Whatever happened to the Lean Media framework?

(Updated) I received a message from a European media executive about my Lean Media framework proposal from a few years back. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

A few years ago, before the mobile startup, I heard Eric Ries give his Lean Startup stump speech at MIT. It immediately clicked with me. His focus was software development, but I realized that the things he was saying about product development, feedback cycles, and speed applied not only to software, but to media content as well. I had seen it with my own eyes. Print content, websites, video, music and other products/projects that were developed with these qualities in mind had many positive qualities. They were cheaper to produce, they made it to market more quickly, user feedback loops started sooner, and if they were new brands, they got a huge head start. They were also more fun to work on.

Conversely, products that took the big media approach — bloated teams, top-down directives, planned by committee, limited feedback cycles, etc. — encountered problems. They required huge staff and budget commitments, took years to complete, and seemed to have a higher rate of failure.

Almost immediately I realized there were some issues I had to think through (see Lean Media: The Importance Of Intangibles And Brands and The Lean Media mindset: Can it work for large companies?) even while I found more examples of lean media such as Led Zeppelin (who started lean) and The Deftones (who returned to lean).

Earlier this year, I started writing a book about lean media, but quickly realized that the idea still needed to be refined. This is what I told the European executive:

Thanks for reaching out. I started to write a book about lean media but stopped because A) I have too many other things going on with my business and B) it was hard to think through some aspects of the framework.

For instance: talent/creative can make such a huge difference in the success of a lean media project but “dream teams” with lots of resources can fail. “Creative” is also hard to measure, which in turn makes it hard to translate into actionable advice

Another intangible aspect: “Brand.” It is so easy to create in the lean media world but how it fits in with existing brands (if it is part of a corporate effort) gets very tricky.

There is also the issue of scaling a lean media project into a true business, if that is the goal. Perhaps it is beyond the scope of lean media, though, because more resources and coordination is required.

As you can see I still have some thinking to do about this. Ideally, at the end of the day I want to have a simple framework that managers/companies/entrepreneurs in all kinds of media industries can apply. But I am not sure if such simplicity is possible.

What I probably should do is talk with more people in the trenches. I know there is something here, but expressing it cleanly will talk more contemplation … and perhaps collaboration.

November 2015 Update: I am expanding Lean Media into a book. Read sample chapters here, or sign up for the lean media newsletter.

An action plan for telecommuters and their managers

Mary Meeker’s latest report on Internet trends was recently released. While many observers are pondering the some of the big stats relating to the size of the digital economy and the big companies that stand to benefit, I was interested in a data point that pretty much slipped beneath the radar. Buried on page 126 of Meeker’s slideshow was this finding, relating to freelancers:

Freelancers = Significant & Growing Portion of Workers @ 53MM People, 34% of USA Workforce

She broke down the numbers further, relying on data from oDesk/Upwork:

Mary Meeker Internet trends freelancers vs telecommuters and virtual office action plans

If these numbers are correct, it represents a huge change in the way Americans are working. Certainly, the data shows that freelancers are ready for virtual work, if tens of millions are already doing it.

But are companies ready? The slide did not break out the telecommuting workforce. Millions work from home on a full-time or part-time basis for employers located elsewhere (ranging from across town to the other side of the globe). But it’s a drop in the bucket, compared to the numbers of people who could be telecommuters if their companies allowed it.

As author Melanie Pinola pointed out in her book The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes: Best practices, tools, and setup tips for your home office, coworking space, or mobile office, most jobs that take place in front of a computer screen are candidates for being done remotely. But not all companies are on board. She cited the example of Yahoo, which killed its teleworking program in 2012 because its new CEO thought collaboration and innovation were suffering.

As Melanie noted, “Good collaboration and innovation don’t require you to be within touching distance of your coworker.” If companies have the right team in place, and the right tools, telecommuters can not only be productive, they can successfully collaborate and innovate, too. Melanie’s book covers many of the tools and best practices that can help a virtual team — as well as individual contributors, their managers, and their freelance partners — operate at peak efficiency. She has also written Virtual Office Action Plans, which describes strategies and approaches for telecommuters, freelancers, and business managers.

What’s the best home office setup for a virtual office?

I’ve worked out of three home offices in the past ten years. I’ve been able to get a lot accomplished in these offices, including writing a graduate thesis, managing a virtual team, and starting my own publishing company. However, if Melanie Pinola’s The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes had been available at the start, I would have been able to get a lot more done in terms of getting the best possible home office setup. This blog post will serve as a review of the book, albeit a biased one — while I really did get a lot of useful information from Melanie’s guide, I am the publisher of the In 30 Minutes series.

best home office setupMelanie is the author of a top-selling LinkedIn book and writes about home offices, telecommuters, and virtual work for Lifehacker. She’s also About.com’s mobile office expert. As a virtual worker for decades (she started working from a home office in the 1990s) she knows the virtual mindset and what’s required to have a successful virtual office. It’s not just a matter of wanting to work from home, or assuming a Wi-Fi connection and laptop is all that’s required. She methodically works through the different aspects of setting up and maintaining a high-performance virtual office, starting with legal and technical requirements and finishing with a list of Top Tech Tools for home offices. Specific topics include:

Finding the best place to work and creating an efficient home office or remote workspace (Chapter 1)

  • Recommendations for setting up the ideal virtual office, based on the latest research.
  • How to use alternative offices such as coffee shops and libraries to get more done.
  • Four elements of a productive home office.
  • Ergonomics (or how to stay healthy)
  • Must-have supplies for your home or mobile office.

Learning strategies to help you work more effectively on your own and as a virtual team member (Chapters 2 & 3)

  • How to ward off roommates, spouses, children, pets, phone calls, and other daily distractions.
  • Crucial time-management tips.
  • How to work well with other virtual team members.
  • Best practices for effective communication across a distributed team.
  • Dealing with resentful coworkers.
  • Coping with isolation.

Using technology to help you stay productive and connected (Chapter 4)

  • Useful apps for real-time collaboration.
  • Software that can make you work more efficiently.
  • How to secure your digital data.

Applying the tips for the best home office setup

Reading Melanie’s book, I immediately picked up some tips that I could apply right away to my home office setup. They included installing a door to keep out family distractions (especially in the evening, when I am most productive) and dusting off an old space heater to keep my home office warm in the winter months (much cheaper than cranking up the heat for the entire house). The recommended applications included a few that I want to explore further, including Slack. There was also an extensive list of tools and apps relating to coworking spaces, which is a popular mode of work these days (see my review of the Cambridge CIC).

This new book practically pays for itself, in terms of the increased productivity and better insights into virtual offices. Whether you are a freelancer, consultant, small business owner, or are interested in telecommuting, this is a wonderful and effective guide for getting the most out of your home office.

The Startup Roller Coaster

In 2010, I heard a talk by angel investor and entrepreneur Howard Anderson about the emotional roller coaster that comes comes with launching a new technology venture. He explained how the highs are so high, while the lows feel really low.

For those of us in the room who had never been in the position of launching a company, it didn’t sound surprising. Of course the pressure will be intense, and incredibly risky. But how extreme could the highs and lows be?

Extremely extreme, as it turns out.

I worked in large organizations for more than a decade. A bad day at an established company might entail sharp-elbowed office politics, hurt feelings, and worry about career advancement or a raise. Worst cases involved the loss of a job. But in most situations at a large company, problems will eventually be worked out. Everyone knows the organization will endure.

Startup Roller CoasterNot so at a startup. Before you’re funded or generate revenue, the venture is fragile. Things move fast, there is too much to do, and the sense of responsibility is huge. Even minor problems feel big, and failure of the business can take many forms.

Conversely, the accomplishments feel huge. Hard work, a new product out the door, positive feedback from customers (or, in the case of my company, readers), and lucky breaks can really boost your spirits. When a bunch of things are working well at the same time, the feeling is spectacular.

Then the crash: reality checks, unforeseen problems, pushback, lack of alignment, and the flat-out “no” when you were hoping for a “yes.” These and other issues can really throw a wrench in the works.

There are ways out of the funk, though. Keep on executing. Work through or around the problems. Reach out to your partners or customers or mentors or anyone who might be able to help with a new approach or pivot. The wins begin to trickle back, and the cycle starts again.

A few years ago, I met an experienced startup founder at the Cambridge Innovation Center. She was very familiar with the entrepreneurial roller coaster, and offered some advice on how to handle it.

Highs and lows on the startup roller coaster

“For the highs and lows, be careful of what you do on those days,” she said. For instance, on a good day when you get a big win like recruiting a customer, call your investors and tell them about it.

She also alluded to things founders should not do on the bad days. She didn’t have enough time to explain what they were (it was at the end of a late-night meeting) but one of them I have been able to deduce from multiple sources (including Y Combinator founder Paul Graham), as well as Howard Anderson’s reminder at the end of his talk: “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” he said.

In other words, keep pressing ahead, even when the world seems to be working against you. And don’t give up.

The above image is a creative commons licensed image from Tanki on Flickr.

Experimenting with bulk orders targeting the educational market

LinkedIn User GuideThe experimentation continues. Last week, I launched a new marketing and sales experiment for LinkedIn In 30 Minutes, a LinkedIn book for newbies. It involves bulk sales of the paperback to a special audience segment: Career services offices of colleges and universities in the United States.

My hypothesis: Staff at career services offices of colleges and universities directly serve an audience we are already targeting: People who need to know how to improve LinkedIn profiles in preparation for a job search. Students and recent grads may not have much professional experience to begin with, or in the case of graduate students, they may have career gaps because they have been out of the workforce for several years. They want to present themselves in the best possible light to potential employers and LinkedIn recruiters, and having a rock-solid LinkedIn profile is critical. These are the types of readers we want for LinkedIn In 30 Minutes!

But the problem is: They may not know about the guide, or may not be looking for this type of guide. How can we reach them?

The bulk order pitch to career services offices

I decided to reach out to a few career services offices at universities, ranging from smaller schools such as Suffolk University in Boston to larger schools such as the University of Texas system. I found the contact information of some schools on the Web, and crafted a simple email pitch. Here are the elements:

  1. I am the publisher, and we have a new book. Here is a PDF sample to download for your personal review
  2. I would be happy to mail you a paperback copy. Just say the word.
  3. Here are some specific lessons that will help your students use LinkedIn
  4. Find out more on the book website
  5. We can also arrange for bulk orders

I was most interested in the response rate for the paperback book. If they asked for one, I figured that would indicate a strong interest for a bulk purchase. So, I set up some bulk purchase options for LinkedIn In 30 Minutes. Of the 5% who responded with a request for the paperback, I mailed them a copy with a cover letter outlining the bulk prices. So far, no one has indicated they want to purchase a bulk order, but I will follow up with a call next week (Update: three bulk sales so far!). I’m really interested in finding out whether the guide meets their needs, and if so, what sort of bulk purchase terms would be most suitable — for instance, payment by credit card or invoice, the size of the bulk order, etc.

Monitoring sales of Dropbox In 30 Minutes

Dropbox user guideDropbox In 30 Minutes has now been available for about nine months. For nearly as long, I have been monitoring interest in the Dropbox user guide, by closely watching sales. At first the book was only available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, but by the start of 2013 it was available for multiple e-reader, screen, and paper formats, including:

  • PDF (first via e-junkie, now gumroad)
  • Barnes&Noble/Nook
  • Apple/iTunes
  • Kobo
  • Paperback (via print-on-demand distributor CreateSpace)
  • Direct purchases of .mobi and .epub (which bypasses Amazon.com, iTunes, and other corporate ebook stores)

It was fascinating watching the evolution of the readership, especially after the paperback edition of Dropbox In 30 Minutes was released last November. While the Kindle edition has been a strong seller from the start, sales have plateaued. Meanwhile, the paperback rapidly gained  fans and by February 2013 had overtaken the Kindle and all other versions. Note, however, that Amazon is also responsible for all paperback sales — it owns the POD service CreateSpace, so the paperback listing is automatically fed into an Amazon product page (which is now linked with the Kindle product page).

Monitoring a sales slowdown in ebooks

Getting back to the Kindle version hitting a sales plateau: I’ve been thinking a lot about what could be happening. Certainly, there is more competition for readers, both on Amazon itself and online. But there are other possibilities, including falling interest in Dropbox among my target audience. What could cause a once red-hot technology to slow down in popularity? Factors could include competition from giants in the space (for instance, Microsoft Skydrive OneDrive or Google Drive), negative publicity (such as security concerns), or a maxing out of the potential audience. For now, I am discounting the idea that Dropbox is dropping in popularity, and am more focused on the competition — and how to make Dropbox In 30 Minutes and the free online resources such as videos and blog posts even better.

Blogger default templates: Which one is the best?

Last week, I published my latest book, a a Google Blogger for Dummies alternative. I wanted to show small business owners how to cheaply and quickly build an informational website for their businesses using Google’s Blogger service. In the course of researching the book, I did a lot of experimentation with Blogger’s default templates. Which ones are the best?

Awesome, Inc. Template: This is one of the template types that I used to build a sample website in the book. It has a bold look in terms of the colors, fonts, and box styles used. Here’s what the sample website looks like, using the basic gray Awesome, Inc. template, as well as an orange Awesome, Inc. template:

Blogger Default Template Awesome Inc.Blogger Template Awesome Inc Orange

Simple Template: Blogger has a range of styles based on the “Simple” template. The colors and shapes are generally muted, but there are a few distinct types as well. Here are the Simple white and orange templates:

Blogger Template Simple White

Watermark Template: Finally, there are some playful templates that might fit certain types of businesses or business blogs. Here’s the “Candy Stripe” version of the Watermark template:

Blogger Watermark tempalte

What about the other Blogger default templates? Picture Window, Travel, and Dynamic Views are more oriented toward photographs. This is not a good fit more most small businesses, except for those which have lots of photographs to show. In addition, the Dynamic Views template is based on heavy use of javascript, which causes problems for some users.

Lastly, the Ethereal template is too gentle for most small businesses. I believe that most businesses need to make a strong impression, and Ethereal is just too emo.

What’s inside the book

My book explains how to choose different templates and customize them for static websites (that is, an informational website that seldom changes) or a small business blog. For people who are just starting a business, or don’t want to spend the time or money on an expensive website, this book will teach you what you need to know to get a small business website with its own .com domain for just $10 per year. You can see what’s inside the book here.

Of course, businesses with sophisticated design needs should go for a more advanced template. It’s possible to download custom templates for Blogger (I will write a post about this someday) but many businesses opt for WordPress. That’s fine, but note that WordPress comes with a much steeper learning curve, as well as additional financial and time management costs. I’ll be sticking with Blogger …

Writing an ebook for Dropbox newbies

A few days ago, I published my first ebook, “Dropbox In 30 Minutes“. The product website answers the question “What is Dropbox“, and includes an overview of the contents of the book, plus links to a few locations where it can be bought. What I briefly wanted to mention in this post were some of the requirements to publish a 10,000-word e-book on a technical topic (Dropbox, an online storage service). Technical production was a DIY effort, which I suspect is rare in this business — most authors are good at writing, but need help with production.

About Dropbox
Dropbox is an online storage service for computer files

I knew almost nothing about ebook publishing before I started, and had never authored a print book. However, I quickly discovered that I had very strong skills in other areas that are required for publishing an ebook. They include:

  • Writing: Besides writing magazine features, newspaper articles, a business case, and a graduate school thesis, I’ve been a blogger for more than 10 years and have published more than 1,000 posts in various locations. I have a strong voice, and cranking out 10,000 words is no longer a big deal.
  • Editing: I have worn many editorial hats over the years, from copy editor all the way up to managing editor for The Industry Standard. This helped with catching errors, organizing the text, and coordinating the various elements required for the ebook (for instance, screenshots, text, and front matter). Note that I did ask two other experienced editors and a technical expert to review early drafts before I published, however.
  • Design/Layout: I’ve worked on print layout as a “paginator” for a technology magazine, and have been working with Web layout through blogs and other online work for more than 15 years. I was able to apply this knowledge to the design of the cover as well as the arrangement of text, headings, and images in the body of the document.
  • HTML: I didn’t know this until I looked at the publishing guide for the Kindle, but HTML is actually an important part of some ebook publishing standards. I first learned to code HTML in 1995, so it was not a problem for me to fix some HTML code that Microsoft Word had generated for my Kindle edition.

An ebook for Dropbox users becomes a template for other books?

I could keep on going with this list. Experience with business setup, marketing, even photography all have played a role in getting my first ebook for Dropbox newbies off the ground. It gives me a lot of leeway to experiment, but also made me realize that for future books I may want to outsource certain elements (especially cover design and copy editing).

 

What do people sell on Craigslist?

I have compiled a large dataset of what people are selling on Craigslist. This is for my mobile classifieds startup (UPDATE: the app is no longer available). The small release is from Boston Craigslist only, and it’s only raw percentages. One interesting finding is how vehicle-related classifieds dominate Craigslist. Another is the huge swings among some categories, depending on what time of the day/week/year the sample is taken. Read the Invantory blog post to learn more.

Craigslist -- online communityI have other Craigslist data as well, including estimates of market size, average price, and data from other times and from other areas. I’ll probably release some of it in the weeks or months to come, but really want to focus on our new software platform for local classifieds.

One interesting fact about the dataset is the connection to my Extension School studies. My ALM thesis was based on a computer content analysis of a news database to discern various policy trends. For many months, I spent my nights and weekends sitting in front of a computer screen, copying and pasting results from the LexisNexis Academic to a gigantic Excel spreadsheet, and then taking sample news articles and subjecting them to a computer content analysis using a software program called Yoshikoder. The Craigslist data was compiled in a similar way. While I didn’t use Yoshikoder this time around, I did perform a manual coding process on the Craigslist Boston data which I used to create market sizing estimates. To learn more about my ALM thesis at the Extension School, google “Harvard Extended” and read the first entry.