Neal Freeland

Engineering/marketing manager, family guy. My personal blog with a few work thoughts mixed in.

Bing Knows Neal

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This week we announced some upgrades to Bing based on our Satori database. Satori is Japanese for understanding, and with this data we have unique knowledge of entities (people, places, things) across the web and the world. It’s been fun working on the UX to share this data in ways that help users complete their tasks and learn about the world.

Here’s an example of important people data 🙂

Neal Freeland Snapshot

Some news coverage:

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March 27, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Bing Snapshots

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We upgraded our snapshot feature last week with several new “People search” scenarios. Search used to be just about matching keywords to a list of documents (ie, links to web pages). We are now developing an understanding of the entities (ie, people, places, and things) those keywords represent, and able to return a single, canonical result. It takes a lot of engineering science, data, and teamwork to make something like this happen. It’s very rewarding to see it come to life.

 Actors  Musicians  Famous People  Generic Entities
 Scarlett Johansson  Rihanna  Pablo Picasso  Paris

There has been some press, which is fun to read:

Written by nealfreeland

December 19, 2012 at 11:27 am

Bing Homepage Panorama

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Last week we launched another extension to our Bing brand image with a panoramas feature. It’s a fun way to move around and zoom in and out of the image. Rajeev Chand on the team has done a very nice driving this, and the response from our users has been very positive. I especially like this article from Fast Company: Forget Google’s White Backdrops: Bing To Launch Interactive Panoramic Backgrounds.

 

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October 29, 2012 at 9:19 am

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Renovo Wooden Bicycle: An Amazing Product from a Charmingly Incompetent Company

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Yes, I own a wooden bicycle. That sounds kind of crazy, but it is one of the most beautifully crafted things I have ever owned. It is also the most amazing ride I have ever experienced. Though it took over a year to finally get my hands on my bike, it was worth the wait.

The Amazing Renovo

The bike is called a Renovo Elwood. First, it is stunning. I’ve only been on the thing a few times and I’ve had lots of people stop to ask about it. Even a bus driver on my daily commute across Lake Washington got off at a stop and took a picture for his riding buddies. It’s fun!

Neal’s First Renovo Elwood, April 2012

Neal’s First Renovo Elwood, April 2012

But won’t wood break? Ken Wheeler, the founder of Renovo and an engineer, calls wood “nature’s carbon fiber.” He designed the frame using monocoque construction techniques to distribute the load around the exterior shell. I’ve seen their shop in Portland, OR. The wood blanks are carefully selected for quality and the frames are shaped by a sophisticated CNC milling machine with a drill bit that turns at >15 K RPM. The half shells are then bonded together using epoxy. The result is a very, very strong frame.

Zack (8) in front of Renovo frame half shell

Even better, the ride is unique. Each power stroke on the stiff frame transmits energy directly to the wheels. Yet the bumps are not transmitted back from the wheels to the rider. Some how the frame absorbs this energy and dissipates it. The best way to describe the ride is organic: it just feels natural and right.

The Elwood model, named for Ken’s dog (who I met at the shop in Portland), is an aggressive commuter bike. For the woods I selected bubinga and wenge, strong African hardwoods with deep colors and textures used in many fine musical instruments, and Douglas Fir, a native to the Northwest and used extensively in my 1920’s Seattle home. I spec’d it to have disc brakes and fenders for the Seattle rains, Rolf Prima mountain bike rims so I can handle curbs, potholes, and gravel trails on my daily commute without breaking any more spokes, and the Shimano Ultegra component group as I’ve been happily riding Shimano my entire life. The bike is lighter, tighter, more responsive and better looking than anything I’ve ever ridden.

Charmingly Incompetent Company

Ah, now on to describing Renovo the company. I ordered my bike June 2, 2011 and finally picked it up today, June 3, 2012. It took over 12 months to get the dang thing. There were multiple delivery dates promised and missed. The CNC mill broke, and rather than have the manufacturer on the east coast repair the bit they tried a local shop in Portland that failed. At one point the delivery was delayed for six weeks because their drop out manufacturer was building custom parts for the mountain biking nationals. This just means of course that Renovo can’t think ahead to manage its supply chain. Even more frustrating, nobody at the company seems to know how to do customer service. They never once reached out to me proactively, only in response to my inquiries: “Hey, it’s me, the guy that paid for his bike in full 6 months ago. I was wondering if you could give me an update?”

After many disappointing misses, Ken finally brought the bike up to Seattle for the Bike Expo in April 2012. That was a nice touch, saving me a trip down to Portland to get it. I picked it up with the kids, and for two weeks was in bike heaven.

Zack (8), Amelia (6) and Cormac (3) celebrate the delivery of Neal’s Renovo Elwood at the Seattle Bike Expo, April 2012

It was bike heaven until, one day climbing out of the parking garage at work, I heard a CRACK.

FAIL! The wooden frame cracks

Ken was mortified. He said this had never happened on a production bike and only one prototype frame ever failed. I sent it back to Portland and they found the root cause: they had failed to put a full bead of epoxy where the chain stay meets the bottom bracket. When I power stroked up the hill, the frame flexed at this joint and caused the split up the bottom tube grain. I felt somewhat better knowing the cause and therefore that the frame was not architecturally poorly designed. However, I felt slightly worse knowing that I had to add to the list of what I was learning about the company – poor supply chain management, poor customer service, poor manufacturing, poor quality control.

Each frame carries a 10 year warranty, so Ken quickly put my rebuild at the front of the queue. The team cranked out a new frame in a month. Unfortunately, they shipped it to Seattle without the headset installed, so off it went back to Portland. Then they shipped it without the cable stops installed, so another round trip ensued. Nothing new, I guess.

All water under the bridge, though. I now have a beautiful heirloom bike in my garage, and I can’t wait to ride it. The funny thing is, the long effort to get this bike somehow makes it more special. You can’t typically just buy this bike off the floor of a showroom. You have to buy it from Ken Wheeler, an affable, charming guy who has made an amazing bicycle.

Ken Wheeler, founder of Renovo, with Neal at Seattle Bike Expo, Apr 2012. Photo by Amelia (6) from her height.

Update 6/4/12: I shared a link to this post on Renovo’s Facebook wall. I guess not surprisingly they deleted it. But they didn’t even reach out to me to have a conversation on Facebook, or show up here on the blog to leave a comment. As an online marketer I have to say this is bad form. Clearly I care about Renovo enough to have written a post and to have liked the brand on Facebook. Clearly the company has also failed in some significant ways. To just ignore my post or try to hide it is another fail. They didn’t even try to address the issues I raised. So to all the other things I’ve learned about Renovo this past year (poor supply chain management, poor customer service, poor manufacturing, poor quality control) I guess I now have to add poor use of social media. Ah well.

Update 6/5/2012: I rode my bike to and from work today. Pure joy! Ok, back to this topic: Renovo is a small company with just seven employees. It must be incredibly challenging to make the business successful. I really respect Ken and the company for making it work as it must be a labor of love. I really hope they survive and prosper. He’s not very happy with me right now for this post and commenting on Facebook. He says they’re trying hard and my experience is not normal.  However, it seems like they may not have improved much over the last few years. Scot Hacker wrote a story describing a very similar experience getting his Renovo Pandurban back in 2010.

OK, I’ve got to be straight up here: Renovo make an incredible product, but their business skills leave something to be desired. I was reluctant to wait six weeks, and never would have ordered if I had thought it would take longer. But with delay after delay over the course of nine months, they never once contacted me about additional delays – every single time it was me writing them, “Hey, can I get a status update?” Even in the final stretch, after they contacted me to say the frame was done, and that I could send the balance of the bread and it would be ready by the end of the week… it was another two weeks of waiting. The whole process was incredibly aggravating, and I came close to canceling the order many times, but friends cajoled me into sticking with it – “It’ll be worth it!”

They were right.

Update 2/10/13: Unbelievably, the replacement bike broke again in fall of 2012. I was starting up from a stop light in Bellevue on my commute home when – CRACK – the frame split along the grain of the Douglas fir on the bottom tube.

Nov 2012 Frame Failure II Nov 2012 Frame Failure

John Rasmussen, the new manager, sent a nice guy named Tony up to Seattle on the Amtrak from their shop in Portland to pick up the bike. It took them about three months to rebuild the frame and assemble the bike, and there was the standard black hole of information about status. They decided to the frame failures were due to weakness in the Douglas fir and replaced it with ash. After 20 months since my original order, I may finally have a bike that works. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of the white ash, and the front derailleur still doesn’t stay tuned. Maybe it’ll grow on me. (Update 2/11/13: It did!)

New version of Elwood with Ash instead of Fir

New version of Elwood with white Ash instead of reddish Fir, February 2013

Update 4/28/13: I hate to add this, but the third frame also failed. This time was not quite as spectacular as the previous two: there was no loud crack. I was just talking about the bike with a riding buddy and pointed to the bottom bracket, saying that this is where it had failed previously. Then – gasp – I noticed long cracks in the varnish along the joints. I’ve seen this before on my wooden boats. It’s a sign that the wood is flexing, and it absolutely should not be happening on the bike. When I emailed the photo to Ken he immediately offered to pay to have the frame shipped back to Portland. I really appreciate how strongly they stand behind their product even as it has repeatedly failed. I just hope they figure out what’s happening so I don’t have to keep doing this. I signed up to do the Seattle to Portland ride this summer and guess I won’t be able to do that now.

Third Frame Failure

Broken varnish indicates chain stays are flexing along the bottom bracket

Update 11/25/13: I finally received my fourth (yes, fourth) frame from Renovo, a mere seven (yes, seven) months after the third frame failed. I missed the entire summer 2013 riding season. It’s got to be hard to get good help at the wages they can afford to pay, because they are just terrible at meeting any deadline, even the ones they set for themselves, and have almost no ability to communicate status. It’s still a beautiful bike, but at this point I gotta tell ya, not worth the effort. I ordered the bike 3.5 years ago, have had it in my possession for about 6 months of that time, and had three frames fail. I wouldn’t order one again.

Sir Elwood the Fourth

Sir Elwood the Fourth

Update 12/24/13. I finally got a chance to take a closer look at the bike out in natural light. I was disappointed to find several imperfections in the finish quality. In some places the varnish clouded to a milky white color, which happens when too much is applied at once. In other places, it looks like dust or other foreign items were varnished into the finish. Either a rookie did this bike, or the crew was moving too quickly. In either case, the quality of the finish does not match the first three frames I received. I’ve let John and Ken know, hopefully they’ll take care of this. I don’t have a great camera phone, but here are the shots I could take:

WP_20131224_001 WP_20131224_002 WP_20131224_004 WP_20131224_008 WP_20131224_012 WP_20131224_016 WP_20131224_019 WP_20131224_022 WP_20131224_024

Update 1/18/14. John talked to Ken and they decided they were “embarrassed the bike made it out of the shop as there are clearly flaws.” I should send it back and they’ll take care of it. Ugh. Honestly, I wonder if this company is going to survive. If I send it back to them, will they be around long enough to return it to me?

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June 3, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Posted in Hobbies

Club Bing Closes But Bing Rewards Continues

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Club Bing, a marketing program I created with a small group of co-workers five years ago under the name Live Search Club, is closing in May. Very few marketing programs endure more than a few months, so I’m proud this one lasted so long. It definitely way over-achieved on its original mission to get people to give our search a try.

It’s hard to believe how far search at Microsoft has advanced since we launched this program in 2007. Back then our share was in persistent decline, we were trying to link the search brand to Windows (at one point calling it Windows Live Search, which really confused people), and we had a relatively modest marketing budget. Although the core product had improved quite dramatically, most of our attempts to tell our story by buying media felt totally feckless, like shouting in a storm. We didn’t have enough money to break through, and since search seemed “solved” no one cared anyway.

We needed to try something different, so we decided instead to invest our marketing budget in what we called an “Engagement Platform.” Rather than buy a fleeting media impression or rent an inbound click, we decided to create one-to-one relationships with our users, turning them into members of our program. We realized to do this successfully we needed to make the program fun and entertaining, so we entered the casual games category and embedded search into the experiences. Instead of just claiming “our search is good”, we put fun little challenges in front of people and then let them use search to help solve them. People spent hours playing the games, using our search, and experiencing the brand, in the process learning “hey, this search product actually works!”

One of the other unique things we did was to power the Engagement Platform with small rewards, giving people an even stronger incentive to spend time with our search games. Each time people played the games and did searches they earned tickets which could be redeemed for prizes. Fun, entertaining, rewarding, and useful – the perfect combination of benefits to support a strong value proposition. We launched in May 2007 and the program immediately grew 100 times bigger than our highest expectations, dramatically impacting our share. No wonder the program lasted five years.

Games was only the start of our vision. We named the program Live Search Club instead of Live Search Games because we saw the Engagement Platform as the start of a broader loyalty program – membership in the club has its rewards. We aspired to expand the incentives beyond just doing searches as part of playing games and also include regular, everyday use of our search. I spent a lot of time with a vendor development team I hired to ensure we engineered the platform correctly to support this expansion. For me personally it was a lot of fun, and helped to define a fairly unique set of skills: I could do both marketing and engineering, and discovered that I could create powerful ways to combine these skills to drive positive business goals.

After the launch of the Club I left Microsoft for a few years and worked at a couple of start-ups. In my absence the program chugged along successfully even though it never really got a push to fulfill the broader vision. But the vision lingered, and in 2010 my previous manager Derrick Connell (now our Corporate VP) recruited me to come back and launch Bing Rewards. This is the program the Club was always meant to become, and we’re pretty happy with the results. So while nostalgia makes me a little sad to see the end of Club Bing, I’m happy to help the vision continue to grow and contribute to the success of Bing.

    

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February 16, 2012 at 12:01 am

Microsoft Patent Award Arrives This Week

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Microsoft delivered my award this week for filing a patent with three co-workers. The title of our application is “Strategy-Resistant Referral Rewards Distribution.” Quickly summarized, we created a way to make it harder to cheat a refer-a-friend marketing program. “Strategy-Resistant” just means “hard to cheat” and “Referral Rewards Distribution” just means “Refer-a-friend payment.” The Microsoft lawyers and PhD researchers use language that’s pretty technical to be reviewed by bureaucrats in the US Patent Office. This is probably why it’ll take ~3 years before we find out if the patent has been granted.

Strategy-Resistant Referral Reward Distribution

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December 20, 2011 at 9:34 pm

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Kindle Pricing is Below Cost, So How Will Amazon Make Money?

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The Kindle Fire costs a mere $200. How does Amazon charge this little for a tablet when iSuppli estimates it costs $210 to manufacture? Many publications have noted that Amazon plans to make money by tightly integrating their services into the device. They’ll make money when people shop at Amazon.

This is the classic two-part pricing strategy: sell the razor below cost and then make up for it by selling high-margin razor blades. HP does this with printers and ink cartridges, and Xbox with the console and game titles. However, I don’t understand why people think this is Amazon’s strategy. Amazon only has razor-thin 2% profit margin, and 22% gross margin. This is not the classic profile of a successful two-part pricing strategy.

So what is Amazon up to? I think they have spotted a major transition moment in technology, very similar to what CEO Jeff Bezos saw in the 90’s when he founded Amazon. They believe they can become a major player in the next wave of devices plus services. They have many of the critical capabilities and assets necessary to compete: a world-class store, massive cloud services, extensive media relationships, a favorable brand, and deep customer loyalty. They now have the ability to build compelling devices and even browsers. Five years ago I would never have thought they would be this well positioned to compete with Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Truly amazing.

I’ve pre-ordered my Kindle Fire. I’m really curious about Silk (their custom browser), it’s a relatively cheap device, and I’m tired of the kids always fighting over what to watch on TV or the iPad. Heck, eventually I’m sure all three kids will have their own tablet. The third one will be Windows 8 tablet next year. I’m really looking forward to that one!

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October 9, 2011 at 7:59 pm

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