Jellyfish – Shopping to fit the name

30 10 2006

Jellyfish recently announced a $5 million funding round, as reported by TechCrunch and others.

Jellyfish is basically a comparison search engine with cash back rebates, as are common on FatWallet and other comparison search engines, but cash rebates are on a per product basis.

It’s easy enough to pan Jellyfish as another “me too”, but using an elastic and more perfect rebate system goes towards the goal of more perfect markets. Whenever a startup does this, I always expect that there’s at least some reasonable chance for success. In the case of Jellyfish, you can see a more competitive marketplace that ultimately benefits the consumer – something consumer success stories are generally built on.

As I’ve said many times, I’m not a fan of putting a marginally better interface on an established concept and expecting that will be enough to win enough market share to become a success.

So judge the site as you will, but if someone takes an existing business model and makes it more perfect – sometimes that’s enough to make a small or big success when the ball is carried through.

Stagr – Killer Apparel Mashups?

24 10 2006

Every once in a while, a startup makes me turn my head. Stagr may be one of them. It’s a custom t-shirt company (narrow definition, as I’ve explain below) founded by Nick Swinmurn, who made his name in 1999 as the founder of Zappos, the top online shoe retailer with a steadfast devotion to customer service.

Mashable has a review, which is positive but undecided on the success prospects of Stagr. Mention is made that when a concept gets coverage, there seems to be ten startups that come nipping on its heels.

My initial reaction was to agree, making me wonder why Nick Swinmurn would think so boldly that he could take on an established and crowded market. Perhaps the success of Zappos made him think that he could muscle his way into this market with a superior offering. This may be part of the reason, but I would be willing to guess there are better reasons.

Number one, the apparel customization space is not won. Alone, this is sometimes smart but a difficult path to go. It would boil down to how much the newest offering can jump the curve. There are more important factors to why Stagr may succeed big.

Number two, the decision to included brands, bands, teams and personalities is really the key differentiation. Whereas online video and music are getting mashup competitors left and right, why wouldn’t someone target apparel customization? But in a mainstream world, pop culture still rules. Self-expression is great, but in a mainstream market, brands still matter. In a world of mashups, why does everyone has to wear the same thing?

Number three, everyone thinks that apparel customization is just t-shirts. I think this is just a narrow assessment. In thinking big, you would naturally think that most every piece of apparel that carries any unique statements could be subject to mashup. I would assume that eventually this is where Mr. Swinmurn wants to see his company go. I should note that this is not a shot at all custom t-shirt companies – CafePress and Threadless are two in particular that I highly, highly admire, but some companies may not entirely have their strategy set to grow as big as they could (sometimes by choice).

Number four, for reasons stated above, this has a broad appeal. One of the reasons that this has a chance for mass success is that it’s precisely what most Web 2.0 aren’t – something can actually spread beyond the techie crowd. The majority of start ups you see passing through TechCrunch and such are these types of applications. Even something very powerful like Digg may find itself destined to be similarly constrained – a mainstream audience needs to have some other motivation than techie coolness or reputation.

I remember Mr. Swinmurn from e-commerce conferences and, although more soft-spoken, he seemed to have a firm grasp of what mattered – away from all the hype. The assessment of Zappos – a product well-suited to e-commerce and a simple steadfast dedicated to customers first – was honestly all that company needed at its core to succeed. So if I’m assessing what he is thinking properly, I think Stagr has a good chance to be a big winner.

Net riches – where’s all the money being made?

18 10 2006

With the media frenzy surrounding the Google acquisition of YouTube, it’s caught the attention of the mainstream audience to become enamored with a new Internet revolution of riches. College buddies that I normally wouldn’t have expected to give fairly accurate analyses of the outstanding issues of the acquisition. How many people in this world know about the intricacies of copyright law? Apparently more than I expected…

Maybe it’s partially because the YouTube stories are fewer and farther between. Or maybe because it’s easier than ever to envision yourself being in the YouTubers shoes. It’s easy than ever to get a startup off of the ground, both a danger to those willing to loosely throw around money and a boon to those who have a sustainable product/business and the endurance to see it through.

It’s very obvious these days that everyone is thinking startup. It’s in the air that people really believe they can get rich.
Paul Graham has a very useful list of startup mistakes. And in the effort of distillation, I really attribute all mistakes to two things: building something users people want and lack of effort.

Sometimes you put a lot at risk to determine whether people want your product.  Paul Graham recommends that building a product that you would use yourself.  I would echo that sentiment.

While I also echo the sentiment that you should think about large markets, not small, niche markets out of fear of failure, it also makes sense to leverage partners that are building economies as a great place to start.  Limiting your risk is never a bad idea, limiting your growth potential is a bad idea.  These economies have taken the risk themselves to build something that you can use to your benefit.

iLetYou starts a new economy and I hope these because they way of the future. In the way that eBay, CafePress, etsy, affiliate programs, threadless, Google AdSense/AdWords, blogging platforms and such have done, we want to build a new economy.  We want to expand the pie, not just take a piece for ourselves.

But where is the real money being made?  That’s really what your definition of real money is.
eBay is the king of economy creation.  There are eBay entrepreneurs, eBay partners, eBay enablers and the US Postal Service itself; an entire economy has been created around the auction marketplace.  Same with Amazon stores, PayPal payments and such – they create new economies that are more accessible than ever.

Affiliate programs are another example, but some more distorted distributions.   Super affiliates are very limited in number, but largely affiliate programs drive at least some revenue to a large portion of web-based ventures.

The economies that succeed are the ones that share the earnings fairly.  Don’t throw your users a few pennies, nothing bugs me more than that.  It’s in everyone’s best interest to create an equitable split to grow the pie, not chop it up arbitrarily.

Not everyone gets rich in the process.  But what does happen is you see hundreds of thousands and even millions benefit in their day-to-day lives.  That’s what’s exciting, granted not as sexy as YouTube.

So the next time you think about where’s all the money being made and where you should start, remember the long tail of earners (cliched, I know) as motivation of where to start.  And if you want to start your own economy, start with these earners in mind.

Why does it work? It’s just cool…

12 10 2006

There’s been a lot of speculation of DVDs versus movie downloads. I think it’s a valid conversation, otherwise I wouldn’t have spent so much time myself examining it.

How about this for an explanation of why DVDs are still here to stay? It’s just a cool format. Burn-to-DVD, custom DVD creation, special feature customization – Business 2.0 has a pretty good article with some new technologies coming to fruition that will along the DVD format to really ride down the long tail, both independent and custom-created professional content.

I remember taking a computer animation course on the art of storytelling using computer animation, with the promise that we’d receive a DVD with our work at the end of the course (I never did get the DVD). The tools are only getting better.

Sometimes you get wrapped up in the business analysis when you forget why something succeeds in the first place – it’s just cool. The world is littered with cool things that failed, but DVDs certainly are a home-run hit – that’s why they won’t be going away for a while.

A DVD still contains a wallop of storage, easy to burn, easy to carry around and easy to ship. HD-DVD only increases this high storage, easy portability ratio.

My new startup iLetYou hopes to help distribution of these new and existing creations further on a great format… DVDs. It’s coming right around the corner.

In Your Own Few Words

12 10 2006

Seth Godin references a particularly insightful blog post by Scott Adams. It’s a great post that I definitely recommend as well.

Adams basically starts with stories of times when people told him he was in over his head (winning an egg hunt, becoming valedictorian, becoming a cartoonist with no prior relevant experience) and then succeeds despite the comments.

Intentionally, I think he comes off as a braggart, but finally tells his secret that he’s failed 9 times for every success… a generally lackluster 1 out of 10 average. What’s interesting and important is that he glosses over the failures; a sign that they’re not important and that, in fact, his average is perfectly fine and, given his success, actually amazing given his high standards for success (as Seth Godin points out).

A big lesson here is one that is echoed over and over. Sometimes the failures don’t matter because you only have to win once.

Adams also points out that his failures ALL seemed entirely feasible. Ideas that are feasible are beaten to the ground because everyone does them. The lesson there is to do something extraordinary that others are afraid or otherwise don’t want to do.

Finally, the most important lesson is to recognize what’s most important in everything you do. In academics, business and life, it’s paramount to get to ‘the essence’. Time and time again, the most successful people have this ability or develop this ability.

If you can boil down your thoughts/idea/business/movement in a few powerful words, you’ve got my attention and probably many, many more along with me. Now go make it go happen even if you’re in over your head.

Stumbling on Happiness

5 10 2006

Yesterday, I watched a TedTalk (becoming one of my favorite repositories of varied speeches, not just technology related) by Dan Gilbert about Stumblilng on Happiness. I’ll probably run out and get his book sometime soon. Mr. Gilbert clearly has a very academic style, but actually one that I very much appreciate.

The speech basically details studies of seemingly horrific experiences (being wrongly imprisoned) and seemingly terrific experiences (winning the lotto), finding oft times that the person being wrongly imprisoned is actually happier than the person winning the lotto. A natural human response is to balk at this, but Gilbert gives a number of scientific reasons why this actually happens.

Society tends to believe that manufactured happiness is inferior to natural happiness (getting what you want). Clearly, this edict of society is necessary because if everyone thought that not getting you want is just as good as getting what you want, the engines of innovation and labor in free markets would come to a grinding halt.

He closes that our longings and our worries are overblown because our brains are able to manufacture happniess. Thus, we tend to overestimate the difference between getting what you want and not getting what you want.

The central lesson here is to use the desire to get what you want in a bounded manner and you’ll act prudently and justly. But don’t let this desire (or fear) either drive you too far to lie, cheat or steal – or cripple you to paralysis for fear that not getting what you want will make you miserable.

Little Miss Sunshine – Winners and Losers

2 10 2006

Just watched Little Miss Sunshine last night – a little late in the release cycle, but was finally convinced to go out and watch it. Little Miss Sunshine introduces and follows a family of six: the dad who’s obsessed with winning but hasn’t really won anything, the granddad that has decided that being old means doing whatever you want, the uncle who failed committing suicide, the son who ascribes to Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence for months long, the daughter who is still learning her way and the mom just trying to hold it all together. The movie follows the family in a trip to California to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California for Olive, the daughter. RottenTomatoes as usual is a better place to get a synopsis and more reviews of the movie.

When mainstream drivel gets you down, it’s always nice to see a movie like Little Miss Sunshine to remind you why the art of cinema will continue to be a powerful aspect of modern culture. I think what really makes this movie great is its subtler points – a testament to great writing. When the movie tries to get a little too direct with its judgment on beauty queens and pageants, that’s when it is actually at its weakest.

This family is a band of losers, at least losers as they would be judged by typical American standards. Greg Kinnear delivers great lines as the dad like “sarcasm is the instrument of losers” and “don’t apologize, only losers apologize” (paraphrases), seemingly a subtle indicting on the American obsession with winning.

Combine this with nicely incorporated references to the typical “you’re only a loser if you don’t try”, there is a counterbalance struck in this movie. The family definitely has bravado, enough to get to California and triumphing over many absurd events in just a two day span. So are they losers? Not according to that definition.

So what’s the message? This isn’t a message movie, just a well done movie to make you think (and laugh out loud at times).