I am a Mentor for Techstars Boston, helping guide startup teams through the early-stage morass of product and business strategy. To kick off the program, the twelve or so founder teams set aside several days to tackle as many 30-minute meetings with mentors as possible – usually dozens.
Dubbed “Mentor Madness,” this process initially struck me as an inefficient approach, since startups have to repeat their story over and over. Additionally, many Boston mentors come from different industries and backgrounds with different levels of experience and armed with a wide range of opinions. How do startups handle so much potentially conflicting advice? How is this not confusing and frustrating and (seemingly) a waste of time for startups, when time is the single most important resource they have? It turns out there are some surprising and powerful outcomes of this process that weren’t clear to me at the outset.
First, stringing together a large number of back-to-back meetings provides a fantastic laboratory for testing whether a founder’s pitch makes sense and then refining it in situ. Did the mentors understand the fundamentals of the business, how it works, and the core customer value? Did they zoom in on the problem areas, and most importantly, were mentors able to quickly understand where they might be the most helpful? As demo day approaches, nothing may serve founders better than practice refining their pitch and effectively soliciting help (read: funding).
Then, putting honed business ideas up against the musings of multiple new minds directly challenges a weakness many early stage startups have: the insistence that they’re already on the single best path to success. Self-confidence and faith is imperative; however the most successful early stage startups are not afraid to reconsider their strategy and pivot early enough to survive. The integration of repeated, tough feedback from mentors helps founders understand they should be open to changing course.
I have a theory. If you get a few smart people to tell you your business or product direction needs help, you might brush it off. You probably ask yourself, what do they know that I haven’t spent a year already considering? But get an overwhelming barrage of thoughtful feedback all at once and a subtle attitude shift can occur – a realization that the current plan might have weaknesses. There may be better approaches, and these folks seem to be willing to help – why not let them lean-in?
In this situation, good founders can take a step back and recognize that a diversity of opinion opens up possibilities. Advice can be a resource to tap where you pick and choose what educates and inspires. The best founders learn to not take judgments personally or throw up defenses to strong recommendations. Instead, they mine the diversity of input for gems, develop the patience to recognize helpful input, and stay true to their underlying vision.
Finally, the sheer number of interactions with mentors increases the odds of finding a good connection between the founders and the mentor. I’ve stopped thinking of this as just a matchmaking process.
Instead, lots of meetings increase the number of opportunities for a mentor to lean-in and help with more than spot advice. For some of us, mentorship involves interacting across multiple teams and providing one with timely advice, another with a customer lead and a third with a working session on development. In each meeting there isn’t always an obvious opportunity to leverage a mentor’s experience or connections, but the startups that are open to help and willing to overclock on interactions will maximize the chances that a mentor will eventually offer more substantial assistance.
Something magical happens when startups are exposed to a big surge in input from helpful individuals. A recognition they are not alone, that possibilities open up when shields go down, and given enough interactions and openness to input, some skilled mentor is going to have the irresistible urge to drop what they’re doing and help a company in a more substantial way, right when they need it.
Dear Fellow Bostonians,
At its core, The Awesome Foundation is about community. And for Boston, the marathon represents our city's community at its best. It'd be a real shame if violence is all anyone thinks about now when they think of the Boston Marathon.
So we're collecting awesome stories and memories from Boston Marathons past to showcase this incredible community event. Let's remind the world about the 116 years of amazing memories, not a single sad one.
Read, share, and contribute here: 26milesofawesome.tumblr.com
Sharing a story can be as simple as completing the sentence: "The Boston Marathon is awesome because..."
Here’s to making the 2014 Boston Marathon the most awesome one yet!
The Awesome Foundation, Boston
The new ideas and experiences these three made real are quite different from one another, yet there are patterns to be found here; for example, in leveraging small victories, having big dreams and believing in your people.
Over the last few months, I've blogged in a number of places other than here. So a round-up is well overdue.
The biggest splash probably came from a post that Eric Athas and I did on our Facebook geotargeting experiment through invitational cross-post on Neiman Journalism Lab's site. We saw some amazing engagement around localizing content through NPR's 2.4 Million followers and are now in the process of testing out scaling this experiment into new markets. Stay tuned!
Also of note was Steve Mulder and I's post on why mobile web matters to NPR. To cut to the chase, we're seeing big growth on mobile web nationally and think there's some great potential in engaging sideways traffic from in-app browsers. Our superstar Product Manager Erin Martin did a post outlining our very lean-startup-esque mobile web pilot we just launched to test some of these core assumptions.
Finally, I highlighted some great stats from one of our member station in St. Louis that is really hitting it out of the park with our publishing tool.
Most of the blogging work I've done over the last several months has been around NPR's local news efforts.
In Beyond the Blog, I point out some interesting places where Gawker Media's new proposed redesign may teach public media a thing or two and perhaps suggests that we're on good footing.
In another post on Top 10 Challenges Stations Face in Adopting Local Continuous News, I go into detail around what we've learned as we introduce news blogging to our pilot public radio stations and teach them how to do it. Certainly some lessons here around new technology adoption and organizational change management (pro tip - it's hard).
And even earlier, I looked at The Pew Internet and American Life Project findings from their Neighbors Online report on individuals’ use of online tools. The big takeaway here is that people don't care less about local news, they're just shifting their attention to a wider array of sources and finding content via their social connections online.
If you're familiar with NPRbackstory and want to know how it was put together, you can't do better than with this online tutorial.
- Applicants don't have to meet obscure grant requirements, jump through hoops, or even be held accountable for the money they receive. This means that if someone is inspired by a particular idea, they don't need to compromise that idea to meet some seemingly irrelevant application criteria or foundation obligation. This ability to follow one's own muse results in a high variability in submissions, a diversity of applicants, and a sense of freedom that can be inspirational.
- The Awesome Foundation is the only philanthropy that enables people to form their own philanthropy. There is something about the idea of the Awesome Foundation that is contagious. Its openness, lack of formal structure and small consensus-oriented team size allow micro-foundations to be easily replicated. This deeper sense of individual ownership over the giving process could be a powerful motivator towards larger-scale social good.
- The focus is on funding individuals to get things started that they wouldn't otherwise start. There is latent awesome idea potential in all of us - the snag appears to be getting off our ass and executing on it. So the Awesome Foundation's mission is to help you introduce awesome into the world. Not the continuation of mediocre stuff. More awesome.
- There is no hard and fast definition of what awesome is. Each micro-trustee brings a different definition and evaluation criteria, and this diversity of opinion permits surprise and delight inside each friendly monthly debate
- Awesomeness is, well, awesome. Most of the world is structured to encourage the creation of lowest common-denominator crap. Crap results from ideas being evaluated on their broad appeal, practicality, proven track record, or predictability of outcome. Awesomeness instead is about novelty, surprise, excellence, uniqueness, and wild and risky ideas. If we're going to fix the world's really big problems, we are going to need more wild and risky ideas.
Full Disclosure: I'm a founding member of the Awesome Foundation and an active micro-trustee.
The Awesome Foundation is a simple idea. We support people doing awesome things in the world. Every month we give out a $1,000 of our money to an idea we think is awesome and should be released upon the world.
Yes, but what do you think is awesome?
Awesomeness is more the product of a creator’s passion than the prospect of audience or profit. Awesome creations are novel and non-obvious, evoking surprise and delight. Invariably, something about them perfectly reflects the essence of the medium, moment, or method of creation. Awesome things inspire and attract.
Here's how we support more awesome:
- You apply by writing a few sentences about your awesome but unrealized idea. There are absolutely zero restrictions on who can apply and what sort of idea could win.
- If we like your idea, we give you $1000. Possibly in a brown paper bag.
- There are no strings attached or hoops you have to jump through. Of course, we hope you'll execute on your idea, but, you know, whatever.
Lots of people have been asking to find out more about the Awesome Foundation. Here's some background.
Every day brings an avalanche of new ideas and novel creations to the web, from witty t-shirts and viral videos to innovative methods of collaboration and powerful new software. The creation of unique and interesting things is not new, but the current surge in individual creative activity and its subsequent high visibility on the web is unprecedented.
The most compelling of these creative products I have been referring to as The New Awesome, and they represent a tiny portion of the total creative output. Historically, the word "awesome" might have been used to describe the power of a tornado or the grandness of a majestic vista. Today, the word is more often used to qualify the ingenious or impressive products of personal creativity, such as using hairspray to launch a potato 200 yards, hosting a talk show in Halo 2, or mocking the Kansas school board’s ruling with an ingenious take on religion.
But there’s more to the New Awesome than merely creative flair. The most interesting and, well, awesome creative products seem to share some common characteristics:
- It is novel and non-obvious
Nothing like it has really quite been done before. Whether a clever approach, an unforseen bending of the rules, or just a commitment to excellence far beyond the expected, the New Awesome never fails to evoke surprise and delight.
- It emerges from passion, without the prospect of audience or profit
From the first encounter, it's clear that the creator felt compelled to make this. Recognition or revenue is icing on the cake.
- It is initially under the cultural radar
The New Awesome invariably emerges from the depths of the long tail. While the creator might be previously known for their creations, your mom has never heard of them.
- It captures the essence of the medium, moment, or method
For something to truly stand out in the sea of creativity, the creator needs to tap into something true and magical. Don't ask me to define it, because I can't. In the words of Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.
- It evokes passion, community, like-minded behavior, and the insatiable desire to pass along
The New Awesome is meme fodder. From it springs a thousand remixes, knockoffs, spinouts, and analogs. People gather around the hem of awesome.
An interesting result of this creative surge is the rising importance of effective discovery and distribution of the best creative products. In other words, when there is a rising sea of mediocrity, how do we find and highlight the very best? Alas, this will have to be the subject of a future post.
Kickstarter is a new way to fund creative ideas and endeavors through online collective support. Individuals get rewards in exchange for backing a project, and no one is committed unless a project gets all the support it needs.
The Open Business Cards experiment uses Kickstarter to help fund the creation of 100 Creative Commons licensed background images for anyone to use for free. As part of the project, up to 10 packs of mini business cards will be created using the images and distributed as part of an exclusive run.
The idea was inspired in part by MOO MiniCards, which let you put custom photos on the back of high quality mini business cards. Since MiniCards come in packs of 100 and you can upload up to 100 custom images, I thought it would be fun to create a pack with every card you hand out being unique and open.
Before initiating this project, I had begun to create a library of textural background images from my iPhone. This was inspired by the discovery that if you power off your iPhone with the camera app running, you'll get an impromptu close-up shot when you next turn it on. This is usually a shot of a table surface, the ground, your shoes - many of which provide interesting textural backgrounds.
I have shot 53 photos so far (as of this post). I will open up the licensing of this photo set once I have shot 99 acceptable background photos.
At the VRM West Coast Workshop on May 15, I briefly presented The Six Key Traits of the proposed VRM ListenLog project. Each trait distinguishes the technology from a straightforward, local log file. Each differentiator is critical in highlighting what makes the ListenLog concept so powerful.
Listen to the bad audio while you click through the two slides. What could be a more informative way to spend six minutes?
My NPRbackstory experiment got some press this week when Josh Benton from Harvard's Neiman Journalism Lab published an in-depth piece on the utility. Josh and I had discussed the project last fall, right before I started working for NPR (the utility was cooked up as a homegrown effort to play with the API and is not officially endorsed by NPR). More recently, he saw an interesting backstory piece pop up on the Kentucky Derby and plumbed his own archives. I'm particularly excited by his focus on how the tool extracts value from existing news archives.
And of course I'm grateful for all the positive mentions on twitter... and for my employer not pulling my API key when they found out what I had done ;-)
I enjoy the Podcasts from SXSW, but on the current 2009 SXSW website, you can't actually subscribe to a podcast feed and have them automatically download in iTunes.
In order to fix this problem, I created a Yahoo! Pipe that finds the mp3 file under each item and then reconstructs a feed that includes the audio file as a podcast enclosure.
You can subscribe to the feed using the options below.
...or subscribe via iTunes.
Here are the latest three entries in the feed:
I recently had an enormous amount of fun working with Jesse Thorn from The Sound of Young America radio program putting together a panel for this year's Public Media Conference. Truth be told, he did all the hard work. I mostly adjusted microphones and fetched sandwiches. I can, however, take credit for helping come up with the original idea...
Most entrenched broadcasters are so good at doing what they do, they would never consider alternatives. Unfortunately, their methods attract a lackluster online audience because the traditional short-head approach aims to mostly please most everyone. To make things worse, they manage to tote along the baggage of bloated cost structures, plodding time-to-market, and a complete detachment from audience involvement.
This might have gone unnoticed if it weren't for several highly creative individuals who have figured out how to do things differently. They are using low cost tools, rapid-fire release schedules, free internet distribution, and an army of enthusiastic followers. Their creative products look nothing like what hits the mainstream - and this is often what makes them so compelling.
Listen in while Jesse talks with 43folders.com writer and podcaster Merlin Mann, Homestar Runner creators Mike and Matt Chapman (aka The Bros. Chaps), and Jeff Olsen, creative director for adultswim.com about the Internet, creativity, and, well, stuff.
Download this TSOYA episode (mp3)
I have written about the VRM ListenLog before, so I won't recount the basics.
One of the panels I sat on for the 2009 Public Media Conference was the mobile tech day panel along with folks from APM, PRX, NPR, and the Berkman Center. Here's the audio overview of my brief ListenLog presentation:
Check out the Public Radio Tuner project I talk about in the audio.
Internet solutions appear wherever finding, connecting, and sharing information with others is expensive or difficult. This is especially noticeable when individuals with similar interests but insufficient proximity are finally able to connect. Unsurprisingly, there are now sites bringing together global interest in speaking Klingon, knitting food, and collecting cookie fortunes.
But what about deploying internet technologies for people who are near one another? Certainly this technology isn’t just about bringing together far-flung hobbyists – there should be unresolved information needs that exist at a local level, as suggested by the buzz around hyperlocal news.
In determining these information needs, we must resist the temptation to focus on what media organizations proscribe or what is currently vanishing from existing news outlets. Instead, we should look at routine communication barriers that can be dismantled by internet-based solutions. This is surprisingly difficult to do, since we often don't see the barriers we face or recognize them as unnecessary. In order to determine where technology might be best deployed to address local needs, we must find situations where individual members of local communities are actively trying to find, connect, and share information with one another. Then we can look more closely at the difficulties, delays, and expenses that might be eliminated or reduced through more tailored use of online technology.
Looked at in this way, it becomes clear that finding and connecting with others nearby to exchange our stuff (craigslist.org), meet around shared interests (meetup.com), and initiate relationships (match.com) have all been remarkably successful. But what about sharing local news? Success with local news has been less pervasive and straightforward. Arguably, this is because existing solutions have not yet fully uncovered the true needs and barriers to sharing local news.
Another method for determining what these needs and barriers might be is to monitor online tools that excel at supporting a breadth of communications. Within these tools, we might find clusters of people who share geographic proximity and are actively communicating. Identifying patterns in communications or locations here will reveal which local needs may be benefiting most from the reduced friction of online communication.
Interestingly, most social networking tools provide little of this local communication. Both Linkedin and Facebook, for example, seem to excel at connecting out of touch and geographically disparate individuals. Things have started to shift, however, with the introduction of the short messaging system, Twitter. With Twitter, people are starting to connect with one another simply because they are nearby. Twitter seems different in this regard, and understanding how Twitter is different might just be the key to understanding where frictionless local communication holds the most promise.
Twitter saw its first big explosion in usage during the 2007 SXSW festival in Austin, TX. This was in large part due to the attendee’s unresolved need to connect with others at the conference. Ironic as this may seem, as you move around an event such as a conference, you become a mostly passive recipient of information, cut off from explicitly sharing the experience with others. Communication needs at large events like this range from broadcast heckles to simple queries around where your friends are, what events are attendance-worthy, and who to get to know. In my own experience, this proximity-effect of Twitter carries over into day-to-day situations as well - it becomes valuable to follow someone simply because they live near you. But why?
I believe one answer lies in the immediacy of the information that is shared. Specifically, it is surprisingly difficult to share information about what's going on right now amongst people near one other. As with SXSW, local twitter messages (tweets) are most valuable when they contain information about what is happening right now – often something that might affect me because of our relative proximity. For example, I might monitor the tweets from those I follow locally to know where they are or where they’re going so that I can (presumably) join them. It’s valuable to find out about something as it happens. I can always visit a traditional news source if I need to seek out a specific piece of information or learn of important happenings after the fact, but who’s going to let me know of something important going on right now? It's this active nature of twitter, filtered by real people, providing immediately sourced, proximal information that makes it so valuable. Nothing seems to match twitter for a real-time assessment of what I need to know about that’s going on near me.
Perhaps Twitter points to only one unresolved need – the need for immediate, proximal information, but I believe this need will blossom into a more significant source of local news and take different forms as it more seamlessly encourages useful sharing.
Around 15 people participated in this discussion, including Lisa Williams from Placeblogger, Ben Terris from Boston.com's Your Town, Adam Weiss of Boston Behind the Scenes, Persephone Miel from Internews Network, and Doc Searls from Harvard's Berkman Center. You can hear the conversation here:
The conversation covers a wide range of topics, including:
- Trends and directions of hyperlocal news. Where the emerging opportunities might be.
- What the user demand might be around hyperlocal news - where the current gaps are in addressing user needs.
- The rising importance of immediacy and speed of hyperlocal solution deployment
- The problem of scale and searchability around hyperlocal sites
- How hyperlocal sites and the online-offline proximity connection might address the human need for social cohesion
On the evening of Thursday, February 5th, WBUR in Boston will be hosing their sixth (seventh?) monthly informal gathering at the station. WBUR regularly convenes the Boston social media community for the purpose of facilitating discussion around social technology and its growing role and impact on local community, news, and public media. All are invited to attend this free and open event. Details here.
At this event, WBUR has agreed to let me lead a discussion on hyperlocal news - in part due to the good discussion that's stemmed from this hyperlocal blog post and my interest in doing a follow-up on hyperlocal's future potential. Won't you join us?
Keep an eye on this blog for a follow-up from the event.