The Creator, The Seller and The Personal Shopper

Walking down the aisles of a super store like Walmart or browsing the categories of an on-line super store like Amazon, I take for granted the choices in products that are laid out for me. Isn’t that these guys’ job? Go out and get the best possible products in terms of price and quality….get them in front of an amazingly large population…see what sells and make adjustments to the product lines that are carried. These are the big Sellers – the aggregators – Pure Sellers, not Creators.

Then, there are the not-so-big Sellers – either very ‘home-made’ and low-volume products from the neighborhood bakery and the art gallery; or the high-end, life-style products with exclusive branding that just cannot be placed next to any other product. Usually these Sellers are the Creators themselves, and need to excel in both areas to sustain themselves and grow.

So if I am a Creator, I need to decide how I get my customers – vie for attention from the big aggregators or sell myself – depending on my production-volume and/ or the perceived exclusivity of my product.

As with all other products, consumers are gravitating towards ‘super-stores’ for travel purchases. The big Seller’s list in travel products is now getting a shake-out and will be interesting to watch. The usual places to look for travel were Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline and Orbitz – but all of them have ‘deals’ with Creators and influence the product lines they carry – similar to the Walmarts and Amazons of the world.

The new deal is the Search Engine. Google has finally convinced everyone that if something is out there, they can find it by googling (a bona-fide English language verb now!). There are the top three or four ‘search engines’ for jobs, cars, housing, books, music….and travel. If you are any good as a Creator, you are expected to  pop-up on all the searches done at any Seller’s online store or main-street store. 

The new “Sellers/Shoppers” are Kayak – stronger with their acquisition of Sidestep, and Yahoo! Travel – deeper now with their showcasing of Farechase technology. Both Kayak and Yahoo! emphasize that they are not stores, but your personal search agents that go out and do your shopping across multiple Superstores and smaller stores. There have been rumors of the venerable Google getting into the Travel Personal Shopper business, although Google has pooh-poohed any immediate plans in the past. But the latest excitement in this space may be catching……

So if I am a Creator aiming at the big league, not only do I need attention from the big Seller-Aggregators, but I need to do my best to show up in the Personal Search Agent searches.

This online world has made the third layer in distribution – the Personal Shopper  – affordable and attractive for all consumers. The Creators now have a shot at bypassing the Aggregator-Sellers.

The Goal of Automation

Why do we try to automate as much as we can – in the business world and in our own lives? The hope is that our routine and defined activities should take as little of our time as possible – and we have more time to spend on the fun things like doing nothing or inventing sliced bread 2.0.

So, when Allan Wille from CRM Daily wrote recently that the End-Game for Business Intelligence is to create sophisticated Dashboards, I was pleased to find James Taylor of ebizQ taking exception and inviting everyone to, “[please] kill me now….”

I agree wholeheartedly with James when he says

Surely the endgame for BI must involve some kind of predicting of the future, some looking forward?…….. why show them a dashboard when we could program the systems to ACT? Enterprise decision management would use this same data not to display a pretty graph on some marketing directors desktop, but to make the CRM system, the website, the call center and everyone involved in the organization act more intelligently.

Dashboards are good and relevant in some situations, but the goal is to have business rules drive and automate as much decision-making as possible. The rules themselves need to evolve and become sophisticated enough to ‘sense’ the environment and the context based on raw data feeds – on our way to the Intelligent Enterprise.

With sophisticated systems doing this intelligent work what do the people do? They can now take the next unstructured problem and put structure to it – in a constantly escalating endeavor to tame the next market and the next competitor, or to discover the next breakthrough product.

Let’s not spend time doing things that machines are better at!

Video Games to overtake Movie Business?

Businessweek is reporting that

Through November, the U.S. game industry is up a whopping 50 percent to $13.12 billion. Considering that December sales can often wind up accounting for as much as 25 to 30 percent of annual sales, the industry will easily break all previous records in 2007, likely coming in around $18 billion or more. And the $18 billion estimate doesn’t even include all the online subscriptions, casual games, micro-transactions and more.

Consider this: According to the Motion Picture Association (MPA), in 2006 all-media sales (movies, home video/DVDs, and television) in the U.S. totaled $24.3 billion.

Video Games are almost 75% the size of the Movies Business! And growing at close to 50% per annum!!

I have to admit that this stark comparison comes as a huge surprise. In my mental model movies business was the big-bucks larger-than-life mega industry and games were ‘appetizers’ and ‘desserts’ to the main course – the feature film. Admittedly, the show biz is a mature industry and is not expected to have a blistering rate of growth – but Gaming almost as large as the entire Movie business?

Shocking.. and a smack on the side of the head to take the industry seriously – as a marketing and advertising channel at least. It is not just fun and games any more. Huge audience, mindshare and eye-balls. Mucho Moolah involved….

Shopping Online = Playing a Virtual Reality Game?

While declaring that  “Content is King” is dead, the UK based Travolution Magazine is recommending a stiff dose of “User Experience Redesign” for Online Travel Agencies in the US as the way out of the current industry-wide stagnation in online travel sales. 

The editor, Kevin May has this to say

Research from Forrester a few months back indicated that online bookings in the US are falling despite an increase in the number of visitors to corresponding website. This is a disturbing trend.

[Consumers]  are also asking for more from the providers of services during their time on the web.

This is a problem for the travel industry because, until very recently, it has been focused primarily on the transactional elements.

So-called ‘user experience’ has invariably been left to ensuring accessibility guidelines are complied with (or not, as is often the case) and sizeable sums of money being spent on flashy designs

A concerted effort by travel companies to improve user experience on websites can only benefit their consumers, and the sector as a whole.

With virtual reality video games and online worlds like Second Life – not to mention the cool animated movies that have been topping the box offices for a few years now – expectations from an online experience are increasing. Add to the mix the fact that a Travel Purchase is essentially purchasing an experience – not a book that you order from Amazon and get to stack on your nightstand. The customer is expecting a preview of the experience as a key ingredient to the purchase decision-making process.

Speaking of buying boxes, Amazon and Best Buy sites treat customers the best according to a recent survey. Amazon just wrapped up its best season ever. The Wall Street is certainly very happy.

It’s time to start borrowing ideas from the video-games and the movie industry to make travel shopping an ‘immersed’ experience. Remember The Matrix and the Matrix Online game? Just my personal favorites! Your mileage may vary…

Going Mobile with Everything!

I have been on my faithful Blackberry for almost two years now. Email, Calendar and Internet were the basic building blocks for being productive while mobile. My project planning and task management was on my laptop strung together among Microsoft Project, MindManager and Microsoft OneNote – with the occassional sync to Blackberry Tasks.

Early last year I installed ToDoMatrix from RexWireless on my Blackberry as a better way to manage Projects and Tasks – with reasonable success. I was still juggling with multiple tools on the laptop and trying to get to a single picture of my commitments and plans.

Then, ToDoMatrix was upgraded a few months ago to ‘7-Dimensions’ that supports Getting Things Done (GTD) Methodology, along with support for a lot of other customizations. After experimenting with a new workflow using ToDoMatrix, I am finally discarding the chain to my laptop. I can now do all my planning and execution on my Blackberry. MindManager will still be a standalone brainstorming tool; Microsoft Project will still schedule and manage Enterprise Projects, and OneNote will still be the prime sketching tool. But they will not hold the one version of truth. The truth is now Mobile and free!

Sketching Ideas and the Future

My fascination with sketches and white-boards is a perpetual target for jokes and comments from friends, family and colleagues. We could be discussing the most complex bit of business or systems architecture …. or just trying to agree upon a decision criteria to choose the new television for the living-room… Boxes, Circles, Arrows and 2×2 Matrices will start appearing on convenient surfaces at hand – mostly in color if I can manage it (4 colors are best, in my opinion)!

I view my impulse to sketch as a fairly non-hazardous idiosyncrasy – as long as the people around me are willing to be patient while I try to get everyone (and my understanding) literally on the same page. Most of the time we end up with a more focussed discussion, a much clearer understanding and a more comprehensive action-plan, solution or whatever was the goal of the gathering. Sometimes, people run for the hills!

Sketching works for me and I use it as a crutch/tool for thinking all the time. So, I was delighted to find from the Bill Buxton of Microsoft Research that I am following in the traditions of good designers. I have just read his book, ‘Sketching User Experiences’, and came away impressed by his thesis that to create a practical view of the future you need to ‘sketch’ out relevant pictures for all users who you hope would participate in that future.