are a few choice quotes to get you started:
  • "We are going through a credit crisis sparked by the subprime meltdown. It is broader than that, however, really the tail end of an orgy of leverage and credit creation dating back at least 15 years."
  • "The unwinding of all this credit bubble will take longer than most people expect, and the damage will continue to be broader than most expect."
  • "S&P forward-year earnings forecasts will come down faster than at any time in recent history. We will see 20% average estimate reductions across the board, leading to a further revaluation of the markets."
And my personal favorite...
  • "Obama will win the U.S. presidency."

Monday, October 13, 2008

More on PRM: BatchBlue

I was a little late on this one (they launched at DEMO 2007), but Mashable just wrote up another interesting entrant in the Personal Relationship Management (PRM) category: BatchBlue. The article was timely - Andy and I were just talking about the need to manage our professional contacts more effectively last Friday - and the company has staked out a 'missing link' in the social media landscape: creating and managing groups of personal contacts. Unfortunately, we now have over half a dozen different Web 2.0 companies aiming at PRM, each from a slightly different angle, and almost none of which have open APIs. In addition to BatchBlue, these include:
  • LinkedIn - Business contact manager and digital resume database
  • Xobni - Outlook plugin offering analytics for email contacts
  • Xoopit - Gmail analytics + visual browser for file attachments
  • Skydeck - Communications analytics for cellphone accounts
  • SocialMinder - Email communications reminder and research service
  • Gist - Personal news service for "important" people and companies, with "importance" determined by email analytics
This collection of companies now does - in aggregate - almost everything I want my ideal PRM solution to do:
  • Sit on top of my personal communications streams (email and phone)...
  • Parse, analyze and index for:
    • individual contacts
    • relationships (both declared, like LinkedIn contacts, and inferred, via email header analysis, communications frequency, etc.)
    • companies of interest (via email domain + text / link analysis)
    • file attachments (including text analysis of contents)
    • themes and ideas (via Natural Language Processing / semantic analysis)
  • Pull in relevant data from other applications, e.g.:
    • Calendar appointments with contacts
    • News headlines about people and companies
    • Job changes (via LinkedIn), blog posts and other social media activity by contacts
  • Expose interesting patterns
    • Relationship management analysis (e.g., who have I fallen out of touch with, how am I doing as a communicator)
    • Communications content analysis (what are the most important ideas, people, places and companies in my communications streams, how are these changing over time)
  • Allow advanced search
    • Let me search my communications archive - attachments included - by multiple variables, including: person, date, concept/keyword, etc.
  • Suggest actions, e.g.,
    • Build mailing lists of like contacts (BatchBlue)
    • Suggest people to contact (SocialMinder)
    • Suggest new connections (LinkedIn)
    • Suggest topics for new conversations (Gist)
Among the various startups in this space (at their reported $1B valuation LinkedIn no longer qualifies) , BatchBlue is impressive not only for the quality of their offering, but also because they are the only one to have a clear and transparent pricing model. Unlike most Web 2.0 companies (37 signals is a notable exception) they've zeroed in on a very specific pain point for a very specific audience, solved it with smart software, and aren't afraid to charge for the value delivered. I have no idea how that model is working for them, but having the courage to ask puts them a cut above the rest.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Apple Netbook Coming Soon? I Hope He's Right

Mobile tech blogger JKOnTheRun has a fresh post up today offering three reasons why Apple is likely to add a "netbook" to their laptop line in the near future. I have no idea if his arguments hold water, but I sure hope so.

It's coming up on two months since I replaced my stolen laptop with an ultra-compact Linux notebook from netbook pioneer Asus, and it didn't take long for the novelty of operating outside the operating system mainstream to wear thin. I'm still convinced that a netbook is all I need, but life as a second-class tech citizen isn't for me; I want basic stuff like wireless network access and printer setup to just work, and to have access to the most current versions of the software I use every day (it's a lot less fun to live in the cloud without Firefox 3 and Chrome).

The easy thing to do would be to pivot back to Microsoft and pick up a Windows netbook like the MSI Wind or HP Mini-Note, but for some reason Microsoft has come to symbolize the "anti-cloud" to me, so it feels like a betrayal of the whole idea. I'm no Apple fanboy (I've never owned an Apple product beyond the obligatory iPod), but I love their commitment to making basic connect functions almost invisible and the high level of polish they bring to the desktop user experience.

My Scottish heritage is screaming inside as I type this, but I'd happily pay a few hundred bucks extra if Apple can fulfill my cloud-based productivity dream while taking away the pain my Linux experiment has inflicted.