Saturday, May 10, 2008

Innovation - 5% Planning, 95% execution

Thomas Edison might not appreciate my application of his famous quote about invention, but I do think that invention and innovation are very similar concepts.

For the past two years, dozens of conferences like today’s BISG Making Information Pay (MIP) event and the ECPA Leadership Summit earlier this week, and our own event a month ago, have been focusing on the interesting changes being made in the publishing industry by a few key companies. Looking back now, it seems that those few have been very impressive on multiple fronts. Not only did they focus on an innovative idea, they acted on it, and made it real. The simple fact that they planned and executed the development of an idea seems to be the real victory. Virtually all of the speakers at MIP today were speaking about things that they had DONE, not things that they were planning to do.

And execution seems to be what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. In my estimation, successful companies have a culture of execution. They don’t just talk about doing things, they actually do them. And then, they review the results and improve the process. In today’s MIP event, Carolyn Pittis explained that this was certainly the case at HarperCollins.

Size doesn’t matter in this either. O’Reilly Media, self considered the third largest computer book publisher, is widely viewed as the most innovative publisher in the business. The reason isn’t because they simply talk about their ideas; it is because they demonstrate them! Michael Cader of Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace showed in today’s MIP that very few resources are really necessary to create very innovative services.

Other publishers we work with like Island Press, The University of Chicago Distribution Center, the University of Nebraska Press, and Southern Illinois University Press, also have cultures of execution, even though they have limited resources. These companies continue to drive themselves forward, not worrying about whether others are or not. This type of self reliance is refreshing and exhilarating to be around, and I applaud these companies for their efforts. They are truly Firebrands!

What I think is so impressive about these companies is that execution of a new idea can be a nerve wracking and risky move. When we launched Firebrand, I was privately wondering right up until the night before the launch whether it was a good idea. Fortunately, by that time the plan had so much momentum that my private worries were overwhelmed. Now looking back, I’m very pleased that was the case!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Consumerism vs Discipline and our personal satisfaction

Andy Crouch, the editorial director at Christianity Today gave a very interesting talk tonight at the ECPA Leadership Conference, on how he thinks our culture is shifting from one of consumerism to one of creationism. If I was to boil his talk down into one sentence, I would say that his long view of things is that we as a society are becoming less and less satisfied by the short term "thrill" we get from consuming products, and are starting to move toward the longer term "thrill" of earning things.

Andy interestingly correlated satisfaction over time, and seemed to make the point that "high point" in our satisfaction comes either at the point of acquisition of a consumer product, or very shortly after. Then satisfaction drops precipitously. This causes us to want to consume more in order to keep ourselves at a high satisfaction level. I think that Andy is spot on in this assessment. I would also add that the more we consume, the shorter the thrill, and so we end up in a bad spiral. Any parent who has lovingly bought presents for a child at Christmas can appreciate this as they watch the kids discard things often within minutes of being opened.

The other interesting point that Andy made was that there is what he calls a 'discipline curve'. In the discipline curve, general satisfaction is very low at the beginning but grow substantially over time as we gain skill and strength at some ability that it takes time to cultivate. Andy used the example of learning to play the piano, and how difficult (and unsatisfying) it was in the beginning, but after years of discipline, he has come to be proud of his abilities, and his high level of satisfaction lasts for years and years.

Andy tried to correlate money to these two seeming opposing forces, and I don't think I agreed with his assessment that the consumer does not spend very much on his long term satisfaction after he or she has attained a certain level. His own example of spending @25,000 on a grand piano seems to contradict that argument, as he probably didn't spend $25,000 on lessons to achieve his ability. In my experience, what I see is that people tend to try and balance their dissatisfaction with their early abilities (on the discipline curve) by consuming related products, to make themselves feel better, or to feel as though they will come up the curve faster.

This is where I really see the economic opportunity. If we are going to learn new things and create new things, then we will probably buy things surrounding that area of interest.

What does this mean for books and media? I think it spells great opportunity for products that teach us things, or enhance our learning experience. In our 24x7 world, people need help at odd times, and do not often have the luxury of regular schedules. Anything in the online learning space that is available as self serve, whenever the consumer needs it is going to do very well.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Facebook Experiment - Checkpoint #1

At our user conference a couple of weeks ago, we introduced to our friends and customers the idea of creating a community. At the conference, this idea was very well received, and I'm completely jazzed by the possibilities that exist not only for growing our business, but for growing the book industry as a whole.

The word "community", however, is a way over-used term in the tech world today. And it is one that has many subtly different meanings to people.

Our first experiment in the creation of Community, was to put a "Wiki Page" together for the conference. In the weeks leading up to it, we know that site got a very strong amount of traffic, and the feedback we received from it was very good.

Our next experiment was to put a "Group Page" together on Facebook. We even put a link to it on our new website. This page allows us to post articles, manage threaded discussions, post pictures, and even contact one another privately. A lot of nice functionality at no 'monetary cost'. But, the 'cost' is that you have to join Facebook, and put your 'real' self out there on the internet. I'm fearing that I may have underestimated that cost to some people.

As of this writing there are 47 members of the Firebrand Technologies Facebook Group. Not bad, but not that great either, when you consider that 16 of us work for Firebrand. I'm sure we can nudge that up in a couple of weeks as we start to post some videos and other things that we have planned. but that still doesn't get us into the numbers I was originally expecting.

But the numbers are really a secondary issue for me at this point. The numbers would surely rise if the page was used more by its members - and the discussions became as dynamic as I think that they can. Again, as of this writing, Doug and I are the only people who have posted anything out there. It seems like everyone who has joined, is watching to see what will happen. (We are, obviously, too). Doesn't anyone else have an opinion?

I guess we'll all keep watching.... I'll blog another checkpoint in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, the Firebrand Community Management Plan continues to be developed, and I'm extraordinarily excited by the possibilities. The issue is not what to do, but what to do first!

More to come on that in the next couple of weeks as well.

If anyone has any ideas, please comment here, or, better yet, join our group, and comment there!