LizenUp Blog

Why do I love/resent Pokémon Go?

I must say I was taken by surprise like everyone at the virality and ubiquity of Pokémon Go. Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, Pokémon Go, is the new breakthrough viral game which crossed Tinder (Yes, Tinder!, I don’t know why is that so funny) in daily active users. For people what’s so special about Pokémon Go, let me explain in a few sentences. Pokémon Go, of course features Pokémon characters that appear in real life environs that users can capture and train etc, the usual Pokémon stuff. What sets it apart is that it shows the game player on a 3D map surface based on their GPS location and uses landmarks, monuments etc as places to find Pokémons, when you encounter a Pokémon, you will be transported into an augmented reality (AR) experience that will turn on your camera and puts the characters on the real life surfaces so it's pretty fun and exciting to play. The landmarks and poke stops are populated in the game on real time maps, and these are largely from geotagged photos from the game publisher Niantic’s previous game Ingress, which had the same premise.

Before I go on further, a bit of background about me: I am a startup founder, my company is LizenUp. We are building a platform to crowdsource audio stories about physical places, objects without having to use a GPS (GPS is limited to outdoors, not so good indoors and not portable). We are basing our platform on an under-utilized technology that is present in most of the smartphones: NFC. Using specially made NFC audio tags (yes, we sell those) that can be attached to any surface, anyone can record and share audio using our…, you guessed it, app. These tags can be placed on monuments, landmarks, informational plaques, toys, albums, photographs, artwork, memorabilia, wherever there’s an interesting story to capture and preserve. Imagine placing your smartphone on a tag (ala Android Pay or Apple Pay) and listening to the story of that object or monument. Of Course, if the tag is placed on an outdoor monument, any passerby can obviously see that there’s a story there and listen to it, record his/her own story. As they listen/record, they earn points that can be exchanged for real rewards. If the tag is placed on a toy or a picture frame that you store in your house or send as a gift, the people who can access is limited; it’s a matter of context. So, if the object is moved, the stories move along with it, so, no GPS.

One of the cornerstones in our platform is the use of stickable audio tags that act as passive beacons, bringing a physical product to fruition is hard but this also allows us to address any physical object at a micro level within inches, and best of all unlike other beacons they don’t use battery or rely on GPS.

I envision these tags popping up everywhere and become beacon for people to invite them to listen to stories and make their own stories, sort of like a twist on geocaching. I also envision a future where these stories evolve from audio to full fledged AR stories, you’ll notice that I skipped video and VR, because in the VR vs. AR battle, I stand on the side of AR.
 

Now, why do I love Pokémon Go?

One of the first thing as a startup founder I need to do to is validate some of the major assumptions that we made:

  1. People are (still) interested in getting up and walking around and looking at stuff in the physical world

  2. People are interested in preserving/sharing stories

  3. Museums/Galleries/Govt. authorities encourage people to listen to and share stories by placing audio tags.

With Pokémon Go’s phenomenal success, my #1 assumption is validated; of course, it’s not just gamification that made it happen, but the familiar brand of Pokémon that made it go viral, because the previous incarnation of the same concept Ingress wasn’t a success in the same league. This gives me great hope for my company LizenUp, but it still remains to be seen whether we will be successful, nevertheless as a parent of kids who are into video games, I am glad that there’s a game which captures their imagination AND makes them go out and explore, and it also makes it easy for us to pitch by referring to Pokémon Go to make people understand and see the potential in LizenUp.

OK, Why do I resent Pokémon Go?

I admit it, it’s mostly jealousy; the fundamental premise of marrying physical location to an activity (in this case, catching Pokémons) is one of LizenUp’s main ingredients, which is now upended by Pokémon Go and I feel cheated :), you know that ‘Shit, they beat us to it’ feeling.

On a serious note, apart from catching Pokémons the game is not that good and it's a drain on your phone’s battery and data.

So, where are we now?

LizenUp app’s early releases are available in Apple Appstore and Google Play Store. We are selling tags to individuals and businesses such as museums, galleries, art shows. We are hard at work at improving the app and the platform. If you are interested in recording, preserving, sharing stories about your favorite objects or places, visit us at http://lizenup.com, get in touch with us at contact@lizenup.com, download our app and help us spread this, instead of just playing games, let’s do some good.

Unpeel the cloud - Analysis on SaSS approach

The proliferation of SaSS, i.e. cloud-based service providers have changed the culture of IT and what it means to use software to run your business. Any small business (be it a technology startup or a brick and mortar operation) can now use the same software systems for managing their day to day operations like payroll, HR, sales, marketing, billing, expense reporting, all without investing in any type of infrastructure or even an IT department. Companies like ZenefitsSalesforceZohoStripeExpensifyFreshdesketc. make it so easy to get started and use a complex system like payroll systems and invoicing etc. without ever seeing a server or even hiring an IT professional. Every day there are new startups who are ‘disrupting’ the established operational software systems are popping up. All you have to do is follow producthunt.com. I recently saw a video of a new startup called Whistic (which won the best enterprise startup award in theLAUNCH festival) which automates the enterprise security audit process, with a cloud-based solutions. I didn’t even think it was such a big market, anyway, that’s on me! So, the bottom line is that for any type of enterprise IT process you can think of there’s a cloud-based software available, these are mostly startups, even some of the old guard like Oracle, IBM and CA are jumping into the fray by offering their traditional business system software as a cloud-based SaSS service.

 

So, the dream sold to any company who is starting up is that, “just focus on your core business, we will provide you with the X service and manage everything, we just need your credit card.” This promise is very alluring to people who don’t want to invest too much in IT while they are ramping up their business. Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted both as a startup that provides a cloud-based service (albeit not enterprise cloud services) and a small business owner to have this level of convenience and easy access to traditionally behemoth implementations. But, what we don’t see in the picture above is that every system has 2 parts: the system and the DATA.

 

First of all, each of the SaSS System is built in such a way that they make no differentiation between their software and the data, that makes it simple, sure, but that doesn’t give the full picture to the user. Secondly, the data is residing in the system, unlike traditional IT setups, where the data is residing in your own servers, even if those servers are hosted in a remote data center managed by a third-party, you fundamentally “own” the data. This creates several problems:

  1. Vendor lock-in: We used to talk about vendor lock-in a lot in IT, and fought to establish standards around data formats and services and SOA based architecture. But once the new-fangled cloud providers came along, we conveniently forgot that conversation, and adapting to not just a system lock-in, but also a data lock-in, I posit that this is much more dangerous. I am not saying that the cloud service providers are going to turn into ransomware one day, but we need to cautious about surrendering sensitive data and processes to a third-party whose relationship with you is only your credit card number. There was an article in Forbes in 2011 about this very problem, but I don’t think anything has changed in ensuing 5 years, in fact now we have more cloud vendors than ever before.
  2. Data formats: Signup with any payroll or account cloud service provider, they offer data import/export formats in QuickBooks or Excel etc. This doesn’t mean it’s a ‘standard’ across the systems. In fact, there are no standard data formats other than spread sheets that can work across companies. It would be a huge IT project to get all the data out of there and consolidate the data formats.
  3. Master Data Management: How a customer record is represented in a CRM system could be totally different from a help desk system, which creates huge problems as a company's needs grow, but if you have already been using those systems for a while. We are essentially creating data islands that are stored in various companies and none of them talk to each other, they may not be even aware of each other, let alone collaborate. Traditional Enterprise IT deploys MDM systems, data warehouses, ETL processes and BI to contend with this, but in a world of shadow or virtual IT, this practically doesn’t exist.
  4. Making sense of data: Any enterprise (big or small) needs reporting, dashboards, predictive analysis, just a general sense of the entire business at any given point of time. How can a small business (could be a tech startup as well) find time/money to consolidate data from various providers and run reports/analysis on them if they all exist in different environments? Companies like Appirio is taking the steps in a right direction, syncing various cloud service providers, but we need to see more companies do this.

So, how do we tackle this problem? First thing is to raise awareness of the pitfalls of using a cloud-based SaSs provider, for all their wonderfully easy onboarding process, there’s no ‘off boarding’ process that exist. We need also raise awareness of data ownership and data normalization/integrity. Secondly, we need to push for common data formats across similar systems, for example, I should be able to move my Zoho CRM to Salesforce CRM without having to jump thru hoops. These are only temporary measures but they will give us a starting point. What I really think should happen is, we need to separate our data cloud provider from our system cloud provider. So, when you sign up for a new email service provider, you should be able to point to your data cloud provider during signup, and you should have the freedom to change the email provider without having to surrender your data, or even go thru export/import issues. There are many data cloud vendors including Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, Digital Ocean, who provide bare metal servers, or even full-fledged RDBMS SQL or NoSQL databases. There are even specialized vendors like Compose (recently bought by IBM) who provide hosting services for your MongoDB or MySQL etc.

 
 

If each cloud service vendor access an external data provider and only provide their system, their multi-tenancy problems can be solved and data is firmly in the ‘control’ of the business. We can further extend this by using a common ETL/BI/Dashboard vendor who can then provide the data reporting/visualization services if required. Companies like PeriscopeModeTableau are providing such cloud-based visualization services without having to store data on their systems.

 

Let’s start demanding common data format and data ownership and the cloud vendors will come around, if they want to stay in business and competitive, everyone has to make their processes transparent and seamless. Now that the cloud is here to stay, let’s democratize cloud.

LizenUp is graduating from Founder's Institute

LizenUp just graduated the Founder’s Institute Spring NYC 2015 program. I am definitely elated but also filled with a sense of dread. I am elated because the program is finally over and dreaded because the program is over. Let me explain. This is one of the toughest courses I ever did in my life. I’ve graduated college, worked in various companies for 20 years and did many certifications, but during all of that I never felt the way I felt in the FI program. If thought of failing course in college or missing a deadline at work occurred, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world, because I always had a sense of detachment and of course you can have a do over. In contrast, during the FI program, there’s a constant fear of doing bad on the hot seats, not completing your assignments by the deadline or not reaching a milestone, I think it’s because if you fail this, I had a sense of really failing the company and my idea. I am feeling a little sad that its over because of the structure and assignment deadlines, your performance is not optional but mandatory, so I hope my team and support structure will keep me on my path.

Having said that, I really liked the program and met some great people in the other founders, venture capitalists, advisors and mentors thru the program. The best part is being part of a community of like-minded people who are driven and passionate about building something of their own and making a mark in the world. The life of an entrepreneur seems to be a lonely one, especially in the early stages and for people like me who are working in a corporate environment on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to find people who we can talk about entrepreneurship and startups, because most of the people you meet at work or in life seem like they don’t “get” startup culture or mentality. FI and other accelerators/incubators of its ilk provide that camaraderie and support that is required at the early stages of building a company.

Although I’ve run other software companies before, they were conceived and run as a “business” by my friends and I. We never raised venture funding, and didn’t do any customer research or MVP, as software developers we came up with an idea and started building and then started looking for customers who would buy from us. My past experience really left me in a disarray and when I read stories of the startups that were started the dot com boom, it didn’t match with what I knew and experienced. I really needed to go back to school to really learn about lean startups, fund raising, customer interviews, importance of sharing your idea with EVERYONE (which is counter intuitive to what you think you know as your gut feeling about someone stealing your idea :)), importance of traction, importance of media relations, producing content and most importantly being passionate about your idea and business. Most of all, the invaluable advice and feedback we receive from mentors who are serial entrepreneurs and investors is really worth the grueling schedule and structure of the program.

I chose FI for the only reason that it offered classes part-time instead of committing yourself fulltime to your startup idea. That said, it may not may not work for everyone. If all you have is an idea, FI is the best program to validate your idea and solidify your business model. If you already far ahead with your idea and business model, may be what you need is an incubator like Y Combinator or Tech Stars where your focus is building your product and take your company to market working full time. In fact, many of the FI graduates go on to join other incubators to raise seed funding and develop their products. For people who have fulltime jobs and family responsibilities, FI gives you a platform to really commit yourself to your business by slowly building your company thru various assignments which are real and failure to perform will really kill your business, forget about getting dropped from the program, that’s least of your concerns.

The structure of FI is like this: Every week the entire group of founders meet with a panel of mentors. At the beginning of the session, a few hot seats are conducted, where few randomly chosen founders will pitch their idea in 1 min, 3 min or 4 min intervals (based on the stage of the program), and they get rated  their scores are posted on the scoreboard online. Each of the mentors give lectures on the topic of the day, it could be Branding and Positioning, or IP and Legal etc. Then there’s a Q&A session with mentors, and before the close of the session, they do few more hot seat pitches, and finally everybody go to a bar nearby and continue discussions over drinks. There are regular weekly assignments in FI for each of the topics that is covered that week, which requires anywhere from 10 to 20 hours work minimum, in addition, you might be given special assignments. In the beginning of the program, we all dreaded special assignments, but I got a few special assignments, and to be honest, doing them really forced me to get out of comfort zone and perform far beyond what I thought possible, be it pitching videos, signing up new customers, or getting potential customer emails, or surveys etc.

From the advice of mentors, I got to know the weak points in my idea, business model and pitch and got to refine them, but it’s an ongoing process. I also got introduced so many online and offline resources that can help any startup founder, be it a service to track the industry narratives or content generation etc. I also got to know a great bunch of people in fellow founders in the program, who really jump to help out whenever you reach out to them and everybody sharing their ideas, feedback, tools and other resources. It was the best team anyone could ask for, in that sense, it was better than college because this bunch is more mature and their advice or feedback comes from real world experience.

Now that the program is over, the real journey for LizenUp begins, we are working through our initial pilots and refining our production/solution, and I hope to tap into the network of FI and don’t waver from my true north.

Experience the world thru audio

We are living in the post internet and mobile revolution age. Using our smart phones we can communicate with anyone anytime anywhere, see videos, share our “kodak” moments using instagram, get directions, lookup anything instantaneously etc. So anyone has a question about a product or an object or any kind of information, instead of even studying the object or problem in front of us, we quickly reach for our smart phones. Smart phone have become an extended limb of our existence, where the entire world is available via the handheld device. Therein lies the problem in all our smart phone interactions, we are really engaging with the world via the smart phone instead of engaging with the real world. We’ve all seen the ads on buses, trains and subways, urging us to visit their website or capture a picture of it using your smart phone, so even physical advertisements are driving us back to our digital screens instead of the other way around. If I am in a bookstore and thinking of buying a book, we all know the best way to get the latest reviews or information or pricing of the book is to physically put that book down, peer into our smart phone to lookup what we want, its really counter intuitive the way we are perceiving the real world not to mention the effect on our eyes. Even this article I am writing will be better served if it were not written rather spoken/read… I am not against digitization or engaging via smart phones, but I think there should be a better way of perusing news articles or enjoying the physical world instead of burying our heads in the smart phones.

So, whats the solution? Have you ever visited a museum or a historical monument where they offer audio tours where you are given a device and listening to the audio commentary while you walk around the museum where your visual sense is directed firmly at the object(s) you are there to enjoy while your auditory sense enhances the experience with the commentary? This is really a great way to enjoy a visit to the museum, I see few limitations with this particular approach. The first thing is, a very specialized device (there may be some museums already employing a smart phone app instead of this audio device), and the audio is generated and distributed by the establishment itself and has no way of generating feedback and its really limited to a particular museum or monument or an object.

I was thinking of a cloud based audio platform where a community can associate various sounds, voices and even songs to any physical object and make it available to the whole world. Imagine a scenario where you are visiting the metropolitan museum of art in New York and looking at a monumental artwork by Titian and be able to listen to a commentary in Arabic uploaded by a fellow art connoisseur (assuming Arabic is your language, wouldn't that enhance your experience of taking in that particular artwork? Most of the physical objects in the world from toothpaste to a laptop are bar coded already, if we have a simple way of accessing all the audio associated with that object, we can experience a range of emotions in all the possible languages without taking our eyes off of that object. You want product reviews? You got it, you want audio tour guides, you got it (using geo location along with bar codes). I can even imagine a scenario where an birthday card sent around in the office for everyone to sign (ya, we've all seen those) can associate a whole host of voices and even songs associated with that particular card can be retrieved and enjoyed by the receiver anytime they want. Its like capturing a moment forever and be able to relive the nostalgia associated with that card or gift or whatever. We can even think of attaching audio notes to everyday objects from cereal to a photo frame or watch to a favorite dress. I can even imagine a scenario while perusing a menu in a restaurant (if each of the menu items have a tag or bar code) you can hear your favorite foodie blogger’s review or your brother-in-law’s opinion (if you value it!) without taking your eyes off of the menu. Yes, there are many objects in the world are not bar coded or tagged, but that’s easily fixable by providing tags (which can be NFC enabled) for very very cheap prices and encourage people to affix them to any object and letting the world start recording their voices around these objects. This could be a platform to make a statement at a place or event or symbolic monument without indulging in traditional graffiti, could be like a visually silent protest but entire range of voices can be expressed and shared. Imagine being able to record voices of visitors and their emotions after visiting the Vietnam war memorial or voices of protesters at Tahrir Square, any visitor to Tahrir Square after that can relive those moments, it makes it more powerful and relatable.

I envision NFC enabled tags or bar codes being associated to any object at a micro level or a place at macro level and without having to take our smart phones from our pockets we should be able to hear and experience that particular object, even newspapers or articles can be read to you on the move, imagine opening the newspaper in the morning and touching few interesting articles you want to read and creating a dynamic playlist that can be listened to on the go during your commute… We can really give voice to an inanimate object or piece of furniture. We can really mesh the digital and physical world via audio. We don’t have to invest millions and billions to create smart objects by embedding expensive sensors, yes we are all waiting for the day when our refrigerator orders our groceries or our washing machine makes a service call to get a technician without us lifting a finger, while waiting for that day, we can really make objects smart by adding voice to it, especially if a community like wikipedia is involved, we can make our interaction with everyday world that much richer.

Here at LizenUp, we are hard at work to make this vision a reality. We are releasing an app and a website so people can start sharing their stories. Please use our contact form to signup for updates.