Raising Money Isn’t About the Pitch Deck

Posted by mitch on May 17, 2018

At various levels of involvement, I’ve either personally pitched, assisted as an executive, consultant, or friend with over a dozen companies in raising money. Not every group is successful, but I’ve had my hands in the pot at various levels of involvement to the tune of $30 to $40 million of capital exchanged. In the last few years, I came to realize companies (CEOs) tend to spend way too much time worrying about “the deck.”

Worrying about the deck can come in a variety of forms, but the companies who fail to raise often confuse the deck with the story. The pitch deck isn’t the key to unlocking capital–just as no other single factor is the key. It all works together. The pitch deck is a visual aid, perhaps a guide for the story, but it’s the story and the fundamentals that matter–no amount of tweaking a graphic, re-ordering the slides, polishing the slides, animation, or other attributes will suddenly close the funding.

The worst offenders bring in outside consultants to refine the deck. From time to time, I’ve even been that consultant–and the founders who refuse to rehearse the presentation, the founders who can’t organize and execute on a plan… well, these are the ones who don’t raise.

When it comes to raising capital for computer businesses, my experience has yielded a few conclusions:

  1. For most investors, your business has to tie into some fundamental shift in the market or thesis that the investor you are pitching already believes in before you walk in the door. Raising money for an early stage company is a search for these investors; it’s not a sale. (I’m pretty sure someone else said that, but I can’t find the citation.)
  2. As an early stage company, you need a credible story that reflects how you will exploit this shift–how will you find the customers who are changing, how will you service their pain with your solution, and what gives you an edge.
  3. Different proof points are necessary for your stage of progress, and part of that is tied to how much capital you’ve burned already and the age of the company, regardless of what you’re calling the raise (Seed, Series A, Series B).

The deck needs to be clear and look professional–but just as important, the story needs to be coherent and make sense. You’re going to have to rehearse it, a lot.

The deck is a living document; you should be editing it slightly after every pitch. What was confusing? What didn’t flow well? Whoever is actually pitching needs to be involved and driving the deck changes–it cannot be outsourced to someone else.

Much has been written about how to pitch–my favorite books on the topic include The Art of the Start and The Power Presenter.

Finally, even if you’re an army of one, you need to bring someone with you to your pitch. Never pitch alone. It’s very difficult to note on what’s working and what’s not when you’re the one talking. Over and over, I’ve witnessed a confused audience and the speaker is oblivious–you need someone who can jump in and help when things slide a bit off (without contracting what was just said; see Kawasaki’s book for notes on this). Of course, I’ve said my share of nonsense that a cofounder had to adjust based on the reaction in the room.

Your Data Center Will Be Smaller Than Your Childhood Bedroom

Posted by mitch on May 19, 2015
business, hardware, software

I saw a tweet from Chris Mellor referencing a Gartner conclusion that mid-market IT will go to the cloud:

Today, Storage Newsletter‘s headline quotes an IDC report that personal and low-end storage sales (less than 12 bays) have declined 6.4% y/y. Some dimensions of the business sank 20% y/y.

What happened in the last year? Do people create less data than they did a year ago? Isn’t data storage growing tremendously?

What is changing is where people create and keep their data. As applications move to the cloud, the data goes with it. From Salesforce to consumer photos, from corporate email to songs, all of this stuff is in someone else’s data center.

I have about 100 TB of disks in my house across six fast hardware RAIDs, but all of my critical working set lives in the cloud. The cloud pricing for large amounts of data (e.g., 1 TB) is so cheap that it’s free or bundled (Office 365, Flickr). Dropbox stands alone as an outlier to a priced service and it’s not that expensive–certainly I cannot buy a 1 TB drive and operate it for 1 year at the price point that Dropbox offers.

Generally, IT vendors fail to deliver on simplicity; it’s not in their vocabulary. I’ve been in those meetings–hundreds of them, actually–where engineers want to offer every option for the customer and for some reason (lack of vision?) the product manager lets it happen. The problem with these meetings is that everyone in them usually forgets that while the product is the most important thing in the lives of the folks creating the products, the customers have other things on their minds.

So we end up with these overly complex IT products that are impossible to use. Quick, how do you set up Postgres database backups with Tivoli? I have no idea but I know it will take a few hours to figure it out (if I am lucky). The brilliance of Amazon’s cloud user interface is that (1) the details are hidden and (2) the user is presented with just the critical options. Do you want to back up this database? Sure! Great, when? Hey, you know, I don’t really care. Just keep the backups for 30 days.


One of the most powerful things about AWS is that significant infrastructure is under a single pane of glass. This has been the Holy Grail of IT but never realized. OpenView, System Center, vCenter, TSM–everyone wants to do it, but few organizations pull it off, likely due to a mix of political, technical, and economical reasons.

The best part of Gmail going down is that it’s not my problem to bring it back online. Remember when you worked at a place that ran Exchange and the guy in charge of Exchange was always on edge? The only reason that guy is on edge now is that he is waiting for a call to see if he got the job at a place that has switched to Gmail.

The data center of the future for most mid-market companies is a single rack consisting of network connectivity, security devices, and WAN acceleration devices. No servers or standalone storage–with applications in the cloud, the only thing needed locally is data caching to augment the WAN overhead and maybe provide short-circuit data movement among local peers. This single rack will fit into a closet.

IT will still exist; these cloud applications will still need support, maintenance, and integration–and the network issues will be as challenging as ever.

But anyone who is building IT products for on-site installation is facing a significant headwind if you’re not enabling the cloud.


Email Introductions

Posted by mitch on August 02, 2014

From time to time, someone asks me to facilitate an introduction. Sometimes it’s to someone specific (“Mitch, do you know Bob?”) and sometimes it’s vague (“I’d like to meet people with problem X” or “who do activity X”). If I am able, I’m happy to help, as I’ve been fortunate to (and continue to) benefit from others helping me with this kind of thing.

A few thoughts on this:

  1. Send the person you are asking for an introduction an email, not a LinkedIn message. Depending on the person, you might call them too.
  2. Give the person a paragraph they can copy and paste or edit. Why are you wanting the introduction? If it’s to someone specific, why specifically them? Don’t make your introducer create copy from scratch.
  3. When/if the introduction happens, move the introducer to bcc right away. If the other party moves the introducer to bcc, don’t re-add the person!
  4. Say thanks. Especially if someone introduces you to multiple people in a get-go. Sometimes I introduce folks to half a dozen customer or partners and never hear any follow up. Was it useful? Were the introductions crap and I wasted everyone’s time? I have no idea.
  5. If you get connected with someone and they stop interacting, it might be ok to query the introducer, but don’t be surprised if they pass on re-engaging with the person of interest.

Related: If I introduce you to someone, I will often ping that person and ask if they are interested in an introduction before I send the first email with both of you. The only time I may not is when I am pinging a vendor with a potential new customer. Related: It drives me crazy when someone introduces me to someone without asking, especially if it’s not clear why in the email. I rarely reply to these emails.

Also related: Assume nothing about geography. I always cringe when one of the replies says, “Thanks for the intro — Hey Bob, should we get lunch?” when the two folks are thousands of miles apart. Not everyone lives in (y)our city and if I am creating the copy from scratch, I may not include geography information.

There’s probably more to say about this.

Your customers can tell if your team gets along

Posted by mitch on February 04, 2014
business, products

In 1968, Dr. Melvin E. Conway published an article called, “How Do Committees Invent?”

In this paper, buried towards the end, is the following insight:

organizations which design systems […] are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

Thinking back on my product experiences, this has been the case every time. The cracks in products show up where teams didn’t talk to each other, where two people didn’t get along, or where someone wasn’t willing to pick up the phone and call someone else. Features or modules that integrated well and worked smoothly reflect where two or more people worked well together. In cases where one person went off by himself and re-invented the wheel, sometimes even large core parts of a product, led to internal difficulties and those internal difficulties turned into product difficulties when the product shipped.

As an engineer, every time you don’t pick up the phone to call a colleague about an integration point, you’re making life harder on your customer. As a manager, every time you don’t deal with someone not communicating, you’re making life harder on your customer. Meanwhile your competition who play well together are building beautiful products that flow.

The communication successes and failures of an organization are independent of the organization size. It’s fashionable to say that small teams work better than large organizations (37signals vs Microsoft), but in fact, a small team can be incredibly dysfunctional, just as a large organization can work well (many start-ups vs Apple).

Of course, the scope of “systems” goes beyond products. IT deployments–if your VPN guy and your Exchange guy don’t like each other, how many times do you have to login to different computers? Marketing strategies–700 folks clicked on an emailed link, but did those people have a good experience on the landing page? Sales operations–much time was invested in segmenting and building custom collateral but were those materials used or ad hoc assembled in the field? Manufacturing–sure, everyone signed off on the Micron chips, but “someone” decided to build half the boards with Hynix and didn’t tell anyone? Support–Is your support experience congruent with the product, or is it outsourced with its own login, and the support folks have their own culture?

A team that doesn’t communicate openly, frequently, and freely is expensive to operate and builds lower quality products, end-to-end.

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Who Eliminated the Windows Advantage?

Posted by mitch on July 08, 2012

Much has been written about the new numbers on Apple’s accelerating market share against Windows in the last few weeks. The Business Insider article giving Apple all the credit for making this happen made me wonder–Is it really only Apple who should get credit?

Certainly Apple has done a few things that have enabled its position in the market beyond simple iPod/iPhone/iPad halo:

  1. Moving to Intel. This enabled fast virtualization to come to the Mac vs the old x86 emulation software or weird boards to add x86 processors to the Mac. This meant anyone could run Windows on a Mac for the cost of Windows + $50 for VMware Fusion, or dual boot if running OS X wasn’t in the cards. This reduced cost and risk for folks who wanted to make the switch. Moving to Intel also enabled some of the focused word on smaller machines, such as the Air. I can’t imagine IBM or Motorola spending the R&D dollars to develop PowerPC chips of sufficient caliber and thermal characteristics for a MacBook Air; they didn’t even have the business justification (or technology) for a PowerBook G5.
  2. Building the best hardware and doing it at a ridiculously good price. Remember when laptops like the 11” Air were premium products for executives and no one else? Now the 11” notebook is the 2nd cheapest Mac.
  3. Great marketing. The Mac vs PC commercials are accessible to anyone. Changing the game from a geeky-specification driven purchase to actual objectives or, as was the original vision, an appliance purchase.

But more broadly, applications have changed:

  1. Web-based email. Whether you use web-based email at work or not, many folks use web-based email at home. With Google Apps, lots of businesses can avoid Exchange mess. When my company was bought last year, I had to migrate from Google Apps to Outlook. It really sucked. I’m glad to be using Google Apps again.
  2. Web-based applications are big in business as well. Salesforce and plenty of other vendors provide serious apps for business. I worked at a Fortune 500 a dozen years ago where every engineer had a Sun workstation on their desk for minimally one reason: Access to the bug system. Can you imagine? A $25,000 piece of hardware just to use one proprietary tool that didn’t need Sun performance or really anything else that Sun was providing? Every engineer had a Windows system as well for Outlook and the requirements-tracking software too. It was an expensive operation.
  3. I can’t tell whether or not the Microsoft anti-trust settlement helped with some of the progress we’ve seen. Samba works with Active Directory, finally (though it didn’t until 2003); there’s many client and server implementations of Exchange (which is part of what enables Google Apps, Zimbra, perhaps also Apple Mail to play in an Exchange world?). Bruce Perens wasn’t excited back in 2002, but I don’t know what his perspective now would be.

These influences, in addition to the incredible excitement that Apple has built around first the iPod and later the iPhone and iPad, have enabled Apple to get to where it is today. I don’t think the halo effect, without the above, would have been enough.

I’m sure I missed plenty of influences. What do you think?

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On Building New Products

Posted by mitch on June 24, 2012
business, products

Recently I received a query via email that I thought would make a good blog post:

How do you conceptualize what software would be useful to an industry? More specifically, how did you determine that VMware storage automation applications would be useful in a large context to industry, and how did you design your method of accomplishing this task to be more efficient and desirable than the internal to VMware and your competitors?

You don’t have to answer in specifics of course, but I’m suffering from a classic “coders block” on applications that might be useful to a broad context and wondered if you had any advice on that topic.

I have brought seven products that I either invented or co-invented to market, and worked on about six other products in a major way.

The products that were successful came out of the following criteria:

  1. What am I uniquely able to bring to market? I.e., what are the capabilities of my own technical skills, knowledge, and other people that I know who I could convince to work for me? What scope of products can we create? What ideas, out of that entire range of possibilities, are unique and are based on insights or experiences that few others have?
  2. What’s missing from the market place? Of the things that I can uniquely do, what of those can be applied to things missing in the market?

Any market worth being in is busy. If no one is there trying to make money to solve the problem you’re solving, with some type of offering, it’s not worth being in that market. Some of the market scoping you can decide–and how you decide this will drive how you talk about your offering. If you scope too narrowly, no one will fit your target audience. Scope too broadly and no one will be able to find you. Sometimes it is tricky to know what market you’re in; you might think you’re selling software, but your customers buy your product as insurance. Or maybe you think you’re selling shirts but you’re actually selling a lifestyle.

My first serious business was a Mac software business, selling casual games that were targeted to smart women in their 40s who wanted a tough mental challenge. This was an underserved market at the time–few casual games existed beyond Tetris and few were sold with a concept of being “difficult”. Anyone can “match three” like Bejeweled, and lots of people like doing it, but can you solve this puzzle? With my first product for that business, I hadn’t quite identified what the target was–in fact, the first game was more of a concept test–could I finish a product, release it, get people to my web site, get them to give me their money, send them a license key, support the software, and so on? As it turned out the answer was yes. The second game I did was much more targeted to my audience defined above–and sold 100x more copies. While there was nothing specific in the game tailored to women, and I certainly had plenty of male customers too, I wrote advertising messages and picked placements that were targeted to women because I felt that my message was unique and unexpected vs other ads women might expect to see in those places.

The word “innovation” has gotten a lot of attention these days. I took a class at MIT’s Executive training program last year on managing innovation in large organizations. One of the key things one of the professors pointed out in the class was that innovation without solving a customer need is completely useless. This should be fairly obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of people lose sight of this fact.

So when you’re building a new product, you need to be solving a real customer need. That brings us back to the original question: What process enables you to figure out what would be useful?

At my last company, my partner and I spent hours just chatting about ideas–I would estimate over the course of four years, we spent over 800 hours brainstorming. What if there was a way to do X? What about Y? What if you did Y but with a hint of X? Would anyone care? We were developing products in an industry that we knew well–I had about 4 yrs of experience in that market and he had about 15. So we knew a lot of the attitudes of our customers, a lot of the concerns, some of the common problems that those customers face day in and day out. We were bringing our understanding of that market to a semi-new but semi-related space. We kept the brainstorming going from the very beginning when we first had the idea all the way through until when I left the company after we were acquired. We came up with several ideas for things we never shipped and a few key ideas that we did ship and did well.

Tied into our brainstorming, we did a lot of market research. Long before we had employees or venture capital, I was pounding the pavement, visiting customers, calling customers, searching Google for people posting in forums about the problems we wanted to solve, and posting on Twitter inviting people working with certain tools in Boston or San Francisco out for having a beer with me. We also did surveys with Constant Contact to help quantify what we were finding organically with people we could manually reach. The organic side helps find stories, and structured surveys with the right audience can help define priorities or narrow a focus once you’re able to describe better what you think is important.

If you want to build something big, you need to attach to a market trend that is real. Lots of people understand this, which is why you see so much “Mobile is the next big thing”, “Cloud is the next big thing”, and so on. But you still have to solve a real problem–in a market trend that is real–and not get creamed by the big players in that space. We felt the virtualization trend was real, so were comfortable attaching to that. Lots of companies saw this as well and tried building small, simple products, such as performance monitoring tools for VMware–but VMware is good at adding those features pioneered by third parties to their own management applications. At the end of the data, these companies were just publishing numbers exposed by VMware APIs into a UI or reporting system. The bar to duplicate that was very low. So you have to focus on problems that are hard to duplicate or spaces that are related but not in the big vendor’s core competencies.

There’s lots to be said about the process of inventing new products. Many people talk about Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma, but from a process perspective, some of the activities discussed in one of his other books, The Innovator’s DNA, is worth reading to see how folks approach solving these problems. I have had a copy of The Product Manager’s Desk Reference by Steven Haines in my bookcase for a while now, and while I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, it does cover a number of the research activities required to build a new product all the way through launch. And of course, there is the classic book Winning at New Products by Robert Cooper.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have previously written about some related issues with starting a new company. If you are starting a new company, be sure to check it out!

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The Value of ROI Visibility (and the Nest thermostat)

Posted by mitch on February 22, 2012

I keep getting asked the question, “Does the Nest thermostat save you money?”

I can only blush and say, “I don’t know.”

Isn’t that a bit silly? I have a “Thermostat 2.0” and I don’t know the answer to this question.

Sure, it’s been a warm winter. But that’s not really the point.

My guess is that the Nest replaces two very simple types of thermostats: Programmable thermostats that had very simple schedules and thermostats with little to no schedule. What I’d really like is a way to put in my old thermostat program into the Nest web interface and have it show me the delta energy-hours saved (or not) for auto-away, the learned schedule, and remote adjustments. I almost never touched my old thermostat, but the schedule the Nest has learned is extremely non-trivial. Being able to understand the difference of how much the furnace would have run with the old schedule vs the new schedule would be very useful. Dollars saved (or burned) could be modeled by asking for the estimated energy price for the furnace per month (last month my furnace operation cost me about $170).

ROI modeling is complex and it can be hard to work up a model that feels legitimate. But I think for Nest, it could be done easily. If Nest had an API exposed, it would be easy for a third party to build some ROI tools as well.

When ROI can be easily expressed, the vendor can benefit from excited users talking about their ROI. But for now, I just have to say, “it’s a cool thermostat” when people ask me if it’s saving me money.

If you’re providing a tool or service, work with your customers to see if you can improve your ROI models. It’s an iterative process, but if you can nail it, you’re that much closer on your next deal. Would-be customers of Nest who ask me about the ROI story aren’t getting a good answer.

(Yes, the Nest includes some data on saving energy, but I really want to know how it compares to what my old thermostat would have done. And I want to see that energy saving data shown on the device itself on the web site and iPad apps. Those are my primary interfaces to the Nest, not the thing on the wall.)

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Comcast: What is “Customer Service”?

Posted by mitch on February 07, 2012
business, productivity

For the last four years, I’ve been a happy business Comcast Internet customer. I just have Internet and voice with Comcast; no TV. I have 5 static IP addresses, and until earlier this month, Comcast has been rock solid with only a few minutes of downtime here and there. I am an outlier when I say that I love US Airways and I love Comcast. I don’t know anyone else who goes around saying stuff like that. In some areas, you might get hanged.

In January, I decided I wanted more speed, but I debated–should I upgrade to 105 Mbit down/20 Mbit up (about $380/mo) or 50/10 (about $190/mo)? I talked to the Comcast sales rep on Jan 4th and she suggested trying the 50/10 and see how it goes. So I said let’s do it. My install window was set for 3p-5p on Friday, Jan 6th, since they needed to upgrade my modem.

On Jan 6th, at 4:50pm, a Comcast tech knocked on the door. “If this goes well, I’ll be out of here in 20 minutes.”

The Comcast tech was a great guy, I really liked him. However, he was hanging out in my network closet until 9:30pm that night. My girlfriend asked if she should clean up the guest room so he could spend the night.

Why was he at my house so long? The initial modem configuration was a bit tricky to make sure my static IP addresses got moved to the new modem. This took a few minutes. After that, he wasn’t getting the speed that I was supposed to get–about 1 Mbit/s up. He replaced the modem. He replaced the line to the street. He called tech support several times. He eventually gave up and went home. The next day he called me and said there was some kind of signal interference issue in my block and that it would take a few days but it would get solved. I really liked this guy and I really liked Comcast, so I was easy going about it and ran on a regular basis. A few days later, around Jan 10th, the problem was fixed and everything was good. I was a happy Comcast customer.

I didn’t push the SLA issue with Comcast, but one of the reasons that the business Internet is twice as expensive as residential is that there is a shorter SLA. I work at home when I am not on the road and I require working Internet access. I initially wired my closet for both Verizon and Comcast, but never felt I needed to add Verizon–Comcast has been that solid. I am not sure what constitutes an SLA breach in this case, but let’s be honest, I couldn’t upload 500 MB files during this time–pushing large files to my co-lo in Texas would eventually fail. If I had a major deadline that needed this kind of activity, I would have been toast. But I didn’t and I liked Comcast, so I let it slide.

On Feb 2nd at 10:45 am, my Internet connection died. At 10:50 it was still down. I called the business support line and got a tech window of 1pm to 3pm. I noted to the woman on the phone that this was pushing the boundaries of the 4 hr SLA. She said it was all she could do. She might as well have been a United Airlines employee.

Around 2pm, a tech showed up. “Oh man, static IPs… I am not too good with those!” (paraphrased). He was a really nice guy, but not sufficiently trained for business Comcast deployments with static IPs. However, he knew this and so he called a co-worker who also came over. These two guys and a third guy on the phone spent 90 minutes in my house pondering the problem. The guy on the phone realized that my old modem had been recently deployed across town at a cafe with my configuration data in it. Once they realized that, they were embarrassed, apologetic, and noted that this happens constantly. What kind of business is Comcast running? One of the techs mentioned that they often deploy DVRs that are “erased” “refurbs” with old people’s personal data and recordings on them.

At this point I was losing my patience. My connection had been down for 5.5 hours. I had Comcast guys in my house for a total of 6 hours on multiple days with a total of 11 hours of downtime for what should have been a 10 minute operation. Comcast was sending out guys who were unqualified to work on my account and being very liberal with my time, patience, and SLA.

So after the Comcast techs left, I told @comcastcares on Twitter what I thought. @comcastwill was very active and responsive and indicated a “local leader” would get in touch.

Today, five days later on Feb 7th, I asked @comcastwill if there was any update. He indicated that Comcast had been trying to email me at my address. Why not email the address where my bill goes? Who knows? I have never read my address and have no intention of doing so now. @comcastwill fixed this and shortly thereafter I received an email from “Sharon” asking me to call her.

I had a few minutes this afternoon before a conference call and rang Sharon from “The Executive Office of Comcast” (their words). She said that Comcast was very sorry and would like to offer me a credit on my account for all the aggravation for taking my Internet connection down due to their own negligence.

Comcast reached deep into their pockets, did some soul searching, and concluded that this hassle caused by my desire to give them more money was worth about…. $6.

I literally laughed. “Why wouldn’t I switch to RCN right now?” In this area, I can pick between TWO cable companies as well as Verizon. She said, “I can credit you up to $20 but that’s all I can do.”

Sure I had short patience left for Comcast, but this was absolutely infuriating. I asked @comcastwill on Twitter, “Why did you guys waste my time for $6?”

Remember, the worst part about this is that it was self-inflicted. I decided to give Comcast more money, they botched it, and then offer me a credit of $6. If I keep this level of service with Comcast for four years, as I have for the last four years, that is $10,560 to Comcast. And I don’t even buy TV from them. Who made the assessment that a $6 credit is appropriate? Who thought to themselves, “If I were in this situation and the vendor offered me SIX DOLLARS–less than the price of a QP with Cheese meal at McDonald’s–I would be satisfied?” Isn’t Comcast supposed to be better than this? Aren’t they the model for customer service on Twitter?

I know sometimes things go wrong. I make my living designing and building technology products for medium and large businesses. Some of my customers pay a small amount of money ($20k) and some pay a lot more. I’ve been embarrassed when customers call with problems. That’s why I didn’t give the tech or Comcast any crap with the issues on the upgrade. But there is a point at which mistakes are no longer mistakes and instead are pure incompetence. What exactly is the process for wiping modems at Comcast? Apparently there isn’t any. Business, especially big business, requires process to ensure proper execution. Business also requires handling the exceptional cases when the vendor drops the ball and has to make it right. I cannot imagine taking a $6 discount to any of my customers.

I want a working Internet connection and I prefer it to be with Comcast. But I also want to be treated with respect. My consulting rate is a little higher than $1 per hour. But why turn this into a credit game? Get creative. Send me a Nordstrom, Amazon, or an Apple gift card. Send me a “Get Well Soon” bouquet for my Internet connection. Or call me, admit that you completely screwed up my upgrade, and have an actual conservation with me about it–find out the whole story before deciding “$6 and if he pukes on it, $20”. Don’t try to slice and dice what my time or Internet connection is worth. Because to me, it’s worth a lot more than anything that Comcast could reasonably offer.

Although this post focuses on the $6, the inhuman hand-off to an admin authorized to go to $20 but completely unaware of what went on really irks me too.

Update March 14, 2012: Someone from the “Comcast Executive office” called me yesterday and we chatted a bit. He said he would try to do a little bit more for me, but was very clear my contract doesn’t require Comcast to do anything. In any event, Comcast credited me an additional $103 + the bonus $20 + $7.11 (vs the $6 calculated above). I am glad the fellow called, apologized, and treated me like a valued customer who merits some respect. It took a while but they got it done.

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Copyrights, Trademarks, Patents, and Trade Secrets

Posted by mitch on January 10, 2012

I was reading a forum where people were talking about the new Swivl and saw someone complaining about the name “Swivl” being too weak for a “copyright”. I’ve seen a lot of confusion about what the differences are between a copyright and a trademark, a copyright and a patent, and a patent and a trade secret. Briefly,

A copyright protects a work that is authored. In the case of a technology product, this includes the source code, the documentation, and also marketing materials such as the web site or datasheets.

A trademark protects a word or other way to identify a brand. In the case of a technology product, this includes the name of the company, the name of the product, and any logos or slogans tied to the brand identity. Trademarks may be claimed but unregistered (TM) or registered (R). Trademarks apply to a specific category of products or services, which is why it’s fine that we have Delta Airlines and Delta Faucets.

A patent protects inventions or discoveries. In the case of a technology product, this can be pretty broad—an algorithm used by the software1, a way to build a product, or some other invented technique.

A trade secret is something that is not revealed and kept intentionally secret because it is something of value. Companies must mark any information as confidential as part of reasonable efforts to keep such information secret. The classic example of this is the Coca-Cola formula. There is no protection of a trade secret if someone else can clean-room reverse engineer the secret.

There is a balance between patents and trade secrets; a patent provides broad protection but the science behind the invention must be disclosed in return for that protection—and the patent does eventually expire.

By no means are the above descriptions detailed, exhaustive, or legal advice, but they are brief and understandable. For more information, visit these pages:

Many thanks my friends and colleagues who reviewed this post prior to publishing.

1 When embodied in something real. And there’s the argument about whether or not software is real. Anyway, the goal of this post isn’t to debate this point.

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Competitive Intelligence with Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

Posted by mitch on November 30, 2011

Recently I did a quick interview about how I used Twitter at my last company. As I was answering questions, I realized there are three major activities that I used with Twitter:

  1. Promote ourselves (so that people find us)
  2. Research customer needs and identify new customers (we find people)
  3. Competitive intelligence.

The third I thought was particularly interesting as most of the blather (er, blog posts) on the web are about (1) and (2), but not (3). Of course, searching Google for “competitive intelligence twitter” has about 21,000,000 results and I didn’t have time to go through them all.

Here are some thoughts based on what I’ve done for competitive intelligence with Twitter in the past:

You may want to know what their engineers are working on and doing. Using LinkedIn, you can map companies to teams with names. Those individual profiles may have links to personal Twitter accounts or you might be able to find those people with Google and Twitter Search. Engineers talking about tools or technologies may reveal what they are working on or new areas under investigation.

Of course, LinkedIn is gold mine in and of itself—too many employees say too much in their LinkedIn profiles about what they are working on. There have been several times where I’ve asked my employees to tone down what they are saying on LinkedIn.

You might care about what the sales folks are doing. Where are they traveling? Not all sales reps are going to tweet “just landed BigCo!” but they might check-in on Foursquare at a restaurant across from BigCo’s west coast office. Using Foursquare and Google Street View and Google Maps, you can quickly reverse map who someone might be meeting with or spending their time.

I recently took a class at MIT where one of the professors was Dr. Jay Paap, a management consultant who has done a lot of work on developing competitive intelligence frameworks. One of his papers (PDF) is an excellent summary on sources of intelligence and these generally map back into the social media world (so don’t disregard this because it was published in 1995).

The flip side to all of this, of course, is that companies need to be very careful what is being posted. When I worked at Motorola 11 years ago, the company was hugely paranoid that the cleaning crew might be Nokia employees. There were weekly sweeps of the office and reports on who had unlocked computers, file cabinets, papers left out, whiteboards not erased, etc. Documents had various levels of confidentiality classification and corresponding trash cans. I haven’t worked at a company that paranoid since, but I have brought some of those policies into my own work.

What are you doing to gather or evade competitive intelligence?

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