Watching Larry Ellison become Larry Ellison — The DNA of a Winner

In Oracle’s early days Kathryn Gould was the founding VP of Marketing, working there from 1982 to 1984. When I heard that Larry Ellison was stepping down as Oracle’s CEO I asked Kathryn to think about the skills she saw in a young Larry Ellison that might make today’s founders winners.

Though I haven’t talked to Larry face-to-face for 20 years, and haven’t worked at Oracle for 30 years, he’s the yardstick I’ve used to pick entrepreneurs all of these years since.

Larry had the DNA I’ve seen common with all the successful entrepreneurs I’ve backed in my 25 years of Venture Capital work—only he had a more exaggerated case than most. Without a doubt, Larry was the most potent entrepreneur I’ve known. It was a gift to be able to work with him and see him in action.

Here’s what was exceptional about Larry:

Potent Leadership Skill
Larry didn’t practice any kind of textbook management, but he was an intense communicator and inspiring leader. As a result, every person in the company knew what the goal was—world domination and death to all competitors. He often said, “It’s not enough to win—all others must fail.” And he meant it, but with a laugh.

It wasn’t as heavy as it sounds, but everyone got the point. We were relentless competitors. Even as the company grew from a handful of people when I started to about 150 when I left (yes, still ridiculously small) I observed that, every single person knew our mission.

This is not usual—startups that fail often have a lot of people milling around who don’t know what the goal is. In winning companies, everybody pulls in the same direction.

oracle-founders1978: Ed Oates, Bruce Scott, Bob Miner and Larry Ellison celebrate Oracle’s first anniversary

A corollary to Larry’s leadership style was that, at least in my day, he did it with great humor, lots of off-the-cuff funny stuff. He loved to argue, often engaging one of our talented VPs who had been captain of his school debate team. When we weren’t arguing intensely, we were laughing. It made the long hours pass lightly.

Huge Technical Vision
Larry always had a 10-year technical vision that he could draw on the whiteboard or spin like a yarn.

It wasn’t always perfect, but it was way more right than wrong, It informed our product development to a great degree and kept us working on more or less the right stuff. Back then he advocated for

  • Portability (databases had previously been shackled to the specific machines they ran on)
  • Being distributed/network ready (even though Ethernet was just barely coming into use in the enterprise)
  • The choice of the SQL a way to ask questions (queries) in an easy-to-understand language
  • Relational architecture (a collection of data organized as a set of formally described tables) in the first place—all new stuff, and technically compelling

The final proof of a compelling technical vision is that customers were interested—the phone was always ringing. Often it was people cold calling us, who had read something in a trade magazine and wanted to know more. What a gift! Not every startup gets to have this—but if you don’t, you’ve got a problem.

Pragmatic and Lean
Larry ascribed to the adage, “We don’t do things right, we do the right things.” I’m not sure if he ever actually said that, but it is what he lived.

In a startup you can’t do a great job of everything, you have to prioritize what is critically important, and what is “nice to have.” Larry didn’t waste time on “nice to have.”

I am a reformed perfectionist (reformed after those days) so often this didn’t sit well with me. I now realize it was the wisdom of a great entrepreneur. Basically if you didn’t code or sell, you were semi-worthless. (Which is why I had OEM sales as part of marketing—we had to earn our keep.)

This philosophy extended to all aspects of the company. We always had nice offices, but we didn’t mind crowding in. When I started we were in a small suite at 3000 Sand Hill Road. I would come to the office in the morning and clean up the junk food from the programmer who used my work area all night. This was cool!

Oh, and I should say, even though we were at 3000 Sand Hill, VCs kind of ignored us. They thought we were a little nuts. It took a long time for our market to develop, so Oracle wasn’t exactly a growth explosion in the early days. There we were, right under their noses!

Larry was loathe to sell any of the company stock; he generally took a dim view of VCs and preferred to bootstrap. (Sequoia Capital eventually invested just a little in us). Angel investor Don Lucas had his office above ours. I remember Larry telling me that every time we borrowed his conference room we had to pay Don $50. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s what Larry said. I wonder if he took stock or cash.

Irresistible Salesmanship
Larry wasn’t always selling, didn’t even like salespeople half the time, but boy, when he decided to sell, he was unbeatable.

I’ll never forget sitting in an impressive conference room at a very large computer manufacturer that was prepared to not be all that interested in what we had to say.

Larry just blew them away. They had to re-evaluate their view on their database offering—and they eventually became a huge customer.

He reeled out that technical vision, described the product architecture in a way that computer science people found compelling and turned on the charm. It was neat to be in the room. I saw this a lot with Larry; the performance was repeated many times.

Hired the Smartest People
The old adage “A players hire A players, and B players hire C players” applies here. Larry often philosophized that we couldn’t hire people with software experience because there were hardly any software companies, so we just had to get the smartest bastards we could, and they’d figure it out.

I think he was particularly skilled at applying this to the technical team.

I remember a brilliant young programmer whom Larry allowed to live anywhere he wanted in the US or Canada, didn’t care about hours, where he was or any of that stuff. We just got him a network connection and that was it. This was unheard of back then, but we did it fairly often to get superstars. I remember when we hired Tom Siebel—Larry was so excited, telling me about this deadly smart guy we just hired in Chicago who was sitting in our conference room that very minute! I had to go meet him!

I should say that Larry looked for smarts in men and women—women have always had the opportunity to excel at Oracle. And now there’s Safra Catz—whom I never met, but even back in the ’80s I remember Larry telling me how smart she was.

He Had Some Quirks
Larry would sometimes take time out to think. He would just disappear for a few days, often without telling marketing people (who may have scheduled him for a press interview or a customer visit!), and return re-charged with a pile of ideas—many good, some not so much.

He liked to experiment with novel management ideas, like competing teams. He would set up some people to develop a product or go after a customer or whatever, and have competing teams trying to do the same thing. It’s always fun to experiment, though I never saw one of these fiascos succeed.

I remember one time he had his cowboy boots up on the desk, saying that we’d be bigger than Cullinet and we’d do it with 50 people, and only one salesperson. He was getting high on ideas. Only a computer historian would know Cullinet, an ancient database company that made it to $100M in sales back in the early ’80s. Yes, he was right about “bigger than Cullnet.” The “50 people” was motivated by his dream that we could just have the very, very best developers in the world, and hardly any salespeople—it was just talk. I think he came to appreciate the sales culture later on.

Larry loved to be called “ruthless.” When I asked what was his favorite book, he told me Robber Baronsworth a read even today! And he used to pore over spec sheets for fancy jets he probably thought he could never afford. Funny, I never heard him talk about sailing back then.

I’m not sure how all of this played out later because I wasn’t there. But it was clear, even back in those early days, that Larry had it all: leadership, technical vision, pragmatism, personal salesmanship, frugality, humor, desire to succeed.

I have to think my success in the VC business was due in no small part to seeing Larry Ellison in action back in the day.

Lessons Learned

Great entrepreneurial DNA is comprised of leadership; technological vision; frugality; and the desire to succeed. World-class founders:

  • Have a clear mission and inspire everyone to live it every day
  • Are the best salesman in the company
  • Hire the smartest people
  • Have a technological vision and the ability to convince others that it’s the right thing
  • Know it’s about winning customers and don’t spend money on things that aren’t mission-critical 
  • Are relentless in pursuit of their goals and never take NO for an answer
  • Know humor is powerful — and fun!

How To Think Like an Entrepreneur: the Inventure Cycle

The Lean Startup is a process for turning ideas into commercial ventures. Its premise is that startups begin with a series of untested hypotheses. They succeed by getting out of the building, testing those hypotheses and learning by iterating and refining minimal viable products in front of potential customers.

That’s all well and good if you already have an idea. But where do startup ideas come from? Where do inspiration, imagination and creativity come to bear? How does that all relate to innovation and entrepreneurship?

Quite honestly I never gave this much thought. As an entrepreneur my problem was that I had too many ideas. My imagination ran 24/7 and to me every problem was a challenge to solve and new product to create. It wasn’t until I started teaching that I realized that not everyone’s head worked the same way. While the Lean Startup gave us a process for turning ideas into businesses – what’s left unanswered was, “Where do the ideas come from?  How do you get them?”

It troubled me that the practice of entrepreneurship (including the Lean Startup) was missing a set of tools to unleash my students’ imaginations and lacked a process to apply their creativity. I realized the innovation/entrepreneurship process needed a “foundation” – the skills and processes that kick-start an entrepreneurs imagination and creative juices. We needed to define the language and pieces that make up an “entrepreneurial mindset.”

As luck would have it, at Stanford I found myself teaching in the same department with Tina Seelig. Tina is Professor of the Practice at Stanford University School of Engineering, and Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Reading her book inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity was the first time I realized someone had cracked the code on how to turn imagination and creativity into innovation.

Here’s Tina’s latest thinking on the foundational skills necessary to build a new venture.

—-

There is an insatiable demand for innovation and entrepreneurship. These skills are required to help individuals and ventures thrive in a competitive and dynamic marketplace. However, many people don’t know where to start. There isn’t a well-charted course from inspiration to implementation.

Other fields — such as physics, biology, math, and music — have a huge advantage when it comes to teaching those topics. They have clearly defined terms and a taxonomy of relationships that provide a structured approach for mastering these skills. That’s exactly what we need in entrepreneurship. Without it, there’s dogged belief that these skills can’t be taught or learned.

Below is a proposal for definitions and relationships for the process of bringing ideas to life, which I call the Inventure Cycle. This model provides a scaffolding of skills, beginning with imagination, leading to a collective increase in entrepreneurial activity.

Inventure Cycle

  • Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist
  • Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge
  • Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions
  • Entrepreneurship is applying innovation, bringing ideas to fruition, by inspiring others’ imagination

Inventure CycleThis is a virtuous cycle: Entrepreneurs manifest their ideas by inspiring others’ imagination, including those who join the effort, fund the venture, and purchase the products. This model is relevant to startups and established firms, as well as innovators of all types where the realization of a new idea — whether a product, service, or work of art — results in a collective increase in imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

This framework allows us to parse the pathway, describing the actions and attitudes required at each step along the way.

  • Imagination requires engagement and the ability to envision alternatives
  • Creativity requires motivation and experimentation to address challenges
  • Innovation requires focusing and reframing to generate unique solutions
  • Entrepreneurship requires persistence and the ability to inspire others

Not every person in an entrepreneurial venture needs to have every skill in the cycle. However, every venture needs to cover every base. Without imaginers who engage and envision, there aren’t compelling opportunities to address. Without creators who are motivated to experiment, routine problems don’t get solved. Without innovators who focus on challenging assumptions, there are no fresh ideas. And, without entrepreneurs who persistently inspire others, innovations sit on the shelf.

Let’s look at an example to see these principles at work:

As a Biodesign Innovation Fellow at Stanford University, Kate Rosenbluth spent months in the hospital shadowing neurologists and neurosurgeons in order to understand the biggest unmet needs of physicians and their patients.

In the imagination stage, Kate worked with a team of engineers and physicians to make lists of hundreds of problems that needed solving, from outpatient issues to surgical challenges. By being immersed in the hospital with a watchful eye, she was able to see opportunities for improvement that had been overlooked. This stage required engagement and envisioning.

In the creativity stage, the team was struck by how many people struggle with debilitating hand tremors that keep them from holding a coffee cup or buttoning a shirt. They learned that as many as six million people in the United States are stricken with Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions that cause tremors. The most effective treatment is deep brain stimulation, an onerous and expensive intervention that requires permanently implanting wires in the brain and a battery pack in the chest wall. Alternatively, patients can take drugs that often have disabling side effects. The team was driven to help these patients and began meeting with experts, combing the literature, and testing alternative treatments. This stage required motivation and experimentation.

In the innovation stage, Kate had an insight that changed the way that she thought about treating tremors. She challenged the assumption that the treatment had to focus on the root cause in the brain and instead focused on the peripheral nervous system in the hand, where the symptoms occur. She partnered with Stanford professor Scott Delp to develop and test a relatively inexpensive, noninvasive, and effective treatment. This stage required focus and reframing.

In the entrepreneurship stage, Kate recently launched a company, Cala Health, to develop and deliver new treatments for tremors. There will be innumerable challenges along the way to bringing the products to market, including hiring a team, getting FDA approval, raising subsequent rounds of funding, and manufacturing and marketing the device. These tasks require persistence inspiring others.

While developing the first product, Kate has had additional insights, which have stimulated new ideas for treating other diseases with a similar approach, coming full circle to imagination!

The Inventure Cycle is the foundation of frameworks for innovation and entrepreneurship, such as design thinking and the lean startup methodology. Both of these focus on defining problems, generating solutions, building prototypes, and iterating on the ideas based on feedback. The Inventure Cycle describes foundational skills that are mandatory for those methods to work. Just as we must master arithmetic before we dive into algebra or calculus, it behooves us to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and methodology before we design products and launch ventures. By understanding the Inventure Cycle and honing the necessary skills, we identify more opportunities, challenge more assumptions, generate unique solutions, and bring more ideas to fruition.

With clear definitions and a taxonomy that illustrates their relationships, the Inventure Cycle defines the pathway from inspiration to implementation. This framework captures the skills, attitudes, and actions that are necessary to foster innovation and to bring breakthrough ideas to the world.

Lessons Learned

  • The Inventure Cycle defines entrepreneurship as applied innovation, innovation as applied creativity, and creativity as applied imagination
  • Entrepreneurship requires inspiring others’ imagination, resulting in a collective increase in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship
  • This framework allows us to parse the skills, attitudes, and actions needed at each step in the entrepreneurial process.

Why Founders Should Know How to Code

By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist.”
Book of Five Rings

A startup is not just about the idea, it’s about testing and then implementing the idea.

A founding team without these skills is likely dead on arrival.

—-

I was driving home from the BIO conference in San Diego last month and had lots of time for a phone call with Dave, an ex student and now a founder who wanted to update me on his Customer Discovery progress. Dave was building a mobile app for matching college students who needed to move within a local area with potential local movers. He described his idea like “Uber for moving” and while he thought he was making real progress, he needed some advice.

Customer Discovery
As the farm fields flew by on the interstate I listened as Dave described how he translated his vision into a series of hypotheses and mapped them onto a business model canvas. He believed that local moves could be solved cheaply and efficiently through local social connections. He described when he got out of the building and quickly realized he had two customer segments – the students – who were looking for low budget, local moves and the potential movers – existing moving companies, students and others looking to make additional income. He worked hard to deeply understand the customer problems of these two customer segments. shutterstock_158330768After a few months he learned how potential customers were solving the local moving problem today (do it themselves, friends, etc.) He even learned a few things that were unexpected – students that live off campus and move to different apartments year-to-year needed to store their furniture over the summer breaks, and that providing local furniture storage over the summer was another part of his value proposition to both students and movers.

As he was learning from potential customers and providers he would ask, “What if we could have an app that allowed you to schedule low cost moves?” And when he’d get a positive response he’d show them his first minimal viable product – the mockup he had created of the User Interface in PowerPoint.

This was a great call. Dave was doing everything right. Until he said, “I just have one tiny problem.” Uh oh…

“I organized some moves by manually connecting students with the movers. And I even helped on some of the moves myself. But I’m having a hard time getting to my next minimal viable product. While I have all this great feedback on my visual mockups I can’t iterate my product. My contract developers building the app aren’t very responsive. It takes weeks to make even a simple change.”

I almost rear-ended another car when I heard this. I said, “Help me understand.. neither you nor your cofounder can code and you’re building a mobile app? And you’ve been at this for six months??” Whoah. This startup was broken at multiple levels. In fact, it wasn’t even a startup.

The Problem
Dave sounded confused. “I thought building a company was all about having hypotheses and getting out of the building and testing them?’

There were three problems with Dave’s startup.

  • He was confusing having an idea with the ability to actually build and implement the idea
  • He was using 3rd parties to build his app but he had no expertise on how to manage external developers
  • His inability to attract a co-founder who could code was a troubling sign

A Startup is Not Just About a Good Idea
As the miles sped by I explained to Dave that he had understood only two of the three parts of what makes a Lean Startup successful. While he correctly understood how to frame his hypotheses with a business model canvas, and he was doing a good job in customer development – the third component of Lean is using Agile Development to rapidly and iteratively build incrementally better versions of the product – in the form of minimal viable products (MVP’s).

The emphasis on the rapid development and iteration of MVP’s is to speed up how fast you can learn; from customers, partners, network scale, adoption, etc. Speed keeps cash burn rate down while allowing you to converge on a repeatable and scalable business model. In a startup building MVP’s is what turns theory into practice.

Dave had fallen into the new founder trap of looking at the business model canvas and thinking that coding was simply an activity (rapidly build mockups of first the the U/I and then the app). And that he could identify the resources needed, (outsourced contract developers who could build it for him) and he would hire a partner to do so. All great in theory but simply wrong. In a web/mobile startup coding is not an outsourced activity. It’s an integral part of the company’s DNA.

Having a coder as part of the founding team is essential.

Coding is the DNA of a Web/Mobile Startup
I offered that if Dave wanted to be the founding CEO then he was going to have to do two things: first, create a reality distortion field large enough to attract a technical co-founder. And second, learn how to code.

Dave was a bit embarrassed when he explained, “I’ve been trying to attract another co-founder who could code but somehow couldn’t convince anyone.” (This by itself should have been a red flag to Dave.) And then he continued, “But why should I have to know how to code, I’m not going to write the final app.”

One interesting thing about the Lean Startup is that it teaches founders about Sales and Marketing (and a bit of finance) without making them get an MBA or a decade of sales experience. Founders who go through the process will have an appreciation of the role of sales and marketing like no textbook or classroom could provide. Having done the job themselves, they’ll never be at the mercy of a domain expert. The same is true for coding.

I was glad I had a lot of time in the car, because I was able to explain my belief that all founders in a web or mobile startup need to learn how to code. Not to become developers but at a minimum to appreciate how to hire and manage technical resources and if possible to deliver the next level of MVP’s themselves.

shutterstock_161223782

Dave’s objection was to list a few successful startups that he knew where that wasn’t the case. I pointed out that are always “corner cases” and if he thought I was wrong he could simply ignore my advice.

As I was about to pull off an exit for lunch and to recharge my car I strongly suggested to Dave that for both this startup and the rest of career he put his startup on hold and invest his time in attending a coding bootcamp. It would take him to the first step in appreciating the issues in managing web development projects, identifying good developers, and finding a technical co-founder.

Weeks later Dave dropped me a note, “Boy, what I didn’t know about how much I didn’t know. Thanks!”

Lessons Learned

  • Startups are not just about the idea, they’re about testing and implementing the idea
  • A founding web/mobile team without a coder past the initial stages of Customer Discovery is not a startup
  • Everyone on the founding team ought to invest the time in a coding bootcamp
  • Your odds of building a successful startup will increase

How to Be Smarter than Your Investors – Continuous Customer Discovery

Teams that build continuous customer discovery into their DNA will become smarter than their investors, and build more successful companies.

Awhile back I blogged about Ashwin, one of my ex-students wanted to raise a seed round to build Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) with a Hyper-spectral camera and fly it over farm fields collecting hyper-spectral images. These images, when processed with his company’s proprietary algorithms, would be able to tell farmers how healthy their plants were, whether there were diseases or bugs, whether there was enough fertilizer, and enough water.

(When computers, GPS and measurement meet farming, the category is called “precision agriculture.” I see at least one or two startup teams a year in this space.)Optimized water and fertilizer

At the time I pointed out to Ashwin that his minimum viable product was actionable data to farmers and not the drone. I suggested that to validate their minimum viable product it would be much cheaper to rent a camera and plane or helicopter, and fly over the farmers field, hand process the data and see if that’s the information farmers would pay for. And that they could do that in a day or two, for a tenth of the money they were looking for.

Walnut orchard

(Take a quick read of the original post here)

Fast forward a few months and Ashwin and I had coffee to go over what his company Ceres Imaging had learned. I wondered if he was still in the drone business, and if not, what had become the current Minimum Viable Product.

It was one of those great meetings where all I could do was smile: 1) Ashwin and the Ceres team had learned something that was impossible to know from inside their building, 2) they got much smarter than me.

Crop Dusters
Even though the Ceres Imaging founders initially wanted to build drones, talking to potential customers convinced them that as I predicted, the farmers couldn’t care less how the company acquired the data. But the farmers told them something that they (nor I) had never even considered – crop dusters (fancy word for them are “aerial applicators”) fly over farm fields all the time (to spray pesticides.)

They found that there are ~1,400 of these aerial applicator businesses in the U.S. with ~2,800 planes covering farms in 44 states. Ashwin said their big “aha moment” was when they realized that they could use these crop dusting planes to mount their hyperspectral cameras on. This is a big idea. They didn’t need drones at all.

If you can’t see the video above click here

Local crop dusters meant they could hire existing planes and simply attach their Hyper-spectral camera to any crop dusting plane. This meant that Ceres didn’t need to build an aerial infrastructure – it already existed. All of sudden what was an additional engineering and development effort now became a small, variable cost. As a bonus it meant the 1,400 aerial applicator companies could be a potential distribution channel partner.

Local Crop Dusters

The Ceres Imaging Minimum Viable Product was now an imaging system on a cropdusting plane generating data for high value Tree Crops. Their proprietary value proposition wasn’t the plane or camera, but the specialized algorithms to accurately monitor water and fertilizer. Brilliant.

logo

I asked Ashwin how they figured all this out. His reply, “You taught us that there were no facts inside our building.  So we’ve learned to live with our customers.  We’re now piloting our application with Tree Farmers in California and working with crop specialists at U.C. Davis.  We think we have a real business.”

It was a fun coffee.

Lessons Learned

  • Build continuous customer discovery into your company DNA
  • An MVP eliminates parts of your business model that create complexity
  • Focus on what provides immediate value for Earlyvangelists
  • Add complexity (and additional value) later

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

Lessons Learned in Digital Health

This post is part of our series on the National Science Foundation I-Corps Lean LaunchPad class in Life Science and Health Care at UCSF.

Our Lean LaunchPad for Life Science class talked to 2,355 customers, tested 947 hypotheses and invalidated 423 of them.  They had 1,145 engagements with instructors and mentors. (We kept track of all this data by instrumenting the teams with LaunchPad Central software.)

This post is one of a series of the “Lessons Learned” presentations and videos from our class.

Sometimes a startup results from a technical innovation. Or from a change in regulation, declining costs, changes in consumers needs or an insight about customer needs. Resultcare, one of the 26 teams in the class started when a resident in clinical medicine at UCSF watched her mother die of breast cancer and her husband get critically injured.

The team members are:

  • Dr. Mima Geere  Clinical Medicine at UCSF.
  • Dr. Arman Jahangiri HHMI medical fellow at UCSF, Department of Neurological Surgery
  • Dr. Brandi Castro in Neuroscience at UCSF
  • Mitchell Geere product design
  • Kristen Bova MBA, MHS
  • Nima Anari PhD in Data Science

Abhas Gupta was the Digital Health cohort instructor. Richard Caro was their mentor.

ResultCare is a mobile app that helps physicians take the guesswork out of medicine. It enables physicians to practice precision medicine while reducing costs.precision medicine

Here’s Resultcare’s 2 minute video summary

If you can’t see the video above, click here.

Watch their Lesson Learned presentation below. The first few minutes of the talk is quite personal and describes the experiences that motivated Dr. Geere to address this problem.

If you can’t see the video above, click here

The Resultcare presentation slides are below.

If you can’t see the presentation above, click here

Listen to the blog post here

Download the podcast here

When Product Features Disappear – Amazon, Apple and Tesla and the Troubled Future for 21st Century Consumers

One of the great innovations of the 21st century are products that are cloud-connected and update and improve automatically. For software, gone are the days of having to buy a new version of physical media (disks or CD’s.) For hardware it’s the magical ability to have a product get better over time as new features are automatically added.

The downside is when companies unilaterally remove features from their products without asking their customers permission and/or remove consumers’ ability to use the previous versions. Products can just as easily be downgraded as upgraded.Loser

It was a wake up call when Amazon did it with books, disappointing when Google did it with Google Maps, annoying when Apple did it to their office applications – but Tesla just did it on a $100,000 car.

It’s time to think about a 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights.

——

Amazon – Down the Memory Hole
In July 2009 facing a copyright lawsuit Amazon remotely deleted two books users had already downloaded and paid for on their Kindles. Amazon did so without notifying the users let alone asking their permission. It was a chilling reminder that when books and content are bits instead of atoms, someone can change the content – or simply disappear a book – all without users’ permission. (The irony was the two books Amazon deleted were Animal Farm and 1984.)

Google – Well It Looks Better
In July 2013 Google completely redesigned Google Maps – and users discovered that on their desktop/laptop, the new product was slower than the one it replaced and features that were previously available disappeared. The new Google Maps was worse then one it replaced – except for one key thing – its User Interface was prettier and was unified across platforms. If design was the goal, then Google succeeded. If usability and functionality was a goal, then the new version was a step backwards.

Apple – Our Code Base is More Important than Your Features
In November 2013 Apple updated its operating system and cajoled its customers to update their copies of Apple’s iWork office applications – Pages (Apple’s equivalent to Microsoft Word),  Keynote (its PowerPoint equivalent), and Numbers (an attempt to match Excel). To get users to migrate from Microsoft Office and Google Docs, Apple offered these iWorks products for free.iwork

Sounds great– who wouldn’t want the newest version of iWorks with the new OS especially at zero cost?  But that’s because you would assume the new versions would have more features. Or perhaps given its new fancy user interface, the same features? The last thing you would assume is that it had fewer features. Apple released new versions of these applications with key features missing, features that some users had previously paid for, used, and needed. (Had they bothered to talk to customers, Apple would have heard these missing features were critical.)

But the release notes for the new version of the product had no notice that these features were removed.

Their customers weren’t amused.

Apple’s explanation? “These applications were rewritten from the ground up, to be fully 64-bit and to support a unified file format between OS X and iOS 7 versions.”

Translated into English this meant that Apple engineering recoding the products ran out of time to put all the old features back into the new versions. Apple said, “… some features from iWork ’09 were not available for the initial release. We plan to reintroduce some of these features in the next few releases and will continue to add brand new features on an ongoing basis.

Did they think anyone wouldn’t notice?

Decisions like this make you wonder if anyone on the Apple executive staff actually understood that a “unified file format” is not a customer feature.

While these examples are troubling, up until now they’ve been limited to content or software products.

Tesla – Our Problems are Now Your Problems
In November 2013 Tesla, a manufacturer of ~$70,000 to $120,000 electric cars, used a software “update” to disable a hardware option customers had bought and paid for – without telling them or asking their permission.

Tesla Model SOne of Tesla features is a $2,250 “smart air suspension” option that automatically lowers the car at highway speeds for better mileage and stability. Over a period of 5 weeks, three Tesla Model S cars had caught fire after severe accidents – two of them apparently from running over road debris that may have punctured the battery pack that made up the floor pan of the car. After the car fires Tesla pushed a software release out to its users. While the release notice highlighted new features in the release, nowhere did it describe that Tesla had unilaterally disabled a key part of the smart air suspension feature customers had purchased.

Only after most of Telsa customers installed the downgrade did Tesla’s CEO admit in a blog post,  “…we have rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension that will result in greater ground clearance at highway speed.”

Translation – we disabled one of the features you thought you bought. (The CEO went on to say that another software update in January will give drivers back control of the feature.) The explanation of the nearly overnight removal of this feature was vague “…reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety.” If it wasn’t about safety, why wasn’t it offered as a user-selected option? One could only guess the no notice and immediacy of the release had to do with the National Highway Safety Administration investigation of the Tesla Model S car fires.

This raises the question: when Tesla is faced with future legal or regulatory issues, what other hardware features might Tesla remove or limit in cars in another software release? Adding speed limits?  Acceleration limits? Turning off the Web browser when driving?  The list of potential downgrades to the car is endless with the precedent now set of no obligation to notify their owners or ask their permission.

In the 20th century if someone had snuck into your garage and attempted to remove a feature from your car, you’d call the police. In the 21st century it’s starting to look like the normal course of business.

What to Do
While these Amazon, Google, Apple and Tesla examples may appear disconnected, taken together they are the harbinger of the future for 21st century consumers. Cloud-based updates and products have changed the landscape for consumers. The product you bought today may not be the product you own later.

Given there’s no corporate obligation that consumers permanently own their content or features, coupled with the lack of any regulatory oversight of cloud-based products, Apple’s and Tesla’s behavior tells us what other companies will do when faced with engineering constraints, litigation or regulation. In each of these cases they took the most expedient point of view; they acted as if their customers had no guaranteed rights to features they had purchased. So problem solving in the corporate board room has started with “lets change the feature set” rather than “the features we sold are inviolate so lets solve the problem elsewhere.”

There’s a new set of assumptions about who owns your product. All these companies have crafted the legal terms of use for their product to include their ability to modify or remove features. Manufacturers not only have the means to change or delete previously purchased products at will, there’s no legal barrier to stop them from doing so.

The result is that consumers in the 21st century have less protection then they did in the 20th.

What we can hope for is that smart companies will agree to a 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights. What will likely have to happen first is a class-action lawsuit establishing consumers’ permanent rights to retain features they have already purchased.

Some smart startups might find a competitive advantage by offering customer-centric products with an option of “no changes” and “perpetual feature rights” guarantee.

A 21st Century Bill of Consumer Product Rights

  • For books/texts/video/music:
    • No changes to content paid for (whether on a user’s device or accessed in the cloud)
  • For software/hardware:
    • Notify users if an update downgrades or removes a feature
    • Give users the option of not installing an update
    • Provide users an ability to rollback (go back to a previous release) of the software

Lessons Learned

  • The product you bought today may not be the product you have later
  • Manufacturers can downgrade your product as well as upgrade it
  • You have no legal protection

Update: a shorter version of the post was removed from the Tesla website forum

Listen to the post here

Download the podcast here

Guns and Cyber Security

The online world can be a dangerous place for the unprepared.  And it’s just going to get worse. It’s time to teach Cyber Security as integral part of the high school and college curriculum and to all corporate employees.

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I grew up in New York City and for a few years heaven on earth for me was going to Boy Scout camp in the summer near the Delaware River.  Boy Scout HandbookThe camp had all the summer adventures a city kid could imagine, hiking, fishing, canoeing, etc. But for me the best part was the rifle range.  For a 12-year old kid from the city shooting target practice and skeet  with a 22 rifle meant being entrusted by adults with something you knew was dangerous – because they were beating gun safety into our brains every step of the way.

From the minute we walked onto the shooting range to even before we got to touch a gun, we learned basic rules of handling weapons I still haven’t forgotten. You screwed up and you got yelled at and if you did it again you got escorted out of the rifle range.

While target practice and skeet shooting were fun, safety was serious.

scouts at rifle range

Over the years I would learn how to shoot an M-16 in basic training in the military, go through a basic combat course to go to Southeast Asia (when we acted like this was a lark, our instructor stopped our drill and said, “For your sake I hope the guys shooting at you were screwing around in their combat course.”  It got our attention.)  When I bought the ranch herds of wild boar still roamed the fields. While we were putting in the miles of fencing to keep them out, I bought much heavier weapons to deal with a charging 400-pound boar and hired an instructor to teach me how to safely use them.  Each time gun safety was an integral part of training with new weapons.  For me, guns and gun safety became one and the same.

Hacking and Cyber Security
For consumers, online surfing, shopping, banking and entertaining ourselves have become an integral part of our lives. And with that has come identify theft, hacking, phishing, online scams, bullying, and predators online. As well as a loss of privacy.

But for businesses, the threats are even more real. Go ask RSA, Northrop, Lockheed, Google, Amazon and almost every other company with an online presence. Intellectual property stolen, customer data hacked, funds illegally transferred, goods stolen, can damage a company and put them out of business.

I think we’re missing something.

In the last 20 years 3 billion people have gained access to the web. Yet for most of them safety online remains a problem for other people. It pretty clear that for a company going online today is equivalent to playing with a loaded gun. The analogy of comparing the net with guns might seem stretched, but I think it’s an apt one. Guns have been around for hundreds of years, to provide food as well as wage war, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that gun safety rules were codified and taught.

I think we need the equivalent of gun safety training for online access.

We now know the basic tools online hackers use. We know enough to harden sites to stop the simple hacks and to educate employees about basic social engineering and phishing attempts. It’s time to teach Cyber Security as integral part of the high school and/or college curriculum – not as an elective. Companies need to make Cyber Security education an integral part of their on-boarding process.

The Air Force Academy basic Cyber Security course is a good place to start (Stanford and other schools have a similar syllabi.) The class consists of basic networking and administration, network mapping, remote exploits, denial of service, web vulnerabilities, social engineering, password vulnerabilities, wireless network exploitation, persistence, digital media analysis, and cyber mission operations.

Lessons Learned

  • The web is not a benign environment
  • Companies, high schools and colleges ought to make a basic Cyber Security course a requirement of getting online access.

Listen to the post here or download the podcast here

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