Making Commerce Better – Recapping a talk by Shopify’s Satish Kanwar at AndroidTO

I meant to start writing this post earlier today when I found myself browsing Facebook instead. It happens… But my Facebook feed pointed  me right back to the topic by presenting me with a funny image that made me think of Satish Kanwar’s talk at AndroidTO.

The caption read, “Best Buy: Try it out before buying it on Amazon.” Funny but true, though “Amazon: Read about it before buying it at Best Buy” would be just as true. 

There’s a reason Kanwar didn’t use the terms “e-commerce” or “online shopping” in his title. One of his core points was that it’s all just commerce and shopping. If you research the product in store then purchase online, is that online shopping?

If you research it online then buy in store, is that bricks and mortar or just self-service 1-hour delivery?

Kanwar made the case for moving past the ideas of online and offline commerce to just “commerce”. He showed how online transactions are just a fraction of the pie, and how online shopping  influences offline purchasing.  Buyers don’t align their behaviour to the constructs of “online” vs. “offline”, they mix and match their shopping related activities according to their preferences. And millennials, he pointed out, expect a seamless experience across mediums. Gone are the days when it was accepted that the online and bricks & mortar versions of a store would be very different.

An interesting study he referenced said that if a retailer’s store is closed when customers want to shop there,  36% will buy it online from that retailer’s website and 22% will shop online for the best price. That 22% represents a great opportunity for small businesses.

The opportunity for small retail businesses was another theme of Kanwar’s talk. Opening large or numerous retail stores is a very costly proposition, and in the past, online buying was generally considered risky. So small businesses had a limited market to work with. Now that online shopping is more prevalent, small businesses – especially those with a solid mobile experience – can expand their market without a huge investment.

Kanwar listed 5 ways online businesses are democratizing the value chain, one of which not surprisingly his own company enables:

1. Get an idea (e.g. Google)
2. Build a prototype (e.g. Makerbot)
3. Raise funds (e.g. Kickstarter)
4. Sell orders (e.g. Shopify)
5. Ship products (e.g. Shipwire)

To demonstrate, he talked about an experiment he conducted, quickly creating and promoting (Twitter, Facebook) an online sock business. With the store up and running (via Shopify, of course) they sold $500 of socks in 24 hours. That experiment provides another lesson, too. There are lots of online and offline stores selling socks already but there was still clearly room for another. If your value proposition is unique or the market is big enough, there is opportunity.

His final premise was a bit less convincing, for me. He talked about the death of the department store. His premise was that department stores optimize for distribution and not necessarily for value or experience. With distribution becoming a commodity (home delivery options), he hypothesizes that department stores will die out in favour of online and experiential stores. (Experiences like the Apple store where customers get hands on with experts, or Lulu Lemon where customers might come in for a yoga class.)

He might be right, but I’m not quite convinced department stores will die. There’s a lot to be said for knowing the item you want is likely in stock and you can see and touch it before ordering. Innovative online retailers like Frank & Oak with home try-on and return options for clothing are definitely taking a bite out of traditional retailers but I have a feeling there will always be a place for shopping in store. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile what is clear is that the blending of mobile, online and in store shopping presents an opportunity for small businesses who can deliver value to customers. Kanwar referenced Andy Dunn’s “E-Commerce is a Bear” essay, summarizing four ways a retail business can differentiate:

1) Proprietary pricing (e.g. scarcity, time limited)

2) Proprietary selection (e.g. curated, narrow & deep for an audience)

3) Proprietary experience (e.g. subscription)

4) Proprietary merchandise (unique product)

Enabled by technology, small businesses can differentiate on any of these.

Lots of food for thought for anyone considering a retail business.

So where does Android fit into all of this? Android, Kanwar pointed out, is the fastest growing mobile platform so businesses wanting to take advantage of this new world of commerce need to make sure they have a solid Android experience.  And yes, he assured us, Shopify is on top of that.

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“MVP: Minimum Viable vs Maximum Value” – my recap of Adam RT Smith’s FITC Screens Talk

Pie-chart-for-Adam-Smith-blog-post-300x224FITC has posted my latest guest blog on their site, a recap of a talk where Adam RT Smith points out the pitfalls of the Minimum Viable Product methodology.

Let me know what you think once you’ve read it on FITC’s Blog
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Is Your App Really Solving a Problem? Recap of a talk by Anthony Ilukwe at FITC Screens 2013

ilukwe-2-smI recently guest blogged again for FITC, this time at their Screens 2013 mobile and tablet development conference. Anthony Ilukwe gave an interesting talk to the developer attendees on how to decide which apps to devote time to and which ones to set aside.

Check it out on FITC’s blog.

2 Things BlackBerry is Doing Right

Full disclosure, I’ve had some kind of BlackBerry in my hand pretty much constantly since 1999. Every time I try to embrace another device, I find it slowly relegated to the desk drawer. So I want Blackberry to survive and thrive. And based on what I’ve seen with the BlackBerry 10 (BB10)  launch, I think they will.

Two reasons:

1) Building on their strengths
2) Embracing developers

Sure, they’ve built lots of cool functionality into the device, but that’s the price of entry when launching a handset. These two aspects of how they’ve done it are what I think will make the difference.

Building on their strengths

BlackBerry has always been a great communication platform. That’s what has kept millions of us loyal despite other features we’ve missed out on, and it’s made us immune to the teasing about how uncool we are. BlackBerry recognized that this is their core value and built the new platform around it. Key features in BB10 – Hub, Flow, Peek, Share – are centred around making an already great experience even better, and more appealing to non-BB users.

I’ve long counted on having most of my comms in one place, my BlackBerry Inbox. It already houses 9 email accounts, my SMS texts, BBM and Windows and G+ and Yahoo messages, PINs, incoming and outgoing phone calls and voicemail alerts, DMs and @’s from Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook notifications…

Frankly, I had trouble getting excited by early reports of Hub because it sounded like what BB already had. But Hub takes it up a notch, a more elegant way of doing what they already did well with features like pulling recent interactions with a contact together in one place. I already had some of this with “recent activity” in Contacts but BB10 expands it. Very nice.

Similarly, while multitasking isn’t new to BlackBerry – I frequently jump between multiple open apps – Flow makes it even easier, smoother.  The new stuff will appeal to Apple and Android users but it preserves and enhances what we BlackBerry die hards count on.

Another area where Blackberry has always excelled is the corporate  enterprise. The new Balance feature plays to that and helps IT managers  deal with bring-your-own-device (BYOD) challenges. By separating the  platform into “work” and “play”, BB10 lets users add what they want while  letting IT managers protect the corporate environment, adding value for their enterprise base while giving users the freedom they want. Brilliant.

And of course, the keyboard – BlackBerry listened to us and built a device with the physical keyboard I love, but by all reports they’ve also built one of the best touchscreen keyboards ever. That’s essential for a communication device but also for apps and web surfing in this interactive era.

Embracing developers 

One of the criticisms from Apple and Android users has been the dearth of  Blackberry apps. Blackberry recognized the problem and attacked it from all  sides to make sure they would not only have a solid base of apps at launch but also a credible promise of many more to come.

They supported Alec Saunders’ drive to  seed developers with devices, embraced open source, created SDK’s for  C++/Qt Cascade, C/C++ Native SDK, HTML5 BB WebWorks, ActionScript Adobe AIR  & Java Android Runtime, and blanketed the developer community with resources to support and communicate with those who were willing to work with them.

Application Development Consultants (like @garettbeukeboom who spoke before the launch at DevTO to fill us in on what was coming) were all over the developer community making sure developers had what they needed. I heard as much about BB10 in 2012 from developers playing with it as I did from the media.

And then there were the portathons. BlackBerry hosted events where developers took advantage of the SDK’s to quickly port Apple and Android apps over to BB10, offering cash and prize incentives. The January portathon delivered 15,000 apps in only 2 days. That not only sets BB10 up with a lot of great apps (approximately 70,000 at launch) but it shows developers just how easy BlackBerry has made it to port apps over. That will encourage more to take the plunge and let the ecosystem grow quickly as customers want more apps.

The easy porting of apps is a critical element of making it easy to switch. The best device ever won’t attract customers if they have to give up their favorite apps. But BB10 is launching with a lot of the most popular ones either on board or committed – Skype,  Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Amazon, Kindle, WhatsApp and Angry Birds, along with business apps like WebEx, SAP, and Citrix. But most apps not yet on board can be ported over quickly and easily to respond to market demand, which means users can be confident that if they switch in large numbers, the apps will follow. BlackBerry removed the technical and economic barriers to app conversion.

So here’s hoping users do jump on the BlackBerry train, if only so that I can continue to buy the products I love!

What does Google Maps on iPhone mean for Blackberry?

UPDATE January 19, 2012:  Looks like RIM is embracing the fact that their core business isn’t necessarily making handsets: RIM to allow BB email on iPhone and Android

This Wired article, talking about why Google would help make iPhone even better, by putting Google maps on iPhones, got me thinking.

Why Google Just Made iPhone King: Ads

He is absolutely right, of course. Google’s core business is advertising and Android is mainly a means to an end for them. By enabling iPhone (and my beloved Blackberry) Google is keeping its eye on the big picture.

But what if Google had a bigger need to drive Android handset sales? Would they withhold Google apps from iPhone then, trying to drive users to Android? My bet is no. Because it would be a losing game. You win in handsets by delivering the best all around handset, not by making minor dents in how good someone else’s is.

Someone in my Twitter feed called iPhone “the best phone on the planet“. Many would agree with him. That’s why iPhone is so popular. Google is smart enough to know that one map application wouldn’t change their minds. If Google wants to win in handsets, it will win by making handsets that more people consider “the best“.

Which leads me to RIM. RIM’s strategy seems to be to compete in handsets. With BB10 they are trying to win back customers who have defected to iPhone and Android, hold onto those of us who still prefer Blackberry, and maybe even convert those who have never used Blackberry. Will they win? How much of each group is reasonable to think they will win?

Much as I adore my Blackberry and all its predecessors back to my first little pager in 1999, I know I’m not the mass market. I don’t like touch screens. I type a lot – to search, write, communicate, make notes, you name it. My thumbs are always on the keyboard tapping away. I view/listen/watch much less than most people so I value the keyboard more than screen size. I’m not a game player so I don’t worry whether they’re available for my device. But RIM can’t survive on oddballs like me alone.

They can – and should – maximize their corporate sales, where communication and security are essential, and maybe that’s enough to make them the Betamax of handsets. (That’s NOT a bad thing, by the way. Betamax lost the mass market but was highly profitable in specialty video markets where video quality mattered more than the recording time that drove VHS’s consumer success.)

But what if RIM were to rethink what their core business is? What if the answer turned out to be secure communication software, and mobile keyboard technology? Imagine a market where iPhone or Android devices were available with Blackberry software and keyboards. What would that look like? Would Apple use them? They’re embracing Google maps, so you never know.

Food for thought.