Internet, Startups

Of Mercenaries and Missionaries

Right at the end of my time at college I discovered the Mac. I remember being astounded at just how much better it was than anything else I had tried to use. I was struck by the care taken with the whole user experience. I had a sense of connection via the object with the designers. I started to learn more about the company, how it had been founded, its values and its structure. The more I learnt about this cheeky almost rebellious company the more it appealed to me, as it unapologetically pointed to an alternative in a complacent and creatively bankrupt industry. Apple stood for something and had a reason for being that wasn’t just about making money.

Jony Ive, talking about why he joined Apple

If you had to pick a company in Silicon Valley (and maybe the US) with the strongest culture, Apple would have to be at the top. Really, who is better? The loyalty of their top executives is astonishing. Jony Ive, 20 years (he joined in 1992). Eddy Cue, 23 years. Phil Schiller, 17 years at Apple all together, 15 of them in his latest run. Scott Forstall, 15 years. Tim Cook, 14 years. Bob Mansfield, 13 years.

For each of them I suspect Apple is their life’s work. Ive’s quote is telling; it succinctly sums up why people come to Apple and why they stay. I have friends who work at Apple and almost all of have said something similar to me over the years. By all accounts, it’s not an easy place to work. It is full of stress. But people go, and stay, because they feel like they’re part of a larger mission and cause. It’s why this video was so incredibly important when Steve Jobs returned in 1997.

But Apple, alas, is not the norm. A more mercenary culture is pretty pervasive in Silicon Valley, and indeed in the tech world. I saw it throughout the late 1990s, and you see it very much in evidence today. People latching on to a rising startup for a year, two, three or four; looking for riches through that IPO or the acquisition. Then ditching out and on to the next thing.It’s accepted practice among the career-minded and ambitious. But it can have a devastating effect on the startups those folks join; when times get tough, or even a little uncomfortable, the mercenaries are always the first to flee.

If I were an active investor, this would be one of the key ares where I’d focus. Is the company full of mercenaries? Or missionaries?

And as someone hiring people at a startup, it’s one of the first things I try to understand. Are you just another mercenary? Or do you want to help us change the world, through thick and (a lot of) thin?

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Digital Media, Startups

“Life is an intelligent thing”

I read a lot, usually fiction. But (unusually for me) I’ve lately been reading a lot of the current, popular books about the technology world. In the Plex, by Steven Levy about Google. The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick.

And now “Inside Steve’s Brain.”

This passage – about Jobs’ doubts about returning to Apple in 1996 – has stayed with me the past few days:

He sometimes wondered if he was doing the right thing… He knew that returning to Apple would put pressure on Pixar, his family and his reputation. ‘I wouldn’t be honest if some days I didn’t question whether I made the right decision in getting involved. But I believe that life is an intelligent thing — that things aren’t random.’

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Apple, Digital Media, Startups

The Lost Magnificent Ambersons Footage: An Allegory

“It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”    – Steve Jobs, when asked if consumer research was done for the iPad (NYTimes)

The tale of The Magnificent Ambersons is well known among hard core movie fans. It was the first movie directed by Orson Welles after his ground-breaking Citizen Kane, and Welles and others thought it was an even better picture than Kane. But Welles went off to Brazil to make another movie just as Magnificent Ambersons was going into final edits, and left the film in the hands of the studio (RKO) and his associates. Who proceeded to test a version of the film in front of a group of teenagers in Pomona, California who had come to see a wartime musical, The Fleet’s In.

Predictably, the kids savaged the film, and in Welles’ absence RKO and some of Welles’ colleagues proceeded to butcher the picture, cutting it down from a run time of 132 minutes to 88 minutes.  No copies of the original version of The Magnificent Ambersons are known to have survived. (Imagine for a second 44 minutes being hacked from Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, or Schindler’s List). This whole saga is recounted in more depth, and wonderfully, here.

The tragedy of the Magnificent Ambersons illustrates perfectly what happens when you’re making something that is designed to engage one’s emotions and you leave the really important decisions to a focus group, or A/B testing, or some similar data-driven process.  For when you’re trying to make something that produces joy, or that is “fun,” or that is playful, some art and some craft and a point a view is required. Things that are built to engage one’s emotions — movies, music, art, even devices like the iPad — can’t be systematically produced, or manufactured, or tested.

I’ve felt this strongly as we’ve made Showyou (a new app we launch in about 12 hours) the past few months. We wanted to make something that was, first and foremost, fun to use. That made you smile with delight. That was beautiful to look at.  We had (and continue to have) a point of view about how we ought to do that. We tested it with about 50 people over the past month, got wonderful feedback from them, and iterated intensively to make the app more usable as a result.

But some feedback — while rational, defensible, perfectly justifiable — we ignored. Intentionally. Because acting on it would have involved taking out or substantially altering the very elements that, in our view, make Showyou fun to use.

It may be that tomorrow we’ll be proven wrong. And indeed, there’s definitely the risk of leaving too much in — or failing to recognize when you’ve just got a bad idea to start with (Ishtar?!).

But as I’ve gotten older, and worked on more products, I’ve come very much to the view that you have to have a point of view. And be willing to stick to it. You might be wrong. Or you might make something great. With Showyou, we are excited about what we’ve built, and eager to make it better still.

For in our world, unlike the movies, you’re never done and you always keep working towards perfection.

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Internet, Media Business, Startups

The Digital Revolution: Lessons from the 19th Century

Last summer I spent a fair bit of time reading up on the history of the newspaper business. Biographies of Hearst, Pulitzer and E. W. Scripps, along with a few more academic books on how these newspapers actually became big businesses.

The most suprising thing I learned?  That without the twin forces of urbanization and industrialization, there would have been no modern newspaper business, no modern advertising business, and no modern media business.

Those two tectonic shifts in the 19th century created new neeeds; those new needs created a huge array of new markets that flourished well into the 20th century. The newly created needs most relevant to the newspaper business produced by urbanization and industrialization were:

Need for ready-to-wear clothing
Up until the mid-19th century, most people in the West made their own clothes. Buying clothes was beyond the reach of all but the very rich. But with urbanization and industrialization, it suddenly became possible to buy clothes. And, in large urban areas, getting the right clothes (even though mass produced!) became a marker of your status and position in life. Department stores, an invention of the 19th century city, built huge new markets catering to this new need.

Need for Packaged Goods
Most people in the West also grew and produced their own food up until the middle of the 19th century. But as the West became increasingly urbanized and industrialized, that just wasn’t possible. People working at factories or other jobs in cities needed to be able to buy packaged foods and sundries, giving rise to businesses like P&G, Kellogg, and Colgate.

Need for Entertainment
Finally, those living in cities were no longer bound to a full day of work tending to the land or to their animals. The middle and upper classes, and even the poor, suddenly found they had time for leisure, made more abundant still by electricity which extended the day.

Newspapers flourished in late 19th century as they built huge audiences among urbanites catering primarily to this need for entertainment.  The great papers of the late 19th century offered a steady diet of crime trials, sex scandals (tame by our standards today), and increasingly sports news. Publishers like Hearst and Pulitzer added muckraking journalism that entertained and agitated for change.

With millions of readers every day, newspapers offered packaged goods companies (P&G) and sellers of clothing (department stores) the very best way to grow their businesses. Buying an ad in an urban newspaper with a big circulation was the most effective way to market to city dwellers who needed to buy clothes, or packaged goods.  And this gave rise to an entirely new market — for media, and for the creation and making and selling of advertising. That had never really existed, in any meaningful way or at scale, until the late 19th century. And it would not have occurred without the forces of urbanization and industrialization.

It’s obvious to most anyone now that the huge tectonic forces at work in this generation are the combination of computing and digitization (or, digitalization as the English would say).  These new forces have fostered new ways of making existing markets more efficient — you can now buy nearly anything online, for example.

But they’ve also given birth to new needs, desires fresh and new and that perhaps we didn’t know (or still don’t know) we had including these two:

The need for self expression and self-representation
For many on the Internet, it’s no longer sufficient just to go online; you need to be online.  As we spend increasing amounts of time on the Internet, or engaged in a digital life, many people want to have a presence there and assert there personhood there. This began with early online communities like The Well and other BBS, but has gotten a fuller expression with blogs, sites like Digg and Stumbleupon, and media publishing platforms like YouTube and flickr and even Vodpod. Myspace and Facebook (and to a much lesser extent, Twitter) were the first mainstream incarnations of this need.

The need for immediateness
We now live in a world where we expect — and crave — access to anything from almost anywhere at anytime. Google has been the most obvious outlet for this new need, and a whole new market — search-related advertising — was borne from it. But one could also list Amazon, Netflix, Craigslist, e-mail, IM, and real-time services like Facebook and Twitter as tapping into our new need for immediateness.

Other, more recent services and products can be explained as illustrations of these two new needs. I would argue that services driven by game mechanics — Foursquare and Farmville for example — are primarily driven off the need for representation of self. “Leveling up” and earning badges helps to define who we are online, helps to foster our sense of digital personhood.

The iPhone, Blackberry, and other smart phones show the need for immediateness made manifest in the mobile world.  The iPad, if it succeeds, will do so because it satisfies our need for immediateness in some more profound way than laptops and smart phones do (and this is why I’m skeptical about it); and not because it’s a “consumption” device.

Just as markets for clothing, packaged goods, and entertainment begat the entirely new market of media and advertising in the 19th century, it’s interesting to contemplate what new markets might get created from our newly created needs for self-expression and immediateness. Virtual currency, curiously, can perhaps be understood best through this prism; we want Farmville dollars to facilitate our self-expression; we buy virtual currency to satisfy our desire for immediateness.

But what else? What might come next? What other markets might be born as the result of all this?

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Internet, Startups

Power of Passed Links

Fred Wilson, a VC and blogger and investor in Twitter, talks about the power of Twitter to drive traffic.

more about “Powere of Passed Links“, posted with vodpod

He says that among their portfolio companies, traffic from Twitter and Facebook is now about 20% the amount of traffic driven by Google; that it is growing about 3-40% per month; and that if that growth rate continues, Facebook and Twitter will drive more traffic to their portfolio companies (excluding Twitter, obviously) than Google within a year or two.

As I wrote two months ago, I get that the potential for traffic growth is very attractive. The question for me remains is there some fundamental benefit that will allow this to happen, or are we just seeing a bubble inflate right now:

So why the hype? Traffic. People — bloggers especially, those in Silicon Valley or the tech industry even more particularly — have realized that Twittering can send traffic.  This is why Jason Calacanis offered $250,000 for one of the 20 recommended user slots on Twitter.  It’s why so many top twitterers include links in their tweets, usually to their own properties. And why so many in the SEO/SEM business have flocked to use Twitter.

So it’s all good, right? Twitter is the new Google, a new fountain of traffic for web properties? That depends on how you look at it, and whether you think Twitter provides some essential, fundamental value. If you question whether it provides much value other than the potential to drive you traffic, the Florida real estate cum ponzi scheme analogy goes like this: people are flocking to Twitter mostly because they believe it has the potential to drive traffic, and as long as people flock in that perception is fulfilled.

The problems start occuring when the growth slows down, or stops.

And this movie, we’ve seen it before. Digg and Facebook got the same (ok, not quite the same) levels of hype in their days of ascendancy, for the same reasons. People thought they could be tamed, harnessed, used as traffic hoses. As growth (or the perception of growth) in traffic from those services decreased, so to did the hype attendant on them decrease, at least among the digerati. But unlike Twitter, one could argue Facebook, and to a lesser extent Digg, provided some more meaningful, underlying value to their end users.

I still think that the jury is out.

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Startups, Uncategorized, Video

Del.icio.us for Video? Yes, We Have That

I like Fred Wilson’s blog. Read it regularly. Also follow him on Twitter.

On Friday, Fred posted an interview with Robert Scoble where he asked for a “del.icio.us for video.”  Real-time maven that I am, I would have seen Fred’s note, it would have caught my attention, and I would have tweeted him right away. For I know of such a service!

But, very happily for me, I was very off the grid for three days here:

Picture 7

Now I’m back, refreshed, and should update the record. Del.icio.us for video? Already done.  Called Vodpod. Been around for over 2 years. And indeed already pretty popular! You can see my video bookmarks on the right. Heck, you can even watch them there!

Vodpod:

  • Provides a handy browser bookmarklet (or extension if you prefer) so you can bookmark a video from any site that offers Flash video + an embed code (9500+ sites and counting)
  • Makes it easy to share the videos you bookmark in an infinite number of ways through our widgets, RSS feeds, API, hosted video sites, applications for Facebook and Twitter and FriendFeed, and more
  • Normalizes the video playback across thousands of different Flash player types, with consistent sizing and handling of auto-play (as best we can, anyway)
  • Makes lovely thumbnails for the videos you collect
  • Provides handy Flickr-like organizer, so you can order your collection as it grows

And more. The team gets an A for building an awesome service; I get a more critical mark when it comes to evangelizing the product among the technorati.

So @Fred — check it out! It’ll even work on your Boxee:-)

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Blogging, Startups

Matt of WordPress: Blogs Dead? No.

Found this writeup of a conversation between Andrew Keen and Matt Mullenweg via Matt’s blog (so I assume he endorses this quote):

“Blogs will become aggregation points,” the shamefully youthful, soft-spoken Mullenweg explained, as he mapped out the future of blogging for me between bites of Dutch smoked salmon. “They will become our personal hub. Places where we store all our personal media content such as our flickr photos and Twitter posts.”

That’s a vision we buy into at Vodpod.

When we launched Vodpod 28 months ago, we started by offering cool, simple widgets that let you put your favorite videos in an interactive gallery on your blog.  We’ve expanded the array of tools for bloggers since then; some bloggers have built entire sites using our API.

We’re big believers in both blogs, and bloggers.  If they were stocks, we’d be long. That hasn’t changed, our belief hasn’t wavered these past two years, despite the hype give to other platforms.

We have some very interesting things up our sleeves for the blogging community. Stay tuned.

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