Ping Playlists' "Buy All" button does not work

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I bought Alex Bain's excellent annual Christmas playlist through Ping on iTunes yesterday. I was excited that iTunes finally has a "buy all" button for shared playlists. I was less excited when I saw how it worked.

Ping allows you to download all items in a playlist, but it adds no data to them so when they arrive in your music folder they're completely out of order from the way the original playlist was organized. Much has been written about the failure of Ping and I feel bad about piling on, but this is a pretty basic problem: shared playlists are both a collection of songs and an *arrangement* of songs. To sell the group but not the arrangement is a massive fail & I think they would have been better off not offering the "Buy All" button. To re-create the list I took two screenshots of the ping page (I needed two since it scrolls after 15 songs) and displayed them as photos so I could alt-tab between the photo of the original list and my new playlist (staying in iTunes would have meant an awful lot of mouse back-and-forth between Ping and a buried playlist). It's the sort of ugly solution I don't expect from Apple.

All told, the purchase process took me about an hour last year, and about half an hour this year. It was totally worth it for me, but that's mainly because I think so highly of my friend's Christmas music curation skills. For other playlists shared this way, I think I'd pass, which is too bad for me and too bad for Apple.


Creating an "Innovation 8"

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Last week we met with Nicolas Shea, the personal assistant to Chile’s Minister of Economy. He’d just returned from a trip to Israel to learn about the programs Israel sponsored to increase innovation and bring some of those lessons back to Chile. One idea he was thinking about when he came back was creating an “I8,” playing on the idea of the G8. The “I8” would include eight countries focused on encouraging innovation in their country. I8 forums would offer an opportunity to exchange best practices and find ways to work together -- they would foster and expand their countries’ innovative capacity in the same way that the G8 meets to discuss issues of broad mutual concern.

A draft list of the I8:

  • Chile
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Singapore
  • Finland
  • Slovenia
  • New Zealand
  • Someone from Africa -- Kenya, Rawanda, South Africa?
It seems like a good list of countries that are aspirationally innovative (even if they’re not the top 8 today). We decided to do some research and see if we could come up with a good answer for the eighth country. My friend Albert suggested that the African entry should be Kenya or Rawanda, based on their low corruption, high education, and stated goals around innovation (for instance, Kenya’s Vision 2030 plan)

In the process of discussing this, Albert taught me about innovation measure like INSEAD's Global Innovation Index (GII) (pdf) and the World Economic Forum ranking on global competitiveness (pdf), which can be used as a proxy for business sophistication. It’s interesting that there’s a gap between developed business infrastructure & innovation readiness. For instance, Italy has highly developed business infrastructure, but deep issues that hold back innovation while somewhere like Kenya has less business infrastructure but does a relatively good job of encouraging new companies.

I like the idea of an Innovation 8. I hope it becomes a reality.


From Ramen to Riches

Thursday, December 2, 2010

We met the founders of Needish, a Chilean company that launched ClanDescuento, a GroupOn clone that was eventually acquired by GroupOn to run its South American operations.

The founders were extremely humble. They talked about raising $500k for 10% of their company Needish three years ago on the strength of a PowerPoint presentation and 2,000 users. The site was a personal service lead generation engine. People would ask “Where can I find a plumber to install a new sink?” and Needish would charge a plumber to answer (and presumably get the job).

Two years in, they’d gotten up to two million users and started looking for additional funding, but the business just wasn’t getting the traction they’d hoped for. They were running out of money and distributing equity widely to employees in lieu of cash compensation, which grew their “founding” team from two to six. They were on the verge of shutting down when they heard about GroupOn and decided to copy the business model in Chile. That was in January 2010. They built the product in about 6 weeks, got delayed by a magnitude 8.8 earthquake at the end of February, and launched at the end of March. At this point they had 8 employees. They booked $10,000 of revenue the first day and never looked back.

By June they were trying to fundraise again, but the deal fell apart as rumors of a big GroupOn deal swirled. GroupOn ended up buying CityDeals (the most successful European GroupOn clone), apparently deciding that it was easier to buy their way into international markets, rather than come in as a minor player later and try to dislodge an incumbent.

Later that month later GroupOn bought ClanDescuento[1], and by the end of November, they’d grown from 8 dejected employees in Chile, about to close up shop to 350 employees across all of Latin America and a grand success story.

Nearly every class in business school told a story like the one above about difficult times and difficult choices. There was always a lesson. I’m not sure what to take away from this story other than “keep persevering.” The longer you stay in business and keep pivoting, the more likely it is that you’ll land on a business model that works. That the business model they found worked quite as well as it did may have been luck, but they put themselves in a position to take advantage of the lucky break by refusing to give up.

1. How did they become the leading GroupOn clone in Chile? The buzz is that they may have been doing some pretty spam-y email marketing. If that’s true, they don’t appear to have paid a penalty for it.


Why the extra label on Dogfish Head specialty beers?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Most national beer brands attach two labels to their bottles -- one on the largest part of the bottle and another on the neck. Small breweries tend to just use one label because the added cost of the second label (materials, machinery, and the complexity of alignment) isn’t worth it to them.

It’s interesting to see that Dogfish Head usually follows this rule, but doesn’t for certain beers. The Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA is their flagship product. It’s 5% alcohol, sold in 6-packs, and has a single label. Their 90-minute IPA is also very popular, but is 9% alcohol. It’s sold in 4-packs for around the same price and has two labels. Why the extra label?

At first I thought it was to prevent people from sneaking the 90-minute IPA bottles into a 60-minute 6-pack, but now that I look at it, they have different color caps as well. So, why does Dogfish Head have that extra label?


Who Will Buy Cisco's Umi?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cisco is marketing their Umi (telepresence) service to consumers, but they've set the price at $600 + $25/month. They’ve signed Ellen Paige and a series of extras who look like maybe they had the idea for Windows 7 to help promote it.

I can't imagine who their intended customer is. Certainly not the tech-savvy-looking people in their ads; they've already got Skype for a $50 webcam + $0/month.

The only people I can imagine doing this are the very rich who have a tech person who maintains their portfolio of technical devices. A video conferencing system could be the latest “must-have” feature for luxury renovations. Even then, it’s a challenge since it requires the other end to have the system as well.

I could imagine a use-case for parents / grandparents to use this on one end with children / grandchildren using it on the other. But, if the grandkid is competent enough to set up Umi, she’s probably competent enough to show grandpa how to turn on the computer, with Skype auto-starting and auto-logging in. Maybe that’s a lot of work, but then again, maybe we want video chatting to be harder than phone calls.

I’m sure Cisco will sell some of these systems. I just don’t understand who will buy them.


Today is not Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s one of the few that’s observed by the entire country (store closings are second only to Christmas), but what really stands out for me is that it’s our most celebrated national holiday. Everywhere else in the world, today is just another Thursday.

I’m having just another Thursday in Santiago, Chile. The only evidence I have that today is a holiday is that my Twitter and Facebook are getting fewer posts than normal.

My CruiseWise cofounders here have offered to do something to celebrate Thanksgiving. They’ve both come to the U.S. in the last few years, so it’s interesting to hear them talk about their Thanksgiving experiences. One said he didn’t think he’d really gotten the full experience because all he’d done was sat around and eaten too much with some of his friends. It took me a minute, but I realized: that’s exactly what Thanksgiving *is.*

Thanksgiving has no ceremonies, no requirements for any day but Thursday, and that one requirement is that you eat with people you like. I used to associate Thanksgiving with returning home, seeing family, and meeting up with childhood friends, but now that I don’t go back to Iowa every year, I think of it as a very long weekend that demands nothing of me but dinner. Say what you will about turkey, but I think friends, family, and relaxation are the essence of the day. Even WikiHow’s article on how to celebrate Thanksgiving uses half its space to discuss food and the other half describing how to relax in different ways!

That’s why I’m not ‘doing anything’ for Thanksgiving this year when I’m half a world away. There are no ceremonies to pantomime and expressing the true meaning of the holiday would mean spending the next four days lounging around. I think we’ll keep building a product instead.


Unintentional ease

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The most interesting thing I learned today was that the GRE vocabulary section produces bi-modal results for most French students. The GRE is a computer-adaptive test; it gets harder or easier based on how well you've done. It's meant to more accurately measure ability if fewer questions by reducing the number of very easy or very hard questions for each test taker (in other words, it reduces the questions that a student is almost certainly going to get right or almost certainly going to get wrong).

What my co-founder Nicolas said, though, is that the first few questions were relatively hard for French speakers, but then got progressively easier if they did well. The esoteric vocabulary words with obscure latin roots were just part of his normal French vocabulary! But, if he got the first few questions wrong, the test fed him progressively shorter, and generally Saxon words that were unfamiliar.

Probably not what the test-makers had in mind.



Monday, November 15, 2010

New word today:

whaelstrom (noun): an event or series of events that cause a surge of traffic to Twitter, effectively shutting it down, i.e., a maelstrom of tweets that cause a whale storm. Whaelstrom is a portmanteau combining maelstrom and whale storm. For instance, "Why is Twitter down? Oh, the Justin Beiber - Britney Spears duet just caused a whaelstrom."

A maelstrom is a restless, disordered, or tumultuous state of affairs (from the original, "a large, powerful, or violent whirlpool").

A whale storm is a failure across Twitter that produces Fail Whales for a large number of users. It can be caused by high use or by technical issues.


Forever stamps are not a good financial investment

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The US Post Office's "Forever" stamps have seemed like a pretty good buy these days. It's seemed like the cost of postage has gone up substantially in recent years.

Of course, this needs to be adjusted for inflation. Over such a long time, the deflation measure you choose makes quite a difference. From my perspective, I care most about a consumer price index. Unfortunately, once you adjust for inflation, it appears that the real cost of stamps has been pretty steady. In other words, if you'd bought a "Forever" stamp in 1958 and your friend bought an instrument that would return inflation-level returns that same year, by 2009 you'd still have a valid stamp and he'd have just enough money to buy a stamp today.

But here's the thing -- for the post office, the future is not like the past. Mail volumes have been plummetting and USPS is under serious financial stress. Maybe that means that there will be further increases in stamp prices that will make "Forever" stamps a good buy. Or maybe they'll reduce services, making the "Forever" stamps less useful. Either way, the purchase is worth it for me because of the reduced hassle, even if they're not a good financial instrument.


Choosing My Own Adventure

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Growing up, I was a big fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books. I’d been thinking about doing something with CYOA principles for a while, and during a 2009 vacation I started the project. Over the next couple of months it became a "20% project" for my free time. Here’s the result: A Tweet Your Own Adventure … on Twitter! I'm SteveD503 on Twitter, and this post explains how TYOA came to be.

Choose Your Own Adventure is cool

Choose Your Own Adventure seems to be experiencing a resurgence lately. It was just last year that the series turned 30. This amazing animation of the several CYOA books by Christian Swinehart appeared last year, and I’ve seen a couple visualizations of CYOA books recently. The Choose Your Own Adventure people even have their own Twitter page now. Interestingly, they chose almost the same logo as I did, but with the distinctive “A” from their font. It also looks a little like they took the “O” (and design/color scheme) from Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” sculpture. I was a little less inspired – I just wanted to fit all four letters in a square and used Arial because it was my default typeface.

Getting started

To prepare, I graphed out the story from Choose Your Own Adventure #98: You Are A Millionaire to understand how the stories worked. It looked like most threads had 6-9 choices and there were about 20 endings. There was one place where you could rejoin a storyline, but most of the threads continued straight to their end.

On my vacation, Matt Couch and I went to the library and brainstormed all the things that we’ve had happen or almost happened to us on Friday nights out to come up with a list of ~30-40 endings. We weeded out the unreasonable ones, grouped the remainder into endings that could be reached through similar evenings, and built a tree of choices that led to each:

The final result was a neater tree that looks like this (the page numbers don’t match up because I randomized them before I published on Twitter to give it more of the CYOA feel):

The story ended up having 91 pages and is made up of 1,350 tweets (It’s not Page_01 to Page_94, though – some of the pages were already taken when I started).

Other TYOA attempts

After writing the story, I went back and thought about the mechanics of how I wanted to publish it. I wanted to use Twitter in an unconventional way. There are a TYOA efforts already out there, but I thought there was room to innovate. There’s one person publishing a choose your own adventure using a single account and relying on user feedback. It only lets you go through one thread, though, and requires the reader’s attention over a long period of time. I wanted to let users find their way at their own pace. There’s also a group that tried to let people roll their own adventures on Twitter using its search function. Unfortunately, this requires an enormous amount of user-work, and reliance on the Twitter search function means that the stories only persist for about two weeks. As of this writing, their hashtag (#TYOA) did not appear in Twitter’s search results. Jonah Peretti did his own version, but it looks a little more proof-of-concept than fully-baked story. It has some neat ideas, like using links to make each ‘page’ a new webpage, which allows easy (if messy) backtracking. It also eats up almost 40 characters for the 'next' options.

The nuts and bolts

I did a few things to make the story more engaging. In addition to the main storyline, each page has a link to something related where people would normally put their “Web” link. I also tried to include an occasional link or picture instead of just text, and shortened all the pages so that none of them were 20+ tweets (after 19 tweets, hides the remaining tweets, forcing you to click “more”). There's also extra content, both in the 'bio' links of every page and in some hidden pages.

After putting up the first few pages, I realized I hadn’t given much thought to virality. I believe in the idea that virality is all about making your users look awesome in front of their friends and thought about ways that readers could publish their experience to their friends. I settled on a retweetable conclusion that users could retweet from their stories.

I know that most of Twitter’s traffic doesn’t go through the website, so I tested out TYOA on a few different platforms. It works better in some than in others.

I hope you enjoy the story! Send me feedback if you’re interested. I’m SteveD503. If you’re ready to get started, go ahead and Turn to @Page_01!


Nice job, eh

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A few weeks ago I claimed that Canada hadn’t optimized its portfolio properly. Now that the Olympics are over, I can answer the question more definitively. Did Canada “Own the Podium?” Yes. According to the IOC’s convention, Canada ‘won’ the Olympics by winning the greatest number of golds.

Did they do so in a cost effective manner? That’s harder to answer. According to Own the Podium’s website Canada spent CDN$70M in pursuit of their 14 gold medals, or about CDN$5M per gold. However, they spent only CDN$14M on the 7 gold medals they won in 2006 (CDN$2M per gold). That makes sense because there’s some level of medal-winning to be expected even with no government support (e.g., the hockey team’s players were developed by amateur and professional leagues). It also makes intuitive sense that additional medals would take more effort to win if Canada had been deploying its resources effectively in the past (i.e., spending on the sports that were cheapest to win). In the end, those additional 7 golds cost CDN$55M extra – an incremental cost of CDN$8M per gold medal. That seems like a lot.

To put things in perspective, though, the operational budget for the Olympics ran to CDN$1.75B, which would make “Own the Podium” expenses 4% of the budget. In that context, Canada did just fine. They made a relatively small incremental investment and became the first host country to win the Winter Olympics gold medal count since Norway did in 1952. Nice job, eh?


How Canada's Plans to "Own the Podium" Failed

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

This year at the 2010 winter Olympics, Canada made moves to shed its humble image just a bit with a program they titled "Own the Podium." China was successful with a similar program called "Project 119" during their 2008 Olympic hosting, in part because of their willingness to invest heavily in relatively unpopular, but highly medalled categories.

But, Canada has largely failed to win medals, and Nate Silver suggests it has to do with their investment strategy. A quick graph illustrates this nicely:

Canada has over-invested (relative to the medal count) in its "heritage" sports like curling and hockey and under-invested in sports like biathlon and cross-country skiing -- sports that would be good targets both because they are medal-rich and because they are not professionalized.

You might expect to see an investment strategy based on those two criteria:
  • High medal density: each dollar spent will increase the odds of winning several medals at once
  • Lack of professional financial support: each marginal dollar spent will have a greater impact

That's just not what we see in the graph. Instead, it appears that they're just trying to avoid the embarrassment of losing in their traditional areas of strength. Ironically, by setting less amitious objectives, Canada increased the chance that it could all go sideways with a single loss.

It looks like "Own the Podium" was more about avoiding embarrassment than dominating the competition. How Canadian.


VCs' blogs do not appear to drive web traffic to their funds

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A classmate of mine from HBS, Rob Go put up an interesting post yesterday about the relationship between venture capitalists’ website traffic and blog traffic. In short, he found that there was very little correlation between the two. I thought a graph might clarify the data:

It appears that most VCs are tightly clustered around 10,000 hits/month to their websites (Sequoia and First Round Capital standing as outliers, but excluding those, the standard deviation was ~2,000 hits). What Rob (and I) found surprising was that while blog traffic varied widely, it didn’t appear to affect website traffic.[1] If we assume that website traffic is a loose proxy for entrepreneurs’ interest in a fund (as opposed to blog traffic, which seems to indicate interest in the person writing), that seems to indicate that blogs may be building independent brands for the entrepreneurs, but it doesn’t (from this data) appear to be increasing deal flow.[2]

This really isn’t enough data to draw a conclusion, but it does raise the question for me: “If not increasing interest in their fund, what value do VCs’ blogs deliver?”

1. The best fit trendlines are all negative (i.e., a negative correlation between website and blog traffic), and statistically insignificant (R-squared<.1). This remains true even when removing the sites with zero blog traffic or when removing the website traffic outliers.
2. Yes, website traffic is a *very* loose proxy. Yes, the blogs could be delivering value by helping entrepreneurs focus on the funds more suited to them, lowering website traffic, but increasing lead quality. But, website traffic still seems like a very preliminary step in investigating a fund; I’m surprised there isn’t a stronger correlation.


In defense of Incandescence

Friday, January 29, 2010

A few days ago, @ataussig pointed out that 75% of Americans unaware that most incandescent light bulbs will become illegal starting in 2012-14. I was certainly among the ignorant. I know that environmentalists have been pretty excited about CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps). I’m not.

I’m not against CFLs because I don’t believe the energy savings math.[1]

The mercury content gives me some pause, but doesn't tip the scale. Mercury poisoning is bad, and it doesn't take much to hurt you. Mercury from CFLs gets into the environment when people throw them away.[2] But, CFLs also get mercury into your environment when they break. Check out the EPA’s 206-page study on how to clean up a broken CFL while minimizing toxicity risk from mercury poisoning. For parents that go nuts about what food additives their kids eat, I’m surprised there isn’t more concern over the mercury in CFLs.

No, the real reason I oppose a switch from incandescence to fluorescence is that it just looks terrible.[3] Fluorescents produce more green and less red hues, making everyone look vaguely diseased (lighting experts call this “cool” light). I’m willing to compromise environmentally in other areas of my life, but destroying my visual environment after sundown just isn’t worth it.

The new incandescent ban doesn't seem to be based on good science or good thinking, and that makes me sad. Here's an article that can tell you more.

1. Marginal energy savings to CFLs works out like this: 6x the energy to make; last 6-10x as long using x/4 the energy. So, the energy to use them is a wash, but energy savings from lighting the bulb is ~75%.
2. CFL Fun Fact: CFLs cannot safely be thrown out in the trash, but everyone does anyway.
3. CFLs! Now with more wan!


Closer still

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

To continue my self-analysis of exercise routines, and specifically to follow up on my squash post, @Bain asked the following: “I'd love to see win percentage by game # within a match. I'd guess that Steve was 75% in the first two games; I was 75% in the third and fourth games, and we were even in game five.” His hypothesis sounded right to me—I also perceived that I tended to come out strong, then fade. Turns out, we were wrong again.

Here are the totals for the full set of games. I think that past the first match we've got some pretty small sample sizes and weird incentives with added on 1 or 3 game sets[1]:

But, this isn’t exactly right, since matches don’t always stretch to five games. Someone’s going to try a lot less hard in game 5 if they’ve already lost the match. In the match-relevant games[2], here is my win percentage by game:

It looks like I had a *slight* edge in game 1, Alex had the edge in 2/3 and I completely dominated Game 4 (reflecting, in part that it's often a "must-win" for me, and in part that I tend to win matches 3-1 and Alex tends to win them 3-2). A final note is that within the games that determined matches we're 44-38 in match *games* (my advantage) even though we're 10-9 in matches. I've won more matches 3-1 while Alex has won slightly more 3-2. Here's how our match scores have broken down (again, all from my perspective)[3,4]:

Put one way, Alex converts his game wins more efficiently into match wins than I do.

1. E.g., “Now that I’ve lost, let’s bet lunch that I can take game 6”*
2. (ignoring games after the match was concluded; e.g., counting only the first four of a LWLLW match -- this is why there aren't 18 games for Game 4 and Game 5)
3. There's one match missing because I recorded only that Alex won the match, not the game totals (methodologically, I also credited Alex with one game in the game totals, since you must have taken *at least* one game more than I did from the first five).
4. Also, methodologically, I’ve got two fewer match win/losses in this analysis than I did in the last one because I excluded three round robins in which we played two games against each other (result: 2-0, 1-1,0-2) for simplicity.

*Most matches included a wager on the match. A post-game Gatorade was common, as was a beer (though those rarely got redeemed). Big bets were usually lunch. Oddly, the post-match bet was often higher stakes than the first bet; e.g., a beer following a Gatorade, or the loser had to listen to a podcast of the winner’s choice or purchase and read a book of the winner’s choice.


As close as it gets

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I’ve been keeping a log of working out since 2003. For the last ~12 months, I’ve been recording the game-level detail of squash matches as well (e.g., WLLWL for a 2-3 loss). I’ve been playing @Bain since 2008, and we’ve made some jokes about how our matches have always seemed very even, but I realized this week that I have the data to test that. I did a quick look through my data and sent off this email to most frequent 2008-09 squash partner:

“So, what I have learned (in addition to the depressing stat that I've averaged 9.5 minutes/day of working out since December 2003) is that Alex and I are 11-10 in matches and 60-60 in games. That's pretty much as close as it gets. Awesome.”

Alex posted this to Twitter with the aside, “I'd thought it was much closer :-)”

Turns out, he was right. Alex had a suspicion that he had a huge advantage in the first few months we played, and that more recently I’ve taken charge. Nope – if that were true, you’d see his game total climb much faster than mine, then see me catch up. Not the case:

In fact, over 120 games, neither of us have ever been ahead by more than five games:

Not only that, but squash is notoriously streaky. If that were true for Alex and me, you’d expect wins to tend to be followed by wins and for losses to follow losses. Or, perhaps each win takes so much out of the winner that he tends to lose the next game. Nope, once again completely even. Following a win, I was 30-29. Our games are exactly as predictable as a fair coin: dead random.


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