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Posts Tagged ‘business’

Edmonton Startup Weekend 2

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Edmonton Startup Weekend, Team Victory Group ShotThis past weekend I participated in the second Startup Weekend Edmonton event. The previous Startup Weekend took place last June, which I was unable to participate in because I was in a friend’s wedding party, so I’ve been looking forward to the second one. The weekend did not disappoint: what a fantastic experience all around!

Over 50 people attended the event and helped build projects on seven different teams ranging in size and scope from a two people team to the supersized thirteen member team I was on. We had 54 hours to build a prototype, then all met up at Original Joe’s Varsity on Sunday night to demo our work for the rest of the groups and the extended community.

For those who aren’t familiar with Startup Weekend, here’s how it works:

  • Friday Night: Register, pitch ideas, form teams, make a plan.
  • Saturday: Get up early and code, code, code all day long, from morning to late night. Then, after you can’t bear to stare at a computer screen any longer, go for beer until the wee hours of the morning.
  • Sunday: Get up early again. Panic: not enough hours! Code and commit changes like a fiend. Then celebrate your new prototype by demoing and drinking more beer in the evening.

My team (Team Victory) came out of two idea pitches that merged into one.

The first idea was to create a social interface that would let you rate developers you’ve worked with on different skill sets, allowing you to recommend them and indicate whether you’d like to work with them again. Sort of a reputation system for IT people.

The second idea was to create a system that let you post your development project and tag it with locations and technologies to let other devs and designers see what projects are happening based on certain tags: for instance, someone involved with Edmonton’s Ruby meetup group would be able to quickly search for ongoing projects in Edmonton tagged with Ruby.

So what did we build? Something that does both! The idea behind LaunchWith.Me is to provide developers, designers and other tech-folk with a place they can show who they’ve worked with, who they love to work with, and what projects they’ve worked on. The current prototype interface isn’t complete but the underlying API is incredibly robust for something built in 54 hours. A lot of the data isn’t yet exposed because we ran out of time, but the core is there. If you’re browsing around the demo we have up keep in mind the data you see is all test data and you can’t actually create an account at this point.

I had a great time, and I learned tons. I’m a designer, BA and PM, but one of the things I loved the most about this weekend was sitting in the midst of a development space: I love to soak up information and learn new things, and boy did I ever learn a lot just by listening to the conversations happening around me. I also had the chance to dive into CSS3 for the first time, and I love how fast you can prototype things without spending hours fiddling in Photoshop.

I’d also like to give a big shout-out to Team Victory: you were a standout group to work with. I got the chance to work with some long-time friends and new people who have now become new friends. The network of amazing, brilliant people Edmonton events like DemoCamp exposes is one of the Edmonton tech community’s biggest success stories. As always, I look forward to the next event.

And if you’re wondering whether or not LaunchWith.Me will keep going, the answer from our team seems to be a resounding yes. So stay tuned for more from Team Victory and LaunchWith.Me! In the meantime, check out Mack’s Startup Weekend Flickr set and catch up with the #SWEdmonton Twitter hashtag.

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Content is Not a Feature

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

After having worked with a lot of different people and — now — several different companies building websites, I would like to let the rest of the world know something that I see as obvious but is apparently a massive surprise to others.

Website content is not a ‘feature’: for the user, it is the entire point of your website.

good content hugPeople don’t come to your website to see good design or a good user interface; these are all important things to have, yes, but in the end what those things get you is goodwill and happier repeat visitors. What users come for — the reason they click a link or search for you — is to see your content. To read the words. And watch videos or look at pictures, yes, but mostly to read what you have to say about whatever it is you do.

If you don’t have content on your site — good, text-based content — then you don’t have a good website.

I cannot stress this enough: unless you’re work is primarily based in photography or video, what people are ultimately looking for is information that can only be communcated via words. And even if you are a photographer or an artist or a video producer, once they look at all your pretty they’re going to want to know things that take words to communicate, things like ‘who’ and ‘where’ and ‘how much’.

Good content takes time. A lot of time. Time to plan, time to create, and time to markup and format. Content is almost always the biggest time-spend, no matter whether it’s being created from scratch or migrated from one platform to another. Trust me on this.

I have spent days, weeks, months and even years working on content pre-launch. I have written it from scratch. I have formatted it with any number of markup tools and languages in lists and tables and columns. I have copy/pasted more times than is possible to count. I have tagged content, catagorized content, pagenated content and aggregated content.

I have some expertise in this. So when I say with 100% certainty that whatever amount of time you’ve budgeted for content is not enough, you know I’m not pulling your leg.

The other thing good content takes is writers. And not just any writer, but a copy-writer. Preferably one with web copywriting and SEO experience, because writing for the web is different than writing for any other medium, just like writing a newspaper ad is different from writing a commercial is different from writing a book.

You should never just slap something up in online spaces, but that’s what happens all the time; things need to be adapted. In print you write and design around turning pages; on the web, it’s all about scrolling down. Print that can be read comfortably on paper is too small or too big on screen. Words in graphic elements can’t be seen by search engines, and either the graphics need to be rebuilt with searchable text over background images or appropriate alt and title tags need to be added.

Remember also that content is never ‘finished’. There’s no ‘done’ like there is with design. Content changes, expands, and expires. There is nothing more frustrating to users than old, outdated, inaccurate, or stale content. Good content is always current. Keeping archives of content is great practice, but the most important stuff you’ve got is the stuff that’s relevant now: online spaces are always about ‘now’, and the first place new content should be available is from your website. If updates happen in other mediums before they make it to your online sites and media, then you’re doing it wrong.

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Sears, SEO, & Poor Web Implementation

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Sears’ cacheable URLs, poor web implementation (guys, this is why jobs like mine are important), and their own fuckwitery has combined to create this awesome fail.

Someone discovered they could change the labels on a Sears product and category pages by changing it in the URL, forcing the page to draw this BBQ category with the description “Grills to Cook Babies and More”. In most cases, this would have been a one-off visible only to the mischievous little scamp who’d made the change, but because Sears caches these URLs in order to get some black-ops Google search lift, the pesky URL was indexed by both Google and Sears’ internal search. As things do on the internet, the link spread like wildfire until the offending URL about eating babies became one of the featured pages on Sears.

The best part is, once Sears found out about it, they started trying to kill any conversation about it online, approaching sites like Reddit and threatening to pull any and all advertising if the admins didn’t remove and censor any and all conversations. Nothing makes the internets angrier than being censored, and thus the Streisand Effect was invoked.

Way to make something relatively harmless into an internet crusade. This lesson on what not to do brought to you by our sponsor, Sears.

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Sony CEO Says Nothing Good Ever Came From the Internet

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

That Sony CEO who was quoted not that long ago as saying that nothing good ever came from the internet? He’s attempting to defend himself and his statement.

I am not surprised, nor convinced, that his industry is in dire straights because more people are consuming his product. Leaving aside whether or not Hollywood is in dire straights at all (which I doubt), I have a hard time feeling any sympathy for an industry that profits enourmously off the backs of the creative minds it professes to be trying to protect. They are protecting their own profit margin, not the economic stability of the creative souls they control. Mike Masnick from TechDirt gives a line-by-line rebuttal here, with which I couldn’t agree more.

I doubt that creativity will die even if your company goes under, Mr. Lynton, and if your company and others like it do fall, it reflects on you and your co-CEOs’ poor abilty to adapt to a world that is changing with or without your whining. Culture and the arts are not dependant on your patronage, and the last ten years have show that creative people are far, far more adaptable than you. They will find a way to survive, and I will always support them. You, not so much.

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Dreamwidth and the Ad vs. Subscription Social Media Business Model

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

There’s a hullabaloo! The hot topic in fandom circles on Livejournal right now is Dreamwidth and whether or not to move. The closed beta and impending open beta is prompting all sorts of conversations, and since I’ve opened up a Dreamwidth account I wanted to talk a little about why I’m interested in the project.

It’s not for ToS reasons. Let’s face it, no matter what is promised or who promises it, at some point all Terms of Service agreements start to look the same. As usual, the devil’s in the details. No service can legally allow anyone to publish child pornography, for example, but what qualifies as child pornography is the tricky bit. My guess is this will continue to be some fanartist’s battle for a long time no matter what service they use.

For me, Dreamwidth is all about their ad-free business model.

Not because I mind ads, necessarily, though I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with a service that makes money of their content. It’s because making money off ads on a social media site doesn’t work and is increasingly proving to be an unviable business plan.

Millions of people use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Livejournal every day. Thousands of gigabytes of data is created and stored on their servers, and every day this data is repeatedly uploaded and downloaded by millions of people. Operating social media sites is not cheap, yet across the internet the service is offered for free. Why? Because, with all those hungry eyeballs, social media looks like a match made in heaven for ad serving.

Except it’s not. Ads (text or banner) sell on social media sites for dirt cheap. Why? Because their clickthrough rate is abysmally low, and in order to make the ROI (return on investment) worth it, you have to sell hundreds of thousands of impressions for a significantly reduced price to compensate for the low clickthrough. Social media sites practically give away their ad space. They have to, because otherwise no one would buy it. As a result, social media sites attract the cheapest looking ads from companies or people who have very little to spend on space. That’s why MySpace and Livejournal are chock full of brightly coloured, poorly designed, blinking scam-ads (like the plethora of YOU’RE THE ONE MILLIONTH VIEW AND YOU’VE WON AN IPOD/TV/LAPTOP ads) by companies you’ve never heard of. They’re the only ones who will buy them.

The question then is: why don’t people click on ads on social media sites? Ad revenue has become a silver bullet for search engines, why doesn’t the model translate?

A lot of reasons, but one of the big ones is that when you’re browsing your Livejournal flist or Facebook feed, what you’re not looking for is to purchase something. Not usually, anyway. Spending money is probably the farthest thing from your mind. You’re looking to find out what your friends have been up to, browse your sister’s vacation snaps, or read some fanfic. Buying something is probably the farthest thing from your mind.

Not so when people Google something. A lot of the time, you’re actually Googling for a service. A release date for a DVD. A product you’re thinking about buying. A trip you’re planning to take. That’s the prime moment for advertisers because, even if you don’t consciously realize it, you’re extremely receptive to ads when you search, especially to targeted ads. The ads you see every time you do a Google search get extremely high clickthroughs and are proven to make a lot of money for the businesses that buy them.

This brings us to the second big reason why sites like Livejournal and MySpace don’t make good ad partners: no targeting.

Targeted ads are why Google ads are so popular. When you search for a term like "hotels in Florida", you get all kinds of ads relevant to that search. All the ads you see will talk about resort packages or vacation packages for Florida destinations. This is prime ad real-estate for Expedia, BookIt, and other booking agents. They’ve all highlighted terms like "hotel" and "hotel Florida" as keywords they’d like their ad to appear on, because those are the ones that are most likely to convert to sales.

Some social media sites are able to target (Facebook being a notable example) but the reality is that most aren’t, because they don’t have any way of gathering the demographic information they need or because their search tools aren’t anywhere near robust enough to handle that kind of dynamic content targeting. And even when those social media companies partner with Google Adsense to leverage Google’s search tools, the pickings are still slim because the valuable keywords don’t deliver on Livejournal the way they do on other sites, partly because Google can’t tell the difference between the context of the term or why it’s been used. There’s a marked difference between the ROI of an Expedia ad that displays next to a blogger reviewing a hotel they went to and one that displays next to a curtain!fic where Ron and Hermione discuss their summer holiday plans.

There are lots of other reasons that ad-revenue is proving to be unsustainable for social media sites (trackability and companies not wanting to be associated with Harry/Snape erotica are just a couple of the others), but those are the big two. They’re the reason I don’t buy ad space for my company on social media sites, at any rate.

Which brings us back around to Dreamwidth.

I like their business plan. I’ve been thinking for some time now that the only way social media sites are going to survive the next bubble is if they make a tiered subscription system that is built around attracting users to pay for the service. Not everyone, because that’s a pipe dream, but a higher percentage than do today.

That’s the biggest difference between Livejournal and Dreamwidth: Dreamwidth wants paying subscribers. They’re serving their users and trying to sell us things, not trying to use us to sell things to other people, and if you think that won’t affect the way they implement and enforce their ToS, you’ve misunderstood something along the way.

Yes, paid accounts will be more expensive than they are on Livejournal, but that’s because that is the source of income for the Dreamwidth team, not merely a supplement of it. $40 a year for a premium account at Dreamwidth breaks down to just over $3 a month, and the lower $25 paid account works out to just over $2. We’re talking about the price of one Starbucks coffee (or two regularly priced coffees) a month for unlimited journal storage, unlimited bandwidth, more user icons than you’d ever really need, plus a swath of other features (some available now, some coming down the pipeline soon, and others on the roadmap), and a company that won’t side-step my interests to make themselves more attractive to advertisers. That, as far as I’m concerned, is a steal of a deal at twice the price.

Only time will tell for sure whether or not Dreamwidth’s plan is truly viable, and I hope it is. I like to support the things I use online and wish more people would remember that these sites are businesses and services. Everything you do on Livejournal — even if you’re just a lurker who doesn’t have an account — costs people money. If they can’t recoup the costs, then the service will go away. It’s really that simple.

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