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Category: Entrepreneurship, marketing & management (page 1 of 7)

The strange transparency of Apple’s App Developers

Now, when I say transparency, I do mean that in a very limited way. Datapoints are being revealed left and right by developers, but even so the majority of app developers are keeping their sales numbers quite hidden.

A little background: Overcast, Unread, Monument Valley and several other more prominent developers have been quite open about the financial results of their respective apps (MacStories has more). In the greater context of things, this is perhaps not unusual. As I pointed out in previous blogposts, we live in an age where information is speeding up and increasingly becoming commoditized. Still, you don’t really see many commercial businesses revealing their numbers, unless they are public and obliged to do so to their shareholders.

So I have a few theories about this, the primary one being that the App Store is a learning platform for many developers. It has built-in tools, an audience, and a revenue structure that is by and large complete, just missing that special recipe that makes the app (what many have pointed out is lacking however is the App Store as a marketing and sales tracking platform). Apple is also quite transparent to not want anything more from its developers except for their 30% cut and certain, sometimes oblique, values to be respected (no adult content, spam, advanced functionalities in notification center?). Apple is also the market leader as far as these app platforms go (alternatives are Google Play, Amazon, Facebook, you name it), providing a certain stability and confidence in developers that it, at least, is here to stay. Finally, there is the combing trend of communities enabled by the Internet and even before that around Apple, that makes it easier for people to open to up to what they feel are sympathetic audiences.

The bigger question is will this lead to something? For many developers, I can imagine it will. You can do a computer science degree to learn how to code, you can learn how to code from the Internet. To run a business, the best learning is made from the marketplace and these kinds of ‘revelations’ are invaluable lessons to budding entrepreneurs. That said, there are no guarantees that the App Store is a viable platform forever. Marco Arment and others publish statistics about what it’s like to have a relatively successful app in that marketplace, with its inbuilt mechanism to make the purchase possible. Arguably building for mobile will always require some kind of App Store, but there is no certainty about it making you rich.

On Marketing: The business of loneliness

Perhaps it was in the late 60s that smart (M)admen decided that the next great thing is loneliness. Yes, probably before that, loneliness was a topic also, but it was different. The lonely were idealised (think lone cowboys in Westerns or James Dean). Perhaps at that time people wanted to be lonely.

After a certain point, let’s call it the rise of career-orientated male and female individuals and dual household incomes, loneliness became a pain rather than an ideal. Thus came the era of products and services targeted at this market: microwave dinners, TV, speed dating… and why do you think no one cares if you eat a McDonalds meal alone vs. at any other restaurant?

This hasn’t changed much, though we now have an abundance of services for single consumers, from content via your personal computer to couch-surfing. But there is another area that shouldn’t be ignored, that of the dual income market. Here we see the messaging shift from loneliness to making the best of the little time you have. Think luxury weekends, baby creches and other kid-orientated distractions, family-sized sports cars, and … robotic vacuum cleaners (my inspiration is slipping here).

With overpopulated now-not-so emerging economies like China and India, and the competitive pressures of a ‘flat’ global economy, this trend is not disappearing, rather we are moving towards less workers’ protection and a higher burden on and cost of services. Judging by what is happening around the globe, we could be heading one of two directions in the future: an acceptance to live with less on either a physical or spiritual level, or a war that temporarily reverses this trend, but only for the victors.

I’m sorry to head in both a geo-political and a Buddhist direction all at once. I choose to believe that, ignoring the many opportunities that life provides to crawl out from under the rock of humanity, most of us will have to become more efficient with what we have, and I will leave the reader to interpret that in either the spiritual or physical sense.

Taking a marketing stance may seem cynical, but not if you view business as the organisational connection between individuals, problems and solutions. We get into cars that get us to a destination quicker, but the car itself must be built with that purpose in mind. That requires a good understanding and appreciation of both sides of the equation: our consumer need and the services that can help us to reach it at a higher level.

So how can or are marketeers biting into this trend? Making more with less can mean spending less today and tomorrow and the day after, or it can mean spend more to have more, and both are viable perspectives. Spiritually, we are looking for both mind-strengthening activities and emotionally satisfying ones. Think sports and meditative services and on the emotional side, think family orientated services (from public spaces to family movies). Physically or materially, we are looking for one of two things: discounted pricing or getting more for your spend. In consumer electronics, these are the cheap netbooks vs. the more durable MacBooks; in food, these are the discounters like Aldi’s or Lidl’s vs. more energy-bringing “super” foods from (not necessarily) premium vendors.

In a perfect economy, there is perfect transparency and perfect pricing. Sadly, many of these services that I suggest are not perfectly understood and mis-priced. It shouldn’t be a premium service to go meditate somewhere and healthy food that gives you energy and makes you live longer, should not only be found in expensive stores. Conversely, short-term solutions shouldn’t be priced at a discount, because their ingredients are commodities (yes, I’m talking to the Samsung’s and McDonald’s of the world).

Both suffer from non-transparent because the cost or benefit to society is not included in the calculus. But that is a discussion for another day and perhaps someone else.

The new face of Publishing… through Facebook

(…and other visual social media platforms like LinkedIn)

I have long held a philosophical stance about Facebook, as the “social enabler,” or disabler in some cases. Many of its core audiences, me included, struggle with finding a good use case for the platform.

  • Regular users like me wonder what to share (especially in an environment where privacy is more and more valued) and whether your online friends aren’t over-/undersharing themselves.
  • Corporations struggle with integrating it into their marketing mix, especially if they are already engrained into other marketing channels.
  • News seems like the most logical use case for this platform, but comes with some problems as well.

There is a major risk with publishing on a social media platform: it positions regular users on the same level as corporations, publications, and advertising. Everyone becomes the competition.

My social media education happened on Twitter. It taught me to not confuse the newsfeed with an RSS feed, because you would soon lose oversight of the “real” people you were following. As a result, I was a slow adopter of Facebook as a newsreader and continue to be careful. Recently, as a fan of Harvard Business Review on a professional level, and inspired by a “social suggestion” from my friends, I decided to give it a shot after all, and subscribed to the HBR feed. The results were surprising.

It turns out the publication has figured out how to integrate Facebook as a publishing medium. HBR is a monthly periodical, as a print publication, and has both its website and mobile (iPad) apps as online alternatives. I was surprised at the content being shared via Facebook, which both felt relevant and premium (you can buy many of the articles as a PDF), and was infrequent enough not to bother. It takes a discerning editorial team to ensure that both the quality of the writing, the thematical content, and the mix are of a good quality to its audience. Somehow, likely to having a dedicated social media editorial team, HBR figured Facebook out.

It’s an encouraging development, but one positioned on brittle ground for the same risk factor I mentioned above. Facebook, its users and content providers are continually evolving and thus requires continuous attention to the engagement metrics and other qualitative aspects of each shared item. It is clear that social media is an investment, which is why so many companies fail at it. And, more importantly, the return on that investment must somehow be quantifiable also. It’s for every company or individual to figure out whether it is worth it.

What Facebook and other social media platforms must absolutely do is to make using their services more transparent. They cannot handhold publishers and marketeers as they publish on the platform, but they can provide accurate information about how they are positioned for each news item within the overal newsfeed. That, in combination with link tracking, and a both coherent marketing strategy and dedicated social media team, should make a big difference to social media success.

On that even-keeled conclusion, I am still happy to read HBR on Facebook, as well as a limited amount of other news publications (The Big Picture is a good one). I am very interested to see where social media and news reading continues to evolve to, as we are clearly not done.

On Business: The Short Lifespan of “Smart Marketing”

A couple of thing crossed my mind today that I’ll try to intermingle into the point I’m making here. One, a baker that overcharges for a bottle of water. Two, a HR recruitment blog that advises applicants to send a physical letter “to stand out.” All of this is a kind of marketing, at least in the sense of communication. And not all marketing is positive.

The letter definitely classifies as smart marketing. Of course, it’s not just spam. The advice says that the letter should contain a specific pain the applicant is addressing about the company, but the package is “smart,” because it’s different.

Smart marketing only stays smart until people catch on. Hiring managers will read this letter because it stands out, but they’ll get as tired of it quickly when the fifth letter starts rolling in. Smart marketing in this case is an unusual, interesting thing, but not a lasting one.

Back to the bakery. I didn’t go back to it, after the expensive bottle of water. Everything is marketing, pricing and the non-core products that you sell. I can see the rationale behind it: we don’t sell water, we sell bread, but if we do have to do it, let’s make a buck (or two).

The reasoning behind the scenes should really be as follows. We don’t want to be seen as relying on the sale of marginal products, but as standing behind the quality of our bread. We want bread to be the profit drivers because it will continuously push us to make a better product and sell more of it.

All of this ignores the marketing mix of course, in that a business can send out multiple messages in multiple ways. Just like the physical application letter contains consulting advice and is targeted at the right person, it uses many different ways to craft an effective message (maybe). And the baker can of course promote his business in positive ways as well, as this baker did, with 2 for 1 promotions pasted all across the window.

Smart marketing is somewhat broad a term, in that it can mean short-term smart or long-term smart. A short-term smart marketing strategies assumes a highly competitive market and a constant need for change. A long-term marketing strategy relies on sustainable values, such as core-quality, which is often hard to replicate.



On Business: What the Beats acquisition tells me about Tim Cook’s leadership style

When Tim Cook took over the reigns from Apple, we were all afraid of the consequences. Was this golden horse that seemed to poop gold going to turn into something more mundane, we all wondered? There’s nothing worse than regular horse poop, I can attest, being surrounded by horse police in the Netherlands that seem to serve no other function than that. But back to Apple.

Apple survived. As Steve Job’s bio read, there was a five-year plan and Apple had lots of products in its pipeline. The problem turned out to be that this and Time Cook’s assurances (“It’s all cool, guys.”) was all we heard for a long while. Yes iOS 7 turned out well, the iPhone 5 and 5s were good, the 5c less so. What else that was new in Apple land, we all wondered? Was it just going to be incremental from now on?

Don’t get me wrong. Incremental innovation is just good business. You build on capabilities you already developed and you increase your margins. But no matter what the Apple pundits say, I think that we all feel like something new has to happen. A next new wave for Apple. A new product launch.

I can’t and won’t tell you what that is. We’ve all heard the rumors, which are as bad as spoiling a great movie. The nicest new thing is the one that you aren’t expecting and right now we’ve heard too much to not expect a lot. That’s bad for us and bad for Apple. It’s like overpraising a new movie coming out and going in with expectations that are too high.

Back to Cook. Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs. He can never be. But Tim Cook is Apple and part of what made it be a mainstream technology on every country. Tim Cook is the man that made Apple a giant corporation, long before Steve Jobs passed.

Where the gap lies is the role that Steve Jobs had as this stubborn leader that thought far into the future. I’m not a leadership expert and much has already been written about the magic of Steve, something that never feels complete, but perhaps provides many parts of the puzzle of that man.

When Tim Cook took over, he also had to make sure that the visionary part remained in the management team responsible for the present and future of Apple. The first contender for this was … his name escapes me… the guy responsible for making everything on iOS look like cloth and paper (Scott Forstall). He left and Sir Johnny Ive took over hardware and software, which seems like a great decision. Ive was engrained into Apple just as much as Cook was, just in the area of industrial design. His software chops were established with iOS 7, I feel. Both make a great team to run Apple going forward.

But is that enough? We have a smooth operation (Cook) and technology chops (Ive), but Steve Job’s DNA also had something I would just call outspoken stubbornness. There was an interview with Ive around the time that Jobs passed away, where he described the experience of going to a hotel with Steve. Johnny would go to the room, not unpack and wait for the expected call from Steve that this hotel sucked and they would switch. Would Cook ever have such an experience with Johnny Ive? I don’t know.

Jobs was also unafraid to make sweeping changes, in a way that I don’t think Cook is. I found the announcement about the Beats team joint Apple telling. Cook isn’t taking any risks, both hardware and Beats Music fall into specific leadership segments within Apple, under Eddy Cue (iTunes) and Beats Electronics under Phil Schiller (marketing). Both of these people are undoubtedly capable, but it also suggests that … what… Beats products are now Apple products. It also is very corporate in its feel, a division of labour, a hierarchy.

When I watched the Jimmy Iovine interview on Recode recently, some things struck me about him. He has great personality, a visionary that wants to keep moving forward, roots in music engineering, and a great network/reach in the music business, as well as the ability to connect with music lovers. He is pure music and thus makes for a great fit with the space that iTunes currently occupies within Apple.

The company is clearly huge, bigger than Beats if course but also bigger than Burberry as the hiring of the CEO Angela Ahrends to a director position attests. She is also an interesting personality that built a direct connection to Burberry’s customers through the store model in the last 8 years, and a perfect match for taking Apple retail to the next level.

Tim Cook’s Apple is in refinement mode, which is great for Apple’s core strength and reputation for building reliable products. We are all still waiting for that spark and I’m very curious who it’s champion will be, as I do believe great innovation requires a visionary that can span boundaries and the great challenges that come with that.

On Management: Volatility & measurement

I’m struggling to put more complex thoughts on paper these days. Short reviews and fiction (not published) is where it flows. I suppose that this struggle relates somewhat to the topic I’m about to write about today: how volatility gets in the way of measurement and the purpose of both.

Volatility is living, you could say. Living cells move, dead cells are for scientists to study long after they lived. For every 10 people, you will find a fair proportion that believes this to be true for many aspects in life, from work to relationships. Movement is also rewarded by the stock market, movement in people makes them seem more energetic and allows them to get further in life.

Measurement is death, you could say. Stop, cell, I can’t measure you unless you’re frozen in place. Same for you my dear employee. Will we ever be able to measure the magic of Apple or Pixar unless they are a part of history, no longer in motion?

So why bring it up then? Back in my 1st of year of study, a demotivating professor told us that the science of management is more about preserving the status quo than encouraging change. Managers, supposedly, keep things stable in order to produce colourful charts and reports that impress their overlords and shareholders. You could nearly say that measurement is their reason to be.

I don’t buy that at all, but I do see a strong need for accountability, which is a need to show results. But the best results do come from growth, lot’s of it, and the only way to accomplish that is to not let measurement get in the way of growth.

I can suggest lot’s of ways to accomplish this:

  • Stay lean: by consuming less resources for growth, you’re not as accountable for your cost as when you spend a lot on it
  • Work with collaborative systems that collect these metrics automatically
  • Related: make collaboration efficient, which you accomplish through measuring communication flows. Establish protocols that decrease routine communication that is unnecessary.
  • Related: allow for organic and human activity. Getting in the way of natural progress is wrong, making it unnatural creates a mess, taking humanity away decreases motivation.
  • Measure the right things but no more
  • Reward the right things and if possible more


Is there room for pull-based cinema? [Republished from Tech IT Easy – 2011]

Seven SamuraiI cannot speak for everyone, but I often find myself at the cinema unsatisfied with the choices that the movie industry pushes out to me (without my input, exactly). The way mass market product development works is that products come out of research that reveals what a large percentage of a market would like and be willing to pay for. Movie-making is expensive (not always, but relatively compared to its perceived output), and a scientific approach to minimising the risk of losing money makes a lot of sense. A large portion of the budget is typically spent on marketing, an important argument against what I will propose in this post.

“Pull-based” cinema, not the sexiest term for this, would basically be a system in which a large number of people could vote on what is showing at a cinema at a given time. I imagine a kickstarter-like internet based service, that only gives the go-ahead if a certain amount of revenue has been generated for that night. The movies could be new or classic, niche or mainstream, it doesn’t matter as long as there is enough demand for a viewing.

A couple of uncertainties about this:

  • ◦ How are movies distributed and stored inside cinemas? If it is the bulky rolls that I remember seeing as a kid, then this is not viable on a large scale. If it is digital, then why not.
  • ◦ Is there enough financial incentive for cinemas, movie studios, and other parties, to make this commercially attractive? Also, how does it compare to revenues generated by movies that are new and heavily marketed?
  • ◦ What do audiences want and would there be enough market interest for such a service?
  • ◦ How simple and unpolitical is the decision making process for making this happen? This will always be a factor and should not be an argument against necessarily.

Practical solutions:

  • ◦ Start small: one cinema screen in a larger complex, perhaps 1-2x per month.
  • ◦ Scale big: use social services like facebook, meetup, and perhaps kickstarter to reach the masses.
  • ◦ If a clear market exists, focus: specialised cinemas and building up communities around movie lovers.
  • ◦ perhaps use auctioning systems like Easyjet’s (which also tried cinemas at some point) based on visitors and the popularity of movies. I’d easily pay triple for watching classics like Bladerunner, The Goonies, or Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai on a giant screen.

Even though I would love such a system of watching movies in the cinema and think it’s completely part of the times, I have a feeling that it is by and large deemed economically unviable, because of the large capital investments involved in cinema real estate and technology, as well as new movie production and marketing. That said, in terms of pricing, cinemas are clearly stuck: they either have to charge the same for every movie, good or bad, or force ridiculous price increases down customer’s throats for 3D glasses or the concessions sold for less than half anywhere else. Connecting supply up to demand in real-time overcomes some of the pricing uncertainty around movies and actually allows for more premium pricing to occur for products & services that customers *actually* value. Similarly, the movie industry is stuck, creativity wise, preferring to invest in the less risky sequel, than new intellectual property. They clearly fear customers and their market research doesn’t work beyond counting how many tickets the previous movie sold. Pull-based cinemas wouldn’t exactly address this either, as the production cycle is too long and the funding needs are very large1.

Pull-based cinemas are a proposed solution for the choice that customers currently face: either between a selection of movies that are forced down their throats by the studios, or the unlimited selection they can get in their private homes. There’s a discrepancy there and as movie setups at home continue to become better and cheaper, it’s bound to get worse for cinemas.

I’m very interested in this subject and if anyone has a greater insight into this industry or knows of such cinemas existing or having existed, please send me a mail to editor at the domain-name

1. Though this could work for independent movies.


The friendly new world of Publishing

Earlier this year, I visited a Nordic music festival, where I got to know some new artists that many people will probably never be aware of. It’s hard to break out in music, about as hard as writing, I imagine. I liked several of these artists on Facebook, just to be aware of new music releases and concerts. And last week, one of them published some news about a friend of her’s, that’s about to publish her first EP, and was giving one of her songs away for free to download. Of course, I listened to it, and noticed straight away a softness in the music that is so completely anti-pop, that you would never expect to see it published on a big music label.

The conversation has been happening for half a decade now, what social media represents within he cycle of pushing new items out to the public. I don’t think that these things can necessarily be put into a system, which is why the corporate approach of publish, measure, optimise, repeat, hasn’t worked quite so well. It’s just human voices, many of them, saying random things, some of which work better than others, and it’s the building of authority through consistency, boldness, and otherworldness that results in some being heard more than most.

After listening to this new artist’s single, which I like, I wanted more and turned to another artist that did get published more the traditional way. Why? Because I knew what I would get, which is the result of the predictability that comes out of such a system.

We are talking about an art form here, music, but this conversation could easily revolve around the difference between a bag bought on Etsy vs. one bought on Zappos. Do I want freshness and authenticity, or do I want reliability?

My view is that the corporate machine is best when working with existing creations, but not necessarily good at being responsible for creating them. The magic bright ideas that come to you in the shower, usually don’t appear while sitting behind your PC at the office. But the other side of the coin is that while a more bottom-up approach can be tremendously refreshing, innovating left and right, in the end there need to be systems in place that make these creations scale and sustain themselves. Which in turn results into a lessening of creativity or chaos (I write with a smile).

The difference between now and 30 years ago in publishing is that creativity can bubble up naturally, unimpeded by resource and time constraints. But to make it BIG, U2 big, it requires a machinery in place of many moving parts that allow fans around the world to experience what they love up close, whether it’s in the form of a professionally produced album or a sold out concert.  

Consumer insight and the writing process

Self publishing has become such a hip concept that you sometimes wonder why we need those stuffy institutions. Well, wonder no more, because they fulfill a real service by allowing you to focus on creating and they take over the nightmare of selling.
Why is it a nightmare? As I slave over my Nanowrimo work, I am filled with doubt. Am I writing the right things, who am I writing it for, is my work actually something others want to read? 
In a way, splitting the work into blogpost actually achieves a valuable goal. It allows you to split up, measure, and adjust your work to market demand. At the same time, long form storytelling cannot always be produced that way. Sometimes, as you write a chapter, you figure out that the order’s not quite right, perhaps the transition doesn’t make sense and something needs to be rewritten, etc. So perhaps serialised work is not the perfect antidote to the creation vs consumer insight problem. 
On the other hand there are two ways that may be. One may simply be the market effect of consumers choosing the strongest content and not choosing the weaker one. I compare this to the Amazon or Apple App Store market places and rankings, where customers vote with their dollars and reviews. A simple mechanism that costs 30 cent to the dollar as a standard fee.
The second would just be outsourcing to a publisher, who not only selects a book based on estimated market worthiness and then attempts to place the product in front of customers’ eyes. It is not an exact science either, but it often feels like the most viable one when it comes to publishing books that require a lot of time, cost, and uncertainty (risk) to produce. 
Maybe, by my way of reasoning, you can see that I derive much of my thinking from different sectors (high tech, space tech, medical), and try to apply it here. In the end, I just want to understand the raison d’être of the publishing industry and where creators fit into it. 

Three Starting Points of Entrepreneurship Considered…

Entrepreneurship is a way or life, or rather a choice in life to take the riskier, lonelier path, rather than the safer collective umbrella of working for existing organisations. You seize to be an entrepreneur of sorts once the company that you founded become one of these organisations, because start-up companies are centred around putting all their eggs in one basket, while existing organisations have the luxury of having more options, spreading their risks among them. You can continue to see yourself as an entrepreneur of course, as someone who is more flexible and in control of his own destiny, but context has to fit that feeling.I’ve always be a student of entrepreneurship, I guess, because I always wanted to be one. There is a choice you have to make early on, that of what kind of entrepreneur you want to be. In my view there are three or more separate choices, though not necessarily disconnected ones. These are: the creative entrepreneur, the process-driven entrepreneur, or the copycat entrepreneur (which I could also call scale-focussed).

Each of these entrepreneurs faces their own risks and their his own skill-set determining their choice. And each choice creates its own opportunity costs as well. For ease of reading, I’ve split the rest of this essay up into different sections discussing risks, skills and profit zones.

Risky Business
The creative or the artist type may never find a market at all. That is either because of a communication problem (“So why is a space pen a good idea exactly?”) or a resource problem of getting from creation to viable innovative product or service (“Ugh, I know it’s a good idea, but I didn’t quite think it through to the market.”).

The process orientated entrepreneur, by which I mean entrepreneurs like the ones that create enterprise software, a product that needs to fit within an, often, rigid system, faces the time consuming battle of having to convince his customers to change their ways. Even if they are good and/or connected, they still need to bridge the gap between pitch and purchase, which can take months if not years. They are also slave to the whims of their new masters, at times some pretty powerful corporate customers.

The copycat (or scale-focussed entrepreneur) will often grab readily available technologies to create & scale his business and will likely face competition that does the same. For him, it’s about speed and flexibility more than anything else.

Talent & skills
Talent or Skills can clearly be split into three categories as well. Creative people are often drawn to this path because they want to (and hopefully can) create something new. You could describe them as artist-business people and perhaps recognise the problems and trade-offs that exist in such a combination. Hence many artists are better at the art part and worse a business or, god beware, the opposite.

A process orientated entrepreneur is one who (hopefully) has a firm grasp if the market that he is developing solutions for. In my view, these tend to be smart people that would just as well in a corporate environment, but chose this other route because they want to accomplish more.

The copycat or scale entrepreneur has perhaps the best eye on the market and tries to take the path that leads him to reward he quickest. There are plenty of things to criticise as well as to admire about such a person, if they are successful.

If I were to tell you today which path to choose, it would probably not be the creative one, I think processes are great as long as you an an expert in them (otherwise they are not worth it), and he copycat is both the easiest and probably the smartest, as it’s less risky.

The real reason for writing this…
Is because I think about my own path from working in organisations to starting and closing several companies, to growing my career, to where I am today. I see writing as a product that I try to master, which is different from previous products where I felt less in control of the variables that go into e.g. creating a piece of complex electronics or into creating a consulting business with lot’s of (paying) clients. I don’t necessarily think that one needs to be a master of everything prior to starting, there is a steep but feasible learning curve involved, but it is good to master at least one, if not two areas (The three that I mentioned: creativity (the product orientation), the process, and growth (copycat or scale) are different points of the map of a possible personality for an entrepreneur).

The biggest risk that an entrepreneur faces, apart from laying all his eggs in one basket, is that he focusses only on one aspect of creating a viable business. Too creative and removed from the market, too slow a market or complex a product, or growing fast without fundamentals are all real problems that these people have to deal with every day.

In the end, I see everything as a positive learning point and an opportunity to do things differently the next time. And I hope that that is the one thing that you take away from this. Even if you are a certain type of entrepreneur, just take the leap to try something, fail hard and hopefully fast, reflect and start again when the time fits your context.

Structuring creativity for scale & scope

My other title to that would’ve been: “can magicians pull the same rabbit out of a hat twice?” Art, to many of us, feels a little like magic; there’s this uncertainty about what’s happening in the magician’s hat and mind. It’s hard to fathom how a writer transforms an idea into a written narrative, and, in my brief experiences in trying to write longform content, we don’t know whether this narrative was planned or improvised from page to page. 

Before I continue, what does scale and scope mean? It’s a measure of efficiency in production, allowing for both the wide roll out of single products at costs that remain constant or decrease per unit, as well as using synergies in production capabilities to make production of multiple products more efficient. Think of a printer producing a lot of posters without having to buy additional printers (scale) and think of an engineering team being reused to work on new products (scope).   
Writing, as mentioned, is often perceived as an artform, but the truth of it is that like magic, there’s a science and process behind it. Sure, any piece of writing will have unique elements, but the resources used (place, people, time, writing & research tools) do not change that much between different “production runs.” Similarly, capabilities used for distribution, marketing, and sales are also a constant to a great degree. That means that you can set a baseline for the cost of creativity and work at fine tuning that. 
If you read about the workflow of writers, you’ll notice that they build routines for themselves structured around time and place. If you expand that thinking a little, you can see networks of people that surround talented creatives enabling them to not only get out one creative product, but many. This is a comparable network to any creative in any industry, that has found these enablers to getting their content/product out there. 
Scale in writing can be achieved through maintaining a steady output with clear distribution and marketing channels. Scope in writing occurs from repurposing resources, like an idea or even a book into new stories and different media. And by using existing networks and a customer base to disseminate that new content out there, without having to reinvent those wheels. 
I know this all sounded very business like and perhaps generic, but it allowed me to put some of the thinking on this topic onto paper, and of course I hope it helps you too. 
As always, to be continued or TBC. 

Designing books for consumption

Product design should include a solid understanding of the consumer base from day 1, though often, in the creative industries especially, this is not the case. In writing, most people tend to start with the idea of a story (or they just start typing until it develops into one) and just write until the story is complete, before even thinking about who is going to read it. I know that publishers offer advances to some writers, so logically those writers do envision at least one particular customer, the publisher, and it’s the publisher’s job to understand what consumers want. 

But what when this model is uprooted? We all know that as the digital age progresses and the hardware and infrastructure catches up, it allows for the link between producer and consumer to be that much more direct, which allows for speedy and accurate information exchanges, as well as, potentially, direct monetary exchanges, bypassing many of the intermediaries that charge fees and make the feedback loop less efficient. 

Product design should also be flexible in what that product should be. My title of designing books is already misleading, because if your consumer doesn’t actually want a book, the product itself has to change in order to maximise its effectiveness. I mentioned some examples 3 or 4 posts ago, where books are for a particular demographic of consumers; other demographics may prefer shorted serialised content, content in audio or video format, etc. A direct link (or basically a sufficiently information rich one) allows for producers in designing products that consumers want, by engaging in the information exchanges necessary to create sustainable business. 

The next question that arises is that of usable workflows to manage both the creative process and marketing one, preferably without having one eclipse the other. 


Minimum viable product in books

Yesterday, I finished my post with the below paragraph — I figure while I have this stream of consciousness, I might as well milk it…
Most writers see their market test as either a publisher or a publishing platform (self-publishing on Amazon or elsewhere). I am more and more of the opinion that this is wrong or at least an assumption (and you know what they say about those…), based on “what others are doing.” It says absolutely nothing about your invention if no one reads it on paper or as an ebook, if your product is placed amongst 100,000 other similar products or if your actual target audience is not targeted specifically. 

I have two experiences that I think relate directly to this. As well as a lot of experiences of failures that relate but perhaps don’t educate. 1. I’ve built a minimum viable product (MVP) in a different sector – hardware technology. 2. I used to blog, which I consider as an MVP product for writing. Both of these have exposed me to some of the complexities of MVPs, because it’s not so much about the minimum product, as it’s also about the minimum barrier to eyeballs.

Placing your “book” on a publisher’s desk (filled with piles of other manuscripts) or self-publishing to end up next to 1000s of other books, may represent your minimum viable product, but a product with a tough market is not necessary the most viable option.

As an aside, all of this made more complicated by the restriction placed upon all of us — the opportunity cost between producing actual content and disseminating that same content in an effective way. In other words, having successful marketing execution, alongside product development execution. If I study to be a writer/painter/engineer/creator, I do not necessarily have the time to study to be a marketeer. But my point is that product development does not exclude marketing, it should be part of that process. Much like a tree falling in an empty forest does not make a sound; it’s a non-event, just like a non-marketed book is a non-successful product.

But let’s go back to how your market, as a writer is developing: we are increasingly less inclined to invest time into consuming written content. We prefer shortform easy-to-digest content, which actually represents an opportunity for you. Instead of investing all of this effort into creating a super long book, why not put less effort into it and instead focus on making digestion easier? Much like the rise of the hamburger, make the bookburger a success. (P.S. replace book by any other media, because I think it applies broadly…)


Matching supply and demand in books

I have trouble both starting and finishing books these days. It’s entirely correlated with the time that I started using computers and smartphones. There’s just a big amount of competition for your time out there and I don’t really need to tell someone reading this blog that.

It’s tricky to find demand for your work and to tailor supply to that as well. Traditional books, if there is still such a thing, are ultra-longform content. But they are also designed to be consumed in various formats – paper, electronic, audio, apps, books-to-movies, books-to-plays. Each of those formats will appeal to a certain segment of your potential audience:

  • paper: the more traditional folk (sorry, traditional folk); 
  • electronic: slightly less traditional, but still not very progressive;
  • audio: niche;
  • apps: hipster or youngster;
  • books-to-movies: mainstream;
  • books-to-play: wealthier or better educated segment.
None of these are scientifically studied. Some or most of these are also segments of segments – the scifi crowd, the classic literature crowd, the vampire crowd, the magic crowd, etc.
For a creator or a creative enterprise, the question is: for my invention, what is the path that the market development needs to take to maximise the sales potential? What is going to attract the most eyeballs and generate the highest cash flow of the choices that I make? 
As with any invention for commercial purpose, you start with a  napkin of an idea, which develops into version 01, and so on, each time manifesting itself into something more tangible and more tailored. I have an idea for a story, I jot it down, I start writing, it turns into a book, and then comes the decision of how to publish it. 
Most writers see their market test as either a publisher or a publishing platform (self-publishing on Amazon or elsewhere). I am more and more of the opinion that this is wrong or at least an assumption (and you know what they say about those…), based on “what others are doing.” It says absolutely nothing about your invention if no one reads it on paper or as an ebook, if your product is placed amongst 100,000 other similar products or if your actual target audience is not targeted specifically. 
I know I need to expand on that last sentence more, but unfortunately I’m out of time and also I don’t yet know the perfect answer for it. Tbc…

Google’s NEW New Media Strategy

It came to my attention that Google is killing Feedburner (well, starting with Adsense for Feeds), which made me think about RSS, new media dissemination, and the role of new new media (yes, that’s two new’s) in Google’s and perhaps the media world’s thinking.

My ideas/hypotheses:

  1. RSS, while becoming more mainstream, never really bridged that gap
  2. RSS, which stands for Ridiculously Simple Syndication, enabled media to become free (in the locational sense), but it also represented a loss of control for its owners.
  3. Google Plus is Google’s way to increase engagement AND keep media entrenched within the Google ecosystem.

To me, hypotheses 1 and 2 are not proven at all. No. 3, closed platforms, is a controversial topic and will require a longer answer.

1. The acronym for RSS is a clear indication that it does not suffer from being too complex or irrelevant. Either in actual technological terms or in spiritual ones, it is engrained in most services we use today. Replace your favourite RSS reader by Facebook, LinkedIN, Twitter, Google Plus, and you get the same thing. However, as some of us early adopters found out the hard way, these services are not quite as good at managing your hundreds of syndicated feeds, as an RSS reader with categories/folders is.

2. To come back to control, syndication is  not a new term in terms of media, at least radio, TV, and newspapers have used it extensively, albeit under different commercial terms than RSS really allows. But the benefit of disseminating your content to an audience as wide as possible seems, to me, to outweigh the costs, particularly for advertising-based business models.

3. Google’s strategy, much like Microsoft’s, is by-and-large a me-too strategy. From Android / Windows (no longer) Metro vs. iPhone to Google Plus vs. Facebook / Twitter, Google seems to be chasing eyeballs and a closed platform is not a monetizable one. In terms of social media, Google failed to make its advertising deals with Facebook, and Twitter is more or less employing a different business tactic. So, Google Plus came to be, as a driver for richer interactions, longer attention-spans, and more ad-clicks.

What is Google Plus? It is definitely not Facebook or Twitter, but rather grown out of Google’s origins. Google needed an alternative value driver fast, and it thought to do so by simply integrating all of its services, as far as possible, into one. Which would be Search, Blogger, Google Reader + RSS, as far as I can see.

To a publisher, it represents more exposure, at least I noticed that my Google Plus appears prominently on the right of the Google Search when ego-searching for my name (though I believe it requires you to have a G+ account). And if that is the effect, why would you need to publish an RSS feed? The answer is, sadly, that you do not, though luckily it is so simple that many geek blogs will keep doing it.

My guess is that Google Plus is not so much about closed platforms, as it is a survival technique against other platforms which are by-and-large kept closed (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN). Google is in a good position to measure whether or not RSS plays a vital role in this process. It clearly isn’t enough to keep monetizing it, but my guess is that Google will keep it around because it doesn’t cost them any effort at all.

RSS has allowed websites to communicate with each other, sometimes in unexpected ways (think podcasts), and I certainly hope more innovation takes place in this area. A vanilla RSS feed may already be part of OLD New Media (Blogs, mainly), but its spiritual prevalence in what is happening on the Internet today is tremendously exciting. As such, I hope it sticks around!

Some (disjointed) thoughts about entrepreneurial qualities

start-up entrepreneur qualities.jpgStill don’t have too much time at the moment, but trying to produce content if possible, in a quick and (hopefully) digestible format. Some qualities of entrepreneurs that I’m thinking about:

  • Perseverance: This is a tough, tough issue. I consider myself a person that bites into a project and doesn’t let go; at the same time there are times when you have to or should abandon an idea. Even so, a start-up is an 80 hour a week job (let’s say), it has stakeholders—investors, partners, employees—and it may take some time to go into the black. Perseverance is probably the most important quality to possess, but I’d love for it to be simpler to know when to persevere and when to abandon.
  • Instinct: it’s a funny thing, this one. There is of course good and bad instinct (e.g. bravery vs. fear), but sometimes a “bad” instinct is a good one too (fear > jump > evade car). And even if you try to follow your instinct, your rational self—your experiences, education, arrogance, other emotions—will want to interfere with it. The reason to follow instinct is because it’s quicker and a more natural way to be (and my theory is that natural = confidence = charisma and all that good stuff). Still a tough one.
  • Inside-knowledge: in an industry, sure saves you a lot of time finding contacts and focussing on the right stuff.
  • The numbers: are important in a numbers-business. And every business is ultimately a numbers business, maybe not at the beginning when there’s lots of growth, but certainly at that point when either your wallet begins to look empty or a competitor is moving in next door.
  • Money: is kind of nice. The more you have, the less you need to give away in equity. Of course, rich parents help, but so does having an investment-portfolio. Investing in your industry means that you keep track of the latest trends, of your competition, and if you make money from that, that’s a qualifier that your instincts are correct. And, ultimately, giving away equity to the right people, means having a smaller piece, perhaps, but of a bigger pie.

Other things I missed? Definitely! You can always drop a nice comment about it.

The picture is courtesy of

Some disjointed thoughts about empowerment

power to the people.jpgDisjointed, because I don’t have the time or energy to write a beautiful essay about empowerment—I’m not even 100% certain what it means yet. And in a way, by writing about ’empowerment,’ I’m breaking the first rule, which is “Don’t speak about empowerment.” Or at least it seems that way. Currently, there’s around 505,000 articles online about the term, which qualifies it as a hype and as such something that has already been discussed too much. But also, empowerment is basically about trust, a behaviour, and how can you talk about a behaviour, you just behave.

I think I first came across the concept, without even using that term. A few years ago, I read a book on ants, called “Emergence.” It was a great book, I thought, about how ants at every level exchange signals, in the shape of pheromones, to indicate what they were doing and whether they needed help. A completely decentralised organisation, and the only thing the queen needed to do was produce babies, which, equivalent in business-talk, is, I guess, take care of human resources. I was so excited about it, that it became a research proposal for my master-thesis in strategic management, and was very quickly rejected, as I guess I hadn’t related it well to strategy.

I again came across the concept last week, after reading an interview with the then-CEO, Dennis Bakke, and the then-chairman, Roger Sant, of AES, a power-company, which was, at least at the time of the interview (1998), very big on empowerment. And it seemed to work pretty well for them, if you look at their share-price, it rose pretty steadily up to 1998, and even more up to ca. 2001. Though, it hasn’t been doing quite as well these last few years.

Reading the interview, I got the impression that empowerment is a religion, which in itself is hard to quantify into a set of rules. Essentially, at AES, it was (or is, I don’t know) a system of open exchange flows; people could evaluate each other’s performance, investment-decisions were decentralised and crowd-sourced, job-rotation was common, and micro-teams of ca. 10 people, focussed on different projects and tasks, were spread all around the organisation. And that seemed to work pretty well.

But there were also some downsides, such as that the company didn’t work well with other companies—rather, it preferred a contractual relationship—and there were constant pressure to revert back to the traditional top-down model, from the public, share-holders, even employees. Essentially, every employee at AES becomes a kind of mini-CEO, which is clearly not something everyone is conformable with.

And the question is, and I haven’t figure that out 100% yet, is how you come from that top-down view of human “resources,” to a decentralised ant-like model? The key-word, which is equally hyped but seems to apply, is “delegation“—i.e. shifting executive responsibilities out to a team.

I think the problem of this is quite well spelled out in a recent interview with Brad Bird from Pixar, who was at one point confronted with a team that was demoralised. The former director had taken their work and evaluated it in private, giving written comments to individuals, not giving them a chance to give any input. And in order to turn that team around, he had stand in front of them for two months, evaluating the work, in public, and encouraging to take part, through questions. Two months, it took to go from the traditional model to one of empowerment, and just for that team.

The good news is that for start-ups, this is pretty much the way it should be from day 1. The bad news is that for big companies, or as soon as a start-ups grows bigger, the dissonance between people becomes larger and larger. And you have to—if you want to, at least—find ways to decrease that gap, probably most easily achieved through team-building after team-building exercise.

Anyway, not much more to say about this for now, but empowerment is cool, let’s leave it at that.

Ah yeah, I forgot! I liked these interview questions, which were typical of an AES job-interview at that time, and made me think about my own opinion on empowerment:

  • Should everyone be treated equally? Explain.
  • What do you do when something needs to be done and no procedure exists?
  • What self-improvement-efforts are you making?
  • Recall a time when people around you weren’t being entirely honest. What did you do?
  • What does “fair” mean to you? How important is fairness?
  • For what have you been counselled about the most?
  • What is the most difficult situation you have faced? What did you feel? How did you react?
  • Describe two important achievements.
  • Tell me about a time when a decision was needed and no supervisor was available.
  • What kind of rewards are most satisfying to you?
  • What does “fun on the job” mean to you?

I guess, this suggests that part of the answer to my question lies in an organisation’s hiring practices.

The picture is of course of Che Guevara, who wasn’t an entirely nice guy, but does stand for this whole “power to the people” movement.

Restaurant dynamics

restaurant customer service.jpgThe world of business, I think, has a certain illogical—the “human element”—shell around it, but centres around the concept of supply and demand. How you create a business where demand is high, how to you make sure that you have sufficient supply and/or not too much supply. You can see this play out in a number of places, e.g. on the web you have scaling issues, when your service proves to popular (e.g. Twitter), or you have the case of the million+ blogs that are collecting dust, because no-one ever reads them, or because the blogger was unable to gather enough interesting supply.

In restaurants, or food-places, you also see this play out. A couple of months ago, I was going to write about take-out, how some businesses embrace and others avoid it, and why. I think the reason is, at least in part, to control supply. If you control supply, then you can focus on quality and charge a higher price. You also become an artist/creator, rather than a factory.

How do you limit supply? Two ways, I think. Mainly it’s the physical space; by limiting the number of seats in your venue, you ensure that a certain quota is set (of course, the question is also whether that quota is met, which comes from quality inspiring demand). By investing in quality-ingredients, you not only limit your budget, but also your production-capacity, and it forces you to limit supply. That’s a little vague, I know, I haven’t worked it out 100%.

The other way, is to have an increased level of supply. How do take-out and fast-food places do it? By standardising as much as possible. Whether it’s the ingredients, which are mainly starch-based (burgers, pizza, noodles, etc.) and cheap, the production-facility (often just an oven, a grill, or a big wok), or a standardised customer-space (from seats stapled to the floor, to waiting-lines, to a website/phone nr.). All of which enables you to deliver mass quickly.

I was thinking about this today after watching “Iron Man,” which is one big Burger King (and US-army) commercial, and getting a cheese burger afterwards. Burger King was packed and, ironically, slow. The “waiting in line” method doesn’t seem to work that well when you have 50+ people waiting, and a limited space behind the counter to deliver burgers and stuff. People on both sides were bumping into each other constantly, and I actually had to wait over 5 mins, even though I was second in line.

On some level, I like to think that technology can solve a little bit of this problem. If you look at Zara and H&M, which I wrote about last week, both are very advanced in this area, in order to optimise and speed up their production, logistics, and merchandising. Of course, that’s on a back-office level, and that’s not the same as the front-office, where customers interact with a business. No one wants to be confronted with a screen to do the ordering, but sometimes I wonder if people wouldn’t be happier just pressing some buttons in a fast food joint, rather than waiting in line. Of course that would mean more seats, as more people would sit down, and more staff, as someone will have to bring that food to the table.

In the end, it probably comes down to experimentation and constant improvement. That said, apart from the computers that cashiers operate, and quicker food-preparation, not much has changed in the last 50 years for the people doing the actual eating.

The picture is courtesy of

The value of support

All right, in 10 mins or less…

I just started reading a series of essays, entitled “Wish I’d known: Insights and inspirations from the journeys of successful entrepreneurs.” Do a search, and you’ll find it for free online. One essay finishes with:

“I wish I’d started younger and wish I appreciated how much family and friends would support me beyond what was reasonable and fair. I wish I’d know it was OK to have fun and in so doing not taken myself so seriously—the journey is often superior to the destination.”

Words to live by!

Last weekend, I wrote the acknowledgements for my thesis. The cherry on top, which I’d left for one of the last things to finish. And it would’ve been impossible to write it before anyhow, as even in the last lap there were/are people driving me on.

During the writing, one person died, another got terminal cancer. Both much too young and undeserving of such a fate. And both of whom I consider good friends, whom I trusted and who trusted me. In part it was the thoughts about them that prevented me from giving up.

But, strangely perhaps, it was also my little brother, just 19 years of age, that was unrelenting in pushing me forward and not letting me quit. It was as silly as him telling me 6 months ago, “I want you to finish this in three weeks,” which got me to get my act together, perhaps taking longer than three weeks, but not stopping until I was done.

And it was all the people I interviewed for this study—my subjects, and ultimately my customers—all of whom unquestionably agreed to share their wisdom and whom I ultimately do it for.

It’s only about a page worth of acknowledgements, but it is for the people on that page that I spent countless months writing, that I ultimately produced a 120 page-document for, and without whom I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today.

That… is the value of support and why nothing is impossible!

(No picture, as I found nothing that could do them justice)

Some initial impressions about Zara & H&M

Zara versus H&M.jpgTime for a wee break. In the last week, I’ve been researching Zara and H&M a little, to better understand the retail-sector and the fashion-segment. I’ll probably have to do a follow-up to this post, as there is lots to say about both businesses, but here’s some initial impressions, nevertheless.

First off, H&M appears a lot more clean in its approach. Judging by the annual reports alone, H&M not only has a 2007-edition (Zara is only up to 2006), but it is also only 85 pages long (presented in an eco-friendly 2-pages-per-side way), while for Zara, or actually Inditex, it’s mother-company, the annual report is a stunning 450 page long!

Now, that’s really not all that surprising, as Inditex is composed of a number of companies, and it is extremely vertically integrated, while H&M employs the Nike or Apple model—it designs and it retails, but it doesn’t produce.

Why this is so, I can only guess, is due to their origins. Inditex comes from Spain, traditionally a low-waged country, while H&M is Swedish, not a low-waged country. Similar to IKEA, I imagine it was an economical decision to outsource most of its supplies.

It’s very hard to separate Inditex from Zara, as both are founded and owned by the same person, Amancio Ortega Gaona, Spain’s richest man. Zara has been in existence since 1975. H&M was founded by a Swede, Erling Person, in 1947, who ran the company to ca. the mid-90s, but which has continued to be a family firm.

Their business-philosophies are fairly similar, a low-cost, high-quality approach to fashion, as opposed to traditional brands, where quality most often equals price.

Zara made lots of headlines with its extremely high turnover of products—it produces around 11,000 items annually (as oppsed to 2,000-4,000 for other retailers); 15-20% produced before, 50-60% at the start of the season, and the rest during. If a product fails to do well, it is usually removed after a week in stores.

H&M made headlines with its celebrity-marketing, which is noteworthy, as Zara has virtually no marketing. Instead, because it has such a high turn-over of goods, customers tend to visit it more often, expecting new things—an average of 17 times per year vs. 3 times for other stores!

Both employ mostly a wholly-owned retail-strategy, except in countries where this is not possible. And both are very advanced in their use of IT to manage logistics and production, which is definitely seems to be a key-characteristic of delivering fashion quickly and find ways to decrease costs.

H&M’s largest markets are Germany, Sweden, the USA, Spain, and the Netherlands (in terms of sales). For Zara it is Spain, France, Germany, and Mexico (in number of stores).

That’s all I can think of in 30 mins or less…

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