Amazon.com Widgets

Interview with Eric Quick about Using Technology for Good

Eric Quick has two decades of experience in food operations, manufacturing and consulting including senior leadership positions at McDonald’s, Disney and Safeway. In recent years Eric has engaged himself in more entrepreneurial pursuits which include launching the successful iPhone app MY FOOD FIGHT! and starting the consulting firm Cloud 9 Performance Solutions which assists food service organizations create healthier food supply chains while also reducing their costs.


Here are my 5 questions with Eric and his answers:

1) In the book Fast Food Nation it’s stated, “What we eat has changed more in the last forty years than in the previous forty thousand.” This is primarily due to advancements in technology. Your latest two entrepreneurial endeavors use innovative technology to promote better nutritional habits and choices. What do you believe technology’s role is in getting us moving in the right direction again regarding personal health as it relates to nutrition?

My belief is technology is going to play a significant role, but I’m still concerned that it will continue to play an intrusive role as well with the integrity of food. Over my career in food we have seen technology used to really over commercialize the food supply. To be fair we cannot blame the technology itself… but we can blame a lot of the people behind the technology and the pressures of Wall Street to maximize profits. That said, technology is also an enabler of the clean food movement.

Personally, we are using aseptic packaging to offer an organic product in a more convenient way. This gets us away from having to use preservatives, stabilizers, coloring, and other foreign agents to provide a “convenient” product for the end-consumer as well as a more nutritional nutrition back panel. Ultimately it is up to us (the producers of food) to make sure technology moves us in the direction of healthier end products. For instance, there is a company in the Bay Area using clean room technology meant for science labs to grow food indoors without pesticides with high yields. It is companies such as this that are moving us in the right direction.

2) With your answer from question one in mind, what currently excites you the most regarding emerging technologies that will help elicit positive change regarding globesity and an overall improvement in global health and wellness?

It is not necessarily the technology that excites me, rather the emerging entrepreneurs behind the technology. They seem to care more about food quality than their recent predecessors and are pushing the cleaner food movement. It excites me that people in our industry seem to be more cautious about their choices and I can see intent is changing. I see companies emerging worried less about profit and more pushing the limits of what is possible. As a manufacturer of food I’m excited that these new innovations (being built) allow me to make a food product that can still have a decent shelf life but does not require garbage ingredients to accomplish this. From the farm to fork people are looking at the entire chain and trying to make each part of the process better and also cleaner. That’s what excites me.

Technology as a communication tool also excites me. Chipotle’s innovative ad about the horrific use of gestation crates for pig farming went viral on social media and generated interest when there was limited visibility prior to the ad going viral. Phone apps like MY FOOD FIGHT! that help communicate/teach better health choices to consumers. These are also steps in the right direction.

3) Given your extensive experience in scalable food manufacturing and distribution, what is one thing you think the industry could change today that would make an immediate positive impact for the greater good of public health?

In my personal opinion it is the use of pesticides and chemicals in the agricultural food supply. The trickle-down effect is profound – neurological issues, environmental factors, the economic impact on local farming – it is almost impossible to know all the ways these products have a negative impact on society. Organic has proven you can produce without it. Admittedly it is more work, and it does come with a higher cost, but put against scrutiny I believe it is worth the effort given the hard to quantify social costs of doing business as usual. What is the cost of health care for those affected by pesticides? What are the economics of environmental conditions left over from chemical use? These are important questions to answer and we do not have the studies to give a clear picture of the long-term impact of chemical use in the food supply chain. Is it easy? No. As a society we have a desire for cheap food and so challenging the status quo is a tricky proposition but a very important one none-the-less.

4) In your twenty years of experience, and in the research and development of MY FOOD FIGHT!, what methods, campaigns, schemes and/or technologies do you believe to be the most effective in lasting positive behavioral change?

Gaming is a very powerful medium, especially for younger people, to create behavior change. I believe we are wired to enjoy games. I spoke at the Games for Health Conference on this topic and during the Conference was blown away at the extremely innovative games emerging that also deliver a value in the form of influencing positive change. You don’t hear about these games the way you hear about the latest Zynga game because they are developed for a particular niche audience… and let me state they transcend nutrition. I saw applications for PTSD, and improving the lives of autistic children, and many others. It is really quite remarkable what games can do to help people in a fun way.

5) Your current project Froovie is a pioneering approach to offer consumers a healthy, organic alternative to notoriously unhealthy beverage choices at the soda fountain. What do you deem as imperative to making sure your disruptive technology is successful and benefits from a lasting product cycle?

Simply put, if our product is not great tasting it is going to fail no matter how healthy it is. I know the theme of this interview is technology but it is just as important to share that consumers aren’t going to be impressed with our technology; rather they are going to want something they enjoy as much or more than soda. If our product does not taste great the technology is not going to matter. We have to cater to a palette that has been conditioned to like things that are extremely sweet. In my lifetime I’m confident the advances in technology are going to be mind-blowing and yet what I have just shared with you will be just as true then as it is today. Your product has to be as good or better than the alternative to survive.

Interview with Alex Kaplinsky about Innovative Web Design

For the past twenty years Alex Kaplinsky has been a key and pioneering figure in all things interactive. His career started in 1993 when he founded and managed the Internet consulting firm Networkers. Since then he has served and played vital roles at a host of different organizations including USWeb, Liquid Thinking and Form Studios. Currently, he is founder and CTO of SolutionSet, a web marketing consultancy firm which aims to help companies find innovative solutions to business challenges.


Here are my 5 questions with Alex and his answers:

1) As industry reports continue to confirm that the effectiveness of online media is progressively improving while the effectiveness of terrestrial media is waning, more and more companies are choosing to reboot their online presence. As an industry leader in helping organizations improve, in your opinion, over the last twelve months where are businesses getting it right and what in general are common missteps?

The businesses that are getting it right are the ones that understand that at the end of the day it’s really about the end-user’s needs… that fundamentally users are no longer interested in the marketing messages companies want to “push” out. I think the prime examples of this would be Google or Amazon. At least regarding online businesses, companies that are more agile and provide utility to the user tend to fend better. The old school, traditional approach of pushing a marketing message with a lot of visuals and a lot of copy, opposed to designing your website for what the user really needs to do demonstrates a lack of concern for your customers.

So you see sites like Dropbox where the instructions to get started take up the entire screen, or the classic example of Google where you are greeted basically with just a search box… these businesses have oriented their focus on the user’s task in their flow of everyday life opposed to pushing things on them. This is clearly becoming the way you need to differentiate yourself rather than trying to make the user consume what you want them to consume. Good brands are now about utility, about simplicity, and being able to achieve what you want to do quickly and efficiently. Businesses getting it wrong get in the way of the user. Businesses getting it right understand reciprocity. They understand that by putting the user’s needs first they will be rewarded for their effort.

2) Another current aspect of online marketing getting a lot of attention is personalization. Innovations in content management systems make providing users a tailored experience easier and more affordable. Are we close to seeing Apple’s Siri type functionality as part of standard website usability?

Regardless of the technological interface, it’s always only going to be as good as garbage-in, garbage-out. So, for Apple to make Siri work they expend an immense amount of effort on continued improvement, amassing new data and sorting that data. It is a major effort so I’m not sure that we will see this type of functionality on a wide scale anytime soon regarding traditional websites. However, at the heart of your question is will we see company’s FAQ pages and/or knowledge pages improve? Yes, technology is going to continue to allow knowledgeable companies to give its customers better results.

You have a lot of great new tools to personalize websites. The interfaces for creating that logic are increasingly user friendly where the average webmaster can facilitate this experience opposed to before where that was well beyond their control. Before this could only be done by programmers and usually took heavy lifting. Content targeting is going to get a lot more sophisticated, especially as we continue to integrate Social and develop algorithms on the affinity of your social network. Users will learn to filter content like they filter songs on Pandora, and eventually you will have experiences that quickly tailor to one’s personality. We’re almost there now.

3) Do you subscribe to a set of evidence-based standards, blueprints, and/or formulas when you approach the initial stages of creating an online solution for a client? Or do you find it’s better to start from scratch and pull in best-practices along the way after initial brainstorming and discovery with the client?

It depends on the subject matter and the team you’re working with. So, if you’re talking about a completely new product, whatever that may be, for example video sharing ten years ago and nobody has ever done that before… there are no established accepted practices… then you brainstorm like crazy! Put everyone’s ideas on the table and try to sort them out, evaluating parallels at that point in time and evolve from there.

On the other hand an interactive marketing team redesigning a website, preferably with experience in the industry… I firmly believe they come to the table with their established standards and draw from these. Otherwise you’ll get too many ideas that are outside of the norm.

Let me give you a random example, a designer says, “I would really like to explore the paradigm of having a navigation bar on the bottom of the browser window, sort of like the Macintosh launch bar, for our website controlling the navigation because that would be a really cool thing to do.” However, the data shows that unconventional navigation is hard on the end-user. The more well-known things are, from a functional standpoint, the fewer problems you’re going to face. Take a standard common function like “forgot my password”… there are only two or three ways that people perform forget and recover passwords so you should have those in hand. There are many elements like this that are things you can quickly plug-in. So in an instance where it is called for I would instruct my team, “We’ve seen this before, let’s start with something very similar and adopt it rather than starting from scratch.” In these type of situations it is just a better use of time.

4) If a company is planning an overhaul of their website, either a reboot or redesign, what steps do you recommend they take before reaching out to an agency to improve their chances of a successful project (ex. audits, gap analysis, user surveys, etc.)? Put another way, what are commonalities you see from companies that are successful at recreating their Web presence versus companies that have failed during this process?

The things you’ve mentioned are a great start. The biggest thing is really the level of technical involvement that your team has… in understanding conceptually the systems that will best benefit the company and at least some technical understanding of those systems. The companies that get it wrong are the ones that do not clearly identify their integration points up front. For instance, midway though a project after functional design they realize they missed important steps because they didn’t do their homework. There are a lot of companies that focus (upfront) exclusively on visual design and don’t look at their technical systems… and therefore what happens is projects are ill-defined and not properly scoped leading to disappointment on both sides of the fence. So companies that get it right do several things that set them up for success:

1) They conduct thorough audits, as many as needed, to understand their systems and all the different data points they’ll need to accomplish their business goals.

2) They have a content strategy upfront. They know who in their organization will be responsible for writing, what they’ll be writing, and have validated that those people have the right experience and the right skill sets to get the job done (plus, the time to do it).

3) They have a realistic timeline and have set clear expectations with the project’s stakeholders.

The last one is important. A fair number of projects fail because they are bound by a timeline but also require the sign-off of an executive who has no availability. Trying to comply with time constraints you are forced to act upon visual designs that haven’t been officially approved, only to find out that the key stakeholder disapproves of the design and now your project is late and over-budget. So these things are commonalities of companies that get it right. The ones that get it wrong don’t plan, have no content strategy, and have unrealistic expectations.

5) You have two decades of Internet experience. When asked to speculate about one of the most profound ways the Internet will be different in the next ten years what’s your guess?

Responsive Design is a trend right now but in a few years it will be called something else. However, the concept of having to think about all of these different form fashions will persist for awhile. So that’s going to be the biggest thing from my perspective is, the fact that for the last fifteen to twenty years we have been worried about the desktop browser. We have thought a lot about the fold, browser compatibility, usability, etc. So I think that from a user experience paradigm, designing for specific devices as they continue to evolve will be the difference. Also the way we view content will change, so not just simply designing for scrolling but now designing for pinching, skimming, zooming and swiping as well. And that is just considering what we can do now. An example of things to come is the Samsung phone which uses the camera in the phone to track the user’s retina to influence the behavior of the browser. In short, the usability standards that have served our industry surprisingly well for almost two decades (given the fast pace of change with technology) are going to get rewritten. Similar to the increase in design complexity when cascading style sheets were introduced to HTML, new devices and new mediums will profoundly increase the complexity of usability design. Therefore, designing for the way we will consume content will be the most profound way the Internet will change over the next ten years.

Interview with Jerome Breche about Customer Enchantment

Jerome Breche is an entrepreneur, innovator, and one of the co-founders of SnapEngage, a customer engagement application that empowers any company or anyone to quickly get a robust chat system embedded onto a website.


Here are my 5 questions with Jerome and his answers:

1) In a recent New York Times article The Yin and the Yang of Corporate Innovation there is a discussion between the merits of a bottom-down (think Google) versus a top-down (think Apple) approach to innovation. What path has SnapEngage taken with regards to the evolution of its innovation?

I do not believe we have taken either of these approaches; If I was to give a name to our approach I would call it “outside-in”. I have come to learn our customers know best what they want. So we have a vision for the product, we know where we want to go, and we’re using the product internally, but we don’t possess knowledge as broad or as good as our customer base. So our approach is to listen to our customers and they are really the ones driving the product innovation. To be honest, we cannot actually take credit for any of the ideation of capabilities in the product. Our customers have done it through feedback via social media and blogs, in person, as well as communication with our company.

To insure this effort is successful we use different tools for this. One I like is Pivotal Tracker. With Pivotal Tracker we can track very detailed development tasks, this allows us to be very agile and deliver them quickly to our users. Inside those tasks we actually track who was the requester so we can deliver the feature directly to the customer who asked for it initially, or to a group of customers and get their feedback quickly to make sure it is exactly what they wanted. We also keep extensive logs and road maps on Google Docs that the company shares. We have monthly and quarterly internal reviews to evaluate our successes and failures. We used to react to every piece of feedback, which isn’t scalable. Through these tools we can sort the data better and make determinations about what to work on for the betterment of our customer’s experience with the product.

2) You make use of the freemium model to market SnapEngage. Are you an advocate of this model? And if so, what advice do you have for entrepreneurs to implement this model successfully in marketing their own products? If not, what warnings do you have about this model?

I don’t know if I would call myself an advocate. We use it because it makes sense for our product because inside the free SnapEngage widget we have a small advertisement for SnapEngage. So if a free customer is going to use our product just a little bit, not enough for them justifying paying for the product, they’re actually paying us by putting our brand on their website. So we look at this as a win-win, it is creating more traffic for us and our most advantageous customer acquisitions so far are all through word-of-mouth. So it’s people who use it on a different website, or those who have heard about it other ways, that make it to our website. So for us a freemium model adds some value because we are able to put our brand name on other people’s websites. Yes, it costs us a little bit in free support, but not much considering the value we get from building product advocates. Plus we have a great product, which you need to succeed using a freemium model, people use it and then eventually become customers.

3) Your company offers world class customer service, not only to paying customers but to prospects as well. Free customer service to non-paying customers is obviously not scalable without an assumption about conversion. What considerations were necessary to make sure this level of support was/is sustainable (outside the obvious answer of “making sure you have a best-in-class product that converts”)?

Great service builds brand advocates which is a powerful form of marketing. Our company mantra is to treat every customer or prospect exactly the same way. To make it scalable we constantly try to improve support. We have focused on really making our FAQs usable so people can help themselves if they’re so inclined. However, we have no scripts or time budgets for interactions with people. So far this has worked for us, and people enjoy talking to real people.

4) In a 2003 TED video Seth Godin talks about a company needing to be “remarkable” in order to maintain a high level of success (Seth Godin on Sliced Bread). Live chat has been around since the 1990s with products such as ICQ. In the world of live chat, how have you built SnapEngage to ensure it is a product your customers remark about?

This brings us back to listening to customers, and if we go back to the history of our company that’s how we build the SnapEngage product. Initially, our company was a video distribution solution, a completely different use case but some of our customers asked us for a small feedback widget they could put on their website. So we built it, and then those early customers asked us for a more real-time way of responding to customer feedback, and that’s how we got into the live chat business! It was just by listening to our customers and their feedback. And this approach has led us to develop features and capabilities which are different from our competitors; an example of this is putting the chat agent’s picture in the live chat window. This feature, asked for by our customers, has created a more personal engagement for them with their customers. When a website visitor sees a real person’s smiling face, they are way more likely to respond to this message and engage. I like this feature because it highlights that we’re really about developing a more personal engagement/experience with users.

5) One has the opportunity to meet much of your team simply by engaging them through your application via your consumer facing website www.snapengage.com. Outside the unique advantage of getting a potential prospect instant interaction with your product, one also quickly learns that SnapEngage is a company of really cool people that are willing to go out of their way to help you. Is there any advice you can share on how you’ve been able to develop such an outstanding company ethos?

Luck plays a part. So far we’re very fortunate to find the right people. Of course, leading by example is effective, showing anyone that comes onboard that SnapEngage is friendly with all our customers. As a founder I’m still on live chat and phone support, it is important that I know what our customers are talking about or asking. Furthermore, we don’t believe in believe in mechanical systems like typical customer service organizations offer. They have scripts, scenarios and protocols. We empower our agents to interact as real humans with all customers so we don’t really have guidelines for our teams expect the one: your aim is to help the customer. Giving our employees this liberty makes a big difference on how they successfully interact with customers.

Hiring is obviously extremely important as well, we spend a lot of time on the hiring process. I interview at least 30 candidates for each position and we are really, really careful on who we hire because it is so important. Also, we involve the entire team in the hiring process… the entire team is involved and everyone gets a vote, this helps ensure the new hire is a good fit. We make any new hire read Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness book as an excellent model to follow.  Lastly, we make sure that each employee has time to follow up with customers to make sure that they have had a good customer experience, and if there is an issue, a chance to find out how to improve.

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’”.