Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Foster the People

Last weekend, I spent time with an old friend who's the founder of a successful and growing primarily online specialty retailer with a smaller brick & mortar footprint.

After an evening of paddle-boarding around a peaceful bay in Puget Sound, we rustled up some dinner,  cracked open a bottle of plonk, and animated conversations ensued.

With the inevitable catching up on how everyone was doing out of the way, the topic turned to retail and specifically Amazon's recent foray into outdoor sports (the same space my friend works in). When asked if he was concerned about this development, my friend responded that, in his opinion, any retailer, whether they're online or offline, that hasn't gone to the trouble of building a community around their brand will die since there is no point of differentiation.

Rather than fret about Amazon's encroachment into his space, he's betting that they'll clean it up and at one end of the spectrum, you'll have Amazon - the online behemoth vending outdoor equipment, and at the other end of the spectrum you'll have companies like his that have spent years building a brand that's 100% focused on a community of action sports enthusiasts. Everyone else who sits in the middle - neither an absolute lowest-cost provider nor a brand that people care about will be gone.

I should point out that his assertion that people care about the experiential aspect of buying products does not come at the expense of eschewing the benefit of analytics. Rather, analytical prowess for any retailer is just table stakes these days. If you don't have that competency you don't exist. Simple as that.

What we both agree though is that unless you're Walmart or Amazon, your point of differentiation has to center around your customers or users. So many retailers these days are struggling because they want to compete on price, they want to compete on local assortment, they want to compete on analytics, etc. The list goes on and on. In the end, they lose on all fronts against more disciplined competitors.

Coming back to tech - the parallels are just as relevant for us as we build the Härnu brand. That algorithms will automate more of our lives is inevitable. Their utility in helping to remove friction is tremendous. However, while the chorus of geeks imagining a fully-automated world surrounded by contextually relevant data cues grows daily, I instead imagine something a bit more nuanced - a world where dispassionate algorithms give us what they've been programmed to think we want in some situations, and in other situations we'll seek out the messy, irrational, and fun experience of human-led interactions.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The War of Art

I spent much of last week skulking around Seattle area coffee shops intending to be productive, trying to be productive, willing myself to be productive but mostly failing. Our much anticipated (at least among us founders) new version of Härnu is inching closer to production and instead of unbridled excitement, I was mostly being consumed by fear. Specifically, fear of failure. That thing that I've allowed to hold me back for so long crept into my sphere of optimism and paralyzed my ability to think and work unhindered.

I found myself accepting defeat - that the next version will fail, that the idea is iffy, that entrenched incumbents offer a good enough alternative, that I'm not competent enough etc. The list goes on and on.

Talking to people about it didn't help. The natural reaction of loved ones is to help you find a solution - try this..., have you thought about..?, what about...? The self-pitying response from me was always that yes, I have thought of that and here's 10 reasons why that won't work.

Breaking out of these despondent episodes can be tough but I don't think they should be ignored entirely. Rather than roll over, I spent the time trying to get at the core of my angst, and asking myself what the alternatives are if indeed things don't go as we hope. The Lean Startup principles have an answer for all of this, but in among the dispassionate multi-variate A/B tests and subsequent pivots are imperfect, emotional, and sometimes irrational people that have laid it all on the line to build something of their own and find meaning.

Steven Pressfield wrote a book called the War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle for those trying to deal with what he calls the Resistance. We may be trying to build a company, but it has always been a product of our imagination, and its future depends on our creativity. For Pressfield, the answer to combatting the resistance is to do the work, and that's exactly what I intend to do.

So, here we are - another week, a new version rolling out to production very shortly, a set of plausible alternatives, AND a desk in a downtown Seattle office gratis courtesy of my next-door neighbor who's a co-founder of a successful startup and took pity on the old guy shooting for the moon.

No more morose coffee shop music to get me down - an all-night bug-bash awaits. It's time to dance ;-)

Sunday, July 15, 2012


As I was waiting for my wife to finish work on Friday, I sat on a plush sofa in her large office building's lobby. Below is my live tweeting of someone being let go by two HR people as I sat there.

This was the first time I'd live-tweeted anything but it did cause me to think how powerful it is when people are doing that in real-time around events that really matter. The unfiltered, stream of conscious text goes some way towards making us feel like we're experiencing the event - much more so than a carefully crafted newspaper article...

Tweets are in reverse chronological order, so start from the bottom.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Know Your Audience

As the team cranks hard on creating the next version of Härnu, I decided to spend my time researching the world of, well, world affairs bloggers. Specifically, I researched those that write for Global Voices since they're exactly the kind of people that we hope will give Härnu a whirl once we start featuring their content.

I thoroughly enjoyed researching who these people are, where they're from, what they write about, and what they do. Some of course stood out more than others, particularly a guy called Hossein Derakshan whom the Iranian authorities jailed for 19.5 years simply for writing about his country. I was ashamed I'd never heard of him until now and I'm asking myself why the world isn't doing more to fight for his release. I'm also asking myself what a regular person like me could do to help. If you have any ideas, do please let me know.

Aside from Hossein, there were also a number of bloggers that back in '05 or '06 were just getting their start on Global Voices and have since grown into full-fledged celebrities such as the wildly popular Saudi comedian Fahad Albutairi as well as notable CEOs such as Rashmi Sinha - founder of Slideshare, Ory Okolloh - founder of Ushahidi, and many other successful entrepreneurs. Make no mistake, these people are smart, articulate, connected, and highly successful in their chosen field of endeavor.

However, the pleasure in reading about them wasn't restricted to just celebs and entrepreneurs. Instead, it was the unexpected that caught my attention - a lovely YouTube video of a Hungarian band courtesy of a blogger called Marietta, the discovery of the word "homophily" courtesy of a blogger called Dan Wescott, and countless other great nuggets of life I'd never have found any other way.

So, who are these amazing people that are literally changing the world? Well, to start poking around that question, I compiled a list of 593 bloggers from the author section of the Global Voices site. I omitted those whose primary role seemed to be translators simply because I was most interested in the writers. I also probably missed a few here and there, so this crude analysis is by no means infallible. I then searched for their own personal blogs and Twitter accounts if they had them (and I was actually able to find them). All told, I spent about a lot more time than I'd planned on this little diversion but felt it was important to get more familiar with this community.

And here are some of the factoids I uncovered:

  • As near as I can tell, Global Voices has ~134 countries covered though it's a really long tail. What I mean by that is that there are 12 countries with 10 or more bloggers, 102 countries have 5 or less bloggers and fully 38 countries have just 1 blogger. 
  • Like most UGC sites, the Pareto Principle applies and then some. Of the ~76K posts, 56K of them come from just 20 bloggers. Said differently, 74% of the content comes from 3% of the bloggers. (Would be interesting to know if Global Voices themselves agrees / disagrees with that finding. Where there may be an issue is if a blogger has a dual role of author & translator and I've credited them for all of those posts...)
  • The authors have an average (median) of 8 posts published.
  • Their average (median) tenure on Global Voices defined as their last post minus their join date is basically 1 year (342 days if you care about details).
  • The average (median) post frequency is 24 days per post. In other words, they are blogging about once every 3.5 weeks on Global Voices. However a cursory glance of their own personal blogs suggest they write much more frequently than that.
  • Global Voices seems to be adding about 85 - 95 new bloggers each year.
  • So far in 2012, 217 different bloggers have posted on Global Voices - about 37% of all bloggers I researched.
  • Of 593 bloggers, I was able to find a personal blog for 61% of them which suggests I need to improve my Googling skills... 
  • Same thing re: Twitter - 65% of them have a Twitter account that I could find with an average (median) following of 993. 
  • Of those with a Twitter account, 10% have a follower count > 10,000.
  • The most followed blogger is a lady called Beth Kanter, with Fahad Albutairi in 2nd spot.

While the stats may be mildly interesting to some, what's most important is that the bloggers are passionate, they are writing, and their content is being read. My hope is that as we begin featuring their content on Härnu, they'll welcome the increased engagement from our users and our users will welcome the alternative perspectives from the bloggers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Like the World, Not Just Walmart

Foreign news reporting is on the decline - that's no secret. As traditional media has struggled to adapt to the online world, the reaction has been largely to cut costs instead of innovating. For example, according to a recent AJR study 18 major U.S. newspapers and 2 chains have completely shut all their foreign news bureaus since 1998 – newspapers such as the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune are prime examples. Foreign news now accounts for less than 5% of all news found in a typical newspaper and this trend is not limited to American media - it's also happening in places such as the U.K. where foreign news reporting has declined by 40% over the past three decades.

Declining Interest in Foreign News
As foreign news reporting has declined, so too has American interest in foreign affairs. According to a recent Pew Center study, only 17% of Americans are following the economic crisis in Europe and only 12% are following events in Syria - about the same percentage that were following the John Edwards trial. This is compared to 2011, when 39% of Americans were following the situation in Egypt.

Massive Investment in Hyper-Local News
It'd be easy to say that foreign news has declined while local news has flourished, and indeed, a lot of investment has been made in that direction, but that too appears to be a fools errand as hyper-local display advertising has declined, likely attributable to more accountable alternatives like Groupon and LivingSocial as well as the ubiquitous Google AdWords and now Facebook advertising and a whole host of "so-lo-mo" apps and services targeting the hyper-local market.

Internet Growth and Citizen Reporting in Developing Nations
With no sign that traditional media is going to pull out of this death spiral anytime soon, it'll be left to citizens to fill that void. Sites like Global Voices have risen to the challenge of reporting on the world and that reporting is going to get a whole lot more amplified when 2B new Internet users join the connected society, all from developing countries in Africa, Asia, and S. America. At the moment, there is more online content about Germany than Africa and S. America combined! That is all about to change rapidly, especially when you understand the implication of high-speed cable being laid all over Africa.

New Age of Discovery
So, at a time when major Western nations such as the U.S. and the U.K. are becoming more insular, not by choice, but instead thanks to declining foreign news reporting and social networks that don't encourage us to seek out alternative perspectives beyond our friends, we have the rest of the world coming online and embarking on a new digital Age of Discovery - one that will be noted for enlightened bi-directional sharing, collaboration, and learning instead of the previous age of selfish nation-state exploitation. 

The question is, will Americans be an integral part of this new Age of Discovery, or will we be content to spend our time checking in to the local coffee shop, getting on the free wi-fi, checking our friends' latest status, and liking Walmart (as 17MM Americans apparently do)?