Microsoft, Network, Product Mgmt

Breathing Your Own Exhaust

31 Mar , 2008  

Hello_kitty_exhaust_pipeOne thing that happens to everyone at one time or another is when you become so engrossed inyour own world view, you start to believe everyone else thinks the way youdo, or if they don’t, your spin will fool them. Doesn’t matter whether you’rebig like Cisco and Microsoft, or the latest startup on the block with a newmouse trap. You hear phrases like "he believes too much of his ownpress" (I’m sure that’s been said about me more than once, lol) or"they’ve been breathing their own exhaust too long."  I blogged aboutwhat could be one such case of this, Microsoft’s self makeover to be perceived as "open sourcefriendly". Another example is Microsoft claiming it supports Linux in Hyper-V, but only if it’s Novell’s SUSE Linux.

I’m a big believer in ideas like enrollment, passion and engagement, and toachieve these you have to believe in what you, your product and your company aredoing. Doesn’t matter if you are the press spokesperson or the person answeringthe customer service phone — everyone else can pretty easily tell if you areenrolled in what you are doing, or it’s more a matter of your going through themotions.

But that same passion and engagement can also create a blindness, especiallyin entrepreneurial environment where passion, ideas and commitment runs high.It’s easy to build a wall around yourself or your company, focusing just onwhat’s happening inside your product, the product development efforts, or eventhe geographical market area where you are physically located. My very goodfriend AlanShimel used to frequently tell me "you need to get out of Boulder moreoften", not because Boulder isn’t a good town (check out Brad Feld’s blogpost about Twenty-Five Square Miles Surround By Reality), but to reallyunderstand the industry, competition, customers and the market.

I recently blogged about (tangentially as it relates to partnering) the bubbleeffect that can happen in a startup company. It is very easy to become soengrossed in what you are doing, crafting your marketing messages, Belly_button_smbuilding theproduct, training the sales force in the ways you want them to sell, that youforget there are other people out there. Companies may claim to already do whatyou do, cover the same supposed differentiators, or have already beat you to thepunch but you just don’t know it yet. I call this inward looking focus, "staringat your own bellybuttons."

There are many things I’ve found helpful to me to try and avoid this. In aleadership role you probably have more opportunity to take advantage of thesebut I believe in any of our roles you can find a way, or even ask to participate inthese kinds of activities. Here are a few ideas.

1. Never turn down an opportunity to talk to a customer. Doesn’t matter ifthey are a sales prospect, an unhappy customer who wants to scream at you, orone that’s nicely tucked in and happy. If you have a chance to talk with or meetwith a customer, always, always do it.

2. Support your company’s trade shows and marketing events. I learn more about the industry atmany of the trade shows I attend than I probably do by reading about companiesand the industry online. Even if you aren’t one of the marketing dudes or dudets who normally cover these events, ask to go and help out. Stop by everyone’s booth, introduce yourself, listen totheir pitch, ask questions and learn. It’s so invaluable.

3. Be well read. Read everything you can get your hands on. I get between 30and 60 Google alerts each day. That’s in addition to all the email and blogreading I do. I don’t read them all, just the ones that really catch myinterest, are newsworthy, are something new, or are on a topic I follow. Readblogs, news sites and portals.

4. Inject what you’ve learned.  Share it in meetings, on calls, in productdiscussions, in planning discussions, with customers, etc. Bring thatinformation to everyone. Forward relevant info (but don’t spam) to others inyour company. Add your comments/insights up front so they know whether thearticle is worth the read or the value is in your insights.

5. Talk to every company, not just the ones you like. Go talk to yourcompetitors. You might find out they could actually be your partner. Or, theymay still be your competitor. But go meet them. As Alan also told me many times,"stay close to your friends, and even closer to your enemies."

These ideas are pretty basic and simple, and while they might not shake upthe world, they could redefine how you view your own business.

Product Mgmt, Security

Zero Day Threat&My First Book Jacket Quote

29 Mar , 2008  

I’m a big believer in serendipity, karma and helping people whenever I can. A lot of people have been very gracious to me throughout my career, and I’m always looking for ways to pay it forward. That’s one of the reasons I coach entrepreneurs and enjoy starting new companies so much.

Back in 2001-2003 I started getting much more involved in the external aspects of the CTO role, working with press and analysts, writing byline articles, speaking, etc. Though I had been in a few press interviews (my first quote was in the London Financial Times in 1986 while helping with some story background), I was a huge neophyte when it came to doing media work. I received some extremely valuable coaching from Sonya Caprio at StillSecure along the way and now am pretty comfortable doing just about any media, writing and speaking work.

Early during that learning process, USAToday reporter Byron Acohido got a hold of me while researching stories about various computer security threats posed to the average computer user. This was back in the Code Red and Melissa virus days. While I’m no security researcher guru by any stretch, I’ve been working and creating security and networking products since the early ’90s, so I was able to help Byron on background, tutoring him on the various kinds of threats, how they worked and what the current and emerging threats were around the corner. Though I didn’t expect any quotes from those conversations, Byron was kind enough to quote me in 4 or 5 USAToday stories.

When I talk to press I always offer to help on background, specifically noting I have no expectations for quotes. Part of my job of course is pitching media about my companies and products when that’s the topic, but I also believe in helping people outside of my own agenda. I do this with no expectations of any payback or reciprocal quid pro quo to me. If you help people, even if they don’t return the favor directly, someone else down the line might return the favor to you. And even if the favor is never returned, that’s okay.

Helping people with the expectation of something in return isn’t helping, it’s trading. You don’t help people with a payment expected in return. You do it because it’s something you want to do. Good karma, serendipity, etc. will take care of everything else. Trading has an expectation of something in return, helping doesn’t. I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone has this philosophy — many don’t. Even with some, everything has strings attached, but that’s not me. As long as people don’t take advantage of that goodwill I’m happy to help, and if they do, it says a lot more about them and than me. I just have my own philosophy about helping others.

After my media work became more focused on the business market and Byron expanded his sources to researchers much more talented than me, we talked less frequently but still kept in touch via emails. Bryon is good about emailing his network whenever he writes a new piece, is looking for feedback or is seeking out knowledge in new areas..

A year or so ago, Byron sent out an email about a new book he and USAToday reporter Jon Swartz (who I’ve also done interviews with) were working on. Bryon has a background in investigative reporting, having won a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting about his investigative reporting of Boeing 737 tail rudder problems and related government foul ups. Jon has also been nominated in the same Pulitzer Prize category.

Zero_day_threatI checked out Byron’s and Jon’s site they’d set up about the book, Zero Day Threat. Byron sent me an early look at some sections of the book, which I blogged about in a post last year.  Later Alan Shimel and I had Byron on the SSAATY podcast to talk about the book they were writing. Later, Bryon also offered my some sage advice to me about setting up my Converging Network LLC company and doing additional media work after leaving StillSecure.

Zero Day Threat is a fresh, unique look at how actions by financial, credit, technology companies and "the bad guys" not only put everyone at risk for identify theft, but result in a large number of identity theft victims because they fall in the margin of acceptable risk. Companies are playing lose with our identities because it’s an acceptable level of risk to them, not us. The book is available in books stores April 1, and has already started shipping through Amazon.

This week I received a copy of Zero Day Threat in the mail from Byron. I’m very to pleased to have my first book jacket quote on Byron’s and Jon’s book (see below). And I also appear in the acknowledgments, along with a very nice hand written note from Bryon inside the front cover of the book I received. The quote came from something I wote on my blog back when I reviewed some early parts of the book.

I definitely never expected or even thought I’d receiving such acknowledgments, and I’m totally honored and flattered Bryon, Jon and their editors chose to acknowledge my small contributions. I also owe a dept of gratitude to Sonya, who helped me be in a position to contribute to Byron and Jon.

What this experience says to me isn’t that "doing something good will get you quoted", but that you don’t always know the impact you have when helping someone else. My few conversations with Byron must have been much more valuable to him that I ever realized. The satisfaction I’m feeling is more about playing some small part in helping Byron and Jon be able to write their book. The quote is gravy, and really something I take as a thank you from them both.

You never know the impact you have on people. Sometimes you learn about it later, such as in this case, but most of the time you don’t. That tidbit, coaching, idea, compliment, comment in passing or something you didn’t even realize, may have had a very significant impact.

Whether my philosophy about helping others has zero, a little or a huge impact on readers, I’ll likely never know. Maybe it won’t have an impact on anyone. Whatever the result, I hope you received some enjoyment from reading about my experiences with Bryon and Jon.

Here’s my quote that appears on the Zero Day Threat book jacket:

"Rushing in to profit from online commerce and banking, financial institutions knowingly put our personal information and identities at risk — the digital-age equivalent of tobacco companies making sure cigarettes have highly addictive properties." – Mitchell Ashley, security consultant, The Converging Network

Please check out their new book and the blog at their site. I hope they are both wildly successful.

Product Mgmt

Product Bistro: Demo in 5 Clicks or Less

19 Mar , 2008  

Product_bistro_coffeeAs a companion to my last post about Mitchells’ Rules of Demos, there’s another learning I’ve hadabout giving product demos. You will give a much better demo if you candemo your product in 5 mouse clicks or less. (Assuming yourproduct has a GUI interface.)

I was once doing some sales training with some very talented and capablesales team members. During the training, one sales person stated that theproduct had so much in it they were struggling to learn everything the productdid. They didn’t know which buttons to click on or not when giving a productdemo. "Do you begin in the configuration section? Should you jump right in tothe [blah] section of the product? What do you like to do, Mitchell?" were thequestions.

My response was, "You’re probably giving the wrong demo if you are clickingon tons of stuff. You can give a great demo by just clicking on just a very fewthings." Everyone in the training session looked at me like I had asparagussticking out of my ears and hollandaise sauce running down my head.

The principle behind my thinking is that clicking on lots of stuff means youare probably getting lost in the product details, likely giving a functionaldecomposition demo, and not focusing on how the customer’s problems can besolved with what you have to offer.

So after some more of the hollandaise sauce dripped off my head(metaphorically speaking), on the fly I responded, "Let me demonstrate. How manyclicks will you give me to demo our product?" The questioning sales person said,"Ten."

Since I like a challenge, I said, "Well, I can actually do it in zero clicks,but I’ll do it in five." Everyone laughed an uncomfortable laugh, like when a lightweight wrestler says he can pin the heavyweight guy in one round. "How much time do I have?", I asked."5 minutes", was the comeback.

I gave myself a few seconds to reset where my head was and get intopresentation mode. I started out by saying, "Mr. Customer, you told me earlierthat the problems you need to solve are [blah] and [blah]. Here are the fivethings we do that help you solve those problems. First let me set some contextabout how we approach the problem…". After setting the stage, giving theaudience a <– YOU ARE HERE description of what they were about to see, I usedmy five clicks to navigate to sections of the product that I wanted toillustrate both what we do and how we solve the two problems as well asmentioning a few other customer problems we’ve addressed with our product.

After concluding the demo, which took under 5 minutes, and summarizing whatwe saw during the demo, I asked the sales person, "How’d I do?" The response? "Igive, you’re right. You don’t have to know what every button does, or even mostof them. I get what you are saying. You are giving a different kind of demo than I was thinking about."

"Cool", I said. "Do you see how I could have given the demo with zero clicks,by just pointing to the main screen in our product?" A few sorta-believersnodded their heads.

I’m of the belief that a sales person needs to be able to give at least abasic level presentation and demo of their products. But that doesn’t takeknowledge of what every bell and whistle does in your product.

"Let your sales engineer be the person who knows what every button does.That’s their job. They can always jump in and help, or answer those questions."Or if you are going to be taking a deep dive, let the sales engineer drive thedemo, but your job is to keep on point, what I described in Mitchell’s Rules of Demos.

Now I’m not saying every demo should be done in 5 or less clicks. The idea is that being able to do this helps you not focus on all the bells and whistles, but orient the demo around matching up the customer’s needs with your product. And you should be able to give a zero click demo in situations where you are standing in front of your trade show booth, telling an interested party about your product.

So…. If you’d like a challenge, see if you can do it. Can you demo yourproduct in 5 clicks? Or less?

It might take some practice. I believe in you. You can do it.

Product Mgmt

Product Bistro: Mitchell’s Rules of Demos

18 Mar , 2008  

Product_bistro_lunch_bagI’ve done a ton of software and product demos over the years, starting withthe first demo of a graphics program I wrote on an Apple II+ to my fellow classmates ina college programming class.

Ever since, I’m usually the guy to give demos tocustomers. Sometimes I wonder why I’m the "demo guy" but inside I really know why. Mostproduct demos are very poorly done because they start with the wrong objectivein mind.

Most bad demos are what I call "functional decomposition" demos. You knowwhat I’m talking about — after some perfunctory sales questions, the democonversation goes something like this…

"This is the blah screen. The blah screen is used to create blah’s. Youcan have an unlimited number of blahs, and can name blahs any way you wish.

Pushing the Create button opens up the window where you enter the name ofthe blah, and all the attributes of the blah you want to create… the blahtype, a description of the blah (it can be as long a description as you wish),etc., etc. I won’t go through all the settings on this screen right now, but youget the idea here about how to create blahs.

Next we have the list blah screen where we list all the blahs in thesystem."

and so on, and so on. It’s a description of the product, afeature walk through, and what everything does. It’s like a verbal User Guidetold to people who probably never wanted to read the User Guide in the firstplace. Not interesting, very boring and it doesn’t connect with people. 

I can’t tell you how many sales people, SEs and technicians I’ve seengive demos this way. Being on the receiving end of one of these demo is badenough, but whenever someone in one my companies gives a customer this type ofdemo, I think I get a little bit of throw up in my mouth. (Sorry to be sographic.) In my book, you just lost a perfect opportunity with thecustomer, and you’ve left them with figuring out why and how they’d use thisproduct to solve their problem.

Mitchell’s Rules of Demos

I only have two rules. There’s only two because without achieving these,everything else doesn’t matter.

1. The Goal

There’s only one goal of a product demo, and it’s not to show the customerthe features of your product. Here’s the goal.

You want your audience to envision themselves, or theirorganization/company, behind the wheel using and benefiting from your product that solves theirproblem.

Now, study it, practice this, and above all, only consider your demosuccessful if you get signals from the audience they are now in this place.You’ll recognize comments from your audience when you are achieving this goal.Statements like…

"This would let us …"

"With this product we could…"

"Now if Bob down in Finance had this, it means I could…"

"Could this replace…?"

And if you aren’t hearing statements like these, ask your audience; "Whatparts of what we’re talking about today could you see using  for the problem youtold me about?"

In the end, the customer has to envision how what you are showing them solvestheir problem. You are leaving a great deal to chance, e.g. you’re not likelyto be successful, if you force the customer to make the mental leap from whatyour product does to their own business problem.

Your job is to be the Sherpa guide, easing the job of making that mental leap, so participants can easily cross the the divide needed to make the connection between their problems and how what you have to offer solves those problems.

How do you do all this?

Here’s some suggestions:

  • Build your demo discussion around the problems the customer has told youabout.
  • Talk about how they would use the product, not how the product works.
  • Talk about how your customers use the product to address similar problems,and other uses that tie in with this customer.
  • Use scenarios and fit the product into the scenario that look like thecustomer’s situation.
  • Check in and ask questions to see if this is at all connecting, and if so,what’s connecting and why.

The best way to sum it up is that a product demo isn’t really a demo, it’sabout a conversational story. The story you are telling is about how thiscustomer and customers like them use your product to address their need or solvetheir problem.

2. Set Context

Have you ever gone into a meeting with a vendor, realizing you’ve pretty muchforgotten most of what was said in the last meeting with them? Maybe you evenforgot exactly what they do or what their product does. Maybe you are one of theparticipants who hasn’t been in previous meetings and you are new to thediscussion.

This happens all the time. Just because you live with the product everyday orhave been thinking tons about how to sell to the customer since your lastmeeting, doesn’t mean they have. You always have to set and re-establishcontext.

Context is that map in the mall shopping center with the arrow that says<– YOU ARE HERE. Because there has been a gap in time and/or because theremay be new participants in the demo meeting, you have to briefly re-establishcontext. If there are new participants, you’ll need to spend a little bit more timeup front doing this.

Here’s what you need to summarize:

  • Who you are. "Hi, we’re will ABC. We solve the blah problem for A, B and Ctype customers like you."
  • Confirm you still understand the problem. "Through our discussions, you’vehelped us understand the problems you are looking to solve are…. Do you feelwe have a good understanding of the problems? Has anything changed since ourlast meeting?"
  • Confirm what they came to see. "Our goal today is… Are there any otherexpectations of today?"
  • Tell them what they are going to see. "Today we are going to show you howblah can solve the blah problem."

And then at the end of the meeting, circle back around to determine if you’veaddressed how you can solve their problem or need. And also re-emphasize all thebenefits you’ve touched on. It’s akin to what you learned in speech class inhigh school and college; Tell them what you’re going to tell them, Tell them,and Tell them what you told them.

I also can’t emphasize enough revisiting the customer problems you’veuncovered during previous discussions. Things may have changed since your lastdiscussion. Maybe their understanding is deeper or different. Maybe theirsituation has changed and what was a priority has now been replaced by somethingelse. Maybe some other vendor came in and change the game since your last visit, laying some land mines or booby traps for you to stumble into. Lots of things could have happened and you don’t want to be operating from the wrong or outdated perspective. Last week’s highest priority project could be in the dumper this week. Things change so don’t assume they haven’t.

Remember, setting context is two way, for both you and the customer, and it’s just as important you know thecustomer’s current context.

Wrap Up

I hope you find these two rules as beneficial as I have. They have some farreaching implications to the logistics of product demonstrations, especially thetype of demo data needed to give a conversational story demo rather than afeature based demo. If you start with these two rules in mind I think it willdrive a number of downstream logistics and help your demos accomplish a greatdeal more than what might be happening today.

Try it out, and give me your feedback. I’d love to hear if this is helpingyou and hear about your views and ideas on product demos.


How to make a guitar player love you forever

11 Mar , 2008  

I received an email today from our praise worship leader with an email request she had received. It read,

So… I justwant to know if there’s going to be that 70’s wacka-wacka guitar sound onHosanna?  I love it – it cracks me up!

So, if for some strange reason you want to make kudo’s with a guitar player, especially an electric guitar player, here are a guitar players three most favorite things to hear…

    “Could you turn up your guitar more?”

    “Play that really cool riff you did on that one song.”

and …

    “Can you make that really cool [fill in the blank] sound you did on that onesong?”

General, Uncategorized

More micro-podcasting

5 Mar , 2008  

I’ve posted up a 2nd micro-podcast interview with Treb Ryan, CEO of OpSource, on my Network World blog.

Any feedback is appreciated.

Blog, Cloud, Microsoft, Podcasts

Trying out new”micro-podcast”format

4 Mar , 2008  

MicropodcastI know that not everyone who reads blogs also likes to listen to podcasts, and visa versa. So I decided to try something different and see how readers and listeners like it. I call it a "micro-podcast". (Let me know if you think of a better name.)

Last week while at the SaaS Summit conference in San Francisco, I interviewed Michael van Dijken, head of marketing Microsoft’s efforts to support the hosting and SaaS software market segments. I posted the interview with Microsoft’s van Dijken up on my Network World Converging On Microsoft blog using this new format. The interview was recorded with my micro-recorder podcast unit.

What I’ve done is break up the interview recording into snippets, or micro-podcasts, wrapped in blog narrative with my lead in and comments for each portions of the interview. The idea is just to listen to the parts of the recording you want to hear, rather than listen through the entire recording just to get to the topic you’re interested in. And, if you wish to hear the full, unedited interview recording, just go to the bottom of the blog post and listen to the full interview instead of the broken up segments.

If you have a moment to check it out, please do so and let me know your feedback about this idea. Do you like it? Is it easier to read and listen to? Does that format work for you? What suggestions do you have for improving it?

Let me know your thoughts. Thanks.


VC panel about funding SaaS companies in today’s market

3 Mar , 2008  

While attending the 2008 SaaS Summit last week, I was fortunate to listen in on a panel discussing venture funding of SaaS companies in today’s market. The panel had a mix of early stage, mid and corporate, corporate investors and a view from the public markets perspective.

Panel: Ann Winblad, Partner – Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, Jason Maynard, Research Analyst – Credit Suisse First Boston, Jason Green, General Partner – Emergence Capital Partners, and Jon Krause, Investment Manager, Intel Capital. Moderator: Treb Ryan, CEO, Opsource.

Several things stuck with me from the panel discussion. First is the divergence of business funding models that have been funded in the current and past years. SaaS isn’t just about funding investments of $50m, $75m or $100m in capital mega startup or roll up companies. Several companies were mentioned who bootstrapped, acquired a bevy of good customers, and then seek capital to increase growth. These aren’t the days of "build it and they will come". SaaS and On Demand software enables companies to get products to market with fewer barriers, benefit from customer and market feedback, to more quickly prove out their business model, or at least spend less money doing so.

Another common theme was the patience that investors must have these days. Few startups are going to go from series A to a buyout or IPO in 3 years or so. Most take much longer for a liquidity event. Venture cycles are running 6.7 for a company IPO, and 5 years for a company is acquired, according to Ann Winbald, of Hummer Winblad. Though the VCs know this, most entrepreneurs are still learning that these timeframes are typical, not the quick pops during the ’90s bubble.

A few other themes resonated with me. The importance of partners, and extending your reach through those partners, sales organization, branding and technology. My experience is that product managers, CTOs and product developers often overlook opportunities for rebranding and OEM products early in their development. I know I’ve been guilty of that lesson myself, and it’s something I put a lot more emphasis on in the companies I work with today.

The other was the investment in the front end of the business that is necessary, sales and marketing. Some of the panel members felt it should be a 1:1 ratio, $1 of sales and market for every $1 of the most recent quarter of revenue. That’s sounds like the spend of one of those capital intensive mega companies and seems pretty heavy to me, but I do believe you’ve got invest significant dollars in the front end. Products rarely market or sell themselves, and when they do, no one knew it would happen up front — I’m saying they are lucking more often than smart. So don’t put too much faith in luck and invest in the business.

Is your product aspirin or vitamins (metaphorically)? That’s one prescription for telling how important your product or service is to the customer. How sticky is what you provide your customers and could they walk away during a downturn of the economy. That was some other sage advice from Ann, who talked about how they evaluate the customer portfolio of companies they consider for investment.

Note: I’m requesting permission to post the mp3 recording of the panel discussion. Stay tuned.


General, Uncategorized

TechStars: 29 Days Left To Apply

3 Mar , 2008  

TechstarsI’ve made it a personal goal to be more involved in the entrepreneurial community instead of my usual "singular focus" when doing start up companies. One of the reasons is to give back and help others as they develop their ideas and businesses. It’s a part of my thoughts about flourish and how to help make that happen.

I’m happy to announce that Brad Feld and David Cohen have asked me to be a mentor for the TechStars program. What a great way to get an idea developed and possibly funded. And, it’s a great way I can help others in the process.

If you still have a business idea but haven’t applied, I would encourage you to do so. There are only 29 days left to submit your application. Maybe submitting your business plan or idea to TechStars is that calling you need to put your idea into action. Plus, you can’t get selected if you don’t apply, so here’s your chance.

I hope you’ll consider becoming part of the program. Yours could be the one that gets selected!

Cloud, Microsoft

SaaS Summit a Success!

3 Mar , 2008  

Last week’s SaaS Summit in San Francisco was a resounding success on multiple fronts. The conference was very well attended (about 600 or more attendees.) I was able to score interviews with Microsoft’s Michael van Dijken, Lead Marketing Manager for Microsoft’s hosting and communications sector, and with Treb Ryan, CEO of Opsource, who put on the SaaS event. I also attended a very interesting and very informative VC panel on funding companies in the SaaS space (I’ll put up a recording later), and the Absolute Performance showing at the conference went over very well.

I’ll be blogging some more about the event, including putting up some of the interviews and recordings, in separate blog posts on The Converging Network and on my Network World Converging On Microsoft blog. Keep an eye out for more posts in the next couple of days.