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Summary:

Several hundred Harvard Business School students and others gathered on Sunday to hear technology company founders and visionaries talk shop. Here are my top 5 highlights.

Harvard Business School, Spangler Hall
photo: Barb Darrow

There was the usual talk about the excitement of the startup universe and the thrill of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School’s 18th annual Cyberposium on Sunday, so I’ll cut to the chase. Here are the five most surprising, or entertaining, things I heard at the confab which drew about 700 attendees, many of them MBA candidates.

1: Founders who lack co-founders fail.

Okay, that’s overstating the case, but the vast majority of tech startups that go on to massive success have co-founders, said keynoter Lee Hower who, probably not surprisingly, was a co-founder of LinkedIn and is also the co-founder of NextView Ventures, a Boston-based VC firm.

He cited Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and, of course, Hewlett-Packard’s, William Hewlett and David Packard as exemplars.

The exception to prove the rule? Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

2: It’s not just the software, stupid.

People are besotted by the latest and greatest software. But — as we’re starting to learn from the tablet revolution — designing hardware to properly surface all that cool software goodness is critical. And making hardware and the interface to that software that is drop-dead simple is tough.

Orbotix’ Spheros look like a ball to consumers but is so much more.

Orbotix’ CEO and Founder Ian Bernstein told a session on hardware and user interface design that his company’s Sphero “robotic” sphere proves the point. “Sphero is just a ball to the consumer, but what goes on inside is just insane, and making that so simple was really hard.”

As Stacey Higginbotham reported earlier this year, that ball packs in accelerometers and a gyroscope and bluetooth connectivity that makes it handy for controlling games, or perhaps for helping patients recovering from surgery make sure they’re doing the right exercizes in the right way for the right amount of time.

3: People love to love to electronic dance music  (also the Star Wars theme).

One lesson that came across repeatedly on Sunday is that untested assumptions about consumer preferences often miss the mark. For example,  the presumption that electronic dance music is not typically consumed in the home  was wrong, said Gary Liu, global director of ad product strategy for Spotify. A company-sponsored survey of 2,000 Brits showed that electronic pop phenom David Guetta made the top 20 list of music people like to hear while having sex. The Dirty Dancing soundtrack was number one, and the Star Wars soundtrack, interestingly, was number 20. (Respondents were between the ages of 18 and 91, split evenly between genders.)

4: Designers use badly designed design tools.

Sadly, the hardware and interface designers whose job it is to create wonderful, well-designed products use tools that are badly designed. Asked why that was, Mariah Levitt, senior usability specialist at Continuum, didn’t mince words: “One of the most embarrassing things in the human factors and ergonomics field is that software products we use are so hard to use.”

One reason is that the market is small. “It’s too expensive for [vendors] to emphasize stuff just for us,” Levitt said. “We need people to get more into design and to speak louder.”

The problem isn’t confined to industrial design, said Matt Rogers, founder and VP of engineering for Nest, the maker of the intelligent thermostat. “If you look at electronic design tools like Cadence — they’re just s*$%t to run. They’re all really bad and it’s because they’re high cost and take years to develop and are used by tens of thousands of people. I’d love for one of you guys to solve this problem,” he told the audience.

5: Enterprise social tools are great if the culture is right.

You’d think that companies deploying enterprise social networking tools internally  would welcome the sort of give-and-take such tools facilitate. And you might be wrong.

An Le, VP of business development for Yammer, the social networking company Microsoft bought in June for $1 billion, sounded a note of caution.  She related a tale of a friend who worked for a mid-sized company, (a Yammer account) that was acquired by a bigger company (also a Yammer account.) When this person posted a question about why the CEO was paying dividends rather than plowing money back into the company, the CEO, on Yammer, requested her presence in his office.  She was fired.

“That’s not where i thought that story was going,” said Michael Scissons, chairman and CEO of Syncapse.  By contrast, when Microsoft brought Yammer employees aboard, a Microsoft veteran wondered (on Yammer) why Microsoft bothered to buy Yammer because “it’s the same thing as Facebook.”  In that case, the discussion expanded with Microsoft executives — including the head of Office — giving their rationale for the deal. Presumably, no one lost his or her job.

And now for something completely different …

The least surprising thing about the conference was the concern attendees — many of them MBAs — exhibited about the value of their advanced degrees.  Several questions touched on the notion of college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs founding superstar companies. That being the case, the question is: “What is the value of an MBA?” They were probably not comforted by Cloudant’s Sam Bisbee when his big data panel was asked about how MBAs can get into that burgeoning field.

His answer: “Don’t be an MBA … You need a technical background.”

  1. TinyVox: Tape&Tweet Monday, November 5, 2012

    Harvard Business School was where the concept of the spreadsheet developed. Don’t be dismayed by cocky Mr. Bisbee, fellow MBAs. Your day will come… Take the Disruptive Innovation courses, and pick up some Advertising while you’re at it.

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