How to compete with Silicon Valley

I just saw this excellent rant on what makes Silicon Valley special: its people.

I disagree with several of its other claims. First of all, that it's just a parking lot. That's true if you look at it from one angle. But, it has several Fry's. And TONS of infrastructure that makes it easy for geeks to get going.

Also, getting geeks to move away from concentrations of other geeks is INCREDIBLY hard. I'd love to move to Montana, for instance, but there's no way I would do that. I'd be bored there in a few weeks. The TechRanch there is fun, but sorry, when I'm down in Silicon Valley there are just so many people to talk to and so many interesting companies doing interesting things.

That said, there are several places in the world I keep hearing about: China and India. Look for the next Silicon Valley to appear there. Why? For exactly the reasons Paul gave: people.

I just added Paul to my reading list. Good stuff.

Writing from the road

FedEx truck on route 90

We're about 200 miles away from Seattle traveling on Route 90. Did I tell you I love my Verizon card? It works everywhere in the Western United States. Maryam's driving.

It's fun to read blogs at 80 mph on my Tablet PC. And isn't it crazy that I can send my thoughts (and photos) all over the world through a cell phone tower? I was thinking back to the 1989 earthquake when it took several hours to get a black and white photo sent across the US to a newspaper on the East Coast (back then cell phones were rare and digital cameras didn't exist and the Internet consisted of servers that only geeks really knew how to use).

Anyway, for the past few hours I've been thinking about what I'm learning from road-side advertising. There sure is a lot of it. I'm thinking about whether there's some lessons for online companies that need to make money from advertising. I'm not sure there is, but businesses sure could learn a lot since a lot of my reactions are the same when I look at ads on Google or MSN or Yahoo (and the time spent looking at each is about the same).

In just Coeur d'Alene, which is a relatively small town in Idaho, I counted 113 commercial messages. Not counting the FedEx truck that Maryam passed. That's in about 10 minutes of driving over a few miles (like I said, it's a small town).

There were signs advertising McDonalds and Starbucks. Car dealerships. Hotels. Tourist attractions. And a lot more.

It's amazing how bad most are. First of all, you only have one to five seconds to read any sign. Second, a large percentage of the signs weren't kept up very well. Why would I want to stay at a hotel that couldn't even keep its sign looking nice? Third, very few stood out.

See, for a business what really matters?

Scarcity.

Tren Griffin taught me that. He works at Microsoft as a networking services strategist, but that really doesn't explain why I like Tren. He participates on lots of internal mailing lists and challenges us to think about business in new ways.

I wish I had posted his thoughts on Vonage's IPO. He warned us to stay far away and broke down how bad a deal their stock offering was for investors. It's amazing looking at it that anyone bought stock in Vonage (Memorandum has quite a few comments on the deal). Shows that investors don't always do their homework and think about how likely a business will return anything on their investments.

Anyway, back to the advertisements. How do you create scarcity in a place of large numbers of competitors. Heck, most every major exit has a sign like this:

Commercial district ahead

In fact, usually there are two: one for restaurants and one for lodging. Some exists have a third for gas stations.

The chain restaurants stand out on signs like this. Why? Consistency. You know what Subway will give you. It's the same thing you got 300 miles back. Same goes for McDonalds. Denny's. Etc.

I'd love to have better food on the road, but it's hard to take a chance on "Joe's diner" because you have no idea what you're gonna get.

So, how can you create scarcity? Well, one sign in Montana yelled "Grizzly Bears next exit."

It's the only sign I remember seeing in 700 miles that said THAT.

Another sign touted "Lewis and Clark camped 900' south of this sign." Heh, didn't get my business, but at least I remembered it.

Another business that does street advertising well? Chico Hot Springs. They are located in the middle of nowhere (five miles from my mom's house) but they are always packed and people two states away knew about Chico when we talked about where were headed. Great food there, too.

Chico Hot Springs

Their signs are simple, and easy to follow to get there (they are several miles from the main highway).

Oh, one other thing before I sign off from the road. I've been reading a bunch of blogs on my cell phone. It's amazing how bad most of them are. For instance, Martin Schwimmer's blog is totally unreadable on my cell phone (it has dark text over a dark background). You all need to test your blogs out on cell phones!

I think when I get back I'm gonna show you guys on video just how bad you make it for cell phone readers. Maybe there's not a lot of us out there, but why make it hard when you don't need to? Dave Winer's blog rocks on cell phones, by the way. It's light weight. Loads fast. And brings the content right to the top (many blogs make you wade through navigation before you can get to content).

Be home in a couple of hours. If the roadside signs don't snag us into a late-night dessert! :-)

The funeral home can’t play MP3′s

Funny, when we got to the funeral home Alberta (my mom's best friend and minister at today's events) was playing music through a boom box at the front of the room. Later she explained to me why she wasn't using the much more sophisticated sound system built into the funeral home: they couldn't play MP3s.

Turns out she had a bunch of my mom's church music on various CDs that were made on computers. Another reason she didn't use it? It was too complex. Later I went back and looked at it. It indeed was far more complex than the boom box.

That reminded me again of two principles software engineers should ask ourselves. 1) Can it do what we need it to do? 2) Is it simple to use? I understand how those two can sometimes be in conflict. It's why a professional camera has a lot more complexity than point-and-shoot cameras. Lately inside Microsoft we've been arguing out some of our decisions on how complex to make interfaces. These aren't easy things to solve. Make something easy and it might not be useful. The problem is that you have to decide what market to go after. If you aim a camera design at the mass market it better be simple, because that's what nine out of 10 photographers want. But, there's 10% that need more features. Leave those features out (like manual shutter speeds and exposure overrides) and you'll lose the pros. Not every product can be as simple as an iPod. Sometimes we forget that, which is why I ask product designers "what's your philosophy?"

I just saw this article over on TechDirt about how complex our cell phones are becoming. Yeah, I've seen people walk into stores and say "I just want a cell phone, no email or Web or anything like that." But, then, I look at my own phone and how much I've come to love its ability to do other things. I would never give that up. It has changed my world and I think that over the next 18 months will provide more technological change than any other device (the Xbox is cool, but if you gave me a choice between a new Xbox or a new cell phone, I would take the cell phone in a second).

The experience at the funeral home reminded me too of just how much our lives had changed due to technology. Would Alberta know what an MP3 file is just a few years ago? I doubt it.

Regarding the services, the day was beautiful and the services were interesting and moving. I found myself thinking that I love living in America where you can practice any religion you want. And my mom and her community sure practices a form of religion I doubt many of you would recognize. Heck, I don't recognize it.

Another funny moment? A cell phone started playing a song in the middle of the ceremonies. If my mom were there that would have earned a dirty look. Instead Maryam gave me a dirty look for giggling (after biting her own lip for starting to giggle herself).

Later she told me how in Iran giggling at a funeral is a big sin. A no-no. I told her that my mom didn't want us to be sad at her funeral, so I found it helpful when that cell phone went off.

When I got back to my mom's house I found I wanted to get back on my computer to get back in touch with the world. There the harsh reality reminded me of what awaits when I get home. 469 emails. Yikes. I haven't been answering email much for two weeks.

One of the first things I did was check in with Dave Winer's blog. He's writing about the O'Reilly Web 2.0 service mark controversy. That led me to Tim O'Reilly, who groused about bloggers' lack of professionalism. I've been thinking about similar things a lot. What are my responsibilities as a blogger? Did I sign up to do the equivilent of the New York Times here? How do I keep true to myself in a world that values (and uses) those who have audiences.

It's why I was depressed a month ago, though. The idea that my blog had become a media property or something I had to do. Or something I had to do a specific way.

I'm glad I went through this personal time after my mom's stroke. It helped me refocus on what's important and what my blog means to me. This blog is mine. It is what I'm thinking about, and what I'm seeing in my life. It isn't a news article. I am not vetted. It isn't done by a committee. I am not being held to any standards.

On the other hand, I don't like the lynch mob. It's going to take a strong blogger to stand up against hundreds of blogs who are urging action one way. But, we need that kind of diversity of ideas if we are going to make this a truly strong media.

It's important for me to say that when the lynch mob isn't aimed at me, either. I might end up at the focus point of such a mob in the future, so hope that someone would stand up for me in such a time.

One last thing before I sign off for the night and start driving with Maryam back to Washington: thank you for putting up with me for the past two weeks. Sorry for not answering my email. Sorry to my coworkers for increasing your workloads as I focused more on my family.

I'm looking forward to getting back and thinking more about the technology business again. My experiences these two weeks demonstrate that what we do is important. Even in a funeral home.

Indonesia needs our help

I was away from news feeds and TV all weekend long so didn't hear this news, but I see the Global Voices blog and Ed Bott talking about the deep need in Indonesia due to a major earthquake that happened there.

As we prepare to go to my mom's funeral today, this is yet another way you can help improve the world. We'll donate some in my mom's name to the Red Cross.

Tonight, after the funeral in Bozeman, Montana, we'll be driving home. My mom lives just down the street from Seattle, but it's a long street! (Highway 90 goes from Bellevue, WA through Livingston, Montana — we'll spend about 12 hours on that highway driving home).

Dodging flying mud and bison (oh, and FU-Camp)

DSCN1370

You knew I couldn't stay away a week, right? Well, I had to send pictures. We took two days off (funeral and cremation is tomorrow) to go to Jackson Hole with my mom's sister, Wilhelmina.

When I saw this sign, I thought of the blogosphere. Funny that! :-) The sign was guarding the Artists' Paintpots in Yellowstone National Park. What is it? It's a mudpit. A clay pit, actually. Through the clay would pop up bubbles of gas. That caused the mud to get thrown up to five feet away. It's nature's way of blogging. The latest news bubbles up. Phhlllurbt. Phhlllurbt. Phhlllurbt.

Heh, nature owns a new word. Phhlllurbt. That's the sound that the bubbles make as they pass through the mud and escape. (Google and Live.com don't have any results if you search for that word). Here's a photo of what the mud looks like as the bubbles come up:

Mud pots in Yellowstone National Park

Anyway, I just uploaded our best pictures. Page One. Page Two.

Oh, I just saw Dave Winer saying that security will be extra tight at FU-Camp this summer. Dave's such a joker! Hey, Dave, I think we'll have FU-Camp at my mom's house this summer sometime. Maybe in August after all the conferences are finished.

You'll just have to watch for the flying mud.

Anyway, I'm still taking off until this weekend. I didn't even sign on my laptop the past few days. Maryam couldn't believe that I didn't take it with us to Jackson Hole.

Oh, speaking of Jackson, WY, I had the best food I've had this year in Burke's Chop House in Jackson. What made it best? The small things. The way they cut the apples and strawberries that adorned my salad. The wine they picked. The setting. The staff.

But, they don't have a Web site.

That's just weird to me. I guess I wouldn't mind so much, but the restaurant was only half full. Interesting that the management does everything else right but isn't spending any time on marketing to people who'll visit Jackson. Remember that almost all of the potential customers will come from outside Jackson. So, having a presence on the Web makes a lot of sense to me.

Anyway, see ya this weekend. We have two days of driving ahead of us after the funeral. Maryam made us keep the BMW at home, too, which really bummed me out. We rented a Jeep. What a cruddy car. It only has 11,000 miles on it and it sounds worse than her Toyota did after 65,000.

A few other things before I sign off again. It's nice to see my recent blogging has had a positive impact on people. Jeff, my boss, decided to start blogging personal stuff again.

Oh, and when we went to Chico Hot Springs the other night there were two beautiful women (Bridget and Jen) who were waving at me and giggling, but I'll let Maryam write that story. Let's just say I can't escape from bloggers, even in small-town Montana. And I didn't mind that at all! :-)

Endless Walkway at Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone

Update: sometimes a photo is worth freezing your behind off for. This is one of those photos. It took a 20 minute walk in freezing wind/snow/rain (sometimes all three together). And the image just happened for a few seconds as steam from the Grand Prismatic Spring floated over the walkway making it look like the walkway was endless. In reality there are some kids on the other side of the steam. Another 15 seconds and they'd reappear. Damn it was cold, though. Too bad the photo can't communicate that!

One last thing. A few people have asked where my mom's house is. That caused me to plug "Emigrant, Montana" into Google Maps and Virtual Earth (er, Windows Local Live). I learned that my mom's street doesn't exist in Google, but does in Windows Live (she lives on Capricorn Drive). Here, take a look for yourself: Google search for Emigrant, Montana. Local Live search for Emigrant, Montana. Google isn't even close to as good a quality a map for Montana. Interesting.

The questioning of career, life, family, love follows grief (taking a week off of blogging)

Two days ago Maryam told me that she always wanted a BMW (we've been planning a car purchase for a while cause her Toyota was starting to show its age).

So, last night, what did I do? I bought her one. A BMW 325i. By far the wackiest, and scariest, and most irrational purchase I've ever made. Why? Because my alimony is coming to an end this summer (4.5 years of paying more than $1,100 per month, and that's not including child support). But, this is not usual behavior for me. What brought it on? My mom's stroke and death reminded me that life is temporary. She reminded me that it's important to have fun while you're here. Even if you are a workahaolic. Smell the roses and all that.

I might regret such an impetuous purchase (particularly after we get the bill). It is expensive. And wild. But it is such a nice car. And Maryam deserves it. She stayed with me even when I'd blog late into the night. If I'm lucky, she'll let me drive it once in a while. And I am lucky. Heheh! Actually, I was totally shocked when the bank approved the purchase.

I am totally fortunate to be in that position. Something we often forget in the midst of wild wealth that we have here on the West Coast (over the weekend a Mercedes SLR rolled by, that's a car that costs $700,000 to buy, which is $660,000 more than the one I bought Maryam). This is an unreal world. Most of the world lives on $2 a day. I forget that a lot of times. But I just said the heck with it.

Tonight, though, I find I'm questioning everything about my life. Am I doing the right things? Treating people well enough? Doing enough to improve the world?

What do I want to do career wise? I've had some wild opportunities thrown at me recently. Should I consider them? For what reason? What's the value I add to the world? Can I do more? Are there things that I'd love to do more than taking a camcorder around Microsoft and representing Microsoft to developers? In five years, where do I want to be? Who do I want to be?

What kind of father should I be? I haven't been a good one, all truth be told. My son is hurtling into his teenage years. What kind of role model should I be? How could I get more involved in his life? He's coming to stay with us next month. What should we do together? Yeah, the Xbox is all primed, but it's time to do more than just play gadgets. Maybe take him camping.

How do I want to be a better husband? What is important to me in our home life?

Oh, my mom's sister? Three of her siblings died when they were 66 (including my mom). She's 65 and is really worried. What would you do if you knew you had a year to live? I answered myself "I'd buy Maryam a BMW and we'd drive around having fun." Which led to my impulsive behavior last night. Can someone remind me to keep me away from expensive toys during times of grief?

Tonight I talked with Vic Gundotra, the guy who hired me into Microsoft. He told me how times like this in life (when you lose someone important to you, or meet tragedy) bring into hyper focus what's important. I'm not so sure. I liked life four weeks ago when I thought I had it all figured out.

Now all I have is questions.

Anyway, I'm going to take a week off to ponder these questions, and more, get some exercise, and take care of my mom's affairs (she designated me as the one she wanted to take care of her estate).

I thought about continuing to blog, but really, there's times that one just needs to go sit quietly in the middle of Yellowstone or another park and pick the lint out of your bellybutton and ponder life's questions. This is one of those times.

Hey, got some answers? Give 'em up! Heheh. See ya back here on about June 4.

A doctor’s reminder

First, she knew this was coming but there's some other things I want to wrap up.

First, she knew this was coming. She closed her store the week before she went into the hospital (and had been trying to sell it for months).

She told lots of people she was tired and thought something bad was going to happen. She even, after having the first proceedure completed successfully, thought she cheated death.

But, she had some wacky beliefs. It's why I wasn't very close with her. She was VERY into alternative medicine and didn't believe in doctors at all.

That belief might have cost her some time here. We'll never know for sure.

One reason I wanted to share this is if you aren't feeling well, go see a doctor, even if you don't have health insurance. It might save your life.

Dave Winer told me stories similar. We all get stubborn and don't want to hear bad news. So we put off that kind of stuff until absolutely necessary.

In my mom's case she had more than a liter of fluid around her heart that had been getting worse over a matter of months.

Not going into the doctor made that initial heart condition much worse than it would have been had it been caught early.

Coming back from Montana I sat next to a lady who was reading a best-selling book on alternative medicine. I almost talked to her about my mom but decided against it. My mom wouldn't listen to reason. I got the sense that this lady sitting next to me believed strongly in alternative medicine too and so wouldn't listen to reason either.

But, I read over her shoulder some of the book. The author (who I won't name here, cause he's already preyed on too many) takes a decided anti-corporate stance.

That anti-corporate attitude makes it easy to prey on people, particularly older people who are scared of the Walmarts and Microsoft's and other big companies.

I don't know how to solve that. More will die cause of the fear of the doctor. Of the corporations. Of the hospitals. Of misunderstanding scientific principles. Of not believing true experts. (Hey, I'm not one, so don't believe me, but don't believe everything you read in books or on the Internet either).

One of her doctors, on hearing this, said he always listens when people say that they think they are going to die soon. He says that actually comes true a lot of times, so he takes that very seriously and looks harder for problems.

Over the past two weeks I find myself wondering "what if?"

Seemed like something good to remind everyone else of too.

Oh, and whether or not you believe in alternative medicine, at least do what my mom did. Have a will drawn up. Make sure everyone knows where your bank accounts are and what you want to happen in case something bad happens in the hospital and the family needs to decide on your behalf whether you should be kept alive or not. One other thing I wish she had done? Made it easier to find all of her friends and family's phone numbers. That reminds me to do some cleaning on my contacts and printing them out.

Anyway, some things to think about.