Archive for October, 2007

The SoCal Fires are Going to Drive Twitter Mainstream (a Little)

October 23rd, 2007

I was in college when the first Gulf War happened, and I remember the school setting up a TV to show the round-the-clock (a new concept then) coverage on the upstart CNN network. People more media-savvy than I credit CNN’s rise in esteem and viewership to that coverage.

The fires tearing through Southern California are relevant to a much smaller population, to be sure, and I doubt Twitter will benefit to even 1% the same degree in absolute terms. However, many people- and media outlets- that previously dismissed it as a toy or a distraction are going to start paying attention because it is actually a convenient vehicle for distributing news in disaster environments. It is:

*Lightweight. It works nicely even on a mobile browser. No TV or computer required from the sending or receiving ends.
*Easy to update. It’s type-and-go. No setting up cameras or preparing to broadcast.
*Easy to aggregate. Tracking makes it possible to pull in tweets from lots of sources on the same subject.
*And perhaps most important, short (or “pithy” if you prefer). The problem with reporting disasters is that there usually isn’t much to report from minute-to-minute. Twitter lets networks broadcast tidbits as they become available.

Imagine if the news crawl at the bottom of a network broadcast was actually a Twitter feed. They serve basically the same purpose, and then there would be a place to find the crawl text one missed because one was watching the top part of the TV screen.

I’m not saying Twitter is suddenly going to be on everyone’s lips everywhere, just that people are going to realize it can be a really useful adjunct to other media distribution systems.

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Jumpstart Automotive Media Case Study on Startup-Review.com

October 17th, 2007

I wrote a case study on Jumpstart Automotive Media for Startup Review that published last night. Jumpstart is a vertical ad network focused on the automotive segment. It was founded in 2000 and sold this year, so it’s a timely piece given the proliferation of vertical ad networks over the past couple of years.

Mitch is also an extremely savvy and articulate guy. He knows well why his business worked and has some good thoughts for entrepreneurs, especially in regard to finding one’s niche, staying true to a goal and the importance of hiring top-nothc people.

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The Art of the Introduction

October 16th, 2007

For a number of years, and especially since launching my own business a year and a half ago, I have made a study of how to introduce people in a way that is meaningful, appreciated and effective. It’s a challenging thing, to be sure, and subject to a number of variables. Still, I’ve been on all sides of the intro equation and I have drawn a few conclusions. Apologies they seem obvious- things often seem that way to me too once I’ve articulated them.

1 ) Both parties need to be receptive. This doesn’t mean that both people need to be actively looking for one another, but you need to be able to define a need that each introducee fills for the other. The risk here is that the intro may seem “spammy” to one side if the need hasn’t been defined.

2) Flowing directly from #1, define the value to each party. It may be specific and immediate (e.g. “here’s my friend. He is starting a company and needs a lawyer”) or it may be longer term (“so-and-so is an accountant and I think there may be a lot of overlap between your businesses”). Whatever it is, you need to be clear about that.

3) Once points 1 and 2 have been addressed the introducer needs to determine a proper form for the introduction. Quick email intros can be effective and quite valuable, but usually only where there is a short-term defined need. It takes a little more commitment to actually bring people together- to suggest that the three of you all grab coffee or lunch, for example- but lacking a short-term reason for the people to contact one another anything less may end in awkwardness.

Articulating these factors helps me think about how to make useful introductions among my contacts, and how to get the most out of introductions people make for me as well. I hope this provides some valuable to others as well.

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Zero is a Pretty Small Number

October 15th, 2007

Blog Action Day has put out a call to post about the environment today, and this is partially in response to that.

The cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose have pledged to reduce landfill waste to zero by the year 2020. That is an ambitious goal- zero doesn’t leave much margin for error (or any, actually). I wondered how they planned to accomplish that. Recycling and composting go a long way, but those last few percentage points are going to be hard-fought.

On similar lines, I read about a study yesterday from the University of Victoria, Canada finding that according to the computer models used in the study, the European Union’s stated plan to reduce industrial carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 (even if adopted worldwide) will fail to meet the goal of limiting a global average temperature increase to 2°C. Even 90% reductions would eventually push temperatures over the 2°C and something very close to 100% reductions are necessary to limit the increase.

My first reaction to this is that 100% industrial emissions reduction is impossible. That means no carbon emissions at all- how can this be done?

My next thought is that distinguishing between “industrial emissions” and everything else is a nice way of saying “basically all emissions everywhere”. I guess that allows people to burn wood to heat their homes, but for all practical purposes if infrastructure needs to be created to eliminate carbon emissions from industry it won’t make much sense to maintain a carbon infrastructure for consumer uses.

This leads me to thought three, which is that if the data are accurate, they certainly clarify a lot of things. Peak oil/coal/gas issues become secondary if we have forty-three years to stop using all of them almost entirely. Alternative energy sources need to become not just mainstream but the default.

And thought four is that I sure hope the study was wrong somewhere, because zero is an awfully small number and we’re going to be right up against the wire if that’s the target we need to hit.

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Forget Open Social Graphs. Let’s Just do Something Useful Together Online

October 12th, 2007

UpdateLinkedin apparently agrees with me.  They just announced a developer-API program to create widgets that allow “business functions like conference organization or travel planning”.  But no superpokes.

There’s been lots of talk about walled gardens in social networks. Plenty of people seem to be asking for “network portability”- the ability to move one’s social graph of contacts and connections across platforms. Given that the revenue stream for most social networks depends almost entirely on advertising, which depends on page views, I am starting wonder if that puts the cart before the horse.

Also like many people recently, I have been thinking about how I and my friends really use social networks. My conclusion is that they are a nice adjunct to offline communications- they can help me deepen connections with people I don’t see regularly- but they don’t actually *do* much.

For example, my Facebook news feed is almost entirely full of “___ became friends with ___” and “___ added the ___ application” updates. Do people actually do anything meaningful other than friending, adding applications, joining groups and updating status?

What about “___ beat __ in scrabblicious”, or even “Brad Fitzpatrick nailed his 95 theses on the opening of the social graph on Facebook’s door”?

Facebook seems to be mostly a tool for casual, superficial interactions and ways to show off one’s interests and affiliations- joining groups, marking favorite movies/music/books, showing where one has been, etc.

I’d love to see the platform and the feed represent real activity, not just connection-forming. Maybe the “next Facebook” (which may or may not be Facebook itself) will be the one that lets us really collaborate and not merely connect.

The next question, though, is on what we want to collaborate. I suspect it is probably different for different people and groups. That thought leads me back to the open social graph issue- maybe the open social graph is the horse after all and useful (as opposed to entertaining) applications are the cart. Oh dear, thinking in circles again. Time to quit.

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“Cleantech” is to 2007 as “Internet” was to 1997

October 12th, 2007

The term “cleantech” has always bothered me. It’s so broad that its meaninglessness becomes quickly apparent as soon as one starts to look at all the different sectors it covers. At a mini-conference I attended yesterday, though, panelist James Horn from VC firm Noventi made a useful point about the term.

He said that people use the word “cleantech” in much the same way that they used “internet” in the 1990s- it is a term of convenience that exists in large part because the space is still new enough that the general public doesn’t recognize many of the sub-categories. Just as general “internet” business has given way to “content delivery networks”, “social networks”, “Software as a Service”, etc., so will “cleantech” be used less as people become familiar with the different flavors of energy, waste remediation, materials, etc.

I like that idea, not least because it reminds me what a huge mindshift occurred in the 90′s when the Internet was new, before it got woven so tightly into the fabric of society. I’m sure hoping the cleantech principles get adopted so quickly.

Bonus neologism: I got an email from Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity, in which he talked about the growth of “green collar jobs”. I love that term.

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Online Meets Reality at the Elementary School

October 10th, 2007

I had a bit of an “aha!” moment today. I read Kara Swisher’s “is this it, then?” posts about Facebook this morning, then attended a meeting of the parents’ association at my kids’ school and found a breadcrumb trail connecting the two.

One of Kara’s points was that Facebook has an amazing ability to draw together people, induce them to create “groups” around issues of mutual interest- and then do absolutely nothing of interest together. She has a good point. Facebook groups seem to exist only so that people can self-identify with various areas of interest; they certainly allow for only the most minimal forms of interaction.

With this in the back of my head, I went to the school meeting. My kids’ elementary school is fairly young and still very much growing in population and in the forms and richness of “community systems”. We have evolved several modes of intra-school communication, but the foresighted among us (I do not include myself on this list) are looking forward to how we can use communication tools to develop closer bonds as a community.

Email is the unnamed villain here. No one likes being bombarded by messages and if a certain group of people develops an informal email list around a certain activity then there are always a few people who would have loved to be included if only they had known about it. These aren’t new problems, to be sure. The school has the chance to do things differently, though.

All of which made me think: what if the school could take the good parts of Facebook groups- that anyone can create a group and all the interactions are there for the public to see- and use it to augment *offline* community-building? Now that sounds interesting- because frankly I’d rather go for a hike with fellow school parents than superpoke them.

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Nate Westheimer and the Challenge of Open Platforms

October 3rd, 2007

(this post started as a comment on Nate Westheimer’s blog, but got too long so I decided to put it here instead)

Nate says that Facebook could disappear tomorrow and it would be replaced in about a week with other web services.  Likely true enough, but it begs the question what would make FB disappear.  It doesn’t happen on its own- people need to stop using it.

Nate’s implicit answer, I think, and that of a number of other people, is that internet users crave openness- they want their content to be distributed, mixed and mashed up as they see fit, not as the platform decides.  One-way openness isn’t good enough either.  Content should flow freely both ways, and when someone offers that up Facebook could start to suffer.

It sounds as though the nascent FriendFeed does this.  Plaxo also does it to a certain degree. I don’t think mere openness is enough, though, and I say that for two reasons:

1)  There needs to be a “there” there.  Plaxo is free-flowing, but also empty.  Maybe I just haven’t connected with enough people, or they haven’t “turned on” enough feeds (or maybe that’s the point- it takes too much effort). 

A variant of this point was made by Adam Elend from Wallstrip.  He said that just putting content out isn’t enough- it needs to fit the platform on which it is being distributed.  As applied to the open/closed platform discussion, the argument is that mere aggregation easily leads to clutter and randomness.

2)  There needs to be an ad strategy.  Most content on the social web is ad-supported.  Totally open platforms make it hard to monetize the traffic.   

Maybe these two points offer an answer” provide a compelling place for people to aggregate and they’ll congregate.  Becoming and then remaining the “coolest” platform seems like it would be an increasingly difficult task, though.

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Something Completely Different – A MacArthur Fellow Award for my College Roommate

October 3rd, 2007

This is certainly not related to law or technology, but is definitely worth noting and celebrating.

Corey Harris is a “roots blues” musician and was my college roommate. He writes and performs contemporary blues music that freely incorporates elements of traditional blues, reggae, hip hop, folk, Mali’s griot tradition and many other styles.

He was just awarded a MacArthur fellowship that includes a grant to help him keep doing what he has been doing- innovating his own style of music.

I know Corey has worked incredibly hard for what he has accomplished and I feel privileged to have gotten to know him. Congratulations Corey!

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Startup Talk from the Outdoor Industry

October 1st, 2007

I like nothing better than when my worlds come together. I just finished listening to a very insightful podcast conversation between Jim Holland, CEO of Backcountry.com, and Chris Grover, Director of Sales and Marketing at Black Diamond. Startups, web services and outdoor gear are three of my favorite things.

The former company is an outdoor gear e-tailer and poster child for success by bootstrapping. It was founded in the 1990s, but unlike many of its crash-and-burn contemporaries it never raised outside money. I believe this let them chip away at the online marketing puzzle. Had they raised money, hired lots of people and jumped into lots of things before the revenue path became clear, they might never have made it.

Black Diamond is an interesting example of lemons-from-lemonade. Patagonia used to make rock climbing hardware until someone fell out of a harness, died and his family sued the company. Patagonia decided to get out of the hardware business and divested it- creating Black Diamond. The company has risen from that tricky start to become the major US brand in the Euro-dominated climbing/technical backcountry equipment market.

The podcast has a lot of interesting tidbits about marketing, leadership (esp. the difference between leading and managing), compensation (don’t trust the public statistics) and other important business questions. I wanted to to interview Backcountry.com co-founder John Bresee for a Startup Review interview a few months back, but we both got busy and never quite connected. The interview covers a lot of the same ground and it’s well worth the 40 minutes spent listening.

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