Sunday, April 18, 2010

10 Underrated Pleasures

The go-go techy lifestyle means we often lose touch with the simpler pleasures of life. As someone who is in the midst of launching a new business, I speak for myself more than anyone here. Maybe it's the sunny weather we've had, but over the last few days I have noticed that many of the activities I often rush through or treat as chores are actually some of the most enjoyable. Here's the list I came up with:

1. Folding laundry. Lifting warm clothing and sheets out of the dryer. Spending time to fold them with care. The fresh scent from the detergent and dryer sheets. Way underrated.

2. Chopping vegetables. Slicing into a bright radish, with its ruby outer skin and streaked white and pink flesh. The pop of the spiciness as the scent rises up. The natural, rapid pace of the knife on wood. Just about every sense is involved in this task--a real break from staring at a two-dimensional screen.

3. Feeding the cats. I talk to my cats while I put the food in the can and place it on the floor. This seems to calm them down while they wait. It gives us all time to appreciate the bond we have as pets and pet owners.

4. Watering the plants. As with the cats, I have taken to talking to my plants while watering them. (So far, they haven't answered back. Still hoping for that.) I often use water that I've just used to wash vegetables or fruit. There's a good feeling that goes with the idea of not just pouring it down into the waste sewage line.

5. Listening to the birds in my yard. The other day, we sat in awe as a tiny roseate finch belted out some scat worthy of Ella Fitzgerald. I've heard that springtime is when bird songs become more complex. This is the time of year when they need to attract a potential mate. The rest of the year, they are basically singing, "stay off my branch, buddy."

6. Reading a novel. I'm not talking business books, biographies, or anything published by the "For Dummies" or O'Reilly people. I'm talking made up stories about people who never existed. To me, the delivery mechanism isn't important. Kindle, audio book, dead tree, whatever. I know I'm in the true reading zone when my husband says something to me and I don't answer for another 15 minutes.

7. Strolling around the neighborhood. Not power walking, or hiking, or anything involving high tech footwear or pedometers. Rather, one of those languishing, pointless, late afternoon or post-dinner meanders that involves noticing architectural details on houses or a neighbor's daffodils. The other day we took one of these types of walks and stopped in front of a yellow house to admire the small amount of jigsaw trim on the porch. The man who lived across the street spotted us and began telling us a great deal about the history of that house, and the entire neighborhood.

8. Listening to slightly boring stuff on the radio. NPR is great for this. I love to semi-tune out and half listen to Noah Adams, the Car Talk guys, or-- this is the best--that really badly done quiz show, "Says You." The trick, for me, is to not really pay attention, yet not go so far away that it turns into background noise. For some reason, this has a really pacifying effect on my brain. It doesn't work with shows I really like, such as "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me."

9. Writing postcards. For my birthday this year, a friend of mine sent me a huge, honking box of what looks to be about 1000 postcards. The series was put out by writer Dave Eggers' publishing company, McSweeney's and is labeled, mystifyingly enough, "Greetings from the Ocean's Sweaty Face." At first, I was intimidated. Who would want a postcard from me? Did I even know how to write one anymore? Slowly, however I've discovered a certain facility for writing these little missives. They're kind of like extended tweets.

10. Unplugging. Don't do enough of that. But I did start a new austerity program in which I no longer keep my iPhone by my bed. I can't believe how different my mornings are. Instead of immediately checking email and Twitter, I give myself a few minutes to awaken more slowly. My mind wanders a bit, which actually leads to more creative thinking. Highly recommended. And apparently, this is how I used to live.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cruvee - get your social wine on

It's a new day for wine enthusiasts. With the help of social networks, we oenophilic types can meet, greet and chat about our love of the grape with thousands of other like-minded (and paletted) folks. There are myriad ways to get into discussions online about all things related to wine--from social networks like CellarTracker and Cork'd to Tweetups to wine focused blogs, and beyond.

How are wineries dealing with this new onslaught of online discussion? Well... it varies. But overall, the impression I get is that they're a little overwhelmed. In the past, wine reviews were limited to a small, select group of VIPs like Robert Parker and the folks at Wine Spectator. These people perhaps wielded too much power, but at least there were ground rules. You knew when they were going to write their reviews, and there was an agreed upon system of points to rank the best wines. It was a simple, if limited world.

Contrast that with nowadays. Social media has unleashed a total free-for-all. Anyone with a Twitter account and a corkscrew can say anything they like about a bottle of wine. Not only that, but there's a good chance other people will listen and take heed, no matter what the so-called experts say.

Last week, I took a trip up to Napa and met some folks who are working to bridge the gap between this old world industry and the new media landscape. First stop, digital think tank for the wine industry, VinTank. Housed in a sleekly designed office with touches of both old and new, the company represents a fresh perspective on the intersection of wine and technology. I spoke at length on video with the company CEO, Paul Mabray, and will post the interview on our new site as part of the launch (look out for it). Meanwhile, also check out this great interview with Paul on the Vin65 blog.

Paul is a remarkable guy. A boyish 38, he has amassed an immense market knowledge and understanding about the wine industry. In addition to being a sought after advisor for wineries seeking to make the most of the new digital landscape, he's also turning his firm into something of a business incubator. I predict VinTank will do more to bring wine into the 21st century than any other single force in the Napa Valley. One of his investments is in social media monitoring service for the wine industry, Cruvee. I sat down with the two founders of that company, Evan Cover and James Jory and got the lowdown.

Cruvee (rhymes with "groovy") was originally envisioned as a social network for wine enthusiasts.  When he met them, Paul recognized something much more useful in what Evan and James had built. What they had was a giant, living database that could be used to monitor online chatter about wine. The service as it now functions is comparable to Radian6, Meltwater, and other social media monitoring services, but with a big difference: it's completely focused on the wine industry.

As Evan and James explained, a laser focus on one market translates to much better quality results. Anyone who has run a social media program knows about the hours of fruitless searching, endless keyword tweaking and other time-wasting frustrations that often go with getting ramped up. One social media director I spoke to said that he was spending hours every day combing through bad results because the name of his winery had a common meaning in a foreign language.

Cruvee casts a wide net, then delivers a manageable chunk of quality results on a daily basis that reflect real conversations across the open web about specific vintages and wineries.  They estimate that they take 250,000 conversations a day and boil that down to 10,000. "We find the needles in the haystack," said Evan.

The engine they have built can also understand wine lingo. It can tell that when someone is talking about a Cab Franc that they don't mean a taxi in Paris, and that in certain contexts, a post about a Chard isn't going to be a recipe for stir fry vegetables. Above and beyond that, their algorithms are designed to find wine references made in that new language we're all developing known as Twitterese. For example, what if someone tweets something like "Uncorking '08 Twisted Oak Cal Cty Viogner - neutral fr oak, 91 pts."? Chances are, this will be of interest to that winery, even if it sounds like gobblydegook to the average human.

The demo of Cruvee that I got was impressive. It has a clean, readable interface and seems intuitive and user friendly. Below find some screenshots for one of their clients (and one of my favorite Napa wineries) Cornerstone Cellars, below.

Here is the dashboard:

This shows a report on tasting notes from wine social networks. They have a partnership with CellarTracker, and Cruvee also delivers results pulled from over 20,000 online forums.

Here is the screenshot of one of their "campaign manager" pages, which tracks microblog results in near real time:

Evan and James also demonstrated some of the results that Cruvee can get that are on the fringes of wine social networks. For example, they found an obscure post on a forum for audiophiles about which wine the user planned to bring to an outdoor concert. This represents the kind of valuable customer data that takes place on random forums all over the worldwide web.

The price for a yearly subscription to Cruvee is very low (I'll leave it to you to find out just how low.) The reason for this, they said, is that they believe that ultimately the cost of all the social media monitoring services are working their way towards free. And in fact, they offer another service that is completely free to wineries, called OwnIT--or "Your Wine, Your Way" that aims to standardize wine information across the Web and mobile platforms. That might not seem like a big deal to you and me, but for winery owners, there is a huge problem with misinformation. For example, one winery owner told me that someone wrote a scathing review on an online wine forum of one of their offerings because he confusedly thought the bottle he was drinking was supposed to be a dry white, when in actuality it was a sweet dessert wine. For an industry that depends almost entirely on reputation, this service could make the difference.

I look forward to seeing where Cruvee goes next. They shared a few tidbits about their roadmap that sounded very exciting to me. I'd also like to see them (or someone else) build out a few more of these industry-focused monitoring services. There could be a major opportunity to fill in where the more generalized services can't be or get to. In sum, this is a company to watch in an industry that is going places.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Foursquare - are we missing the ball?

The blogosphere has been all a-Twitter about location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla recently. Between the buzz of SXSW and a rumored $100 million Yahoo acquisition there's a whole playground-ful of questions about where the ball will bounce next, and onto whose square. Will Gowalla score big during the last few minutes of recess? Or maybe Facebook will pull a "big college kid" on their butts and steal the ball away entirely. Amid the speculation, I think there are some huge, obvious uses for these applications that most of us have overlooked.

Bloggers and industry observers Louis Gray and Robert Scoble both wrote some of the more interesting posts on the topic this past week, exploring the potential--and potential pitfalls--of these services. They point out that despite the hype, adoption is spotty and limited. It's still pretty darn easy to be named "mayor" of somewhere on Foursquare. Even in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, you rarely find a lot of simultaneous check-ins, unless it's at the Apple store on iPad release day. Louis raises a number of good questions, such as the one in his headline: "Should Boring Married People Check In On Location Apps?" (He has the good humor to include himself in this category.) I also liked Robert's ideas for how to make the services more appealing. He calls for a "malleable social graph" where we get tips and reviews from folks who share our tastes.

All well and good, but in some ways too subtle for where we are right now. We're so immersed in the social networking headset that we have failed to recognize that this is a case where more conventional marketing and sales techniques could be very effective. After all, it's all based around the idea of a game, with its rewards and competition. As Louis notes, game theory really does apply here. There is a lot of talk about the "tips" and other social elements of these games. But what about that amazingly prominent, hard to miss "Special Nearby" button? We don't hear much about it. But that's where companies are going to find immediate value. As Gary Vaynerchuk so succinctly put it, brands get this stuff because it's about moving people around.

There's a reason that Starbucks has signed a partnership deal with Foursquare. They see it. You can use these services to offer rewards and discounts to customers--the types of rewards that keep them coming back day after day. For all the talk about adoption, the smart brands realize this isn't such a huge barrier. If your customers aren't signed up with Foursquare now, give them a reason to do so.

There's nothing onerous here for the user. It's a free application for anyone who has a cell phone. Foursquare doesn't even require a smart phone--there's a text only version of the game. Just the way department stores get you to sign up for credit cards by offering you a 10% discount, your local clothing shop can get people to sign up for Foursquare for an instant cost break. What retailer isn't hurting right now? This trend doesn't need to be limited to big brands like Starbucks or Tasti D-Lite (another company that has leapt into Foursquare with both feet).What about your neighborhood coffee shop, Pilates studio, or wine bar? Or that really great car wash that Robert Scoble sung the praises of on Gowalla?

By creating a Foursquare or Gowalla game within a game, retailers could make shopping into a scavenger hunt. Or, they might creatively reward regular customers. It's great that lots of businesses are offering "mayor" discounts and specials. But really, how many people can be mayor? How about this: two check-ins a week for a month, and you get a free latte. And we all know how hard it is to win the "gym rat" badge on Foursquare. So what? Your neighborhood fitness center can decide to give a different reward every week for active members. Have a "check-in" at every weight station, elliptical machine and spinning class. Then give a free t-shirt to the person who tried a new routine every other week.

In short, this could be huge for businesses of all sizes. No wonder Yahoo wants to own it.

Image: Foursquare demo video (