Big Idea. Free!

 

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With the attention commanded by the IPOs of sexy consumer Internet startups like Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter it sometimes surprises people that the most consistent performers among new Internet startups are those providing services for the B2B, not the B2C space. Many entrepreneurial advice columns recommend that new innovators focus on enterprise applications because the business case is easier to create, the payoff is usually more assured, and venture funding is more available.

But most of the really cool ideas are in the consumer space (“online Lego rentals for a monthly fee!”) so where do you come up with the great enterprise application? Here’s an idea. Why not just re-purpose some of the consumer apps? For example

Throwback is a consumer photo-sharing app with a twist of nostalgia. Users can take photos and then tag contacts with whom to share them. The nostalgia part comes in the fact that users can pick anytime between one month and 5 years in the future to share them, effectively sending the photo to your future self (and your friends) along with a comment. Had a great trip to Hawaii? Remind yourself and your tripmates in exactly one year later by sending a future photo message. That selfie with your college girlfriend on graduation day? Send it to both of you in five years and see where you are, whether you found a job and whether that girl is still speaking to you. You get the idea.

There is even a function called “Surprise Me” in which the app itself decides at what random future date you will receive the photo. One day, clear out of the blue, your study for the bar exam might be interrupted by a photo of that trip to Las Vegas three years, two months and eight days ago.

But to my idea…what if this same functionality could send not just photos, but business case templates to your future self? I call this app Blowback. That project you fought so hard for and won approval because of the surefire 12 month payback? Blowback could trigger an email in exactly 12 months reminding your boss, your colleagues, even your board of directors of your personal commitment to be achieving $5 million in sales in the first year. Imagine your excitement as everyone in senior management receives a reminder containing your promised achievement. Nostalgia in Throwback becomes accountability in Blowback.

We could rename the “Surprise Me!” function something like “I Promised What??”

Upgrades of the app might allow templates breaking down business cases into separate deliverables for sales, marketing, product development, finance, etc. and staggering their future delivery as appropriate. For example, six months before release of a new product Blowback can send out message to the product team with their template and the message “You guys better be in beta tests by now!” Or marketing two weeks before launch with “How’s the $3M advertising campaign you promised going?” Tag the rest of the senior management team and the board of directors and watch the interdepartmental fun.

One of Throwback’s catchphrases is “Wait for the past to catch up to the present”. We don’t even have to change it. We can use the very same catchphrase for Blowback; of course it becomes less a promise and more of a threat.

Blowback could be tied into the company’s technology so that when the specified future date arrived the app could automatically query the financial reporting software and if the actual results missed the promise, the Blowback notifications could come in a bright red color; when promises are achieved notifications are green. The mobile version could use ring tones, achieved forecasts get delivered with a few bars of Pharrell Williams; missed ones come with Chopin’s Funeral March.

I haven’t decided whether Blowback should be fee based or advertising based. Fee based gives revenue stability, but between outplacement firms and Maserati dealerships, an entire consequences industry might grow up around advertising on the app, regardless of which way the results go. Tracking the aggregate national number of red versus green Blowback future messages might even become a leading US economic indicator (“the Blowback Ratio”) which the company could then sell to analysts at a tidy profit.

Blowback could introduce disciplined accountability back into routine business decisions. Then again, it might simply make already skittish executives even less likely to take important risks if they knew they would be held up to unavoidable, specific, future public scrutiny. Not to worry. There’s an app for that too. It is my yet-to-be created Snapchat derivative: Trapstat. All the statistics associated with your original business case commitments are trapped and made to disappear within ten seconds of receipt. No one can prove you really said any of it.

It’s available for commercialization. Just remember me with some stock options when you make it big.

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“Who Is John Rawls?”

130723123817-john-rawls-story-topA few years back I was discussing our company’s annual quota-setting process when one of our sales directors had enough: “That’s socialistic”, he fumed. We were customizing quotas for each salesperson based upon the prior year results but the director believed that quotas should be uniform. My interest was justice, which I defined as a fair-handed attempt, insofar as was possible, to insure each salesperson within wildly different markets enjoyed the same relative opportunity to achieve his annual plan. The sales director’s interest was…well, justice, too. But he defined it as insuring that each sales rep contributed equally to the company’s growth.

There are quite literally hundreds of sales compensation alternatives and I don’t bring up this instance because my method was necessarily superior. Rather, it reminds me how stupid I was in overlooking a vital part of the process, namely articulating the philosophical assumptions within which the specific quota process should be judged. We were arguing about small methodologies when the real disagreement came from what grand governing principles the entire quota-setting system was built on.

That mistake was on my mind as I was came across the work of the late American philosopher, John Rawls. His book, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971 so he is already familiar to many philosophers but somehow I had missed learning about him. Perhaps he is new to you too. Rawls intended to create a new general moral and political philosophy. To discover it, he proposed a thought experiment which he called a “veil of ignorance”. What type of hypothetical social structure, Rawls asked, would you build if you were completely ignorant of what your place in it would be?

This may help explain what he meant. As all young siblings do, my brother and I would often argue about who got the biggest piece of cake. My mother’s simple solution was to have one of us cut the cake and the other choose between the pieces. I thought my mother was brilliant (even after discovering that everyone’s mother did something similar) because my older brother had to divide the cake as fairly as possible since he was ignorant of which piece would be his. Rawls demanded that we use this veil of ignorance to think about how we would cut society’s “cake” if we did not know what piece we personally would be served, by which he meant we could not know in advance our station, class, gender, ethnicity, inheritance, and so on.

Rawls went on to argue that the result of this hypothetical thought experiment by any rational person would be what he named “justice as fairness”. It had two key principles. The first was equality in a basic set of rights and liberties which must be secured as extensively as possible insofar as it can be done equally to all citizens.

The second principle of justice as fairness states that once basic rights and liberties are secured, there may be allowed social or economic inequalities in the civic structure so long as they can reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, particularly society’s lowest. According to Rawls, the “higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.“

Rawls believed that this structure would be intuitively fair to any sensible person. Our starting position in life (whether we are born prince or slave, male or female, bright or dull) has real effect on how we will get on, but it is not a result of our choice so fairness says we cannot hold citizens accountable for that which is beyond their control. Justice as fairness addresses this inequality but is not egalitarian. It allows for a broad spectrum of inequality; it simply demands that the underlying structure for that inequality rest on real benefit to the least advantaged.

A business career setting sales quotas and allocating compensation opportunities, has given me a quirky insight to the current debate on growing income inequality. Looking back, I could have avoided many needless arguments or at least made them more productive arguments had I been better at clarifying to my team the overarching fairness principles within which we built the company’s compensation processes.

Looking forward, the current public raging about the nature of income inequality lacks a common view on exactly what a just society looks like. Maybe it is time to have that discussion and Rawls is a good place to start. Only then can the civic community publicly ask the operational questions of its institutions. Is every liberty reasonably applied? Are we certain that accepted inequalities generate real social value to the least advantaged? Can we protect those inequalities that do grow opportunity? Do we have the discipline and the data to assess our current social structure from behind a veil of ignorance?

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s controversial novel of builders and moochers, begins with the famous question: “Who is John Galt?” As income inequality demands our attention, here’s hoping liberals and conservatives alike will lift the debate by resurrecting a healthy interest in a far better question, “Who is John Rawls?”

 

Application:

A Theory of Justice is confusing, poorly organized and hard to read unless you are a practicing philosopher with a nose for heady concepts. I recommend the much clearer “book about the book” which I found much more helpful: Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, by Frank Lovett.

Still too much? Then just ponder Whitman’s words written more than a century before Rawls:

“Of  Equality—as if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself—as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same.”   Walt Whitman, Thought (1860)