We feature Mr. Dorai Thodla in our monthly Feature corner, He’s Founder of Technology Strategies LLC and iMorph Innovation Center Pvt. Ltd. this month. He has co-founded 4 software companies – two in India and two in the USA. Mr. J. S. Sridharan, our Co-Founder, and Senior Vice President ask a few questions to Mr. Dorai Thodla. You may follow Dorai on Twitter (@dorait) and LinkedIn.
He helps organizations leverage emerging technologies for building skills and creating innovative products. His companies build Information Assistants, a collection of tools for gathering and analyzing information.
He considers the ability to do informal research and tracking technology trends as important skills for the future of work.
Sridharan – With reference to the informal research process, could you tell us more about which areas this would apply to?
Dorai – There are a few areas where quick informal research can help.
1. A product team trying to validate a set of ideas. They may need to know what already exists and whether they should build a product.
2. A startup with reasons similar to product groups, but may need additional information about the market size, how the market is growing, current players, and whether there is a viable business model.
3. Finding gaps and opportunities in emerging technology trends. Inferring latent needs from discussions and analyzing competitive market spaces.
Sridharan – Why do you think organizations would undertake informal research and at what level?
Dorai – It depends on the size of the organization. Small to medium organizations may use it at a tactical level. For example, a small product group may use it to do competitive analysis, opportunity analysis for product extensions, etc.
Sridharan – We know that we can leverage Twitter as a tool for any informal research. Can you share insights on how twitter hashtags will help organizations in this research? How can we leverage LinkedIn for this? What are some other tools we could use for doing this informal research?
Dorai – Hashtag’s usage is not uniform. Some of the most influential tweeters (like Paul Graham) do not use hashtags at all. An analysis of hashtags shows that they are used when you want to join conversations or when you are in a conference or other similar events.
Twitter is a broad platform serving a wide variety of people. You can see authors, journalists, news organizations, technology people from the small, medium, and large organizations. LinkedIn is different. It started serving the needs of HR and recruiters. For a while, now LinkedIn is broadening the base but the type and quality of conversations are very different. It is easier to find influencers and people from large organizations. The profiles on LinkedIn are much richer.
The major problem with LinkedIn is a highly restricted API. So gathering information using automated tools is a bigger challenge.
With respect to other tools, If you cannot afford to subscribe to expensive research resources from experts in the field (students and startups have this problem), there are many tools you can cobble together to do your own research. You can call this DIY Research or Informal research. These tools include:
– Search engines
– Blogs and syndicated feeds
– News sources (both raw and aggregated)
– Websites and Portals
– Social media tools like Twitter but also LinkedIn and to some extent Facebook
– Wikis including Wikipedia and its properties
– Trade and Research publications
– Data and Scholarly search engines
Sridharan – How can startups leverage social media for tracking technology trends?
Dorai – If you want to speak the language of your customers, you need to use the vocabulary of your market place. These include idioms, phrases, and memes in those places. For example, tl;dr (too long did not read) is a common term among software developers. Other terms include “code smells”, “tech debt” etc. You can gather tweets of developers, do a frequency analysis of the terms to understand the terms of the group.
The importance of understanding the vocabulary of users may be much fold. If you want to use content marketing, you may want to use that language in your content.
There are a few ways. The more open the social media, the better. That is why Search and Twitter are our primary tools of choice.
1. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter will provide you data about the size of a specific niche audience.
2. The search parts of Google, Twitter, and others will provide discovery tools. I prefer tools that provide good APIs. These tools make data-driven decisions easier. For example, on Twitter, I can type a search, find popular hashtags, lists, and mentions, and can mine them for more information. This is not so easy to do for example in LinkedIn (despite their having an API) and Quora. So people resort to using scrapers and RPA (robotic process automation) tools.
3. Blog searches or Feed Searches
4. Job searches – for certain types of research jobs are a leading indicator
5. Conferences, meetups, and discussion forums are useful tools for identifying watch signals.
6. Funding patterns, especially Angel-funding are leading indicators. You can also track other rounds of funding and private equity to understand the market space.
7. Books and articles are mostly lagging indicators but they are good sources to track the popularity of certain technologies.
Sridharan – How can start-ups and organizations leverage this informal research for new product markets and finding new opportunities?
Dorai – There are several stages for a product startup. Let us look at the needs at each stage.
1. You come up with an idea for a product. You need to find out whether products similar to yours are there already and what are the pros and cons of each product (an analysis of alternative solutions). Having some competition validates that there are a problem and the need for a solution. But a lot depends on how established the competition is. At the end of this research, you identify a niche and some potential early adopters.
2. You build a prototype or a minimum viable product. You do this in stages. Once you have a proof-of-concept prototype or a functional, usable prototype, you need to validate that it solves the problem. You need research to identify these users, ways to reach them, and interact with them.
3. Once you have a few users using your product, you need to expand the number and also identify paying customers. You need research to go from 100s of users to thousands or tens of thousands of users.
4. Once you have sufficient users to feel comfortable with your validation, you need to price the product. If similar products exist, you need to research their pricing models. If there are no similar products but the market is being served by services, you need to research those pricing models.
As the number of users and types of users grows, you need more research to get to the next stage. Most of this research is not available in the market. Even if available, it may not be current.
Sridharan – Could you elaborate on some new research methodologies that can help startups?
Dorai – Startups have several free and paid resources for product discovery, content discovery, keyword discovery, and competitive analysis. Informal research strings together available tools to create your own Research Assistants. I see this as a multi-stage process.
– Info tools – tools to gather data from a variety of sources – Web, RSS feeds, Tweets, Posts, Discussion boards, Forums, and Blogs.
– Analyzers – Analyze information gathered via info tools – segment/cluster, discover topics, mine entities, derive the vocabulary of conversations, etc. The analyzers use Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Natural Language Processing, semantic tagging, and other emerging techniques.
Sridharan – With reference to businesses tracking technology trends, how do you think digital analytics help track the trends?
Dorai – Data gatherers will bring in a lot of data in various digital forms – text, images, speech (podcasts), videos. You need analytics for different levels of filtering. The first level simple analytics are early filters to separate signal from noise. Next level analytics provide good inputs for inference and prediction.
Sridharan – To understand customers and market size, which tools or platforms to look for?
Dorai – We can start with some of the available free tools. These include search engines, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook. They help you understand the market sizes since they need to know it to guide you in advertising. For example, using Facebook or Google ad products you can understand the size of a reachable market.
Using product hunt, beta list, and other similar services you can identify similar products. But nothing beats search. You can come up with a list of key terms that describe your product and try searches and analyze the results. Google provides a search API that you can use to automate this process.
You can use services like angel list to locate startups. You can use search to locate directories, professional associations in your product or technology space.
Twitter is becoming a great resource for discovery. Twitter APIs allow you to automate searches. Using Twitter you can find companies, products, trends, research reports, influencers, and discussions. You can create lists to manage the vast amount of information, retrieve tweets and links, and analyze the results.
Sridharan – How does text analytics help organizations in the changing business landscape?
Dorai – The outcome of searches (web search, Twitter search, Blog Search, Product Search, etc.) is short documents.
You need to text analysis to mine useful information from documents. Let us take an example of a blog comparing several products. You can use topic and keyword extraction techniques to derive useful information. You can use entity extraction to identify companies, products, and events mentioned in the article.