So I live in Utah… moved here a few years back. Initially I had no idea why we were actually moving here, but now that we’re here it’s clear. Most of my family (on both sides of my marriage) now lives in a drivable distance away, which is a totally new experience for us. It’s something I find incredibly valuable, and the idea of just randomly deciding to be with family is worth a lot to me.
At the same time… I started a company called Vidpresso, which is a way for TV stations to use social media on-the-air. Our ambitions are much larger.
So I purposefully chose to live in the city I live in. I like it here, and I want to stay here.
Once, I worked at a Utah startup that was, frankly, embarrassing to look back on.1 Embarrassing because the product was essentially all talk, with mediawiki and php tacked on top of it. We never had a public launch. I didn’t found that company, but I did work there for free, full-time, so it was a big part of my life.
That experience made me more of a cynic of most startups that I see locally. In fact, the concept of local “startup scenes” kind of bugs me now in general. To me, startup scene implies there’s this group of people who all know each other, and they essentially congratulate each other into feeling successful… despite probably not actually having the measures of success (growth rate or revenue) that define a successful startup.
They go to entrepreneur meetings thrown by different city/state BDAs, and count that as “work time” because they’re “networking.” Who knows, maybe they’ll meet a local investor who only invests in local companies, and that’ll be the piece they’re missing, and then they’ll be huge!
Startups are not judged based on locality. In fact people targeting “local entrepreneurs” can often be more harmful than helpful.
I have no idea how Zoho is doing traction-wise, but based on the number of products and the improvement of their core products, they seem to be doing well. They now claim offices in SF, but they were founded in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. Zoho doesn’t win if it has the best office software in Chennai, or in Tamil Nadu, or even in India, though that would be an extremely noteworthy accomplishment. They win because they are a credible competitor to Google Docs and even Salesforce to some extent.
I don’t think there’s a better geography that knows this than SF. While the good parts of the bay area are clear (Access to capital, quality talent pool, freaking awesome weather®) if you’re the best / most talked about startup in SF and you don’t have any traction (Color being the most popular example of this phenomena) you’re a failure. And not just in skeptics’ eyes, in general bay area culture. The bay area rewards successful founders, and success is narrowly defined as someone making something that people want and are willing to pay for.
Programs like BoomStartup and other local-specific accelerators around the country are actually bad for companies generally. BoomStartup offers the same exact terms as Y Combinator ($20,000 in cash investment for 6% common stock) but I have a hard time believing a company would get anywhere close to the value out of the program, even completely ignoring the $80k YCVC note. So why apply? If you’re the best quality company, shouldn’t you be doing the best quality accelerator? And, as an investor, shouldn’t you be looking for the big hits to add to your portfolio?
In my view, I think BoomStartup would disagree with me. I bet they want to “stimulate the local economy,” but I’d argue their approach actually wouldn’t do that.
Small, 4 - 20 person companies are important, and definitely not a bad thing… but you know what’s better for a local economy? Novell. WordPerfect. Those two right-time-right-place Utah county companies did more for Utah tech than any small tech company could have, because they united the tech community around local “giants.” The companies had national recognition and customers, not local accolades. They’ve obviously since fallen from grace, but they both highlighted that big startups can come from anywhere.
By investing in companies who don’t have the broad ambition to become big companies, you inadvertently seed the community with a false sense of hope. If BoomStartup wants to be really revolutionary, they should create a value proposition that’s attractive to anyone in the world, not just Utah companies, and they should figure out a way to credibly compete with someone like Y Combinator for the best quality talent and companies.
People who are going to be successful at building lifestyle businesses (Rustin!) don’t need events / BDAs / local accelerators to help them do it. It’s inexpensive enough to start a technology company today that the talented folks can and should find a way without funding.2
And more to the point: A lot of people who shoot for the moon with big startups end up overestimating the market size of their product, and build a lifestyle business by default. So by encouraging them to think big, and shoot for something big, you end up getting the same effects as telling people to shoot small, but with the better incentive of increasing the odds of creating a giant.
Not every entrepreneur should feel like they have to build Google. But, as a community, we should aspire to and encourage each other to look up to the giants.
We do have great local giants growing up right now, like HireVue, Qualtrics, Instructure, Domo, etc. etc. And we even have baby companies with potential too3 but the validation for those companies didn’t come from entrepreneurial speed pitch sessions. Or business plan competitions. Or from networking events. Or from press coverage.
They come from building something people want. That’s it. No more, no less.
On the investment side, investors who focus their efforts locally essentially are giving handouts to local companies. And that’s even worse than not getting any investment at all. It’s like saying “you’re good when compared to all the Utah business plans I’ve seen, but if we compare you to an NYC or Boulder startup, you’re not quite there.” Good investors, in my arguably ignorant view, should invest with a thesis, and then pattern match all investments to that thesis. And “Utah companies” is not a thesis.4 If you’re a serious investor, you realize the power law dynamics at work, especially in seed stage investing, where a local investor would have the best access. As a non-top-5 startup hub, Utah investors who are serious, ie the ones founders should aspire to raise money from, can’t afford to be exclusively locally focused. At all. If they are, it’s a red flag to me as an entrepreneur that they probably don’t have the same world view of startups as me.
If you find a local company you love, that’s great, but it seems naive to think an investment portfolio is going to be successful by solely focusing on one geographic area, waiting for the next Facebook to happen.
And on the startup side, we need to create quality products first. The product should be everything in a technology company. Not the marketing. Marketing is not the hard part of building a tech company… it’s building a product that people want. Everything else that isn’t getting dollars in your pocket, building your product, or understanding your users is vanity work.5 Technology products are like restaurants: If you have an amazing product / food, it doesn’t matter which rundown shopping center you’re in / how bad you are at marketing… people will find you. It would take a critical mass of 1 person to get a start. If your product is so-so but your marketing is awesome, you’ll see a really high churn rate… so your marketing almost becomes the product.6
Lastly, I think the place that the vanity entrepreneur culture rears its head most frequently is in so-called “networking events.” Knowing who everyone is in a community is extremely important… so I’m not trying to denigrate efforts to unite communities. (Ogden now has a big sense of community solely because we have a place to go to unite.) However, the bar for a quality event is a place where people are getting together to learn and teach. Networking should be a happy side effect. People who want to genuinely learn and teach are the people who are doers, not talkers. Networking events, on the other hand, specialize in elevator pitches first, product / substance second.
Events with judging the top x companies, self congratulation or especially events solely devoted to “networking” do not help push things forward for the community, nor for the person attending. They help pump egos: Of the judge who’s asked to judge, of the entrepreneur who’s invited, of the organizer who throws it. And maybe there’s value in ego, but I don’t think so.
My general rule: Ignore events that have the word “entrepreneur” in them. That’s as good of a sign as anything that an event is a vanity event.
Examples of events that are quality: Hack nights, where people get together to learn new technologies and show off what they’ve built. Learn to code sessions. Learn to run a business sessions. Learn to market sessions. User groups. The more of these, the better. The less meaningless competitions, awards ceremonies, and networking events, the better.
Hopefully it’s clear the thesis of this essay: Quality begets quality. And quality is not a geographic trait.
I’d wager they don’t realize this themselves because they’re not technologists at their core, so what’s actually possible might elude them. ↩
The perennially unlaunched Grasswire, which inspired me to write this post, is included in things I think have a lot of potential. Launching fast is a totally different post, but I think Austen has what it takes (probably). If he could just figure out a way to get the product out. (Learn to code! Stop doing press hits till you have a v1!) ↩
There’s some reasons why folks in SF can get away with it, primarily because they have a higher volume of quality startups to choose from. ↩
You can argue getting press for your yet-to-be-launched company is a really good idea because it validates your market without having built anything. And I’d agree with that, but it does mean that you actually have to be able to capitalize on said validation. And the press has to be something potential customers would read. ↩
I think that’s why consumer packaged goods is so marketing driven. They’ve never really offered a ton of innovation to the people who buy their products, so they focus heavily on marketing and try to make that the product. “I buy this because I’m cool”-style alcohol marketing is the ultimate manifestation of marketing-as-product. ↩
So this is interesting. It’s a way to take clips and mash them up together. Definitely up my alley. I think it’s introducing some of the concepts I’d been thinking about in a way that’s accessible.
*This isn’t a fully formed thought yet, but I thought I’d try to explore some of it through an essay. Feel free to skip it. I had a dream about it and I need to write it down.
So if video really does turn into something completely dynamic, where each piece of video is really an iframe (or something) displayed on a page, we’ll need a mechanism to allow the underlying video to talk to the parent window and vice versa.
postMessage lets cross-domain frames talk to each other safely and securely. It’s a tightly controlled channel… the child frame doesn’t really know much about the parent and vice versa, however they can pass simple messages between each other.
What if there was a protocol for linear content? That means anything that has a time-based start, middle, and end, could communicate with its parent iframe according to a protocol. It’d be loosely defined like RSS, but it could serve as a really useful way for, say, a YouTube video to outsource the responsibilities for titling / annotations to the parent frame. Imagine SportsCenter, which uses highlights from various locations. Currently, they record the highlights and then air them, with their own CGs on top, etc. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do the same thing, but have the metadata related to the broadcast be passed along separately, so things like the courtesy credit would be ensured to be accurate, and the parent frame would get back details about the video, related audio, related graphics, and could conditionally choose how best to air the content.
There’s some obvious implications for how this would work. What would you do if KXXX swapped their video out for porn, or took it down completely, wouldn’t that ruin SportsCenter?
Perhaps a trusted embed system could develop, where you’d get a key from a server that guarantees the ‘parent’ is allowed to play back said highlights. Perhaps you could whitelist / blacklist allowed outlets. That way, MLB could be the central repository of all content, and they could strike deals with whomever they wanted to permit use of specific chunks of broadcast.
postMessage data, for sports, might include current time, players currently being shown in the clip, etc. For interviews, it might include a whole normal ‘name super’. Maybe you even have ‘quote’ metadata like Vidpresso that could be put in an iFrame? Hmm.
Not to mention digital signage. Hm.
I’m not totally sure how to mitigate all these questions, but I’m starting to figure it out in my head. More coming.
Careers are rarely a straight line. The good ones, like any quality art, come through a struggle that takes years. I’m finally on a path that feels like the right one, so let me take a few minutes and navel gaze. You might find something interesting in here, or you might think I’m grandstanding. Either way, I’m taking a few minutes to look back on my struggle.
Let’s start in 2008. Ugh. That year.
I had left a really comfy job with little oversight to helped launch a tech news / reviews / database site. I was picked to be the leader of the site, and as the leader I was responsible for building the editorial parts from the ground up.
Where is that site today? Wiped from the face of the internet.
So let’s just say I was really bad at that venture. Like really bad. Like it imploded likely singularly thanks to my lack of skill / personal awareness of my weaknesses.
To put it how I’d have said it at the time: That sucked.
I thought the 2008 venture was going to be it. I had worked my way out of TV news, where I discovered even though I was obsessed with producing video content, however I loathed covering local news. It was impossible to care less about the content of the newscast. But, I knew I cared a lot about technology content, and I was lucky enough to escape TV and work with some great technology publications in CNET and Engadget… mostly doing video production.
Somewhere along the line, I had the hubris that I could recreate one of the most respected technology brands, just by hard work and sweat, basically copying their structure. I didn’t really have an original bent to what I was trying to do, nor had I done a lot of writing nor leading a group of writers, but I was excited about the topic area, and thought I could do anything.
Yeah. I was wrong.
I had a theory about our differentator. I thought comparison charts would be it. I thought everyone wanted to shop for gadgets that way. I probably should have realized that wasn’t the case, since I had never looked at a comparison chart, but hey, retrospect.1 In the years since the lean startup movement has evolved, it’s clear that had I come up with a simplistic chart comparing major phones, and not done it by coding lots of software, we could have come to that conclusion faster and less painfully.
Anyway, bad direction, bad leadership, bad at following up on tasks, that venture basically was destined to die with me at the helm. Oh, and remind me what the hell that had to do with video again? My strength?
So basically I was fired. I quit, but realistically the venture was doomed so had I not quit, I would have been fired, and everyone else was laid off eventually.
After what seemed like the biggest professional failure I’d ever had, I basically had a month or two of mourning. My wife tells me I was pretty depressed.
I started watching a lot of TV. Specifically ESPN. I’m not particularly a sports fan, but I thought, and still think, they’re some of the most innovative video producers in the world. I only mildly like sports, but I love ESPN2.
Would it be possible for me to create an ESPN quality show out of my living room? Maybe an Around the Horn style show for technology?
I started experimenting. I had some of my NYC media friends3 do a test, where I rigged three extra computers to share a screen. I connected each of them into an audio mixer, and I routed their audio so that none of them could hear themselves, but they could hear each other.
That evolved in to TechVi. TechVi was a daily show that I produced solo for the first year or so, where I’d have different technology journalist guests come on the show, and talk about one topic of the day. I kept it under 10 minutes, because YouTube had a strict upload limit of 10 minutes back then.
Eventually, I met Iyaz Akhtar, and convinced him to do TechVi with me as my cofounder. We didn’t know what we were doing, but it was fun. (Iyaz has since moved onto amazing things at twit.)
The show was ahead of its time for sure, and production quality that was pretty good, but still not exactly a source people turned to for technology news. Also I didn’t spend enough time on the content. I found myself messing more around with coding the site than preparing the show, so I wasn’t extremely happy with how the content of the show came out.
By coding on TechVi, I learned that coding is something anyone could do. I created a hacked-together site that would poll the video player for its timecode. When the player would hit a certain timecode, the player would shrink, and the background would change out for an iframe of a website, effectively allowing me to dynamically insert b-roll into the video. Also, since I made it so the site was a big single-page app, the video player would continue to play even when you clicked around on links.
Using websites / iframes as b-roll was pretty unique. It meant that the video, while crucial to the experience, didn’t have to be the entire experience on its own.
I realized: Shouldn’t video be like that? Video right now is this static thing that cobbles together clips and stuff, and then once it’s rendered, it’s one thing. Stuck that way. Forever. Shouldn’t it just stay clips forever? Shouldn’t you be able to update a video the same way you update a blog post? Shouldn’t you be able to edit out a word, or swap a video clip, after the video has been published? What if video wan’t just this static thing, what would be possible?
That’s where the path I’m on now starts.4
Vidpresso is an expression of the answer of those questions. It’s a way for TV producers to start wading in the waters of dynamic video.5
For what it’s worth, John Falcone of CNET actually gave me a great idea that I should have done. He said people don’t really want to compare items, they just want to know the best. He said a page that just did extensive research and listed the best would win. So all the scores and rubricks aren’t really the tool people use. People just want to know what the best thing is. That, incidentally, is what (The Wirecutter)[http://thewirecutter.com] is, and they’re killing it. I should haven listened. ↩
I used to work for ESPN earlier in my career as a freelancer. It was heaven, working in a fast-paced, innovative video production truck. ↩
Kyle Monson, who was at PC Mag at the time, Maggie Reardon of CNET, and Nicholas Carlson of Business Insider. You guys helped me out hugely. Thanks! ↩
For some reason, it doesn’t feel like I can contextualize what happened after that yet. Justin.TV and my experiences with Y Combinator are hugely formative for my company, but I don’t think I can effectively know what impact they’ve had yet, so those will have to wait. ↩
Is that what I’m going to call this concept? Dynamic video? I hadn’t really considered what to call it before, but I think that’s going to be it. Hey, look. A new part of the story unfolded while navel gazing. Guess this post wasn’t useless after all. ↩
I didn’t invent this stuff, but I like spotting a trend. Nadia, a startup founder who recently was funded by the illustrious Dave McClure and 500 startups, contrasts her experience living in San Francisco on a budget under $20k annually. Last year, she lived on an extremely strict budget (aka goal) vs this year, enjoying her life by living thoughtfully with two specific goals.
- Do I really need this?
- By purchasing this now, what can’t I purchase later?
It’s not about managing your dollars, it’s about managing your stress. If you get stressed out about money, you lash out by spending erratically.
This matches my experience pretty much 1:1.
She had some great success, including living in a sweet apartment in SF ($1k / month) and being able to travel to Belize. More on her blog, and check out my original goals vs values post if you haven’t yet seen it.
(hat tip to Jason Shen, someone who probably has a great opinion on the goals vs values debate that I’d love to read. Hint hint.)
Internet video distribution hasn’t dramatically changed in quite a while. When Adobe added H.264 support in Flash1, video on the web went from grainy, blocky, uglyness to a quality that people expected from regular TV.
That was the last major technical innovation of internet video distribution that’s made it past the science experiment phase.2 Before 2007 / 2008, we had some pretty crucial breakthroughs. Podcasting, for one, was HUGE. Flash video embedding, HUGE. YouTube? Huge for discoverability of content.
But since then, internet video distribution has sort of stopped with real innovation. You might say, “But what about the html5 video tag?” Sure. The video tag lets some cooler things happen, but realistically, its primary job is to replace Flash. That’s about it. It lays a solid foundation for internet video to grow, but currently it hasn’t shaken up our experience much.
On the creation side, we’ve seem some great innovations that are huge leaps of progress. Most notably, the RED camera served as an impetus for all camera manufacturers to create cheaper, better sensors in all of their cameras. Now we’ve got DSLRs with interchangable, fantastic glass, killer sensors, and finally, video can actually compete visually with film. It’s clear that soon, the tools to take light and convert it into data will soon be inexpensive enough that anyone can have access to them, regardless of price.
Crucially though, the distribution mechanisms for video are still caught in two different worlds. Professional video producers deride YouTubers as ‘folks in their bedroom with a camera,’ because often times the quality doesn’t match. However, that argument is becoming less and less valid.3 But the mechanism for distribution is singular: YouTube. Broadcast is still where most people watch TV, and it’s unlikely for that to change in the immediate term.
So what are some agents that could agitate that change and help it happen faster?
Well, H.265 / a new crop of codecs seem interesting. They could allow for more video consumption / more interesting applications without rapid changes in bandwidth. Oh also, bandwidth could get faster too. :)
On the consumer side of things, we see the Smart TV movement which is happening right now, but often times the platforms which Smart TV manufacturers are using aren’t platforms which are accessable enough to facilitate independent development… for now the independents have to rely on YouTube to present their content best.4 And given their draconian agreements, it’s unlikely popular YouTube stars could make a go at signing with a Cable company, or other traditional distributor, since most of the power of the independent is capturing a diverse audience without being at the mercy of geography, or showtime.
So what is the future of TV distribution going to look like for producers?
Obviously I don’t know, but I feel like YouTubers would be better to adopt the Wordpress model, vs the Tumblr model. Let me be explain.
Say you’ve got an idea for something funny, and you think it could be a show. You don’t know how to program, and you don’t really want to learn, so you upload it to YouTube. It becomes a repeatable viral success, and you’re reliant on YouTube’s entire platform for your continued success.
Right now, if you get disenfranchised with YouTube, your option is to… basically do nothing, because you need the discoverability of YouTube, and the hosting infrastructure to pull it off correctly. To develop custom hosting of videos, without the support of a community, seems both cost prohibative, and ill-advised except for the most savvy of video producers.
What if instead, as you outgrew the walled garden, you could move to your own hosting provider if you wanted… or outsource the work (paid) to another provider who wouldn’t take a cent from your ad revenues, but would provide you with all the necessary infrastructure to distribute video on your terms.
That, to me is the opportunity. If there was an ecosystem of open-source software, like Wordpress, that compatibly existed and allowed a person to easily create, host and distribute their own content, you’d have a whole new industry formed around it. Larger, more established video creators wouldn’t have to feel like they’re iTunes-ing themselves into oblivion, as sometimes the music industry laments, and with a more open platform / standard, other folks could come up with more interesting applications / ways to present content that haven’t yet been tried.
It may seem weird, but I remember the day they announced it, since I was doing video for CNET, and we quickly realized that “OMG OUR VIDEOS DON’T HAVE TO LOOK LIKE CRAP ANYMORE!” ↩
My favorite current science experiment is seriously.js. It’s a code-based node-based compositor (like shake or After Effects) built for HTML5 videos entirely in HTML. It’s really impressive. Popcornjs is kind of interesting, but their approach seems backward. They’re trying fun experiments without anyone using them in the real-world on a massive scale. Science project. ↩
Which is fine for the short term, but a YouTube monopoly on content seems unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term. Content creators are bad at selling / monetizing / distributing their content today, and YouTube serves as a useful intermediary, but as a creator grows larger, they shouldn’t need to cede drastic control to a third-party entity to exist. ↩
I started reading some really awesome essays by people like Paul Graham, and it made me want to be a great essayist.
But I realized something. It prevented me from putting mostly anything out there, because I wanted to revise and rework my essays for at least 4-6 readings, which takes several hours of time.
Very few people can spend several hours writing essays.1
So rather than continue to not produce, I’m going to switch my writing style from waterfall to agile. Continuous deployment of essays, even if they’re bad.
I might even go back and rework essays after they’re published. So you might see an essay in a very different form the next time you read it.
I’m uncertain if Tumblr is the platform to pull this off correctly, but I’m going to stick around and see. At least it natively supports markdown.
I’m not even sure anyone will read, and that’s ok. For me it’s about processing ideas correctly, and giving them a place to live, even if I can’t always execute them to their fullest fruition.
Maybe if you sold a startup for millions, you qualify as being able to write essays, or answer questions in long form on Quora. ↩
So I posted that Goals vs Values post a few weeks ago, and I wanted to give an update. It’s working amazingly.
After I stopped setting goals, the things I started to do and have continued to do include:
I’m using Lift to track everything. And while I haven’t set a goal to do these things on some sort of rigid schedule, I did lay out the things I want to do on a regular basis, and I’ve been doing them.
One place where I feel like I’ve fallen down is on not sacrificing home time for work time. I’ve had a busy few weeks, and been making a lot of progress, which has meant I’ve been sacrificing nights to work. Yesterday, Traci came home late, and I basically didn’t do anything but work after she got home. Need to improve there.
I realize posts like this aren’t as insightful as the essays I strive to write, but I think they are useful because it’s proof of performance. The values thing works.
So I used to be very goal oriented. I had a goal to get my associates degree done before I finished High School. I had a goal to get a CCNA. I had a goal to become a technology journalist.
But then somewhere along the road, I decided that goals are kind of bunk. Every time I achieved a goal, I thought it would fill my life with meaning, and I’d have a much better life afterward. Oddly, that never happened. I’d hit a goal, and the things that filled my life with meaning were never related to the goal itself, but instead related to the run up to the goal.
So I’m done setting specific numeric “goals” per se. The downside of goals? This zen habits post outlines it better than I could. Basically they don’t give you a ton of upside, but give you a ton of downside, in the form of self doubt.1
Now, I’ve been trying to live my life according to a bunch of principles. Basically I want the following:
And that’s about it. Those two principles lead to sub principles.
That’s about it. Originally, when we started Vidpresso, I had set weird growth targets and goals that didn’t have any grounding in reality. And, I’ve been disappointed by not growing as fast as we could, and frankly, I feel really lonely sometimes as a founder. However, I’ve begun to adopt the “go with the flow” mindset for Vidpresso, and it’s paying some dividends.
For instance, we originally moved to Oregon to live here for 3 months and then move back to Utah. We ended up staying 6 because we really liked being around our family up here. A lot. But also, I didn’t hit my original goal of making enough $$$ to live in Utah without requiring my wife to work f/t.
I was a disappointed that we didn’t hit my goal. But I decided that it didn’t matter that we didn’t hit it, because we were happier being around our family for an extra 3 months.
Vidpresso, believe it or not, has doubled revenue every quarter since launch. That’s something to be proud of, and sometimes I miss that fact when we’re not hiring 30 employees or whatever i dream up.
But now, we’re able to go back to Utah in July with the money we need to live, and we’re really excited about it.
A second example is health: I strive to be healthy, but some days I strive less hard than others. Lately I’ve been on a running / 7-minute workout kick, so I’m trying to keep that going for as long as I can. But I haven’t set a specific weight-loss goal. Instead, I’m going to track my progress and try to trend downward long-term, instead of hitting the 20+ pound goal, and then being “done” like I did before.
Ambition is required, goals aren’t. I have the ambition / drive / wherewithall / gumption to make Vidpresso be as big as it needs to be to fulfill its mission2, but I don’t want to set a point where we’ll have “made it.” This is an adventure, not some sort of planned trip from a to b.
I’m not sure how to reconcile this with business yet. I mean I’m watching my revenue graph go up and to the right, but should I be setting more explicit goals? We have analytics, we track our conversions, and we’re trying to improve them. We track retention and try to improve it. But maybe specific goals are silly anyway? Like if you optimize one metric at the expense of other metrics, who cares? I have no idea what to do. ↩
Helping anyone create broadcast quality video without a broadcast budget ↩