Friday, December 10, 2010

Sport is meaningless; Fandom is meaningful

Spectator* sports is meaningless, but fandom gives it meaning. We all want to be part of something bigger. When we find something that connects and uplifts us, does it matter how trivial it might be when reduced to essentials? Singing in a choir. Worshipping in a church. Partaking in a LAN party. In the end, what makes them any less trivial than tailgating before a football game, or watching March Madness with your buddies?

The next time that you're tempted to mock another's hobbies as a waste of time, ask yourself if someone else might say the same about your favorite activity.

* Clarification added after Jim pointed out that playing sports is a meaningful activity for the participants, even without an audience.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Why You Should Hire Nerdy Businesspeople

Hire nerdy business people.

Counterintuitive, right? When you think businessperson, you think of a smooth-talking charmer, the opposite of the archetypal "nerd."

But when you're hiring business people, the most important interview question might be, "Kirk or Picard?"

It's not that they'll be more fun at hackathons (though that helps). It's that nerdy = detail oriented.

Contrary to popular belief, business is a science. And practitioners who are dedicated and detail-oriented (that is, nerdy) are more likely to succeed.

Note that I'm not saying that you should post your sales positions at the local comic book store. You still need to look for salespeople in target-rich environments, like ex-athletes or Oracle refugees. But if you find a successful Star Trek-watching salesman, grab him. He'll probably be worn his weight in Latinum.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Respond Specifically

I often think of my email inbox as a tennis game.

Each email that comes in is like a tennis ball, which needs to be volleyed back to my rally partner.

The temptation is to simply swing the racket and volley the ball back as quickly as possible. But life is not tennis, and volleying quickly is likely to lead to a long, time-consuming rally.

Instead, take the time to respond specifically, to make it easier for you or your correspondents to hit a winner.

For example, instead of asking, "Do you have time to meet next week?", short-circuit the conversation by offering specific times (or by using Tungle). Use if-then statements to cover contingencies, and make it clear exactly what you want from people.

Soft volleys may clear your inbox temporarily, but the return volleys will soon bury you once again. Take the time to laser in a few winners.

What Internet Startups Can Learn From Comics And Porn Stars

It's no secret that media businesses have struggled with monetization in the Internet era. Journalism, for example, is famously in free-fall. But all the hand-wringing conceals a simple fact: There is a very successful model that has been around for decades, and it still works today.

All we have to do is learn from porn stars and stand up comedians.

While these two groups may seem dissimilar, they both follow the same successful business model: Give away content and sell the experience.

Content is valuable but difficult to monetize. You can't get people to pay for things they think should be free. Instead, use content to drive non-monetary value, such as awareness and loyalty, which you can monetize by charging them for things they are willing to pay for.

Take porn stars. You would probably be surprised to learn how little porn stars earn from appearing in films. A woman might make $500 per scene. To earn $100,000 per year, you would have to shoot 200 scenes per year. You don't even want to consider the plight of male porn stars who might earn $100 per scene.

So where does they money come from? Porn stars make their money in two ways. First, they build their own websites, and charge their big fans for subscriptions which entitle them to attend live broadcasts where they can interact with the star. Second, they hit the exotic dance circuit as "Featured Dancers", who are paid to dance because they bring in bigger audiences. The tips aren't bad either. Give away content, sell experiences.

The same holds true for standup comedians. You've probably seen those comedy specials on Comedy Central. How much do you think the comic gets paid for those specials?

About $1,000. And no royalties.

Comics make almost nothing from appearing on TV. What those appearances do is help them build awareness so that they can go on the road and make their money by touring.

When a comedian books a tour, they get paid a portion of the gate; their ability to build a fanbase is directly correlated with their ability to get paid.

Give away content, charge for experiences.

How can you apply this lesson in your business?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Don't Take Sides, Take Issues (How To Think About Wikileaks)

I've been following the Wikileaks saga with increasing interest, because it embodies a principle in which I firmly believe:

Don't take sides, take issues.

People have asked if I'm pro-Wikileaks or anti-Wikileaks. One of my friends said she was anti-anti-Wikileaks.

The problem with taking sides is that its rare that sides are drawn up based on a single issue. And Wikileaks is decidedly *not* a single issue. Here's my own list, just off the top of my head:

1) Freedom of speech

Wikileaks is founded on this principle, which I have always strongly supported. It is far too easy for wrongdoers, be they nation states or other actors, to suppress damaging secrets. Wikileaks is a useful tool for increasing transparency. For example, previous leaks included footage of American military forces accidentally killing friendlies and reporters--footage that the military had tried to suppress. Surely this sort of information should be available to the public.

2) Responsible foreign policy

On the other hand, diplomacy between nation-states relies on privacy and confidentiality. Perhaps it would be nice if nations were honest about their motivations and actions, but a little privacy is the social lubricant that helps the world run more smoothly.

Your family holiday party would probably be a bit more awkward if everyone knew that you said your uncle was a boring loser who was probably a pedophile, just as the Middle East is a bit tenser because Wikileaks leaked that various Arab states urged the United States to bomb Iran.

Everyone knows what everyone thinks, but not saying out loud allows us to preserve the social niceties...useful for your dinner party, essential in the case of preventing war and conflict.

3) Corporate responsibility

In response to recent developments, a number of corporations such as Amazon and PayPal cut off service to Wikileaks. Was this a responsible response to a high-risk customer that endangered shareholder value? Or a craven cave-in to government pressure? Or both?

4) Vigilante justice

In response to the corporate boycott of Wikileaks, online communities such as Anon launched DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks on the companies involved. Is this activism? Vandalism? Terrorism?

5) Crime and punishment

The founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, has been charged by Swedish authorities with rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion, and was arrested in the UK. Those who commit crimes should be tried, and if found guilty, punished, regardless of their other deeds (good or ill).

6) Political persecution

On the other hand, what most headlines do not report is that the charges against Assange are that while engaged in consensual sex, his condom broke, and that he either failed to disclose this to his partner, or (more damagingly) continued the intercourse after being asked to stop. The former is clearly boorish and dangerous, the latter criminal. But the details don't match the headlines, which clearly imply that Assange is the perpetrator of violent sexual assault.

Is Sweden's decision to charge Assange justice at work? Or an attempt to punish him via whatever means are convenient?

The point of this is that simply saying you are pro- or anti-Wikileaks is insufficient. For example, if you are pro-Wikileaks, you are implying that you are pro-freedom of speech, but also that freedom of speech takes precedence over diplomatic concerns.

Instead, you should make clear your stance on the issues, and avoid blanket judgment.

Wikileaks should be commended when its leaks bring clarity, and reprimanded when they do nothing but harm diplomacy.

Companies should be shamed for giving into pressures, but we should understand that their duty is first and foremost to their shareholders and employees, and that they are not required to risk their livelihood just to satisfy our consciences.

Those who want to protest others' actions should do so, but legally.

We should recognize that someone like Julian Assange can be both a positive and negative force, and that just because we agree with some of his principles doesn't mean we have to support him in everything he does.

Nor should this advice be limited to Wikileaks--taking issue rather than taking sides is good advice for all of life.