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The Official Blog of Cogmap, the Org Chart Wiki

 

Archive for January, 2010

 

Is Minimum Viable Product Your Excuse For Shoddy Work?

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

http://blog.groupstory.com/

If you needed to get a small car across a river, would you hire someone who has never built a bridge before?  If you get a really good engineer, with bridge building experience, who makes great trade-offs, you get there faster.  Sure, there is some risk that people who build huge bridges will want to build more bridge than you need.  You should manage that.  Also, if he was a great engineer, he would recognize the unique requirements of this situation and adapt.

Architecting products can deliver a variety of benefits, typically referred to as the “ilities”.  The ilities that I have traditionally valued most, along with the architects that I have typically enjoyed working with, given that the work we are typically focused on is pretty early stage technology, tend to be things like “flexibility”.

Sometimes I see a blog post like this one.  And my reaction is, “sounds like you are working with the wrong engineers”, not that working with senior architects is bad.

Let’s be real.  The most widely agreed upon truth in software development is that there is a 10x difference between awesome engineers and average engineers.  A critical goal, in building a company, is to get as many of those 10x engineers as you can.  He who gets the most typically wins.

I have found that a senior guy that is also a 10x guy, builds a product that is easier to adjust, designed for extensibility, and all that other good stuff.  And many of the design decisions are decisions he makes subconsciously.  He simply works in a way that generates better outcomes.  Some of the decisions that young engineers make is not a road to shipping the product faster, it is simply the path of least resistance that they understand best.

For me, the sign of a great engineer is not an instinct to over-architect.  It is the intuitive ability to sense how much architecture is appropriate and when that architecture should be introduced.  What abstractions are appropriate and will accelerate time to market and accelerate our ability to add new functionality to the system and which ones are inappropriate when you are still testing market feasibility.  I have seen multiple instances where it was implied to me that Minimum Viable Product mean “seat of the pants coding so we can get to learning faster”.  Anyone that has been around the block can tell you that this is probably not a path to take you where you want to go.

There are only a few Joe Stump‘s or Dimitrij Denissenko‘s out there.  You should hire one.  I see architects all the time that are hand-waving preachers of building big systems.  I hate that.  Let’s ship a product and then scale.  Good architects can do it.  Bad architects could be inexperienced or they can be people that over-architect.

Minimum Viable Product is, to me, an approach to Product Management.  Gold-plating requirements makes development tough.  Over-architecting products makes development tough.  Engineers love the idea of Minimum Viable Products because it emphasizes frequent iteration and maps well to Agile, but it should not be used to justify taking inappropriate shortcuts in product development.  Hire the most senior, most awesome developers you can justify.  Been there, done that means a lot in engineering.

What Is The Future Of The About Us Page?

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Thinking about the web site we are building for my new company.  One thing that seems like it is in some flux today is the dreaded “About Us” page.  To me, it used to be a one paragraph mission statement with a few links to a few static pages:

  • The Team
  • Investors/Board
  • News/Press
  • Jobs/Culture

Even Tumblr’s about us page is fairly typical and meets this standard.

But I get the distinct feeling that About Us pages are changing.  I have recently seen About Us links on web sites that were, rather than linking to an “About Us” page, links to:

  • The Company Blog
  • Wikipedia
  • Crunchbase
  • Facebook Fan Page
  • Twitter

All of these are most notable for their ease of maintainability.  Clearly, small companies think having an About Us page is a pain in the butt.

Certainly, the biggest change, in general, for About Us pages is the growth of Twitter and Facebook Fan Pages.  It seems like every company has a Twitter account and/or a Facebook Fan Page and they try to get people to follow them/be their fans.  So now every company has a link to these things on their web site.  Also, they want to push information out to these followers.  The result is that this is a fairly good place to keep information like “news/press” and “jobs”.  Now if your about page has this data, it becomes redundant data maintenance.

It takes a big marketing department to want to do that.

I am interested in everyone’s thoughts here.  What would you like to see my company do?

What Should I Do With My About Page?

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Interview with Fussy Little Blog’s Dan Berman

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

I have recently been wanting to do some interviews – bring new fresh voices to the CogBlog!

I figured I should start out easy and that meant reaching out to Dan Berman.  After working at ad agencies in San Francisco for more than a decade, Dan moved to Albany, New York to become a food blogger.  From his home base in the deep, deep snow, Dan has crafted a reputation for insanely deep knowledge of tons of food topics on blog: The Fussy Little Blog.

I figured people have the questions about food covered, so I wanted to talk with him about the approach he has taken to building a popular blog, aside from writing great blog posts.  Here is my interview:

1) How did you decide this topic?  Was there a process you went through?

I’ve always enjoyed talking about food and sharing good food with others. I used to be very popular at my old ad agency for both assembling cheese plates for department tastings and bringing in some of the best pastry in the area for birthdays.

But the blog was the direct result of my moving to Albany, NY and arriving in a place where the expectations and standards of restaurant food were so much lower than what I had grown accustomed to in and around Berkeley, CA.

All the same, I was convinced that there was good food in Albany, and the trick would just be to find it.  So I hit the ground running, and wrote Yelp reviews for every place that looked to have some promise.  There were some hits but a lot of misses.

I found menus posted online to be a very good tool for determining whether or not to try a mid to high tier restaurant.  It’s one thing to be fast and loose with cafés, pizzerias, and diners, but I am loath to spend a lot of money on a mediocre meal.  And I believe you can tell a lot about a restaurant from how they present themselves on their menu.

The problem is that many of the menus were just awful.

And then all of a sudden Yelp was no longer sufficient for communicating the food issues that were important to me.  I couldn’t review a restaurant without having eaten there. But on a blog, I can have an in depth analysis of a menu and explain why I don’t think a restaurant is worth the time, money and calories.

2) How did you pick the name?  What was the process like for that?

In my early twenties I lived in a house with a few of my closest friends. Occasionally I make reference them on the blog as ADS and Raf.  We are like family.  And you can say things to family that you can’t say to other people.

Of the three of us Raf is the fussiest.  And sometimes when it got out of control, we would call him a FLB.  You can say these things to family. But you cannot really put that into a public space.  So when I found that I could use the acronym and own the FUSSYlittleBLOG, I jumped on it.

Honestly, I couldn’t believe it was available.  It was perfect.

It was broad enough that I could include a lot of different subjects.  It also immediately establishes and justifies an editorial voice.

3) Did you have an explicit plan for building awareness of the “Fussy” brand?  What was it?  What worked best?  What didn’t work? What would you do different?  What has driven the most traffic for you?

My plan was to leverage my social networks and the relative local notoriety I had achieved by being the most prolific Yelper in Albany, NY.

And that worked pretty well.

I showed up to an AllOverAlbany.com event, and met their editors.  When I introduced myself they said, “Daniel B.? You are the king of Yelp.”  I assured them I was no king.  But they featured my blog in a big way on their site, and that really helped me establish a local foothold like nothing else.

That relationship grew and grew.  In the fall they selected me to be a judge for their 2009 Tournament of Pizza. And at the end of the year I was one of a few people profiled as “Interesting in 2009.”

At the same time I have been involved in the local food blogging community, reading and commenting on several prominent sites, and attending local food events.

But you never know what is going to yield a lot of traffic.  My best-read post is “The Secret to Oddly Tender Chinese Meat.”

4) How far ahead have you planned for your posts?  How far in advance are they generally written?  Walk us through a typical week.

Planned? I did do a lot of planning in the beginning.  I really wanted to make sure that all of my categories received equal amounts of love.  Now that the blog is more populated with posts – well over 200 at this point – I worry less about that.

I do keep an ongoing list of post ideas.  But more often than not, I’m not particularly in the mood to write about any of them, and go off and write something else instead.  On a good week, I’ll sit down on Saturday night and map out the posts for the next week.  Although to be honest, that hasn’t happened for a while.

Ideally I like to work with one post in the can.  So on Monday morning I’ll sit down with Mrs. Fussy to copy-edit Tuesday’s post.  Lately I’ve been writing them on a daily basis.  Which means on Monday night I’ll be writing Tuesday’s post.  It keeps the blog dynamic, but it’s exhausting.  Luckily I don’t need too much sleep.

5) Why no ads?  What is the revenue model?  How has the store worked out?

I used to work in advertising because I hate ads.  It’s a long story.  But at my current traffic level I really don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze.  I have no revenue model.  The store is there to help contextualize some of the items I mention in posts, but I never had any illusions that it would be a profit center.

The FUSSYlittleBLOG isn’t a business, it’s a tool.  I don’t quite yet know what the tool does, but I’m playing around with it, and hope to figure it out before too long.

6) How much of your traffic is local?  How much is San Francisco?  Do you regret not starting this in San Francisco?

My back of the napkin estimate tells me that 75% of my traffic is from within New York state.  I have a bunch of my old peeps following the blog in San Francisco, but I also have friends who check in from all over the country.  The blog is currently hosted on WordPress using a standard template, and as far as I can tell, I have no tools at my disposal to actually track users by geography.

It is a difficult balance between trying to affect change locally while still being appealing to a broader audience. This is one reason why I recently accepted a guest-posting slot on one of the blogs hosted by the major local newspaper.

http://blog.timesunion.com/guilderland/free-wine/615/

Technically speaking, all of this did start in San Francisco.  The region played a critical role in shaping my thoughts about food, wine and spirits.  All I am doing is what many have done before in the past.  Taking what they learned out west, and helping to spread it to the rest of the country.

In San Francisco I was much happier about food.  But happy-about-food-blogs are a dime a dozen.

Pretty good stuff.  I will admit, I didn’t exactly have hard-hitting questions.  We will have to work up to that, I suppose.

One interesting thing I took away from this is his use of WordPress.com.  While it is an incredibly easy way to start blogging, WordPress.com doesn’t support Google Analytics.  I don’t think anyone that was trying to make money blogging could actually be happy with their analytics on WordPress.com.  The fact that Dan kind of glosses over this implies to me that even someone like Dan, with tons of advertising experience, fits into that bucket of bloggers so happy to be blogging they have not really (as he says), thought seriously about monetization.

I did a great interview with Pioneer Woman after her big “Blog of the year” award at SXSW (which I subsequently lost to a hard drive crash).  When I asked her what her CPMs were like, she said, “What are CPMs?”  She barely knew how much money she made from her blog.  This is the blog of the year, folks.

Facebook and LinkedIn are not working right!

Monday, January 18th, 2010

http://www.flickr.com/photos/99zeros/474752493/

So for those of you that have not been following too closely, I recently left my day job to focus full-time on an entrepreneurial venture.  And it isn’t Cogmap!  (more on that in a forthcoming post.)

Anyway, during the last 5+ years I have spent working for the man, I have built a nice little LinkedIn network and my policy was straightforward:

This is my non-promiscuous network.  Every person that I am connected to, I am connected to so closely that if they know someone that you want to meet, I can get you that meeting.  Being in the inner circle is valuable because 3rd degree connections work really well via me.

Facebook was my “promiscuous network”.  Since I had my own Facebook app (Football Coach (http://apps.facebook.com/football_coach/ and http://apps.facebook.com/ncaa_football_coach/) I had tons of useless friends that I barely knew and that was fine.

Now I find myself in new, uncharted territory.  There are people on LinkedIn that I know, but not well enough to be able to make the same commitment that I have made previously. However, now that I am doing my own thing, it might be nice for me to be able to take advantage of these relatively weak connections to exploit my own 2nd degree relationships.

One of the things I don’t like about LinkedIn is that, ideally, I would like a way to be able to mark “BFFs” or something, so I can know how strong or weak a 2nd or 3rd degree connection is.  While I know that this probably causes other problems, when I see that someone knows Jason Calcanis and I want an intro to him (I have 14 people that I connect to that know him), I would love to be able to tell who “really knows him”.  I don’t hold my LinkedIn partners to the same high degree that I do.  Especially for someone so high profile and with many partners like that.

Mediation is RTB

Monday, January 18th, 2010

If you are wondering what the future of mediation is, as I wondered briefly recently, the answer is RTB RTB RTB. Who needs algorithms when you can RTB it.

EOM

Cogmap World Tour

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Cogmap is out and about.  If you want to meet Brent, I will around soon enough.

Here is where I will be.

NYC: January 19th and 27th, February 3rd

Annapolis: January 26th

Philadelphia: January 22nd

San Francisco: March 7 – 13th

My email: brent at this domain.

If you want to hang, but these days don’t work, let me know.  Going to be really hitting the road for the next month or two I suspect.

Why Aren’t Techstars-ish Programs In Every Big City?

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

http://www.flickr.com/photos/somewhatfrank/2340687800/

Techstars, Y-Combinator, and to a lesser extent, programs such as Digital Launchbox are popular incubator programs scattered in large cities throughout the country.  The keys to their success, IMHO, are:

  • “Program schedules” – they run on a cycle.  After ~13 weeks, it ends and people are off and running.  This time-boxing exercise makes sure that everyone is focused and it allows a company to sign up with a relatively small commitment.  “It is just a few weeks!”
  • “Demo days” – There is a tangible product at the end of the incubation.  The companies participating have to show and tell and they know if they show and tell well, there are people that can help their business in the audience.
  • Great mentors – People that participate in the incubator get to meet and have varying degrees of access to people that it would be hard for them to get access to otherwise.

These incubator’s take a small slice of equity in exchange for their services.  Incubator costs are relatively low and certainly the theory is they are more than exceeded by the value of the equity in the companies that participate.

I believe these incubator’s are a powerful force for innovation in a city.   If a program runs 13 companies through the program every cycle and runs two cycles per year, that is 26 fairly viable start-ups created every year.    The Demo Days create a focused opportunity to try and fund them and the mentoring ensures that they are better positioned for success than your average boot-strapped start-up.

Further, unlike something like an “Angel Organization”, they need to meet their quota.  There will be 26 companies per year.  They feel incented to get deal flow.

This feels to me like something that every city government should be wanting to do.  Why haven’t they started to do them?

The Dirty Secret of Small Ad Networks

Monday, January 11th, 2010

http://www.flickr.com/photos/casalemedia/3471980910/

Brian Tomasette continues to have some nice posts on his blog.  His most recent discusses how it is possible to wire together DFP to work like an ad network technology stack.  In fact, he points out, Collective Media uses it this way. (or used it this way.)

Couple of thoughts:

  1. Love that Brian is willing to put it all out there like this.  Maybe he doesn’t view it this way, but I view this as a pretty good knock on Collective Media (more on that in a second).  When I was an AOL employee, I tried to be pretty restrained in bashing competitors (although I am sure some would disagree).  It is very tough for Brian to be a sales guy at AOL and make fun of Collective.  But telling the truth is, at some level, never wrong…. it is just not PC.  And really interesting!
  2. Lot’s of ad networks are doing this.  I mean a lot.  If you and I started an ad network tomorrow, we would probably do this.  If Brian started a network tomorrow, he would do this.  Great optimization only comes if you have the liquidity to have things to optimize off of.  So the focus of every small network is signing up publishers and advertisers.  It is rarely the algorithm.  The result is that people get just enough technology to get by.  Essentially, you fix your technology costs as a percentage of revenue when you use this.  It isn’t necessarily great tech, but it would take a few people a bit of time to do better.  Most people say, “why bother?”  One of the main reasons that DMX was shut down by Right Media, in my opinion, is that people were simply using it to run tiny ad networks and, given that most of the inventory was just more frequency from the same publishers and more CPA ads from the same advertisers, they were not adding a lot of value.  This is the “not premium” that Yahoo was complaining about.
  3. The advent of exchanges has made this even more popular.  Now we don’t need to front the inventory to run a tiny ad network and we barely need to optimize to go out and sell retargeting.  All you need is an account on DoubleClick or Right Media’s exchange and you can start selling network services.  But all this inventory is the same!  Zero value has been added, it is just more sales people selling the same inventory.  And CPA advertisers don’t particularly care, although as they allow varying frequencies of inventory to be inundated with tiny advertisers, they lower the eCPA for the big guys, potentially hamstringing campaigns.  This is why the really big guys are a little careful about this stuff.

When a new network calls you, do some diligence.  Take their tags.  Look at ‘em.  Are they Right Media tags with a cname?  Do a traceroute.  Look at cookies they set.  This isn’t hard and doesn’t take a lot of time.

There are tons of people starting ad networks.  Generally, those people aren’t engineers, they are ad network sales people.  Are they really building something unique or are they cherry picking inventory off of exchanges?

UPDATE: Let us be clear, I mis-characterize Brian as making fun of Collective in this post.  All he actually does is state the fact that at one time they used a third party’s tech stack for optimization technology without rendering any opinion regarding the decision to do that.  As Brian remarks in the comments, he respects Collective Media.

AOL Begins Acquisition Spree?

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

http://www.flickr.com/photos/comicbase/2971745348/

Tons of rumors that AOL is about to acquire Mashable.  In the context of those rumors, I heard comments about whether AOL is willing to write big checks – specifically implying that they were not, coming out of the layoffs, etc..  I have very little to add to the cacophony regarding that specific deal, but I do want to point out a few things that seem interesting to me:

  • If I had a newly public company that I was running (like, say, Tim Armstrong), and I thought my company was a mess (like, say, Tim Armstrong probably does), I might be inclined to use my new public stock to go an acquisition spree.  We already heard he wanted to do Associated Content and Time Warner shut him down.  Time Warner probably still has that veto power in the context of board ownership, but if it was an all-stock deal, Time Warner would probably be indifferent to it now.
  • If I had a public company and I thought their stock might be flat or go down (like, say, these analysts think), then it would be in my interest to spend my stock like it is going out of style right now.  If every dollar in stock that gets distributed now will be worth $0.90 in the future, that deflation incents you to spend today.  Saving is for people that aren’t earning a negative interest rate.
  • If I had a cost management problem, I would either avoid acquisitions that were not going to break even quickly or I would only do the acquisition if I thought it was a key piece of the puzzle.  Of course, the point is that I could still take some risks and try to bring my costs back in line somewhere else.  I assume, on an absolute basis, that AOL thinks that the current cost cutting efforts will bring costs in-line with revenue.  Or close.  That means if they can tell a story that a deal could be accretive at some point, it is an easy story to do.
  • My experience with Business Development people is that they don’t get to put on their resume: “Avoided doing a bad deal”.  Biz Dev people are great at painting a story of how something will, given a hockey stick, get to profitability quickly.  They get paid to do deals.  If Tim has given them a green light, they will have a story on how they should do some deals.  If the deal goes south or doesn’t hit a number, it was probably a problem in the integration or execution of the business.  Or changing market conditions.  Or something.

Hey, call me jaded, but I was there when Bebo happened.

So if I was Tim, hell yeah, I would do some deals.  Be shocked if they did not go on a wave of trigger pulling all-stock deals.  A lot of these deals will fall apart because companies will want to get paid recognizing the stock is likely to decline and having that built in.  That could make a deal prohibitively expensive.  But it is certainly in AOLs best interest to make the offer.

Here is an idea: Offer Time Warner $34B in AOL stock!  Blam!

Managing Commoditization and Exchanges

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Lot’s of people, and AOL is a well-documented party here, are trying to figure out how to cut the number of ad views on a page and increase the CPM they charge advertisers while not drastically reducing their page CPM.  Similarly, decreasing low quality “picture galleries” or breaking articles into numerous pages, can decrease “available pages” while increasing the quality of the product being sold.

Unfortunately, that is incredibly effective and easy to execute in straightforward direct sales, but has relatively low perceived value in the world of exchanges.  In exchanges, where people are typically buying audiences, one impression feels as good as another to most advertisers.  When Fetchback wades into an exchange bidding $2.00 CPMs and charging their advertisers $6.00 CPMs, it doesn’t matter if there are 8 ads on the page or two ads on the page.  The biggest challenge in a retargeting campaign is acquiring volume, so they are probably happy to get it any way they can.  Generally, this ends up being true for lots of advertisers seeking audiences.

Further, advertisers have very little data about aggregate ad frequency per user (is this the hundredth ad they have seen on the site, on the exchange, or on the network today?)  That data would help in the valuation process and is notoriously absent.  Of course, as we discussed, only the most sophisticated advertisers would be able to value it.

Finally, were one to be one of those sophisticated advertisers, it would probably be all about the performance.  Determining lift in performance for pages as the ads on them change is critical to effectively managing an exercise to decrease aggregate ad views across a web site.  Split testing is important and I can tell you from experience that it needs to be a real split test.  Simply changing and comparing a past period to the present exposes the test to too much variability of advertising supply.

Most publishers will struggle to justify the resources to conduct an exercise like this.  Particularly when, unfortunately, given the simplistic perspective of many advertisers, there are reasonable odds that this will not move the needle at all in increasing the true net value of their sites inventory.

While it is in everyone’s best interest (theoretically) to have fewer, better performing ads on a page, in an exchange where little is known about any given placement, a bad actor can exploit good actors in the system to unfairly maximize his yield at the expense of other players.  This results in a prisoners dilemma situation.  The result is that, in many tests, publishers may find themselves in a death spiral of adding more ads to inventory to increase the effective yield of a page.

It will be interesting to see how we evolve the Internet to be a good place for advertisers and readers.