cal-ripken

The Science of Radio, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Pivots

Let’s talk science.

We all occasionally listen to the radio. Maybe not as much as we once did, but we still do. Most of us listen to FM radio because the sound quality is better and, as a result, music is more often the stuff broadcast over FM stations. Probably fewer of us listen to AM radio, short of talk news and sports talk stuff.

The difference between AM and FM is radical. FM radio waves, if you could visualize them are your typical sine wave. It modulates between a high and a low frequency and travels through the air like the waves of a sea. FM radio has better sound because this modulation can carry more aural information.

AM radio is far different. It’s much more a straight line wave that can’t carry as much aural data, so the sound quality is reduced. The tradeoff, however, is that AM radio can travel much farther. In fact, for AM radio, range is determined by amplitude, or strength, of the power generating the waves.

The side effect of this is that AM radio waves travel into the atmosphere and interacts with the ionosphere, the atmospheric layer that protects us from the most harmful radiation from the sun. During the daytime, the AM waves hit the ionosphere and largely fizzle out due to the layer’s interaction with the sun, but at night… the sun isn’t sending all it’s fiery goodness at that part of the earth and so a bounce effect happens. AM radio waves hit the ionosphere and bounces back toward the earth allowing radio stations to be heard hundreds of miles away from their source – often times well over the horizon.

As a result, the FCC has had a decades-old regulation that requires AM radio stations to reduce their signal or alter their night operations so as not to interfere with stations in other markets. Stations typically will do this by redirecting their antennas so that even if the signal is heard hundreds of miles away, it is heard in such a way to not interfere with other stations broadcasting on the same frequency.

Still with me? Whew. Good.

Back in 1995, I was sitting in a dorm room of a religious college I was attending at the time. There were pretty rigid rules for freshman. In my case, we were required to do a nightly “study time” in our dorms. The idea was to train students to focus academically. In later classes, the rules were relaxed and study time was not mandatory.

Still, you know how I am with rules. I sullenly sat in my room night after night and probably didn’t do the best job academically. I digress.

September 6, 1995 was kind of a historic day. Besides being my 19th birthday, it was also a big baseball day. It would be this day that Cal Ripken, Jr. would break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak setting a new record of 2,131 games played in a row and becoming the new Ironman. Back in those days, before the 1997 debacle, I was an Orioles fan before changing allegiances to a much better team (sans this past year). I’m looking at you, Kate.

I grew up with the Orioles and I was understandably upset that I had to be in my room instead of watching the game on TV. I discovered, however, that I could hear WBAL 1090 AM in my dorm 17 miles south of Rochester, NY and some 300 miles away from Television Hill in Baltimore, where the station broadcast from. As a result, I was able to listen to that historic game on the radio thanks to science.

What’s the point of this already long-winded story, you may ask.

I’m glad you asked, since I actually do have a point.

I’ve talked about business a lot here. Startups, projects, whatever. I’ve been involved in a few in my career. I’ve advised several. I’ve been a Co-founder in one. I’ve been staff for others. There’s a concept in startups called the “pivot”. Pivots are when you change your business model or approach due to market demands or user feedback.

In some cases, pivots are major. Seesmic pivoted a ton from a video chat service to a video blog comment service to a social mass posting service. Every pivot was essentially a new company.

Other pivots are more minor. A move to focus more on user content aggregation from a company content aggregation. Or a move to a subscription model from an advertising model.

I’m a fan of the second form of pivot which basically suggests the premise of a company is sound, but based on the ability to listen to user demand and appropriately respond in the marketplace, a company can adjust and tweak and run with the concept that made them strong as a company to begin with. If I were to start investing myself, I’d want to be on board with a company that can stay true to itself, while demonstrating the ability to adjust.

Some people, like Jason, advocate doing market research to decide your premise. Ask questions. Conduct interviews. Find out, before putting time in, that the idea is something that someone will pay for. Others, like Eric Ries, also endorse The Lean Startup approach of building, collecting feedback, iterating and repeating to allow a company to evolve organically. These are all good ideas that help set the framework and paradigm for how your company operates and your product evolves.

Which brings us full circle to radio. I was able to listen to Cal’s historic day in 1995 because the company (or radio station in this case) was able to perform a pivot (literally) to redirect their signal without changing who they were. They knew FCC regulations when they decided to broadcast on AM. They knew the framework of science they had to live in. They built a radio station for reach and strength and adapted as they were required to and allowed to.

You may never start a company. You may never hire employees. But the universal concept is: Know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, don’t change who you are or the strategic philosophy under which you operate, but be willing to make the tactical choices needed to succeed.

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Drawing by Romancement on Flickr. Used by Creative Commons.

Five Articles I Wish I could Take Back

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?,

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