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Pleased that Scotland is still part of the union and more...

Pleased that Scotland is still part of the union

Scotland votes no

 

No 2,001,926 (55%)

Yes: 1,617,989 (45%)

Turnout: 84.6%

I don’t write much about politics on this blog but I’m making an exception today because it’s great that Scotland has voted to stay part of the United Kingdom. We have enjoyed remarkable political stability as a single country but as separate countries we could have found ourselves in turbulent times. The risks to Scotland centred around financial uncertainties and the balance of the two to three party system would have tilted uncomfortably to the right in the rest of the UK. Much better the devil we know.

Also worthy of note is the peaceful way this debate has played out. I imagine many parts of the world are looking on wishing that their governments would allow a similarly threatening debate to play out without violence.

Hopefully attention can now turn to building the future in a similarly constructive manner.

      



Why be an entrepreneur

I just read this on a great post about the paradoxical traits of entrepreneurs:

Creating something from nothing and watching other people use it, love it, and share it is simultaneously the most empowering and humbling feeling. The satisfaction that comes from watching numbers climb as you tweak and improve your product is indescribable. The exhilarating triumph you feel each time you solve an unsolvable problem is your very own version of winning the lottery. And the relief that floods over you when a risky decision pays off mirrors a brush with death and results in similar feelings of invincibility and extreme gratefulness.

In short, the highs are HIGH.

The lows are, of course, low, but for many it’s the highs that make it, or make being an entrepreneur so addictive. If you’re into rapid learning and seeking new experiences there are few options like it.

The article goes on to list paradoxical traits that successful entrepreneurs exhibit – e.g. stubborn yet flexible and both big picture and detail oriented. For anyone thinking of being an entrepreneur it’s a good list to evaluate yourself against.

      


Improving engagement with ecommerce apps

Commerce is moving mobile and mobile is moving towards apps. M-commerce apps are, therefore, the way forward. We have investments in a couple (Top10 for hotels and Stylect for shoes) and I expect we will do more going forward. We are taking a serious look at another one right now.

However, maintaining user engagement can be challenging in m-commerce. Becoming part of their users’ daily routine, one of their ‘home screen apps’, if you will, is difficult because the customers of most m-commerce apps don’t purchase that often. Top10 and Stylect have lots of engaged users, but nobody is booking hotels or buying shoes every day.

Notifications are one of the most obvious tools for improving engagement, but they need to be used carefully. New research from Kahuna published on Andrew Chen’s blog found that only 12% of users engage with “ecommerce and retail” notifications, implying that up to 88% of users find them annoying. “Utility and financial services” notifications top the chart with 40% engagement, perhaps reflecting their daily usage patterns.

The trick for m-commerce apps is to use notifications sparingly and doing the work to make sure they are timely and relevant to the user. Unfortunately that means work – there’s no quick and easy way to use notifications to drive a sustained improvement in engagement.

The Kahuna research makes three recommendations:

Find the appropriate cadence: Users may not want to hear about shoes every day, but once a week might be the sweet spot. Look at the stats and see what works.

Make it personal: Don’t send the same notifications to every user. It’s much better to send users personalised sale notifications for shoes on their wish lists than to send everybody a 10% off coupon for a retailer who wants to do a blanket promotion.

Get the timing right: users engage more with notifications at times when they use the app, so figure out when that is and send notifications then. Urgent notifications are different. If a pair of shoes from my wishlist has gone on sale then I should know about it now, before they sell out. Don’t make the mistake of waking people up though (see below).

The best practice book for m-commerce is still being written. A small number of companies are making it work, e.g. Amazon and Uber, but e-tailers with less frequent purchase patterns are still figuring it out. I’m excited for Forward Partners to watch and help them do that.

Below this are some examples of well and badly executed notifications along with customer responses on social media. They are from Andrew Chen’s post. If you are involved with m-commerce you should go read it…


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8-guardian

      



33m users to zero: Lessons from the Branchout flameout

Social recruitment business Branchout raised $49m and grew to 33m users. Today Techrunch is reporting that they are in a firesale situation.

I think there are two lessons here:

  1. Growth without engagement is fragile. Branchout did an amazing job of attracting users to the service, but they used spammy tactics and too few of those users became active. Rapid growth without a user story that resonates widely spells danger for investors, particularly when acquisition methods are on the edge.
  2. Platform dependency is a killer. Branchout collapsed when Facebook banned the Wall Post method they were using and many other companies which depended on a single platform have suffered the same fate (Google’s algorithm changes have claimed many casualties). Caveat: dependency can be ok when there is a clear alignment of interests between the platform and the startup. In this case there was no alignment. Branchout was hurting the Facebook experience rather than helping it.

Of these two lessons avoiding platform dependency is the easier for investors to observe. Growth’s intoxicating promise is that the business can be MUCH MUCH bigger tomorrow and that makes it easy to suspend disbelief when areas of the business aren’t working (yet…). Fortune generally favours the brave. In venture capital that usually means those that make risky investments, but in cases like this it means having the courage to stand aside.

      


A cambrian explosion in AI – but how will new services surface?

Dag Kittlaus, founder of Siri, wrote on Techcrunch yesterday to predict that A Cambrian explosion in AI is coming. He notes that there has been “massive uptake of assistant services spurred by Apple’s Siri, Google’s Now and Microsoft’s Cortana” but says these services are still in their infancy. The missing piece is an ecosystem of services that work with these assistants. That would enable the Holy Grail of an assistant that intelligently finds and uses whatever apps or services we need for a given task – just like in the movie Her from earlier this year.

Need a babysitter for tomorrow night in a new location? The assistant should know the age of your kids, find a service that matches your price profile and then make a reservation, maybe asking you to confirm first.

I have just been looking for a babysitting service in a new location, and it wasn’t easy, so that that sounds very exciting, and I very much look forward to it becoming a reality.

However, it’s not clear to me how the discovery process will work. Healthy ecosystems have some way for quality to float to the top. Examples include ranking or voting systems as we see in Product Hunt and Stack Overflow, algorithms that incorporate user signals e.g. Page Rank, and manual system that takes user feedback as a core input e.g. the app stores.

The whole point of assistant services is that they choose services for us. In the babysitting example above I don’t want the assistant to come back with three options and make me choose, I want one option that I’m happy with. Before I trust the assistant I might want to hear about second and third options to make sure I’m getting the best, but I imagine I would stop bothering with that pretty quickly.

However, if assistant systems make the choice for us then user signals are limited to feedback given on the service. New services, by definition have little if any feedback, making it unlikely that assistants will recommend them and that innovation would suffer. That’s one nightmare scenario. The other is that the assistants only recommend services which have a relationship with whoever wrote the assistant – i.e. Siri only recommends services that have built a relationship with Apple.

In my view app store owners already have too much influence over which apps we use, and that runs counter to the original promise of an open internet. My fear is that assistants, wonderful though they will be, will worsen this problem.

      



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