Skate Where the Puck is Going

Posted on Oct 17, 2010 | 94 comments


Anyone who works in the venture business or frankly just lives in Silicon Valley will be used to hearing a buzz word rise up out of nowhere to capture the technology zeitgeist and find its way into every entrepreneur’s product development plan or every aspiring entrepreneur’s pitch deck.

I call this “the puck at your feet” because it’s not where the industry is heading but rather where the industry is today.  By the time you launch your buzz word feature we’ll be on to the next fad and everybody will be offering your buzz product so it won’t be differentiated.  As an entrepreneur you need to think about where the puck is going.

The most recent example of cringe-worthy buzz words is “game mechanics.”  It seems that you can’t build a business these days without it.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that at least 50% of all new businesses that I’m seeing are telling me that they’re incorporating some form of game mechanics into their offering.  I wonder where this all started but I’m guessing it was popularized by FourSquare.  I heard from one smart source that years ago that Reid Hoffman had predicted the “game-ification” of most Internet businesses.

I’m not arguing that game dynamics in your business solution won’t be important or successful.  I get the appeal and importance of this innovation in driving behavior.  So if you think it will drive behavior in your offering – go for it.  But if you’re “leading” a pitch with game dynamics as though you thought of it first it gets to be a bit much.  This is especially true when you present to investors who get jaded very quickly as all presentations start to sound like the last one.  I think a more subtle discussion of game dynamics in your software is warranted and it should be a supporting point to a discussion of what real innovation you’re planning.

Similar current buzz-meter terms include: geo-location, geo-fencing, local deals, local offers, flash sales, group sales, privates sales and augmented reality.  And of course – badges.  Fawking badges.  Really?  OK, I get it.  Badges were an innovation.  And they seem to work.  But badges are the puck at your feet.  If you think they’ll be good for your app – fine.  But if you’re trying to convince me that it’s WHY your application will succeed I’d suggest you think harder.

Badges = Foursquare.  Maybe someone else, too.  FourSquare will own the branding of that innovation for a while.  I’ll bet even Foursquare is thinking about an eventual life beyond badges.  I hope they are because badges will run their course.

Last year’s passé terms that even entrepreneurs cringe at (and the best are embarrassed to lead with) are social network, social media and social games.  I guess “social” is just soooo last year.  I think by now we all sort of assume that social is pervasive in everything you do in the way that location-aware is assumed in all mobile apps.

So what happens when you combine two buzz words and form the basis of your investor pitch?  You’ll almost think I’m joking but I’m not.  People come in and say, “we’re check-in’s for TV,” or “we’re check-in’s for consumer products,” “we’re check-in’s for food.”

Me: “OK, but what is your innovation?”

“Well, when people check in on TV we’re going to give them badges.”  Me, dead panned.  ”Wow, how did you think of that?”

I recently gave talks at Caltech & Stanford.  One of my most important messages was if you’re sitting around dreaming about creating an innovative startup don’t start by reading TechCrunch and thinking about how you’re going to copy all of today’s innovative companies.  That’s too late.  It’s the puck at your feet.  Come up with your own novel thoughts.

Your new idea won’t resonate with people the way “check-ins” does because they’ve never heard of it by definition.  Most innovation comes from non-conventional views.  And I feel the same about investing.  I think you make money by investing where the puck is going.  I’m looking for deals that might initially make others scratch their heads the way people first did with Twitter or Quora.  The way many people are currently thinking about DataSift, “It looks cool but I kind of don’t get it?” (I’m not an investor, I’m just judging by people’s reactions at TC Disrupt.  They loved all the consumer stuff they could “get” and all the other stuff made them scratch their heads.)

And if you come up with something truly novel you can be the buzzword 2 years from now when everybody is chasing your puck.  That’s called product leadership.

[Update]: Some people have pointed out that all of today’s “innovations” are just yesterday’s ideas rehashed such as Salesforce just doing Siebel on the web, Mint doing Quicken on the web, Quora copying Yahoo! Answers or Twitter just being a take in IRC that has existed for years.

In my view almost all ideas are derivative.  Recreating and out executing a tired, old site in a new way is innovation in the way that Quora has totally redone how Q&A works.  And Siebel on your desktop is not the same as Salesforce.com on the web.  And, yes, somebody has got to kill off evite.  But I think that re-doing a tired, old implementation in a novel way is very different than chasing today’s fad.

And when Google launched, while it was “search” they came up with a novel model for ranking results – PageRank.  It was derivative but innovative.

My view.

  • http://berislav.lopac.net Berislav Lopac

    Funny thing is that, in my opinion, that neither Jack, Ev and Biz didn't see what you did at the time.

    Sometimes the spectators have a better idea of the future puck path, but it's again difficult to know which ones have the right insight. Though, Tara and Seth are always a good bet. ;)

  • http://berislav.lopac.net Berislav Lopac

    I like your comment about things people “get” (like consumer stuff) and those they don't. Unfortunately VCs seem to be thinking in similar patterns, and it seems to be twice as difficult to find funding for development-oriented tools (like DataSift), and five times as difficult for infrastructure stuff, however innovative. That was why I'm always pleasantly surprised to see funds with such projects in their portfolio, such as Union Square's 10gen.

  • Russ Dollinger

    Mark as you point out, it is a big problem to be too early with an idea. Ideally one should be only 10 or 15 minutes ahead of the market at most. In a recent blog post Steve Blank claims that the most successful companies are in fact the “fast followers.”

    So, I ask you, if someone has a really innovative idea how should they present it if it is ahead of its time?

  • 2mehdi

    Nice title. Something Scott McNealy used to say 15 years ago.

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    i h8 thoze 2

  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    Frankly, as soon as something starts getting lots of buzz, I loose interest. I'm always excited by the things I recognize a need for that almost nobody is currently talking about.

    Of course that leads me to the opposite problem as most investors follow the heard as much as most entrepreneurs…. But I digress.

  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    I certainly don't disagree, but if those short descriptions are wrong then how would you advise people to think about their startups so they can describe them in a succinct way?

  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    Except there has never been a truly global singular IRC chat room before Twitter. Going global and singular was Twitter's innovation.

  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    Interesting thoughts on Quora for LinkedIn. I don't know if it would be a match made in heaven or not but I can agree that LinkedIn's groups are one of the worst implementations I've ever seen. They do sooo many things wrong but since they are they leader in professional profiles they much not realize that they should be doing better. Very frustrating.

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    Mark: I figure if you are going to write about where the puck is going – you'd give Wayne Gretzky some props – as he is widely credited with coining that phrase (or at least popularizing it). Especially as you are in LA – I know you could have found a picture of the great one in a Kings jersey – but I'm glad to see you have come to your senses and used a Rangers player for the header.

    On thing that gets lost in the “where's the puck going” conversations is why Gretzky knew where it was going. He knew because as a youngster he sat in front of the TV watching the games with a pencil and paper in his hand and he would watch the game while simultaneously drawing the path of the puck.

    What he was doing was developing his pattern recognition for hockey. I.E. If the puck is here and the players are here, then the puck is most likely to go there – thus – go there.

    What is interesting about entrepreneurs is that often times they are young – founding their first companies – without a lot of pattern recognition.

    The folks with the greatest pattern recognition should be the VC's – as it is their job to look at all companies and see what is successful and what is not – what the competitive set is and how they react to different situations.

    The EIR programs at VC's are reasonably well established – but I am always very surprised that the VC industry does not come up with more business plans itself – finding founders to partner with to run them – as opposed to sitting back and waiting for the pitches to roll in.

    If I were starting a new VC business today – I think I would populate it with very few partners, and quite a few EIR's and lots of coders who can turn a vision into reality.

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    Chris and Mark, curious…how do you think Quora did such a better job of getting traction with good answers than Yahoo did?

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    Define a pioneer:

    He's the guys with all the arrows in his back!

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    There's also a great speech given by Warren Buffets right hand man – Charlie Munger (I think given to the USC business school class) in which he talks about trends. He said that some of the trends are quick to cycle – like a fast breaking wave – you see it – but unless you are already on your board in the lineup you are going to miss it. However, there are other trends where you can ride the wave for miles – all the way into the shore. That's what he and Buffet are looking for. In some cases – you can get in with the public, and while you won't do as well as the original investor – you may do far better than average.

  • Peter C.

    Yeah, I see that. You sort of touched upon it. I guess I wanted to point out that some of today's buzzwords can somehow dilute an idea because everybody is using those buzzwords. And these ideas are current (and less derivative imo) but the greatest products around them haven't been discovered yet (as opposed to ideas that are derived from something seriously seen as valuable.. so I guess my examples were not great :)).

    For example, is Foursquare really the best we have around geo-social? Can geo-social only exist with “fawking” badges? :D I hope not. Because it really is not all that social yet.

    Local/group offers. Group-on? Yelp? That's it?

    I feel that anything location is the buzzword of the day but there haven't been many good solutions around it. Where's the transformation? I can't think of one player that's really changed the game just yet.

  • Peter C.

    Agree. It's common to see products that are too early for its time fail. I actually think one has a better chance of success taking an existing idea but bringing something very new to the game (I'm talking about something transformational not a new feature).

    With that said, I agree with everything Mark wrote. “Fawking” badges indeed! :D

  • http://twitter.com/arniesingh Arnie Gullov-Singh

    Yahoo Answers is still 200x bigger than Quora (based on monthly uniques) but Quora has done a very good job getting traction with influential users in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, which keeps the company top of mind with investors and pundits while they scale up. This technique is almost blog post-worthy in itself.

  • Corporate Raiders

    YES!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/neoganda Neoganda

    The last crop of startups at TC Disrupt was an example of how “cute” business ideas are having their day. When I heard some of the presentations I couldn’t believe that the event was actually curated and these were the good ones. Many of the entrepreneurs looked into the future, leveraged the profound potential of the internet and proposed a childish egoic achievement game/sale or a platform to essentially pass notes with your friends. The game mechanics space has been picked to the bone yet the undertakers persist. Zynga is to Nirvana as Badgeville is to Nickleback.

  • Corporate Raiders

    Isn't IM basically Twitter for the enterpise?

  • Corporate Raiders

    I do not understand it either. High profile people spend conscious effort to remain off the radar then we have people tweeting and foursquaring about being in some obscure coffee shop somewhere or airport or wherever???? Ummm…color me confused??

    I'm no Einstein but if I angered as many people as some rude investors manage to I wouldn't exactly be saying hey guys I'm over here!!! Where's the value in that?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. Great quote. It goes without saying that I was not impressed.

  • http://markgslater.wordpress.com/ markslater

    as a venture capitalist – you sit at the apex of a river of innovation. Your seat affords a breathtaking view of entrepreneurship that entrepreneurs cannot access. You should not forget that these people are making you smarter every day, using jaded vernacular or not.

    Your point is well taken though.

  • http://markgslater.wordpress.com/ markslater

    its football.

  • http://www.dogster.com Ted Rheingold

    Great point about innovate vs. derivative. I had been thinking at a conference recently, in sticking with the example, that with great regularity the puck goes back to where it was before.

    Instagram is a great example. For the last year the common moan was Facebook consumed the fun of Flickr-style photo sharing. Instragram made some very significant innovations on the model and now in two weeks it's become hugely popular. You could say Formspring did the same thing with Yahoo Answers.

    You give a number of other examples in your post.

    In keeping with the hockey-lingo, this makes me suspect that a good offensive strategy doesn't play out after one use. You can keep charging forward with it and get a number of goals over the course of the season, even though each time it has to be different enough to get past the defense (competition) which learns almost as fast as you do.

    And the more the Industry gives up on something that was once very popular often means it's worth considering running an innovative version of that play again.

  • MITDGreenb

    VC's *should* have the best pattern recognition, but there are a lot of examples where the over-abundance of capital in VC funds actually creates the “puck at your feet” effect. And that's true even today: just look at the number of “check-ins for TV” (or “social TV” [gag, gag, cough, cough]) startups that have been funded in the past year. Several of these are indiscernible from each other. Clearly, though, showing up and saying, “We'll have sponsored badges in return for check-ins on our social TV platform.” worked for these companies, as several VC's felt they each needed a bet in the space. The moral of the story is that startups, at least good ones, would not play the buzzwords if it did not work.

    Full disclosure: I work with a “social TV” startup. Their approach, however, is a lot more than “check-ins for TV.”

  • Richard Koffler

    Mike Schinkel: Whatever you say, it MUST be clear. “Where Mint meets Zynga” is as muddied as it can get because I can construct the analogy in my mind in myriad ways, probably all different from what the entrepreneur had in mind. Perhaps open with a statement of benefit for the customer? Nothing needs to be stated in just five-word analogies. Serious investors expect more than five-word meaningless analogies.

  • Richard Koffler

    For more on “industry experts”, read the post on this blog about conference ho's.

  • http://www.michaelbroukhim.com Michael Broukhim

    Aaron's situation perfectly handled was Netflix — always knew that on-demand is where the puck was heading (hence the name Netflix), but started out shipping DVDs because that's where the market was at the time.

  • John

    Yougme Moon from Harvard Business School recently spoke at the Business of Software 2010 conference in Boston. Her talk was how companies try to differentiate their products from competitors, but to the consumer, they all seem to offer the same thing. She wrote a book about it called “Different – Escaping the Competitive Herd”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26PVrm4iLA0

    She also posted an “Anti-Creativity Checklist”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsyAtkjYcEk&feature=related

    You might need to pause this video several times if you are not a speed reader.

  • http://twitter.com/bunchball bunchball

    “being too early is the same as being wrong.”

    In 2005 we created a social gaming platform for social networks and dating sites. Nobody was buying. We were too early. Check out these articles from right before Facebook launched their platform:
    http://www.undertheradarblog.com/blog/3-questions-2-blog-posts-rajat-paharia-ceo-bunchball/
    http://www.undertheradarblog.com/blog/bunchball-part-2-casual-gaming-growth/

    “And if you come up with something truly novel you can be the buzzword 2 years from now when everybody is chasing your puck. That’s called product leadership.”

    In early 2007 we shifted the company to creating our Nitro game mechanics platform. People scratched their heads. We persevered, survived, built a great product, great team, and have a stellar customer list. In the last 6 months gamification has hit a fever pitch. The puck is now at our feet. The market is also being flooded with companies and platform providers slapping badges on everything and using game mechanics in a very shallow, derivative way, as you and others have noted. And as a result you're seeing the inevitable backlash and fatigue.

    We have ideas on what to do now and are laser-focused on execution. I'd love to hear what you think, Mark. Now that the puck is here, what should we be doing?

    btw – our investors, despite being “Silicon Valley Tools” :), believed in us and supported us, from our initial concept for social gaming through to the evolution into game mechanics. They saw something that no one else did. And I mean no one. And they put their money and support behind it.

    best, Rajat Paharia
    Founder, Chief Product Officer
    http://www.bunchball.com

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    You will like the advice I heard VC David Travers with Rustic Canyon Partners give to aspiring entrepreneurs during a recent panel discussion on raising capital:

    Zig where others are zagging!

  • Rich

    Great post Mark. It reminds me of what Clayton Christensen first told us when we started our business, “don't follow the hype, just ask yourself what job does your product or service do perfectly for the consumer? Concentrate on that in developing and marketing your offering” He then had us read his paper on MARKETING MALPRACTICE (hbr.org/products/R0512D/R0512Dp4.pdf). Good stuff. Thanks.

  • http://www.twitter.com/aainslie Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)

    Here are a couple of excerpts from Prof. Moon's presentation at #CTAM in New Orleans: http://www.ctam.com/html/summit/default.htm

    YM: How different are you REALLY from competitors? TRUE biz differentiation is rare so consumers are disconnecting.

    YM: TOO much listening to customer feedback can create homogeneous mktplace. They will ask for what others offer.

    YM: Furniture retail challenge: Americans change their sofas about as often as their spouse: 1.5x/lifetime! :-)
    – is Facebook a sofa? ;)

    YM: Key to biz differentiation: think different. Don't try to do what competitors do. Like IKEA, say yes where others say no & vice versa.

    YM: When a marketer promotes a product that's easy to like, it's easy to ignore. When marketers are candid & showcase the negative it can be genius.

    (stream via @mossappeal – #CTAM )

    Youngme Moon: Author of DIFFERENT See excerpt from her book: http://bit.ly/Different_Excerpt
    Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School http://bit.ly/YoungmeMoon

    …Perhaps running hyper data driven companies (which seem all the rage today) is not the path to skating to where the puck is going? Your take?

  • http://twitter.com/rfawal Richard Fawal

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. I know now that I am not crazy. I'm the founder of a new startup for TV audiences (http://WatchParty.tv) that is NOT doing “check-ins for TV, with badges” but I can't tell you how many times I've had potential investors and other entrepreneurs tell me I should describe – and build – my product that way.

    The fact is, if what I'm creating could be described that easily I probably wouldn't find it worth doing. If I needed badges to get users engaged, it wouldn't be worth them using (see “Incentivize This!” http://goo.gl/o871). And I run screaming from potential investors who tell me they have a “better idea” for our feature set or business model (see “My Investor Litmus Test” http://goo.gl/9FH4).

    I am very, very happy that you wrote this post. I always knew I was doing it right, but so many people have told me I'm wrong. It's nice to hear at least one expert confirm my beliefs.

  • arnorhs

    Well, maybe your point is not that these things are *bad* per se, but they are not what makes a product unique or great, they are simply 'features'.

    It's like saying that you're going to have an orange background. I just wouldn't care about that.

  • http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/ Tom Foremski

    I try to shoot ahead of the duck…

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Challenging post, Mark. Great food for thought.

    Recently, I heard another VC say something in this vein that really struck me — David Travers with Rustic Canyon Partners advice to aspiring entrepreneurs during a panel discussion:

    Zig where others are zagging!

    Then came across Paul Graham's post on “Organic Startups” http://bit.ly/bOeCc8 which shares some similar, challenging thoughts.

    Wish I could be a fly on the wall during some of those pitches when you've said “Wow, how did you think of that?” Sounds like something I would say to my kids.

  • http://www.easyfiancevisa.com/ K3 Visa

    wow…! Very interesting article. I was looking same type of article for my presentation.

  • http://twitter.com/L1AD LIAD

    sweet post Mark. One of my favourite to date.

    You don't mention the other side of the coin though. Specifically as most kick-ass investors would agree, the majority of VC's are lemmings, just following the herd, and if you go in their explaining your vision about how things will be and why your business will capitalise on a trend or serve a market which is in its infancy or doesnt even exist yet – chances are you will get the same blank look and polite decline that you give someone who's pitching you an idea related to the puck at their feet

  • http://www.startupboyo.com/ RichardF

    Great post Mark. Badges just remind me of school prefects.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    I'd like to know as well Aaron.

  • http://derekchristensen.com Derek

    Fast Company did a bit of research on the Gretzky quote (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/36/cdu.html) and explained some of the true origins. It's worth reading.

  • http://charliecrystle.blogspot.com/ Charlie Crystle

    I've started a search company. Innovation happens in the work, not in the category.

  • http://charliecrystle.blogspot.com/ Charlie Crystle

    Oh, and screw the puck. The metaphor might feel good but it creates a thought context/framework that inherently limits innovation.