How much does this stuff actually help?

November 20th, 2008

We've been so focused on some big new initiatives at ClearContext the past few months that my blogging pace has really taken a huge hit.  I have a big backlog of topics to cover, but besides a quick Thanksgiving trip have no other travel planned for a while, so hopefully will do a better job at staying on top of them over the next few weeks.  I can't believe I still haven't blogged about exciting progress being made at IORG or about various excellent presentations and discussions from Defrag.  Soon, soon, I promise!

The first topic I want to touch on is something that actually came up a few times at Defrag.  There are so many products and companies trying to tackle issues around information overload, with new companies popping up seemingly every day – especially in the email space.  However, few of these companies actually address the issue of how much their products actually help people with the real problems they face with email.  Instead, the focus is often just on cool new features and soft benefits that almost always sound good, but often don't address the huge pain that people and companies are facing with levels of email that they simply can't keep up with.

Few companies have done a good job at identifying the real problems, providing good measurement and metrics to users, and using that information to actually help users with their problems.  I'll address those three areas briefly, but they are definitely worth going into more depth in future posts.

The problems people face with email today

This is the area that is easiest to understand, and most companies in the space focus on a similar/overlapping set of issues people face, including things like:

Getting more email than they can handle
Spending too much time dealing with email
Being unable to respond to email in a timely manner
Can't find information they need in email

There are many more issues, but you get the idea.

Measurement and metrics

Here is where things start to get shakier.  Outside of some research experiements and internal corporate projects, most people and companies don't have a good understanding of the numbers that they are dealing with.  As awareness of email and information overload problems grows, questions like these are starting to get more focus:

How many emails are people getting?
How quickly are they responding?
How many responses are they able to send?
How behind are they getting with emails piling up in their inbox?

Of course, those are just a few examples of basic metrics.

How (and how much) do products help and what should people do?

OK, so we do some measurements, and guess what – people get too many emails, get way behind on responding, and can't keep stuff organized.  So now what?   This is where things get most challenging.

To really solve the biggest problems people face dealing with information, we need to help people understand which of those measurements are the key sources of their problems and show them how they can most effectively use our products and solutions to improve their performance.  And if done right, provide them a feedback loop that actually shows them measureable results illustrating their improvement over time. 

The better an understanding all of us in this industry have about the biggest problems, key measurements, and most effective solutions, the better we'll be able to serve our customers.  So over the next few weeks I'm going to spend some time asking others involved in this area what they see as the most important points in those areas and sharing their input both here and with IORG members.

Pete Warden on defining the future of email

October 28th, 2008

I recently wrote a post about the newest batch of email-related startups. Pete Warden has compiled a list of ten tools defining the future of email.  It's a worthwhile roundup to check out.


October 9th, 2008

A little tour around the blog world today…

Gloom and Doom – or Capital Efficency writes Brad Feld about what most everyone in the startup world is writing about these days – bracing for tough economic times.  He references an excellent post Capital Efficiency Finds Its Moment by Fred Wilson that talks about doing a lot while staying lean and mean.

I’ll refrain from linking to the countless blog posts talking about how in times of economic turmoil companies should focus on reducing expenses, having necessary capital in place, and growing revenues.  Thanks for that newsflash, everyone!

Instead I’ll point you to Howard Lindzon’s great post Too Small To Fail. He applies that mantra to finance and startups, but I really think that can apply to so many people’s situation, whether as an individual, a startup company, or a team/group in a bigger company.  While huge macro-level stuff is going on around us, almost all of us can find ways to succeed in our little corner of the world if we are smart and nimble. 

Which brings me to Scoble’s post on The Enterprise Email Crisis.  Of course this is a major pain point!  Most of us are receiving 100 or more emails every day – and that’s after all the obvious spam is filtered out.  That’s hours a day of reading, processing, and responding to email.  As individuals and companies find themselves needing to do more with less, time and efficiency become even more critical. 

Instead of checking where the Dow is every five minutes seconds, I’m doing as much as possible to take advantage of the critical need for people to work more efficiently, especially when it comes to communication, collaboration, and email.  We’ve been working on measurable, tangible ways to help people be more productive with email at ClearContext for a while and have been looking even further into the future of solutions with colleagues at the Information Overload Research Group.  And oh yeah, discussing these problems with a bunch of smart people at Defrag (dh1 for reg discount if you decide to go!). A lot of things are going to slow down in these times, but innovation shouldn’t be one of them.

Another year, another batch of email companies

September 14th, 2008

I’ve written a bunch in the past about email innovation and what’s coming (or needs to come) next.  Problems and opportunities around email have received a lot of attention over the past year, and along with that attention has come a new crop of startups with their own take on things.  Here are a few that have recently been announced:

Gist "[connects] your inbox to the web" allowing you to "get business-critical information about key people and companies."  They sound like a more ambitious version of Xobni – both companies pull together email and other information about each of your contacts.  If Gist is successful in combining email search with web search to provide one-stop shopping for information on people and companies, it will prove to be a very useful tool.

OtherInbox is "a free email account that automatically organizes newsletters, social
networking updates, coupons and receipts from online purchases."  We’ve focused on this area a bit with ClearContext Notification Managers with a focus on "bacn" type email.  What OtherInbox really reminds me of, though, is a very focused implementation of whitelist and challenge/response systems like Boxbe and BlueBottle.  However, by focusing on one very narrow problem area, OtherInbox is able to use a very simple organizational approach. Their big challenge is obvious – getting people to sign up for yet another email account when most people have at least one webmail account in addition to a work account, while webmail providers continue to improve their spam/bacn management capabilities.

PostBox is trying something very ambitious – a whole new email client.  I’m sure PostBox has a lot more planned, but right now it seems a little underwhelming from the preview screenshots and descriptions.  Not a whole lot we haven’t seen already from existing clients and plugins.  A key feature of theirs is an attachment viewer that looks similar to what Xoopit does for GMail and we do in the ClearContext Attachment Explorer.  They also talk about web integration and organization around topics, things that Zenbe is trying to tackle with a new webmail platform.

So, a lot of evolutionary here, and not so much revolutionary.  Of this new batch of companies, I’m probably most interested in seeing what Gist does.  If they can succesfully create an automated filtrbox type service driven from my email, it’s definitely something that will be quite useful to me.

For discussion on more revolutionary approaches, come join us at the Fixing Foundational Information Channels session at Defrag (code dh1 gets you a reg discount btw).  And check out ClearContext later this week for our own take on where email is headed!

TechCrunch vs DEMO – by the numbers

September 4th, 2008

Edit: Updated status for Metaplace, Orgoo, and VUVOX based on comments. Numbers updated based on that, but analysis wasn’t really impacted (though there may well be more updates coming). Updated CircleUp status.

I’ve been mostly ignoring all the TechCrunch50 vs DEMO 2008 back and forth as they battle it out for the title of best startup launch conference.  However, Scoble’s post where he talked about his impressions of how they match up got me thinking.  Since I’m an info and analysis junkie, I decided to spend a couple of hours the last two evenings to put together a quick, as objective as possible, shootout between the two to see how good they really are at selecting the best startups and acting as a launchpad for them.

Here’s how I did it.  I grabbed the list of companies from TechCrunch40 and Demo2007. I then clicked onto the homepage and looked for a news/about section.  If I didn’t know anything about the startup I did a quick Google web and news search as well.  Based on that, I ranked each one as follows:

0 – Dead
1 – Inactive (no news/updates for 6+ months, no evidence of any traction)
2 – Active (working away, making progress)
3 – Successful (lots of positive activity, major funding/customer/press/buzz/etc)
4 – Killing It! (dominant market position, major revenues, big exit, etc)

(Note: I spent about 1 minute per company on this, so there will almost certainly be some mistakes here, feel free to comment/correct – I did this just to satisfy my own curiosity, not to make any sort of definitive analysis)

So, how do they stack up?  First, the numbers:

Demo 2007:

Average: 1.9

TechCrunch 40:

Average 2.2

Now, the analysis.  Overall, they don’t look hugely different in outcome and the numbers on the edges are still pretty small, but the edge definitely goes to TechCrunch.  Not surprisingly, the most common status of startups from both conferences a year later is that they are plugging away, building their businesses.  But in this small sample, the failure rate of Demo companies is significantly higher.  Most importantly, about a third of the TC companies have hit some major success milestones as compared to less than 20% of their Demo counterparts.   

So, if you’re a startup, based on last year’s results TC really does look like the better launchpad.  And if you’re a journalist, investor, dealmaker, jobseeker or whoever else interested in the startup world and looking for the next big thing, your chance of picking a winner looks to be higher at TechCrunch.

Here are the buckets I put companies into, obviously there’s some subjectivity here, but 90+% of my decision was made based on the info on their own websites (please note any errors due to name changes, stealth mode, etc in the comments):

TechCrunch 40
0: GotStatus
1: app2you, Cognitive Code, CrowdSpirit, Loudtalks, Metaplace (Areae), Orgoo, Teach The People, Wixi, XTR3D (Extreme Reality)
2: 8020 Publishing, BeFunky, BroadClip, CastTV, Ceedo, Cubic Telecom, DocStoc, FAROO, Kerpoof, mEgo, Metaplace, MusicShake, Orgoo, Ponoko, Spottt (AdBrite), Story Blender (Enfra Networks), Trutap, Viewdle, Yap (a couple of those arguably 3)
3: Cake Financial, Clickable, Flock, FlowPlay, Kaltura (DemoPit WildCard), PubMatic, TripIt, WooMe, Xobni, Zivity, ZocDoc (a couple like TripIt, Xobni arguably 4)
4: Mint, Powerset

Demo 2007

excluded due to stage of company: Adobe Systems, Inc., Aggregate Knowledge, Alcatel-Lucent Ventures, blinkx, Inc., Boston-Power, Inc., ClipSyndicate, a service of Critical Mention, Devicescape Software, Inc., Seagate Technology, SupportSoft, Inc., Symantec Corp., Wyse Technology, Inc., ZoomInfo
0: BUZ Interactive, Mobio Networks, Reveal Technology, Inc., TeleFlip, Inc.
1: Brevient Technologies, Inc., CircleUp, Inc., DARTdevices Corp., DesignIn, Inc., GoWare, Inc., Honeypitch, Inilex, Inc., iqzone, inc., Iwerx, LLC., My Currency Co., Nuvoiz, Inc., OurStory, PairUp, Inc., VUVOX Network, Inc., Yodio, Inc.
2: 6th Sense Analytics, Inc., Attendio, Inc., Bling Software, Inc., Boorah, Inc., Ceelox, Inc., CircleUp, eJamming, Inc., Eyejot, Inc., Helium, Inc, ink2 Corporation, Integrien Corp.,,, Mission Research, Mixpo Portfolio Broadcasting, Inc.,, Preclick Corp., QTech, Inc., SharedBook, Inc.,, SOASTA, Inc., SplashCast, Inc., TextDigger, Inc., ThePort Network, Inc., Total Immersion, Trailfire, Inc., Triumfant, Inc., WHISHER.COM
3:, Inc., Kauffman Innovation Network, Inc., Me.dium, Inc., Nextumi, SailPoint Technologies, Inc., Serendipity Technologies, Inc., Vringo, Inc., ZINK Imaging, LLC.
4: Nexo Systems, Inc., VUVOX, Zoho / AdventNet, Inc.(Nexo and VUVOX were both relatively small deals, but hey, I’m an entrepreneur too, so I’ll be optimistic about these exits!)

Email marketing and next-generation email apps

August 22nd, 2008

CRN reported that a recent Marshal poll showed 29% of their sample bought something from a spam email.  I’m skeptical of that number, but whatever, spam and more respectable direct email marketing aren’t going away anytime soon. 

The DMA Email Marketing Blog recently posted pondering the impact artificial intelligence and related technologies in email will have on e-mail marketing.  They reference two Outlook plugins that are giving users new ways to look at their email, Xobni and my company, ClearContext.

I think that there’s a big opportunity for next-generation email apps to not only help get rid of unwanted email marketing, but to also help highlight email marketing messages that are relevant and wanted.  ClearContext is not the only one interested in email prioritization, though we have some of the deepest experience and best understanding in the marketplace of how email prioritization impacts users in their day-to-day usage of email.  Most people don’t use prioritization as an absolute guide to how they process email, but instead as an indicator for classes and groups of emails that they want to initally focus their attention on and which ones to completely ignore.  In that first phase of email triage, smart technology can learn which classes of marketing email people actually care about.

Another advancement in email is understanding the nature of different types of emails and putting them in the appropriate context.  The inbox is one big  bucket where all email is handled the same way.  But many people don’t want to deal with marketing emails while they are focused on getting their work done.  On the other hand, they very well might want to see what discounts they have been sent from stores they frequent before doing some shopping online or heading to the mall.  That’s where features like our Notification Managers can be used to automatically send entire classes of email like retail marketing messages into a specific area, perhaps categorized by retailer. Instead of frustrating people and getting deleted or unsubscribed from, these messages can be put in a context where people can get real value from them at the appropriate time.

A couple of commenters write that email marketers can succeed by "delivering useful, targeted content and offers on a regular basis" and that "relevance will dictate if an email is read or not."  I think those comments are right on the money.  The right next-generation email technology might banish unwanted direct marketing emails, but if done right, it will also identify and help people utilize the marketing emails that are actually relevant and valuable to them.


August 15th, 2008

I’m excited to be participating in the Defrag conference this year.  It’s Nov 3-4 in Denver.  Here’s some more about the conference.  There’s a really interesting group of people at Defrag – all involved in figuring out innovative ways to deal with the varied set of challenges faced due to a constantly shifting technology landscape and an always-increasing sea of information.  Eric Norlin has pulled together a diverse group of people in a format that allows plenty of time for deeper discussion than most conferences have.  The agenda features a bunch of great speakers and topics. I’m on a panel discussing "Fixing Foundational Information Channels" with a group of people working on better ways to share, present, and consume information. If you have ideas for interesting areas of discussion for that panel, please comment – I’m hoping we can go a level further than much of the common discussion in these areas that revolves largely around incremental changes to existing applications and platforms.

For anyone interested in attending, today (Aug 15) August 31 is the last day for early bird registration prices.  You can get another $100 off by entering "dh1" as a discount code here.  I hope some of you are able to make it to the conference, and I look forward to brainstorming on some good discussion topics in advance of the event.

IORG IORG IORG – conference around the corner!

July 11th, 2008

Wow.  What a month.  I can’t believe it has been almost a month since my last blog post.  Sorry about that, but between ClearContext and IORG (with a few tennis matches thrown in, some epic Wimbledon to watch, and the fourth of July!) I’ve been too swamped to even think about it.

But there’s so much to write about.  Most importantly, we’re almost ready for the IORG Conference on Tuesday, July 15.  I’m very excited about the group we have attending the conference.  The group includes some of the top minds in academic and corporate research of information overload, a lot of software execs on the leading edge of technology to combat information overload, and a number of analysts, authors, and businesspeople who are focused on studying, analyzing, and addressing the challenges of information overload faced by both individuals and corporations.

We’ll have a lot of Information Overload Research Group news in the next week or two that I can’t wait to share with you.  A lot of great people and companies are rallying around IORG – there’s no question that there’s an intense need for a group like this.  As we continue to expand our membership, we’ll be well positioned to facilitate the types of collaborations between university researchers, corporate researchers, software and other solution providers, and end-users that will lead to solutions that really work.  I can’t wait to get moving.

And the coverage about IORG continues to be great.  Here are a couple of recent pieces in the Wall Street Journal by Gordon Crovitz and USA Today Tech Blog by Jon Swartz.  Hope to meet some of you on Tuesday in New York!

Information Overload Research Group news wrapup

June 14th, 2008

Wow.  We publicly launched the Information Overload Research Group yesterday, thanks to Matt Richtel’s NYC article Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast (which was originally titled Creators of E-Mail Monster Now Try to Tame It – not sure which one I like better).  The article is currently at the top of the NYT most-emailed tech stories list, high on Techmeme, and is being blogged about all over the place.  It’s really great to see this much interest and excitement about information overload and IORG.  A lot of smart folks have given their perspective on information overload and Matt’s story.  Here’s a wrapup of a number of the blog posts:

Merlin Mann asks the question  “What does a company get out of its employees spending half their day using an email program?” and provides his perspective on using email as a tool.

Beth Kanter suggests that we "Turn Off the Damn Email Software and Get Some Work Done (Or go for a walk)!" and shares a number of tips and links to numerous articles and resources on information overload.

Tony Wright worries that "the increasingly personalized infoporn delivered to us through a
broadening array of channels (like RSS, alerts, Twitter, Digg, Email,
IM, Social Networks and more) is a looming disaster."

Paul Mooney points to "Meetings about meetings, emails about phone calls, efficiency tools and
methodologies that nobody can figure out, it’s no wonder burnout is so
prevalent." as a root cause.

Henry Blodget keys in on the claim that "American workers waste $650 billion a year checking email too often."

TJ Kirchner acknowledges the problem, but cautions that companies shouldn’t "use this to
implement really stupid rules and codes of conduct that will only
reduce company moral[e]."

There were also some very good alternate perspectives/counterpoints to the article:

Stowe Boyd posts a lengthy and very insightful rebuttal/counterpoint to a number of the points raised in the NYT piece and much of the conventional wisdom around information overload. "The old school thinking is about individual productivity: but the
social revolution has moved past that into network productivity, which
entails connectedness and social meaning. The personal hit on
productivity is real, but it’s not a cost: it’s an investment; and the
juice is worth the squeeze."  I think Stowe brings up a lot of very interesting and valid points that remind us that there are many moving parts in play here and the best solutions are not necessarily the most obvious ones.

Mark Evans
asks "Is Digital Productivity Dead?" and "is today’s knowledge worker
unproductive or do knowledge workers operate differently?"

And on a related note:

Maggie Jackson, the author of Distracted and a featured speaker at the IORG Conference, writes in BusinessWeek about distractions and interruptions.

Nathan Zeldes shares his observations and provides a detailed update of results from the "Quiet Time" and "No Email Day" experiments at Intel.

That should be plenty to overload you with information about information overload!

Information Overload Research Group launches

June 13th, 2008

About a year and a half ago, I participated in a workshop with about 20 other people focused on the problem of information overload.  This group included academics researching the impact and novel solutions to the problem, researchers from huge companies like Microsoft, Google, Intel, and IBM, analysts in the space, and a couple of people like me from companies working on information overload solutions.

We had a lot of great discussions, many of which really just got kicked off at the workshop.  A number of us thought that it would be worthwhile to continue these discussions across this cross-section of people doing cutting-edge work in this field.  We formed a steering committee and decided to build on the workshop and create a nonprofit organization focused on the huge and growing problem of information overload.

It took a lot of work, but after a year of meetings, discussions, and debates with an incredibly knowledgeable group of colleagues in this field, we’re now ready to officially launch the organization.  I’m really excited about the opportunities ahead of us.  Matt Richtel just wrote a great article in the New York Times that talks about the Information Overload Research Group
, some of the things we hope to accomplish, and why we think it’s so important.  A couple of my fellow IORG board members, Nathan Zeldes and Jonathan Spira, are featured prominently in the article.

Our first annual conference is going to be held in New York on July 15th.  The final agenda is still shaping up, but we already have a number of great speakers and panelists lined up, including Maggie Jackson, the author of the new book Distracted.

I’ll be writing quite a bit more both here and on the Information Overload Research Group blog over the coming weeks.  A big thanks to all of my friends at IORG who have helped make this happen.  It has been a real pleasure working with them, and I’m very excited about the future of this important organization.