Posts Tagged ‘Calvin and Hobbes’

What this Cartoon can Teach the FriendFeed Team.

April 7, 2009

argylesweater10

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.

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!