Networks and Enterprises

A prominent trend of the internet era is the tech-enabled network.  Starting with forums in the early days to Facebook today, networks are arguably the web’s “killer app.”  The most recent incarnation of this is the current crop of marketplaces and networks designed to directly facilitate transactions and social interactions (e.g., Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Etsy, Lending Club, and many others).  These networks ease transactions and connections that were previously either near impossible or highly inefficient, improve transparency in opaque industries, and generate significant consumer surplus and enterprise value as a result.  I believe we’re now seeing the network model applied not to the core transactional experience, but to enabling and enriching them.

After aggregating participants, much of the focus for network businesses has been focused on reducing friction for consumers and users (and rightfully so).  The revolution in product and interaction design over the past 5 years has done much to improve user engagement and streamline transactions.  Software and e-commerce sites have become easier to use, which, alongside technological advances and new services (e.g., AWS) , has allowed software to penetrate historically resistant end markets.   I’m excited by this shift as both an investor and consumer, and think it has far from played out completely.

But there are other obstacles outside of the usage and transaction flow that derail purchases and inhibit selling activities (e.g., prospecting, nurturing, merchandising).  For potential enterprise customers, the education required to get all stakeholders on board and the lack of relevant decision-making data (e.g., customer satisfaction) are non-trivial roadblocks that swing decisions.  Vendors still expend significant effort prospecting for leads, creating and distributing marketing content for demand gen, and distributing product information to their channel partners.  Because nearly every purchase is influenced by factors outside of the transaction flow, these costs (both tangible and opportunity) represent real lost revenue.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen more and more entrepreneurs identify interesting network models to aggregate people, services, and information to supply these gaps and create value for both sides.  In addition, these solutions tend to combine many of the benefits of traditional networks (asset light, long-term defensibility, etc.) with the revenue potential of enterprise facing companies.  I’m increasingly excited about the power of networks to make the transaction experience a smoother one – looking forward to seeing big businesses built in the space.

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The Next RSS

Note: this is a working theory that I’m hashing through – comments / thoughts / arguments welcome!

Since before the invention of the printing process, we’ve seen our content consumption largely curated by publishers.  Part of this (I’d imagine) has to do with the economies of scale associated with the distribution of content in the physical world, which continued on in much the same format on the internet (like many other offline-online transitions).   During that time, the way we discovered and obtained online content was quite simple – we went to the publisher’s website, and consumed what was available.

One of the most important early moves toward the democratization of online content discovery and curation (+ production) was the rise of blogging – which enabled a broader set of individuals the power to create and identify good content. With the vast landscape of publisher sites and blogs, RSS readers (e.g., Google Reader, Flipboard, etc.) and other content aggregators became valuable as a way of capturing the content worth consuming on an individual basis.  However, RSS is typically limited to receiving every post from a blog or a site – it allows us to bundle the publishers and blogs we like, but we then have to sort through a semi-curated firehouse to find the few items inside.

However, the social internet (today – Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Pinterest, and many others)  has fundamentally changed how we discover and interact with content.  Rather than publishers and bloggers deciding what is worth seeing, we use the hivemind of our friends and those we follow and admire. In other words, we’re in the process of seeing the curator role distributed to the crowd, in which the publishers and bloggers are influential, but less so.  Not only this, but the curation in this system is happening at the level of individual pieces of content (e.g., a single blog post, listicle, video) rather than at the level of the publisher or blog.

As much of the analysis around Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and their ilk has discussed, this shift toward crowdsourced curation has interesting implications for the required competencies of publishers going forward (and much spilled ink about whether this is “good”). But just as interesting, in my mind, is the opportunity this creates for the next RSS.  If individual publishers and their sites matter less as curators and destinations for consumers, RSS as a format and the reader applications on top of them also lose some value, as consumers see their networks surfacing the best content from those publishers, rather than needing to follow publishers blindly.

So what could rise in its place?  I think we’ve started to see a few services that have built universal content repositories (e.g., Pocket, Instapaper) – products that make it very easy to save and consume from any device, publisher, or service (especially social networks).  We’re also seeing services that mine that our networks to surface the most popular shared content (e.g., Nuzzel).  Both of these kinds of products help either capture or amplify the signal produced by our network.  As these kinds of services become more intelligent, I think they can largely do the curation and discovery “jobs” much better than RSS ever could.

Would love to hear your thoughts – tweet at me @ablordesays.

Note: H/T to HowToGeek for the image.

Jobs that need to be done

Clay Christensen’s “Jobs-to-be-done” framework is one of the most fundamental, but interesting ways to look at products and businesses.  I think there’s a lot to be gained by zooming in on important jobs that a consumer is trying to accomplish, and having a clear point of view on how your product helps them complete it.  Ideally, your product helps them perform a job that they haven’t been able to before (but really wanted to), or helps them complete an important job in a uniquely superior way.

One of my favorite examples of this in Chicago is Apervita, which is helping providers and researchers perform hard but important jobs by making a broad array of health analytics more accessible at the point of care. By doing so, they improve both the quality of care we receive and reduces system cost.

So, I want to share some “jobs” that I don’t think are being done well today.  These aren’t necessarily ideas that can be the basis of a full company – but just jobs I wish had better tools to help people perform them:

  • Studying: After reading Make It Stick, I’ve become convinced that the way we are taught to study in the US is fundamentally wrong.  Highlighting, re-reading, and many of the other common practices that we associate with learning material are not optimal at best, and highly ineffective at worst.  While Khan Academy, Treehouse, and many other online learning services have started to take us down the right path, I think there’s an opening for a product that nudges us to study / learn in ways that lead to more durable recall over time.
  • Habit formation / adherence: Research is continually improving what we “know” as a society, but there’s a gap between knowledge and implementation (especially on the consumer side) that few products help us bridge today. I’m not so sure this is a single product, but more likely principles that need to be embedded into products with other use cases (e.g., weight loss).
  • Student loan education: Though I’m bullish on the ability of ed-tech to bring down the costs of quality education in the very long run, the current and next few generations of students will likely be financing large parts of their educations through loans.  In general, I don’t think there are widely used products that help prospective students and recent graduates understand the cost, and best navigate their way out of debt.

This is just an initial list that I plan on returning to and revising over time.  Are there any jobs you wish were better solved that I’m missing? Any disagreements on the above? Would love to hear your thoughts!