Education and the Disruptive Power of Zero

The secret of success in any startup is to provide a product or service needed by thousands and, via technology, deliver it at the lowest possible price point. The product doesn’t have to be functionally equivalent or as powerful as its competitive counterparts, but in order to displace them it must cost less. Additionally, lowering the price point also opens the product to a larger market often left untapped by the higher priced vendors.

Most of us would agree that higher education is overdue for a make over and most students would flock to an institution that offered a quality education at an affordable price. Last week Apple Computer tilted the playing field through the introduction of iBook Author and its integration with iTunes University.

iBook Author lets anyone create rich, multimedia course content for free. Textbook authors can then publish their content to iTunes University where students can search, download and consume university quality courseware for much less than the price of a college credit. Many courses from prestigious universities like MIT, Cal Berkley and Stanford are free.

Undergraduate college students, on average, pay approximately $1,200 per year for textbooks; graduate students pay even more. With iBook Author, educators can take control of text book creation, eliminating the large publishing company middleman and reduce the price of textbooks.

Companies like Udacity and Udemy have constructed service offerings that enables community created content and university created content to be published online and consumed en mass. The on-to-many architecture of the Internet allows thousands of students to take the same course at the same time with the same set of instructors and moderators. These economies of scale can’t be duplicated by traditional brick and mortar universities.

One piece of the puzzle is missing though: accreditation. While online institutions like the University of Phoenix offer college credit at higher prices than the disruptive startups they also confer degrees and certifications; which for most is the driving force behind taking a college or continuing education course.

Only when high quality, low cost courseware is integrated within cirricula offered by accredited degree conferring institutions will we see the true disruptive power of zero emerge.

Somewhere a startup is brewing their own version of Higher Education 2.0. and in the near future a college education will be made available to a much larger economic demographic; and that my friends will be a very significant turn of events.

Posted in Business Development, Business Models, Product Development, Products | Leave a comment

Social Media is the New Black

There is an old saying probably invented by a PR hack in 1950s New York. It goes: “If you don’t tell your story then somebody else will.” I ran across it  in a post by Justine Musk; if you haven’t read her Blog then head on over she’s brilliant, but that’s another story and I digress.

The quote is as true today as it was when it was first minted and the notion that “it’s your story go tell it” struck a chord in the social media music box that lately has become my mind. You see, there are too many opportunities within the socialverse today for your customer to tell your story for you – and get it all wrong.

Products like Angie’s List, Yelp, Open Table, Four Square allow the customer to start a conversation about you. Positive word-of-mouth advertising is wonderful; a mediocre rating or unflattering commentary can be damning.

How do you control the damage once you’ve been tagged mediocre?  What do you do if the social conversation relegates you to a niche you never intended to occupy? It’s impossible to control the social conversation. So what’s the strategy?

Be the first to frame the conversation.

Extend your web presence through social media. Stake a claim to your corporate name on Facebook and LinkedIn. Microblog with Twitter and/or Tumblr . Develop an entrepreneurial persona by blogging passionately about topics related to your areas of expertise. Carve and occupy the niche you choose, build your social brand.

The only way to keep others from telling your story incorrectly is to be there months ahead of them with the twenty-four carat gold original.


Posted in Branding, Business Development, Software | Leave a comment

On Big Data

I’ve been a long time data geek and thus have been spending a lot of time looking at the startup opportunities in the field of Big Data. Big Data as a topic covers instances where either an application or a database stores an abnormally large amount of data; think zetabytes and petabytes. The discipline is broad and includes technologies and approaches that focus on storage, caching, data distribution and partitioning, analytics and predicting the future.

The social web has been fertile ground upon which many Big Data startups have been planted. Open source movements like Hadoop, GridGain and Pentaho have iterated rapidly and have been used primarily to wade through the terabyte of data generated daily by social computing platforms.

Big Data technologies are already in use within the government, healthcare, financial services and retail sectors with more to follow.

That’s why today we begin coverage on the Big Data ecosystem by aggregating great content from thought leaders and practitioner from around the world. You can read more in the Big Data section of this site and stay tuned for more on Big Data startups.

Posted in Business Models, Products | Leave a comment

Words to Kickstart By

I stumbled on Dwolla’s website the today, they’re a Silicon Prairie startup that launched an alternate, remote, distributed payment system; effectively working with your financial institution and those you’d like to pay. 

What caught my eye wasn’t their business model, the products or the prospect that I might ditch PayPal for good. It was their value statement. Yeh, I know – value statement – kind of like a bulleted elevator speech for folks who don’t like run-on sentences. 

The five bullets were:

  • Safety: Transactions should be safe and secure.
  • Transparency: Users should always have access to their information and control of it.
  • Speed: Transactions should be as fast as possible.
  • Convenience: Our platform should be available on the devices people want to access it from.
  • Value: Transactions should retain as much value as possible. The fees should be as low as possible.

I admit to being somewhat jaded – over the years I’ve read too much of this crap and I’ve always thought that mission statements are, well, for missionaries- and not applicable to cutting-edge startups that should be focusing on product not fluff.

My attention was drawn to those five simple words – safety, transparency, speed, convenience and value – and wether they COULD form the bounding box from which all current and future product development decisions can be made. Quite simply: no feature added to the product or the business model can violate the paramters established by the value statement.

In an era of too many words this short value statement is applicable to every disruptive startup’s product development plans; perhaps yours. 

Posted in Branding, Business Development, KickStarting, Startup | Leave a comment

Innovate Fearlessly

Many years ago my grandfather gave me a toolbox filled with old tools – a hammer, all sorts of screw drivers, a small hacksaw and an old hand drill with a dozen dull drill bits. I was six years old and had always loved to play with those tools in his basement workshop.

The screw drivers were especially amazing. I learned quickly that I could disassemble almost anything and reverse engineer the contents. It didn’t matter if it was a new toy, my old train set or our telephone. They were assembled with screws, each had their secrets and I was going to crack the code. I poured over their innards like a voodoo witch reading the entrails of a chicken – it was magic, pure magic.

Needless to say my parents weren’t delighted with a disaassmbled telephone, that was the final experiment. In the 1960s phones were wired directly into the wall – yes, I disconected that too – and you couldn’t run out to Best Buy to buy a new one. I was punished, the tool box was taken away and not returned until my 15th birthday. I was taught a lesson: don’t experiment, quit being so curious and for God’s sake don’t break shit.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of smart people and innovative IT organizations. I’ve worked with startups, small businesses as well as Fortune five hundreds. Regardless of size they share many of the same traits and I’m often frustrated when they adopt the same early 60s philosophy laid down by my very conservative parents – they’re scared to death of breaking shit. 

There’s hell to pay when you break shit. 

You’re called into someone’s office to explain. You’re ridiculed in a meeting. You can’t be trusted to handle the cool stuff. There are consequences regardless of how fast you fix it. Organizations like this innovate slowly. Managers often say things like: ‘if it ain’t broken don’t fix it’. They are the stuff of innovation anti-patterns.

The fear of breaking shit ultimately results in endless design meetings, analysis paralysis, more rules, too many standards and the loss of all things pragmatic. The organization develops an aversion to temporary failure while innovation and optimization take a back seat to the ‘protect and maintain’ mindset. 

These teams have also dispensed with a valuable learning tool. You see, in order to put it all back together you actually need to understand how it worked in the first place. In order to innovate, you need to break the old, tinker with the new and deploy the results.

No startup can afford to be timid. A sign should be displayed on the product development team’s office walls with the caption: WE BREAK SHIT in 100 point font. It’s a take no prisoners pirate mentality that let’s great teams build great products without fear. 

Posted in Ideation, Startup | Leave a comment