Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for December, 2007

My dinner party menu for tomorrow

Posted by shannonclark on December 24, 2007

And yes, I know tomorrow is a holiday for many (i.e. Christmas) which we did celebrate growing up (my father is Catholic) however my mom is Jewish and I am an atheist. So Dec 25th is no longer a religious holiday, and only somewhat of a cultural holiday for me.

But, it is a good excuse for a party – and in my circle of friends I have many friends who are also not celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday (or even in many cases as a cultural one). Of course there is a tradition of Jews eating out at Chinese restaurants around Christmas but as an alternative to that, I’m having a non-holiday themed dinner party.

Here is the menu, I’ll try to take some photos tomorrow (and today as I’m preparing).

Appetizers

Fresh sourdough and Pumpkin Quark. Quark is a German dish, a dairy product but something like yogurt – very tasty. I’ll also have some cheeses and have asked others to bring additional appetizers

Main courses

Roast, free-range, boneless leg of lamb. Rubbed with mint, garlic, sea salt, fresh pepper and other spices. Served with homemade mint sauce (organic apple vinegar, fresh mint, sugar & salt to taste).

Roast, Duroc pork loin. Rubbed with a dry rub of spices (cloves, cinnamon, salt, pepper, and more). Duroc is a type of pig prized for the quality of the meat. Very juicy, full of flavor and not at all your typical supermarket, too lean pork.

Panko crusted white fish (a very thin, fatty local white fish) with light spices quickly fried. Served over wilted beet greens & salad mix with a slightly sweet & spicy dressing)

Pear, goat cheese and arugala raviolis served with fresh ripe pears and a gorgonzola cream sauce. Pasta is fresh made and purchased from the Farmers Market on Saturday.

Side Dishes

Oven roasted carrots and golden beets w/sea salt

Roasted Brussels sprouts w/rice vinegar dressing

brown rice w/dried cranberries and zante currants. The brown rice is a local rice I purchased at the Farmers Market and is amazingly flavorful

Drinks

With the meal I will serve two red wines, a local CA Syrah and a Pinot Noir. Both are from small vineyards with production of <450 cases of each wine. One is a 2001 and the other a 2004.

For the non-drinkers I have a couple of bottles of non-alcoholic sparkling juices, cranberry-blueberry juice, and ice tea

With dessert I have a local eggnog from Mitchells Ice Cream and will make Blue Bottle coffee.

Dessert

simple custard pies – homemade pie crusts, farmer’s eggs, organic whole milk, sugar

homemade apple pie – apples of three varieties (all organic), spices, homemade pie crusts

Both ala mode if people want

almond “sandies” cookies (if I have time and get the recipe right)

and for those who want it, a selection of phenomenal hot chocolates – spicy or a Oaxacan variety.

And some people may also bring other desserts.

So that’s the planned menu, as I continue cooking, cleaning and prepping this evening the menu may change yet again. Almost everything is not from a specific recipe (other than the desserts), nearly every ingredient I’m going to be using is organic, mostly local to CA, and minimally processed. I expect up to 12 (small chance of close to 15 people) tomorrow with a variety of food restrictions from vegetarian to pescatarian (eats fish) to eats nearly everything.

Of my recent dinners, this will end up being the most expensive – in no small part due to the wine and meats. But assuming we have 12 people it will still be less than $25/person (including drinks) and that includes purchases of staples which I will have for many future meals as well (I bought a gallon of rice vinegar for example). The meats I’m using are all extremely high quality and purchased from my local neighborhood butcher – who pretty much only sells organic, free range meat products (and most are also local). Most of the rest of the ingredients were purchased at my local produce market, or at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, with a few additional purchases at Rainbow Co-op a vegetarian co-op grocery story which has extremely high quality foods (but is usually hard for me to shop at since I don’t have a car).

All told, this is how I celebrate holidays – feeding friends, eating great, local, food, prepared simply but with a lot of care and attention. We may watch some films, listen to music, and play games as well, but mostly the celebration for me is in the cooking, in the preparing of a feast for my friends old & new. In 2008 I anticipate having a dinner at my place at least once a month, probably more than once in many months.

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Posted in personal, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Setting your rate – advice for consultants

Posted by shannonclark on December 13, 2007

A friend of mine this evening twittered requesting help for how to start a consulting business. I twittered back some off the cuff ideas, but this is a topic I have been thinking about for a while now. At present I am not actively seeking to do consulting work (instead I’m focused on launching a new ad network, Nearness Function) however there is a rate at which I would do some consulting work.

Here is my simple advice to my friend.

Reply to the request to “pick your brain” with three rates. 1 – for an hour phone conversation. 2 – for a full day onsite consulting. 3 – for an onsite workshop (which would usually involve multiple days, preparations and follow up). All to also include expenses (i.e. travel costs)

Of course depending on the type of consulting you want to do and the length of the engagements it would require the numbers of the above units you bill for and agree upon might differ widely – some consultants could add a great deal of value in a single, one hour call, others might require ongoing engagements over many months and even years.

But remember if you are consultant you are not a contractor, your time should be seen as highly valuable and even more valuable should be the value you are providing. In fact the best and optimal consulting arangements usually do not involve explicit time units – instead they are project and results orientated. i.e. “for $x (where x is usually a large number) we’ll work together and launch your company’s new strategy/product/service/etc by a specified date”.

However to get started with an engagement some time pricing can be helpful. But how to set the “hour”, “day”, and “multiday/talk” rates?

To start, realize that whatever rates you set you should aim for being fairly comfortable if you end up only being able to bill 50% of your time in a given year – and for the purposes of simplicity (and to factor in holidays etc) we’ll use 2000 hours as a baseline for how many working hours there are in a year (and yes, most of us here in the US might actually work far more than that in many years). That means whatever your minimal rate is, you should be at least comfortable at 1000x that rate (i.e. 1000hrs of billable time).

My suggestion for a starting point would be to broadly estimate your costs on a month basis. For most people their mortgage/rent is the largest cost, often followed by food. I live in San Francisco, one of the more expensive cities in the US to live in so some of my costs are fairly high, though on the other hand I don’t own a car which saves me a great deal of money each month.

Don’t forget to include yearly costs that you don’t incur every month – for many consultants this probably includes various tools (new computer, printer, etc), travel that is not expensed, conferences & trade shows, business cards, your website, an accountant to file your business taxes, general liability insurance, health insurance, travel expenses (so maintaince on your car if you own one). For your own sanity you should include also some personal vacations, new clothes, gifts for friends, donations to charities your support, funding your annual IRA account etc.

And round up here – build in a cushion to your personal budgeting so you can afford to spend money to save time (I drop off my laundry at the cleaners on my corner and pick it up – my building doesn’t have a laundry machine so my alternative is walking down to a laundromat where my costs would only be slightly lower – but I would have to spend many hours washing, drying and folding my laundry – time far better spent on my business). You should be comfortable taking a taxi when you need to, or buying the flight whose times work best not which is the absolute cheapest (but causes you to waste many hours on layovers, get up/leave at crazy hours etc)

So from these budget exercises come up with a rough target for each month. Then factor in the fact that as a consultant you have to pay taxes – figure that assuming that about 40% of your gross will be taxes is relatively safe (in the US you will have income taxes, state and sometimes city income taxes, the employee AND employer portions of Social Security (that’s 15% right there – though it does cap out eventually – I think just before $100k currently but check with a professional for the current caps), and a variety of other taxes.

What does this mean? If your gross income for the month was $10,000 – assume your net would be around $6000.

Using that as a working number (and for quite a few people you probably can live very well and save money on net income of $6k each month), $10k per month gross gives a yearly target of $120,000, using our 1000 hours estimate that implies a rate of at least $120 per hour.

In turn that implies a rate for a day of consulting of I’d suggest at least $1000

and probably for a multiple day engagement involving preparation (calls and/or in person, a talk or presentation, and some follow up consulting/further meeting) a rate of around $5000

I would actually suggest adjusting these numbers upwards a bit however to factor in our original starting point – following up from an initial request to “bend your ear”.

I would probably reply to that with something like:

My rate for an hour phone consultation is $250, for a full day in person consulting engagement is $2000 plus expenses, and I will do an onsite workshop for $7500 plus expenses.

And then if pressed would explain that the workshop would include phone and/or in person preparations, the actual full or half-day onsite workshop, and a follow up. I would not – however – commit to a written report or the like – rather I would tailor the specific deliverables more closely to the actual goals of the engagement. So I might, for example, offer a workshop and then follow up with the attendees in a few weeks to review their progress and offer suggestions.

Keep in mind also that every client comes with certain hassles – you have to bill them, wait for payment, deposit that payment etc – and often fill our various company’s paperwork, follow up about your bills etc. Not for every client but slow or late payments will happen.

Realize that while the numbers I am playing around with in this post may for many seem high, in point of fact for many consultants they are not high at all – and like lawyers, consultants are frequently valued by the rates they charge. If your lawyer charges you $50/hr you assume they went to community college and may have taken many, many attempts to barely pass the bar – in contrast you assume that the partner at a firm who bills at a rate of $500/hr is significantly better skilled and experienced than the $50/hr lawyer.

This may or may not be the case – but the point here is that the perception of value is in large part created by the price assigned to a person’s time and the advice they are giving you.

So value yourself highly – and price yourself accordingly.

(it should go somewhat without saying, but I will spell it out here nonetheless, that I am assuming here that you really do have a lot of value and expertise to offer someone in the field in which you are consulting. That even in just an hour or two of your time you will be able to help someone – and that given a few days of your time and attention you will be able to create value for your clients far in excess of what you bill. Value can be created directly – helping suggest ways to save money or grow sales and value can be created indirectly by accelerating a process, by helping someone avoid wasting time & money on paths that would not be successful or which would not meet the corporate goals etc)

My own other rule of thumb is that it is rarely worth the effort to enter into a consulting engagement if my invoice won’t be five figures. That said, I could see doing some types of smaller engagements and I would suggest them as ways to work with new customers and build up new opportunities.

One further note about expenses. Expenses as a consultant are somewhat different than expenses as an employee. People’s practices and expectations around this vary – but here is my own personal rule of thumb and how I would feel most comfortable. Ideally, build the expected expenses into the quote and don’t file detailed expenses to the client – so for example if my rate for a workshop was $7500 and to fulfill that workshop I expected to incur expenses of $500 for printing materials for the workshop and $2000 for my flight, taxis, rental car and a couple of nights in a hotel, I would probably just invoice the client for $10k and make it simple.

On the other hand there are times when that will not work – a client might require you to use their travel agents and book at their corporate rate at a nearby hotel. In some of these cases that may also mean the client is going to directly cover the hotel & flight costs (which is then very easy) but if not keep accurate records and invoice accordingly.

What you should not do – and I mean this very seriously is any of the padding or other games so many people do with corporate expense reports. Nor would I suggest abusing the client’s trust with how you incur the expenses. Speaking as someone who has covered expenses for others, I have had people who booked flights at the very last minute, on major airlines, at very costly rate codes (to maximize frequent flyer miles I suspect) meaning that I incurred a $1500 expense for a flight which more typically would have been $500 or usually much less. That left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth as it was unexpected.

Likewise I would usually suggest using a simple and relatively low per diem rate for meals etc rather than lots of breakdowns of specific costs for your breakfasts etc while traveling. And again, best case you don’t have to detail these expenses at all but factor them directly into your rates and quotes to the client.

Above all else, value yourself and the value you will provide – and price accordingly. You do not, really, want to get into nitty gritty discussions about whether you spent too much on a lunch, rather you want to focus on the millions you are helping your clients make – rendering the mere “thousands” you are billing them a bargain.

And I am, somewhat, being serious here – ideally as a consultant you should be helping create a lot of value – and in how you are billing for that value creation sharing in that value to some degree, while also helping create an ongoing engagement, relationship and referrals for further work.

It is hard – a successful consultant must both be able to do great work (usually in a short, time compressed manner) and also sell new development while also reengaging with existing and past customers. Plus, for most independent consultants figure out all the details of billing, tax filing, insurance etc that come with running a small business.

And keep in mind, money can and will solve many of those smaller problems – accountants can be hired as can personal assistants.

Hope this is helpful. And, if you are interested in hiring me, lets talk – and no, these are not precisely my rates.

Posted in economics, Entrepreneurship, geeks, working | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Remember everyone is human – even the A-listers like Arrington & Scoble…

Posted by shannonclark on December 12, 2007

[full disclosure – Robert Scoble spoke at MeshForum 2006 in San Francisco. Oh and both he and Mike are friends of mine]

UPDATE – Robert has posted his side on his blog “It is your business

Though even if I did not count both Mike Arrington and Robert Scoble as friends, I would still find the commentary on Mike’s recent TechCrunch post about Robert’s plans to leave PodTech disturbing at best and more than slightly depressing at the worst.

Reading the comments I was struck by the vitriol of many of the commentators – the sense from them that both Robert and Mike “had it coming” (one commentator called Robert a “liar”). The comments also have a sense of being written about characters – not fellow humans (one comment talked about how Mike and Robert are “real world” friends – implying that somehow the comments and blog posts exist outside of the “real world”.

For most of my career in technology I was outside of Silicon Valley, I only moved here in January of 2006 full time (and spent some time here in the Fall of 2005 but spent much of that time looking for a place to live). The Chicago tech community was (and still is) much, much smaller than Silicon Valley’s. A recent Chicago email subscription I still have showed that that is still the case – the lead article was about how a bunch of Chicago based VCs all called Facebook’s valuation an “aberration”, clearly in my mind not understanding what Facebook is building.

Since moving out to Silicon Valley I have met many of the people who, back in Chicago, I read about. My opportunities to meet them have been at countless networking events, conferences, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Some public events, many others private gatherings of friends. The “secret” to Silicon Valley, however, is that people are friends with each other – the tech world is in many ways a very small place. At almost any networking event throughout the bay area “competitors” can be seen sharing drinks and talking with each other – more often than not individual employees may have gone to school together, worked together at previous companies and usually fully expect to work together again at some future company.

Founders and investors alike know as well that the links that connect people here in Silicon Valley are many and diverse – it is a rare company here that does not have countless ties to other firms across the valley – shared investors, former colleagues, roommates.

Likewise, while in Chicago (and indeed in much of the rest of the US and world) failure is a taint, something which is assumed (again outside of Silicon Valley) to “ruin” you that is not entirely the case in Silicon Valley. Sure, no one – founders, investors, or employees wants a company to fail – but likewise nearly everyone knows that failure is a very real risk with any startup. And there are many different types of failures.

What matters most, though this is something which few (perhaps none?) of the commenters on TechCrunch grasp, is how you fail – and how as individuals you treat others, your investors, customers and partners.

In my observation how Mike Arrington and Edgeio are handling their failure is an honorable way. Yes, it is a bit abrupt but even that is likely better than lingering – especially for the employees who will almost certainly find other employment.

But to get back to my main point and the topic of this post – Remember everyone is human

Yes, this includes the “A-listers”

And yes, even lawyers and VC’s.

Even at the biggest of companies – whether Microsoft, IBM, or newer giants such as Yahoo! and Google – are, in fact, the result of the collective efforts of 1000’s of individuals, fellow humans all.

It is easy for everyone to be snarky, to gossip, to offer commentary and to put down someone else – we all have more than our share of faults.

But I also believe and my life and career keep reinforcing this point over and over again that your expectations about others are usually right but that the causation here is not simple – if you expect others to be jerks, to be untrustworthy, to be stupid, to “not get it”, it is your very attitude which helps that self-fulfilling point of view. In contrast if you approach the world assuming the best of others, assuming that generally speaking people are good, smart and trying hard, and willing to help more often than not you are proved right. Again, your attitude helps shape the world around you – and equally importantly what you focus on and emphasize for yourself.

This is not I should note looking at the world with rose-colored glasses or being naive about business matters. Rather this is about what you focus on, what you spend your time cultivating starting with your own attitude and approach to others.

Starting with how you interact with people in person and most definitely including how you interact with others online.

One of the commenters on TechCrunch whom I won’t name here except to say he (and yes, I am assuming he is male from his writing style on his personal blog) was very active on this post, is also apparently in the midst of seeking funding and partners for a new venture. While I always wish everyone the best, I also have to note that were I advising someone about his venture (an investor for example or a friend considering working for him) I would caution against it. Because of the attitude about others which comes through in his blog and comments – a strongly bitter sense of betrayal and a core assumption that others are idiots, wasting money, doing things in stupid ways etc.

(all while, I should note he is, I think, missing some technical approaches to a problem he is facing)

But. And this is a big but, I would still be happy to meet him, to discuss what he is doing, and very likely even offer my help. I believe in giving everyone a chance.

My view is that you can and do shape reality around you – how you approach others reflects back upon you, shapes how they will interact with you. If, as I have advised in the past you approach everyone starting from the perspective of “how can I help you” when you need help it will be there, likely from the most surprising of people.

I am by other’s accounts a networker – yet the core “secret” I have found to getting things done in the past has been the simple act of asking for the help I need. And if someone says no not just giving up but learning from that – and asking follow up questions such as “can you suggest who could…” [speak in your place, sponsor the event, etc]

So I encourage all of you to think about this when you next read about celebrities – whether “a-list” bloggers, startup founders, or media stars – and remember that everyone is human.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks, internet, meshwalk, networks, personal, San Francisco, venture capital, web2.0, working | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cooking simple dishes

Posted by shannonclark on December 10, 2007

For lunch today I had a salad which I prepared at home. Everything in the salad I purchased at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market this past Saturday, all directly from the farmers and everything was local and organic. I started with a base of mixed greens, then added some baby potatoes which I boiled until tender (checked with a fork) and then cut in half. I then sliced a few small purple onions – not the type which are bulb shaped but a variety that is closer to what people call “green onions”. To top off the salad I had a piece of duck confit which I had purchased from a local charcuterie at the market. I finished the duck confit by heating it until crisp in a cast iron pan on my stove top, I then shredded it and gave the shredded pieces a few minutes to crisp up even further.

For the dressing I took an old small jar (which had once held artichoke hearts) and added balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and some dried basil. I then close the top and shook the dressing until it stayed on the sides of the jar (I typically use about 1 part olive oil for every 1 part vinegar and add olive oil as needed to get the right texture).

And I finished by tossing the salad so that every piece of lettuce and potatoes was dressed.

Very simple, but also very satisfying, quick to make and extremely tasty. If I had had something else to go with it, also more than enough for two people. All for a total cost of about $10 or less.

Last night I was at a friend’s dinner party down the Peninsula, the party was a BBQ so there was plenty of meat dishes but as I looked over what was on the menu I noticed we didn’t have many vegetables at all (okay, no vegetables at all actually). So I asked if I could make something with ingredients he had around his kitchen – and he said “sure”.

So I made a couple of quick dishes.

First, a very, very simple dish of mashed potatoes. He had a couple of pounds of baby red potatoes, I simply put them into two large pots on the stove in water so all the potatoes were covered and let them cook on a medium temperature until tender.  As the potatoes cooked I diced up a medium yellow onion into fine cubes and sauteed the onions in extra virgin olive oil. I added some pre-chopped garlic to the onions near the very end and I only lightly turned the onions, just enough to avoid burning.

When the potatoes were finished I mostly drained them and dumped them into a large glass bowl. Some of the water they had boiled with stayed which was fine. I then added a half of a stick of butter, salt and fresh pepper. I let the butter melt a bit and started smashing the potatoes. I then added the onions and garlic and finished mashing.

Since he did not have a large fork or a potato masher I used two table knives to slice the potatoes (skins and all) going at various angles to end up with well mashed potatoes, this is where having cooked the potatoes correctly and fully really paid off.

As I was mashing the potatoes I had a second dish cooking as well, while I was waiting for the other parts to finish I had thinly sliced a couple of zucchinis. I sliced them into very thin (a couple of mm) circles and then sauteed them in the same pan as I had sauteed the onions, adding just a bit more olive oil back to them. I also lightly salted them and ground a little bit of fresh black pepper on them.

I sauteed them until they were mostly tender and the thinest pieces were almost translucent. I served this dish in a simple, shallow white bowl.

Neither dish lasted very long at all at the party – they were both long eaten before any of the BBQ meats were ready.

So I also made a simple dressing to go with some salad greens someone had brought. For the dressing I found a large old jar w/lid. Added balsamic, extra virgin olive oil, salt, fresh pepper, some dried basil and a couple of spoonfuls of brown mustard. Again, I closed the lid and shook until the dressing stuck to the sides. The up and down shaking emulsifies the oil and vinegar – more simply and quickly than any other technique I had seen or tried.

So that was my simple cooking for the past few days – nothing very complicated – but also apparently from the compliments I got appreciated.

My philosophy of cooking is to start with the best ingredients I can get and to then do about the bare minimum needed to them to bring out their flavors. I try to use fresh, local, seasonal ingredients as much as possible (for which I love living in California) and at least when cooking at home I also care a great deal about the freshness and quality of the spices, olive oils, vinegars and the like which I use while cooking. Most of my spices are from The Spice House in Chicago which is, by far, my favorite place to buy spices – and one of the things I most miss from my old neighborhood in Chicago (I lived just a block away from their Chicago store and could run down the street to get just about any spice I might ever need).

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Online advertising and a few of the many problems

Posted by shannonclark on December 7, 2007

Full disclosure – my new company, Nearness Function, is a new advertising network so I am diving deeply into the digital advertising industry and am thus not at all an unbiased observer

As I have been working on launching Nearness Function I have been paying very close attention to various types of advertising – both on the web, in mobile applications, in some desktop applications and advertising everywhere else. Lately I have seen a couple of understandable but, I think, highly unproductive trends in ads online. These trends being examples of some of the many reasons online advertising is not living up to all of the hype and potential.

A bit of background as I understand the industry today – and as I noted above, I’m working to change this. At present roughly speaking the US total advertising spending per year is about $300B, of that about $22B or so is spent online, the rest is spent across a range of media (TV, Radio, newspapers, magazines, outdoor advertising). I am not 100% certain if yellow page ads and direct mail are also included in those figures and there is also some portion of ads which are in new/experimental forms (elevator screens, private tv networks in airports, “guerrilla” marketing in the streets, sponsorships etc). I also don’t know how/if some forms of sponsorships are included in that $300B figure (Nascar, “naming rights” to stadiums etc).

Online the majority of the current spending is “direct response” advertising – i.e. ads intended primarily to drive a specific action (often a “click”) – most famously (and successfully) being search advertising which is dominated by Google.  There is also a large business of “lead generation” (again, I don’t know what portion of that industry is included in the oft cited figures of online advertising). Lead generation is also a term tossed around by many firms but with slightly different spins – but in general as I understand it the business is essentially adding a layer of pre-qualification and data capturing to drive highly targeted traffic and potential clients to a firm. The lead generation firms , in turn, often buy a lot of online (mostly direct response) advertising which then directs the people who click to take a series of steps to qualify them as possible leads for the clients of the lead generation firm.

The question for the stats being what portion of the spending by the firms who are clients of the lead generation companies “counts” as advertising spending (vs. some other category of spending). Clearly in turn the lead generation firms spend a lot of money in online advertising (but we should also be cautious not to double count spending).

But leaving questions of the exact size of the current (US) online advertising market aside for the moment I have issues with the mechanics of advertising online today. I should also note that I also believe, very strongly, that focusing just on  the “US” market is foolish – the Internet is already no longer majority US users and over time this will only increase. Many of the publishers (of online software/web 2.0 applications) with whom we have been speaking report as much as 60% or more of their users are outside of the US. And there are many sites and applications with millions of active users the vast majority of whom are not from the US (cyworld in Korea is a huge example, Google’s own Orcut being another of many).

I think there are many problems with online advertising today – one large reason I have decided to co-found a new ad network is to address some of these many issues (which I think are also opportunities in many cases). In this post I now want to highlight two related issues I have with a lot of online advertising.

First, too many online ads, especially various forms of banners/graphic ads, break with how the rest of the web functions

and

Second, with only a few exceptions, online advertising is not patient enough or respectful of the possible interest & needs of actual users

To expand on my first point.

If you look across the web you will find that an increasingly large number of ads being served up on various websites are taking the form of a flash banner (or often square) display ad. However frequently the ad itself is not actually interactive or a flash application. As a result if you do happen to want to interact with or click on the ad you don’t know what will happen – will it be an interaction in the same page i.e. a flash application? Will it open to a page in the same window? Will it open in a new tab/window? You can’t (and I think this is usually very deliberately the case) even see what the URL for the new page will be – you just have to click and be taken there.

Now from an ad network perspective I understand why this is a desired behavior. If you get paid only on “clicks” you want to direct all those clicks through your systems so you can count them uniquely – know which creative (i.e. specific ad graphic & text) drove that traffic. From a business perspective this then drives who you as the ad network have to pay. You may also be doing some redirection – so a person clicks, is sent one place then redirected to the destination (a “landing page”).

But from the end user perspective this opacity is not what we have come to expect from the web. I have often had my attention caught by an offer, by something in an ad, and actually wanted to learn more about that company – but almost never do I want to do that in the same tab as whatever site I happen to be in – rather I want to open up that new page as a new tab.

A brief sidebar about how I use my browser of choice, Firefox, which might explain why I would want to do this. I typically have a handful of core websites open as different tabs at all times. Two different tabs for email (my personal/general email and my Nearness Function specific email), a tab for Facebook, a tab for Twitter, a tab for my task management tool of choice Remember the Milk, often a tab for the stats of my blog (or as is now the case for writing a post there) and then usually a few other tabs related whatever I am currently working on. I’ll often open up a tab for my calendar (Google calendar) or to research events (upcoming.org usually) etc.

If, for example, an ad on Facebook catches my attention, I don’t want to replace my facebook tab with whatever that ad points to – rather I want to open up that advertiser’s site in a new window and then follow up with it as my leisure. Likely taking a quick glance at it when I first open it up, but I might then refocus on email & other tasks and only take a longer look many hours later when I have more time.

In this specific case, most of the ads on Facebook (graphic ads) do in fact open up in new windows (however some of the ads on/around Facebook go to other parts of Facebook or stay in the same tab/window). But since until after I click I have no way of telling this (a right click only brings up the flash controls) I actually don’t usually click on graphics ads.

And from a UI perspective the flash and graphics nature of many current ads leads me to wonder if a click inside of the ad will open up a new page OR if it will take the form of some form of interaction within that banner (many, many flash ads on the web imply via their animations that there are some forms of interaction which can occur inside of the ad unit – i.e. the infamous “whack a mole” type ad banner games etc.)

When the user is not certain what will happen when he or she takes an action, it is much, much less likely any action other than ignoring will take place at all. 

Which leads me to my second pet peeve and issue.

Literally every day online some ad banner will, in fact, catch my attention – at least for a moment. I’ll take a quick note of it and think “hmm that might be useful/interesting/worth checking out” (especially since I am interested in the mechanics of advertising campaigns not just in products or services which I might be interested in specifically.).

However for the vast, vast majority of websites if I don’t interact with and click on that ad immediately – if for example I instead continue on with my regular interaction with that site (finishing reading an article, send a message to a friend on Facebook, write a comment to a blog post, etc) when I’m done with that interaction almost always the ad has been swapped out for another, very different ad and there is no way for me as a user to go back to and see the ad which had caught my attention.

In other words, I am an interested, live, very real possible customer who wants more information but I don’t have any way to get it if I didn’t drop whatever else I was doing and immediately interact with that ad (and as I noted above usually these days in a way which will lead to results which I can’t predict – I may get a new tab, or I may not). Since I couldn’t easily right click and open up the destination in a new tab (i.e. know I could then continue on my way and check out the company at my leisure) I almost always just don’t click at all.

Furthermore, in the majority of websites today I don’t have any way to indicate “go back and show me the ad you just had in front of me”. In fact if I use the back button on my browser I may get the ad via a cache (or I may not) and depending on what I was otherwise doing on the site I may get a bunch of other, unwanted interactions (I might, for example, have been in the middle of filling out a form – say leaving a comment somewhere). So going “back” may not be what I want to do.

Taking a longer term view of things the seemingly random mix of ads (technically usually “run of network/site” ads) which get shown on a majority of websites today means that as a user I see very little resonance between brands and the site or application which I am using. Even on sites such as Salon.com who usually have a given sponsor for a given day since these change so frequently (and can then be seemingly random with how they choose to show/not show ads for that day’s “site pass” sponsor) as the user I don’t end up getting a strong brand impression. I don’t usually transfer the respect and admiration I have for the given site (Salon.com for example) to the brand(s) which are supporting that resource I value.

In contrast, advertising offline is far, far more patient and much better, I’d argue, about building up longer term associations and relationships. Not in all cases to be sure, but on TV for example the same brand(s) will usually be seen supporting the same show over at least most of the same season. However the mixture of national ads (which are usually consistent for a given season) and local ads (which are much less constant) does diminish this effect today. Similarly on radio the same sponsors typically sponsor the same timeslots over relatively long periods of time.

Print publications frequently see repeat advertisers across even entire years of publication – the New Yorker to which I have subscribed for many, many years has some advertisers who are in every single issue. Some who almost always buy a full page ad (or multiple pages) and others who are buying just a small piece of a single column. But because they buy these ads on an ongoing, repeated basis, as a regular subscriber I recognize them and have a generally positive impression of them (after all they have been supporting one of my favorite publications for many, many years).

And though I might not be in the market for say a French Beret today, when/if I were I would probably turn first to the pages of the New Yorker and find the ad for that specialty firm who has been advertising there years.

Brands are very powerful and important – I’d argue in today’s global and deeply competitive market even more so now than in the past. However I don’t see companies online buying, delivering and deploying advertising in ways that truly help build and maintain brands over time. All to often campaigns are very short lived, very diffuse and disconnected from the site and applications they are embedded in and around, and in the quest for massive numbers of impressions (so showing a new ad everytime the user loads a new page – however “page” might be defined) means that there is little connection for most users between the advertisers and the service(s) they are trying to support.

And it is not much better in the online video space but that’s a topic for a future post.

I welcome feedback, suggestions, comments, and especially examples of sites, advertisers and even competing ad networks which do get it right (or at least come closer than most) in doing a good job.

Posted in advertising, economics, Entrepreneurship, internet, networks, web2.0 | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Tin Man, Oz and my odd view on media

Posted by shannonclark on December 5, 2007

I have read all of the original Oz books and many of the later continuations by other authors. Indeed one of the reasons I am a collector of books was my love of the Oz books and my sadness that my mom’s childhood collection of all 1st editions of the Oz books is now lost to the family, sold or donated sometime when my great-grandparents moved to a small home.

This week the Sci Fi channel is running a mini-series, Tin Man, based on the Oz books. Very loosely based in many ways and with much updating and reinterpretations. The reviews have not been kind.

However I love it.

But, and this is a big but, I have to also explain that I do NOT like the original Oz movie. My memory and love of Oz is and has always been for the books, not the movie. The movie was in many ways a simplification of the books, true to the books in some respects, but very different in many other ways.

I know, however, that my view and love of books vs. movies (and don’t get me wrong, I’m also a huge movie buff and former projectionist) is somewhat in the minority in America today and in the past. That far more people focus on the movie version than usually read the original books (even the Harry Potter series are neck and neck though there perhaps the books actually have the upper hand – though only just).

Hollywood for some reason however does not seem to trust great children’s books to make movies from them, instead usually insisting on radical changes and simplifications of what are actually more subtle and complex stories than usually given credit for being and TV adaptations are no exception to this trend.

In a few days a Hollywood version of a more recent children’s book, The Golden Compass is going to be going into wide release (sneak previews where held a few days ago though I missed them). Apparently the movie in a bid to win some acceptance here in the US manages to avoid all mention of a key element of the book – i.e. the strong anti-Church message and the underlying arguments against religion and God (small spoiler – in the last book of the series Pullman kills off “god” with almost literally a whimper).

I am an atheist and I am happy to see The Golden Compass get a movie treatment, but saddened that the power of Pullman’s book is diminished and weakened by the Hollywood treatment – I would have much preferred (I suspect) a more accurate treatment of his book – though I do also definitely plan on seeing the movie on the big screen.

But back to Tin Man. I am frankly surprised that the Oz series (and it is a very, very long series, there literally 100’s of books by various authors now part of the series, with many of the earliest books being highly collectible and fairly valuable. Don’t believe me? Spend some time exploring the comprehensive Oz Timeline) has not been made into a tv series or series of movies before. Perhaps the first Wizard of Oz movie has cast a rather too long shadow.

What I always loved about the Oz series was their inventiveness and though as I grew older I started to wish for a bit more grit, a bit more complexity, I also appreciated that though there was good and evil in the books good triumphed without itself being evil. This last bit may come as a surprise to anyone most familiar with the movie or the first book, where there are some actual killing (of evil witches admittedly) and other violence, but over time less and less of the books involve violence as a solution to problems – indeed non-violent solutions that don’t involve killing are emphasized.

So why do I really, really like the Sci-Fi channel’s Tin Man series? For one thing, I am enjoying their riffs and modern updatings and takes on the original materials – mostly it is all there, just stretched and modified – and the post-modern in me loves these bits of metafiction to the series.

I also find it a visually compelling work, perhaps as in all too much of American filmmaking a bit overdone in repetition of key sequences (a pet peeve of mine, I’d rather filmmakers figured out a way to not just reuse the same images for constant flashbacks again and again). The ability of modern filmmakers to leverage green screens and CGI’s is rapidly changing what it is possible to imagine and create – as a fan of the fantastic I am enjoying seeing how this creative freedom and increasingly accessible realism is being used by directors – CGI only characters can now have a great deal of depth and impact.

I understand that some fans don’t like this series, however for me it is a really enjoyable work of reinterpretation. Though part of me wishes that rather than a one-off miniseries it was in fact the beginning of an ongoing series – I think, though fans of just the 1938 movie may find this hard to believe, there is a richness and depth to the Oz series which would and could support an ongoing television series. Though it would, like only a few other series, be one with a changing cast of characters – the beauty and richness of the Oz books is that they feature a wide range of characters and stories – they are not at all just the ongoing story of Dorthy.

Though Oz is a very American tale, perhaps in some ways the first truly American Fairy Tale (and since the 1938 movie an ongoing part of the American psyche) I feel there is some degree of kinship between Oz (the books) and my favorite TV show of all time, Doctor Who. Both feature a wide range of stories and characters and to a degree a similar approach to the world – an approach which is not religious in nature (surprisingly for an American story perhaps, especially these days) and one which assumes that good can and usually will prevail. The even when it seems darkest and that all may be lost, hope, good will and intent can find a way.

Perhaps that’s stretching a point a bit – but I see and feel some kinship.

In any case not owning a TV I am awaiting the Sci Fi Channel putting the third and final part of Tin Man online for all to view for free (I watched the other parts via the website).

Posted in internet, Movies, personal, reading, reviews | 2 Comments »

Twitter vs. Facebook Status for social awareness

Posted by shannonclark on December 2, 2007

I am an early adopter of many technologies, being based in San Francisco and being a personal friend of many of the bloggers, investors, employees and fellow founders of “web 2.0” firms, I get invitations to try many different sites – and I adopt and use a small subset of these tools.

In the past year I have adopted three primary new pieces of web technology – though I have had the chance to play with probably literally 100’s of other sites and applications. In addition to the web technologies I have adopted I have also added a couple of other tools to my personal toolkit.

Two of these tools are Twitter, which I have used actively and avidly since SWSX earlier this year and Facebook which I adopted somewhat reluctantly a few months later this past spring (just after they opened it up to applications). For reference the other piece of web technology which I have added to my primary toolkit this year is Google Reader which finally displaced Bloglines as my primary RSS reader. The non-web (well not primarily web) technology I have adopted is the iPhone which replaced my Windows Mobile based cell phone (though I have been using the mobile web and mobile email access for 7+ years now).

There are a few other sites which I use, though not as avidly – Dopplr for awareness of some of my business contact’s travel plans, Plaxo for syncing my contacts (though increasingly Facebook is valuable to me as an updated addressbook), Kayak.com for pricing flights, Woot.com for the occasional online deal (and of course wordpress.com where this site is hosted).

But to get back to Twitter and Facebook.

I use Twitter a lot. I follow 93 different people (well mostly people, also woot.com) via twitter and 153 people follow me (if you want to follow me, my twitter account is rycaut). Since I joined twitter I have “tweeted” over 2100 times, far, far more tweets than blog posts I have written (though since my blog posts tend to be long, I think my blog still has a higher word count…)

On Facebook I don’t know the full stats, but I have something close to 200 friends (perhaps a few more) and I use Facebook on a daily basis.

I access both Twitter and Facebook primarily via my mobile phone – though I also keep a tab open to both sites on any computer I am actively using (I have both a desktop iMac and a laptop running Vista, on both I primarily use the latest non-beta version of Firefox). However while reading tweets and checking for facebook updates is something I do frequently while using my iPhone, it is something I do less often when in front of my computer.

I do not use a specialized twitter client (snitter or twitterific, though I have twitterific installed the version I have installed is an older one and I usually don’t keep it open).

What I noticed tonight, however, is that while my friends are fairly active in keeping their facebook status messages active and updated, I get a richer and deeper picture of what they are doing via twitter – and I think they get more from my use of Twitter than from my use of Facebook.

In large part this is because twitter is, as my friends use it, a mix of conversational tool AND ongoing stream of updates. However on Facebook my friend’s status messages are usually interspersed amongst a mix of other news feed items (and yes, I know about the dedicated means of viewing just friend’s status updates) but even there it is a single, short message – not a part of an ongoing conversation. Unlike on twitter, on Facebook there is not a rich, simple way to view someone’s status messages over time – and do so for all of your friends over time in the same view.

Twitter on the other hand is an ongoing conversation between my friends – some of whom are also talking with each other, many of whom only I (among my friends) follow. I twitter questions, notes about what I am doing, observations about the world around me and my life – and as happened frequently today I get back comments, suggestions, and feedback from friends across the planet.

I also get to see in real time when friends are all gathered together (they usually end up twittering about the same stuff – this weekend it was a bunch of friends in LA for the Winnies awards for videobloggers). I get to hear about the first snowfall of the season in NY, about storms in Portland, about news in nearly realtime as it is reported (tonight it was the announcement and blog posts about LiveJournal being sold by Six Apart).

Tonight as well I reconnected with a friend back in Chicago via twitter – I had followed his posts earlier today about the weather and working in Chicago, tonight he commented on my tweets about spending the weekend alone, and our friendship was in a very real way strengthened.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and use Facebook for many things – but twitter, for all of the apparent simplicity of the tool (I primarily use it via SMS messages) is by far the most impactful tool I have adopted this year in sheer terms of adding value and richness to my life nearly every single day.

So thanks Twitter – keep up the great work!

Posted in geeks, personal, reviews, web2.0 | 11 Comments »