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August 19, 2014

Joining the Google Analytics Team to Help Make Data Count

Starting tomorrow, my six year old twins begin the next steps in their education, as they begin the school year in first grade. Similarly, I've made a move here at Google that I'm excited about, focused on education, advocacy, and like most good education offerings, lots of numbers and measurement.

As I approach three years at Google since joining in August 2011, I'm moving to a new role, leading the Advocacy team for Google Analytics, giving me full-time focus on one of the most fundamental and impactful products that powers the Web. From casual part-time bloggers (like me) who rely on Analytics to learn what stories gain traffic, to e-commerce analysts who want to optimize the customer flow on their website and digital marketers aiming to learn what campaigns are delivering measurable impact, Analytics is the common thread that translates data to results.

Google Analytics Tracks My Visitor Data

One of the big draws of a company like Google is exposure to smart colleagues taking on new challenges with a wide variety of applications, from wearables to mobile, social, and infrastructure. Moving between teams is encouraged, as we pick up new skills and expand our exposure to new ideas and people. At this stop, I'm joining +Justin Cutroni+Daniel Waisberg and +Adam Singer on the Advocacy team, to name a few. Teaming up with them, and Adam specifically, who I referred into the company in early 2012, should be a high quality experience with plenty of challenges as we push each other and our own expectations forward.

Speaking of Counting... This is Post #3000 on louisgray.com.

To stay on top of what we'll be doing in the world of Analytics, subscribe to our blog and follow us on Google+ and Twitter. Now... back to work.

August 16, 2014

When Priced for Perfection, Startups Not Given Room for Error

While I maintain the meme of a "billion dollar startup" is a myth, there's a clear reality that some early stage and often pre-revenue, companies are quite publicly obtaining historically high valuations. These big bets by angels and venture capitalists are made with the expectation their investments will pay off, and masterfully well.

Sometimes they do, but often, they don't, and the gap between initial expectations and reality can put incredible pressure on the funded company - not just from those who put money in, but from a closely watching press, and users who want to be part of something exciting.

When a private company sees incredible media visibility, and scores a fast-ramping, highly active customer base, it's usually assumed similarly climbing revenue isn't far behind. For game changers like Facebook and Twitter, who commanded sky high valuations privately before earning them publicly, this made sense. But for companies who are seen to have missed expectations, the descent in public perception and media love can be fast and steep - forcing pivots and other odd behavior  that can be somewhat puzzling to the outside world.

Hey, Didn't You Use to Be Cool?


This awkward stage is where you see one time shoo-ins for the next big thing, including names like Foursquare, Path, Fab.com and even Square - who now have many people scratching their heads. Instead of talk of near-term IPOs and exceptional user adoption, you see things like Foursquare taking on debt financing and spinning up new apps that bear little resemblance to the much loved 1.0,  Path taking money from an Indonesian VC most people in the Valley have never heard of, Fab.com enduring many rounds of layoffs and Square also taking on debt financing after a rocky year. None of those moves are what I'd bet their founders were hoping for just two or so years ago - when they were rumored to be turning down acquisition offers and debating preferred ticker symbols.

These mega-hyped startups aren't "too big to fail", but they just might be "too big to pivot", and expectations are so stratospheric, that anything less than perfection is perceived as failure.

My Own Experience With a Priced to Perfection Startup

If you allow for a little self-indulgence, I experienced this very thing at BlueArc early in my career, at the end of the first dot com bubble, when next generation storage companies seemed poised to take advantage of unprecedented data growth, and quite possibly unseat market behemoths like Sun Microsystems, EMC and NetApp. In May of 2001, we raised a stunning $72 million round, for 20% of the company, valuing us at about $360 million. Adjusting for inflation and the sky-high valuations of today, that's probably comparable to being valued above a billion now.


Our $360 million valuation was based largely on promise. We had exceptional technology, smart leadership and a good customer pipeline - or so we thought. But we didn't even have revenue yet. And over the next few years, as things didn't go perfectly, we saw the CEO replaced more than once, and later funding rounds forced employees to accept reverse stock splits - first at a whopping 550 to 1 exchange, and later, at a 40 to one exchange. This made my 15,000 options I'd gained when joining the company essentially worthless, and there wasn't a week that went by when we weren't confronted with press inquiries or rumors on the street that we were about to go out of business. (See: How My Stock Got Reverse Split 22,000 to One)

While the company was eventually sold (and not for pennies) to Hitachi Data Systems in 2011, the decade-long road, executive turnover and significant rounds of layoffs weren't anything like those first investors had hoped. The people behind funding our Series A, B and C rounds were largely absent in later raises, as was practically the entire management team. Our customer base also was radically different, as were the market players, with peers like 3Par and Isilon seeing significant success (and larger exits). While we didn't crash and burn as naysayers thought we might, we were victims of our own predicted fast route to success.

So What's the Solution?

There are multiple views to raising and using venture funds. Some would argue to raise only what you need to get you to the next stage, to reduce dilution, maintain control, and lessen demands from outside influencers. Others would say to get as much funding as you can, to provide a long runway, allowing for tinkering and learning what works best. Others still say to raise about 18 months worth.

By taking the big money at big valuations, you're essentially asking for the spotlight, and if things take longer than expected, or aren't as dramatic a success as expected, people's patience grows thin, and the gap between reality and expectations can take a toll. It seems the biggest complaints about these awkward companies who were once youthful darlings isn't that they don't provide a good service now, but that they're not what we expected. After all, you can still get great tips on Foursquare, buy interesting products on Fab.com, take payments on Square and share your moments with friends on Path. But doing so in 2014 feels a little different than it did in 2011, when you were the start of something new.

In some cases, the startups (if that's what they are) are victims of their own rapid rise to success and visibility. If they had instead raised less money, at lower valuations, and not milked the hype machine for what it was worth, they'd be given the benefit of a longer road to success. What I'm seeing now is that we expect them to grow up fast - and if they don't hit it big, we're on to the next thing. But industry interrupters like Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and their equivalents don't come around all too often, and they have become household names in large part because they are the unicorns - the exception to the rule, and not the rule itself.

Just like individual investors can get caught up in fast-rising markets, and find themselves buying at the peak of the market, their funds trapped as value of their owned stock decreases, so too can company executives and employees, with underwater options, or VC partners holding underperforming funds. After a while, you just want to make something out of that investment, just to see some kind of return. And when that pressure finally reaches a tipping point, it gets really uncomfortable. If priced at perfection, there's really no pleasant alternative to just getting it all right.

Disclosures: I work at Google, which partners with and competes with many of the companies mentioned here. No bias intended. I spent 8 1/2 years at BlueArc, and we also occasionally competed with or partnered with the many storage companies mentioned. I did get a check as a common stock holder of BlueArc shares when HDS finally bought them in 2011, but I certainly wish it had been bigger.

August 14, 2014

Achievement Unlocked: Throwing Out 1st Pitch at an A's Game

Over the last 25 years, I've attended hundreds of +Oakland Athletics games. From 2005 to 2008, +Kristine Gray and I had season tickets that saw us attending as many as 40 games a season. We've seen dramatic home runs, 20-2 blowouts and plenty of controversial calls and tough losses. But before this month, there's one thing I'd never done - stepped onto the field and thrown out the ceremonial first pitch to get the game started. On August 1st, I did, and I'm happy to report it was a quality throw, which will prevent me from being immortalized on YouTube or Sportscenter for all time.

Some of you may have seen my Google+ post on how I got this "Bucket List" opportunity. But if you didn't, I got a surprise phone call at work in late July from +Sunrun CEO Lynn Jurich, who thanked me for my being a good Sunrun customer, and then extended the option to throw out the first pitch at the game on August 1st, where the company was sponsoring that night's fireworks display. After some schedule flexing, I agreed.

In preparing for throwing out the first pitch, one must understand you essentially have one minute of fame, tops, and you only get one pitch, so it had better be a good one. There's no "best two out of three" or do overs. You walk to the mound, throw, and then leave. Not being a regular pitcher from just about 60 feet, I guesstimated the distance in our backyard, and in the week prior, practiced throwing the full length of our backyard, enlisting my kids to act as retrievers, picking up the ball after my pitches, and throwing it back. When the day came to actually do the same in front of what was eventually a sellout crowd of more than 30,000 in Oakland, I was confident I wouldn't make a dramatic mistake.

The game was at 6:35 p.m. that Friday, and I was asked by the A's to be in my seat by 6. At that time, an A's representative would pick me up and escort me to the field. I was given a lanyard that granted me access to the field, and I was awaiting my role by 6:10, standing just off the A's on deck circle. I was given a brand new +MLB ball, and was told that A's relief pitcher Fernando Abad would be playing the role of receiver. As I assumed, and was told, any player in the starting lineup is not going to step in for the ceremony, so it always falls to whomever has nothing to do.

I remarked my biggest concern, beyond making a fool of myself, was possibly injuring the player with an errant toss. My guide said the players were instructed to make the guest pitchers "look good" but not to get hurt. Simple enough. I was also told to throw as if I were playing catch in the backyard, and not to fire it in, as many people end up spiking the grass, not prepared for the ball's descent.

It turns out there were to be two ceremonial first pitches that evening, and I was to go second. As our time came, the first pitcher approached the mound and made his throw, while I stood just off the third base foul line. Then it was my time to stroll up. As I did, despite not being nervous up to that point, I started to be very aware I had a chance to make a mistake. The ball started to feel lighter in my hand, and I didn't want to overgrip or undergrip it, which would send it sailing way beyond my target.

My first pitch, to Abad, courtesy of the A's and G+ Auto Awesome.

Over the loudspeakers, A's public address announcer Dick Callahan introduced me, as representing Sunrun, his familiar voice drawing out the vowels in my name: "Loooouiiissss Graaayyy..." Then he guided along, "Go ahead, Louis." (Catch the video from +Drew Olanoff on Instagram)

I got the nod from the A's guide on the third base line, and fired a strong throw with good velocity. Instead of it being in slow motion, as you might expect, I simply saw the ball hit his mitt, like I'd seen so many thousands of strikes do before. He barely moved. The throw in reality was much better than I'd even had in my head. Over the speakers, Callahan commented, "Nice pitch." Then I got off the mound, and strode quickly toward the third base line, knowing my moment was up.

My pitch, smack in the middle of real and would-be celebs. (via @darth)

Abad, as is customary, came by to sign the ball. There were photos, which I'm told I'll get in a couple weeks. We stayed on the field for the national anthem, and at the song's conclusion, walked past the A's dugout as the players readied for the game, re-entered the stands, and the ceremony was over.

Selfie with +Terrie Gray and two photobombing guests.

When I got back to my seat, I was just me again. Just a fan, sitting with my wife and parents, watching the A's play a game. And despite my nice pitch, they lost 1-0 to the surging +Kansas City Royals. It was a fantastic event, even though they lost, but like any good fan, I'd have traded it for a win. Thanks a ton to Lynn, +Christa Keizer and the Sunrun team for inviting me for an unforgettable experience.

July 28, 2014

Life By Numbers and Notifications


From morning until night, I'm led by numbers and notifications. These numbers prompt me what to do next, what actions to take, and often, can be used to inform whether my decision was the right one. And throughout the day, all my devices, working in concert, alert me to what they believe is the information I need to know right now. As we've seen a graduation of our primary content consumption from longform text to microtext, we're moving again to the notification being the central medium by which our get our updates.

Like most of you, my day starts with an alarm clock - mine being on my Nexus 7. When the time hits a certain number, the familiar tone blares. I pick up the device and am confronted with two things: Notifications, which catch me up on the emails I received, responses on Twitter, and any texts or instant messages that came overnight. The next scan goes to the numbers. How are the stocks I watch doing? Up, down or unchanged? How many emails do I need to respond to, and do the social networks (Google+, Twitter and Facebook) need responses?

With the essential bits out of the way, I move on to the next numbers - which usually means opening up my laptop and using Feedly. Feedly, like Google Reader before it, catches all my RSS feeds and lets me know how many items are new, I hit J and K to get caught up, share the very best to Pocket (which then flows to LG Stream on Twitter), and bring that number down to zero.

Only with my email box empty, social networks made whole, and Feedly brought down to even can I move on to the next steps. No pun intended, that means getting ready for the day and making sure I have my Fitbit on - and have weighed in on the Fitbit Aria scale to track progress. If I'm completely wired, I might be sporting an Android Wear watch (I have the Samsung Gear Live), my Nexus 5, and the Fitbit. All three devices are counting my steps, and the Nexus 5 (thanks to the Moves App) actually tracks exactly where I've been and how long I stayed there - my every movement being tabulated.

   
Moves Tracks My Every Step in Parallel with Fitbit

The drive to work gets counted. Automatic scores me on a scale of 1 to 100 on whether I've driven too fast or wasted gas on the way. My GPS tells me how many more miles it is to reach my destination, and how many minutes it expects I'll sit in traffic and peek at my colleagues who are looking at their notifications on their devices while driving.

While I'm at the office, my Nest thermostat works in the numbers to keep the home temperature feeling just right. My Sunrun solar panels are taking in heat from the sun and converting it into Kilowatt hours of energy. If the numbers produced are higher than the numbers consumed, and they almost always are, then we saved money that day. The Rachio sprinkler system checks to see if expected rainfall is above a specific numeric value, and if it is, they simply won't run.

If I've updated my content channels, at home or at work, the numbers tell me what's happening - through Google Analytics, Twitter and Google+ Insights. Who's watching and engaging and sharing the content? I can be alerted if one of my posts has reached the top of Hacker News, or is shared by Marc Andreesen on Twitter. The numbers always tell the story.

The Hacker News bump begins.

While most of those numbers are a holdover from the PC and even mobile-centric world, the new age of devices is driven almost entirely by notifications. Google Glass, in addition to being a first-person perspective camera, is a notification machine, getting you the updates you need directly, and giving you the option to engage. Android Wear goes beyond the clock and brings the notification (and engagement) to the wrist.

Android Wear is here. You can get yours on Google Play.

Application developers are getting smarter about how they can make their app less passive and more active. If it can justify notifying you to an update - be it ESPN's SportsCenter alerting me to trades or Google Now telling me it's time to drive home, then the app stays on my radar. Abuse the privilege, and the app (often games) will get uninstalled.

The day's efforts becomes a balance of managing the numbers and the notifications. Answer the emails. Read the updates in Feedly. Respond to Twitter and Google+. Answer the instant messages.

There are three checkpoints to tell you how you're doing. The first comes at 1 p.m. Pacific (4 p.m. Eastern) when you find out how your stocks did on the market. Did you make money or lose it? Mint.com and the Check app can give you updates on your daily progress. The second comes at the end of the workday when you get home. Did you whittle down your work to inbox zero or have more to do when you left than when you started? And the third comes at the end of the calendar day. Did you walk enough to get your step goal? Did you drive well enough to keep your score at 100? Did your favorite team win? What was the score?

Then you get ready for the next day by setting the alarm and seeing, in clear numbers, how many more hours you have left before starting the numbers and notification race again. There's an app for that. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some notifications and updates to clear.

Disclosures (per usual): I work at Google, which owns Nest, and is behind Android Wear, Google Glass and the Nexus 5 and 7. Our friends at Facebook now own Moves, and we occasionally partner or compete with Twitter and others on various bits.