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The Mind of a Creator

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

I find it forever fascinating to try and decipher the minds behind the creativity that stretches the boundaries and adds unique beauty to normal, real-world stuff. Here are two wonderful examples.

It takes a rare mindset to see a utilitarian object, with its own shape and use, and turn it into completely different object with a totally different form and use. The beauty is found in the operational innovation, since each of the final forms looks totally normal.

Or the artist’s mind that takes something that’s been around for centuries and keeps it’s utilitarian properties, while changing it in ways so far beyond the normal decorative and stylistic features that it is almost unimaginable — except to that one mind.

Wouldn’t you love to share a meal (or a bottle of wine) and just talk? No agenda, no purpose, except to bask in the creativity that flows from a truly original mind?

I certainly would.

Video credits: Sofa and Cabinet

Entrepreneurs: Ajo and His Startup Quant Price

Friday, January 15th, 2016

Quant Price logo

Yesterday I described how I came to start my company Quant Price. Today is the story of what happened after that decision.

I first did the Founder Institute program that helps entrepreneurs create companies. They introduced many concepts that are hard for first time founders to grasp. Things of HUGE importance ranging from talking to potential customers to validate the idea to seeing how buying decisions are made.

There are many things that can make a startup fail. Each of these factors are risks. A successful startup has avoided each of these pitfalls in succession.

There is a step by step process to developing the idea and de-risking it. The founder Institute program helped me think through them.

One shortfall of the program was that it has a cookie cutter view to creating startups. It requires that everyone fit into a mold. This may not serve every startup well. I’d probably have taken it to completion if I were not “terminated” for having a hard time getting a sufficient number of video interviews.

Though to be rational, I’ve to admit that it’s also possible that I just have a very bad idea or am not really cut out for this. I may only know very late because “I’m drinking my own Kool-Aid”.

The risks are huge. There are a lot of things that matter to a startup being a success. There has to be value in the product. There has to be a way to reach a big chunk of the market. There has to be a way to convert all those gains into money. People have to believe in the dream and be willing to contribute for free for the duration that the cash flow doesn’t exist.  It takes a lot to keep a startup together.

It was very hard to find my first customer. I didn’t even have my marketing material when I went to interview Katherine Krug the founder of Getbetterback.

Partially because I didn’t realize that I was supposed to bullshit my way through such meetings and, frankly, partially because I didn’t know how to bullshit about it if I had to.

Fortunately, Katherine is one of those people who tests things like prices. I think she was lucky to not have a mentor who had a strong opinion about pricing. (I still can’t believe that people don’t test their prices.)

Katherine first did a price test with Optimizely. Unfortunately, Optimizely is not really geared to do price tests. Additionally, putting Optimizely code on your web page makes it load a lot slower for the end consumer. That itself reduces conversion rates.

It made me wonder if people don’t know or just don’t care about the impact this has on the browsing experience.

Optimizely targets conversion rates, so once Katherine was done with the test it told her how many people had converted to buy at different prices. Obviously at the higher price, fewer people converted.

But the real question was which price lead to better margins?

And was the test significant?

That is when she realized she needed Quant Price.

I salvaged the Optimizely results to guess what the next prices for the next test should be.

We used our pricing engine and did an A/B test. It turned out that seemingly identical prices $49 and $59 were over 26% different from a revenue perspective.

We also realized that changes to the web design and the holiday season could change the optimal price. So much so that at some point $69 was 22% better than $59 because of the Christmas buying spree.

Hidrate, my second client, was easier to find after we put up a video interview with Katherine.

With Hidrate, we seemed to run into some bad luck. The $59 price for them was identical to $49 from a profit perspective. But as luck would have it, they were running out of inventory. Now, at the $49 price they were burning through 45% more inventories to make the same amount of money as at $59.

Once we told them about it, they raise their price to $59 to save inventory. They kept their customers happier for longer AND made money to buy more inventories without losing the company to investors.

Here are details from our first two clients,

We did all this by using technology developed for finance. Quants in the financial industry are usually tasked with pricing securities worth trillions of dollars based on market data. There are multiple factors that affect the “fair” price of a security.

I learned how this valuable task of pricing can be automated incorporating available data.

Many companies now quote prices and sell exclusively online. Computers can be used to make pricing decisions based on price sensitivity of individual customers, business specific parameters, such as inventory availability and market conditions and the current season.

Airlines and Amazon already do this on a massive scale and are very profitable as a result.

SaaS companies and large-to-medium scale retail operations could be next in line.

Fortunately, our market is easily defined. We are looking to help companies with more than 300 distinct customers. This is desirable because with more data we can get statistical significance on more complex models.

We are looking to help SaaS companies that want better pricing models. For them, we have a solution that reduces churn and increases revenue at the same time !

To justify building a company-specific solution, we need to be able to service a pool of revenue of over 10M$/year.

Quant Price’s free app Qbot is available to smaller companies in the Shopify app store.

In order to make our technology more accessible we packaged it into APIs and apps, that help us expose this functionality to more companies.

Two final points.

  • We are looking for talented people  who can participate in the development of our product.

And if you have any questions or comments you can respond here or use the email address above.

 

Entrepreneurs: Ajo and His Startup

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Ajo Fod

After I got my Masters in Computer Science and Optimization from USC,  I worked for banks for a while as a quant (people who do quantitative or mathematical stuff such as build complex models to evaluate financial securities, risk and reward).

Contrary to what most people would tell you about working for a bank, I found the work very interesting—not surprising, given my math background.

But much as much as I enjoyed my work, I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and wanted to do something original.

I’m an engineer at heart and I like inventing things that makes life better or improve what people are already doing.

Innovation seems to happen overwhelmingly in small to medium companies and then big companies usually buy the promising smaller ones.

Doing my own thing would also gave me the ability to try out new things at an amazing pace that makes the process of discovery a lot faster.

Initially I had the bright idea of trying to beat the banks at what they do best: price securities.

I invented a way of making models that could learn more from purchase data about pricing than conventional models do and put those models to work trying to outguess Wall Street computers.

Eventually, I realized that even though my algorithms were smart, the networks that were affordable to me were too slow to use this information for the strategy I developed.

Even though I could predict prices, I couldn’t get ahead of computers that were closer to the exchange to make the profitable trades.

I had to make a pivot or bet even bigger and buy access to the necessary networks.

I paused to think for a while and it occurred to me that the world is full of things that need to be priced.

So, why stick to the business of securities where so many quants and fast computers were concentrated in solving a problem with a lot of history?

Why not solve a Main Street problem?

I began looking for a niche where there was a significant problem that I could solve.

About that time I heard a story on the NPR money podcast.

Two sets of people were asked to guess the weight of a cow shown in a picture.
They first asked a bunch of experts what the weight might be and each gave a different answer.
They also gathered answers from a crowd of non-experts on a website.

The median value in the crowd of non-experts was much closer to the true weight of the cow than the group of experts!

That led me to think about how the wisdom of crowds could be used to help small companies make better decisions.

Of course, I wanted to monetize the information in the buying decisions that people make.

How about learning the perfect offer to make to shoppers at an online store?

 I’d recently built complex pricing models to value financial securities, so I knew I could do this.

I quickly noticed that small businesses were leaving a lot of profit on the table. They were essentially using rules-of-thumb, instead of measuring price sensitivity and making optimal offers for peak profit just like the airlines, Airbnb and Amazon are already doing.

How much of an advantage can optimization bring?

For example, the average retail store runs with a 5% net margin.
What  if the store could raise the sale price (after any discounts) of the average item by 1% without affecting demand?

That would raise their margin a staggering 20%!
And that is what happens with just a 1% change.

Imagine what can happen with a larger price change.

In our experiments with stores on Shopify, we noticed that they were so far off the optimal price that they were making less than 70% of what they could be making if they could tune into the crowd.

That is beyond a big deal!

So I began working on an app with the vision of using optimization to create better offer management strategies.

Over the last year I created the company, Quant Price. You can try our first app for free on Shopify.

Join me tomorrow for a closer look at what Quant Price does.

Entrepreneurs: a Look at What’s Up

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

A look at what entrepreneurial minds are doing, whether they are starting a company or work at an innovative enterprise.

In May I wrote that graphene has the potential to change the world and it seems that Elon Musk plans to take advantage of it.

Tesla could soon achieve this 500-mile battery thanks to a development in graphene-based anodes, which can reportedly quadruple the density and output of lithium-ion batteries.

When I wrote about Ryan Grepper’s Kickestarter campaign to fund his reinvention of the lowly cooler in July he had raised $5M and counting. It ends tomorrow and is the most highly funded campaign ever.

However, with the financial support of 48,971 backers, Coolest Cooler has raised a whopping $10,362,461 — making it 20,721% funded. And the campaign doesn’t end until Friday.

The reinvention of the boring, unsexy butter knife is cool enough to attract boring non-shoppers with no little-to-no interest in the trendy—such as my sister. The attraction comes from the fact that it solves an annoying problem—something entrepreneurs should give more thought to doing.

The Stupendous Splendiferous ButterUp, a butter knife developed by Australia’s DM Initiatives, has a built-in grater that is designed to soften butter and make it easier to spread. 

Four college guys have developed a solution for women to a problem created by guys. It’s a badly needed product that gives women a simple way to know if their drink has been doctored.

The polish — called “Undercover Colors” — will change shades if it becomes exposed to a drugged drink. (…) Simply dip your finger in the liquid. If the polish changes colors, you’ll know not to keep sipping.

When it comes to large company innovation, I’m not sure who is more impressive.

The giant that re-imagined one of the most necessary and embarrassing products on the market today or the ad agency that created a hip way to get the word out.

The company is Kimberly Clark, the product is adult diapers and the agency is Ogilvy & Mather”s New York office.

Adult diapers are used by all ages, often due to injury, and the younger the user the greater the embarrassment at the check stand.

Nearly half of those who experience some form of urinary incontinence are under 50, according the brand. Among the causes are, for women, weakened pelvic muscles that can stem from pregnancy and childbirth and, for men, prostate cancer.

Here’s the ad.

YouTube credit: Depends

Proactive Beats Reactive

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulbrigham/8920826045

Years ago when I bought a hardware firewall an engineer friend told me that it would cost around a nickel (or it may have been 25 cents) to add the feature to a computer’s motherboard.

However, doing that would disrupt the hardware business, so it was/is easier to leave users as easy prey to hackers.

Which brings us to California Governor Jerry Brown, who just signed a law requiring all smartphones to have a kill switch by July, 2015.

CTIA, a trade organization for the wireless industry, thinks the legislation is a terrible idea.

“Uniformity in the wireless industry created tremendous benefits for wireless consumers, including lower costs and phenomenal innovation,” said Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, in a statement. “State by state technology mandates, such as this one, stifle those benefits and are detrimental to wireless consumers.”

Here’s a simple solution to the annoyance of uneven legislation.

Add “anti-theft technology turned on by default,” as required by the California law, to all phones wherever they are being sold.

Of course, if Apple, Samsung and Motorola Mobility, etc., had responded proactively to calls for a kill switch new laws wouldn’t be necessary.

Flickr image credit: One Way Stock

Entrepreneurs: Ryan Grepper and the Coolest

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Ryan Grepper’s Coolest is proof that necessity is the father of invention.

Not that his invention is a necessity and it won’t save the world or even a little bit of it, but it will make your summer fun easier.

The original galvanized metal cooler was patented in 1954.

Coleman introduced a plastic liner in 1957 and wheels were added a couple of decades later.

But nothing, including the fancy electric versions, even comes close to Grepper’s Coolest.

There are far more moving parts to manufacturing a complicated product such as Coolest, which Grepper seems to understand.

It’s also nice to see a “real” product from a twenty-something that while focused on fun will generate revenue through sales, not ads.

Obviously, others agree. Coolest has raised over $5.5 million dollars from more than 29,000 people—and the campaign still has 42 days to run.

Coolest is definitely a global business in the making.

I’m sure it won’t be long before he will have to choose between building a company and selling or licensing his technology.

What would you do?

Image credit: Coolest on Kickstarter

Entrepreneurs: Is First-Mover Status a Winner?

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tmray02/2726353123/

What do Google, Facebook, Amazon and iPods have in common?

None can claim first-mover status, yet all are recognized winners.

First-mover position isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

In fact, it takes a very special mindset beyond what’s mentioned in the article if you are truly in first position.

Let me illustrate.

Way back in late 2009 I worked with an offshore client who had developed a location-based advertising  platform that provided ads, bought through a bidding system, targeted to users’ exact location, context and behavior in applications on mobile phones, portable navigation systems and internet sites.

They had fully developed software and filed for patents overseas and in the US.

Unfortunately, they were years ahead of the market and couldn’t get traction.

As a result of the frustration and the educational effort/cost needed to move the market they chose to pivot and move on to other ideas.

It was a logical choice at the time, although it doesn’t look like it in hind-sight.

First-mover status, especially in consumer tech, equals primary market educator—an effort that makes the actual product development feel like a piece of cake.

That ‘s why it is often second (or even third or fourth)-mover status where you find the big winners.

Flickr image credit: Tom Ray

If the Shoe Fits: Third-party Innovation

Friday, December 20th, 2013

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

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Not trying to insult you, but do you truly innovate or are you basically a third-party idea extension?

There are thousands of start-ups on these sites and in press releases, most with some level of funding, that are variations on Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Tinder, Snapchat, Craigslist, Airbnb, Pinterest and a “for” for any other half-successful start-up out there.

Silicon Valley and its clones are following in Hollywood’s footsteps as it continues its sequels, prequels and remakes.

It’s not that some of them won’t succeed and even turn into significant businesses.

And some actually do address real pain (as opposed to inconvenience), but that doesn’t make them truly innovative.

While you have to sell your “innovation” to investors and include it in your vision to excite your employees, at least be honest when you are alone with yourself.

Honest as to its originality and honest regarding the need.

I seriously doubt that providing yet another way to have meaningless sex compares with creating jobs out of poop.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Do You Abuse the i-word?

Monday, December 16th, 2013

stop-abusing-i-wordInnovation is hot. You hear it everywhere; I even heard a pastor talking about how he “innovates his sermons.”

In 2007 I wrote that the word “leader” was being badly abused; five years later I added “entrepreneur” to the abuse list and today I’m officially adding “innovation.”

It has lost its meaning.

There was a time it was used sparingly and when it was used it referred to stuff like the printing press; steam engine, penicillin, transistor, computer, Internet.

Things that rocked our world.

These days innovation refers more to brand extensions and iterations.

New versions of old stuff are termed innovation to a ridiculous degree—Kellogg CEO John Bryant used the i-word when talking about the company’s new Pop-Tart flavor.

I’m not saying the i-word shouldn’t be used more broadly, since it also signals both a goal and a special type of MAP

Let’s just agree to limit its use to the appropriate, as opposed to the ludicrous.

Image credit: sign generator

Entrepreneurs: are Elegant Solutions Best?

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornmeansbear/5010984974/

Globally, 2.5 billion people don’t have access to a toilet.

1 in 6 people don’t have running water.

Problems like these cry out for innovative solutions, but innovative doesn’t necessarily mean technically sophisticated.

A few years ago Cynthia Koenig saw the water problem first hand in South Africa.

Koenig launched a nonprofit organization to help distribute a locally available water transportation tool. In order to address the issues of poor quality control, corruption, and limited geographic distribution, she soon found herself at the helm of Wello. The social venture manufactures and distributes the WaterWheel, a 20-gallon drum that moves four to five times the amount of water possible using traditional methods of collection and carrying.

Simple, inexpensive and can even become a micro-business for an owner.

In contrast, five years ago the Gates Foundation issued a toilet challenge, with daunting parameters.

Make sure it takes in the bodily waste of an entire family and outputs drinkable water and condiments, like salt. And while you’re at it, make sure that the toilet is microprocessor-supervised and converts feces into energy. And all this has to cost just pennies per person per day.

That description is akin to a silver bullet, not a toilet.

The results, to date, are sophisticated, costly and unsustainable ideas, with prices north of $1000 per toilet.

How different from an available solution that, while it doesn’t do everything, does solves the basic problem and is amazingly cheap.

The Peepoo bag, which inexpensively (less than 2 cents per bag) sanitizes waste before turning it into fertilizer, are huge improvements. They can also be critical in saving lives after natural disasters.

Just think what a few thousand cases of these would mean right now in the Philippines—or in Illinois, for that matter.

Too often, sexy and elegant ends up being complex and expensive, whereas plebian and boring equates to simple and affordable.

Flickr image credit: bjornmeansbear

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