Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jason Calacanis and the Helplessness Vaccine

Last night, Jason Calacanis re-released (The) Startup Depression.

Having retired from blogging this past July, Jason communicates now through periodic email blasts, and, a few days ago, he sent out an essay titled (The) Startup Depression. TechCrunch and Silicon Alley Insider posted it. Jason asked that that they take it down. And, last night, Jason, drowning in email requests for copies of the essay, cleared a few cobwebs and posted it on his blog.

It's about failure and frustration and starting up under difficult external circumstances.

And it's good. Downright inspiring in fact.

My favorite moment is when he reveals his thoughts about folding:

Anxiety and depression from a failed, or failing, startup can be intense–even debilitating. When outside factors such as markets or buildings collapsing are added to the mix, I’ve seen great entrepreneurs just fold.

Now, I’ve never folded, and I don’t say that as some badge of courage. No, sometimes it’s really, really stupid to keep fighting. Most consider it especially stupid to fight when you know you’re going to lose. I don’t.

Fighting when you know you're going to lose. The stubborn refusal to admit helplessness. Immunity from despair and complacency.

It's a crazy thing to do, to fight when you know you'll lose, but it's not so crazy when you don't believe in losing.

Jason never folds because he digs the ass kicking, he knows that failure motivates him and focuses him on the next steps. He never folds because failure isn't failure. It's education. It's a step on the path, wherever it might be going.

But now I'm putting words in the man's mouth. And I'm getting sleepy. So I'll stop.

The point, I think, regardless of whether it's Jason's or mine or some combination, is that it might do us all good if we stopped acknowledging the existence of big picture failure and just kept working, kept trying to fix what's broken, kept trying to perfect what doesn't work well enough.

The ass kickings along the way will motivate, and the journey will be a whole lot of fun.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Think Globally, Write Locally

It looks like my writing life is about to turn down something of an unexpected path.

My friends over at GreenandSave.com just entered into an agreement that has put them in charge of launching and populating a "green" section of a Greater Philadelphia Area news aggregation website, and they've asked me to contribute.

Carrot Project brand comparisons are what they really want, and that's what I really want to give them, but, while we wait for those to be ready for public release, we're going to get things started with a little amateur journalism.

As of a few days ago, I'm a contributing writer to the burgeoning Green and Save media empire, and, starting sometime in October, I'll be doing a little locally focused blogging.

Which, as those of you that read this blog regularly know, is something I don't often do.

I did once make a post about Philly cheesesteaks and vegetarian politicians, and there was a hint of local flavor in that, but, right or wrong, I've been doing the think global, write global thing. It's what's felt natural these past eight months, where my thoughts have tended to take me, and where they'll likely continue to pull.

But there's room for local too. Room and good reason.

Local is key. Think Dave Eggers and Clifford Stoll: kids and schools and investing time in the future. Think Majora Carter and Van Jones: starting with neighborhood efforts and accomplishing amazing things by building ideas out from there. And, even for me, as I think about it now in the context of what I'm writing tonight, I realize that the people that inspired me most in China were rural social entrepreneurs, local leaders that saw their tiny little hometowns as as good a set of communities as any from which to start changing the world.

I'm excited to get grounded again in place and physical community.

I just hope I can think of silly enough material. Maybe an "edible plant walk" with a hippie botanist on Thursday afternoon? Just got an invitation from my uncle the farmer to tag along on that...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Answers as Advertisements

Reading about the size of big energy companies' advertising budgets last night reminded me of a post I made a few weeks ago.

I wrote about a debate on The Economist's website, and I claimed that I'd post again after the debate closed if I had any further burning observations.

I didn't post again. Unexpected events derailed me for a little while, and that was certainly a factor, but, also, I thought that the debaters just sort of fizzled out. Their closing statements, rather than communicating realizations or adjustments, felt to me like restatements of the hardened opinions the authors brought into the debate.

Bummer. But I guess that's what a debate is all about, why a discussion is probably a more useful means of getting important things figured out.

Regardless, however, I do have an observation related to that debate that just started burning again. An observation about advertising.

I appreciate the transparency with which The Economist revealed BP as the sponsor of the debate, and I appreciate the straightforwardness of BP's presentation of itself.

No flashy videos set to inspirational music. No propaganda. Nothing that tripped my insincerity sensors. Just BP telling us their perspective.

They had a little rectangle of space in which they announced that they were a big important energy company and that they were sponsoring the debate, and, at the bottom of the rectangle, there was a link to a Sponsor Q&A, BP's Chief Scientist's answers to some vague but important energy questions.

And, if you read the interview, I'm guessing you'll agree that the Chief Scientist sounds exactly like the Chief Scientist for a big oil company.

We will see a 50% increase in energy demand by 2030 and a doubling by 2050.

If you took all the passenger cars in the US and turned them into battery-driven vehicles, you would need to make about 50% more electricity than we make now to charge the batteries, and we would want it to be clean electricity, so not coal. So, if you are a fan of electric cars, then you are a fan of nuclear power, to be clean.

There are two-and-a-half material sources if you are serious about reducing carbon emissions. One is nuclear fission. The second is carbon capture and storage. Wind is the final half. BP is working hard at full scale demonstration of carbon capture technology and is investing a great deal deploying wind power. Other technologies, such as solar photovoltaic, concentrated solar power, and offshore wind need more development stage to be both material and economical.

Conservation happens pretty much only by raising prices or through regulation.

Nothing groundbreaking or particularly impressive or against the big oil norm, but I like it. It feels real, a quick and incomplete but unexaggerated representation of the philosophy and priorities of BP's big decision makers.

I wish all advertising worked like that.* I wish all Chief Scientists or their non-scientific equivalents bought opportunities to answer important questions.

That's a lot to ask, but who knows. Maybe someday, when there are millions of people contributing to The Carrot Project, millions of people trying to figure out which businesses are doing the best things for the world, Chief Scientists will be begging for opportunities to answer big questions, begging for opportunities to convince people that their philosophies and priorities are worthy of everyone's support.

*Note: Well. Most advertising. Something about cavemen dancing and little kids telling stories that I can't quite fully denounce. Misleading ads, both of those. Totally unrelated to insurance or the companies providing it. Attempts to attach undeserved love to a brand name. But I can't help it. I'm brainwashed, fully capable of condoning totally reprehensible advertising.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hacking Electricity

One more quick thought from the Web 2.0 Expo.

Last Wednesday morning, I watched James Governor's presentation. The conference program called the talk Electricity as the New Internet. Turnout was weak. Apparently, people were more interested in Disruptions in the Music Industry and Web Analytics 2.0. Bummer, but Governor battled through. He asked everyone to get up and come down front. And he did his thing, and he did it well.

As I sat there in my second row seat after the talk was over and looked over my notes from the day so far, people swarmed him. They were excited and curious and wanting more.

And I was too. I had questions about the big picture.

Early in the talk, Governor quoted Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

I could imagine a smart garage where I would plug in my car and the computer handles it. I could even make money by cost shifting...It solves energy security, energy prices, and job creation...and, by the way, climate change.

A little later, he mentioned a Twitter account called @andy_house.

A guy named Andy hooked some meters and appliances up to Twitter, and his house now keeps the world updated on what's going on. When lights go on and off. How many kilowatt hours are reading on the meter. When there's suddenly unusually high electricity use. Etc.

And, throughout the talk, Governor kept reminding us of that wonderfully succinct little piece of William Gibson wisdom:

The future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed.

Governor wants to see people hack electricity. He wants us to cobble together existing technologies, layer them onto the old, inefficient systems, and build a new energy industry out of gadgets and plug-ins.

He sees the creaky grids. He smells the coal dust. He feels the warming. And he's worried.

But he thinks computer programmers and tinkerers can save the day. The hope and opportunity in the energy industry lie at the grass roots. They lie with the mechanic that works on his rooftop windmill instead of his car on the weekends. They lie with the web developer that writes a little application to flip all his power strips off before he goes to bed and then open sources it.

Governor says:

To paraphrase Michelle Obama, I'm finally proud to be in the IT industry.

And I wonder. I love his thoughts. I love his enthusiasm. I love his optimism. But how much, globally, will hacking the current system actually change?

Having spent a dangerously high percentage of my waking life in this Acorn Energy office over the past 7 months, I'm well steeped in energy efficiency propaganda. I was a believer before I watched James Governor present, before I thought about things from the hacker perspective. But I worry that efficiency is a developed world solution.

Yes, it's true that William Kamkwamba is hacking the wind in Malawi, but William's windmills don't power schools and hospitals or give people a home heating alternative to cut wood.

Large scale infrastructure projects do those things.

Efficiency helps. Hacks will become products, and grassroots tinkering will make plants and grids much more productive.

But I want abundance. I want cheap clean energy for everyone, everywhere. And there's more to that than hacking.

There are politics involved, storytelling, industrial scale professional engineering. I loved everything Governor said, but I will love it more next time if he takes a minute or two to situate it globally, if he acknowledges hacking's role as an integral (and often forgotten) component of a comprehensive solution to the world's energy problems.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Basking in the Glow

It's funny how even the tiniest bit of recognition makes you feel totally famous.

The following is a note from a friend, someone I met first in person but started to actually get to know through correspondence about the thoughts and stories I share through this blog.

Surfing the internet for (more) David Foster Wallace remembrances, anecdotes, etc., when I find your blog post about Wallace linked from a NYT blog (see the link at "footnote-loving"). Wait, okay, now I'm realizing mid-email that this probably isn't news to you, as you likely have some sort of Google Analytics gadget that tells you how people are accessing your blog. Nonetheless, this MPM fan took notice. No doubt you'll pick up some well-read fans.

Here's to more virtual ink from the Times, but next time, regarding the Carrot Project itself.

I do have some sort of Google Analytics gadget, and it did tell me about the mention on City Room a little while ago.

But it's still exciting.

I don't actually know how my post connects to love of footnotes in particular, and I cringe a little at the thought of literature people seeing the link, getting all excited about discovering another website of David Foster Wallace reviews and responses, and then finding themselves tricked into reading about wind farms and corporate sponsorships.

But, bottom line, it feels good to be famous, even if you're not.


My cousin Parker and I just watched a movie we made five years ago. A full family effort. Our tribute to Best in Show.

Below the Belt.

The story of the greatest heavyweight title fight in history.

Last Christmas, Zoe, another cousin, put the movie on a DVD and added interviews from the movie premiere, outtakes, and deleted scenes.

When we made the movie, in 2003, my grandmother was very much alive, very much a part of the summer when we shot the movie and the winter when we released it to our world.

And Parker and I saw her tonight, on that DVD. She walked through the party at the premiere, dressed in her costume ball finest, and she walked through a scene in the outtakes, making a joke, making us laugh, doing what she did best.

No one I would have rather seen. Been almost 8 months.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

To Solve a Fact

I just watched Clay Shirky, whose thoughts I absolutely love, give a keynote speech at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York.

He talked about the internet, information overload, publishing, and filtering.

Before the internet, because publishing was expensive, we filtered content (media) and then published it. Now, because publishing is no longer expensive, everyone can publish, and lots of people do, filtered only by their own personal sense of which thoughts of theirs they (or the social media infrastructure into which they dump their thoughts or record their lives) consider newsworthy. If we want to filter all that information, if we want to find quality, however we define that, we need to filter after publishing has already happened.

And we're still working on that, still trying to figure out how to do that gracefully, dynamically, in ways that evolve with the evolution of the tools with which we gather information.

It was a good speech. Not as exciting to me as some other Shirky. But certainly worth more thought and maybe, someday, some written response.

Right now, however, I'm tangentially locked in on a quote that Shirky presented with reference to the information overload problem.

Yitzhak Rabin, a man that had significant experience with a long-standing problem, once said:

If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it's not a problem; maybe it's a fact.

And that's a statement that worries me.

Problems beg solutions. Facts beg acceptance. And I like solutions better than acceptance.

I think acceptance is dangerous.

It doesn't have to be. Some people will read or hear that Rabin quote and see real value in it, see the pragmatism, the honesty, and the call to action. If Israeli-Arab conflict is a fact, some people will recognize that it's still a fact to be actively managed, a fact to in some sense accept but a fact that requires mitigation of the sort that strives to make it no longer a fact.

Some people, however, will take that word fact too deeply to heart and get conservative,* get complacent, admit helplessness, and decide not to devote energy to changing something that, by some definitions at least, is unchangeable.

If the conflict is a problem, however, it must, by definition, have solutions, and I think it's useful to acknowledge the existence of solutions. It fights the feeling of helplessness. It fights complacency. It fights conservatism. It motivates.

Anyway, I think I might have digressed into something of a downward spiral of semantic frustration, but hearing that quote set me spinning, and I'd rather spin out in the open and hope someone responds and sets me straight or soothes me, so I figured I'd crank out another high speed, impulsive post to close out my 48 hours or so in New York.

Time to go catch the Chinatown Bus (and want to talk to the driver and ticket man but probably get shy about it and just sit and listen to their conversation, which, most definitely, will be in Fuzhou dialect and almost entirely incomprehensible, especially to a Chinese student that has been totally slack for a solid 9 months).

*Note: I define conservatism as the tendency to preserve and protect the status quo, even if it's suboptimal, and I don't like it. I don't think I've ever written much about my thoughts on consevatism as I define it, but I do explain myself a little bit at the end of this post, so, if you're curious or think I'm crazy, have a look, and let me know what you think. I'm still pretty confused about conservatism and how I feel about it, so I'd much appreciate any thoughts you might have.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Smiles, Epidemics, and Learning from the Mormons

A lot of people talk about the Jewish media, but the Mormon media is, like, so much better.

LIKE, so much better.

I love it.

That's Jonah Peretti. He presented this morning on viral marketing.

He thinks Judaism is a great religion, but he's unimpressed with its growth. Population wise, the Mormons caught up in 2007. And that's ridiculous. In 1950, Jews outnumbered Mormons 11 to 1.

What happened?

The Mormons went viral. They baked evangelism into the Mormon "user experience," and they grew. Judaism tried to grow with product quality and product quality alone, and, despite a perfectly solid product, they didn't grow. They lost market share. Lost it to institutionalized evangelism and a some stories about white native North Americans, a long winded angel, and a failed fortune teller with an exceptionally generic name.

And that was one of Jonah's points: study the Mormons; they're good at viral marketing.

Another point (one that really hit me hard given my recent thoughts about change, smiles, and rock and roll) relates to silliness.

In order for anything to spread virally, it has to be contagious, and Jonah believes, based on his own exceptional (and, apparently, originally, accidental) success at creating contagious content (Nike Sweatshop Shoes, The Rejection Line, Black People Love Us, Buzz Feed), that one way to get contagious is to get silly.

Focus on people that are bored at work. Give them something that'll wake them up, something that'll snap them into action and inspire them to forward an email.

Shock works sometimes. Horror. Nudity. Kittens. And silliness.

Once again, I think of Stephen Stills:

Fear is the lock and laughter the key to your heart.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Back in Class

I spent a few hours this afternoon in the basement of a giant convention center listening to Joshua Porter talk about designing for community.

Scribbling away in my notebook, I felt like I was in class. I type too loud not to use pen and paper.

Being in NY is always a high speed experience, so I figure it begs some high speed blogging. Or, more accurately, some high speed note transcription and commentary.

-Make sure you model the core features of your community-based website on community interactions that already exist in the offline community.

-In reputation economies, be sure to reward quality first and then quantity. Beware of Harriet Klausners.

-Apparently Yahoo! remains relevant, and not just because of Flickr and delicious, which feels weird to admit.

-Reward high quality users with labels that explain WHY they are high quality. Probably don't need to use as many labels as Yelp does, but throwing a few around is a generally good idea. It attracts attention to the right people for the right reasons. The "gardener" label on ma.gnolia is a great one (and part of a great anti-spam system).

-Reward NEW people. Right away. Don't make it hard for them to get in on the rewards, the labels, the recognition.

-Be careful with lists of highest rated users. Competition can get out of control. Collusion happens. Your community turns into Survivor. And, when the leaders get out in front and hard to reach, people lose interest. Maybe the thing to do is to give competitions time limits. Have a weekly MVP. Or monthly. Or yearly. Don't have a leaderboard. This reminds me of fantasy baseball. Head to head leagues are WAY more fun than rotisserie.

-Be careful with thumbs up thumbs down systems. They tempt competitive users to thumbs down content that they see as threatening to them, stuff that might very well be the most valuable content on the site. Maybe just have a thumbs up. Or a was this helpful question.

-When you make members of your community angry, for whatever reason, before you explain or defend yourself, say you're sorry.

-Encourage people to "tell others what you think." Ask people to offer their "unique experience."

I especially love that last one. Because I think it's true. In a big sense. In life just as much as in web use. Everyone's experiences are unique, and they're all fascinating in their uniqueness. We all have stories. Great stories. Unique stories. Stories no one else can imagine. But we don't always tell them. Maybe we have silly insecurities about lacking uniqueness. Maybe we have trouble communicating. Who knows.

Ok. Pretty speedy. More tomorrow.

Note: Thank you XBOSoft for the invite to The Expo. And for lunch at the only restaurant on 11th Ave in Midtown. Funny to speak Chinese in an Irish Pub filled with construction workers on lunchbreak.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Charles Maxwell and the Speed of the Change

Just as I was getting settled back into the office last week, John ran in with this article and asked me what I thought about it.

It's an interview with energy-focused investment analyst Charles Maxwell.

John loved it. Maxwell is John's kind of guy. An energy contrarian. A former oil man that was laughed out of his smoke filled Wall St. boardroom when he predicted, four years ago, that oil prices were about to start soaring.

He's concerned about energy independence. He sees a future in which electricity powers transportation. He sees big potential in nuclear power, but he's refreshingly unemotional about the political barriers the nuclear industry faces. And, somewhat unusually among his treehugger-averse peers, he doesn't shudder at the mention of the word "conservation."

After reading the article, I think I like him too. I get the sense that he's a capitalist first and a human being concerned about the well being of our planet and its inhabitants second, and that worries me a little bit, but maybe I'm just reacting to his unapologetically long position on tar sands exploration. Regardless, however, he strikes me as pragmatic thinker with a significantly longer term focus than most energy people, and I appreciate that.

I also appreciate, more specifically, his answer to a question asking him what concerns him most about a future that includes extremely expensive oil (USD 250-300/barrel):

People are going to be asked to change much faster than they are willing to.

I think that's worth keeping in mind. We're probably not going to find enough silver bullets to make the transition away from oil painless, and we shouldn't forget that.

Hopefully, as a global society, we'll rise to the occasion. Hopefully we'll feel the pain and learn from it. Hopefully we won't get angry and violent and dishonest. Hopefully we'll think and build and innovate and change.

It's not going to be easy, but acknowledging its difficulty has to be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Some Kind of Different

I think it's good when people step away for a moment from the intensity of their work and life and stop taking themselves so seriously.

BusinessWeek's Election Blog just posted this. About a softball game. And a metaphor.

If we're going to save the world and remain sane while we do it, we're going to have to be able to keep laughing.

Thinking about this and writing those last few sentences convinced me to search back into my email to find one of my favorite rock and roll quotes.

I found it, and I think the little bit of context from my email makes me smile too, so I'm posting both. It's fun to think back to more than a year ago when we were first considering the possibility of pursuing The Carrot Project (or whatever we were calling it back then), and, as always, it's hugely inspiring to read that quote.

I'm working on these interfaces and adding text where text is due, and since I don't actually KNOW anything about what I'm writing, I'm just kind of being silly, and being silly has sent this totally excellent quote running through my head. It's from Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young:

But you know we've gotta do it. We gotta keep on keepin on. Cause if we don't do it, nobody else is gonna. But you know if we can't do it with a smile on our face, you know if we can't do it with love in our hearts, then children we ain't got no right to do it at all. Cause that just means we ain't learned nothing yet. And we're supposed to be some kind of different...

With a smile on our face. With love in our hearts.

It's not always easy, but it has to be the way to go.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Spreading Some Buzz

One of my favorite Carrot Project competitors formally launched yesterday at TechCrunch 50. GoodGuide. Word from one email that came my way is that they "rocked the house."

I just watched the presentation. Sounds like the audience dug it, and looks like the judges were impressed.

The internets seem pretty excited too. VentureBeat. CNET. Earth2Tech. TechCrunch.

No one can believe that GoodGuide didn't exist until yesterday.

But it didn't. Some similar sites exist. Greenzer. Greener One. Buy It Like You Mean It. Oso Eco. But everyone has their own special take on things, their own unique angle.

GoodGuide's angle, it seems, is science. They KNOW the most. They UNDERSTAND the best. And that's a beautiful thing. It'll gain them heaps of credibility, heaps of trust. And it'll uncover a lot of truth and do some hugely important enlightenment work.

Science isn't perfect, however, especially the science of healthy, humane, and sustainable business, and I worry that over-reliance on science can obscure humility. Sometimes the people that know the most are the people that end up being the most dangerously wrong, end up causing the most misunderstanding. In their knowledge and understanding, they get overconfident, close their minds, stop questioning, and overlook new information, new ideas, new circumstances.

GoodGuide certainly doesn't have to follow that path. Hopefully, they won't. Hopefully, they'll stay curious, stay introspective, stay humble, and stay open to the fact that science isn't always reliable.

If they do, they'll make a hugely positive impact on the world.

Either way, in the meantime, while I watch to see how they move forward and keep banging away on The Carrot Project, I'll be using GoodGuide at every opportunity and, hopefully, buying from soap and shampoo manufacturers that ought be rewarded for the way they do business.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Notes from a Fish Out of Water

As promised, I went to DjangoCon. I wasn't the only non-programmer there, but I was close.

One of my favorite moments was when, during a totally over my head technical Q&A session, I ran out of laptop batteries and relocated closer to some electricity. After plugging in and diving back into email/blogging/watching the score of the Phillies' game, the dude sitting next to me introduced himself.

He told me he ran a web development shop and loved Django and pretty much wanted to marry it. I told him I wasn't a programmer but that I, too, loved Django, for I work with programmers and Django makes them happy, which, in turn, makes me happy.

We acknowledged that it was nice to meet each other.

He turned back to the stage and started listening again. I looked down and continued fretting about paying The Carrot Project's bills and the declining effectiveness of the Phillies' bullpen.

A few minutes later, my new friend leaned over and offered some commentary on the Q&A session we were (he was) watching. Technical commentary. I nodded.

He continued, equally technically. I continued nodding, equally confused.

And on it went. For a solid five minutes. He made what I'm sure were totally insightful comments, and I smiled and agreed and pretended that I was with him all the way.

The dude was so enthusiastic, I just couldn't bring myself to remind him that he might as well have been talking to the wall (and that I had, already, as I mentioned, warned him that I wasn't a programmer).

That enthusiasm is what I enjoyed most about the conference. Everyone seemed excited to share. People had great ideas, great projects, great plans for how to make Django better, and I got the feeling that everyone wanted to bring everyone else into their minds. Collaboration makes for a great atmosphere, even if most of the collaboration is way over your head.

I did try to offer what I could, however. I agreed to play on a couple of people's in process sites and give feedback. I gave people rides from the conference to the hotel. And I took a shot at a lightning talk.

Certainly not my most impressive public speaking work. The best man speech I gave a few weeks ago about eating sheep's lip in Mongolia was far more of a crowd pleaser. But I felt a little out of place introducing The Carrot Project at DjangoCon. I got the feeling the audience wanted technical details, and I had nothing for them.

I gave the talk, though, embarrassed and stumbling or not. I wanted to give a quick mention of The Carrot Project and see if anyone wanted to learn more. I wanted to throw out there the fact that I really do appreciate the Django community and its collaborative spirit. And I wanted to make sure everyone knew that if, for whatever reason, a set of project manager eyes would somehow do them good, then I'm happy to help. Django has been doing good things for me lately, and I'd love to reciprocate.

So, Django community, in case you too were getting worked up about the Phillies on Sunday rather than paying attention to my lightning talk, let me know if there's anything I can do for you, and I'll do my non-technical best.

Note: Late on Sunday night, Wiley sent me a little follow up email unveiling a discovery he'd made. He'd looked through a big list of DjangoCon tweets, and he'd found this:

@rbp: #djangocon I'm waiting for jdegrazia to say "hey, don't tase me, bro!"

I have no idea what that means. None. Any ideas?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Inevitable Dissolution of POWER

After a day of DjangoCon and an evening of storytelling with a NASA sysadmin and a dangerously dressed Silicon Valley lawyer (who may or may not have been joking when she told us she likes heroin in moderation), Wiley and I started talking about politics, The Carrot Project, and the book he's reading.

He read me this excerpt about The Final Call (a newspaper published by the Nation of Islam), an attempt to change consumer behavior, and the realities of market economics:

The paper also carried a health section, complete with Minister Farrakhan's pork-free recipes; advertisements for minister Farrakhan's speeches on videocassette (VISA or MasterCard accepted); and promotions for a line of toiletries - toothpaste and the like - that the Nation had launched under the brand name POWER, part of a strategy to encourage blacks to keep their money within their own community.

After a time, the ads for POWER products grew less prominent in The Final Call; it seems that many who enjoyed Minister Farrakhan's speeches continued to brush their teeth with Crest. That the POWER campaign sputtered said something about the difficulty that faced any black business - the barriers to entry, the lack of finance, the leg up that your competitors possessed after having kept you out of the game for over three hundred years.

But I suspected that it also reflected the inevitable tension that arose when Minister Farrakhan's message was reduced to the mundane realities of buying toothpaste. I tried to imagine POWER's product manager looking over his sales projections. He might briefly wonder whether it made sense to distribute the brand in national supermarket chains where blacks preferred to shop. If he rejected that idea, he might consider whether any black-owned supermarket trying to compete against the national chains could afford to give shelf space to a product that guaranteed to alienate potential white customers. Would black consumers buy toothpaste through the mail? And what of the likelihood that the cheapest supplier of whatever it was that went into making toothpaste was white?

Wiley has always been worried about this. He thinks it's all about those mundane realities, all about fundamental economics. Farrakhan's message didn't fail because of ideological flaws. The old Buy American campaign didn't fail because of ideological flaws. They failed because of the practical realities of the marketplace.

The Carrot Project has to face that same marketplace. And, in Wiley's opinion, it can't rely on ideology.

And that's fair. And scary.

But it's a challenge we might as well embrace. It's something we think we're addressing, in a preliminary way at least, by featuring main stream brand to main stream brand comparisons, by helping people choose between Crest and Colgate or Pepsi and Coke. Will that be enough? Might it be a source of competitive advantage? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it's a challenge to keep in mind.

Another thing to keep in mind is the author of the book Wiley's reading, the man that wrote that passage above. Barack Obama. Not bad for a politician.

Posted by email from Radical Transparency (posterous)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Two Horses

Last fall, I spent a late night at Ludovic's office in Beijing on the phone to a sporting goods entrepreneur turned corporate social responsibility expert.*

I had just started walking him through the proto carrot project vision, and he asked what I knew about my competition. I rattled off a few of the little projects I'd seen and then mentioned one sort of wild card that I'd seen lurking in the space

A friend that had just finished his computer science PhD work had recently told me about a classmate of his that had gone to work for a startup project with deep connections to consumption research being done at their university. My friend thought I should meet his classmate, that the work I was doing sounded like it had heaps of interesting overlap with the startup project on which his classmate had just started working. My friend sent an email and linked his classmate up to the old Productipedia demo interfaces. When the classmate responded, he told my friend no way they could meet with me; the projects were WAY too similar.

I thought that was a bit weird. I was bummed not to have connected. I was certainly still curious. But the internets had taught me a little bit about their project, and nothing I had read had convinced me that they had everything figured out, so I figured I'd keep on doing my thing, building the tool that I wished already existed.

The voice on the phone told me he knew about the wild card project too. Knew some of the people involved, in fact. And he told me I might want to reevaluate my situation. It looked to him like a two horse race, and he asked me to look at some facts before predicting a winner. One horse has venture funding, research university resources at their fingertips, and a year long head start. Which horse does the rational gambler like?

I responded modestly and politely, hung up, and, shaken, took a deep breath.

The next morning I woke up and wrote my friend's classmate an email. I threw it all out there. I mentioned stealth mode and secrecy, my desire, above any considerations of business success or failure, for a marketplace equipped with more and more perfect information, and my hope that we could approach this thing collaboratively rather than competitively.

He agreed to meet; we did; and it was fun and educational and left me convinced that I needed to keep working on my project, trying to build the tool that I had envisioned.

A couple of days ago, I met with him again. For the third time now. And, while he was, as always, significantly cagier than me, he looked at me a whole lot less suspiciously.

Now maybe that's due to the fact that he doesn't think my silly unscientific ideas stand a chance, but, even if so, it was nice to feel a little trust emerging, and it helped me get back into the right frame of mind around his project.

I'm feeling much more genuine in my rooting for them now. I've always wanted to root for them, but they've been weird. They've given some strange impressions to quite a few of the other "competitors." They're secretive. And, frankly, sometimes they're downright unfriendly.

But seeing them again and feeling them warm up to me makes me not want to get hung up on that.

They get weird because they're doing tough work, and it's discouraging sometimes, and they have legal and financial obligations that I don't have. That's tough. I need to give them the benefit of the doubt and remember that what I want is a world in which I can figure out, quickly and conveniently, which toothpaste manufacturing company I feel most comfortable supporting.

If they can make that happen, excellent. I still recommend betting heavy on my little underdog horse, but, as long as someone crosses that finish line, we all win.

*Note: A character whose identity I think I had probably better not reveal. Not yet. As much as I love radical transparency, sometimes mystery feels like a smarter (safer) strategy. Hopefully someday I'll fill in this little gap, and we'll laugh about the silliness of keeping secrets, but, today, in this post, I'm going to let a few people remain nameless.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Few More Days of Quiet

I've lost some momentum here. Didn't plan on it. August was supposed to be the slow month. September was going to get it rocking again.

But crazy things happen. A trip to the Bay Area to meet the Django community and check in on friends of and advisors to The Carrot Project has turned into a trip to the Bay Area to hang with a friend that just lost his little brother.

I've written a bit about that over on the Posterous blog. Not really sure what to say or write or think or do, but all of us friends have been trying our best, and we'll keep at it.

As for work and this blog, I have been able to squeeze in a couple of meetings, and I am still going to DjangoCon on Saturday, so I already have and surely will continue to accumulate thoughts I'd like to throw up here.

Not sure when it'll happen, however.

Soon for sure. Or, to borrow a phrase from a friend sitting on a back porch with a guitar the other night, sometime between now and pretty soon.