Five Articles I Wish I could Take Back

Drawing by Romancement on Flickr. Used by Creative Commons.

Last night I was going through Google archives looking for a post (that I never found) from 2007-2008. I went through 30 some pages of search results and remembered some of the older content I wrote. Some of it is stuff I either wish I didn’t write or I don’t agree with anymore. So I figured I’d share some of these posts and explain why I feel differently today:

It’s a Read/Write/Execute Web and We Just Live in It.

In this post from 2009, I posit that the first generation of the web was a read-only web. It was website that were not engaged with outside of simply reading. The second generation of the web was a “read/write” web marked by social interaction. The third I called a “read/write/execute” web where I railed on the future of the internet being API oriented and that government should

Drawing by Romancement on Flickr. Used by Creative Commons.

get on board with open data initiatives at the time.

Where I have a modestly different view today and I did slightly alude to it back then, is that the next generation of the web would actually be mobile. That prediction would have been true, and while APIs have played a significant role in making that happen, the APIs were merely a means to an end.

There are hundreds of thousand apps on the Apple app store and Android Market, not to mention other available app stores out there. Games now are played largely on smartphones and tablets as the shift away from consoles, while mild, is undoubtable. Today, with HTML5 and CSS3, websites are being creative with “responsive” design that allows for appropriate displays on appropriate devices.

Fun Fact: In 2004, I mused about what a world look like if we were not dependent on keyboards and mouses. I think we see that world in front of us now.

Are People Talking About You?

Originally published in 2007, I rode a train of personal brand for a long time. Not in that I had it. Everyone has something and some people have more than others. It’s actually not personal brand. It’s just reputation. I have a reputation. I have a reputation as a no-BS guy that doesn’t have a lot of respect for drama professionally or personally. I’m a confidant and advisor and I know WordPress really well. I get clients via word of mouth because I have a reputation for great work that speaks for itself with a fairly in depth intimacy with the WordPress core code. That’s reputation, but if you must, you can call it personal brand.

Regardless, I wrote this in that article:

It’s important to create great “stuff” (define “stuff” for yourself). It’s really important to stand out above the crowd. It’s more important to get other people talking about you. You are a brand. You are a subject matter expert. Well, you have the potential to be a subject matter expert. But you’re not yet. Not if no one is talking about you when you’re not around.

Aaron, you had me until, “It’s more important to get other people talking about you.”

This is why I was completely wrong. Nobody knows Mike McDerment. Well a lot of people do, but he isn’t a household name in tech or startups. However, he is the CEO of the largest cloud accounting company in the world. He built Freshbooks from the ground up to solve a problem that he had in 2003 (I just read his back story today).

Similarly, do you know Jason Cohen? You might know him because I’ve mentioned him or because you use WP Engine but otherwise, Jason isn’t a flashy guy. When I got the call from Jason right before moving to Austin to come help start WP Engine, I was thinking he was another guy named Cohen. I had no idea how successful and amazing he was. He wasn’t worried about promoting himself. Product is everything and product speaks for itself.

So I entirely disagree with my 2007 theory of self-aggrandizement. The only reason you have to worry about personal brand is if you’ve got nothing going for you. Otherwise, shut up and do epic shit. The rest will follow.

Age of Exploration 500 Years Later

First of all, this story is all fluff. I tell a nice story of explorers and all but it takes me to the last paragraph to even make a point, much less a thesis statement. And even then, I’m unsure of my point.

Imperial Stout

Photo by Brostad. Used by Creative Commons

What I think I was trying to say is that technology and, more specifically, embracing technology and change makes us better business people, better communicators, better humans.

If I had to rewrite the end of this post, I’d say this:

All of these explorers that went before, discovered new lands, races, tribes, experiences and opportunity opened up the door to new innovations. They were able to lay the groundwork and stepping stones for new expansion of influence and find new technologies that would allow for growth into the Industrial age.

I would then use the example of the Imperial Stout created in England for the Queen of Russia:

Through the expansion of the Russian Empire, King Peter the Great of Russia discovered British Stouts. As they became popular among Russians, a problem emerged. There was no way to get these stouts in Russia because the trip was so long that the beer would spoil before arrival. In the 1800s, an English brewery, responding to demand, developed a way of “hopping” their stouts in such a way to allow the beer to be preserved and delivered to Queen Catherine of Russia. Thus, this more hoppy version of the typical stout became known as the Russian Imperial Stout, or just the Imperial Stout.

I would use that segue to explain that even in our technology-centric world, it takes innovators developing technology in order for other, new technologies to emerge. A classic example of this from the programming world is that of Ajax, an extension of JavaScript which has been around for years. Ajax is a technology that allows background communication with servers without the page reloading. Without Ajax being developed a few years ago, the interactivity we have come to expect on sites everywhere would not be able to exist.

So it’s not that I disagree with myself so much as I didn’t explore the real premise of the article enough.

Roadmap to Victory at the Washington Post

This article is still an interesting one. On one side, I saw the Washington Post, and traditionally print-based journalism, as a dying trade. On the other I made a naive assumption that newspapers exist for the sake of journalism.

Both of these premises are wrong. Let’s address both presuppositions.

Traditionally print-based journalism is alive and well, as it should be. It isn’t going anywhere, nor should it. Blogs and digital media are not in competition with newspapers. They complement newspapers. Both sides serve different roles. While it’s true that newspapers (print) can’t break news anymore, they should count their blessings.

There are no opportunities to destroy credibility with Dewey Beats Truman moments (or more recently, Mandate Struck Down, as famously misreported by CNN). There are plenty of opportunities for solid, in depth investigative reporting-style journalism. I know it costs money. So save money by not trying to break news and let the digital sources do that.

Secondly, my cynical take feeds right into that last sentence and is why the challenge lies in money. Journalism today is an art, and is a respectable skill, trade and profession. But news organizations aren’t run by journalists. They are run by business people. Many of them are not non-profits, so they are implicitly for-profit. That means the bottom-line, which is dictated by readership, circulation and sometimes the ratings of television sister networks, are what inform the decisions of the company.

Samuel Zell, owner of the Tribune Company, ran his media empire as an entertainment company and not a journalism company. Guess what? Tribune is still trying to emerge from bankruptcy protection.

Let’s get back to the Washington Post, though. When I wrote this story, WaPo was trailing in the digital race. Today, they did everything other than what I suggested in my piece and have become one of the foremost digital journalism centers around. Their blogs, including Capital Weather Gang and DC Sports Blog are stellar and I still read them regularly, even though neither pertain to me anymore.

Unlike when I wrote this post, WaPo’s digital and print operations are integrated, instead of separate. Online metrics are key and closely watched. Online traffic is the indicator of success at the Post. Circulation is not. Subscriptions are not. Traffic. Eyeballs on their apps, their blogs, their articles. That’s the important metric at the Post. No longer are digital operations a second class citizen. They are equal or greater than print.

Even the New York Times sees it:

They can look at where online visitors are when they read the site. And if their computers are registered with a government suffix — .gov, .mil, .senate or .house — editors know they are reaching the readers they want. “That’s our influential audience,” Mr. Narisetti said. “If a blog is over all not doing that great but has a higher percentage of those, we say don’t worry about it.”

The Washington Post is smarter than I am, clearly, and I applaud them for it.

Valleyboys: It’s All About the Money

Wow. How far off the mark can I be? This article, which matter-of-factly states something that was anything-but-fact, is a clear example o my lack of experience in 2007. In 2007, I apparently thought I knew everything there was about running a startup and raising funding. That from a perspective of someone who was  just over a year out of the corporate world working for my first startup. I wasn’t a founder nor had I raised money. I didn’t understand a thing about reputation (there’s that word again) of founders, the importance of co-founders, how to safely determine a valuation based on things like profit and loss, revenue, the value of burn, the value of users and more factors that go in to that process.

I don’t really know why I was so pissy at the Valley, but in 2012, let me go on record and say that it’s not all about money in the Valley and there are a lot of people working hard to create value. Many do raise money, but many bootstrap as well. There’s pros and cons to both, and that’s left to a different article.

In my defense, there is some absurd money flying around not just in the Valley, but everywhere. For instance, I still don’t see the reasoning behind a $30M raise on an 8x valuation for Path, a round that included Virgin empire mogul Sir Richard Branson. That company has pivoted so many times and still doesn’t seem to have a clue what it’s doing. Nor do I understand the $1 BILLION Instagram buyout by Facebook.

Here’s the money line (see what I did there?). Whether there’s a lot of money flowing or not is not the question. It is a question, but not the question. The question is whether there are good, innovative products being built that create value in the marketplace. If that can be done with no money, great. If it requires funding money on orders of magnitude, that’s a decision that the investors and entrepreneurs have to make. Money doesn’t come without strings. Big raises with low revenue and no profit generally mean the investors get more of the company and if the company sells, then the founders get less. But then big raises for profitable companies with low burn and high user numbers could also mean that the investors just want a piece of the action, even if they don’t get a big piece of the pie. But there’s always strings and the amount of money matters less than the percentage of ownership and the length of runway as it relates to a burn rate and overhead.

So if I believed in deleting articles entirely, this one would be a prime candidate. :)

In the spirit of making sure I’m not perceived as a douchebag, here are some good article I wrote many moons ago. Enjoy!

Friends vs. Fans, The Most Expensive Question, Social Media: How Much is Too Much?,

Skunkworks

skunkworks

Back in October, I announced my departure from WP Engine. At that time, though I didn’t talk about it on this blog, I decided to take some time off, more or less. Since 2006, I’ve been hard at work with very little time alotted to myself. I spent 2 years with b5media and jumped immediately into a failed role at Lijit (who has now been acquired by Federated Media – nice work, guys!). Upon my departure from Lijit, shortly after the market bottom in 2008, and needing money desperately, I went into full time WordPress consulting. I did that until I moved to Austin last year when I went in full time on WP Engine and stayed there for 15 months or so.

So basically, I haven’t had a lot of time to myself. So I took time. In the past few months, I’ve taken some large consulting contracts, but mostly, I’ve spent time travelling to Maryland, Seattle, Chicago – all for pleasure, nothing for work. I’ve spent time trying to weigh my priorities and wants. I’ve tossed around starting up a new company or doing something different.

At the end of the day, now that it’s 2012, I know what I want to do. It’s a bit unusual, but I think it’s important and can really revolutionize a boutique agency. I’m not comfortable doing social media work. I’m too honest and raw in my own online presence and many companies and clients may not be comfortable with my level of authenticity.

I also don’t want to do what is common among agencies – sweatshop site development. Hey, no offense. That’s what it is. Take on 30 new clients, promise them websites that are the brainchilds of the agency marketing “expertise” and ask the developers to crank them out with little to no strategic or creative input.

That might work for some developers, but I’m not a normal developer. I’m a highly established WordPress professional that has commanded 5 figure consulting deals, written a 700+ page book on the subject and have built some of the most complex WordPress solutions I’ve ever seen (Humble brag! Also proprietary, but can provide in person demos). I’m not a good fit for sweatshop site generation.

You know what agencies need that no one is doing because no one has taken the time to think outside the box? A skunkworks division. What agencies need to differentiate themselves from the thousands of other agencies they are competing with is a person or small group of people with autonomy and who are focused soley on creating disruptive technologies that no one else is doing. Try things. Fail at some, succeed at others. Test market demand. Offer exclusive access to stuff that no other agency has. Innovate, innovate, innovate.

That’s what I want to do. And someone sees the sense in that. And someone realizes that that is worth thinking outside the box for. Someone is willing to invest in that competitive advantage. Someone gets it. It’ll take money. It’ll take risk. It’ll take balls of steel. Or you can be normal. Who wants to be normal?

So as we enter 2012, I am open to conversations around this or other creative outlets you might want to explore if you want a competitive advantage. Email me at aaron@technosailor.com.

Government as a Platform?

Screen shot 2009-09-12 at 11.33.19 AM

Data, data, data. This is the answer for government in this new world of Government 2.0. Making government available to the citizens by building platforms for change. These are the ideas bandied around when the Silicon Valley Warlords came to Washington, D.C. this week to put on the invitation only Gov 2.0 Summit and teach Beltway insiders how their successes in the Valley could be instituted in the center of government.

The center of government. The center of politics. The center of policy. Of course, if the warlords have their way, the center of technology.

The concept of government as a platform is a good one on the surface. The idea that making government a series of, for lack of a better words, APIs to help the citizen understand and access their government officials and services better is a noble one. However, it is naive, and this is where the native-understanding of Washington comes into play.

The rest of the country looks at Washington as a city that is always in-fighting. That the entire ecosystem is made of bureaucratic citadels of power that never accomplishes anything. Incompetent politicians who all lie, lie, lie.

For those of us inside the beltway, we recognize that partisanship is a means to an end. That policy takes a long time to change, policy makers remain embedded as established government for years and even decades, and that politicians come and go. This is part of the expectation in our Washington. The agencies exist, made up of rank and file – the foot soldiers, if you will – and the policies in place in those agencies come from decades of precedent in some cases.

Some of it needs to be changed, and to the extent that OpenGov and Gov 2.0 can open up the doors to this change, then it will. However, some of this will never change and it’s not necessary to try to change it. Precedent generally exists for very sound reason.
lincolnmemorial

What will fail, however, is the replacement of the Washington system made up of politics, policy and also data by a fraternity-style, easy-money lifestyle of the west coast. While they talk billion dollar valuations on startups, we talk about billion dollar annual budgets for Level C agencies. Two different worlds. We have a much bigger stake, and therefore, we’re less likely to change how we do things because they suggest we should.

My suggestion is to O’Reilly and Camp: Come back to Washington, D.C. I know you’ll be back for Gov 2.0 Expo in the spring, but come back for a Summit too. Instead of dictating how the event goes, however, open it up. Make sure 50% of tickets are available for free for any verifiable government employee. (General consensus is the attendace was around 70-30, Private-public, a guess since O’Reilly Media declined to comment on attendance figures). Double the price for the private sector tickets to compensate. Here’s a hint: The federal fiscal year doesn’t begin until Oct 1. Budget money isn’t available to pay for the agency employees to attend your event. This isn’t the private sector. Money needs to be accounted for, especially during a recession. If you want this to be about government, ensure that the Feds can go free of charge and charge the Private sector double.

Secondly, allow questions from the audience. There was extremely little interaction with the audience by speakers. This needs to change if it’s going to be a learning environment.

I’d also suggest the need for a competitive event. With everyone who has dipped their feet into the Government 2.0 kool-aid, precious few have kept their noses clean from federating around this very failed event. I said in November that few of anyone has this industry figured out yet, yet the money flowing in from the Valley has caused almost everyone to sacrifice their independence and free-thinking (How many of you on that Gov 2.0 Summit Advisory Board are free to do a competitive event?)

I’d encourage some of the historically free-thinkers who have given up their independence to think about how government can really be assisted (let’s not talk about fixing government – they innovate much better than we do, actually) in different ways. I think there is room for events that will avoid the thumbprint of previous event and will federate around real ideas, not just inspiration speeches.

* Photo Credit: Big Berto