The innovative spirit of a leader

A leader is a trail blazer. He invents and creates. Others follow and repeat. A leader has to innovate when existing path does not exist.

A leader dares to be different and dares to be the first. When being so, he may look strange to others. As Steve Jobs puts it, they are “the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes.” It takes significant courage to be such a person, particularly in a large organization where you could easily lose your job for being too much of a troublemaker.

The fact that organizations force confirmation on individuals implies the innovative spirit is repressed and sorely lacking in such a place. The abundant resources in a big organization do not guarantee innovative products. It at most produces mediocre products. Thus we see continuous appearance of new startups in Silicon Valley even when Google and Facebook are still growing.

The good news is that there is infinite way to innovate. You never have to worry about running out of ways to improve existing systems. The bad news is that you have to find your unique way in this crowd of innovators.

If you work in a large organization, you can still find ways to beat the bureaucracy of the system. You can move fast and in doing so shake up the system in small or big ways. You may encounter a lot of resistance and it may take tremendous energy to get even small things done. This begs the question: Why do people stay at such large system when their innovative ability is at its peak?

Large organization offers a large playground. It offers supporting environment for long-term R&D. For data scientists, these are ideal places to conduct both research and development of large-scale data products. While in a small organization (unless it is a startup built on innovative data mining ideas), you never get the time to build sound and solid products.

Many large Internet companies still preserve the spirit of innovation: Consider Apple and Google. While Apple’s innovation is driven top down by its deceased founder Steven Jobs, Google’s innovation is bottom up. Google gives a lot of room for engineers and researchers to come up with new ideas and get funding and resources to work on those ideas. This is due to fact that they hire top tier computer science engineers and researchers. These people by nature are highly motivated, self-driven and independent. Thus they bring leadership to the organization. – Thus Steve Jobs’ advice to Larry Page on “focus” is misguided. While Apple emphasizes “focus” due to its top-down structure, Google’s innovative spirit is best realized in its free exploring culture, where excellent products like Gmail, Google News and Google Maps were created by a small group of enginners. When Larry Page gave up his own model and imposed Jobs’ top-down approach, his pet project Google+ failed miserably.  (Check this article: Why Google Plus is a failure March 13, 2012)

Outside Apple and Google, in any other company there is still a lot of room to innovate. You can innovate in the space of engineering methods, or you can innovate in marketing approaches and so on.

The real leadership lesson from Steve Jobs is innovation. Without innovation, a company will be stagnant and eventually die. Without innovation, a person cannot truly be a leader. Let us embrace our own innovative spirit and step up to be a leader.

iPhone becomes No. 2 smart phone in US

Just read on the web, in 2009, iPhone users finally surpassed windows mobile users. Here is the chart.

Consider the fact that iPhone was launched only a little 2 years ago in June 2007, this achievement is astonishing.

iPhone’s growth is accelerating, while windows mobile is stagnating. Google Android phone has it potential, but still lags far behind iPhone. It will be interesting to see whether iPhone will eventually surpass blackberry. This will happen if AT&T is not the sole carrier for iPhone. Many people want to switch but hesitates because they want to stay with current carriers (Verizon and Sprint).

The secret behind Amazon’s success

What is behind Amazon’s solid growth? What makes it consistently deliver such quality service for the last 16 years? The secret lies with its founder – Jeff Bezos. Like Apple’s Steve Jobs, and Google’s founders Page and Brin, Jeff Bezos is deeply involved with the day-to-day operation at Amazon. He has been with Amazon since its beginning. The consistency of Amazon’s quality service and fast innovation is a direct reflection on Bezos’ personal drive, discipline, business savvy, and vision.

In 1994 Jeff Bezos raised money from his family members to create the first online bookstore. Due to its large book selection including many out-of-print books (a selection much larger than traditional bookstores), Amazon gained popularity among book buyers. Soon Amazon became the largest bookstore, and a success model on how E-commerce can work. After its success as online book seller, Amazon transformed itself into an online retail store. It sells anything from baby diaper to laptop computers. The third move by Amazon was cloud computing. Utilizing its large computing infrastructure, Amazon started to offer cloud computing to small companies who need flexible computing capacities. This pioneered a new era for large-scale on-demand computing. Today, Google, IBM and HP have all entered the market. The fourth prominent innovation Amazon had was its e-reader Kindle. With its wireless sync technology and easiness to purchase, Kindle quickly dominated the e-reader market. Today, Amazon as a company enjoys high growth of about 50% a year. Its online traffic growth is accelerating. Its stock is priced at $146, twice of what it was a year ago.

Bezos is visionary and bold to take risk. He looks far ahead and understands the unique opportunity presented by an initiative. When he launched prime membership on Amazon, where a member pays $80 a year in exchange for free express delivery, it generated a lot of doubt, even within Amazon. But this turned out to be a brilliant move. Prime membership generates large cash up front for Amazon, ensures loyal buyers, and enhances online shopping experience. It’s win-win for both Amazon and its customers.

When Bezos promoted cloud computing, very few people understand the significance of this offer, the technology and business implication. Today, it is at the forefront of the second-wave Internet technology. From Google to IBM, to Cisco, companies with large computing resoures  all vie to be providers for this service.

Bezos instilled a corporate culture of strong customer focus. Everything is about customer experience. All engineering effort supports online shopping experience. Amazon is the first company to show “in stock” status, and the first to promise “ship within 24 hours”. The free return policy makes remote buying easy and riskless.

Most successful companies have customer-cenered policy. But it takes a strong founder to instill it into daily operation of every part of business. Bezos hold meetings with all major product groups regularly, and he asks sharp and insightful questions. In such daily involvement, he has created a coherent goal and consistent performance target. In addition, he instilled his personal drive behind every initiative.

The management of Amazon company is very disciplined and scientific. There are metrics for every stage of engineering. From design, to web testing, to customer satisfaction evalution. The performance of each employee and group is also measured by metrics. Amazon is the first to invent A/B testing for launching new online feaures.

The last secret of Amazon’s success is its people. Amazon attracts a group of highly motivated, self-starting and highly-educated people to its workforce. Like Google, Amazon hires a large amount of Ph.D. computer science graduates, and put them in engineering positions. Once these people are on board, they take initiative in their projects and drive product innovation.  Amazon also hires MBA graduates from top universities around the country.

Amazon’s success is inpiring to all of us. Behind every success, there is a path. With current trend continuing, Amazon will become a much larger and even more formidable company in the next decade. We can learn from its success, and create lasting and successful business.

Good Web Practices

A good website is measured by how much traffic it attracts. To measure the effectiveness of a website, traffic is the only and best criterion. What kind of practices bring high traffic? For this, we can simply take a look at the top 10 websites ranked by traffic ( http://www.alexa.com/site/ds/top_500 ). From these and other popular websites, we have the following conclusions:

1.  A heavy-traffic site is not necessarily a “good looking” site. Some sites can have very plain design. For example, facebook has a very plain page, but its traffic is ranked 7th in the world, with 58 million active users. Some sites look crowded and ugly, but still attract a lot of visitors. For example, democratic underground has a very unflattering home page, but its traffic is ranked 1,759 in the US and 12,525 in the world. (Websites within top 10,000 range is considered high-traffic site.)

2.      The key to high-traffic sites is functionality rather than “beautiful face”. The more information a user can get from a site and the more useful the site is, the more traffic it will receives. For example, Huffingtonpost.com has traffic rank 395 in the US, and 2,757 in the world. This is because its fresh political blogs written by high-profile bloggers (more than a dozen for its political columns). However, the design for this website is poor and much space is not efficiently used. Another site Wikipedia has extremely simple design, but you can find deep and useful content by search. Wikipedia has the traffic rank 9 in the world.

3.      Two important ingredients that attract eyeballs: news and video. A website that reports news will surely attract people to visit it again and again. Thus digg.com, a site that collects user-reported news, is ranked 29 in the US and 139 in the world. Blogging sites like Huffingtonpost.com also adds news to its content. Video sites like youtube is ranked 3 in the world, next only to Yahoo and Google. Video sites in other languages are also widely popular: The Chinese video sites toodou.com and 56.com is ranked 120 and 159 respectively. This is probably the reason that many websites now have video features. Between the two features, video typically outperforms news (which is mostly text) in attracting user visit.

4.      Fresh content is essential for high traffic. Be it news, video, or user posting, a site has to update its content constantly. This means updating daily, hourly or even every minute. Digg.com has it content updated almost every second. The nature of human attention demand freshness. A user will quickly be turned off by a site that stays stale. 

5.      User participation is key for the rapid growth of traffic. Giving the limited time and resources of the web creators, the content has to come from the user. (The only exception is search companies like Google or Yahoo, which has thousands of machines that grab contents from the Internet automatically.) The form of user participation can be many: uploading video (youtube), posting comments (huffingtonpost), posting in forum (democraticunderground), creating personal profile (facebook), posting news link (digg.com), posting ratings and reviews (imdb.com), and so on.

In summary, a good website is one that provides useful content to the user, is very fresh and has high user participation. Utilizing multimedia such as video also helps to boost the traffic. If we follow these principles, we will see an excellent website.