Archive for the ‘startup tips’ Category

Silicon Valley Fad or Trend? – #1 in a series: Personal Branding

January 4, 2009

incrediblesSince starting this blog a month ago, I’ve found myself writing several posts about the importance of understanding anthropology, not just technology, when developing Internet products and services.  In an effort to be clearer regarding what I mean by “anthropology,” I’ve decided to get more specific. 

This is the first in a series of articles analyzing whether something we see and experience online is a Silicon Valley fad or a cultural trend you can expect to endure and permeate into non-geek cultures.  If you’re building an Internet product or service that you want to survive and make mainstream, it is vital to know the difference.

Personal Branding: Fad or Trend?

Sarah Lacy, a Silicon Valley journalist, yesterday posted an article about how her concerted efforts to brand herself haven’t paid off in cash.  Like so many others, Lacy is working longer and harder than ever for no visible return.

What is it?

Personal branding means to package yourself into a commercial property that can be applied to various products (think cartoonist Hugh MacLeod promoting tailored suits and wine) or across a variety of platforms (think Scobleizer on Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, etc.)  Personal branding in the context of the Internet essentially comes down to Web celebrity in micro-niches, mostly geek related. 

Why is it?

Many people are busting out Yertle-the-Turtle tactics to virtually climb the social ladder by collecting “friends” and followers as some people might collect trading cards.  But much of this is nothing more than natural ego feeding and is not a conscious effort to establish a personal brand.

When it comes to deliberate personal branding efforts, I believe there are two main forces driving the aspiration.  One is the on-the-job desire to highlight your own external visibility, to grow it separately from that of your company, so that you may carry its value with you as you move from job to job to job.  Remember, nobody these days expects to work for the same company for very long, either by choice or by layoff. 

The media world is especially dynamic, thanks to disruption caused by the Internet.  If you have a job today, you can’t count on having it tomorrow, so it makes sense to leverage whatever visibility and credibility your employer offers and make it your own.   As an example, Robert Scoble formed a large hive of followers thanks to his job at Microsoft.  Since leaving the software giant, Scoble has maintained a herculean effort to breed this hive so that his value to other potential employers is much greater than it would be if he were a lone employee.  Like a queen bee, wherever Scoble moves, his hive moves with him, and a higher compensation point is assured, so long as visibility is what the new employer wants to hire.

The second propellant for personal branding is the Internet’s “culture of free.”   Most people with digitizable talents no longer have a secure and dependable means to profit directly from their work, since digitized copies can be swiped for nothing.  For example, markets for photographs, cartoons and freelance writing have collapsed.  But that’s a good thing, according to Silicon Valley’s free-culture evangelists.  Free, they’ve claimed for years, will make you richer than ever.   All you need to do is give your work away for nothing in order to build up followers and a personal brand, and then somehow (magically?), all that visibility will translate into dollars.  Sell t-shirts.  Sell book collections.  Become a paid speaker.  Just sit back as people throw money at you.  Ride the high tide of all that free love.  That’s the attractive theory.

Will it Last?

No.  Personal branding is a Silicon Valley fad; it’s not a cultural trend.

Yes, personal branding has indeed worked for a relatively small number of people in the short term, but it’s not sustainable for the long run.  Nor is it a practical strategy for the masses.  Here are some reasons why:

1) Personal branding is an extremely consuming effort.  Hugh MacLeod often writes in his blog about being exhausted by the demands of living an independent branded life without the security and relaxation of a steady income.  Robert Scoble claims to spend seven hours or more every day on FriendFeed alone, which is nine hours a week more than a full time job.  The vast majority of people are unwilling or unable to put in the time and dedication required to be a Web celebrity. 

2) Each one of us has two talents.  We have more or less ability to do a huge variety of tasks, but only two genuine talents.  Very few people have more than two and virtually nobody has less.  Unless one of those talents is salesmanship or you happen to fall into good luck (or a blend of both), you simply don’t have what it takes to turn the other talent (or mix of good-at’s) into popularity.

3) Celebrity itself is always ephemeral, no matter what you do.  As Sarah Lacy points out in the above article, you must constantly look over your shoulder to watch out for the next guy who wants to steal your thunder.  Count on that next person emerging to replace you, sooner or later.  People’s attention is a zero sum game.  If somebody new stays on the radar, then somebody else must disappear.  The most ardent fans are often the first to become disloyal since seeking the “new” and “fresh” and “exciting” is part of the psychological makeup of being a fan.

4) Being viewed as a brand is fraught with risk in this post-collapse economy when CEO-hating consumers distrust things that smack of corporate-ness.  Watch for people to increasingly disengage from folks who have a commercial agenda beyond the sharing of their own talents and genuine passions. (Scoble and MacLeod actually fair well here, since they both promote only what they’re honestly passionate about, or so it seems.)  Be mindful that what passed as confident self-expression pre-collapse may well be viewed as shameless self-promotion now.  More than ever, people want and need real value added to their own lives, not hype, and certainly not exploitation for somebody else’s profit.

5) Remember the lesson of The Incredibles: if everybody is “super,” then nobody is.  The idea that anybody and everybody can be a celebrity doesn’t logically work.  The frustration and dysfunction of trying to out-popular the next guy will ultimately collapse the desire – to the point that the culture turns against follower greed.  Soon, value and authority must be found in ways beyond how your stats look.

6) Brands must be positioned.  That’s the problem bloggers have.  Michael Arrington is the arrogant-ass tech blogger who specializes in arrogant-ass startup news.  But is that really what he wants to be doing forever?  Surely not.  Who wants to be doing anything forever?  But because of personal branding, Arrington is TechCrunch and TechCrunch is Arrington.  Consequently, it’s very difficult (some say impossible) for Arrington to sell TechCrunch.  And even if he could sell it, is he now too “typecast” to remake himself into a different brand?  Normal people live multiple dimensions and many different lives within one lifespan.  When you turn yourself into a brand, you’re short-changing other aspects of yourself in the present and threatening your future evolution. 

7) Branding yourself is potentially dangerous.  The goal of branding is to become as exposed as possible.  Do you really want to expose your whole self and consequently your loved ones, even your children, to the all the crazies in this world.  Do you really?  Most people don’t.

8 ) As the volume and quality of news, information and entertainment increase online to a more television-like level, and as average individuals become increasingly empowered to gather and share both, the concentrations of people who currently surround any one individual will disperse.  Average Joes and Janes will engage one-on-one with friends they mutually perceive as equally valuable.  While they will happily discuss pertinent content an A-list blogger may write, gathering at the feet of said blogger to be talked at, about all kinds of irrelevant matters, is going to go the way of the dodo tweet.  In other words, when more professionalism comes online and focus shifts to being about your work, not about you, personal branding becomes moot.  I predict this shift is going to happen before the end of next year.

9) Brand recognition doesn’t even equate to perceived value, much less real value.  In other words, having high recognition isn’t necessarily the same thing as having a good reputation and a valuable property.  It can be quite the contrary, in fact.  The most effective tool for building brand recognition online is controversy.  All web celebrities I can think of use it purposefully, some more than others.   “Shocking” language.  Cynicism and misanthropy.  Attacks on other Web celebrities.  The periodic drama between A-list friends.  It’s all about attracting and keeping attention.  Loren Feldman, who I happen to think is funny and talented though his subject matter doesn’t usually appeal to me, is the poster boy for growing his brand via controversy.  While it’s been effective for increasing viewership, it’s come back to bite him financially at least once.  Verizon dropped a distribution deal with Feldman because of his “TechNigga” videos from years ago.  If you put yourself out there as a brand, you’re going to attract enemies as well as friends, and you’re going to collect baggage, some of which could actually harm your career rather than help it.

Implications for Internet Products and Services

1) Blogging will not survive.  Blogs are a tool for personal branding, and we know how that will come out.  Create something to replace blogs.

2) As social networking matures, pointing to how many followers you have will seem immature at best, gauche at worst.  If you’re creating a new social network, don’t make the members’ number of followers public.  Leveling the playing field (as Ning does) will be much more effective than creating kings (as FriendFeed does).

3) Create a revenue model.  Design in it at the notebook stage.  Make it a part of your DNA, not something you clumsily strap on later.  Some of the Web’s best companies, like SmugMug, have refused to skip to Pied Piper economics and are doing well precisely because they didn’t believe the sham of Free and felt confident enough in their offering to charge for it. 

4) If you rely on advertising and are dependent on user-generated content, make your revenue model distributive.  Allow your members to own and control their social graph and compensate them for its use.  Pay your contributors for content that makes you money.  The days of making other people billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg and the YouTube guys, without getting tangible compensation in return, are over.  Perhaps ironically, the next Google-like success story, the next IPO offering that leads to massive wealth for investors, is the company that understands that nobody wins the social networking space until we all do.

5) Understand the underlying trends that have led to the personal branding fad, and design products and services to solve those problems directly.  For example, create a way for photographers to get paid for their photos.  Or create a way for bloggers and journalists to carry their monetization models with them no matter what platform they’re on.

6) To expand #5 more generally: serve.  Serve your users – be they your readers, your social network members, or paying customers – as emotionally and as materially as you can.  This recession already feels like a depression to many people, and has for some time.  Find ways to save them money, create methods to make them money, allow them the means to find and commiserate with people in their same boat.  Create a way for fit-to-be-tied consumers to hold greedy corporations accountable!  The economy will get worse before it gets better.  Remember that we live in a post-collapse world and we’re never going back.  Even as the economy soars again, the culture won’t go back.  Our tolerance for commercialism, our debt tolerance, our trust capacity have all been forever altered.  All these things have implications when it comes to the successful design and development of Internet products and services.

I hope this article has provided at least some insight into the value of anthropology, and helps explain my assertion that the best technology will fail in the marketplace if it’s matched to poor anthropology.  Better yet, if you understand anthropology, you will find opportunity, and all of us need more of that.

 I will write other installments for this “Fad or Trend?” series in the coming weeks.  If you have any questions, topic suggestions, or wish to challenge me on anything, please leave a comment below.  Thanks.

Anthropology is the New Technology

December 18, 2008

For the past 15 years, we’ve been riding a wave of technological marvels:  Internet connections, cell phones, iPods, DVRs,…. Out of all the things that get invented, the endless websites that get developed, the many devises that get launched, how do we know which will “stick” and which won’t?

Take a look at the product’s anthropology.

Technology is all about opening and closing circuits.  It’s about machines talking to machines.  Technology is the how-to of the gadget. 

Anthropology is the how-to of the user.  It’s about opening and closing imaginations.  It’s about humans talking to humans.  It’s about culture.  And people are much more complex than any circuit board.

Now that tech is no longer the nascent market it was just a decade ago, now that most technologies can’t be protected from competition and are, in fact, used over and over and over again…in other words, now that “technology” is a largely undifferentiated, indefensible given in Silicon Valley the same way cameras are a given in Hollywood, how does a “tech company” break out to become the next Google?

By dropping the haughty patent-pretending pretenses of “tech” and becoming just another company.  A real company.  Not a nifty tech feature with no revenue stream.

Sorry,  you can’t be a legitimate business without a business model .

So what can make or break a tech company if not technology?

Anthropology.

Anthropology is the new technology.  It’s the new differentiator, the new “language,” if you will, that can be used to create exciting trends and gadgets and services.  In deed, anthropology is, for now, the surest weapon for sustainable competitive advantage that we have.

If you don’t understand anthropology and how to code it, then you’d better find somebody who does.

 

Yes, Virginia, there is an Angel Investor

December 17, 2008

angel-investor3

DEAR EDITOR: I am 48 years old.
Some of my little friends say there are no Angel Investors. 

Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there an Angel Investor?
VIRGINIA O’HANLON.
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is an Angel Investor. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Angel Investors. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which entrepreneurship fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Angel Investors! You might as well not believe in CEOs! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch an Angel Investor, but even if they did not see one coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Angel Investors, but that is no sign that there are none. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see venture capitalists dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Angel Investor! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of entrepreneurs.

2009′s Big Startup Opportunity: The End of Yertle-the-Turtle Social Networking

December 15, 2008

yertle-jpg1Remember Dr. Seuss’s book Yertle the Turtle?  It was one of my favorite stories when I was young.  I still have a copy. 

“On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond, Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.”  From the perch of his rock, he ruled all that he could see: “But I don’t see enough.  That’s the trouble with me.”  So one day he decided to build a tall throne out of his fellow turtles so that he could see more.  

And it worked.  “I’m Yertle the Turtle!  Oh, marvelous me!  For I am the ruler of all that I see!”

Never satisfied with his growing empire, King Yertle kept demanding more and more turtles so he could get higher and higher.  “Turtles!  More turtles!  He bellowed and brayed.”  And one after another, they came.  “They obeyed.”

Until finally the small turtle on the bottom named Mack had enough.  “Your Majesty, please…I don’t like to complain, But down here below, we are feeling great pain.  I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.” 

“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.  “You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.”

Then, Yertle the Turtle King started to give the command for more turtles, but this time: “That plain little turtle below in the stack, That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack, Decided he’d taken enough.  And he had.  And that plain little lad got a little bit mad.  And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.  He burped!  And his burp shook the throne of the king!”

Then “Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond, Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!” J

Ha!  I still love this story.  Maybe that’s why I can’t help thinking of it whenever I read somebody once again crowing about how many friends they have on Twitter or MySpace or Facebook or FriendFeed.   “I have almost 2,000 friends!”…”I have over 13,000 friends!”  It’s as if they are building thrones for themselves out of fellow human beings.

I believe Yertle-the-Turtle-type social networking, and the social networks themselves that rely on it, will start falling from grace in 2009.  Here’s why:

1) Time and usage are naturally maturing social networking and this kind of “I have more friends than you!” status climbing smacks too much like “My dad is bigger than your dad!”  People (and networks themselves) who cling to old standards of prestige are going to look increasingly pathetic.

2) Most of these connections are totally meaningless, often brought about because somebody befriended you and you felt compelled to do the same in return (or it was done automatically for you), without so much as even looking at his or her profile. 

Face it, if you are but one of thousands of “friends” what’s the likelihood that this person will ever respond to you?  Now that the economy is in decline and people’s stress level is correspondingly rising, real friendships with consistent interaction will increase in value.  Fake friendships will be discarded as noisy distractions that only waste time and feed irritability.  Our increased sensitivity to betrayal and intolerance for things we can’t count on will demand that we shed false friendships and house-of-cards networks. “Scaling back” will happen psychologically as it happens economically.

The good news is that a growing appreciation for true connection will have the benefit of increasing our social fabric’s thread count.  Today’s Web mesh is largely held together by widely separated Yertle Kings who gather eyeballs but don’t generate much genuine discussion, and thereby little bottom-up connection.  Tomorrow’s social fabric will have a much tighter weave, and hence be softer, more satisfying and stronger.  Luxury brought forth from hardship.  Ahhhhh.

 3) The number of Macks who are brave enough to burp will begin exploding soon because of the increasingly bad economy that will make them ever more cognizant of (and desperate for) this truth: authentic and lasting social networks are simultaneously economic networks serving the material good of all members – as it’s been for 200,000 years.

Lane Hartwell was the first “Mack” that caught my attention.  It was exactly a year ago this week that we had the blow up regarding the Richter Scales video about the tech bubble.  (Awww, the good ol’ days!! J )  It’s a fabulous video, and we need to foster more mashups like this, not fewer.  But all creators in the value chain must be paid.

Why should Michael Arrington, who is making millions of dollars from TechCrunch, be able to run such a video for free?  Newspapers and magazines pay creators for content.  As blogging moves closer to “real” media, bloggers will inevitably start having to pay their fair share, too.  The technology is now available to make it all workable as a win-win for all concerned.  (See my video on Saving Digital Artists if you want to learn my own approach.)

So far, social networks have been designed to enrich nobody but the owners, too often, off the backs of others.  For example, how much of the $1.65 billion that YouTube fetched was shared with the creators of all those videos that made the site successful?  Answer: Not one dime. 

4)  Belching Macks won’t be limited to artists.  Network members themselves, who are feeling the collapsing economy’s weight on their own backs, are going to increasingly become resentful of business models that drown pages they create in ads that earn other people money but nothing for themselves.  King Yertle can link to your brilliant web post, just as he can feed his own readers with your comments and reactions, but unless you’re a Yertle yourself who is big enough to have your own revenue model in place, you’ll get nothing out of it except maybe a few comments in return. 

In social networking, monetization models, if they exist at all, are not distributive.  How much ad revenue does billionaire Mark Zuckerberg share with the users of Facebook who create all that advertising inventory in the first place?  Answer: $0.00.  Resentment already exists and will build in 2009.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with having thousands, even tens of thousands of followers.  More power to you!  But don’t call them “friends” and don’t gather people like baseball cards just to feed your ego.  Being at the top of your social network shouldn’t demand treating it as a throne.  You should be mindful to serve your network as much as it serves you, and you should be provided the tools to do so.

The bottom line is, 2009 is going to prove that social networking is far from being a won space.  If you want to build a different kind of social network, don’t be intimidated by naysayers who think it’s too late.  No, the window won’t be open forever, but it is still open now. 

Remember, kingmakers like FriendFeed and even that “oh, marvelous” Facebook – which acts as oblivious to the risks of their own fevered climb as Yertle was to his – are all vulnerable to falling Plunk! in the mud.  Design something better.  I am.  You can, too.   Nobody is the Google of Social Networking.  Not yet. (See my post on “The Next Calvin and Hobbes vs. the Next Google: 5 Tips” )

Sharp VCs will listen to us and take advantage of the new opportunities that this recession brings, mindful that nobody is chained to any existing social network.  As Dr. Seuss says:

And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free

As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Microsoft, Yahoo, Google – What They Need are Editorial Cartoonists!!

December 11, 2008

Back in the Spring, cartoonist Matthew Meskel (who lives here in the Portland area, too) and I were experimenting with a comic strip.  At some point along Swig’s path, we’re going to launch something like it as “Swiggle: the official comic strip of Swig the Social Market.”  He’s going to draw it and I and Swig employees will write it (with Matthew’s input, too, of course).  It will be based on actual things that are happening within the company.

I thought of it today because I was writing on FriendFeed that I wish websites (and other companies!) could/would hire cartoonists.  Somebody had kindly pointed me to editorial cartoons at investors.com, but that’s the online edition of the daily print newspaper Investor’s Business Daily.  If any website-only publication or social network has its own dedicated cartoonist, I don’t know about it – unless it’s the owner himself, of course.  Like Chris Pirillo writes a gag cartoon for his own site (or at least he was…I’m not sure about the current status of that).  If you know examples, please point us to them in the comments.

Of course, it would take something like a TechCrunch to afford its own cartoonist.  But I think it would be a great investment.  Cartoonists have long proven their ability to attract readers and keep them loyal. 

Imagine being a cartoonist going out on location with a company’s CEO, or to industry conventions with the marketing department, and so on.  I flew cartoonists Alan Gardner and Keefe Chamberlain to a geek conference in Seattle in August of 2007.  They drew editorial-type cartoonists of what was happening on stage.  It was an experiment that went over well.  They did a great job and we had a fun time.

Here is an example of a gag Matthew and I did about an introductory meeting I had with Marshall Kirkpatrick of Read Write Web.  I had had a second mastectomy in March and just got my new prostheses.  Nobody I knew had seen them yet.  So, yes, I really did ask Marshall this.  It’s a true story.  He was a great sport. J

2008-04-21

I think Microsoft should hire its own cartoonist!  And Google.  And Facebook.  And on and on – for company blogs and newsletters and annual reports and bathroom walls.

If nothing else, doing so will put a human face on the company and make you stay more humble and open to criticism, even if gags are only used internally.  There’s nothing like being forced to laugh at yourself to knock down arrogance barriers.

What if the CEO’s of GM and Ford and Chrysler had had good editorial cartoonists following them around and getting feedback from customers these past several years?!  Hey, we probably wouldn’t have to be bailing them out now!  And that’s no joke.

Cartoons are powerful.  They’ve taken down governments.  Unless you’re a dictator, you should be using them.  Do your company a favor and hire a cartoonist.

A Startup Doesn’t Fall too Far from the Tree?

December 6, 2008

 acorn1                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Nine years ago, I was working with a young artist in college named Jon.  We were developing a comic strip under a syndication contract.   One day, I happened to mention that my children were talking about their futures.  My son, just 14 at the time, wanted to join the service and become a sniper.  My 16 year old daughter decided she would like to be a prosecuting attorney. 

I’ll never forget Jon’s reaction.  He had this aghast, close to horrified, response: 

“You’ve raised a SNIPER and a LAWYER?  WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU??!!”

 

Ha!  I still laugh out loud whenever I think of that.

Indeed, my son became a Marine, though he decided against being a sniper.  He wanted to fight alongside his buddies and did so.   They cleared houses (the most dangerous job they have) in the Battle for Fallujah (the worst battle of the war) for two months at the end of 2004.  My daughter just graduated law school this summer and passed the Bar a couple of months later.  She just finished up her first case, helping the defense with a murder trial – always the underdog side in such court cases. 

So, I did indeed wind up raising two warriors.  That was never my intention, but it happened somehow.  And despite Jon’s revulsion, I think I did okay.  I’m very proud that my children have a strong desire to protect and to serve and that they’re brave enough and tough enough to endure whatever it takes.

It just struck me yesterday that maybe that’s why, in that same mysterious way – “somehow ” –  I’ve wound up creating the business plan for a warrior company.  That was certainly not my intention in January of 2003, when I decided to take it upon myself to find a way for cartoonists to make a living directly from their cartoons online.  Back then, I had no intention of taking on the world.  Far from it.  I created a tiny, humble company, in a small sector of the Internet.  But it proved to be impotent because of powers standing in the way that weren’t fair to all.  So its growing ambition just happened through a natural course of trial and frustration, and trial and gained knowledge, and trial and persistence. 

They say your startup is like your baby.  Was it inevitable that my third “child” become a warrior, too??  Despite the fact that I see myself – and have been described by others – as being a gentle parent and a peacekeeping manager?

If you’re an entrepreneur, perhaps you should take a look at your own children, especially if they’re old enough to have set ambitions.  Maybe they can give you some insight into what your company will grow up to be.

As Jon asked, what kind of mother (or father) ARE you?  You’re probably influencing much more than you realize.  Somehow.

The Next Calvin and Hobbes vs. The Next Google: 5 Tips

December 5, 2008

calvin-and-hobbes 

In the cartoon world, everybody wishes to create “the next Calvin and Hobbes.”  In the tech world, it’s “the next Google.”  I think each world can learn things from the other that can help you in your efforts as you develop a comic strip or a startup idea.

Being from both worlds, here are my TIPS FOR SUCCESS:

1.  My strip/startup is all about [insert one word].

You need to find the essential human core to whatever it is you’re doing.  Calvin and Hobbes wasn’t fundamentally about a little boy with a big imagination.  It was about friendship.  One word.  Google, obviously, is about search.  Note how much stronger “search” is than “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible.”

Find your essence.  Make sure it’s a fundamentally human one, and stay focused on it alone during development.  You should be wrapping everything else around it, like characterizations and UI design.  Make it your DNA, not something you try to tack on or discover later.

2.  Don’t be a plagiarist; forget about building a better mouse trap.

When I think about the mountains of money that have been squandered trying to out-Google Google, it makes me want to cry.  Or scream.  If you take “the next [whatever]” literally, you’re bound to fail.  Once anybody has reached the point of being the noun in that phrase, it’s too late to try to compete with them on their playing field with their ball.

Even Calvin and Hobbes’ retirement didn’t open the door to another strip that was like Calvin and Hobbes.  Believe me, tons of people tried.  There were so many C and H knock-offs hitting syndicates and newspapers after Bill Watterson quit the strip that opening the mail became a running joke about “What does Calvin look like today?”  (sometimes Calvin!) and “I haven’t seen a giraffe yet…no wait, here he is.”  Even the few good ones that came through were thrown in the trash.

Google won search years ago.  Let them have it.  Search is not the end-all and be-all of the Internet, despite what you probably think.  It’s dominated the past ten years, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something else that can dominate the next ten.  I guarantee that the next Google will not be about search.

3.  Develop it from the beginning to be mainstream.

I believe that the almost universally accepted strategy of attracting early adopters and then hoping to go mainstream is a big mistake.  You need to understand the mainstream from the beginning and develop to it.

Google wasn’t about attracting early adopters.  They created something that anybody and everybody could enjoy.  Ditto Calvin and Hobbes.

Sure, you can make a lot of money out of the mainstream.  Look at Scott Adams.  He’s become a multimillionaire and good for him.  It’s great success that any cartoonist would be very proud of.  But even Dilbert doesn’t come close to the prestige of Calvin and Hobbes.  And IMO, Facebook, Friendfeed, Twitter, MySpace…none of them can ever hope to match Google’s success, because they were not created from the very beginning to be mainstream.

4.  Know who all your different customers are and design in their various needs.

Almost all cartoonists who would like to get rich in syndication make the mistake of thinking comic strip readers are their primary customers.  They aren’t.  Newspaper editors are.  They’re the ones who buy the comics.  They’re the ones who are the gatekeepers and who supply the compensation.

This is why “we can worry about the business model later” is such a fallacy.  To me, that’s like building the Trump Tower without concern for the need of plumbing or electrical, thinking you can add it in later.

Whether serendipitous or deliberate, advertising is part of Google’s DNA.   If you don’t build in the business model, you don’t have a business much less the next Google.  If you don’t understand the needs and limitations of newspaper editors, even if “end users” would bust a gut laughing over your cartoons, you’ll never have the next Calvin and Hobbes.

5.  Remember that what’s most important is not what you think.

If you gathered people to judge a group of cartoonists’ ability to create a Calvin-and-Hobbes-type success, their criteria would undoubtedly be how well the cartoonist draws.  They would be overly impressed and carried away by great art and underwhelmed by a cartoonist who draws relatively poorly.  And the group would likely pick the wrong guy. 

Sorry, it’s not the art that’s most important.  It’s the writing.

I believe this is why there are so few successes with venture capital.  Non-geeks judging geeks are too impressed by the technology.  Perhaps geeks judging geeks are even worse! 

Sorry, it’s not the technology that’s most important.  It’s the anthropology.

Why is it the writing and the anthropology?  Because it’s people using the product that matters most, and they care about their own desired end result, not whatever it is that brought them to it.  They want the easy laugh.  They want the easily found document.

Scott Adams beat out business cartoonists who can draw much better, because of his superior writing. Twitter is beating more technically sophisticated (and reliable) micro-blogging platforms because of anthropology. 

The next Calvin and Hobbes will be superior in both writing and art.  The next Google will be superior in both technology and anthropology. 

Too bad Silicon Valley only respects the former.  They’ve left the latter to be fallen into by accident.  But that’s okay…it just gives me more opportunity to create the next Google myself. ;)

I hope this helps when developing your own endeavors.  Good luck!

 


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