Blogger default templates: Which one is the best?

Last week, I published my latest book, 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 …

A proposal for a Lean Media Framework: Input and iteration required

(Updated) I’m a media guy. I’ve been involved as a producer and manager in various sectors of the media industry my entire adult life, including the music industry, broadcasting (radio and TV), newspapers, magazines, and, starting in the 1990s, online media. I’ve experienced the shift from analog to digital, and the many struggles that have resulted from this sea change.

More recently, I’ve become a startup guy. I co-founded a mobile software startup that released a classifieds app. I’m currently trying to bootstrap an e-publishing venture around In 30 Minutes® guides, and have released more than a half-dozen titles on Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and other ebook distribution platforms. These guides are aimed at mainstream audiences who need help getting up to speed with mildly complex subjects, ranging from health to technology. The guides include ebooks/books as well as online components — including the guide which people mistakenly compare with Google Docs for Dummies and posts such as What Is Dropbox? to get an idea of the products and information being offered.

The Lean StartupA 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.

But I also realized that there were some problems with applying the Lean Startup framework to media content.

First, out of all of the “Lean” media products that I had been a part of or had seen close-up, very few could be considered successes. My blog about the Harvard Extension School is one (more than a half-million page views, thousands of dollars in revenue) and an online community for Computerworld (probably 10 million visits before it was retired) is another. But other products floundered or failed out of the gate, and even after iteration, they failed.

Second, it wasn’t hard to find examples of fat big media products that were hits. Turn on the TV, and you can see examples on every channel. A reality TV talent show that takes millions to produce, is planned for at least a year, and follows a format of a three-judge panel with at least one British judge, has a very high chance of success. In the music world, there have been many albums that have taken years to produce and have broken every Lean rule in the book, yet have sold millions of copies. To illustrate, Def Leppard started writing the songs for Hysteria in 1984, yet the album wasn’t released until 1987. The songs on Hysteria didn’t take long to write. But finessing them, producing them, marketing them, and launching them took years. This is the exact opposite of Ries’ Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept, or even the variation known as Minimum Delightful Product.

Third, it was hard to isolate certain factors that are commonly found in media products but are seldom seen in the software world. “Brand” and “star power” can be hugely important in new product launches for media, but in the software world (aside from Apple) it’s more about the product and what it can do. For media products, another difference relates to creative processes and team dynamics, and the feedback cycles that exist within teams (think of the Beatles in the studio, the New York Times editorial processes, or the Saturday Night Live script readings). There is also the huge disruption that is taking place around business models, which clouds everything around media.

Lean Media: From Theory To Practice

When I launched a mobile software startup, I finally had a chance to put Lean methodologies to work with my co-founder. We made mistakes, especially at the beginning, but eventually released a product that proved to be very popular with consumers, and had high engagement and retention rates. I felt that when we followed the Lean philosophy, it worked very well for product development.

When I started my second venture this summer, the ebook experiment, I pledged to myself that I would attempt to actively follow the Lean philosophy. Get products out to the marketplace as soon as possible. Measure. Iterate. Improve. Some of these processes were already ingrained, owing to my earlier experiences with rapid product development in the online media and music industries, as well as the mobile software startup, and my grad school experience, which emphasized iterative product development. But I was more methodical with measuring and incorporating feedback. I also paid a lot of attention to revenue, something that I had not been focused on with any previous venture or media experiment.

As the ebook venture progresses, my mind has been circling back to the inconsistencies I observed earlier. Yes, Lean methodologies do work for media content. They can lead to better products, and better sales. However, the Lean approach does not take into account important factors — such as brand and creative processes — that can determine the success or failure of media ventures.

The Opportunity For Lean Media

Therefore, I believe there is an opportunity to build a new Lean framework that is specific to media ventures — a Lean “mod” for media, if you will. The goal of building a Lean Media Framework is to help startups and established companies build innovative products, platforms, and business models that have a higher chance of success and can contribute to new models of creation, distribution, and consumption.

In the old media world, an idea like this would have been developed by a single writer or a small team of collaborators. An essay would appear in a communications journal or The New Yorker. If it got traction, the author(s) would get a book deal.

In the spirit of Lean development and distributed knowledge, I am starting with a simple blog post (which took two hours to write) and throwing these concepts out to my favorite forums for discussion and iteration. Share your thoughts below, tweet to @ilamont, write a blog post, or do whatever you think is appropriate to carry the discussion forward and iterate until we have something that we can share with a wider audience.

November 2015 Update: I am expanding Lean Media into a book. Read sample chapters here. I have also launched a newsletter about industrial automation using Lean Media principles.

Update: More thoughts and discussion here:

Ebook #2 hits the virtual shelves

Google Drive manualEarlier this week, my second ebook was published in the Kindle Store and as a paid PDF download (see inset cover). The book explains how to use Google Drive, a very powerful online software suite that includes word processing, spreadsheets, a presentation tool, and online storage. It’s kind of like Google Docs for Dummies … but not quite!

If you visit the product page, you’ll see that the price point is higher than my first book, a Dropbox guide. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The new title is about 1/3 longer, and more comprehensive.
  • It reaches to a more business-focused audience, as the Google Drive suite contains two programs that are seldom used by home users: Spreadsheets (which has similar functionality to Microsoft Excel) and Presentations (which is a bare-bones PowerPoint clone with some neat online functionality thrown in). (Update: Google has since renamed these programs Sheets and Slides, respectively.)
  • I want to test the response rate to higher-priced ebooks.
  • I want to see how high-value affiliate offers work. I’m currently allocating 56% of the $17.99 cover price to affiliates enrolled in my hosting company’s affiliate program. This translates to $10 per affiliate, compared to under $3 per affiliate for the Dropbox manual affiliate program. (Update: I killed the affiliate program. Too much room for abuse as the incentives aren’t aligned with what I want to promote … quality!)

Experimental mode for ebooks

As you can see, I am in experimental mode when it comes to design, pricing, length, and other aspects. The prices and affiliate program percentages will likely change as I figure out what works, and what doesn’t.

In the meantime, stay tuned for book #3! I have also started to consider other topics, ranging from Excel to LinkedIn and even other technical topics. I won’t be the only author, though … the best way to achieve scale is to find other talented authors who know these technologies and have existing audiences through blogs or other writing arrangements.

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).


Where was 38 Studios’ board of directors and senior management team?

There is a scandal engulfing 38 Studios, the game studio founded by Red Sox great Curt Schilling. The short story: 38 Studios recently failed to make a scheduled loan fee to the State of Rhode Island, which generously gave loan guarantees totaling $75 million back in 2010. An interesting question is surfacing, now that the company can’t even pay its employees. Where was 38 Studios’ board of directors and CEO when the Rhode Island deal was negotiated, and more recently when it became clear that the cost/revenue structure was not sustainable?

It’s rare that a scandal simultaneously touches the New England tech, political, and sports scenes, and the local and national press has been all over it. The media has been playing up the sexiest angle — a sports hero at the helm of a struggling company. But Schilling isn’t alone. 38 Studios had a CEO, Jennifer MacLean (who just started maternity leave), an experienced CFO, Rick Wester, and an operations guru, Bill Thomas. And 38 Studios had a board of directors. At first I was unable to find a list of 38 Studios board members, because it had been taken offline, but I found a cached copy. Here it is:

38 Studios Board of Directors
Where was 38 Studios’ board of directors and SMT?

Who was on the 38 Studios board of directors?

Schilling and 38 Studios had a solid board of directors. Besides MacLean and Thomas, these were people with decades of experience in finance, new ventures, and the games and technology industries. Here’s how their board bios described them:

Martha Crowninshield

Ms. Crowninshield is a general partner emerita of Boston Ventures, an internationally recognized private equity firm with more than $2.5 billion in raised capital spanning seven limited partnership funds. Since 1985, she was principally involved in investing in the entertainment and leisure markets. Her track record of success includes such recognized names as Motown Record Company, Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, Billboard Publications, Inc, and USA Cinemas (now Loews). She is a member of the Board of Fellows at Harvard Medical School and Founding Co-Chair of the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center council. Her financial support and business advice are credited at Harvard Medical School as critical for the launch of the International MS Genetics Consortium where she serves on its Board of Directors. Ms. Crowninshield also has brought her business and leadership skill to her considerable efforts as a philanthropist. She was a driving force with the United Way in encouraging large individual donors to support targeted initiatives for programs including economic literacy and entrepreneurship for girls. As an overseer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Huntington Theater Company in Boston, her work was focused on introducing the arts into the broader community with a special focus on education and participation for children. She also is involved in national and international initiatives to improve access to capital — both intellectual and financial — for women and people of color. A former member of the Executive Committee of the Simmons College Corporation and the Executive Committee of C200, she has received many local and national awards of recognition for her business and philanthropic leadership. Ms. Crowninshield received her MBA from Simmons College Graduate School of Business, and currently serves as Chair of Indaba Music.

Kevin Roche

Mr. Roche has 26 years of experience in investment banking, private equity and leveraged finance. From 2001 to 2006, Mr. Roche was Head of Investment Banking at Wachovia Corporation with responsibility for ten Corporate Finance industry coverage groups, Mergers and Acquisitions, Financial Sponsors Group, and Principal Investing. He held leadership responsibility for over $2.0 billion of revenue, a $40 billion loan portfolio and a $2.0 billion principal investing portfolio. During Mr. Roche’s five year tenure, Wachovia quadrupled its market share of investment banking fee-based revenue. Prior to being Head of Investment Banking, Mr. Roche was Co-Head of Leveraged Finance at Wachovia Corporation from 2000 to 2001 with responsibility for the Loan Syndications; High Yield Origination, Sales and Trading; Leveraged Capital; and Leveraged Finance Underwriting groups. From 1988 to 1999, Mr. Roche was a Managing Partner at Wachovia Capital Partners with a leadership role in founding this private equity investing business and in the successful growth and development of a $2 billion principal investing portfolio. Mr. Roche was previously a Vice President at Kidder, Peabody & Co. Incorporated, where he worked from 1980 to 1982 and 1984 to 1988. Mr. Roche holds a B.A. in Economics, magna cum laude, from Duke University and a M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

Jim Halpin

Mr. Halpin is the President and owner of River Bend Inc., a private investment company. Prior to starting his own firm in 2000, Mr. Halpin served as President and CEO of CompUSA for seven years. During his tenure at CompUSA, he was named one of the “top 25 managers in the world” by Business Week in 1998. Mr. Halpin also served as President of HomeBase and BJ’s Wholesale Club. Mr. Halpin was also a director of Marvel Entertainment and Life Time Fitness. He was Chairman of the Compensation Committees at both Marvel and Life Time Fitness. In addition, he was a member of the Strategic Planning Committee at Marvel and the Finance Committee at Life Time Fitness. Mr. Halpin formerly served on the boards of Access and Posse, nonprofit organizations offering educational assistance to urban youth. Mr. Halpin has guest lectured at Harvard Business School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Babson, Columbia and Wharton.

Doug Macrae

Mr. Macrae began his career in videogames in 1981 when he founded General Computer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within a few years the company grew to over a hundred employees designing arcade and home games for Atari and Bally / Midway. Between original games and arcade conversion to home systems, General Computer was responsible for versions of Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Galaxians, Galaga, Asteroids, Joust, Robotron, Pole Position, Jungle Hunt, Xevious, Berserk, Desert Falcon, Dig Dug, Ballblazer, Jr. Pac-Man, Kangaroo, Moon Patrol, Food Fight, Phoenix, Quantum, Rubik’s Cube, Realsports Tennis, Track & Field, and Vanguard. In 1993, he founded a new company, VideoGuide, to design interactive program guides. In 1996, VideoGuide was merged into Gemstar; in 2000 Gemstar acquired TV Guide. Doug became President of TV Guide Consumer Electronics with offices in Boston, Los Angeles, London, Luxemburg, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. After retiring in 2005, Mr. Macrae became an avid World of Warcraft player, spending many hours of quality time with his sons. Desiring to get back into the videogame world, Doug, co-created the Azeroth Advisor, a personalized newsletter for players of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft game.

Sundar Subramaniam

Mr. Subramaniam is Chairman of IBCC whose holdings include Cambridge Technology Enterprises (CTE.NS), Knome, where he is Chairman, MTPV, Cambridge Energy Resources and DNSstuff, where he serves as director, CEO of Sialix and General Partner at Higher Moment Capital. He previously served as Chairman of I-Cube, C-bridge, Open Environment Corporation, and OneWave – all of which completed IPO’s, WorldStreet Corporation, Integrated Computing Engines, and as Managing Partner of Cambridge Samsung Partners, a Venture Capital firm. Mr. Subramaniam graduated from Brandeis University with a major in Computer Science and Economics, has an MBA from MIT and an MS from HST (Harvard-MIT Health Science and Technology).

The bio for the other 38 Studios board member, Tom Zaccagnino, was removed from the site at the time of this posting, but his cached bio reads:

Mr. Zaccagnino is currently Co-Managing Director at Wellesley Advisors Corporation, an institutional private equity real estate investment company. He is also a director at 1921 Realty Incorporated, a Real Estate Investment Trust and at Indaba Music, an international digital media company. Prior to these positions, Mr. Zaccagnino was a high-tech entrepreneur at Cambridge Technology Enterprises, holding various executive positions and directorships with portfolio companies. He has transacted business in over 25 countries on 5 continents, and has extensive experience in private equity, M&A, and private and public offerings. Mr. Zaccagnino is also an active early-stage investor and is a member of the Urban Land Institute and the Boston Real Estate Finance Association. He also serves as Chairman of the Yale Alumni Real Estate Association of New England and is a member of the Yale Alumni Schools Committee. Mr. Zaccagnino earned a Bachelor of Arts from Yale College. In addition to being a 38 Studios director, he currently serves as the Chairman of the Finance Committee and is a member of the Audit Committee.

As I said before, there was a solid board at 38 Studios. These are qualified and experienced individuals who provided oversight to 38 Studios. They could not only advise Schilling and the senior management team, but had a fiduciary responsibility to help 38 Studios avoid financial crises. What happened? The story is still unfolding, but I think a lot more attention needs to be paid to the actions of the 38 Studios senior management team and board, not just Schilling.

A new way to browse Craigslist

Next month, my company plans on releasing the first version of our Craigslist app. It’s not going to be complicated (in fact, this early release will only let users buy on Craigslist with an iPhone or iPad), but we think it serves a big need in the marketplace. On a PC, Craigslist’s Web interface is oriented toward text. The Invantory app is really oriented toward photos, as you can see from the screenshot below:

Craigslist bike listing

If there are more than two photos, all it takes is a horizontal swipe of the thumb to see the other photos. The other innovation relates to browsing: Instead of reading text lists, users are presented with thumbnails. This makes it much easier to visually identify items of interest and skip over items that are of no interest.

We’re excited about the app and hope you can give it a spin.

Classifieds app UX

How many classifieds apps are out there? In my review of Craigslist Mobile, I observed about a dozen in the Apple App Store and 20 in Android Market (aka Google Play). Why they exist is not a surprise — Craigslist is the most popular local classifieds marketplace in existence. But what I did find surprising were the poor design, user interfaces and user flow (collectively known as user experience, or UX) that had gone into the apps. For instance, as I noted in the Craigslist Mobile review concerning the classified app UX:

” … The Craigslist Mobile UX is not helped by placing all required fields right next to each other on the same page, which requires lots of text input and screen manipulation, and increases the chances of making a mistake. The ‘add photo’ button takes users to stored photos on the iOS device; a separate button accesses the camera directly.”

There were many other UX issues identified in the review. Options crowd each screen and are hard to find or activate, users are forced to navigate back to the home screen to change settings, strange color schemes are used, text rather than photos dominates the browsing experience, etc. Some of these issues relate to Craigslist’s requirements for listings, but others are the direct result of choices the app designers made. Despite the crowded field, the designers of other apps often decided to copy what was already out there rather than innovating on UX and differentiating themselves.

Is there any other way to do classifieds app UX? Certainly. EggDrop, Zaarly and Rumgr point the way, with a user-centric (rather than engineer-centric) approach to design, UI, and user flow. There is no clutter on the small screens. Good color choices were made by the designers. Images and maps look sharp. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for, switch views, or change options. This is the way classified app UX should be.

An example of good UX: Zaarly

Zaarly Map

Highs and lows in a tech startup

In the six months since our Craigslist app has gotten off the ground, there have been a lot of ups and downs. Of course, ups and downs are a part of any career. But I quickly found that the mood extremes are far more pronounced at a startup than at a multinational tech media company or large research university.

It turns out that the startup roller coaster actually quite typical. Fortunately, there are tactics for managing the highs and lows, as I discuss in the Invantory blog (see link, above).

I also think it’s important to note that while we are still in the early stages, every day when I get up, I look forward to getting started on my company’s business. The challenges change every day, but the wins, when they come, are positively exhilarating.

Cambridge startups turn to the CIC

I’ve written a post about the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in Kendall Square. This is where hundreds of other nascent tech startups spend a lot of time planning, meeting, coding, and testing. It’s a fascinating place that provides office space, amenities and a network that can provide advice and connections necessary to build a business.

The CIC has really helped my partner and I get our dream off the ground, and we already have a prototype Craigslist app in the hands of testers. The CIC is also relatively cheap, at least for those startups that are taking advantage of the “C3” co-working space.