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Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Archive for July, 2007

Olson on Selling: The Story is Very Important

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I was lucky enough to be able to attend the 2007 BlogHer conference this weekend in Chicago. At the event I was able to put a lot of faces to names since a lot of loyal FeedBurner users and evangelists were among the speakers and attendees. Talking to people like Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes is always a great way to clarify my thinking about the product and what publishers want out of it. It also helps me to see what we should be looking to do in the future.

Anyhow, since I spent much of my time chatting at the Google/FeedBurner booth and in the hallways I didn’t get a chance to see many sessions. In fact, I only sat in on one but it was a very good one to sit in on.

The topic of the panel I sat in on was crafting and how blogs and the internet effect it. There were a lot of great folks on the panel including Amy Sedaris. For those unfamiliar with Amy, she’s a riot. I had seen her on Letterman a couple times so I knew the panel was going to be entertaining. However, what I didn’t know was that one of my past thoughts on this blog would be brought up.

I have been thinking about a store on the web for microfinance goods for a while. I first wrote about the idea in a post titled “Opening Markets for Microfinance Goods” where I talked about the idea as a simple online store. As the idea evolved in my mind though I began to find that a simple online store wouldn’t do it. Why? Because in a typical online store with many products the story of each product can’t be fully told.

For the microfinance goods store I figured that the story of each item needed to be told in a compelling way to make the idea work because people wanted to buy more than just an item, they also wanted a story and would perhaps even pay a premium for it.

This is why a lot of the fair trade stores on the internet haven’t made a huge splash. With too many products “on the shelf” the story of each product simply can’t be told in a compelling way so consumers will simply get the cheaper alternative in their local store.

Woot.com then became an inspiration to me. The way they have set things up is exactly the way in which a store devoted to microfinance goods, goods with a very rich story, would thrive.

Tell the story well and items will sell.

This same theme appeared in the middle of the crafting panel at BlogHer. When pricing and selling came up one of the panelists mentioned that telling the story of how she makes each item in a detailed and compelling way not only lets her sell her items quickly but also allows her to command higher prices for them then she would have been able to otherwise.

The other panelists then began to chime is stating that they have seen the same thing happen with their crafts. Wow, I thought, so this theory really does produce compelling results. With woot.com and these crafting ladies backing things up I then turned my attention onto some of the more compelling companies to come out of the Web 2.0 space and I found that they too were telling compelling stories.

Take FeedBurner for example since I am intimately familiar with how things were done there. We always had great content on the site and witty banter that made the company feel more like a person. Not only that but we, along with other companies in the space, used our blogs as a communication platform to both tell the story of FeedBuner and engage with our users. While this is slightly different than telling the story of a specific item and then selling it I believe it still follows the same framework.

Bottom line: People love stories and are willing to be more loyal to a company or pay more for a product (or even simply buy the product in the first place) if they understand the story and feel they are an intimate part of it.

In fact, I notice myself following that behavior as well. Although I do think Cervelo bikes are superior to other bikes I do love the fact that they tie in a good story to the bike about how they are obsessive about their engineering and work on every little piece of the bike to make it better. That story alone has drawn me to Cervelo. (However, their bikes are still a bit pricey for me but maybe they’ll throw me a bone for the free publicity.)

Next up in the Olson on Selling series: Support is King

Written by Eric Olson

July 29th, 2007 at 6:02 pm

Movie Review: Wicker Park

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Wicker ParkWicker Park has been on my list for a while and it started to make its’ way to the top when I moved to Chicago (it being a Chicago based movie and all). Needless to say I was excited when it showed up in the mail a couple weeks back but with all the traveling I have been doing and with the Tour de France in full effect I didn’t have a chance to watch it until this afternoon.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with the film since it could have easily been a cheesy love triangle piece but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The film had me on the edge of my seat the whole time and the plot never felt contrived to me.

What I loved about the story was that it was only as complicated as it needed to be. I thought at times it was going to over the David Lynch cliff and end up pretty out there but every time the film came back to center and the plot thickened causing me to pull closer to the TV.

I don’t want to say much more about this movie since I don’t want to spoil it but I will say that it is worth a watch. Wicker Park is a gripping thought provoking mystery that takes place amongst multiple love stories that will keep you on the edge to the very end.

Written by Eric Olson

July 28th, 2007 at 7:08 pm

Posted in Movie Reviews

Olson on Selling: Customer Centric vs. Product Centric Selling

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I have recently started to think more about how products and features should be presented to potential (and even existing) customers. At FeedBurner we always did what comes natural to me so I had never given it much thought (oh, and we also worked 24×7 so I didn’t have any time to give it much thought!).

The natural way to talk to potential customers about products from my point of view is something I term Customer Centric selling. Yes, I know all selling should be “customer” centric meaning that the customer should always come first but that is not what I mean by customer centric in this article. I am referring to the approach of bundling ones products/services/features together in a unified sales pitch which can be tailored to each customer’s needs.

This particular approach allows each potential or current customer to have one sales/biz dev guy they know they can always count on which drives stronger relationships over time and customer loyalty (this should equate to more sales). It should be said that the sales people in this case will have multiple customers though.

What is interesting to me is that most large companies (from what I have seen) do not seem to operate in a customer centric way. They typically sell products separately with different sales people representing the different products. This is what I term Product Centric selling since the products are what divides the sales team not customers.

I can see a handful reasons why larger companies may want to break things down by product rather than allowing all sales people to sell every product they have.

1. There are too many products so sales people won’t be able to experts on all of them and therefore won’t be effective.

2. The products are vastly different from one another so it doesn’t make sense to bundle them.

3. Account managers are part of the team and they jump in post sale to handle and build the relationships.

Those are all valid reasons to keep products separate but I would have to argue against number one on the list by saying that people are smart enough, generally, to handle working with more than one product especially if the products make sense to sell in a bundle.

It seems to me that the goal of selling should be to get the customer exactly what they need in an efficient manner while building a relationship that can last a long time. Bundling products can help the business and its’ sales people deliver the most complete solution to the customer in the fastest amount of time while creating a one on one relationship that should continue to grow. Easier cross selling is also enabled in the customer centric model since multiple sales people do not need to be involved to cross sell.

What do you think? Should more large companies look to create a sales force that can sell anything they offer? It seems to me that a cross trained sales force could be deadly to a companies competition and very helpful to a companies customers.

Written by Eric Olson

July 23rd, 2007 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Business, on Selling

Book Review: Positively False

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Positively FalseAs most of you know I am a big cycling fan and cycling is especially top of mind for me during July since cycling’s largest event, the Tour de France, is in full effect.

During July I usually pick up a cycling book I have yet to read and this July is no exception. This time around I read the recently released book “Positively False” by Floyd Landis.

Positively False in a memoir of Floyd’s cycling life with a focus on his 2006 Tour de France win and subsequent doping scandal which still has yet to reach a conclusion.

I was as eager to pick up Positively False as most people are to get the latest Harry Potter novel because I really wanted to hear Floyd’s side of the story in his own words. I also wanted to learn about some of the arguments and facts Floyd and his team have built up to challenge the “positive” doping tests.

While the book is Floyd’s and will tell the story he wants to tell the evidence that he and his team have put together is pretty convincing. Here are a couple of the most important and basic issues with the doping test Floyd supposedly failed:

1. Mislabeled Sample:

Floyd’s sample number is repeatedly incorrect in his documents and it isn’t event the same wrong number each time the number appears. This shows negligence and incompetence among the lab technicians at the very least.

2. The Specimen was Contaminated:

According to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) regulations Floyd’s specimen was clearly contaminated.

3. Unreliable Testing:

In multiple tests of the same sample the test results can’t vary by more than 20% for testosterone and 30% for epitestosterone. Floyd’s varied by 181% and 238% respectively meaning the tests should have been thrown out.

4. Positive Criteria was not met in Carbon Isotope Ratio Test (the more accurate test done after the prelim tests):

Four things are tested in this test and the Word Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) says all four must be positive tests for the overall test to be positive. In Floyd’s case only one of the four were positive meaning his test should be been labeled negative.

There are also many other issues including one that will be particularly interesting to all of you. The software the lab was using to test the samples was obsolete (I believe it hadn’t been updated since the 80s) and they were not operating the testing machine correctly most likely because they didn’t have the user manual. In fact, they never had a user manual as long as they had the machine.

I am still on Floyd’s side on this. The evidence is pretty clear (the lab screwed up continuously while testing his sample) and he seems like a pretty straightforward stand up guy. For more on the evidence Floyd’s defense team has put together please check out Arnie Baker’s site (Arnie is Floyd’s medical analyst and retired M.D.).

I would also recommend checking out the book if you have a chance. It is a quick read and it will give you a chance to get into the pro peleton where you will learn what goes on during a push for a win and after as things fall apart.

Written by Eric Olson

July 23rd, 2007 at 6:46 pm

Posted in Books, Sports

TECH cocktail Turns 1

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Frank and I hosted the 5th TECH cocktail in Chicago last night (6th overall) which marked the one year anniversary of TECH cocktail. It’s really hard to believe that it has already been a year since TC1. That said, I thought I would start out with a little infographic I put together that sums up TECH cocktail’s first year (thanks to Jason Shellen for the inspiration). A picture says 1,000 words right? Plus, the graphic should keep my reminiscent rambling to a minimum.

TC Infographic

Chicago has definitely come together as a technology community over the last year and I think we’ll be able to do even more in the year to come. In fact, TECH cocktail and Chicago have also become trend setters. Other people in other great cities that lack tech events are coming to us and asking us to bring TECH cocktail to them. I see this as a very positive thing since all the technology communities in the U.S. will start becoming closer.

TC5 was the best event we have done to date and it is all because of the great people we have here in Chicago. We drew between 500 and 600 people and a lot of those people have already sent in notes telling us about some of the great people they met and how TC5 will help them going forward with their businesses.

Of course it also takes lots o’ cash to put on an event like TC5 (trust me, I wrote the check) so I’d like to thank our sponsors since we literally couldn’t do it without them. A huge thanks to SingleHop, LinkedIn, Digital Bootcamp, Saper Law Office, Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, MK Capital, Origin Ventures, Chicago Micro, Fave Media and LiquidTalk.

Please check these guys out and help make their sponsorship contributions worth it. I know these guys primarily sponsor to help the community and aren’t as worried about their ROI but they have some great products and services and they are local so we should all be supporting them.

Next up I want to thank all of the demoers at TC5. Thanks to myAOL, PollEverywhere, My Open Bar, Braintree Financial, Humanized and Fave Media. We set out to create a platform for start-ups and others to showcase what they do so we’re glad so many great companies are taking advantage of it.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank Laura, Paulette and the John Barleycorn’s staff for keeping things running smoothly throughout the night and of course a big thanks to all the TCers out there. You guy make the event what it is and we’re forever grateful for your support.

I’ll leave you with this link to the TC5 pictures and make sure to tag yours techcocktail5 when you put them on flickr. Looking forward to seeing you all at TC6 in a few months!

Written by Eric Olson

July 14th, 2007 at 9:27 am

The Quest for Engagement: Moving Past Pageviews

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I was scrolling through the old feed reader the other day (I was a way, way behind on that) and I caught Andrew Parker’s post on the death of the page view. Looks like Neilsen has decided to do away with pageviews in favor of a “time spent” metric. Andrew brings up an interesting point about both of these metrics and what they inherently value which I believe is worth quoting in full here:

But, why would Nielsen replace page views with the “time spent” metric? When everyone focused on page views, it rewarded companies like Myspace for requiring clicking through 10 pages just to update your profile. Now, if time spent becomes the new default metric, then sites like Myspace will be rewarded for their slow, cumbersome interfaces that needlessly waste your time. Whereas, a site like Google would be punished for having a speedy, easy interface that prioritizes getting you where you want to go, not keeping you on Google’s site.

He makes a good point. We need to start figuring out how to measure good traffic instead of just traffic. Advertisers are getting smarter and smarter each day and they are going to demand better from us in the metrics space. I am also sure that advertisers will quickly figure out the major inherent flaw in the “time spent” metric that Andrew points out. That is leaving pages open in general or leaving pages open across multiple tabs in a browser when you aren’t looking at them (which both he and I do each and every day).

Andrew then talks a bit about what we built at FeedBurner (by we I mean our awesome engineering team) and some of the flaws there. He’s spot on since we are really focusing on the feed and our current site analytics are not super useful for people who don’t use a blog platform to publish (but they are very useful for blog publishers). However, I do think the feed will begin to power more and more things for publishers and that is where things get interesting in the way of analytics (see my post “Publish Once” for more).

If feeds are powering widgets, e-mail delivery of content, feed readers, syndication, etc. then we are in a great position to fully measure the audience and its’ engagement and tie things back to the site analytics. We’re a ways out from this of course but it is coming and it should get us closer to the holy grail of audience engagement.

In the meantime, Andrew suggests looking into qualitative methods of measuring the web. That’s an interesting concept and it could add a lot of value to advertisers if qualitative metrics were developed and used in conjunction with quantitative metrics. I am not sure what the qualitative side of things would look like but I’ll keep thinking about that notion.

Written by Eric Olson

July 12th, 2007 at 12:36 pm

Posted in Media, Media 2.0, Web, Web 2.0

Le Tech: Technology of the Tour de France

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Of course the Tour de France is top of mind for me right now and will be for the next 20 days or so. If you haven’t been watching it you should start. It has been very exciting so far and all the riders are totally clean and at the top of their game. Cycling really is a beautiful sport.

Anyhow, I thought it would be fun to talk a little about the tech behind the Tour today. I am sure some of you are thinking that their couldn’t be much tech since they are guys riding bikes. Well, you’d be wrong. There is a lot of interesting technology that goes into the Tour at many different stages leading up to it and during the race.

The Bikes: Design and Testing

The bikes in the Tour aren’t just regular bikes. They are technological marvels. Once of the bike companies that is the most technology driven in my mind is Cervelo. These guys are engineers and technology guys who really like bikes. You can see this through the four engineering white papers they have on their site.

Of course most of the technology is used to make the bikes lighter and more aerodynamic. That said, the two pieces of technology that are heavily used are computer aided design software (with top notch computers of course) and the wind tunnel with all the technological gadgets it holds inside.

The CAD software bike designers use is top notch stuff that also required some top notch hardware. This is why AMD was a great sponsor for the U.S. Postal team. They provided top notch machines to Postal (and Trek) so they could design and then test the bikes in the wind tunnel. The results speak for themselves.

The wind tunnel is serious business is pro cycling since every second counts. The more aerodynamic the bike the faster one can go and they easier it is for them to go that fast. Advanced wind tunnel testing is done by most, if not all, of the top Tour teams and the software they use to analyze the results is incredibly detailed.

The Bikes: Materials

I not a materials expert by any means but what I can say is that bicycles have done a lot of pioneering work with advanced materials. Most notably of these advanced materials is carbon fiber.

I am fairly certain that all the pro tour bikes are carbon fiber now and that bike companies have definitely taken carbon fiber based designs to a new level. Take the Cervelo Soloist Carbon below for example. That bike frame is essentially all carbon fiber and it looks beautiful. (Think if I talk about Cervelo enough they’ll send me a bike?) Of course I like my steel frames but if I was racing in the Tour I’d be going full out carbon no question.

On the Road: Measuring the Tour

While the guys are riding there is still a lot of technology at work. The most evident piece of technology are the mini computers that cyclists use to get their speed, distance traveled and other information.

Traditionally cycling computers have relied on a sensor to be hooked to the front fork and to the wheel. Typically these were two magnets and the computer, knowing the size of the wheel, could calculate speed and distance based on how many times the sensor on the wheel passed the sensor on the fork.

Garmin Edge 205Recently this has been improved ten fold by the introduction of GPS into cycling computers. I actually just picked up a Garmin Edge 205 cycling computer (side note: Buy.com has them for $100 off list) and I am loving it. Instead of installing wires and sensors I simply mount the 205 (shown right) to my handlebars and that’s it. The 205 doesn’t need any sensors since it bases my speed, distance, etc. on my GPS coordinates. it also comes with advanced training software so I can download all my data to my laptop and analyze away. Hey, I know I am never going to enter the Tour but I am a data geek. What can I say?

More recently cyclists have started to use power meters on the road as well as computers (most of the time the power data is integrated into the typical computer). A power meter simply measures the amount of power a cyclist is putting out in watts as they are riding. These devices had been used in trainging for a while but Floyd Landis was the first (I believe) to use a power meter in competition.

CycleOpsA cyclist can use the wattage data to understand how close to their peak they are and since they know what they can sustain and for how long they can use it to pace themselves. The cycleops power meter pictured left is also wheel hub. This means that it can be built right into a rear wheel which makes it much easier to use one of these meters for both practice and racing.

I am sure there is much more tech in the Tour but for the purposes of this post I think the basics have been covered. If you’d like to learn more about the technology behind today’s advanced bikes please check out Bike Tech Review. Oh, and watch the Tour if you get a chance. Once you get into it you’ll be hooked. There is a lot of strategy that goes into the whole race and the athletes are just phenomenal to watch.

Written by Eric Olson

July 12th, 2007 at 8:18 am

Posted in Sports, Technology