One of the reasons I look forward to the annual GITEX Technology Week in Dubai, personally, is the kind of inspiring personalities that grace the week-long exhibition. In fact, using the term “exhibition” to describe GITEX can be kind of misleading most of the time. This is because even though it started off as a regional Information Technology (IT) exhibition, it has grown to become a global avenue for exchange of ideas and exploration of the future of computing and the integration with day-to-day life beyond the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region.
One of the speakers I was looking forward to listening to at last year’s GITEX were tech blogger-turned-futurist, Robert Scoble and another tech blogger-turned-venture capitalist, Ben Parr, for obvious reasons (they dominated the field I am in and were so good and successful at it that they opened doors to so many of us while also scaling up and marching ahead with their dreams). While the Scobleizer, as Scoble is famously known, will still be gracing GITEX this year, it was yet another industry stalwart, Deep Nishar, who I was looking forward to hearing from on the opening day of GITEX this year.
Now, unlike most high-flying tech leaders, Nishar’s name is not likely to ring a bell immediately you bring it up unless one is a keen follower of tech and the happenings in Silicon Valley and beyond like I do. However, you have likely been a beneficiary of his visionary approach to tech products. Described by the Wall Street Journal as the “unsung Google hero” in 2008, Nishar is widely credited with pioneering most of Google’s mobile initiatives then expanding the search giant’s presence in India and most of Asia during his stint as the Asia-Pacific director of product development and, later, as Senior Vice President of Products and User Experience at LinkedIn, the company’s user growth courtesy of intuitive features like the hit iPad app and the integration of then popular news app Pulse into LinkedIn.
Currently, Nishar is the Managing Director of SoftBank Group International. SoftBank’s most recent move was acquiring chip designer ARM, a company that all of us that follow the mobile industry closely hold dear, for $32 billion.
It is this man that showed up last evening at the Al Maktoum Hall at the Dubai World Trade Centre where the GITEX Vertical sessions were just warming up. As such, he was oozing wisdom which I wish to share with you briefly.
1. Know your user
It’s one thing to have a product, it’s another to know who it is meant for. Nishar gave an example of his time at LinkedIn when the iPad was the hottest thing in the market and as the only big professional social network his company had to respond to its release with an application.
The easier route would have been LinkedIn just releasing an application that was simply a copy and paste of their existing website. However, knowing that unlike on the desktop where users logged on to LinkedIn during work hours, on a more personal device like the iPad and not the big desktop at the office users were likely to turn to the app first thing in the morning before heading out or over coffee or when stuck in traffic. As such, an app that could speak to users in this way while still providing them with the information LinkedIn was then good at would be a hit. And it was! The LinkedIn app was the number 1 app on the App Store within 5 weeks of its launch.
2. Simple is a feature
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, so they say.
Nishar gave the example of the coming of age of Apple’s Pages product at a time when Microsoft’s popular Word had become another name for clutter. Prior to the release of Office 2010 and its clean ribbon, Office had become a cluttered mess with lots of unnecessary toolbars that the ordinary user who simply wants to edit a few documents would never know how to turn off and this was irking so many given the superiority of Microsoft’s product. After learning its lessons thanks to the emergence of the less-on-features-more-on-work Google Docs and the dawn of productivity on mobile that forced a rethink, Microsoft got back on track.
3. Embrace constraints
Because you will never have enough. That manpower you so need to be in your team so that you can come up with the top-class products you have dreaming up? You may never have it but does that mean you will down your tools and not do your work?
Nishar gave an example of his interactions with his former colleagues at Google who are heads of various products today who are always complaining about being short of engineers yet the company is still in the news daily churning one new feature/product after another.
Another good example is what Facebook has been doing: making its engineers use the Facebook app on 2G networks once in a while just so that they are able to get a feel of the kind of environment that some of the users of the products they make are in. This is because as much as Facebook invests in solutions to make the internet situation better in the unconnected/under-connected world by providing the relevant infrastructure, it will be a long time before we can all be on the same level ground. But that won’t stop people in low-bandwidth/poor connectivity areas from using the Facebook app or wanting to, will it?
4. Use data as a guide
“Data helps us move from I think to data suggests.”
5. Innovation is not instant
The reason why the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs is often cited as one of the most influential business leaders of our time is because he was a big believer in mostly innovating, building on whatever had already been invented and making it worthwhile. That’s why the iPhone became a resounding success despite it not being the first smartphone, according to Nishar.
Because that’s how you survive. Some of the biggest tech companies and brands today started out doing things that are totally different from what they are known for today. Did you know that YouTube started out as a video dating site? The story of Netflix’s beginning as a company that mailed DVDs of the latest flicks to customers across North America is well known today. Yet that same company is the poster child of video on demand services today around the world. Re-innovate, reinvent, adapt or die.
7. Expect success
Because, let’s face it, what’s the point of doing all that you were doing if all you anticipated was failure? There’s this saying in modern entrepreneurship circles, “fail fast”. That’s because the failure in question is meant to be a lesson that will propel you to success so it is not an end in itself that you believed in initially.