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Posted on October 29, 2012 by Dan Sweet

The Death of the Expert = Competitive Advantage

The “death of the expert” is one of the most fascinating themes I find myself going back to time and again in conversation with peers.  Let me tell you why I think this is a macro-trend that is worth taking a moment to understand.

It used to be that “expertise”, once developed, assured one of a secure place in the world.  Firms employed experts and thrived.  Those that failed to attract or retain the experts saw their competitive advantage slowly slip away.  That old equation no longer holds for the following reasons:

1.  Expertise is now more broadly attainable than ever before.
2.  Expertise is less easy for individual companies to “own”.
3.  The barriers to applying serious expertise to business challenges have never been lower.

Many companies remain unaware of these changes and, as a result, are leaving massive amounts of competitive advantage on the table.

Let’s break down the three points above in more detail.

1.  Expertise is now more broadly attainable than ever before.

If you don’t know what a MOOC is, you need to click through to Wikipedia and check it out.  Free, open, learning available to anyone with an internet connection.  The Machine Learning class taught by Stanford professor Andrew Ng is the highest profile example I have direct experience with.   If you like self paced video lectures you can consume at your own pace, check out the Khan Academy.  If you want to follow along with a traditional classroom style lecture on your own, check out MIT’s OCW and learn anything from Calculus to Linear Algebra to Python.  Take it to another level by learning to program a robotic car from Google’s Sebastian Thrun.

2. Expertise is less easy for individual companies to “own”.

As knowledge becomes more broadly distributed, it is less likely that any one company will be able to truly “own” a space by simply hiring all of the best people in a particular field.  When the top 3 winners in a open online predictive modeling competition with $100,000 in prize money are a Ecuadorian university student, a teaching assistant from Slovenia, and an actuary from Singapore, you know the world has changed.  187 teams competed over three months and have published much of their details and code here.  Oh, and did I forget to mention that all three of these winners learned machine learning from Andrew Ng’s Coursera course?  It is not possible to own the work product of all of the world’s smart people.  If your competitive advantage was built on being the company that does X really well, your days are numbered if you don’t recognize the significance of these changes and start taking advantage of the opportunities presented by this new reality.

3.   The barriers to applying serious expertise to business challenges has never been lower.  

This is the part where I plug one of my favorite startups – Kaggle.com.  Kaggle has built a platform that routinely eats experts for breakfast.  Straight chews them up and spits them out.  Top team of actuaries from the world’s second largest auto insurer – beaten in under 24 hours.  NASA – beaten by a random glaciologist from down under.  The stories go on and on.  Have a tough business challenge and want hundreds of experts from around the globe competing against each other to solve your problem?  Head over to Kaggle.com and setup a competition.  Need to keep your data private and own the work product?  Setup a private Kaggle competition and invite a few of the world’s highest ranked data scientists to crank on your problem.  Want to keep it completely in-house?  Setup an internal competition and get your R&D guys cranking on a marketing mix optimization problem.  Get your process engineers working on some consumer research.  Let your statisticians work over your social media ROI calculations.  What, they are in silos and don’t talk?  Some people see the future and are getting after it.  If you don’t see it and aren’t getting after it, you will be left behind.

 The expert is dead.  This is good news for small companies and bad news for big companies that aren’t able to adapt.  The upside for everyone is that a new source of competitive advantage exists and is still up for grabs.  The internet continues to further level the playing field.

 

 

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Categories: Uncategorized

Posted on September 16, 2012 by Dan Sweet

Meet your new best friend – the Assumptions Table.

This post is for big-company people only.  If you actually make it all happen yourself – congrats – I envy you!  For the rest of us, we have to play nice with others to get things done.  At the time of this writing, I lead financial analysis and commercial delivery of new initiatives for a billion dollar P&G brand.  I work with people from many different functions and generally need to function as the second-best person from each function to do my job well.

I was skeptical when I first met the Assumptions Table. It seemed like a classic non value-added big-company CYA exercise. Write down everything important that is being assumed, put other people’s names next to all the assumptions and ta-da! – nothing is your fault anymore.

I’ve since become convinced the Assumptions Table is a critical tool in moving big projects forward in a consensus-driven multi-functional organization. However, there are a couple important rules to maximizing the value you get out of using the Assumptions Table.

1.  All critical assumptions are documented.

2.  Every assumption has an owner.

3.  All owners are associate director (insert your org’s label here) level or higher.

4.  If key assumptions aren’t being provided – use your best judgment, write it down, and assign the appropriate owner.

5.  Always capitalize Assumptions Table to make it seem more official – OK I made that one up.

The beauty of the Assumptions Table is that anyone can create one and start sharing with the team.  This serves the team by assuring everyone is on the same page, demonstrates leadership, makes team meetings more efficient, provides a central repository for key decisions made as well as key unknowns to be worked.

The seniority of your initiative owner is critical.  It doesn’t matter one bit what the sandwich guy thinks is the right amount to spend on media behind the launch next fiscal year.  It matters what the marketing director’s plan is, so ask her!  It doesn’t matter one bit what the technical packaging guy thinks the materials will cost.  It matters what the leader of the product supply organization’s purchasing people can actually deliver so ask him what the number is!  The reality is that you are usually working with their subordinates and the senior people often aren’t around to consult directly.  However, you absolutely want their business judgement applied to the problem at hand.  Forcing their subordinates to provide assumptions that will have their bosses names next to them as an owner is a good way to get them engaged in putting their best effort into the work.  I typically put the subordinates doing the grunt work in the To: line with the assumption owners in the CC: line.  I then highlight their status as owners and urge the subordinates to get their bosses to make time to review the work that has been done and weigh in with any adds/changes.

Another critical piece is that you must be willing to make best-guess assumptions yourself if the appropriate owners aren’t providing what is needed.  Often, competing priorities will dictate that your project isn’t getting the time and attention you feel it deserves from all players.  You have to make some assumptions to move forward, so make them and get moving.  You still list the owner next to the assumption that should be providing it.  As long as you publish the Assumptions Table regularly and they have plenty of opportunities to review it and provide changes, this is a completely defensible position.  ”This group officially owns it but hasn’t provided anything so the team is moving forward with best guess X until told otherwise.”  This prevents the classic circular – “Hey, wait, you can’t do that – we weren’t consulted – that isn’t allowed – so-and-so will never approve” nonsense that can waste months of time in big companies.  ”Actually, the Assumptions Table has shown this is what was being assumed for the last three months, take a look, so-and-so is the owner, maybe go talk your concerns with them.”

The Assumptions Table has proved itself incredibly useful a couple times for me in the last few months so I wanted to share it.  I encourage you to give it a try if you work on big projects in a collaborative multi-functional org.  Leave me a comment below with your reactions and let me know how it works for you once you try it out.

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Categories: corporate america

Posted on August 14, 2012 by Dan Sweet

How I shuttered a lean startup for $0.00

Three months ago I wrote a post titled:  How I launched a lean startup for $8.17.  Today I am officially shuttering Tradesthatmatter.com.  I made this decision within a couple weeks of the launch, but am just making it official now.  I’ll send an email to the three people (yes three) that have signed up for the service letting them know the product won’t be launching and pointing them here for the gory details.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t work on things you aren’t passionate about
  • Don’t test a hypothesis if the results won’t change your approach
  • Don’t overestimate your ability to manually “fake” the output of a technical tool before building it
  • Focus on a big problem
  • LinkedIn is your friend
  • Compete.com is your other friend

Background:

SEC.gov has lots of interesting data that people are required to report.  If combed through and looked at in context, the information can be valuable.  It is highly structured data, so a technical solution is not too difficult.  My value proposition was “protect your stock portfolio and spot the best opportunities with meaningful real-time alerts”.  The initial hypothesis I wanted to test was that “people would find the context of insider activities useful and engaging.”  I wrote one post as a test of this hypothesis, shared via Twitter, got 9 clicks on the bit.ly link and 15 visits to the post.  I didn’t have much fun researching or writing it, not many people seemed to care, and I’ve always known this was a small market.  Now, on to the lessons learned.

Lesson 1:  Don’t work on things you aren’t passionate about

My primary motivation was to actually try out one of my ideas.  Map out the business model, potentially build my technical skills on a small project, maybe make some extra cash, “found a startup”, etc.  However, I don’t really care about the opportunity that I identified.  Delivering a solution doesn’t resolve a pain point that matters to me.  A great comment I recently heard from Zuck at 27:01 in this video was this:  ”the companies that work are companies that people really cared about and had some vision for what they wanted to see exist in the world, not just because they wanted to start a company.”

Lesson 2:  Don’t test a hypothesis if the test results won’t change your approach

The initial hypothesis I wanted to test was that “People would find the context of insider activities useful and engaging.”  I didn’t expect my one post and couple tweets to “go viral”.  Rich people buying stocks just isn’t that interesting, even with a little extra context thrown in.  I knew from my research of the market size, competitors, traffic statistics, etc that this was not a big market.  So why test trying to get people excited and engaged about a financial utility?  If wildly successful I proceed, if no interest at all I rationalize it with “well it’s a niche product and I just have an awareness problem.”  Useless test.

Lesson 3:  Don’t overestimate your ability to manually “fake” the output of a technical tool before building it

Browsing some competitive sites, running some screens, doing a little research, etc, all takes time.  That is why building a tool to automate all this would have value.  Doing this manual process many times over to build awareness of the product would be very time consuming.  Additionally, sometimes there is nothing interesting going on in the world of publicly-disclosed insider transactions.  I thought this content would be much easier to fake than it was.

Lesson 4:  Focus on a big problem

Real-time alerts for publicly-disclosed insider trading activity is not a big problem.  Competitive sites with a basic product get between 2 and 10 thousand monthly uniques.  Run a freemium model, convert 2% at $49 a month, and you are in the $20-$100 thousand annual income range.  With taxes, some administrative overhead, etc, this quickly becomes not worth much.  I can achieve much greater upside and leverage on my incremental efforts in my day job.  This problem is too small for me to work on.  I knew this from spending a couple hours spread across Google, Compete.com, and LinkedIn.  However, my desire to “start something” led me to ignore these hard facts.

Lesson 5:  LinkedIn is your friend

So you Google up a few competitors.  What next?  Let the people tell the story.  Use LinkedIn’s advanced search and search for the competitive companies in the “Employer” field.  See who works there now, who used to work there, who the founders are, what kind of other places they have worked, what other things they have started, their education, their technical chops, etc.  The facts of a few LinkedIn profiles laid out alongside each other often tell a fairly complete story.  Questions like what kind of revenue is attainable, how hard is the technical challenge, how easy is it to recruit people to work on this idea, are all easily answerable.  In this case, the most successful competitors seem to be run by 1-2 people, coming from different industries, running what look to be lifestyle businesses.  One competitor had a team of 5-6 in place once (including a former Googler) but everyone but the founder has since moved on.  Another competitor is a retired engineer from the tel-com industry, another is a couple of young relatively non-technical guys who have done a couple other projects in parallel, another much more technical product comes from a Y-combinator originating team of 2-3 guys with no obvious public signs of going anywhere in the last couple years.

Lesson 6:  Compete.com is your other friend

What kind of traffic are people doing?  Are they growing?  On what kind of trajectory?  What type of keywords are they owning?  What are their sources of traffic?  This can be good for finding other competitors you didn’t know existed as well.  Look at the range of pricing models in the market, look at the traffic they do, look at the industry conversion rates if using a freemium model and turn that into some revenue projections.  Do those projections support your cost structure?  What will you do differently than those competitors?  Will you convert better, charge more, get more users?  What makes you think so?   Sounds like a good area for some user testing.

Let’s see if I can learn from these “lessons learned” the next time around.   Please leave a comment below with any key startup lessons you’ve learned.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Posted on May 31, 2012 by Dan Sweet

With HPQ at 7-year lows – this board member is backing up the truck

Big insider buying by a board member at Hewlett Packard (HPQ) came across SEC.gov via a Form 4 filing on 5/30/12.

Ralph V Whitworth is an activist investor who runs Relational Investors LLC and took his HP board seat back in November 2011.  He / RI LLC owned 17 million shares then and has just upped the position to 29 million shares.  This was 6-7% of the portfolio and should now be getting close to 11-12% of RI LLC holdings.  Recent prices are right around the level where he started buying back in October.

The Bloomberg article linked above lists a series of pretty big moves coming out of prior board positions he has held at other companies.  With a 14-person board I’m skeptical of anyone’s ability to drive change but this guy has a pretty impressive track record, so I’ll be watching.

What do you think?  Is it time to buy HPQ?

 

Follow @TTMAlerts on Twitter and signup at TradesthatMatter.com with your email address to get in on real-time alerts like these once the TradesthatMatter.com site goes live.

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Categories: investing

About

dan sweet
7 years of non-profits
2 years of bschool
now a finance guy
working at P&G
my views are solely my own

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