An Audience for Every Cause

At one point in planning mesh, we were on the verge of turning the event into a Blogger’s conference, but we steered away. 

Why did we consider blogs?  Blogs are gaining influence – it’s undeniable.  All you need to do is look south of the 49th and observe how the US followed blogs during the last election.  In Canada, the influence of blogs is just emerging as evidenced in the Sarmite Bulte election scenario.

This influence is something we are going to be addressing at Mesh.   It’s a huge, potent and timely subject and the talent will be there to get the job done right. 

Who might be interested in this kind of thing?  I think you might be surprised at how many people would find this content interesting - I AM thinking about non-techies.  Let me give you an example.  I have been pushing my dad (semi retired lawyer) to start a blog called, “Letters from Bob”.  Why?  He loves to talk politics, critique businesses that make him mad, and since he is old school, he likes to write letters.  I know there would be a huge audience for his letters to corporations (perhaps a cult following:)) after 40 years of corporate law practice I assure you he has something to say and knows how to say it.  With the awareness an audience amplifies, a blog like this could actually have influence in consumer advocacy circles.

It’s a quick example.  I prefer to think of environmental groups who raise awareness for worthy causes.  Imagine getting a feed with tips for how to be more green around you home or office?  What a breath of fresh air that would be (if you know of some, please let me know).  Mark takes that one step further in a great post entitled, “What If Jane Jacobs Had a Blog?”  Sadly, Jane died this week, but no doubt her blog would have been huge if it was something she had chosen to do.

When the market is billions of people (who read the internet), there is literally an audience for every cause.  Understanding the impact of this and its effects on society are what we will be dealing with at meshMathew, Stuart, Rob and mesh are starting to tackle the topic and share some insight.  Come help us round and the conversation and join us at mesh.

Stuart MacDonald Elected CIRA Chairman – Help Him Rule .CA

Quick post to let you know that Stuart MacDonald – one mesh felllow of the mesh conference organizers – was recently elected as Chairman of CIRA (Canada’s Internet Registry Authority).

Always an honour to be chosen by a committee of your peers, Stuart is an excellent choice. Congratulations Stuart!

Stuart is now looking for some people to take positions on the board. Check out this post is you or someone you know might be a candidate.

P.S. I said yesterday that I would post about the new brand today. The new web address has been released to a select few. More releases (on this blog and others) to follow in the coming days. If you are just dying to know about the new brand, shoot me an email (you can find my address at the top of the page) and I’ll welcome you into the inner circle.

Currency and Web Services – Pain in Canada

I am Canadian.  Our company is based in Canada.  We offer invoicing services to small businesses and home based businesses.  Business is good and we are growing fast.
 
We believe in simplicity.  We decided to charge our clients in one currency.  If you are going to work internationally with one currency (we have users in 120 countries) the currency you choose is US dollars and I don’t know anyone who would argue that.  As a Canadian this raises a number of issues.

1. Oligopoly in banking: Canada has 5 major banks.  That’s not much competition.  The banks collude to do things that are good for them, not so much for Canadians.  For example, to transfer USD funds from our US accounts into our CDN dollar accounts the banks charge us about 1% of the transaction.  This is bullshit (pardon my French).  For a while now, we have used Custom House to exchange our funds (I have an old friend there named Chris Day.  Great service.  Call him or me if you need to exchange currency).  Custom House takes about 0.1% of the transactions – more reasonable.

2. The Canadian dollar is powerful:  Over the past three years, we have seen the Canadian dollar rise from about $0.65 to about $0.90 …  we used to get 1.4 CDN for each USD.  Now we get about 1.13.  This is not as bad for us as I imagine it is for many other Canadian companies because we can pay (and do) some of our major expenses in USD, which isolates us from the change in currency volatility, but as a Canadian business person who collects internationally, it’s a drag to lose the bump we used to get with a weaker dollar. 

So, why the rant? I remember when I was in grade four and I started to watch the Dow Jones index.  In fact, I tracked stocks for my Dad (remember New York Seltzer?  We did great on that one =)) . Back then, I wanted the Canadian dollar to equal the USD.  It was a point of principle.  Goes to show you should be careful what you wish for…

Anyhow…I know the high value of the Canadian currency is something on the mind David Dodge (governor of the Bank of Canada).  I read a piece in the Globe on it last week.  Thought I would share my thoughts because I think it is an interesting issue in web services for many companies (and will continue to be) because location does not matter much with web services and therefore you don’t necessarily collect in your own dollar.

P.S.  We are releasing a sneak peak of our new company name and logo and website tomorrow.  I’ll post something here so be sure to read tomorrow.

The Third Way to Plan A Conference

I have touched on it before, but in planning mesh we have been working hard to create what we believe to be the ideal conference.  There is always a wide spectrum of paths you can choose when you are designing something.  In conferences, there is the traditional conference, with power point slides, sponsor keynotes and fancy name tags.  There is also the unconference and increasingly it is getting a lot of attention.

In planning mesh we have tried to take what we believe to be the best parts of each path and make our own kind of event.  Today Mark exposed many of the elements of a great conference from our point of view.  We are trying to build something special with mesh.  These are things that we feel other people will appreciate as we do.  Mathew drives home the importance of speakers providing thought as opposed to pushing product.  Stuart talks about our struggle to find the third way here and here.

The blogosphere got in a tizzy about this today thanks to this post.

Wiki For mesh Now Live

We are pleased to announce the release of the mesh conference wiki.  There is a pile of excellent content in there, virtually all thanks to the efforts of David Crow (thank you David!).

You can use the wiki to arrange rides to the conference, places to stay, your entertainment in Toronto and lots more.  Also of note are the following upcoming additions to the wiki.

1. Unconference Room Scheduling: We have left one room wide open over the course of the entire conference.  Centrally located, the idea is that the space is open to all attendees to use for demos, put on their own workshops, and anything else.  The wiki will be used to schedule time in the room.

2. Session Blogging: Soon we will be putting up a list of all the sessions and asking for VOLUNTEERS to blog each event.  We will then use the wiki to connect the dots and point some traffic to the respective volunteer postings (more accurately, the volunteer can do this themselves – it’s a wiki after all!).

3. Session Photographers: We will also be looking VOLUNTEERS to photograph each session.  Again, photos or a link to them will accompany each session and all of that will be available on the wiki.

So, check out the wiki and thanks again David and a special thanks also to for Sunir from Social Text who offered up the wiki.  Giddyup!

Stuart posted some more info here.  Mathew made a nice post touching on at the role of wikis fit in our conference.  Rob jotted something down here.

2ndSite in Great Company on ZDnet

I was rolling through our web stats this morning and I noticed that last week 2ndSite was featured in an article by Dion Hinchcliffe on ZDnet.

It’s our first time on the Ziff Davis Network (ZDnet), and I have been an avid reader of Dion’s blog since I discovered it last fall, so this is a great way to enter ZDnet – currently one of the most highly trafficked and authoritative technology networks online today.

Anyhow, here is the kicker.  2ndSite was one of four companies featured in the “Back-Office and Sales Infrastructure” category.  Who were the other four?  Amazon.com, Salesforce.com , Microsoft Live.  What a group we’re running with!

As a side note, 2ndSite is re-branding next week.  It will be interesting to see how this works out with press coverage and referrals of this kind.  I’ll keep you posted with anything we learn along the way.

The Role of Patents for Software Start-Ups

Over the past few years I have shared my disdain for patents in web services. It’s not that I don’t value patents as a mechanism to protect, reward and encourage innovation. What I take issue with is patents of simple processes that are not innovative at all. Amazon’s 1-Click is the poster child for such patents.

I have had the honour to discuss my business with some very intelligent business people: some VCs, some start-up advisors, some Fortune 100 executives. Roger Davis, former CFO of AT&T, spent a good chunk of time reading my blog and confronted me about my disdain for patents. He also asked a great question: “In lieu of a patent, what sort of sustainable competitive advantage can you offer to investors?” I have my answers, but that’s a post for another day. The reason I bring all this up is I have never been comfortable with the role of patents in a web services start-up’s arsenal. Until now…

A few weeks back, Paul Graham wrote a great piece about patents. My trouble has always been the tension between the obvious benefits of patents and my common sense, which says things like Amazon’s 1-Click will never stand up in court. What Paul’s post helped me see is that patents really play more of a “threat” role. It’s not so much that you should prosecute to protect your patents in every case, but that you COULD. COULD is a powerful force in business.  It is an asset.  It dissuades. 

Allow me to clarify further. There is a whole range of patents; many (most?) should be defended to secure IP because they are truly significant breakthroughs, but really patents and the likelihood of enforcement depends on the type and significance of the IP.

In web services, most applications are basically databases and scripting languages used in generic ways.  I suspect there are few cases where patents will be enforced (at least successfully), but thanks to Paul, I can now see more clearly where and how and when patent applications fit for startups.

Here is the entire essay by Paul.  Below are some of the relevant excepts from my point of view:

Excerpt One

“Nor do startups, at least in the software business, seem to get sued much by established competitors. Despite all the patents Microsoft holds, I don’t know of an instance where they sued a startup for patent infringement. Companies like Microsoft and Oracle don’t win by winning lawsuits. That’s too uncertain. They win by locking competitors out of their sales channels. If you do manage to threaten them, they’re more likely to buy you than sue you.”

Excerpt Two

“We do advise the companies we fund to apply for patents, but not so they can sue competitors. Successful startups either get bought or grow into big companies. If a startup wants to grow into a big company, they should apply for patents to build up the patent portfolio they’ll need to maintain an armed truce with other big companies. If they want to get bought, they should apply for patents because patents are part of the mating dance with acquirers.

Most startups that succeed do it by getting bought, and most acquirers care about patents. Startup acquisitions are usually a build-vs-buy decision for the acquirer. Should we buy this little startup or build our own? And two things, especially, make them decide not to build their own: if you already have a large and rapidly growing user base, and if you have a fairly solid patent application on critical parts of your software.”

Excerpt Three

“Good hackers care a lot about matters of principle, and they are highly mobile. If a company starts misbehaving, smart people won’t work there. For some reason this seems to be more true in software than other businesses. I don’t think it’s because hackers have intrinsically higher principles so much as that their skills are easily transferable. Perhaps we can split the difference and say that mobility gives hackers the luxury of being principled.

Google’s “don’t be evil” policy may for this reason be the most valuable thing they’ve discovered. It’s very constraining in some ways. If Google does do something evil, they get doubly whacked for it: once for whatever they did, and again for hypocrisy. But I think it’s worth it. It helps them to hire the best people, and it’s better, even from a purely selfish point of view, to be constrained by principles than by stupidity.”

Excerpt Four

“The only real role of patents, for most startups, is as an element of the mating dance with acquirers. There patents do help a little. And so they do encourage innovation indirectly, in that they give more power to startups, which is where, pound for pound, the most innovation happens. But even in the mating dance, patents are of secondary importance. It matters more to make something great and get a lot of users.”

Finally, A Parting Thought and Some Investing Advice from Paul…

“When you read of big companies filing patent suits against smaller ones, it’s usually a big company on the way down, grasping at straws. For example, Unisys’s attempts to enforce their patent on LZW compression. When you see a big company threatening patent suits, sell. When a company starts fighting over IP, it’s a sign they’ve lost the real battle, for users.”