Using Kickstarter to raise money for businesses

Earlier this week, my local newspaper ran an article about a beloved coffee shop launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund its renovation. My immediate reaction was one of minor disgust. It seems wrong for an established business to crowdfund an investment in the business. And let’s be clear, that’s what this renovation is.

The Kickstarter rules don’t expressly prohibit this. In fact, they seem to invite it. And a neighborhood coffee shop is not the same as a national chain. Nonetheless, it’s counter to what I view as the intent of Kickstarter.

In my mind, Kickstarter and similar sites are for funding creative, independent works that the creator can’t get traditional funding for. An established business should be able to secure a loan if what they’re doing makes sense, no?

I am perhaps being a little hypocritical, though. The first Kickstarter project I backed was LeVar Burton’s revival of “Reading Rainbow”. That was certainly a business endeavor that he could have probably obtained money for (or perhaps he could have self-funded it). The nostalgia certainly helped open my wallet.

Kickstarter is a unique, though. A fully-funded project is not guaranteed to be successful. Many games and hardware projects have fizzled, leaving backers with little to show for their money. In that sense, it’s like an investment, except for the part where there’s no equity. Maybe it’s more like a donation. But why donate to a for-profit project?

Edited on January 12, 2018 at 12am EST: As Dave points out below, Greyhouse is a not-for-profit. This makes it more confusing, since donations would have tax benefits to the donor and enable Greyhouse to take advantage of employer matching. Using Kickstarter seems like a less-beneficial route for them. It’s also possible that Greyhouse is just saying they’re a not-for-profit without obtaining any IRS status. The Campus House organization that founded Greyhouse is a 501(c)(3), but it’s not immediately clear to me if Greyhouse is a legally-distinct entity or not.

Book review: Inside the Tornado

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm is perhaps the single most influential technology marketing book. When I first read it a few years ago, everything in it made sense and it gave me a better feel for where my company was (spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily where we thought we were). So when several people recommended Inside the Tornadoa sequel of sorts – I was ready to dig in and love it.

But I didn’t love it. It’s not because Moore is wrong. I don’t claim to know enough to assert that, and in fact I think he’s probably right on the whole. My dislike for the book instead is a matter of literary and ethical concerns.

The literary concern is what struck me first, so I’ll start there. Whereas the metaphor in Chasm is very straightforward, Tornado is a mess. You start in the bowling alley and then a tornado develops and eventually you end up on Main Street. Also, you want to be a gorilla or maybe a chimpanzee, but probably not a monkey. In fairness to Mr. Moore, some of this is because the concepts he tried to communicate became more complex in Tornado. Instead of the broad concepts of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, he focuses on the more intricate motions that happen on a smaller scale. As a meteorologist, I can appreciate this. Nonetheless, the roughness of the metaphor distracted me from the message of the book.

I’m also not particularly keen on what Moore tells us we must do to achieve dominance in the market. “To hell with quality or what your customer wants” may be the best way to achieve the market position you want when conditions are favorable to you. That doesn’t mean it’s what I want to do. Reading this book made me think of Don McLean’s third-most popular song: “if winning is what matters I respect the ones who fail.”

I suppose it may be a disconnect between my goals and what Moore assumes my goals are. Although I am a very competitive person, I am not interested in winning for winning’s sake. I want to do work that makes the world better, and if we’re in second or third place, that just means that others are also making the world a better place. That doesn’t seem like losing to me.

Inside the Tornado is one of those books that every technology marketer should read. But that doesn’t mean I recommend it.

How *are* you?

Ed Sheeran got rid of his phone two years ago. He says life is better — more balanced — now. I don’t know how well Mr. Sheeran’s experience can be applied to the general public. He’s an internationally famous musician and probably has People™ to help him manage his affairs. His status as a celebrity almost certainly affects the key line in the article:

…he got rid of his phone in part because even though people were contacting him constantly, no one was asking him how he actually was.

(Credit to Heidi Moore for bringing this to my attention.)

Certainly part of celebrity is that people are often more interested in what they can get from you than what they can do for you. That’s true for us normal folk as well, of course, but the ratio is a little more balanced. But still, we’re not as engaged in how people are doing as perhaps we should be.

I don’t blame social media or smart phones for this phenomenon. They’re merely tools that amplify our behavior. It’s much easier for us to broadcast how we’re doing (even if we’re not honest about it) and to have others passively consume it. There’s less of a need to actively ask how our friends are doing because they’ve already told us.

But there’s something to be said for the act of actively asking. The very fact that it scales poorly makes it more intimate. Even if you spend your day broadcasting how you are, it can feel good when someone takes the time to check in on you.

The passive trap is easy to fall into. I tend to think of even the most casual of acquaintances as dear friends (whether they reciprocate or not). As a result, I try to be a good friend to many, many people. This is an impossible task, so I end up being a poor friend to most of them. Maybe I should focus more intently on fewer people. Or at least pick one person each day and be more active in how I engage with them.

Reading at work

Seth Godin had a post on his blog a few weeks ago with the same title. Reading at work is a hard thing for me to accept sometimes. I’ll read industry articles in Feedly or relevant posts shared by coworkers. But when it comes to sitting down and reading a book? Nope.

This is dumb. I’m not saying I should sit around reading a novel during work (although a short diversion to refresh my mind seems worth it). I have a stack of books recommended to me that are directly relevant to being better at my job.

If getting better at my job isn’t a good use of the time I give to my employer, what is? It’s certainly a better investment than some of the meetings I’ve attended. Professional growth too often gets overlooked. When I first started working from home, I noticed that I was way more productive. I think it’s because I try too hard to be busy that I sometimes forget to be productive.

Seth’s post also reminded me of a fun game I used to play when I worked at a previous employer. As a public university, everyone’s salary was a matter of public record. So in a particularly pointless meeting, I’d look up everyone’s salary and figure out what that hour (or more) cost the University. Salaries are a sunk cost, so it’s easy to waste time in meetings.

But Godin reminds me that I need to focus on devoting time to getting better at my job, not just doing it day-to-day. Now is the ideal time to do that, with many coworkers out of the office for the holidays. And with the tech industry discovering job training, who can complain?

Success leads to success

“It takes money to make money” they say. There’s definitely an element of truth to that. The most credible argument to landing a big sale, getting a major project, etc. is having a history of doing it before. Aaron Renn had a post on the Urbanophile recently that reinforces this. New York City draws in out-of-town wealth, he says, because it has already drawn in out-of-town wealth.

If you have something you want to do, you can put this principle to work. Street musicians, baristas, and others who depend on tips often “prime” their tip jars (or guitar cases or whatever). The idea being that it encourages people to contribute. When I have a theater in my booth at a conference, I make sure that there are a few people watching the beginning of the presentation. The bigger the crowd gets, the more attention it draws from passers by.

So the trick is to get the first one of whatever you’re trying to get. If you want to be a writer, you can start by writing your own blog. Then you can get a friend to let you write a guest post. Then you can point to those when you angle for your first “real” gig.

This doesn’t work for everything, of course. You don’t get to be a heart surgeon by performing surgery on yourself and your friends and family. But it does work in a lot of scenarios, particularly creative works. And you don’t even have to do a great job. Having a mediocre history is better than no history in a lot of cases.

So you can get success by being successful. It helps to be lucky, too, but you can’t control the random whims of fate. At best, you can put yourself in a position to take advantage of good luck when it happens.

Blocking the AT&T/Time Warner merger

News outlets reported last week that the Department of Justice intends to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner on antitrust grounds. Depending on who is talking, a condition of approval is the sale of either CNN or DirecTV by AT&T.

I’m no mergerologist, but this seems weird. I agree there’s a good argument for blocking the merger. But that argument is predicated on the lack of competition in the broadband space. Neither DirecTV nor CNN are broadband providers.

However, the president has very publicly decried what he views as unfair coverage by CNN. Of course it follows that the DoJ’s objections are perceived to be driven by political concerns from the White House. This is especially true given the “business friendly” moniker claimed by the administration.

I’m not inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt, but there’s an argument for this that I’d buy. There’s an inherent danger involved when the same company owns both the content and the delivery. This gives the company the opportunity to crowd out competitors in an anticompetitive manner.

What makes this confusing is the DirecTV part. TV and Internet are often combined. Adding in satellite doesn’t seem to materially change the landscape. It’s essentially the same service over a different medium. Cynically, it’s a cover to make it look like the CNN sale isn’t politically-driven.

I have a hard time taking that argument at face value. That may be my own distrust of the Trump administration, but it doesn’t seem to make sense. Even the parts of the argument where I agree with in the ends, the means don’t seem to mesh. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds.

Deleting the president’s Twitter account

Last week, President Trump’s personal Twitter account disappeared. It was restored 11 minutes later and Twitter said it was deleted by a rogue employee on their last day. Depending on your political leanings, this was either the best thing Twitter ever did or a part of the elitist campaign against the President. I happen to think that it’s an enforcement of Twitter’s Terms of Service, but Twitter has repeatedly proved that it doesn’t care what I think.

Of course, an action like this can’t be viewed in isolation. Even if you agree with the deletion of this account, it sets a bad precedent. Yes, I’m using the slippery slope fallacy, but it’s worth considering. We entrust social media networks to fairly handle problems according to the terms of service they lay out. This is probably a silly thing, but we do it anyway. We entrust social media networks with details of our personal lives, often ones we don’t want shared.

As a professional, I find this act to be a total violation of trust. It violates the System Administration Code of Ethics. But it’s also not the dangerous act some have made it out to be. I have seen comments on Twitter and news articles to the effect of “it’s not funny. What if they had tweeted ‘I just launched the nukes’?!” It’s true Trump uses social media in a way that no past president has and that a fraudulent post could have a tremendous impact. But there’s also nothing to suggest that just because a rogue employee can remove an account that they can also impersonate it.

I’m sure at some level it is possible to somehow insert a fraudulent post. But not only does policy prevent it, but it’s likely very technically difficult to do undetected as well. Frankly, I’m not that concerned about it. What I am worried about is the effects of vigilante ToS enforcement in a political sphere that seems ready to explode.

One bad thing about the death of Flash

Adobe Flash is only mostly dead. That means it’s slightly alive. But the death of Flash is nigh. At least if you consider 2020 “nigh”. By and large, this is celebrated. Flash is notoriously riddled with vulnerabilities, it wrecks accessibility, etc. But losing Flash is still a little bit sad.

Not just because it pioneered interactive web content, as the Tech Crunch article above notes. But I think about all of the games and silly websites that will become unusable. Major projects will be converted to HTML 5. Sites that are mostly-video (I’m thinking Homestar Runner in particular) may end up as a recorded video that can be watched, but not interacted with.

But what about all of the little one-off sites? How much time did I spend in college playing miniputt.swf instead of studying for finals? (Spoiler alert: a lot) How many little educational games have been created that won’t get recreated?

Maybe the lost sites will be replaced by new projects. But it’s a concern we face with every file format: what happens when it’s no longer supported? We have centuries of printed records that can be analyzed by researchers. Centuries from now, will that be true of our digital artifacts?

This is an argument for using open formats instead of proprietary. But even that is no guarantee of future durability. An open format isn’t very helpful if no software implements it. I’m older than the JPEG and GIF standards. Will I outlive them, too? In the not-too-distant future, there may be a niche market for software that implements ancient technology for the purposes of historical preservation.

Drowning from the firehose

Frequent readers know that I recently changed jobs due to an acquisition. It’s a great opportunity, but this week has been rough for me. I’ve been sort of paratrooped into situations where I have to pick up things in flight that I don’t know how to address.

This isn’t because I have terrible coworkers or a terrible job. It’s just a fact of life when you start a new job. It doesn’t help being remote on a primarily on-site team. And it doesn’t help that my role means I’m in an entirely separate part of the organization from my old coworkers.

But mostly, it doesn’t help that I’m me. I internalize failure easily. I care about not letting the team down. I’m still trying to figure out how to manage my work in progress at a must larger scale than I’m used to. And this week I have not done well.

I can never tell if I’m physically ill because my mental state is bad or if physical illness makes me more succeptible to a bad mental state. It’s probably been both at one point or another. But the end result is that I spent two days not eating and three nights dreaming about work and then waking up thinking about work.

It was not good.

To my credit, I realized it wasn’t a passing thing and I raised a flag. To my colleagues’ credit, they were supportive. Not in a “rah rah you can do it” way, but in a “yes, you’re in a tough situation. How can we make it better?” way. My coworkers want me to succeed and they recognize that success is a long-term goal.

It was tough to ask for help. I didn’t care about “showing weakness” or anything like that. I just wanted to come in, be unbelievably successful, and wow my coworkers into such a state of wonder that I could just sit back and stare out the window all day. But I’m glad I did. It turns out that some of the things I was sweating are small potatoes.

I don’t share this story because there’s any grand lesson in it. I just don’t think we talk about this kind of stuff openly enough. Which reminds me, if you think this is important, go support Open Sourcing Mental Illness.

Naming things is hard

A while back we were trying to fix something with the build system at work. At one point, a colleague said

Maybe should just set hudson.remoting.SynchronousCommandTransport.failOnSocketTimeoutInReader=true

Holy crap. That’s a mouthful. Being my usual helpful self, I suggested

if that doesn’t work, try hudson.remoting.SynchronousCommandTransport.failOnSocketTimeoutInReaderNowThisIsAStoryAllAboutHowMyLifeGotFlippedTurnedUpsideDown=true

Okay, so that’s not actually helpful. But it does point out how terrible the name of the real setting is. It weighs in at 72 characters. The days of the 80-character terminal are (mostly) over, but that doesn’t mean screen real estate is unlimited.

Variable or setting names should be descriptive. “fot” would be a terrible name for the Jenkins setting in this example. But over-verbosity is a vice, too. There are a lot of variations that could improve this setting. For example:

hudson.remoting.SynchCommandTransport.failOnTimeout

That’s still pretty long. And it might not adequately represent the nuance (are there other independent timeout settings for synchronous command transport?). But if it’s distinct enough to be clear, then that’s probably sufficient. The variable name doesn’t have to be the full code comment. That’s not what self-documenting code means.