Product Development and a Strong Vision

March 13, 2010

At VendAsta we have been working for the better part of a year and a half on  projects that fall under our http://www.SocialConnections.com umbrella.  VendAsta has a team of world class software developers, but building  software products from scratch is difficult. Period.   You need more than a great team and a good idea.  If a product  is to have any chance of success it must have a clear and compelling Vision and it must be needed.  It must serve some need or  solve a  problem- business or otherwise.

For various reasons both internal and external, the vision for our http://www.SocialConnection.com products  hasn’t always been clear or consistent and at end of the day this is the responsibility of the executive and leadership .  Building, sharing and articulating a company’s vision is extremely important, but is easier said than done. Initially the vision for our products were not as strong as I personally would have liked them to be.  However, in the fall of 2009 a lot of what we had learned in the preceding year started to make sense and strong visions for StepRep and Mashedin emerged.

Having a strong vision is one thing, sharing it with the world is another.  As Mashedin and StepRep come together we will redoubling our efforts to share their vision.

To this end I recently sent an email to all our StepRep beta users explaining how we started, where we have come from, and where we are going.   Also I described our vision, which is to make StepRep the premier Reputation Intelligence and Social Engagement tool for small and medium businesses.

Here is the letter:

Subject: An Open Letter to StepRep Users

From: Brendan King, CEO

Hello {insert name here},

Please let me take this opportunity to thank you for using StepRep. We have been making a lot of changes and many of you have asked “What the heck is going on?”. Some of these changes are part of a larger development cycle and results in features that don’t work as expected and/or loss of  functionality. I want to thank you for hanging in there and bearing with us. The changes are all part of a larger plan.

In order to best explain what we are trying to achieve I thought it prudent to tell you where we came from and how we got to where we are.

Originally StepRep was part of MyFrontSteps, a solution to connect home owners with home service providers (real estate agents, plumbers, carpenters, landscapers, etc.). StepRep was envisioned as a personal Reputation Alert tool (much like Google Alerts) to allow these service providers to monitor what was being said about them online. It would also
help them to build their reputation by allowing them to place the positive stories on a widget which they could promote in various places. StepRep would also be the place where these small business people would be exposed and interact with questions from potential customers. Remember the “Asks” tab?

Along the way we discovered that we vastly underestimated the need for Reputation Intelligence and social engagement tools. We have found that small and medium business have a growing appetite and tremendous demand for these tools.

Our vision and goal is to make StepRep the premier Reputation Intelligence and Social Engagement tool for small and medium businesses. We want to do much more than provide alerts for key word terms. We want StepRep to give you information you can use to make your real world business better. This is a simplistic example but, imagine your business is a restaurant and people are saying “your lunch special is awesome but your bathrooms are dirty”, we want you to know. This way you can market your lunch special and clean up your bathrooms. We also want you to help you engage your customers where they are talking. Our Social publishing tool is designed to help you take advantage of Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. We intend to add Google Buzz and other places where consumers are talking. Lastly we want to make sure
your business can be found. Our business listing will help you get your business listed online in places like Google Local business center all the way down to small local directories.

To this end we have been doing a lot of work “under the hood” and some of our recent work is not complete. Again I want to reiterate my sincere apologies if these changes have inconvenienced you. I hope you will hang in there. We want StepRep to be the best Reputation Intelligence and social engagement tool available. We understand that in the short term the changes might be frustrating, especially when it is not clear how you can accomplish the tasks with which you are familiar. For instance, we are introducing automated sentiment detection (Positive, Neutral, Negative) so that you
don’t have to do all the work yourself. To do this we have had to temporarily disable your ability to set sentiment manually but your ability to assign sentiment will return very soon.

Over the 2nd quarter of 2010 you will notice many changes and improvements and we hope that you will enjoy them. If you have a feature request or are unsure about how to use our product please make suggestions or ask questions.

You may have also noticed that we have a new support system in place. Please feel free to email suggestions or questions to support@steprep.com

Thanks so much for your patience.

Brendan King

CEO

www.StepRep.com

I am looking forward to sharing the vision for our product www.Mashedin.com and hope to do that withing the next couple of weeks. Till then please feel free to check it out yourself and let us know what you think.


Yellow Pages Advertising Analysis and a Prescription for the Future

October 7, 2009

I recently attended the Kelsey DMS2009 conference to learn more about they YP space.  There is certainly a lot to learn.   I am very interested in better understanding how the real estate industry’s relationship with YP has evolved over the years.  I am sure that many reading this will have first hand knowledge.  I would appreciate your comments!  Here is the post in its entirety which can also be found on the StepRep blog.

Advertising Industry

Changes are coming to the world of advertising and media.  Given these changes we have immersed ourselves in the world of advertising and in particular the YP space.  Here are some observations, facts, thoughts, predictions and opinions.  We hope you find them interesting.  We’re relatively new participants in the YP business which gives us a unique perspective to develop paradigm shifting solutions for the YP Industry.   If you are an industry participant please feel free to let us know if you think we ‘ve got it right or if we’ve got it wrong – either way we want to know.

The Origins of YP

Sometimes to understand something you have to go back to its origins and roots and looking to the origins of YP explains a lot.  Back in the early days of the telephone in North America, Governments passed legislation requiring that white page (Telephone books) be delivered free of charge to every land line address.  Today (with few exceptions) this law is still on the books.  This allows YP companies to work in conjunction with Telco’s to either combine the yellow pages with the white pages or at the very least piggy back delivery.

There was a time when the Yellow Pages were everything.  In this time before Internet there were few ways for consumers to find businesses and services they needed.  They could ask a friend, check the newspaper, listen to ads on the TV and radio, see a billboard or bus sign, or, they could pick up the Yellow Pages where they could “let your fingers do the walking”.    The truth of the matter was that for most business categories the Yellow Pages were a must have, and so for years, the cost of Yellow Page advertising was almost inelastic.  Businesses were born and thrived, at least to some extent, on the strength of their position and size of their ad in the Yellow Pages.   As an advertiser you could not reduce your spend or you would lose your important position at the front of the directory.   To be sure, the Yellow Pages produced real, valuable and tangible results for businesses.  An ad in the Yellow Pages connoted trust and consumers turned to the Yellow pages to find business and services they could trust. Consumers used the Yellow Pages because they were the easiest, fastest, most complete and trusted source of information.

YP Industry Today

Today things have changed.  The Internet has become the ubiquitous and de facto starting place for global and local search.  Consumers prefer the Internet because it makes search fast, efficient, mobile and is increasingly convenient. Most importantly it has become the most information rich and trusted source of information.  An Internet search can provide more and better results.   Results have richer information like maps, directions, hours, descriptions, photos and videos.  Most importantly Internet results provide trust.  Ads in the Yellow Pages are simply words created by the advertiser.  Internet results provide expert reviews, peer ratings, rich content like photos, videos and descriptions from customers.  These are things that print alone cannot provide.  The Yellow Pages were once considered as the most complete source of business listing data but this is no longer true.  For these reasons consumers are migrating online at an amazing and increasing rate.

As consumers migrate online both advertisers and publishers follow.  Traditional media have made attempts to create online properties but have generally failed to innovate and leverage the benefits of the Internet to their greatest advantage.   They are impeded by valid concerns such as cannibalizing traditional revenue while maintaining or growing their current share of SMB (Small and medium businesses) advertising dollars.   Further, traditional media organizations are saddled with infrastructure costs, outdated pricing models, and publishing cycles that true pure play Internet advertising plays need not consider.

The current state of the economy has only added fuel to this fire.   The economy drives advertisers to question the value of all spends and media spend are no exception. The transparency and pay for performance nature of online media is raising expectations for accountability across all media.

This environment has caused traditional media revenues to decline and most markets are experiencing consolidation and rationalization as they struggle to find ways to maintain their share of current advertising revenue from SMB’s.

As seems always to be the case, the impact of the Internet on an Industry is overestimated in the short run but underestimated in the long run.  This holds true for YP and we believe that any revenue gains for Yellow Page print media are due to inertia.  Customers are not just moving online, the fact is that most have already moved online and will continue to do so to the detriment of print.

It should be noted that there are a number of stats that indicate that consumers still use the Yellow Pages when it comes time to purchase.  We suspect, and anecdotal observations confirm, that consumers still use the Yellow Pages from time to time as a method of phone number lookup, that is, in the same manner as the white pages, but not as a method of discovery or choice.

The Yellow pages to date have only just begun to feel the sting of advertiser’s migration to online advertising sources.   Some, unbelievably, still attribute the revenue decline to only the current economy.   A few others hold on to revenue growth, obtained through innovative sales techniques and a well trained  cadre of feet on the street sales people, as proof positive that no such online migration is occurring.  However, the majority of Yellow Page operators at the C level are savvy business professionals that can read the writing on the wall and understand the sea change taking place, even though they may lack the motivation or tools to make the necessary changes.

How the YP Industry has reacted

All of this would seem to point to a dismal future of the YP industry, but there are some powerful positives.  Decades of being the heavy weight incumbent for SMB’s advertising dollars have left the YP industry with some very valuable assets.   The YP industry has perhaps the largest, best trained, motivated and skilled advertising sales force in existence.  For decades they have established and cultivated relationships with SMBs.   It should be noted, too, that Yellow Page advertising for many verticals or segments still works and has a very positive ROI.  While many business segments, such as travel, have all but disappeared from YP other segments have grown.  The YP sales force has done a great job of targeting and cultivating high value segments such as legal and dental.

YP has also begun to embrace accountability.  The use of “Pay for performance” call tracking once only used for non-traditional and rescue accounts has now come into general use in many areas.  The sales process has become increasingly multi product, digital and explicitly performance based.  Many YP sales teams are leveraging their relationship with SMBs and are embracing a consultative sales approach and delivering a wide range of products such as SEM, SEO, web presence, analytics, and reputation management tools.  At the same time YP companies are very interested in developing self service models for low value segments as consultative sales is costly and labor intensive. If you buy backlinks – you understand it’s not difficult to tell the difference in quality between proper, natural content backlinks and some Fiverr gig.

On the consumer front, YP has done a better job than their newspaper counterparts.  They have migrated online faster and have begun to embrace user generated content such as photos, videos and ratings and reviews to improve the consumer experience but still lag far behind their pure play Internet counterparts and particularly in verticals such as real estate and automotive.   YP has not truly embraced the “Social” aspect of the web beyond providing links to share or publish via Facebook or perhaps Twitter.  The true value of Social Context has largely been unexplored. YP has done a decent job of leveraging their mass of local business data to provide mobile solutions but could still do far better particularly with respect to location and social context.

Prescription for the future

Clearly the advertising spend for SMBs is changing.   This August for the first time the number of SMB’s using the Internet to advertise (77%) was higher than the number of SME’s using traditional advertising (69%).   However, the full weight and enormity of this has not yet been felt as a disproportionate number of dollars were still attributed to traditional advertising. That, however, is about to change.  In fact, Internet Advertising which is currently the third largest spend is expected to surpass the Newspaper spend before 2013 – Newspaper currently being the biggest advertising spends overall today.  Unless Newspapers react with products other than print, we think this day will come as early as 2011 or 2012.

Much of this shift is happening as SMB’s shifting their advertising spend from traditional media  to their own online presences, pure play verticals and Google adwords.   The YP industry is in a truly unique position to take advantage of this opportunity and potentially even grow their share of SMB advertising spend.

A successful future for YP will include evolutionary changes such as transitioning online to IYP, embracing transparency, pay for performance, user generated content, publishing cycle changes, pricing model changes, and sales process changes. However, revolutionary change will need to be embraced to truly seize the opportunity. The YP industry will need to think back to their origins and rediscover the essence of what made them the most valuable source of advertising to their customers.  Before the Internet the Yellow pages were:

  1. The most trusted and complete source of business information.
  2. A business model that was incontrovertibly the best ROI available.
  3. The most convenient, fastest way to engage local businesses.

Here is our prescription on how Yellow Pages can attain the above:

  1. Become the most trusted source by providing Social Context to consumers visiting the directory.
  2. Become the most complete and richest source of business listings by allowing all businesses to provide complete and rich data and participate in the online directory for free.
  3. Provide an incontrovertible ROI by embracing a new advertising model in which advertisers set their own advertising fee and only pay based on a successful transaction, and, use this model to leverage the advertisers spend on their existing web presence.
  4. Become the most convenient, fastest way to engage local businesses by providing consumers with an Interactive system to communicate with advertisers on a one to many basis.

We would be remiss if we did not tell you that VendAsta has developed the set of tools that can help YP companies do exactly that which we have described.

Using the VendAsta platform the Yellow Pages can once again attain this position of advertising dominance.  Yellow Page companies have both the sales force and means to take advantage of the shift of advertising dollars from traditional print to online models.


Inspiration

May 13, 2009

Almost a year ago I wrote a post called “Dream Like A Child” .  I watched a video today that captured the sentiment of my post in much more elegant way.

Take a look:


Cool (And Smart) New Google things

April 21, 2009

In the last few days Google has announced some really cool things.  The most significant is that Google is leveraging their search engine dominance to give their Google Profiles (see mine here – Brendan’s Google Profile )   

So here is what Google is doing,  They have  begun to show Google profile results at the bottom of U.S. name-query search pages.  So when you, or someone else searches your name they will see abbreviated information from Google Profiles at the bottom of the search results. The more complete the profile, the higher the chance yours will show than other people with the same name. 
So in effect Google is leveraging their search power to compel to fill out a complete profile.  This makes sure they have a relationship with you and know  about you – something that is very important to Google.  This is smart.
You can read more about this on the Official Google Blog                

                                      
On the lighter and, for most people that aren’t identity geeks like me, cooler is the new Google Labs .  It is now powered by Google App Engine.  I just love how Google easts their own dog food.  However, it’s not the labs itself that is cool but the two latest experiments.  Google Time line and Similar Images.  The Time line is cool but it is the similar images that really gets my juices flowing.   Check out this search for Kitchens and this one for kitchens but using the red color modifier.  You get the idea.


Web 2.0 Expo and “What have you done to make your house a home?”

April 3, 2009

 

I am out a Web 2.0 Expo with Jeff and Allan from our company, MyFrontSteps.com.  Between meetings and sessions we thought we would do a little filming. I have put together this video of us asking people the question: “What have you done to make your house a home”.   Disclaimer: before you watch it I want you to know I made it in 1 hour  with out access to some of the very best interviews.   This because a lot of our footage was shot in HD and I don’t have a way to deal with MTS files yet on my PC.
      
That said we do have Robert Scoble answering the question. We have other neat people too, like Vannessa Fox but alas many of these will have to wait until I can get the files converted from HD!
     

VendAsta wins “Most Promising New Company”

March 20, 2009

 

A lot has happened in the last few months. We have been totally engrossed  building http://www.MyFrontSteps.com and I have been neglecting my blog.  We participated in a Canadian Trade Mission, released new versions of our software, including our Alpha Homebook Product, and, I am proud to report, we won an award.
Last night we one the SIMA Award for “Most Promising New Company”.        
This award belongs to all the great people here at VendAsta – I am super proud of each and everyone of them.

2009 – The Year Of MyFrontSteps

January 24, 2009

It is almost the end of January 2009 and VendAsta is now a year old. It seems like just yesterday we that we were moving into our first office.  

  • We have gone from a group of 8 people to 29 of the best and brightest. 
  • We had a VC equity investment of 3 Million Dollars for MyFrontSteps
  •  We have a new office
  • We released StepRep, an online reputation managment tool,  and the first in a suite of products that will form  MyFrontSteps

And while 2008 was a year of big change, I believe that 2009 will be a year of even bigger change.  The MyFrontSteps and StepRep teams at VendAsta have been hard at work up here in the cold building some really cool stuff!. 

 

In Early March we are set to release a super exciting and innovative social media platform that connects home owners with home service providers.   Recently Global TV noticed our efforts and did a little story on us.  

  

 


%d bloggers like this: