Archive for the ‘ Business ’ Category

Free Food and Foosball–Not Your Typical Summer Internship

Last April, I rang Xobni’s doorbell, wondering if my interview with Jeff Bonforte (the CEO) would be persuasive enough to secure a summer job. The essay I had written a few weeks prior at his request had clearly made an impression, but I wasn’t prepared for the job offer I received after only a few minutes in the room. While I had interviews and offers from a few other companies, Xobni felt different. At the time I had no idea how much I would learn about the inner-workings of a startup, but the interesting products, along with the experienced and hospitable people were a draw. And yes, free food and transportation made the choice much more palatable (pardon the tongue in cheek humor).

Fast forward two months, and I was once again knocking on Xobni’s door–this time to start work. I had limited programming experience, so I didn’t know what to expect, but I was put to work doing engaging and meaningful projects for my entire 6 week internship.

I began the summer by conducting detailed technical research and experimentation on various platforms, discovering constraints and loopholes for Xobni to manipulate in future features and products. This line of inquiry led me to investigate briefly the complex and sometimes-frustrating world of Objective-C and the iOS SDK, stretching my meager programming skills to their limit. I also did several competitive analysis projects as new rivals appeared on the scene. As I eased into life at Xobni, I also found myself exploring user-experience design–specifically where behind-the-scenes processes intersect ease-of-use and front-facing interfaces.

Throughout the summer, I was able to attend and participate in many product meetings. At the beginning, I merely observed goings-on, but by watching experienced professionals I was able to pick up tricks of the trade, such as comparing design trade-offs or prioritization of features. As the weeks went on, these tips allowed me to participate in discussions and heated debates, especially where my areas of research were concerned, and eventually conduct my own presentations and meetings.

While these experiences were extremely interesting, the best part of my job came when I was invited to get involved in the development of a project still in its infancy. initially, the CEO sat the team down and gave us a deadline of two weeks to finish Version One. Taking his vision to reality in that time frame seemed impossible, but through careful planning, delegation, and hours of hard work we were able to create a minimum viable product that blew away even Jeff Bonforte’s high standards. Over the course of the project, I learned about the basics of project management, the importance of frequent and detailed communication, and the value of “good enough” in a market where time is of the essence. While we did exert extreme effort, part of what energized us was the ability to take occasional breaks and let loose, playing killer foosball or rough-housing with Zoe, the company dog. This intense, yet fun-loving atmosphere and never-ending passion for this line of work fueled the sustained desire to be industrious for extended periods of time.

This summer I had the privilege to immerse myself in life at a well-managed startup. I conducted and applied interesting research, witnessed vigorous product design debates, and worked with knowledgeable colleagues who generously shared valuable wisdom about their area of expertise. Xobni invested significantly to make my summer meaningful, and I can safely say they succeeded. I not only learned about the topics I investigated, but I also acquired many skills necessary to be successful in a startup work environment–or any other work environment for that matter. While I will no longer knock on Xobni’s door every morning, the memories and lessons of my time there will come with me wherever I go. I can’t thank them enough for all I learned, the relationships I forged, and the fun I had.

P.S.: This post wouldn’t be complete without a shameless plug to go sign up for Xobni. They offer an amazing platform for keeping track of relationships across your address book, email and social media. You can learn more at their website (www.xobni.com), or download their apps and extensions from the App Store®, Google Play®, the Chrome Web Store®, or their website.

Apple’s Inevitable Demise

Apple has done it again. They have set yet another record for sales of the new iPad, and have captured the hearts and minds of many an Apple fanboy. I myself have bought a new iPad, and I must say it is pretty great. However, diving under the surface, we can see that cracks are beginning to show.

The whole thing started in October, when the iPhone 4S was released. While it was a pretty good upgrade, the updates were marginal: faster, a better camera, and the almost-useless virtual assistant Siri. Yes, the updates made the phone better, but were they really that amazing? I own an iPhone 4, and comparisons to the 4S yield negligible results. Despite this, sales were enormous. Now fast forward to March 2012, when Apple announced the new iPad. Once again, marginal improvements: faster, better camera, LTE (which isn’t necessary), and a higher resolution display. Those were the benefits, but there were even some drawbacks–the new iPad was slightly thicker and heavier than its previous generation. While sales have been massive, there is room for doubt concerning Apple’s ability to consistently amaze. Great, there have been two sub-par product releases in a row, but why does all of this spell doom for Apple?

Apple has set itself upon a fragile but extremely profitable platform of consistent innovation, secrecy, flashy releases, and consumer excitement. Apple develops a product, keeping it an utter secret until its unveiling. This generates enormous amounts of excitement from consumers, who speculate endlessly about what the product might have. Once Apple sends invitations for the unveiling, anticipation grows at an exponential rate, with millions of people anxiously waiting for information. The announcement of the new product adds to the energy even more, rocketing levels into the sky. All of the pent up enthusiasm is released at once when the product goes on sale. This system allows Apple to generate huge amounts of profit in bursts. In addition, this drives the expectation even higher for the next product because consumers expect consistent quality. While this system is extremely profitable, steadily increasing expectations will eventually pass ahead of Apple’s innovation ability. This will cause Apple to stall, and badly. If one of Apple’s product releases is below expectations, Excitement before the product goes on sale goes crashing down, which destroys sales. In addition, consumers will be less excited for future products, which will drastically reduce profits for other new products. In addition, competitors can seize the moment and develop better products that capitalize on the weaknesses of Apple’s latest product.

I am not saying that Apple is going to destroy itself tomorrow, but expect larger issues to arise in the next four years. For now Apple has tremendous momentum because of Steve Job’s reality distortion field. He could make even the most unsatisfactory releases seem revolutionary–as seen with products such as the iPhone 3GS. While products are receiving minor upgrades, competitors are increasing their products’ specs and features by leaps and bounds. Yes, the new iPad is far superior to its competitors, but Apple has to develop it at a faster rate than its rivals, something it is not doing right now. Apple does have the early bird advantage, but soon could be overtaken. Don’t get me wrong–I love Apple–but its current growth model will not be sustainable in the long run.

I Hate Facebook.

I hate Facebook.

You may say, “But Brad, Facebook is great for connecting with friends and keeping track of your social life! How can you hate it? You even use it yourself!” I don’t dislike the concept of Facebook, as I think it is extremely important, but I find it cluttered and disorganized in its current state. This may sound strange to you right now, but bear with me.

One of the main issues I have with Facebook is its user interface. The pages on your Facebook account are crowded with menus, options, and feeds that I find overwhelming. Many people don’t even use most of the features available, sticking to core functionality like the wall posting, photo uploading, and chat. You could argue that you can’t hate a product just because it doesn’t have a great interface, but the interface problem reflects a much deeper issue that only manifests itself in the UI.

Most successful consumer technology brands are more focused. Most of their products and services can be described in only one sentence:

Apple: An integrated ecosystem of personal computing hardware and software across multiple platforms designed to create the greatest user experience

GoogleA set of productivity tools and services based in the cloud, unified by a social media platform

Amazon: An online superstore and hardware companion dedicated to simplifying content delivery and consumption

Dropbox: A set of applications that allows users to access their personal data from anywhere

Groupon: A social platform dedicated to helping people find the best deals on everything

This applies to many popular social networks as well:

Twitter: A universal platform for expressing and following thoughts in a concise manner

Google+: A social network centered on organizing your communications and relationships with others through custom “circles”

LinkedIn: A platform dedicated to improving communication between businesses

Foursquare: A social platform centered around users current locations

Pinterest: A platform allowing users to express their interests by pinning content on themed “pinboards”

Then there is Facebook:

Facebook: “The social graph of everything”

What makes these other companies and services above so appealing is they focus on doing a few things well. They also excel at making their products beautiful, clean, and simple. Facebook is becoming more like “tech-glomerates”: Samsung, HP, Acer, Sony, and Microsoft – none of which have the same vision and focus of my earlier examples. While I understand that most of my earlier examples don’t make nearly as much revenue as tech-glomerates, they aren’t throwing tons of new products at consumers in the hopes that they will use/buy a few of them.

Facebook is a lot like the companies I just mentioned. Have you ever used Facebook features like “Lists,” “Ask A Question,” “Find Friends,” “Notes,” and “Gifts”? This is because they are not necessary for the experience Facebook is aiming to create, so as a result, consumers don’t use them. In addition, many seem half-baked, or so buried in the website that I wonder if they have been abandoned. In some ways, Facebook is like Apple after Steve Jobs was kicked out. They tried to enter into too many markets in the hopes of increasing profit. When Jobs returned, he drew a 2 by 2 grid on a whiteboard and said, “This is how it should be. Two average-use computers, desktop and laptop, and two power-user computers, one desktop and one laptop.” As a result, Apple began to strengthen. This story highlights one of the most important lessons Jobs taught us: less can be more. Facebook should take a page from the playbook of Steve Jobs and get rid of extraneous features and functionality, and bump up connectivity between products.

There are many things I admire about Facebook, such as its massive user base, and how for now it has kept my family and friends solely on it,. Despite this, users are fickle. As soon as an alternative with better core functionality and less clutter (*cough cough* Google+), Facebook could go the way of MySpace in the blink of an eye. MySpace proves that market share isn’t enough to stay dominant. Don’t get me wrong; Facebook is an extremely important part of modern life and culture. I only think that Facebook needs to do some serious housecleaning and make itself leaner, more tightly knit, and pleasing to use. You may disagree, but remember, if Facebook becomes a thing of the past, I predicted it first.

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