Results tagged “xoxo”

XOXO and Reckoning With Nice

September 27, 2013

This year's XOXO festival exceeded its predecessor in every way. It was bigger, smarter, more challenging, more engaging and easily among the best conferences or events I've ever participated in.

There were highlights throughout the two days I was there. Others will document them better, but the emotional resonance began right from the first talk. Max Temkin's opener somehow wove videos of Aaron Swartz and a few wedding proposals and David Foster Wallace into a gripping examination of the power of living our values, while also being a narrative of how to make a best-selling card game. Usually I'm very conflicted about seeing a room full of smart people applaud someone when their story is "Here's how I got rich!" but to my surprise, this felt pretty natural at XOXO.

Max's talk was bookended near the end of the festival by Cabel Sasser's brave, heartfelt, truly moving reckoning with the challenges of success. In describing the creation of the sequel to Coda, one of their flagship apps, Cabel revealed that Panic isn't just the name of his company. A candid description of how depression and anxiety and obligation can undermine creative endeavor really starkly highlighted how different a venue this was; Regular business conferences don't feature multiple speakers standing on stage describing their talks as self therapy.

The narrative highlight for me was the series of three speakers on the second day, where Jay Smooth, Christina Xu and Mike Rugnetta went back-to-back, each challenging the audience to reckon with the costs of homogeneity and monoculture, though a series of powerful examples of the rewards of inclusion. They were funny and soulful and resonant in a way that echoed exactly what I hope to see in every event I attend.

XOlandia

And yet, my impulse for wanting to be self-critical was triggered almost immediately at XOXO. Part of this is my proximity to XOXO; Andy Baio is a good friend and was actually my coworker when he started gestating the first XOXO conference, so I've gotten a front row seat to its creation. Second, I had at least an online connection with the vast majority of attendees and many of the speakers. Third, there was an orthodoxy around the positive nature of Kickstarter and a narrowly-defined indie aesthetic that I found to be troubling even though I share much of those values.

Now, I don't just go looking for things to criticize for the sake of criticism; I'm a big believer in sincere enthusiasm. But if XOXO's best trait was a willingness for speakers to be humble and self-critical, then one of its most glaring omissions was its unwillingness to be critical of the orthodoxy of the community overall. Put more simply, it's a lot easier to get a room full of digital hipsters like me to feel bad about our lack of racial and economic diversity in the room than to challenge us on our lack of political or aesthetic diversity.

This jumped out to me in a few ways during the event. The most striking example was the dramatic contrast between Molly Crabapple's polemic about the inequity of how social networks reward their contributors and the plaintive nature of Ev Williams' examination of how the social web's tendency to reward convenience could lead to the complete triumph of factory farmed content online.

Now, there's no inherent contradiction between the different focuses of Molly and Ev's talks, but an argument about today's social network founders following some of the patterns of Industrial Age robber barons being followed by a rumination from one of those founders is a pretty remarkable thing. The juxtaposition is a testament to XOXO's (and Andy's) intellectual rigor. But what was missing, and in fact what perhaps best exemplifies what I'd like to see from XOXO in the future, would be a respectful but firm highlighting of that tension.

How should we decide the ways that people are rewarded for being on social networks? What is the fair exchange of value between Internet companies and the individuals who contribute to their networks? What does it mean if Ev's company Medium pays Molly to contribute, but Ev's company Twitter doesn't? These are questions that could only be answered by a public dialogue, and given that XOXO is the only place that enough of these people trust to be able to host such a dialogue, isn't it then an obligation to do so?

Similarly, I really (sincerely, for those who wonder if I'm being sarcastic, given our past history) liked Marco Arment's talk about how being an indie creator means that we have to look at the places we participate as not being zero-sum games. If a band can create music in a genre while still seeing other bands in that genre as kindred spirits or even potential collaborators, then certainly indie software developers should be able to do the same. Reckoning with seeing others who make apps as peers instead of just competitors that feed our insecurities made Marco's talk a self-reflective rumination that was again a welcome contrast to typical conference fare.

But at the same time, Marco's talk had a pretty straightforward pitch and promotion for his new podcasting app. I think it sounds cool, and will almost certainly end up trying it out, but given the nominally anti-commercial (or anti-some-kinds-of-commercial) nature of XOXO, it leaves me wondering: Which app aesthetics are allowed to promote in this kind of event? Ev never said Twitter out loud (understandable, given that the company is in its IPO quiet period), but he also never said Medium out loud. Cabel mentioned Panic's products, but only in the context of his narrative. Everyone mentioned projects they were working on, but the expectation was that they needed to be framed in a narrow set of aesthetics, predicated on an aw-shucks mindset where everyone was assumed to have impostor syndrome about their work.

Beyond Indie Impostors

I loved XOXO, and I'm phenomenally proud of my friends who organize it, impressed by my friends who presented, and delighted by my friends who attended. So the challenge I have to XOXO isn't just to Andy and Andy who organize it, but to all of my friends and peers who were there:

Can we get beyond having to be apologetic for our success? Can we admit that our don't-ask-don't-tell relationship with ambition is limiting? I'm so glad that XOXO encourages creative people to wrangle with the economic realities of creative endeavors directly, but if we have a billionaire on stage alongside people who are barely making rent, and neither gets mentioned, are we really being honest about what "independence" means? Don't get me wrong - I have good, close friends whose work I champion who exist along that entire economic continuum, and I'm glad they can interact in meaningful ways.

Just as importantly, can we recognize independent creators if their work isn't twee or conventionally "indie"? If we see that the Kickstarters and Etsys of the world don't reflect the mainstream, popular tastes of most people, can we be self-critical enough to at least ask, "Why don't we connect with more people?" And if we do have artists like Jack Conte of Pomplamoose, who can make works mainstream enough to be featured in a car commercial, can we allow that to be one of goals we're allowed to articulate explicitly, instead of implicitly.

These are the challenges I want us to focus on as creators and people who value independence. And it's not merely to be contrary, though of course that's appealing, too. Rather, it's because those who define our culture, who dominate our economics, who control our political systems — they don't shy away from being popular. They don't look with skepticism at people wanting to be commercial. They don't try to force an orthodoxy on the products and people they exploit.

And if we want our voices and our creations and our values to matter as much to society as theirs, we have to stop shackling ourselves by dancing around our aesthetic and economic constraints. XOXO matters, for being a place that can bring such great minds together. Now it needs to open up, to a more truly diverse (not just race and class and gender, but self-criticism) audience, in order to achieve the truly profound and great social goals that it could enable. It's the highest praise I can offer that I think XOXO may be able to do so.

See Also:

There are lots and lots of good pieces about XOXO this year. Here are some that spoke to me:

XOXO: Adam Savage - Mythbusters and Tested

September 16, 2012

Adam Savage is an obsessive model maker, passionate defender of maker culture, and the co-host of Mythbusters and Tested.

The Details

Adam Savage


Projects: Mythbusters and Tested

XOXOing: Science and Making



Adam comes on stage to a title: “I’m a maker.”

Adam has a shop in San Francisco where he does his work. What does he do there? “I copy.”

Adam frequents the Replica Prop Forum online, where he started asking for items from The Bourne Identity, so he could fill out the burn bag prop that he got from the movie. Over 1,165,000 people have watched the video of him detailing this level of obsessively detailed copying in the last 10 days. His hat is an exact replica of Harrison Ford’s hat in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s one of the rare films that holds up both as influential and watchable.

Deborah Nadoolman designed the Thriller outfit, the Blues Brothers, and the original Indiana Jones outfit. The Adventure-Built Hat Company charges over $600 for replicas of that Indiana Jones hat, and when the fourth movie was being made, they got asked to actually make the hats for the filming.

They moved from Fanboy to Craftsman to Authority.

Fans have built exactingly detailed clones of Iron Man, but many have misgivings about young people expending so much of their effort making copies of pop culture artifacts. Adam disagrees, since that inspiration is what led directly to his work today.

There are extreme parallels between ant colonies and the layers of infrastructure in modern cities, so it’s not so far-fetched to think of ourselves as part of a larger collective organism.

As an artist, Adam began his career doing sculpture, ones that were sometimes seen as violent. If we look at the history of portraiture or landscape, it raises the question of “What is culture?” Trains, the telegram, and the end of continental exploration in the U.S. all happen at the same time a century ago, leading to a blooming of art where artists are having a conversation with their culture. Both Star Wars and Raiders are movies about movies, as Cabin in the Woods is today. Culture is a conversation.

This leads to the idea of the “collective unconscious”, which means that when Adam says “I copy.”, he’s participating in a conversation with his culture.

XOXO: Chris Poole - 4chan and Canvas

September 16, 2012

Chris Poole is founder of two of the Internet’s most creative communities, the notorious 4chan, and Canvas, its playful image remixing cousin.

The Details

Chris Poole


Projects: 4chan and Canvas

XOXOing: Community and Images



Chris has been working on 4chan for the last ten years, a community defined by anonymity and ephermerality. You don’t have to log in, and all content rolls off the site within minutes or hours. Because the site is so open, the community uses offensive and obscure language and images to filter out who’s able to participate.

22 million people visit in a month, having much more tortoise-and-hare slow growth. By contrast, people seem to optimize for hockey stick growth, which (as in Chatroulette’s example), can disappear very quickly. So not focusing on that means that Chris has never had to read or follow metrics.
This leads in other companies to “design by spreadsheet”, where qualitative wholistic measures are overrated by quantitative metrics. But Canvas isn’t optimized for that, and 4chan’s metric is how much you’re trolling. So if you don’t track metrics, how do you know if you’re succeeding?

Andy’s definition is when users self-organize and do meetups on their own, and Chris likes Tim O’Reilly’s definition of creating more value than you capture is a good measure. There has been a rise in packaging communities like 9gag and Cheeseburger, taking user-generated content and wrapping ads around it, but just having Facebook comments under that doesn’t mean these are real companies, especially since they extract more value than they create.

4chan has always had hands-off community moderation, which means Chris doesn’t deserve a lot of credit for getting things right, but he has done a good job of not getting things wrong. In Canvas, the core piece of the site is the remixing tool, making in-line image editing a necessary community feature. And the community showed how important image editing was, as just another example of how they had their own will. The community is continually forcing Chris to have to let go of control, since he’s never had control over the community.

Every single mistake Chris has made comes from lack of communication. When he wrote a news post last month, that was his first update in four years. “I’ve been using 4chan every day for the last 9 years. I’ve seen some shit.” He loves the community, but hasn’t always done enough to communicate with the 4chan community, and they’re often resentful of him as a result.

Now he’s trying to address the “bus factor” -- what coders call being prepared in case a key leader gets hit by a bus. Some of this can be addressed by engaging early contributors and grooming them to become future leaders for a community.

A stream propels water in a direction, and it has enough motion to get water to where it’s going, but it has lots of obstacles and detritus in its way. By contrast, the Los Angeles River is geometric and constructed and structured. But 4chan is like a natural stream, and Facebook is like the Los Angeles River, where Facebook fails to meet Chris’ definition of a community.

IMAX may technically be the best way to watch a film, while a drive-in is not a great way to watch a movie technically because the sound and picture are terrible. Yet a drive-in experience is so imperfect, it’s memorable even if the film itself isn’t.

4chan has been losing money for most of its 9 years, but “It’s okay to not make money”. It’s more like a hobby than a business. We’ve got a lot of people in the room who’ve been doing what they love for a decade, and “I’d take that over a million dollars any day.”

XOXO: Chad Dickerson - Etsy

September 16, 2012

Chad Dickerson is the CEO and former CTO of Etsy, the world’s largest marketplace of handmade art and vintage finds.

The Details

Chad Dickerson


Company: Etsy

XOXOing: Crafting and Commerce



First up: Etsy acquires the city of Portland

The first item ever sold on Etsy

Some example products:

Finally, a cutting board that Chad feels demonstrates everything awesome about Etsy, an etched cutting board which is embossed with a grandmother's recipe.

The hear "Etsy changed my life" a lot, and that it's not just about selling, it's about liberation and a sense of direction. Etsy has teams around the world, that go far beyond just being about commerce.

He quotes from Sara Horowitz's Quiet Revolution in the Atlantic:

This sharing economy is based on people coming together to create their own markets...[like]Etsy ... This new shared market economy is being driven by a quiet revolution... This movement is inadvertently creating a new economic engine that has the potential to reorganize our economy.

Quotes from Clinton at the DNC, but says Etsy is already delivering it so they don’t have to rely on government to do so.
They want to make money while having their community make even more money. Etsy took 3.5% of the over half a billion in sales on their platform last year. 800,000 active sellers, $525M in community sales in 201, which is already exceeded in 2012. 40 million visitors a month from 150 countries.

Chad Dickerson's slide on Etsy metrics

Chad says Etsy believes in RFK's perspective on the GDP:

[G]ross national product … does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play,
the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages. . . it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Etsy's company values:

  • We are a mindful, transparent, and humane business.
  • We plan and build for the long term.
  • We value craftsmanship in all we make.
  • We believe fun should be part of everything we do.
  • We keep it real, always.

Talks about moving from Berkeley to NYC: There was a lot of activism in Berkeley, but there wasn't a lot of fun. The Berkeley Bowl has great produce, but he got scowled at a lot. But every company says that -- if you watched a BP ad, you wouldn't even know they got oil out of the ground.

Etsy is committed to the ideals behind becoming a B Corp, and rather than merely being best in the world, they want to be best for the world. From Chad's announcement of the B Corp, they addressed not just how they don’t sell out, but how they can honor the obligation they have to their community.

We believe, more than ever, that Etsy can help fundamentally change the way the world works by making it possible for individuals to makeand sell things to other people around the globe — a people-powered economy.

Traditional incorporation requires corporate leaders to serve the best interest of its shareholders, but B Corps are pushing to do what's in the best interest of all their stakeholders, including their community. And Chad would like to see every company, including the sellers in Etsy's economy, measure themselves against the B Corp scoring criteria.

Marc Hedlund started their initiative with Hacker School to encourage women to apply to the program, and led to the first-ever 50/50 gender mix at a Hacker School class; this was the highest percentage of women applying ever.

Every Friday, Etsy employees transport 150 pounds of lunch waste from Eatsy to the local community farm by bike, and this shows that companies can do the right thing and be really joyful places to work. Because riding a bike through the streets on a Friday while waving to the neighbors is a wonderful experience.

One of the best aspects of being a B Corp is the Declaration of Interdependence, which makes clear how a company has to think about its impact on its community. This was exemplified by Etsy’s support of the SOPA/PIPA protests, and Chad got to be in conversation with a U.S. Senator who explicitly declared how much they had heard the web community’s response to the proposed legislation.

A few weeks ago, the Mayor of Rockford, Illinoisasked if Etsy was partnering with high schools or cities, and before Chad could respond, a member of the Rockford Etsy team responded to that mayor. And it's the sort of opportunity that comes from a joke blog post about Etsy leading to real political leaders collaborating with new companies to make the world a better place.

XOXO: Josh Reich - Simple

September 16, 2012

Josh Reich is the CEO and co-founder of Simple, which was created to radically improve the experience of consumer banking.

The Details

Josh Reich


Company: Simple

XOXOing: Banking



You shouldn’t let your fear of not knowing how things work, or of breaking something, keep you from trying. So instead of talking about banking, he’s going to talk about the value of creating by breaking things and learning from it. After early years of learning to code on an Apple IIc and an Amiga 500, he got stumped by mandel.bas, the fractal program, which he was told would be too hard for him to understand.

Then he built a device called Susan, which was a digital music machine, and spoon, a variation which let you plug in signals and then get oddly modified ones out. But he didn’t know how electronics actually work. Eventually, he built a digital audio filter completely out of analog components, a first example of affecting a discipline he didn’t understand by using a set of tools that he had already mastered.

He eventually learned optics by hacking together a lens system for his prosumer video camera, and then began working with abandoned security cameras to analyze video and built a digital/analog video mixer based on that knowledge.

HIs projects start with an academic understanding of the discipline, but the real world doesn’t always match up with the theory, and then the juicy bits pop up from working in the real world. Eventually he got a Lytro camera, and seeing “no user serviceable parts inside” was like a big “fuck you”. Because he might not always be able to fix everything, but he can definitely break it.

Coming to the United States, seeing paper checks and overdraft fees made him realize the antagonistic relationship banks have with their customers. Banks make money by keeping customers confused. This is the crux of retail banking in the U.S.

Banking technology has evolved in a completely parallel universe to the fun consumer web we know, and archaic systems that still run on daily batch outputs. Banks regularly throw out all kinds of useful rich data because their systems are optimized for customer confusion. But Simple approached the problem as if they were hackers, and that’s why they were able to get different results.

Don’t let your fear of breaking things keep you from trying new experiments, because that’s how you can learn about the real world and

XOXO: Jamie Wilkinson - VHX

September 16, 2012

Jamie Wilkinson is co-founder of VHX, a new streaming video platform helping filmmakers bypass the studio system to distribute DRM-free films directly to fans.

The Details

Jamie Wilkinson


Company: VHX

XOXOing: Video Distribution



Wants to start by talking about Glenn Beck. He’s the self-distribution story that nobody wants to talk about. Over 300,000 people pay $10/month to get his daily videos, generating gross revenues of $36,000,000 per year. Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible and Louis C.K.’s million-dollar-per-week grosses are big precedents too.

VHX does all the design, hosting and support for Indie Game’s distribution, after having been introduced by Andy Baio via Twitter. Traditional studio distribution woud have taken up to 2 years, but from Andy’s Twitter intro, Indie Game’s site was up and the movie for sale 10 days later. This led to helping making available works like Aziz Ansari’s video special.

We are living in the future, but big studios are living in the past. He references Jack Valenti’s 1982 “Boston Strangler” quote about VCRs. How many people in the room don’t have cable? More than half the hands in the room go up. (!) We’ve evolved a whole new process for discovering content, but Netflix and iTunes are still modeled on video stores.

iTunes heavily featured Indie Game, but their own website performed just as well as Apple’s influence with iTunes in terms of driving sales. The old system is fundamentally built around restriction. The film distribution process is still modeled after selling films by distributor by region. But the new system is about trust, sharing and respect. Gary Vaynerchuk’s book about the service economy shows that customer service is going to matter, and media models about restriction are in tension with that.

Financing, production and distribution are all being improved by the web, but distribution is still lagging compared to advances like Kickstarter and Final Cut Pro. One thing to walk away with: Self-distribution works. You can make enough to get by, and to fund your next project, and to buy potatoes. The cast and crew of the film have as many eyeballs and fans as any distributor could hope for, and they’re way more engaged because they don’t have loyalty to distributors, but they do have loyalty to creator and artists.

Myth 1: People won’t open their wallets. Busted! People will pay, especially since the payment experience is improving. Aziz made six figures in his first day.
Myth 2: Self-distribution and traditional distribution are mutually exclusive. Busted! Direct fan distribution is a great substitute for DVD sales. Beck added $16M in DISH Network revenues on top of his direct $36M in revenues. Louis CK and Aziz have sold their specials to TV after selling them online.
Myth 3: This only works if you’re already famous. Busted! Indie Game the movie disproves this point by building an audience through hard work and transparency online. Another reference to 1,000 true fans.

Filmmakers need to take risks and thing long-term about audience needs and retaining rights. Selling rights without thinking about options and alternatives is short-sighted. Fans have to open up their wallets more, to support artists and filmmakers.

XOXO: Jen Bekman - 20x200

September 16, 2012

Jen Bekman is the founder and CEO of 20×200, a marketplace helping artists make a living by turning everyone into an art collector.

The Details

Jen Bekman


Company: 20×200

XOXOing: Art and Collecting



Jen had truly believed that art is for everyone, and when 20×200 says “art” they really mean “art, and when they say “everyone”, they really mean everyone. This began with her Jen Bekman Gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but even that gallery was still too intimidating for most people to enter and buy art.

The $20 print is the gateway drug of the art world. She’s showing the “unboxing” of a Mike Monteiro print, with a certificate of authenticity and all the trappings of a normal gallery print, even if they spent very little on their first print.

Because people have lots of hang-ups about feeling too inexpert or inexperienced to buy arts, and so offering a newsletter helped educate buyers about the artwork. And your inbox is a safe place where nobody is looking over your shoulder while you learn about art. The whole experience is designed to be very customer-oriented, so that it’s not as exclusionary as traditional art collection, but something everyone does, just like watching a movie or reading a book.

Jen Bekman sees art as a gateway drug

“It’s a much richer experience than buying a poster at Ikea.” Browsing artwork by color is something that’s verboten in the art world, but by making a consumer experience based on the idea that you like a particular color is a great way of bringing new people into the world of collecting art. And at the same time, having a physical gallery keeps the company relevant and connected to the traditional art world.

Much of the conversation at XOXO has been about disintermediating middlemen (and middlewomen), but 20×200 is a curated site, which manages production and shipping with consumers in mind and in collaboration with artists. Artists shouldn’t have to do these hard parts, especially since it’s uncomfortable for artists to think about these issues.

[Series of works that have been in editions on 20×200]

Shout out to Mike Monteiro’s “May the bridges I burn light the way” which Jen has hanging in her house because, “Well, fuck it.”

“Money is awesome. Artists should have more of it.” Jen speaks in contrast to Dan Harmon’s point, that not having money is really as awful as money’s toxic influence. If your’e not making a living from your work, it’s very hard to survive. A word association reveals that people associate “collector” with wealth and “artist” with poverty, which is a very broken dynamic that even leads some artists to think they’re supposed to be poor if they’re any good.

Shows Jorge Columbo’s prints which were created on an iPhone app, and points out that people see his great works and are motivated to buy the app he used, instead of buying prints of his works themselves.

It’s working - 20×200 has released over 800 editions by 300 artists, selling 180,000 prints to collectors in 42 countries. 108 editions have earned over $20,000, 46 aritsts have made more than $50,000 from 20×200.

Finally, obligatory “GET EXCITED AND MAKE THINGS” closing.

XOXO: Evan Ratliff - The Atavist

September 16, 2012

Evan Ratliff is a Wired journalist who became a startup founder, creating The Atavist to help longform writers profit from their own work instead of selling it to magazines.

The Details

Evan Ratliff


Company: The Atavist

XOXOing: Journalism and Indie Publishing



Evan is a working journalist who is quite surprised to have become an entrepreneur, and given the XOXO audience’s literacy in this topic, he wants to tell us a story.

Chapter One: In 2009, Ratliff wrote his Wired piece about vanishing. He faked his own death, and Wired agreed to go along with it. He took it quite seriously, and shot videos which nobody has ever seen before.

The story was enormously popular, despite being 9000 words in print, and it raised questions about why this sort of thing couldn’t have happened in digital media. Evan and Nick wanted to tell long stories and tell them in a digital-first way. They found a technical cofounder/designer to create their app.

Two basic principles: Writers would be paid, and paid well, from the beginning, and they would get 50% royalties on sales. The second principle was that stories should be very narrative, since people were paying for these 10,000 word stories. Atavist went live in January 2012.

[Video clip from security camera at depot]
Their story of the depot robbery opened with the footage of the actual robbery. But publishers’ first question was “how do you guarantee the quality of the final story?” The publishing industry expects a relationship between size and quality of output. But Atavist licenses photos and videos, pays fact-checkers and copy-editors, and does everything else a big publisher can do, just with less overhead.

And: Isn’t this just like CD-ROMs? That could be true, but they’re able to capture things like a child’s handwritten notes to add resonance CDs couldn’t.

Chapter Three: Brian Wilson began working on Pet Sounds, and a writer named Jules Siegel was there to witness the descent into madness. The story was published in a magazine which disappeared months later, but Atavist was able to recover the piece and annotate it with audio from tapes, including snippets that Wilson had since destroyed in his original recordings.

By extracting the content management and publishing features from the process they were already using, they made it easy to publish stories with rich media across apps, ebooks and the web. Then, licensing that publishing engine formed the foundation of the business model that will let them turn their project into a company.

One of the challenges that keeps people from trying to make a real company is the temptation to stay as a small informal project, because failing as a small project doesn’t have the same stigma as having to actually fire people. But you have to be brave enough to do it anyway.

Chapter Four: Storytelling as a fundamental human experience. Licensing of their platform led to people saying they had stories to tell, even if they looked more like a church newsletter than a traditional narrative longform journalism piece. But in the process of making a real business, they’ve spent many months trying to figure out how to serve those independent storytellers.

Evan asks XOXO attendees to tell him what they want to be able to do in storytelling as well.

Chapter Five: An Ethiopian boy sold into seritude was able to get free and make his way to the United States. His journey has been documented by a Chicago reporter and comics artist, which will debut later this week as a graphic story on the Atavist platform. They think this is another step towards being able to tell long stories despite being in an era where everything is short. And this new story is the first piece that they’ll be selling on the web, instead of just on mobile apps.

Evan believes there’s a world that’s interested in more than just the 90-second version of stories, and that there is a chance to create the world we want to live in, where talented people can tell stories that are far longer than 90 seconds.

XOXO: Maggie Vail and Jesse Von Doom - CASH Music

September 16, 2012

Maggie Vail and Jesse Von Doom are the executive directors and cofounders of CASH Music, an open-source toolkit for helping independent musicians support themselves.

The Details

Maggie Vail


Jesse Von Doom


Project: CASH Music

XOXOing: Music



Start by talking about Bikini Kill, which wanted to encourage more women to start bands, and to create a safe space while demystifying publishing and recording. That ethos led to a DIY mindset around everything from the music to the flyers and promotional materials used to promote these bands.

At the same time, the Internet was rising. But in the years since, there has been a distinct shift to a much more commercially-driven internet with closed APIs as compared to the early days of people discovering Netscape and HTML. At the same time, there’s an expectation now that sites and apps are something made by professionals, instead of independent, non-technical creators.

Jesse offers extensive background on Kristin Hersh’s history as a pioneer of independent recording and distribution, especially through use of the Internet, where her career is now supported directly by subscription sales to fans.

cash-music-slide-bk.jpg

There’s a brief explanation of how music licensing breaks down when a song wants to be used by, say, Gossip Girl, and then a segue to explanation of mechanical royalties, and how it is a relic of the player piano era. Maggie has talked to artists who’ve sold hundreds of thousands of records, but have no idea how these things work.

Artists have to understand marketing and sales and promotion and publicity and distribution on top of their actual art. And it’s not easy. Xiu Xiu was always going to be too abrasive to succeed as a major label act. “The idea that all art has to scale... is actually kind of a problem.”

What CASH has built is a non-profit, and all of the tools they make are free and open source. They’ve been building the entire platform slowly for five years in collaboration with the people who will actually use it, growing from one person to one and a half people.

The actual platform has to be ubiquitous, and so was created in PHP to run anywhere, and manages all your third-party connections and APIs. The platform itself has a consistent API and a web admin and framework for apps to sit on top of the stack.

The eventual goal is an app-store style experience, either centrally-hosted (as they’re building now), or self-hosted. And it supports everything from direct digital sales (they don’t take a percentage) to streaming.

The narrative that there is a good-vs-evil battle going on in music is overly simplistic. The RIAA may be a bunch of dicks, but there is a lot of useful parts to the old system, with models that go back 300 years and are still viable. So we need to get as inclusive as possible in buliding our solutions.

“Disruption” has been oversold - it’s as easy as shouting “fire” in a crowded room. But fixing things is what’s really hard. The innovations of the tech industry can save creative industries and keep supporting artists, and this can be a start, not an endpoint, to building new systems that work.

XOXO: Yancey Strickler - Kickstarter

September 16, 2012

Yancey Strickler is co-founder of Kickstarter, the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.

The Details

Yancey Strickler


Projects: Kickstarter

XOXOing: Crowdfunding



Portland has the most Kickstarter projects by capita of any place in the world - $12.63 per Portlandian, with the first-ever page of featured projects maintained by a serving Mayor. “There’s a Kickstarter recovery going on in Portland.”

735 backers of XOXO, collectively supporting 5,574 projects with 80+% successful. 80 attendees are Kickstarter creators themselves. XOXO attendees fund:

  1. Double Fine Adventure
  2. Pebble
  3. Ze Frank’s Show
  4. Elevation Dock
  5. Shape of Design
  6. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa
  7. Matter
  8. Amanda Palmer
  9. Ouya
  10. Creative Mornings

Kickstarter Stats

70,901 Kickstarter projects have launched, and 29,544 have succeeded. $356M pledged, $302M funded, with lots more stats available on the Kickstarter stats page.

44% of projects get funded, vs. an initial estimate that only 5% of projects would succeed. 89% of all dollars go to funded projects. Last year $3M was pledged to games, but this year, over $60M has been pledged to games -- 2012 is Kickstarter’s year of the game.

  • [Montage of Kickstarter game videos]

kickstarter-stats.png

The explosion of Kickstarter success has led people to have concerns, and led people ot think the company is bigger than it is. But they’ve got only 40 people, half on product and half on community. The founding team aren’t business people - they’re figuring it out as they go along. A photo of their whole team shows an old pencil factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Kickstarter intends to “put down [their] roots forever”. The first Kickstarter project was Drawing for Dollars for just $35. And if XOXO is the Andy Baio-con, you have to think of the meta-universe, all the weird things people do and how this is the perfect place to talk about some of these oddities.

Charles Adler did Feltron vs. Kickstarter as the first meta-project, and Yancey did “This is not a Kickstarter shirt” as a Fugazi reference. But the site’s become even more reflexive, leading to “Not Another Kickstarter Shirt” and “Kickstarter for a Kickstarter” and “Create the First Kickstarter Strange Loop” which aimed for an unsuccessful project.

James Franco launched the “Museum of Non-Visible Art”, and the Daily Show made a parody of Kickstarter to lampoon Newt Gingrich’s campaign, and McSweeney’s did a campaign for Greece. NYU ITP students did a project to capture Kony, and someone did a project to buy Kickstarter itself.

  • [Video of Portlandia Kickstarter clip]
  • [Video of Obama Kickstarter parody for The Debt]

The fact that there are so many parody videos shows that a convention has emerged around how videos are structured and how rewards are presented.

  • [Kickstarter montage video with Dylan clip]

People are mimicking Amanda Palmer mimicking Bob Dylan, not even knowing what they’re referencing.

  • [Montage of seminal KS film project which used a long single shot to raise >$100k, along with later single-take clips it inspired]
  • [“Oh hi!” montage]

It’s supercuts all the way down. (Will add videos later)

XOXO: Dan Harmon - Community

September 15, 2012

Dan Harmon is the Emmy-winning writer, former executive producer of Community, co-founder of Channel 101, and executive producer of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa.

The Details

Dan Harmon


Projects: Community and Channel 101

XOXOing: Television and Community



Dan opens with the definition of “technology”. Which he used to find a definition of the word “keynote”. Thus preparing him for “The Internet: You can’t take it too seriously”, his talk today. Because The Internet is Not People, and Nothing is More Important than People.

You can’t start to worship the connection more than you respect the people you’re connecting with. So Dan compared people to the most important things ever, like the Internet and global warming and redheads and vodka. And the internet is the best people connector so far.

Then media evolved, from cave drawings to the peak of television in the 1980s, Knight Rider. Breaking Bad’s excellence is the sign of television dying, the euphoria of the show is a symptom of its medium’s illness.

A people connector absorbs and adopts all the functionality value and power of the connector that precedes it. When you take a people connector too seriously, it stops connecting people. Instead, it starts dividing people. The more powerful the connector, the more power it has to divide us.

VH1 is a “digusting, blood-encrusted meat-grinder of humanity” because TV still makes money and the Internet doesn’t yet. That’s why we don’t have Norman Lear connecting people through George Jefferson, but we have Flavor of Love.

And money is a great people connector. It caused efficiency and then like all young heroes, it became an old villain. But we’re in an in-between phase where the Internet doesn’t have any money yet but the evil people are still in TV, fucking everything up.

Proof that television is dying? Heat Vision and Jack. It doesn’t show the Internet’s importance, but it demonstrates why TV is dying. Because one of the execs in charge of their show didn’t know the difference between Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, who got her job because she was kinda rich and kinda dumb. But by contrast FX has people in middle management who care about the human connection, and that’s why they have Louis C.K.

Money killed Heat Vision and Jack. But people saved it. Harmon and his co-creator were invited to a screening in the depths of their depression after the show was cancelled. They got to watch their show along with a live audience. And their minds were blown by the reaction from the crowd.

This led to developing Channel 101 as a way of unplugging from the old TV infrastructure, but the audience could choose what succeeded or didn’t. It’s still running 9 years later, providing content that still holds up, and driven by reasons other than money since it’s never made a profit.

Channel 101 also led to the development of Harmon’s story model. At his poorest and most destitute, he created the story model that’s led to more of his success than anything else. Many writers, including those he admire, have found the story model a useful tool.

And that is how he created Community. And then he got fired. He got fired for money. And money will be the death of everything good in your life, except for the first forty grand a year, which you need to buy potatoes and stuff.

So what do we do with the Internet as a new people collector to make sure money doesn’t ruin it? First do what’s instinctive and connects, and the money will come to you.

We keep finding new ways to connect
We follow our bliss
We keep following it
We pray the money never finds the internet

The internet’s strengths come from the fact the money hasn’t arrived yet. The two things we can do:

We have more XOXOs
With Qualified Keynote Speakers

XOXO: Matt Haughey - MetaFilter

September 15, 2012

Matt Haughey's the founder of MetaFilter, one of the web’s longest-running and most respected web communities, and its popular Q&A section, Ask MetaFilter.

The Details

Matt Haughey


Projects: MetaFilter

XOXOing: Community and Q&A



Matt started MetaFilter in 1999, because he couldn’t do it all himself, and because he was in the right place at the right time. MetaFilter has 60,000 paid members, and eventually added a question-and-answer site, which led to him working on it full-time since 2005, with a team of six people today.

Matt was a reluctant businessman, and eventually had to hire an accountant and lawyer and all the other folks to help run the business. But there are three big lessons he’s learned in running a long-term project.

1. Failure is the biggest teacher. Failure has a lot of negative connotations, but it’s great because at least it tells you what doesn’t work (when you’re running a maze and hit a dead end, you know what doesn’t work, doesn’t mean you stop). It’s only bad if you give up or if you ignore the lessons it teaches you. Business blogs say “pivot” (Matt refuses to say it), but the sentiment behind it is good because it puts a nice face on failure.

Matt Haughey XOXO slide

You have to create an environment where you can do experiments and see what works. Fall in love with failure. Matt has lots of unpublished blog posts and old text files to record what he’s done that didn’t work (2 successful projects, and 12 bodies in a lake).

  • Like “Ticketstubs”, a record of old ticket stubs and the stories that go with them. In 2003, scanning a stub or taking a photo was only of interest to super-fans, so it didn’t really click. The big lesson was that simple ideas work better, and first-time visitors didn’t get it. Though this could work now, since people are more familiar with it.
  • PVRBlog was about Tivo and DVRs in 2003. Hours of research into each post, and it was one of the first sites to use Google AdSense, and it was generating $4000 to $5000 a month, doing a good job of paying the bills. He wrote an academic-style case-study of how Adsense helped him make money blogging. The downside of sharing that info was that within six months there were half a dozen ripoffs, and the site eventually faded out as the topic got less interesting. The lesson may have been to not give away the magic secret.
  • TravelFilter was a completely-built site extracting the travel info from Ask MetaFilter questions, but they didn’t quite commit enough. (Didn’t “burn the boats”) so being half-assed hurt the success of the site. (Other lesson: don’t cannibalize your own success)
  • Blogger didn’t really succeed as a business, even though people loved the site, it didn’t have revenues or investment. The lesson was to ask customers for money earlier. One of the Blogger co-founders, Ev Williams, epitomizes the good side of failing repeatedly, and always gets up and seems to be doing that again with Obvious.

2. Money is the least interesting problem. It’s a necessary evil, but it’s mostly a distraction other than providing for essential resources. Times he’s focused solely on money is when he’s made the worst decisions. Jeff Bezos talked about the “Amazon Doctrine”, always aligning the company’s interests with the customer’s. Tim O’Reilly wrote a great essay in 2009 about working on stuff that matters - running a startup is like taking a cross-country trip, and money is just the gas in the tank. You’re not taking a tour of gas stations...

The best days ever working on projects have been thinking of new features, or having a coding break-through. None of the best days are about money.

3. Success is fleeting. Several of Matt’s projects have been popular for a short time and then gone away. Success plots often look like Mt. Fuji: Pretty quick up, pretty quick down. It’s harder to set up a long, slow growth. Things have repeatedly decayed and been replaced by newer models. There’s already services replacing Uber in San Francisco -- wasn’t Uber awesome two months ago? Building on open source and open knowledge is great, but makes the competition much more fierce.

Relevance is really hard to sustain. MetaFilter’s already gone over a decade -- where will it be in 2020? Mobile usage, for example, goes from a blip in 2009 to 12% in 2010 to almost 33% today. And that’s already affecting advertising and money already. Businesses that depend on display ads are really challenged by the shift to mobile. The Olympics are showing 60% of visitors to the official site were on mobile. Matt’s predicting 50% of all web visitors to be on mobile by 2014.

Looking forward, Matt’s talking about information websites competing with individual devices that efficiently deliver information. “The future is a little iffy, but it’s super exciting.”

XOXO: Julia Nunes

September 15, 2012

Julia Nunes started recording ukulele covers in her dorm room for her friends at home eventually led to 50 million YouTube views, four self-published albums, and a performance on Conan O’Brien. Today she talks about how she accidentally become a succesful recording artist.

The Details

Julia Nunes


Projects: JuNu Music

XOXOing: Indie Music and YouTube



Step One: Boredom - find an outlet, beocme obsessive, and then release those obsessions to the world.

Step Two: Involving other people - find a community (hers was the ukulele crowd), build an audience, listen to that audience, and adjust your obsession to appeal to people other than yourself.

Step Three: The “big break” - read emails, get offered opportunities, hold contests concerts and collaborations, and then pick and choose which opportunities will actually help.

The Bushman Ukulele Competition turned out to be a big break, with a prize of a free ukulele. She got paid to play at a Luau in a barn, with lower production values than XOXO. It feels like a big break at the time, but then there are bigger things. Like an original song that she wrote appearing on the front page of YouTube. She got 100,000 emails overnight, and woke up famous the next day. She hated it. It was the worst. YouTube hates nose rings.

And then she got a YouTube message from Ben Folds. She had covered a Ben Folds song and got invited by his manager to open for his show. And they called her “record label”, which was actually just her parents’ land line phone number. This led to her mother asking her why she was ignoring Ben Folds. Eventually she got to open for him and play with him.

Eventually, she decided to record a CD. It wasn’t the highest quality, but she relied on people at her college to help play and her fans liked it despite the production values. By contrast, YouTube thought putting its famous artists together would make their artists succeed by being at YouTube LIVE. But having YouTube acts alongside Katy Perry didn’t really work. However, she and MC Hammer had the same hat.

Julia’s sister lived in London, so she was able to go on tour in England before she ever did in the U.S. Then the next step up was getting booked by Superfly to play at Bonnaroo, after an intern had found her on YouTube and needed someone to play in fill-in slots at the festival. This led to her being alongside Bon Iver, Lucinda Williams and others.

In between Bonnaroos, she did an EP with Pomplamoose, another YouTube breakout. Played college shows every weekend, toured in the UK and on both costs, and spoke on panels. Plus opened for the Bacon Brothers! (Can’t believe she didn’t know that was Kevin Bacon’s band.)

Then she played alongside Weezer on the huge stage at Bonnaroo in her second appearance there. That happened because she tweeted at Weezer about playing together with them during their set. Similarly, she got to play 24 shows with Ben Kweller because she got all of her fans to lip-sync along with a song and they noticed they had fans in common.

She got approached to do a Fox show where they needed a good recording, and she connected to Zach McNeese, who became her producer. A good example of being open to unexpected connections. This was followed up by a Kickstarter for her third album. And that led to enough attention to earn her a performance on Conan O’Brien. This was a good step up from the Ukulele Luau.

Most importantly, she realized she gets too sweaty to have bangs.

XOXO: Bre Pettis - Makerbot

September 15, 2012

Bre Pettis is the co-founder and CEO of Makerbot, the first company to bring 3D printers to the home, and Thingiverse, the online community for sharing digital designs for real-life objects.

The Details

Bre Pettis


Projects: MakerBot and Thingiverse

XOXOing: 3D Printing and Creative Community



It turns out, the Metropolitan Museum of Art shares Makerbot’s (and Bre’s) values of sharing, so he was able to collaborate with them and make printable versions of their art using the Makerbot. And now 3D models let you mash up different models, remixing classic art with new scans of new sculptures.

“How does a project grow into a business?”

There are 13,000 Makerbots out in the wild and the company has 150 employees. And lots of other amazing stats about what a big business Makerbot is.

“We’re going to hit every single wall until we find a door.” And one of the refrains is that you have to find as much help as you can to handle non-essential parts of your business. And like many of the other XOXO speakers, they’re finding people trying to explicitly clone their product, sometimes at lower prices. But it makes it tricky to invest so much time in an open source product when others can just copy & paste it. So there are many challenges with innovating while still trying to be open.

In contrast to Glif, which doesn’t worry too much about IP challenges because they’re too small to be concerned, Makerbot is competing with products 100x their expense. By navigating through the patents that those giant competitors have filed, Makerbot is trying to be a small country amongst a bunch of nuclear powers that are fighting a war of mutually-assured destruction around patents.

Makerbot has created a community called Thingiverse to explicitly support its developer community, with over 30,000 objects created. And their biggest customer is NASA. [Woo!]

Makerbot plans to keep sharing how they are progressing, and wants to connect with others who are solving, or who have to solve, these challenges. And we’re in a place where independent creators can share their creations and help each other.

XOXO: Ron Carmel - World of Goo and Indie Fund

September 15, 2012

Ron Carmel is the co-founder of 2D Boy (which created World of Goo), and partner at Indie Fund. He's being interviewed by Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen magazine.

The Details

Ron Carmel


Projects: World of Goo

Company: Indie Fund

XOXOing: Indie Games and Alternate Funding



Bonnie and Clyde was important for a lot of reasons, but not least of all for its context, a Hollywood struggling with the demise of musicals and led to the renaissance of the medium at the hands of new auteurs. The gaming industry is going through a similar revitalization, with Ron’s World of Goo being one of the first of the new vanguard.

Ron’s background - he worked at Electronic Arts in his first game ever, because he’d wanted to make games since he was six years old. Didn’t realize in college or school that making games was a serious profession - it sounded like saying “I want to be a firefighter”, but going to EA changed that.

One of his first games was a clone of the Tron arcade game when he was 17, his first “real” game and then he didn’t have time to make games until he got to EA, which he joined after being laid off in the dot-com world in 2001. Working on the Pogo team was good because it was sheltered from some of the worst parts of the EA company culture. But the work there wasn’t primarily creative; Even though Ron could contribute he was mostly treated as a factory worker. Being at a big company requires you to be a specialized tool, but being independent is the exact opposite, and meeting Kyle made it immediately clear that there was another person who was interested in small games. “It was a natural pairing” for them to leave when they did; Jim Greer the founder of Kongregate left at the same time.

The conventional wisdom these days is the “minimum viable product” idea, around “one person, one game, one week” and one of the most popular was Tower of Goo. This indie process was a lot different from what the big studios were doing, with no design documents and no attempt to create a magnum opus. You pick the one core mechanic of what you’re doing, and you build the simplest core mechanic of that.

Is “World of Goo” complete? If Kyle had his way, they’d have worked for another year, but they embraced the work-in-progress nature of being indie. They had a great range of non-overlapping skills which made them able to work together well on the project without any conflict. They’d started talking to publishers and amounts of money like $120,000 sounded enormous, but they eventually figured out the biggest offer they got was $650,000. And doing the math of how much they could sell through WiiWare and direct made it seem like it wouldn’t be worth the pain to work with traditional publishers. The worst deal they got was a European publisher that offered them $180,000 and 10% of net revenues.

World of Goo’s ended up a wild success, despite the unconventional tactic of targeting many platforms. And the team has kept iterating on it, offering up new versions and variations that customers have loved. Ron says he’s not officially retired, but he doesn’t have to work for the next 10 or 20 years. [Naturally, a round of applause.]

Lots of other indie game devs want to get funding so they don’t need any further funding, so they can stop being tenant farmer sharecroppers. Now they’ve published their funding terms as a public Google Doc, so that devs can see they’re getting a shitty deal from big publishers, or so other other indie devs have a starting point to work from.

Indie Fund is really distinguished from other sources of funding because it’s not the primary source of income from its investors, but it’s optimized for helping its fundees, and sharing the learnings between those games.

XOXO: Emily Winfield Martin - Black Apple

September 15, 2012

The Details

Emily Winfield Martin is the top seller of handmade art on Etsy, selling her dolls and illustrations and helping her fulfill her dream of creating children’s books.

Emily Winfield Martin


Projects: Black Apple blog

XOXOing: Indie Art, Books and Crafting



Lots of people ask Emily if she went to art school -- and she did! But she didn’t fit in, because she was really interested in narrative illustration, like comic books and movies. So she expected she’d work in the service industry.

When Etsy came along, its simplicity made it “really unintimidating” to start selling her works, and soon began selling enough to start phasing out her shfits she was working at the video store.

Then as her store took off, a brief detour where she ended up making dolls alongside Martha Stewart on TV. Turns out, that wasn’t really she wanted to do. She wanted to do kids’ books, like her first title “The Black Apple’s Paper Doll Primer”, which she put out even though it was a craft book publisher. That success in 2009 led to another “if you build it, they will come” project Oddfellows Orphanage, which were illustrations in a particular world, all waiting for a story to tie them together into a narrative.

Emily Winfield Martin

Her favorite solo series, her carnival show, let her keep focusing on improving her skills, even while still working on her book efforts. Then, serendipitously, the editor in chief of children’s books at Random House pushed her to make Oddfellow’s Orphanage into a real title. This was a great way of a gatekeeper embracing indie success, to the benefit of both.

Emily says she’s a misfit, and she had felt she’d end up working in a coffee shop because there was no place for her. But now we live in a time where any misfit can, with bravery, and love, and tons of hard work, make their imaginary thing real, and make a place for themselves. The thing she hadn’t realized before was that the audience is the alchemy that can make your imaginary thing real. People from all over the world, from countries she’ll never visit, came together to make her thing real, just as love made the Velveteen Rabbit real. And your audience makes your imaginary thing real.

Find Out More

If you like Emily's work, you'll love the work of other artists she recommends:

Emily Martin many-armed slide

XOXO: Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky - Indie Game: The Movie

September 15, 2012

Swirsky and Pajot are the directors of the Sundance-award winning documentary tracking the agony of indie game development. Interviewed by filmmaker Jason Scott.

The Details

James Swirsky


Lisanne Pajot


Project: Indie Game: The Movie

XOXOing: Fim Distribution and Indie Games



Jason wants to start by asking how many have not seen “Indie Game: The Movie” - the single most important film to be released in 2012. It’s being released in one of the widest ranges of distribution ever, and it’s a good film.

[Clip Shown]

The project started when Lisanne and James met an indie game developer, and saw the passion, and discovered that nobody had ever made a documentary about this kind of work. There was not much work done (only a week of shooting) when they started the Kickstarter. Fortunately, Andy Baio tweeted about it and changed their lives.

They both shoot, own their equipment, and wanted to make their own project. The fact that the indie game devs they were covering had open development processes and shared their creative process with their audiences inspired them to do the same.

Did backers have influence? Not in terms of content. But it inspired 88 minutes of produced video to be released during the funding process. People’s attention spans cause a time warp on the web that forces urgency on creators. The project grew into more than they expected it to be, so a second Kickstarter campaign let them upgrade the film into being theatrical-ready; This campaign got funded in its first day. And helped them get to Sundance, where they learned how real films are distributed.

Going to Sundance, they didn’t know what to expect, but they learned instantly how businessy it was, on the way to working with Scott Rudin, producer of The Social Network. (Lisanne didn’t know who he was.) There were some elements of communications disconnect because things moved into the world of rumors about the release or distribution or deals around the film faster than they could update backers.

Nobody has ever had distribution on Steam, VHX, theaters and through HBO and all DRM-free on a theatrical film all at the same time. Video games and Louis C.K. had sold direct, but not anything like this in film, and they were worried major distribution would mean the film would take years to come to market, especially in different territories or in digital.

The challenge was going to theaters without a distributor. Films like Scott’s and Helvetica inspired them to do a 16-city tour with tickets sold off of Eventbrite and they “toured like a band”. One of the hardest parts to endure was learning how to do a dozen theatrical bookings while doing deals with VHX while distributing through steam while selling t-shirts to filmgoers.

So what’s the lesson to that effort of a half-dozen distribution channels running simultaneously? How do they perform? Steam is interesting because it’s leading them to try things like building achievements into their film. iTunes and their own website are performing comparably to Steam, and they’re happy with the performance of all of them. Worldwide territories have yielded true surprises, like being licensed on Israeli television. And all of these things flowed because they just made sense -- not because they shunned traditional distribution, which also has positive aspects.

The film has turned a profit. [Healthy round of applause.] And they got to travel around the world - it plays directly with community groups around the world. Stories from South Africa, Australia, etc. all show how it’s reaching people globally. (Excitement over Iceland!)

What’s the lesson they want to share with this audience? The deadline thing: You have to leave enough time for things to take much longer, and they feel they should have known that. Kickstarter and community require a lot of maintenance to sustain. And selling your own movie on your own website is “empowering and amazing”. Having a direct relationship also leads to the hope that their fan base will come with them to their next project, which would have been impossible in traditional distributorship.

XOXO: R. Stevens - Diesel Sweeties

September 15, 2012

Richard Stevens has been making Diesel Sweeties for 12 years, pioneering webcomics, experimenting with newspaper syndication, merchandising,crowdfunding and bacon.

The Details

R. Stevens


Project: Diesel Sweeties

XOXOing: Comics and Merchandising



Andy disavowed the word “disruptive” yesterday - and Richard has always gone with the things around him, instead of fighting them. “I draw the way I draw because of the Mac.” Shout out to the users-and-groups Control Panel in OS7. A daily comic strip models all of your character flaws.

Great early shout-out to Sam Brown and Exploding Dog -- Richard’s neighbor in college! Sam started posting drawings and got Slashdotted. (75% of today’s slides will have all-caps Futura!)

But starting out to write comic books didn’t actually work out as he’d planned. He started doing it as a way of slacking off at work, and then eventually got focused on t-shirts. Paypal was new, and as long as you weren’t afraid of the post office, there was enough to make a living, and it subsidized the comic creation. If you get a cease-and-desist, you happily comply after telling everyone that the product will no longer be made available - much more effective than putting things on sale.

Then he got the call to be syndicated, and thought that his comics appearing in the newspapers would pay the bills. But people don’t care about the comics page in newspapers anymore. So having maintained the website on the side, and the t-shirt sales, kept him okay when he got out of the newspaper syndication deal. A year and a half after leaving newspaper syndication, the entire business folded.

Started working with Portland’s own “Sock it To Me”, and have played a bit with special projects like products in lieu of comics. “Marker of the Beast” and “Satanic Sticky Notes” were past October’s projects. And connecting with Andy Baio at SXSW in 2009 led to a $60,000 Kickstarter for a Diesel Sweeties ebook.

Kickstarter was gratifying because you’d never ask people for a lot of money, but people are enthusiastic so if you ask them, they’ll support you. The book was followed by a Red Robot toy. Expectations are very different from comic book readers who are used to regularly buying new issues, whereas app buyers don’t necessarily want to buy upgrades all the time.

And then, donuts.

XOXO: Dan Provost & Tom Gerhardt - Studio Neat

September 15, 2012

Studio Neat's first product was the Glif, an iPhone kickstand. And their second success was the Cosmonaut, a stylus for iPhone. These were followed by Frameographer (iPhone app) and a book called “I Will Be Exhilarating”.

The Details

Dan Provost

Tom Gerhardt

Company: Studio Neat

Projects: Glif and Cosmonaut

XOXOing: Hardware and Product Design


Four products on the market, and a sustainable business. Fifteen things they learned:

  1. Scratch your own itch. Glif helped them overcome the frustration of blurry photos that result from not having a tripod. “If you have a problem, someone else probably has the same one.” They also use their own products & eat their own dogfood.’
  2. Keep it simple. An essential part of their design process is simplicity, and their business operations are built around defending that simplicity. This is how they can operate as a two-man company, by design. “We have to say ‘no’ a lot.” and that’s how they defend focus.
  3. Sell your stuff (For money) Louis C.K.’s success narrative was “actually quite refreshing” - but what about the rest of us? What if we’re not known and established? Kevin Kelly’s long argued that you should have 1,000 true fans in order to sustain your work. There’s a sweet spot between blockbuster and obscurity, and it lets you have a much smaller audience than you might imagine.studio-neat-slide-2.png
  4. You can’t please everyone. The Glif was only designed for the iPhone 4, the latest and greatest. It brought clarity to design, but greatly limited the market. Studio Neat Point #5
  5. Learn by doing. Kubrick encouraged young filmmakers to just get started and make a film. Prior to their first product, they had no industrial design or manufacturing experience. Their second product was significantly more complex, and consequently was delayed several times, to the dismay of 6,000 customers. But those folks also kept the motivation going. “Jump off the cliff and build the plane on the way down.”
  6. Atoms are the new bits. (Suspect this might become a refrain this weekend.) Made a lot of use of 3D printing. From moleskin sketches to real plastic only took a few weeks. Incredibly empowering to round-trip products so quickly.
  7. Keep the core in-house and outsource the rest. Your inclination may be to do everything yourself, but you don’t always need to DIY. Things like bookkeeping, accounting and order fulfillment can be handed off to let you focus on design and what you do best.
  8. Make it in America. Most manufacturing and assembly happens in SD, but everything is made in various U.S. states. Started with the China assumption, but going domestic actually saves money while having advantages like the people. People whose cell phone number you can have while you need guidance.
  9. Patents are overrated. (First round of applause of the event!) Preface: We are not lawyers. And this is just for us, a small company with limited resources. Patents are a bet that large companies can afford, but small companies can’t. They’re not magical force-fields - they’re just costly insurance that lets you sue. Painful image of the “Sidekic”, a Taiwanese ripoff of their design.
  10. Retail is not necessary. They can do e-commerce directly on their site and fulfill directly or through Amazon.com (in the U.S.). This makes their reach global - they’ve sold to 129 countries through their website. Retailers take at least 50% off the top, distributors need to be paid - you end up having to make it up in volume. “It’s a really exciting time to be a small, independent producer.”
  11. Tell a story. “Show how the sausage gets made.” A Kickstarter update showing a time-lapse of building their first product, or trips to factories, really connected with customers. Instapaper as an example of a product people are passionate about because Marco Arment is a likeable guy. It’s personifying the product.
  12. Don’t be annoying. “Behave like the company you want to exist in the world.” This applies to everything from big features to little details like not defaulting to opt-in on email newsletters.
  13. Under-promise and over deliver. Applies to many things, but in particular to Kickstarter projects, which can often miss ship dates. Avoid deadlines if you can, or if you can set one, make it very generous.
  14. The Gruber effect. There have always been people with great influence. Oprah. And John Gruber. Like a lot of people with lots of influence within a niche market, a single recommendation can make an enormous difference in your success. Find the one person who can make all the difference in your area.
  15. Passion. “Passion should be the main motivator.” Examples of folks like SwissMiss show off how creative people often build on side projects and one-off hacks that help take advantage of your passion and also build your audience. “Work on something you are passionate about, because if it becomes successful you’ll have to do it all the time.”

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XOXO JOMO! Live-blogging the conference

September 15, 2012

So, we're going old school: I'm going to live-blog the XOXO conference! But not like "Hey I'm a writer for The Verge obsessing over an Apple keynote!" or "I'm just going to tweet the two funniest lines from this talk!" but rather, like we used to do in the olden days: We're gonna try to share what we're learning from each of the speakers at this event.

But in the spirit of JOMO, the Joy of Missing Out, I am hoping we can do some unique stuff online that make it as satisfying to be paying attention to XOXO from afar as it is to participate in person.

Keep a tab open to this post, and I'll be adding links to each of the posts about the sessions as they go live.

Day One: Saturday September 15

Day Two: Saturday September 16

Stay tuned as new sessions are added!

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