Mark Webster reports on the second day of Webstock in Wellington.
The first speaker on Friday at Webstock, Californian Eric Ries, champions entrepreneurship, a definite theme of the morning.
His approach – somewhat paradoxically, you might think – embraces chaos and uncertainty as the fertile ground of startup success.
Ries used two case studies to illustrate his point: one was a company with a vision but, seemingly, no technical plan. The plan to generate buzz was a great success, the plan was followed carefully and then .... no one bought the product. Nobody actually wanted it.
The second was a firm that seemed to do everything wrong, but the product became a great success.
He says any tech startup is essentially a catalyst for turning ideas into code, for which he champions the lean and 'agile' approach – and he had plenty of supporters for Agile in the audience.
Creative Director at Digg, the designer of the Mozilla website and head designer of Glitch, among other things, Daniel Burka followed Ries with 'once your product is ready, business plan right etc, your website probably sucks'.
He talked about critical feedback greatly affecting design, and how it might hurt but should always be evaluated. His advice was to take chances and release the product, but be prepared to use any feedback to make changes.
In other words, get the system out there, then watch how people use and interact with it, what they use it for and expect from it, then use that data to improve your system. Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
After a short break, Amy Hoy took the stage. She's an American who lives in Austria; her mission is a war on the sameyness of the blogosphere as an 'interface radical'.
She had an interesting message – evolution may be infinitely creative, but it's essentially stupid. But humans can think about the future and consider the past – so why do so many iPhone To Do apps and computer feed readers look the same? Are these really the fruits of human intelligence and ingenuity?
Hoy thinks 'no'. She thinks software should improve our lives and make us better people, and designed her time tracking app with that in mind. (The web-based time tracking app is called Freckle.)
Another message was that designers should study five times more about the human psyche than they should study about design.
Mike Davidson (CEO of Newsvine.com) talked about what it takes to create a startup, and asked that his message not be broadcast or blogged.
Davidson's message was to evaluate your ideas carefully into 'won't work', 'could work' and that really terrific, fantastic idea. Which is really rare. He calls this the 'categorical breakthrough idea', and offered tips to help come up with one. He also mentioned that the 'could work' ideas should not be thrown away (just make sure you evaluate potential return on investment).
Some of his advice included thinking about how your idea might be used in the future, not just right now (for example, might you need to consider swipe-navigation for an iPad?).
In the afternoon, Kevin Rose from Digg took the stage. He's very youthful, I have to say. His spiel was '10 tips for entrepreneurs'. Digg, a site where people can basically share great links, was set up in San Francisco and now has 38 million unique visitors per month. Not bad ... The Digg founder said that when he first ran the idea past people, they pretty much panned it, so his advice is that if you really think it's a great idea, don't let people put you off.
He also said you get your idea out there and listen hard to the input from users. This business approach seems to really suit the web, doesn't it? Whereas if you were designing baby strollers ...
His advice on hiring was that he didn't really pay enough attention to the people he brought into the company, at first. He says this was a mistake: "You want to get people on your side and who share in your vision."
His advice on funding was that the longer you can last before seeking outside money, the more valuation you'll attract and the more equity you'll retain. He warned about 'dumb money – investors with little knowledge who keep asking stupid questions about what you are doing. He recommended to take a good look at the Angel and Super Angel investment schemes.
Other advice included a launch party, to do podcasts (even though not that many people may follow them, they're a great way and affordable way to connect with those who do). He also recommended entertaining the press – something else I think is lacking in New Zealand. (This doesn't mean bribes, by the way, but offers of information briefings. It's what we thrive on.)
Rose is also a fan of studying site analytics and running surveys and studying the feedback.
A question from the audience was 'how important was it to be in the Bay area' (or California). He answered that it's definitely an advantage having other big internet firms like Twitter just around the corner. He recommended to at least plan some trips to the Bay area if you are launching big ventures.
Adam Greenfield takes the prize for longest trip to speak – he's currently Nokia's 'head of design direction for service and user interface design'. If that sounds like a Finnish title; indeed, the North American came all the way from Helsinki.
(He did an interview with Miraz Jordan here.
Greenfield talked about networking, mobile and the future of tech, his mission being to humanise technology. For example, he said that when someone can't figure out how to use a device, it makes them feel stupid. This represents a fundamental failure of the makers of the device, not a failure of the struggling user.
As a tech guy, he said his primary interest was architecture and human interaction, making the point that from 2008, for the first time, more than half the world's population lived in cities. He thinks that the whole idea of city anonymity is a thing of the past as more and more devices (not just computers, phones or cameras) join the network.
Greenfield didn't seem to find the future he posited, in which remote cameras can identify us and devices constantly report on our whereabouts, all that scary. He hoped we would get used to it and accept it.
In his talk he admitted his failure of imagination to anticipate the iPhone, and later showed an augmented reality direction app in action – on an iPhone. (This he referred to as 'way-finding' giving way to 'way-showing'.) Interesting for a Nokia guy, I thought.
Jeff Veen (also American) is the CEO of TypeKit, a font resource for developers. His talk covered the history of technological progress, from ice to refrigerators, from horses to wires (to deliver data).
His point was that some industries transition and some don't – ie, the ice makers made progress but refrigerators blew them out of the water. But transport has transitioned through one technology after another.
Eventually Veen got to fonts and the web, and how browsers use them. Fonts and typefaces have been around a long time, and the technology to transmit them has continuously evolved through learning hand-scripts to wooden blocks to lead slugs ... you get the picture. Lately there has been a revolution via CSS so that many different fonts can be now be used properly on sites – previously, to use a non-supported font, you had to make it into a graphic.
Veen thinks we should strive to be 'native to the web', and cited several stories about how different protocols become standards (ie CSS). His catchphrase summing up the history of web development is 'rough consensus [to] running code'.
He also showed a slide of augmented reality working on an iPhone, but levelled a criticism at Apple for forcing people to stick to the company's business model to distribute music, apps etc and ended with a powerful advocacy for keeping the web open, which was very well received.
Finally, Mark Pesce, who had been tweeting about other speakers as the day progressed, took the stage. All afternoon the speakers had referenced increasing cognisance of what other speakers had been saying, which just made the proceedings even more riveting, more engaging for the audience. At the same time, the proceedings became more academic, or perhaps, of more interest to academics. I don't know whether it was designed this way or not, but it was appreciated.
Pesce began with a heartfelt thanks to the organisers of this terrific conference.
He was writing networking code for Apple back in 1993 (in fact he'd also worked for Apple in the '80s). He was part of the explosion of the web in 1994 and calls it 'the perfect reflector and amplifier of all things human'.
He thinks books are at the point of being on the way out as increasingly they are digitised. He also said the iPad is the first device that truly turns the web into an appliance and it's a sign of what the web will become – 'the complete translation of the human universe into a ubiquitous and translatable form.'
And so he fittingly addressed the one thing I hadn't got enough of so far – the future.
(Pesce was a great way to end – I hope to talk to him in depth for Mac Planet.)
As for the conference itself, the attendees I talked to said they got varying degrees of goodness from the talks, which ranged from the sublime to the interesting. They all seemed to really appreciate the networking opportunity – one guy, Galen, over here from Nelson, said it was fascinating for him to meet people in person he had previously only met virtually, and so was an opportunity he relished every year.
For myself, I had a really great, rewarding and informative time. Did I want more? Mmm, probably a consideration of HTML5 vs Flash, and more on Web3, perhaps more considered speculation about the convergence of computers with mobile devices ... but hey, a lot of people would be thinking about these things as a result of the proceedings and the debate would certainly have been stimulated by Webstock.
It must have its headaches and heartaches for the organisers, but the enduring impression is that it was exceedingly successful as a whole. Great job, Webstock team. My next report will cover the Onya awards – who won what and why.