Last week I gave a talk at the 16th International XBRL Conference here in Vancouver. XBRL is an XML-based system for packing up companies’ financial information, and I think it’s real important. But its take-off has been kind of protracted and arduous. I was there as an Ambassador From the Web. Here’s what I told them.
Of course, this message will be old hat to most readers here, but they’re still new and strange to lots of people. And there are some things you just can’t say too often.
Centralization is a bug · Bill Joy: “Wherever you work, most of the smart people are somewhere else.”
The reason the Web worked so well is that nobody had to ask anybody’s permission to build a browser or a crawler or a search engine or an auction site or a dating service. Anything in the system that requires central authority, that’s something that holds you back.
Good-enough today beats complete next year · Gall’s Law: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”
There’s a perfect convergence storm, the pressures of quick community building coming from “Web 2.0” culture and the pressure of quick feature release coming from the Agile software-development community. Both of these are in some part motivated or facilitated by the Web.
If you wait long enough to ship something that solves the whole problem, nobody will care.
Getting started should be free. · Also, it shouldn’t take more than a few days.
How much did it cost you to start using Google or Flickr or Facebook or YouTube? The answer is always the same. If you want people to adopt anything in any scale, you have to remove barriers, and money is one.
Let’s imagine a scenario: There’s a smart young-ish person who has a basic understanding of business realities and accounting fiction oops methodology. Let’s call her “Emma”. Emma decides that people are underestimating the importance of collecting receivables in Value-Investment portfolios, and figures out a better way to compute a number that reflects that. She lives in Manitoba and doesn’t work for Goldman Sachs, but she can write CGI scripts. She has the idea on Wednesday and gets the script working next Monday, and one quarter later, either gives up on the idea or is incredibly rich. Both are good outcomes.
Convince the developers. Management will go along. · After all, it was developers who brought in PCs, Unix, Linux, Java, and the Web.
It’s hard for businesspeople to believe, but it’s true. CEOs and CIOs and CTOs don’t really guide technology futures; it’s people with bad hair and bad T-shirts. They’re good at finding things that Get Shit Done and figuring out ways to get them into production, even if that means going through the back door. If you’ve got something good, figure out a way to get it in front of them.
Try to lock them in and they’ll walk away · Put it another way: make it easy to walk away, and they’ll come back.
The first generation of commercial Web sites (except maybe Yahoo!) was managed by people who didn’t understand the Web, and they developed this deeply pernicious notion of “stickiness”; a successful site was one that was hard to leave. I can remember this horrible magazine ad from, I think, RealAudio, with an actual picture of people stuck to a sphere representing a Web site. Gack.
Google has been the best at turning this inside out; making it effortless to go away, so they come back. The lesson is obvious: anywhere in a Web site that there can usefully be a hyperlink to somewhere else, there should be.
Some popular tools will be Open Source · Which raises a question: would you rather provide the popular OSS tools, or compete with them?
Now, monetizing OSS is hard. But on the other hand, monetizing software is hard, always has been. And doing it while you’re competing with Open Source is especially hard.
To make money, give things away · Or as this pony-tailed executive I know says: “Monetization at the point of value.”
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who might do business with you, and those who never will. For the second group, you lose nothing by letting them grab your stuff for free.
The first group is more interesting. On one hand you have the risk that they’ll go ahead and use your product or service without ever paying a penny for licensing or support or indemnification or whatever. On the other, there’s the risk that if you make them pay up front, they’ll try something else that is free-to-try and it’ll be good enough.