Archive for the ‘Tech World’ Category

What this Cartoon can Teach the FriendFeed Team.

April 7, 2009


I’ve been involved in the cartoon world more or less since 1995.  As I’ve stated before, I think lessons learned there can often translate into the tech world.

This gag is from a comic feature called Argyle Sweater, which was recently picked up for syndication by Universal Press.  Not to dismiss the creator Scott Hilburn and his work, but the comic panel is an obvious derivative of Gary Larson’s The Far Side.  (Btw, the gag shown here clearly needs editing…this was created before the UPS contract.)

Here’s the thing about comic strips and panels: you must be first at captivating the public with a winning concept or you’ll always be an also-ran, a “poor man’s Bugs Bunny,” a “no-hoper”– EVEN IF YOUR PRODUCT IS BETTER!

Another good example of this is Scott Adam’s Dilbert.  After Dilbert became a blockbuster in 1996, many a comic feature about cubicle-dwelling tech guys made it to the ponder piles of syndicates and newspapers, but none of them was ever picked up, even the one or two that were better than Dilbert has become.

The only reason Argyle Sweater in now able to be syndicated at all is because it’s been over 14 years since The Far Side ended, so there is a new generation of readers.  And even at that, Argyle can never hope to come close to the success of its predecessor.

The point here is obvious.  FriendFeed isn’t going to come close to Twitter’s success, even though it’s a better product.  Lot’s of people have been saying that Michael Arrington is arrogant (what else is new?! J ) for writing FriendFeed is in Danger of Becoming the Coolest App No One Uses, but Arrington is right. 

Robert Scoble good-naturedly jabbed Arrington for saying that “no one is using FriendFeed,” but that misses the point that no matter how many people use FriendFeed at this point, the window is closed.  It’s too late.  FF and Twitter could have competed head to head if this new UI had been released a year ago, but Twitter has sense become a blockbuster.  It’s Dilbert.  It’s The Far Side. 

Twitter is the product that has won the public’s imagination.  It’s too late for FriendFeed.

And for all those who say “But FriendFeed isn’t a competitor!  FriendFeed is different!”  Yeah right.  Just the way Argyle Sweater is different.  Just the way all those cloned Calvin and Hobbes strips submitted to my online cartoon syndicate were different.  “But it’s a bear, not a tiger!” 

SIGH  I have known cartoonists who have wasted YEARS arguing that their comic is different.

Use FriendFeed and enjoy it!   I do.  And read Argyle Sweater if you like it.  (I don’t, sorry.)  But let’s not delude ourselves.  The only way FriendFeed has a shot is to do something spectacularly bold and different, such as using the technology to become something else entirely.  My advice to the FriendFeed team (yeah, right…as if they’d listen, but what the hey): Take your skills and start over with a new product in a daring way.  That could work, and there are still original ideas to develop, just like there are original cartoon concepts.  It’s just harder now. 

This new UI, as good as it is, isn’t going to cut it.  And I hate to see talented people waste their time.  Start fresh.  Go back to the drawing board.  Take your tremendous skills and try again.  Don’t be yet another frustrated creator stubbornly stuck on a no-win concept.


How will Twitter make money? Treat usernames like domains

January 15, 2009

 UPDATE: 3/20/2009  This from AdAge shows that there is GREAT value in my similar idea, whether or not people like it: “A proposed expansion of top-level domains means that by the end of the year there could be hundreds. Coca-Cola and Pepsi could request .soda or .softdrinks; Procter & Gamble and Unilever could sign up for .laundry or .soap. The initial cost estimated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is $185,000 for registration plus anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000 in annual fees. But if both Pepsi and Coca-Cola wanted .soda, there would be an auction, and the domain rights would go to the highest bidder. And that could get pricey quickly for brand owners. One outside consultant estimated that the total cost to business could reach $1.5 billion. And that’s to say nothing of domain squatters.”


Today, “How will Twitter make money?” is to the Internet what “Who shot JR?” was to television in 1980.

I never watched Dallas, so I can’t answer the latter question, but I’ll take a stab at the first one.

All Twitter needs to do is charge a yearly fee to register usernames, like domains — only make it so users have a shot at making money from it, so that everybody doesn’t rebel.

Every name should start out cheap, like $5 a year.  If somebody wants a name you have, then they can offer more than that.  If you sell, you get half the proceeds and Twitter collects the other half.  If you don’t want to sell it, then you get to keep it just until the year’s registration runs out.  At that point, you either have to sell it or you must pay Twitter 50% of the highest offer in order to register it again and keep it for the next year.

Of course, Twitter could make bidders escrow funds for large bids, to make sure the bidders are sincere and not just trying to run up prices against somebody. 

The fair market price would always prevail.  Of course, some names would be much more valuable than others.  So say you have the name iPhone.  If Apple wants it, then they pay you a few thousand dollars, and you get half and Twitter gets half.  It would be good PR for companies to pay a decent price.   What a name sells for could be posted, so everybody knows what “going rates” are.

If your username is your registered Trademark, then Twitter can arrange to make the name permanent to you for a fee. If the name is a generic name, like “hotdog,” then the registered user could change over time from Oscar Meyer to Yankees Stadium to Nathan’s Hotdogs.

This would make Twitter a ton of money and be fair to all users.  The early adopters get compensated, but they don’t get to squat on names that could be of more value to somebody else. 

Twitter and all social marketing networks have become marketing platforms just like Web pages became a marketing platform.  Why shouldn’t we pay for usernames just like domain names?  Makes sense to me.  Just think of how fast Twitter would grow from all the speculators rushing to grab brand names. 

What the Web Needs is More Women VCs

December 29, 2008

Tech is male dominated.  Venture Capital is male dominated.  Small wonder the Web doesn’t serve women and all humankind as well as it could.  And should.

This is the most recent detailed article I can find about women VCs, from Forbes dated January 2007.  Here are some quotes from it:

The Midas List reflects the glaring underrepresentation of women in the venture capital industry at large.  In 2000, the last year for which data is available, women made up only 9% of venture capitalists.

Indeed, in the first half of 2006, only 4% of VC-backed companies had women chief executives, and those companies with women at the top received just 3% of the total dollar amount raised, according to VC research firm VentureOne, in San Francisco.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that women investors are providing invaluable insight to entrepreneurs and fledgling companies–the kind of perspective that often eludes men.

“It’s definitely a boys’ club, and they don’t expect a lot of female entrepreneurs to be coming through….Women haven’t really had advocates in VC to help push against the glass ceiling.”

Another barrier: Many tech investors have advanced degrees in engineering, but few women do.

But the industry looks poised for remarkable change, according to VCs like LaPorte. She theorizes that since women entered the business ranks just within the last few decades, sizeable numbers have risen to the top only recently. As a result, more women will go into venture in the coming years.

Okay, the above article was written two years ago.  I don’t see any sign that “the coming years” have started coming.   In fact, this article from just three months ago claims that the percentage of female VCs is now 7%, down 2% if these statistics are indeed accurate.

Note that none of this takes into account the practical consequences this female dearth has on the Web.  I say the loss of “the kind of perspective that often eludes men” has been a huge drag on the Web’s ability to monetize.  As I keep saying, and as techies and VCs keep ignoring, it takes understanding human motivation to be able to monetize human activity. 

Imagine if even 25% of VCs were women.  How would the Web be different?  It’s interesting, and sad, to speculate.

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 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.


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, 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


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.

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

December 5, 2008


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!