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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The inevitable need for Plan B

Many if not most tech entrepreneurs eventually face a wrenching problem: when do I give up on Plan A and go to Plan B?

In some cases Plan A and B (or A,B,C,D …) co-exist alongside each other in a successful diversified revenue model. In other cases, the company is too small to have more than one plan or the initial plan is such a loser (or another such a winner) that the answer is obvious.

However, in many cases it’s hard for managers to admit the correct decision — either because the data is ambiguous or because of emotional involvement. I suspect that most founders will have a hard time letting go of Plan A, because of the psychic investment and legacy role. Or if Plan C comes from your new CEO — and it bombs — it’s often hard to decide to ditch the plan if it might also mean ditching the CEO.

On Wednesday, I stopped by Pinger, a mobile software startup located walking distance to my SJSU office. CTO Jocelyn Cloutier — who worked for Yahoo, AOL, Bell Labs and as a Montreal C.S. college professor — happens to be married to one of my friends and co-authors.

A venture funded startup that’s not quite 4 years, Pinger spent 2 ½ years trying to get its Pinger voicemail multicast system established. Despite a few high profile wins (like the 2008 presidential campaign of John Edwards), like so many other tech startups it found itself flogging a solution in search of a problem.

Cloutier said that at some point, the management team had to admit that the original company concept wasn’t working: “I just put two years of my life into there, so let’s try something different.”

So when the iPhone App Store launched in the summer of 2008, Pinger carefully evaluated it. On the one hand, ”we didn't know at that time that app store is going to be the thing.” In retrospect, the App Store proved to be a smash success — but as in any startup, it’s tough to make a decision when the future is unknown.

Still, Pinger saw iPhone apps as a big potential opportunity, based on the prior success of the iPhone and its increasing momentum. It jumped in with both feet: in little more than a year, Pinger released four iPhone aps:
  • Dec 2008 Pinger Phone: an enhanced souped up IM client (ala Adium) with some other friend features. ad supported
  • Feb 2009. Textfree: a freemium SMS client, naturally segmented by the # of messages per day
  • July 2009: Doodle Buddy, a kid -oriented drawing program (that allows collaborative color sketching over a network)
  • Today (Aug. 20). Free2Call, a new app (approved while I was there at Pinger) that tells consumers which calls are in-network.
While the first application is no longer being sold — the cost structure didn’t work — it paved the way for all the future apps. As Cloutier said: "Pinger phone showed us there's volume there. We can put an application out there and we are going to have a lot of downloads. Now the question is how can we have an application that they're going to use every day and are going to pay for?"

For Pinger, Plan A was a hosted service and Plan B was peddling iPhone apps at $0-$5 each. (Textfree Unlimited has an annual subscription).

It turns out the technology wasn't very similar between Plan A and Plan B, but the technologists were. The founders were veterans of Handspring — and thus understood the whole device-constrained software model — which enables the team to do a good job of designing something for a 320x480 screen with no keyboard and no mouse.

Pursuing Plan B, Pinger has made it so far, but there are lots of uncertainties and no guarantees. International growth is problematic: most of their products are tied to US-specific telecom industry features (Free2Call) which would require data or localization or negotiation for each country. The iPhone/iPT is only a small part of the US market; although ISVs would like to reach other handset owners, it's not clear which app store will catch on next.

More generally, there's also the inerhent problem of package software sales — as opposed to services like If you’re Google or Verizon Wireless, which make ongoing revenue off a customer after acquiring only once.

Software products — like vidoegames, records, movies — are prone to the one hit wonder problem. Once everyone buys your hit, what do you sell them next? If you don’t sell them another product — or an upgrade like Office 2023 or EA’s annual NFL Football update — then once everyone in your segment has bought the product, the income flow stops.

This one-time nature of software product sales nearly killed my own company, as initial strong sales fizzled out as we quickly reached the limits of unexpectedly small niches.

At Palomar we went from Plan A (consumer apps) to Plan B (developer apps) to Plan C (semi-custom OEM utilities) to Plan D (retail OEM utilities). We worked through the 4 business models in the first 4 years. At year 6 dumped all but Plan C (which was cash flow positive and the long run the only one that made any money).

What’s the take home? Entrepreneurs face several tough decisions, including when to look for Plan B (or C or …), when to implement Plan B, when to abandon Plan A. This choice is obscured by the various uncertainties: not knowing what customers will want, what competitors will do, where the industry will go and how effective our execution will be.

There is also the diversification vs. focus problem. Do you hedge your bets, or does spreading your bets guarantee that neither will succeed? Do you put all your eggs in one basket — all the weight behind the arrow? If so, how can you recognize that all-or-nothing bet has become controlled flight into terrain?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Famous lie slightly more true

As is well known in the US, there are three great lies:
  1. "I'll respect you in the morning."
  2. "The check is in the mail."
  3. "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."
In a man-bites-dog story, Entrepreneur magazine (which is a lot more pro-free enterprise than Inc.) is praising a government website for actually helping small business owners:
There's something new at business.gov, the official online business link to the U.S. government: community. OK, starting a blog site isn't that new an idea generally. But the business.gov blog, which just got going in July, offers a unique opportunity for small business owners to learn how to do business with the feds.

With all the new federal funding floating around from the stimulus bill, this seems like a great place to maybe get a quick answer if you're stymied on how to apply to get stimulus funds, apply for an SBA loan, or about anything else governmental. …

Not enough small businesses even look at trying to snag government contracts if you ask me. Hopefully, this blog will help demystify the process.
I don’t think anyone is going to change the list of lies, but every rule has its exception. It’s good to see sensible, low-cost efforts to disseminate information about existing government programs.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Innovation is more than invention

We thought we were home run hitters, but then we learned that we were born on third base. — Attributed to an AT&T alumnus
This quote by Stanford economist Tim Bresnhan (at Tuesday‘s State of the Net West conference) nicely captures the key problem facing innovative engineers working for any company smaller than the old Ma Bell.

Bell Telephone Laboratories had a better research staff (and working conditions) than all but a handful of universities. The monopoly profits of The Phone Company fueled some of the greatest inventions and scientific discoveries of the latter 20th century — things like lasers, satellites, information theory, etc. etc.

However, as this quote suggests, there are two reasons why such inventive output doesn’t provide a good measure of success:
  • It’s easy to bring technology to market (e.g. electronic switching, microwave long distance) if your captive customers comprise 90+% of the largest economy in the world.
  • When you can’t bring your expensive new technology to market, the guaranteed rate of return means there is no penalty for waste or inefficiency.
Invention is never enough. Except at Ma Bell, big innovations require (as Hank Chesbrough demonstrated in his Xerox studies) a business model and someone entrepreneurial enough to create a market if it doesn’t exist already.