Team leads are different….

Team leads are different. Your job, should you accept it, is to become what I’ve lovingly dubbed Shit Umbrella. Your goal is to find all of the peripheral stuff involved in getting the product out the door—important stuff, such as making sure the delivery schedule for the new servers makes sense for when you want to ship the product that needs them, or taking customer calls at 11 PM on a Sunday because their account quit working and they want to know why they should keep paying you, or figuring out when doing features the sales and support teams want makes financial sense—and then coming back and presenting a focused direction to all the developers so that they can get the features written without worrying about how they actually ship.

Benjamin Pollack writing about his experiences of being promoted to a team lead. It’s one of the best first-hand accounts that I’ve read of what it means to lead product and engineering teams.

I’ve seen this happen in software companies, but elsewhere too. It was one of the major reasons for my leaving the BBC: I loved being a journalist, I didn’t even slightly envy the people in the jobs above me; they were great journalists being asked to be great managers, and that’s hard — especially without support and training.


Fred Wilson on the Startup Curve

It turns out, like most success stories, the answer was simplifying the service. Taking features out. Reducing the value proposition to a clear and simple use case. This was not done in a vacuum. This was done by releasing a less than perfect product to the market, finding a few customers who wanted a less than perfect product, and then listening carefully to those customers to get to the ideal product.

Fred Wilson on how a portfolio company found the Promised Land of Paul Graham’s startup curve.

Putting the new feature where it belongs (or, testing the limits of airline loyalty)

It’s no secret that I’m fascinated by air travel and its economics. So when our entire company convened in Budapest for a work meet-up a few months ago, I made the most of an opportunity to compare anecdotes and on-board amenities across a range of different transatlantic carriers.

If I’m flying for longer than a couple of hours, these days I’ll go out of my way to pick a carrier that has laptop power available in all seats (wifi is an added bonus). Flights are immeasurably more productive if I can work, and most work seems to involve the laptop. It seems reasonable to expect that more and more people will also feel this way. In-seat power will be valued higher, and employers will appreciate the added productivity of their laptop-toting employees. Doubtless providing power to our personal screens will be something that on-demand media services could see some value in too.

Der erste Airbus A380 der Lufthansa auf dem Fl...

Lufthansa A380. Mega internet cafe, with no power supplies. (from Wikipedia)

I was interested to hear from one colleague that on Lufthansa’s new A380s, economy class passengers may connect to a wifi signal, but don’t have access to any power. That just seems silly. I have to imagine that in the overall costs associated with buying and equipping a new A380, adding power at every seat must be an almost inconsequential expense.

Airlines have a clever business model of engendering permanent passenger envy. Unless you’re flying in your own private jet, you can be certain that somebody else is always more comfortable than you, and airlines like to make sure that you know it. The entire economics of customer loyalty are geared around indulging people’s aspirations to be more comfortable in the aluminium can.

I’ll hold my hand up to being a total sucker for it. I almost exclusively fly Virgin Atlantic if I’m going from a US city to London. In return, Virgin lets me use their lounges and (according to no clear algorithm that I can discern) randomly upgrades my seat every now and again. From my flights and the use of a Virgin Atlantic credit card, I have enough miles to upgrade my return journeys (the day flights) to Premium Economy, affording me more leg room (nice) and laptop power (essential) on my 11 hour flight. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who pay for these things too — and if not individuals, there are certainly companies that will pay for it.

On the one hand, this looks like some excellent customer segmentation at work: I value using my laptop on a flight so much that I’m willing to spend in order to be able to fly with power for my electronics. By putting power only in the cabin one above the level that I can afford, an airline arouses my envy and causes me to do everything I can to be able to fly in this cabin, including giving them my exclusive business. I’m pretty sure that this is the reason why there’s no power in the back of Lufthansa’s A380; companies are only cutting costs these days, and if Jones from accounting has all the tools he needs in Economy, why on earth would the company pay for something more?

But I’m reminded of something that I heard from Kenny van Zant (twice): Product Managers can be inclined to add new product features to the pricing level *above* the one in which the majority of customers value it, the theory being that that will help move more customers up to a higher price point. But Kenny’s view is that in a competitive market, if you overcharge your customers, someone else will come along and charge the customer something closer to her valuation of that feature. In the process, they’ll win her business.

I’m really not all that averse to economy seats on planes. If I can get an exit row, and the person in front doesn’t do the (ultimate douchebag) maneuver of reclining his seat into my dinner, I can be pretty content. In Kenny’s example, I’m a low value customer that would like at-seat power. Would I switch airlines for it? Absolutely. And I think that others will too. Virgin America’s brand new fleet is equipped throughout with at-seat power: I’m certain that they recognized that a San Francisco-based domestic airline would win loyal customers very quickly by providing what is fast becoming a necessity for airline travel.


A new iPhone

To buy a Sprint iPhone in an Apple Store, the salesperson has to fire up VMWare on an iMac and use Internet Explorer to run Sprint’s on-boarding tool. Once they’ve asked you a whole lot of questions (the answers to which have been in my Apple ID for years) they then ask you them all over again as they type the details into their own system.

Pretty surprising that any company would tolerate that, especially Apple. Maybe working with TelCos is rubbing off on them…

Apple, please set the podcast free

The logo used by Apple to represent Podcasting

Image via Wikipedia

Today my new iPod Touch arrived. And with it came the feeling that this post, already long overdue, needs writing.

I’m a big radio nerd. I was a journalist and producer for BBC Radio for five years. Before that I dabbled in hospital radio, student radio, did work experience with Chris Evans at Radio 1, and may have at some point turned the living room at home into my own Top 40 station. But with only two records to link between. Damn, I got good at that link.

Radio in the States isn’t the same, and I really miss the BBC. (And it’s not just because of the adverts — although yes, they are more frequent and ten times as obnoxious as those on UK commercial stations.) But actually what I miss is more subtle: British radio is smarter, and more stimulating; it promotes curiosity and doesn’t speak to the lowest common denominator. Mostly, it’s just better funded.

But there’s no reason why it should be this way. In TV and online, diverse and niche content have thrived. Bazillion-channel satellite and cable distribution means that if someone wants to watch cricket in the States, they can. HBO, AMC and Showtime together with hundreds of other specialist channels provide high quality, often ad-free programming. And then, of course there are shows on demand.

For reading online, there’s a blog tailored to your tastes and interests. And if you can’t find it (oh, it’s there), you can curate your own Twitter/Tumblr/WordPress feed to make your own. The low barriers to entry and the infinite opportunity for distribution means that every niche, however small or weird, can be catered to.

So what happened with radio? The medium itself seems to be doing fine. NPR’s listening numbers stay strong and the FM dial is still crowded out with Alt Rock and Pop stations (albeit with ever blander mixes). Sure, my local Classical station’s frequency doesn’t make it to Marin any longer, but, by and large, radio is the same as it ever was: there in the kitchen, in the car, out in the yard. I really believe that for as long as there are sports and automobiles, radio will live on just the same way as it has for over 100 years. They just don’t wear dinner suits any more.

But there’s no niche platform. No equivalent of HBO or WordPress. Talented aspiring broadcasters have nowhere to go and no outlet for their creativity.

“Oh but there is…”, I hear you mutter.

Ah yes, the podcast. Apple’s grand afterthought. The neglected step-child of iTunes. It’ll never make any money so, hell, it probably doesn’t even deserve a primary link in the iOS Music navigation.

I suppose that this could sound disingenuous. Apple unwittingly donated the name that we now know downloadable audio by. And without a presence in iTunes, perhaps there would be no platform for podcasts at all. But that doesn’t seem likely to me. If there’s a demand for the product (and there is) then the establishment of a platform is pretty easy.

A podcast platform independent from Apple would allow you to download and synchronise podcasts across a range of devices. It would provide statistics on usage (not just downloads, but actual plays). This, in turn, would give advertisers real data to work with. Real money enters the ecosystem, and instead of every brand name podcast being supported by Audible’s desperate attempts to sign up another first-month-free subscription, real advertisers could bring real money to talented audio producers.

Maybe there could even be an HBO or a Freshly Pressed of podcasts, showcasing high quality independent content. Or maybe that’s hoping for too much.

But for any of this to happen, Apple must let go. No business can hope to overturn Apple’s dominance of the podcast platform because the fragmentation is so great. Hulu gained traction with the Daily Show and Fox programming. What would do the same for a Podcast platform.

And it’s not as if people haven’t tried. Remember Odeo? Probably not. It was Evan Williams’ company that gave birth to Twitter. It started life as a podcast platform.

My hope is that Apple gets bored of podcasts and lets them go the same way as iWeb. They might think that they’re doing everybody a favor by providing the platform; but they’re not. Announcing that iTunes will no longer support podcasts could be the only thing that really breathes life into pre-recorded audio.

So, please Apple… set the podcast free.