What Jack Dorsey’s Square can teach us about good product management

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Square, the financial services business founded by Jack Dorsey one of the Twitter co-founders has just released a pretty cool new appointment and scheduling product. Founded 5 years ago with a elegant mobile credit card reader and app for micro and small businesses, Square now offers an impressive range of products that streamline back-office operations for small to medium businesses in a very slick way. What they are doing is fantastic product management and a quick review of their approach offers some some great learnings for product managers.

The Square product range includes a set of products that solve complex problems for micro and small businesses in very simple ways.

  • Need an easy way to collect payments with low fees? Use Square register or reader.
  • Want to send invoices and collect payments? Use Square Invoices.
  • Want an analytics and reporting solution that makes it easy to understand what’s happening in your business and works with Xero or QuickBooks? Use Square Analytics.
  • Need to easily collect customer feedback via your receipts? Use Square Feedback.
  • Need to raise capital to buy some new equipment and easily pay it back using your daily takings? Use Square Capital.
  • Need to manage appointments effectively, automatically send reminders, and manage staff? Now there’s Square Appointments.

In just a few years Square have developed a set of products which addresses most of the issues small businesses experience – billing, payments, feedback, scheduling, and reporting. It isn’t sexy, but Square have developed an integrated set of solutions that address big issues for their customers in simple and easy ways.

Takeaway: Product Managers should focus on what drives their customers crazy and how they can simplify their lives, not what’s fashionable.

Square have a very narrow market focus and are very clear about who they are solving the above mentioned problems for. A new business, even one with Square’s funding, will struggle to grow with a broad undirected market focus. Square are clear about their customers and focus on small business – retail, cafe’s, services like hairdressing and gardening, and food-trucks (well it is based in San Francisco).

Takeaway: As owners of the product strategy, Product Managers need to listen intently to the market and laser focus on where the opportunity is.

One problem with offering Appointment booking software to small business is that 40% of small businesses don’t have websites. This makes it pretty hard to offer online bookings and potentially drives customers to competitors like GoDaddy and Web.com. To mitigate this, Square offer a free booking site with pretty much everything included. Square are unique in offering this feature.

Takeaway: Good Product Management is about finding innovative ways to solve problems that may have once appeared insurmountable and that others don’t.

One of the reasons Square has needed to broaden their product range is that their initial projections were optimistic. In 2013 Square recorded a loss of $100 million (USD), larger than the 2012 loss, and low margins of 21% on $20 billion of processed transactions. After paying the payment networks like Mastercard and Visa, intermediaries, and accounting for fraud, Square discovered that their original business case was optimistic. The new products Square have launched are subscription products and high-margin. They will assist make up the margin-shortfall, grow average revenue per customer, and increase retention.

Takeway: Good Product Managers watch the metrics and know when to admit they’re wrong and revisit their strategy.

Jack Dorsey is well known for wanting to remove any friction from complex processes, making them simpler, easier to comprehend, and ultimately, more human. This should be the aim of every great product manager.

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I checked out Google Domains and GoDaddy should be worried

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The domain name business isn’t easy these days. Margins are squeezed by high competition and high acquisition costs, profitability depends on achieving a high attachment to additional services like email or hosting and cross-selling services like privacy, security, or “premium registrations”, and the regulators are requesting more diligence with data verification. Add to that the basic fact that domain names aren’t as sexy a proposition as they once were, due mainly to Google improving their algorithms to remove spammy parked pages from their index, and the explosion of social media and mobile apps. Businesses now have a multitude of choices to go online that don’t require a domain name. Continue reading

Is Yo the next twitter?

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When the app Yo was released earlier this year I was pretty sceptical. It was too simple to not be a giant troll by some bros poking fun at the mobile/app/social space. I mean it was released on April fools day and only did one thing which was to send “Yo” to a friend via a message which without context was pretty useless. My first thought was to create a competing app called WTF Bro!

Surely this was another example of the moral bankruptcy of a tech culture obsessed with gimmicks and gags rather than creating meaningful stuff.

Maybe not.

Yo has now received $1.5 million in funding from a group which includes Pete Cashmore from Mashable and the app has been downloaded more than 2 million times. Impressive numbers.

They have also announced an update to the app which introduced user profiles, attachments, and a platform which allows anyone to create a service to monitor pretty much anything, and hashtags which according to Yo are an “easy way for people to show their love for a cause”. They have created a sharing, marketing, notification, and monitoring platform with an open API.

I like that Yo first created a minimum viable product (MVP) and then continued developing the product into “a 2-way communication platform between people, websites, brands, businesses and virtually anything that can connect to the internet.” Even if you think that this description of the product is gilding the lily, Yo is a very simple case-study of the Lean Startup methodology as articulated by Eric Ries in action. Forgotten your password? Well that’s kind of a manual process to retrieve. This prioritisation is smart. Focus on the messaging and network building features, and have processes to handle the other stuff like password resetting. Yo is yet more proof that the lean startup process works.

The messaging space is very crowded but the conversations about Yo reminds me of when Twitter was first released and people were outraged that it was so simple and protested that it was too simple, too restrictive. A few years later and Twitter is a billion dollar business with an innovative advertising and marketing platform. Hopefully for the Yo founders, they will have a similar journey and reap similar rewards.

The roads of the 21st century are different for me and Tony Abbott

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During the 2013 election campaign Tony Abbott repeatedly promised to build the roads of the 21st century. Sadly, this wasn’t a nifty metaphoric flourish reflecting a program of investment in Internet infrastructure and education to drive economic growth. When Abbott said roads, he meant roads; coal miners need roads, ports, and cheap labour, not the Internet. You could be forgiven for thinking Abbott was actually saying he would rebuild the roads of 20th century, rather than the digital roads of the 21st century. Continue reading

Google, The Right to be Forgotten, and (monetised) Free Speech

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There have been a lot of words written about the European Court of Justice ruling in May this year which forced Google to remove links to content when requested. Here are some I’ve written to expose how the issue is being handled in a simplistic way by most of the media.

The European Courts ruled that according to personal data protections search engines (Google & Bing) are “obliged to remove from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of a person’s name links to web pages” if they are “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive”.

Since the ruling, Google’s response has been swift. They have apparently received requests from 91,000 individuals covering  328,000 URLs and have been active with some nifty op-ed pieces in the European press with David Drummond, chief legal officer arguing that it is a complex issue which handled poorly could result in the restriction of free expression and somewhat alarmingly the abrogation of Article 19 of the UN Charter of Human Rights.

Drummond helpfully quotes it in his article:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The response from the media has been equally swift.

Business Insider reckon that because links to articles about a former CEO of Merrill Lynch were removed the ruling equates to “censoring the internet, giving new tools that help the rich and powerful (and ordinary folk) hide negative information about them, and letting criminals make their histories disappear.”

TechCrunch saw the problem as an example of the gulf between technology and law, with Natasha Lomas writing an intelligent article which pointed to Google’s market dominance and the importance of a nuanced comprehension of Google’s position as mass data-indexer and the gateway for the Internet for much of Europe.

Pando have been skeptical about Google’s complaints about censorship and the limitation of free expression with Nathaniel Mott writing that “Google has been using the press to control the debate around the right to be forgotten ruling since it was first announced.”

Danny Sullivan in Search Engine Land didn’t mince his words “You know what other place imposes censorship restrictions on search engines without clear guidelines? China.” and “Google has readily seized upon the role of censor, something that in other countries it has rejected with reluctance.”

Other commentators have argued that the ruling and Google’s apparent acqueiscence could be harmful to democracy if embarrassing articles about politicians are removed from easy discovery. In Australia, Institute of Public Affairs member, Simon Breheny equates the decision with censorship and warns that “It’s the ultimate in state outsourcing. Rather than judges and courts adjudicating what material gets taken down and what material stays up, it forces a private company to do the work of a proxy censor.”

And lastly, Jimmy Wales, the admired founder of Wikipedia weighed in early to the debate saying that a “deep injustice and terrible danger in European law” needed to be set right to protect free speech.

Equating asking Google to remove links from their index to censorship is a very scary prospect. Not because it’s true, but because it demonstrates the incredible power Google, a billion dollar business, have over how we discover and consume information. In technical terms it clearly isn’t censorship. Google index the Internet and using algorithms present that information back to users searching for someone or something. They link to other stuff individuals and businesses have published on the Internet.

On the face of it, removing an entry from the index isn’t censorship because the original content has not been removed and is presumably still discoverable by some other (less easy) means – twitter or Facebook? But Google is not just a humble search engine. Google are an advertising behemoth that makes billions of dollars from displaying relevant ads next to the content they have cleverly indexed and presented. Google is a gateway website for up to 90% of Internet users in Europe (and Australia) and the removal of information means that it most likely won’t be discovered. This makes Google a publisher with arguably more power than most traditional publishers which are busy trying to save their arses from being further disrupted. That’s what’s scary. Google are scary.

So does the ruling mean we’re on the cusp of a dark period of censorship with free speech provisions being limited by spurious privacy protections? No, it doesn’t. The Internet is by it’s nature distributed and even if information is removed from a search engine it remains discoverable by other, admittedly less-easy means. Privacy matters and the European courts have taken a bold albiet flawed step in protecting the ights of individuals against massive corporate entities intent on hoovering up all manner of personal information to monetise with little regard for the consequences. What the defenders of Google’s right of “free expression” forget is that Google is a business, not a warrior for free-speech, the truth, and the all-American way.

The real question is: Is my speech still free if search engines like Google monitor, measure, and monetise everything I say?

Ultimately I believe the European laws will be changed to better reflect current technologies and there will be a better balance between the rights of individuals, the discoverability of information, and unacceptable corporate surviellance. This issue is far too important to be reduced to fantasies about free expression, censorship, and power.

Moving on

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After 12 years in many different roles, I have moved on from Melbourne IT. When I started as a contractor in the development team, the company had had two massive rounds of redundancies and was busy transitioning from being the monopoly registrar of .com.au domain names in Australia, to registrar of domains in a competitive market. Now the business is in another transition, having purchased Australian competitor NetRegistry, and seeing in the introduction of 800 new domain spaces like .company, .technology, and .wtf

The moment when it sunk in that I had really left was when, whilst sitting on a tram, I deleted the Exchange account on my dated company issue iPhone. As I watched the emails, tasks, and calendar bookings disappear I felt a true sense of separation from my former job. Whilst in the past a job was defined by a business card and an office, nowadays a job is defined by an email account, and a virtual task-list. Employment status is now defined by the cloud, by Internet technologies.  Rather than simply provide a desk and a phone, employers provide a set of tools to engage with the world, their peers, and themselves.

The moment when the emails disappeared was when I realised I didn’t have to worry about the things left unfinished, or the things that had been finished, or the things I didn’t know about. Deleting the email account was a license to detach from the past and embrace the next phase of my career. There’s a lot to be said for switching off to really get shit done. Sometimes being connected looks very like being anxious and obsessive, rather than on-to-it and efficient. To really connect sometimes you need to disconnect the wifi, turn the device off and take a good look at what’s around you.

I’m looking forward to getting a few personal projects done and working on the next phase of my career, and getting really (dis)connected to what’s around me.

Review: Kit Universal Bluetooth Keyboard Case

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When I walked into the office with my sleek iPad Air tucked away in my new Kit Universal Bluetooth Keyboard Case, a coworker looked at it and said, “What the fuck is that?” After explaining to him that with a good keyboard I could ditch the laptop altogether and lighten the load of carrying my 4.5kg corporate issue Dell, he seemed to accept it, just.

Steve Jobs famously “had this idea of being able to get rid of the keyboard, type on a multi-touch glass display” before the iPad or iPhone and I’m positive he would be more horrified with the idea of a physical keyboard attached to an iPad than the grumpy coworker.

What’s unique about the keyboard cover is that it will fit any 9 – 10 inch tablet whether it’s an iPad, Samsung Galaxy, or Android device. It comes with four elasticised metallic clips that make it easy to clip a tablet in or out.

The Kit Universal Bluetooth Keyboard Case battery lasts for an impressive 90 hours, has a standby of up to 80 days, and will charge in three hours. The Bluetooth version supported in version 3.0 with up to a range of 10 metres, although the use cases for needing to use a keyboard 10 metres away from their tablet can’t be that common.

It comes with a nifty stand which makes it easy to use on a desk, cafe table, or in bed, and a case best described as pleather, although I think the official term is PU Leather.

The keyboard has 84 keys including function and media keys. On the iPad Air all the common media keys worked, although the Windows specific keys and most of the function keys didn’t do anything and for Apple Tablets are a waste of space. An impressive feature is the magnetised keyboard which is easily removed and added back. I found the keyboard pretty easy to use with few errors, and a touch faster than the digital iPad keyboard.

What’s disappointing about the Kit Universal Bluetooth Keyboard Case is the size and weight. It gets back to my coworkers comment and Steve Jobs’ desire to make something beautiful. As a tool, it works fine and does the job, but it fails in the slick design stakes. Overall though, this is a good entry level external keyboard for tablets. There are better looking options with smaller form factors and slick designs, but this does the job at an affordable price and suits multiple tablets.

The KIT Universal Bluetooth Keyboard Case is available at Mobile Zap.

The Quantified Self demonstrates just how tech culture is getting it wrong

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Two things happened recently that made me pay attention to wearable tech and the idea of the quantified self, and how both highlights how tech culture is getting it wrong.

The first was over lunch when I saw a senior manager plug her Fitbit into her iPhone and sync up her data. I cheekily asked her what it did for for, and she told me it told her how many steps she had taken and show she had slept. I responded that I always knew how well I had slept by the way I felt when I woke up. She didn’t disagree, but the Fitbit was a habit, and she was committed. Continue reading

How Dr Zeus’ Horton Hears a Who Can Inspire Hope that Australia’s Evil Asylum Seeker Laws Can Be Beaten

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I was reading Dr Zeus’ Horton Hears a Who to the kids the other night, and I got to the bit where the well-meaning compassionate Horton meets a nasty Kangaroo who laughs at Horton’s desire to look after a “speck of dust that is able to yell”. The speck is of course a tiny planet inhabited by a race of tiny humanoid creatures called Whos, and Horton is their hero.

The Kangaroo rather cruelly tells Horton, “I think you’re a fool” and quite frankly behaves like an asshole stealing the  speck of dust and ignoring Horton’s meek request
Please don’t harm all my little folks, who
Have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!

Continue reading

Spiked, Voltaire, Brandis, Free Speech, and House of Cards

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Over the Easter break, I’ve been inhaling the excellent Netflix series House of Cards, watching the Machiavellian maneuverings of the brilliant and positively frightening Frank Underwood as he journeys from Congress to The White House. It was somewhere near the end of the first series whilst watching ABC’s Q and A that I saw Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked Online and author of a glowing apologia of Attorney General George Brandis, announce himself as a Marxist Libertarian.

I have to say, the proclamation was so obnoxious, as was the name-dropping of John Stuart Mill and Voltaire as justification for George Brandis’ intellectual position on bigotry, that I was suddenly interested, particularly as I am known for name-dropping philosophers to make myself more appealing to the opposite sex and appear smarter.

Spiked Online is a British journal dedicated to the promotion of free speech. Their manifesto (yes, a manifesto) offers that:

Freedom of speech is the best guarantor of getting to the truth of a matter. Where censorship discourages debate in favour of silencing the allegedly offensive or hateful opinion, freedom of speech insists on holding people to account for their beliefs and challenging their claims in the public sphere. It is the midwife of enlightenment where censorship fuels only an unquestioning approach, and ultimately ignorance.

Brendan O’Neill is a firm believer in the Enlightenment project where science united with critical reason can help humanity, or Man at the very least, march towards an impossible progress. In his interview with Brandis he finds a willing partner in love of enlightenment philosophers and free speech.

In an era when European politicians are forever battling it out to see who can outlaw the most forms of ‘hate speech’, when Canada hauls so-called hate speakers before its Human Rights Commission to justify themselves, when students in America and Britain ban, burn or no-platform anything they decree to be hateful – whether it’s Zionist politicians or the pop super-hit ‘Blurred Lines’ – Brandis’s single-minded campaign to rein in Australia’s hate-speech laws is quite something. In fact it feels positively weird to hear a mainstream politician, someone whose face you see in the papers and on TV all the time here, talk about the ‘limits of the state to interfere with the utterance of ideas, beliefs and opinions’, and even to say, as Brandis does to me, that ‘people have the right to be bigots, you know’. Try to imagine a British politician campaigning for, effectively, the freedom to hate; it just wouldn’t happen.

To the true-believers in the Enlightenment story, environmentalism and climate change is tantamount to wanting going back to the days when the church dominated society and people were forced to grow their own food. The idea that science and industry may have contributed to global warming and that a new way of thinking which compels industry to think differently, to behave in a way that sees nature more as a partner rather than a willing supplicant for progress is for O’Neill and Brandis positively medieval, and anti-intellectual. That O’Neill reduces scientists concerned about global warming to being the equivalent of the Catholic Church, or even worse, the flat earth theorists that Voltaire railed against. What’s absurd is that the church of industry is being challenged by science, and the true anti-intellectualism is coming from the free-speech transcendentalists that would see wealth further distributed from the poor to the rich, and resources spent for the benefit of the few rather than the many.

O’Neil opines:

The great irony to this new ‘habit of mind’, he says, is that the eco-correct think of themselves as enlightened and their critics as ‘throwbacks’, when actually ‘they themselves are the throwbacks, because they adopt this almost theological view, this cosmology that eliminates from consideration the possibility of an alternative opinion’. The moral straitjacketing of anyone who raises a critical peep about eco-orthodoxies is part of a growing ‘new secular public morality’, he says, ‘which seeks to impose its views on others, even at the cost of political censorship’.

Note, the language – cosmology, orthodoxy, morality. Brandis and O’Neil are stuck in a present dominated by a historical lament for an impossible future. They and their masters are seeking to confuse and blackmail by equating critical thought with being for and against something as simple as free-speech, industry and GDP growth, or even bigotry. Free speech is clever means of throwing an archaic veil over the critical issues of our times by making a media made dumb by the Internet, focus on the non-existent risks to freedom while living standards slowly degrade.

I haven’t the space here to cover, the absurdity of Marxism, Andrew Bolt, or that Voltaire and John Stuart Mill were thinkers responding to the great challenges of their time with exciting, innovative, and controversial ideas. Brandis and O’Neill seek to inspire debate but I get the sense that like Congressman Frank Underwood they believe, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy. And casualties. Never regret.”