Allan Isfan is a co-founder of FaveQuest, a young start-up. This blog covers start-up topics.

Sunday, September 24, 2006



Keep It Simple Stupid!

If you live in Ottawa, you might have noticed how ridiculously windy it was on Sunday... not the greatest day to be out. As is often the case, my 5 year old has a way of seeing the silver lining. "What a great day to fly a kite" she says. How right she was so we proceeded to grab one of the new, fancy kites in the shape of a blimp. It would get up, twirl around and crash to the ground to the point of demolishing itself. I proceed to get old faithful ... a basic, old, triangular kite while my daughter goes and designs her own (seen above). We both have a great time flying our kites until a gust of wind pulls my kite so hard that the handle pops out of my hand, flies across the yard nearly knocking my wife out and proceed to get lodged somewhere on our roof where it remains. My daughter continues to fly her kite successfully. Sometimes simple is best .... a string, a few pieces of paper, some tape ... done.
Some of the most magical and amazing things are simple ... at least to the end user. When things get so darn complicated and fragile without actually helping you do what you need any better, you know there's a problem that needs a solution. As I've said in a previous email, PCs are definitely due for a major correction. The funny thing is that no one is actually working very hard at fixing this. They are working at making them faster, with more features while remaining affordable.
While most of us grumble and bear with it, these issues, coupled with fear, keep a huge and growing population away from owning computers. Unless they have a relative that can help them, many elderly simply stay away from computers entirely. We just gave grandma a little laptop. She is getting the hang of it but I know the thing will end up with problems and I'll have to fix it. She is getting so used to MSNing with her kids that I'm sure she'll freak when it crashes and I'll be taking the first flight out to Florida.
This leads me to the idea of the week .... an ultra simple PC for the elderly (or paint it pink or blue for kids). Here is what I think this device should be like:
-automatically connects to Internet over wireless network ... grandma shouldn't have to set-up a cable modem and a wifi network
-ultra simple keyboard with very readable keys
-big on/off button ... that actually says ON/OFF (grandma doesn't know what O/I means)
-absolutely no wires, except for power
-when it boots up you get 5 big icons that clearly say, EMAIL, INTERNET, MESSENGER, PICTURES, GAMES
-default font and color scheme appropriate for people with reduced visibility
-comes with a wireless printer that automatically works with the computer
-computer comes with wireless Internet service automatically and email already created for you based on your requirement when you ordered the computer, you should be able to unpack the box, hit the ON button write an email in 5 seconds
-minimal upfront fee (say $100) and monthly payments which include Internet access and a help desk that you can reach by hitting the big HELP button
-device is ultra simple with nearly all applications running on a network based server
-nearly all user data is stored on the network (no need to worry about backing up data)
-no need to worry about viruses either
-awesome dictation S/W .... one finger typing is really painful when you are on MSN
This type of computer must be marketed in a very different way. Don't tell them about how many gigs, video ram and usb ports the thing has. It must also be sold through entirely different channels to reach the targeted customers ... home shopping channel, retirement homes, bingo halls ....
Recall one of my previous posts that suggested looking at consumers and markets the major players are not interested in (a major tenet of "The Innovators Dilemma"). This group may be irrelevant to Dell and HP but a company that focuses exclusively on this market and gets a significant share of this large and growing niche is going to do very well. Next thing you know, the simple PC thing catches on and people start buying these for their kids and as extra PCs to throw in the kitchen, at the cottage ... and you don't know what to do with all the money!! All this without any fancy technology. You might want to call the company "The Simple Computer Company" ... nice and simple.
The beauty of simplicity! As easy as flying a kite.
Note: There won't be a post this Friday. I'll be at Wired Nextfest in New York City. I should have lots to tell you on Monday though!

Thursday, September 21, 2006


ideas aren't worth much but people are

Back from 20 minutes in the hot-tub with a glass of Drambuie (oh sweet nectar of the Scottish Gods), the synapses are well greased for another blog. This one will be shorter than the last one ... the fingers kinda went a little crazy on the last one.

I'm preparing for pitch of some of my ideas at the end of this week and thought it would be an opportune time to discuss the value of ideas as a follow up to my previous post on the subject. I'll also toss out a little idea that I won't be chasing myself but think it may have legs ... with the right body on top.

So what is the value of a good idea? It seems that an idea by itself is nearly worthless. What if someone else has the same idea or finds out about your idea? Unless you have more to go on, relying just on the idea, you're could be pretty well screwed unless you have other things under your sleeve. However, an idea than spawns the next idea and the next has a different twist. Although this is not exactly vision, it has value because it gives you the ability to stay ahead.

The RIM/Blackberry guys didn't have any real secret sauce per se. Based on the premise they started with ... basically an advanced pager ... anyone could have done the same thing from a technical point of view. What they had was a vision around a service and associated device that others and their passion for this vision together with appropriate adjustment and execution on this vision is what I believe got them to where they are. Continuous incremental improvements kept them ahead of the game and made their device indispensable to many professionals.

The interesting thing though is that RIM didn't really start out as the "blackberry" company. They toyed around with other things in the mid 80's before. I have seen this time and again with Catena being a great example of this. The original idea associated with building a POTS+DSL chipset was certainly a powerful one but the magic really started when this was applied to the Lucent SLC-5 digital loop carrier. The low density and cost that the integrated chipset provided enabled us to build a card that would fit physically, thermally and financially. There would be many more challenges ahead of us though. How were we going to get the traffic across the backplane?, how about the extra heat in the cabinet?,regulatory challenges that prevented some major RBOCs from deploying integrated solutions (thanks Doug for your work in DC) until regulations allowed it ...

Yikes ... had we really know all the challenges ahead of us, we might have quit or never even received the funding in the first place.

Fortunately, the real magic came in the form of people. Not much of a secret sauce really. The people that were brought on to build the company were absolutely the best, not just technically super strong but agile and resourceful. When VCs invest, the team is often one of the most critical factors. It would be nice if you could just build a team first, get a bunch of money ... say $2M, then figure something out. I know exactly who would be on that team ... you are probably reading this post.

Back to reality. I get to pitch some of my ideas at the end of the week and am very excited to see what happens. Couple the roughly right idea at the right time with the right team, figure out some secret-sauce that will give everyone a false sense of security and things should be a go. When we narrow things down, the team will be critical ... I know that for sure and that will turn out to be the most important factor.

Darn, I rambling again and I promised you an idea so here goes. I'll keep it fairly brief and you can fill in the blanks.

Netcreds (TM)

Google and much of the free internet economy is driven by advertising dollars (as is entertainment in general). Many billions of dollars actually just for google. This is a dance between getting eyeballs and monetizing those eyeballs .... the more people see your ad the better and if they click on a google ad (often know as "Ads by google" or "sponsored links" just as I've included in my blog). It may be time to stop beating around the bush reward the consumers directly.

The idea is that people earn Netcreds(tm) ... basically new currency for the internet economy ... for intentionally watching ads. The more engaged you get, the more Netcreds you get. For example, you go to (made it up ... don't click on it). You watch ads and answer a couple of questions to prove you actually paid attention and that you are a human. If you choose to fill in a survey, you get even more creds and so on. You pile up Netcreds (tm) and get to trade them in for goodies ... music, videos ... Hopefully, the government doesn't figure out how to tax you on that.

Anyway, blog is too long again ... sorry ... I guess I just can't be brief.

BTW, here are some of the music channels I've created on I suspect you may have to register before you can use these though ... not sure.

Stevie Ray Vaughan channel

Andre Boccelli channel

Pink Floyd channel

Jean Michel Jarre channel (old new age)

Eminem Radio (not censored ... be careful)

Basic Rock (Tragically Hip ...)

Check back Monday morning ... should be a good one.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


what a great idea

Thanks everyone for the great responses!! It is very encouraging to see so many of you checking out the blog and actually find it interesting. This has already spawned several good side conversations around the music topic in addition to entirely new ideas.

Before going any further and jumping into the topic of this post, some guidelines and groundrules are in order:
-I strongly encourage you to put in comments. I've made it extra easy by opening comments to anyone (no need to register) and you can even make the comments anonymous. Feel free to go back to older posts and inject your thoughts.
-please pass on the link .... blogs are most effective when seen by many people and I need your help to spread the word. Copy your contacts, and especially other bloggers.
-as you may have noticed, there are google ads at the top of the page. As with any google ads, the affiliate (me in this case) and google share in the ad revenue. However, the end customer does get charged when people click on the ad so keep that in mind and don't abuse
-also note that I've included a google search box. Feel free to search from there if something pops to mind as you are reading the blog
-the best way for you to know when there has been an update is to set up an RSS feed. RSS stands for Really Simple syndication. With the appropriate reader running on your machine (see below for a list), you will automatically get the blog update in text form as soon as it is published. RSS feeds are. I'll provide some more detailed instructions if people don't know what this is.

Ok ... enough with this stuff ... lets get onto more interesting things. I'll get back to the music topic in an upcoming post as things evolve and side discussions evolve. This post is about methods for generating ideas or concepts for start-ups. I'm going to share some things that I do as well as some things I have read about that ring true. I would love to hear your ideas as well.

Focus on problems

Seems kinda obvious ... but it is extremely effective. For the music labels, there are many obvious problems ... peer to peer, self publishing (such as myspace) .... I could go on and on. For cell-phone operators, backhauling data traffic from cell towers is a huge problem. Its one thing to backhaul sporadic voice traffic .... what's going to happen when people start truly surfing and downloading content off the net from their phone or wireless PDA, especially if the content is streamed audio and video. Lots of people working on that one!

As Paul Graham puts it
"Let me repeat that recipe: finding the problem intolerable and feeling it must be possible to solve it. Simple as it seems, that's the recipe for a lot of startup ideas."

Tha's gotta spawn some ideas ... bring it on!

Make Luxuries Affordable

Think about things that are considered luxuries that most people would want if they were more affordable. These have often been things that were available to businesses and that made the transition to everyone else. On the consumer side, items need to cost no more than a few hundred $ and monthly subscription fees to start below $30. The list of historical examples is extremely long .... internet access, computers, printers, cell-phones ... What's next?

In my opinion, properly designed smartphones and pocket pcs are next. I've had a basic phone for a while that I could surf with but the small screen and the basic phone keypad made it basically useless. However, I recently picked up a Pocket PC made by UT Starcom with a sliding keyboard and a great screen as well as EVDO wireless (high speed access in Bell's territory) in addition to wifi. I'm now checking emails, looking up phone numbers and addresses on, getting live mapquest maps when I'm lost, posting on blogs, and will soon make free long distance skype calls as soon as I download the S/W. Oh ... and its also a phone with voice recognition. As you would expect, its not cheap. Fortunately, I slept with the boss and was able to get it approved (she's my wife). Trust me on this one, this type of device is going to take off when its below $200 and unlimited use falls below $40/month. Ahh ... wireless energy ... if only eh J.H.

As Paul Graham puts it

"Let me repeat that recipe: finding the problem intolerable and feeling it must be possible to solve it. Simple as it seems, that's the recipe for a lot of startup ideas."

Attack From Below

Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor explain in The Innovators Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution, two awesome books I strongly recommend, that many extremely powerful, well run, customer focused companies miss major opportunities and sometimes get wiped off the face of the earth by listening to their customer's requirements! A new technology is emerging but when the incumbent analyzes it, the performance may not be as good as the existing technology and possibly even cost more. Why would they consider it?

Here is a great example I pulled from a Deloite Touche paper entitled "The Hundred Year Storm, Wireless Disruption In Telecommunications". Apparently Alexander Graham Bell's invention entitled "Improvements in Telegraphy" got turned down by Western Union since the invention cost more than the telegraph and did not go as far. This would not meet their customer's needs who need to communicate across the country cheaply and they had no use for it. It turns out that the "improvement" referred to the device's ability to transmit voice over electrical wires instead of Morse code! This system is now commonly known as the phone. Nuff said!

Ok, so now, think about you basic telephone service? What has to happen to wireless services and products for you to drop your existing land line entirely. Landlines are dead but home lines are not. This is subtle nugget. More on this in the future.


It is always tempting to think about how to do things better and equate that with faster, more powerful, more features. Sometimes simplifying is the winning strategy. God help me if the laptop we gave grandma's goes down when she's in Florida. Yikes!

So, what technologies have gone overboard where a correction is imminent? In my opinion, the PC is close to the edge. The basic PC has way more features than it needs and often has way more processing power than necessary for most users who mostly surf the web and write emails. For that, you get a device that works great when you boot for the first time and gradually slows down over time for no apparent reason, crashes, catches colds forcing you to reformat the drive to get it back working properly. The answer may not be in simply slightly cheaper but technically limited computers ... PCs are generally cheap enough so the low end of the market is already served.

Portable, wireless devices is where it is at. Anyone with a Blackberry will likely attest that they spend more time with that device than their PC doing things they previously did on PCs. Except for some bugs and limitations that will get fixed, I would be fine with just my Pocket PC as long as I could plug into a keyboard and monitor once in a while. Some may see such portable wireless devices as "really complicated phones". I see them as "really simple PCs" that can also be used to call people.

Unfortunately, MS is a dominant player in mobile operating systems so my joy may be short lived.

Parallel Trends Sometimes Merge

I love this one because it is the most subtle and difficult to nail down. Basically, this about imagining some desirable thing, such as the ultimate music service I spoke about in my last post, and figuring out what individual independent items need to happen for that desirable thing to come to fruition. Another way to look at it is to observe some entirely independent trends and imagine what you could create once each trend reached a certain capability.

Confusing? Here is an example. People start trading individual songs on the net which then leads automatic systems like the original Napster. Entirely independent of this, battery technology is getting significantly smaller and better driven mostly by the cell phone market. Similarly, hard drives with decent capacity are becoming very small. The track pad is becoming a popular alternative to the mouse. Taking these entirely independent trends, and toss them in together, with a bit of apple sauce and out pops the IPOD.

So, what kinds of trends may come together in the future? Let me toss out some random ingredients and see what we can come up with.

  • wireless mobile data access bw hits 10Mbps everywhere
  • Voice over IP (VoIP) becomes ubiquitous ... TDM is gone
  • advertising is entirely targeted ... no more generic ads
  • everything goes mobile
  • FLASH memory chips hit 64G (a DVD full length movie takes ~ 5 Gbps)
  • windows continues to be a piece of crap ... trend is expected to continue
  • voice recognition is good enough to allow control of nearly everything
  • battery technology (fuel cell?) and charging systems (wireless power) is such that battery time and consumption is no longer an issue ... for all intents and purposes , you never have to plug in again
  • applications move to the net ... user devices are simply audio and video devices with communications

Oh .... and people expect all their entertainment to be free ... which is pretty well the way it was before cable and the internet when you used an antenna on your tv or radio ... ubiquitous wireless entertainment! How far we've come????

Take all of the above: look for real problems, attack from below, simplify, make luxury items affordable, look for parallel trends and merge them, toss in some pixie dust and some interesting things should pop up.

I could go on and on but I suspect I've lost most of you by now so I'll finish off here. Expect the next posting by Friday.


Allan Isfan

Entrepreneur with an Iron Ring

Thursday, September 14, 2006


music music music .... live life

So here I am again ... late night, quiet house except for pandora keeping me company again .... can't sleep .... the hamster in my brain can't stop. If you didn't know me very well, you'd think I'm a propeller head with pale skin, no friends and living in my mother's basement. Fortunately, you know better ... right?

One of my passions is music .... I listen to music all day ... in the morning, in the car, when I run or work out, when I work, when I eat ... you get the picture. Thanks to the band "Funding Bad Habits" that practices and records in my basement, I've also had the chance to get more serious about playing the guitar, even getting the chance to play live a couple of times ... thanks Dan, Jay, Mark and Rolly for letting me join in for a couple of songs!... what a rush that was!!

Music can be so powerful and enhance so many different experiences. In the morning, we listen to Hot 89.9 upstairs (my wife's choice) and The Bear 106.9 downstairs. I especially like Brad and Stuntman ... funny guys. When I run, I like to listen to Eminem, Kid Rock, Beastie Boys and other stuff like that. Imagine finishing a marathon with the Rocky anthem perfectly timed to get you through that finish line? For a romantic night, some Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban or Il Divo is in order. When driving with the family, Sheryl Crowe is the top favourite. The kids actually believe playing "Soak Up the Sun" will clear the rain clouds! Maybe Sunday morning with the paper calls for some classical stuff like Aida or Barber of Seville (you bugs bunny fans would recognize this).

"Hey ... Allan ... we don't really care what music you like ... get to the point!!"

Hang in there .... just setting up the segway.

To get at the right stuff requires jumping around and zillion different methods. I use a 20G IPOD and have filled about 5G with my own CDs but haven't bought or downloaded stuff off the net much (no illegal downloading for me) . I jump around different stations constantly to get some variety and to adjust to the tastes of those around me. When I'm at my computer, I used to listen to Yahoo Launchcast quite a bit and have now migrated mostly to pandora ( .... awesome service with The Music Genome Project behind it (check it out). Oh ... and I also listen to CDs once in a while .... CDs are so done!

So I'm finally getting to the point. Here is what I want and where I predict things are going.

The New Age of Radio .... and I am Sirius ... not

The new service will blend the best parts of radio ( radio personalities, news, weather, local events, contests), but only play music I like, provide access to music I own when I want it and let me purchase songs on the fly spontaneously. If it could email me lyrics and chords to all the songs ... that would great!

The new "Radio" service will know exactly who I am and send me what I want no matter where I am or what device I'm using and I want it to be practically free. I'll tell it verbally what I want "please play Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Green Day, Coldplay and stuff like that oh ... and include weather and upcoming events in Ottawa and sprinkle in some comedy". Or I could tell it "play my Pink Floyd" channel or "play comedy" or "bbc news".

So I get to listen to Brad, Stuntman, Cubby and the rest of the nuts at The Bear but I get to listen to the type of music I'm in the mood for and hear local stuff that is relevant to me. Actually, at this point, I'd be happy to solve "Dad, can you go back to the beginning of that song .... sorry dear ... its radio ... but Daddy's working on it".

So who's gonna pay? Advertisers and spontaneous purchases.

Imagine listening to your existing radio and hearing an ad for winter tires ... "Casino Acura is having a winter tire sale ... don't wait till the snow". Zippidy do da!. Contrast this to the new directed add of the new radio station ...."Hi Allan ... your MDX is due for an oil change ... your winter tires need replacement and we're having a sale ... hit the "yes" button if you would like to schedule an appointment". Ok ... maybe a little eerie ... but you get the point ... When it comes to music, I would buy a pile more if I could just hit the buy button and have the system automatically save the song to my radio and my digital locker

There is no doubt that in mind this is where things are going. Its more of a question of when and which pieces of the puzzle are going to come first. I would love to hear what you think and don't worry too much about the technology .... it will come.

It would be such a thrill for us to play a part in this evolution ... the journey would no doubt be exciting. I've tried to position myself to build a start-up and solving even a small piece of this puzzle is not such a huge challenge. Naturally, I have some very specific ideas .... but I can't put all the cards on the table yet and lead the witness. Just a hint though ... you'll want one


Sunday, September 10, 2006


dipping a toe into the blogosphere

I've been spending many nights surfing the weeb, checking out ideas and advice on kicking off a start-up. That's what I do for fun now. I have found that I get the best ideas when I'm exhausted so I stay up, surf, think, jot down ideas, get a snack and a beer, surf some more. Somehow, I thought it would be cool to chronicle a start-up way before the "start" part. We'll all have a laugh at this one day as we sail around the caribbean.

You see, I quit a great job last spring to dedicate my attention to a start-up ... again. I quit my previous job at Nortel and joined a great start-up 7 years ago. I was fortunate to get there at the start and had such a great time I knew I would do it again. We got acquired a couple of years ago and I stuck with it for a little while but got the itch to do a start-up again. Many of my colleagues and friends seem to think I have vision, great ideas, the ability to see things differently and the business and technical background to make it out there and kept bugging me to go out and do something. I certainly had a great job ... one that many people would dream of. I had just been promoted to Senior Product Marketing Director from Principle Engineer . I was on assignment to the CTO office and part of a small team charged with helping set the company's direction for the next few years. It was a great role, working with some fantastic people and strong leadership but the urge to do my own thing was too strong.

So here I am. What I have done so far? I have complete phase I:

-started the consulting firm Isfan Solutions Inc. together with my wife who is a freelance graphic designer (she's been running her own company for 14 years ... so she's the president:)
-got a couple of great consulting contracts to stay in the loop and feed the mouths at home
-got accepted into "The Gerson Lehrman Group Councils" consulting group (consulting group)
-started as an "Entrepreneur In Residence" with a local VC firm
-have gotten my head around where various markets are going and have too long a list of ideas
-seriously investigated a few excellent opportunities that came my way ... but decided to stick to my own thing ... no more distractions
-booked a trip to N.Y. to attend Wired NextFest at the end of September to get the juices flowing

So far so good.

So what will this blog be about? Quite frankly, I'm kinda hoping you'll help me. I have many opinions on markets, trends, product ideas that I would like to debate with you. There may even be some good ideas that I'll share in more detail if I decide not to pursue them for a variety of reasons (can't chase everything, may be outside my space, not a VC play ....). I'll share any insights I come across and provide links to other relevant sites that you may find interesting.

So .. check out my profile ... and lets have some fun.


Allan Isfan
Entrepreneur with an Iron Ring