280 characters = Navel Gazing

Twitter’s move to test doubling the character limit of tweets this week can’t help but remind me of internal discussions we used to have 10 years ago at eBay around Item Title length. In hindsight those discussions were pure navel gazing and distracted us from the core issues our business faced. I fear Twitter is doing the same today.

55 Characters

eBay Search Results

eBay Search Results (circa 2008)

In the beginning when Pierre Omidyar built eBay to help his fiancée collect Pez dispensers on eBay (spoiler alert: this was startup lore more than truth) he placed a limit on the number of characters a seller could use in their title: 55 characters. This stuck for a number of years however sellers would often complain that they would like more space to describe their item. As we discussed it internally at the company several reasons emerged as to why it would be a bad idea:

  • It would erode listing fees like adding a second category (doubling listing fees) or adding a subtitle (50 cents). Remember these listing fees made up about a third of eBay’s revenue at that time (balance was final value fees, paypal transaction fees).
  • It would make search results less relevant. eBay at the time worked on a pure title search and so by allowing sellers to add more words would mean some items only tangentially related to the keywords would appear (thru keyword spamming).
  • It would be harder to visually scan. Both the item page and search results would be harder to read with a longer title. In face there was some concern that even the search results loading time would be adversely impacted.

eBay Logo Circa 2008And so it went on. The topic was discussed at length and always controversial. Eventually in 2011 the company decided to expand it to 80 characters to align with Amazon and other online retailers platforms. At that point the search infrastructure had improved tremendously and was able to still provide relevant results. Did it fundamentally change eBay’s business in the end or help in its battle with Amazon? No.

So what’s the big deal for Twitter?

I think the lesson here for Twitter is one of putting heir energy and focus on topics that really matter. For example they should focus on the fact that Twitter is a two-sided marketplace of publishers and readers. Publishers are looking for audience and to get their message out. Readers are looking for interesting topics from the general (celebrities, politicians, news) to the more nitch (product management, design). And yet the way it’s positioned is not nearly that clear–and this 280-char test isn’t helping.

Ironically Medium, who already has a much clearer two-sided value prop and now business model, is doing exactly this.

Join product team shaping future of TV

I’m hiring for some pretty exciting roles. As a product manager within Comcast’s TVX team you will shape the way people think about and watch TV. You’ll join a team that is rapidly changing the landscape of TV from a position of massive scale. If you or someone you know is interested, keep reading and be sure to reach out.

Here are just a few things our team accomplished recently together:

  • Shaped experience for the Rio 2016 Olympics which drove Nielsen ratings in X1 households significantly higher than non-Comcast due to the superior sports experience and integrated streaming content.
  • Innovating around our Voice Remote enabling kids, sports fans, and movie lovers to easily and quickly get to what they want to watch all thru just using their voice.
  • XFINITY Stream App is now one of the most popular ways to watch TV on your favorite mobile device bringing together live streaming with your personalized DVR. Also added Roku with more connected devices on the way. Recent ad.
  • Our X1 TV platform won an Emmy for its user experience–and we continue to make it better, deploying new features and functionality all the time. Just a few months ago we integrated Netflix in a way that Reed Hastings himself called “the most convenient UI (user interface) we’ve ever had.”

roku_launch_teamThere are several product management roles available on my team from entry level to seasoned product leadership roles. Overall they look like roles you’ve seen at other technology companies. You’ll collaborate with other product managers and colleagues from design, development, business, marketing, editorial, support, legal, and operations to develop product strategies and requirements; successfully deliver new features to our customers and then measure their success. Rinse and repeat.

Today there are at least four roles open across two of my teams (although not all are posted):

  • Expanding Content on X1: Looking for two Senior Product Managers one focused on how we include popular apps across Web Video and Music onto X1 and another looking at directly integrating streaming video content within the experience (similar to Netflix). These two positions are based in Silicon Valley.
  • XFINITY Stream and TV Remote Apps: Looking for a Sr. Director of Product to lead a team including a couple open positions they’d be able to fill as they see fit (entry-level PM role as well as a much more experienced Principal Product Management role). These three positions are based in Philadelphia.

I’m looking to build a diverse team and one that taps into people that bring with unique backgrounds. Our products aim to serve people of all types looking to watch TV—what perspective will you bring?

OneTwoSee + Comcast = Happy Sports Fans

Today at Comcast we announced the acquisition of Philly-based sports startup OneTwoSee will join the rest of my Sunnyvale-based team to form what I think will be the best sports technology team in the business. From my post on Comcast Voices:

They not only bolster our efforts to build a best-in-class sports TV experience but also underscore our commitment to partnering with and investing in the local start-up community in this great city. I’d like to personally welcome Jason Angelides, Chris Reynolds and the rest of their team; they will retain their Philadelphia offices – just across the street from the Comcast Center – and report up through me.

OneTwoSee has played a huge role in our efforts to make X1 an awesome place for sports fans. In the past year, we’ve worked with them to reengineer our X1 sports app – initially launched with the platform to help fans check scores, standings, and schedules for games – into an interactive and immersive companion experience giving fans more data and statistics than ever before.

Usage of the sports app is now up fivefold from the winter of 2015 and now used by one in four X1 households on a weekly basis.

I’m so happy that Comcast’s been so supportive of my team’s efforts including this latest move. And if you don’t believe my words, here’s a mug shot of me with the founders as we announced the news… 🙂

Finally, here’s a roundup of some more of the day’s coverage:

Eric Fisher of the Sports Business JournalComcast Acquires OneTwoSee

Getting Products out from under the MIDDLE of the Bell Curve and Exceeding Expectations (SVPMA)

Given the key role Product Managers play in creating the environment for their teams… what must they do to avoid the bell curve of mediocre products that unfortunately are the norm? I shared my perspective as the guest speaker at the SVPMA (Sept 3, 2014) based on my own experiences and other authors/speakers that I trust.

Presenting @ SVPMA

I discussed specific ways to set clear goals and establish the right metrics. Dipping into my eBay days, I shared a little known story of the importance of asking for forgiveness rather than permission in driving innovation that resulted in the launch of the eBay iPhone app.

Some other takeaways from this talk include:

  • How to focus on the right, few, customer adoption metrics (e.g. AAARR). More is often not better and can distract from the main goal
  • How defining your product’s purpose often improves working relationships with designers and engineers so you aren’t left arguing about the “what” or the “how
  • How to avoid getting in the executive micromanagement web especially if they are distracted by the “flavor of the month” or “pet feature” ideas
  • How to drive stealth projects or go through quick business case or product prototyping within a big company.

I was pleased to host the event at Comcast Silicon Valley where I work.

A full review of the talk posted on the SVPMA website.

Running an Innovation Center at a Fortune 500 Company

I recently spoke on how to run an innovation center within a large company at both the Lean Startup conference in SF and the Strategic Planning Innovation Summit in NYC. As part of the leadership team running the Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t especially within a BIG company.

How can you apply Lean Startup principles at your company? I have 6 pieces of advice:

  1. Ask for forgiveness, not permission
    The eBay mobile app almost didn’t get built as the mobile team was restructured away shortly before Apple announced the App Store in 2008. By “hiding” a small team of people building MVP (Alan Lewis, Ken Sun, Karlyn Neal) enough momentum was established that the Exec team went along.
  2. Build credibility thru projects–then scale
    The Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center was built out of an earlier acquisition made a couple years earlier in Plaxo. By running projects under the Plaxo brand and then Comcast Labs, credibility in the approach was established with the executive team. Over time its scaled to include higher profile projects, such as SEEiT.
  3. Don’t just swing for homeruns
    We take a VC mindset for “funding” concepts at the center. Ideas can come from anywhere (often Hack Days) and get evaluated using a Lean Canvas. Receiving “Seed” funding means we might assign a few engineers for a month or so. If they prove their hypothesis they might get “Series A” funding where they could build an MVP. Meanwhile we’re always looking for an “exit” which could be an “acquisition” from another internal business unit–so a solid “double” in baseball helps offset the “strikeouts” that might occur.
  4. Adapt Lean Canvas for your company
    I adapted Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas to better fit within the enterprise. Cost included the number of FTEs / time and Revenue includes indirect improvements to retention/acquisition. Finally a new cell was added for “Strategic Fit” which evaluates how well the concept fits within the corporate strategy and who on the Exec team will sponsor it.
  5. Watch out for corporate antibodies
    Organizations are just like the body and will attack what they see as “foreign objects” (different ways of doing things). You need to be aware of who’s toes you might be stepping on and building allies at the exec level is important. It’s also helpful to understand resource allocation is often a “zero-sum-game” so don’t scale your resources too fast or they become a target for others looking for funding.
  6. Use vanity metrics (but don’t believe them)
    As you analyze using rate-based metrics that ruthlessly look at acquisition, activity, and retention is the only way to go. However its important that you present your product fairly alongside others at the company. Shining a bright light on all things wrong with your project may not give you the time you need to pivot and get it where you want it to go. So occasionally, its useful to share “vanity metrics” alongside the equivalents of other products at your company. 😉

Here’s some of my favorite tweets about my talk:

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate


As with the rest of this blog, the above are my personal views and not that my employer. 

Play by your own rules

Listen to your users more than the press. Don’t get sucked into the gravity hole between you and your competition. Ruthlessly run your own path, not someone else’s. – Josh Williams

An excerpt from an insightful piece by Gowalla’s co-founder on how he let the competition and the press shape his startup’s priorities. A must read for anyone building a product.

I see it also as a classic case of letting “vanity metrics” drive decisions rather than focusing harder on rate-based metrics that might lead to the kind of breakthrus he alluded to in his piece (e.g. Instagram).

What was missing in the 1st iPhone? (5 years later)

This week Apple will share their latest innovations at WWDC. However, I think its time we reflect back on what Steve Job’s announced 5 1/2 years ago at Macworld 2007: the 1st iPhone (worth another watch).

Steve Jobs pitched it under the backdrop other historic Apple products:

  • Macintosh (1984) – which changed the computer industry
  • iPod (2001) – which changed the music industry
of which it definitely became the third industry changing product for the company.

But remember what was missing?

  • It didn’t have the App Store – Native third-party apps weren’t available until 18 months after the announcement in mid-2008.
  • It wasn’t affordable – It cost a steep $599 and was cut in price by $200 two months after launch.
  • It wasn’t mass adopted – Despite the lines, only 1.2M were sold in the first full qtr of availability (vs. the 35M last qtr ending Mar 2012)
  • It didn’t have push email or MS Exchange support – the most important feature on other “smartphones”… missing.
  • It didn’t have GPS – It triangulated “good enough” location using wi-fi and cell towers, but no chip til the 3G.

Yet, we already look upon the Apple iPhone as one of the most successful consumer products ever. It shows how in Lean Startup language, Apple’s MVP did everything they needed to learn about the market and the space.

Apple focused on what it could do better and in a unique way. That’s good advice we each should take when building our new products.

My First Lean Startup – In Brief

At last night’s Lean Startup meetup (video), Eric Ries inspired us to share stories of how we’re applying various techniques, so here goes… 

In January, I had the the idea to build a new app which would enable us to make more meaningful birthday wishes to our friends in the form of something called a  BirthdayGram. However I was determined to avoid investing millions of dollars into an idea only to find out later, it wasn’t needed or desired by customers. Having recently read The Lean Startup, I was inspired by the Intuit “intrepreneur” story and thought it fit well my situation operating with the larger Comcast. So I convinced my team and my boss that we should give Lean Startup a try and we were on our way.

Over the course of next few months we applied the Lean Startup principles and shaped our nacent product. We started running experiments almost immediately as we aimed to validate our most core hypotheses. We also were determined to only build what was necessary to gain learning and deferred issues of scaling / marketing to later as we didn’t need very many users to measure success.

Part of our concept is combining videos from multiple friends into one montage to be shared on the recipient’s Facebook Timeline on their birthday. However building a complex automated video editing solution would be quite resource intensive. Since we only expected a manageable number of users at the beginning we decided to have a small team in India manually edit the videos by hand (turned out to only cost about $0.20 / video). 

We also focused solely on iOS to start even though we knew we’d like to offer a webcam and Android experience eventually. While we’d track interest in those other two platforms we could easily understand what we were “missing out” in terms of virility without them. 

In launching our MVP in April the lessons learned went on overdrive. We were able to measure all our metrics in realtime using Mixpanel and see what aspects of our viral engine of growth were working (lots of people invited) and which were not (invite conversion sucked). We also saw how meaningful it was for recipients to receive a BirthdayGram which inspires us to persevere.  

Assuming there’s interest I’m could expand with details on the following topics:

  1. Defining Hypotheses and Running Experiments – How focus enabled us to find creative ways to gather customer feedback and only build what was necessary. 
  2. Optimizing a Viral Engine of Growth – How we used AARRR funnel metrics to understand whether we were improving our core engine even with just hundreds of users. 
  3. Using the Five Why’s – Examples of how running a service for real and having problems taught us way more than if we had waited longer to launch. 

Time will tell if this all turns out to be a good idea. But either way, I’m learning how to be a better entrepreneur. 🙂

Information Arbitrage: Creating competitive advantage through data

Information Arbitrage: Creating competitive advantage through data

An Important Milestone at Plaxo

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts here and so I thought I’d give you a glipse in what I’ve been up to the past 9 months or so in my new gig at Plaxo. Here’s a copy of what I wrote up on the Plaxo Blog:

An important milestone – and it’s only the beginning!

This week’s relaunch of Plaxo and introduction of Plaxo Personal Assistant marks an important milestone for our company, and I hope a key signal to you that we’re focused on building always accurate, up to date contact list – accessible wherever and whenever you need it.

Our CEO Justin Miller has said, “Plaxo is back and we’ve got a relentless focus on the address book,” and we are determined to solve the two customer pain points Plaxo was founded in 2002 to address:

  1. Contacts scattered across multiple devices, services
  2. Maintaining up-to-date address book info

The Plaxo Personal Assistant goes after that second problem with updates sourced by publicly available information and for our Plaxo Basic users we’ve also recently added contact card sharing. As for problem #1 we’ve reinvested in Plaxo Platinum Sync and made our mobile sync apps all free.

For a glimpse into our mission here at Plaxo check out this 60 second video.

To give you a sense of the scale of our efforts, we’ve reviewed 3 billion contacts in Plaxo’s Cassandra database, compared them with publicly available data sources, and identified approximately 600 million unique people with contact info—as a comparison the White Pages, which powers the Hiya contact management system, claims 200 million. It’s this massive scale that enables us to make suggestions that our customer’s report is correct about 92% of the time.

While this week’s news marks a big step forward in solving the problems above we’re far from done and you should expect a regular cadence of additional improvements as we continue to listen to your feedback.

The smart address book category is finally starting to see some focus, maturity, and a healthy dose of competition, which has sparked an unprecedented era of innovation. We expect to play a leadership role as this space continues to grow and evolve.