Searching for the Moon

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

Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review – The Impact Equation by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

Posted by shannonclark on October 12, 2012

Reading The Impact Equation at Blue Bottle Mint Plaza in San Francisco

Do you know how to make an impact? How to get heard? How to have your ideas shared with the world and have an impact?

My friend Chris Brogan along with his co-author Julien Smith have a new book, The Impact Equation: Are You Making Things Happen or Just Making Noise?, which will be published on Oct 25th, 2012. They sent me a preview copy and over the past couple of weeks I have been reading it at cafes and on the muni here in San Francisco. My copy is already dog eared and flagged with post-its for easy reference back to key points in the book.

TLDR review – pre-order this book and read it

First a few disclosures and admissions. One, Chris Brogan is a friend – not an old “grew up” with friend, but not just someone whom I follow on social media channels, he’s someone whom I have met in person many times and whom I knew years ago before he had books published and a speaking schedule that takes him around the world. Two, I haven’t (yet) read Trust Agents which is Chris and Julien’s earlier book. My stack of books to be read – for fun and for business including far too many by folks I know has been large and growing over the past few years and somehow I haven’t gotten to Trust Agents yet. Three, many of the people they write about in this new book (and I suspect in their previous book) are people I know friends from here in San Francisco and from the larger tech/social media/blog/podcasting world. Four, I don’t have the 1000’s of readers/followers/listeners of folks like Chris and Julien but I am as they say “a degree away” from many people who do – folks with millions of followers and a high impact on the world.

With all of that disclosed up front I have been inspired not just to write this review but to rethink a bunch of my personal projects (including this blog) and over the next few weeks and months I anticipate making many personal and professional changes inspired in no small part by the ideas of The Impact Equation. I can’t summarize their book in a few short paragraphs but I will summarize a few of their early and key points and discuss how I plan on addressing them.

To start with the equation itself (quoting from the pre-release copy but I assume this key part won’t change in the final print edition):

Impact = C x (R + E + A + T + E)

Yes, that is, not surprisingly, the simple yet key fact that to have impact now (and in the past) you have to create – frequently, often and well. The full equation defines each part and the book illustrates each aspect of the equation. Contrast – a new idea has to familiar yet different enough to be noticed. Reach – the number of people you can get connected to your ideas. Exposure – how often do you connect with the people you can reach. Articulation – being understood and clear in communicating your idea. Trust – the subject of their previous book but still not entirely figured out – but why will people listen to you? And finally Echo – the feeling of connection that great ideas and impactful people create.

Fairly simple, fairly memorable yet also complex enough to warrant a full book (and I’m sure many more talks and presentations in the future for Chris and Julien).

On a person level my biggest takeaways from the book is a reminder to get myself back into the ongoing, frequent content creation business – that if I want to grow my own personal impact I need to create more content, more often, and more thoughtfully. Furthermore I need to think about this whether I’m going to continue being an independent consultant or if I join a larger organization. That while I may have some impact in my tweets, comments, email list participation and even events that I create if I were more thoughtful about my online (and offline) activities I could have a much greater impact on the world. With more thoughtful (and literally more frequent) effort I can have a far larger impact on the world than i do today. That I can take the conversations I have one-on-one today and still have that impact but also bring it to a far wider audience.

For some of this I will have to get out of my comfort zone – write more content, experiment with new formats for myself (video? audio?) and generate this content far more frequently than I have been for the past few years.

In each of the chapters of The Impact Equation Chris and Julien cover a mix of specific tactics (and the occasional exercise to get you thinking) as well as stories that illustrate their key ideas. Some of these stories are from business people they have met others are illustrated with celebrities they admire. But in every chapter they also focus on asking you to think about how this applies to yourself – how would you evaluate yourself on this dimension of their equation. I think most of these chapters and the book over all are compelling but not every chapter is equally strong.

The initial chapters on Ideas – on Contrast and Articulation are very good and have a lot of useful exercises for everyone. In particular they have a lot of great exercises around how to evaluate your own ideas and how to communicate them clearly.

The middle chapters on Platforms – on Reach and Exposure – however are a bit weaker. In particular I think the chapter on Exposure is the weakest chapter in the book. In part this is because Exposure is in no small part outside of your direct control. They talk in this chapter about the exposure that someone like Jimmy Fallon has from his tv show but they also talk about the impact of frequency on your exposure but the links and what will work best for most people is not entirely clear from this chapter (and it is perhaps not an easy thing to answer). They have a lot of great questions and a few answers but this chapter left me a bit unsatisfied. Yes, participating in the communities you want to reach is great advice (it is what I tell my clients in fact) but it takes more than just that to get great exposure of your ideas.

The final chapters on Network – on Trust and Echo, Echo – are perhaps surprisingly among the shortest in the book. The chapter on Trust is a revisit (per what they wrote, I haven’t yet read Trust Agents) of the topic of their earlier collaboration. The chapter on Echo (Echo, Echo) is nearly the end of the book and very important but also fairly short. It is about how your ideas resonant and connect. Very important but I think if they could have gone a bit deeper here the whole book would have “echoed” for me even more strongly. But that said they make some really important points in this last chapter leading to the conclusion of the book.

Overall as I said above my recommendation is that you go out and buy this book – in fact that you go preorder it now to be among the first to read it. I hope for my friend’s sake that it is a huge hit and given the quality of the content I’m sure it will be a successful book. More importantly on a personal front it has many parts that I will be using myself to make changes in the coming weeks to my own professional habits and practices and online (and offline) content.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks, networks, podcasts, reading, reviews, working | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

late night update on tools for a move

Posted by shannonclark on April 5, 2011

So as many of you may know last week I moved from my apartment of a bit over four years into my girlfriend’s home, still here in SF but a move is a move and requires lots of sorting, packing, boxing and unboxing. Most of that is behind us (though a few boxes remain to unpack) and I will likely write a longer blog post about the move process, this is just a quick post to highlight one service and one iPhone application which have both been exceptionally useful in this process.

The service – EcoHaul this is a service which for a fee based on the portion of their truck you fill will come to your house and haul away nearly anything which they will then sort and donate to charity or ecologically recycle. Sure you could try to get various charities to directly pick up your stuff, you could arrange for one to pick it up from your curb or you could just leave stuff on your curb. In the later two cases chances are someone not the charity you called will end up with some of your items which is, I guess, recycling of a sort but calling EcoHaul to come two days before my movers arrived was a fantastic solution for me. For a fairly reasonable fee (I think at least) they took away a whole range of items I had long wanted to donate to a charity, a bunch of older electronics which would be hard to dispose of safely and they arrived on time and were highly efficient throughout the whole process. Later this month I’ll receive an itemized donation receipt from them for the items which they could give to charities.

The iPhone Application – BookScouter they do have a website as well but it is the simple yet effective iPhone application which has been highly helpful over the past week. Before this move I owned over 2000 books. While I have been packing and unpacking those books I have been evaluating whether I want to still own a each book as I unpack it. With the books I decided I no longer needed I have been selling many of them at two of my favorite local bookstores for store credit. What Bookscouter does is scan book barcodes or look up by ISBN number a given book and then display for you the prices at which a number of different websites will buy back that book from you. Many of these sites specialize in textbooks so they will not buy many books but by using Bookscouter to scan my books I have pulled aside nearly 50 books and will end up seeing probably over $200 back on top of the nearly $300 in store credit I have received from the books I have already sold to local bookstores.

Posted in personal, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Soloist – second great film of 2009

Posted by shannonclark on April 30, 2009

soloist

I have been waiting for The Soloist for a few months now and this past evening I watched it here in San Francisco in a mostly empty theater, admittedly the last show of the night on a Wednesday, but this is a film that should be playing to packed houses. 

I learned about The Soloist by listening to an interview by Terry Gross with Steve Lopez, the journalist who’s articles and then book (The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music) were the basis of the film. 

The film stars my favorite actor, Robert Downey Jr as Steve Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathanial Ayers, the homeless musician whose story forms a core of the film. I say a core becuase this is a film with at least two other stories in many ways equally important. The obvious other story is that of Steve Lopez, a writer in the dying newspaper industry, divorced from his wife who is, however, still his boss and his struggle with telling Nathanial’s story and being his friend while also in many ways benefiting from telling that story. He wins an award in the film and as a viewer of the film I was uncomfortably reminded that the film itself is, in some ways, exploiting Nathanial’s story.

Which leads me to the third story which is key to the film and to why it is a Participant Media production, the plight of the homeless in LA and by extension throughout the US and the world. I’ve written about the corosive impact of the homeless or more specifically trying to at times ignore the homeless has on myself. Participant Media is Jeff Skoll’s business, they were the producers of The Inconvient Truth and Syriana. When they make a film they do so with a mission and a purpose behind it, their films are intended to both entertain and to inspire participation and action. 

As an outside observer, albeit one with lots of friends with associations with Jeff Skoll and his foundation, I greatly admire the Participant Media business model – doing good in no small part as a result of making money. They are harnassing the great power of capitalism and Hollywood to serve additional purposes, but do so while making entertaining films – at least for the most part.

But getting to the heart of the matter, why do I add The Soloist to We Live In Public as my second great film of 2009?

First this is a film which great benefits from being seen in a first run, top notch theater. Visually it has a crisp and specific look, though a few scenes are more light show visualizations than traditional film and the visual style of fluid, not fully realistic but I thought effectively representative of the subject of the film. But where being in a great theater adds most richly to The Soloist is in the music of the The Soloist. This is classical music done well and creatively. All of the cello parts are played by Ben Hong of the LA Philharmonic who had to play in three different styles during different parts of the film.

Second this is a film that confronts ugliness in our cities, an ugliness that we all to often avoid and ignore, but does not do so in a simple manner. The homeless in the film are characters, are shown as humans not caricatures and are shown in a range of human emotions – love, happiness, sorry and yes at times violence. But the film depicts all of this with a clarity rarely seen in films – fiction or documentaries. And it does not offer any simple answers or solutions – Steve Lopez’s actions are not morally pure, Nathanial Ayers is not simply mentally ill, the effects of Lopez’s stories (and I’m sure of this film) will resonant for years but unless they help spark structural changes in our cities and health care (and employment and more) they won’t have any easy answers either. Helping one man singled out by a journalist across a range of mediums would be the most traditional of Holywood stories, helping address structural problems in our cities is far harder. 

In short though reviews have been mixed, my verdict is clear, this is a film well worth seeing and pondering and I hope it inspires many different people to do small (and a few people large) steps to help address the problems that far, far too many people face in our country (and for that matter around the world).

For me the telling statistic among many was in the end titles of the film, that in the greater LA area there are over 90,000 homeless people. That is nearly two times as many people as the nearly 50,000 who live in my hometown of Oak Park, IL where I grew up. 

Or to put it another way, the homeless in LA could have replaced everyone I knew as a child, as well as the 1000’s of strangers in every home or apartment for miles all around my house with nearly two homeless people. A couple for every person I knew or met on the street.

A daunting and I find depressing perspective.

Posted in personal, reviews | 1 Comment »

Evaluating the Cloud – first impressions

Posted by shannonclark on April 15, 2009

In theory I am a huge fan of and proponent of moving towards cloud computing, in practice as I look at currently available options even I find the curent landscape confusing, a bit convoluted, and rife with decisions and options. 

Though I can program (in lots of languages) I am mostly an strategic consultant and business advisor, so while I do have specific technical requirements to look at, this article will mostly be written as a record of my process of evaluating cloud computing options from a business perspective. For a good, though incomplete, starting point for looking at cloud computing options from a more purely individual developer perspective IBM has a great article on current clound computing options

As I have noted many times on this blog and on my twitter I am not a fan of Microsoft Vista (I consider it the worst OS I have ever used in some 25+ years of using computers). Though I have managed fairly large scale Miscrosoft servers in the past, I am also not a fan of Microsoft centric solutions for web applications – I don’t use Visual Studio as my primary development platforms, I would never encourage a client to build a web application that requires IE. So while Microsoft Azure is a cloud computing option I am not going to consider it in this blog post.

There is a more practical reason for this as well, as I write this, Microsoft has not yet announced the costs of Azure and it is currently only a Community Technology Preview. Without this data or a production ready environment Azure is not a responsible choice for a startup nor for a new venture which will be used in production of a larger company. 

So what factors will I use to evaluate cloud computing options? And then what are my initial conclusions?

Factors

  1. Development platforms and options. Google App Engine, for example, currently only supports Python but will soon also support Java bytecode (which in turn opens it up to a range of other languages potentially). For some development needs and teams this is not a limitation at all, for others it removes App Engine as an option. Any cloud computing offering that allows for in essense virtual server instances will typically support a wide range of languages on those servers (as well as development frameworks). However other business concerns, such as how you plan on load balancing and scaling your applications may impact language and framework choices.
  2. Business tools included. This is more of a factor for a startup, especially a bootstrapping startup than it is for a larger company. A larger company may have preexisting payment processing systems established or may build an application for reasons other than direct revenue via the application. Not every startup either will need monetization or pass-through billing options. Here Amazon Web Services has a small lead over competitors at least in my initial research as they offer a range of options to handle payment from clients, including billing which includes the Amazon Web Services costs and only charges a small percentage on what you bill your clients over the costs of the client’s usage (currently 3% + $0.30 in most cases).  Salesforce.com for example might offer access into a pre-qualified pool of potential customers, customers already paying on a monthly, per-user basic for software-as-a-service. 
  3. Match to your business model. Different providers of cloud solutions have created those solutions based on a wildly different assumptions about the business model of their customers, understanding this and making best guesses (in the case of a startup or of a new project at a larger company) will help narrow down to a manageable pool of vendors. Some providers are optimized for the needs of applications which will store and distribute large amounts of data – here the costs per GB of data (stored and distributed) could be a key business factor in evaluating vendors. As importantly performance could be a key factor, some cloud computing vendors have already built relationships with Content Distribution Networks which can help with the delivery of large files to large numbers of people. But the same cloud vendors might not be a good solution for streaming options (depending on how they work with those content distribution networks and a range of other factors such as network topology). 
  4. External factors – a simple example, if you have the type of service which can (and should) be crawled by search engine robots, then it needs to be easily crawled by them at all times – this means that your service needs to be persistent and likely you need a static IP address for the web server(s) hosting anything which might be linked to via external services. A more subtle point, if you will be exposing your appliction as a widget in other sites or as an application inside of social networks you will likely need to ensure 24/7 access to your application and need to have very good response times. Add in a requirement to work with external 3rd party API’s and services (ads, web services etc) and you may need to look at hybrid approaches or base your business models upon an assumption that at least one instance remains up at all times (and then have to factor in how much time it takes for additional instances to instantiate when you are looking at how you will scale if demand spikes). 
  5. Your comfort with business partner risk – some cloud computing vendors seem unlikely to either go out of business or to exit the cloud computing business. Google and Microsoft for example are unlikely to go out of business any time soon, Salesforce.com has built a substantial and growing business on the cloud, and Amazon.com seems both profitable and deeply committed to their cloud services. Smaller vendors such as Rackspace or GoGrid or the dozens of smaller still companies present a bit more of a risk. In Rackspace’s case the risk is not so much that they will go out of business (they have prospered for many years now and are growing) but rather how/if they will consolidate a number of aquisitions. GoGrid has a compelling suite of offerings but presents a bit greater risk. For really business critical deployments (including for many startups especially once past the initial bootstrapping stage) I would thus recommend an exercise of exploring how to move from one cloud vendor to another as well as to stay aware of and have plans in place to use non-cloud based options. 
  6. International considerations – if your business is entirely inside of the US then any cloud vendor with a US presense is a viable option. However many cloud vendors have restrictions which may impact your decision as you look at global use cases. Payment processing, a key selling point for some vendors, is often restricted to only US customers. Some vendors have great pricing of data usage within the US but charge additional fees for international traffic (directly or indirectly). For example, Amazon Web Services has different clouds for the US and the EU, data transfers within a cloud (between EC2 instances and S3 for example) are free, but if you need to move data between the EU and the US then fees are charged. 

And these are by no means the only factors I am looking at, but are some of the initial ones I am considering as I research options. In follow up posts I hope to explore the current Cloud Computing landscape as well as my initial perceptions of each vendor I look at seriously. I will also, I hope, write up in more detail the technical requirements I have at the moment for the specific project which is inspiring this search. 

Please add other factors you would suggest I consider in the comments below!

Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks, internet, mobile, reviews, startupcamp, web2.0 | Leave a Comment »

Unique and useful stores around the Moscone Center in San Francisco

Posted by shannonclark on March 31, 2009

In this post I will highlight a number of my favorite little hidden gems of stores in SF which are a short walking distance from the Moscone Center and/or near to hotels where people often stay when in SF for a conference. This is a sister post to my post yesterday about where to eat, drink and entertain around the Moscone. I have also included a number of stores which while not exciting are useful to know about for last minute needs when in town for a conference. This post is not intended to comprehensive nor does it highlight the dozens of great stores in the various neighborhoods of San Francisco

Of course I will have missed many great stores, please add your favorites and your experiences in the comments below

Useful stores to know where they are located

Near to the Moscone Center are two great resources for last minute computer emergancies. For Mac users, the large Apple Store San Francisco (1 Stockton at the corner of Market near 4th St, Mon-Sat 10-9, Sun 11-7) is one of Apple’s flagship stores with well trained Genuis bar staff, frequent events and most importantly for conference attendees with last minute tech needs a deep inventory.

For PC users Central Computers (837 Howard St between 4th and 5th, Mon-Fri 9-7:30, Sat-Sun 10:30-6) offers a good selection of PC hardware and parts at competive, if not always the absolute lowest prices. But if you need a replacement monitor, an extra hard drive, a PC cable or the like they are just a half block from the Moscone Center. 

Cole Hardware (70 4th St between Mission and Market, Mon-Fri 7-7:30, Sat-Sun 8-7) is a local San Francisco institution and a great local resource for hardware. If you need last minute hardware or items to fix your tradeshow booth they are just a block away from the Moscone and have friendly and knowledgable staff.

Utrecht Art Supplies (149 New Montgomery between Howard and Mission, Mon-Fri 8:30-7, Sat 10-6, Sun 12-6) ) is small national chain, based out of NYC which offers a range of art supplies catering to the needs of San Francisco’s art schools and local artists. For a conference attendee they are a great alternative to an office supply store for last minute needs at a conference. I recommend the small leather bound Rhodia notebooks they stock, I carry the reporter’s notebook size in my back pocket at conferences for when there is no substitute for a pad of paper. For last minute booth needs they can offer a wide range of useful items. 

Fun, unique independant stores of San Francisco

Blocks from the Moscone Center is Union Square and Grant Street which are the heart of San Francisco’s tourism and high end retail shopping, all of the major national chains, luxury stores and retailers can be found either around Union Square, along Grant St, or in the nearby large Westfield Center. However scattered nearby are a few local and more unique gems which I would recommend checking out over the stores and retailers that can be found in any major city (and indeed many small suburban malls). 

While the long time San Francisco institution Stacy’s has now closed, a few blocks from the Moscone Center is a truly wonderful new San Francisco store Fog City News (455 Market St between 1st and Fremont, Mon-Fri 8-6, Sat 12-4, Sun closed) offers 1000’s of magazines from around the world and hundreds of carefully chosen premium chocolate bars. When I travel and stay with friends I nearly always stop in at Fog City News first and purchase chocolates to bring as gifts, nearly always also picking up a new magazine or two to read on the plane. 

Gumps (135 Post St, Mon-Sat 10-6, Sun 12-5) is a San Francisco retailer with nearly 150 years of history as a purveyor of luxury goods. Shopping at Gumps is a small piece of San Francisco history updated with highly modern works. This is luxury goods shopping with many one-of-a-kind items and designer goods. I enjoy browsing for inspiration, though my budget hasn’t allowed me to buy at Gumps frequently. 

In my last post I mentioned the Ferry Building, if you are at all interested in great food a visit to the Ferry Building is well worth it. If you can get there on Saturday morning during the Farmer’s Market (Sat 8-2, with a much smaller market Tues 10-2) you are in for a treat. While nearly every store in the Ferry Building is worth a visit a few of my favorites are: Frog Hollow Farms – amazing jams, world renowned orchard; Far East Fungi – I buy mushrooms from among the some 40+ varieties of fresh, many wild, mushrooms they sell for non-locals they also have a great selection of dried mushrooms; Cowgirl Creamery – one of the best cheese shops in the world. Be sure to ask to taste a few cheeses and get recomendations then go next door to Acme Bakery and pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread then go to Boccalone Salumeria and pick up a selection of locally made (pork based) cured meats. 

The result is a nearly perfect picnic lunch. 

And if you need wine, the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant offers a wide selection of wines for any price point or need. They also have a great wine bar with snacks provided from nearby merchants.

For your speciality drink needs I recommend Cask Spirits (17 3rd St between Market and Mission, Mon-Sat 11-7, Sun Closed) They are the retail branch of the rather unique Bourbon and Branch and offer a carefully currated selection of small maker distillers and bar equipment. I am not a drinker so there isn’t much for me personally to buy here but as an example of a store run with passion and with a very carefully selected inventory they are a great and unique to San Francisco new retail store, worth a visit by anyone interested in how great retail can and should work. 

There are many other great stores in San Francisco, many in the various great neighborhoods of San Francisco. In particular if you have some time I recommend exploring the small shops of Hayes Valley, most of which are unique and local to San Francisco. Scattered throughout the Mission District are also many great and also uniquely local stores and there are many others in other neighborhoods. 

Have I missed any great retail shops in SOMA (near the Moscone) or just across Market? Shops which are unique to San Francisco or which are great resources to know about if you are here for a conference? If so, please leave a comment below.

Posted in personal, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco, web2.0 | Leave a Comment »

Where to eat, drink & entertain around the Moscone Center in SF

Posted by shannonclark on March 30, 2009

Last year as part of my coverage of Web 2.0 Expo for Centernetworks I wrote a post offering a guide to San Francisco near the Moscone Center. This post is an updated version of that post, written in advance of the 2009 Web 2.0 Expo here in San Francisco but I hope it will be a resource for anyone visiting San Francisco for a conference. Please add other finds and feedback in the comments below.

This is not intended to be comprehensive there are literally 100’s of restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels within a half mile of the Moscone Center in San Franciso.  Rather this guide is a list of a small, selective set of restaurants, cafes, and a few bars which are notable and worth trying. These are places that as a local to San Francisco I return to frequently, these are the restaurants where I personally entertain – whether it be for an afternoon meeting over coffee, a light dinner with friends, a professional working dinner or a business entertaining event. My focus is mostly on great spots for coffee or daytime meetings and on dinner. I will include a few suggestions for lunch but often at a conference lunch is part of the conference – and since the networking over confernce lunches can often be the most valuable networking I would, reluctantly, recommend that you eat the bad food in the interest of the networking.

But perhaps chase the conference lunch with great coffee or tea at one of the places I suggest below. 

With one exception I am also concentrating on locations which work well for events during the week, most of these places are open every day during the week (but I would always recommend calling and making a reservation for professional dinners).

Breakfast meetings 

Around the Moscone Center is not the best of places in San Francisco for working breakfasts, any number of local hotels offer acceptable business breakfast meeting options, near to the Moscone I would recommend XYZ at the W hotel (181 3rd St – 3rd & Howard inside of the W Hotel). 

A less formal and lighter option, but one I would highly recommend, is the nearby Blue Bottle Cafe (66 Mint St – corner of Mint & Jessie, between Mission & Market just after 5th St, Mon-Fri 7-7, Sat  8-6, Sun 8-4) which offers a small but seasonal and very good selection of breakfast food along with their world renowned coffee. This is serious, film crews come from Japan to shoot all day long, barrista’s compete in national competitions level coffee and they offer coffee & preparations to serve all tastes. One strong suggestion taste the cappucino’s and lattes before you doctor them – they really don’t need any sugar. Blue Bottle’s Cafe is, I think, one of the absolute best cafes anywhere in the world. I have been known to take multiple contacts to Blue Bottle in the course of a single conference day – last year I went there at least three times in one day with three different business contacts.  Besides great breakfast foods they offer great if also highly selective food options (always light and seasonal) during the course of the day.

If your conference continues into the weekend my suggestion is that you take some time on Saturday morning to get breakfast at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market (Building with a big clock tower at the end of Market St on the water. A short taxi ride or a manageable walk from most conference hotels or the Moscone Center). Widely considered one of the finest farmer’s markets in the country the market starts at 8:30, though some stalls will be set up earlier. I highly recommend arriving before 10am as the market quickly gets crowded. It continues until 2pm on Saturday. Inside of the Ferry Building are many great local shops and markets which are open 7 days a week. Blue Bottle Coffee has kiosks they operate during the Farmers Market (and they are opening up a full cafe in the Ferry Building later in 2009). Of course you can spend hours shopping at the many local (and mostly all organic) stalls each with a seasonal selection. A few highlights I recommend to my guests: Flying Disc Ranch – for an amazing selection of locally grown dates; Frog Hollow Farms – they have a stall inside so are available 7 days a week, Frog Hollow is I think the best orchard in the Bay Area and offer amazing seasonal stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, apricots), pears, Meyer lemons and more. Year round they have great jams and marmalades which I frequently give as gifts; Primavera – a locally run organic Mexican restaurant only open on Saturdays during the Farmer’s Market (located in the far corner by the water) they offer a small selection of handmade from market ingrediants Mexican breakfast and lunch items each day (homemade tamales, varieties of chiliquiles and much more). This is regional Mexican cooking most likely unlike anything you have had unless you have traveled extensively in Mexico.

A breakfast meeting at the Farmer’s Market will not be a quite or entirely private one but I can think of few better or more energizing ways to start my Saturday morning. 

Meetings during the daytime

As I noted above, Blue Bottle Cafe is a great option, one I turn to frequently. 

For non-coffee drinkers, or just for a great change of pace, I recommend Samovar Tea Room inside of Yerba Beuna Gardens (730 Howard St. Literally above the Moscone North, stairs are just to the left of the conference entrance. Sun – Wed 10-8, Thurs-Sat 10-9). Samovar serves amazing teas accompanied by a great selection of light food. This is a calm, peaceful oasis above the Yerba Beuna Waterfall and sitting above the Moscone North entrance. This is not where to go for a fast, quick, hurried meal. But it is a great spot to take a break from a conference and to have a highly civilized and usually productive business conversation. My personal preference is to meet at Somovar in the afternoon, after lunchtime. For small groups Samovar is also a good option for post-conference dinner. Not a heavy meal but a tasty one and not a place to drink (other than great teas). 

For a great lunch option, as well as a good place to have daytime working lunch during a conference I have three suggestions just a few blocks from the Moscone Center. All three are part of the Westfield San Francisco which is just blocks from the Moscone between 4th & 5th and between Market & Mission.

First, ‘Wichcraft (866 Mission St at 5th) which though it is a small scale national chain and owned by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio (of Bravo’s Top Chef fame) is also a purveyer of amazingly tasty sandwiches. For the quality and flavor, one of the real bargains for lunch in the city. They close relatively early but are a great option for lunch or a quick, early casual dinner. They have plenty of seating and even a large party can usually seat together at one of their large communal tables. 

Second, Out the Door (basement level of the Westfield Center). Ignore the minimalist website, Out the Door is the more casual spinoff of the world renowned Slanted Door restaurant, one of the finest Vietnamese restaurants in the country (and also at times one of the hardest to get a reservation at). Out the Door offers quick and very tasty Vietnamese food, prepared artfully and skillfully and served in their large and spacious dining room. A great option for a group of nearly any size for lunch and just blocks from the Moscone. They are also open for early dinner, though I prefer them for lunch. The food court in the basement level of the Westfield Center is a very good one (much better I think than the food court in the Metreon) with options for any palate. I personally like Coriander which offers very tasty Thai food, had lunch there today in fact. 

Third, Straits (4th floor of the Westfield Center). Straits offers upscale Singaporan food, though it is a small scale chain (here in CA, Atlanta and later in 2009 Houston) I highly recommend them for great and unusual food. In particular I like Straits for working business lunches. They are not cheap, but the quality is very high and though they are in a Mall (albeit a mall which cost some $440M to rennovate) once inside Straits is a great restaurant for working lunches (not working as in open up the laptops, working as in serious conversations over good food and if you want great drinks). They are open for dinner, though I prefer them as a working lunch venue (late night at times they turn into a nightclub). 

Dinner

San Francisco is a food and restaurant town, there are 100’s of restaurants, dozens of great ones throughout San Francisco. Here are a few of my absolute favorites, places I take people to frequently. 

For a serious dinner with clients, over great food and drink, here are my top suggestions in SOMA.

Town Hall (343 Howard on the corner of Fremont, Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30, Sun-Thur 5;30-10, Fri-Sat 5:30-11). Townhall offers amazing, contemporary food in a venue that is also exceptionally well designed. Great food at a price which is a great value for the quality and service. They also have a private dining room which can handle up to 40 people seated or 80 people for a standing reception ($1000 min for lunch, $2000 min for dinner, offers full audio-visual capabilities and Internet access). One of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco and a place I suggest to locals and visators alike.

Salt House (Mission between 1st & 2nd; open Mon-Thur 11:30-11, Fri 11:30-12, Sat 5:30-12, Sun 5-9:30). Salthouse offers contemporary American food, locally and seasonally sourced, with a fantastic selection and level of quality. It can be a bit loud so is best for relatively small groups, no more than about 6, but offers some of the absolute best food in San Francisco. I have business contacts who insist on a visit to Salt House everytime they are in San Francisco and I’m more than happy to comply. 

or Anchor & Hope (83 Minna St, just off of 2nd, Mon-Fri 11:30-2, Sun-Thur 5;30-10, Fri-Sat 5:30-11). The third restaurant from the trio who founded Town Hall and Salt House, this is their take on a contempory American seafood shack. Currently top on my list of restaurants to try next, given the amazing quality of their other two restaurants I feel very comfortable recommending Anchor and Hope. 

There are other great options, but these are three of my favorites in SOMA for serious food all great options for a small business dinner.

For a large group dinner, especially on a budget, my goto suggestion in SOMA is Canton Seafood and Dim Sum (655 Folsom St on the corner of Hawthorne betwee 3rd and 2nd, Mon-Sun 10:30-9:30). For lunch and on the weekends they offer cart service Dim Sum at very reasonable prices and of exceptional quality. But what I really love going to Canton for is to bring a large group for a banquet. They can almost literally accomodate any sized group (upstairs they have a dining room that seats up to 450+ people, downstairs they seat up to 300, though a reservation is advised). I generally modify one of the banquet menus ending up with a 7+ course feast, including Dim Sum (which I request as a substitute for other appetizers and fried rice) for a price of about $25/person. Typically this feast includes a whole fish, Peking Duck, Salt & Pepper Crabs and more. Amazing, tasty food, very reasonably priced with inexpensive drinks and friendly service. I’ve had dozens of groups events at Canton Seafood over the past few years and have never once been disappointed – and they have done great whether I’m dining with a few friends or have brought 100+ people. 

Professional networking quality drinks

San Francisco has many great bars and has become well known for some of the most serious wine bars and serious mixed drink bars in the country. If that interests you, I encourage you to do further research (or leave suggestions here as a comment) but here are a few great to know about venues nearby to the Moscone Center. 

House of Shields (39 New Mongomery between Market and Mission, New Montgomery is between 3rd and 2nd, Mon-Fri 2pm-2am, Sat 7pm-2am, closed Sun). A 100+ year old San Francisco institution. Not the fanciest of drinking estabilishments by far, but a goto establishment for afterwork, post-conference networking over cheap drinks. Not fancy, but also likely a spot where many speakers at tech conferences may end up (and certainly a spot favored by locals).

The Press Club SF (20 Yerba Beuna Lane, just off of Market across from Yerba Beuna Gardens between 3rd and New Montgomery, tasting room hours Mon-Thur 4-9, Fri 4-10, Sat 2-10, closed Sun). An urban wine tasting room, this large space features 8 bars serving wines from 8 different wineries, with representatives from each winery pouring the wine. They also have a selection of light foods to pair with the wines and upstairs a retail store featuring wines from all 8 wineries. For business purposes besides being a very upscale place for after conference drinks and conversations, they also have a private dining room/boardroom with full a/v which can be rented for private events. During Web 2.0 Expo they are closed for a private event on April 1st. 

These are my suggestions. As I stated, I’m sure many of you reading this have others. I hope this is helpful, please leave your own experiences and suggestions below in the comments.

Posted in personal, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco, web2.0 | 24 Comments »

Business advice case study – Bohdi restaurant in San Francisco

Posted by shannonclark on December 10, 2008

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This post is my personal opinion and advice, unsolicited and uncompensated for by anyone, so take it accordingly.

A few nights ago I had dinner at Bohdi restaurant, a  Vietnamese restaurant here in San Francisco which I have long walked past but haven’t previously had a chance to try. It is a huge restaurant occupying two storefronts in the Mission, in a part of the Mission which has long been borderline but is rapidly gentrifying with new restaurants, shops, galleries and cafes opening up all around Bohdi.

As I ate my dinner I looked around, counted the chairs and tables, counted how many other people were eating that evening (a Sunday night), I watched the one waitress managed the two large dining rooms, and I puzzled on what and where this restaurant had gone wrong. 

Unfortunately based on my observations of hundreds of restaurants over the years, I would predict that Bohdi restaurant will close within the next year, probably sooner rather than later unless they make many changes. 

I should pause here a bit and explain my views and my purpose in writing this post (especially if you are reading this without being a regular subscriber of my blog or a long time reader). I’m a fairly serious foodie and longtime “chowhound”. Back in Chicago I was an active poster and participant on Chowhound, and then later on LTHForum which friends of mine started as an alternative to Chowhound (this was before CNET purchased them). Since college (early 90’s) I’ve been an avid explore of restaurants, especially Asian restaurants, and eat out often. 

I’m the amateur in my family, my father has had a 40+ year career in the food industry helping to design and build food processing processes and factories throughout the world. He’s written many textbooks on food processing and hundreds of academic papers on the food industry. I grew up learning to cook from both of my parents and talking serious food with my whole family. My sister’s long time boyfriend is a former food critic for the New York Times and has recently sold his 3rd and 4th cookbooks which will be published next year. He’s edited recipes for many cookbooks and has worked on multiple TV food series. 

In short my immediate family takes food very seriously. I’m also a serious cook.

And professionally I’m a consultant and entrepreneur, so I look at restaurants not just with the eye of someone who loves food, but also with the eye of someone who is an entrepreneur and who advises businesses. 

So with that said, here are some of my observations about Bodhi specifically and my suggestions for them to consider – and more broadly for anyone who has a food (or indeed other retail) business to think about. 

The good news

  • Bodhi serves flavorful and tasty food. The food is good, not without some serious issues (more on that below) but at least they are starting from a good basis of chefs who cook their cuisine well
  • Bodhi has a large space with lots of potential. They literally have one of the largest restaurants I’ve seen in San Francisco, not the absolutely largest but a very big space, I counted a bit over 90 seats as they currently have their tables and chair arranged and they are legally licensed for 108 people.
  • The location has a lot of potential. They are located on a stretch of Mission St which is almost at the beginning of SOMA. It is a still rough neighborhood but all around them are new galleries, restaurants, shops and cafes which have opened in the past year. The location does not get a large amount of foot traffic, but it is close enough to many parts of the city and parking is still manageable that they could draw a good crowd, and indeed within a few blocks of them are restaurants which are always busy and usually packed. 

The bad news

  • They are nowhere near busy enough. They should be serving 200-300 covers nightly for dinner in a space this large, if not more. Instead I’d guess that they rarely serve more than 40-50 covers a night, if that, with perhaps a few additional takeout or delivery orders. 
  • Their portions are far too large. Large portions may seem like a good deal, but for a restaurant they mean people do not order as many dishes or as many courses. In many cases they likely mean wasted food and certainly increase the costs to the restaurant of dishes they serve. In large part I think this is in part because they serve food on overly large plates.
  • The decor, especially the cheap tables and chairs without any tablecloths is at odds with the menu. They are using uncovered, cheap four or two top rectangular tables and basic standard stackable chairs. In short tables and chairs right out of a discount restaurant supply house. The have a single flower in a small vase on each table but not tablecloths. Everything except the physical size of the space shouts discount, cheap location.  The prices, however, are not exceptionally cheap though neither are they overly high, a few dollars higher for most dishes than the cheapest of Vietnamese restaurants, though the quality is higher. 
  • They only have a wine & beer license and no bartender. Though they have a large bar with 9 barstools at it, they have no bartender and are licensed (based on what is for sale) only for wine and beer. And they do not stock a wide range of drinks at that, nor do they push them on customers. Alcohol makes up much of the profits of any successful restaurant, yet they are seriously forgoing this. 
  • The layout and single waitress does not draw people into the space. As I sat and observed people walking by and on first entering the restaurant they often looked around a bit puzzled. Here was a huge restaurant spanning two storefronts yet only a few patrons and you have to walk in, past a fountain, and look around to find someone, anyone to guide you to a table somewhere in the vast space. 

So what does all the above mean in terms of suggestions I would offer?

For starters I would suggest that Bohdi make the following changes:

  • update the decor at a minimum by adding tableclothes to hide the cheapness of the tables. Better would be to replace the tables and chairs with more natural and rich appearing materials. Tables of real wood, chairs with some design to them. This would be much more in keeping with the neighborhood which is edgy and arts oriented and would make the space feel higher end
  • leave no part of the space unfinished, cluttered with storage or apparently unused. At present there is an entire seating area, between the bar and the bathrooms which looks like it is never used. The tables and chairs are just scattered around that space haphazardly. If the demand for that space as a dining area is not there, then perhaps it should be transformed into an extension of the bar and made more functional.
  • Remove much of the visual clutter, such as the odd central fountain and the very old (and cheap) art hanging on the walls. Did I mention this is an arts district with countless galleries in the area? Make a deal with one or more of them to hang art on a rotating basis that is more in keeping with the neighborhood (and not coincidentally might suggest holding an opening party in the space each month)
  • Simplify the menu still further to have fewer dishes which are even more seasonal and always using fresh ingredients. Write about the choices and suppliers used. Reduce portions (while keeping prices at current levels or even higher in some cases – use local, organic meats and charge a few dollars more for example) . Add weekly or daily specials to try new recipes and to make it special to dine in the restaurant. 
  • Upgrade the wine, beer and sake selection. Again look for local supplies, there is Sake brewed here in the Bay Area for example as well as many local breweries and lots of local wine. Include imported sake, beer, and wine but emphasize quality and pairings with the food. Add special beverages for non-alcohol drinkers and train the waitresses on selling pairings. 
  • Get demand higher so that the bar has a full time bartender and give very serious consideration since the space is so large to transforming one section to a lounge and to upgrading the license to a full liquor license (which is, I admit costly especially for a space this large). Consideration should also be given to getting a public performance license though that depends on if the space would be used frequently for non-dining events. At a minimum a license that permitted use of one of the two rooms for private events on a regular basis would be a good idea.
  • Add the chef’s name to the menu. This is assuming that there is a chef behind the restaurant (if not, get one). But restaurants with the chef’s name attached enter a different category in the mind of patrons than those that are seen as ethnic, cheap dives. With a space that could seat nearly 100 people and should probably see 300+ people a day if not more (since they are open for lunch as well as for dinner) they should be targeting a higher end audience. 
  • At the moment I would guess the average cover is less then $20, making these changes would likley move that closer to $30 perhaps even $40 if most tables are getting a bottle of wine or a couple of beers or cocktails. At the moment few patrons would get appetizers, entrees and desserts for everyone at the table, and it did not appear that most were buying wine or many drinks. However throughout San Francisco there is clearly demand for restaurants where the average cover is far higher than $40 and indeed this could be a great date or group dining restaurant where a couple could have a great experience for less than $100.
  • With new furniture make a wider range of table types to signal a wider range of customers. At present they have only a very few two tops and every other table is a four top. There should be a few tables set up for larger groups, perhaps arranged for semi-private dining experiences and there should be far more two-tops set up as with only one exception every single group I observed at the restaurant was a couple out on a date.

A few general underlying premises behind my suggestions (here’s where things may be a bit more broadly applicable):

  • Curation adds value. It is hard to create a streamlined space and in the case of a restaurant menu. But a tightly focused menu (or selection of goods) signals quality – the assumption being that there is nowhere for a chef to hide on a short menu. Also that every decision has been made with care and attention (as it should have been). A short menu also allows for frequent changes to reflect the best possible ingredients and suppliers. In a non-restaurant context think about the visual difference between higher end retail shops and dollar stores – very few (if any) high end shops are cluttered – instead they sell a relatively small but in theory highly curated selection of goods. Likewise a restaurant with a short, tightly focused menu signals that the chef is very confident – and is only offering the best possible dishes and is not catering to the broad public but to discerning patrons (and everyone wants to be respected)
  • Design suggests audience and price. In an artistic neighborhood show respect for art and design. Lazy choices about art to hang on the walls (i.e. stuff that was very cheap) or the use of bulk, cheap furniture, signals a lack of design. Just a few blocks away the new Four Barrell Coffee shows one great approach to furniture – they have all custommade from recycled materials tables and chairs, the effect is striking and well in keeping with their desired audience of “hipsters”. Their other choices, such as playing vinyl for their music and not having wifi are other signals. And they are almost always packed with customers paying premium prices for high quality coffee. 
  • If you don’t ask people won’t buy. Years ago I met a professional waiter who shared with me his secret to having average covers which were nearly double his fellow waiters, if they averaged $20 he averaged closer to $40 (which meant his tips were also double or more than double his fellow waiters’ takings). His secret – he asked people if they wanted things. He asked if they wanted to start with a cocktail, he asked if they wanted appetizers, if they wanted wine with their meal, if they wanted dessert, if they wanted an after dinner drink. Especially with couples on a date his technique worked extremely well. 

Sure this last point is simple – but the simple things are often the most important. I’m always surprised by how few restaurants train their waitstaff to always ask if I want something to drink, to check if I want dessert before giving my the bill for my meal. To see if I want some appetizers to start the meal. The better restaurants train staff to do this as a matter of course – and as a result sell much more.

I do not know all of the numbers for Bohdi restaurant, but my very rough estimate would be that between lunch, dinner and delivery they gross far less than $500k a year, probably less than $400k. In s apce that large, however they should be grossing over $3M or more a year (potentially a lot more). And yes, to gross that much they would need to have far more staff, buy more supplies, do more active promotion, spend more on printing, cleaning of tablecloths and the like, but I suspect they would net vastly more than they do today – and with some further changes could net far more than $3M a year (which is based on an average cover of $25, shift to $40 or higher and to high alcohol sales on a regular basis and profits could be much more. 

If I were wokring with a client such as Bohdi restaurant I would start with the following questions (see above for some of the probable results):

  1. What strengths does the business start with?
  2. What is working already?
  3. What resources does the business have?
  4. What is the initial impressions of the business (if retail on walking past, on first entering, if online on first visiting the site)
  5. What does that impression signal about the target audience and especially about the price expectations of that audience?
  6. Does the actual experience then reinforce (or call into question) those initial impressions?
  7. What could be done immediately to start to change? 
  8. And then what further changes should happen, ideally looking to make changes that reinforce other desired outcomes and build on it (i.e. start with tableclothes, move to partnering to improve the art, then throw opening parties to build awareness and get people in, then change the menu to help grow revenues, then reinvest in getting better/higher quailty furniture, then in expanding/enhancing the bar options etc)

As I noted this is based on my experiences of walking past Bohdi and of eating there once as well as my long time observation of the restaurant industry. It is certainly possible that I’ve missed some key aspects to Bohdi’s particular situation (they might do a booming lunch business for example though I doubt it). And as in every case, if I were working with the business it is likely that there would be other issues that would be discovered and would need to be addressed – every situation has surprises and unique aspects.

But hopefully this (admittedly long) post helps them (if they see it) and inspires others to rethink their particular business.

And yes, I’m available to do extended versions of this type of consulting work (the first meeting is free but after that I charge).

Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Please copy this new business idea (but give credit)

Posted by shannonclark on November 23, 2008

Open Office

Consider this post as cc-atribution licensed – feel free to exploit this idea commercially (heck that’s the point) but please do give me at least some credit if you do

A timely, new (if also old) business idea

I describe myself as a locavore – whereever possible I try to purchase the food I eat – whether in restaurants or that I cook at home – from local sources – ideally as close to the source of production as possible. I shop at the butcher’s shop down the street, the corner (and great) produce market, the local farmer’s markets and try as much as possible to avoid shopping at big box national chains and when I do I try to purchase mostly locally sourced, seasonal products as well as fair-trade and environmentally friendly products when I have to (i.e. toilet paper etc).

But being a locavore is not just about food – I also try to do most of my other shopping – whether clothes, books, or gifts for family and friends from local stores. I often buy used books as gifts – both because I often find highly personally relevant works that way – and because philosophically I like supporting good reuse. However I also recognize that this does not support the authors directly – so in the case of books by friends of mine (which is literally nearly 100+ books a year, not all of which I buy) I generally buy those new, usually from a local independant bookstore (or occasionally the first week they come out from a big chain store such as Borders to help out my friend’s first week sales numbers). 

So what does my personal shopping preferences have to do with my business idea?

I moved to San Francisco only a few years ago, in that time I have spent a lot of time and wore out a few pairs of shoes, walking the streets of San Francisco learning the neighborhoods, finding shops and areas of interest. However I find that there is no good source for me to refer to, especially as we enter into the holiday shopping season, to know what stores are selling what, sales or special offers they are making, and especially about newer shops which might be offering just the right thing I want to buy.

I’ve looked at many of the various free publications here in SF (SF Weekly, The Bay Guardian) as well as a few of the monthly magazines – and while they offer a limited amount of coverage of the local scene (and even more limited amounts of local ads) none of them do a very good job – and the extremely local options (my neighborhood Noe Valley has a very small local newspaper) while interesting are quite limited in their coverage and fairly low quality.

Sites such as Yelp offer some coverage – though I do not like Yelp in the least – I find it next to useless – the food coverage is horrible and the shopping coverage to random and fundementally people have way too different a range of perspectives as to what is a “good value” to cite just one example or of what tastes good – I’m biased but I think I am a far more discriminating restaruant critic than the vast majority of the reviewers on Yelp.

My idea is a high quality, probably seasonal, web AND print publication (or publications)

The publication would be relatively high quality in the print edition – though it would start with the digital edition and extend rapidly to a print edition (once ad commitments were high enough to pay the cost of printing probably in color and a distribution/subscription plan was set). 

In terms of format the coverage of stores (which would be a major focus of the publication) would be highly visual – lots of photos to illustrate every article – at a minimum of the storefront, of the owner and/or staff, of a few representative products. The articles would ideally be part of a piece covering a broad theme – either a collection of related types of businesses and/or a given neighborhood of the city. 

Publishing an article would be seperate and NOT related to that business running an advertisement in the publication. But in the course of talking with each business ads would be pitched – the articles would run online, would include a link to the store’s website (if it has one) but would be writen to be relatively timeless – i.e. wouldn’t be focused on current sales (or perhaps only a current show in the case of a gallery). If a store pays for an ad – that ad would be a platform for them to maintain up-to-date information about offers (discounts for readers, current specials, new shows, upcoming events). The ad text would be clearly identified as being an ad. 

Pricing would be flexible – this is a bit of an experiement – my rough thinking is that broadly speaking pricing would be tiered – with one level for businesses under some arbitrary size (or in certain categories) and a tiering up level up – the result in part being that national chains would be charged almost certainly a higher rate than most local businesses – though a local business selling very high end products (and thus if their volume is also high having a fairly high revenue base) would also be charged at the higher rates. Ideally the rates would be for the whole season – so for a few months at a minimum. 

I don’t know the right rates – but my gut says something <$200 or so for a small business (<$250k/yr gross revenues) and going up from there to a few $K for a business such as Macy’s.

Technically each advertiser would be given a way to update their ad text – which would appear online around the article covering their store/business as well as in relevant sections (so in the larger article covering their neighborhood or business type). Before the print edition(s) each advertiser would submit the content they want to have – small businesses would likely have TEXT only advertisements and those paying a slightly higher rate would have small sized graphic ads (i.e. 1/4 page or likely smaller) with the largest companies who pay the higher rates being offered either a set of small graphic ads or a full page ad. The premium placements (back cover, front pages, middle pages) would go to the highest rates though likely at least one or two of those pages would be reserved for a collection of small, text ads from smaller local buisnesses. 

So this is a very commercial idea – it is not about long form investigative reporting, nor is it about highly political ranting (as is so much of the free weekly press). But neither is it only focused on businesses of a given type – i.e. not just “green” businesses or in the other extreme not just high fashion/design businesses. 

Executing on this idea would take a lot of people – and a lot of work – and the result would need to be carefully edited and produced to avoid (in the physical print form) being unwieldy – my instinct is to print many different editions – perhaps as frequently as once a week – with each one focusing on different neighborhoods and different themes – i.e. perhaps local butchers and bakers in the week before Thanksgving but also cover three distinct neighborhoods of the city – so both theme and geography – with the final result being nearly complete coverage of the city in some fixed period of time (perhaps the whole year or perhaps on a rotating basis over 3-4 months).

Each print edition might include a few long form articles – but initially I think it should not – the focus shoudl be on some visual (as well as textual) coverage of lots of businesses and lots of themes. As an article is written and edited the whole piece would be published online – probably with an editorial standard of a minimum number of photos (2-4 at least I think), an accurate address (or addresses), hours of operation, website link.

Of course technically much of this data could be marked up as one or more microformats – but that’s not the point here – the point is to build up a rich set of interesting content – content that gives you a solid sense of what the buisness is about (via visuals and writing with a human voice) combined with relevant – if also commercial – messages (i.e. ads from the business or related businesses – always clearly marked). 

The idea here is also to be a curator of the city (or more accurately to enable multiple people to curate different aspects of the city) so not every business will be covered – only the ones that a given curator thinks are notable – are worthy of being writen up and discussed. 

So that is my idea in the broad outlines – yes, it is in many ways very traditional – it builds on past ideas (Yellow Pages, those free publications you find in most cities in your hotel rooms) but I think there are a few twists here as well – lots more visual content (enabled in part by digital cameras) and an experimentation in the form of advertising content – i.e. to have ads which are updated by the businesses automatically for the duration of their contract (technically this could be via a custom RSS feed from a feed under the business’s control – with some HTML/URL filtering/preprocessing) Heck, the ads could technically be updated via Twitter!

In thinking about the businesss requirements of this idea I think it could be bootstrapped by a small core cadre of passionate people – it would require a few sales people and a lot of writers – initially everyone would be working essentially on commission/spec – but eventually a rate per business would be set, as well as rates for the curators who would choose which businesses meet the criteria and editors who would ensure that all copy is of a high quality (gramatically, factually accurate, all photos licensed accurately etc). 

The reason to combine a print publication and the web are many – for one the print publication would then, in part, be distributed at the many local stores featured in the publicaiton (probably sold there not given away for free – placing a small price on it gives a revenue incentive to the stores – probably the face value would be set at say $3.00 or so – and the stores would keep it all for the say 20 copies they get for free – if they want more they pay for them at some preset rate)

Anyway lots of details to work out – but if you are interested in exploring this idea here in San Francisco leave a comment or contact me directly. If you want to explore this idea in your own city – as I said at the beginning consider this cc-atribution – please go and try this – build up a great buisness and make lots of money – just also please give me some small bit of credit.

Posted in advertising, Entrepreneurship, internet, reading, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Reinventing Newspapers – ideas for Knight Foundation News Challenge

Posted by shannonclark on October 30, 2008

UPDATE – I did not end up submitting this but am interested in pursuing these ideas further with anyone who is interested, leave a comment or contact me directly

I grew up reading multiple newspapers nearly every day of my life. In our home in Oak Park, IL the two papers we subscribed to were the local Chicago Tribune and the national Wall Street Journal. Even as a young child I would read both papers, scanning some sections, reading nearly every article of others and following certain favorite collumns. In particular I loved the irreverence of the center collumn of the Wall Street Journal front page (which is a feature they did away with, to the paper’s detriment I think, many years ago). I also read the opinion pages of the journal avidly – if rarely with much agreement. 

In our household however old papers piled up, my dad would generally read the papers first (though when he wasn’t home – i.e. away on a business trip my mom would usually get to the paper first) but neither paper left the house to be recycled until both my parents (and often my sister and I) had had a chance to at least skim every section. 

When i left home for college and then was living on my own in Chicago (and then a few years ago here in San Francisco) I have occasionally subscribed to a newspaper, but at the moment i do not. Just a few months ago I did have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal but I was finding myself with weeks of papers piled up and little if any interest in reading them. The news, even the business news, I usually had already seen online hours or sometimes days before and the opinion sections (which has grown to be three pages if you don’t count the rest of the paper which is increasingly highly partisan as well) while longer seem of a lowered quality and of less impact – more partisan, less thoughtful. 

And in place of the once a day random but usually well written collumn the WSJ now has a weekend section and an occasional magazine which do cover cultural issues (and the weekend edition is actually pretty well written) but in isolation they seem less interesting – and fewer stories are just well written stories about a curiousity, instead they cover the same set of movies, shows etc as so many others cover. (the great wine collumn being perhaps a rare exception)

In Chicago as well I for years had a weekly habit (which my now ex-girlfriend occasionally accused me of taking a bit too seriously) of reading the Chicago Reader every single week. Mostly for the long form, often investigative articles which made up the front page main story. I also read it for the other, shorter stories in most issues, the great weekly collumnists, and the actually useful classifieds, movie listings (this was pre-iPhone) and occasionally the other sections. Most weeks I would also read the New City Journal which was Chicago’s other free weekly, a bit of a smaller paper but one which also ran great and serious journalism, though was a bit smaller and had much less useful classifieds. 

On moving to the Bay Area I tried to find a local equivelent for the Chicago Reader but have been immensely disappointed with the many local free weekly papers – all of which seem to have horrible writing, terrible reviewers, have insane and highly partisan politics (indeed I find myself looking at the Gaurdian’s endorsements and usually voting against them). Online or offline they local papers are pretty awful (and the San Francisco Chronicle in terms of the “serious” papers – or the SF Examiner are also both pretty bad). 

So why all of this background?

I am thinking about local news and hybrid models a great deal at the moment and have, I think, come up with a business model and approach which I think could address many of the issues facing local newspapers (both dailies and weeklies), be scaleable – so could be started small and grow, and could work for the microlocal and then relatively large geogrphic region (perhaps even on a national or international level but that would require some modifications). Importantly my ideas are based on some major changes from “how things are done” online and offline today.

I am posting here to solicit feedback – first from a group of people who have been invited to comment – and then shortly (and when this post is made public) from anyone. I may end up working on this idea somewhere myself – but I am also looking to share these ideas widely and I hope inspire many people to adopt these ideas, modify them a bit, and launch many great sites and papers. 

  1. Pay writers professional rates – but also demand serious work. I’m looking for exact figures but for the majority of writers for this project I plan on paying them at a rate a writer’s union would deem professional. But also asking that they incorporate multiple mediums into their work – original photographs often, audio recordings of interviews, video of events or interviews when possible, and scans or copies of sources they refer to in the course of an article. The articles themselves will be serious writing – whether opinion pieces such as reviews or long form investigative journalism and see below, will include working with editors. 
  2. Post edited copy only – which means nothing is posted as an article that has not been reviewed. We may have a side collection of blogs for posts about inprogress work and likely will have some comments from readers (or perhaps more likely an active set of letters to the editors). And feedback well could come in via many means – including video and audio comments. But the emphasis here is quality over quanity or speed
  3. As a general rule nothing which would be available via a wire service will be posted on the site. That is, nothing which is a rewriting of a press release or a rehash of a wire story. The one possible exception might be a story which the site writes and then syndicates out to the wire services. 
  4. Though the project will start from the web and will be highly webbased, there will be a print component as well. Depending on the community served this may be a monthly, glossy publication (think Monocle magazine but focused tightly on a given geopgraphic area), a weekly magazine (with some color) or a weekly or even more frequent newsprint edition – probably of a quality that could handle some color at least on some pages. Initially however this print component may only be available via subscription, expanding slowly to local businessses and newstands. 
  5. Topics will be chosen in large part by the passion of writers and the emphsis will be in quality storytelling and documentation over dry, non-partisan reporting. Though initially this may be a bit chaotic my expectation that the passions of the writers and the readers will converge with regular contributers covering a wide range of local issues and local topics, ideally from a variety of perspectives and points of view. The projects I would hope to be personally involved in would accept contributions from across a wide range of political opinions and I would seek to encourage a diversity of views.
  6. Advertising and commercial content would be a 1st level type of content – always fully and clearly disclosed, likely also clearly of a different type, but distributed in much the same manner as any other content. Online this means that ads (more on what these would look like below) would show up as objects in RSS feeds right after and between other articles. Offline this means that some pages or some parts of many pages (depending on the type of print) would include what are clearly commercial content. A likely majority of the advertising would be locally based and focused but national ads would also be accepted. Political ads or messages might not be accepted and ads with an adult target would be up to the publishers and their local community’s interests (here in San Francisco for example ads from a local business such as Good vibrations would probably not be particularly scandlous). The advertisers would NOT have a choice about whether or not an ad runs online or in the print editions – if they buy one, they buy the other and the ads would run in both and would be a part of the permanent record of that edition (which should make the online ads a very good value – though perhaps the links of the ads themselves would only persist for a limited duration the copy itself would be part of the archive). The logistics of this would be addressed with an eye to keeping in good standing with the online community and businesses such as Google – and the paid ads would have to me highly vetted – as would the destination of where they link to for the duration of there being an active link. Ideally where the ad links to would also be archived and part of the records of the publication. 
  7. Curration and editing is the primary focus, based on starting from working with great writers but building on them and enforcing a ethos of it is better to make fewer but higher quality recommendations over many but lower quality. So while the emphasis may be mostly on articles, to the degree that the publication also has event listings or reviews whether of local businesses, artists, or items of national interest such as books or movies the focus would be on being selective (and yes opinionated) instead of being comprehensive.

This last point emphasizing currating over being comprehensive is one key area where my vision is highly different from many other approaches I see online. Instead of focusing on the infinite space of the web, on the ability to have something for everyone (but all to often not attracting anyone) my vision is to be opinionated, to be focused, and to have a point of view (or points of view). Combined with a high degree of basic quality of writing (grammar, structure and form etc) as well as a good design and look and feel my thinking is that being focused ADDS value today. As a reader I have many sources online for looking up everything – all the movies ever made, all the music, all the books, but opinions I can test and grow to trust are rare and valuable. And in turn that value is translated into attention and also value to the sponsors that bring to me as a reader the content I value.

A bit more about the types of ads I would see running. In many local weeklies (and daily newspapers as well) a large and useful category of ads are ads from local venues promoting upcoming events and shows. Some of these are purchased by individual venues, others by local promoters, others by national promoters, and still others by national brands (i.e. a beer company presents the following shows…). This type of content rich commercial message is exactly the type of content I think would make a lot of sense for this type of project – on the web and off the web. 

And there are many other types of local advertisers whose content would resonate with a locally focused set of content – and my goal would be to focus highly on a local base of advertisers supplemented by the occasional national brand or advertiser (movies or books for example, national car brands etc). The focus, however, would NOT be on hypertargeting – the messages would not vary from reader to reader – instead they would be deeply integrated into the flow and design of the site itself – as content not as something isolated (and thus blocked) – but also always clearly disclosed (likely visually colored differently online). Probably pricing would be set initially at local free weekly rates and might approach local daily paper rates as distribution and reach grows.

That is the idea in a nutshell – lots of details to be worked out – from the technical to the rate settings but the above are the highlights. 

In terms of technology much of what i envision could be done via wordpress (or perhapd though I’m less of a fan via Drupal) with careful use of tags, categories, multiple authors, multimedia posts and a very clean design set of choices. A given batch of posts and content would then be collected and formatted for the print edition (perhaps rendered also as a PDF file for the archives as well). 

From a business standpoint the content producers (writers who might also create photos or video or photographers and/or videographers) would initially mostly likely be freelancers but paid at a fair and professional rate. A limited amount of expenses would also be covered (limited in part due to the geogrpahic focus – one reason this model might not work as well on a national or international scale) and ideally most writers would be covered by some group benefits and given press creditials (in both cases probably after meeting some writer’s union type set of requirements in those areas with writer’s unions). The editor(s) would probably be saleried and full time and would work with a range of writers – initially there might only be one editor – but as the range of topics and volume of content expands there would rapidly need to be multiple editors. A separate set of editors and salespeople would handle the commercial content and sales relationshiops. And likely there would be a small set of technical staff (some of whom might be on a contact basis to start) to handle the initial and ongoing web configuration as well as the preprint production work. 

My thinking also is that with the emphasis on telling great stories (non-fiction mostly though fiction stories would be a natural addition to this type of publication) some number of pieces written initially for this publication could have an additional life in other publications – via syndication or reprint/repurposing (This American Life for example). My initial thought would be that the writers would retain these rights (though the publication would have the right to keep the works online, probably freely available – though in some cases perhaps only for subscribers) and when the publication is the source of the additional sale (for example via syndication agreements) a portion of the syndication fees might flow back to the publication (though this would be based on the publication’s needs and the numbers involved – with the overall emphssis being on cultivating and supporting great writers and journalists. 

So what questions do I have / what I am seeking from readers who make it this far?

  1. What are professional rates for writers? (per article or per word, for reviews vs. for long form articles)
  2. What are fair rates for photography/video work? (note the goal here is not to use stock photography but to use photos which add to the story and are original to the author – see Monocle or FiveThirtyEight for two great examples)
  3. What would be likely sunk costs for such a venture (laptops, very very small office space, other fixed yearly costs)?
  4. What would be likely print costs per print run for each type of publication (Glossy color magazine, lower quality magazine sized publication, color newsprint publication) and at what printrun sizes do the per unit costs decrease? (i.e. what are the fixed and what are the variable and when do the lower considerably)
  5. What would be the likely distribution costs (mostly local mail, local non-mail distribution to individuals, mostly local distribution to businesses)
  6. Initially I’m thinking about this as a local (i.e. San Francisco/Bay Area venture) but am happy to see it in other cities and countries – what specific CA/Bay Area complications should I anticipate? (local Unions – though I want to be friendly to unions etc)
  7. What are some examples of magazines or newspapers which are adopting something akin to this already (especially in terms of good online integration of offline ads and an emphasis on long form, quality writing over quantity of writing via including pool/wire stories)

It should also be noted that what I am proposing is NOT a blog or indeed not very bloglike. Though it might use blog software as an underpinning, the idea here is to tell great stories – some of which may be very “small” others of which might be very pressing and important (investigative journalism) – but to do so with an emphasis on the quality of the writing vs the timeliness of posts.

Also and perhaps a more subtle point my thinking is that these publications would trade one tool of today’s journalists away (anonymous sources) in favor of only using deeply documented sources and providing those documents for public review and oversight. And yes, this means these publications might not be able to tell some stories initially (though via tools such as Freedom of Information Act requests and careful use of public spaces and rapid documentation this could be assuaged to a degree) I think the reliance on providing the sources directly would result in overall a very high quality of articles – and many attempts to say misquote someone would be addressed and resolved quickly.

I would also suggest that the publications be quick to address serious (or even relatively minor) complaints – such as about misquoting – and if articles are published online before they are published in a print edition (which would depend on the timing of the print edition – which would likely be weekly or monthly so articles likely would be published online first) major errors should be corrected before they are put in print. Using a wikilike publishing platform might make it very easy to show the history of any such changes (wikilike in that past editions would be viewable – but not wikilike in that people would not be able to edit posts)

So that is the idea – I welcome feedback and suggestions and I’m planning on pulling this into a formal proposal for the Knight Foundation by the Nov 1st deadline and perhaps also into a short business summary/pitch to select investors. I think some of these ideas could work for a new, greenfield publication OR could work for an existing publication looking to revamp.

Posted in advertising, digital bedouin, geeks, internet, networks, reading, reviews, San Francisco, web2.0 | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

My review of Slow Food Nation 2008

Posted by shannonclark on August 31, 2008

A few months ago I launched a second blog, Slow Brand, to cover my views on a slow approach to branding, as I launched it I promised to cover both Branding and Food topics, the name is most definitely an homage and reference to the Slow Food movement.

Well this weekend was the Slow Food Nation series of events here in San Francisco.

I’ve written my review of the Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilions along with my feedback and suggestions for 2009.

Please take a read and add your comments and experiences, your suggestions and reactions to my suggestions. I’ve been thinking a lot about events of late as I start to organize for future MeshForum events.

Posted in personal, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »