CMC Silicon Valley Trip: Monday

I'm currently in Silicon Valley on a networking trip sponsored by my school's Information Technology Advisory Board. Each day, we visit two companies, and each night I will post summaries and thoughts. Here's the recap of Monday's action. Microsoft
  • A common misconception about people from Silicon Valley is that they don't care much about their appearance. That's crap; most people that I've seen care very much about their appearance. They just care about it in different ways than we are used to. Case in point: our host, Scott Mauvais '90, wore a ponytail to his mid-back, which is probably a very credible signal for non-tech types.
  • Mauvais earned points for opening the floor up to questions right away. For most speakers this is an effective tactic, and we had lots of questions about Microsoft.
  • At the same time, it quickly became clear that while Mauvais was knowledgeable about Microsoft and cared about the company, his area of expertise was limited to what he worked on, which was very much about enterprise software and very little about competing with Apple or putting together Windows Vista. Many answers started off with "I only know what I've been reading in the paper." Students continued to ask detailed questions about other Microsoft departments.
  • Many students also enjoy using questions as signaling. If you hear anyone open a question with "I spent last summer doing X" or "I did a computer science assignment on X," you can stop listening immediately, because they've already shared every bit of information that they care about sharing.
  • Most new Microsoft Stores have clauses in their contract that prohibit the landlord from allowing an Apple Store within a certain perimeter of the Microsoft Store. If an Apple Store moves within that range they have to pay 50% of the Microsoft store's rent, we were told.
  • Mauvais had a good insight about the Mac vs. PC debates. For Microsoft, it didn't make much sense to spend a whole lot of money fighting the Apple campaign, because if Apple increases its market share from 6% to 12% Microsoft's revenues are not hurt very much. However, the campaign allowed Apple to define Windows in a negative light. Microsoft was not able to define Windows in a positive light.
  • Microsoft is trying very hard to move people away from keyboards and mice. I have seen the future, and it is a touch interface. Touch interface is more precise and allows for multi-touch and intuitive gestures. Microsoft had some cool demo touch screen interfaces, and a Windows Surface and they were pretty cool. It's clear that we are just scratching the surface as to the best ways to interact and operate a touch screen computer. Unfortunately only two companies (Microsoft and Apple) are working on improving this interaction. We will see when Apple's tablet comes out but I bet it will do very well.
  • Microsoft has bigger fish to fry than personal software; it will continue to lose the public relations debate to Apple, because Apple's primary focus is on products for personal use. Microsoft has the enterprise market pretty much cornered (and still has an unbelievable edge in desktop computers). It will lose the PR battle but earn lots of money. This was also a constant theme in Mauvais's responses. "We're too busy making money," etc.
  • Microsoft epitomizes the feature creep problem. When you have half a billion users or so, every single one of the features in their products is used by someone, who will be angry when that feature changes or is removed. Fifty percent of "new-feature" requests for Microsoft Office were for features that were already a part of the product.
  • Meebo is probably the exact opposite of Microsoft: only 60 employees and the whole company is located on two floors. Our host was Robert Leon '04, whose appearance was also carefully calculated. Robert pitches Meebo to other companies.
  • In the old days (and by "old days" I mean several years ago), most people found content by punching in queries to Google and entering sites through Google. Hence companies spent a lot of money on search engine optimization. Now, users are increasingly being driven to content through friends, via Facebook or Twitter or RSS. Thus sharing, and tools for sharing are extremely important. According to Meebo no one (fewer than 0.3% of users) clicks on the "Share This" links at the bottom of blog posts or on most web pages.
  • The most important lesson from Meebo was listen to your customers. Meebo started out as a chat client that allowed users on various platforms (AIM, Facebook, MSN Messenger etc) to talk to each other. That's only a small part of their business now; the most profitable part of their business is that they figured out a way to allow people to share links and videos, really easily. Here is a video demo of the sharing software.
  • So far, the most effective innovation for sharing Web content has been YouTube's putting the video URL immediately next to the video you are watching. I never thought about that before.
  • Meebo has over 100 million users ("reach," in the sales community) so they are a valuable source for businesses like, for example, movie studios, who need to push awareness of their movie and have a big opening weekend.
  • According to COO Martin Green the whole web will be using Javascript floating bars at the bottom of the web browser, like Facebook's, within the next year or so. I'm not sure if there's a moneymaking opportunity here.
  • Robert made the excellent observation that when you are fresh out of college, you do not know anything. So in job interviews, you need to act extremely interested in the company at hand, and also act like someone who people would enjoy hanging out with. Especially at a startup, it's important to be able to work well with colleagues, and be enthusiastic enough about the product to put in long hours. Robert pointed out that you don't learn much in a liberal arts college except "how to think." I would not even argue that much. Robert was, however, the social chair at CMC. Being a social chair is excellent preparation for a career in sales, and for making people feel comfortable around you, probably much more useful at the margin than trying for an excellent GPA.
  • Meebo subjects all new hires to an extremely extensive interview process. Not only does this show the applicant that Meebo cares but it's an effective way to vet applicants. They also make every applicant go through a simulation of job tasks, so the sales people have to pitch the product to the hiring committee, or an administrative assistant has to explain what they'd do if the boss's pager went working. This is excellent practice, as work sample tests are the most effective predictor of whether someone will be good at their job. In a small firm the costs of a bad hire are tremendous; it's very important to get the position right. In general they like to promote people from within the firm, but if you need a lot of experience quickly they'll go outside.
  • Meebo had this cool chart of how people communicate - you have Private and Public on one axis, and Real Time and Asynchronous on the other axis. So this is the breakdown:
    • Private, Real Time is SMS and Instant Messenger;
    • Private, Asynchronous is email;
    • Public, Real Time is Twitter;
    • Public, Asynchronous is like Facebook walls.
    We use all of these technologies. Everything in the industry is moving towards Real Time for everything. I handle SMS and email in the same program. The line between Private and Public is strong. But it's a reminder that how you choose to communicate with someone is as important as the content. Marshall McLuhan lives!
  • "Startups either have customers or they have a business plan. Very few have both." I don't know enough about startups to say whether or not that's true.
  • Static clients like AIM are dead. Everything is moving within other applications like Gmail chat or Facebook chat. That's why Meebo had to adapt and move into other people's sites, rather than staying with Only a small percentage of their traffic is still using
At dinner I sat next to a very successful executive who sells smart energy and renewable energy products. He also has three houses, one of which is one of about forty properties on a man-made lake in Palm Springs. His wife works at a solar energy company and agreed that lots of the gain people get from generating their own energy is canceled out by increased energy use; it's not clear whether utility companies are actually substituting out of coal and into renewable energy, or just adding more renewable energy to their 'portfolio.' Solar technology is rapidly becoming cheaper. This is turning into an essay, but I'll close by saying that I need to work on being less critical. It is way too easy to be critical, especially because a lot of academia demands it; not many teachers ask you to write a complimentary essay. As Mr. Leon pointed out, a lot of your job qualification at this point is just being someone who people enjoy being around. I need to make my business more about making the people around me feel good. Tomorrow: Electronic Arts, Atlassian and a dinner with entrepreneurs, including the CEO of Scribd. I'll try to refrain from asking the VP of Marketing when Sim City 5 is going to come out.

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