Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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The Value of Argument

I’ve been telling people a lot lately that I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in my first year of having a startup is have a co-founder you can argue productively with and now it’s in print. I gave an interview with Fast Company in anticipation of the Innovation Uncensored event I’m speaking at and has this to answer to the question “If you could share only one thing about starting a company, what would it be?”

Other than “It’s really hard,” I would say, choose your cofounder wisely. Lots of people say that, but I don’t think many people give specific criteria. In the year of Percolate’s existence I think the single most important thing has been the ability of James and myself to have constructive arguments. We can go at it about the product or company and come out on the other end with a solution we both completely believe in. I don’t think the company would still be around if we weren’t able to do that or if one of us left the conversation in a tizzy and didn’t speak for the next week. You can’t take these things personally, we are both arguing from a place of passion and deep desire for the company to succeed. We have the same purpose and vision, and like any two people we disagree on occasion about the specific details of execution. That’s healthy and normal and actually very positive. If you don’t think you can argue with your cofounder you shouldn’t start a company together.




I’ve learned a lot more, but I think this lesson doesn’t get mentioned often enough.

March 29, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

The Paths of Picle

The folks at Made by Many are some of my favorite agency folks around. They’re smart and testing different ways of doing things. Anyway, at SXSW they made a little app called Picle. It did pretty well and now they’re going to keep making it. Something about the way they’ve presented the thinking around the paths the app can take feel really simple and right:

So now that we have that initial spike of users there will be an inevitable dip, downloads have dropped off a little since we arrived back, but we have broken the 45,000 download mark. According to Stuart’s graph the app can go 2 ways.

1. We can trundle along steadily making changes in the app improving the user experience and making the whole thing a lot more polished. However, this route is doomed to fail, while the experience may get better the inability to attract new users and expose the app to a new audience will result in Picle fading away into the digital ether. This scenario is represented in the rather upsetting looking line A.

Or

2. We stabilise the app and greatly improve the sharing features so that Picle is introduced to new audiences and users. Represented by line B.

March 28, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

Upgrading

I thought this was a really interesting way to look at free agency in the NFL from Grantlant:

The bigger problem is the idea that upgrading at that position, or in that facet of the game, requires a team to throw money at acquiring a talented player, even if it means that the team overspends in the process. Teams approach the problem of having below-average output at a position by saying, “We need to upgrade to something better here, even if it costs us too much.” Instead, they should approach it from the equally compelling, alternative viewpoint of, “We’re already so bad here that we can’t be much worse next season, so upgrading to a superior player is incredibly easy!” Rather than seeing the free-agent pool as being full of players who would provide superior production to the guys on your roster, bad organizations insist on picking one player from that pool and spending more money than they should to obtain an upgrade they can get from just about anyone.

I know you’re not all football fans, but it’s an interesting way to think about how business is run generally (I’m sure there’s a behavioral economics fallacy for this).

March 19, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

What can designers bring to organizations?

I love this answer from Poke founder Nik Roope on what designers can bring to organizations:

Businesses are built on concepts. Ideas structured to extract or create value in some way. These ideas, famously penned on napkins (although more likely Evernote theses days) are by their nature abstract and intellectual. “Design” takes a central role in the step from the intellectual to the manifest and when the process is working this isn’t a verbatim translation, it’s an active process that structures, orders, tunes the components into a compelling working system. Broad-minded designers with solid structural sensibilities are thus critical for success.

[via @domgoodrum]

March 19, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

The Curation Debate

All week I’ve been meaning to weigh in on the curation debate (David Carr, Matt Langer, Marco Arment, Matthew Ingram), but I’ve been busy and Percolate released its own take on the subject in the form of a video with some of our favorite web curators.

Okay, let me start at the top: Semantics. Matt Langer rightly points out the word curation is not being used correctly:

First, let’s just get clear on the terminology here: “Curation” is an act performed by people with PhDs in art history; the business in which we’re all engaged when we’re tossing links around on the internet is simple “sharing.” And some of us are very good at that! (At least if we accept “very good” to mean “has a large audience.”)

Early last year I agreed. But then I realized how boring and unproductive most semantic arguments were. Or as Maria Popova said last June:

Like any appropriated buzzword, the term “curation” has become nearly vacant of meaning. But, until we come up with a better one, it remains the semantic placeholder that best captures the central paradigm of Twitter as a conduit of discovery and direction for what is meaningful, interesting and relevant in the world.

I loved the idea of a semantic placeholder then, and I still do. If you’re going to wade into the semantic debate you need a better answer and editor isn’t it. For better or worse we are using curator to mean something different than it used to mean and, at least for now, that seems fine. As long as we all know what we’re talking about (the selection of internet things) then the word seems okay, let’s not hide behind the definition.

And before I continue, one more thing: For what it’s worth I define curation as people choosing things and aggregation as computers choosing things.

Great. Now back to the more important stuff. A lot of this conversation was kicked off by the Curator’s Code, which aims to encourage people to share the source of their information with some special symbols. Lots of folks, including Marco from Instapaper jumped on the idea as stupid and unsustainable and maybe it is. I think everyone involved would agree it’s not the perfect solution to the problem, but I do think it opened up an important conversation (I wasn’t involved, but I know the folks who are). How we credit one another on the web is an issue we’ve been working on forever and, as a few of the blog posts on the topic point out, the good news is that the hyperlink is the most efficient:

And we already have a tool for providing credit to the original source: It’s called the hyperlink. Plenty of people don’t use the hyperlink as much as they should (including mainstream media sources such as the New York Times, although Executive Editor Jill Abramson said at SXSW that this is going to change) while others misuse and abuse them. But used properly, they serve the purpose of providing credit quite well. How to use them properly, of course — especially for journalistic purposes — is another whole can of worms, as Felix Salmon of Reuters and others have noted. And when it comes to curation and aggregation, it seems as though curation is what people call it when they like it, and aggregation is what they call it when they don’t.

But it’s not quite good enough, and this is where I start to take issue with a few different things a few different people said. What I just did there is use a hyperlink to credit something I didn’t write. Except you probably didn’t mouse over the hyperlink and because it was in there I didn’t need to write that Matthew Ingram from GigaOm was responsible for those sentences. While I think it’s important to credit sources of information, I think the bigger thing to think about is how we’re crediting the original sources of content.

Which is why I took the most issue with Marco’s stance. Not because I disagreed with him (“The proper place for ethics and codes is in ensuring that a reasonable number of people go to the source instead of just reading your rehash.”), but because Instapaper represents one of the current dangers in lack of credit. While it doesn’t relate exactly to the question the Curator’s Code is addressing, it is part of the broader conversation we should be having: Who is getting credit when you consume a great piece of content?

After a long argument with Thierry Blancpain on Twitter I finally came to the question which seems to sit at the heart of the matter to me: Who gets credit when you read something awesome in Instapaper? Does it go to the publisher of the content or does it go to Instapaper. I know for myself (and the informal poll of friends I asked the question to), the answer is the latter. I don’t know the source of most of the content I consume in Instapaper. Sure I put it there when I hit the button, but when I consume it the source is entirely stripped away. I was talking to the publisher of a major magazine this week about the issue and the question I asked is, “if you’re losing the advertising and the branding, is there any purpose to letting your content live there?”

This isn’t to point the finger solely at Instapaper, I think this is true of almost all the platforms on the web. If all the incentive is towards sharing and all the credit goes to sharers, what will happen to creation? (I don’t really think it will go away, but I do think it creates a dangerous precedent.) One of the things I think is great about the Longform iPad app is that it connects me with the publishers of content. One day when they offer subscriptions (which I assume they will) I’d happily pay to keep getting my 3,000 word Grantland stories as I now know the true value (and I never forget it, because the publisher is always right next to the content). (Admittedly, the curators on the app pose a more complicated issue.)

I think part of it is that publishers are going to have to start carrying more branding in the stories. I’m not sure what this means, but if you’re reading something from The Atlantic, say, maybe they remind you throughout that this is from The Atlantic. It’s not ideal, but again, I think if publishers aren’t getting advertising revenue or branding credit with their stories there is no reason for them to support their travels around the web. I also think metadata comes into play, and while I don’t know what the best answer is quite yet, I think it’s important to start encouraging the display of more information about original sources on stories (again, not sure what that looks like, but I’ve been turning it over in my head).

This whole issue is obviously something I’m thinking a lot about at Percolate. I believe brands should be the best behaved of the bunch. I also believe brands have a responsibility to be both curators and creators: To increase the pool of original quality content on the web. No one is to blame for all this stuff, but we are all responsible to make sure that it’s solved before it’s too late.

March 18, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Share a Link, Buy a Bracelet

Felix Salmon has an excellent piece breaking down the whole Mike Daisey/This American Life thing and what it really means. Included is this quote from Rebecca Hamilton, author of Fighting for Darfur:

To build a mass movement quickly, it helps to have an over-simplified, emotive narrative with a single demand. It also helps to tells people that by doing easy tasks – sharing a link on Facebook, buying a bracelet — they can save lives. Central to the formula is that the agency of local actors gets downplayed to hype up the importance of action by outsiders. But all those ingredients inevitably lead to eventual failure when the simple solutions can’t fix the complex reality. The movement walks away, disillusioned. And in the meantime untold resources have been expended on solutions that have been out of step with what local activists need.

March 18, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

The Bigger Picture

The story of Fabrice Muamba from yesterday is hard to imagine. A professional football (the English kind) player had a heart attack during the game. The facts themselves are pretty crazy, but this article does a great job giving the broader context to what happened around the story:

Many said yesterday evening that football becomes irrelevant in such circumstances. This is partially true, but doesn’t tell the complete story of last night. When something such as this happens, the match that is taking place ceases to be of much importance, of course. The game, however, to the extent that “football” exists as an entity in and of itself, certainly doesn’t become irrelevant, and this much was demonstrated by the messages of support and concern that we saw last night. Football frequently seems to exist in a bubble, isolated and insulated from the outside world. When the full horror that real world can occasionally offer came calling last night, though, its humanity shone through. Considering what happened at White Hart Lane last night, it’s a tiny consolation. But a tiny consolation is better than no consolation at all.

March 18, 2012 // This post is about: , , , , ,

After the Slash

This is a really interesting way to think about the power of Facebook:

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

The rest of the article is worth a read as well. It’s a former Google engineer explaining why he left and what’s changed inside the organization in the last two years with the transition to social.

March 14, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Reviving likemind

When Piers Fawkes and I started likemind a few years ago it was on a bit of a whim, but it came to represent something we both really believed in: Starting to take online relationships offline. likemind was a place where people from the internet could meet and share ideas over a cup of coffee. As crazy as it is, that was five years ago and obviously quite a bit has happened in the meantime.

Over the last year or so likemind has lapsed a bit. Like any community it requires tending and life got in the way. But looking back, there was something bigger: There was just less need for a shared space for meeting internet people. Not that it isn’t important, but rather that it feels like everywhere is now that place.

So Piers and I sat down and talked about what happens next. What does the next five years of likemind look like? Is there even a next five years of likemind?

To answer the second question first: Yes, we both believe in the power of likemind. While there are many places to meet folks, we need more that aren’t explicitly about networking and instead are just about the sharing of ideas between interesting people. The thing that’s amazing about likemind is its self-selection. While we never defined what it meant, we always got the right people, all around the world.

So with that decided we talked about what we felt was missing and the answer we landed on was intersections. While there are countless meetups and conferences around the world, there are two few that do everything they can to bring people from different places together for conversations. Specifically, the the industries that we focus on – technology, creativity, media – seem to have diffused at exactly the time they should be coming together. We’re spending more and more time talking to the people who work on the things we work on at exactly the time we should talking to everyone else.

So that’s what we want to make likemind about. Call it likemind: The sequel. The mission is to give people from these different places a space to share ideas. Let’s make it happen.

March 13, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Talking About Brands and Content

I’m doing this “virtual panel” about content over at the new FastCo Create site. The first round is up (I’ll update this post as it goes up) and here’s a quick excerpt from my answer about what brands need to know about content:

I’m not actually sure that creating editorial content is all that different than creating promotional content, at least on a high level. Advertising is a process of combining brand outputs (look, feel, voice) with cultural inputs (insights, trends, etc.) and creating a piece of communication. The shift I see taking place is that the traditional processes around creating content for a world of campaigns break-down in a real-time content creation environment: Brands and agencies aren’t currently set up to consume culture as it happens, which is what media organizations do. I think this is a big shift we’ll start to see inside brands over the coming years. It’s not that they’ll try to model themselves on media organizations, but rather, they’re going to rearrange themselves around real-time consumption of content, data, analytics and anything else they can get their hands on to help make decision and communicate better.

March 6, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Programming vs Making Stuff

I’ve thought lots about the topic of teaching code since I taught myself a few years ago. My thesis, which still stands, is that the best way to teach people who want to make things to write code is not to teach them about the details, but instead to help them make things. Some of the points in this article about how nobody wants to learn to program pretty much nails it:

But for the casually interested or schoolchildren with several activities competing for their attention, programming concepts like variables and loops and data types aren’t interesting in themselves. They don’t want to learn how to program just for the sake of programming. They don’t want to learn about algorithm complexity or implicit casting. They want to make Super Mario or Twitter or Angry Birds.

I’m also particularly fond of this bit on how new coders are plagiarists:

It’s okay if they don’t completely understand how a program works after they’ve played with it a little. Very few ideas are completely original. The more material you give your students to plagiarize, the wider the range of derivative works they’ll make from them.

The only thing I’d add here is that I absolutely believe PHP is the best language to learn. While Python and Ruby may be more popular these days, nothing beats the speed from coding to deployment that PHP has (you hit save and refresh the page and you’re ready). The only exception might be javascript, but I’m not sure yet how I’d teach people to build the things they want with it.

March 6, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

NFL Solidarity and Bounties

If you’re a football fan (American that is), you’ve been following the bounty story about how the Saints were paying out when one player injured an opposing player. Anyway, I’ve been paying attention to the debate with moderate interesting, but I really liked this point about the whole debate from my friend Jeff over at Da Bears Blog:

Here is my big problem with the Saints bounty story. A year ago, during labor negotiations, the players preached solidarity. They preached they were a single organism and ownership was out to limit to their economic intake during their short-term NFL tenures. They were against the 18-game schedule for health reasons and never allowed the issue to be put on the table. They are still against rigid HGH testing and many believe it is because players depend on HGH for muscle regeneration. (Being that football is just 300-pound guys hitting each other repeatedly, I get it.) Now we find out that 1 of the 32 teams was benefitting economically from sending players to the sideline. Not just quarterbacks, either. This was tight ends and linemen and backups. Guys who play less than five years on average in the league. If you knocked ANY player out of a game, you were worthy of a bonus. I don’t get on the moral high horse with these types of issues. But if the Bears had done this I would be incredibly embarrassed.

March 6, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Agencies + Startups?

Rei Inamoto, who’s in charge of creative at the agency AKQA, has an interesting piece on how agencies need to act more like startups. While I don’t agree with everything in there, I have always been interested by the relationship between the advertising and startup world described by Cindy Gallop:

This contradiction, and this identity crisis, however, doesn’t just exist within the ad industry. Gallop points out a core contradiction inherent in the startup space: just about everyone in the tech world hates ad people’s guts. They all believe that advertising is a very bad thing and that ad people are very bad people. Yet, their entire business model in many tech ventures is built around advertising. Take Facebook, for example. The bulk of its $3.7 billion revenue comes from advertising. Google, a company that shunned advertising for many years, built its business around advertising.

March 6, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

New News

In this interview with News.me, Evan Williams wonders why there aren’t better tools to surface old content:

One thing that I find missing is discovery of non-new content. The web is completely oriented around new-thing-on-top. Our brains are also wired to get a rush from novelty. But most “news” we read really doesn’t matter. And a much smaller percentage of the information I actually care about or would find useful was produced in the last few hours than my reading patterns reflect.

I’m definitely with him on that. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a bit with Percolate and was actually having a conversation about last night at dinner (specifically, why do old things resurface on Reddit?).

March 5, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

No Buts

Apparently Bloomberg’s styleguide banned the word “but” from its stories:

Seth Mnookin’s piece on Bloomberg News, in this month’s Vanity Fair, quotes from the company’s stylebook, “The Bloomberg Way,” saying that Bloomberg banned the word “but” from its stories because it required readers “to deal with conflicting ideas in the same sentence.” It’s a little hard to tell from the context whether this rule is still in effect or not, but (there I go again) I can guarantee I will now be looking for “but”s or “however”s in every Bloomberg story I read.

March 4, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Where Are my Highlights?

The new Readability iOS app looks beautiful and all, but the big feature I keep waiting for is the ability to highlight things and save them to some sort of archive. I understand it would be a pain-in-the-ass because of the offline mode and all that jazz, but isn’t that the thing you most want to do when you’re reading really interesting stuff (to me, highlights is the real killer feature of the Kindle). Does this exist and I just don’t know about it?

March 4, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Gendered Tech

A thought-provoking piece on just how unequal technology distribution is across gender lines. A snippet:

This may sound like bitching, and of course in some sense it is. But it began to occur to me that the tech I was using was incredibly gendered. In the “male” sphere, of professional operations, offices, corporations, pop culture, businesses, the available technology was extremely high-level, better than anywhere I’d yet lived. In the “female” sphere, the home, domestic duties, daily chores, cleaning, heating, anything inside the walls of a house, it was on a level my grandmother would find familiar.

March 1, 2012 // This post is about: ,

The Map Business

The other day I wrote about what it likes to build Google Maps and this week I read that Foursquare has switched off Google’s map service (apparently they’re starting to charge businesses who use it). It’s interesting to think that just a few years ago there was no such thing as a map API service business and now Foursquare is writing this:

When we initially began looking around for other map providers, we found some incredibly strong alternatives. And while the new Google Maps API pricing was the reason we initially started looking into other solutions, we ultimately ended up switching because, after all our research and testing, OpenStreetMap and MapBox was simply the best fit for us.

March 1, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Accepting the Uncomfortable

Was just reading through some old Instapaper stuff and ran across this post celebrating what would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. It includes an excerpt of an interview McLuhan did with Playboy and this excellent explanation of McLuhan’s approach:

I’m not advocating anything; I’m merely probing and predicting trends. Even if I opposed them or thought them disastrous, I couldn’t stop them, so why waste my time lamenting? As Carlyle said of author Margaret Fuller after she remarked, “I accept the Universe”: “She’d better.” I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress.

I’ve written about this in the past, but I think one of the things that amazes me most about McLuhan was his ability to separate himself so well. The things he said that people struggle with most (like content doesn’t matter as much as the medium) they struggle with because it makes them uncomfortable as content creators (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Even reading what he said above makes me feel a bit uncomfortable as it feels like one shouldn’t just accept things … But who am I to say?

February 29, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Designing a Global Map

This whole Core77 article about the design of Google Maps is pretty excellent. It’s a great breakdown of the insane challenges of building a map of the world. Beyond everything else, though, I found this especially shocking: “In recent months we have introduced a few more regional changes to our color palette adding 3D building shadows to indicate local time-of-day.” 3D building shadows … Who knew? (I can’t seem to track it down myself, but it’s in the screenshots on the article.)

February 27, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Distracted

A little bit of distraction might be good for you:

The study adds to research suggesting that small doses of distraction — including hard-to-read fonts — prompt the mind to work at a more abstract level, which is also a more creative level. (The possibility that sound energized people was considered but rejected: Participants’ heart rates did rise when they first encountered noise, but soon subsided.) The effect of noise is inverted-U-shaped, this study suggested: There’s a sweet spot between silence and din.

I wonder how much of this is about the noise versus the environment. I find that in an airport I tend to get a lot of work done. I think it just has to do with the change of scenery and the specific amount of time I’m there.

[Via Barking Up The Wrong Tree]

February 26, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Blogger Evolved

I swear I read something other than Hacker News, but today I was reading the HN comments in response to this blog post by Chris Dixon about how once you start taking money the clock starts ticking. This comment in particular, in response to the idea that it would be good to know what companies ran out of money so that others could try the same idea, struck me:

Doubt it would work out that way most of the time. You wouldn’t have the same experience/knowledge/insight.

The same people could probably re-do a company smarter though. Foursquare is Dodgeball 2.0. Twitter is sort of Blogger evolved.

While I’ve always thought of Twitter in some very specific ways (started by some of the same people, it solves the big problem of blogging by taking away the big empty box), something specific jumped into my mind at that moment that I hadn’t considered before. I long believed that the core difference between Twitter and Tumblr was the decision to go with path names (twitter.com/heyitsnoah) versus subdomains (heyitsnoah.tumblr.com). While this doesn’t seem like such a drastic difference, it creates a very different kind of network and feeling. The latter (subdomains) are much harder to monetize on a per-page level because as much as it might seem illogical, advertising doesn’t work all that well on the long tail (Tumblr’s answer to this, of course, is that people keep refreshing the dashboard).

Twitter has solved this problem by keeping everyone within the main experience. Your page on Twitter is less your page than it is Twitter’s page and that makes it easier for them to sell long term. I was actually talking about this on Wednesday with a friend of mine who said he felt even more creeped out by Pinterest because it felt like it took the idea of the platform owning the page even further. He felt like everything he posted there wasn’t really his and as he found more popularity on the platform he’d eventually have to move it to make it more his own. Not sure I agree with the distinction between the two, but it’s interesting to think about how seemingly small choices on how to set up URLs can have a big impact on the way the site feels.

February 26, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Location-Based Media

Gizmodo has a glowing review of Pinwheel, Caterina Fake’s new company (Fake was co-founder of Flickr and Hunch). From the sounds of it (and the big photo at the top of the Gizmodo post) it’s a way to annotate the world around you. This is an interesting idea to me for a bunch of reasons. First, way back in the day I was fascinated by Yellow Arrow which was a version of this idea before people had smartphones with internet and GPS. You stuck an arrow sticker up and it had a unique SMS code that you could use to get whatever data was associated with it. Looking back in the archives, I guess I first spotted Yellow Arrow in 2004 in Wired and wrote more about them and Flickr and annotation a year later in 2005 (oh blogs, aren’t they grand).

Anyway, back to Pinwheel. About a year ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about how I thought someone needed to start a location-based media company. As more and more services became about understanding your location and giving you valuable information based on this it seemed logical that someone would start to focus on the creation of media with coordinates attached to it. I was thinking of this not as something that was competitive with Foursquare and the like, but rather as the natural extension: Location is a platform, Foursquare is an API for it and this is one of the businesses that will be built upon it.

Having never played with Pinwheel it’s hard to say where it fits in that location stack (does it compete with Foursquare or complement it), but it’s interesting to see stuff starting to pop up like this and I hope it’s awesome and interesting and pulls in data from outside just what people add directly to it.

February 18, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Abusive

Steve Jobs was an asshole. That seems to be the overwhelming conclusion of anyone who read the biography. Genius for sure, but also not very nice and a fairly tortured soul. I used to worry that people’s takeaway from the Jobs era was that managing by being a massive jerk was the way to go, but I actually think we are past that … Anyway, that’s all a long-winded intro to this paragraph about Jobs that I would have agreed with 8 months ago (but still think is well said):

The biggest thing that bothers me about the “Cult of Jobs” is that people often seem to mistake the unfortunate, frequently counterproductive, side effects of the personality that made him great for the very cause of his greatness. Steve has long been, and always will be, one of my heroes, but I really worry that an entire generation of entrepreneurs is learning the folkloric lesson that the secret to success is to be a mercurial asshole who abuses everyone and listens to no one. There’s a reason people like Steve start successful companies: because they believe in themselves, envision their success unwaveringly, and don’t compromise. But there can be a dark side to that fanatical self belief: a disdain for the ideas of others. I think there are a lot of reasons for Steve’s late-in-life success at Apple, but I suspect one of the biggest is that he finally managed to surround himself with brilliant people (like Chiat Day’s Lee Clow) who knew how to handle him, curb his worst tendencies, and present important ideas to him in a way that he would accept.

February 16, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Affilliates

Good Hacker News thread about what Web 1.0 businesses still make money. One of the answers is affiliate, but even better than the answer is this explanation of the complicated relationship between Google and affiliates: “Big Daddy G basically sees most affiliates as bugs which, if fixed, would entitle them to an extra 100%+ on the purchase at issue over what they’re getting currently. This results in a frenemy dynamic because affiliates also spend $$$$$$$$ on AdWords.” That’s the trouble with Google, whether they like to admit it or not, they’re in competition with many of their biggest customers and like to pretend they’re not.

February 12, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Makers versus Viewers

Mimi Chun is the design director at General Assembly (the shared working space, not people behind #occupy) is working on baking series of cookies painted to match famous works of modern art. While the cookies look fantastic, I liked her point about makers versus viewers:

For makers, the value lies in the act of creation; for viewers: the outcome. Like others who have chosen similar vocations, I make things because I’m in love with making, because I can’t imagine a life without it, and because I secretly enjoy all of the angst, self-flagellation, and learning that comes with the territory. Given the option of: Would I prefer to A) spend every waking minute making terrible work that never saw the light of day or B) wake up every morning to discover that I had made amazing work in my sleep, I would choose A every time, and I’m willing to venture that I’m not alone here.

February 12, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

Software and Millennial Entitlement

One of the things I’ve been saying lately about what we’re doing at Percolate is that from a design perspective our competition isn’t other enterprise software tools, it’s Twitter, Tumblr, and the like. Because so many community managers (the most common user from the brand side) are heavy users of social media personally, they have come to expect consumer interfaces across all their tools. Or, as Sarah Lacy put it, “millennial entitlement”:

Millenials are coming into the workforce and the generation has an amazing capacity to demand the world revolve around their desires, whether that’s reasonable or not. Millenials will just start demanding better software from the companies they work for, and if they don’t get it, they’ll start installing their own skunkworks implementations.

Sure, I guess I feel entitled to well-designed software even in a business environment …

February 12, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Naming Releases After Street Artists

Started naming all our product releases after street artists. Our first release under this new schema is Futura 2000 (one of my personal favorites). A little context:

I’ve been a big fan of graffii for a long time. When I was a kid and I’d go on vacation with my parents I’d make them walk me around to shady places so I could take photos of the painted walls. It’s never something I did myself (I don’t have the hand for spraypaint), but I’ve been a pretty voracious consumer of the stuff for my whole life. So that’s the plan, each release gets a number, a graffiti artist and a little history lesson on who they were (in addition to some notes on the release).

February 7, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Big Data

Facebook did a big study on how we find information and, not entirely surprisingly, our weak ties tend to give us stuff we wouldn’t otherwise run across. Nothing really shocking there, but, as Slate notes, the scale of the study was:

The other crucial thing about this study is that it is almost unthinkably enormous. At the time of the experiment, there were 500 million active users on Facebook. Bakshy’s experiment included 253 million of them and more than 75 million shared URLs, meaning that in total, the study observed nearly 1.2 billion instances in which someone was or was not presented with a certain link. This scale is unheard of in academic sociological studies, which usually involve hundreds or, at most, thousands of people communicating in ways that are far less trackable.

February 6, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Highly Variable Product

Felix Salmon has a good rundown on how Elizabeth Spiers has succeeded at the New York Observer. I thought his summation of online content was especially interesting (and somewhat sad):

And so, in the proud tradition of good blogs everywhere, readers are left with a highly variable product. The great is rare; the dull quite common. But — and this is the genius of the online format — that doesn’t matter, not any more, and certainly not half as much as it used to. When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.

February 6, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Your Strategy is Showing

When I was at Naked we used to have a joke for an advertisement that was little more than a strategy line: We’d say “your strategy is showing.” If you work in the marketing world you know what I’m talking about, it’s those ads where someone wrote a line about what the brand was trying to accomplish with its marketing and rather than coming up with a creative way to represent that they just made the line the ad. (I can’t think of a really good one off the top of my head, so if you’ve got one chime in.)

Anyway, I was looking at Twitter when they first launched their redesign and all I could think was “your strategy’s showing.” Obviously it’s not an ad, but when you see the labels on the tabs at the top its so obvious that they let their strategy slip into their nomenclature decisions.

For those who haven’t noticed the new tabs are “home,” “connect” and “discover.” Home is good, it works, I get it. But connect and discover are very funny choices for a company that is otherwise almost always very impressive in its UI decisions (it’s sort of amazing how far they’ve come since they were an organization that outsourced design completely).

Anyway, back to “connect” and “discover,” what do they mean? “Connect” is interesting and I really like the new activity feed view, but I certainly wouldn’t think of what lies beneath as being represented best by the word “connect.” “Discover” takes things even further. That’s one of those words that gets thrown around (we used it at Percolate for awhile) even though I’m fairly convinced no normal person on the planet has ever though of what they do when they find cool stuff on the internet as “discovery.”

The beauty, of course, is that if you’ve got a platform with however many hundreds of millions of people used Twitter than you can actually define these things. Often, that’s the best solution since no other word perfectly encapsulates what it is your trying to represent. We ultimately went with “brew” to describe the main Percolate dashboard for brands because it’s something unique and because of the relationship with clients, something we can be sure to define as part of the on boarding process.

But still, it’s funny when you catch someone with their strategy showing.

January 30, 2012 // This post is about: ,

Why Mass Transit Loses to Highways

Slate has an interesting explanation for why train systems in the US look the way they do:

The existing rule, sadly, evaluates proposals almost exclusively on the basis of how much time a new rail line shaves off commutes. But taking a train station-to-station rather than driving a car door-to-door is guaranteed to be slower unless traffic jams are severe. This has biased new mass-transit construction in favor of a very particular kind of project: First identify a highway that’s already extremely congested and where widening it is either politically or logistically impossible. Then build commuter-rail tracks in the highway median. Put the stations far apart from one another so that trains can cruise at maximum speed for a long time. Surround the stations with parking lots. Driving your car to a park-and-ride station and taking the train downtown is now cheaper and perhaps faster than the average trip on the congested highway.

January 30, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Tech that Sucks at Tech Companies

Well, this quote from a research engineer at Facebook is a relief:

The tools use our own technologies (talk about dog food) so they work, look, and integrate beautifully. Best part, if someone doesn’t like something, well, they can just fix it. (To wit, our email and calendar software is off-the-shelf and is the most unpleasant tool to deal with. Get this – we have a few people “specialized” in sending large meeting invites out, because there are bugs that require peculiar expertise to work around. Not to mention that such invites come with “Do not accept from an iPhone lest you corrupt the invite for everyone!”)

Nice to know big tech companies can’t fix calendaring either. Also, while we’re here, I liked this comment about Facebook’s use of PHP:

Facebook’s outlook of PHP is largely passionless; yes, engineers understand it is far from perfect, and people occasionally rant or show some WTF code sample. At the same time, at Facebook we love doing cool things, and PHP is simply a means to an end. With our extensive framework and libraries, it’s also often the simplest means to an end.

January 30, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

Optimism versus Pessimism

Interesting thought from Daniel Kahneman (by way of this Economist article) on the role of overconfidence in the economy:

A cheery disposition may be necessary for societies to function. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel economics laureate, has a chapter in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” which describes overconfidence as “the engine of capitalism”. No entrepreneur can be sure that his planned investment will succeed but if no one took a risk, new products and jobs would never be created. A certain blindness to the odds may be necessary.

I really need to read Kahneman’s book

January 29, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

What Went Wrong

It’s hard to get a clear picture of how startups are doing because so much of success depends on perception and founders do anything they can to keep that perception up. For all the talk about failing and it’s value (something I don’t necessarily agree with), it’s rare to hear real stories from real entrepreneurs whose companies didn’t turn out exactly as they might have expected. 37 Signals has a nice wrap up of quotes from folks who had to shut down a product, service or company. Here’s a good one from the creator of Wesabe (a competitor to Mint):

Mint focused on making the user do almost no work at all, by automatically editing and categorizing their data, reducing the number of fields in their signup form, and giving them immediate gratification as soon as they possibly could; we completely sucked at all of that…I was focused on trying to make the usability of editing data as easy and functional as it could be; Mint was focused on making it so you never had to do that at all. Their approach completely kicked our approach’s ass.

January 28, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Building Products

I promise I’ll get back to blogging more non-Percolate things, but here’s one more item. Over at the Percolate blog I wrote up a quick description of how our product development process has changed since we moved to running everything off an API:

We start by sketching everything out and finalizing flows. Once that happens everyone gets to work: Backend writes some Python, frontend writes some javascript and design finalizes interaction and visual design. Because it’s all just data being passed around, no one needs to wait for anyone else. As long as the data is modeled, we can write all the frontend code before the actual endpoints are complete (and before the visuals are solidified).

Running a product team has been a really interesting shift in career for me. Some of the stuff I learned working at agencies has been a huge benefit (working in teams, managing creative people) and some other stuff has been totally new (continually improving something instead of launching and jumping to the next thing). It’s fun to work on improving the process and flow and when you land in a real rhythm it’s pretty amazing (not that different than being in the excitement and madness of a great pitch).

I need to write up a longer thing about my overall experience, but this was a start. I’ve got a goal to write more process posts over at the Percolate blog because people seem to like them, so hopefully there’s more coming soon.

January 25, 2012 // This post is about: , ,

Sales, Selling and Titles

We’re hiring for a bunch of different positions at Percolate and one of the big ones is sales. My co-founder, James, wrote a good post outlining how we approach sales and hiring salespeople. This part in particular hit close to home:

I’ve thought a lot about my profession as my career in digital advertising sales has evolved. It is an interesting profession that I’ve enjoyed but there are things about being a salesperson that I’ve always been intrigued by. For starters, a lot of salespeople, even very good sales people, don’t like to think of themselves as being in a sales profession. They will call themselves ‘business development’ or ‘account manager’ or ‘chief strategy officer’, while often their goals all ladder back to a direct sales relationship with the company that employs them. They might pass it off as, ‘well everyone sells’, and while that is hopefully the case, why shy away from what your profession is? Own it and be proud to say you’re in sales.

Towards the end of my time in agencies I began to fully grasp this. Most/all of your job as a senior strategy person is actually sales: You’re helping to get client buy-off on creative ideas. As we’ve been starting to hire salespeople I’ve been talking to some of the folks I know from the agency world and trying to get them to come over under this capacity. Surprisingly, most are much more open than I would have expected. To James’ point, the holdup is almost entirely in the title, they are worried about the implications of being a “salesperson” not in the actual selling (which most of the folks in advertising I know live for).

Anyway, no specific point here other than to say you should read the post and, if you like it, come work for Percolate.

January 24, 2012 // This post is about: , ,