Changing the game for artists

July 25, 2012 | 3 comments

Contrary to what you may have heard, the web creates all kinds of new opportunities for artists – as long as they choose to engage with their fans and markets. Making money is about business, after all, but the positive thing about choosing to engage yourself is that you get to decide where the line between art and commerce sits. Everything is put in your hands.

My sister is a local-scale musician. She streams her work-in-progress songs for free from Soundcloud, sells her album from Bandcamp, promotes via Facebook and Twitter.

She’s also an ecologist by profession, which means that her music can afford to be a little quirkier (and occasionally strays into diurnal migration strategies). Uncommercial? Not necessarily: a Facebook app called Hear It Local allows anyone to book her for a house concert:

Of course, you might not have the resources to book a band to play in your living room (although I note that Hannah’s decided not to list a minimum amount). No matter; you can crowdfund the gig, and build attendance in the process:

These grassroots tools are a natural fit for the web, and change the game for smaller artists like Hannah. They can use them to power their own gig-related campaigns, or they could build a fanbase that could invite them to come and play in a particular location. (I know that the Canadian startup Sceneverse intends to take this to the nth degree; they’re worth watching.)

Just as there’s no need for all startups to be the next Facebook, there’s no need for all artists to be the next Madonna. These kinds of tools serve the spectrum in-between, allowing smaller, riskier artists – the ones that might have had to compromise to be picked up by traditional mass-market distribution methods – to earn good incomes from their art. That can only be a good thing for all of us.

Edited to add: Josh Russell pointed out that Artspotter seems to have a similar mission. What similar services are out there? Let’s make a list.

Bootstrapping Elgg

July 19, 2012 | 4 comments

Preparing for the ePortfolio 2006 conference pt 2In my twenties, as part of a two-person team, I co-founded and bootstrapped a social networking platform that would end up being used by organizations like Oxfam, the World Bank, the Australian government, the United Nations and NASA.

We did this with a budget of $0; I don’t remember ever buying advertising, and for the first few years the web presence piggybacked on my personal web server that was paid for (just) by other projects. We bootstrapped a business to support it, starting from scratch and eventually acquiring enough investment to hire a small number of other people to work on it with us. We were flown around the world to speak and support, and there are hundreds of companies today that make part of their income by selling Elgg services. I’m a proud benevolent dictator.

It only occurred to me years later that we took a very lean startup approach. The first thing we launched was a white paper for elearning professionals, that tied my social web experience with Dave’s elearning background. A classic minimum viable product. (The genesis of Elgg was as a platform for eportfolios – what we might now refer to as “profiles”, albeit designed to showcase skills and learning.) The response was so great – over 60,000 downloads for an academic paper! – that we released another, more specific paper. Same response. And so, fueled by a comment by an educator that “it’s one thing to write about it, it’s another thing to build it”, we made it happen.

Two early prototypes were built: one by Dave, in ColdFusion, and one by me in PHP. We went with the latter; PHP at the time was the world’s most popular web scripting language, and it was important to us that people could use commodity shared hosting to upload their communities.

All weblog postsAt the core was a hosted version at (long since gone), which we released six months before the source code. This turned out to be important: a central, hosted community made it much easier to test features, just as the open source community would make it easier to test APIs later on. Each time we tested a feature based on unfounded assumptions, we faltered. Each time we responded intelligently to our users’ actions and intentions, we saw growth. The key was that most features took a day to write. While some took a few days, or even a week, in the early days we released as early as we could. This was as much to do with limited resources as user feedback.

Example: there were no defined collaboration groups in Elgg, because we hadn’t included them in our original papers. It was only when users continually asked for them, and we spoke to sample users to figure out what they needed, that they were added.

Elgg 1.0 screenshotThe downside to this approach was that the code architecture developed in a very organic way. Which is to say that, three years later, it was a mess. So when we did acquire some investment capital, we took the validated assumptions and learnings from our initial growth period and rewrote the system in a more planned way. There’s a lot of advice out there that tells you to not to do this, and it’s fair to say that we took too long. But the result is a framework that continues to this day.

I miss working on Elgg sometimes. It was a vibrant open source community, and a very visible project. Bootstrapping the company was a rollercoaster, full of incredible peaks and troughs – emotional low points and high points mixed together in a way that was both stressful and exhilarating.

However, the current Elgg team – led by Brett Profitt – have arguably taken the project to a new level. It’s awesome to tune in now and then to see what they’re doing. It’s very much theirs now, and I’m very content knowing that it’s in such safe hands.

A pretty good day for Marissa Mayer: why Yahoo! could still win

July 16, 2012 | 5 comments

Not only was she named as the new Yahoo! CEO today – but she’s also announced that she’s expecting her first child. That’s up there with Mark Zuckerberg’s graduation-IPO-wedding triple whammy earlier this year.

At the time of writing, Yahoo! is worth over $19B. It’s certainly languished for the better part of a decade, and some of its leadership choices have been questionable. But it’s huge in Asia, its news and sports sites are the #1 in their respective categories, its APIs are widely used, Yahoo! Mail remains more popular than Gmail, and it still owns sites like the much-loved Flickr (which I’ve been using for years).

There’s a lot of potential energy in Yahoo!, ready to be converted into success.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, under Mayer, it became the new, friendly home for broadcast media. Here’s CNBC’s coverage of the CEO announcement, and here’s the corresponding coverage from Fox Business. Both are hosted on Yahoo!’s Screen portal, which also has deals with ABC News, MLB, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL – and I’m picking names out of a very large hat here. It’s worked hard for its friendly status with the content companies, and if you combine that with its content analysis technologies, aptitude for smart feeds and real social tech, as well as true hardware agnosticism, you’re looking at what could be a very interesting platform for 21st century content consumption. (Don’t believe me? Jason Kilar, Hulu’s CEO, was under heavy consideration for the leadership post until he bowed out.)

That focus would also sidestep Yahoo!’s biggest bugbear: the perception that it’s a search engine / web index directly in Google’s space. Yes, its origins lie there, but Google’s emphasis on algorithms would be an uphill struggle to beat – and while the Yahoo! Directory still exists, it’s clearly not the company’s prime focus. (Also, it’s worth considering that Mayer likely still has Google stock.) Better to embrace the spirit of Yahoo!’s early years and provide a space on the Internet that’s more about DNA than data.

Yahoo! won’t be an algorithm; it won’t be a click farm that tricks the user into building their own direct marketing profile. It’ll be a curated series of channels full of the stuff you care about. That’s its strength, and that’s what it should concentrate on.

latakoo NBC deal in the news

July 13, 2012 | Leave a comment

Our deal with NBC made the headlines over at TechCrunch:

According to Werdmuller, the company has seen wide usage across broadcasters in the U.S. and Mexico. He mentions that one customer, Nexstar Broadcasting, which runs 55 TV stations in the U.S., is now seeing a 5x to 8x return on its investment. For many broadcasters on the service, the savings come from their ability to ditch the satellite truck, which one client said was $500 to hook up and $25 for every five-minute satellite window. And there’s the truck operator to think of, too. Those are some hefty costs Latakoo is helping to take down.

Austin Business Journal also picked up the story. Here’s my original post about it yesterday.

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