Sheraton becomes a sommelier

Say you’re planning a business trip. If you knew you could get a very good glass of wine at your hotel at the end of the day, would that influence which hotel you book?

The people at Sheraton are betting that it will.

Earlier this year, Sheraton began holding “Sheraton Social Hour” events at a number of hotels, and 130 more Sheraton branches around the globe will add the social hours this week. From 5 to 8 PM, usually Tuesday through Thursday, Sheraton residents will be able to sample a selection of high-quality wines. At the larger Sheratons, such as New York’s, eight wines will be on offer, four scoring a Wine Spectator rating of 85 or higher and four scoring 90 or higher.

The Social Hour is also a media branding opportunity, since Wine Spectator is a partner in the program. “It’s the first time we’ve done something like this,” said Gloria Frazee of Wine Spectator.

Sheraton officials acknowledge that they’ve been looking for ways to spruce up their brand. At the high-end of the hotel market, customers distinguish between hotels by personally-tailored amenities, or by the level of service associated with a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons. At the low end, price and location can help sway choices. In the vast middle, the choices often appear commoditized; most good-sized cities are bound to have chain hotels in the same strategic locations, with rooms priced in roughly the same range on travel sites.

And hence the Social Hour. The idea is not entirely new. Some hotels in northern California and other wine-producing regions have long offered wine happy hours, usually for free and always with wines from a specific area. But three things set Sheraton’s effort apart: 1) They’re charging for the wine–$5 for a 2 oz. sample pour, and $13-$19 for a 6 oz. glass—meaning that the future of the Social Hour won’t depend on the promotional whims of individual vineyards; 2) no one’s ever tried this on a global scale of several hundred locations; and 3) the selection offered at Sheraton is hard to match.

Killing them softly

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

As the embodiment of all that is great and good about Silicon Valley, Marc Andreessen is surprisingly unassuming. He is the earnest, clean-cut Midwestern boy made good, the state school grad who built a better mousetrap—the Web browser—and saw the world beat a path to his door. If being on the cover of Time magazine at age 24 ever went to his head, he didn’t show it. Andreessen simply did what great entrepreneurs are supposed to do: start new companies, again and again. His subsequent ventures never achieved the notoriety of his first, Netscape Communications, but they put to rest any suspicions that his early triumph was a fluke.

Over the years, Andreessen has earned great respect around Silicon Valley as a true visionary who understands where the technology world is going. He sits on the board of leading companies such as Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, and eBay, and serves as a mentor to up-and-coming entrepreneurs, notably Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. And he’s a nice guy to boot, unpretentious and always excited to engage intellectually on technology, finance, company creation, and just about any other topic. What Andreessen has not done, though, is the one thing required for admission to the top tier of the Silicon Valley pantheon: build and lead a great company that defines the technology landscape for generations. Think of Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, or Microsoft, and you will also conjure up the names that head any list of great technology industry leaders: Steve Jobs, Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Bob Noyce, Andy Grove, Gordon Moore, and Bill Gates.

Andreessen’s response to such observations is that he has no desire to run a big company. “I’m not psychologically wired for it,” he says. “All the people and process aspects of it, I can force myself to do but I don’t really like. When I was in management I never really loved it. I found it very stressful.” But even though he might sometimes claim to like nothing better than curling upwith a good book, Andreessen still has big goals. One might even say he is out to show that the very particular type of  Silicon Valley role-player that he embodies—the entrepreneurial technologist whose strength is vision rather than management—can be just as influential as the Fortune 500 CEO.

Google enters the tablet wars with a small, safe bet

Google took another bite at the hardware apple with the announcement Wednesday of the Nexus Seven tablet. The tablet, very wisely, is not looking to compete with Apple’s iPad – the indisputable leader — but rather the smaller, cheaper tablets from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Outside of the iPad monolith, the Kindle Fire and Nook Color have been the most competitive entrants (albeit modestly) since Apple created the market in 2010.

Google’s Nexus Seven is a safe bet and, especially given Microsoft’s (sort of) foray into tablets, not entirely unexpected from the search and advertising giant.

And that’s why Google is smart to go after a part of the market where Apple doesn’t compete — the iPad is a “full-sized” device of 9.5 inches that starts at $500. There’s no reason to believe Apple is interested in making a 7-inch model, a size the late Steve Jobs derided. But both Amazon’s Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet are 7-inch models that retail for $200, the same as Google’s Nexus Seven. By going after less-entrenched – but still huge! – companies, Google’s success doesn’t have to be measured against Apple’s. It can start small – literally – and see if it makes inroads against two companies still trying to make inroads themselves.

Video streaming, file sharing — bad for network security, good for security business

Palo Alto Networks, the network security company, that modernized the firewall with its web application inspection took a look at what people do at work by analyzing Internet traffic in over 2,000 organizations.

Seems a lot of people watch videos.

In fact, Palo Alto’s semi-annual application usage and risk report says the bandwidth used by streaming video more than tripled to 13 percent from 4 percent in December 2011.

And that’s before the Euro 2012 Soccer Championship, the 2012 Olympics and the U.S. elections.

Blue Jeans Network’s chipping away at Cisco with video technology

Blue Jeans Network, a small rival of network equipment giant Cisco, is taking John Chambers by his word.

Cisco CEO Chambers’ mantra that video is the new voice all depends on how easy and simple it is to start a video call.

Blue Jeans, which claims it is the leader in making video services work together, says its new browser access technology does just that. (

Online video service Chill snags $8 million funding round

Do consumers want a more social side to video? Some $8 milllion to Chill, an online-only video service that works via Facebook, says they do. The cash comes from venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, talent firm William Morris Endeavor, and others. Chill allows people to watch videos and comment on them in groups, live. The cash should help it grow faster, while the relationship with William Morris, a new investor, should help it reel in more content partners, a spokesman said. Its current partners include celebrity-news service TMZ and TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live, it said.  About 18 million registered users have signed up with Chill, and around 10 million are regular visitors, the company said.

Blue Jeans Network wants video meetings to be commonplace

One year after its launch, Blue Jeans Network has expanded the reach of its interoperable videoconferencing service and secured a third round of funding worth $25 million.

The company’s goal: making video meetings as functional as a pair of blue jeans.

Users of the service can access a meeting through Skype, Google, Microsoft Lync, Polycom, Cisco, traditional phone and now directly through their web browser. My interview with the Blue Jeans Network executives was a perfect test of Blue Jeans’ interoperability, with the four members of the conference on Skype, Polycom, a web browser and a landline phone.

from Paul Smalera:

Brad Feld’s four ingredients for thriving startup cities

BOULDER, Colo. -- One of the most resonant talks I heard at last week's Big Boulder conference was also one of the shortest. In about twenty minutes, Brad Feld, who is without exaggeration the godfather to the Boulder startup community, explained exactly why it is that Boulder feels like a town on the verge, and why it's teeming with startups. A lot of it has to do with Feld himself.

It's not just that Feld is a co-founder of Techstars, the nationwide startup incubator that got its start in Boulder, or that the college kids -- and lately, mid to late twenties startup veterans -- flock to Boulder in hopes of getting a few minutes of his time to discuss their ideas. It's not just that Feld's Foundry Group scored big with an exit on Zynga, though that credibility certainly helps. And it's not just that he picked Boulder as some magical perfect place to be a startup Mecca. In fact when I asked him why he moved there from Boston, he said, laughingly, it was because, "my wife told me she was moving to Boulder." He figured he had better go along.

"Happy warrior" is usually a phrase reserved for politicians on futile crusades, but the four principles that Feld talked about that make Boulder a burgeoning startup locale are ones that he seems to embody, not just talk about. And as to my earlier post, wondering where and whether Boulder needed a billion dollar startup (or founder) to justify itself, Feld more or less shrugged it off. If that outcome is a natural result of the principles Feld sees as key to keeping Boulder a great place to found a company, then great. If it's not, I get the sense no one, he least of all, would mind very much.

Freshplum takes data-driven approach to online pricing

Palo Alto start-up Freshplum hopes to take the guesswork out of digital commerce by using analytics software, data science and math to help companies make decisions like how to price merchandise. 

After a month under wraps, Freshplum announced Tuesday that it has raised $1.4 million in seed funding from New Enterprise Associates, Greylock Partners, Google Ventures and Charles River Ventures, as well as a number of current and former executives from Facebook, Google and PayPal.

The company was co-founded by Sam Odio, who formerly worked at Facebook after his photo-sharing start-up Divvyshot was acquired by the social networking giant. The other co-founders are Nick Alexander and Michael Yuan.

AOL expected to dole out patent money in buyback- report

AOL has finally decided how to distribute the pile of cash it received from Microsoft when it sold the software titan the majority of its patent portfolio for more than $1 billion, according to AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher, who reported its will be in the form of a buyback. The announcement is expected later this week, Swisher said.

An AOL spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The patent sale was one of the big sticking points for the activist hedge fund Starboard, which failed in its attempt to gain  seats on the AOL board during a proxy fight that played out in mid-June.  One battle of many was over who first had the idea of selling the patents–Starboard or AOL. Throughout the spring both sides made their case: AOL had said it was already in the process of auctioning off its patents way before Starboard starting amassing a stake in the troubled Internet company. Starboard alleged it pushed AOL to liquidate the majority of its patents.

Either way, shareholders win.

Swisher cited sources close to the matter that said AOL ultimately went with the buyback after talking with shareholders and because it made the most sense from a tax perspective.