Interview with Keith Curran,Chief Executive, Steadings Group

The volcanic explosion of social networks in the recent years has led to an archipelago of social networks where all of us are sharing our lives straddling across islands with diverse social graphs. Michael Arrington poignantly pointed this out in Tech Crunch recently when he wrote that
The online social landscape today sort of feels to me like search did in 1999. It’s a mess, but we don’t complain much about it because we don’t know there’s a better way….Someone will eventually help us make sense of all these various types of services, and help us separate the noise and spam from the real signal. I don’t know who’s going to do it  
Who knows? Keith Curran might be that someone who could help us find a way out of this mess. 

He presented his latest concept product, “My Life”, at Virtue Insight’s Mobile Content Summit 2011 recently in Delhi. My Life aims to centralize the entire social web experience of the customer.

Keith has been one among the pioneers of the UK Mobile Industry since its inception. Having sold his firm Yes Telecom to Vodafone in the year 2006, Keith, in his recent avatar as Chief Executive of Steadings Group, has started focusing his energy towards multi channel convergence. I had the wonderful opportunity to interact with Keith Curran after his presentation at the summit.

In his presentation, Keith talked about the future of social networks, personalized to the level of the individual wielding the control using the smart phone. Keith walked the audience through a world of possibilities when the current push approach evolves to pull, handing over the reins back to the consumer.  

Keith started his journey in UK’s mobile industry at the network operation level during its formative years. He later moved on to building subscriber bases. He founded Yes Telecom, a service provider under MVNL. While building the subscriber bases, he tells me that he got various insights into the customer’s behavior. He points out that businesses were making the mistake of saying “Its my customer”while the truth remained that nobody owned anybody.

In today’s networked world, customers are free to treat business the way they want. This made him shift the focus towards the customer. With a mind-boggling array of options available to the connected customer, he points out that the big challenge lies in making the customer fully cognizant of the infinite possibilities available. The key really is to try and develop a product that puts the customer at the center of everything that’s happening around his life. It reminded me of what I had written earlier, the customer is at the centre of the universe with satellites of businesses revolving around him.

The customer’s core identity revolves around plethora of vital information such as email address, home address, driving license etc that are used at different juncture of his web experience. The major problem with today’s fragmented social landscape is that whenever any one of these information changes, it becomes painful for the customer to update his world. Imagine how difficult it would be if he were to update all his information stored in various clouds. A centralized social web can make this harrowing task look so simple like a child’s play.

Any talk of centralized architecture inevitably brings the question of security. Sensing my anxious looks, waiting to raise the obvious question of security, he immediately adds that it would be feasible only when it is proven to be highly secure within a centralized cloud. He adds that today’s decentralized environment poses more security risks than ever before, with customer’s information getting scraped from diverse social networks and sold to corporations for commercial purposes. He emphatically asserts that the customer’s personal information has to be the most secure thing in the planet.

In his My Life product, he envisions a centralized profile module above the layer of modules such as My ID,My  Money, My purchases etc. which get available once the customer signs up. The profile module would allow the customer to update the world he is engaged with. It can be customized granularly to let him decide which information should be shared to whom. He assures me that it would take care of today’s ambiguous privacy controls as the customer can decide the level of social engagement in the web.  

In a centralized profile module, one of the exciting possibilities that emerges is ‘reverse profiling’, managed by the customer instead of the corporation, through establishing a habit monitor which would track customer's online activities and could be showed on his consent to the outside world(businesses), to pull the most appropriate product depending on his habits. 

Keith  contrasts this approach with the way it works today where sellers start pushing up products based on what it has found about the customer. He asserts boldly,
I want to turn the whole thing on its head. Instead of the outside world going to you, you go to them by building your profile and showing it to the world. 
He fully understands the scale of his vision as he tells me that if he gets to put this product in place, it would probably be the biggest application in the cloud. He also shares his fascination for Apple’s products and expresses his desire for My Life to epitomize Apple's philosophy where you make it so simple so that anybody could do it.

Although the concept looks enticing, I point out that, referring to the sheer size and complexity of Indian market, to bring the idea to fruition would involve an entire overhaul of the current infrastructure. It would require highly advanced analytics softwares which can handle voluminous data that would be generated. He agrees and adds that while his team has developed the core technology, he hopes to pull together several businesses to collaborate to make this happen. Not just one but several partners from the standpoint of technology, end-users, platforms and social networks. To achieve My Life concept, he adds that it is paramount to ensure that the partners are in no conflict between each other.

He ends our chat asserting his firm belief about the customer.
If you treat the customer rightly without pushing them, you allow them to develop themselves. And they know you would support them and help them find a way forward. Because what should it be all about is making customers’ life easier.