Thursday, January 25, 2007

A new SharedPlan milestone

Early in 2006, SharedPlan established a public repository for project plans. Users can download SharedPlan's free version, OpenPlanning, create plans, and save them in the public repository. Alternatively, they can open someone else's plan and use it as a basis for their own plan.

Why would they do that? Because people love to share information, and love to learn from others.

How do we know? Because we now have over 1000 plans in the repository. 1000!

Now, many of them are simple test plans saved by users trying to learn about the tools. But there are plans for building and landscaping houses, putting on a wedding, doing chemistry experiments, and many other things. There are also a few wacky ones, like this new one listing a Brit's lifetime goals.

We don't know how all of this is going to turn out, or what the repository is going to grow into, but it fun watching it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The promise and challenge of marketing at Albeo

You have probably seen LED lighting. I'm certain you have seen LEDs.

Red, green, and blue LEDs are the power-on indicators for your consumer electronics, and high-power LEDs are used in traffic lights, auto brake lights, and bicycle headlights. Over the last decade, LED manufacturers have figured out how to make them white, and they continue to make them ever brighter. This has enabled them to begin being used in general lighting applications.

Compared to traditional incandescent, fluorescent, or halogen lighting, LEDs are still the most expensive light source (per lumen), but they have some unique, valuable characteristics:
  • They are as efficient as fluorescents
  • They have no glass to break
  • They don't break when vibrated
  • They only use safe, low voltage
  • They last many years before they die
  • They are cool to the touch
  • They have no hazardous materials (fluorescents have mercury)
  • They are quite small
So, here's the marketing challenge that Albeo faces: finding the niche applications that value some of the above features enough to pay the price for LEDs. Or, more accurately, choosing which of the several dozen niches that Albeo should pursue.

The phone rings all day long at Albeo with new customers interested in Albeo's lighting products. This is good news and bad. It's certainly good that there is clear demand, but it is very taxing on a small company's limited resources to try to sell to a very broad range of customers.

Many of these niche applications, while they can be quite large, are very independent of other applications. For instance, one market that would likely value LED lighting is the RV market. RVs tend to shake most forms of lighting to early failure, and they need efficient lighting to run on batteries. This sounds like a perfect solution for LEDs, particularly in high-end platforms.

The problem is that the channels used to sell to the RV market, and the communication vehicles used to reach it, are completely independent of those used for any other vertical application. That means that the company would not be able to leverage any marketing and sales investment in the RV vertical into any other vertical. For a small company, these investments are precious, so choosing the markets to pursue for early and maximum ROI becomes a critical decision.

Not that I'm complaining, because these are great problems to have. LEDs are going to displace many other forms of lighting over the next couple of decades. We just need to make sure we position Albeo to be the leader of that transition.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Another startup I'm working with

I have posted several times here about SharedPlan Software, whom I have been working with for a couple of years. SharedPlan continues to develop and release products that deliver on their vision, and their revenue continues to grow.

However, like many entrepreneurs, I tend to be involved with more than one startup firm at a time because they develop at different rates and have different needs over time. For this reason, I also started working with another startup, Albeo Technologies, Inc., a few months ago. Albeo is developing and marketing a range of white LED light fixtures for use in the residential and commercial marketplace.

Working with two different startups simultaneously certainly can be taxing, but I find it keeps my marketing tools sharp. Marketing software over the Internet and light fixtures through various traditional channels would seem to be very different exercises, but at the end of the day it's still all about marketing fundamentals: identifying needs, defining products to meet those needs, and telling potential customers about those products.

In a subsequent post, I'll describe some of the challenges Albeo faces right now. I'm excited about the opportunities for LED lighting and looking forward to helping define the strategy to pursue some of those opportunities.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

SharedPlan had an enormous 2006

I have been playing with SharedPlan's new Issue Tracker, a new web-based issue tracking and reporting capability within TeamServices. It's a terrifically flexible, useful tool, even if the issues are not associated with any particular project.

As I was using Issue Tracker, it occurred to me what a huge 2006 SharedPlan had. While the company did not meet all of its business goals, it certainly exceeded all product development targets. Roger compiled a list of the accomplishments on his blog. When one considers that list in light of the very small number of available resources, it's truly remarkable.

Roger also requested suggestions for what users would like to see in 2007. I think those suggestions will be bounced against some of the recurring items that pop up in the support forum to help define the future direction. I'll be interested to see what makes the list.

Hats off to the SharedPlan team for a great 2006, and I'm looking forward to an equally creative 2007.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Someone please start this business

I have an idea for a business. I have so many other things on my plate that I don't have time to pursue it myself, so I offered the idea to a few of my friends and relatives to see if they were interested. Since no one has yet taken me up on it, I'm now providing the idea to you readers.

I have often heard that the best startup business ideas come from someone looking to buy a product or service and realizing that it's not available. This is an example of that. That's not to say that I think it's the best startup idea ever, because I don't think it's a BIG business. However, I want someone to start this business because I want to be a customer and there must be others like me.

So, what's the idea? A home-delivery science kit subscription service.

OK, I hear your collective "Huh?," so here's the deal.

In a prior post, I described Big Science Saturday (BSS), my on-and-off weekly science experiment fun time with my two sons. In another post, I described how we're now having fun with rockets.

I'm not trying to replace their traditional school science education, and it's difficult for me to say whether or not that science education is good or bad. I do this science stuff for other reasons.

I'm trying to expose my kids to science in as many fun ways as I can. Even if they're not going to have a technology-based career or work with science in any direct way, I want them to be comfortable with it. Obviously, technology is found in absolutely everything we do today so no matter what they choose to do, technology will have an impact.

In addition, engaging with my kids in doing science experiments allows me to interact with them in an intellectual way that is just not available through the other activities we do, like riding bikes, or going to ball games. Even going to zoos and museums or my helping them with their homework does not provide the intellectual engagement combined with fun in the way that performing experiments together does. Science and technology form such a large part of every aspect of my life that I can't imagine living without it, and I want to be able to relate with them on that level.

For these reasons, I have probably performed 30-40 BSSs over the last 2-3 years. Now, while my motivations for doing BSS may be somewhat unique among other parents, I believe the concept of BSS would be widely popular. As evidence of this, when I was doing BSS regularly for several months, other parents in the neighborhood started asking if their children could attend. Eventually, I had 5 or 6 kids on any given Saturday, which indicates that the interest might broader than just oddballs like me.

The popularity of BSS with my kids and others led to the problem that begs for a business solution. In essence, the time and effort required to come up with new and interesting experiments got to be too great. Yes, you can buy all kinds of science kits, but to create a regular activity based on one-off science kits, while ensuring a quality learning and fun family experience, continuity of concepts, no redundancy, etc., is a huge commitment that a working parent just can't provide.

So, there's my long-winded reasoning for why a subscription science kit service makes sense. Here are the some aspects of the service:
  • Customers would purchase a subscription to receive an experiment kit, probably once every other week.
  • The kits would include all required materials (except for maybe common household materials, like baking soda), complete directions, an explanation of the science for the parent, and an explanation of the science for the child, including suggested follow-on questions or projects.
  • The kits would follow a logical progression, i.e. a curriculum, that is geared to the age of the child. For instance, when a customer subscribes, they provide their child's age, and they'll start receiving kits appropriate for that age. Over time, the kits would work through topics in physics, chemistry, plant biology, animal biology, etc.
The company (let's call it Big Science Saturday, Inc., or BSS for short) would not necessarily have to create the experiments itself. There are lots of quality science materials available, and BSS could work with these existing suppliers to make minor alterations to their kits to fit within the BSS program.

Alternatively, BSS could partner with someone like Discovery Science stores to provide another revenue stream. BSS may even be able to get some startup capital from educational grant money.

I recently blogged about Dragonfly Innovation, which is developing creativity kits and marketing them through multilevel marketing techniques. There may be a potential partnership there, as well.

So, there's my idea. Someone please do it, so I can be your first customer. You can even have the name Big Science Saturday. Just do it, please.