Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Earlier today I was reading through an interview with FitBit CEO James Park about their recent $43 million in funding and the company's plans for spending it.  It made me think about what I'd like to see happen with their product evolution given my to-date love hate relationship with Fitbit.

First - a confession.  Like many early adopters, I got caught up in the hype around quantified-self/wearable tech when I bought the original Fitbit Ultra a few years ago.  I loved the idea of being able to track and monitor my fitness, sleep (more on that below) and (eventually) daily food intake (which rolled out much later - more on that below as well) as well as syncing my data across devices.  Imagine my surprise when, after getting the Ultra in the mail, I went to the App Store to find their app - only to discover that one wasn't available.  What?! A device without a companion app?!  How could that be?!  I immediately sent an email to their help desk looking for an answer and got the standard "we're working as hard and fast as we can on it."

So like all good early adopters I cut this start-up some slack and tried my best to interact with the Fitbit app on my desktop, but quickly found myself not doing a lot of interacting - mostly because I wasn't in front of my desktop all that much.  Then the user experience issues started piling up.  First it was the form factor of the device.  I couldn't bring myself to walk around with it clipped on the clothes or shoes, the wristband didn't fit well and looked . . . well . . . a bit odd.  I also found that the device didn't work the same way when it was in my pocket.  And then there was the sleep tracking function.  Not only was I not wearing the device to bed every night (thanks to the bothersome wristband), but on the nights that I did wear it, I kept forgetting to activate its sleep mode.  I was also confused about when to activate it - when I first get into bed?  Once I start reading?  When I'm about to fall asleep?  Eventually I lost my zest for the device and I added to my Pile of Misfit Tech Gadgets that I'd accumulated over the years -- hello Twitter Peek (gotta say I called this one back in the day), Logitech Revue, Slingbox, OnLive, Zune, WebTV - the list goes on and on.

Then I made my annual pilgrimage to CES this past January and saw Fitbit's new line up of products, including a Wi-Fi connected scale and a wristband product called the Flex - which actually made it onto a few "Best Of" lists including this one from Forbes.  My curiosity was peaked a second time - mostly because I liked the idea of a more practical wristband and also thought the scale was pretty cool (even though I still haven't bought it).  Plus by this time Fitbit had released their iPhone app so now my syncing issues were a thing of the past.  One of the things I liked most about the app was that I would be able to track my daily food intake with Fitbit as opposed to using an app from someone else.  This way, I thought, I would have a complete snapshot of my entire health profile all in one location.

Immediately I was disappointed with the food tracking functionality of the app.  I had gotten used to the experience from apps like MyFitnessPal which have much better food databases and allow you to input foods by scanning barcodes.  I was then disappointed in the Flex - not because of its wristband but because, at the end of the day, it didn't meet my ever increasing expectations for what I think a fitness tracking device should do.  At the end of the day the Flex, and most of its competitors, are nothing more than glorified pedometers.  What that means is if you are like me and most others out there, walking is not your primary form of exercise.  I like to mix it up - a little bit of swimming mixed in with boot camp/CrossFit classes with the occasional intense yoga class.  Devices like the Fitbit don't perform well for non-walking activities - so while I may not get credit for swimming 2500 yards, I will get credit for raising my arm up and down in a drinking motion (hey, there are worse things!).

So now the Flex has joined the Pile of Misfit Gadgets - and I'm back to waiting for the next great thing in quantified-self devices.  Apart from suggesting that Fitbit spend some of its money to buy something like MyFitness Pal, it would be great if they created a wearable wrist device that:

  1. Tracks all physical exertion equally well
  2. Monitors vas many body vital signs as possible 
  3. Is smart enough to go into sleep tracking mode automatically
  4. Can tell time

Sounds like what an "iWatch" could be, no?!

Would love to hear what others think of their current devices as well as how their wish list stacks up to mine.  For those of you thinking about buying a Fitbit device or something like it, I'd say hold off for now unless your main exercise is power walking . . . and only if you don't drink!

Monday, June 03, 2013


Even though the summer season doesn't officially kick off for a few weeks, the warm weather has given many of us a chance to get a head start on enjoying a tried and true American pastime - the backyard pool party, and my family was no exception. Our 5-year old spent three afternoons in a row frolicking in pools, and she had the goggle marks around her eyes to prove it!  Our 18-month old experienced a pool for the first time in his life - and didn't stop giggling the whole time, except when he decided he needed to stick his face in the water and grab a quick sip.

In the midst of all this fun and excitement, some close friends of ours experienced what no parent ever should - the near-drowning of one of their kids.  Thankfully, the little one is super resilient (aren't they all?!) and going to be OK. It was definitely a wake up call for me on many levels, and I did the best I could to use the experience as an opportunity to talk to my 5-year old about the importance of water safety. I also found myself channeling the grief and anguish that I'm sure our friends experienced throughout the ordeal, which manifested itself in an all out sobbing episode as I held and hugged my kids that night.

Soon after I got my wits about me, my mind immediately turned to thinking about why there isn't any product or technology in the marketplace - at least none I had come across during all those late night web surfing sessions researching things I could get for my kids that would reduce or eliminate the risk of drowning - that could greatly help decrease the chances of what my friends went through.  My next thought was that I would use this event as motivation to solve this problem.  Within an hour I had sketched out what the basics of what the product would be.

Just as I was lining up my accounts with GoDaddy and LegalZoom to get this new venture started, I figured it wouldn't hurt if I did a quick web search to see if by some chance someone had already come up with a way to solve this problem.  Not surprisingly - and much to my wife's relief I'm sure - I came across almost the EXACT IDEA I had sketched out earlier on the crowd funding site IndieGoGo called The SEAL - a wearable swim monitoring and drowning detection system.

Any sad feeling I had about not being the one to come up with the idea first (add it to the already long list!) were quickly replaced by feelings of admiration and excitement mixed in with a bit of confusion.  The admiration came from discovering that an emergency physician/engineer/father turned entrepreneur  named Graham Snyder in North Carolina (yes, there are plenty of entrepreneurs outside LA, SF and NY!) had developed this product.  It's truly amazing to see the power of human creativity and entrepreneurship at work, and the fact that funding platforms like IndieGoGo exist that can help great ideas get to market.The excitement came from the fact that this was an active fund-raising campaign, which meant that I could get in on the ground floor as a contributor and (hopefully!) be one of the first to get my hands on the product.

My confusion came from the fact that, despite the amount of press that this product has gotten and the extent to which this product helps solve a HUGE concern for parents, it has only raised about 1/5 of the funds it needs for a successful campaign - and with only 14 days left in the campaign.  I have faith that the IndieGoGo community will rally around this product in the next few weeks, and I for one am going to do what little I can above and beyond this blog and my social media posts to encourage anyone and everyone to at least take a look at the campaign page and either contribute any amount they can or at least spread the word about this product to others.  As you'll hear in Graham's video,  drowning is the #1 cause of death in children under the age of 5, and for every child that drowns, 5 more require some kind of extensive medical care or are left with permanent neurological injuries.

I'm super excited to support Graham's vision and hopefully enough other folks will as well so that we can get great products like these out in the marketplace.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I've been thinking a lot about innovation recently for a number of different reasons.  Over the last several weeks I've had the good fortune of spending time at two of the more innovative companies of our time - IDEO and Zappos.  I also recently saw the news of the departure of the last digital executive at my former employer, who I helped bring on board as part of the company's then vision to bolster the ranks of innovative thinkers in and around games and technology.  These examples show how innovation is either very easy or very hard to foster and maintain.

First - a brief refresher on exactly what innovation means. According to our good friends Merriam-Webster (remember them?!), innovation is defined as "the introduction of something new."

As someone who lives and works in the SF Bay Area, it's very easy to drink from the cultural Kool-Aid and get caught up in the notion that innovation is as natural as breathing.  I guess it's why so many companies from around the world look in our direction when it comes to starting a business unit,  acquiring talent, opening an office, etc.  In addition to me having hung out the corporate shingle for GameStop back in 2011, the list of Fortune 500 companies with a meaningful presence in the area is pretty long - folks like Wal-Mart, Amazon, Samsung, Volkswagen to name just a few.  The common threads with all of these examples are: each point of presence houses people and groups focused primarily on innovation; and the level of investment made to support efforts around innovation are significant.

This then begs a question -- why doesn't every big company do the same thing?!

It's worth noting that I've been at my share of big companies as a senior thought leader.  In each case at a time when innovation was at the top of their priority list given that technology and other macro forces were threatening their incumbent business - whether that was video games on discs, subscription-based media or paper greeting cards.  And in each case, the company's intentions were pure, but at the end of the day they each ran into the same ceiling when it came to their level of commitment, whether that be time, money or resources.  It's important to note that each of these companies were publicly traded at the time (one has since gone private), so by definition the pressures of quarterly performance are inherently at odds with the long view associated with supporting innovation.

Beyond just these three examples, another common trait that stifles innovation at most big companies is self-preservation.  What I mean by that is any material effort, investment, resources and/or results put into or generated from efforts around innovation threaten the livelihood of the majority of existing employees and executives.  It's easy to imagine the kind of closed door discussions that take place at many a corporate HQ when they see or hear that significant dollars are being spent on risky initiatives that may or may not pay off anytime soon, and meanwhile they're not getting those dollars to help keep their business line afloat.  What usually follows is everything from passive acceptance to outright sabotage.

Oddly enough, these are all legitimate reasons for stifling the creation of "something new" - we may not agree with them, but until we've walked a mile in the shoes of folks who are either dealing with the pressures of running a public company or the even bigger pressures of having their jobs potentially made irrelevant if that "something new" actually succeeds, it's very hard to pass judgment.

Fortunately for all of us we have examples of companies (including the ones listed above) who show us that it is possible to be both big and innovative.

Monday, February 04, 2013


A few days ago, Facebook announced the launch of their own gift card program powered by the folks that brought you the ever-popular Discover Card (is that even still around?!).  The basic gist is that it's a  re-loadable and re-usable "mega card" that  you'll be able to use at a variety of retailers, and which will eventually replace all those gift cards that you buy, get or likely have lost somewhere in your house. Oh yeah, and you'll be able to manage any and all gift cards you get - provided of course that the retailer is part of Facebook's program (more on that later).

So looking at this from a consumer's point of view, it sounds pretty good in theory - a single card that I can use to manage my balances across a number of retailers (they announced 4 pretty big ones as part or their launch). But it quickly starts to make less sense when you consider the realities of how customers - both on the giving and receiving end - interact with gift cards (having witnessed this behavior first hand during my time at GameStop) as well as the new friction that Facebook's card brings to the table.

First the customer realities. Gift cards are, for the most part, a present of last resort when you either have run out of time, ideas or energy to buy something specific or more creative. It's one step above stuffing cash in a envelope on the creative gifting scale - at least with gift cards you're telling the person "hey, I know enough about you to know what you like/where you like to shop but not enough to get you something specific that you'll likely end up returning or re-gifting so here's some free credit to use as you see fit." And more often than not these gift cards are given in denominations that are conducive to a single purchase as opposed to bankrolling your buying habits at a retailer for a month or two. So the reality is that most gift givers today prefer giving branded cards from a specific retailer.

For those folks that get these lovely gift cards, it seems like it would actually be more confusing to use Facebook's card when you go into a specific store as opposed to the store's card - because after all, how many of us will really be able to remember which cards we connected to our Facebook account?!  Plus, most folks use the card well before they'll take the time and effort to go online and connect the card.

Another point of friction is that, unlike the recently shelved Facebook Credits universal currency program, Facebook's gift card doesn't allow you the ability to load cash on it and spend it as you see fit across the spectrum of participating retailers.  This is one instance where taking a universal approach would actually work.

And oh yeah, let's not forget the retailers themselves - perhaps the most important part of the equation!  It goes without saying that Facebook's gift card program will only be as strong as its stable or  retail partners.  Without having almost every tier 1 retail chain signed up to participate, I don't see the gift card program being all that compelling to consumers.  In addition to risking brand dilution by having their branded cards replaced with a single "mega card," retailers are loathe to divvy up the revenue pie any more than they have to.  While it's not clear from what's been talked about publicly regarding Facebook's program, my assumption is that they are looking to take a piece of the action for every dollar spent through their card/program.  As it stands now, retailers have to share a portion of every dollar put on their own cards with: 1) the third party company that processes and manages their gift card program; and 2) in those cases where their cards are sold at locations other than their own, that 3rd party gets a cut as well.  Imagine now having to cut Facebook into the mix -- I don't see a ton of retailers standing in line so sign up for this program.

This isn't to say that Facebook's gift card program won't have some measure of success eventually - I just don't see it being a game changer anytime soon.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


I know, I know -- what kind of a person abandons their blog for so long?! Me - that's who. I won't try to defend my excuses as good ones, but they'll have to do. Actually all of my excuses roll up into one fat one - LIFE!

Right around the time of my last post, my first kid was turning 1 and I was coming off my self-imposed hiatus and into a new gig leading the digital practice for GameStop.   From there it was a proverbial roller coaster of sorrow (losing my dad & best friend in August ’11 after almost a year of health issues), change (moving the family to Northern California in September ’11) and pure joy (the birth of our second kid in December ’11).

As amazing of a job as that has been for the last 3 ½ years, one of the unfortunate by-products of the gig was a “no public commentary without prior approval” mandate that made the act of blogging one of process and permission rather than harmless rants and observations.  Aren’t public companies fun?! 

Besides this small bump in the road, the GameStop gig was an amazing opportunity to yet again help a large incumbent leverage its place in the ecosystem (this time in gaming) to evolve its business to one that not only continues its market dominance in its core business but also boldly strikes out into new and adjacent businesses as a path to helping ensure future viability.  In my time there we accomplished quite a bit in a relatively short period of time, taking the companies revenues from sub-$100MM in ’09 to over $600MM in ’12.  I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished there and I look forward to the next chapter in my career, which will continue to include advising and mentoring early stage companies.

So now back to my blog.  The cool thing about reading through your old posts is that you can reflect back on how right on or full of s**t you were about stuff - and I gotta say the shovel is pretty light. One service that I blogged about (Groupon) has had quite an epic ride these last few years, two others (Tunezee and Timebridge) were acquired, another (Rixty) is still chugging along in the games sector and another (The Peek) is pretty much off the grid as predicted.

While this walk down memory lane was fun, I gotta say that the best part of getting this blog post up was surfing through all the stuff that came up when I went onto Google Images looking for an "I'm Back" image. This was the best (and safest) one I could come up with - thanks to whoever created it.

So now that I'm back on the grid I'll do my best post a bit more regularly. Looking forward to seeing what the future brings!