Yesterday, I participated in a live video discussion about my Lean Media book. One of the topics that came up was the relationship of the Lean Media framework to Lean Startup, a business and product framework first articulated by Eric Ries nearly ten years ago. He ended up releasing a book titled Lean Startup, and the concepts outlined in it are now widely followed by tech startups and business units at larger companies. (Eric expands on how some of these innovative concepts can be applied to larger ventures and multinational corporations in his new book The Startup Way).
In the first row, Lean Startup addresses products with defined characteristics – a light bulb or SaaS application. In certain cases there may be design elements, such as a smartphone case or pair of shoes, but at the end of the day such products also serve practical purposes, such as protecting your phone or your feet. They therefore have practical value and can be assigned a price. They can also be designed and produced in a methodical fashion, building out components and features to reach the desired specification. Lean Startup’s build-measure-learn cycle brings in customer feedback to improve development of products with defined characteristics.
Media products, on the other hand, are designed to entertain and inform. In certain cases they may have knowledge value (e.g., a subscription to the Financial Times informs business people about issues that impact their careers) but in most cases they bring no tangible value. Media is all about intangibles — the hard-to-articulate qualities of work that elicit feelings and emotions in the people who experience them. Despite media’s lack of practical value, audiences are willing to spend one of their most valuable resources — time — to consume them. They may also spend a great deal of money on media experiences.
MVP vs. Media Prototype
The MVP (minimum viable product) is perhaps the most famous element of Lean Startup. The concept has also been debated, as I discussed on this blog in 2013 (see MDP: Minimum Delightful Product) and I have heard elsewhere. Ideally, it’s a functional product that can be shown to early adopters in order to test hypotheses and get feedback, but some founders expand the definition to include incomplete models or design prototypes, and often end up showing them to people who are not early adopters, such as journalists or prospective investors. MVPs are by definition not finished products, but early customers (or observers, investors, etc.) may have a hard time seeing past the flaws.
Lean Media does not use the term MVP. We already have lots of terms for early versions of a work — draft, rough cut, demo version, etc. — but in the book I group them all under the term prototype for all media formats. While early prototypes may be simple or incomplete, I instruct creators to be sure to remove from the media prototypes what I call scaffolding before showing them to test audiences. Scaffolding could include editors’ marks, time codes, and annotations that will distract from the work.
In the third row, Lean Startup relies on empirical data and validated learning to test hypotheses. An MVP might provoke some discussions with early adopters, but in the build-measure-learn cycle you need to be measuring what you are doing so you can make an informed, data-driven decision. For instance, will customers prefer a recessed headlight in the new car, or something that’s more flush with the front of the vehicle? Have your design team whip up some graphic renderings in their CAD programs, and then show them to prospective customers and measure which one gets more votes. It’s the classic A/B test.
For media, quantitative data can deliver insights as test audiences experience a prototype, but qualitative data explains why people feel the way they do about a media work being developed. Sometimes the quantitative indicators (20 “thumbs down” vs 10 “thumbs up” after reviewing a draft manuscript of a novel) may be invalidated by the qualitative feedback (75% of thumbs down concerned minor issues relating to chapter titles and the index, as opposed to fundamental issues with the story itself).
Regardless of the type of feedback, it’s intended to inform creators about the work, rather than dictating how they must proceed. This is a big difference with Lean Startup, which practically requires founders to follow where the empirical data takes them, even if it’s far outside their original hypotheses about what customers want.
Finally, Lean Startup is not just a framework for product development, it’s a framework for startup business development. For instance, in Lean Startup, Ries describes innovation accounting as a way for the company to reach its business goals. Lean Media has no such intentions — the framework is purely about product. While a media work that resounds with audiences can be the basis for a successful media venture, I do not explicitly address how to make a media business profitable. That may very well be the focus of my next media book (working title: Niche Media). Stay tuned!
Earlier this month I met Ivan Li Huang, a fellow graduate of the MIT Sloan Fellows program, at a continuing education class at Sloan. We chatted, and I found out that after graduating from the program a few years after me, Ivan had subsequently founded a fascinating venture: Bonzer, a car-sharing service based in Kendall Square.
The timing was fortuitous. Ivan had just completed several bureaucratic steps, including getting approval from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to drive Bonzer’s small electric cars on local streets. The cars were ready for a demonstration, and I was there at the Cambridge Innovation Center a few days ago when Ivan and his team let testers take the cars for a spin around the block. I have video interview with Bonzer’s founder below.
I also took a few pictures of Bonzer’s fleet, which currently consists of cars manufactured by Zhejiang Rayttle, a Chinese company. They are electric cars, with a range of 60 miles and a maximum legal speed of 25 MPH on local roads. Believe it or not, the cars actually have 3 seats, although the two people in the back will have a tight fit if they are big. Here are some photos of Bonzer’s fleet:
The cars got a lot of looks, with some people even stopping to take a picture or selfie. And no wonder: They not only look cool, but they also small enough to fit sideways into a parking spot. Three Bonzer cars could fit into the space occupied by a standard car!
Ivan hopes to start a one-way car-rental service, kind of like Hubway for cars, in Cambridge in the next few months. Here’s an interview with Bonzer’s founder in which he discusses the cars and the business model. You can also see one of the cars driving at about the halfway point of the video:
In early January, I wrote the following email to WGBH, a well-known public broadcaster here in the Boston area. The station produces some excellent programming, but I have been mildly disappointed in a new program, Innovation Hub, that is close to my heart. Here’s the text of the email:
I would like to make a comment about the radio program Innovation Hub.
I had high expectations for this program when it launched, as there is so much innovation taking place in WGBH’s neighborhood, from the labs at local universities to the small and medium-sized startup companies concentrated in the region. There are also many established organizations trying innovative approaches to their products, services, and ways of doing business. In other words, there is no dearth of guests who can come in to talk about what they are working on or where new opportunities lie, in fields that include biotechnology, manufacturing, media, banking, architecture, and even farming and food preparation. Of course, Skype and other connection tools make it possible for innovators all over the world to take part in the program.
However, when I turn on Innovation Hub every Saturday morning, I’m invariably treated to very long interviews with academics or pundits. Today, for instance, I heard the dean of a school of public health talking about research into innovation, and a doctor and a researcher talking about a minor finding in obesity and mortality data.
This is not an unusual slate of guests or discussion areas. Often I hear authors and researchers talk about innovation in terms of studies or classic examples (e.g., what Google or Facebook is doing), while at other times they discuss some surprising finding in their research that goes against prevailing attitudes or experience.
While interesting, I feel that these discussions are 20,000 feet above the trenches where actual innovation is taking place, and the interviews are so long that there are too few opportunities for the program to talk with people who are actually carrying out innovative projects, product development, or new ways of doing “x”.
There is so much innovation taking place these days in New England and around the world. I hope the program can consider devoting more time to actual innovation and the people who make it happen.
One thing I would like to note: My Innovation Hub complaint was not intended as a passive pitch for my own business. I was motivated to write it by a desire to hear from people in the trenches of innovation. There are so many interesting things taking place right in WGBH’s backyard, and it seems like it would be so easy to get a slew of interesting people from all kinds of backgrounds to talk about the work that they are doing.
Company blogs often get a bad rap, and for good reason. They can come across as awkward and unnatural as the cross-functional teams that oversee their existence (“Susan, check with marketing and legal before putting that up on the blog, m’kay?”). A few firms simply reprint press releases on their “blogs”. Others severely restrict the topics that staff can blog about, or deliberately hobble discussions with the outside world (including with their customers) by turning off comments.
Even companies which “get” digital media sometimes can’t do it right. Google’s official blog posts tend to come across as milquetoast missives that have gone through multiple layers of editing and approval, and commenting is frequently disabled. Microsoft is usually more open to blogging by staff, especially when it comes to reaching out to its development partners or customers of specific product lines, but a lot of its messaging is still communicated via press release and the news media. Apple doesn’t even bother with blogs.
But the examples above refer to corporate blogs, or blogs written by employees who work for large companies. In this post, I’d like to talk about startup blogs and small company blogs, as well as a big problem that afflicts a growing number of startup blogs.
Startup blogs vs. corporate blogs
Before I get to the problem, it’s important to understand a few things about startup blogs. They are different animals than their corporate cousins. Although startup blogs are sometimes written by a marketing director, they are frequently handled by the CEO or co-founders, or by a rotating cast of bloggers on staff. The blogging for In 30 Minutes guides is handled by yours truly, as well as the authors of Online Content Marketing In 30 Minutes and our new LinkedIn book. Posts vary in terms of length and target audience, but you can get an idea of the blogging style by looking at these posts about Google Docs new documents and Google Drive shortcuts.
Further, I generally find startup blogs to be far more informative than big company blogs. While corporate blogs will sometimes switch to show-and-tell mode with videos or step-by-step instructions, more often than not the big boys like to keep the explanations short and send prospective customers to support sites, product pages, and lead generation forms.
For readers, this makes a big difference. Startup blogs tend to have an authentic voice. They will often address market concerns in a direct way or give advice/share knowledge to attract and help new customers. There aren’t layers of editors and approvals to get something published.
Sometimes the voice on a startup blog can be brutally honest. Check out this post by Kinvey CEO Sravish Sridhar in which he gives a frank discussion of whether or not to talk about the competition. He lists his competitors — something that corporate bloggers almost never do — and further uses the opportunity to sell to potential customers of the Kinvey Backend-As-A-Service offering for mobile and tablet developers.
But startup blogs can be done poorly, too. A few years ago, as I was conducting research on startup accelerator programs, I noticed a big problem with certain startup blogs from the companies that had gone through various accelerator programs in the past: The blogs were abandoned. They hadn’t been updated in months, and in some cases, a year or more. I dug a little deeper, and found that there were various causes:
The startup is so swamped that no one has time to blog
The person who handled blogging left
The company doesn’t appreciate the value of the blog (even though people may still be visiting from Google)
The startup failed
To anyone who has founded or worked for a startup, the first reason is very understandable. If you’re getting by on just four hours of sleep per night taking care of the business, blogging usually ends up on the back burner until you can find the time to do it. The typical pattern is to see spurts of activity (especially early in the life of the blog) and then long periods of inaction.
I suspect that the second and third reasons are often accompanied by a feeling that someone will eventually get around to updating the blog, so for the time being just leave it dangling.
The fourth reason may seem strange, until you consider that startups have a high chance of failure. If the hosting is still paid for and the CMS is on autopilot, the old posts will continue to face the world, like the facade of an abandoned business.
The problem with abandoned startup blogs
Regardless of the reason, leaving an untended or derelict blog is a major mistake. An abandoned blog not only looks bad. It can actually call the credibility of the company into question, if the firm is still in business. It tells customers and users that the startup doesn’t care about keeping them up to date, can’t handle the workload, or maybe is distracted by something else, such as consulting, school, or another company. If it’s been more than a year since the last update, prospective customers or users may even wonder if the company is still in operation. Any doubt about the status of the company will of course result in a lower conversion rate, lost sales, or a wasted chance for building partnerships or prestige. In addition, because older content has more prominence, users and prospective customers may be left unaware of the company’s current products, features, pricing, or vision.
What are the solutions to this problem? I have suggestions tailored to the following scenarios:
Consider a company which is still in operation and understands the importance of blogging as a way to connect with customers and serve as an inbound marketing channel (among other uses). But there simply aren’t enough resources to devote to blogging. In this case, the most important thing to do is let people know what’s going on and point them to resources that can help them. Create a short post apologizing to readers and explaining that the blog won’t be updated as you work on the beta/feature X/migration/whatever.
You may also want to direct customers to resources where they can find answers (such as a support forum or customer service). Consider pointing them to alternative communications channels — such as a Twitter feed (much easier to update) or some other social networking resource that is regularly updated and/or monitored. Another trick: Start video blogging, either with a Web cam or smartphone camera. It takes less than ten minutes to create a clip, upload it/record directly to YouTube, and then embed the clip on your blog (or refer people to your YouTube channel). It’s not as fast as Twitter and may require some prep to make your office look presentable, but it’s much more efficient than blogging.
Startup blogs as part of a communications strategy
Longer term, you’ll need to figure out how blogging fits into your company’s communication and content strategies. Some companies with actual budgets bring in consultants to help them talk through these issues, or go out and get a hired gun to handle regular posts. Whatever you end up doing, don’t put off these discussions or plans for too long. It’s important for serving your customers and users, and attracting new customers/users. Schedule some time to talk about this internally or with advisors.
If the company is still in operation and doesn’t think blogging is important or necessary, my first suggestion is to reconsider. Talk with people who do it, start Googling around, or find someone who knows what they’re talking about. If blogging is still not a good fit for your startup, I see two paths:
If the blog has lots of posts or useful content, do not kill the blog. The content may still be useful to users, some customers and prospective customers, and may still be indexed by Google, which gives your site important visibility to prospective users and customers. Do this instead: Write a final post saying that the blog is being archived at the same location, and current news and information can be found at (other linked resource). But do remove the blog from site navigation, even though the URL stays the same. This will result in less traffic to the blog, but in my opinion it’s better to lose a little traffic than to send people to a resource that hasn’t been updated for months or years.
What if the blog has only a few posts? A typical scenario is the startup launched the blog because everyone else did it. After a handful of posts, there was no enthusiasm and the blog was abandoned. In this case, I would consider removing the posts and the navigation links, but only after someone has evaluated how the site has been indexed by Google and linked to by external sites. If you have just five posts, but one of them gets hundreds of referrals per month through links from Hacker News and Google, I would archive it at the same URL per the instructions above.
Lastly, if the company is dead and you’ve got a derelict site on your hands that for whatever reason you do not want to turn off, be courteous to the people who stumble upon the blog. Don’t let them believe that you are still in operation, and might still help them with whatever problem they have. Assuming you have already told your paying customers what happened, post a message or redirect that lets prospective customers, stragglers and other users know what happened and perhaps how you can be reached. Notifo’s final post from September 2011 (sorry, link no longer available) is a good example, and goes one step further by recommending some alternative services:
Hi Notifo users,
This is Chad, founder of Notifo.
I am reaching out today to announce some sad news. Over the past 20 months, Notifo has tried to be the best notification platform for multiple endpoints including iPhone, Android, Growl, Email, and a few more. Notifo has been my full-time job during this time.
However, Notifo never gained enough traction with publishers or consumers to make enough revenue to pay the bills and sustain it as a company. As such, I have had to seek full-time employment elsewhere in order to pay my own living expenses. What does this mean for you and Notifo? Practically, it means that I will no longer be working on Notifo. For now, Notifo will continue to run as-is with no further plans for development but will probably be shut down as a result. I will try to keep it alive as long as possible, but please know that it could go away at any moment. I will do my best to provide at least 30 days notice before Notifo is officially shut down.
While Notifo will continue to run in the interim, I encourage you to find alternative methods to accomplish your notification needs. Some alternatives include:
Boxcar for iPhone/iPad
Prowl for iPhone/iPad
SMS with Twilio
I want to thank all of you for using Notifo. I’m deeply sorry about this result. There may be a few more posts regarding this situation. Please feel free to email me at [chad at notifo dot com] with any questions you may have.
Thanks for all your support,
One last thing I would like to make clear: Untended blogs aren’t just a startup problem. I see established companies making the same mistakes. But established companies tend to have staff resources and budgets that makes it far easier to handle updates. And in almost all cases, they should know better than to let a product or company blog gather dust.
I realize that other startup bloggers and consultants with expertise in content strategy may have different ideas about how to deal with some of the problems I have described above. Feel free to add your opinion in the comments at the bottom of this page.
Image: C3, Cambridge Innovation Center. Photo by Ian Lamont.