Archive for the strategy tag

Joni

The Basics of Dilemmas

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Introduction

By definition, a dilemma is a trade-off situation in which there are two choices, each leading to a negative outcome.

General solution

A general solution, then, is to weigh the outcomes and compare them against one another.

For example:

choice A: -1
choice B: -2

In this example, choice A has smaller negative effect, so we’d pick that one.

Complications

However, there are complications.

Consider the above would in fact be the short-term outcomes, but there are also long-term outcomes. For example

choice A: -1, -3
choice B: -2, -1

This leads us into payoff functions, so that the outcomes (payoffs) consist of many variables. In the example, the long-term negative effects outweigh the short-term effects, and we would  change our choice to B.

However, the choice can also be arbitrary, meaning that neither choice dominates. In game theory terms, there is no dominant strategy.

This would be the case when

choice A: -1, -2
choice B: -2, -1

As you can see, it doesn’t matter which choice we take since each gives a negative outcome of equal size. There is an exception to this rule, namely when the player has a preference between short- and long-term outcomes. For example, if he wants to minimize long-term damage, he would pick B, and vice versa.

How to apply this in real life?

In decision-making situations, it’s common to make lists of + and -, i.e. listing positive and negative sides. by assigning a numerical value to them, you can calculate the sum and assign preference among choices. in other words, it becomes easier to make tough decisions.

I’m into digital marketing, startups, and platforms. Download my dissertation on startup dilemmas: http://goo.gl/QRc11f

Joni

How to measure offline marketing with online metrics?

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How to measure offline marketing with online metrics?

Introduction

The issue with offline marketing is tracking. For many offline marketing efforts, such as exhibitions and networking events, it’s hard to track results.

Participation in these events is often expensive, and the results are evaluated on a qualitative basis. Although qualitative evaluation is better than nothing, quantitative data is obviously better. And in many cases, we can do that – all we need it the measuring mindset and a little bit of creativity.

The bottom line is: If you’re spending a lot of money into offline marketing, you have to justify its performance. Otherwise you don’t know how well the money turns into desired outcomes, let alone how well event A compared with event B in terms of performance.

The simple solution

The issue can be solved by using metrics. For example, if we are selling in a trade fair, I can use performance metrics like these:

  • sales (€, qty)
  • number of catalogs and/or flyers distributed
  • number of emails gathered via a lead-generation contest (“give us your email – win prize x”)

Of course, knowing the cost of participation, we can now calculate composite metrics such as:

  • Direct ROI = (sales – cost) / cost
  • Cost per lead (email) = cost / number of emails
  • Cost per catalogue distributed = cost / number of catalogues distributed

These can be now measured against digital channels, and evaluated whether or not we’d like to participate in the event in question again, say, next year.

Comparing offline and online performance

During my time as a marketing manager, I’ve come up with different ways to standardize the offline metrics, that is to say calculate offline marketing activities so that they are comparable with digital channels.

Here are three ways we’ve been using.

1. Cost per card

  • CPCa = cost of participation / number of business cards collected
  • Compare with: CPL

Networking is an important part of the sales cycle, especially in B2B markets. By quantifying the results, you are able to compare one event against another, as well as compare the results with lead generation (CPL) through digital channels
(for this, only include the business cards of potential customers).

2. Cost per catalog

  • CPCat = cost of distribution / number of catalogues distributed
  • Compare with: CPC

In Finland, I’ve found that catalog distribution inside magazines is a cost-effective form of marketing. This metric I compare with Google CPC, i.e. the cost of average paid user via Google. The rationale is that since the catalog is inside the customer’s favorite magazine, she will surely take a look at it (during the reading
session you tend to have more time).

3. Cost per festival contact

  • CPF = cost of participation / number of visitors
  • Compare with: CPM

Summer festivals are hot in Finland. Every year, there is more than a dozen big festivals across the country. We’re participating in some of them together with our suppliers. Festivals most often provide you with the number previous year’s visitors. I find it best to compare this metric with CPM, since the visitors are just
hypothetical contacts.

Of course, we can use several metrics, so for festivals I use CPF to evaluate which ones are the most cost-effective ones (that’s one, but the not the only criterion, since the match between us and the target audience is more important). Then, to evaluate how well we did, I’ll use the other metrics, mainly cost per lead (email) and cost per catalog distributed.

Hopefully this article gave you some useful ideas. If you have something to share, please write in in the comments. Thanks for reading.

I’m into digital marketing, startups, platforms. Download my dissertation on startup dilemmas: http://goo.gl/QRc11f

Joni

Using the VRIN model to evaluate web platforms

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Introduction

In this article, I discuss how the classic VRIN model can be used to evaluate modern web platforms.

What is the VRIN model?

It’s one of the most cited models of the resource-based view of the firm. Essentially, it describes how a firm can achieve sustainable competitive advantage through resources that fulfill certain criteria.

These criteria for resources that provide a sustainable competitive advantage are:

  • valuable
  • rare
  • imperfectly imitable
  • non-substitutable

By gaining access to this type of resources, a firm can create a lasting competitive advantage. Note that this framework takes one perspective to strategy, i.e. the resource-based view. Alternative ones are e.g. Porter’s five forces and power-based frameworks, among many others.

The “resource” in resource-based view can be defined as some form of input which can be transformed into tangible or intangible output that provides utility or value in the market. In a competitive setting, a firm competes with its resources against other players; what resources it has and how it uses them are key variables in determining the competitive outcome, i.e. success or failure in the market.

How it applies to web platforms?

In each business environment, there are certain resources that are particularly important. An orange juice factory, for example, requires different resources to be successful than a consulting business (the former needs a good supply of oranges, and the latter bright consultants; both rely on good customer relationships, though).

So, what kind of resources are relevant for online platforms?

I first give a general overview of the VRIN dimensions in online context. This is done by comparing online environment with offline environment.

Value:

The term ‘value’ is tricky because of its definition: if we define it as something useful, we easily end up in a tautology (circular argument): a resource is valuable because it is useful for some party.

  • critical for offline: yes (but which resources?)
  • critical for online: yes (but which resources?)

The specific resources for online platforms are discussed later on.

Rarity:

One of the key preoccupations in economic theory is scarcity: raw materials are scarce and firms need to compete over their exploitation.

  • critical for offline: yes
  • critical for online: no

Offline industries are characterized by rivalry – once oil is consumed, it cannot be reused. Knowledge products on the web, on the other hand, are described as non-rivalry products: if one consumer downloads an MP3 song, that does not remove the ability for another consumer to download as well (but if a consumer buys a snickers bar, there is one less for others to buy). Scarcity is usually associated to startups so that they are forced to innovate due to liability of smallness.

Imitability:

This deals with how well the business idea can be copied.

  • critical for offline: yes
  • critical for online: no

in “traditional” industries, such as manufacturing, patents and copyrights (IPR) are important. They protect firms against infringement and plagiarism. without them, every innovation could be easily copied which would quickly erode any competitive advantage. Intellectual property rights therefore enable the protection of “innovations” against imitation.

Imitation is less of a concern online. In most cases, the web technologies are public knowledge (e.g., open source). Even large players contribute to public domain. Therefore, rather than being something that competitors could not imitate, the emphasis on competition between web platforms tends to be on acquiring users rather than patents. (There are also other sources of resource advantage we’ll discuss later on.)

Substitutability:

The difference between imitation and substitution is that in the former you are being copied whereas in the latter your product is being replaced by another solution. For example, Evernote can be replaced by paper and pen.

  • critical for offline: yes (depends on the case though)
  • not so critical for offline: yes (see the example of Evernote)

However, I would argue the source of resource advantage comes from something else than immunity of subsitution: after all, there are tens of search-engines and hundreds of social networks but still the giants overcome them.

‘Why’ is the question we’re going to examine next.

Important resources for online platforms

Here’s what I think is important:

  1. knowledge
  2. storage/server capacity
  3. users
  4. content
  5. complementors
  6. algorithms
  7. company culture
  8. financing
  9. HQ location

Knowledge means holding the “smartest workers” – this is obviously a highly important resource. As Steve Jobs said, they’re not hiring smart people to tell them what to do, but so that the smart workers could tell Apple what to do.

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: no (comes in abundance)
  • imperfectly imitable: no
  • non-substitutable: yes

Storage/server capacity is crucial for web firms. The more users they have, the more important this resource is in order to provide a reliable user experience.

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: no
  • imperfectly imitable: no
  • non-substitutable: yes

Users are crucial given that the platform condition of critical mass is achieved. Critical mass is closely associated with network effects, meaning that the more there are users, the more valuable the platform is.

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: no
  • imperfectly imitable: no
  • non-substitutable: yes

Content is important as well — content is a complement to content platforms, whereas users are complements of social platforms (for more on this typology, see my dissertation).

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: no
  • imperfectly imitable: no
  • non-substitutable: yes

Complementors are antecedents to getting users or content – they are third parties that provide extensions to the core platform, and therefore add its usefulness to the users.

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: no (depends)
  • imperfectly imitable: yes
  • non-substitutable: no (can be replaced by in-house activities)

Algorithms are proprietary solutions platforms use to solve matching problems.

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: no (depends)
  • imperfectly imitable: no
  • non-substitutable: yes

Company culture is a resource which can be turned into an efficient deployment machine.

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: yes
  • imperfectly imitable: yes
  • non-substitutable: yes

A great company culture may be hard to imitate because its creation requires tacit knowledge.

Financing is an antecedent to acquiring other resources, such as the best team and storage capacity (although it’s not self-evident that money leads to functional a team, as examples in the web industry demonstrate).

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: no (for good businesses)
  • imperfectly imitable: no
  • non-substitutable: no (bootstrapping)

Finally, location is important because can provide an access to a network of partner companies, high-quality employees and investors (think Silicon valley) that, again, are linked to the successful use of other resources.

  • valuable: yes
  • rare: no
  • imperfectly imitable: no
  • non-substitutable: no

A location is not a rare asset because it’s always possible to find an office space in a given city; similarly, you can follow where your competitors go.

Conclusions

What can be learned from this analysis?

First, the “value” in the VRIN framework is self-evident and not very useful in finding out differences between resources, UNLESS the list of resources is really wide and not industry-specific. That would be case when exploring the ; here, the list creation was

My list highlights intangible resources as a source of competitive advantage for web platforms. Based on this analysis, company culture is a resource the most compatible with the VRIN criteria.

Although it was argued that substitutability is less of a concern in online than offline, the risk of disruption touches equally well the dominant web platforms. Their large user base protects them against incremental innovations, but not against disruptive innovations. However, just as the concept of “value” has tautological nature, disruption is the same – disruptive innovation is disruptive because it has disrupted an industry – and this can only be stated in hindsight.

Of course, the best executives in the world have seen disruption beforehand, e.g. Schibstedt and digital transformation of publishing, but most companies, even big ones like Nokia have failed to do so.

How to go deeper

Let’s take a look at the three big: Google, Facebook and eBay. Each one is a platform: Google combines searchers with websites (or, alternatively, advertisers with publisher websites (AdSense); or even more alternatively, advertisers with searchers (AdWords)), Facebook matches users to one another (one-sided platform) and advertisers with users (two-sided platform). eBay as an exchange platform matches buyers and sellers.

It would be useful to assess how well each of them score in the above resources and how the resources are understood in these companies.

I’m into digital marketing, startups, platforms. Download my dissertation on startup dilemmas: http://goo.gl/QRc11f

Joni

The difference between business logic and strategy

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Introduction

I started thinking this question today when reading my students’ exam answers. The questions was “Define business logic and give an example of it”, and many answers actually defined strategy. At that point, I realized it’s not so easy to see a difference between these two concepts.

So, what would I see as the main difference between strategy and business logic?

What is business strategy?

First, strategy in my opinion involves competition – it’s firm-related decision-making in which we try to gain a competitive advantage, i.e. apply a strategy that helps us win; or, more particularly, to achieve a goal, such as grabbing market share, become profitable, grow, etc. Hence, strategy is closely associated with reaching a pre-defined goal – in company terms, we usually set a vision of where we want to take the company in a certain time-frame (say five years from now), and then create an overall strategy that should take us towards that ideal state. When the firm’s vision is based on some shared principles or values, this is called mission.

As a concept, strategy is much older than business logic and has its roots in military thinking (hence the competitive dimension). For example, Ceaser, Napoleon and Clausewitz are seen as classics of strategy.

What is business logic?

Business logic, then again, would be a description of “why” — why are customers paying us money? It’s much more focused on value / benefit / utility than strategy. I would say business logic is an explanation as to why an organization can remain viable – e.g., it can transform some form of resources (raw material) into output (products). Or, it can be based on exploiting people’s vice (such as the Finnish liquor monopoly Alko) or market inefficiencies, or it can create markets for other players (e.g. Google AdWords).

It seems the two concept involve some overlap – the description of business logic approach strategy when we think how the firm combines resources to produce something customers perceive attractive enough to buy. I’d also say both are applicable to many organizations, not just firms – consider a university, for example. The strategy of a university revolves around ways of attracting the best students and teachers (it’s like a two-sided market), but its business logic is to transform education resources into courses and monetize that either through tuition fees (e.g. US) or state money (e.g. Finland).

As I said to my students, it’s an eye-opening experience when you start seeing either of these concepts “bare” — at that point you truly understand the core of particular choices firms make, and why things are the way they are.

Conclusion

In sum, I’d say strategy is a barebone description of how to compete in a market, whereas business logic is a barebone description of how to make money. If both were games, strategy would be Risk and business logic Monopoly.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts on the topic!

I’m into digital marketing, startups, platforms. Download my dissertation on startup dilemmas: http://goo.gl/QRc11f

Joni

Notes on Customer Development

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I keep forgetting this stuff, so noting it down for myself (and others).

1. Don’t ask “would you” questions, ask “did you” questions. People are unable to predict their behavior.

2. Don’t ask about your product, ask about their problem. Wrong question: “We have this product A – would you use it?”. Right question: “Do you ever have this problem B?” [that you think the product A will solve]

3. Only in the very end introduce your solution. Then ask openly what he or she thinks about it: “What do you see problematic about it?” Also ask if they know someone who would like this solution.

4. Listen, don’t pitch. Pitching is for other times – you DON’T need to sell your product to this person, you only need to hear about his or her life.

5. Repeat what he or she says – many times people think they understand what the other person is saying, but they don’t. Only by repeating with your own words and getting them to nod “That’s right” you can make sure you got it.

6. Make notes – obviously. You don’t want to forget, but without notes you will.

7. Make “many” interviews. Many = as long as you notice there are no more new insights. In research, this is called saturation. You want to reach saturation and make sure you’ve identified the major patterns.

8. Avoid loaded questions. False: “Is this design good?” Correct: “What do you think of this design?”

9. Avoid yes/no questions. What would you learn from them? Nothing.

10. Focus more on disproving your idea rather than validating it. In philosophy of science, this is called falsificationism. It means not claim can be proved absolutely true, but every claim can be proved wrong. Rather than wanting to prove yourself right (at the risk of making a false positive), you want to prove yourself wrong and avoid wasting time on a bad idea. Remember: most startup ideas suck (it’s true – I’ve seen hundreds, and most will never amount to business – be very very critical about your idea).

As hinted in the previous, customer developing is like doing real research. You want to avoid false positives – i.e., getting the impression your idea is good although it sucks; and false negatives which is to conclude the idea is bad although in reality it’s not.

In general, you want to avoid respondent bias, recall bias, and confirmation bias. These are fancy names meaning that you want people to tell you honestly what they think, and you want to interpret it in an objective way, not being too fixed on your initial assumption (i.e., hypothesis). Be ready to change your opinion, like Gandhi advised.

About non-interview methods, i.e. testing via landing pages.

a. Force customers to pay from the beginning – this way you see if the thing has value to anyone.

b. Needless to say: MVP. Create first the non-scalable, bare minimum solution. This is not even a product, it’s a service. Use manual labor over technology and get the user information through free tools like Google Forms.

c. If you get a high dropout, you need to make sure people understand the USP. For this, you CAN ask your friends’ opinions: “Do you get it?” But prefer friends without prior knowledge on the project, because they have fresh eyes.

Before conducting any interviews or tests, do some market research based on facts. Yes, I know Steve Blank says to “go out of the building” straight away and forget about traditional market research, but he’s not a marketing expert. Think a bit before you fly out the door: Who are your customers? Why them? Do they have money? Do they want to buy from you? etc.

You can use this spreadsheet for segmentation (not my doing, just copied it from Sixteen Ventures):

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0ArHFxUyqbcmHdHp5VEY2eXNLby0zaHFKSDhpc0xEdkE&usp=sharing

Example questions from Cindy Alvarez:

  • How is your customer currently dealing with this task/problem? (What solution/process are they using?)
  • What do they like about their current solution/process?
  • Is there some other solution/process you’ve tried in the past that was better or worse?
  • What do they wish they could do that currently isn’t possible or practical?
  • If they could do [answer to the above question], how would that make their lives better?
  • Who is involved with this solution/process? How long does it take?
  • What is their state of mind when doing this task? How busy/hurried/stressed/bored/frustrated? [note: learn this by watching their facial expressions and listening to their voice]
  • What are they doing immediately before and after their current solution/process?
  • How much time or money would they be willing to invest in a solution that made their lives easier?

More points from Cindy (she’s a real specialist):

  • Abstract your problem by a level. For example, if you want to know whether someone will use a healthy lunch delivery service, ask about “lunch”
  • Start with an open-ended “Tell me about how you…” question. i.e. “Tell me about how you deal with lunch during the workweek”
  • Shut up for 60 seconds. This is a LONG, LONG time and it feels awkward. It also forces the person to go beyond the short (and probably useless) answer and go into detail.
  • Whenever you hear emotion in the person’s voice, prolong that line of conversation.
  • (You can prolong conversations by asking why/how often/who/where questions. It may take 2 or 3 or more of these follow-up questions to get at the interesting detail.)
  • Avoid yes/no questions. Whichever one the person chooses, it’s probably not useful for you.
  • Whenever the person starts complaining listen (and encourage it!) People are more specific with complaints than praise, and specificity is where you learn.
  • Challenge your pre-existing hypotheses by referencing the mythical “other person”. For example, “I’ve heard from other people that ______. Do you agree?” It’s easier for people to disagree with an anonymous third party than to disagree with YOU.
  • Avoid talking about your product or your ideas until the end – but then DO give the person the opportunity to ask you some questions. This is NOT a chance for you to sell your idea, it’s just an equalizer. You’ve been asking questions the whole time, now it’s their turn.
  • Thank them profusely and reinforce one concrete point that you learned.
    • Alwaaaaaayyyyys ask for referrals to 2-3 other friends who are roughly in the target market so you can interview them.

Here are some useful links:

http://www.quora.com/Customer-Development/What-are-your-favorite-methods-for-doing-problem-interviews-during-Customer-Discovery

https://blog.kissmetrics.com/26-customer-development-resources/

http://sixteenventures.com/startup-customer-development-hacks

http://practicetrumpstheory.com/how-to-interview-your-users-and-get-useful-feedback/

http://giffconstable.com/2011/07/12-tips-for-customer-development-interviews-revised/
If you have to read one book about this topic, read this one: http://www.amazon.com/Interviewing-Users-Uncover-Compelling-Insights-ebook

If you want to read another book, then it’s this one: http://www.amazon.com/Lean-Customer-Development-Building-Customers-ebook

If you need to read a third book, then you should stop doing a startup and become a researcher 🙂