Category: Events (page 2 of 5)

Scaling business in parallel

Companies and customers need to be able to deal with each other in two ways: as individuals and as groups.

As of today companies can deal with customers both ways. They can get personal with customers, and they can deal with customers en masse. Without the latter capability, mass marketing would not be possible.

Customers, on the other hand, can only deal with companies as individuals, one at a time. Dealing with companies as groups is still a challenge. Consider the way you engage companies in the marketplace, both online and off. Your dealings with companies, on the whole, are separate and sequential. Nothing wrong with that, but it lacks scale. Hence: opportunity.

We can arrive at that opportunity space by looking at company and personal dealings, each with two kinds of engagement circuits: serial and parallel.

Start with a small company, say a store with customers who line up at the counter. That store  deals with customers in a serial way:

business, serial

The customers come to the counter, one after another, in a series. Energy in the form of goods goes out, and money comes back.

As companies scale up in size, however, they’d rather deal with many customers in parallel rather than in series. A parallel circuit looks like this:

business, parallel

Here customers are dealt with as a group: many at once, and in the same way. This, in an extremely simplified form, is a diagram of mass marketing. While it is still possible for a company to deal with customers individually, the idea is to deal with as many customers as possible at once and in the same ways.

I use electronic symbols in those circuits because resistance (the zig-zag symbol) adds up in series, while it goes down in parallel. This too is a virtue of mass marketing. Thus one-to-many works very well, and has proven so ever since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

Over on the customers’ side, the marketplace on the whole looks like this:

customer, serial

The customer goes from one company to the next. This is not a problem on the vendors’ side, except to the degree that vendors would rather customers not shop elsewhere. This is why vendors come up with loyalty programs and other schemes to increase “switching costs” and to otherwise extract as much money and commitment as possible out of the customer.

But, from the customer’s side, it would also be cool if they could enjoy scale in parallel across many companies, like this:

In the physical world this is all but unthinkable. But the Internet makes it very thinkable, because the Net reduces nearly to zero the functional distance between any two entities, and presents an open space across which many connections can be made, at once if necessary, with few limits on the number or scope of possibilities. There is also no limit to the new forms of interaction that can happen here.

For example, a customer could scale in parallel by expressing demand to multiple vendors at the same time, or could change her contact information at once with many companies. In fact this is basically what VRM projects are about: scaling in parallel across many other entites. (Not just vendors, but also elected officials, government agencies, churches, clubs, and so on.)

It is easy to see how companies can feel threatened by this. For a century and a half we in business have made a virtue of “targeting,” “acquiring,” “capturing,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” customers. But think about the free market for a minute. Shouldn’t free customers be more valuable than captive ones? Wouldn’t it be better if customers and prospects could send many more, and better, signals to the marketplace, and to vendors as well, if they were capable of having their own native ways of dealing, consistently, across multiple vendors?

We have that now with email and other forms of messaging. But why stop there?

Naturally, it’s easy to ask, Could social media such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter provide some of what we need here? Maybe, but the problem is that they are not ours, and they don’t work for us — in the sense that they are accountable to us. They work for advertisers. Email, IM and browsing aren’t owned by anybody. They are also substitutable. For example, you can move your mail from Gmail to your own server or elsewhere if you like. Google doesn’t own email’s protocols. No browser company owns HTTP, HTML or any of the Web’s protocols.

The other problem with social solutions is that they’re not personal. And that’s the scale we’re talking about here: adding parallel capabilities to individuals. Sure, aggregation is possible, and a good thing. (And a number of VRM projects are of the aggregating-demand sort.) But the fallow ground is under our own feet. That’s where the biggest market opportunity is located. Also where, still, it is most ignored. Except, of course, here.

[Continued in VRM/CX + CRM/CX.]

Sovereign-source vs. administrative identity

You know who you are. So does the IRS, the DMV, and every Website you’ve ever made up a login and a password for — so it could “know” you.

But none of those entities really knows you. What they know is what the techies call a namespace. What they have isn’t your identity, but an identifier. What they call your identity is an administrative construction. It’s something that had to be made up so that bureaucracies and technical systems could do what they do.

Who you are isn’t just how you appear in the namespaces of administrative entities. Who you are isn’t even the name your parents gave you. It’s your single, unitary and sovereign self, which remains fixed at the source, no matter what you’re called.

While the names that matter most to you are the ones you were given at birth, and the ones you choose to be called by, neither is fixed. You can change your names without changing who you are.

Walt Whitman, the great author of Song of Myself, did not call himself Walter.

Yes, some names come about socially, but the choice to use them for ourselves is personal. Take my own example. The name my parents gave me was David. Many friends and relatives still call me David or Dave. Many more, however, call me Doc. That name is what remains of Doctor Dave, which is what I was called on the radio and in a humor column in North Carolina in the late ’70s. (That image above was how I appeared in the column. I was around 30 then. I actually look like that now.)

The nickname Doc came along after I started a company with two other guys, one of whom was named David. He and the other guy (the late great Ray Simone, who also drew the Doctor Dave image) called me Doctor Dave around the office, and with clients and suppliers. After awhile three syllables seemed too many, and they all just called me Doc.

But the nickname then was still context-dependent. People who knew me through business called me Doc. Everybody else called me David or Dave.

Then our company opened an office in Silicon Valley and I went out there prospecting, in the Fall of ’85. I knew almost nobody there, other than a few business contacts who called me Doc. But I wasn’t sure about keeping Doc as a nickname, since in a way I was starting over in a new palce. So, when I went to the Comdex conference in October of that year in Las Vegas, I had two badges made. One said David Searls and the other said Doc Searls. I was there four days and alternated between the two badges. Afterwards everybody remembered Doc and nobody remembered David. So I decided not to dump the nickname, and it stuck.

My point is that I still had control over what I chose to be called. I had sovereign source authority over that.

The problem I’m trying to surface here is that we need full respect for sovereign source identities, and identifiers, before we can solve the problem of highly fractured and incompatible administrative identifiers — a problem that has only become worse with the growth of the Web, where by design we are always the submissive and dependent party: calves to administrative cows.

MoxyTongue puts it this way:

You are a social ID-slave by default today.

I want a Human ID; a personal data construct with sovereign source authority.

Society uses a social construct to give me an Administrative ID.

The difference is origin.

I do not participate in Society primarily as an AdminID.

I am a Human ID by sovereign source authority, backed by American Rights that I know how to wield administratively and matriculate accordingly.

Structure yields results. Therefore, if we get the origin of ID correct, we can get the data administration framework oriented right.

A Human ID -led Society with embedded structural Rights and empowerments is the socio-economic game changer.

That is my NSTIC proposal. That’s my open proposal: a new data administration framework for identity.

Deployed across Society by opt-in opportunity structure.

Deployable across a global ecosystem by data design.

I see an ID as a door. The existence of the door is a social construct… a decision…

But once that decision is made, it is Human executed in every regard.

ID-slavery is what we have by administrative structure today. Our managerial intent in servicing it is flawed by design.

A Human ID comes with #vrm baked in. Such is the bi-directional transactional authority, multi-role nature of it.

And most important… we all approach the door on equal Terms… one door…infinite possibilities.

Self-driven socio-economic structure.

Call it whatever you want…it starts with your identity being structured right.

VRM for me grew out of two things:

  1. The unfinished work of Cluetrain. The ‘one clue to get’ there said “our reach exceeds your grasp.” But it didn’t, and it still doesn’t. Much of the grasp is administrative, and it has to do with defining, for us, who we are. That’s a bug, not a feature.
  2. The unfinished work of the digital identity development community, which I believe will remain unfinished as long as we try to solve one symptom with another one. The symptom we’re trying to solve is regarding administrative IDs as independent variables, rather than as dependent ones. Until we recognize that the only true independent variable is the soul of the independent self, we’ll continue to seek administrative solutions to the problem of administrative identity slavery.

Have you ever noticed that when somebody says “That’s a good question?” it’s usually because they don’t yet have an answer? That applies here. To the question of how we make sovereign-source identity the independent variable, I don’t have an answer. But I do want to work on it.

I’ll be doing that tomorrow at a meeting on identity in Silicon Valley. On May 1-3 in Mountain View we’ll be holding the Internet Identity Workshop again. It’s our fourteenth, and it’s a terrific unconference. If you care about this stuff, you should come. Your sovereign self would like that.

VRM at SXSW 2012

I just learned via Mark Scrimshire (@ekivemark) that a VRM panel — Are Free Customers Better Than Captive Ones? — has been accepted for the next SXSW. That means people voted for it, even though I had forgotten about it and didn’t promote it all. (Did anyone else? Dunno yet.) The location is listed as Startup Village – Downtown Austin Hilton, which I gather is this one.

In any case, it’s way cool, and I look forward to seeing lots of you there.

Meanwhile Mark has invited me (and therefore us) to participate in HealthCamp Boston in Fall 2012. Looking forward to that, too.

Signs of progress

The bottom line (literally) of this report on the Consumer Energy Summt in the UK is this piece of excellent news:

…energy companies have agreed to give consumers access to their data in electronic format as part of the government Midata programme., a VRM company, gives us a way to construct “trust frameworks” among ourselves. They have worked to make this as game-free as possible. Check it out.

Twitter search for VRM.

Singly and Locker Project getting mojo as Jeremie presents at Web 2.o, on Day One. (Too bad  Web 2.0 co-happens on the calendar with IIW.)

Smári McCarthyThe End of Artificial Scarcity. Required reading.

Phil Windley on personal event networks.

In a session at IIW: EventedAPIs vs./+ ActivityStreams. Bonus link.

ProgrammableWeb’s directory of APIs. will be discussed this afternoon at IIW. “Peer review for the Internet.”

John Battelle wishes Tapestry existed. Connecting the dots. Recalling the database of intentions. Mentioning Singly and Locker Project.

e-Patient Dave: Is “Gimme my damn data” coming to radiology at last??

Vetted as VRM companies:

Bonus links:

IIW dev job: ListenLog

Craig Burton has a nice tutorial on developing VRM applications, using ListenLog as both an example and a challenge for next week at IIW.

ListenLog is the brainchild of Keith Hopper and the collaborative result of efforts by folks from NPR, PRX and other public radio institutions, as well as the Berkman Center and volunteers from the VRM community. It’s a form of self-tracking (see The Quantified Self for more on what that’s about), and also part of a larger effort that includes EmanciPay.

You’ll already find it on the Public Radio Player for iPhone, which is free and a great app. If you’re using an iPhone, download it, then go (as the tutorial says) to the settings and turn on logging. What you’ll have is your own growing pile of personal data, that you control. (No, it’s not yet in your all-purpose personal data store, locker or vault, but that’s another step and we can talk about that too. It is, for sure, in your Personal Data Ecosystem.)

Here’s where the tutorial pauses, for now:

to be done

One of our jobs next week is fulfilling those needs. This is light-duty hacking of the sort we can do around a table in one afternoon. (For those of us who can hack. Alas, the only code I know is Morse.)

Here’s where moving forward on this will lead:

  1. Better knowledge for listeners about what they actually value.
  2. Necessary groundwork for EmanciPay, which is a new listener-driven business model for public radio — and for everything else thats available for free but worth more than that.
  3. More money for public radio (because the old models won’t go away).
  4. More money for every business that produces free goods that are worth more than that. (For example music, newspapers, magazines, blogs and so on.)
  5. Experience and modeling for other similar projects.

Should be fun work.

Bonus thought: This might also work as something that ties in with the Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Challenge. (Keith will be there, I think.) Hey, let’s connect the two. Should be fun. Just tweeted this as well.

Personal leverage for personal data

VRM is starting to snowball. You can see it in the Twitter scroll there on the right, and in Twitter searches for #VRM. Gaining velocity lately is personal data. To look down that vector, I’ll connect several links.

The first is Show Us the Data. (It’s Ours, After All), by Richard H. Thaler in the . The gist:

The collection and dissemination of this information raises a host of privacy issues, of course, and the bipartisan team of Senators John Kerry and John McCain has proposed what it is calling the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights to deal with many of them. Protecting our privacy is important, but the senators’ approach doesn’t tackle a broader issue: It doesn’t include the right to access data about ourselves. Not only should our data be secure; it should also be available for us to use for our own purposes. After all, it is our data.

Here is a guiding principle: If a business collects data on consumers electronically, it should provide them with a version of that data that is easy to download and export to another Web site. Think of it this way: you have lent the company your data, and you’d like a copy for your own use.

This month in Britain, the government announced an initiative along these lines called “mydata.” (I was an adviser on this project.) Although British law already requires companies to provide consumers with usage information, this program is aimed at providing the data in a computer-friendly way. The government is working with several leading banks, credit card issuers, mobile calling providers and retailers to get things started.

Here’s the long-form .pdf on mydata. What’s most important about it, especially for U.S. domestic purposes, is that its case is not just for protective legislation to keep customers safe from abuse by big bad companies, but for empowering customers in the marketplace. (When you dig into his work you see that this is Thaler’s case as well.) In this respect, mydata is a very VRM-ish move. But then, the U.K. government has been pro-VRM for awhile now. (Somewhere around here I have a link to a speech by a U.K. official that names VRM specifically. If it shows up, I’ll put it here.)

The good people at Ctrl-SHIFT, a U.K. company that’s highly active in the VRM movement, explains the mydata initiative:

The announcement is a first on two fronts:

1) Its ‘mydata’ programme encourages companies to release data they hold about individuals back to them, so that they can use this data for their own purposes. This is the first major Government initiative, globally, towards a changed personal data consensus: personal data is a personal asset, and individuals should have the right and ability to manage and use this asset to pursue their own goals.

2) The Government programme is also the first official recognition that there is a market for decision-making services (or ‘choice tools’ in Government parlance) that operates independently of existing markets for products and services – the market for what we call Personal Information Management Services (PIMS).

Want to know more?

Do you want to join your peers in debating this initiative and related issues? If so, then join our new Explorers Club on May 12 (in central London). It’s got a packed agenda including slots on both the Government’s new mydata initiative and on PIMS.

They also have a briefing paper on the topic.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. we’ve been  focused more on prophylaxis than empowerment, at least at the federal level. This is a problem with our obsession with privacy as an issue in itself. Focus on privacy alone, and conversation inevitably veers toward policy. What new laws and regulations do we need to protect ourselves? we ask. That may be a good question, but it ignores answers that are already coming from the marketplace — answers that see today’s privacy problems as secondary effects of market dysfunction, and which pursue opportunities that marginalize and obsolete today’s privacy-threatening business practices.

Rex Hammock deals with this in his post, VRM: I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours, which begins with a response to the same NYTimes piece:

…the examples of initiatives the writer points to may lead the reader to believe that government-led initiatives are the best route to take. That may be the best route one day, if companies don’t, themselves, join in the types of initiatives Project VRM is trying to foster.

However, it is important to recognize there are lots of startups, non-profits, academic and open source / grassroots (note: where I’ll place my bets) and even big-company initiatives in this arena, as well. It is also important to note that this issue is not something that sprang forth last week: For as long as I can remember, there have been those who embrace the internet, but who believe relationships (and identity) should belong to the users and buyers, not just hosts and sellers.

I will be writing more on this topic in the future. I just wanted to post this to alert people that the next big thing is not going to be about what others are doing to collect your data and lock you into their data-protectorates. The next big thing is going to be about you having better ways to access and use the relationships and data that belong to you, in ways that recognizes that markets are conversations — not plantations.

That last link is mine, pointing to an earlier post that unpacks the agricultural metaphor behind Rex’s point.

In vrm, fourth party and the empowered consumer, Gam Das gives a terrific example of VRM’s potential for radically improving the way markets work:

What appears to be missing is a service where vendors (manufacturers and retailers) are able to locate individuals looking for products that they might supply. Service Magic and Elance allow seekers to find providers in the Service space, yet nothing really exists yet in the consumer-product space.

vrm and the fourth party

The Fourth Party is a concept that has emerged from the VRM movement – it proposes a fourth party that acts on behalf of the Customer in the same way that a Third Party acts on behalf of the Vendor. If the Vendors are the hotel chains, airlines and car rental companies, then the third parties are ExpediaOrbitz andTravelocity and a fourth party might be the “agent” that negotiates with the travel aggregators to find the best deal.

The advantages to the customer of a four party system are huge and easily understandable. Booking my recent trip to Las Vegas involved a large number of parameters (flight times, airline options, hotel locations and star ratings, car rental companies and car sizes and above all the price parameters) – booking the trip took 3 hours and ended up with a deal for flight and hotel from Expedia and car from Hotwire. If there had been a service to whom I could have sent all the parameters and have them take care of it, then I would have paid for that and they would have probably got me a better deal if they do it all the time.

But wait… I remember a service like that from when I was a child, I think we called it a ‘Travel Agent’. But didn’t they become extinct a few years ago? Perhaps it’s time for them to re-emerge, but not only booking travel, but also handling all sorts of complex requirements, particularly bundles of goods and services. If enough people were able to publish their requests for things and there was a fee involved in finding a solution, a human outsource agent model is likely to emerge – something like the Dedicated Assistant service.

The fourth party also gets around the problem faced by Aggregators (such asKelkoo and Nextag) – to ensure that the consumer is presented with all the offers available. With a fourth party, their value will be to ensure this.

the future state

Once this starts to scale and requests are in millions and billions, then eventually the dedicated assistants will need to be augmented with more automated service that respond faster and are perhaps able to bid at auctions or take advantage of limited time / quantity deals, then my belief is that we will see Agent Technology doing our bidding online. I’ll be watching this space closely for many reasons.

Fourth parties are just one of the many VRM topics being tee’d up for IIW in Mountain View next week. It’s also one of the reasons why for the first time we’re inviting investors along with developers, journalists and other usual suspects. (The Ctrl-SHIFT people and Gam will be there, by the way, as will I.)

By the way, I wish I had involved myself in the ‘s this week (hard to do everything while writing a book), because (one of those potential IIW topics, above) would have been a great candidate for the new business model contest. (It got through two rounds of the Knight News Challenge, for whatever that’s worth.) In any case, I highly recommend reading for the event. Here’s an idea to keep in mind: Once customers start driving the music industry bus, that industry will be much bigger than it ever was when the labels drove the thing.

And to loop back to the topic of this post, note the collection of entities in the Personal Data Ecosystem, which will also be well-represented at IIW next week.

Prepping for IIW

IIWCode talks, talk walksCraig Burton just said in a phone conversation about IIW #12, which is coming up in Mountain View in the first week of May: the week after next. I like the spirit of that statement. Lots of VRM and related development efforts will be present there. Same goes for lots of APIs, and opportunities to improve them and hook them together. So we should see some good hacking done there and shown off as well.

Toward the API side of that, Craig points us to Punctuated Equilibrium, Celestial Navigation, and APIs, a slide deck by Sam Ramji (@sramji), Dan Jacobson (@daniel_jacobson) and Michael Hart (@michaelhart). Sam and Michael are both at Apigee . Michael worked on the Netflix API. And Dan came to Netflix after doing great work on NPR’s excellent API.  Sam gave a great talk along the same lines a few weeks back at Kynetx’ Impact 2011 conference. (Photos start here. My own slides are here.) I hope one or more of those guys can come down, show off what they’re doing and help us out.

I know there will be other newcomers to IIW, though I don’t want to say who yet. (Let’s let that be a pleasant surprise.) What I know is that they’ll bring work they’re doing, and expect to contribute and not just to hang out and talk about stuff. Obviously, we need to talk. In fact, IIW is home to more productive talking than I’ve ever heard at any other conference of any kind, thanks to its open space-sytle format, and Kaliya Hamlin‘s expert facilitation. (Speaking of which, here’s Kaliya’s post about possible IIW topics.)

IIW has been focused on identity for the duration (that’s been its middle name). Identity is still a big issue — maybe bigger than ever — but the contexts have been changing, especially around a core VRM concern: growing independence and capacity for action and interaction by individuals, especially in respect to data we each either gather for ourselves or share with others. This is what the Personal Data Ecosystem (of which VRM plays a role) is all about. On deck at IIW will be many approaches, technologies, protocols and other other developments toward personal data control and sharing. To visit a few, check the last two links.

Craig suggests that the growing connections between individuals and institutions (corporate or otherwise), especially through APIs, constitutes a new form of infrastructure. And, like me, he thinks that infrastructure itself needs to be visited as a topic, since we’ll be making more and more of it ourselves, and in cooperation with others. So, that’s a topic too.

Personally, I think we’re at the end of the Web 2.0 era and at the start of something less numeral and far more profound. Louis Gray calls it the Third Wave of the Web: one that’s uniquely personal. I agree. From the corporate side, this looks like personalization. But that’s not enough. In fact, personalization without personal independence is just more of the same, but with a smaller bull’s eye. We need to be the same independent, sovereign, autonomous human beings on the Net that we are in the physical world. I wrote about the problem with the current (mostly corporate and silo’d) social media matrix in A Sense of Bewronging.

What I say there, and have said many times before, is that we’re nearing the end of a bubble period, especially around “social” you-name-it, and its defaulted business model: advertising. I spoke about this a bit at the IAB (Internet Advertising Board) Annual Leadership meeting in Palm Springs, on February 28. The show’s theme was “The People vs. Data”, and I was joined in conversation on stage with John Battelle (at his invitation, good man). The title of the meeting (with >1000 attending, and in the room) was “Data, Privacy and Control — Unpacking the Role of the Consumer in the Media and Marketing Ecosystem.” John and I had some interesting back-and-forths on our blogs (see here), and carried the same exchange forward in front of many hundreds of folks in the very hot online advertising business. A short video hunk of the conversation is here on YouTube. I have other notes, which I’ll put up after I get back from my current trip. Meanwhile, many open tabs need to be closed, so here is a rundown, in no particular order:

I’ll add more later in two new posts, one about a VRM vertical, the other about a VRM horizontal. The vertical is health care. The horizontal is legal (because it cuts across everything). I suppose identity does too, but we just covered that.

Volunteer some below as well.

Fourth parties and VRM

One of my oldest jokes (from back when I used to write them) was “With the two party system you can clean up one while you’re having the other.” Well, I kind of raised the ante with VRM and the Four Party System, almost exactly two years ago. The idea was to label a category of service that would work mostly for customers.

Since then fourth party has started to come into use, for example in this post by . Naturally, folks in standing industries, such as banking, have wondered if they might either be fourth parties, or might offer fourth party services. So, questions about meanings and distinctions come up. For example, does (or should) fourth party change the meaning of third party, which is the most commonly used phrase of the four, at least on the Web:

  1. ” = 7,400,000 results
  2. = 1,100,000 results
  3. = 115,000,000 results
  4. = 496,000 results

Of course, those include results for political parties and other kinds of entities that have nothing to do with business. But you see some of the story here. Third party is a familiar term, at least in business.

In fact there is no single or simple meaning for third party. Wikipedia has seventeen different entries for third party, including eight in business. In the tech world, third party most commonly modifies application or developer, and in general augments or accessorizes a platform. The top tech result for #3 above is Twitter tells third party devs to stop making Twitter client apps. And lately online advertisers (or some of them) are tarring the third party label a bit. For example, the Wall Street Journal’s “” series explores secretive and intrusive tracking of users. One sample sentence: “The most intrusive monitoring comes from what are known in the business as ‘third party’ tracking files.” They also call the sites “first parties.”

West’s Ecyclopedia of Law (), says this:

A generic legal term for any individual who does not have a direct connection with a legal transaction but who might be affected by it.

third-party beneficiary is an individual for whose benefit a contract is created even though that person is a stranger to both the agreement and the consideration. Such an individual can usually bring suit to enforce the contract or promise made for his or her benefit.

third-party action is another name for the procedural device of , which is used in a civil action by a defendant who wants to bring a third party into a lawsuit because that party will ultimately be liable for all, or part of, the damages that may be awarded to the plaintiff.

So it gets complicated. But we can make it simple by saying a third party in general no loyalty to either of the first two parties, even if it is commonly associated more with sellers than buyers. The quality of detachment is what matters most.

When the fourth party idea came to me in the first place, I was thinking about voice. That is, first party would be like the first person voice (I, me, mine, ours), while second party would be like the second person singular voice (you, yours), and third party would be like the third person singular voice (he, she, it, them, theirs). I thought fourth party would be defined most clearly as “a third party for the customer.”

What matters most is coming to, and guiding, understandings of fourth parties and what they do, and what makes them distinctive, as customers (in their first party role) gain more tools, independence and power in the marketplace.

Toward that end I posted something on the ProjectVRM list this morning. posted Fourth parties are agents. Third parties aren’t necessarily in response. It’s a long and thoughtful piece, based on his own work in and around the topic over the last several years. In it he corrects some of what I said in my email to the list, and I’m cool with that. His bottom lines:

In every platform, there are third parties who create apps that run on the platform. Microsoft built Windows, but Adobe built Photoshop. Apple built the iPhone, but Skype built Skype.  For platforms to be successful, they necessarily bring in 3rd party developers to build on top of the platform. These developers aren’t necessarily working on behalf of the platform provider, and it would be a miscarriage of alignment to claim that they are. They are out for themselves, usually by providing unique value to the end user. Some new widget that makes live better.

This becomes even more true when you are dealing with open platforms, or what I called Level 4 Platforms (building on Marc Andreeson’s The 3 Platforms You Meet on the Internet). In open platforms, you actually have 3rd parties helping contribute to the code base of the platform itself.  Netscape adds tables to HTML. Microsoft adds the <marquee> tag.  But here, it is even crazier to imagine that these 3rd parties are acting on behalf of the platform party… because there really isn’t a platform party. Nobody owns the Internet.

I think the right way to think about 4th Parties is that they have a fiduciary responsibility to the 1st party and 3rd parties may or may not.

Fourth Parties answer to the 1st party.

3rd Parties may not answer to anyone.

Platforms themselves are also changing. In many cases what matters most about them is not the floor they put under whole environments (which they might be said to “own” in some but not all cases), but the connections they make outward through APIs. For example, provides a handy Web service API for building apps. Is it a platform? Or is it something that requires another metaphor? I’m not sure.

Twilio is pitched mostly to companies, but as a user I can build on Twilio as well. In fact, I can build stuff that uses lots of APIs.

And what happens when we each have our own APIs — that is, when we have our own platforms (or tool boxes, or whatever) for all kinds of VRM stuff? Such as, for sending personal RFPs out to trusted second, third and fourth parties? Or, when our trusted fourth parties do the sending for us (or just saying to second and third parties, “yeah, this person is for real and can be trusted”). The sky is wide open on this stuff. It’s about connecting and relating now. Not just capturing and milking.

By the way, we’ll be talking about this and much more at the next IIW. Joe will be there, along with many other VRM developers. Come influence us — and your own future as a self-empowered customer in the open marketplace.

The Customer Vector

In Call for startup: Easy domain editing, the first in a series of blog posts in which  lays out opportunities for startups, he says this:

In all cases, these startups will have a business model that revolves around an old-fashioned idea that will, imho, once again become fashionable — the customer. People pay the company for a service they provide. This has all kinds of good side-effects. We’ll see customer-driven products, ones designed to serve users, instead of some vague idea of a marketer that can sell things to the users. It will foster competition to serve users. It will help the economy straighten itself out and start creating products with obvious utility.

The italics and boldface are mine. I emphasize them because this is what VRM has been about for the duration. And it isn’t coincidental, because Dave’s work and thinking have been an influence on mine since I first ran into Dave in the booth at Comdex in Atlanta, circa 1982 (when Think Tank ran on the Apple II, as I recall).

I think at least some of the start-ups Dave’s talking about here fall into a category we’ve been calling . Put simply, fourth parties relate to customers the way third parties relate to larger parties on the vendors’ side. They are assistants, aligned with the the intentions of the customer. Money coming from the customer helps with that alignment. One problem we have right now, especially in the advertising-funded collection of companies on the Web, is that the customer — you and me — pay nothing directly for the services offered. Instead we (or assumptions about us) are what’s sold to the advertisers.

In this respect much of the commercial Web shares a problem that commercial broadcasing has had since the beginning: their customers and their consumers are different populations. For most of its services (search, Gmail, etc.) Google has no more of a direct economic (i.e. paid) relationship with you than does a commercial radio station. But rather than go down the rat-hole of what’s wrong (or not yet right) about the commercial Web, let’s look at what kinds of businesses might operate in the space Dave is laying out: the one where customers do the driving.

First, let’s go back three years to , by (who is sitting next to me here at ). The pull quote:

VRM… is about starting with the user and creating value on their behalf, first. We do that specifically by focusing on commercial transactions and by enabling mutually beneficial relationships. It isn’t about moving the power from Vendors to Individuals, it is about creating new efficiencies and new value points across the ecosystem and marketplace that improve the situation for everyone.

With VRM, the value begins with the individual. The rest is implementation.

By focusing directly on the point of value for the user, I believe we can create more value, more quickly than trying a forensics approach on deeper, larger, data sets. The user is the natural point of integration for any number of services.

Right now there are more new companies and development groups in this space than I can begin to count, and many more have showed up in the past two weeks, at in Austin, at in Zurich and now at Kynetx Impact in Salt Lake City. In fact I’m in a room full of them here. Some of us are talking about the stir that one VRM developer, Connect.Me, made at SXSW, getting more than 60 thousand new users in a matter of hours. All Things Digital has a good write-up and video on the whole thing, featuring an interview with Drummond Reed, who has been doing VRM development since before the beginning. My own case for Connect.Me is simple: it’s safe single sign-on, or SSSO. Think Facebook Connect without Facebook. No personal data spillage. No hidden games. No bait for advertisers. (For more on how all that works, see Joe Andrieu’s

So, in no particular order (or, in the order of the business cards I’ve saved and browser tabs I’ve kept open), here are just some of the outfits I’ve encountered recently:

  • (“…develops specifications for a secure, scalable, standards-based way to establish universal health addressing and transport for participants (including providers, laboratories, hospitals, pharmacies and patients) to send encrypted health information directly to known, trusted recipients over the Internet”)
  • (“Benefit from the digital data you create every day.”)
  • (“your collection of the products you love”)
  • (“A New Dawn for Federated Identity… Achieve SSO with internal and external websites”)
  • (“More than a digital filing cabinet, it’s ONE place to store family memories and householdl information…”)
  • (“The Social Exchange where you Own, Control and Monetize your Digital Life”)
  • (“The global provider of secure financial messaging services”)
  • (“It’s almost here. We’ll be ready to lift the covers in 20110325040000. “We’re talking a full work platform with messaging, calendars…”)
  • (“Where everything has a price.”)
  • (The store. You’ve been there.)

And that’s on top of all the other VRM projects and companies listed here.

We’re not talking here about pure VRM efforts, but about organizations with (or about) which I’ve had VRM conversations, and are interested either in participating in VRM development or seeing where it goes.

What they all understand is that power is growing on the customer side, and that this growing power is native. That is, personal. It’s natural to talk about “shifts” in power, as if power is always balanced and zero sum. But this is different. What we have is new work on tools that make customers independent and better able to interact in the networked world.

Here at Kynetx Impact I’m going to give a brief keynote tonight (right ahead of himself), in which I’ll bring up three more companies that are front-burner for me right now, because I’ll be meeting with them and talking seriously about VRM in the next few weeks.

The first is . I’ll be at for the whole show and will speak there too. A lot of what we talked about at VRM+CRM 2010 will be on the table there, plus much more.

The second is, and the third is . I’ll be meeting with both in Minneapolis right after SugarCon.

We are now at the point in history when development and zeitgeist converge. The Social era is ending and the Personal era is beginning. makes it possible. This is the Web that is both real-time and interactive at the human level: where the supply follows and responds to personal demand and other economic signals, in secure and safe ways, outside the old client-server-based system of submissive and dominant parties, of cookies for clients and guesswork by servers, that has dominated e-commerce for 1.5 decades.

In the personal era, on the Live Web, individuals will be in charge of the contexts and conditions in which their personal data — their intentions especially — are shared with sellers, either directly or with the help of fourth parties.

This is where an enormous amount of development will bloom, and economic activity will follow.

Our job in the VRM community is to do that development, and to help each other make our cases to all those who are interested. My specific request is for help with the three parties named above. Others will step up, but those three at the front of my own queue, right now.

How customers matter more than data about them

When I ran across Inc.‘s The 5 Habits of Quality Focused Companies, I was intrigued, because I thought maximizing personal contact with customers would be one of the five. Instead the closest Inc. came was this:

2. They collect and analyze data.

Collecting data is more common than ever, particularly with the advent of Web analytics. But companies that focus on quality have long stood out thanks to their passion for data. Moreover, the metrics they track go above and beyond either web or financial information. For example, Inc.’s John Case wrote a profile of Granite Rock, a phenomenally successful quarry (yes, quarry) in 1992. Customer surveys played a major role in the company’s governing philosophy, with information collected at all kinds of intervals, and results shared widely among the quarry’s 400 workers. “The role of managers,” Granite Rock CEO Bruce Woolpert told Case, “is to make sure there’s a flood of information coming into the company.” Would you say that this was true in your business?

Dig Deeper: How to Use Online Tools for Customer Surveys

That piece begins, “If you’re truly willing to listen to — and act on — feedback, here’s the way to do it right”. But they’re not talking about listening to individual human beings. Instead they’re talking about listening to what surveys say:

In the Internet age, customer feedback is only a click away. Online surveys are one of the best ways to solicit it. Done right, online surveys can help you more effectively listen to customers and make informed business decisions.

But before you design and launch a survey, think about this: are you, or is your company, willing to act on the insight a survey generates? In short: Can your company handle the truth?

That’s nice as far as it goes. But it only goes to the aggregate, even in “social” settings:

Another issue that may come into play is how you intend to deliver the survey. If you want to know how satisfied your existing customers are, you may already have their e-mail addresses on file from previous interactions so you may want to send them an e-mail with a link to an online survey. To reach this population, you may also decide to have a survey on your website for existing customers to access.

Another growing option, Terry says, is to use your business’ Facebook fans or Twitter subscribers as a potential survey population by using online survey tools that integrate with social media. “A lot of businesses have realized that it’s cheap and efficient to interact with customers online using social media,” he says. “Increasingly a lot of customers spending time online and specifically in social media channels. There are good survey opportunities with people who have been following your business online. You want to ask questions where your customers are, meaning you can post a survey to Facebook or send it via Twitter.”

What none of this touches is a problem all surveys have, by design: they’re not personal. As I explained in Why surveys suck,

They tend to be as impersonal and non-conversational as a TV signal — even when a human being is conducting the survey in person. They always see me as part of a group rather than as an individual (which is how each of us feels our needs). They always make assumptions (about me, about what I might want, about what I belong to) that range from slightly-off to outright-wrong. And they always lead to conclusions that represent neither me nor the population in which I am being grouped.

I don’t doubt or deny that surveys do a lot of good. But only in the context of a marketplace where vendors alone bear the full responsibility for relating to customers. Once we, as customers, get tools that let us educate vendors personally, many surveys will become unnecessary. One way we can gauge the success of VRM is by watching the number of surveys decline.

Thought: Some of the best survey questions are the ones that never get asked because sales and marketing impulses override knowledge that the customer would certainly say “no”.

Of course surveys can be very helpful, for all the reasons Inc. gives. But even when they’re necessary, surveys are insufficient in a world where customers are increasingly well-equipped and independent. Surveys also risk rationalizing more of what Umair Haque calls “thin value,” while also blinding companies to “thick value.”

As Umair explains in this talk, thin value is “inauthentic, brittle and unsustainable.” Surveys risk thinness of the first sort, because they are at best authentic only to aggregate samples. They can’t be authentic in respect to individuals, except when they provide a way for individuals to add what they might like, and to provide their name and contact information on an opt-in basis. But even in those cases, the value of individual input is usually external to the main purpose of the survey, which is to produce numbers — not conversations.

In her Venure Beat review of Umair’s new book, The New Capitalist Manifesto: Driving a Disruptively Better Business (Harvard Business Press, 2011), Ciara Byrne compresses his thick value case nicely:

He defines “thick value” as value which is authentic, in that it is not created at someone else’s expense but creates value for others, meaningful in that it matters in human terms and sustainable by not being bubble-driven or built on the destruction of resources. Think Etsy rather than Gap or Innocent Drinks rather than Coca-Cola.

I submit that one good way to find thick value is to get personal with customers. Not with more systems for “managing” customers, or investing in “relationships” that resemble the dairy cattle business more than anything human. Instead, let them get truly personal with you.

“Social” whatever alone won’t cut it. To explain, I’ll turn the blog’s floor over to Jonathan Yarmis, writing first about “social ennui” and then VRM:

I think a state of “social ennui” is setting in.  For those of you who are unilingual, ennui is French for “boredom.”  Gartner would call this phenomenon the “trough of disillusionment.”  Everyone’s on the social media bandwagon now.  You’ve got 1,000 Facebook friends, you’re a social media consultant.  Social media will solve disease, global warming, make us all happier, richer and more content.  Better looking, too.  People are way overpromising and underdelivering.  But, as I’ve observed earlier in this blog, that’s the nature of technological change.  We overstate the impact and benefits in the short-term.  God, is that going on here!  But interestingly, we understate the impact and change in the medium-term.  And I again fully expect that to be the case with “social media.”

Social media is in the still very early stages of something that’s going to end up flipping relationships and changing others.  No, we’re not going to throw out everything we know.  The new rarely ever does that.  Yes, we still ride horses.  But the advent of the automobile changed what and how we use horses…

But there’s more.  Social media changes “public relations” in profound fashion.  Not only do you have a direct path to the public, and your customers and competitors also have those same direct paths, your paths to the “influencers” have been augmented in significant ways, and new influencers have emerged who influence both traditional influencers and your buying public.  Yeah, that’s a lot of change.  I won’t get into the whole social media “you’ve got to be part of the conversation” discussion here.  First, that’s a whole other post.  Second, if I hear one more person say “you’ve got to be part of the conversation,” I’m going to slap them.  That’s exactly why we’re suffering from social ennui.  Lastly, the whole discussion is already over-discussed.  You don’t need yet another perspective, however nuanced, from me.

But we still haven’t scratched the surface of the change to come.  Longer term, I am fiercely interested in the emerging discipline known as VRM.  Vendor relationship management.  Its most powerful advocate is Doc Searls, he of the Cluetrain Manifesto(can you believe that was almost 12 years ago?!).  I actually arrived at the concept independently.  I was asked a few years ago to do a presentation on Social CRM.  I talked a little about how “social” provides new insights into the customer relationship equation, providing new insights previously unavailable.  I went on that putting “social” in front of everything reminded me of Internet 1.0 when we put an “e” in front of everything.  eBusiness.  eMarketing.  eThis.  eThat. Until we realize the distinction was no longer differentiating and in fact no longer valid.  (It’s interesting.  Even my spell-checker wants to flag eBusiness as a typo.)  It was business.  It was marketing.  And so ultimately SCRM is just the next iteration of CRM.  But, I hypothesized, the big change came when users flipped the relationship and started managing their vendor relationships the same way the vendors manage their relationships with us.  SCRM leads to VRM.  When after the presentation, someone told me about existing early thinking about VRM, I was both disappointed (I thought I was about to invent my first category) and thrilled (there’s momentum!!).  As an analyst, this is an important moment.  We can do all the theorizing we want but unless someone’s actually building this stuff, it’s not terribly interesting.

While VRM is far from mainstream now (for many, this will be the first time you’ve even heard of the notion), there’s an interesting community growing up around it and some large retailers are dabbling and monitoring.  The concept here is twofold.  One, the big vision for the field, is that tools will be developed that will enable customers to manage their relationships with vendors and that the relationship is ultimately owned by the customer, not the vendor.  CRM will never give a full view of the customer because the customer deals with multiple channels and providers.  VRM is the only way that picture can be developed…and customers will share that view with vendors who offer value in return.  At its most extreme, imagine an easy-to-create-and-manage iRFP (individual request-for-proposal) process.  Yes, it’s hard to imagine and even harder to do but if done, wildly powerful.  The more selfish view for retailers, as I heard another friend express to a major retailer, “what if you knew what a customer was looking for when they walked in your store.  What if you really knew?”  Today, at best you’re making a guess based on past purchase patterns, incentives you’ve provided, etc.  But if you know the totality of what they were looking for, you could sell solutions, not products.  You could upsell.  You could target…

You might argue that consumers are lazy and that they don’t want to manage their relationships.  OK, you’ve got me there.  You’re right.  This is the real stumbling block.  The tools had better be REAL easy to use with REAL economic value in exchange for participation.  This will require serious software work that assembles what consumers are already doing with social media, parsing and assembling it and making reasonable suggestions and solutions out of our piecemeal, bottom’s-up approach to information sharing.

There are already real players in this space.  Look at Kynetx.  I pick them not because they’re totally on point with VRM, although they can and will get there.  I pick them not because they’re necessarily the best solution out there; I haven’t spent enough time looking at vendors to make a Magic Quadrant.  I pick them because my old friend and foil, Craig Burton (VP of Marketing for Novell, when Novell owned PC networking 23 years ago) told me about them a year ago and brought me in to meet them.  The problems they’re trying to solve are real and exciting, and great for us users.

VRM is the next big thing.  Even as social ennui sets in and we wonder what all the hype was about, there’s real change coming around the corner.  This isn’t old wine in new bottles, or at least it won’t be.  If I were a mainstream marketer, I might take the old wine position for now.  I wouldn’t want to try and sell my company on this from the inside right now.  They’d look at your strangely.  (Well, they probably already do that.)  But in my role, as outside provocateur, I’m going to yelling this one louder and louder.  A decade ago, we were yelling that the Internet was going to change everything. and Webvan died.  The naysayers snickered.  And then we went and changed everything.  We’re going to do it again.  Come along for the ride.

Two events are coming where you can saddle up. The first is Kynetx Impact, March 22-23, near Salt Lake City, Utah. The second is IIW, May 3-5 in Mountain View, California. (Disclosures: I consult Kynetx and I co-organize IIW.) Developers working on VRM tools will be there. If you want to help customers help you — directly and personally — these events are the place to be. You don’t need a survey to tell you that, either.

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