Tag Archive for 'analysis'

My media consumption – three years on

I was reflecting on a conversation the other day where I said I no longer read the news, a bizarre fact given as a teenager and young adult I was a newspaper junkie. Certainly, things have changed – even since three years ago when I wrote about my media consumption.

And it’s true – I don’t read newspapers or many news sites anymore. But I’m actually better informed about the world now.

How so?

– My iPhone has improved my productivity. I’m reading things constantly off it. It’s an important distribution tool worth pointing out, which is why I consume information like I do now.
Current homescreen
– Like I did in 2007, Techmeme is something I religiously check every day and increasingly Mediagazer. Both are icons on my iPhones’s homescreen.
Twitter and Facebook are a huge source of how I find out about things or come across interesting content. (Also both on my phone’s homescreen.)
– I am a subscriber to the geopolitical thinktank Stratfor, which tells me where the US navy is on weekly basis, breaks news to me for major political news or dramatic calamities, and gives me essays filled with complete perspective. I don’t have the ability to read all the emails, but like Techmeme, merely reading the headlines is enough to keep me on top of things. And the interesting point to note about this, is that this is premium analysis – the stuff the intelligence community and government policy makers subscribe to. It’s seems like I’ve cut the middleman out (the newspaper journalists) and gone closer to the source of the original analysis. By implication, I’ve chosen the better analyser and that has now become my default news provider.
– I have BNO news and the Associated Press applications on my iPhone, which send me alerts to news items through the day via push notification. I also have the NY Times and WSJ journal apps and which I used to use religiously a year ago, but for some reason I no longer do. (Maybe because they are now buried in my iPhone’s menu.)
– Recently, I changed my homepage from Techmeme to be three homepages: my company’s internal blog, OneRiot which flags the top news shared through Twitter, and Techmeme. The addition of OneRiot has got me hooked these last few weeks: its given me a great source of headline news and useless news, like celebrity gossip that I don’t normally seek. That’s not to say I like celebrity gossip, but it completes my knowledge gaps of what’s happening in the world and that other people are talking about.
– I no longer listen to the radio, the prime reason being I don’t have a car here in San Francisco. If the iPhone had a radio, I probably would – I have my headset in my ears usually every day at work, to help me focus.
– I am a paying subscriber to Pandora, the online music discovery service. (I’m listening to it right now as I write this post!) I prefer it not because my music collection is weak, but because I like being introduced to songs I might not normally know about.
– I have cable TV in my apartment (Comcast), but I never watch it. And when I do, it’s when I want to just switch off for a bit.

My current approach has gaps: for example, I am detached from Australian news. Regardless, its proved an interesting point: I no longer have time to read newspapers like I used to as a teenager. What’s changed is the way I consume information, which allows me to consume more with less effort. I’m one of the busiest guys I know, but thanks to technology, I can be efficient with my time.

Facebook needs to be more like the Byzantines

Flickr graph Chris Saad wrote a good post on the DataPortability Project’s (DPP) blog about how the web works on a peering model. Something we do at the DPP is closely monitor the market’s evolution, and having done this actively for a year now as a formal organisation, I feel we are at the cusp of a lot more exciting times to come. These are my thoughts on why Facebook needs to alter their strategy to stay ahead of the game, and by implication, everyone else who is trying to innovate in this sphere.

Let’s start by describing the assertion that owning data is useless, but access is priceless.

It’s a bold statement that you might need to get some background reading to understand my point of view (link above). However once you understand it, all the debates about who “owns” what data, suddenly become irrelevant. Basically access, just like ownership, is possible due to a sophisticated society that recognises peoples rights. Our society has now got to the point where ownership matters less now for the realisation of value, as we now have things in place to do more, through access.

Accessonomics: where access drives value
Let’s use an example to illustrate the point with data. I am on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, hi5, Orkut, and dozens of other social networking sites that have a profile of me. Now what happens if all of those social networking sites have different profiles of me? One when I was single, one when I was in a relationship, another engaged, and another “it’s complicated”.

If they are all different, who is correct? The profile I last updated of course. With the exception of your birthdate, any data about you will change in the future. There is nothing ‘fixed’ about someone and “owning” a snap shot of them at a particular point of time, is exactly that. Our interests change, as do our closest friends and our careers.

Recognising the time dimension of information means that unless a company has the most recent data about you, they are effectively carrying dead weight and giving themselves a false sense of security (and a false valuation). Facebook’s $3 billion market value is not the data they have in June 2008; but data of people they have access to, of which, that’s the latest version. Sure they can sell to advertisers specific information to target ads, but “single” in May is not as valuable as “single” in November (and even less valuable than single for May and November, but not the months in between).
Network cable

Facebook Connect and the peering network model
The announcement by Facebook in the last month has been nothing short of brilliant (and when its the CEO announcing, it clearly flags it’s a strategic move for their future, and not just some web developer fun). What they have created out of their Facebook Connect service is shaking up the industry as they do a dance with Google since the announcement of OpenSocial in November 2007. That’s because what they are doing is creating a permanent relationship with the user, following them around the web in their activities. This network business model means constant access to the user. But the mistake is equating access with the same way as you would with ownership: ownership is a permanent state, access is dependent on a positive relationship – the latter of course, being they are not permanent. When something is not permanent, you need strategies to ensure relevance.

When explaining data portability to people, I often use the example of data being like money. Storing your data in a bank allows you better security to house that data (as opposed to under your mattress) and better ability to reuse it (ie, with a theoretical debit card, you can use data about your friends for example, to filter content on a third party site). This Facebook Connect model very much appears to follow this line of thinking: you securely store your data in one place and then you can roam the web with the ability to tap into that data.

However there is a problem with this: data isn’t the same as money. Money is valuable because of scarcity in the supply system, whilst data becomes valuable from reusing and creating derivatives. We generate new information by connecting different types of data together (which by definition, is how information gets generated). Our information economy allows alchemists to thrive, who can generate value through their creativity of meshing different (data) objects.

By thinking about the information value chain, Facebook would benefit more by being connected to other hubs, than having all activity go through it. Instead of data being stored in the one bank, it’s actually stored across multiple banks (as a person, it probably scares you to store all your personal information with the one company: you’d split it if you could). What you want to do as a company is have access to this secure EFT ecosystem. Facebook can access data that occurs between other sites because they are party to the same secured transfer system, even though they had nothing to do with the information generation.

Facebook needs to remove itself from being a central node, and instead, a linked-up node. The node with the most relationships with other sites and hubs wins, because with the more data at your hands, the more potential you have of connecting dots to create unique information.

Facebook needs to think like the Byzantines
A lot more can be said on this and I’m sure the testosterone within Facebook thinks it can colonise the web. What I am going to conclude with is that that you can’t fight the inevitable and this EFT system is effectively being built around Facebook with OpenSocial. The networked peer model will trump – the short history and inherent nature of the Internet proves that. Don’t mistake short term success (ie, five years in the context of the Internet) with the long term trends.

Byzantine buildingThere was once a time where people thought MySpace was unstoppable. Microsoft unbeatable. IBM unbreakable. No empire in the history of the word has lasted forever. What we can do however, is learn the lessons of those that lasted longer than most, like the forgotten Byzantine empire.

Also known as the eastern Roman empire, its been given a separate name by historians because it outlived its western counterpart by over 1000 years. How did they last that long? Through diplomacy and avoiding war as much as possible. Rather than buying weapons, they bought friends, and ensured they had relationships with those around them who had it in their self-interest to keep the Byzantines in power.

Facebook needs to ensure it stays relevant in the entire ecosystem and not be a barrier. They are a cashed up business in growth mode with the potential to be the next Google in terms of impact – but let’s put emphasis on “potential”. Facebook has competitors that are cash flow positive, have billions in the bank, but most importantly of all are united in goals. They can’t afford to fight a colonial war of capturing people identity’s and they shouldn’t think they need to.

Trying to be the central node of the entire ecosystem, by implementing their own proprietary methods, is an expensive approach that will ultimately be beaten one day. However build a peered ecosystem where you can access all data is very powerful. Facebook just needs access, as they can create value through their sheer resources to generate innovative information products: that, not lock-in, is that will keep them up in front.

Just because it’s a decentralised system, doesn’t mean you can’t rule it. If all the kids on a track are wearing the same special shoes, that’s not going to mean everyone runs the same time on the 100 metre dash. They call the patriarch of Constantiniple even to this day “first among equals” – an important figure who worked in parallel to the emperor’s authority during the empire’s reign. And it’s no coincidence that the Byzantine’s outlived nearly all empires known to date, which even to this day, arguably still exists in spirit.

Facebook’s not going to change their strategy, because their short-term success and perception of dominance blinds their eyes. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to make that mistake. Pick your fights: realise the business strategy of being a central node will create more heart-ache than gain.

It may sound counter intuitive but less control can actually mean more benefit. The value comes not from having everyone walk through your door, but rather you having the keys to everyone else’s door. Follow the peered model, and the entity with the most linkages with other data nodes, will win.

Advertising on the Internet needs innovation

On the weekend, I caught up with Cameron Reilly of the Podcast network , and he was telling me about his views on monetising podcasts. It got me thinking again about those things I like to think about: how content can be monetised. Despite the growth in online advertising which is tipped to be $80 billion, I think we still have a lot more innovation to go with revenue models, especially ones that help content creators.

Advertising is a revenue stream that has traditionally enabled content-creators to monetise their products, in the absence of people paying a fee or subscription. With the Internet, content has undergone a radical changing of what it is – digital, abundant, easily copied – whilst the Internet has offered new opportunities for how advertising is done. However, the Internet has identified the fundamental weaknesses of advertising , as consumers can now control their content consumption, which allows them to ignore embedded advertising altogether. Content on the other hand, still remains in demand, but means of monetising it are slipping into a free economy which is not sustainable. I make that point to illustrate not that professional content creation is a sunset industry – but rather there’s a big market opportunity as this massive industry needs better options.

time mag

"Hey man, there’s this new thing called the Internet. Sounds pretty cool"

One of the biggest innovations in advertising (and enabled by the Internet) is of contextual search advertising. This has been popularised by Google, which now makes 98% of its $17 billion revenue from these units. This advertising dominates online advertising (40% of total) because of its pull nature, whereby key-words stated by a consumer in effect state their intention of what they are interested or would like to purchase. Whilst this is a highly efficient form of advertising, it also has its weaknesses – for example, it is not as effective outside of the search engine environment. Google makes 35% of its revenue from the adSense network , where these contextual ads are placed on peoples personal websites. Evidence from high traffic bloggers suggests they barely make enough money through this type of advertising. Another point to consider is that aspects of the Google network include significant partnership agreements like the one with AOL which accounts for 10% of Googles revenue (this is a 2005 figure which has likely changed, but Google does state in their 2007 report "Our agreements with a few of the largest Google Network members account for a significant portion of revenues derived from our AdSense program. If our relationship with one or more large Google Network members were terminated or renegotiated on terms less favorable to us, our business could be adversely affected.". AOL most recently reported for Q1 2008 half a billion dollars largely from search advertising ).

Other attempts at creating more efficient advertising which have existed for over a decade, have come in the form of profiling or behavioural tracking. However, these forms of advertising has also highlighted the growing awareness of consumer privacy being eroded, and is under heavy scrutiny by activist groups and government. Facebook is a company that is best posed to deliver new forms of advertising because of the rich profiling data it has, but it itself has faced massive backlash .

My view is that the majority of online advertising for successful individual publishers at least, has largely come from traditional approaches to advertising – a masthead blog with a sales team that uses display advertising. How effective this display advertising is is debateable with widespread banner blindness and consumer control over their content, but it would appear that this is more a case of advertisers seeing this as the least bad on the overall scale of opportunities. The fact it replicates the mass media approach of number of unique consumers viewing the content, and not the types of users, means this isn’t anything new other than being done in a digital environment.

Digital content is in need of a better monetisation system.
Targeted advertising is the most efficient form, yet consumer privacy is a growing force preventing this. What we need, is not a new advertising technology, but a new way of thinking about advertising – in a way that can help the content economy rather than riding on it without giving benefit. Contextual advertising sounds great in theory as it calculates key-word frequency of words on a website, to match it to a key word ad – but it’s proving in practice these ads are not very relevant. Yet trying to think of a smarter way to advertise, may be the wrong question – perhaps half the problem itself is advertising as a concept?

perspective

Are we running down a tunnel, only to find there is nothing there?

Content which comes in the form of news (historical and breaking), analysis, and entertainment can be monetised via a persons attention or through a transaction (ie, subscription, fee, etc). Both this approaches have different barriers.

– Attention: The key driver is increased dollars per unique person, over a period of time. The barriers to this approach is the challenge of identifying the individual in a way that gives advertising that is highly relevant and will result in a conversion. In other words, privacy privacy privacy.

– Alternative payment: Requiring consumers to pay for content is a barrier due to the paid wall. What is more problematic for digital content, is that the ability to replicate it freely makes it not just easy to do for the masses but has created a culture of if it’s not free, it’s not worth purchasing unless its really necessary. There needs to be a strong value proposition for a consumer to purchase content, and in the absense of a brand and marketing, the restriction of what value the content offers is a barrier for consumer demand as they don’t know what they are missing out on.

So as you see above, content creators are in a difficult position. Charging people reduces their opportunity unless they are really established, but even then, due to the digital environment they don’t have any control over subsequent distribution (with rampant piracy). Yet advertising is fraught with being irrelevant and hence not effective (so advertisers go to other forms) and any attempts to make it more relevant, gets held back by the concerns of privacy advocates (and rightly so). Whilst the Internet parades itself as an advertising growth machine, it’s growing in new areas but not the old areas that have traditionally been the medium for advertisers.

This advertising growth is largely being driven through utility computing products that aim to make information retrieval more efficient (ie, search). However, the growth for the content creators, is not happening. As Cam was telling me, in a market like Australia – small content organisations like TPN and Bronwen Clune ‘s Norgs , don’t have access to the big end of town for a sales team. And he didn’t have to tell me, those Google ads for the smaller guys, are not enough to pay the bills. That small to middle end is not being really catered for.

But before you jump on the phone and create some mid-tier advertising network that caters for a niche, think about the real problem: content creators need a better solution to monetise their content. But advertisers also need a better way of selling, other than some slick-talking sales person who can sell ads on pageviews (a broken model with weak alternatives ) They need advertising that is suited for their product, but the market now includes other products media outlets never had to compete with like marketplaces now happening online and utility computing products. Whilst the technology community obsesses about search , let’s also remember we have yet to see a new way to monetise content that is superior to the old world. Contextual advertising of text is the latest new thing area, but that technique is nearly a decade old. As I prove above, outside of the search environment, it is showing to not be that effective.

Where is the innovation going to come from? Not through technology but with a new paradigm shift like how content creators operate . New ways of thinking about the way we ‘sell’ like what the VRM Project is challenging. But perhaps more fundamentally, is an understanding that the holy grail of targeted advertising has got a speed hump called privacy – and that may actually be a sign of not going faster towards better targeting, but changing the vehicle all together.

Analysing the user experience from two social networking sites

Yet again, MySpace has e-mailed me a useless e-mail that frustrates me more than it gives me value . But what I noticed recently, was another social networking site, taking a different approach.

geni

Whereas MySpace is simply alerting me, which is forcing me to painfully log into their service, Geni is actually alerting me the information without me having to take another action.

A few points of reflection on this:
1) Using my business analysis on the consumer Internet , MySpace is offering a content model (hypermedia is how I referred to this in my post) whereas Geni is offering a Utility computing product. Both these businesses consider themselves "social networking" sites and yet both offer a different product model.
2) This also highlights two different business models: MySpace is a platform whilst Geni is working on a network model. Meaning, MySpace’s business model is premised on you visiting them for you to get value; Geni’s isn’t. To be perfectly honest, both MySpace and Geni are irrelevant for me. However platforms can come and go, but network models always stick around. As irrelevant Geni is to me, I still value it – a network business strategy (meaning you follow the user, rather than expecting them to come) builds a long term relationship.
3) Social networking sites when it’s the core product, work best as utility services and not a content business. Look at what a different user experience it is for me, because I can get benefit from my Geni account despite not having to log in. Although I am not giving them pageviews, I am giving them my attention which is translating into greater brand equity for them. When you treat social networking as a content business, this distorts the service offered to users, as misaligned business views on generating revenue drive strategy in a way that is harmful to the consumer ie, I feel like saying "f**k off" whenever I see those e-mails for MySpace . But "thank-you" to Geni.

The main point I want to get at though, is that the user experience is just as important when the user is not on the site as it is when they are on the site. People shy away from the recently-recognised network model of business, because they don’t get the same traffic. I say embrace it, because the market will eventually correct itself to recognise this is a superior type of strategy.

Information overload: we need a supply side solution

About a month ago, I went to a conference filled with journalists and I couldn’t help but ask them what they thought about blogs and its impact on their profession. Predictably, they weren’t too happy about it. Unpredictably however, were the reasons for it. It wasn’t just a rant, but a genuine care about journalism as a concept – and how the blogging “news industry” is digging a hole for everyone.

Bloggers and social media are replacing the newspaper industry as a source of breaking news. What they still lack, is quality – as there have been multiple examples of blogs breaking news that in the rush to publish it, turns out it was in fact fallacious . Personally, I think as blogging evolves (as a form of journalism) the checks and balances will be developed – such as big names blogs with their brands, effectively acting like a traditional masthead. And when a brand is developed, more care is put into quality.

Regardless, the infancy of blogging highlights the broader concern of “quality”. With the freedom for anyone to create, the Information Age has seen us overload with information despite our finite ability to take it all in. The relationship between the producer of news and consumer of news, not only is blurring – but it’s also radically transforming the dynamics that is impacting even the offline world.

Traditionally, the concept of “information overload” has been relegated as a simple analysis of lower costs to entry as a producer of content (anyone can create a blog on wordpress.com and away you go). However what I am starting to realise, is the issue isn’t so much the technological ability for anyone to create their own media empire, but instead, the incentive system we’ve inherited from the offline world.

Whilst there have been numerous companies trying to solve the problem from the demand side with “personalisation” of content (on the desktop , as an aggregator , and about another 1000 different spins), what we really need are attempts on the supply side, from the actual content creators themselves.

info overload

Too much signal, can make it all look like noise

Information overload: we need a supply side solution
Marshall Kirkpatrick , along with his boss Richard McManus , are some of the best thinkers in the industry. The fact they can write, makes them not journalists in the traditional sense, but analysts with the ability to clearly communicate their thoughts. Add to the mix Techcrunch don Michael Arrington , and his amazing team – they are analysts that give us amazing insight into the industry. I value what they write; but when they feel the stress of their industry to write more, they are not only doing a disservice to themselves, but also to the humble reader they write to. Quality is not something you can automate – there’s a fixed amount a writer can do not because of their typing skills but because quality is a factor of self-reflection and research.

The problem is that whilst they want, can and do write analysis – their incentive system is biased towards a numbers system driven by popularity. The more people that read and the more content created (which creates more potential to get readers) means more pageviews and therefore money in the bank as advertisers pay on number of impressions. The conflict of the leading blogs churning out content , is that their incentive system is based on a flawed system in the pre-digital world, which is known as circulation offline, and is now known as pageviews online.

A newspaper primarily makes money through their circulation: the amount of physical newspapers they sell, but also the audited figures of how many people read their newspaper (readership can have a factor of up to three times the physical circulation ). With the latter, a newspaper can sell space based on their proven circulation: the higher the readership, the higher the premium. The reason for this is that in the mass media world, the concept of advertising was about hitting as many people as possible. I liken it to the image of flying a plane over a piece of land, and dropping leaflets with the blind faith that of those 100,000 pamphlets, at least 1000 people catch them.

It sounds stupid why an advertiser would blindly drop pamphlets, but they had to: it was the only way they could effectively advertise. For them to make sales, they need the ability to target buyers and create exposure of the product. The only mechanism available for this was the mass media as it was a captured audience, and at best, an advertiser could places ads on specialist publications hoping to getter better return on their investment (dropping pamphlets about water bottles over a desert, makes more sense than over a group of people in a tropical rainforest). Nevertheless, this advertising was done on mass – the technology limited the ability to target.

catch the advert

Advertising in the mass media: dropping messages, hoping the right person catches them

On the Internet, it is a completely new way to publish. The technology enables a relationship with a consumer of content, a vendor, a producer of content unlike anything else previously in the world. The end goal of a vendor advertising is about sales and they no longer need to drop pamphlets – they can now build a one on one relationship with that consumer. They can now knock on your door (after you’ve flagged you want them to), sit down with you, and have a meaningful conversion on buying the product.

“Pageviews” are pamphlets being dropped – a flawed system that we used purely due to technological limitations. We now have the opportunity for a new way of doing advertising, but we fail to recognise it – and so our new media content creators are being driven by an old media revenue model.

It’s not technology that holds us back, but perception
Vendor Relationship Management or (VRM) is a fascinating new way of looking at advertising, where the above scenario is possible. A person can contain this bank of personal information about themselves, as well as flagging their intention of what products they want to buy – and vendors don’t need to resort to advertising to sell their product, but by building a relationship with these potential buyers one on one. If an advertiser knows you are a potential customer (by virtue of knowing your personal information – which might I add under VRM, is something the consumer controls), they can focus their efforts on you rather than blindly advertising on the other 80% of people that would never buy their product). In a world like this, advertising as we know it is dead because we know longer need it.

VRM requires a cultural change in our world of understanding a future like this. Key to this is the ability for companies to recognise the value of a user controlling their personal data is in fact allowing us new opportunities for advertising. Companies currently believe by accumulating data about a user, they are builder a richer profile of someone and therefore can better ‘target’ advertising. But companies succeeding technologically on this front, are being booed down in a big way from privacy advocates and the mainstream public. The cost of holding this rich data is too much. Privacy by obscurity is no longer possible, and people demand the right of privacy due to an electronic age where disparate pieces of their life can be linked online

One of the biggest things the DataPortability Project is doing, is transforming the notion that a company somehow has a competitive advantage by controlling a users data. The political pressure, education, and advocacy of this group is going to allow things like VRM. When I spoke to a room of Australia’s leading technologists at BarCamp Sydney about DataPortability, what I realised is that they failed to recognise what we are doing is not a technological transformation (we are advocating existing open standards that already exist, not new ones) but a cultural transformation of a users relationship with their data. We are changing perceptions, not building new technology.

money on the plate

To fix a problem, you need to look at the source that feeds the beast

How the content business will change with VRM
One day, when users control their data and have data portability, and we can have VRM – the content-generating business will find a light to the hole currently being dug. Advertising on a “hits” model will no longer be relevant. The page view will be dead.

Instead, what we may see is an evolution to a subscription model. Rather than content producers measuring success based on how many people viewed their content, they can now focus less on hits and more on quality as their incentive system will not be driven by the pageview. Instead, consumers can build up ‘credits’ under a VRM system for participating (my independent view, not a VRM idea), and can then use those credits to purchase access to content they come across online. Such a model allows content creators to be rewarded for quality, not numbers. They will need to focus on their brand managing their audiences expectations of what they create, and in return, a user can subscribe with regular payments of credits they earned in the VRM system.

Content producers can then follow whatever content strategy they want (news, analysis, entertainment ) and will no longer be held captive by the legacy world system that drives reward for number of people not types of people.

Will this happen any time soon? With DataPortability, yes – but once we all realise we need to work together towards a new future. But until we get that broad recognition, I’m just going to have to keep hitting “read all” in my feed reader because I can’t keep up with the amount of content being generated; whilst the poor content creators strain their lives, in the hope of working in a flawed system that doesn’t reward their brilliance.

The most important lesson in business

Over the weekend, I attended a conference (I was even quoted in the press, despite disclaiming before one of my presentations I was scattered from a terrible hangover!). In one of the sessions, where the brilliant guys at Australian start-up company Good Barry shared some of their lessons, an audience member asked the question of when should they get lawyers and accountants to help them out.

I think this was a very good question and one I will answer here. Why can I? Because I am (nearly) a chartered accountant ; an experienced external auditor; and an employee in one of the biggest firms in the world that makes money from guys like me doing services for people like you.

There are four areas accountants help a business:

1) Reporting & compliance. Whether you run a business and want to know what’s happening (ie, measurement on your employees output so you can track how big their bonus will be) – or you need to create some type of reporting to external stakeholders (like investors, banks, shareholders) – accountants have the skills to ensure you create the appropriate reports. Reports can vary from custom internal ones to help assess things, to government mandated ones like financial reports to statutory authority’s or the tax office

2) Tax. It wasn’t until I studied tax, that I realised how valuable tax accountants are. Tax is the biggest expense of anyone – individual or company – and there are plenty of legal tricks to avoid paying. Specialist accountants can help you structure your business in a way, where you minimise this expense. People can spend an entire life understanding just one aspect of the tax code. It’s massive. Trust me, a good tax adviser is worth their weight in gold.

3) Assurance. If you produce financial reports, you need to get audited by special types of accountants, who will verify your numbers to make sure you are not talking crap. However auditors are also very experienced in understanding how businesses should be run (so would you if you visited dozens of companies every year analysing them inside out), so they can also add a lot of value by helping assess your business during the audit and making recommendations on improving how you run. They do this, because during an audit they see everything and often have a more complete view of a business than management. A very useful thing accountants can help with, is by developing your internal control framework. What this means, is helping set up systems so that it runs like a proper business. For example, making sure two people sign a cheque is a ‘control’ – and a very important one, because without it, people can be signing cheques to themselves and running away with your money (it happens more frequently than you think).

4) Decision making. These types of accountants are called management accountants, and they can help analyse the numbers of a business to assist strategic decisions. For example, should you buy a company? A management accountant has the skillset to provide the analysis on whether it will be worth while. Management accountants help interpret information, to make important decisions for the business.

What help does a start-up company need from an accountant

The most important thing you need to know, is CASHFLOW. You need to maximise the amount of working capital – cash you’ve got on hand – at any one time. It’s seems simple enough that you need to make sure you make more money than you spend, but you will be surprised how easily people overlook this. Possibly in the Internet startup culture funded by vulture venture capitalists, people forget that the money they are spending is not real money.

Accountants can help maximise your cashflow. They can help with cash strategies like for example all that money sitting in the bank, why not put it somewhere and earn interest on it? They can help with cash management to maximise your working capital: smart ideas like pay your creditors as late as possible (people you owe); chase your debtors every day (people that owe you). However you don’t need an accountant to watch your cashflow. You just need you to recognise its importance. Get that? Accountants can do a lot. But if you are a startup, cashfow is all you need to know.

Do you need an accountant for fix up your controls? This only matters when you have hundreds of people in an organisation and things get complex. Controls are the difference between a small company run like a family business, and a big business. Matured startups like Atlassian that make $30million a year, need to consider controls. You? No.

Do you need an accountant for your tax strategies? Well hey buddy, if you aren’t making money, you haven’t got any tax to pay, right?

Do you need an accountant to help make management decisions? Sure you do – but if you have common sense, you can to. Accountants can give you a better analysis of your business from your untrained mind, but you need cash to pay them to do that.

Do you need an accountant for financial reporting? In Australia, unless your gross operating revenue is over $10 million a year; and you have over 50 employees or $5 million in assets, you are considered a small private company that is not required to lodge reports. So stop dreaming about your goal to list your company on the stock exchange, and get back to thinking about the cashflow.

So going back to the question of when does a start-up need an accountant. Well look, if you hire me I can whack some sense into you. But if you have half a brain, you will take this lesson in understanding that cashflow in king. Focus on that first, and then you can worry about the rest if the cashflow is there.

How business is done on the Internet

Day in and day out, the Internet continues to show innovations from people all around the world. Yet for all these innovations, it all comes down to the very core of trying to do business in a new way.

I’ve been doing some research recently for an internal publication my firm produces on the future of the entertainment and media industries, and I wondered what exactly does it mean to do business on the Internet. Whilst there are some brilliant thoughts on what business models on the Net are, I think we lack a proper analysis of what it means to do business.

Below is a summary of my understanding from a consumer perspective of doing business (enterprise is a different beast), but which I think will help people better understand how it all works.

First of all, we need to split the three key factors about business:

  1. Business models: What the structure of a business is.
  2. Revenue models: How the business generates cash from customers to fund its operations.
  3. Product models: What the product is that you provide to your customers to generate the cash

Too often, these three components are mixed as one or the same. Another thing that happens, is we struggle to classify the Internet because it contains so many different types of business. Breaking it down gives us more complete view.

Business models

The first thing to understand, is how a business is structured of which there are three varieties:

  1. Destination: driving consumers to a point ie, a website that you try to drive usage by consumers. This was very much what the early Internet was in the manifestation of the world wide web; websites attempting to get ‘eyeballs’. Your business model is based on the premise of getting people to visit your destination.
  2. Platform: a service that you try to build usage by creating an ecosystem for. Arguably, the web is the platform but in reality we are seeing a different type of platform akin to the Microsoft Windows approach of creating a core service that others can build on. You could classify the web2.0 view that websites are communities in this, whereas there are companies trying to create operating systems on the web for widgets that are a similar thing. Your business model, is built on the premise that people interact on your service or use your platform.
  3. Network: a service that people use regardless of where they are on the Internet. This type of business is about attaching to a user as they use the Internet. It’s almost like the flipside of the above two models: instead of having everyone come to you, this is about following everyone wherever they are. Your business model is built on the premise that people use your service in a decentralised manner.

Revenue models
Revenue models are a key factor to understand as they are what sustain long term changes to an industry that is currently been pushed by venture money and acquisitions from the dominant players. There are four types of monetisation models that I can observe:

  1. Fees: Payment of a fixed amount for access or usage of goods and services over the internet
  2. Subscription: Payment of a fixed amount on a periodic basis for access or usage of goods and services
  3. Commission: Payment of a percentage fee of a transaction
  4. Attention: Consumer gives their time, such as viewing an advertisement, in exchange of goods and services

Product models
There are three types of product models:

  1. Markets is the term I am using to explain when businesses use the Internet as a way to allow others to transact goods and services. The product offered by these companies is effectively a mechanism to do commerce. For example, eBay offers a product model that gives the ability for people to auction goods. Their product is to offer the facility for vendors and consumers to transact. They are like a shopping centre, giving space for vendors to sell and centralising the space so that consumers know where they can buy from these vendors. Markets offer the ability to perform trade of some sort with other parties
  2. Hypermedia is the term I am using to describe any type of content offering to people. Philosophically, it falls under the “new media” category that I have previously linked to and I use the term coined by Ted Nelson which is the broader term coined at the same time as “hypertext”. Effectively, you are offering content to a consumer in an Internet environment. Formally defined, it is access or supply of content via visual, audio and/or text over the Internet
  3. Utility computing is what you can call search engines, web applications, and the software as a service variety, which essentially is about providing computing services for information. Maybe a better way to define the concept is that they are computing services that allow for productivity through information retrieval, creation or management.

It is important to note that a business doesn’t have to restrict itself to just one of the above sub-categories. A business must have at least one business model, one revenue model, and one product model (or rather, they should – web2.0 startups seem to forget the revenue model bit). But within those groupings, it doesn’t have to be just one.

Take for example Facebook, which was initially a destination business – people logged in, viewed peoples profiles and their news feed, and the company generated value for the user by them ‘visiting’. With the launch of the applications platform, Facebook became a platform, because it allowed other entities to build on top of its core service. In this regard, Facebook generated value by creating an ecosystem of applications within its confines. As for a network model, Facebook is yet to to this, but imagine if they created an ad network like Google’s – whereby information about you in Facebook is used to determine what advertising to see across the entire internet. Here the value is that Facebook helps add to your experience across the entire Internet (despite being off the actual site)

So as a concept, below is my matrix of doing business on the Internet (I’m graphically inept, but I want to illustrate the three dimensions conceptually). What do you think?

business on the net

If you can draw better than me (not hard), I’ll credit you on this post!

Update May 27 2010: Rethinking this two years on, I think this still stands as a rough analytical framework. But I now believe that business model makes sense for the overall discussion above (ie, the combination of all the components), and what I term as ‘business model’ in the post is actually more like the ‘operating model’ of a web business.

Here’s a secret: the semantic web is the boring bit

Marshall Kirkpatrick caused a wave today, when he gave a brutally honest assessment of one of the most talked up semantic web applications, Twine. It was as per usual, an excellent analysis by Marshall and I don’t think he needs to hide behind his words as they are fair. However, what I think is crucial is now that the semantic web is gaining traction into the mainstream from a academic thesis to real world web applications, is we do a little bit of stakeholder management.

Ready? The semantic web is as boring as bat shit.

Essentially, the semantic web is about structuring content in a way so that computers can interpret the information. It’s a bit like linking every word on the web, to a dictionary entry so that computers understand the language that humans use.

But seriously, how is that exciting? People don’t get the semantic web, because it’s the fundamentals – and thats boring! Take for example RDF, the semantic web building block, and which is about structuring data into subject, predicate and object. This is straight from primary school grammar lessons, where we learn about the fundamentals of the English language (no coincidence I just linked to an grammar guide, not the RDF guide). And if you have heard of subject, predicate and object before in the context of the semantic web, you probably didn’t even realise it’s how the entire English language is based. It’s because you probably did learn it, and forgot – it’s boring as bat shit. But damn, without them, we wouldn’t be communicating right now to each other.

The point I want to make, is that the building blocks are not where the excitement: the excitement, is what you can do once we have those building blocks. In English, we have poetry, literature, and just language in general where we communicate as human beings. Once we get the basics down of information, we are laying the foundation of a whole new world of computational possibilities. Marshall is spot on in saying “…semantics may be best suited to the back end…” because the excitement is what they enable, not the actual semantics itself which is going to take a long time to build up.

Imagine, the sum of human knowledge accessible by a computer to query? Semantic web applications are boring and you won’t ever get them – but what they enable, is a whole new world of potential which once we can flick the switch, will mean a world we will barely recognise from today’s standpoint.

DataPortability is about user value, fool!

In a recent interview, VentureBeat asks Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg the following:

VB: Facebook has recently joined DataPortability.org, a working group among web companies, that intends to develop common standards so users can access their data across sites. Is Facebook going to let users — and other companies — take Facebook data completely off Facebook?

MZ: I think that trend is worth watching.

It disappoints me to see that, because it seems like a quick journalists hit at a contentious issue. On the other hand, we have seen amazing news today which are examples of exactly the type of thing we should be expecting in a data portability enabled world: the Google contacts API which has been a thing we have highlighted for months now as an issue for data security and Google analytics allowing benchmarking which is a clear example of a company that understands by linking different types of data you generate more information and therefore value for the user. The DataPortability project is about trying to advocate new ways of thinking, and indeed, we don’t have to formally produce a product in as much maintain the agenda in the industry.

However the reason I write this is that it worries me a bit that we are throwing around the term “data portability” despite the fact the DataPortability Project has yet to formally define what that means. I can say this because as a member of the policy action group and the steering action group which are responsible for making this distinction, we have yet to formally decide.

Today, I offer an analysis of what the industry needs to be talking about, because the term is being thrown around like buggery. Whilst it may be weeks or months before we finalise this, it’s starting to bother me that people seem to think the concept means solving the rest of the world’s problems or to disrupt the status quo. It’s time for some focus!

Value creation
First of all, we need to determine why the hell we want data portability. DataPortability (note the distinction of the term with that of ‘data portability’ Рthe latter represents the philosophy whilst the former is the implementation of that philosophy by DataPortability.org) is not a new utopian ideal; it’s a new way of thinking about things that will generate value in the entire Information sector. So to genuinely want to create value for consumers and businesses alike, we need to apply thinking that we use in the rest of the business world.

A company should be centered on generating value for its customers. Whilst they may have obligations to generate returns for their shareholders, and may attempt different things to meet those obligations; they also have an obligation to generate shareholder value. To generate shareholder value, means to fund the growth of their business ultimately through increased customer utility which is the only long term way of doing so (taking out acquisitions and operational efficiency which are other ways companies generate more value but which are short term measures however). Therefore an analysis of what value DataPortability creates should be done with the customer in mind.

The economic value of a user having some sort of control over their data is that they can generate more value through their transactions within the Information economy. This means better insights (ie, greater interoperability allowing the connection of data to create more information), less redundancy (being able to use the same data), and more security (which includes better privacy which can compromise a consumers existence if not managed).

Secondly, what does it mean for a consumer to have data portability? Since we have realised that the purpose of such an exercise is to generate value, questions about data like “control”, “access” and “ownership” need to be reevaluated because on face value, the way they are applied may have either beneficial or detrimental effects for new business models. The international accounting standards state that you can legally “own” an asset but not necessarily receive the economics benefits associated with that asset. The concept of ownership to achieve benefit is something we really need to clarify, because quite frankly, ownership does not translate into economic benefit which is what we are at stake to achieve.

Privacy is a concept that has legal implications, and regardless of what we discuss with DataPortability, it still needs to be considered because business operates within the frameworks of law. Specifically, the human rights of an individual (who are consumers) need to be given greater priority than any other factor. So although we should be focused on how we can generate value, we also need to be mindful that certain types of data, like personally identifiable data, needs to be considered in adifferent light as there are social implications in addition to the economic aspects.

The use cases
The technical action group within the DataPortability project has been attempting to create a list of scenarios that constitute use cases for DataPortability enablement. This is crucial because to develop the blueprint, we also need to know what exactly the blueprint applies to.

I think it’s time however we recognise, that this isn’t merely a technical issue, but an industry issue. So now that we have begun the research phase of the DataPortability Project, I ask you and everyone else to join me as we discuss what exactly is the economic benefit that DataPortability creates. Rather than asking if Facebook is going to give up its users data to other applications, we need to be thinking on what is the end value that we strive to achieve by having DataPortability.

Portability in context, not location
When the media discuss DataPortability, please understand that a user simply being able to export their data is quite irrelevant to the discussion, as I have outlined in my previous posting. What truly matters is “access”. The ability for a user to command the economic benefits of their data, is the ability to determine who else can access their data. Companies need to be thinking that value creation comes from generating information – which is simply relationships between different data ‘objects’. If a user is to get the economic benefits of using their data from other repositories, companies simply need to allow the ability for a user to delegate permission for others to access that data. Such a thing does not compromise a company’s competitive advantage as they won’t necessarily have to delete data they have of a user; rather it requires them to try to to realise that holding in custody a users data or parts of it gives them a better advantage as hosting a users data gives them complete access, to try to come up with innovative new information products for the user.

So what’s my point? When discussing DataPortability, let’s focus on the value to the user. And the next time the top tech blogs confront the companies that are supporting the movement with a simplistic “when are you going to let users take their data completely off ” I am going to burn my bra in protest.

Disclosure: I’m a hetrosexual male that doesn’t cross-dress

Update: I didn’t mean to scapegoat Eric from VentureBeat who is a brilliant writer. However I used him to give an example of the language being used in the entire community which now needs to change. With the DP research phase now officially underway for the next few months, the questions we should be asking should be more open-ended as we at the DataPortability project have realised these issues are complex, and we need to get the entire community to come to a consensus. DataPortability is no longer just about exporting your social graph – it’s an entirely new approach to how we will be doing business on the net, and as such, requires us to fundamentally reexamine a lot more than we originally thought.

Can you answer my question?

We at the DataPortability project have kick started a research phase, because we’ve realised we need to spend more time consulting with the community working out issues which don’t quite have one answer.

As Chris Saad and myself are also experimenting with a new type of social organisation as we incubate the DataPortability project, which I call wikiocracy (Chris calls it participant democracy), I thought I might post these issues on my blog to keep in line with the decentralised ethos we are encouraging with DataPortability. This is something the entire world should be questioning,

So below are some thoughts I have had. They’ve changed a lot since I first thought about what a users data rights are, and no doubt, they will change again. But hopefully my thoughts can act as a catalyst for what people think data rights really are, and a focus on the issue at stake which I conclude as my question. I think the bill of rights for users on the social web is not quite adequate, and we need a more careful analysis of the issues.

It’s the data, stupid
Data is essentially an object. Standalone it’s useless – take for example the name “Elias”. In the absence of anything else, that piece of datum means nothing. However when you associate that name with my identity (ie, appending my surname Bizannes or linking it to my facebook profile), that suddenly becomes “information”. Data is an object and information is generated when you create linkages between different types of data – the ‘relationships’.

Take this data definition from DMReview which defines data (and information):

Items representing facts, text, graphics, bit-mapped images, sound, analog or digital live-video segments. Data is the raw material of a system supplied by data producers and is used by information consumers to create information.

Data is an object and information is a relationship between data – I’ve studied database theory at university to be authoritative on that! But since I didn’t do philosophy, then what is knowledge?

Knowledge can be considered as the distillation of information that has been collected, classified, organized, integrated, abstracted and value added
(source)

Relationships, facts, assumptions, heuristics and models derived through the formal and informal analysis or interpretation of data
(source)

So in other words, knowledge is the application of information to a scenario. Whilst I apologise if this appears that I am splitting hairs, I think clarifying what these terms are is fundamental to the implementation of DataPortability. Why this is relevant will be seen below, but now we need to move onto what does the second concept mean.

Portability
On first interpretation, portability means the ability to move something – exporting and importing. I think we shouldn’t take the ability to move data around as the sole definition of portability but it should also mean being able to port the context that data is used. After all, information and knowledge is based on the manipulation of data, and you don’t need to move data per se but merely change the context to do that. A vendor can add value to a consumer by building unique relationships between data and giving unique application to other scenarios – where the original data is stored is irrelevant as long as its accessible.

Portability to me means a person needs to have the ability to determine where their data is used. But to do that, they need control over that data – which means determining how it is used. Yet there is little point being able to determine how your data is used, if you can’t determine who can access your data. Therefore, the concept of portability invokes an understanding of what exactly control and accessibility means.

So to discuss portability, requires us to also understand what does data control and data accessibility really mean. You can’t “port” something unless you control it; and you can’t “control” something, if you can’t determine who can “access” it. As I state, as long as the data is accessible, the location of it can be on the moon for all I care: for the concept of portability by context to exist, we must ensure as a condition that the data is open to access.

Ownership
Now here is where it gets complicated: who owns what? Maybe the conversation should come to who owns the information and knowledge generated from that data. Data on its own, potentially doesn’t belong to anyone. My name “Elias” is shared by millions of other people in the world. Whilst I may own my identity, which my name is a representation of that, is it fair to say I own the name “Elias”? On the flip side, if a picture I took is considered data – I think it’s fair to say I “own” that piece of data.

Information on the other hand, requires a bit of work to create. Therefore, the generator of that information should get ownership. However when we start applying this concept to something like a social relationship, it gets a bit tricky. If I add a friend on Facebook, and they accept me, who “owns” that relationship? Effectively both of us – so we become join partners in ownership of that piece of information. If I was to add someone as a friend on MySpace, they don’t necessarily have to reciprocate – therefore it’s a one way relationship. Does that mean, I own that information?

This is when the concept of privacy comes in. If I am generating information about someone, am I entitled to it? If someone owns the underlying data I used to generate that information – then it would be fair to say, I am “licensing” usage of that data to generate information which de-facto is owned by them. But privacy as a concept and in the legislation of many countries doesn’t work like that. Privacy is even a right along side other basic rights like freedom of expression and religion in the constitution of Iraq (Article 17). So what’s privacy in the context of information that relates to someones identity?

Perhaps we should define privacy as the right to control information that represents an entity’s identity (being a person or legal body). Such as definition ties with defamation law for example, and the principle of privacy: you have control over what’s been said about you, as a fundamental human right. But yet again, I’ve just opened up a can of worms: what is “identity”? Maybe the Identity commons people can answer that? Would it be fair to say, that in the context of an “identity”, an entity like a person ‘owns’ that? So when it comes to information relating to someones identity, do we override it with this human right to privacy as to who owns that information, regardless of who generated that information?

This posting is a question, rather than an answer. When we say we want “data portability”, we need to be clear what exactly this means. Companies I believe are slightly afraid of DataPortability, because they think they will lose something, which is not true. Companies commercial interests are something I am very mindful when we have these discussions, and I will ensure with my involvement that DataPortability pioneers not some unrealistic ideal but a genuine move forward in business thinking. It needs to be clear what constitutes ownership and of what so we can design a blueprint that accounts for users’ data rights, without ruining the business models of companies that rely on our data.

Which brings me to my question – “who owns what”?