6 honest reflections on being an early-stage startup founder

12 min read

I previously co-founded Elgg and served as CTO at latakoo, but Known is the first time I've been a CEO. Candid reflections have always been important to me to learn from; maybe someone will find these useful, too. If not, then, well, my first point applies:

Writing is an important way to organize your thoughts.

In many ways, as a founder, your job is to be the company storyteller, the company cheerleader, and the person who will fix the sink if the plumbing breaks. There are so many strands that I've found writing - and in particular, blogging - to be a great way to order them into a coherent narrative. A lot of times, when I post here on my own site, I'm thinking things out in public. You're all a part of my thought process. Congratulations?

This is one reason why I'm adamant that you should hire people who can write well. I don't mean their spelling or punctuation, particularly; I'm talking about their ability to convey information. That also speaks to the kind of order they will bring to other tasks. It's a core skill.

Related to this:

The elevator pitch is more important than I thought it would be.

We were part of the third class at Matter, an awesome values-based accelerator in downtown San Francisco. Throughout, we were encouraged to condense our story into a seven-minute pitch. The pitch itself wasn't the thing; the process forced us to create a coherent story for our company, mostly for ourselves, which would itself inform our company's decisions. Who would buy this? What was the concrete problem we were trying to solve?

It's harder than you think to condense this into seven minutes. We live and breathe our startups - how can we cut and edit that down to a seven minute story? Help! we all thought to ourselves, while nibbling slack-jawed at our accelerator's complementary snacks. We need more time!

If only we'd known.

Seven minutes is an acre of time. It's a boundless ocean stretching out to the horizon, rippling gently beneath a benevolent sun. You can fit lifetimes in seven minutes. And in front of a captive demo day audience, to boot!

No no, my optimistic, accelerator-cheese-string-eating past self. You have got it very wrong. Try fifteen seconds.

"What is Known?", someone will ask. Ignore the existential double meaning of the question, because you have about fifteen seconds to convince the person in front of you that your idea is compelling and different. If you succeed, they might ask you a follow-up question: something easy like "are you making money?" or "doesn't WordPress do that?". Be ready.

In fact, the existential double meaning does matter, because your answer, despite being tweet-sized, will depend on all the research and insights you've gathered, and everything you know. It's likely to radically change over time as your understanding of your business improves. Your fifteen second description is the tip of the iceberg, but it's a tip that encapsulates everything below the waterline.

Arguing with investors is a clear indicator that you have work to do. On yourself.

This is something I've avoided, but I've seen other founders do this more times than I can count.

Here's what happens. A startup founder takes a meeting or walks on-stage at a pitch event. They've brought a presentation that they've slaved over, had sleepless nights over, maybe even wept over in the darkness of their shared office space at 3am, and they are proud of it. It is, as far as they can tell through their sleepless haze, the perfect encapsulation of what they've worked on so tirelessly. It is beautiful. Were it journalism, it would surely win the Pulitzer.

And the investors tear it apart.

At least, to the entrepreneur, it feels like that. In reality, they're asking important due diligence questions: trying to pick holes in the story, and figuring out, within the constraints of the space and time they have, whether this startup is a smart place to put their money. They most often want to help the entrepreneur, by asking them to strengthen their argument. But it flies directly in the face of the founder's conviction, not to mention all of their single-minded hard work, and it hurts. So they misread the situation and become defensive. They might even get visibly angry. And that's where it all falls down.

An early-stage investor is like a cofounder (or at least, they should be). They probably have a lot more experience with young companies than the founder does, and can offer pertinent advice based on things they've learned from other companies. Who would want to work with someone who gets angry when presented with that experience?

It's okay to correct people, of course, but the right way to do it is with your facts, and all the great research you've done. Your faith means nada: all startup founders have faith that they'll succeed. You've got to show investors that you have the skills, the knowledge and - ideally - an unfair advantage.

Take care of yourself.

Here's what I have experienced personally: the crushing feeling of having your work swept out from under you by that investor experience. There's a tight line to walk. Investors really do have a lot of experience, and really do want to help you. Most of the people I've met are driven by helping entrepreneurs, so the advice they give comes from a good place. But at the same time, you have to stay true to yourself, too: sometimes you do need to take a leap of faith to create something new. Whether anyone comes with you is all on you.

That's hard. Running a startup comes with intense highs and lows, sometimes within the same 30 minute period. Often that 30 minute period will be late at night, or on a Sunday, or at 6am. By its nature, it's incredibly unhealthy, both mentally and physically.

When you're terrified about money, and worried about your own lack of sleep, and there's a strange new pain somewhere in your body and you're not sure when it started happening but it's probably stress-related but maybe it's something that will kill you, and people have started looking at you strangely on the street, it can be very hard to make stable, considered decisions. But that's what you have to do. You have to be calm, and you can't let criticism go to your heart.

Take time away from your startup. Go to the gym. Eat well (not string cheese). Consider drinking tea instead of coffee (you don't need higher cortisol levels). Enjoy the countryside. Go for walks. Be with your friends. Do what makes you happy. Above all: remember that it's a business, not your entire life, and any criticism or praise you receive is not a commentary on you as a person.

Those things will make you a better person, a better entrepreneur, and a better decision-maker.

And for god's sake, stop eating the string cheese.

Don't tilt at windmills.

Fail hella fast. Don't spend years on something that isn't going to succeed for you. You only get one life. If something isn't working after you've spent a reasonable amount of time and effort on it, move onto something that does. Don't get so emotionally invested that you can't let go. (This applies not just to startups as a whole, but to features, target customers, user flows, logos ... you name it. Repeat after me: this is business.)

A mantra that's commonly (rightly) repeated for startup founders is, "you are not Steve Jobs". In other words, you need to do user research and testing. You need to build prototypes to get feedback on, so you can make better decisions.

But, okay, time out. Here's a quick question which should be easy to answer with no thought at all: what is success?

Does success mean building a unicorn or a dragon? (That's startup-speak for a company worth at least $1bn, and a company that returns $1bn to a particular investor, respectively. Yes, I know it's ridiculous. Have you been here?)

Does success mean building the dreaded lifestyle business? (That's startup-speak for a company that allows its founders to live comfortably but will never be described in terms of mythical beasts.)

Does success mean making a positive impact on the world? (That's startup-speak for "won't get funded". I kid - these kinds of startups can also make a lot of money, and Matter, as well as Better Ventures, Double Bottom Line and a few other social impact investment firms are orientated to this. I'm glad they exist.)

It's actually really important that you know the answer to this. All of these approaches lead to different approaches and decisions, different ways of describing your company, and, frankly, different companies. If you have a cofounder (and you should), you should probably be on the same page on this. If one of you wants to build a unicorn filled with ninjas that morphs into a dragon, and one of you wants to build a lifestyle business with a focus on social impact, you will reach a point where it's not going to be pretty. Founder breakups are like marriage breakups. You don't want it to happen.

Above all else: know where the money is coming from.

A lot of people have been seduced by Twitter's strategy. Here's the in-a-nutshell version of what they did: they built a prototype in a couple of weeks, with the simplest possible features, and let it loose. Over time, the community created its own norms - things like replies, hashtags and retweets - and the company thought about those and figured out how to make them into features. For a few years they didn't even think about money. They concentrated on growing the company, and to do that they paved the deer paths. Lovely!

What's mentioned less often is that to make this happen, Ev Williams personally bought back the shares that had been invested in his company. That money had previously come from selling Blogger to Google. Unless you also have millions and millions of dollars, it is not a strategy that you can repeat. And even then, Twitter partially became successful through a series of smart decisions - putting screens up at SXSW, for example, which took money - and a series of accidents.

To "you are not Steve Jobs", I would like to add: "you are not Ev Williams".

The startup landscape has changed since the mid-2000s. It is expected that you will have built something with traction off your own back. Unless you're a unicorn developer (which in this case doesn't mean you're worth $1bn, but means you can build quickly, can design well and are good at gathering user feedback; stay with me) you will need to bring in other people. That means you're going to need to commit your own money, or be oozing with leadership charisma, or both.

Here's an aside, if you aren't a developer: you can't find a technical cofounder. Technical people get asked to join startups on a very regular basis, and it's become a bit of a running joke. Join a company that will eat your life and pay you very little money in exchange for a tiny amount of equity that amounts to a lottery ticket? "What a great deal!" said no-one, ever. If you want someone technical to join your team as a cofounder, you have to prove that you're worth joining. Most of all, you have to prove that you're not going to lean on them to make your whole product for you - and that means showing that you have skills to bring to the table. Show your research. Build wireframes. Maybe even learn to code a little. And demonstrate, however you can, that your technical cofounder will be an equal rather than - as I heard someone once describe their technical colleagues - "our back-room technicians".

Once you have your working prototype - which, to reiterate, you've built with your own skills and/or money - you're going to need to know where your runway is coming from. Are you going to try and make revenue immediately? Are you going to raise investment because you're creating a consumer startup? Either way, you don't have space to bimble along like Twitter did, finding itself along the way.

Are you going to grow with help from investment? Then make sure people will invest. Are you going to bootstrap through revenue? Then make sure people will actually pay.

There is never enough time. There is never enough money. Somehow, as a founder, you have to make both.

Bonus seventh: don't trust pithy thought pieces on entrepreneurship.

Experience is important to learn from, but seriously. You're your own person. You have your own experience, your own goals, your own creativity and your own special sauce that you're going to bring to the table. There are few communities that are as much about peer pressure, community norms and cargo cultish received wisdom than tech entrepreneurship. Through all of this, you need to maintain your own strong personalty - and the strong personality of your venture.

Let me be clear: this is the best job I've ever had, and I wouldn't change it for anything.

Go out into the world and succeed, whatever that means for you, however it makes sense for you. Make a dent in the universe.

And don't eat the string cheese.

 

W3C announces 1 in 20 sentences on the web will be advertising

2 min read

This week, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told the New York Times how he plans to continue to monetize his service:

Twitter’s core business of selling ads that are inserted into the flow of tweets that every user sees has plenty of room to grow, he said. The social network’s ideal model is for ads to make up about one in 20 tweets that the average user sees - the same level that Facebook strives for. "We're well below that now," he said.

The web, which has long been in competition with Facebook and Twitter, is racing to catch up. Analysts haven't been kind; last month, an editorial in Forbes sniped that "the web doesn't seem to be trying to raise its market cap at all". This has led Carl Icahn and others to question whether a new board is in order. In response, Tim Berners-Lee, CEO of the web, told reporters this week:

Starting this quarter, we're monetizing the web. Around 5% of the written sentences that users, or "surfers", see will be tasteful contextual advertising, which will add value and increase engagement. We've always been about linked data, and now we're linking it to a number of easy, convenient ways to pay to reach your audience.

The web will also introduce a new Pro version, launching this September, which will include several new tags, unlimited access to HTTP, and a "professionals mode".

 

For artists, if the Internet is not the answer, what is?

4 min read

Andrew Keen's new book The Internet is not the Answer takes a contrarian view to the digital revolution:

Instead, it has handed extraordinary power and wealth to a tiny handful of people, while simultaneously, for the rest of us, compounding and often aggravating existing inequalities – cultural, social and economic – whenever and wherever it has found them. Individually, it may work wonders for us. Collectively, it’s doing us no good at all. “It was supposed to be win-win,” Keen declares. “The network’s users were supposed to be its beneficiaries. But in a lot of ways, we are its victims.”

Andrew has forged a career from standing to the side of the Internet gold rush and saying, "wait a minute". This isn't a criticism; we need that voice, I think, to counterbalance the cheerleading role that the tech press typically fills. In particular, as the Guardian points out:

The US government’s decision, in 1991, to throw the nascent network open to private enterprise amounted, as one leading (and now eye-wateringly wealthy) Californian venture capitalist has put it, to “the largest creation of legal wealth in the history of the planet”.

Wealth in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But what Keen seems to be suggesting is that this has actually in part been obtained by devaluing other peoples' jobs - it's not wealth creation, in the same sense that software is something created from nothing, but rather wealth redistribution. The jobs that were rendered obsolete have not been recreated; there is no employment equilibrium. In particular, the article and the book cite figures that show a significant downturn in jobs for creatives.

There's a tricky conversation to be had here. Some of those jobs were bolstered by models that should not continue to exist, while few of us would argue that we don't value art or creative work. New models must therefore be found to support artists. (Companies like my friends at the Creative Action Network are doing great work here.)

It's been pointed out to me more than once that the 20th century models for selling creative work were very temporary. After I posted recently that relying on donations wasn't a sustainable practice, my friend J. Nathan Matias also pointed out that nonprofit arts and cultural organizations have a higher survival rate than businesses in America (PDF link). Elsewhere, arts are often funded (I think rightly) from public money. I'm not sure how much of this funding goes into creative work online, but anecdotally, I'd love to see more.

Artists themselves need more freedom to experiment online. The first years of the web were highly experimental, and many of the first startups could be thought of as art projects. However, over the last few years we've seen this slip away, to be replaced with projects that are either obvious land grabs (Uber, Spotify, food delivery apps and laundry startups, for example) or have settled into homogenizing advertising display funnels (Facebook). It's worth saying that some of the best startups, like Slack, have avoided this pattern, and retained a sense of whimsical experimentation. Meanwhile, projects like CASH Music and the aforementioned C.A.N. are transparently fighting for the artists. I'd hope that creative workers feel that they can take our project, Known, and use it as the basis of their own creative sites. But it's now the exception rather than the rule.

Yet, I know I've discovered all kinds of new artists across mediums. Meanwhile, reductive lists like the Billboard Charts have massively declined in importance for many listeners (which I think is a very good thing). The Internet is not the same thing as its prevailing business models, and I simply don't buy the implied argument that the Internet has been a net negative. But I do think it's worth having a conversation about who is hurting - and if nothing else, using it to figure out who has a problem just waiting for a startup, or a non-profit, to solve.

 

To do better work, and lead better lives, we should all disconnect more.

3 min read

I enjoyed this episode of the New Tech City podcast about the case for boredom:

It's a part of their Bored and Brilliant project, which attempts to encourage us to spend more time stewing in our own mental juices. The argument is that we spend too much of our time using our brain to attend to structured tasks, including checking social media and responding to notifications, and not enough time daydreaming.

It rings true for me, but I'd go further.

We live in a very goal-orientated society. Everything seems to be about setting goals and realizing them. There are so many resources, and so many products, that are about helping you be more productive. There's also so much of a macho culture around this that having dead time - just chilling out, not checking your email, going for a walk with nothing in your pocket - is almost frowned upon.

That's already no fun. But it's also counter-productive. There are countless studies which show that "boredom" lead to creativity, while countless more show that taking time off makes you a better worker. But more fundamentally, these attitudes all hang on the idea that your goals are correct to begin with. If you are following your goals with laser focus, you're not only limiting your opportunities for creativity, but you're actually losing opportunities to learn and grow. If you're obsessively measuring your productivity in terms of quantifiable metrics, as many of us do, you're losing the ability to qualitatively test if you're doing the right thing at all. Creativity is an essential part of being human.

One common meme from the obsessive-productivity camp is the idea that we should "live deliberately", or "live intentionally": turn your life into a series of conscious, carefully-considered, mindful decisions. I mean, sure; the world could certainly use more consideration. Nonetheless, I think you also need to leave room for "meandering aimlessly": allowing for serendipity and the kind of semi-conscious, uninterrupted thought that leads to more creative ideas and actions over time. Jeff Bezos noted that the people who are correct more of the time are the ones who have the freedom to change their minds. Steve Jobs famously said that taking LSD was one of the most important things he ever did (and other industry figures have, privately, advocated taking shrooms); maybe it would also have helped to spend more time chilling out.

That doesn't mean there needs to be a framework for it, copyrighted and sold, that we should all strictly adhere to because it makes us better people. If all this talk about the benefits of daydreaming leads to a Daydreaming Productivity Technique, I will barf. It's not the point. The point is that we need to allow ourselves to be human, to disconnect, and set our minds free once in a while. We'll all be better off for it.

 

Social networks are bad at news. Can we make something better?

7 min read

TV NewsAndrew Sullivan, the veteran political blogger, is quitting. As Ezra Klein at Vox noted:

The blogosphere lives. But Sullivan's decision to hang up his keyboard is nevertheless a marker. Sullivan was the closest we had to someone trying to run a blog with real scale. He was trying to make his blog — and its sizable audience — into a business. But blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale. And I think there are two reasons why.

Meanwhile, Emily Bell, the Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, dedicated her Hugh Cudlipp lecture on journalism to the power that social networks hold over modern news:

Social networks and search engines are the masters of this universe. As we see the disappearance of print as a significant medium, and the likely decline of broadcast television, the paths our stories and journalism must travel down to reach readers and viewers are being shaped by technologies beyond our control.

These are two sides of the same problem. On one hand, Sullivan is finding it unsustainable to maintain his blog. Meanwhile, on the other, Emily Bell points out that newspapers are not in control of their delivery mechanisms or social reach, and essentially are at the mercy of the policies of the social networking companies.

In Gigaom, Mathew Ingram agrees with Bell's assessment:

Social networks like Facebook need the content that comes from media outlets because that’s what drives the engagement they need to sell advertising. But journalism and journalistic organizations should get something in return, and that is a commitment to at least consider the principles that should apply to such content, since they now control how and when (or even if) people see it.

The question is, will they?

I would argue not. As I pointed out at Hacks and Hackers last month, the interests of the social networking companies are at odds with the interests of news and journalism. Content is routinely removed for being controversial, whereas the nature of a lot of news is inherently controversial. Journalism is a brave profession with a strict separation between editorial and revenue control structures, whereas social networks deliberately engineer specific responses in order to sell ads and maintain engagement. Those aren't good traits for a news medium.

In fact, optimizing for engagement leads to increasingly emotionally manipulative content. Wired reports that Facebook is testing engagement across different kinds of content:

“We really try to not express any editorial judgment,” Adam Mosseri, News Feed product director, tells Levy. “We might think that Ferguson is more important than the Ice Bucket Challenge but we don’t think we should be forcing people to eat their vegetables even though we may or may not think vegetables are healthy.”

[...] Unfortunately, so far, it looks like users are less willing to engage with “meaningful” stories or news, preferring anything that triggers a strong emotional response. But Facebook is hopeful that when it begins asking users about sets of stories instead of individual items people will start to reward informative content.

Facebook, of course, makes its money through advertising, so its primary driver is engagement: encouraging people to see and interact with sponsored content. Twitter is heading in a similar direction, with features like While You Were Away that highlight content they think you should see.

NOT one of THOSEWhich brings us back to blogging. A weblog is just a series of articles on your own site. The problems that bloggers have with finding an audience are very similar to the problems that news organizations have with finding an audience on their own sites. In both cases, referrals from social networks are key: Facebook alone is responsible for almost 25% of all referred traffic. (And the average smartphone user checks Facebook 14 times a day.) It wouldn't be possible, or wise, for most publishers to turn their back on these audiences, despite the opacity of the news feed. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Medium clearly sees an opportunity here to be a go-to news feed for serious readers. Their acquisition of the 2015 State of the Union address was a statement of intent. As the Washington Post noted:

Compare that with the response of Kate Lee, Medium senior editor, when asked why the White House would seek out Medium: “You’re publishing to a place that has millions of readers.” Lee says the site, the creation of Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, gets about 20 million unique visitors per month. “People are already here, and they’re much more likely to discover your piece.” Clean and user-friendly though WhiteHouse.gov and other sites may be, they “exist in their own silos and it can be hard to get people to come to you.” Lee declined to say just how much traffic the State of the Union remarks generated but seemed quite happy with the results.

It's an interesting turn of phrase to describe WhiteHouse.gov, and other organizations' own sites, as silos. Medium is also a silo: you must publish directly on the site, and there are no incoming APIs. It is another social network, albeit one that's done a very good job at attracting high quality writers and readers, and it is not necessarily less of a threat to news organizations. Because the content is hosted on Medium, it is also not a viable alternative to a newspaper, say. There's no way for writers to make money from their content.

The simple answer is that we don't yet have what we need, as readers or publishers - and although the ability to easily find audiences and new content is not readily built into the medium, the web has many of the building blocks. I keep coming back to Anil Dash's seminal essay The Web We Lost, where he describes what we get when we lose the open nature of the web as a platform:

We get excuses about why we can't search for old tweets or our own relevant Facebook content, though we got more comprehensive results from a Technorati search that was cobbled together on the feeble software platforms of its era. We get bullshit turf battles like Tumblr not being able to find your Twitter friends or Facebook not letting Instagram photos show up on Twitter because of giant companies pursuing their agendas instead of collaborating in a way that would serve users. And we get a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself.

In his follow-up, Rebuilding the Web We Lost, he makes the opportunity clear:

As is obvious from the responses I've gotten, many, many people care about a social web that honors certain human and creative values. As I've spent years thinking about the right way to write for this blog, and to build ThinkUp, and to sit on the board at Stack Exchange, and to advise clients at Activate, and to work on all the other stuff I do, I just keep running into the fact that there's a huge opportunity to make a great new generation of human-friendly apps with positive social values.

That's certainly what we aim to be building with Known. We want to help people communicate and find audiences from their own websites (as I'm doing right now from mine). It's also a goal of the indie web and related communities.

An informed voting population is vital to democracy; anything that subverts our ability to receive news and information is, in effect, subverting democracy. However, there's also a hugely valuable market for content that's just waiting to be set free. Facebook isn't going away any time soon - but it may be joined by new, more open applications. As Anil Dash describes them: a new generation of human-friendly apps with positive social values.

Which seems to me to be exactly what Emily Bell was talking about.

 

Community-owned startups: taking a cue from the Co-op

3 min read

One of the first conversations I had when I moved to California was with Kaliya, about alternative models of ownership for startups. I know it's something that's come up at events like Future of Money, and it's interesting to see it emerge in USV's question of the week. What would community-owned applications look like? Are they even possible?

Growing up in Oxford, I lived around the corner from a Co-op: a national, collectively-owned chain of small supermarkets and other community businesses. Co-operative branches employ over 70,000 people, and their ownership structure makes them accountable to their communities, resulting in products and policies that are generally high-quality and ethical.

Every person who works there is an owner, and so was I: I paid £1, and in return I got a better deal and, importantly, a share of the profits. That never amounted to a lot of money, but I felt like I was part of it. This is the important bit: I also got to vote on policies, management and local representatives. It was a bit like being a part of a privately-owned democracy.

I think when a lot of people think of community ownership, they immediately imagine the stereotypical archetype of communal living, with anti-capitalist principles and heated arguments over basic ideas. That's not how it works out in practice, either for healthy small-scale communal ownership arrangements or for national co-operatives. Around the corner from me now, another co-operative - Cheeseboard Pizza - draws lines around the block twice a day, and has opened a second branch downtown. They're out to make a profit. And the Co-operative is a thriving business that includes one of the most prominent banks in the UK.

I think this model - community ownership governed by a council of representatives - could work for startups and applications, but it needs to be balanced against a startup's need to scrappily prototype and fail fast. A management bureaucracy is not going to help with those things.

So how about a community-owned venture capital firm?

One of the major criticisms of modern VC has been about the perceived bias towards exits, whatever the cost. That's for good structural reasons: firms need to deliver a return to their limited partners. The "whatever the cost" thing is overblown - investors understand the links between good business practices and good returns - but nonetheless, there is certainly room to test alternative models.

A co-operative venture capital firm would not be the same as crowdfunding. The fund would be managed by the firm's partners - but the firm's partners, investment hypothesis and policies would be voted on as part of a co-operative structure. Investment decisions would be made by representatives, in order to protect the privacy of the startups under consideration. (In other words, ordinary members, paying the equivalent of my £1 to the Co-op, would not get board-level information rights or to attend pitches.) But the fund's ethics and performance would ultimately be judged by a wide array of members, who ultimately will see dividends from the returns if it performs well. It would be, in effect, an open-access, democratically-run, rolling VC fund.

I'd consider this to be less dangerous than crowdfunding for members: there, I'm expected to do my own due diligence and keep on top of company performance. Startups also potentially miss out on the mentoring and partnership that they might ordinarily get from an investor. In this model, I have representatives that I elect, who are paid to do that diligence and nurture their portfolio based on principles and ethics that I helped vote on.

 

No, journalists shouldn't need to learn to code. They need better tools.

2 min read

Aaron Chimbel, over on PBS MediaShift:

At most universities, students are required to take English composition courses, and at many others speech and/or foreign language classes are also required. Yet in the debate about teaching code in journalism programs, code is often reduced to a shiny toy.

I've argued before that learning to code is not the same as being a coder, and that some degree of digital literacy is useful in a world that is slowly being eaten by software. Most recently, that was shown by the Silk Road trial, where a single investigator found the marketplace's founder using a simple Google search, two years into the investigation.

An understanding of how to put a live website together is handy. For a long time, I was a subscriber to the NICAR-L list, a mailing list full of journalists discussing computer-assisted reporting. It's often about things like embedding an OpenStreetMap map using Leaflet, or otherwise wiring up a simple dataset to a visualization. A little light JavaScript hacking, and perhaps some HTML and CSS.

It's actually pretty similar to the kinds of things Erin did when she visualized her Known checkins. (Known exports checkins as both KML and GeoRSS.) And while it's fun to do this kind of tinkering, and is quite a long way away from coding, I don't think it's good enough.

Journalists, and people like them, need better software, which makes these links more obvious. Taking location data from a platform like Known and bringing it into Google Maps or OpenStreetMap should be a one-click (or drag) operation. For us, that'll become more important later this year, when we release more data-centric tools. But it should be a given for everyone. You shouldn't need to know an arcane URL parameter, or understand that KML exists, to be able to manipulate your data in the way that you need.

We spend so much time talking about data that's locked in through business models and terms and conditions that sometimes we forget about data that's locked through design decisions. Letting your data flow freely is part of an open web.

 

Artists should control their work. That means we need better networks.

3 min read

The musician Zoë Keating (who I admire) has written a very transparent, and a little sad, post about the decision she needs to make about YouTube:

They were nice and took time to explain everything clearly to me, but the message was firm: I have to decide. I need to sign on to the new Youtube music services agreement or I will have my Youtube channel blocked.

So what's in the YouTube music services agreement?

It turns out to be a five-year contract that requires her to make all of her catalog available for free on YouTube, with an ad on it. In other words, YouTube requires her to relinquish control over what she releases where.

Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015? It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to. I was encouraged to participate and now, after I’m invested, I’m being pressured into something I don’t want to do.

Yet this is the web! Zoë should be able to post her content to her own website, as well as services like Bandcamp, SoundCloud and the Pirate Bay. And she does do all those things (including, progressively, making her content available over BitTorrent). But YouTube gives her something that she feels she can't get simply by sticking her shield out on the web at large: audience.

This is the same reason that people are choosing to post to Medium rather than their own blogs. It's why photographers initially flocked to Google+, and why you'll find so many on Instagram now. It's because there are ready-made network effects that artists can harness in order to obtain greater reach, and ultimately get paid for what they do.

When a single entity controls the audience for a particular medium, as YouTube now effectively does, they can leverage control over the artists. The result is a worse situation both for artists and their audiences, as the activity of both is shaped to fit the platform owner's interests. From an artist's perspective, the terms demanded by sites like YouTube can feel predatory and invasive. In particular, why would mass market listeners pay for Zoë's album on her terms, when they can listen for free on YouTube's site?

The solution is to build the audience-generating network effects employed by YouTube to the web itself. It's not just about decentralized conversations: it's about driving traffic to artists' own websites, and allowing for organic, seamless discovery of media wherever it lives online. Ironically, it could be argued that this is what Google - still the web's go-to search engine provider - should really be doing.

So, fine. Google is choosing not to do that, and to build value into its own platform. In the best tradition of Internet technology, that leaves room for someone else to fill the gap. And in the best tradition of Internet technology, they will. It's just a matter of time.


If you've read this far, you should go get yourself a free Known site. Publish on your own site using a variety of media, and share it across the web.

 

Censorship and Silos

5 min read

This is a summarized version of my talk at Hacks and Hackers tonight at Matter in San Francisco.

This last summer, Alberto Guzman, a hairdresser in New York, uploaded a picture of him and his husband sharing a kiss on their wedding day. He tagged it with the hashtag , as well as and . It was a wonderful day for them both.

And then Instagram removed it - for being inappropriate.

It turned out that it had been flagged as inappropriate, which is very easy to do on Instagram. You just click flag, and then tell them why. There isn’t a lengthy procedure to go through, and the moderators typically remove items very quickly.

This happens all the time. Famously, it isn’t safe to upload photos containing breastfeeding to Facebook, because they’re flagged as pornography. The company changed its policy a few years ago, but as recently as last year, mothers were demonstrating outside of Facebook’s headquarters because their photos were still being removed.

Late last year, drag queens had their profiles frozen and removed from Facebook because they weren’t using their “real names”.

In each and every case, these deletions were caused by organized groups of users who wanted the content gone because they didn’t like it.

It’s not just photos of motherhood and same-sex marriages that are being removed.

As the British blogger Elliot Higgins noted last year, Facebook pages about the sarin gas attacks in Syria have also almost all been removed. History is being rewritten.

In fact, the problem is so bad that when Mark Zuckerberg posted in favor of free speech following the awful events in Paris last week, a legitimate question about freedom of expression in the comments was flagged and removed.

These aren’t government requests. All of these were due to ordinary people: civilians making a decision about what people should be allowed to publish and how they should define their identities.

I'm picking on Facebook because they're big. 835 million people access Facebook alone every day. It’s how they get their news, how they talk to their friends, how they learn about the world. Smartphone users check Facebook 14 times a day on average.

We’re all familiar with Edward Snowden, and his revelations about illegal NSA surveillance. But the truth is that we’re all spying on each other, too. The content standards that Facebook sets, and its policies regarding inappropriate content, have a real impact on how people learn about the world.

And it’s a real impact. The PEN American Center found that the number of writers in democracies who report that they self-censor the topics they write about is approaching the number of writers in non-democracies who self-censor. Which is to say that one third of writers in so-called “free” countries self-censor because of surveillance.

I would argue that we have the cloud to thank for this. This famous slide from our friends at the NSA describes the best place to intercept data being stored in Google’s cloud. “The cloud” sounds fluffy and nice, but it actually means that you’re storing your stuff on someone else’s hard drive. If you store your data on Google’s cloud, you’re storing it on Google’s hard drive. If you store your data on Facebook’s cloud, you’re storing it on Facebook’s hard drive. Their hard drives, their rules.

And as we’ve seen, it’s easy for someone to get your content removed if they don’t like it, whether they’re the government or just a person who disagrees with you. In a world where reach is everything, no wonder writers self-censor.

And yet, the Internet is amazing. It’s the most powerful engine for communications and learning the world has ever known. It’s an important driver for free speech and it’s changed the way we do business. And we shouldn’t have to give up any of those things.

The early Internet was designed to be resilient: the opposite of the giant siloed stacks we now pour all of our content and conversations into. The idea was to connect up universities and military labs to share resources, in a decentralized way.

That decentralized structure allows us to use services like Google, Twitter and Facebook through a single browser window, but what if we rethought how we shared data online? What if each of us had our own service? What if our conversations and ideas lived on our own devices, in our own living rooms and in our newsrooms? And what if these devices were as easy to use as an iPhone?

We’re beginning to see this future emerge. The Intel Compute Stick is a tiny computer that costs just $89, while platforms like Sandstorm turn publishing and talking to people online from your own server into a one-click operation. Sandstorm, by the way, just announced $1.3 million in funding.

In the old days, Microsoft disrupted the tyranny of mainframes and timesharing by imagining a world with a computer on every desk. Today, I believe we should be imagining a world where we all own our content and conversations online.

 

Homebrew Website Club: January 14, 2015

Discuss progress; meet up; make new friends.

Location: Mozilla SF, 1st floor, 2 Harrison st. (at Embarcadero), San Francisco, CA

Time:

Ends:

Are you building your own website? Indie reader? Personal publishing web app? Or some other digital magic-cloud proxy? If so, come on by and join a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Bring your friends that want to start a personal web site. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project ...

See the Homebrew Website Club Newsletter Volume 1 Issue 1 for a description of the first meeting.

Originally posted on indiewebcamp.com.

Here's the Facebook event, if you prefer.

 

Being a human on the Internet (and discovering my non-throttleable self)

5 min read

I just spent a couple of weeks back in the UK, partially to talk to universities and organizations about using Known, but mostly to reconnect with old, dearly-missed friends who I haven't seen in a few years. The two and a half years since I'd last been there is the longest single period in my life when I haven't visited another country, and I felt it. America is isolating: because it's so far away from anywhere else, getting out is hard, and expensive.

I'd worried that after so much time (I've lived in the US for three and a half years now), my friends would have moved on and it would be a lonely, stark trip. I needn't have: on day one, on two hours of sleep and groggy with jet lag, I sat in a crowded pub with people I'd grown up with, as if almost no time at all had passed. Yes, my friends have moved on - I attended a wedding while I was there; others have had children - but I could still be a part of their lives.

Someone who's opinion matters a lot to me, and who knows me better than almost everyone, said that they kind of wanted to throttle my social media persona. It felt like a marketing campaign, and it so clearly wasn't me.

It was a kind of offhand comment, but social media is the way I stay in contact with a lot of my friends, so it stuck. I've been trying to drum up interest in Known, for sure, but beyond that I hadn't realized that I was fronting a persona. I don't have a social media strategy: I just share what I find interesting, and sometimes (like when I've posted links about police racism) lose lots of followers in the process. How is that not me? Have I changed since I've been here?

I've been thinking a lot about the contrasts. One contrast between American and European culture I've been thinking about a lot since my trip is how people define and contextualize themselves. The US celebrates individualism: the ability for a single person to realize their potential and achieve what they set their mind to. It's a lie, of course, because everyone sits in the context of society, and all of us depend on the social commons in order to survive. There is no such thing as strictly individual achievement: we are all connected. The lie helps individuals capture value from society without having to give back.

But this is a gross generalization: the US is one of the most compassionate places I've ever lived. My family is spread across the north-east, as well as here in California, and they are some of the most generous, community-minded people I've ever met. I'm proud to be descended from union leaders and artists: good people. Most people here are not libertarians or religious zealots, despite what you read and see on TV. Media is a funhouse mirror that amplifies the already-amplified. It distorts reality.

What is more true is that this is a more consumerist culture. People seem to be much more willing to define themselves by what they buy, the car they drive, and so on. I'd argue that this is more of a function of wealth and fashion than self: there's no reason in the world why driving a Mini Cooper should make you feel good about yourself. What really fundamentally matters in a person is their kindness, their intelligence, their empathy and what they do that positively affects other people. Whether they have a Ford or a Toyota, or an iPhone or an Android phone, is arbitrary. Using our consumer choices as value judgments only makes sense if we are trying to promote ourselves.

So maybe that's the seed of the problem. A social media account, by its nature, is one person sending out a signal - and the easiest way to do that is to share links that you find interesting. While that's fine, and sometimes really useful, it's not you: it's a reflection of a persona that you are publishing. You have no sense from my posts about open source and data ownership that I like to draw comics, or that I admire emotional vulnerability, or that I think traditional social norms are stifling. In a way, it absolutely is a marketing campaign: social media, as typically used, is a game where you compete for attention.

But yet. Just as it would be unfair to suggest that most people in America believe in the individual at the expense of community, I don't think it's right to say that everyone on social media is motivated to promote themselves. We want to make friends; we want to find love; we want to learn from each others' experiences. We crave real, deep, human connections that have nothing to do with our professional development or selling our wares. (Maybe it's just me, but I doubt it.) We want to share our feelings, our desires, the things that make us people, and not to get a "like" or to build followers or to make a buck, but to be alive.

I don't know what it means to be more "me" on the Internet, but I do know that all relationships take work. Cheap sharing is never going to lead to deep connections. While the software and devices we use to share can be designed to help us, the real effort has to come from us. We need to stop self-censoring; we need to stop asking what kinds of content our networks want to read. Magazines and news networks don't suffer heartbreak, or hold hands in the sunset, or laugh around the kitchen table. We are not those things.

I use the Internet to reach out to far-away people who mean so much to me. I hope they see some of me in the reflection.

 

A trade war is emerging over where you store your data - but you don't have to participate

2 min read

The Telegraph reports on the rivalry between the EU and Silicon Valley:

As European governments increasingly push back against the growing power of American internet giants on antitrust, privacy and tax, the competition in question increasingly looks like a clash of economies rather than rival companies. The EU and the US are on the brink of a new kind of trade war, where flows of data are just as important as flows of capital.

Information has become power. As more and more of us pour it into fewer and fewer centralized locations, a real battle over whose jurisdiction it's stored in is emerging. In the court case surrounding Europe's controversial right to be forgotten, Google refused to disclose where, geographically, it stores user data, for competition reasons.

There are all kinds of reasons why you should care about where your data is stored. If you're a business or institution, there may be legislative and auditing requirements relating to your servers. Many educational institutions in Europe, for example, can't store data in the US without jumping through numerous hoops - and requiring service providers to jump through more.

This is another reason why user choice is important. The cloud has allowed us to use the Internet to power new kinds of applications. For many users, it's tempting to think of a service's server farm as a given: if you sign up with a service, of course you have to use their infrastructure wherever it might be, right? And therefore, of course you'll be subject to their local laws and practices?

It's important to us that Known allows you to choose where you host it. You can use our servers, which are in the US, or we can create a fully-managed hosted infrastructure in Europe or Asia. You can also run it on your own servers, wherever they might be.

We're not alone. A growing number of web services understand that there are real organizational considerations relating to where you store your data. It's all part of user choice and addressing real-world user needs.

 

Flickr selling its CC photos shows: users don't just need control, they need to understand it, too

3 min read

Dazed reports that Flickr is going to start selling off your Creative Commons licensed photographs:

The site plans to handpick a few select photographers who will get 51% of the sales, but the vast majority of people will see their images printed onto canvas and sold for up to $49 a pop. The only credit they'll get is a small sticker at the bottom of the print bearing their name.

Flickr's founder, Stewart Butterfield (now founder of Slack), is on record as saying, "it's hard to imagine the revenue from selling the prints will cover the cost of lost goodwill".

On his blog, Jeffrey Zeldman says:

I want people to use my photos. That’s why I take them. I want that usage to be unencumbered. That’s why I chose a Creative Commons license. [...] But Yahoo selling the stuff? Cheesy, desperate, and not at all fine with me. I pay for a Flickr Pro account, and am happy to do so. That’s how Yahoo is supposed to make money from my hobby.

I've been a Flickr Pro customer for as long as that's been possible, and quite a few of my photographs have been uploaded under a Creative Commons license. I stopped in 2007, when it became clear that companies like Virgin Mobile were trawling the site to find photographs to use in their advertising for free.

There are a few parallel issues that both events reveal about giving users the ability to license their own work. Flickr is much more liberal than most services about letting users choose how their data is used; being able to apply a legal license of your choice to your photographs is theoretically great. But:

  • Users didn't understand that freely releasing photographs as being usable for commercial purposes meant that anyone, including advertising agencies and major corporations, could do this;
  • Users didn't understand that licensing photographs of people also meant getting a model release contract from the subjects.

In other words - and this shouldn't be a shocker - users weren't aware of the details of intellectual property licensing law. Anyone who's seen a YouTube video with "no copyright intended" earnestly pasted into the description field knows that the vast majority of people don't really understand the rules surrounding content.

Selling photos uploaded to Flickr under a Creative Commons license that allows commercial use is perfectly reasonable legally. However, it defies user expectations, and will come across as yet another way that sites are abusing private data (even if it's actually a side effect of them giving users more control). Legally it shows the flexibility of Creative Commons; strategically it's dumb. As Stewart Butterfield noted, this is likely to hurt them.

So that leaves an interesting case study for other vendors service providers who are trying to give users control. (For example, us at Known.) It's not enough for users to have that control; they also need to understand it. The former is an engineering challenge, while the latter is a design and legal task. Making the implications of sharing and licensing clear is a non-technical undertaking that any open platform should understand it is taking on.

For open source platforms, that leaves one more challenge: convincing both designers and lawyers that they should be contributors. Our open source tools, frameworks, communities and social norms are set up for developers. Finding ways to restructure them to make them more inclusive to other professions and skillsets will, in turn, lead to more usable software that empowers users more robustly than ever before.

 

Surely we can do better than this

2 min read

On my way home tonight, an elderly homeless man stopped me in the street and asked if he could sleep on my floor  because it was cold and rainy. To my shame, I said I couldn't help him, although I could offer him some money, which he declined.

He told me that he had been an actor, and had been in a movie with Lucille Ball. He said that he had been in a version of the Threepenny Opera directed by Jack Nicholson. And he said that nobody would give him the time of day, let alone a roof over his head, because they don't want to say they know a homeless man.

Here, by which I mean in America, homelessness is particularly pronounced. I've read that it's 1000% what it is in the UK. The real 10X. At least in the San Francisco Bay Area they're allowed to exist; in some other cities they're routinely arrested and deposited elsewhere. Out of sight, out of mind.

There is a strain of particularly harmful thought that says it's their fault. Because received wisdom says that anyone can make it here if they try hard enough, they must be lazy, or broken, or sick, and they deserve at least a little bit of what they get. Bullshit. There should be a safety net. This shouldn't be allowed to happen. There but for the grace of God go all of us.

I'm a startup founder. I don't think I have it in me to be Travis Kalanick: society matters. People matter. Ruthless individualism pales in comparison to the power of people who work together. I want to find ways to throw my support behind the experts and great secular organizations who are already fighting homelessness. I want to find ways to motivate other people to do it. We talk about disruption; I wish we could disrupt the culture of greed and individuality above all else. In a part of the world with so much wealth, nobody should have to beg for shelter.

As I walked to my front steps, I saw an older woman use a flashlight to hunt in the bushes for empty cans and bottles that she could redeem for pennies.

I hope the gentleman I spoke to tonight will be okay.

 

Opinions are a feature

4 min read

Lately I've been thinking about the differences between entertainment and technology:

entertainment n. the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment.

technology n. the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.

I've heard a lot about "delighting the user" lately. This is a good thing: a satisfying product does delight the user as a side effect of the way it operates. It might, as Android Lollipop does, provide slick animations to let the user know that their command has been received. It could predict the user's intentions in new ways. It might analyze the data the user implicitly creates in order to suggest tasks.

It is not a goal in itself.

I see a lot of movies, I used to play games before I ran a startup, and I enjoy live music. I was the inaugural Geek in Residence at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab. I believe the arts are an integral part of our culture, and that we cannot function or progress as a society without them.

It's important to remember that in technology, we are in the business of making tools, artfully. Most of us are not making entertainment. There's a running joke in Mike Judge's Silicon Valley sitcom that every startup thinks it's making the world a better place. But that is the goal: to improve peoples' lives by building better tools. As Ev Williams put it in his XOXO talk: find something people are doing, and take out steps.

I think the best startups are the ones that take this need to improve peoples' lives a step further, and inherently make an argument about how the world could be better. By definition, these startups are doing something that's never been done before; they're often iterating on an existing model, but are at the same time making something new. Facebook is a social utility that believes everyone should be connected. Twitter turns communication into bite-sized notifications, making it easy to consume information rapidly. Dropbox thinks your important files shouldn't be constrained by hard drives. Uber thinks taxis are broken.

All of those experiences are delightful in different ways (remember when you synced with Dropbox for the first time?), but in service of a new way of interacting with the world. I don't think it's enough to be well-designed or well-executed. You have to be opinionated. Make an argument for how the future should behave. Take sides.

Mediocre tools don't try to persuade you. They just exist, hoping you'll use them instead of the hundred other tools that do similar things.

Great art is opinionated, too, of course. The best movies also make an argument; reading a well-written novel can transform the way you think for the rest of your life. Mediocre entertainment just exists, without provoking deep thought or behavior change.

At Known, we believe that everyone should be able to share and communicate from a space that they fully control. We believe that everyone - you and me - have given control of our identities to a handful of companies. And we believe that expression - of individuals, of communities, and ideas - should not be constrained by the decisions that those companies have made. You, as a creator, should have full ownership of the things you create. As a toolmaker, we want you to have more freedom over the form, content and audience of your creations - your writing, your classes - than you would have with any other tool.

It's a mission statement, but it's also an argument that motivates us to build the best, most focused tool we can. I hope it will motivate our future employees. I hope it motivates creators and educators to give us a try. And we hope we will help everyone to share their ideas, their unique creations, and their opinions.