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My Open Advice to SXSW: Cater to the Makers by Nate Westheimer

I just returned from my 5th SXSW. Relative to some folks, I'm still a SXSW n00b, and to others I'm a veteran. As a frame of reference, my first year was the year AFTER Twitter was the break-out hit there; admittedly, I was a part of the "change" at SXSW that people bemoan. What are people bemoaning and what can SXSW do to ensure their long-term brand stays strong?

People are bemoaning that SXSW's ratio of "makers" to "marketers" has shifted to an unhealthy proportions, making SXSW too much about noise and not enough about signal.

Now, when I say 'marketers' I'm not referring to folks who have that as a job title -- I don't care what your job title and description are and marketers by job title and description are no-doubt super important members of our ecosystem.

When I talk about marketers at SXSW and on other tech "platforms" I'm talking about folks who attend and participate explicitly to promote their wares -- the folks who see SXSW as a "marketing opportunity" rather than an education opportunity.

In my experience from running the NY Tech Meetup, there are two "laws of emerging technology communities" that work against SXSW and similar platforms, including ours.

The first law is that "people who work hardest to get noticed will, by default, get noticed." What's good about this is that it rewards hustle, but what's bad about it is it both rewards budget over quality and rarely makes for the best content (that you can afford someone to promote something says you may have an interesting business, but says little about how interesting your product is). Without fighting against this natural law, the message and feeling of your conference will be dictated by the loudest people.

The second, related law is that "non-makers promote more than makers." This law is true because makers spend their time making tangible things while non-makers spend their time making ephemeral things, like the very "buzz" they want at SXSW. As someone who has been a non-maker for most of his career, I don't believe that non-makers are bad or less smart or less important overall than makers. I do, however, think that you can cater content to non-makers by catering content to makers, and not visa-versa.

And in that I see a solution for SXSW. At NYTM we spend as much energy as possible finding and promoting the makers, developing content for the makers, and working to balance out these two "laws" I outlined above. Even if makers are in the minority (as they are in the NYTM-membership) the entire ecosystem rests on the products of their labor. It's awesome that so many marketing, PR, advertising, investing professionals and service providers come to the NYTM, but they are all there to see what the makers make and what the makers think is cool and exciting.

What's super cool about this dynamic, and what makes life a bit easier for the content curator (SXSW or NYTM) is that even when the content is a bit "too technical" for everyone else, it's still super enjoyable for them. We always encourage demoers to show code, talk about their stack in details, and not once has one of the 600 of our 850 attendees complained that something was over their head. In fact, the more over their head, the more they seem to love it.

And so, my advice to SXSW is to turn its programming next year on its head. Instead of having only a small handful of truly technical sessions, dedicate half your keynotes to technical leads talking about their respective stacks, scaling issues, and lessons learned.

Because makers are less self-selecting than non-makers, go more outside the PanelPicker for this technical content. Just like getting Mark Zuckerberg to do a keynote, you have to work to source it.

Next year, make one keynote from Kellan Elliott-McCrea. (They are doing incredible things at Etsy that every single company can learn from, even if the content is highly technical.) Make another keynote from the tech team at OMGPOP, who just heroically scaled Draw Something to the number 1 free and paid iPhone app globally in just a few short weeks. Make another keynote from Karen Teng, VP of Engineering of GetGlue.

Has anyone ever heard a talk about the tech that supports Wikipedia? I haven't, and I think that would be a fucking awesome keynote.

And it's not just about keynotes. Instead of more sessions about "mobile marketing" or "the future" of something that someone pitched you guys, reach out to Mike Hostetler of appendTo to do another technical session on jQuery, or Aaron Quint, CTO of PaperlessPost, to talk about their scaling.

The thing is, SXSW, none of these people are going raise their hands -- you have to find them -- but the good news for the folks at SXSW is that people are already demanding this:

I walked by and heard of plenty of half-empty conference rooms throughout the conference the year. How can you attend another session on branding and marketing if you're out on the streets marketing your own company?

Meanwhile, the session Vin Vacanti and I did on "Learning to Code" was shoved in a smaller room in the Hilton and still had a line of people outside who weren't not allowed in and waited to get in. Mind you, almost no one at the session had "heard" of either of us... they just wanted the content we were offering. Also note: Our session was at 9:30am on a Sunday -- the day Daylight Savings changed.

That's how bad people wanted "maker" content.

So, SXSW, I'm getting this out there because you still have time to make next year better and different. Re-embrace the maker community that made SXSW a destination in the first place. Keep your content highly focused on makers and issues around making. Get scarily technical in your most mainstream sessions. The SXSW brand is still amazing but if you don't fight the natural laws that favor promoters you'll enjoy the bubble for a few more years, but will ultimately end up with a bust on your hands soon enough.

Change the World by Nate Westheimer

I used to think how you "changed the World" was the most important question for a startup venture looking for commercial success. Looking back, I don't think I was right.

Twitter, Wordpress, Blogger, Reddit... these Internet services have fundamentally changed the way the world works. None of these will make the most money in their class.

I believe the World is an incredibly different place now due to the freedom of blogs and speed of dissemination created by Twitter. I believe the World is also a different place because of a raucous, loosely organized network of Internet users hosted by Reddit and its cousins, like 4chan.

But ultimately, none of these services will be the most commercially successful of their genre or time. Tumblr, which I truly love, has not had near the cultural impact of Wordpress & Blogger; but, it will do far better commercially speaking. Pinterest will also do better (commercially) than Reddit, but it will never be center of a decentralized movement against Congress (SOPA) or define the next generation of cultural icons.

Twitter, we're finding out, may end up being the most significant example of this conundrum. I'm going to go out on a limb and say because of its seamless marriage with Big Media that Twitter has had an incredibly larger impact on the shape of the World than Facebook, but without going out on a limb I'm going to say it won't have near the commercial success.

Is World Change via Internet service at odds with massive commercial success?

There is at least one exception I can find: Google has has perhaps changed the World more than even blogging platforms, AND it has ended up as a massive commercial success.

Why?

One theory I've been working with is that as a people we are consumers of goods only second to being consumers of information. The Wordpresses and Twitters of the world are purely about information, and this is why the world is so fundamentally different with their presence. Google, on the other hand, realized that Search lives at this amazing junction where the flow of Information and the flow of Commerce cross each other quite naturally.

Naturally crossing Commerce and Information, however, is only two thirds of the recipe. The other ingredient is ability to reach World-scale.

The question for "change the world" companies like Kickstarter, which has clearly found some vein here, is whether or not they can achieve this World-scale. Esty and Groupon (a literal example of where Kickstarter could end up) seem to dance with the very same issue too, as both their products appear to get watered down the larger their core products grow.

So who cares, right? Well, I do. I want more "Change the World" companies to exist. I want more Googles who can use the Internet to both make the World a better place while also finding a way to be massively, massively profitable. Off the Internet, but still in the realm of technology, there's no doubt that Microsoft existed in this place as it created the proliferation of Personal Computers in the 80s and 90s (not to mention the bonus of creating a Bill Gates who is fundamentally changing the World again with his strategic donations of tens of billions of dollars he made from the company). Apple didn't produce a Bill Gates, but the iPhone started a new personal computing revolution whose effects we haven't even begun to see at its most scaled form (probably massive proliferation of Android in the developing world).

So I wonder: Who's next? Can the Internet produce another Google? With software produce another Microsoft? Can hardware make another Apple? Let's hope so, and let's work to make it happen.

The World is Wide by Nate Westheimer

Perhaps it's a disease of the unemployed, but recently I've been dazzled how wide the world is, and how much innovation is happening in places outside the pure Web tech sector. At the Tahoe Tech Talks, I spent a lot of time with Ben Kaufman of Quirky. Since hearing about the company, I've become quite obsessed with it and have bought a number of their community sourced products. Just yesterday, I submitted my first idea, and I'll need everyone to vote for next week when it's up for review. (I mean, someone needs to compete with Jim Robinson IV and his über popular "Swiss-Army Knife on Crack"!)

For more about Quirky and how I've been thinking about it, you can follow along in detail on my Letterly.

MakerBotMeanwhile, over in Brooklyn, my dear friends at MakerBot recently released their latest creation, the Thing-O-Matic. Again, here we have some incredible innovation happening outside the web tech industry. Thing-O-Matic is an innovative new version of the MarkerBot because of its Automated Build Platform. The new platform now allows people with MakerBots to print an object, spit it out, and move on to the next product automatically -- enabling mass or serialized, multi-part production.

Again, for further thoughts on MakerBot on where I'd take their company, follow along on Letterly. I'll be posting in more detail later this week.

From product design to product "making" we head to biotech. A relatively unheard of company in the space is Union Springs Pharmaceuticals -- a company founded by a long-term business associate of my family.

MyClynsUnion Springs' latest product is MyClyns, which takes the personal hygiene space Purell has been playing around in and turns it on its head with a revolutionary approach. See one of their funnier marketing videos (more here) below:

Purell obviously found a huge market when they came out on the market. With MyClyns just hitting stores in a major way, it will be interesting if these guys can turn it on its head and capture this space.

Lastly, let's move beyond the world of making things and keeping ourselves healthy, and look to Berkeley, California's city-wide composting service. It's the world of keeping our World healthy.

Of all of the ways we waste resources -- and could save resources -- the amount and disposal of food scraps might be our most egregious. Not only do food scraps represent under-utilized food -- food which has been made but won't be eaten by people who need food -- but it also ends up clogging our landfills and producing harmful emissions into our atmosphere.

There's a better way. First of all, we should all buy, order, and make only the food we need. But even if we're more conscious about the amount of food on our plates, we're still going to have scraps. And we can definitely do something about where we put those...

Composting is the ultimate way to "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle" our food scraps. When food composts, it takes up less space, and the end product can be used by gardeners and farmers as food for new plant-life.

In the past, composting has been something left to the farmers with lots of space to contain and reuse their scraps. On my farm in Ohio, we grew up with, and still have, a great composting site that produced nearly all of our needed fertilizer.

But with cities like Berkeley leading the way, soon composting could come to where most scraps are created: our cities. New York City estimates that 29% of what we throw away is compostable, yet in the same article explains why NY-scale composting is too difficult and won't happen any time soon.

It's time for someone to fix that problem, and I hope that whoever does fix the problem profits from it.

So whether its community-sourcing products, bringing 3D printing to the home, turning the personal hygiene market on its head or bringing composting to NYC-scale cities, there's a lot of innovation out there everywhere we look.

As an entrepreneur, thinking about this breadth of problems and solutions is daunting and dangerous. Soon enough, I'll put my head down again and focus on the industry and types of products I'm good at seeing opportunity in and executing on. But for now, I'm loving keeping my head up, poking around and seeing what amazing opportunities exist in this Wide World.

What amazing things have you seen recently?

Areas of Execution by Nate Westheimer

I have been thinking a lot about what founding teams should look like and how they should be organized. What's the optimal founding team? How can you insure long-term success? As I think about this, I keep in mind that Execution really is everything. If you don't have a plan and you can't execute, you're going to have to rely on more luck than most have in a lifetime to succeed -- and if you're building something to get lucky, you're building something to fail.

So, before I set out on a new endeavor, I want to make sure I -- and my co-founders -- are the right people to do the right jobs. I want to build an Execution Oriented Team.

What does that mean? Below are my 3 Principals of Execution Oriented Teams:

  1. It is important for a company to be organized around business goals with clearly defined “areas of execution” -- that is: a define-able focus area containing, values, sets of tasks, milestones, and to-dos which can be described simply and which add up and create the value which is the enterprise.
  2. A company should be simple, and therefore require as few areas of execution as possible.
  3. Each area of execution should have an owner in the founding team. There should be no more founders than there are areas of execution, and each founder should own, singularly, his or her area of execution. A founder may own more than one area of execution -- and should when two areas are closely linked -- but people should have no more than two areas of execution.

With this framework, I'm not thinking about what titles I presume I need for my next endeavor (i.e. CEO, CTO)... I'm thinking about what each specific idea's "areas of execution" will be and who I'd want to own those. Forget Titles, its about Roles.

In this practice, an Area of Execution is never something vague like "technology," it's something like: "optimize user recommendations" if that's a key area of execution for the business, or "increase customer conversions," if there will be a flow of potential users that need to be converted. If you sell stuff, having someone who can sell Linux to a developer (our world's version of ice to an eskimo?) in her sleep would be key in a founding team.

Chances are, someone who owns conversions and someone who owns algorithmic optimizations inside of an organization will be different people, and if each is critical to a business, it's worth your time (and worth the dilution) to find someone to own each.

As I've been talking to a number of people about working together on a new project, thinking about things in this framework has been quite helpful. Aside from the most important value I'm looking for -- intellectual partnership -- I'm not judging people on their design or their programming experience -- and certainly not on their ability to report to me -- I'm thinking about what the company needs to succeed and then thinking about if there's a specific fit. I ask myself, "Can this person obsess on this specific area of execution day after day?"

I'm asking myself, "Can I?"

We'll see how it turns out, but so far it's been an empowering way of thinking about things.

Don't Let the Noise Distract You by Nate Westheimer

About 10 people have asked me what I thought about #angelgate over the past 48 hours, so I finally read up on the issue to know what was going on. And then I stopped and realized: "Who the f&ck cares?"

Worrying about what so and so said and did with who, and where they were doing it, is exactly what you shouldn't be worrying about if you're working on a startup. Its not healthy and doesn't really affect you*. What does affect you is whether or not you're focusing on an "area of execution" for your business on that day.

Did you call the number of customers you wanted to? Did you interview enough candidates for that job? Did you figure out a new way to optimize conversions?

If you didn't get to these areas of execution, but you did worry about VC/angel collusion for even a split-second, you just lost value in your company you can never get back.

Get back to work, people.

*Why it doesn't affect you: You don't have to worry about it because a) if there was collusion around your deal, you'd feel it -- a disrupted market will look obvious -- and if you feel anything icky, you should get the hell out of dodge because bad money is never, never worth it; and 2) it probably didn't happen.

If your company is actually fundable, in this market you will have competition for your deal... so much so that investors would rather crowd out other investors than collude to screw you. Fred Wilson makes this point better and from a more experienced view than me, but it's just logical. The explosion of seed and A-round capital these days is insane and means that fewer and fewer deals would ever get caught in some dank, collusion-friendly market dynamic.