Amazon.com Widgets

Interview with Erik Allebest about Web Entrepreneurship

Erik Allebest is one of the founders of Exercise.com, a website that helps anybody improve their well-being and health through various innovative online tools. He is also the co-founder of Chess.com, a gaming site with over 4 million registered users. Chess.com enables anyone to play chess for free online. Erik is a graduate of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and enjoys building web entities with high-traffic potential through web marketing, sustainable monetization models, and smart domain valuation.


Here are my 5 questions with Erik and his answers:

1) You have been able to secure two pretty impressive top level domains, albeit in two topics that are quite divergent from one another. What is your methodology for evaluating the potential worth, and arbitrage value, for a high-value domain name before you buy it?

There are 4 factors I consider when purchasing a domain:

  • Current traffic (how much traffic does it currently generate)
  • Potential traffic (how much traffic do I think I can generate based on keywords in the domain)
  • Brand (how does it sound? how easy to type? how does it “feel”?)
  • Market (how monetizable is each visitor?)

I’m not shy about spending money on a domain because your domain is your brand, your address, your face, and your #1 sales person all rolled into one. Get over the notion that “domains cost $9”. They don’t.

I have purchased many domain names in the 4 figure range and flipped them in the 5 figure range because I knew they were undervalued. I’ve also bought domains I thought had potential and then had to take losses on them. But that isn’t the business I want to be in. I think the Web is changing. Keyword-heavy domains, mass content farms – those things are fading. I believe the future of the Web is strong brands on top of top-quality services, products, and content. That doesn’t mean domain names aren’t important anymore, it just changes which domain names are important.

2) How have the Google Panda update, and the reported addition of social queues in search ranking algorithms, changed the way you architect your initial domain and search strategy?

Panda hasn’t changed my views on creating high-quality sites and experiences. It has, however, harmed those who rely on mass quantities of low-quality or duplicate content. Building a high-ranking site shouldn’t be easy, and Panda reinforces this. I’ll be honest – I have a site I built for fun a few years back that makes decent passive income. It lost 60% of its traffic with the Panda update. And while I’m sad to lose some cash-flow, it’s almost a relief – the site isn’t that great and didn’t deserve the traffic it was getting!

3) Some sources have claimed that .co might have the potential to compete with .com. As of now this hasn’t proven to be true. Do you think there will ever be a generic top-level domain (gTLD) that can legitimately compete with the visibility and value of a .com?

No. No. And no. There will always be new TLDs, and they will be useful, and sites will be built on them. But .com will always be #1 by far.

4) Regarding Exercise.com, how do you believe the Web has changed the landscape of the fitness industry given that exercise is such a physical activity within and outside the walls of the gym (where Web activity is primarily virtual)?

The Web hasn’t YET changed the landscape of fitness. That is what we are working on. The thing is, in the end, people need to be eating better and moving more. And you don’t do that well from behind a computer. The Web will change fitness by delivering better content, making the in-between-workouts more social, and adding motivational and accountability features. BUT, it can’t change the nature of man and that objects at rest tend to stay at rest. It’s a tool, not a solution, just like an inert hammer. You have to pick it up and do the swinging on your own. And getting someone to want to do that… it hasn’t been solved yet.

5) Many would argue that mobile devices such as smart phones, but also mobile metric tracking devices like Jawbone and Fitbit, will eventually have a significant influence in the way technology helps positively influence fitness. With this in mind, what excites you most about the future of technology and fitness?

Those tools will be immensely helpful for people who are motivated and in-process toward reaching their goals. Again, they are neat tools, and I find them interesting and useful for people who exercise. What has me worried going forward is that technology doesn’t yet know how to assist people’s will power. It’s too easy to ignore the beeps. I don’t want to be a pessimist on the topic, but until a device can seriously impact the cravings to eat unhealthy foods or meaningfully get people off the couch, they will remain novelty items. And people will keep making them, because people buy them with the hopes they will help them make a change. But they don’t. The change has to come from deep down inside, and the commitment has to be kept up from inside.

No exterior tools, gadgets, or pieces of equipment have yet been able to impact that. They all end up as sad lifeless devices for people who can’t muster their own will power. The unfortunate “good news” for people who make those devices (and websites, and DVDs, and books, and…) is that the market for fitness “help” is infinitely large because most people never get the internal piece figured out and keep buying new stuff to help themselves. So it generates a lot of $$$, but little results. I want to see that change, and I want to be part of it.

Interview with Scot Hacker about Website Engineering

Scot Hacker has a long list of accomplishments when it comes to technology and the Web. Over the last decade he has authored MP3: The Definitive Guide for O’Reilly, a book about the Be operating system for end users, and countless articles on technology for Web development publications such as MacWorld, Byte, and PC Magazine. Currently Scot is the mastermind behind Bucketlist.org which is a community website where people can share common goals and aspirations. He is also the head of Birdhouse Hosting. By day, Hacker is the Webmaster at the Knight Digital Media Center, which provides digital media training to working journalists. He also helps run the web presence for UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.


Here are my 5 questions with Scot and his answers:

1) The popularity of open source CMS software has enabled a wide-range of authors the ability to easily publish content online. If you believe the latest figures, WordPress alone now powers close to 20% of newly registered domains. Do you believe that the increasing access to content, and the ease with which it can be created, adds to the greater good? Or is this proliferation diluting consumers’ ability to find relevant and/or quality content?

I see this as two separate questions. First is the crazy proliferation of content and the second is whether the easy availability of open source tools contributes to that. It’s astounding how much content is being pumped out today. There are “content farms” hiring amateur writers and bloggers to churn out cheap content just to please the search engine gods (if you don’t mind being frightened, see this infographic). Some of these sites don’t even write original content – they just scrape content from other sites, or even auto-generate virtually useless content based on keywords and algorithms – anything to make it into search results. It’s become such a widespread problem that Google has released extensions and plug-ins that let end-users vote down suspected content farms in search results. It’s a massive headache for Google, and a frustration for legitimate publishers trying to compete for those top SERP spots. Data pollution is the dark side of the over-proliferation of content.

Democratization of publishing has also led to a huge proliferation of content that’s legitimate but just not very good – the amateur blogger syndrome. That’s not really a problem, just a reality – we all need increasingly good filters to surface the best content.

Now we have the incredible rise of social networks (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Tubmlr, etc. ), and their mix of public and private content. Social is obviously relevant, and there are a lot of good social signals amongst the noise, but it’s made life really difficult for the bloggers. Very few people will visit a blog as a daily destination anymore, and people simply don’t see content on blogs unless pointed to it from a social network. We’re using social nets as filters to address the proliferation of content – “If my friend recommended it, it must be worth reading.” After a while, many of us old-school bloggers have just thrown up our hands and started posting most of our content on social networks… reserving the blog for the best/most unique content we have to offer.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the need to be where the audience is, and that place will always be a moving target.

2) With Bucketlist (bucketlist.org) you have created a public sandbox where anyone can share their ambitions and desires with the world. Unfortunately, there are people out there with desires that can be viewed as harmful to themselves or others. For instance, a provocative goal worthy of pursuit to one person could potentially be offensive to others. With limited resources, how have you managed to make sure your sandbox is accommodating to the masses while still remaining safe?

Anyone doing a site like Bucketlist is going to face the challenges of varying moral values and social norms. You have to start by thinking about who you want your audience to be. Do you want to appeal to families? Or just adults? For my site these issues came up pretty quickly. For example, are sexual life goals okay? In my mind, they are as long as they’re expressed in a tasteful and non-vulgar way. But sometimes it gets graphic… so then the question is how graphic is too graphic? And, what constitutes obscenity? It all comes down to soft rules. I use a flagging system, but still need to make lots of subjective decisions. For example, take the goal “Come out of the closet.” In my opinion a great goal, but I have people marking it as offensive. On the other hand, people have posted things that are also morally OK with me but framed in really vulgar terms, and I do delete those. Right now I manually check out all flagged items, but as the site becomes more popular I’ll rely on the database to surface the most-flagged items for review.

Decency is subjective and it’s all a gray area, I know. Basically the criteria I use is “Would I want my niece to read this? Would I want my nieces to think their uncle is the kind of person who would run this kind of web site?”

We also have a very clear “No naughty bits” posting policy that users agree to upon signup. Users are warned that if they post content that is offensive to a reasonable person, or try to use the site to promote their own business, I will not just delete that piece of content, I will delete their account and everything that goes with it, no questions asked. I was dubious whether it would be effective but amazingly, I have not had to delete a single spammers account yet. It’s inevitable that I will, but so far so good.

3a) What site(s) do you think is (are) the best example of pushing the limits of a CMS system (ex. mine currently is Jay-Z’s WordPress implementation at http://lifeandtimes.com)? And why?

CMSs are all so different, and some are easier to “push to the limits” than others, but honestly, I no longer believe in CMSs for complex sites – it’s all about frameworks for me now. CMSs get in the way more than they help, and developers will have a better experience with Ruby on Rails or Django than they will with Drupal or Joomla or any other CMS for that matter. Though I do still use WordPress for a lot of general-purpose sites, I go straight to Django for complex sites.

Don’t get me wrong – WordPress is wonderful. It’s so easy to get up and running, but it makes certain assumptions about the shape of your content. It starts with the assumption that every piece of content on your site has a title, and a content body, and a summary, and a timestamp, and an author, and a category, etc., etc. That fits lots of basic content-oriented sites but you wouldn’t use it to create an equipment checkout system, or a course review system, or to provide every site member with a personalized calendar. You try and do something like Bucketlist where you have complex one to many follow relationships (opposed to one to one) between users… WordPress isn’t going to cut it. You might think Drupal or a full CMS would be the way to go there, but you’ll probably spend more time wrestling with those systems to get them to sit up and do tricks than if you started with a “box of parts” like Django or Rails and simply built what you needed to begin with.

So pushing a CMS to its limits and taking it to places where it was never designed to go, in my world, all that says to me is that you’re using the wrong tools and you need to become a better developer. For me, it’s all about frameworks these days. Content management systems …they all make assumptions and you have to spend time tearing those assumptions down and working around them to get what you want. I think virtually everybody who’s trying to do something slightly unusual on the Web would be better served with a framework like Ruby on Rails or Django. Where the framework doesn’t make any assumption about the form of your content… instead it gives you a box of tools and says “here, you build this up to be the CMS that fits your goal like a glove.”

With a framework it’s not like you’re building stuff from scratch – instead, you’re assembling components – here’s your RSS system, here’s your generic commenting system, here’s your cross-site scripting request forgery attack prevention system, here’s your form building validation system, here’s your login and authentication systems, etc., etc.

That’s my take – I’d rather not use a CMS at all, if it is not the right tool, why push things to the limit?

3b) What site(s) do you think is (are) a textbook example for flawless usability design? And why?

A site I really admire and that we point to in our classes as a great design example is Good Magazine. It’s tasteful and beautiful to look at, and they nail all the right design principles… things like paying careful attention to alignment, so if you have an image in one column, the top element of the column next to it should be exactly aligned horizontally with the top of the image. The design gives a sense of polish and flow to the page that you don’t get otherwise. This is the difference between “good enough” design and really polished design, where every pixel has been considered.

Usually you only get this kind of polish when the design is in the hands of one or two people rather than a whole team. When too many stakeholders are involved, you get “design by committee.” Look at the recent redesign of bostonglobe.com – it’s radically simple, and you know the lead designer had to fight some tough battles to keep it that way. It’s far too rare – usually you end up with way too much crap jammed into the homepage, trying to appease the demands of all stakeholders in the organization.

A better approach is to have a benevolent dictator imbued with the authority to make these hard calls, and who can say NO to lots of people – someone who can make choices that benefit the end user, rather than all the department heads.

4) What are the most important questions to ask before choosing and/or developing the back-end engine of a web site? At this stage of building a web site, where do you see common mistakes that could be avoided with a little forethought?

Whether you’re working for somebody else, developing your own site, working with a start-up team, or are just an individual with an idea, you need to start by assessing needs and your available skills. Again, I personally think you’re always going to be served better with a framework versus a CMS, but to do that you’re going to need programming skills. If you’re an individual without programming skills you’re either going to have to study up, or hire someone. So one thing WordPress and Drupal offer is the ability to do a ton of great work without writing any code at all. But eventually you’re going to hit your head against the wall and wish that you had more flexibility. One of the first things that I want to know when a client approaches me is:

  • What kind of developer resources do you have long-term?
  • Do you have somebody who’s going to maintain the site on a regular basis?
  • If you’ve already chosen a developer, how will you leverage the developer’s skills?

For instance, if you already have a relationship with some Drupal experts, obviously you’re going to get farther faster than if you chose a different platform, so that’s part of your decision criteria.

Keep in mind that the way that an engineer expects people to interact with a web site is seldom the way users actually want to interact with a website. End users will always find ways to use your website that you, the engineer, never considered. For example, there have been cases on Bucketlist where people want to enter all their goals at the same time instead of entering them individually. And I think to myself as the developer, “How can they check off a particular goal now? How can they re-arrange anything? How do they expect me to feature or promote a single goal? They’re missing the whole point…” And yet to them, that makes perfect sense. They’re proud of their list, they share it with their friends… and their friends say, “Yeah! Good for you.”

Do I need to allow people to use the site in ways that I never expected? Or do I need to find ways to prevent it? These are decisions that need to be made on a case-by-case basis.

One of the things that Apple is famous for that kind of goes contra to a lot of design and usability conventions is that they do very little interviewing of users to find out what the user wants. They have a vision. They’re thinking way beyond where any users currently are. They’re saying “This is what we’re going to do …we’re going to build something because we believe in it.” Henry Ford once said “If I had asked my users want they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” Steve Jobs has said, “I’m more proud of what we have not put into our products than what we have.”

On the flip side, some of the most famous open source software has bazillions of preferences and options, because every time a debate happens on the mailing list, the group agrees: “Let’s just make it a user option.” This is similar to the discussion earlier about how websites that suffer from feature-itis and it takes a benevolent dictator to keep things simple.

5) In launching Bucketlist you’ve created a fairly sophisticated site in a short time window… with limited production time and limited resources. Your success is a great example of what can be done if you have a vision. What are three pieces of advice that you could give a bootstrapping entrepreneur with a big idea?

1) Assess the field and figure out what kind of competition is out there already. If your idea has been done to death, you know you’re going to have a real hard time getting traction. As history rolls on, it’s getting harder and harder to be unique. If there are a dozen copycats of your idea out there, it’s going to be tough. With Bucketlist there were a few existing similar sites, but none of them worked the way I wanted them to. This made me feel like my niche still had room for growth. Since Bucketlist launched, many additional copycats have come online. Some have approached the problem differently, while others haven’t added anything at all. Just remember: If your idea doesn’t sound a little bit crazy, you’re probably not on the right track. You’ve got to trust your craziness. If you have some wild hunch, go with it! Just get out there and be the best at executing your nutty idea.

The key is that you need to be scratching an itch – that’s where the passion comes from. If you’re not feeling the itch, you probably won’t have the passion to follow through, because there are going to be lots of false starts. You need enough excitement to get you through the disappointment of the inevitable mistakes.

2) Believe in your tools. In my case, I passionately love the Django framework, and working with it is part of what I personally wanted. Yes I was passionate about the site concept, but it wouldn’t have been fun to build with Drupal.

3) Have the right kind of people on your team. Even if you’re a one-person team, are you the right person for the job? In the case of websites, can you build what you want well enough that it will be useful? In my case, I have more engineering skills than design skills, but depending on what I’m building, I may need some marketing people. In fact I’m sure if I was working with a marketing person Bucketlist would be in a very different place today. Maybe I will someday. Also, make sure all the people on your team are as passionate as you are.

So, yeah – Regarding Bucketlist I can answer “yes” to both questions. I’m the right person to build it and I’m passionate about the work. Bucketlist keeps me up at night. It’s something I’ve been building between 11:00 PM and 1:00 AM in the evenings when I’m not busy working or playing with my child. It’s what I want to be doing in my free time. The site may look complete, but I’ve got a feature wish-list 100 items long. Right now I desperately want to have a mobile version of the site, and I’ve got that halfway built. People are asking for it and I want to build it!

Interview with Deena Varshavskaya about Social Shopping

Deena Varshavskaya is an alumni of Cornell University and has been a chronic serial entrepreneur since college. She has founder credits that include ReelACT.com and Dynamik Interactive and has helped other companies get started through her efforts with the incubator Lotus Interworks, Inc. She is an expert in user experience design and has helped companies like Nickelodeon, MySpace.com, and Disney, create their Web presence. Her latest project Wanelo (short for Want, Need, Love) is a community platform for shopping that enables people to find and collect the most unique products from anywhere online. Wanelo recently made Entrepreneur magazine’s list of the most brilliant companies in 2011, which highlights the brightest ideas and most insightful innovators each year. She also maintains a personal blog at siberianfruit.com and can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/siberianfruit.


Here are my 5 questions with Deena and her answers:

1) One of your fortes is user experience design, and you have used this set of skills quite successfully to create website architecture for some of the biggest websites on the Internet. Similar to how a great mechanic hates to work on their own car, did you find your expertise in website design ever got in the way of actual development and deployment?

The challenge has been to wear two hats and to avoid driving our engineers crazy. On the one hand, I love designing interfaces and there’s nothing more fun than coming up with the bells and whistles for Wanelo. On the other hand, as a start-up you need to be pretty brutal about managing your limited resources. For someone who loves innovation and features it’s very easy to get carried away. I’d say that we’ve made plenty of mistakes early on and learned a lot along the way.

2) Although there seemed to be a growing number of opportunities for female entrepreneurs at this year’s 2011 Los Angeles Twiistup, Wanelo was the only company led by a female to present. Is there any advice and/or resources that you can share with budding female entrepreneurs that have helped you along the way?

“Boys are doctors. Girls are nurses.” Here’s a page from a 1970s children’s book that provides a nice breakdown of gender roles:

Boys are doctors; Girls are nurses.

“Boys are doctors. Girls are nurses.”

The modern day version of this is “Boys are CEOs. Girls are VPs of Marketing.” Personally, I do wish that I had more ridiculously awesome female entrepreneurs to look up to. I don’t. I mostly look up to, work with and read about male entrepreneurs. And that’s the challenge for women. Role models do matter and they shape our perception of what’s possible.

However, I’m a huge believer that you create your own life. My advice for women entrepreneurs is, don’t put up imaginary barriers for yourself. You either have excuses and reasons or you have results. Choose results! The truth is that you can be a man, but believe that you are unfit to be an entrepreneur for whatever reason. Age is a good example of this. Some people feel too young, others feel too old, and there’s just no winning. So forget the excuses, choose what you want to be and do it and make it happen. Making it happen means going way outside of your comfort zone (all the time!), allowing yourself to make mistakes and learning from the experience.

As a side note, a woman entrepreneur does have the advantage of standing out in a tech crowd which is largely-male dominated. And that can be a great position to be in.

3) You have sidelined a successful service business to develop a platform that is primarily focused on products. How have you had to adapt your skill set from a livelihood that depended on making clients happy, to one that is reliant on making an audience happy?

Having a consumer audience is just like having thousands of clients :-). Joking aside, in our user experience design consulting practice we mostly worked on consumer web properties, so that is in my blood. My main motivation behind working in consumer Web is based in solving my own problems, so that has always been there as well. Selfish, I know.

4) Within the last year what has excited you the most about social shopping? And, what has disappointed you? How will these developments influence you as you evolve Wanelo going forward?

Honestly, I don’t think shopping is really social yet, at least the way I envision. In the last year, I’ve discovered that a couple of start-ups are trying to tackle a similar set of problems. But all of us are just scratching the surface. Social shopping is a gigantic opportunity with no current leader. It’s an exciting space to be!

5) On Quora (follow Deena Varshavskaya on Quora here), you indicated the single most illuminating question you can ask a person is, “What challenges are you currently dealing with?” So… with regards to operating a start-up, what challenges are you currently dealing with?

The overall challenge is managing complexity. The amount of prioritizing and digesting of all sorts of information one needs to do in a start-up is startling. It’s very easy to get sidetracked or spend your limited resources on something that won’t truly move you forward. It’s a highly personal thing as well. There’s no other way to succeed but to bring all of yourself into it. We’re about to kick off the fund-raising conversations, so that will be interesting and a whole new challenge for me.

On a more personal side, I’ve been doing a lot of work to remove my personal barriers. I wrote about this on my blog siberianfruit.com. The basic idea is that I’ve realized that I’ve unknowingly held on to some beliefs about what I may not be good at as an entrepreneur. I’ve been working with a great life coach who’s helped me see that those beliefs were made up and unsupported by facts. Doing this kind of personal growth work is really empowering and I now feel a lot more prepared to deal with unforeseen challenges as they come up.

Interview with Invite Media co-founder Nat Turner

Nat Turner, the co-founder of Invite Media, is a self-made multimillionaire who sold his start-up to Google for $70 million in his early 20s. In an interview with CNN Nat Turner shares some valuable information to inspiring entrepreneurs and gives his opinion about why young entrepreneurs might have a leg up on their more established counterparts.

Takeaways from Nat Turner’s interview, if you do not feel like watching the video below, are:

  • The best time to start a new venture is when nobody else is (in other words, recessions are actually a great time to start a company)
  • Luck seems to follow those that work extremely hard
  • Therefore, make sure you work harder and smarter than your competitors
  • Young entrepreneurs often approach problems differently than older entrepreneurs which can lead to unique solutions

Another interesting observation is that Nat cut his entrepreneurial teeth at a young age (selling reptiles out of his home). This seems to be a common theme among successful entrepreneurs (so a quick digression for parents with budding entrepreneurs… make sure to support and encourage your children’s aspirations!).

Enjoy the clip…

Interview with Barbara Lippard about SCORE

Barbara Lippard is a member of the Board of Directors of SCORE. SCORE is an amazing small business resource. They are a nationwide, non-profit organization with 13,000 counselors and approximately 400 chapters in the United States. They offer free mentoring and low cost educational workshops to aspiring and existing small business owners. Before SCORE, Barbara was an Investment Manager at Time, Inc’s Venture Capital Group, investing in high tech companies with Board of Director responsibilities for several portfolio companies. She was also a Vice President, Director of Corporate Development at Time, Inc’s Selling Areas-Marketing Inc. (SAMI) division. During her successful career she has provided a wide range of consulting services to small and medium sized businesses from strategic planning to assistance with funding and financial management.


Here are my 5 questions with Barbara and my summary of her answers:

1) In your experience as a SCORE advisor, what can you suggest an entrepreneur do better to prepare themselves to maximize their experience with SCORE? In other words, are there common, simple steps that you consistently see people skip (that they shouldn’t have) when you meet with fledgling entrepreneurs?

There are two types of entrepreneurs that come to us, those that are just starting out and those that have current opportunities or problems that they need help with. For those just starting out I suggest that they attend our introductory free workshop on start-up basics (these are offered in different locations nationally, check your local SCORE website for more details). This workshop will walk you through the pros and cons of owing your own business. It is part of a five part series SCORE launched called SmartSTART. After the first session a potential entrepreneur will at least have the chance to develop some basic questions that will assist them in making a relationship with SCORE more beneficial.

For entrepreneurs that already have at least developed a concept, or are already in operation and have come to a situation that requires assistance, come to your SCORE meeting prepared. Bring any piece of information you think could be relevant to the discussion. We are here to help. We are not a judging panel, so there is no reason to be intimidated. If your documentation is rough notes on the back of an envelope, that’s fine, at least that gives us a starting point to help the entrepreneur moving in the direction they would like to be. Without good information a lot of time is wasted, which could have been spent on allowing us to help the respective business.

2) Are there any misconceptions about SCORE, or preconceived notions about SCORE, that you find people have when they contact you for assistance?

There are some, I’ll give a few examples:

  • We don’t write business plans for clients. People have come in with an idea expecting us to draft their business plan for them. Putting together a business plan defines your business. We help with the process but we don’t create business plans.
  • We do not provide, and cannot help for profit companies with getting business grants. There are outfits there that make claims there is free government money to start a business. This is simply not true.
  • We do not provide funds for startup or in business entities. We will help identify banks that may be lending to small businesses, make available information on SBA loans and community development centers and suggest how to access angel investors and venture capital groups.

SCORE is a volunteer research organization existing to help all entrepreneurs solve their problems. We consult on a variety of business matters but the actual doing is left to the entrepreneur.

3) Based on the adage success leaves clues, what are some common traits you have seen in most successful businesses you have helped begin and/or grow?

The most common universal activity I have seen that leads to success is gaining knowledge and experience in a particular industry before entering it. Furthermore, people lacking in management skills need to develop these skills. Entrepreneurs that take the time to learn general business and managerial knowledge, plus the specific knowledge needed to succeed in the industry significantly reduce their chance of failing. You would think this would go without saying, but you continually see people risk a lot without any real skill, experience, or knowledge of the industry they hope to succeed in.

Three common traits are hard work, patience, and perseverance.

Finally, success is assisted by developing the right team, including a great lawyer, accountant, SCORE counselor, a friendly banker, and a trustworthy insurance contact.

4) Are there any other free or low cost resources that you can suggest to budding entrepreneurs that they might useful?

Yes, here are just a few:

  • The U.S. Small Business Administration is a government entity that provides varying levels of assistance to small businesses to help them succeed.
  • Small Business Development Centers assists small businesses with solving a variety of issues including marketing, organization, financial, engineering, technical and production problems.
  • Women’s Business Centers is a national network of educational centers to help women start and build small businesses.
  • The Woman’s Initiative provides effective social support, counseling services and education to empower women to change challenging life situations into opportunities.
  • The HUB is a social enterprise that hopes to inspire and support creative enterprising initiatives that help make society a better place.

5) One of SCORE’s goals is to help start one million successful new businesses in 2017. What initiatives has SCORE taken in an attempt to meet this goal? Are there any new opportunities at SCORE regarding this goal that entrepreneurs can take advantage of?

Yes. We are excited to launch our new website in March which includes a site redesign including a new logo. The new redesign will also influence all of our regional websites. We are reaching out to more corporate sponsors in the hopes of more corporate involvement. We have realigned our mission statement, as well as our slogan, which is now, “SCORE, FOR THE LIFE OF YOUR BUSINESS”. We are engaging in “shoe-leather” marketing by making sure our members are getting out in the community and letting people and businesses know we are here and ready to help. One of the most exciting opportunities is that we are improving our communication system and improving upon the way our current database disseminates information. We are also making efforts to expand on the current number of counselors that are currently available. SCORE has an exciting future ahead.

Interview with Matthew Szymczyk about Augmented Reality

Matthew Szymczyk has been the CEO of Zugara for more than a decade. Zugara is a successful employee owned Augmented Reality (AR) development company located in Los Angeles, California. Matt and his team create custom and proprietary Augmented Reality software along with providing other creative services to a growing list of clients that include Sony, Reebok, AT&T, Muscle Milk, and Nestle. Matt’s company is also a member of The AR Consortium and he is a well cited expert, author and enthusiast of AR technology.


Here are my 5 questions with Matt and my summary of his answers:

1) What is Augmented Reality (as you define it) and do you believe that it is fair to leave the definition open to personal interpretation or do you think it would behoove the AR industry to finally establish a consensus?

Augmented Reality (AR) by its basic definition is when you are augmenting information in a live video feed. This would be through a webcam or mobile viewfinder. Though that is the baseline definition for AR currently, however there are other uses that have fallen under the AR umbrella. Motion capture, for example what is used to power Microsoft Kinect, has been called AR because it is augmenting the gameplay experience through gestural control. Projection Mapping, which involves projecting interactive video on solid objects, has also been considered AR, though some dispute it. Finally, to show how overreaching the AR umbrella has become, there are quite a few AR examples out now that use a fixed image (taken via the webcam or mobile camera) that is used as the background to then apply digital information on top of it. Though this isn’t literal AR, it has been picked up by the press as AR technology.

As for a consensus, given the industry is so new, there have been varying viewpoints as to what defines AR. Until the AR industry matures a bit, there likely won’t be standards or best practices defined (like there are in other emerging media/technologies such as Mobile Marketing).

2) To what degree is innovative Augmented Reality a slave to hardware (webcams, Vuzix glasses, GPS, pico projectors, etc.)? And are there any innovations on the horizon (regarding hardware) that will change the game?

AR will for the foreseeable future be tied to hardware advancements. You are in effect providing a layer of digital information that requires some sort of processing power to achieve an acceptable user experience baseline. However, even over the course of the last 2 years, there have been great strides in what can be accomplished in AR on the web, mobile and in kiosks.

Kinect has helped usher in the NUI (Natural User Interface) that will be game changing for how people will expect to interact with digital information. You’re also likely to see increased usage of kiosk-based AR in 2011 as kiosks enable as much processing power as needed for an optimal experience, while also removing any potential barriers for consumers (ex. webcams).

Mobile based AR is currently receiving much of the hype, but it will be awhile before mobile handsets are powerful enough to provide optimal AR experiences. You’ll likely see more tablet based AR executions in 2011. Finally, Adobe will be releasing Molehill in 2011 which will provide more powerful Flash-based AR executions both on the Web and for mobile platforms. This is an area to watch given Adobe’s current penetration rate on the Web and their partnership with Google on the Android platform.

3) What measures have you created internally to ensure that Zugara’s mission of producing Augmented Reality software improves life experience, juxtaposed to pure marketing plays?

When we develop our Augmented Reality technologies we often look at how they can be used in specific use cases. Meaning, we look at how AR can be used to solve a real-world problem or enhance an experience that wouldn’t be possible without AR. As we’ve reviewed areas and use cases that could leverage AR, we either see what tech is available to help solve the problem or we will try and create it ourselves.

Unfortunately, due to the marketing plays and gimmicks out there, AR is often labeled as “a technology searching for a solution”. However, we couldn’t disagree more when it comes to enhancing the e-commerce space through the use of 2 of our technologies – The Webcam Social Shopper and ZugSTAR. E-commerce currently has 2 major issues – shopping cart conversion rates and high amount of returns. We look to AR to help solve these problems for e-commerce retailers by allowing shoppers to make more informed purchase decisions through the use of AR technology, thus increasing conversion rates and decreasing returns.

4) Recently there have been some really creative uses of Augmented Reality, a few examples: the Zugara Webcam Social Shopper, the Leo Burnett’s WWF campaign, and the Unlogo project. However, it appears that with improvements in cloud computing, mobile speed, brain-computer interfacing and computer processing power this idea of “articulated naturality” and an increased ability to provide valuable real-time information in pioneering ways means we haven’t seen anything yet. As an expert in the AR field looking out onto the horizon, what excites you the most?

One area that I’m both excited for and afraid of at the same time is how augmented information will spread as the field develops. For instance, most companies aren’t even thinking about where and how augmented ads or information can be placed both from a competitive view or placement. When you look at the outside of a restaurant in your normal view, you often base your decision on the menu, what specials the restaurant might have, and/or consumer feedback you can get on your mobile device. However, in the augmented future, you’ll be able to use your mobile display or even your eyewear to see augmented information on this restaurant that you couldn’t view normally. This could be anything from a special digital coupon for that night’s meal or even competitors trying to advertise competing specials all in your augmented view. This will also start a whole new level of how businesses and people will need to define property rights in regards to how and where augmented information can be displayed. (Note: Matt authored an entire article on this subject for AdvertisingAge: Your Ad Where? Defining Virtual Property Rights in an Augmented World)

From a personal standpoint, I am interested to try out the Vuzix AR glasses and AR Parrot drone. Mobile is definitely going to be the centerpoint for all AR in the future, and AR glasses (with your smartphone acting as the processor) will likely be the main components for the first real mobile AR experience.

5) If your only limit was the technology available to you today, but you had unlimited resources and time coupled with the ability to push the boundaries of available software, what would be your quintessential Augmented Reality project?

Our optimal AR project would be one we have already been working on – ZugSTAR. Given our marketing background, we have tracked behaviors of the Gen Y generation and see what is upcoming not only for that generation, but the following one as well – Gen Z. Both of these generations are growing up in an era where there is a major user experience shift in how they will interact and find digital information. There’s one key area we’ve focused in on in regards to technology these generations use more than others – video chat. When you combine Video Chat with the emergence of the NUI (Natural User Interface) you can start to see the potential for a major shift in user interactions and behaviors. Kinect is just scratching the surface right now for gestural controls so we’re looking at how our ZugSTAR technology can be used for literally any industry by combining an Augmented experience, gestural controls and video chat into a new, future method of interaction and collaboration.

Interview with Hammad Zaidi about Calculated Business Risks

Hammad Zaidi is a managing executive of several successful endeavors, which includes being the CEO of Lonely Seal Releasing, a film and television distribution company that has represented over 40 projects, including Julian Lennon’s Whaledreamers and Harrison Ford’s Dalai Lama Renaissance. He also owns Lonely Seal Pictures, a production company, as well as his newest division, Lonely Seal Apparel, which focuses on selling apparel worldwide and donates a portion of the proceeds to help stop the senseless slaughter of Harp Seals.

From time to time he is an adjunct professor at various universities including UCLA and Chapman University. He is also an avid writer, and publishes a weekly national column for Film Threat.


Here are my 5 questions with Hammad and my summary of his answers:

1) Owning and operating a film and television distribution company requires the intrinsic ability to manage and capitalize on calculated risks. How have you successfully developed this ability over time?

The most challenging element of this process is learning the needs and desires of your audience. In this sense, the old adage “know your customer” is essential. Since my company primarily distributes internationally, which requires us to travel 100,000 miles per year to the world’s most significant film festivals and film sales markets (Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Hong Kong, Tokyo, etc), I’ve had to be re-educated about what projects international audiences respond well to, as opposed to what audiences in the USA want to see. Thus, my calculated risks are based on the trends I see while traveling to different countries and immersing myself in different cultures. However, there is always a bit of uncertainty. One of the most important lessons I learned in film school is it is almost impossible to determine if you will have a hit on your hands, but it is usually pretty easy (if you are honest with yourself) to identify a project that will fail. This same lesson can be applied to any business and an important takeaway is that you can learn a lot more from prior failures than successes. In other words, it is difficult to find a blueprint to success (if this really existed everyone would be rich), but there are plenty of well known paths to failure. Avoiding these paths is a great way to navigate and successfully leverage risk.

2) You have flourished at managing multiple entrepreneurial endeavors at the same time, what is one of the most important lessons you have learned along the way about operating several companies simultaneously?

Delegate, delegate, delegate. I have a tendency to think there are 31 hours in a day – but unfortunately there are never more than 24. Thus, I believe my ability to manage multiple endeavors simultaneously largely depends on my ability to surround myself with highly talented, positive-minded people that I trust and respect. I’ve also learned that if you bite off more than you can chew, you will most certainly choke.

3) Like every entrepreneur over the past several years, you’ve had to weather one of the worst recessions in our nation’s history. What was your strategy for mitigating the negative effects of the current economical climate as it pertains to your businesses?

My companies were – and continue to be – deeply damaged by the world financial crisis. But, we’ve relied on our strong ethics and solid relationships with our clients to navigate through these dark times. My company has always taken pride in being honest, transparent and ethical with everyone we do business with. Thus, when the financial crisis deeply pinched our regular cash-flow, our clients have stood by us because our actions in the past have proven our “good faith.”

We took the radical step to cancel over 80% of our distribution slate. When I started the company in 2005, the business model included distributing 50+ small films, TV shows and documentaries and earning a respectable amount on most of them. Today we distribute only 12 select projects, but they all have performed very well internationally. The reduction in the number of films we distribute has also allowed us to thin out our staff a bit, and allowed us to move into a more cost-effective office space.

Lastly, I also started writing a weekly national column called Going Bionic for Filmthreat.com in May of 2010. Going Bionic focuses on the ever-changing world of international distribution, and provides filmmakers with valuable insight from a distributor’s point of view. Writing my column has allowed me and my company to remain relevant to filmmakers, because of Film Threat’s incredibly wide reach. My 20th column comes out on Tuesday, September 28th, and I’m also currently in discussions with a publisher about writing a book based on my column.

Simply put, to me it’s not about weathering the storm. It’s about keeping my eyes on the daylight ahead.

4) Over the course of all your entrepreneurial endeavors, describe an experience where, based on new learning that you did not have at the time, you would go back and do things differently? What is it that you now know that would have changed the experience?

Another lesson learned the hard way by many in business — perform thorough due diligence when picking any founder during the start-up process. When I started my distribution company, I hired a 20+ year veteran in the world of international film distribution to help guide it. Although he had a wealth of experience, he was not willing to change the way he did things, or embrace the new technologies required in order to remain current in the quickly changing world of distribution. Thus, while the rules of the distribution game were changing in front of our eyes, we were still playing the game with the old rules. I clearly saw this happening, but I was a bit hesitant to second guess someone who had far more experience than I did in distribution. The result of my mistake put my company on life-support, until I took charge and began to right the ship. If I were to do it again, I would have taken control of my company’s direction much earlier and made the needed changes. What I know now is to always listen to my gut feeling.

5) You are known for playing as hard as you work, as a connoisseur of life experience what is your fondest experiential moment outside of work (to make it harder it cannot be sport related or the day you got married)?

Wow. No sports, no marriage? Okay, I’ve got one. When I was 22, I attended the most mind-blowing, memory tattooing concert in my life: The Knebworth Festival on Saturday, June 30, 1990 in Knebworth, England. The performers included Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Phil Collins, Genesis, a Robert Plant/Jimmy Page Led Zeppelin reunion, Elton John, Dire Straits, Tears For Fears, Status Quo, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Simply put, it was heaven.

The key to my experience at Knebworth wasn’t the concert itself, but how I got there and what I learned while I was on the trip to London.

The Knebworth Festival was a charity event for the Nordhoff-Robbins Music Therapy Foundation. One year earlier, on Tuesday June 27, 1989, I attended another concert for the Nordhoff-Robbins Music Therapy Foundation: The Who performing their rock Opera Tommy at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

After seeing Tommy I went on-air on my college radio station (at Rider University in New Jersey), and announced that I would never see a greater concert. Minutes later, someone called in and told me about the concert in Knebworth. It suddenly became my mission to attend. Although tickets were sold-out, I was determined to find a way there, so I contacted the company that sells prize give-away trips to radio stations, and begged them to allow me to buy the trip to Knebworth that other people were winning on various radio stations across the country. After three weeks of begging 5x per day, they finally sold me the trip.

Since I went on the trip alone, once I got to London, I roomed with another person traveling alone – Gary, a 45 year old man from California. Meeting Gary changed my life forever. The first thing he told me is that he had AIDS, and that I could take another roommate if I felt the need to. Of course, I did not.

The second thing Gary told me is that when he found out he had AIDS, he truly began living his life. He took out a second mortgage on his home, bought himself a race car, and started taking as many vacations as humanly possible. His advice to me was to live my life to the fullest, because every day could be my last.

Since meeting Gary, it’s become my mission to actively seek out tremendous life experiences, good and bad, because it’s those experiences that make us the sum of who we are. My mission has allowed me to attend the last 18 straight Super Bowls, make 10 trips to the Canadian Yukon to see a three day concert under the midnight sun, and it’s allowed me to try to inspire everyone I meet to live out their dreams to their fullest capabilities.

It reminds me of the quote from The Shawshank Redemption. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” Given the choice, I’d rather “get busy livin’”.

Interview With Ed Baker About Growth

Ed Baker is known for his expertise on growth. He is the former co-founder and CEO of Friend.ly, a site acquired by Facebook in 2011. Ed has been working on viral growth for the past fifteen years across multiple mediums, including email, SMS, IM, and Facebook. Since the 2007 launch of the Facebook platform, he has worked on several Facebook applications that have grown to tens of millions of users, including Compare People and Send Hotness. He has an A.B. in Chemistry & Physics from Harvard, and an MBA from Stanford. Ed is now the Head of Growth at Uber.

Interview With Edward Baker About Growth

Here are my 5 questions with Ed Baker about growth and my summary of his answers:

1) What is a comprehensive way to sum up the quantitative nature and entrepreneurial meaning of “viral factor” while outlining an actionable system to achieve it?

The term viral factor is the quantitative measure of a viral loop. Here is an example of a viral loop, solving for x*y*z:

The Viral Loop
The Viral Loop as explained by Ed Baker

If you have a viral factor greater than one, then you will see exponential growth without having to spend any money on user acquisition. In order to get your viral factor above one, you must multivariate test every step of your viral loop.

Step One

Maximizing Install Rate

  • Create a catchy call to action
  • Analyze click data
  • Multivariate test invites

Step Two

Maximizing Invite-Sending Rate

  • Create incentives to invite other friends
  • Multivariate test the messaging and the invitation

Step Three

Maximizing Average Invites

  • Create incentives for inviting more users
  • Optimize the number of required invites to receive the incentive

Viral growth can also be combined with paid user acquisition. As long as Average Revenue per User rate is greater than Customer Acquisition Cost, keep tweaking and spending; you’ve created a cash machine.

2) Regarding viral campaigns, where is the line between the organic nature of a viral campaign and the ability for savvy creatives to engineer something viral? In other words, how does a viral engineer bake in the necessary mojo needed for something to go viral when one of the major ingredients of becoming viral is candidness and being genuine?

I think that “creatively engineering something” can actually mean a couple of different things. One, using your example, means creating compelling content that appeals to a wide audience so that it gets shared amongst friends. Any company that creates content and fools the user into thinking that an event actually took place, when in fact the event was staged, produced, and/or engineered, runs the risk of suffering consumer backlash. Then the question is whether the cost of the backlash is worth the gain from exposure.

When I think of “viral engineering”, I tend to think of split-testing and tuning each step of the loop I discussed in your first question. There is just as much creativity involved in engineering the loop as there is in producing the content. Start with something organic in nature, such as user statistics or user input. By design this can’t be faked by you, it is user generated content. What you can influence is the viral factor of the loop by measuring the conversion rate of each step in the loop and making adjustments to improve conversion wherever possible. That is where I believe creative engineering can have the most significant impact.

3a) With the Pareto Principle in mind (the 80/20 rule), what are viral marketers caring about, or doing too much of, that in your opinion could be time better served (the 80)?

Copycatting. I suppose there is some benefit to improving upon something that is already working but these days copycatting is overly exploited and continually dilutes the effectiveness of viral campaigns. You see this all the time on Facebook.

3b) What should they be doing more, that they’re doing not enough of (the 20)?

Not copycatting. Facebook and other social platforms provide so much data and so many interesting and new ways to reach people. Facebook Connect is used by a few in really innovative ways. It would be great to see more of this.

3c) What are they not doing at all (but should be learning) because they haven’t heard of it yet and it is coming?

Mobile. If you get ahead of the curve regarding mobile (and the future of viral activity on mobile devices) you will really be one step ahead of the game.

4) Can there be a legitimate business purpose for novelty viral initiatives like the current, “I feel sad today please LIKE me to make me happy” Facebook campaigns other than disingenuous lead farming?

No, not one I can think of.

5a) What is your favorite viral effort that didn’t find an audience (i.e. failed)?

While at Demigo we created an iPhone application that audited your calls and texts to identify your “top friends”. The application worked with Facebook and would identify the people you communicated with the most, add them to your contact list, and pull in their Facebook data (which was not being done yet at the level it is being done today). It ultimately failed for a couple of reasons. One, the iPhone was still new so the application’s audience was not wide enough to support the critical mass needed to make it successful. Two, the application also required your ATT password and requiring this led to low user compliance. It was a great application though.

5b) What is your least favorite viral effort that amazingly did find a wide audience (i.e. succeeded)?

Facebook applications that use random number generators for content, for instance, “Your lucky number for the day is X.” Who cares? This is just random meaningless data. However, people use these types of applications all the time.

5c) What is a question people should be asking about viral marketing that isn’t being asked enough today?

Entrepreneurs need to start considering the tradeoff between short-term virality and long-term engagement. There is value in keeping users around. The question that they should be asking is, “how can we truly engage our users?” They should think less about getting User X to invite Y number of friends immediately. Instead, they should think about keeping User X around as long as possible in order to get him to invite many more friends over a longer period of time.

In order for this to work, entrepreneurs should think more about making things viral by creating a great product. It seems obvious, but if you are more focused on how to reach users than on how to make a great product you’re doomed. Dropbox is an example of a great product that also has great virality as a result. I want to tell you and my friends about it because it is a great product.

A lot of new ventures lose sight of these basic fundamentals in order to chase the next big, new, exciting trend. They should really be asking themselves, “how can I make a product that people will use and enjoy so much it will inspire them to willingly broadcast their experience to their network?”

Interview with Lloyd Nimetz about Social Entrepreneurship

Lloyd Nimetz is a successful serial social entrepreneur. He has worked for Prosper, Ashoka, Endeavor, the UNDP and the IADB. Before obtaining his Masters of Business Administration from Stanford University in 2008 he was one of the founders of HelpArgentina which is an organization that promotes philanthropy by helping individuals, businesses, and foundations identify and support effective non-profits within Argentina. He is now the managing director of Blitz Bazaar, a campaign hosting solution which puts the tools of professional campaigners in the hands of citizen organizers. Through Blitz Bazaar’s technical platform ordinary people are now able to run full scale social initiatives that were previously inaccessible due to the high level of effort and money required to run such campaigns.


Here are my 5 questions with Lloyd and his answers:

1) As a social entrepreneur, how do you personally rectify the competing motivations of the entrepreneur side wanting to “do well” and the social conscience side wanting to “do good”?
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I don’t. It’s a false dichotomy that I don’t feel like I need to rectify. I believe that no matter what job you have, banker or rabbi, you can and should do both good and well. In fact, doing well for yourself is necessary to help others. The trick is to first understand what you’re getting into and make sure it’s right for you before jumping in. I could start HelpArgentina out of college because I had a Fulbright grant that was backing me at the time and my family was willing to support me after that. Otherwise, it probably would have been the wrong decision. At the same time, I don’t feel like people in for-profit jobs should think they’re off the hook to do good. A smile and positive attitude from a grocery store cashier can have a bigger social impact than a lot of the non-profit employees I know. Our current economic crisis sure demonstrates what some ‘good’ bankers could have prevented.

The key point, however, is that I am not any more ‘good’ than anybody else. I just had the chance to spend a lot of my time advancing social causes. In the day to day of my work, I have selfish thoughts (especially due to all the fund-raising pressures) and don’t feel any more important to society than anybody else. In fact, I get very annoyed by this strange notion that the nonprofit practitioners are doing God’s work (or at least something pure) while the people in the for-profit are not. Both sectors promote this erroneous notion that permeates our society to its detriment. For-profiteers like to be able to hide behind their job and the company, and feel entitled not to have to ‘do good’. It’s really just laziness and apathy. Non-profiteers want to feel special for their financial sacrifices and demonize the rest. The whole thing makes me sick because it’s fake. Doing well and doing good should be built into everything we do and every organization in the planet.

2) What is your opinion of Social Return on Investment (SROI) as a success measurement? And as a managing director of a socially conscious venture, how do you weave SROI into the framework of your short and long-term vision?

I’m not a big fan of SROI measurements, but it is definitely a good idea to have some social impact metrics. The idea of bundling them all into one common denominator that somehow measures social impact per dollar invested is not a good idea. I used to be a bigger fan until I realized that it’s impossible. It’s impossible to objectively measure social impact because people value things differently based on their values and past experience. I used to consider myself an economist, so the economist in me must come out every now and then, Return on Investment (ROI) works because money is an objectively tangible measure for which everybody agrees a dollar equals a dollar. They don’t have to agree that a dollar equals a soda can; they just don’t have to buy the soda can if it’s worth less than a dollar to them. Only the people who value a soda can for more than a dollar will make the transaction. In this sense, SROI is a nonsensical concept.

I do like keeping social metrics however because it keeps you honest and it lets your constituents, and the general public, get an idea of your progress and your impact. Then, based on this data, they are empowered to decide for themselves if they think it’s valuable or not.

At Blitz Bazaar our metrics are the following:

  • Number of change-makers: people registered on the platform and taking action to promote social change
  • Level of activity on the site: a point system that measures how much people are doing to promote social change
  • Successful blitzes: number of blitzes (campaigns) that achieve their respective goals
  • Number of social movement plan competitions in the world (not just ours)

3) In a recent blog article of yours (Social Entrepreneurship vs. Activism; SOCAP09 vs. Momentum09), you discussed the divide between traditional activism and social entrepreneurship. You stated, “Most social entrepreneurs, like me, don’t identify with activism…” Why do you think there is a disconnect between these two groups (that seemingly have aligned goals)?

It’s all about optics and therefore generational. The perspective around activism in the US, as compared with other countries that didn’t grow and thrive as much this last-half century, is that activism doesn’t work. Americans, rightfully or not, believe that amazing social and economic progress is primarily achieved by working hard and creating value, not by arguing, protesting or legislating. People would admit that at times activism is important but for the most part feel it’s a nuisance. During my lifetime, entrepreneurs have been the heroes. Bill Gates has been on a lot more magazine covers than any social entrepreneur I know. The result, of course, is that my generation doesn’t want to be that annoying activist guy/gal but still wants to make the world a better place and respond to the enormous social ills facing us. The result… we create a new label where we can be the hero (the entrepreneur) and make the world a better place. In short, it’s all about labels.

For example, I had to co-opt the word ‘blitz’ instead of using ‘campaign’ because millennials don’t identify with campaigning; it’s too loaded with political and power connotations… big turnoffs. They want to mobilize people for social change but they don’t think of themselves as political or power-hungry. They get annoyed if I called them grass-roots campaigners. So instead they’re starting a blitz and are changemakers, social entrepreneurs or social innovators.

4) Slowly but surely it appears that consumers are becoming more socially conscious. However, there are only a limited amount of case studies where a company or product’s social contribution has affected sales, and even then some of these initiatives have backfired (When Rainforest Ice Cream Melts: The Messy Reality of ‘Socially Responsible Business’: Jon Entine). Do you think that the market will evolve in such a way that, at some point in the future, being a social venture will actually be a competitive advantage?

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s going to change pretty quickly in favor of companies whose ‘blended value’ creation (net ‘good’) is the most positive. As we all know, the private sector has only embraced corporate social responsibility in the last two decades; most big companies now have corporate social responsibility departments and initiatives. It’s not taken all that seriously yet because it’s mostly geared towards, again, optics… creating the perception that the company is good.

However, there is hope in the emergence of what I call, ‘action branding’. It’s inevitable. As transparency increases and the public has inevitably a better and better ability to measure a company’s ‘net good’ based on data and reliable information, companies will be forced to gradually replace all those marketing dollars that today create the impression their company is ‘good’ with real community action that convinces society that their company is good. As people, we are what we do. We understand this intrinsically on a human level. Soon companies will abide by the same rules.

5) Where do you see social entrepreneurship heading over the next decade? Personally, I’ve seen two reoccurring patterns: one, endeavors such as Kiva and The Big Issue enabling individuals with the resources to be productive; two, the socially conscious endeavors, such as Ben & Jerry’s, which have made advancing social causes a part of their overall core value system. Do you see innovations on the horizon that will expand the reach and effectiveness of social entrepreneurs?

I see two major patterns that I’m very excited about. The first is empowering the masses. We’ve lived far too long in an elitist society where only the top 1% of the population have all the power to dictate the rules of the game and forward strategy. This will not end in my lifetime I’m afraid but it’s changing enough to make me happy. Well designed Internet platforms and applications like Kiva, DonorsChoose.org, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and hopefully Blitz Bazaar will continue to make it dramatically easier for the masses to have a stronger voice and better means to engage and shape our communities and our countries. The Internet is still not mature. The first step was getting information out there more efficiently. The second was connecting people and things. The next step will be organizing and coordinating people and things. When the relief efforts in the next Haiti or Chile emergency is more coordinated hundreds of thousands of fewer people will die. When the sustainability movement is more coordinated, the next Copenhagen climate change meeting will be a success. I’m very excited about the future prospects. Blitz Bazaar makes it easy for anybody to wake up one morning, roll out of bed and have the organizing tools to save the polar bears or clean up crime in their neighborhood. It’ll still take work but you don’t have to start a non-profit anymore and you don’t have to leave your day job.

The other major trend is extending the power of mass industrialization to the world’s poor. For profit and non-profits are starting to move into developing countries not to help the poor but instead to sell to them. They’re starting with the no-brainers: water pumps since 95% are farmers, cheap infant incubators so mother’s can save their prematurely born babies when there is no hospital nearby; LED lights where dangerous and expensive kerosene is now being used. Right now it’s still hard because the social infrastructure is not in place: no roads, no distributors, no payment systems, poor communication due to language differences and education deficits. However it’s a huge market and after these first trailblazers go through, solve many of the current problems, and show that it’s possible and profitable; others will come and come in hoards.

Interview with Bryan Pate about Launching a Product

Bryan Pate is co-founder of the company ElliptiGO Inc. and the inspiration behind a new innovation in sports fitness, the ElliptiGO 8S, the world’s first elliptical bicycle. Bryan is a former triathlete, United States Marine, and McKinsey alumnus. His company has just recently launched their product which can be found at ElliptiGO website.


Here are my 5 questions with Bryan and his answers:

1a) Now that you have officially launched your first product (the ElliptiGO 8S) what would you say are the three most important lessons you’ve learned from the experience thus far?

One, that the old adage is true: everything is going to take longer and be more expensive than you planned for. Two, becoming very comfortable with uncertainty is imperative. Three, you need to be careful where you, “burn calories”. Every entrepreneur for the most part is dealing with a finite amount of time and resources. Ultimately you need to make quick decisions and not dwell too long on the outcome. For instance, for our new black bike, the team had to make a decision to go with a flat black or a glossy black. We don’t have the time or resources to poll our potential customers about what they think. We have decided to go with a glossy black based on our gut feel, but we might never know the impact (positive or negative) of that decision.

However, with that said, customer response/dialogue/polling is an extremely important part of this process. We base these decisions not on just what we think but what we learn from the various ways we have listened to our customers (ex. surveys from the site, talking with customers at various PR events, social outlets, etc.). From there, we make educated guesses based on what we know at the time. It is more important to move things forward than agonize over the unknowns, regardless of the innate desire to want to get it right every time.

1b) Were there any unique challenges in launching a product that is technically not available yet (a product that is only available via pre-order)?

It is a tough sale to get people to put money down on something they can’t immediately start using. Part of consumerism is instant gratification, and our current model doesn’t satisfy that aspect of the transaction. Furthermore, there is limited ElliptiGO brand recognition – as a result, we have a huge trust hurdle to overcome with every single potential customer. Unfortunately, using scarcity as a marketing attribute did not seem to influence sales. We are launching into a market that we are in essence creating. It is definitely a challenge.

2) From what you have learned so far about launching a product, what is one aspect you would have done differently or plan to change moving forward?

I would have taken fundraising a little more seriously. After our second round, I was concerned about other aspects of the business and stopped focusing on fundraising for several months. When I returned to fundraising, I found that I couldn’t simply pick up where I left off and that many potential investors had lost interest because of the break in fundraising. If I had a better fundraising plan and was able to move more quickly into raising the next round, as opposed to taking some time off, I believe it might have made things a little easier. When you are going through the process of funding a business, it is important to have a well thought-out fundraising roadmap and not be caught in a situation where you are discussing investments without a clear set of terms and realistic timeline for closing the round.

3a) Even though you have acquired funding, I think it is fair to say that you are a bootstrapped organization. Given that maximizing marketing dollars is extremely important to a bootstrapped business – especially when launching a new product and introducing your company to the world – where have you seen the biggest bang for your buck with regard to marketing dollars?

The biggest bang has been the Web, no question. In November, we had more than 8,000 unique visitors come to our website and spend several minutes there. This is without spending any money on advertising at all, other than the site. The ability to provide quality information to a self-selected audience like this so easily, and the scalability of the platform, makes it an easy question to answer.

3b) Have there been any surprises?

I think the surprise has been the organic growth in awareness over the past year. Now, I’ll be riding the bike around and I’ll hear someone say, “Wow! What is that?” And before I have a chance to answer their friend will say, “That is the ElliptiGO, you haven’t seen that yet?” Considering the limited quantity in existence right now and our lack of investment in awareness building other than online and riding the bikes, it is surprising how many people know what an ElliptiGO is.

4) How did you develop the success metrics to gauge your level of achievement regarding your launch? In other words, how did you get past setting up criteria that potentially could be arbitrarily based on a market that you are in essence creating (and has no historic data in which to establish baselines)?

You sort of make it up as you go along. We have come up with what we would like to accomplish (ex. number of new entry markets, number of elliptical bike races created, criteria specific to creating brand recognition). We have PR goals. For instance, in the launch event in San Diego our goal was to get coverage on every network news station, which we accomplished. We have qualitative goals about acquiring people interested in the brand, which we keep exceeding and then we have more quantitative figures based on pre-orders that we would like to improve on. With that said, we do realize that because of the new space we’ve entered, some of this is just conjecture. For instance, we know there won’t be much correlation between how we influence people to pre-order versus how we motivate people to buy when we are ready to ship product. We are aware to some degree the deposit model has failed us and that we need to go back to the plan and make adjustments.

When we are looking for data we are cognizant that some of our desired outcomes will need to be ball-parked. When we had our launch party, there were specific things we were looking for and trying to garner. However, we were also well aware that we were not conducting a scientific experiment. You do the best with what you know at the time. Success metrics are important so that you can make adjustments and gauge progress; I suppose in our case some are “arbitrary” but because they exist they are actually almost as useful (as goals based on existing data) because they create a standard by which one can measure initial expectations.

5) How did you ultimately develop your launch plan and what facets do you think are going to play the biggest role in converting interested consumers into customers (ex. PR, product demonstrations, social media and creating a community of satisfied evangelists, etc.)?

We developed the launch plan over several years. It has gotten refined throughout the process through mentors and experts, and as facts have changed so have we (and the plan). However, the plan has been deliberate. And truthfully, your launch plan is never over until the lifecycle is over anyway. There are always going to be new markets and new iterations of the product. In the case of ElliptiGO, we understand the importance of our first customers. In some sense, they will be our de facto sales force and because of that we need to make sure we take care of them and foster a great relationship with them.

We accomplish this by exhaustive customer interaction, making sure we are an active part of the conversation regarding our product (and market), treating anyone that puts down a deposit as a VIP and making sure that to the extent that it is prudent we influence who those first movers are. This last measure is the hardest because it is a delicate balance. I mean, I am suggesting that it is important that we in some way control who are the first owners of our product, while at the same time I want to do whatever I can to increase sales. It is a tough position to be in.

So to answer your question, one of the most important aspects of the plan at the initial launch stage is to manage, enable, and influence to the best of our ability these first movers with the hope that they in turn will do the same with follow-on consumers in a positive way. Right now it is a one-on-one conversation but we hope it evolves to the stage that people begin to learn and be influenced by customers we nurtured in this initial launch.