Unmesh

Post ImageNow that Mesh is over, I’ll need to begin reviewing the things I heard discussed, the things I learned, and the different perspectives on things I already knew. Conferences like this one always give me so much to consider – I never leave empty handed or bored.

As I mentioned previously, the conference wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It was far less geeky than I had anticipated. Even the two “15 Minutes of Fame” sessions were not demos, but rather introductions or high level overviews. Things like Ajax or Javascript or Ruby on Rails were rarely mentioned, and even then only in passing. More people had paper notepads and pens than laptops for taking notes (there were still a lot of laptops, don’t get me wrong). All in all, the audience seemed much more “business-like”.

I think this conference was good for me. I got some interesting perspective on “Web 2.0”, and I met some very intriguing people. I also think the conference is good for Canada, we need events like Mesh to remind us of the talent and opportunity that we have – we don’t need to go to Silicon Valley. At the same time, Mesh reminds us of the areas that we could and should be doing much better.

Thanks to Stuart, Mark, and the entire organizing and planning team for putting on a superb conference! I look forward to next year’s Mesh (and yes I think there can be one, even if we no longer talk about “Web 2.0”, because the discussions held over the last two days are still relevant).

Is Web 2.0 Changing the Software Industry?

Post ImageThe last session of the day that I am attending is with Mike McDerment, Chris Messina, Matt Mullenweg, and Stowe Boyd, who will be discussing whether or not they thing Web 2.0 is changing the software industry. Here are my notes (my comments in italics):

  • Matt describes a web service as a web page meant for a computer.
  • Mike is confusing web services and web applications maybe? What Mike means is a service like Basecamp, where users pay a monthly fee to use the service.
  • Stowe likes the term/phrase, “the freemium model”, where base capabilites are free and you turn on a for fee model after some limit is hit. I like the phrase too, and the business model. It’s a natural way that people get hooked and then like a service so much they’ll pay.
  • Matt points out that a nice thing about these services is that you don’t have to worry about security, or upgrades, or any of that sort of thing.
  • The significance of consuming apps online instead of in a shrinkwrapped way, is huge, according to Stowe. Products will get much better, much more quickly. It’s like the difference between American Airlines and JetBlue.
  • Matt thinks the unsexy name for freemium is shareware, and it’s been around for a while. The difference now is that we have broadband.
  • Chris thinks wifi is also a huge change, and that we have laptops everywhere.
  • In three years, Stowe thinks the software landscape will look increasingly web-based. People will have connectivity all the time, on increasingly more capable mobile devices.
  • What Chris wants to see is interfaces and interactions with software that translates into something real.
  • People are the center of the universe, not data, not information. Stowe thinks the buddy list is the most important metaphor for the future. He says RSS aggregators follow the wrong model, we don’t need bits of information coming through a pipe, but instead we want to know what Chris has written lately, for example.
  • Good question from the audience about innovation exhaustion, what happens after the 38th signal? How do these web apps become useful for real people?
  • Stowe: another trend, small companies.
  • If you can make things intuitive, you wont have as many people bug you, says Matt.
  • Chis says microformats is an area he’s been doing a lot of work right now.
  • Matt says at the end of the day, formats and standards don’t matter. He says they should arise afterward as codifications of market trends. All of the great standards were not written first, but followed an existing market trend.
  • Stowe says we don’t need a replacement for Office on the web.
  • Stowe thinks apps with the social stuff built in will be the most successful Web 2.0 apps.
  • The “social architecture approach”, look at the social stuff during design.

Very interesting session, lots to think about after this one.

Creating a Viable Web Business

Post ImageThis should be an interesting session, all about creating a viable web business. On hand is Malgosia Green, Michael McDerment, Albert Lai and Leila Boujnane. Here are my notes (my comments in italics):

  • Leila says it’s not trivial to get someone to pay, its hard to get out of the “free” hell.
  • Michael, from FreshBooks, says that they had to change their name (they used to be 2ndSite or something) because the old name had many shortcomings. The name was not memorable, did not describe the business or industry, etc.
  • Albert says to make sure you do a trademark search, and trademark your name.
  • Albert says to ship early, and ship often. He also thinks that you shouldn’t build desktop software unless you have to.
  • Malgosia says not to get attached to your code. Sometimes rewriting is vital. Alex agrees, you can’t be afraid of shifting gears.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to the community, bloggers will talk about you if they like what they see.
  • Enable people to help each other.
  • Michael says the support department is the sales department, they don’t really have a separate group for sales.
  • Support, development, and marketing are like the holy trinity of online web apps.
  • If the application is for something leisure-related, upgrading from a free account to a paid account is’nt as common as something more focused on business.
  • Malgosia says to be humble.
  • Michael thinks that just as important as knowing what you know, is knowing what you don’t know.

There seems to be one session per conference that I don’t pay an incredible amount of attention to, and this one turned out to be the one. Some interesting ideas, but everything is really applicable only on a per-business basis. What works for one of these panelists isn’t going to work for everyone. That, and there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Does Web 2.0 need VCs?

Post ImageI got to this session slightly late, but that’s okay. Jason Fried and Rick Segal are tackling the question of whether or not Web 2.0 companies need venture capital. Jason is, of course, from 37signals, a Web 2.0 company that didn’t take VC. Here are my notes (my comments in italics):

  • Jason says everything they do is profitable.
  • Rick agrees with Jason, if you don’t need the venture capital, don’t take it. Institutional money changes the dynamics of what you’re doing.
  • On the whole, Rick thinks that 37signals is an anomoly. The norm is folks come up with an idea, and then need some cash to get going.
  • If you don’t lose your limited partners’ money, they will love you. There’s a myth that you need to make millions and millions, and its probably not true.
  • Jason says the answer to “how do you monetize this” is “you charge for it.” If you build tools that people want and like, you can charge for them.
  • If you pay for something and you use it, you’ll see the value. There is a disconnect between buyer and user in the enterprise.
  • Rick says in general, free sucks. The problem is that we’ve trained people to do free, and getting people to pay for something is a non-trivial task. Rick says generating revenue quickly is important.
  • Jason says “we like to emulate drug dealers”, you give people a little bit for free and get them hooked. Most of 37signals’ business is from upgrades.
  • Jason says know what you want to do, and build something that you can manage without requiring the headcount to swell. You need to have people on board who share that vision.
  • Rick says there are definite opportunities in Canada. However, there is not enough chest pounding that this is a great place to start a company. This company has a wealth of talent, and there is capital.
  • Rick’s standard offer to any entrepreneur is 30 minutes, no harm, no foul. Rick thinks that every entrepreneur who wants to take a shot should get to take that shot.
  • Jason says to hire the best talent you can, no matter where they are. He says you don’t need to go to San Francisco.
  • The main way to keep costs down is headcount, according to Jason. Also, don’t go buy the server farm before you have any customers. Jason says you should be able to build any product with three people, max. If you need ten people or even five, its too complex, so keep the team small.
  • The way to build an audience is by teaching, according to Jason. Either you outspend your competition, or you outteach them.
  • Finding like-minded people is more difficult. 37signals has done it through the open source community.
  • Rick says that in Canada, there’s lots of opportunities for the “put me in coach” deal, and those people will often work twice as hard. And these people become like-minded, because they are looking to you for guidance.
  • Jason thinks resumes are a waste of time. He doesn’t care where you went to school or if you finished school, as long as you do great work. It’s about fucking time someone important said this, thank you Jason, I couldn’t agree more. The school system is largely a waste of time (with regards to tech) as far as I am concerned.
  • Rick believes very strongly that the Canadian VC market is not taking enough risk, doesn’t fail enough, and doesn’t take enough flyers. The problem is that the community is very small.
  • At the high school and post secondary level, we need to allow people to try things in entrepreneurship, says Rick. If anyone gets a startup camp going, Rick wants to know about it, and he’d be happy to get people and money there.
  • There’s lots of potential downsides to taking money. You might get pushed out, you might be forced to go public, etc.
  • Rick says when he does a valuation on the company, he does two things. How much capital is going to be required to create that success? How can he stage those dollars into the company? Rick doesn’t do participating, preferred, double dip shares or anything. The best deal possible is common shares. The worst thing you can do is make someone feel like they didn’t win. At the end of the day, Rick wants the entrepreneur to feel like he/she has a partner.
  • There has to be a liquidity event for a VC, so after you take money, Rick says there is a meter running to get to that event, so the entrepreneur has to want to sell, or go public.
  • Web 2.0 boils down to service, according to Rick. They are successful with passionate customers.
  • Jason says that founders shares look good for entrepreneurs nowadays.

Building a Community

Post ImageTara Hunt is on stage now, to present the third and final keynote of the day, talking about building a community. Here are my notes (my comments in italics):

  • Tara says she left thinking there wasn’t a tech community in Toronto, but thinks that things have changed now.
  • She wants the session to be interactive. Who doesn’t? Every presenter says that.
  • Tara blogs because she is creating her own personal history.
  • Tara says the consumer revolution is here. We know better than to listen to marketing lies. There are bad customer experiences, and too many unsatisfactory choices. We’re people, not consumers.
  • Once we make a choice, we’re locked in, such as with DRM. There are too many messages – ads in the bathroom, on the train, etc. People are pissed.
  • People have good choices now.
  • Okay, this is actually interactive for once, gj Tara. A side effect of that, however, is that its harder to take notes 😉
  • We’re having a discussion now about a video Tara showed. The video, on YouTube, was of a teenage girl (bowiechick) showing off the capabilities of her Logitech webcam. Some people wonder if the video is actually some sort of marketing on the part of Logitech.
  • pinko principle #1: inbound, rather than outbound messages
  • pinko principle #2: be a community advocate (not a company evangelist)
  • pinko principle #3: 100% authenticity
  • pinko principle #4: serve niche markets
  • pinko principle #5: follow open source principles
  • Tara says to stop using the term “viral”
  • Snakes on a Plane…check it out. We just watched a CNN news segment on the upcoming movie.
  • You can’t put this stuff in a list, it’s organic.
  • You have to be part of the community you serve.

Alarm at Mesh!

Post ImageApparently an alarm has been tripped somewhere in the MaRS conference centre, so there’s a flashing light and a repeating loud beeping, which has brought the conference to a halt. Every now and then a lady comes over the loudspeaker to tell us that the cause of the alarm is being investigated, causing great humor for all attendees. Apparently the Toronto Fire Department is en route.

We’re on a fifteen minute break now. You just never know what will happen at these events 😉

Venture Capital and Web 2.0

Post ImageToday’s second keynote features Mathew Ingram talking with Dr. Paul Kedrosky about venture capital and Web 2.0. Here are my notes from the session (my comments in italics):

  • Is this another bubble? In a sense we’ve returned to 1995, two browsers got funding! (Maxthon and Flock) In a sense, it feels like we’re renacting a lot of the same things that happened last time. “It takes a lot of dead bodies to fill a swamp.” Mathew says Web 2.0 is making the same mistakes faster! Paul says he sees the same plan four times a day, which is always a sign of the bubble.
  • Paul says there’s a strong argument to be made that the first bubble (not tech, but way back) wasn’t a bubble at all, but rather a reaction to policy. We’re really good at overpainting bubbles.
  • Mathew says there seems to be a lot of money, and people have to make investments. Paul says we’re at record levels for VC, in terms of capital under management. There’s as much more money out there now as the last bubble, it’s just much more concentrated among the so-called top tier.
  • In the venture industry is a rigged market, in that the best venture investors fish from a well stocked pond.
  • Mathew wonders if you need the money VCs have? Paul says if you don’t need the venture capital, don’t take it. If you can build a company that doesn’t require capital, you’d be an idiot to give part of it away for VC involvement.
  • The nice thing about a lot of the consumer-centric Web 2.0 companies is that you can do them very cheaply. Well, sort of I guess. Cheaper when compared to ten years ago, sure. People still cost money!
  • Paul says there is very little barrier to entry now. He says its sort of like being pecked to death by ducks!
  • Given that its so easy to start a company, how can they raise all this money if they don’t have a business model? Paul says YouTube looks like a very early mockup of a television network of the future, so its a very interesting company (though they should stop stealing other peoples stuff). Paul thinks you can come up with a business model later.
  • Look at Google, the precedent is well set, maybe you can stumble your way into a business model. You better have scale though.
  • Questions from the floor are starting early. What about progression, say to B2B or enterprise? Paul says its definitely starting. He thinks the spread from consumer to enterprise has gone from 99% and 1% to maybe 60% and 40%. One of the most interesting companies Paul likes is DabbleDB, a classically Web 2.0 company oriented towards enterprise.
  • Any examples of good, profitable models? Paul says a good Canadian example is PlentyOfFish.com, who are pretty profitable. Paul thinks they are doing about $15,000 a day.
  • Is VC in Canada lagging for Web 2.0? Paul says that everywhere he goes, it seems they think they have a seed financing gap. Even in Silicon Valley! In Canada in particular, the level of wealth per capita isn’t high enough, so yes there is a gap. Under the current structure, it’s hard to do seed investing out of a large fund.
  • While it may be easy to build a Web 2.0 company on credit cards, you can’t build a sustainable, successful company. Thoughts? Paul says that’s true. Later often doesn’t happen for venture capital firms.
  • How many things that get investment are actually features and not products? Paul says its epidemic proportions. He says it is easy to start thinking that features are products. People feel they have plausible deniability though, because things are getting sold, and big companies are doing it, just look at Google.
  • Has Skype made some VCs rethink their strategy? Paul says investing and venture capital is trend following and number following, so absolutely.
  • The death of the IPO has caused some big change in the venture game. So a big acquisition (like Skype) that looks like what an IPO might have been, they’ll all jump.
  • Is AdSense the only model? Paul says there is a preoccupation with AdSense, for sure. In a sense, Google is the single customer. The cashflow is great, but there are other ways to get paid, even just multiple ad networks or subscribers.
  • Paul says we are back at the advertising level online that we were in 2001, and it’s still just a drip in the bucket in terms of the total ad spend in North America. Paul thinks network television is starting to lose it’s monopoly, there are some cracks in the dam.
  • Paul says in Canada, we need more big exits in a dense area so that people have some examples to follow. In the Valley, people see other people being successful and think “I gotta get out there and do that!” It’s a chicken and egg problem in Canada, and as (missed his name) from Bessemer says, “we don’t have enough chickens or eggs.”
  • Paul says the Boston area investors have a history of investing up in Canada.
  • Paul thinks that venture folks remain as preoccupied with how you’ll spend your money as ever, if for no other reason than it’s an important discipline to have, to go through the steps of planning. You’ll find venture firms are more creative than usual when structuring deals.
  • Paul says institutional VCs are more flexible and creative lately, not stuck on doing the same old thing.

The Future of Marketing

Post ImageIn the first keynote of the day, Stuart MacDonald will be chatting with popular blogger Steve Rubel of Edelman about the future of marketing. Here are my notes from the session (my comments in italics):

  • Throughout the conference they have been showing short ads for Mesh, made by a company called Storystream, whose tagline is “ads you want to watch”. I’m not sure what the point is, but they are fairly interesting and sometimes funny.
  • What does micropersuasion mean? Steve says its no longer about Superbowl ads, but rather about one person with a voice and the same impact. One individual being just as persuasive as anyone.
  • Steve says public relations has to mean exactly what the words say, relating to the public. The PR professional needs to know how to interact with people as people. Bloggers have many different motivations, you have to consider a person’s motivation and how to help them with it.
  • Stuart remarks that blogging is harder than just issuing a press release, it feels like “a military campaign with no end.” Steve says that’s not the best analogy, it’s more about befriending the community. The new model is “further the conversation.”
  • This time, for the first time, the Edelman annual survey showed that a peer is the most authoritative person, no longer a CEO or someone else. People like to find people like themselves.
  • Steve says advertising is still working, let’s not kid ourselves. Marketing isn’t dying, PR isn’t dying, it’s just that new disciplines are appearing.
  • Stuart asks if Steve gets a lot of fear from clients, and Steve says we get fear from the whole industry. Sooner or later though, you have to face that fear, and when people see there are ways to succesfully engage that conversation, they’ll get over the fear.
  • The community will tell us who is credible and who isn’t, Steve says.
  • It’s not a numbers game, you don’t need to go for the blogs that have the largest numbers. A deep level of engagement with a particular audience is better, that’s the new model.
  • Steve has seen some companies setup budgets for community marketing, so people are starting to pay for this kind of PR, and others will follow.
  • Steve says blogs can surely generate a lot of traffic, and many campaigns these days are measured using traffic.
  • We learn as we go, that certain things will work and others wont, but we need to remain transparent.

Now, some questions from the floor:

  • Blog posts are being circulated to political people, do you see this with companies? Steve says the companies that get it use services like Tailrank, but he doesn’t think posts are printed out and spread to executives.
  • What is happening with MySpace? Steve says it is more than just MySpace, it’s all social networks. There are centers of gravity that pull people in, like MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, etc. Whatever you do with social networks, needs to be on the terms of service of the community, in a way that’s polite and accepted. Social networks are a great place to engage people, but you need to engage in a way that furthers the community.
  • Someone asked about Strumpet. Apparently it is a blog that wonders how long Steve will last at Edelman. Steve says that as a blogger he recognizes that he lives in the public, and with that, you gotta take your lumps. The lesson to marketers is that you’ve got to take the bad with the good.
  • Question about Second Life and the opportunity for marketing. Steve says for him, Second Life came out of nowhere, and he thinks the potential is terrific, provided you can find a way to engage in a way that is accepted.
  • Do bloggers need to learn any new skills to better communicate with PR people? Steve says they don’t need to learn new skills, they need to be people.
  • Steve says what he would measure is conversations, engagement with the most influential people.
  • How do you represent the masses when its the educated tech elite doing the talking? Steve says the old stuff doesn’t go away, but there’s a new group of people you focus on more deeply. (I don’t think he quite understood the question.)
  • What about “pay for play” in the blogosphere? Steve thinks it is fine if accepted, but right now, it’s not accepted at all. The way to know what will work is to read blogs, to keep track of what people are talking about.
  • What are some of the techniques used today to calculate community ROI? Steve says you could use touch points, web traffic, inbound links, the rank within the search engines, etc. Ultimately it comes back to sales, did people buy more product? Clients right now might want measurement in a way that doesn’t exist yet.
  • Who did the biggest rain wreck? Kryptonite? Sony and DRM? Steve says it is anyone who created a fake blog, like Captain Morgan, character blogs. Steve thinks characters are great for ads, not for blogs. Blogs are about authenticity.
  • Tris asks, what about character blogs for entertainment purposes? Steve says why do a blog and not something like a Flash microsite? Steve doesn’t think there have been many great successes with it.
  • Steve is getting hammered over the character blogs right now. Steve says a character blog is a shield, it says to the consumer, “I don’t want to get down and dirty.” The best blogging companies take real people from the gut of the company.
  • Jeremy Wright just made a good point – “If Darth Vader blogged, I’d read that every bloody day.” Steve says well, let’s try it and measure it and see if it works!
  • Stuart says that without data, it’s just opinion. And don’t be afraid to fail.
  • Where do you think this is going? Steve says its heading to a shift of advertising dollars from one-way communication to two-way. In three years there will be metrics, more case studies, processes, more failures, and a new budget created for generating conversation. We’ll see indexes like the the most talked about brands in the world.
  • Step 1: know where your customers hang out. Step 2: develop the infrastructure to listen to the conversation. Step 3: engage the audience in a dialogue. Step 4: empower the audience, figure out what they want to achieve, and help them do it.
  • Steve says if you want to do “I talk, you listen” then do podcasting, or microsites, or something.
  • Will blogging bring more truth to advertising? Steve thinks so, he says “the blogosphere is the greatest fact checking machine ever invented.” It will force companies to be more honest.
  • Some guy just basically said blogging hasn’t reached the masses. Um, hello? Over sixty million blogs worldwide? Probably double that if you count all the ones in China that we don’t keep proper track of. I wish Steve would have said something to that effect.

Mesh Day 2

Post ImageJust got settled in the auditorium for day two of Mesh. Tris Hussey and I just remarked that the conference is much more business focused, which is a good thing for Canada, we really haven’t had that yet. We’re starting late, but I think it’s because there was hardly anyone here at ten to 9, unlike yesterday. The auditorium seems to be filling up now though.

We’ve got back to back keynotes this morning, followed by a break, then fifteen minutes of fame, and another keynote bringing us to lunch.

Toronto Trip Day 1

It’s amazing how fast we switched on to Eastern time – I am exhausted right about now, and it’s only 10:40 or so! Anyway, today was our first full day in Toronto, and it went fairly well. After the conference sessions ended we came back to hotel to relax for a bit, then met Ashish for dinner. The weather wasn’t particularly nice today, windy and cloudy earlier, and raining tonight.

As for Mesh, it has been great so far, though not what I was expecting. I guess I had in my head that a Web 2.0 conference would be very techy, with application demos and the like, when in reality Mesh has turned out to be the opposite. I get the sense there are far more business or otherwise non-tech people in the audience. The two streams today were Media and Society, with tomorrow focusing on Business and Marketing/PR. I think I am looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions more than todays.

On to day two!