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://twitter.com/alextoul Alex Toulemonde

    There's an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.' And we've always tried to do that at Apple. Since the very very beginning. And we always will.
    —Steve Jobs

    Thanks for the reminder Mark!

  • http://kirillzubovsky.com Kirill Zubovsky

    Thanks Mark. Perhaps this is also a reminder to chase one's own dream, and not somebody's glamour.

  • http://www.binpress.com Eran Galperin

    There's a tendency to copy what's hot since there's the perception that it is the idea that's working and people forget about the entire business behind it (team, implementation, investors etc.). I definitely agree that most me-too startsups will fail since they do not innovate or differentiate enough with their product but mainly it will be since their team is lacking.

    There is still a big opportunity though for innovation in the same space. Facebook, for example, didn't really invent anything and entered into a market with an established giant (MySpace), but used a series of small innovations (exclusivity – initially, real identities, clean interface) and a lot of good breaks to disrupt the market leader and become a huge success.

  • http://twitter.com/NUtom06 Tom Hart

    Mark – agree in terms of “selling” your idea, and maybe with respect to VC prospects in general. However, a big part of innovation is the association of existing ideas in a new context (or industry), no? These “buzz words” should hopefully be fairly ground breaking (though there are plenty that are not), and thus would yield large incremental efficiencies/value in new applications even a long time down the road. Someone's gotta do it!

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

    From the perspective of including buzzwords in a pitch, this is exactly right. But one of the larger challenges in skating where the puck is going is figuring out when it is going to get there.

    A good example is HTML 5 mobile apps: full featured apps with write-once, run-anywhere for Android, iPhone, BlackBerry and everything else. Clearly that's where the puck is going.

    Yet if I was doing a startup today, and I want to build traction relatively quickly, I'm not sure the puck will get there fast enough for me.

  • dshen

    This reminds me of the TC post which showed Ron Conway's hot megatrends. Those trends were great but if you're jumping on those trends now, you're dead because Ron saw those megatrends coming YEARS ago and he invested in Facebook, Foursquare, etc already. Anyone investing now is investing too late- you've missed the upswing in value and your return potential is going to be severely minimized. In fact betting on late comers to that sector is potentially stupid with better funded early movers in the space.

    It also reminds me of when I see stocks recommended in Money magazine, or anywhere for that matter. It's too late to invest. The guys who initially found the trend in those stocks bet way before you. It's a fools investment at this point and only drives the stock higher for the guys who got in early and at a low price.

    Finding new trends is tough. Creating a trend is even tougher. But nobody said entrepreneurism or investing was easy. To maximize your potential you have to jump on an emerging trend or make your own trend.

  • http://www.samianrosen.com/ Samuel Ian Rosen

    “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. “

    Any hockey player (like myself) knows that by the time the puck is at your feet, or “in your skates,” you're looking down and about to get creamed by a player from the opposing team. The best way to avoid not getting crushed is to set your stick out infront of your body, like a nice bullseye. Success is the combination of preparedness (setting a good target), opportunity (having your head up), and vision (skating to where the puck will be)

  • Richard Koffler

    I don't know if these thoughts belong here, but I think they do: At this week's LAVA Meet the VCs event, aspiring entrepreneurs seeking funding described their ventures with statements like “Where Mint meets Zynga”, “Where Foursquare meets Zynga” and “The eHarmony for jobs”. There were three others who used an analogy, but I can't remember them. I tune these out just as quickly as I hear them because I find them highly defective, unimaginative and useless.

    What's your opinion?

  • http://www.facebook.com/esignature Jason M. Lemkin

    I'm with you Mark, but 'CRM for the web', 'HIRS for the web', 'expenses for the web', 'Quickbooks for the web', 'Twitter for the Enterprise', don't sound that innovative either. Perhaps they even weren't. But they did well.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the origins of the quote. I always use the soccer analogy, “pass where the player is heading not where he's standing” but I figured the hockey analogy is so much better understood I went for the simple version.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I'm not saying you can't beat existing players. Somebody, for example, needs to put a fork into evite. But I'm just saying too many companies chase too small of innovations all in the same field at the same time. That's always curious to me.

  • http://twitter.com/rahulgchaudhary Rahul Chaudhary

    With a solution like BigDoor, game mechanics is on its way to become a commodity and not remain competitive advantage for companies anymore.

    How much of a current buzzword frenzy do you think is fueled by the investors willingness to fund those companies easily?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    All I'm saying is that too many people get their inspiration for which company to start by copying today's fads. That's all.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You're exactly right. There's another quote, that I'll butcher, that says that in a market, “being too early is the same as being wrong.” That's why luck & timing matter so much in the success of a startup. But if you're starting today and your idea is location-based coupons – I can tell you fat chance of success.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, it's similar to an investor quote that if you're reading about the trend in a magazine it's too late to invest!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Sam. Glad to know my analogy really holds IRL! ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. Completely.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    CRM for the web didn't sound innovative but nobody had done it so it was first & early. Same with Mint. Wasabe was earlier but hadn't owned the category yet. And the jury is still out for “Twitter for the Enterprise.”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Probably investor help fuel buzz mania. For sure.

  • http://www.cdixon.org chris dixon

    I think you undermine your point with the Quora example. It was an old idea (Yahoo Answers) just done much, much better. Which in my mind shows that it's all about execution, no matter whether you are where the puck was, is, or will be.

  • http://www.binpress.com Eran Galperin

    Completely agree, I'm tired too of hearing about the “Something known for some niche vertical” scheme. It makes me even more annoyed when some of those actually take off :)

  • http://twitter.com/cliffelam J. Cliff Elam

    It is good, however, to keep in mind that twitter is just IRC with lipstick. So what is old can become new again.

    -XC

  • http://twitter.com/cliffelam J. Cliff Elam

    Hysterical. eHarmony for jobs? So you can get stalked by your job? Or maybe they find out you're gay and they make you work in a different building. What a hoot.

    -XC

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    All ideas are derivative to some extent. Quora took a novel approach to Q&A. Yahoo! Answers was static, dead site. Quora has innovated on UX design and on many features of their product relative to Yahoo! I'm not talking about inventing new unforeseen drugs here – but about having some innovation.

    To simply announce that you're “check in's for TV with badges” to me shows no original thinking. And executing well on an idea that has already captured a leadership position is a waste.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. Same point as with Yahoo! Answers vs. Quora. It's OK to innovate on an old, tired idea and execute well. That's not the same as trying to keep up with today's trend.

  • http://www.cdixon.org chris dixon

    agree re checkins for tv. but so many popular sites today weren't doing stuff that had been done years before – Facebook, Google etc. I know one VC who avoided the Google pitch at all costs because he was so tired of hearing search pitches. I think in the case of check ins for TVs the question is whether they've thought deeply about why it hasn't worked yet, how they are doing it different, etc.

    yahoo answers is quite lively, btw – it's just overwhelmed with crappy contributors.

  • http://www.ryanborn.net ryanborn

    It's always interesting to hear about the ideas you're being pitched that are of little to no interest to you. Publishing a weekly list of deals that you pass on would be helpful on many levels. Just a general list of the spaces that the companies operate in without revealing the actual names of the companies.

  • http://www.chriscarella.com/ ccarella

    Game mechanics on popular web apps are an old trick. Check out Amy Jo Kim's, “Putting the Fun in Functional” for examples of how ebay, Amazon, myspace, Flickr, Youtube and other sites have been using them for years. http://www.slideshare.net/amyjokim/putting-the-fun-in-functiona

    I agree with you that people are using game mechanics as a crutch like they once used “social” and or wose “viral”. Like viral and social, game mechanics are good idea which only work if you build a great product.

  • http://www.aaronpigeon.com Aaron

    I really like this analogy. As someone who gets excessively annoyed by buzzwords, it's refreshing to hear this perspective from an insider. Thank you.

  • http://www.moxe.net/ Doug Wulff

    I've got one…Real-time video advertising. Aching to tell you about it. 15 days post-idea money is committed. (Nothing to do w/ Moxe.) And I'm in STL!

    I've followed you close for 3 yrs. Thanks for the article!

  • http://www.horsepigcow.com missrogue

    Thank you! As one of the companies who presented at TechCrunch Disrupt to a judging panel that (mostly) scratched their heads (and one tried to compare us to something else), I wish I could firmly plant this post in the hands of every VC and tech blogger out there. I've sometimes stopped and wondered if I have a communication problem (because the idea seems to clear to me), but then I realize that not everyone understands where that puck is going. That's what made Gretzky a genius hockey player and why he wasn't matched by anyone his entire career.

    Going to where the puck is going to be is also what gave Twitter such a huge lead that there haven't been any rivals (except in the open sourcing – with Status.net – but they bring their own innovation). I remember talking about Twitter at a conference in early 2007. I got off stage and the organizer commented that it wasn't a great example since they weren't bound to catch on. I knew where that puck was going from the moment I was part of my first Twitterquake (Aug 2006: http://www.flickr.com/photos/missrogue/205432539/).

    Posts like this, especially from people on the money side of things, give me hope (hope that, frankly, I was frustrated enough to post about losing this weekend: http://www.horsepigcow.com/2010/10/breaking-the-mould/). Thank you once again.

  • Peter C.

    ….

  • Peter C.

    Just being a devil's advocate: Wasn't Facebook just a cleaner MySpace? Or Facebook a Friendster-that-won't-load-slowly? :) The iPhone a Blackberry with an awesome interface?

    I definitely agree with going to where the puck is. OTOH, I do think that some present ideas have not really reached their full potential (like search engines before Google, social networking before Facebook, smartphones before the iPhone) because the idea is there but the implementation is not. Or there is something, at its essence, that is missing.

    With that said, targeting a vertical on a presently popular idea needs something extra to bring to the game (something that's a game changer not a feature).

  • Alex Quilici

    You've definitely highlighted an issue with entrepreneurs. However, this is just as big or a bigger problem with many of the VCs out there. In fact, I'd lay some of the blame here on VCs who seem to be focused only on a small set of areas where the big winners are now (social mixed with location, social gaming, group buying, etc..). While “TV checkins” isn't exciting, I can totally get why an entrepreneur would focus on that vs. some other more interesting part of a business that doesn't fit the buzzwords of interest they likely heard from the first 3-4 VCs they talked to.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Please read update to my post. We're not arguing for different things

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. I think I mentioned in the post that I think VCs do the same thing. It's an industry problem.

  • http://twitter.com/NukeGold Nuke Goldstein

    I'm going to reveal a secret to you Mark – we (entrepreneurs seeking funding) tell you guys (investors) what you want to hear. Many times we have no choice we're stuck with what you know.

  • http://twitter.com/starttowonder S Jain

    I am very skeptical about the long term future of Four Square, Plan cast, Gowalla and many others….
    Quora I think would be a very good buy out for Linked In as Q & A participation will give support to persons profile and persons profile will his Q & A more weight.

    In terms of next wave of innovation, would love to have a post from you Mark.

    My inputs, next layer of innovation will be “User Data – for the User”…lot of analysis on the data entered by user for user himself to see and the big social component attached to the analysis. Many might be working on it right now. Whom so ever does it right will win. But they also need to project them self as a partner to face book and not as competitor to face book.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, but not fair to those that present.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    damn, you were early! I thought I was early in April 2007. When I invited people they said, “Twitter? What am I, 13?”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For sure. I get that. And not just on innovation but on revenue plans. It's the lies we know you're telling and somehow we want you to tell them ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I did a speech on it last weekend at Caltech. When the publish the video I'll put it on the blog

  • http://www.domainnoob.com John Humphrey (DomainNoob)

    As for 'it's like this for that', these guys nailed it, funny. http://itsthisforthat.com/
    Really enjoyed your recent Stanford lecture http://ecorner.stanford.edu/authorMaterialInfo.html?mid=2481

  • http://twitter.com/starttowonder S Jain

    That'll be great. Looking forward to the video. Maybe if we are on same page, I can pitch my company to you when ready for funding. Its great to have GRP in LA.

  • http://twitter.com/NukeGold Nuke Goldstein

    Tip of the hat dear sir. You're the first investor I heard who admits it. :-)

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Totally agree. Don't get caught up in the new shiny, but rather focus on value to the customer. And don't chase what investors think is hot, because you will always be late to the party. Of course, that doesn't mean that having people scratch their head over your vision isn't tough as well. Right now I see these two waves building and heading for each other, with us smack in the middle, but to others I might look a little crazy. :)

  • Dave W Baldwin

    When shown my original design (the one that will be an important tool in Ed and Therapy), my old college buddy exclaimed, “Dave, you will walk the dog!”

    I replied with, “Yes, you can walk the dog, and the other dogs will follow…or you can own the dog, have someone else walk it, and yes, the other dogs will still follow.”

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Great column…investors need to read it!

    When I pushed 18 months back to produce the project I'm funding today, it was a matter of knowing logically what was coming.

    That way, for a little over 2% of the cost (compared to what was done this year), we can produce the product that will live up to claim, serve the customer and deliver opportunities for the broader field in a positive way. That includes those that can only try to redefine a copy of what is already laying at their feet.

    Glad to hear from someone who seems to understand we can do more than simply copy code written and add the tiniest of innovation.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, John. I'm going to run it on TWiVC one week so not posting it on the blog just yet.

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

    But isn't that just the “one-sentence pitch” that has been a favorite of some industry experts?