Will Big Fish In a Small Pond Survive?


If you read this blog, chances are you’ve heard of LinkedIn, the largest professional networking site in the world. It currently has over 35 million of registered users and the number grows by 1 million every 17 days. This growth rate might not be very impressive if compared to Facebook, but LinkedIn has been profitable for 2 years now and reportedly has $80 million in cash in their bank account. The private valuation of LinkedIn today is over $1 billion.

Today LinkedIn announced that they are moving into Germany with localized version of the service, which puts them on a collision course with Xing, the largest professional networking site in the country. The clash between global giant and local big fish deserves special attention. Let’s look at some numbers to remember:

Currently the LinkedIn user base in Europe amounts to 9 million. Last year they launched Spanish and French versions of their service and currently there are 200,000 registered users in Spain (population of 46 million) and 700,000 in France (population of 65 million). In Germany today LinkedIn has 500,000 registered users using English version out of 82 million population. In the other corner is Xing with over 6.5 million registered users. Although Xing has many language versions, it is safe to assume that a large part of this user pool are Germans. Xing is a public company, valued now at $182 million.

For us, Europeans, certainly language does matter because large part of European population does not speak or read English. This simple fact creates a market space for all sorts of copycats, essentially cloning the popular global services without any added value, except for speaking familiar language (no offence, Xing, it is not about your great service, but for instance in Poland there are at least 4 different clones of Twitter). Some of them gain ground and grow their user base significantly because, indeed, they offer a good service for their users. This phenomenon has been called by TechCrunch a copy/paste innovation.

I’ve been inclined to think that social networks have no real reason to be constrained by country borders. This should be specifically true for the 27 member states of the European Union where freedom of movement is one of the fundamental rights and people do move. Yet we speak at least 23 different languages in three entirely different alphabets. To what extent the language barrier is an obstacle to global social networks’ expansion in non-English speaking country? To what degree local social media incumbents, such as Xing, should feel threatened by the fact that a global player simply localizes their user interface? Will people abandon their local social network for the benefit of having one global professional identity and one global social graph? How quickly? I think this is the question that the LinkedIn vs. Xing competition will help to answer and I’m going to watch it closely.

What do you think? If you wanted to integrate your local (say: German) product in some way with professional networking service and if you had to pick one – would you now bet on LinkedIn or on Xing?


Social Media: What’s Hot?

1043922_51054240_250pxThis post is part of my social media 101 primer series. If you haven’t done so, you might want to read my previous post Social Media: What’s on Top?. This time I’m presenting the hot and cool social media services that didn’t make the Top 20 but still are worth mentioning.

The game changers

My objective for this post is to point at some social media services that in my opinion have a great potential of disrupting or invalidating long-established business models of media companies. And, by the way, here is why every company is a media company. By no means this list could ever be complete. Forgive me for not mentioning this or that great service (but please, leave your comment below). I’m making my selection based on personal, hands-on experience. Don’t focus on the brands – I need to give you examples. But what’s most important is the concept behind them.

Google Reader is an online RSS feed reader – yawn! While it doesn’t sound very sexy, it virtually made me quit browsing newspaper’s websites altogether (now you know where I’m heading, don’t you). Right now almost any source of information on the Web offers you the opportunity to subscribe to their RSS feed. And your RSS reader just keeps your reading list right there, neatly ordered, ready for you waiting for your spare 10 minutes between meeting and conference call. Because over time you are getting picky about your information sources, you end up with tens or even hundreds of feeds linked to blogs that are updated not very often but with very valuable content. You can fine-tune your selection of feeds to your particular needs. Want to learn more about RSS? Check this flick out.

Google News is a news syndication/aggregation service. Using powerful Google Web indexation technology it scans the news sources around the globe, groups stories referring to the same topic together and allows you to filter the categories according to your personalized interest. What you get is your personalized newspaper fed by headline stories from all over the world. You can guess – Google owns or licenses very little content themselves – that’s why you are presented only with the title and the lead of each article – to read the full story you need to click through to the original site. Looks like Google is doing the newspapers a favor, right? Think again. Skimming through the title and the first paragraph is enough to skip the news and go to the next one. Try it yourself. That is why Google got sued by a number of publishers and we know they settled with AFP. And you know that already – you can grab your personalized RSS feed from Google News and plug it into your RSS reader. This way you have a single reading list consisting of all your hand-picked high-value blogs and personalized world and local news. You can imagine now what should happen to the online traffic (and advertising revenue) of the newspapers. They call it signs of secular change.

Update: ZDNet ranks Google News as the 5th most popular news site in Feb 2009, trailing Yahoo! News, The Weather Channel, CNN and MSNBC.

Twitter is a social network built around a micro-blogging service. Sounds flat? OK, rollback. Twitter is a paradigm shifter – in my opinion it has the potential to add yet another dimension to the way people communicate. Much like SMS did for cell phones, but being deeply rooted in online social networking it has enormous integration opportunities. The number of users right now is estimated around 5 million and growing rapidly. One can’t explain what Twitter is in a few words but here is an excellent explanation and a video. But I must warn you: I had been reading stories about Twitter long time before I joined and wasn’t impressed. You really need to try it out and getting comfortable will take you a few days. Make sure you read this fantastic non-fanatical beginners guide to Twitter first. And another warning: it’s addictive. There is zillion and one applications for Twitter now and twice as much undiscovered yet. But let me focus on just one simple characteristics: many people post updates on what interesting articles they have just written or found on the Net. If your choice to follow people on Twitter is based on their interests being similar to yours, you get the most up-to-date, fine-tuned-to-your-needs news service you can dream of. It is filtered by the collective wisdom of the individuals you have chosen to trust.

Digg is a social bookmarking site with 30 million users. Once you get your hands on an interesting piece of news through whatever means, you might want to bookmark it for future reference. Sure you can use your browser’s bookmark feature but there are reasons to keep them on the Web instead. Digg is my personal preference, but there are other services. The ‘social’ part of Digg is that all bookmarks are public – you can submit the story or bookmark (or ‘digg’) the story submitted by somebody else. By digging the story you increment its digg counter, which indicates how popular the story is. But the coolest part of Digg is the Upcoming tab. In order to create this page for you, Digg tries to understand your interest profile based on what you’ve dugg before and to match it with the profiles of other users. The Upcoming tab then displays the stories freshly submitted by those users whose profiles are similar to yours. And, of course, you can friend people on Digg and get Friends’ Activity stream. You know that already – sure, there is Friends RSS feed and that’s how we’ve closed the circle back to the RSS reader.

Back in the old days we used to jump from website to website trying to find the information or we used search engines to find content about the topic of interest. In the process we were generating ad displays which converted into revenue streams for the content owners. The tools described in my previous article enabled massive proliferation of user-generated content. With the services presented above our position vis-a-vis the content on the Web has changed. We are no longer running around searching for information. The information comes to us thanks to collective effort of other people.

The Human-Powered Search

Now we’ve got to the point where we don’t need to spend our valuable time on searching and filtering relevant information from irrelevant hype. This doesn’t mean that the amount of information flow gets automatically reduced to a manageable level, but that is a different story. We will still need search and recommendation engine but it is going to be quite different from what we know now. There are two interesting posts that helped me organize my thoughts around it (came by Twitter, by the way): Google’s First Real Threat? Twitter and Is the real-time web a threat to Google search?. “My web is my network” as @newtonmota has just succintly put it. Or in other words, the content that is interesting for me is defined by the people whom I trust, through some form of expression of their interest in it (be it tweet, digg, comment, etc.). This subtle network of connections cannot be replaced by any automatic indexing and ranking algorithm which does not have access to this network. In case you missed it – for that very reason Facebook has just introduced the “I like this” feature in their platform.

How the commercial content provider can play a role this game? Leave your comments and stay tuned for my take on the future trends in social media. Real-time web and more is coming soon.

Social Media: What’s on Top?

With this post I’m starting a series presenting a helicopter perspective of online social media as they stand at the beginning of 2009. My intention is primarily to help those business people who are newcomers to this world to quickly gain some understanding through examples and, maybe, build some personal experience with one service or the other.  

Top social media sites in 2008

Thanks to TechCrunch we can have a look at the top 20 social media sites according to ComScore. The figures represent worldwide traffic in November 2008 (total monthly unique visitors). For those who do not follow the social media development very closely I put short descriptions of the sites listed.

  1. Blogger (222 million) is a blog publishing platform currently owned by Google. Learn more…
  2. Facebook (200 million) is a social networking platform. It is privately-held, valued at $15 billion. In 2007 Microsoft acquired 1.6% of the company for $240 million. Learn more…  
  3. MySpace (126 million) is a social networking platform owned by News Corp. Until recently MySpace was the most popular social networking site in the US, but apparently Facebook caught up in December 2008. Learn more…
  4. WordPress (114 million) is an open source blog publishing platform owned by Automattic (New York Times is a strategic investor in Automattic). Learn more…
  5. Windows Live Spaces (87 million) is a social networking platform from Microsoft.
  6. Yahoo! Geocities (69 million) is a website creation service with blog publishing. From the comments to the post looks like a lot of people are surprised not only that it made #6 but that it’s still alive.  
  7. Flickr (64 million) is a photo sharing platform owned by Yahoo!. Learn more…
  8. hi5 (58 million) is another privately-held social networking platform. Learn more… 
  9. Orkut (46 million) is yet another social networking platform. Owned by Google. Learn more…
  10. Six Apart (46 million) is a privately-held blog publishing platform. Learn more…
  11. Baidu Space (40 million) is a social networking and blogging platform supported by the one of the largest Chinese search platform providers. Google invested in Baidu in 2004. Learn more…
  12. Friendster (31 million) is one of the oldest social networking sites. Still remains privately-owned. Learn more…
  13. 56.com (29 million) is a Chinese photo/video sharing service. Learn more… 
  14. Webs (24 million) is a website creation service with blogging and social networking components. Learn more…
  15. Bebo (24 million) is a 3rd most popular social networking site in the US. Owned by AOL. Learn more…
  16. Scribd (23 million) is a privately-held social document sharing service (a “YouTube for documents”). Learn more…
  17. Lycos Tripod (23 million) is a website creation platform. Recently Lycos Europe announced that it is going to close Tripod together with their free mail service on 15 February 2009. Learn more…
  18. Tagged (22 million) is a social networking platform originally for under-18 population. Later changed the policy and now allows everybody to join. Learn more…
  19. Imeem (22 million) is a social network platform focusing on discovering/recommending music, film, art and other media. Recently Imeem received $15 million investment from Warner Bros. Learn more…
  20. Netlog (21 million) is a social network platform present mainly in Europe. Learn more…

How popular the social media are, actually?

We might want to split all these social media services into three categories looking at the nature of the social relationships between members in each community (the borderlines are very vague, I know):

  • social networks hosting some form of online identity plus social graphs (that is friends of some sort) of the individuals – the traffic totals ca. 770 million unique visitors/month,
  • publishing platforms (blogs) with limited networking component – ca. 400 million,
  • media sharing – ca. 115 million.

Bear in mind that although the World’s population is 6,700 million, half of the people live on less than $2 a day and only 536 million have access to the Internet from home (hard to believe but here is the source: Nations Online, World Population). Even with this napkin math it’s fair to say that social media are quite popular these days.

Of course, the distribution of the population using social media in some way differs from continent to continent and country to country. But here is a temperature check I learned form my American colleague: if suddenly your mom or dad (for my demographics at least) invites you to their Facebook or send you a YouTube link, it means that there is rampant online socializing going on right in your neck of the woods.

Does OpenID Really Open Anything?

I have a secret place where I store all my login/password pairs for all websites I’ve ever visited and decided to create an account. There are close to 100 entries there. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one login/password to rule them all? Well, that’s what OpenID is promising.

If you were creating your little website to do your business, wouldn’t it be nice to have somebody else to manage user accounts, deal with password re-setting, etc. Or, what’s more important, would you get more users if you didn’t have to ask them to fill out your user registration form? Of course.

Inspired by Google moves towards single sign-on with OpenID I did my little research and here are the findings.

Why bother?

The idea is that the user creates her one and only profile with the identity provider of her choosing. She receives an OpenID login name (something like http://myprovider.com/u/janedoe), sets her password and provides some other identity attributes such as email address, etc. With this OpenID login name she can sign in to any OpenID-enabled website (called relying party). Instead of requesting a password, the website redirects user to the login page of the identity provider who requests and validates password and sends back the status with requested attributes. User knows what attributes are shared. Point is, there is one and only one digital representation of the individual in the whole Web (some might choose to have more than one identity but that’s different story).

How do I get an OpenID?

Well, if you are a Google or Yahoo registered user, you already have one (check offical OpenID site for a list of OpenID providers). Your login name just looks a bit different (URL instead of typical email address). 

Where can I log in using OpenID?

At the time of this writing (and depending of who you ask) the number of sites supporting OpenID is between 10,000 and 20,000. Hint: look for a  badge next to the login box.

Funny thing: although Google, Yahoo and some other big players eagerly provide OpenID, they do not support login with OpenID unless it is their OpenID! Yes, you can’t log in to Google with Yahoo account, sorry. At least, not yet. It’s not a technology barrier, it’s marketing.

What do I need to do to support OpenID on my website? There is a standard communication protocol to implement (the OpenID specification) and many Open Source libraries that do the job. The simple step-by-step tutorial can be found in A Recipe for OpenID-Enabling Your Site.

How secure OpenID is?

That’s the big problem. Imagine that there is somebody who wants to steal your identity. What he has to do is to set up a website that offers OpenID login and another website that pretends to be your OpenID provider. You provide your OpenID to the first site and you get redirected to the second which – what you think – is your identity provider (but it’s not). You type in your password. Right now the thief knows your OpenID and the password so he can log in as yourself into any OpenID-enabled website in the world. That is similar to phishing but much more dangerous because you loose control of the access to all your personalized websites at once. For that reason do not expect your online bank to accept OpenID anytime soon. And if you do financial or other transactions involving sensitive information online, you are not going to use OpenID login either.

Interesting discussion of the models that can be used to strenghten authentication mechanisms can be found in Usability of Stronger Authentication Options.

A few days ago the OpenID Foundation announced that PayPal is joining their Board of Directors. Well, they surely know something about security.

What else is there?

One alternative is identity federation based on OASIS Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) protocol. It is mainly used today in B2B scenarios, mainly to provide single sign-on and account linking. But it lacks this user-centric, self-asserted identity appeal that OpenID has.

The other is information card architecture and specifically its implementation by Microsoft called CardSpace. The identity card selector is already implemented in Vista but it lacks production implementation on the application server side. Yes, your identity card is bound to your Windows operating system.

How To Take Over a Project

Project Takeover Notes

So, it’s time to get your hands dirty with some project management. You’ve just volunteered for taking over a project from a colleague who is leaving. Here are some hints for you. Go through them before you switch into regular project management routine.

In this article you will find some PRINCE2 lingo and references to PRINCE2 artifacts. If you are not comfortable with PRINCE2, you might want to look at the Crazy Colour PRINCE2 wiki and quickly you will map these terms onto your project management methodology.

Identify your stakeholders

Make sure that you know all your project’s stakeholders. If in doubt, look for the guys who will blame you if the project fails. Make sure that they know what their role is and that they accept it. Normally you will find the names in the Project Initiation Document (PID), but people change, roles change and over time PID might get outdated. Sometimes the stakeholders loose interest in the project but forget to stop the project. You need to be absolutely certain who they are and you should touch base with all of them at the very beginning.

Inspect the Project Schedule

It is likely that you have it in a long MS Project file. Whatever the format is, you need to extract the Product Breakdown Structure (PBS) from the schedule. If you are lucky, you can find it in the PID but still, you need to verify if the PBS is complete and planned in the schedule in its entirety. You are probably not looking at the specific tasks at this point but rather at the hierarchy of tasks. Each node in this hierarchy is likely your PBS component. Think of it this way: you need to build something from the Lego blocks. You need to make sure, that you have identified all blocks you need. Use everything at your disposal to confirm that you have all of them. You might need to talk to your stakeholders and to your colleagues in the project team. See if there are specific persons responsible for delivery of PBS components (if not, you are!).

Once you are done with the PBS, drill down to specific tasks. Are you sure the task list is complete? And most importantly, is it clear who is responsible for delivering each and every single task in your schedule? Thing with MS Project is that the Resources column in many cases lists more than one person (or a role name, which is even worse). This works for cost accounting purposes but tells nothing about responsibility. If you are familiar with the RACI model, you should be alerted. There is no field in task description to tell you, who is responsible. You need to find out and, sometimes, re-establish responsibility very clearly or you will be responsible. Only when you know that, you can discuss progress.

What is the progress of the project to date?

Make sure which tasks are complete and verify that with those, who are suposed to use their products. Identify the tasks that have started and make sure that you have some understanding of the actual progress. I would recommend using progress tracking in MS Project. Establish some sort of progress reporting from people responsible for delivering tasks (project team managers). It is easier if you have a Project Server in place, but if not, my recommendation would be to keep it simple and set up a spreadsheet-based reporting telling you what the progress on each task is at the end of every reporting period. Color-coding works for me: green means ‘OK’, orange means ‘not good but I will handle’, red means ‘needs you immediate attention’. It is also possible to share the MS Project file with team managers (saves your time) but do it only if you know what you are doing.

Once you have identified the actual progress on every task, you will see where you stand by looking at the Gantt chart: black bars indicating the progress should be somewhere near the vertical dotted line that means ‘Today’. At least you can see if and where the problem is. 

You are ready to roll

With these three steps you are ready to manage the project going forward. It is not that you going to have smooth sailing but at least you have a map. Remember, whatever your beloved project management methodology is, it is rarely followed to the last detail. Plenty of vital detail is in the head and the mailbox of the project manager who wil not be accessible soon. He or she made and received promises you might not be aware of and really difficult and tricky stuff has a nasty habit of not getting into documents and minutes.

Good luck!