The majority of start ups are not competing against other start ups.  They are competing against the indifference of consumers, many of which couldn’t care less about their innovation. And this is true even when you, the founder, thinks that what you have come up is something totally revolutionary that will greatly help people.  Look at our case at Fon.  Fon is a huge success in countries like the UK, Belgium, Japan and others and with 7.5 million hotspots we are now the largest WiFi network in the world.  Now what is the paradox of our technology that turns everyone’s WiFi into public WiFi?  Fon happens to be an innovation that almost everyone wants if given to them but very few will do anything to get it. So at the beginning Fon was a consumer company who gave away or sold WiFi routers that shared WiFI and we almost failed as a consumer company.  When we asked consumers to share a little WiFi at home and roam the world for free connecting to other Foneros or WiFI sharing members we only got 300K people around the world to do this.  But when we pivoted and we started working together with telecom companies like BT, Belgacom, SFR, Zon and others, these companies made Fon a standard feature of their DSL/Cable WiFi services (meaning that people became Foneros by default) and if they did not want to be they could opt, out almost nobody opted out!  And the telcos started working with us because they saw that we lowered their capex, their churn, their customer acquisition costs and increased their ARPU. So the partnerships keep growing around the world. Consumers benefit, we benefit, the telcos benefit.

So the paradox of WiFi everywhere is that if people are asked to do something to have a big benefit, to roam the world for free, they don’t.  But if it’s given to them without asking and then asked the opposite, if they don’t want to be part of a WiFi everywhere community that gives them free global roaming, almost everyone wants to stay in.  This “opt in vs opt out” paradox (a phenomenon proven highly relevant in the market for organ donations) symbolizes the struggle of start ups, even those who have truly innovative and beneficial products such as Fon.

As innovative as people think they are, there is only a small group of us geeks who enjoy testing and using whatever is new.  For massive success indifference is the biggest enemy of start ups, and your role as CEO is to fight this indifference, to evangelize, to reach people in the best possible ways so they finally find themselves using your innovation and liking it.  Your most important role is to fight indifference through whatever channel works best to promote your innovation.

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Hans on November 8, 2012  · 

Great point, it is hard to have people care about your thing.
I noticed something similar with my startup: Developed a product that did not exist, people reaction: Do I need that.
Recently I changed to making a better version of something that already exists (home security) and people ask me when they can buy and for how much.

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Eduardo Lina on November 8, 2012  · 

Well, I am not in business, and as far as innovation goes, I just try to take the innovative path in ways that involve my less glittering work as a Public High School teacher (Hmm, less compared to that at a Start-Up I mean). Accordingly, forgive me if I am a bit off-track, yet reading what you have written, it sounds as if the principle of inertia is at work in this area, too (as it is with so many teens, indeed, when it comes to getting them to make the extra effort).
I have read some articles, and here and there a couple of books on innovation, start-ups, and change. However, I feel I still fail to completely grasp what an effort such as yours means in today’s world. That is why I like to read what you write on such matters. I am, then, glad to see you sharing again on your blog (it is, as I see it, much better than by means of twits).

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jose on November 9, 2012  · 

I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. Yes, the main idea from your post is that you must fight against indifference of consumers regarding new ideas. I agree but… The example you describe, your experience with Fon, is a bit disappointing about this. I mean, do all the 7,5 million customers from your partners even know what Fon is? What benefits it provides to them? Were all those clients asked ACTIVELY if they did want to deactivate Fon functionality, knowing what Fon was in the first plce? Or are you assuming they accepted Fon based on the fact that they had the option to deactivate it and they didn’t do that?

Yes, startups must fight indifference, but in some way, you’re getting a benefit from that indifference, because probably most of those 7,5 customers don’t know or don’t use much of Fon’s functionality. Do you have stats? What’s the average daily traffic a Fon user shares with others? Let’s suppose you delete Fon from the routers of all those clients. How many of them would buy, or even use, a Fonera instead? The idea behind fighting indifference is different, because in that case, you fight the initial indifference and convince a significant part of your clients about the benefits of your service. You convert sceptic people into customers. Is that the case of Fon with your partners’ clients? Would a majority of present Fon “users” use Fon if it wasn’t available by default with their ISP router? Otherwise, that’s not convincing customers against initial indifference, that’s imposing a feature based on customers indifference about it.

I’m saying this based on my own assumptions and your experience before signing agreements with ISPs, which as you say, was negative. Maybe, if you delete Fon from all those 7,5 millon users, they will furiously call their ISPs asking them to bring Fon back, or they will buy a Fonera to continue with the service. I don’t know, I don’t have the numbers. Surely you know them, but as a visitor of your blog, I (we) remain sceptical regarding this post.

I don’t want to look hostile with my comment, it’s just that I think it’s quite obvious, from your article.


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Martin Varsavsky on November 10, 2012  · 

Of course they know, and they are very happy. What they did not want was to make the effort and call and ask to be Foneros. But when it happened and they saw the Fonspots everywhere and they had their credentials they were delighted. See what’s going on in the UK, Belgium, Japan for example.

DSS on November 9, 2012  · 

You might want to watch this TED talk

I think it’s the indifference that made them not opt out. We tend to go with whatever we think is the default, sometimes because we don’t know which option is better, and in the end we end up choosing nothing (=go with the default), sometimes it’s because we just don’t care enough to take action to change the defaults. We outsource our decision making, if the telecom company thinks it’s good, and thus sets it as the default, we’ll just go with it.

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Martin Varsavsky on November 10, 2012  · 

it is that, whatever it is default, and it is our job as entrepreneur to change what default is

DSS on November 9, 2012  · 

^Ah, the irony. What I of course meant to say was that I don’t think it’s the indifference that made them not opt in.

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johnnyz on November 10, 2012  · 

I think the key question here, as #3 described, is: what’s the average bandwidth a FON user shares with others? Or even, what’s the MODE (most frequent value) bandwidth? That would be a very accurate indicator of whether FON is useful or not for those users.

Also, if someone finds a service useful, he/she will recommend it to his/her friends and family. Has the number of non-ISP users in those countries increased notably from the moment the agreements with ISPs were done? I’m talking about users who buy a Fonera because, based on a recommendation, they find the service useful.

Finally, there’s a fundamental question here. Let’s suppose you break your agreements with the ISPs and FON is deactivated from the routers of all users. How many of them would buy a Fonera? Are they users (free service) or clients (people that make FON earn [a lot of] money)? If they’re are mere users, then FON’s business model is quite weak, as it depends on agreements with big third party ISP.

All these is based on my perception. I don’t want to attack you or FON in any way. I find these questions natural after reading your article.

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Martin Varsavsky on November 11, 2012  · 

The key about Fon is that it is safe and that it does not deprive the owner of bandwidth. Indeed in some cases carriers add bandwidth to the public channel in others we have dynamic bandwidth allocation so even if you live across a football stadium you have most of the bandwidth yourself.

Eduardo Lina on November 11, 2012  · 

“Count that day well spent”, as T.S.Eliot wrote –
Both this post and your readers’ comments, Martin, have served as a trigger to make the extra effort to get a better insight into what you are discussing. I have managed to get hold of a couple of books that may help me here: Exploring Entrepreneurship – seems good “understanding customers and competitors”, and The Founder’s Dilemmas – perhaps not as to the point as the other one, but then, it seems good enough, too. University libraries do have good stuff.
I doubt I would have got them otherwise. Now I have to read them. Thanks

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JM on November 13, 2012  · 


a) The sad side of that story is to how much services those ISP are putting on the end-customer shoulders with the opt’out small prints tip…

b) Then regarding SFR, honestly it is far from being “by default”! Here is the process to opt’in to FON:

basically i have to install a soft on my PC to turn out my router in a FON router (oooouch?!?).

c) Another point regarding SFR, FON promotion is very low (or at least have never saw it!) but i have chekced and found some direct marketing operations like this one (june newsletter):

that you may want to record…

d) Then i fully agree that reach is one of the most complicated issue in any business. And definitely partnership is a strong way to increase reach.


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Mark (@MigginsPies) on November 13, 2012  · 

A very good post – I’m reminded of the book Nudge.

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