Facebook Groups: Bringing People Together

Does anyone remember one of facebook’s hallmark features: the facebook group? I know this app is a thing of the past, but it’s worth mentioning for a couple of reasons.

In his publication on groupware and social dynamics in 1994, Jonathan Grudin argues that there are eight major challenges that developers of technology applications seeking to create better virtual spaces for collaboration must overcome. Since 1994 developers have to a large extent overcome many of these challenges. And while there still remain many problems with virtual groupware, technology and groupware development have improved tremendously. No where is this better seen than in Facebook’s old groups feature. Facebook groups addressed the problems of critical mass and the prisoner’s dilemma, disparity in work and benefit and unobtrusive accessibility. However, at the time Facebook still needed to improve on exception handling. I will be using the “No Cornellian in Poverty” group that was formed several years a year ago as a running example to illustrate these concepts.

1)    Critical mass and the Prisoner’s Dilemma: According to Grudin, one of the biggest issues with groupware is that it does not always enlist the critical mass of users required to be useful to the individual user. Facebook groups addressed this problem by creating a social setting online where a user’s existing social network is mapped out online. Currently there are more than 700 million users on facebook using the site on a consistent basis to interact with people who are important to them. Especially in younger generations, many users have accepted a vast majority of their friends as “facebook friends.” So when it comes time to form a group, whether it be for a cause like the group used in this blog, or about anything else the existing critical mass is already there to form the group. “No Cornellian in Poverty” had over 450 members in the group from an admin list of 3 people—and this was well over a year after the group was formed. Clearly facebook groups had tremendous success at acquiring critical mass.

2)    Disparity in Work and Benefit: Another one of Grudin’s concerns with groupware applications is that they often require additional work from individuals who do not perceive a direct benefit from the work that they put in. The Facebook Groups application overcame this challenge by making it really easy to set up a Facebook group. Utilizing drop down menus, auto-fill features, radio buttons and text boxes, users of the Facebook group application could set up their group in a matter of minutes and then invite all their friends to join. The small amount of work is definitely worth the reward of garnering attention to or facilitating discussion about the Facebook group.

3)    Unobtrusive Accessibility: In his paper, Grudin states that groupware ought to ensure that features that support group processes are used relatively infrequently in comparison to more heavily used features. The beauty of facebook is that it gives individual users control over the quantity and nature of information they receive via email from the group. For example, some users may find the “discussion board” useful whereas others may find the “links” useful. In either case, a user can go into the group’s settings and customize the type and quantity of emails he or she receives from the group. This allows for the application to be less obtrusive.

4)    Exception Handling: Grudin argues that groupware should be able to handle a wide range of exceptions as well as be conducive to improvisation. Herein lies the one flaw with Facebook groups—it simply wasn’t built to handle exceptions. There are a whole range of types of groups and features that facebook groups never had. This includes features like: uploading documents, synchronizing calendars of members, communicating via video chat within the group, sending out mass text messages, etc,. There are definitely a number of exceptions that facebook simply wasn’t ready to handle at the time

Nevertheless Facebook groups made a number of important strides towards overcoming Grudin’s challenges for developers. Despite having difficulty with handling exceptions, it obtained the necessary critical mass, eliminated the disparity between work and benefit and made accessibility far less obtrusive. This progress seems to suggest that slowly groupware will eliminate all the challenges that Grudin presents, making virtual collaboration as efficient and beneficial as face-to-face interaction. Yet we ought to be a little more reserved in our optimism. After all there seems to be an inherent and irreplaceable value to personal interaction. Are we then chasing an illusive goal  or trying to conquer the unconquerable? It seems that only time will tell that tale.

Startup Idea: The Computer as Health & Fitness Monitor

Health and Fitness are two of the most discussed topics in modern western culture. It seems as though everyone from doctors to health gurus to gym trainers has an opinion on how to stay healthy and fit. The number of magazines, television shows, fitness products, medical appliances and health related personnel is simply mind bogging. Entire industries and political interest groups are organized around the human body and how one can preserve its physical, mental and emotional sanctity. Because of the decentralized nature of all this knowledge and information, people often spend lots of money and hours of their time simply trying to organize their lives so they can stay healthy and fit.

Let’s take for example a diabetic female who is trying to lose 20 pounds – we’ll name her Sally for simplicity. Because Sally is diabetic, she must constantly monitor her insulin level and take the appropriate quantity of the right medication at a set time each day. If she forgets to take her medication she will suffer physically from fatigue and other complications. Because Sally is on a diet, she must constantly consult with her doctor on the appropriate foods, vitamins and minerals she ought to be taking. In addition, she is probably working with a fitness trainer each week to burn fat via exercise. She is also most likely weighing herself each day and trying to chart her own progress. This weekly routine involves interacting with many different people, devices and information sources. For Sally the gap between the gulf of execution and gulf of evaluation, at each phase and collectively as a whole, is extremely wide. If there were a way to aggregate all this information into one computer operated device with strong visibility and solid feedback, Sally would be much better off.

This is where my invented Health and Fitness monitor would come into play. This device would be a ring shaped product that a user, we’ll continue with Sally, could place on her finger and wear each day. The ring would monitor and store to memory all activity within the human body. At any point in time, Sally could turn on a display mode which would pull up a 3-D visual of her body in mid-air. All action done with the device would be via interaction with this 3-D visual floating in the air:

The Health and Fitness monitor would allow Sally to view her body from a whole range of angles: the skeleton, nervous system, blood vessels and organs, muscle tissue, etc., It would also allow her to monitor her insulin levels and weight fluctuation—giving her a running analysis week by week, day by day.  The monitor would send her reminders, in the form of vibrating sounds or flashing lights, when she needed to take a certain medication, go for a run or get some rest. The monitor would also be integrated with other systems including her doctor and fitness monitor’s computers, her tread mill, her digital cook book and her personal calendar allowing for Sally to take complete control of organizing and centralizing information.

The design of the Health and Fitness monitor would be intuitive in the sense that there would be a number of constraints that would make each action easy to see, complete, interpret, evaluate and reverse (if necessary). Sally would probably be most interested in using the command mode of the monitor, but for more tech savvy individuals, a direct manipulation mode with open source software would be made available. The monitor would also map the relationship between all controls and actions—in particular the touch sensitive buttons hovering in the air. The feedback from the device would utilize both sound and visual changes to ensure that Sally knows what the effects of her actions are. The ultimate goals would be to aggregate information into one centralized source and narrow the afore mentioned gap between the gulf of execution and gulf of evaluation.

From a user point of view and from a technological point of view, this would be a really great invention that could help many. However, two important factors to consider are: privacy and patient confidentiality. These topics raise a number of questions that would need to be answered if the Health and Fitness Monitor were to be produced and integrated across multiple systems, where many people would have access to personal information. But from a design perspective there are quite a few benefits.

Doing it the Right Way at Dunkin Donuts

Have you ever had a problem with transporting liquid in your vehicle? Ever spilt coffee in your car and had to put up with wet seats, leather stains or the stench of week-old coffee? I’ve certainly had these problems before but hopefully that will all change due to a convenient discovery I made this weekend.

Sunday I had to bring coffee and donuts to an event for 20 people. Because I’m not hugely creative when it comes to food, I immediately narrowed my list of options to one vendor: Dunkin Donuts. But I’ve never been very lucky with transporting liquid in cars and, as such, I was concerned that there would be a lot of spillage. This would, of course, translate into a big clean up job and more work for me. It is for this reason that I was extremely pleased when I pulled up to the drive through window and the Dunkin Donuts employee handed me a “box o’ Joe” coffee box.

Perhaps, the best thing about the box o’ Joe is that its cubic shape affords more stability than most containers. It rests securely and comfortably on any car seat. The weight of the coffee is distributed evenly across the box, ensuring that the box remains stable rather than rolling around and spilling its contents. Another important affordance is the handle, which clues the user in on the appropriate way of holding the box and laying it down on his or her car seat.

Once the user has arrived at his or her destination and is ready to consume the coffee, the box o’ Joe continues to be worthy of Hall of Fame status. The box has a visible shape that mimics the traditional coffee-pot or tea-pot shape, allowing for quick perception of the method in which the box should be used. In addition to the already mentioned handle, the white capped nozzle acts as a pseudo-spout. These design functions allow for more ease of use—mapping out the relationship between the controls (handle and spout) and their action (pouring the coffee).

The only criticism of of the box o” Joe is the use of the box at the end. Initially, when the box is full of coffee, liquid flows out steadily and the user can visually gauge how much coffee is being poured out. However, as the liquid dwindles the user must lift the box higher and higher in the air until the width of the box actually blocks the view of the cup into which the coffee is being poured. This can result in too little or too much coffee being poured. Nevertheless, box o’ Joe coffee is on the whole a great product that ought to be replicated in other similar restaurants. Great job Dunkin Donuts.

Making a Bunch of Green by Going Green

I thought it would probably be a good idea to write about something that has to do with the environment as I haven’t yet touched on this yet. The problem is I have always had some degree of reservation when placing entrepreneurship and environmentalism in the same sentence. It’s not that entrepreneurs can’t uphold environmental principles or help reduce pollution or any other dilemma. It’s simply the intense difference in image and meaning surrounding the two concepts. Often people will say that going green should be an altruistic thing that you do for the earth and for future generations. The concept of making a profit while doing so is often associated with greed or inefficiency.

Yet, I would say that making a profit while simultaneously bettering the environment is something that should be respected, and perhaps even promoted in the coming years. And entrepreneurs who innovate in this manner may soon become leaders of the environmental movement.

Take James Poss of Needham, Massachusetts for example. He invented the BigBelly trash can and started Seahorse Power Co. to advance his product. The BigBelly trash can is similar to any other trash can except it uses solar energy to compress trash when the trash can gets too full. This means that people can pile more trash into their trash bins, which in turn means that trash collection frequency is drastically reduced. As the number of diesel-burning garbage trucks decreases, the amount of fuel burned by these trucks decreases as well. Moreover Poss’ Device has put him in places of influence on a national level—the U.S. Forest Service and the Borough of Queens are both clients.

Other entrepreneurs such as Professor Daniel Kammen tend to focus more on the research and innovation end of entrepreneurship. Kammen, a professor at UC Berkley and Cornell alumnus, developed a UV tube for light bulbs that saves energy and cuts down on costs. Although Kammen had the opportunity to plunge fully into growing a company, he chose to stay in the innovative phase so that he can contribute more to the current knowledge of sustainable energy. (Click here to listen to eClips content from Kammen)

While entrepreneurs like Poss and Kammen have different goals and priorities, it is clear that such entrepreneurs are jumping into the market very rapidly. The Center for Small Business and the Environment (CSBE) said clean-tech startups accounted for 6.4 percent of all North American venture investments in 2003. And this number is only going to keep climbing in the coming years. Clearly, environmentalism is becoming a global issue. Look to entrepreneurs to lead the way.

Social Entrepreneurs: The Hidden Profits

Social Entrepreneurship is a strain of entrepreneurship that has been gaining attention as of late. Traditionally, social entrepreneurship was often thought of as charity or volunteer work done by non-profit organizations or private individuals. While social entrepreneurship does often take this form, it is important to realize that social entrepreneurs go through much of the same process as other entrepreneurs. In fact, the classification of a social entrepreneurial endeavor as simply a “charity” hides the many similarities between social entrepreneurship and business entrepreneurship.

A few years ago my friend Nick Batter, currently a senior at Harvard University, went on a volunteer summer relief trip to Sri Lanka. The nation had just been devastated by the historic tsunami and Nick figured he’d travel with a large group like the Red Cross or UNICEF to help the relief efforts. Yet, he was advised that these large organizations were inefficient and had a very difficult time getting access to the hardest hit parts of the island. So Nick decided he would get a bunch of friends together, raise some money and use the money to oversee the implementation of sustainable projects that would better the village communities damaged by the catastrophic tsunami.

That was the summer of 2005. Now, three years later, Nick and his group of friends are in charge of a non-profit organization named Sri Lankan Aid. Their growth has been absolutely tremendous. From an initial budget of 25 cents, they have grown to close to $20,000 per summer trip. 100% of there money goes towards building facilities that village communities in Sri Lanka desperately need. This includes classrooms, orphanage wings, water pumps, village centers and many other things. They have also created a film documentary of their progress known as Lions and Tigers, which is set to be released in late 2008. Sri Lankan Aid has been recognized by Congressional members and by the former President of Sri Lanka. Each year the non-profit grows in size, and I feel honored to know these guys.

The primary reason why I bring up Nick is because he is a perfect example of what I consider to be a social entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurs, like business entrepreneurs, identify and try to resolve specific problems. Of course, their problems tend to have social or humanitarian connections, but they address the problems in similar manners. On the results side, social entrepreneurs tend to measure their success in terms of the magnitude of their impact on society rather than the amount of money they make. In that sense, being a social entrepreneur has profits far more valuable than silver and gold.

eClips has a growing collection of stories from social entrepreneurs. You also might want to check out the clips we have in the “Social Entrepreneur – Defined” theme or in the “Transfering Social Values To A Business Model” theme…

So You’ve Got An Idea

From speaking to friends and other students on campus, I’ve been impressed by the growing number of people who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. The days of landing that safe and secure job at IBM are gone as more people are willing to enter the riskier but more exciting arena of entrepreneurship. Yet of all the people I’ve spoken with, only a select few have actually tinkered with starting a business. Still fewer have run a successful enterprise for a sizeable period of time.

I think that one of the hardest things for students who want to become entrepreneurs is moving from a concept or idea towards the creation of a startup. Often, students have a good idea and dream of the possibilities of that idea. But the excitement and passion behind the idea is never utilized to turn the idea into reality. While it’s true that the road to becoming an entrepreneur is generally long and narrow, I’m surprised that more people don’t give it a try.

At eClips, we have a lot of video clips devoted to educating entrepreneurs on what they can do to take that active step towards starting a business. Below is a list of 5 things you can do to get started today.

1) Figure out exactly why you want to become an entrepreneur. Do you dream of becoming rich? Do you want to have the independence of being your own boss? Do you simply enjoy innovating? Get your motives nailed down.

2) Completely map out your idea. What is your product or service? Who is your target market? How will you generate revenue? What is your business model?

3) Surround yourself with people who will add real value to your business. This includes finding a solid management team and an experienced board of advisors. This need not be very formal per say, but having others to help you out will broaden your pool of knowledge and make your chances of success higher.

4) Market your product and service to as many people as possible. This includes current clients, possible clients and even investors. You need not spend a lot of money here if you are creative and resourceful. What really matters is that you get your name out there.

5) Be persistent and take risks. It’s not always going to be easy, and you’re going to have to sacrifice a lot. But if you want to win big; you need to play big.

Hopefully, this is enough to get started. Once again eClips has tons of relevant information, so don’t hesitate to browse the site.

On a separate note, don’t forget that this weekend is Entrepreneruship @ Cornell Celebration. This is a great opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs or just learn something new.

Lessons Learned

Being a young entrepreneur has many advantages. Students generally have fewer financial obligations and are able to take more risks. In addition, students often have more opportunities that stem from being in the university environment. Such opportunities include access to knowledgeable professors and relationships with other intelligent students. But today, I’d like to talk about several of the problems related to being a young entrepreneur.

Let’s turn back the pages of Cornell history to 1994 and examine a case of particular relevance to Cornell. That year two computer science students named Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman founded a primitive social networking site that would later be known as theGlobe.com. The company was an instant success and in 1998 it attracted a lot of attention by posting the largest IPO gains of any company in history up to that date. At the age of 23, Paternot and Krizelman were valued at $100 million each.

Yet the fame and success these youths acquired soon attracted a lot of criticism from the media. In 1999, CNN filmed Paternot dancing on a table with model Jennifer Medley in a Manhattan night club saying, “Got the girl. Got the money. Now I’m ready to live a disgusting, frivolous life.” Unfortunately, things did not stay so perfect for Paternot. 1999 was the year of the dot com bust and shares of theGlobe.com dropped from a high of $97 to less than a dime. The two young entrepreneurs lost all of their money and faded out of the spotlight. The following year, Paternot and Krizelman were forced out of the company—a sad ending to a story-book beginning.

Tales like these of young entrepreneurs experiencing massive failures are all too common. And when it happens, the ending is never good. There is just something to be said about age and the experience that comes with it. It’s simply not enough to just have the technical talent or the strong work ethic to make a startup succeed. Often you need the wisdom of those who have already done what you have done. So finding the right mentor—whether it be a faculty advisor or a parent or a close friend—is essential to navigating the unfamiliar territory of entrepreneurship and enterprise.

Interested in hearing more about mentoring? Check out the eClips theme where Entrepreneurs Discuss the Role of Mentors