How to compete with Silicon Valley

I just saw this excellent rant on what makes Silicon Valley special: its people.

I disagree with several of its other claims. First of all, that it's just a parking lot. That's true if you look at it from one angle. But, it has several Fry's. And TONS of infrastructure that makes it easy for geeks to get going.

Also, getting geeks to move away from concentrations of other geeks is INCREDIBLY hard. I'd love to move to Montana, for instance, but there's no way I would do that. I'd be bored there in a few weeks. The TechRanch there is fun, but sorry, when I'm down in Silicon Valley there are just so many people to talk to and so many interesting companies doing interesting things.

That said, there are several places in the world I keep hearing about: China and India. Look for the next Silicon Valley to appear there. Why? For exactly the reasons Paul gave: people.

I just added Paul to my reading list. Good stuff.

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Writing from the road

FedEx truck on route 90

We're about 200 miles away from Seattle traveling on Route 90. Did I tell you I love my Verizon card? It works everywhere in the Western United States. Maryam's driving.

It's fun to read blogs at 80 mph on my Tablet PC. And isn't it crazy that I can send my thoughts (and photos) all over the world through a cell phone tower? I was thinking back to the 1989 earthquake when it took several hours to get a black and white photo sent across the US to a newspaper on the East Coast (back then cell phones were rare and digital cameras didn't exist and the Internet consisted of servers that only geeks really knew how to use).

Anyway, for the past few hours I've been thinking about what I'm learning from road-side advertising. There sure is a lot of it. I'm thinking about whether there's some lessons for online companies that need to make money from advertising. I'm not sure there is, but businesses sure could learn a lot since a lot of my reactions are the same when I look at ads on Google or MSN or Yahoo (and the time spent looking at each is about the same).

In just Coeur d'Alene, which is a relatively small town in Idaho, I counted 113 commercial messages. Not counting the FedEx truck that Maryam passed. That's in about 10 minutes of driving over a few miles (like I said, it's a small town).

There were signs advertising McDonalds and Starbucks. Car dealerships. Hotels. Tourist attractions. And a lot more.

It's amazing how bad most are. First of all, you only have one to five seconds to read any sign. Second, a large percentage of the signs weren't kept up very well. Why would I want to stay at a hotel that couldn't even keep its sign looking nice? Third, very few stood out.

See, for a business what really matters?

Scarcity.

Tren Griffin taught me that. He works at Microsoft as a networking services strategist, but that really doesn't explain why I like Tren. He participates on lots of internal mailing lists and challenges us to think about business in new ways.

I wish I had posted his thoughts on Vonage's IPO. He warned us to stay far away and broke down how bad a deal their stock offering was for investors. It's amazing looking at it that anyone bought stock in Vonage (Memorandum has quite a few comments on the deal). Shows that investors don't always do their homework and think about how likely a business will return anything on their investments.

Anyway, back to the advertisements. How do you create scarcity in a place of large numbers of competitors. Heck, most every major exit has a sign like this:

Commercial district ahead

In fact, usually there are two: one for restaurants and one for lodging. Some exists have a third for gas stations.

The chain restaurants stand out on signs like this. Why? Consistency. You know what Subway will give you. It's the same thing you got 300 miles back. Same goes for McDonalds. Denny's. Etc.

I'd love to have better food on the road, but it's hard to take a chance on "Joe's diner" because you have no idea what you're gonna get.

So, how can you create scarcity? Well, one sign in Montana yelled "Grizzly Bears next exit."

It's the only sign I remember seeing in 700 miles that said THAT.

Another sign touted "Lewis and Clark camped 900' south of this sign." Heh, didn't get my business, but at least I remembered it.

Another business that does street advertising well? Chico Hot Springs. They are located in the middle of nowhere (five miles from my mom's house) but they are always packed and people two states away knew about Chico when we talked about where were headed. Great food there, too.

Chico Hot Springs

Their signs are simple, and easy to follow to get there (they are several miles from the main highway).

Oh, one other thing before I sign off from the road. I've been reading a bunch of blogs on my cell phone. It's amazing how bad most of them are. For instance, Martin Schwimmer's blog is totally unreadable on my cell phone (it has dark text over a dark background). You all need to test your blogs out on cell phones!

I think when I get back I'm gonna show you guys on video just how bad you make it for cell phone readers. Maybe there's not a lot of us out there, but why make it hard when you don't need to? Dave Winer's blog rocks on cell phones, by the way. It's light weight. Loads fast. And brings the content right to the top (many blogs make you wade through navigation before you can get to content).

Be home in a couple of hours. If the roadside signs don't snag us into a late-night dessert! 🙂

The funeral home can’t play MP3’s

Funny, when we got to the funeral home Alberta (my mom's best friend and minister at today's events) was playing music through a boom box at the front of the room. Later she explained to me why she wasn't using the much more sophisticated sound system built into the funeral home: they couldn't play MP3s.

Turns out she had a bunch of my mom's church music on various CDs that were made on computers. Another reason she didn't use it? It was too complex. Later I went back and looked at it. It indeed was far more complex than the boom box.

That reminded me again of two principles software engineers should ask ourselves. 1) Can it do what we need it to do? 2) Is it simple to use? I understand how those two can sometimes be in conflict. It's why a professional camera has a lot more complexity than point-and-shoot cameras. Lately inside Microsoft we've been arguing out some of our decisions on how complex to make interfaces. These aren't easy things to solve. Make something easy and it might not be useful. The problem is that you have to decide what market to go after. If you aim a camera design at the mass market it better be simple, because that's what nine out of 10 photographers want. But, there's 10% that need more features. Leave those features out (like manual shutter speeds and exposure overrides) and you'll lose the pros. Not every product can be as simple as an iPod. Sometimes we forget that, which is why I ask product designers "what's your philosophy?"

I just saw this article over on TechDirt about how complex our cell phones are becoming. Yeah, I've seen people walk into stores and say "I just want a cell phone, no email or Web or anything like that." But, then, I look at my own phone and how much I've come to love its ability to do other things. I would never give that up. It has changed my world and I think that over the next 18 months will provide more technological change than any other device (the Xbox is cool, but if you gave me a choice between a new Xbox or a new cell phone, I would take the cell phone in a second).

The experience at the funeral home reminded me too of just how much our lives had changed due to technology. Would Alberta know what an MP3 file is just a few years ago? I doubt it.

Regarding the services, the day was beautiful and the services were interesting and moving. I found myself thinking that I love living in America where you can practice any religion you want. And my mom and her community sure practices a form of religion I doubt many of you would recognize. Heck, I don't recognize it.

Another funny moment? A cell phone started playing a song in the middle of the ceremonies. If my mom were there that would have earned a dirty look. Instead Maryam gave me a dirty look for giggling (after biting her own lip for starting to giggle herself).

Later she told me how in Iran giggling at a funeral is a big sin. A no-no. I told her that my mom didn't want us to be sad at her funeral, so I found it helpful when that cell phone went off.

When I got back to my mom's house I found I wanted to get back on my computer to get back in touch with the world. There the harsh reality reminded me of what awaits when I get home. 469 emails. Yikes. I haven't been answering email much for two weeks.

One of the first things I did was check in with Dave Winer's blog. He's writing about the O'Reilly Web 2.0 service mark controversy. That led me to Tim O'Reilly, who groused about bloggers' lack of professionalism. I've been thinking about similar things a lot. What are my responsibilities as a blogger? Did I sign up to do the equivilent of the New York Times here? How do I keep true to myself in a world that values (and uses) those who have audiences.

It's why I was depressed a month ago, though. The idea that my blog had become a media property or something I had to do. Or something I had to do a specific way.

I'm glad I went through this personal time after my mom's stroke. It helped me refocus on what's important and what my blog means to me. This blog is mine. It is what I'm thinking about, and what I'm seeing in my life. It isn't a news article. I am not vetted. It isn't done by a committee. I am not being held to any standards.

On the other hand, I don't like the lynch mob. It's going to take a strong blogger to stand up against hundreds of blogs who are urging action one way. But, we need that kind of diversity of ideas if we are going to make this a truly strong media.

It's important for me to say that when the lynch mob isn't aimed at me, either. I might end up at the focus point of such a mob in the future, so hope that someone would stand up for me in such a time.

One last thing before I sign off for the night and start driving with Maryam back to Washington: thank you for putting up with me for the past two weeks. Sorry for not answering my email. Sorry to my coworkers for increasing your workloads as I focused more on my family.

I'm looking forward to getting back and thinking more about the technology business again. My experiences these two weeks demonstrate that what we do is important. Even in a funeral home.