Avoiding the Tunnel

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Sir Isaac Newton was a noted genius among geniuses. Most of his lifework is seen culminating in the Law of Gravity and the development of Calculus. This, however, was not his life quest. History tells us that Newton was more concerned with proving that lead could be turned into gold (it can’t) and that the Christian understanding of the Trinity was a falsehood. Stories of Newton describe a neurotic man that would often not get out of bed for hours and sometimes forget to eat as he tossed his thoughts around in his head. The story says that calculus was developed as a result of his frustration with mathematics and a will to “force” the universe to bend to his own thinking.

One wonders if his genius wasn’t a little by accident.

Most of the time Newton spent on his studies, however, was not devoted to “real” science, by any stretch. In fact, all of his experiments and related scientific and mathematical discoveries were a result of his goal regarding lead and the Trinity. In summary, Sir Isaac Newton suffered from tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision tends to plague most people in one way or another. Entrepreneurs focus all their energies on creating businesses that resist the statistical odds and succeed. They devote hours of their days (and nights) and often find relationships in the “real world” strained, and end up sacrificing other very important aspects of their lives.

Cause-oriented people tend to make the cause their life passion and goal. I see this a lot here in DC, a city consumed with the political process and pre-loaded with non-profits dedicated to ending human rights violations, feminism, technology policy, gay rights, or war. Inevitably, the conversation ends up surrounding the cause.

In fact, addictive personality runs the risk of causing tunnel vision in any area of life. Certainly, very few of us border on the level of meshuggeneh that Sir Isaac Newton displayed, yet we all run the risk of getting out of balance if we’re not careful.

Several years ago, while working at b5media, I found myself incredibly burnt out and on edge. I was working 16 hour days, not because I had to but because I wanted to (tho, at times I had to as well). I was surviving on 4 hours of sleep every night and if I was pulled away from my work to do something else, I became incredibly irritable. Eventually, I recognized my problem and limited myself, when possible, to a normal schedule of 9-5 or similar. I couldn’t always do this, and I often worked weekends anyway, but I recognized the need for some kind of balance in my life. Eventually, I would take up photography as a hobby and put more time into that.

Last night, I spent time with folks from Tribune Interactive and the Baltimore Sun. The night before, I watched the Super Bowl with folks from Gannett. The night before that, I chatted with a few political operatives over a beer.

At the end of the day, stepping outside of comfort zones and participating in things that are untypical keeps people well rounded. It makes them more worldly and understanding of people not like themselves. In a society clamoring for inclusion and diversity, being positioned to understand, even if not agree with, other people is an important trait to have.

Do you spend time outside of your circles or on hobbies and activities?

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Be Nimble, Be Quick, Grow

Last night I spent the evening rubbing shoulders with some of the best and brightest traditional (and some online) marketers in the Capital Wasteland Region at a holiday party (There are many of them this time of year, are there not?).

As I stood there talking with a frequent reader of this blog, who also happened to work at Potomac Tech Wire, we got to discussing lessons learned from various times in our careers. I remember distinctly one of these moments from my days at b5media, which challenged me to remember that even though you think you know your job, career, industry or environment… you really don’t.

It was a Thursday night, like any other Thursday night. My son was in bed and my wife and I were dlipping around channels. One of our favorite shows, The Unit had just gone off at 10pm when all of the sudden, my Blackberry started buzzing. Annoyed, I glanced at it and saw alerts pouring in that the b5media servers were going down.

In those early days, I was the only full time tech person with b5media but Sean was putting in some hours as well. Both our Blackberrys were going off. Off to work, we went, at 10:05 pm.

It took awhile to go through the normal routines of checkup, because things were not responding at all. Finally logging in, Sean managed to dig around at all the usual traffic suspects but didn’t find any of them getting any kind of significant traffic. Trolling around more, we found out actually that this site was doing tremendously well after an episode ended minutes before with a cliffhanger that made fans think the main character was dead. If I recall, we were serving approximately 10,000 requests every second.

How would we have known, as non-Grey’s Anatomy fans that this was coming? What warning did we have? Fortunately, when the 1am shift arrived and the west coast had their opportunity to freak and panic and start hitting the site, we were expecting the surge.

It goes to show that when doing business with an internet audience, you can make assumptions (or fail to make assumptions) but it’s the things you don’t know that will take you down if you don’t appropriately adjust and grow with each learning opportunity.

As I discussed the sale of eBooks and MP3s with a marketer last night, it was the concept of transparency being not only great but required to make meaningful sales online, I wonder if that knowledge she now knows will help her in her online business.

Be smart, be wise, and learn where you can. It can make the difference in your online business.

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Sucks to be a Blog Network These Days

Having come from the blog network space, I have a mostly unique understanding of the difficulties encountered when running a content business. There is always a war between traffic and community, profitability and loss, long term projections and short term realities. It’s not an easy business.

It’s even more challenging when you’re a blog network. Unlike more traditional style content companies like Newscorp (owners of MySpace, AskMen.com and FoxSports.com) or the New York Times, blog networks attempt to take a relatively new medium, a blog, and lump it together with other relatively new media – blogs. There’s no counter-balance of strengths and weakness. They are all blogs, possessing the same inherent strengths and weaknesses.

One of the core problems with the “traditional”, if there is such a thing in the space, blog networks – and really any online media – is that the business model almost always comes back to advertising models of revenue generation. Historically, the advertising market has come and gone in a predictably cyclical way.

As expected, the advertising model is taking somewhat of a hit during these difficult economic times and only in the past two days, two major media players in the blog network space have had to cut pay, create layoffs or otherwise cut costs due to an impending, or in some cases already present, decline in online ad revenue.

Gawker Media, the second largest blog network and home to industry favorites Gizmodo, Gawker, Valleywag and Lifehacker has announced a restructuring of staff – laying off 60% of Valleywag staff, as an example, and increasing the staff on their flagship properties. Consolidation is the name of the game in this case.

Likewise, b5media (with whom I worked for several years), had an internal memo leaked (and TechCrunch published) describing a complete revamp of their compensation system “to reduce costs”. Many bloggers are taking significant pay reductions as the company streamlines their burn rate.

This on the heels of AOL/Weblogs Inc layoffs and pay reductions a few months ago and the very public walk-out of Profy staff when pay was to be reduced shortly thereafter.

Let me be clear. If you’re in the content space, you are dealing in a non-tangible asset. Therefore, the economic rules of asset valuation do not apply. There is no “market price”. There is no assessment value. There is no depreciation. If anything, content can appreciate over time. Typical rules do not apply and in a market where investors, advertisers and publishers are trying to identify concrete ideas and assets that they can count on as a sure investment, non-tangible assets will always take a hit.

Publishers, particularly publisher networks, have to look around and identify means to continue to generate non-tangible assets cheaply (yet fairly), and I imagine some models might end up looking to non-tangible compensation (such as community benefits) to acquire new publishers and content.

Problem is, bloggers have this idea that they can be rich by blogging. Some are smarter and think they can simply “make a living” by blogging, without ever uttering the rich word. Truth is, unless you’re a few important people in the world, it’s not happening. It won’t happen. There are other meaningful ways to benefit from blogging, and most of them are non-monetary.

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