One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen businesses make over the years is to lose focus on what made them successful in the first place.
Over the last year or so I’ve become more disappointed with Plaxo. They seem to have forgotten that their key differentiation in the market was the way that they helped you keep your address book (and calendar) up to date, and secondarily to keep multiple services in synch.
To me they seem to be chasing social networking at the expense of the things that they already were really good at. Perhaps part of this is because they got bought by Comcast, but losing focus is never a good thing. They gave the site a face lift a while back and added a whole social networking thing with the Pulse bit, which seems to be modeled after some other social networking sites.
The thing that drew me to Plaxo (almost ten years ago now) was that it solved a huge problem for me: keeping my address book up to date. Before Plaxo, I’d SPAM my address book about once a year to see if I got any bounces, and then go through the bounces one by one to update them. This ended up being a lot of work, and had no guarantee of making sure that I had up to date information for anybody. Also there’s the problem that when people change their email address, it doesn’t always bounce, so I could be sending email to a dead account. Lots of companies leave old email addresses open and/or don’t send bounce messages for invalid addresses, so no reply doesn’t always mean what you think it might. And if you ask for a response, not everybody will anyway.
The other problem before Plaxo (B.P.) was that my address book was never very reliable. Sometimes I would get an email, and save it to my address book, but if I didn’t have a business card or some way to gather other information about them, that would be the only information in the address book. So six months later when they moved to the new company, I had no email address or way to find them.
So while I was still working at Quovera, Praveen Shah pointed out Plaxo to us as a cool thing. I fell in love instantly. Not only did it give me a backup of all of my contact and calendar data, it offered to automate my getting more accurate data. A few clicks, and Plaxo sent out an email that gave each person in my address book (who didn’t belong to Plaxo) a personalized message from me with their address information, asking them if everything was up-to-date (and of course inviting them to join Plaxo). If the data was good, they simply clicked a button and my address book was updated to say it was valid. If they had changes, they could enter them in the form that was emailed, and Plaxo would automatically take that data and put it into my address book. Best of all, it was free, and they promised to keep your contact data private.
There was also the exciting possibility that if everybody you knew joined Plaxo, you’d never need to ask for an update again, because Plaxo would automatically flow information changes between Plaxo members in your address book. For that alone, I paid the premium support price because I wanted to see them succeed.
And the other bit that was extremely well done was the synchronization between clients. If you used multiple machines, it was really easy to keep them in synch and for the most part it didn’t seem to have the habit that some other synchronization software at the time did of duplicating everything over and over.
At some point they got a reputation from some people as being a spammer, I think mostly because during the install it was easy to have Plaxo send an email to everybody in your address book even if you didn’t mean to. I did this a couple of times myself and ended up sending Plaxo requests to people like John Chambers (who of course I don’t really have any reason to email directly). I suspect mistakes like this caused the spammer reputation because you’d get asked about the email, and it was easier to blame Plaxo than to admit that you forgot to uncheck John Chambers when you asked for updates.
Anyway back to the point of this story, with their new social networking focus, they no longer have any way to automatically keep address information up to date for people who are not Plaxo members. In fact the only way you can ask somebody for an update to their information is to invite them to join your Pulse (or the old fashioned email approach). So that works for the people who join and don’t mind having yet another social network to think about, but I’m back to square one for people who won’t join Plaxo (often because of the spammer reputation).
It still gives me synchronization between my different computers, and a few of my online address books, but it’s no longer as powerful as before. I’ll probably still use it if I were in the situation I’ve been in before where I needed to keep my address book and calendar in synch at the client site with my home address book and calendar. But now I need to find a solution for the larger part of my address book updating that drove me to Plaxo to begin with.
So don’t be surprised to get spammed by me with an email that says “I’m updating my address book, and this is what I have for you, please update …”
As to Plaxo – I saw this same sort of thing happen when I was at Excite. We basically were Google: had the best search engine on the planet, our home page was just a search box, and we were doing a better job with the technology than anybody else. But we were smaller than Yahoo (and Alta Vista), and we started to model our web site after a magazine (a lot of trying to match or beat Yahoo instead of focusing on our core competency). It’s my opinion that it was that very loss of focus that resulted in Excite being bought, and folded into one failing company after another.
Excite still exists, and the even still sport the LEP (Little Excite Person) logo, but between losing focus (and of course timing) they are no Google (in fact I wonder if they even do their own search any more).
I am hopeful that Plaxo will reinvent themselves and give me back the functionality that drew me to them, because if they don’t I fear they are destined follow Excite‘s example: they’ll become an also-ran in the social networking space instead of the stellar provider of a technology that can make life better for anybody who uses it.