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Sort of off any specific VRM topic, this recent thread has got me thinking about spectacular human advances and a seeming connection with the sacrifices of “weaker” individuals. It seems to me that the social network buildup is similar to the great wonders of the world (bare with me). It’s phenomenal all connections and knowledge the different networks of the web are producing from Wiki to blogs to specific social networks. It’s much like the phenomenal monuments built by previous cultures now know as wonders of the world like the pyramids.

The pyramids were built by low paid and slave labor. Their accumulated effort at low cost to the “owner,” in that compensation and recognition of the laborers was low if not non-existent, is really what made such a feat possible, a feat that might not be possible in today’s technologically advanced world. In comparison, you have social networks which essentially employ millions of people (the luckiest ones at least) to produce content for them without having to directly compensate those laborers beyond their own enjoyment of the process.

Just as the pharaohs were not the ones who actually built the pyramids, the network owners are not the ones building the primary substance of the networks. And yet, the pharaohs are the ones who get the credit and majority of the reward much like the owners get the credit and the reward. Admittedly, no one’s bones are crushed up in the process of building today’s new wonders of the world, but we still find an imbalance in sacrifice and reward (in my opinion at least, and that’s still recognizing the enormous credit I really do like to give these other entrepreneurs for their well executed efforts).

Is this just a natural state of human progress where the things that awe us the most are only possible if the masses contribute their singular focus for what amounts to the benefit of a few? Times are certainly changing, and concepts like VRM help improve the situation, but it’s still striking to think about as so many opt into something they don’t realize they’re opting into.

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Michael Clarke emailed an interesting tale about the invasions of social networks on his privacy and his rights as a producer to the VRM mailing list. He was hoping we could provide some VRM clarity on his frustrations, and I’m sharing my reply here as well.

Excerpt from Social Network Terms of Service: what’s mine is whose? by Michael Clarke:

Hardly a day goes by without a handful of invitations to new social networking services landing in my inbox. The e-friend machine du jour seems to be this Spock thing. I’m getting 3-4 “requests for my trust” per day. And if it’s not Spock, it’s Trig, or ECademy, or MyRagan, or Quechup, or some other Ning-based abomination.

…I’m just getting really tired of all these Web 2.oh communities that want to lay claim to all of the content contributed by their users.

The Spock Terms Of Service are a good example. They include a piece of irritating legal boilerplate that is popping up – in one form or another – all over the place:

“You hereby grant Spock (and each of its registered users, as limited by the “Personal Use Only” section, above) the royalty-free, unlimited, perpetual, non-exclusive, irrevocable right and license to make, use, copy, distribute, display, publish, perform, modify, or translate any such Postings for any purpose and in any medium worldwide (including but not limited to incorporating the Postings into Spock databases or any other Spock property, product, or service) and to sublicense the foregoing rights, and this sublicense right, to others.”

I’m sorry, but no.

…The catch is, when one joins one of these services, one is explicitly accepting their terms – terms which, in most cases, allow them to ignore whatever restrictions (or unrestrictions) you’ve put in place.

…So. Am I wrong to worry about all this stuff?

Click through and read the whole piece. Here’s how I replied:

Your frustration is 100% VRM related. VRM gives the individual, the consumer, more power. The consumer who is really at the heart of it a producer. Whether we admit it or not, we produce at the very least data, at the very best content worth sharing.

The problem with social network sites is a general lack of a business model. At least when dealing with Target or Southwest Airlines, they understand CRM, and see us in that light as consumers worthy of crappy CRM relationships. Social networks forget they’re still a service provider. They don’t even think in terms of CRM, at least not towards their users (at best in terms of PR), because to them, we’re not actually their customers. We’re their revenue as objects purchased by advertisers, and those are their customers. Advertisers are the people who they actually want to build CRM systems for like Beacon.

It’s all because we’ve blurred the line between producer and consumer. We’re both producer and consumer, but because their services are free, yet require money to run, we’re neither paying nor receiving. We’re fish in a bucket. That in turn justifies the “appropriation” of content provided by us without due compensation or consideration. Who can totally blame them, though, with all these VCs pushing for them to make money when there’s no lid on the bucket to keep them from putting their hands in and scooping a handful or two.

VRM is an understanding that we are producers (albeit invisible producers for the most part), and we have rights as producers beyond our rights a consumers. It’s also an understanding that vendors require a fair deal as much as we do. Some vendors will understand the benefit of giving control back to, or over to, the originators, us as authentic producers of data and content, since we are better situated to manage our data and content while including them as fits us as well as them. Otherwise, in the meantime, some still prefer business as usual (plus the added benefits of this whole Web 2.0 sharing going on – without sharing equally back).

Without VRM we can’t negotiate ToS, but with it, we have a chance at prescribing our ToS. VRM of course should be the guide so all of us don’t have to become lawyers or experts in data collection, retention, and distribution.

You’ve got a set of current customers who are bringing in the money now, but your product, for all of the ongoing improvements, is just getting old, and becoming harder and more costly to support and maintain. You want to shift your team from dealing with the legacy product to developing and supporting a new and vastly improved one, replacing the old version. Of course, your current customers are helping you pay the bills and employees’ paychecks, so you obviously can’t stop supporting them. You recognize that you need to change and/or grow your current product to get new customers and keep your current ones from leaving for the competition, but you’ve only got a finite sized team, so it’s almost an exclusive situation, they either do the new work or support the old.

This is definitely a common occurrence in small companies, but it also applies to big companies. It wouldn’t be so hard if the product is fairly basic and your employees were robots who were easily replaced. However, the more business logic that’s tied up in product, and in the heads of the current team, the harder it is to shift gears. You can’t just hire a second set of employees to build the new version because 1) you may not have that much money, 2) you may not be able to find the right people with the right technical and business knowledge, and 3) your current team will most likely want to work on the new version instead of supporting the legacy product that’s gonna be shelved once the new work is complete.

Your current team has the most knowledge and the best experience. They’re the obvious candidates for working on the new version, and if you consider their long term situation with the company and their personal desires, they’ll most definitely want to be working on the fun new stuff. An alternative is getting a second team to support the legacy version. The downside to this is the extra cost involved training, which grows with the knowledge required. It’s one thing to hire a new employee or two and train them up, and it’s another thing to double up, so unless it only takes one person from the current team to do support, which it doesn’t, then you’re in a much tougher spot. Additionally, how many people take a new job to support legacy products? How many people want to get hired into a situation where they’ll probably be let go relatively soon after? It’s hard enough finding the right people who will stick around for a longer period let alone let you treat them like a disposable diaper, and when they don’t mind that, they’re called consultants who cost twice as much as your current, more experienced, team.

So, I wound us into a pretty tight situation. At the heart of it is the question of cashflow and quality of support. What are the trade offs, and what can you afford? I’m writing about this because this is the situation I have at my company. We have a team that’s just big enough to support and maintain current software for current clients. We’re in a low demand point, though, with few needs except from one client who also happens to be our biggest, but it’s low season for us, so we’ve got some free time for development of new stuff, and we’ve been working on it when we can for a while now.

Right now, things aren’t too bad. However, we’ve got current clients coming up in a couple months who we’ll either put back on the legacy version or move over to the new one. Additionally, we’ve got sales calls with people who definitely want to see the new stuff, but may need a product before we’re done with it. Supporting either of them on the old version inevitably means development on that for the specific and new needs of that client. Their needs always change, and they always find something new they want. We could convince them not to go with more, every client is very open to what we think, but then again, we’d basically be leaving money on the table by convincing them otherwise. And doing all of the work on the legacy version directly takes away from the new version, which pushes back any timeline and makes it that much tougher getting the next client on the new version.

You have to draw a line sometime. You time it as best you can, and either pay up for more short term team members as support, or you do what you can to get your current clients to slim back, or you just reduce the quality of support (availability, response time, amount of thought put into fixes and development). With the new version, we’re working on developing a support team that while they’re not experts who can do business development or product development, they can support and maintain while not requiring the full attention of the most experienced who are better in the bus. dev. and prod. dev. area, which should bring in new cash to the business (current cashflow versus future cashflow).

I actually think it’s easier for small and medium businesses to deal with these situations. Even if it puts more strain on their “infrastructure,” they don’t have hundred of millions of dollars coming in annually from an existing product as a product for Microsoft would. Yeah, they’ve got (maybe) more money to use in R&D, but taking a product that makes no money, and replacing another that makes tons of it is never an easy situation. But, that’s business, and you’ll die if you don’t take the risk involved in growth and change, and because death can happen that much slower for a big company, it’s that much easier to rest on your laurels, which in the age of the internet, when you’ve got the next Google chomping at the bits ready to explode in a matter of months, not years, you’re all at that much greater risk. Great for the economy, tough on business as usual.