Book Review: I Have a Strategy (No, You Don’t) by Howell J. Malham Jr.

I Have a Strategy - Book CoverStrategy…

It’s a word that is so overused in the business world that it has almost lost its meaning. Everyone has a strategy… for everything. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the existence of a ‘Visiting the Bathroom strategy’ or  a ‘Having my lunch strategy’, such is its ubiquity. Look at my personal portfolio, even I’m at it! A digital technology strategist of all things!

It’s time to reclaim the word, to give it some real meaning, to rescue it from the mire into which it has descended. If not for its own sake, then certainly for mine; I’ll never be taken seriously otherwise.

Luckily, that’s exactly what Howard J. Malham Jr. – or simply Malham from this point on – is aiming to do in his book: I Have a Strategy (No, You Don’t) - The Illustrated Guide To Strategy. It sounds like a lofty subject and you might expect a rather dry examination of the subject, given the length of the title, but it’s anything but that. Short, simple, fun (yes, fun) and easily digested, Malham’s book is surprisingly effective.

Malham – just who is he?

Howard J. Malham Jr. is a Co-founder and Director of Insight Labs, a Chicago-based consultancy that works on some of the world’s (read United States) biggest challenges and issues, from the state of schooling to the future of healthcare. It’s this experience, born out of trying to make sense of seemingly impenetrable challenges, that is distilled down into the book.

So this tells me what a strategy is? Right?

Absolutely.

For Malham, a strategy is simple defined as:

A planned, doable sequence of actions designed to achieve a distinct, measurable goal.

That’s it. Simple and easy.

Malham’s book comes to life through a few carefully selected examples and the ongoing commentary from Gary and Larry – two cartoon characters that explore the serious page content a little less seriously. They’re not always funny, but it’s a nice change of pace and certainly isn’t an unwelcome addition, keeping the writing light and away from the self-satisfied navel-gazing that some ‘business’ books descend into.

The examples he uses are, by and large, good ones, including Boeing versus Airbus, and even US foreign policy. If I had one criticism, there are some smaller examples, such as REDF and AGC (academy for Global Citizenship), that although being worthy, are not recognisable. It’s a small criticism, but some readers might want to see Malham’s obviously incisive mind to throw light on some more well-known brands (Nike versus Reebok, Apple versus the computer industry, Apple versus the music industry… you get the idea).

Within each example, the elements of the strategy are broken down, supporting his initial definition:

  • Purpose
  • Plan
  • Series of actions
  • Measureable goal

It’s clear and precise, which is exactly…

Why you should read it

Malham applies a light touch to the misconceptions around strategy. In a world full of weighty tomes on all matter of subjects, it’s a pleasure to pick up something that is as simple and concise as ‘I have a Strategy’. And the best thing about it is, because of its brevity, you really remember what you have read. It makes the book actionable.

And isn’t that the point?

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If you’re interested in finding out more about the book you can visit http://ihaveastrategy.com/, or alternatively you can follow Malham on Twitter or find out more about his work at Insight Labs.

Have you read the book? What did you think? Have you changed your behaviour or your approach to business strategy as a result? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Howell J. Malham Jr., InsightLabs, or Wiley (the publishers). I have not received any monetary incentives or payments, but they did let me keep the book, which was nice. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent.

From product to platform (why Hipster sucks and Contently doesn’t)

Contently versus Hipster

What makes a successful product? It’s the question that people all over the world try to answer, day after day, month after month, year after year. And not just in the technology sector. But at the moment, it’s the technology sector that should be looking hard at itself. The last two years have seen a few so called ‘products’ garner heavy investment from venture capitalists, when, in reality, there has been very little to invest in. Color raised $13 million in Series A funding in 2010, only to fail with its ‘revolutionary’ take on social photo sharing. Hipster had more technology press coverage than if the Pope got caught in a girl’s school gym locker, only to underwhelm massively on launch (yes, they were bought by AOL last week, but since when did AOL make something work?) Jason Freedman’s post from the 8th April highlights some of these issues, and this from the perspective of the start-up.

That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with failing. The ability to companies to ‘pivot‘ their products shows an agility and a will to succeed that is admirable; it is a lesson we should all learn. Both Color and Hipster have done this, but I think we should ask some serious questions when we see the amount of money invested in these products.

What does make a successful product?

Facebook logoThe true measure of success is to make the transition from product to platform, that’s where the real money is. On a day that saw Facebook ready itself for a May 2012 $5 billion IPO, we can see the real effect of this transition. Facebook has made the jump from a standalone social network – if that’s not a oxymoron – to a platform upon which many other brands and products depend. From social reading apps to gaming, Facebook facilitates sharing and communication; it provides the infrastructure behind the social in the same way as switches and routers are the infrastructure behind the internet.

They’re not alone in making this transition. Here are some other examples:

Amazon

Amazon started off selling books, plain and simple. But it has evolved into the shopping platform. The introduction of Amazon Marketplace, giving other sellers the ability to sell directly through Amazon to its userbase, was the turning point. Amazon no longer has to source all its goods – although it still does – as it can generate revenue from the transactions that flow through its shopping platform.

iTunes

Steve Jobs took a different approach when building iTunes – he started with the device, the iPod, and used it as the basis for building a closed infrastructure for purchasing music, TV and films. It’s not an open infrastructure in the way Amazon or Steam is, but due to the ubiquity of Apple devices (phones, music players, tablets, laptops or desktop), it doesn’t need to be. Now, being on iTunes is essential for content producers.

Steam

Steam started with Half-Life, the smash-hit game from Valve. Following the hug success of the first game and its expansions, the sequel was launched with the Steam platform baked in: installing Half-Life installed Steam. The reaction wasn’t great at the time, but it was a shrewd move. It’s large initial userbase meant that Valve could now use its platform to deliver games from other publishers, taking that all important percentage cut. This in turn has allowed Valve to innovate: the platform funds game development, including hits such as Portal 2, and allows new business model, such as the one found in Team Fortress 2. Team Fortress went free to play last year, but has its own in-game (in-Steam) marketplace where players can buy additional content (yet another revenue stream). In 2009, Steam was estimated to have 70% of the digital games distribution market.

Google

And of course there is Google. Google’s control of the search marketplace has enabled it to create the most powerful ad platform in the world.

Hipster and Contently

So why does Hipster suck? Simply because they went to market with something that can never make this transition. The ability to create postcards doesn’t make for a platform, just an interesting application of existing technologies. Hipster was built only to be a talent or IP sell – short-term.

And why doesn’t Contently? I believe that Contently has found a niche will allow it to transition – albeit in a limited fashion. In an environment where content is becoming more and more important, Contently is positioning itself as the glue between the content makers and content consumers. By putting writers in direct contact with publishers, they creating a commercial relationship that has legs. If they develop it in the right way – thinking of themselves as representing all groups of content producers, not just writers – they have the opportunity to be come a pivotal service in the new content economy. For me, that’s admirable.

Whether Hipster or Contently are successful in the long-run, only time will tell, but I know who I’m supporting.

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The Righteous Dead – now available on Kobo and Apple iTunes

The Righeous Dead

Just a really quick update to say that my debut novel – The Righteous Dead – is now available on both the Kobo and Apple iTunes stores. You can download the book from:

Kobo

Apple iTunes

If any of you who have read the book already enjoyed it, please do leave a review or a rating, it would be mightily appreciated.

Thanks,

James

Content is more important than design – do we need any more proof?

In April I wrote an article for Smashing Magazine entitled ‘Designing for the Future Web‘. In it I laid out my thoughts and opinions on how our experience of the web would change over the next few years, and how we would need to adapt our thinking around design and content. The main points of the article were:

  1. The number of devices connected to the internet would grow
  2. We would not be able to predict with any certainty where or how our sites would be seen
  3. To maintain a seamless customer experience, users should be able to have the same core experience regardless of the device, and switching from one to the other should present no challenge.
  4. To design for this we would need to concentrate on content structure first and visual design second, creating richer experiences for more capable devices.

Unsurprisingly, considering the general audience demographic of Smashing Magazine, this didn’t go down well with some of the readers. My favourite comments being:

i feel you my friend, as far from i know design is dead and designer swept away by the multitude of the wave. im thinking doing some admin/ Logistic work rather than be a creative. suck my balls corporate people – YR

And:

…. that’s Fking RETARDED, please get better authors on here…. – Nick

Yes, I have taken that last comment slightly out of context, but it tickled me, what can you do? (He was actually talking about my views on keeping JavaScript off of first generation mobile phones).

Well, I’ll ready myself for more of the same, because, without a doubt, content is more important than design.

Go on then, tell us why

The internet has always been a joined up medium. HTML was designed to link together documents to create a ‘web’ of content that could be searched and explored.

Since the days of CERN, the amount of content that has been created has grown in unspeakably large volumes, to the point where no human could ever possibly know where to find the content they need. So we developed search engines to help us with this. They crawled and indexed on our behalf so that we could bring information to us when we needed it. And this is the crux of it: the right information when we need it.

We’ve now reached a point where the ability to access information is driving changes in the products and services that are being developed, and in our own behaviour.

Product evolution

In iOS5, Safari has finally gained the same ‘Reader’ functionality that is available on the Mac OSX version. Pressing the ‘Reader’ button will strip all design from the page and publish only the content, resized and restyled. No fancy fonts, just Georgia. It’s like you’re reading a page from a paperback. If you like it, but don’t have the time to finish it, just save it for later.

Why have they introduced this? Because Apple understands that you go to sites to consume information. That content is valuable as a traffic driver, and in turn, a revenue generator. So the experience of reading that content on a mobile devices must be as clear and simple as possible.

Service evolution

The concept that information is always available, wherever we are, is defining a new set of services. Companies like FourSquare could not have existed a few years ago, but the broad availability of hardware-specific functionality such as geo-location has changed the game. Their partnership with Groupon to provide localised real-time deals starts to hit the mark, despite the issues with the Groupon IPO. These service are not about design, they are about content. Targeted content.

Behaviour change

The evolutions in products and services are in turn driving a behaviour change. Our ability to access information wherever we are is funnelling into the purchase process. We check prices and specification in-store at the point of purchase, we may even be swayed from one brand to another, or one shop to another, by the targeted offers we receive.  Targeted location-aware, identity-aware content is turning us into savvy consumers.

The result…

We’re finally able to make good on the marketer’s dream: the ability to deliver the right  content to the right person at the right time, driving sales and adding value to the purchasing process.

It’s clear, design is the enabler not the driver; users don’t need design, they need information that benefits them in a clear and tangible way.

So, sorry designers, but content is more important than design.

“So Sony, but that’s not allowed” said Apple

Machiavelli ponders his next move...
Apple - sorry, Machiavelli - ponders the next move... (Image credit to Crashworks)

Today, Apple confirmed that it had blocked a Sony eReader app from being released onto the App store. Nothing much that’s newsworthy there; if it wasn’t for one thing. The reason it was blocked was not that it was a poorly written or low quality app – although one more eBook reader isn’t exactly anything to get excited about – but that it allowed for direct purchases from the Sony store in app. Again, nothing new here, you can purchase ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle app too. But, there is a distinction.

In Amazon’s Kindle app you are thrown out of the app into the browser to make your purchase, whereas in the Sony app, as far as anyone knows, the experience is completely enclosed within the app itself.

Why’s that important?

The reason behind this is, unsurprisingly, money.

The in-app purchase model is extremely important for future revenue growth. Initially, revenues were fueled by the intense activity around the store generated from hardware purchases, as new iPhone and iPod owners bought and installed apps. Figures show that, on average, each iOS device contains 60 apps. At first these apps would have been paid apps, but as with all software, it wasn’t long before someone else came along offering a similar app at a lower price, pushing down prices until they eventually reached zero. Now, for every paid app there are many free variants of varying quality. So, even though there is natural growth within the marketplace, caused by the growing user-base of devices, the revenue generated per device is falling.

Step forward in-app purchases.

In-app purchases are the logical next step. If the means for app distribution has become stale, but the app itself remains vigorous, then you start to charge users for content – or in this case, additional content. This model has already been well-explored in the games industry, through the medium of DLC (DownLoadable Content) and in-game purchases. Platforms like Steam, created by Valve, have proved the worth of this model.  Zynga’s Cityville, one of the most popular games on Facebook, also uses this idea, allowing users to buy additional credits to use in game to build their city.

The company that controls the process of in-app purchases stands to make a lot of money, hence today’s decision. Apple wants to make sure that all purchases go through the app store so that it can make a percentage from every sale. It’s as simple and as Machiavellian as that. Direct purchases from other sites, ones out of its sphere of influence, are directly competitive. The only reason it hasn’t stopped the Kindle app is simply that it would be accused, not wrongly, of making decision on our behalf about which sites we visit. And at this point I think this would be a draconian step too far.

Apple isn’t only company looking at this. Facebook announced last week that Facebook Credits were going to become mandatory for apps on its platform, with an exchange rate being set for virtual currency transactions. This is exactly the same move being played out.

I may be wrong, as always I am open to your thoughts and criticisms, but after all, this is money we’re talking about.

Rise of the robot… well, Android to be specific…

Android will win the mobile OS war…

…there, I’ve said it. I love my iPhone, and so do millions of people worldwide, but it’s going to lose the mobile OS war.

Not because Android has the best user experience, it doesn’t. Not because it has the most apps, it doesn’t. But because Google understands one thing: it’s not quality but quantity that counts.

Android LogoAndroid is an open source Operating System (OS), meaning that anyone can pick it up, play with it, and deploy on their mobile device. As a result Samsung, Motorola and HTC are already onboard: any one of these three manufacturers is competition for Apple, let alone all three together. In units produced they’ll simply swamp Apple.

It’s exactly the same battle that Microsoft and Apple fought 20 years ago, and we know who won then. Microsoft’s product appealed to the largest number of developers who created a cornucopia of applications, from freeware to shareware to paid software, giving the end-user a real choice. Apple, whilst maintaining strict quality control, would only ever have a small developer community, and thus, less choice.

Apple should be flattered, in both cases the competition have followed their lead: Windows copied Mac OS and Android copied iOS (the iPhone’s operating system). But in the end, Apple, in their search for perfection, will again be overtaken by the mob.

There are predictions that Android will overtake iOS by 2012. I think it will be sooner.

Of course, there are other players in the market. Symbian still leads the pack, but is for all intents and purposes the sole domain of Nokia. Then there is Palm’s WebOS, which was recently bought by HP. WebOS has been in decline for a number of years, I don’t expect to see it make a recovery without significant investment. Finally there is RIM, known for the Blackberry. They have a very large corporate following, but are starting to lag behind because of the robust, but basic, user experience they offer. As with WebOS, it will take some investment to start to slow the rise of Android and iOS as serious business systems. Together, Android and iOS make up 25% of Smartphone sales, growing rapidly where their competitors are losing market share, but they also account for 65% of mobile page views and 67% of mobile internet and app usage; far outweighing the competition (see slide 12 of Morgan Stanley’s Internet Trends 2010 research for more information).

So what does this mean to Marketers?

Mobile is the marketplace of the future, there’s no doubt about that. In the short-term a fractured market is going to make things more complicated, with multiple major mobile operating systems to support, but long term it’s going to help as the shakedown of the players leads to a dominant set. iOS is the current ‘beau’, but the Android is moving. Preparing now and developing the ability to deliver slick and focused applications will pay dividends for marketers and clients alike. Get ready for the rise of the robot…