Evan Williams, The Man Behind Digital Publishing

“Simplicity is powerful.”
– E. Williams

Evan Williams What a lucky duck. Evan Williams, I mean. He was at the front of two digital publishing revolutions: blogging and microblogging (and almost at podcasting).

The way he developed his businesses and products is fascinating, for entrepreneurs, product managers, and 21st century writers alike. Here are some highlights that I consider particularly notable. Much of what I’ve gathered is secondary research from various articles, interviews, Wikipedia, and the great book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

In 1999, Evan Williams co-founded the company Pyra Labs. Their aim was to create online project management software.

During this time, the term weblog (remember that?) arose as a log (a “web log”) of a person’s activities, much like a journal. Many website owners began publishing weblogs, though it was a relatively cumbersome process that required technical knowledge. A few, like Williams, decided to write a simple script that allowed themselves to publish their thoughts without having to FTP or SSH into their servers and write HTML each time.

Then Williams had a shot of insight. He integrated that simple script into Pyra as an internal feature called Stuff. Later, it was launched as Blogger. Although it wasn’t an overnight success, this simple script eventually grew much faster than the project management software of Pyra.

For you younger readers, it may be hard to believe that blogging once wasn’t commonplace. But there was a time where pundits and journalists wrestled with its value. “Why would anyone blog?” they asked. And more importantly, “Why would anyone read a stranger’s blog?”

For writers, this opened up a whole new field of opportunities. Here was an easy way to publish your stories, your thoughts, and even your photos to the whole wide world. No technical knowledge needed; anyone could do it. The transformation was incredible.

Then, despite raising half a million dollars, Pyra ran out of money in January 2001. All of its employees left. Williams remained to keep Blogger running, striking life-sustaining deals and developing Blogger Pro, until Google (GOOG) purchased them in February 2003.

At the heels of the blogging phenomenon was podcasting, the publishing of audio content. People could now publish their writings or photos on a blog, or words as a podcast. A whole new class of publishers arose as a result.

Seeing the next digital publishing trend, Williams left Google to co-found Odeo in 2005, a podcast publishing and aggregation platform. It was like Blogger, but for audio.

Podcasting didn’t take off as vibrantly as blogging, but it’s still a strong phenomenon. There is definitely a niche of consumers who enjoy creating and listening to podcasts.

During one fateful brainstorming session at Odeo, Jack Dorsey introduced the idea of an SMS group messaging service. A prototype was built soon thereafter, then publicly released as Twitter on July 2006. Another new publishing platform.

Williams and team spun off Twitter as a separate company in July 2007. As of this post, it appears they’ve raised around $160M. $5M of that came from a series A round, perhaps buoyed by Williams’ track record.

You can imagine the immediate reactions to such a service, however. “Why would anyone tweet?” Pundits and journalists asked. “Why would anyone read a stranger’s tweets?” I wonder if Williams appreciated the irony and enjoyed it as deja vu all over again.

Although many use Twitter as a marketing vehicle (as they do with blogs and podcasts too), countless others see it as a publishing platform. It’s even known officially as microblogging in the industry.

That’s how I primarily use it too. Within its 140-character constraint is the ability to create a whole new class of art. Whether it be haiku, imagery, short stories, or even novels, there’s a lot of creative potential in Twitter as a publishing platform for 21st century writers.

Being a writer has never been more exciting. New technologies keep on revolutionizing the field and enabling new classes of creators and artists. It is easier than ever to publish a story, a thought, a song, a photo, a video, or any piece of art to millions of people around the world.

Sure, there are still questions of quality (how do I know if this artist is worth following?) and discovery (how can my art be seen?), but the tools are there. The means of publishing are there. Anyone can use them.

I sometimes wonder if the next company that revolutionizes the digital publishing world will be another Williams company. I’m not an EV fanboy, but I envy how he’s been at the forefront of two digital publishing revolutions so far. Being someone who loves this field, I gotta say: What a lucky duck.

How to Win on Celebrity Apprentice

It’s safe to say I’ll never be on Celebrity Apprentice. But I’ve watched enough episodes to see a few patterns emerge – patterns I think a celebrity could use to succeed in this game.

So if you are a celebrity who is about to go on Celebrity Apprentice, heed these tips. And if you win, don’t forget about the little guys who helped get you there. wink wink.

Before the Show

  • Go through your list of friends and contacts for potential donors. Wealthy, generous friends who have donated to charities in the past are best. Ask them if they would be willing to let you contact them for Celebrity Apprentice.

  • Go through your acquintances and second/third degree contacts. Ask your agent or manager for other potential donors. Ask them politely if they would be willing to let you contact them for Celebrity Apprentice.

  • Take a project management class or workshop. Learn basic meeting facilitation, team building, and team leadership skills. Such workshops are held everywhere. You could even hire a private tutor if you want.

  • Learn how to facilitate brainstorming meetings. If you know graphic designers or creative directors who’ve held such meetings before, ask them for some tips. You can also find plenty of tips online if you don’t know anyone personally. Or you can hire a marketing professional as a private tutor.

  • Learn how to handle and manage celebrity personalities. Ask your agent, manager, director, or producer for this advice. Chances are, they do this on a daily basis. Keep an open mind and shut your mouth while you take this advice. You might not like everything you hear, but if you view the subject dispassionately, you will gain great insights.

  • Learn about lateral thinking. These are techniques to help expand your creativity. You don’t necessarily need to be the most creative person on the team, but it may help. Everyone handles the creative process differently. You may have one of your own already, so it’s fine to stick with yours, though you may increase your chances if you learn new techniques.

During the Show

  • Learn about each person on your team. Get to know their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and how to best manage them. This can take tremendous effort, but hopefully you’ve been able to consult someone on how to manage celebrity personalities. Knowing each person’s strengths and weaknesses will come in handy as the show progresses.

  • After you are given an assignment, talk to the corporate sponsor – specifically, the people who will be judging your work. Learn more about their company, the product they want you to promote, and the customers they want you to reach. Ask what they are looking for exactly. If the assignment’s success is based on their judgment and not how much money you raise, it’s important not just to create a great end result, but to create one that at least satisfies what they feel is important.

  • If the assignment’s success is based on how much money you can raise, make your product expensive. Charge high prices. This may seem counter-intuitive, but your goal isn’t to sell to the general public; it is to sell to donors with a lot of cash.

  • Use the celebrity status and fame of those on your team. It is an important asset. Don’t hide it, flaunt it. At the same time, don’t forget about the corporate sponsor. Make sure you satisfy all the key elements they want you to satisfy.

  • If you are the project manager, plan for the possibility of losing, even if you think you have a kick-ass product. Identify two people you may have to bring back to the boardroom with you. This is optional, but you may consider talking to them beforehand, so they are prepared. However, if your team wins, this talk may stir up bad feelings, especially if those two hold grudges. It’s up to you on how you want to handle this.

I’m guessing the chances are low that a celebrity would have the time or desire to do this much preparation. But who knows, maybe one season, we’ll get a really competitive celebrity.

What else do you think celebrities can do to win on Celebrity Apprentice?

I’m a PC vs I’m a Mac

Now for some Friday fun.

You know those “I’m a PC” Microsoft Windows 7 (MSFT) TV ads with the cute Asian kid? The ones that make you want a cute Asian kid more than Windows 7? (Zing! haha)

Her name is Kylie Kim and she’s been getting some attention, like from Sony VAIO and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

So you know what that means. Time for a parody!

Via: 8Asians.com

CNBC.com Million Dollar Portfolio Challenge

It’s baaack…

CNBC.com’s Million Dollar Portfolio Challenge is back for a second time this year. And this time, it includes a free $25 Micro Account from FXCM, a forex market. Otherwise, it looks to have the same rules as last time.

The challenge starts on November 17th.

I can’t say I’m too hot on playing this again. It’s not because of my previous dismal results – though I’m sure if I was a previous winner, I might be more motivated. It’s really because, well, the game has gotten kinda boring.

It was kinda cool when it first came out. A novelty and all that. There was even a friendly wager going on between a friend and I. But I’m not too familiar with forex trading and it’s more about gaming the game than playing it like a real market – cuz it isn’t a real market; it’s just a derivative of a real market.

So I dunno… I think I’ll sit this one out. Are you going to play it this time around?

Oprah Loves the Amazon Kindle

Oh boy! Oprah Winfrey “new favorite favorite thing in the world” is the Amazon Kindle! Go Oprah Effect go!

Although the Amazon Kindle costs $359, Oprah looks at it as an environmentally friendly investment. “I know it’s expensive in these times, but it’s not frivolous because it will pay for itself,” she says. “The books are much cheaper, and you’re saving paper.” All books are $9.99 or less.

Great observation. Not only will the Kindle save you money in the long run, but it will save the environment. What more could you ask for?

I know – you could ask for a discount. So for the next seven days, you can purchase one for a $50 discount if you type in the code: OPRAHWINFREY


Although some people have poked fun at Jeff Bezos having bribed Oprah, my friends who are devote Oprah fans assured me that she is above all forms of bribery and gets thousands of free gifts, solicitations, and wannabe bribes every day, so why would she take Bezos’ bribe and not others? Then the devote Oprah fans scorned me for having testicles and plopped in front of the TV to watch more Oprah.

(Just kidding!)

Jeff Bezos is even appeared on Oprah to talk about the Kindle and “Oprah was so effusive that Bezos, sitting next to her, barely got a word in edgewise.” Which might be a good thing, because Bezos might have gotten so excited about the Kindle that he would have jumped into Oprah’s couch. Heh.

Biz Idea: Portable Digital Advertising

Here’s a random idea I once had. You know those ads you see plastered inside of restaurant & bar bathrooms? They’re usually behind a plate of glass and right at eye-level.

Advertisers pay to get that “captive” audience. (When you’re, uh, lightening your load, you’re a captive to anything you see right in front of you.) And restaurants & bars get additional income from those adverts.

Those are the ads I’m talking about. Some companies have even gone a step further – some have installed flat-panel screens to show video ads. Now you can watch the latest Batman trailer while emptying your bladder for more beer. Not a bad idea, if they could be installed on bathroom stall doors, though that might encourage people to take longer than necessary.

Now here comes my idea. Drum roll, please. Budda budda budda budda…

Idea Summary

What if you operated a business-to-business company that offered portable flat-panel screens for digital & video advertising? They could be as small as a regular laptop screen. Your customers would be any kind of business that has customers that have to wait – like busy restaurants, dentist & doctor offices, oil changing services, etc. These screens could be placed in their waiting rooms, so their customers could have some eye candy, instead of tapping their toes and staring at the ceiling mindlessly. Impatient customers may even enjoy the visual distraction. And while some customers may prefer reading a magazine, some may prefer a bunch of movie trailers or entertaining commercials.

Business Model

Your revenue would come from the advertisers. You’d be able to give them specific geographic targeting, as well as some demographic targeting (the customers who go to a Jiffy Lube in East Palo Alto, CA, will be different from the customers who go to a plastic surgeon in New York City, NY, for instance).

Target Market

Your customers would get paid for hosting these portable flat-panel advertising screens at their locations. This additional income would make this device more attractive than a bunch of waiting room magazines too. A dentist would have to purchase a bunch of magazine subscriptions. But hosting one of these screens would mean extra cash for the dentist. Sound-sensitive environments such as restaurants could turn the volume down (or mute it) while others may want the audio component as well.


The device would just be a flat-panel screen connected to a computer of some kind. If a dummy terminal could be built simply to receive & render web pages & video, that would be even better. The ads could be anything from video to static images to animation. To get the ads, the device would need to be connected to the Internet for real-time transmissions. A dedicated line would be more reliable than a wifi connection. This unfortunately means the customer would need to have Internet access. Not all customers will. Alternatives? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m sure some smart person could figure something out (maybe you pay for a cheap dedicated line, maybe you partner with an Internet provider, maybe you build it to receive radio transmissions, I dunno).


Other than device costs, you’d also need to hire a staff of salespeople who’d sell it to local businesses. Signing up franchises and national chains would be great, but some customer types wouldn’t exist in such forms – such as dentists & doctors. There would also be some sunken costs as you attract advertisers and customers from the onset, both of whom need to see a threshold number of the other before committing. Or, perhaps, you eat some of the initial costs and pay customers to host your device while running generic ads until you gain enough traction in the market.


There are a fair number of indirect competitors right now who are offering video screens to businesses, though they generally target bathroom placements. This device could be placed anywhere: bathroom, waiting room, lobby, anywhere. These competitors already have a device, advertisers, and advertising network, however. To make the leap to placing their device anywhere may not be that difficult. Could this idea be more suited for one of them then, as opposed to a brand new company? Maybe. Or, since they’ve been targeting seedy bar bathrooms for so long, are they unable to reach more discreet customers like dentists & doctors? That could be the niche opportunity this business needs.


I do see some legs to this idea, though I’d hate to introduce even more intrusive advertising into this world. Though, to be honest, it would be kinda cool to watch movie trailers while perched upon the porcelain throne of quiet contemplation… Hmmm…

And who likes waiting around and flipping through old copies of Highlights while waiting for their dentist to finish up on a bunch of screaming patients? I’d rather be entertained by a new Apple or Infiniti commercial or something. Wouldn’t you?

The First Rule of Marketing

The first rule of marketing: you do not talk about marketing… Oh wait, wrong club.

The first rule of marketing: you are not your customer.

It sounds obvious when you hear it. But violating it is as easy as jaywalking down a Manhattan street. You may do it sometimes without even thinking about it.

This past week, I’ve heard two colleagues argue endlessly about one of their product offerings – a series of content articles. They disagreed with the topics in a third colleague’s articles. “Low brow”, “poorly targeted”, and “aimed at the wrong people” were criticisms they lobbied.

That’s fine and all. But the third colleague’s articles were the most popular offering they had. Their customers clearly loved these topics.

“These are the wrong customers,” continued the first two. “The ones we want don’t want content like this.”

Cursory market research into the current customers indicated that… well… these are the customers they’re targeting. They fall squarely within their target demographic.

“Well, we don’t want those particular customers. They are the wrong people for us!”

Huh. Since when did a business not want it’s current customers? It’s hard enough to get customers, but once you have some, who in their right mind wouldn’t want them anymore?

“Well, okay, then our customers just don’t know what they want. They don’t want these topics. They don’t need these articles.”

Ah. Since when do marketers know what their customers want better than the customers do? Remember the first rule of marketing: you are not your customer. You don’t know exactly what they want.

How is such an impasse solved? By market research, talking to your customers, and getting to know them well. Marketing shouldn’t be driven by your own opinions. It should be driven by objective research.

Use surveys, interviews, comment forms, something – anything – to get actual customer feedback. You may be surprised by what you hear. And you may learn something about your true customers too.