Shift Media 2014

shift-media-2014

Quick notes from yesterday’s Bold Italic Shift Digital Media Conference which was held at The Chapel in the Mission district of San Francisco yesterday.

The venue and format were perfect. $85 for a half day session of talks in an intimate nightclub off of Valencia Street. Tickets were sold out and the attendees came from across the digital media spectrum, from publishers to advertisers, which made for great side conversations. The Bold Italic, is a San Francisco “hyperlocal” site funded by Gannett, that has acted as an experimental lab of sorts for it’s parent company and this was one of their bigger events, designed to position them as a digital media innovator.

The Chapel

Matt Galligan from cir.ca was first up.

I’ve seen him speak before (my write-up about cir.ca) but he always has new observations to share about the media business.

Brand loyalty to media companies is gone. A show of hands revealed that most people do not remember where they heard about the news they read that day underlining the point that, in a world where distribution costs next to nothing, attention is what is most costly. The undercurrent in this talk and others that followed was that the social networks of the day are the new gate keepers to what gets read.

Fox News at one end of the political spectrum and MSNBC on the other are no different from Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm in that they pander to their audiences’ selected interests and are responsible, to a certain extent, for the polarization we see in society today. Matt sees a need for an editorial viewpoint to tell the most important stories of the day which may come outside your chosen interests.

It’s a great time to be a media startup (“news is sexy again”) but there’s  a danger in either being too driven by either an editorial or distribution-focused strategy. A successful company needs to have a “true North” point of view  in order to succeed. In his view, Vice News is successful because it has a very clear point of view so its viewers can put the stories in context. Buzzfeed, in Matt’s view, is a bit lost because it is too optimized for social distribution and no one is sure of it’s point of view.

When asked about what he would do if he was put in charge of The New York Times, Matt said he was surprised to see a recent job posting for a “Print Editor” which, to him, signaled a recognition of the difference in the print medium from others. He went on to say that rather than originating stories for print that the Times should flip the hierarchy around writing for Mobile, followed by Web, and finally for Print at the end of the chain.

Matt’s parting words was that we should all glance at the Wikipedia entry for Yellow Journalism to give perspective to the current rash of deceptive, linkbait headlines and where this trend could ultimately be taking us.

Jessica Saia of The Bold Italic was next with a talk about how to make good viral content with “visual satire.”

She gave us a peak into the brilliance of TBI’s creative genius and shared several of their more successful riffs on popular journalistic genres.

Corner Stourmet pokes fun at gourmet food photography (Jessica’s roommate is a photographer) by using ingredients from her local corner store which resulted in sharable works of art such as the Frito Scoop Amuse Bouche.

Amuse Bouche

Another is their Actual Food Porn piece which was engineered to jump on to the #foodporn hashtag train. Do/Don’t/Oh God Please Don’t pushes the norms of the standard fashion magazine column while the Kid Food Reviews bring the brutal honesty of 4-year olds to the restaurant critic genre (TBI’s review of The French Laundry is their most successful post ever).

Kid Food Reviews

Each of The Bold Italic’s satire pieces takes a cliche and twists it into a caricature of itself designed to lead to that, “OMG, have you seen this?” moment driving its readers to share and introduce them to new audiences.

Greg Isenberg of 5by gave a talk about making successful viral videos.

He shared a stat that 1 out 3 millennials do not watch television. Not broadcast, not cable, just YouTube and other online video. With unlimited space, imagination is your only barrier.

A couple of pointers,

  1. Assume your audience has the attention span of an “espresso-fueled fruit fly” which means your cuts need to be quick. What’s important is velocity, not length.
  2. You need “lighter fluid” to get things going. Sharing stats on the Double Rainbow video Greg pointed out that even though the video was posted in January 2010, it wasn’t until Jimmy Kimmel put his spotlight on it on in July that it really took off.
Lexi Nisita, Social Media Director at Refinery 29 spoke about the dangers of “lab-created” viral

Truly viral content shares certain elements which signal authenticity. It’s usually “low budget, grass roots, and gritty.”

Lexi pointed to Random Acts of Pasta as an example of a viral video which positioned Olive Garden so well that many thought it was a clever way for the company to get media coverage during the Thanksgiving holiday (according to the company, it was not).

Before Refinery 29 decides to work with a brand on a social media campaign, they use a rubric to gauge its effectiveness.

Identity – does it make the person sharing the content look good or feel smart. Does it enhance their identity?

Life Improving – does it act as a gift? If shared, will it impart knowledge? The example here being a blow dryer company sharing top tips in a blog post as something one person can forward to another.

Heart-Pounding Emotion – does it provoke either “righteous anger,” tears of laughter, or nostalgia. All are powerful drivers of sharing behavior.

Bobbie Johnson, Senior Editor at Medium held an Ask Me Anything session where he took questions from the audience.

Medium is both a platform and a publisher. Not a surprise is Medium is the combination of both Blogger (tools) and Twitter (distribution). Both companies that Medium’s founder, Ev Williams, founded.

While Buzzfeed and others like it are enjoying incredible valuations, they are built on the promise of continued success from their native advertising programs. In Bobbie’s words, “the leaves will be pulled away” from this business as there is only so much sponsored content that you can put into the mix before it collapses from its own weight.

News on mobile devices is still primarily, “lumps of text” and needs to evolve to take advantage of the platform. It is still very early days and a challenge that Medium is very interested in solving.

Medium wants to be a platform where brands engage alongside content producers as equals. They want to be youtube.com for writing. A place you go to view collections of content from all ends of the publisher-advertiser spectrum. To this point, when asked if Medium would share revenues with content creators on the site, Bobbie replied that if they did not, “they’d be doing it wrong.”

When asked (by yours truly) if Medium would allow for domain-mapping that would allow brands and publishers to run Medium sites within their own domain, he said that it was a top priority for the company but that they wanted to take their time to do it in a way that would not take away from the network and community effects that they currently enjoy on Medium. I look forward to learning more.

The next session was a panel discussion on native advertising.

It was unfortunate that only the business side of publishing was represented, none of the panelists (except the moderator, Jennifer Maerz, editor at The Bold Italic) serve in an editorial role.

Everyone was surprised to hear results from a Quartz survey shared by Ryan that found 80% of C-level executives are interested and read branded content. CEOs want to hear what their competition, customers and partners have to say (and how they say it), not only what the media has to say about them. This was a unique insight that made me think deeper about the value of sponsored content.

When asked who creates branded content the answers were across the board. Some publications, such as The Bold Italic, have editorial do double-duty and write pieces that get the “sponsored” label (Bobbie Johnson mentioned he used to do this at the Guardian. They were called Advertising Supplements). Other publications have a group that reports into advertising that works with brands to create content. On the other side, some of the larger brands create their own content and work with publishers to distribute it. Finally, MediaCo sits in between. Their parent is a PR firm but their team has a journalistic background and works with brands to create and distribute content that will be compelling and effective.

I was surprised how much sponsored content runs on Quartz. It’s an important part of their business and allows for them to cut back on the number of banner ads they have to run to support their business. During the session, Ryan mentioned that Quartz has a rule to show no more than one sponsored post on the waterfall for every three “news” posts which seems a lot.

Matt Kaye brought up the insight that as more viewership moves to mobile, the more important it is to have sponsored posts that are relevant and interesting to read.

After the break there was a short dialog between Sherine Kazim and JP Stallard about personalization.

The two were debating cookies and other tracking mechanisms as it relates to advertising which they view as creepy, (“I strongly dislike being a product.” said JP) Unfortunately the debate was stuck talking about advertising and did not bring in the benefits of personalization as it relates to publishing. Some of the most interesting work in media is around implicit personalization based on reading behavior and how it can enhance your reading experience.

The next session brought together several user research experts to talk about Reader Behavior: Motivations, Trends & Insights

Larkin Brown User Research at Pinterest
Stephanie Carter Experience Research at Facebook
Bethany Pickard User Experience at Google
Ximena Vengoechea Full Cycle Research at LinkedIn

The final panel  of the day started off unexpectedly with the moderator reading from a passage and spending a long time introducing each panelist and asking several favorite/least favorite questions that brought out some strange answers but did a lot to warm up the room and get bring out the personalities of the panelists.

Several people noticed that it was an entire panel of women which is something several people said to me throughout the day. It was certainly a nice change to see so many women on stage and in the audience and I commend The Bold Italic for bringing together a healthy mix. It made for a better conference.

While many topics were covered, my notes were on the various tips and tricks the researchers used when in the field.

Stephanie spoke about her time at The New York Times when they used Food (farmer’s market grazer or fast food?) or Social Status (arm candy or committed?) as metaphors useful for grouping personas. These methods abstracted the descriptions a level so that they did not fall into a particular demographic group which is limiting when, particularly when looking at reading habits. Different age groups would sometimes share behaviors.

Bethany had an interesting point that when navigating online content there is no sense of how much you are missing. With a physical object such as a book or a newspaper you have visual cues that tell you if you’ve skipped a section but in the online world of the endless scroll, there is no “end.”

At one point there was as discussion of “trusted sources” and someone mentioned that its useful to think of such a source as a pathway to more quality content. I share this viewpoint in that links on a site should be treated as a curated collection and cannot always be trusted to third party widgets driven by an algorithm.

Someone in the audience asked how to collect user research without a dedicated user research team. Each panel member had their own tricks which included:

Bring in two people and observe the first person describe their experience to their partner. These secondary observations can uncover non-obvious aspects of your product that are suppressed in one-on-one interactions.

Camp out at a coffee shop, make friends with the barrista. Tell them that you will offer to buy coffee for anyone who will spend time with you on user research.

Repeat the last word someone says to you with a question mark as a way to continue the dialog. When someone states that, “I then copy/paste and send an email,” you then repeat, “Email?” to uncover motivations.

The final talk of the day was a discussion between Mat Honan and Clara Jeffery about Mat’s upcoming piece for Wired on the Future of Media.

Joel Johnson from Gawker was originally supposed to appear but recent news kept him from keeping his date so Clara stepped in to take his place.

Mat had news of his own to share and announced that he was taking over as Buzzfeed’s Silicon Valley bureau chief and that they would be building up their editorial team here.

Both Mat and Clara had interesting things to say about the readership on their perspective sites.

Wired’s readers are still primarily desktop. There was an audible gasp in the audience. While most tech news web sites have crossed over and have more mobile readers, the grand-daddy tech site of them all still had more desktop readers than mobile. Not only that, if I heard correctly, he also said that many of them still come in via the front page! Old habits die hard I guess.

Riffing a little on why he found Buzzfeed attractive, Mat said it was because they had figured out social better than any other publisher and were thus well-positioned for the future. This lead Clara to say,

A question back from Mat pondered a future where stories live as sharable units on their own, within social media feeds, independent of their site. Some good food for thought in that nugget there.

While Mat views traditional, attention-stealing advertising as “threatening” his views of native advertising are more nuanced. I believe he sees the convergence of editorial and revenue as a trend to get ahead of and he views Buzzfeed as ahead of the game here. I look forward to reading his Wired piece in January. He assured the audience that he only started seriously talking about moving from Wired to Buzzfeed after the story was filed.

Clara shared that Mother Jones burst back onto the scene with it’s blockbuster scoop of Mitt Romney’s 47% video clip. Thankfully they had just completed an overhaul of their infrastructure so their site stayed up despite the deluge of new traffic but the interesting thing is that following that spike many of the new readers stuck around and they are still enjoying more than double the traffic when compared to before the Mitt Romney story. She did not get around to revealing how those new readers were converted to return visitors.

If you’ve read this far I applaud your stamina! These notes are my way of thinking out loud and crystallizing my learnings in a way that I can refer to them in the future. Feel free to share your own thoughts  in the comments below.

True University

Running a start-up can be a lonely. What is glamorized in media are the high points, revenue and usage going up and to the right, the launch party, the high-fives when you close a big deal, the opening of your first office.

The reality is more gut wrenching. The late night realization that you may not make a revenue target. The early morning notification that your server is offline. The sinking feeling when a key prospect tells you they cannot work with you. The difficult meeting with an employee when have to tell them you have to let them go.

The life of an entrepreneur is a series of peaks and valleys that can whip you from euphoria to depression and back again in the course of a few days. But it’s when you’re starring into the abyss that you find out who your true friends are, when you find out if you picked the right group of investors, that believe in you and will help you work it out.

After spending two days at Stanford University with 250 other individuals who work at True Venture portfolio companies, I have a new appreciation for why someone would want True Ventures as a backer.

Once a year, True,  an investor in my company, Gigaom,  hosts a  True University for its portfolio companies. It’s an incredibly generous offering. Two days rich with talks and workshops on how to run a business. A sample of the sessions include:

  • Steve Blank talking about how to develop a business model and product/market fit
  • Army Major Aram Donigian talking about negotiation tactics learned while in Iraq
  • Robert Brunner, the designer of Beats headphones, talking about design experience
  • Reverend Cecil Williams and his sharp as a tack wife Janice Mirikitani talking about the mission of GLIDE
Robert Brunner on design process
Design should be more than just a phase between marketing and engineering – Robert Brunner

And that’s just the highlight. In between were smaller workshops with folks like Hooman Radfar (the right and wrong way to let someone go), Lars Nilsson (how to set up and run an inside sales team), and Braden Kowitz (how to run a design sprint).

Negotiation Lessons Learned from West Point
Negotiation Lessons Learned from West Point

But it’s more than talks and workshops. I came away with a feeling of community. True University is an environment of complete trust and collaboration. I spoke openly about challenges I was facing and shared with others lessons I have learned. We were all working to build something and we wanted each other to succeed. True Ventures is more than a collection of investments, it’s a platform from which tomorrow’s leaders can take a leap and know that you’ve got a community of like-minded folks are behind you.

True Venture's Jon Callahan  on trust and risk
True Venture’s Jon Callahan speaking on trust and risk

Thank you True Ventures for being an investor and thank you for an amazing couple of days!

Further: videos from past True University sessions are posted at on TrueTube

ProductSF 2014

Photo by Ritu Raj
Photo by Ritu Raj

Last week I attended the 2014 edition of Building Better Products, an invitation only conference hosted by Ty Ahmad-Taylor of Samsung Electronics and Josh Elman of Greylock Partners. As with last year’s conference, it was an agenda packed with interesting speakers that came to share their perspective on the role of a Product Manager at a tech company, sharing lessons learned and what it takes to succeed. The format was updated to include a mix of pechakucha-style lightning talks interspersed with longer presentations and panel discussions.

Because of a morning SFO drop-off run, I missed the “palette-cleanser” talk that kicked things off for the day (a history of Treasure Island) and Julie Zhuo‘s talk on how to work with designers. I’m sorry to have missed Julie’s talk but you can read her many excellent talks about the design process on her Medium page.

I took notes on some of the presentations and here were my favorites.

Mina Radhakrishnan shared her experiences as one of the first Product Managers at Uber during their first international expansion and the growing pains the company went through to develop a process which now lets them spin up multiple locations each week. We learned of design challenges as the nomenclature for hired cars vary from city to city. An SUV in London is a “big car” while a private car is a “black car” but tabs for “Big” and “Black” don’t really work so other solutions were needed.

A template that might work in one country falls apart in another so you need to, “design for flexibility” and use templates that can be adopted to fit local needs. Because of the need for speed and scale, these templates need to be designed in a way that local operations teams can unleash their “operational creativity” without having to check in with headquarters.

What struck me most was the intense drive and ambition of Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, enabled the team to roll over technical and legal challenges that would have sidetracked most companies. In the drive to launch Uber in Paris in time for Le Web, they slammed a product together that had to be re-built from the ground up post-launch. It is rare to find a start-up that would knowingly build something they know they are going to tear apart and build again and support for that way of working has to come from the top.

ubercade

While talking about Uber’s various publicity stunts (ubercade, uber ice cream, uberkittens) Mina reminded us that Uber is not strictly a transportation company and that their mission, “to get you where you want to go” should be interpreted broadly.

Vince Maniago from Mint gave an abbreviated version of the talk embedded below to explain specific actions he took to improve sign-ups. As a financial service, his challenge was to get people to connect their banking accounts with the mint.com aggregation service. By putting his name on follow-up emails to anyone who didn’t complete this action, he was able to significantly improve completion rates and get people over the trust factor.

Some other tips Vince shared included use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service for user-testing and Mental Notes cards (note: sold out) as inspiration for the types of message variations you can test.

David Hahn, who was at LinkedIn during the early days, spoke about the freemium business model upon which that service is built and the evolution of their landing pages. The page has gone through many iterations but each time they have tried to add something new, they have found that the obsessive simplification of the erroneous was the best contribution to their conversion rates. “The best optimizations are getting rid of things.”

Wook Chung works with brand advertisers for Samsung and shared humorous anecdotes about working with Madison Avenue and the importance of continually checking in with your customer whose needs are like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Advertising trends are continually in motion so freezing requirements and then going off to build them will, by definition, obsolete anything you launch. Better to involve your customer at each stage and get them invested in your solution and inform your development.

A series of short talks followed. Ken Norton (Google Ventures) on using Don Lowry’s True Colors rubric to build teams and modulate communication. Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, gave a rousing comparison of UX/Product archetypes as Game of Thrones characters and reminded all of us to, “respect the craft” when giving feedback.

During the panel discussion on Product Development in the Enterprise Sol Lipman, who was CPO at TomFoolery, shared lessons learned as a start-up trying to change enterprise software (“we made consumer-grade products for the enterprise”). One of their early lessons (and we’ve heard this before) is that you need to focus on utilization because, “just because someone is going to pay you doesn’t mean their people are going to use your product.”

One other tidbit was Sol’s singular vision that the all products for the enterprise should be built “sideways” to allow collaboration across traditional networks. Do not build your product around a company domain and allow for self-defined networks which will be how workgroups form in the future (think Dropbox). Email, which is usually dominated by company domains, is not a useful unique identifier as it locks each customer into their silo. On the other hand, a cell phone number, which everyone has and usually carries from job to job, allows for infinite connections which will persist and retain their viral effectiveness.

tomfoolery hats

Ellen Chisa from Kickstarter shared the eight-month journey to a new start page. Reminding us all that Kickstarter is primarily a platform for artists so the founders were concerned less with a metrics-driven design process and more with the embodiment of a vision. If forgot the name of the poet she quoted but, to paraphrase, if Kickstarter was going to set out to build a ship, they would not instruct them the details of woodworking, they would, “teach men to yearn for the sea.”

In the end, there were 11 major designs for the front page with hundreds of iterations in between until they found a design they felt worked. But all was not lost, many of the ideas hashed out made their way into other areas of the product. Perhaps less efficient, the Kickstarter way was more holistic.

Shiva Rajaraman, from YouTube, gave a great talk, “Product Management: From Meh to Awesome” that was not about use cases or tips and tricks but about approach. A Product Manager is the one that has the spotlight. No product is the result of a single person’s output and the PM should take pains to shine attention to all those that work on the product. And with a community-driven product such as YouTube it is especially important to point out what’s awesome about your community.

Check out the Likes/Dislikes on the Futurama Neutral Response clip below. Finding out that there is a community of people that obsessively maintain this delicate balance, “made his week.”

futurama neutralness

Thinking of YouTube as a platform transformed the way they have approached music companies and brands. Music fingerprinting and content ID was originally developed to go after copyright violations but when flipped around from a negative to a positive, it helps musicians understand how and where their music is being played. Harem Shake got such tremendous exposure through the fan videos that when it debuted on the charts, it was #1.

Shiva tells the story of Molly Kate Kestner who recorded her self-composed song on a broken iPhone that, within weeks becomes a top single on the iTunes charts.  An open platform  allows these stories to write themselves and a good Product Manager will look for them and hold them up for others to celebrate.

Thank you Josh & Ty for organizing a great day of talks, picking a great venue, and, as always, keeping everyone on schedule.

Further Reading:

Failcon SF 2012 – Notes

I dropped by Failcon today which is FailCon is advertised as a “one-day conference for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers and designers to study their own and others’ failures and prepare for success.” It was the kind of conference that I normally would really enjoy. A small enough crowd that you’re not overwhelmed and a venue (Julia Morgan Ballroom in downtown San Francisco) that was downright clubby.

Unfortunately, there was quite a lot going on at work today so I was not able to devote as much attention the the talks as I would have liked. I missed the morning talks so I only have notes from a few talks, what follows are my notes.

THE HISTORY OF FAILING TO LEARN FROM FAILURE – Scott Berkun (@berkun)

There is no “single” point of failure

– We only get to the truth after the 5th “why?” – keep asking “why?” to get out of the weeds and uncover systemic and procedural failures.
– For example, it was not o-ring on Space Shuttle that failed, nor the representation of the data from the o-ring temperatures. If you keep asking “why?” you will start to find the process which led to failures to produce poor reports that hid early, non-catastrophic failures of the o-rings that would have raised a flag to prevent the catastrophic failure that caused the Shuttle disaster.

Complex truth loses to Simple Lies

– Simple stories are fun to tell but they also are lies that hide the more complex truth
– There is a narrative bias. The teller of the story shades the truth to augment their perspective.
– Titanic, Hindenburg, New Coke – these are not just trivial failures that can be summed up in a simple story. There are multiple perspectives that tell the full picture.

Our own egos get in our way

-Heroes are inspiring, yet stupid. To be heroic, you need to ignore common sense.
– There is little that can be learned from these inspirational heroes because they will not give you the full truth, the real lesson.

We tend to fight the last war, not the war we’re in.

– Our most recent victory (or defeat) colors the challenges before us.

Scott’s blog post on his talk.

FAILURE AND ITS ROLE IN THE LEAN STARTUP – Eric Ries (@ericries)

– “In order to get to MVP, take what the founder thinks is a good first product and cut it in half. Then cut it in half, again.”
– “Lean startup is a methodology made for businesses going through times of extreme uncertainty. Not to be applied if you’re buying a franchise, or making Madden 2012.”
– In front of VCs, we play “success theater”: using vanity metrics to avoid the smell of failure. The unit of progress is learning, not number of users, not revenue.
– The most important thing to do is start. The start will always fall short of the vision. Don’t think, “I’m not wasting my time with seeds, I only want trees.”  Where do the tress come from? Seeds.

PIANOS, BATTLESHIPS, AND SNEAKERS: STORIES ABOUT DESIGN AND FAILURE – Braden Kowitz, Google Ventures (@kowitz)

– design blindness, ideas that you come up with make sense to you but are not obvious to others
– in order to get others to understand, you need to get critique early and often.
– hard to do when you’re a designer because you want to wait until it’s done.
– if you wait until you’re done, you’ll be too emotionally invested and will resist objections.

Three stories about failure
Piano Fail
– You can’t learn the piano by reading a book about it. There is no “Piano for Dummies” book.
– To learn a craft, you must practice that craft. Learn by doing.
– Helps to find a tutor. Someone who can show you the way.

Battleships
– Design something, show it to people, they don’t get it, you fix it, they still don’t get it. It’s a vicious cycle because with each turn, you lose the fresh perspective of people who have never used your product.
– Evolution of GChat on-screen instructions. Didn’t know to hit to send chat. Didn’t want to add [Send] button on a product that was embedded in Gmail. Confusion with pop-up advertisements. Whack-a-mole.
– Need to listen to people, look in their eyes to get to the bottom of the secondary fail.
– Sometimes a fix is just a very minor adjustment.
– Like the game of Battleship, even if you’re good, you’ll miss a lot. You only get better incrementally.
– People are a moving target. What works today will not work tomorrow. Design in the present.
– Just a few years ago, “Pull to Refresh” on iOS was not known even to Apple. It was developed by a third party. It’s expected now.

Sneakers
– Like running. It’s good to have a buddy to help show your stuff. No one wants to run alone in the rain.
– Schedule the user study ahead of time, it’s a forcing function.
– One day design sprint lowers expectations. No one expects perfection after a few hours. Best way to break out of a rut, to try out a new approach.

For more, check out this excellent series on designstaff.org on how to run a 5-day Design Sprint

HOW NOT TO MANAGE A PRODUCT – Mike Arsenault (@mikearsenault)

– Grasshopper built a “Refer an entrepreneur” program to allow their users to share a discount. These refers converted at 22%, orders of magnitude over their other marketing efforts which were around 1.5%. Because these refers were so successful, it became the vision for a new type of product which became Spreadable, a customized “tell a friend” widget to put on your site to help your customers, “spread the word.”

– What happened? They blew thru $500k in 14 months and ended up having to shut down the site because of lack of interest.
– Mike shows a clip from their explainer video and then notes that the full video was 3 mins long, pointing out that most people lose interest after 60 seconds.
– 12 people joined to work on the project. Many were seasoned from the previous business which gave them (over)-confidence. Bigger Team does not equal Higher Velocity
– The new product was benchmarked against the metrics that made Grasshopper (7 years old, 40K customers) a success. There is no way a startup could measure up to an established business. Churn was too high, they didn’t talk to customers that were leaving. If they did, they would have learned the widget was not performing for those that managed to install it.
– The marketing channels that were successful for Grasshopper did not work for Spreadable. Lower search volume for organic search keywords for this product as well.
– Product required much more hand-holding than Grasshopper. Advertised to radio audience that was not technically proficient to install javascript.
– Wasted our Beta List. 2000 people on the list were not invited to get involved until after the launch. Beta people wanted to get involved early. Need to keep the list “warm” with regular updates.
– Didn’t charge on Day 1. It was in the market for 6 months for free. Putting a price on a product is a quick way to get feedback on the product’s usefulness. Price helps you measure. If people pay, feedback is more pointed.
– Too hung up on marketing, not on building the right product.

SOCIAL PROOF IS NOT PROOF – Michael Wolfe, Pipewise (@michaelrwolfe)

Lessons from ccLoop, finalist at TechCrunch NYC Disrupt

– Compelling team, great investors, Big Problem (enterprise inbox 2.0), Social Proof (press) = failed after 4 months
– Why?
– Basecamp, Yammer, Chatter, Sharepoint, MS Project – all useful and compelling but ultimately fail b/c they compete with the inbox. Michael surveyed the room on Basecamp and Yammer. Most everyone has heard or used these but very few have used them in the last 24 hours.

– Fail #1 – Team Fail.
CEO was in customer validation along with many other things. Need a dedicated Hustler. Every engineering team needs a hustler. Engineers just ask obvious questions. They validate the solution, not the problem. “Do you have an email overload problem?” is not a useful question. Validation is not “selling the product” – done right, customer validation is about making future customers pay you to build a product.

– Fail #2 – Product Fail.
Lots of Likes is not as a good as a handful of “loves” (even if that handful comes with some haters). Better to have passionate users.

– Fail #3 – Social Proof Fail.
The echo chamber for friends and family prior to launch reinforces bad decisions. Seek out fresh perspectives. Do not be swayed by the tech media.

 

Oulu Open Hack

I spent a couple days last week in Oulu (a city in Northern Finland) helping out on a hackfest. For more on the what, who and why, check out my previous post (Why we Hack). This post is to thank the sponsors and share how it went.

What always amazes me with these type of self-organizing events is the quality of the output. There were only four people volunteering in our spare time to put this together but we managed to pull it off. All the entries were good quality and I’m pretty sure everyone had fun.

Things kicked off with Kristian and I giving a brief overview of the ground rules and history of hack. We then stepped away to give the floor to Ivan Kuznetsov from HeiaHeia who came in on a night train from down south to join us and help get people inspired about their API. HeiaHeia is a cool concept. Kind of like a Foursquare for health where you check-in your workouts and receive praise (or jeers) from your friends.

Next, the UBI-Oulu guys showed us their platform which connects to 40+ interactive monitors around town. Each monitor has a bluetooth and gps sensor as well as a camera and they all talk to the UBI Platform which can read data from the web. With two huge projectors also running all night (nights are long during the Winter too) throwing images up on the side of the opera house in Oulu Harbor, you can let your imagination run wild on what you can build. If you think you have a good idea, I’d encourage you to submit it to their challenge by the end of November because the folks at UBI are granting 7000 – 10,000 EUR to the winning proposal.

Things hummed along and teams quickly settled into their groove. The one thing, in retrospect that I regret, is that we skipped over a round of introductions to get some cross team communication going. People did eventually chat with each other but, as a chatty American, I sometimes forget that it’s helpful to break the ice a bit to get things going.

The one highlight of the night (for me at least) was when I stepped outside to get some fresh air to wake me up a bit. I had an electronic key for the front door that I had been using all day but, unbeknown to me, this key no longer worked past midnight. All the people for whom I had a phone number had left so when I discovered that my key no longer worked, I tried to figure out what I could do. I tweeted using the #ouluopenhack hashtag to see if I could get the attention of anyone upstairs but, of course, they were all busy hacking.

So let me paint the picture. Oulu is North of Iceland, North of Fairbanks, Alaska, basically way the hell up there. In November it’s getting dark at around 3pm. By midnight, the time I’m standing there figuring out what I’m going to do, it’s pitch dark and very, very cold. It wasn’t quite life or death, I was dressed for the weather and I could have called a cab back to the hotel but I’m sure everyone upstairs would have been like, “What the hell happened to Kennedy?” so I resolved to figure out how to get back in but time was ticking.

Snow was on the ground but I luckily found one pebble and took at look up at the windows up on the second floor, the only ones lit, and and tried to imagine the room layout. I picked the one 2 feet x 2 feet window that I remember was next to a table with some guys working and threw the pebble, my single chance to get some attention. I lucked out and hit the window and two scruffy guys peered into the darkness to see me waving frantically and shortly afterwards padded down in their socks to pop open the door.

All the world’s technology at my disposal and I had to resort to communication technology made famous by Shakespere’s Romeo. Those that know what I’ve been working on at Nokia now know that my prototype now has a real-life use case!

I went back to playing with some Nokia APIs before moving on and fiddling around with the Twilio API to make a hack that, would allow someone to leave a message that would get transcribed by Google Voice and emailed to the Oulu Open Hack mailing list (just in case I got locked out again). I think I finally finished up and headed back to my hotel around 2am.

Prizes, we had three

One for the best app using Qt or QML, one for the best UBI hack, and the overall favorite by popular vote.

Alexander Savin won the Nokia C7 with a cool QML app which connected to HeiaHeia to visualize your workouts and automatically upload them to the service.

Ville Alatalo and Jyrki Laurila won the UBI hack prize with their 4squbi app that used the Foursquare API to show you tips from around each UBI screen and who was checked in nearby.

Jason Brower won the overall with his very ambitious hack which sensed the rhythm you shook your phone to a playing song and played it back to you via the phones vibration engine. The final application is so that people could share vibration-enhanced ringtones.

All the hacks along with videos are listed on the Oulu Open Hack wiki.

Shout Outs

Kristian Luoma (CasCard) managed to score a high-quality venue with free bandwidth and good lighting (and a zen rock garden to boot!) from the University of Oulu’s Center for Internet Excellence. I can’t think of a better place to host a hackfest and we all thank them for bearing with our 24-hours of streaming random tunes from our Spotify channel and the use of their staff kitchen refrigerator where we chilled our cans of energy drink.

Thanks go to Jyrki’s company Codemate who paid for the t-shirts and very professional badges and lanyards for everyone.

Also, thank you Forum Nokia for paying for the pizza and drinks (I’ll be sending you my receipts!) and tossing in a C7 phone as the prize for the best QML hack.

Ville did an amazing job on the designs for the shirts, website, and posters. I think in all Kristian, Jyrki, Ville, and I put no more than 10-15 hours total work towards organizing the hackfest but it was due to Ville’s artwork that we managed to look more professional than we actually were! Ville also captured the video on a hacked up N8 and spliced up all the demo videos and created a highlight reel below.

Why We Hack

Reposted (with modifications) from ouluopenhack where I’ll be tomorrow.

It all starts with an itch. Something that bugs you. It’s some kind of “pattern” that you identify. A manual task that you find yourself doing over and over again that you want to automate. Why is the color  printer always default to printing in black & white? How can I patch the OS on my phone so that it pauses the music player when the headphones slip out of the audio jack? Software engineers are inherently lazy and are always looking for ways to optimize the world around them, automate menial tasks. This itch is motivation to hack.

To back up, “hack” is not, what Hollywood tells you. It’s not about breaking into a mainframe to steal data or wreak havoc. No, the modern term for “hack” is the software equivalent of duct taping some things together to try out an idea. You know that site There, I Fixed It – it’s kind of like that but with software. Definitely not ready for prime time but it gets you thinking of what’s possible.

Why Oulu. Why November. Who’s behind this anyway?

This all started when I  joined Nokia and found myself in Helsinki posting to an internal mailing list about this thing called Hack Day that was a fun thing they did at Yahoo to let off steam and try out new ideas. Kristian Luoma bit and he and I worked together to put on the first, internal Nokia hack event in Oulu which we called a “Hackfest” in November of 2009.

A follow-up event was held in Helsinki the following year and then Kristian left Nokia to work at his start-up and I got busy with other projects. With the gentle nudge of Ville Alatalo, Jyrki Laurila and others from the original Hackfest in Oulu, the project was brought back and because 11-11-10 is a nice pattern falling conveniently on a Thursday, Ville, Jyrki, Kristian, and I set the date for the 2nd Annual Oulu Hackfest and got to work.

Slideshare presentation of previous Nokia Hackfests

In order to involve the greater Oulu community (why keep all the fun to ourselves?), we decided to open up the event to non-Nokia people for a greater exchange of ideas. While no one knows really what to expect at these events, like any good dinner party, we all look forward to making it come together as we go along and making sure everyone has fun. Who knows what ideas will be dreamed up and tried out? What problems will the group tackle? What is broken in our world? How can we make things better?

The fun starts on November 11th at 11am on the Center for Internet Excellence campus in Oulu and find out. If you just want to drop by at Noon for the final demo presentations, join us at Noon on November 12th. For all the details, follow the links at ouluopenhack.org. or tune into twitter at #ouluopenhack.

Social Discovery, Social Filtering, and other Web-Squared Shapes

It’s hard to wrap up a major conference, especially when you didn’t attend, but viewing things from a distance sometimes helps because only the loudest messages make it all the way over.

Before the conference even started, Fred Wilson threw out a one-liner that got people thinking. He called it the Golden Triangle.

The three current big megatrends in the web/tech sector are mobile, social, and real-time.

To Fred, the vectors between each of these points on his triangle represented the biggest opportunities over the next few years and where he, as a technology VC, was going to focus his attention.

Ross Mayfield, his line from the first Web 2.0 conference is still relevant, added Geo to Fred’s Triangle and posted his virtual napkin up on flickr.

ross mayfield web squared

The importance of Geo cannot be ignored as the most obvious (and easiest) way to add context to information which is being harvested and sent our way in increasingly alarming rates. We talk about a world in which there are 1 billion mobile devices. Imagine what happens when each of these gets a camera, gps, and bluetooth sensor and an IP connection to pull in real-time updates. Adds a new dimension to Right Here, Right Now.

So while HTML Page Indexers of yore were failing at finding us the best Chinese in Helsinki or plumber in London, Social Discovery became the new nectar. Facebook leads to FriendFeed leads to Twitter and now our capacity to consume and process has overloaded. Groups, Hashtags, Lists, Folders, call them what you will but this manual organization of streams is beginning to feel like e-mail folder management all over again. The Googles and Microsofts have added the Twitter firehose to their indexes but somehow I don’t see that as solving the problem unless they can filter on your social connections as well (rumor has it Google Profiles are about to play a much more important role Google Social Search is now live).

Which brings us to Social Filters.

Marshall Kirkpatrick has been following this topic for a long time. He bangs the Social Filter drum again in a post about Facebook’s News Feed redesign,

Someday social networking is going to be like the telephone. Today you can’t send messages from Facebook to people on MySpace or LinkedIn but that isn’t going to last forever. Just as you can call someone who uses T-Mobile from your Sprint phone, someday sharing and messaging between online social networks will be a given.

How will social networks retain users then? Why stick with Facebook when some smaller service offers a decentralized social networking service outside of Facebook’s control but still tied into your friends on Facebook and elsewhere?

These services will someday have to compete on user experience, when they no longer have your social connections locked-in. The service that does the best job filtering up the most important information you have coming your way will likely be the service you stick with. That’s going to be a key area of competition between social networks.

Yes, it’s no longer about who “owns” the social graph – it’s who provides the best services on top of a shared graph. Someone mentioned that Tim Berners Lee said at the conference that AOL was to WWW as Facebook is to distributed social networks. Just as we thought it silly that AOL wanted to put it’s famous wall around the internet, we may also look back in amazement thinking that anyone could have the audacity to think they could own the world’s social address book.

Some historical perspective from Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle in Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On

There is a race on right now to own the social graph. But we must ask whether this service is so fundamental that it needs to be open to all.

It’s easy to forget that only 15 years ago, email was as fragmented as social networking is today, with hundreds of incompatible email systems joined by fragile and congested gateways. One of those systems – internet RFC 822 email – became the gold standard for interchange.

We expect to see similar standardization in key internet utilities and subsystems. Vendors who are competing with a winner-takes-all mindset would be advised to join together to enable systems built from the best-of-breed data subsystems of cooperating companies.

Bringing it all together you can almost hear the synapses of the global brain achieve self-awareness. Not only are we moving to a web of sensors feeding real-time data into the grid, we are annotating it by injecting bits of human commentary and behaviors across an increasingly distributed social graph.

A phone in one corner of the world sends off a snapshot which is immediately re-tweeted via the world’s largest telephone tree. More reasoned minds pick up the samples, turn it over and examine it and later conclude that no, the calculated mass of the balloon could in fact not hold a small boy aloft – rumor refuted! Lesson learned and the network becomes a little smarter, more skeptical, less knee-jerk adolescent. Sentient if you will.

The pieces are in place, the machines are warmed up. It was fun while it lasted but it’s time to put Failblog aside and see if we can move on to tackle bigger problems. O’Reilly and Battelle wrap up with their call to arms,

2009 marks a pivot point in the history of the Web. It’s time to leverage the true power of the platform we’ve built. The Web is no longer an industry unto itself – the Web is now the world.

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Web 2.0 Summit Coverage

Now that I live in Finland I was not able to drop in on the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. Here’s how I’ve been keeping up with the goings on:

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Silicon Valley visits Helsinki

If you’re interested in the Social Web and are in Southern Finland at the end of September here are two events that are very much worth catching.

Chris Messina and Jyri Engeström will be in Helsinki first for an all day crash course on the social web which will run from the basics in the morning to more specifics around how to design for the social web with hands-on guidance. For anyone looking to get started, this is a great opportunity to get a jump start from two guys that are in the thick of it.

On October 1st and 2nd they will be giving talks as part of the Mindtrek conference in Tampere.

Big Mess of Wires

A hand-built, 8-bit CPU
A hand-built, 8-bit CPU

I’ll be taking my son to the Maker Faire for the third year in a row this weekend. It’s a great Father & Son festival where you see what happens when you throw together technology, imagination, dedication, and passion into a big pot and mix it up together.

On display will be Steve Chamberlin’s hand-built CPU which he built in 18 months using $1000 worth of parts and 1,200 pieces of wire hand-wrapped around gold wrap posts mounted to a board that he bought off of eBay. In the end, he re-created a large version of something the equivalent of the Apple II CPU. He nicknamed it, Big Mess of Wires. Full details on Steve’s blog.

I look forward to seeing Steve’s homebrewed CPU along with many other pet projects that are sure to inspire.

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