startups


9
Aug 11

Design like you’re right…

It’s impossible not to think a lot about data these days. We’re generating it all the time, constantly. On our phones, on our televisions, on our laptops, in public spaces. And increasingly the best startups and Internet giants are using data to make better and better product decisions and designs.

Today at Greylock we announced that DJ Patil is joining us as Data Scientist in Residence, as far as I know the first time any VC has had a position quite like that. It’s a huge addition for us, and the expression of a bunch of deeply held beliefs about the state of the art in designing great products.

But as I talk about using data for design, I find that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it — some people have the sense that it somehow makes designers less powerful, that you’re basing decisions based purely on mechanical measures rather than designer intuition and genius.

In my view, however, data is what makes designers not only strong, but primary. It’s what turns designers from artists into the most important decision makers in a company, because it’s understanding the data that lets you understand what your users are doing, how they’re using (or not using) your products, and what you can be doing better.

It made me think back a bit to my own training as a UX designer (we called it HCI then) at Stanford in the mid-nineties, when the field was just starting to develop. We would spent a lot of time on ethnography, need finding, doing paper prototypes and then doing basic mockups and user testing. And we’d get 80% of the way there then go and build it.

Nowadays, the state of the art is to still do need finding and some mockups early, but to get to a working prototype as quickly as you can, that’s instrumented so that you can tell what’s happening and figure out whether you’re on the right track or not.

I think that’s generally the right approach, but it’s worth noting: instrumented prototypes can really only get you to local maxima — they can help you find ways to tweak and optimize the basic design you’ve got, but they can never help you find a radically different and better solution.

So when I talk about using data — and I talk about it a LOT — what I’m talking about is a mixture of the artisan/designer-led designs along with using data to figure out what’s best.

Thinking about it the other day, I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings that I learned from Bob Sutton: “Fight like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.” Bob’s an organizational theorist, and what he means is really a paraphrase of something that I think Andy Grove said, which is that he wanted all his people to have strong beliefs, loosely held. In other words, he always wanted people to come in with a point of view — a design, as it were — but to be willing to moved off of that point of view in the face of data.

So the modern, design oriented framing is this:

“Design like you’re right. Read the data like you’re wrong.”

In other words, you should always design the product you think/believe/know is what people want — there’s a genius in that activity that no instrumentation, no data report, no analysis will ever replace.Β  But at the same time you should be relentless in looking at the data on how people actually use what you’ve built, and you should be looking for things that show which assumptions you’ve made are wrong, because those are the clues to what can be made better. We all like to see all the up-and-to-the-right happy MBA charts, and those are important. But they don’t help you get any better than you already are.

I wish we taught more of this blend, because all of the products we use would get better.

So: design like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong.


31
Jul 11

Screens, Storage & Networks

I’ve been thinking a bunch about platforms lately, and how they’re evolving very very quickly. Generally, there are two categories of thing that people talk about as platforms. Traditionally, they’ve been computer operating systems: Windows, OS X & Linux, now iOS & Android. Lately people are talking about cloud platforms: services like EC2, but also web services with APIs that other apps are built to integrate with.

But more and more, that’s not the way I’m thinking about my own systems; as devices proliferate at my own home, and as I tend to use tiny connected computers in more numerous and varied contexts.

I’ve been interested in what I call “4 screen & a cloud” products for a while: products that help us unify and take advantage of our laptop + phone + tablet + tv — but it all became a little clearer to me a few weeks when a wave of devices entered the house all at the same time. In the space of a few weeks, I upgraded to an iPad2, got a Samsung Tab to experiment with Android Tablets, got an Android phone in addition to my iPhone, and got a WebOS phone from the D9 conference. So we had all those devices in the house, plus our iMac, Kathy’s set of devices, and my mom’s as well, since she was visiting. Oh, and 3 Kindles between the three of us. Screens were everywhere.

Now, I’m the first to recognize that we’re somewhat atypical in our technology consumption in normal times; add to that the devices that I’ve picked up lately because of work and my house is a jumble of operating systems, devices and power adapters. Exciting!

When you get that many screens and devices, what happens is interesting: when you want to do something, communicate with someone, remember something, schedule an appointment, read a book, or whatever, you just pick up whatever screen is nearest to you and work from that.

Well, you do that if you can. Because in our current platform chaos, not all devices are fungible, not all activities are available from all platforms.

So that got me thinking some about what I need, and where, and in what contexts and on what devices, and now I think about platforms this way: I have a set of screens, a set of stuff, and a set of people that I want to do things with — and I want those sets available to me wherever & whenever I am.

By screens, I mean something more than just pixels: I really mean input & output systems, of which screens are the most visible parts; really it should probably be screens, sensors & speakers. In other words, it’s the displays of each system, the audio systems, and the ways that we indicate intent, be it typing, swiping, speaking, remote-button-puching, smiling, waving, running, or just being.

By storage, I mean something more than just bits: while Dropbox and iCloud and Clouddrive are important, I want to do more than just store and share my files with others. It’s about more than having a place to put my music. It’s about having the context of my life: my apps, my reading material, my history of shopping & interest intent. It’s really the things I’m creating, consuming, sharing, saving, working on and just thinking about. One of the things that’s probably non-obvious about this formulation is that for this to work, the storage is going to be pretty keyed to my identity. Without knowing something about who I am, it won’t work.

And by network, I mean something more than just my Facebook graph: what’s becoming clear is that we’ve all got many and diverse groupings in our lives, ranging from the very intimate groups of a nuclear family to the wide-ranging groupings of Twitter followers. The short version, though, is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that, just like in the offline world, people online want to do things with each other. Shocking, I know.

That’s the definition of platform that’s relevant to me: a combination of screens, storage and networks that help me do my work and live my life. The companies that see that true platforms transcend any one particular technology stack will be the ones that prosper — you can already see some interesting ones emerge.

As a side note, I think screens, storage & networks is one way to look at the landscape of the giants competing: it’s where Apple, Google, Facebook & Amazon are slugging it out (and to some extent it’s the evolution now of my old stomping ground, Mozilla). I would argue that each of the giants has a super strong position in 1 or 2 of the three areas, but none has a lock on all three, and most of the interesting initiatives of each are about strengthening the places where they’re historically weak.

Apple is obviously terrific at screens, okay at storage, and not very good at networks.

Google’s now strong at screens (although probably not as strong as Apple) and could be great at storage, and finally has a credible start on networks.

Facebook is incredibly strong at networks, has some weakness in screens, and is pretty good with storage (at least for things like photos).

And Amazon is very strong on storage, weak at networks, and weak (at the moment) on screens.

I’d argue that their relative strengths and weaknesses areΒ  important for startups to understand as well, as that gives you a bit of a map of one set of opportunities.

Anyway, that’s how I’m thinking about things lately. What do you think?


21
Jul 11

Announcing Citrus Lane

I’ve been at Greylock 6 months now, and have a bunch of learnings and observations I’ll start sharing on the blog soon!

But in this post I’m really happy to share that the first investment that I’ve led is in Citrus Lane — an investment we made a few months ago.

Citrus Lane is a modern subscription e-commerce company that’s focused on getting awesome, healthy, useful & delightful products to young families. They launched their site and products last week. πŸ™‚

I’m really, really excited to be involved with the company.

I’m exited about the category: subscription commerce is coming like a freight train; we’re in a period where the way we buy products and services is changing dramatically and quickly. The comprehensiveness of Amazon’s offerings and the ubiquity of the modern logistics chain have paved the way for more thoughtful, curated, unique offerings to consumers, highly targeted by interest, lifestyle and personal tastes.

I’m excited about the particular sector: as a family with a kindergartner, I’m acutely aware of how you go from month to month never knowing whether you should be doing better taking care of your children, thinking there must be better ways to do things and better products. It’s obvious to me that we’ve made product and process decisions that will last for years. And it’s super obvious that young parents, and especially moms, control trillions of dollars of product decisions.

And I’m particularly excited to work with the CEO & Founder, Mauria Finley. I’ve known Mauria for more than 15 years — she’s a Stanford-trained Computer Scientist with a particular expertise in product design, and has held product leadership roles at Ebay, PayPal, Good, AOL and elsewhere. She’s fantastic, and a highly motivated first time CEO. She’s been great to work with so far and I think will continue to be tops.

She’s putting together a very interesting team that includes Claire Hough, her co-founder & CTO — previously of NexTag, Blue Martini, Netscape, Napster and more.

So they’re launched! Go take a look and see what you think. Watch this space (and follow them on Twitter!). πŸ™‚

[PS — I’ve done several other investments, but they’ve been from our Discovery Fund, which we typically don’t announce publicly unless the companies really want us to. This is somewhat different in that I’m on the board of directors and it’s a more significant level of investment.]


23
Jun 11

My Interview in Fast Company

Fast Company just put up an interview with me done by Kermit Pattison, and I’m really, really happy with it. It covers a lot of topics, including how I think about leadership & management (they’re not the same!), some lessons I’ve learned about how to be more extroverted, some things I’ve only recently started to really understand about some of the very important lessons I’ve learned along the way. Kermit did a really good job in capturing the essence of how I think about this stuff. Would love to read any impressions, reactions, arguments or otherwise that you have. πŸ™‚


20
May 11

Recruiting DNA

Since coming to Greylock full time in January, I’ve been talking to a lot of people. I did that before, of course — I’ve always spent a lot of time building my network — but in this role it’s significantly more than ever before. So I’ve been talking with tons of entrepreneurs, tons of techies, tons of executives, tons of students — for a variety of reasons, including funding, recruiting for roles here at Greylock, etc.

One of the things I’ve been really, really struck by is how significant the first 4 or 5 years of a person’s career seems to be on how they think and how they approach the world. It’s typically very easy to tell if someone started their career at Google or Apple or Microsoft or Paypal or a bunch of others, even when they’re 15 years into their career and well removed from that first job. You can just see it in the way they approach problems. These are gross simplifications and overgeneralizations, but Googlers tend to think about things in a data and machine learning sort of way. Amazon folk (Amazonians?) tend to think in terms of testing and yield. And other companies that shall remain nameless are notable in that their alumni have absurdly good PowerPoint skills. (Which, sadly, is not actually a positive indicator.)

So like I say, gross oversimplifications and gross generalizations, but you really can tell a lot about where a person started their career by how they act and think about things. (And I guess others have had this insight about organizational imprinting before — here’s an HBS study and here’s what Diego wrote about his early time at HP a few weeks back.)

Since I was in Austin this week, where I started my career at Trilogy, I reflected some on how I was imprinted by being there — and for all the weird, screwed up world views I developed there (and believe me, it was like 90% screwed up world view), the thing that imprinted most is an insane focus on recruiting insanely talented people. As a company, we were relentless about getting the smartest, most driven, most talented people we could. We were a tiny company, but going toe to toe with giants in on campus recruiting, for example — and I think we were probably about the best tech company at recruiting anywhere in the US in the mid-90s.

So thank goodness I went to Trilogy, because that intense focus on recruiting at all levels, getting ridiculously talented people to work with and getting out of their way — that’s something that’s been absolutely critical and foundational for me my whole career. When I tell people I worked at Trilogy, most people today don’t know what that is, even. But I’m very happy to trade off a brand name on the resume for getting recruiting into my DNA in a fundamental way. It changed everything.