Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The DUH Effect (or, the WWID generation)

Let me preempt these comments by saying the following generalizations are not necessarily true of all members of my generation. They are, I believe, more prevalent in my generation than those who have come before us, however.
I just read Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier, way to build a successful web application by the guys over at 37signals. The book is smart, well-pointed, and a fun read the whole way through. However, one word stuck out in my mind after nearly every sentence: DUH!
The same word has gone through my head with every business book I've read recently: The Long Tail, The Tipping Point, Wikinomics, and nearly every Seth Godin book out there.
This mental commentary is not reflective of the authors; rather, it is reflective of the difference in mindset that a few years makes.
The readers of my generation don't need to be told that niches exist, that collaborative knowledge is powerful, or that breaking down barriers (including broad advertisements) between a company and customers can bring lots of benefits. DUH!
We know these things. We assume them. This is how our world works. All the processes that these books are built to break down, we never knew existed. We digest the world in snapshots and snippets, diving deeper into only the specific realms that pique our interests (for example, the reading I've enjoyed recently has involved the brain's cognition and processing of music and the many definitions and significances of infinity).
Take social networking for example: it took someone of my generation to get it right after other, slightly older tech geniuses got bogged down after building great promise. While many of us were frustrated with it's abrupt implementation, the Facebook News Feed proved to be the most significant feature of it's growth. Zuckerberg noticed that students were spending hours on Facebook digging through each others' profiles and walls trying to find out who had changed something recently or had a conversation with someone else recently.
We as humans seek transparency into the people and companies we care about. Due in large part to lack of technology, past generations rarely realized or acted upon this human urge--but why were newspapers started? Why have sit-coms succeeded? Why do tabloids make billions?
The personal focus, the focus on the individual, manifests itself in countless ways. There's the urge to participate, to make yourself feel like you made a difference--volunteering at a homeless shelter or contributing an entry on Wikipedia. There's the urge to get your personal message heard--sending Christmas cards or blogging or, most recently, Twittering. There's the urge to know what other individuals are up to, as noted above.
My generation recognizes this personal focus and has an understanding of the tools necessary (mostly web-related) to act. When we get stuck creating something for public use, we simply ask "What would I do?" and chances are pretty good that there are some other people out there of the same mindset--be it a large market or a niche one. And if asking WWID doesn't work, we look at who we want to reach and explore their wants, needs, and what they're doing. Then we go back to our drawing board and change accordingly.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Randomness and Predictive vs Social Forces

In traditional media marketing, there's a sense that one can predict consumer preference (and those who do the best job of this make the most money). Unfortunately for many who have made careers out of this line of thinking, their processes have relied largely upon situational factors that have allowed their success--with few media outlets (eg- TV, radio stations), those who could spend enough money to get placement for their acts would see great returns.
But times have changed. As Leonard Mlodinow says in The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives :

That is the deterministic view of the marketplace, a view in which it is mainly the intrinsic qualities of the person or the product that governs success. But there is another way to look at it, a nondeterministic view. In this view there are many high-quality but unknown books, singers, actors, and what makes one or another come to stand out is largely a conspiracy of random and minor factors--that is, luck. In this view the traditional executives are just spinning their wheels.

Mlodinow goes on to tell of a study in which 14,341 participants are asked to listen to, rate, and if they desired, download 48 songs by bands they had never heard of. Some got to see how popular the songs were, in terms of their peers downloading them. These folks were further divided into 8 groups, and could only see the data from the folks in their own group. Then there was a group that got to see no data whatsoever--this group was considered to be determining the "intrinsic quality" of the music, without any outside influence.

If the deterministic view of the world were true, the same songs ought to have dominated in each of the eight worlds, and the popularity rankings in those worlds ought to have agreed with the intrinsic quality as determined by the isolated individuals. But the researchers found the exact opposite: the popularity of individual songs varied widely among the different worlds, and different songs of similar intrinsic quality also varied widely in their popularity.

One song ranked 26 of 48 in "intrinsic quality," but was #1 in one world and #40 in another. As one song or another, by chance, got ahead early in downloads, it's apparent popularity fueled others to find it appealing.

The influence of others will always be important to us--we inherently trust the recommendations of other humans more than anything else. Traditionally, the only music recommendations we had access to came from the DJs and VJs who played what the major labels asked them to. There were a few "tastemakers." Now we have all the music options we could ever ask for, plus the option of getting recommendations from anyone and everyone--it's a reactive market now where hits aren't made by radio, but by our peers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How I Landed My Dream Job

For most of my life, I had dreamed of working in the music industry. The catch? I didn't see any jobs which didn't require either a) making no money (I'm not greedy, but I don't want to live in credit card debt), or b) fucking over the artists. The latter gave me more trouble than the former. In the traditional music model, where was there room? There wasn't.

Thank God for the internet.

But even among all the technologies out there claiming to enable and ensure artist success, one stuck out to me: Topspin--they weren't just building tools, they were building solutions for how artists could legitimately ignore the traditional label structure and make a living on their own. This is the story of how I landed my dream job with Topspin.

Earlier this spring, I noticed my idol Ian Rogers had made the shift from heading Yahoo! music to heading Topspin. Here was a guy with nearly limitless options in the digital music world, and he took a position with a stealth startup with a 3-page website. Really? Surely there must be more to it.

There was. The more I learned, the more I was enthralled. Topspin was founded by Peter Gotcher (who, among MANY other things, holds an Oscar and a Grammy for creating ProTools recording software) and Shamal Ranasinghe (who managed MusicMatch for many years, including their acquisition by Yahoo!) and described themselves as enabling bands to become their own businesses. I was intrigued, to say the least.

Doing a bit of research on LinkedIn, I discovered my friend Mike Harkey (with whom I had chatted extensively about my attempted startups NewkBox and Scenem) had been a business school classmate of Shamal's at Stanford. I asked Mike if he would be kind enough to pass along Shamal's contact info, and he was kind enough to give me a very nice introduction.

Unfortunately, my e-mail to Shamal ended up in his spam folder. Oops. Luckily, a few weeks and a phone call later, Shamal uncovered my e-mail and shot me one in return. I then did a phone interview with a manager and with Shamal.

Then silence. Topspin was in the process of moving offices, and Shamal told me they needed a bit of time before he could come back to hiring decisions.

Luckily, being the Ian-stalker that I am, I noticed Ian posted something about a job on Twitter, so I took that as a sign that I should call Shamal again. I did, he said he'd talk to Ian the next day. Well, the next day I also received a rather lucrative job offer from a consulting firm in Dallas, so I had to apply a bit more pressure to Topspin. Within 10 minutes of my e-mailing Shamal, Ian called me (surreal, yes), sang my praises for 8 minutes, and spent 1 minute telling me they wanted me to start tomorrow. The offer letter came in 10 minutes later, with a note from Ian requesting an "I <3 TYWHITE" t-shirt (as featured in picture above).

I was sold. But I had to be absolutely positively sure they were for real (keep in mind, they were still in stealth and hadn't publically revealed any funding), so I asked them to fly me out. They said absolutely and had only rushed the offer knowing I had to make a decision on the other job soon.

When I arrived in Santa Monica, I was greeted by Shamal and a sparse office that had more musical instruments than computers. As the employees trickled in, they were all smiling, kind, and smart. They had all read my blog, been to my website, and probably knew more about me than I know about myself. Even one guy who hadn't started yet, but swung by the office briefly, had checked me out. This was a tight-knit group who knew exactly what they were doing, both with computers and with other people. Sold.

I did lunch with Ian (how many people would pay how much money for that opportunity?), where we saw his idol (ironic?) ride by on a one-speed. It was storybook. He then layed out why he chose Topspin over all the other opportunities he had. Sold.

I took an afternoon break (while Ian, Shamal, and Peter ran off to a Billboard cover shoot) to wander around Santa Monica (and take a nap) before returning to the office to sign my contract. When I returned, Ian was chatting it up with my old friend from middle school DA Wallach, whose band, Chester French, is making quite a splash even before their album drops. Unbelievable.

I signed my contract and have never looked back. I started last week and it truly has been a dream come true. These people are brilliant, creative, and highly motivated to produce the best products on the market. It's everything the digital music business should be: beautiful, powerful tools that sit behind the scenes helping the artists build their relationships with their fans. While it's been a journey to get here, the true journey lies ahead, as we play our (hopefully sizeable) role in changing the music industry forever. I'm not sure I've ever been more excited to be a part of something.

Thanks to all who have helped me get this far, and to those who will continue to help along the path to the future.