(cross posted from NewCo)
Picking a schedule for a NewCo festival is an art – it takes a lot more time and thought than your average event. But it’s also fun – each session and company description has been highly curated, and I learn a lot simply by reading through the diversity of experiences that are on offer.
This year in LA there are 80+ companies to chose from. The festival runs over two days – the afternoon of Monday Nov 9th through the evening of Tuesday Nov. 10th. It wasn’t easy, but here’s where I’ll be visiting:
Monday, Nov. 9th
1.30 pm – Maker Studios. Video is the hottest medium on the Internet, and the model keeps evolving, as the recent YouTube Red news illustrates. Maker is one of the most successful of the original “MCNs” and has grown past its YouTube roots into a powerhouse in all things video. I want to get behind the scenes and learn about video because NewCo will be launching video channels next year, along with its media business. I also want to see the Culver City neighborhood where Maker has its HQ – it’s home to an abundance of LA’s best entertainment startups. Wish I could go: Cross Campus, MomentFeed, Inspire Energy.
3.00 pm – Hired. Another selfish business reason here: I’m very interested in the recruitment field, both because NewCo is growing, but also because I sense opportunities for what we’re building as well. Hired has been on a tear lately and has a lot of buzz. I’m looking forward to seeing how the sausage is made. Wish I could go: Tradesy, Omaze, Google.
4.30 pm – USC Institute for Creative Technologies. Who knew Oculus Rift came from the lab we’ll be touring during this session? Very cool. Also, my daughter is looking at USC for college (kills me, I went to Cal…) and this is a chance to check out an innovative program at the school. Wish I could go: Factual, Homeboy Industries, NOVICA.
6.00 pm – VIP Kickoff & Reception at Dollar Shave Club Dollar Shave Club Dollar’s headquarters are really cool, and the program – featuring Dollar Shave CEO Michael Dubin and a host of other NewCo CEOs.
Tuesday, Nov. 10th
9.30 am – Hyperloop Technologies If these guys pull off what they are talking about doing, well, it’ll radically redefine long haul transportation. I want to be able to say I was there back when it was just an idea. Plus, I’ll get to meet the CEO and grok the tech behind it. Wish I could go: The LA River Revitalization Corporation, Oblong Industries, dSky.
11.00 am – Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti One of the things I love about NewCo is how the municipal governments get involved, both at the VIP kickoff and by opening their doors and talking about civic innovation. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s new at LA’s city hall. Wish I could go: Psychic Bunny, CBRE, FEM, Inc.
1.30 pm – Soylent. This food-replacement drink has been the subject of much derision and celebration. But it’s certainly pushing the envelope of how we think about nutrition and the role of food in society. Wish I could go: Science, Inc., Funny or Die, Upfront Ventures.
3.00 pm – Surf Air. Another new approach to transportation – one that promises to rethink how we do shorter haul flights. We’ll get to board and tour their airplanes as well! Wish I could go: Parachute, Expert DOJO, VNTANA (another Manatt pick).
4.30 pm – Flightly. I’ll admit, Flightly’s location helped me chose it (bc it’s near the meetup afterwards, and traffic is rough in LA in the afternoon!). Then again, I’ve wondered about the company ever since it was announced as Twitter’s only e-commerce integration. I’ve long thought Twitter had a huge e-commerce business lurking inside of it – and now’s my chance to hear about it from the source. Wish I could go: WeWork, onefinestay, Crowdfunder.
6.00 pm – Meetup at Boingo Wireless Boingo Wireless After seeing a dozen companies, it’ll be time for a drink and conversation with my fellow NewCo festival goers. See you there!
(image) This piece from Smithsonian caught my eye today – Young People Mistrust Government So Much They Aren’t Running for Office. It covers a Rutgers professor who studies millennial attitudes towards politics, and concludes that the much-scrutinized generation abhors politics – logging a ten point decrease in sentiment toward government in just the past decade or so.
But I have a different take on why our recent college and high school graduates aren’t opting for politics, and it has to do with a far more positive reason: This is the first generation to come of age in an era where “entrepreneur” is not only a viable career option, it’s actually a compelling one.
I’ve never had a real job I didn’t make myself – back when I was starting out some 25+ years ago, the only path that seemed to make sense for me was joining a startup (job #1), or making one myself (jobs #2-7). I started out well before the Internet, and before the 1990s boom which brought the idea of a college-dropout CEO to the fore of our cultural conscience. Sure, we had Bill Gates, but he was a complete outlier, not a demarcation of a trend, as Zuckerberg became during the Web 2 era.
Back in the early 1990s, my friends and family struggled to understand what it was I was doing with my life. It was as if I had some kind of undiagnosed disease – I was addicted to risk, and clearly allergic to “real work.”
But think of the options a smart kid has coming out of college these days. Not only has company creation become mainstream and entirely acceptable, we’ve built scores of institutions that teach and enable company creation – from Babson to Slack to Y Combinator. I recently met with Sam Altman, CEO of YC, who told me his company receives more applications to his program each year than Stanford does. How many apps does Stanford get? About 40,000!
Cynicism aside, the main reason anyone wants to get into politics is to make positive change in the world. And I believe thoughtful young people are taking a hard look at our major change-making institutions – government, religion, education, and corporations – and they’re deciding that the best way to have an impact is to start a company (or join one). And more and more, those companies are focused on creating positive change in the world. To which I can only say: Right on!
As I did last year, I picked my NewCo San Francisco schedule early, so I could prepare in advance of the festival this September 10-12. There are nearly 130 extraordinary companies to choose from, so it’s not easy to decide where to spend your time. But decide we must. Here are my choices for this year’s SF festival (there are festivals in Amsterdam, New York, Silicon Valley, LA, Detroit, Boulder, London, and Istanbul so far).
Haven’t heard of NewCo? Learn all about it here. In short, we pick extraordinary companies that are mission-driven and changing the face of our city and our society, and they open their doors to the public for a one hour session on a topic of their choice. It’s free, but if you want to insure that you get into the companies you care about, you can pay a small fee to jump to the head of the line right now. Some companies are already full, others are almost full. When we open General Admission, which is free, they’ll all fill up quickly. So it’s worth $90 to get in where you want to go. Here are the ones I plan to visit:
Day 1 – Thursday September 11
9 am – Medium. I’m fascinated by Medium’s rise as a reliable place to find thoughtful and well crafted writing. Founder Ev Williams has been improvising on the theme of publishing platforms for nearly 15 years – first with Blogger, then with Twitter. Medium is a place in between those two, as it relates to the point of view of the creator. It has yet to develop a full throated business model, but I sense one emerging. I’m going to find out more about the company and its people and community. Medium is also one of the Yahoo Media Innovation sessions – a curated track that Yahoo! and NewCo put together to highlight innovative media companies who are participating in NewCo SF. Runners up: GitHub and Brigade. GitHub has always fascinated me – sure, it’s a code-base repository and developer community, but more importantly, it’s the center of an emerging power class in our society. And Brigade has at its core a mission that fascinates me – it asks the question: Can we leverage new technologies to change our political system?
10:30 am – American Conservatory Theater/The Costume Shop. Look, how often do you get a chance to actually see the backstage magic that creates first-class theatre productions? I’m a total theatre geek, though I don’t get to shows nearly as often as I’d like. I’m hoping to re-kindle my love affair with the stage by seeing behind the ACT’s curtain for the first time. Super excited. Runners Up: The Moxie Institute and Chute. I am a huge fan of filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, who is a pal. Her “Let It Ripple” films on AOL are a huge hit, and her “The Future Starts Here” series is up for an Emmy. And I’m on the Board of Chute, which is a promising startup in the visual discovery, rights management, and adtech publishing market. But for me, NewCo is about new – so I’m going with ACT.
Noon – Rickshaw Bagworks. It’s not a bad hop from mid-market, where ACT has set up shop, to Dogpatch, where Rickshaw Bags manufactures its wares. I met the CEO of Rickshaw at last year’s festival, and was inspired by his devotion to quality, community, and local manufacturing. I haven’t gotten a chance to see his digs yet, and I know the tour of his shop will be inspiring. Plus, I am a customer of Rickshaw, I love my Rickshaw backpack. It’s cool to be able to see where it was made. Runners Up: PUBLIC Bikes and SVAngel. I’m a biker, and I want to understand the rise of the “city bike,” which PUBLIC Bikes creates right in the heart of SF. And while I know folks at SV Angel, I’ve actually never seen their space. It will have to wait till next year, alas!
1.30 pm – Earnest. When someone leaves Andreessen Horowitz to start a mission-driven company, you know he or she must be pretty, well, driven. In this session, I get a chance to meet the CEO of Earnest, which is a new lending platform with the outsized goal of changing how lending works. Classic NewCo company. Runners Up: the melt and KITE Solutions. I’ve never had a melt sandwich, but I love how the company has grown over the past two years, and wish I could be in two places at once. And KITE, run by my pal Mark Silva, is matching innovative startups to large brands, a business I love. But again, the new beats the known at NewCo for me.
3:00 pm – Lit Motors. I was so bummed to miss Lit last year, and thrilled they are back at NewCo SF this year. Lit makes new kinds of vehicles, not exactly cars, but not cycles either. I can’t wait to learn about the ideas which inspire these creations. Runners Up: AdStage and City & County of SF. AdStage is a super promising platform for managing marketing – but I’m an investor so I know a fair bit about it. And I love that the Mayor’s office is part of the NewCo platform – their session will provide insights on how the city works with entrepreneurs to tackle big civic problems and opportunities.
4:30 pm – Twitter. Sure, I get inside Twitter from time to time to meet with friends and colleagues, but this session is going to be different. Twitter is focusing its NewCo session on how it is leaning into community development and philanthropy. This is a critical issue to the mid market area, as well as to all cities who are experiencing a tech-driven boom. Not to be missed. Runners Up: Yahoo!, Pinterest, and DocuSign. Yahoo! continues its reinvention, and this session is an opportunity to learn how it’s going. DocuSign has a tiger by the tail, I’m deeply impressed with what Keith Krach and his team have done there (Krach is a speaker at our VIP Plenary kickoff party, which you can attend by buying a VIP ticket here). And Pinterest is on FIRE. Tough choices here.
Day 2 – Friday, September 12
9.00 am – Tumml. I’m taking a flyer here, as I know very little about this startup, but I love their mission, which is all about addressing issues of urban environments through public/private partnerships. Also, the session is taking the form of a pitch session, where entrepreneurs in the Tumml program pitch the audience. That should be a blast. Runners Up: Bloomberg and Blossom Coffee. I went to Bloomberg last year and loved seeing behind the scenes of how TV gets made. And who doesn’t need a good cup of Joe at 9 am?!
10:30 am – Lemnos Labs. This speciality VC firm funds hardware startups. What do I know about hardware? Almost nothing! And that’s why I’m heading to this session. Runners up: TechShop and Salesforce.com. I went to TechShop last year and learned a ton about the new culture of DIY and Big Machines. And Salesforce, which is hosting our plenary VIP event, is a great company doing well by doing good.
Noon – Founders Circle Capital & Shasta Ventures. I’m an advisor to FCC, so I’ve been to their South Park offices. But it’s always good to hang at a homebase during NewCo, and I love FCC’s model of founder-driven secondary financing. A much needed innovation for fast growing companies, plus I get to meet the folks at Shasta. Runners Up: Automattic (just a wonderful company well worth the visit) and Yerdle.
1.30 pm – Airbnb. OK, so I’ve been wanting to see the new offices ever since they opened last year. I can’t wait to get inside and see how one of the most valuable startups in the world gets its business on. Runners Up: Backplane and Hightail. Backplane has built a platform based on the insights from creating Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters community, and Hightail is competing in the world of Box and Dropbox. Both are run by fascinating entrepreuners.
3:00 pm – Cloverpop. Another flyer, but this one seems super cool. The company is attempting to “upgrade how we make decisions” using social data and storytelling. There’s a special invite for their private beta for those who come to the session. Now that’s pretty awesome. Runners Up: SEAGLASS, Delectable, and Scoot. In fact, this is the most difficult hour of the whole festival – so many amazing companies. Please head to SEAGLASS, last year they had pure honey dripping from actual honeycomb. It’s an incredible restaurant. And Delectable is all about wine, and my guess is there’s wine to be had there. And Scoot is just a super cool idea – electric scooter sharing.
4:30 pm – Jawbone. I’m eager to know what’s next from this innovative company – now that Apple has purchase Beats in particular. If not for NewCo, I doubt I’d ever get a chance to visit Jawbone – and that’s kind of the point! Runners Up: Comcast Ventures and Trulia. Comcast Ventures is making a move to be a player in SF VC, and I find any move by Comcast significant these days. And Trulia, recently merged with Zillow, is just a fascinating business.
Wow. That’s a dozen deep dives into companies in just two days. I really love the NewCo concept – I know, I know, I’m Chair of it, after all. But really, where else do you get a chance to get inside so many extraordinary organizations and really experience how they are changing our society? Please, join me and dive in. I’ll see you there!
Once upon a time, print was a vibrant medium, a platform where entrepreneurial voices created new forms of value, over and over again. I’ll admit it was my native platform, at least for a while – Wired and The Industry Standard were print-driven companies, though they both innovated online, and the same could be said for Make, which I helped early in its life. By the time I started Federated, a decidedly online company, the time of print as a potent cultural force was over. New voices – the same voices that might have created magazines 20 years ago, now find new platforms, be they websites (a waning form in itself), or more likely, corporate-owned platforms like iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine.
Now, I’m acutely aware of how impolitic it is to defend print these days. But my goal here is not to defend print, nor to bury it. Rather, it’s to point out some key aspects of print that our industry still has yet to recapture in digital form. As we abandoned print, we also abandoned a few critical characteristics of the medium, elements I think we need to identify and re-integrate into whatever future publications we create. So forthwith, some Thinking Out Loud…
Let’s start with form. If nothing else, print forced form onto our ideas of what a media product might be. Print took a certain form – a magazine was bound words on paper, a newspaper, folded newsprint. This form gave readers a consistent and understandable product – it began with the cover or front page, it ended, well, at the last page. It started, it had a middle, it had an end. A well-executed print product was complete – a formed object – something that most online publications and apps, with some notable exceptions, seem never to be.
Now before you scream that the whole point of online is the stream – the ceaseless cascade of always updated stories – I want to question whether “the stream” is really a satisfying form for providing what great media should deliver – namely voice and point of view. I would argue it is not, and our obsession with producing as many stories as possible (directly correlated to two decades of pageview-driven business models) has denatured the media landscape, rewarding an approach that turns us all into hummingbirds, frantically dipping our information-seeking beaks into endless waving fields of sugary snacks.
I, for one, want a return to form in media. I want to sit down for a meal every so often, and deeply engage with a thoughtful product that stops time, and makes sense of a subject that matters to me. A product that, by its form, pre-supposes editorial choices having been made – this story is important, it matters to you so we’ve included it, and we’ve interpreted it with our own voice and point of view. Those editorial choices are crucial – they turn a publication into a truly iconic brand.*
Closely tied to the concept of form (and antithetical to the stream) is another element of print we’ve mostly discarded – the edition. Printed magazines and newspapers are published on a predictable episodic timeline – that’s why we call them periodicals. They cut time and space into chunked experiences, indeed, they stop time and declare “Over the past (day, week, month), this is what matters in the context of our brand.”
I’ve noticed a few interesting experiments in edition-driven media lately – Yahoo News Digest, Circa, and email newsletters (hello ReDEF!) most notably. But I think we could do a lot better. When the iPad came out, powerful media outlets like NewsCorp failed spectacularly with edition-driven media like The Daily. And the online world gloated – “old” media had failed, because it had simply ported old approaches to a new medium. I think that’s wrong. The Daily likely failed for many reasons, but perhaps the most important was its reliance on being an paid app in a limited (early iOS) ecosystem. As I’ve said to many folks, I think we’re very close to breaking free of the limits imposed by a closed, app-driven world. It’s never been easier to create an excellent app-based “wrapper” for your media product. What matters now is what that product stands for, and whether you can earn the repeated engagement of a core community.
Which takes me to two critical and quite related features of “print” – engagement and brand. I like to say that reading a great magazine or watching a great show is like taking a bath, you soak it in, you commit to it, you steep yourself in it. When good media takes a bounded form, and comes once in a period of time, it begs to be consumed as a whole – it creates an engaging experience. We don’t dip in and out of an episode of Game of Thrones, after all – we take it in as a whole. Why have we abandoned this concept when it comes to publications, simply because they exist online?
The experience that a publication creates for its audience is the very essence of that publication’s brand – and without deep engagement, that publication’s brand will be weak. A good publication is a convener and an arbiter – it expresses a core narrative that becomes a badge of sorts for its readership. I’m not saying you can’t create a great branded publication online – certainly there are plenty of examples. At FM, we helped hundreds through launch and maturity – but those were websites, which as I said before, are declining as forms due to social, mobile and search. But every brand needs a promise – and that promise is lost if there’s no narrative to the media one experiences.
Our current landscape, driven as it is by sharing platforms and mobile use cases, rewards the story far more than the publication. Back and forth, back and forth we go, dipping from The Awl to Techcrunch, Mashable to Buzzfeed. Playing that game might garner pageviews, but pageviews alone do not a great media brand make. Only a consistent, ongoing, deep experience can make a lasting media brand, one that has a commitment from a core community, and the respect of a larger reading public. If the only way that public can show respect is a Facebook Like or a Twitter retweet, we’re well and truly screwed.
Reflecting on all of this, it strikes me that there’s an opportunity to create a new kind of media, one that prospers as much for what it leaves out as for what it decides to keep in. Because to even consider the concepts of “in” and “out” you need a episodic container – a form. Early in the Internet’s evolution (and I think it’s safe to say, two decades in, that we’re past the “early” stage), it made sense to explore the boundless possibilities of formless media. And while most media companies have been disappointed with “apps,” remember, it’s early, and that ecosystem is still nascent. We’re 20+ years into the Internet, but barely half a decade into apps. The next stage will be a mixture of the link economy of the original web with the format of the app. And with that mixture comes opportunity.
But as we consider the future of media, and before we abandon print to the pages of history, we should recall that it has much to teach us. As we move into an era where media can exist on any given piece of glass, we should keep in mind print’s lessons of form, editions, and brand. They’ll serve us well.
NB: Writing this made me realize there are many topics I had to leave out – longer ramblings on the link economy, on how the stream and “formed” media can and should co-exist, on the role of platforms (and whether they should be “owned” at all), on the role of data and personalization, on why I believe we’re close to a place where apps no longer rule the metaphorical roost in mobile, and more. As summer settles in, I hope to have time to do more thinking out loud on these topics…..
*I’ve noticed a few publications starting to do this, whether it’s the experiments over at Medium (with Matter, for example, or the hiring of Levy to focus tech coverage), or The Atlantic’s excellent Quartz.
OpenCo NY is just ten or so days away – the opening plenary (for Backstage pass holders and VIPs) is Weds evening, May 22, and the full day of open sessions inside 130+ innovative NY-based companies is the following day, May 23. Consider this post a “curtain raiser” of sorts, with all the information you might need to grok the event and, I hope, participate if you happen to find yourself in NYC for InternetWeek.
General admission registration is still open, and I plan to keep it open until at least 2000 folks register. As of today, we’re past 1500, and with ten days left and pacing of about 100 a day, I expect that to happen sometime next week. VIP access to our schedule picker, which works just like a music festival app but you pick the companies you want to visit (as opposed to the bands you want to see) is already open. If you want to register, either for the free admission or VIP, go here. I humbly suggest you upgrade to a VIP level (it’s just $100) which makes sure you get immediate access to picking the companies you want to visit – once we open General Admission later next week, most of the companies listed below will fill up quickly.
A VERY special thanks to founding Tour Partner American Express OPEN Forum (you’re amazing!) and to IPG and Yahoo!, who are both major supporters and sponsors as well.
So here are the amazing companies that are opening their doors to the public for this festival, and telling the world their story and their mission. Here they are:
(RED), About.com, Adobe/Behance, AppNexus, appssavvy, Artspace, Artsy, Aviary, BazzarVoice, Betaworks, Birchbox, bitly, Blue Ridge Foundation New York, BlueKai, Bonobos, BrightFarms, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Centre for Social Innovation, ChallengePost, Charity: Water, Chartbeat, Complex Media, Crowdtap, Curbed Network, Dashlane, Deep Focus, Delaney Barbecue, DonorsChoose.org, DoSomething.org, Dress Code, Droga5, Echoing Green, Echolocation, Edelman, Etsy, Evidon, eXelate, Fab.com, Farmigo, Federated Media Publishing, Forbes Media, Foursquare, Free The Children, Friends of the High Line, General Assembly, Gilt, Gojee, Google, Greatist, Hill Country Hospitality, Hot Bread Kitchen, Huge, IDEO, INDMUSIC, IPG Media Lab, isocket, JaegerSloan, Kensington & Sons, Kickstarter, Kiip, KMco, Lerer Ventures, Leske’s Bakery, LiveIntent, LocalResponse, Locket, LUMA Partners, Luminary Labs, Major Food Group, MakerBot, Maker’s Row, Mashable, Meals to Heal, MediaMath, Meetup, Mexicue, MOUSE, National Museum of Mathematics, Next Jump, NowThis News, NSG/SWAT, OneBeat, ooVoo, Outbrain, Pave, Percolate, Plyfe, PolicyMic, PublicStuff, PureWow, Qnary, Quantcast, Quirky, R/GA, RebelMouse, Regus, Rent the Runway, Sailthru, Salesforce.com, SeatGeek, Simulmedia, Skillshare, Snaps!, SocialFlow, Someecards, Stack Exchange, STORY, StyleCaster Media Group, Sumpto, Tablet, Tapad, TechStars, TED, The Guardian, The YARD, Thrillist Media Group, Trigger Media Group, Tutorspree, Undertone,Vaynermedia, Warby Parker, WeWork Labs, Work Market, Yahoo!, Yext, Yieldbot, Yodle, YouNow, Zeel and ZocDoc
Speakers at the plenary (you have to buy a Backstage pass to come to that!) include
June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED Media
Chad Dickerson, CEO, Etsy
Eric Hippeau, Partner, Lerer Ventures
Bob Pittman, CEO, Clear Channel
Rachel Sterne Hoat, Chief Digital Officer for the City of New York
Matt Seiler, Global CEO, IPG Mediabrands
Robert K. Steel, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Office of the City of New York
Joanne Wilson, Gotham Gal
Next are the amazing advisors who have helped bring this to life in NYC:
|Advertising Age & Internet Week||Allison Arden||VP/Publisher, Advertising Age and Managing Director, Internet Week.|
|Alison Brod Public Relations||Alison Brod||Founder & CEO|
|Angel Investors||Ron Conway||Founder & Managing Partner|
|Bain Capital||Matt Freeman||Partner|
|BAV Consulting||John Gerzema||Executive Chairman|
|Brew Media Relations||Brooke Hammerling||Founder|
|Brien Enterprise LLC||Nick Brien||Founder|
|Business Insider||Henry Blodget||Editor-In-Chief|
|Deep Focus||Ian Schafer||Founder & CEO|
|Foundry Group||Brad Feld||Managing Director|
|General Assembly||Adam Pritzker||Cofounder I Chairman & Chief Creative Officer|
|GetTheJuice||Joe Jaffe||President & Founder|
|Harvard University||Martin Neisenholtz||Fellow|
|Hearst Digital Media & 212||Geoff Schiller||Chief Sales Officer, Hearst Digital Media and President: 212 NYC Board of Directors|
|Huffington Post Media Group||Arianna Huffington||President & Editor in Chief|
|IPG Mediabrands||Matt Seiler||Global CEO|
|Lerer Ventures||Eric Hippeau||Partner|
|Lowenstein Sandler LLP||Ed Zimmerman||Chair, Tech Group|
|LUMA Partners||Terry Kawaja||Founder and CEO|
|Morris + King Company||Andy Morris||Founding Partner & Co-Principle|
|NA||Joanne Wilson||Gotham Gal|
|NBCUniversal||Peter Naylor||EVP Digital Media Advertising|
|NY Times||Michael Zimbalist||Vice President Research & Development Operations|
|RebelMouse||Paul Berry||CEO & Founder|
|Ryse Co||Mark Silva||Founder, CEO|
|Simulmedia||Dave Morgan||CEO & Founder|
|The ReDEF Group||Jason Hirschhorn||CEO and Chief Curator|
|Union Square Ventures||Fred Wilson||Co-Founder|
|Vast Ventures||Doug Chertok||CEO|
|VaynerMedia||Gary Vaynerchuk||CEO & Founder|
I’ve just learned that Kim Kadlec, Chief Media Officer for Johnson & Johnson, has also joined this illustrious group. Thanks to all of you, you’ve made this a raging success!
It’s been building for weeks – Friday marks the first day of the fifth annual Outside Lands festival here in San Francisco. Despite the demands of work and family, I try to get to as many festivals as I can – so far, I’ve managed to see Bonnaroo a few times, Coachella once (I’ll be back!), Austin City Limits, and a few others. Outside Lands is local to San Francisco and therefore much easier to attend – this will be my third. Compared to your average festival goer (who tends to be single and about half my age) I’m a punter, but I’ll take it.
Why do I go? In two words, serendipity and joy. When you gather with tens of thousands of like minded, smiling people, unexpected connections are made, and bouts of pure happiness break out all over the place. Who wouldn’t want to soak in some of that?
I bring this all up because I’ve noticed a trend, highlighted by this story: YouTube streaming Lollapalooza music festival for free this weekend. Outside Lands was one of the first festivals to stream for free (back in 2009, if I recall), and many others have followed apace.
Well, I think the truth is obvious, but worth restating: it’s one thing to be there, and quite another to watch everyone else being there. The value of gathering together only increases as the virtual channel becomes ubiquitous. And that is a good sign for humanity, to my mind.
I try to let big news percolate for a few days before weighing in, and it seems even more appropriate to follow that playbook when it came to the scrum around Marissa Mayer joining Yahoo.
Yes, I’ve known both Marissa Mayer (and Ross Levinsohn) professionally, for more than a decade, but so do many other folks, and it seems nearly all of them – Steven Levy and Kara Swisher intelligently among them – have weighed in, multiple times, on what this all means. If you want a rundown, just search for “Marissa Mayer” in Google News.
The coverage has taken its usual course from “Holy Shit!” to “What Will Happen to Ross?” to “Wait, Is Mayer Right for the Job” to “Here’s Our Advice/The Things That Need to Be Fixed/What Mayer’s Focus Should Be” types of pieces.
This won’t really be any of those. Instead, I find myself thinking about the things I’ve not really seen much coverage of, at least in depth. And true to what I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about, they all come down to the intersection of media and technology, and the role marketing plays in that landscape.
When I spoke to Mayer after she was named CEO, I asked the question, almost as a joke – “So is Yahoo! a media or a technology company?” She was quick to respond that she just does not get the debate – of course it’s both. What matters, she pressed, is creating great products that surprise and delight Yahoo! customers.
I couldn’t agree more, yet there is an important nuance here – just who *are* Yahoo’s customers?
Let me step back here and posit something that might upset more than a few of you: Yahoo has two sets of customers, and of course the “end user” is one of them. But the other is the marketer. And media companies – or “tech companies driven by media revenues,” or however else one might want to phrase it – sometimes ignore this fact at their peril.
I’ll let those of you who find such a statement anathema go ahead and click away – here’s a nice unicorn chaser if you’d like – or you can flame me in the comments (I do respond to most, as long as they’re in English and don’t employ more than the occasional insult).
But those of you who’ve continued to read probably know that I believe, deeply, that commercial publishing is a conversation between three key parties: The reader (or viewer), the publisher/content creator, and the marketer. And while it’s generally been true that this conversation has been all kinds of broken during much of the web’s history, the truth is, it needn’t be that way. Six years ago (!) I wrote a series of posts describing the rise of conversational media and imploring that marketers learn to join the conversation. I think it’s fair to say that this is happening, at scale.
Beyond the contributions of pioneers like Federated Media (yes, I had to plug us), the rise of “native” advertising formats is proof of this. Twitter’s promoted suite is one growing example, as is Facebook’s Sponsored Stories (and its attendant focus on getting brands to be true publishers on the Facebook platform). Pinterest, WordPress (in partnership with FM), and Tumblr are hard at work on “native” solutions for their services as well. All of these advertising solutions pale, however, in comparison to the original “native” advertising format of the Web: Google AdWords.
Many have pointed out that Mayer’s principle weakness, when compared to Levinsohn, is her lack of traditional media and marketing chops. I can say from very deep experience that the marketing business is very much a relationship business – CMOs and agency leaders live in a world driven by ideas, creative and content – and they want to know the people who they do business with, and trust them in a way that is difficult to model algorithmically. Mayer’s detractors point out that she’s not spent much time wooing Madison Avenue, or dealing with the inevitable headaches born of the complex, people-driven businesses that are agencies, marketing clients, and content partners.
While there is some truth in this criticism, I think it overlooks a few things. First and foremost, Mayer is a very fast study, and she already knows how important the traditional media business is to Yahoo. Hell, a quick overview of the company’s financials bears this out, as does a visit to any of its properties, which are dominated by advertising. Yahoo may have a lot of technology behind the covers, but its products are nearly all media products – content intended to gather an audience and provide a place for marketers to message to that audience. More than half of Yahoo’s revenues come from “display” advertising, most of the rest comes from search, which is also marketer driven.
Secondly, Mayer will be a big draw of talent, and not just engineering talent. She understands that if she can’t retain Levinsohn and/or his recent CRO Michael Barrett (I certainly hope she can), she’ll need to attract top tier media minds to the business. And I think she’ll succeed at doing just that.
But to me, the thing many are missing is that Mayer will bring her fanatical product focus to more than just Yahoo’s consumer-facing media offerings. She’ll also be staring at the company’s advertising products, and asking this simple question: How can we do better?
To answer that question, Mayer will need to do more than study the data (though of course, that will be important). She’ll need to sit down with a wide swath of Yahoo’s marketing customers and ask them what they want from their investment in her platform. She’ll hear an awful lot of conflicting advice, but it’s in the bricollage from all the feedback that the best ideas come out. Mayer can’t afford to immediately tack away from all those boxes and rectangles cluttering up the Yahoo! experience, nor should she – it turns out that display advertising does indeed work for marketers. But the larger question remains: Can we do better?
The answer lies in executing the subtle and ongoing iterative work of true digital publisher – improving the core product experience both sets of customers – consumers of the media experience, as well as marketers looking to be part of that experience in a more native fashion. And again, from a quick study of Yahoo’s products, there’s plenty of improvements to be made.
An important and related part of the work ahead for Mayer and her team will be deciding what role ad tech and search will play in Yahoo’s future. Despite purchasing Right Media back in 2007, Yahoo has never been seen as a leader in ad tech, and word on the street in the weeks prior to Mayer’s ascension was that Yahoo was about to outsource its ad technology platform to market leader Google. Of course, such a move is fraught with regulatory and business implications. And Mayer may well decide it’s in Yahoo’s best interest to invest in own its own destiny when it comes to the machine-driven world of ad serving and programmatic audience buying. But trust me, what Yahoo does here will be an extremely important directional indicator.
Which brings us to search. It’s been widely reported that Yahoo’s 2009 deal to outsource core search to Microsoft hasn’t worked out as well as either party wished it would. Given how important search is to Yahoo overall, and how deeply knowledgeable Mayer is in this particular field, I’d expect big changes in Yahoo Search. The company recently unveiled a new search product called “Axis,” which seems like a neat idea but feels a bit too complicated for most consumers to really grok. Mayer will likely take Occam’s Razor to search, and I expect the results will be quite positive.
But it’s the other side of Yahoo’s revenue equation – the branded display market – where Mayer will face her greatest challenges, and find her biggest opportunities. Yahoo isn’t a startup like Pinterest, Tumblr, or even Twitter, where founders can leverage massive user growth to raise enough capital to “figure out how best to implement appropriate native marketing solutions.” Yahoo is nearly 20 years old, and it’s got a very deep, tangled, and somewhat tarnished brand in the minds of its best advertising customers. It’s true that creating world-beating consumer-facing products will go a long way toward fixing that brand. But those products must be informed by – and even created for – both sets of customers – the consumers of content, as well as those who pay for them to be created in the first place.
(I promised a bit more color commentary on Larry Page’s 3500-word missive posted last week, and after reading it over a few more times, it seems worth the time to keep that promise. I wrote this last weekend, but am on vacation, so just posting it now…)
It’s not often you get a document such as this to analyze – the last time I can recall is Google’s feisty 2004 letter to shareholders written on the eve of its IPO.
Well, eight years in, the feisty has taken a back seat to the practical, the explicative, and the … nice! The first thing I noticed were the exclamation points – Larry uses one in the second sentence, then keeps on exclaiming – 11 times, in fact. Now, I don’t know Larry Page very well, but he just doesn’t seem the type to use exclamation points. Seeing so many of them felt….off. Also, the letter had a very “softer side of Sears” feel to it, the language itself was rounded, not quite defensive (as it might have been given the news lately), but also not pointed.
Clearly, this was a new Larry – Larry in a sweater vest, so to speak. As a lover of language, I wanted to see if there were any interesting patterns, so for ease of analysis, I decided to cut and paste it into a Word doc (sorry, Google Docs, old habits die hard. Something that the Bing team knows well…).
Larry uses variations of the word “love” eight times in his post. Beautiful is used three times. “Great” gets a workout: it’s used 14 times. “Excited about” gets five. “You can,” 10, “We have,” 12. “Search” gets 22 mentions, “Google,” 32, “people,” 28. “Users” gets 18 – I’ve always hated that word. Android is mentioned 13 times, though it doesn’t seem to be nearly as important in the document as Google+, which merits 9 mentions, slightly lower than “revenue,” which comes in at 10.
But what really strikes me is how, well, nice the language is. So many nice words – beautiful, share, improve, healthy, better, like, important, great, well, tremendous, believe, enable, best – all of these words are used at least three times, often more than ten.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to be so darn nice, it just doesn’t feel like it’s truly Page’s voice. It feels more written by committee. It lacks the zest and attitude of Page’s 2004 missive – but then again, Google has a lot more on its plate now, and a lot more to lose.
Then again, there are some zingers in there, even if they are wearing sweaters. Page makes a point of showing how the Android and YouTube acquisitions worked out in the end, a veiled (or vested?!) defense of Google’s Motorola deal. And while the word “evil” is only used once, I find it very, very interesting it was used at all. For a while, it seemed Google was backing off its unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil.” But in the letter, up it pops, though again, with its shoulders rounded: “We have always believed that it’s possible to make money without being evil,” Page writes. Then he goes into an anecdote about why revenue is necessary, starring his tragic hero Nikola Tesla.
Oddly, for a letter that is reputedly written for investors, Page never mentions Google’s stock price, which hasn’t exactly beaten the Nasdaq lately, but it hasn’t lagged, either.
In the end, the letter is a long, rambling walk through a familiar suburb. Nice, but…well, just that, nice. Maybe I was hoping that Page would come out swinging, defending Google against all the recent slings and arrows, pointedly explaining why it makes sense to combine privacy policies, integrate Google+ into search, and buy Motorola. But that’s clearly not his (public) style. I’m guessing in private, there’s a bit more fire in his pen.
Yesterday I went over the the Bloomberg West studios to talk with my old pal Cory Johnson. In six short minutes we covered a lot of ground. Video is below.