Month: September 2012

Publishing, Distribution And Consumption In A Brave New World

One of my greatest disappointments with the past ten years in the digital sphere has been the absence of the creation of something that is immense. The eighties saw the growth and evolution of computing in the personal sphere, the nineties saw the evolution of the internet. But, over a decade into the new millenium, we have nothing to show more than refined versions of what has already been put into place. What I did not realize was that we may just be in the midst of experiencing something that is immense, but that something may not be a particular technology or a product. That something is only what a bunch of technologies or products enable us to do with information.
The past 15-years has been a frantic, often unpredictable, ride for the publishing business. What, even 20-years-ago, was the domain of the few has exploded into a creature so different that everyone who reads or write anything these days are still struggling to grasp the enormity and the meaning of the changes that are affecting it. The existing rules regarding who, why and what gets published is being shred to bits and new rules are being made up every day. All parts of the trade — writing, editing, distribution and consumption — are so drastically different from two-decades ago. This is disruption on a scale seldom experienced before.
Death of many gatekeepers
Content is now created on so many platforms – blogs, tweets, personal websites, photo sharing sites; content is now distributed over so many channels – email, social networking sites, content aggregators; content is now consumed over so many channels – browsers, desktop applications, mobile applications, email. What used to be a strictly linear process (create -> distribute -> consume) is now something that is best described as being similar to Brownian motion. What used to be predictable in most cases is vastly unpredictable now. In this brave new world almost everyone is a participant and nobody is a real gatekeeper anymore.
In a pre-internet world there existed clear definitions regarding producers/writers, distributors and consumers of content. Content could be only a handful of things; books, articles in newspapers and magazines. Only a handful of people were either allowed or enabled to create this content and there were clear rules regarding membership into this select club. This content was consumed over clearly defined channels like books, news publications and magazines. If you could not access any of these channels, what you wrote had little value as nobody could consume it. Consumers of content had no other available option, but to be reliant on the established channels.
The scenario now is so very different. Almost anyone is now a creator of content. And by anyone I mean anyone. For a long time now, I have held that there is no social media. There are only creators, distributors and consumers of media/content. Comments, tweets, mashups, curated lists – all these are as much content as any form of reporting or long form writing. Of course, all comments, tweets and mashups are not the same quality as all reporting out there, but it is also true that all reporting is not really all that great. Yes, it is jarring to see slang, SMS-language and badly written text in things I read, but that does not make it any less useful or informative compared to established publications.
This has serious implications for the old guard. Gatekeepers, in any ecosystem, wield tremendous power. This power is accrued from predictability, reach and resources. Publications are valued because they publish to a predictable schedule, with a quality that is predictable, with topics that are predictable. Publications are valued based on the number of people they can reach. Publications are also valued based on their ability to cover topics; some cover a large number of topics at a shallow level; some cover fewer topics at a far deeper level. The new world of content and publishing has attacked each and every source of power of the gatekeepers.
Implications on the present
The first implication of this is on pricing. Ability-driven scarcity has been one of the key factors in enabling publications to charge what they used to charge. Since the information they publish is no longer scare, that rug has been firmly pulled out from underneath their feet. Almost every new old-school style publication that has attempted to charge a premium in recent years has tried to based it on opinion or exclusivity than attempting to do it over information. The businesses based on pushing information like in the old ages will survive as long as digital reach continues to exhibit the current constrained growth and the lack of understanding and translating key businesses metrics in digital remain. But it is an inescapable fact that such businesses are living on borrowed time.
In 2004, I remember telling my boss at that time that we need to pro-actively plan for a world where we can’t control the form factor or context in which information published by us will appear. In 2012, I consume most of the content I read and view now from my Twitter timeline, Hacker News and Google News. There are very few instances where I consume content from homepages of publications. I had previously tackled this topic in 2010 and the risk to brands and publications on this front continue to only grow with time. Brands and publications that ignore this threat will pay a big price in the coming years.
Crystal Ball
It would be the greatest lie if I were to tell you that I know exactly how this is going develop and what the future of publishing will look like. Currently, content anywhere is one of the bleakest businesses to be in at scale, while it is one of the easiest to bootstrap and hit Ramen profitability, should you choose to put your mind to it. Nearly non-existent entry barriers (domain registration & basic web hosting) and a preponderance of Ramen profitability creates an illusion of stellar prospects for the domain, but the actual outlook at scale is really dire. It is rare to find successful large-scale digital/non-digital publications that are in the black. The risks in being involved in the domain with any sort of significant investment on either side of the table is significantly high.
For existing publishers, the way forward is to measure everything and understand the numbers and your core audience very well. Monetization strategies will continue to be unpredictable for many years to come. That you are pulling good revenue is now not a guarantee of the same in anything other than the immediate term. Audience funnels and goals need to be set and tracked as a core operational metric. The industry still has an excessive reliance on gross numbers that does not differentiate in value between customer A and customer B. If you can’t make that differentiation, it is only natural that you can’t monetize better.
For investors, at least in India, publishing is a no-go territory for any fund that probably has a size in excess of $100 million. There is no scale in the business at this point which will allow for returns that justify the investment. Even established players have been demonstrating flat or slow growth in revenue (no point talking profitability) over the past three-years. Even that growth is impacted by increasing operating costs that have not slowed down in the same years. Valuation, based on potential, can be easily ignored here. Exits are rare and at a level that makes no sense for anyone other than the founders and some form of relief for early stage investors. There are way too many shackles that make any attempted disruption too costly.
For the consumers, publishing is a lovely place to be at right now. Both quality and quantity has grown in content that is available for consumption. The growth is quantity has also led to the emergence of aggregators and curators. They used to play an important role in the early web as consequence of nearly non-existent means of searching the web with its limited content at that time (problems of discovery and scarcity of content), now they play an important role because of the excess of content that is available for consumption. Things will only get better for them. These are the true winners in this game.

Filed under: Advertising, India, Internet, Media, Social

Four Years And Still Figuring It Out

It is hard to believe that it has been almost four-years since I left my last regular job and started this little gig. The story since has been one of many false starts, some promising starts and a whole lot of learning and frustration along the way. I quit my job at Network18 towards the fag end of 2008 in a lot of anger, anchored by the rather outlandish idea that, given a chance, I could do everything so much better. And this was to be my chance to do that and set everything right.
Four years down the road, I stand humbled and have become a less-angry and a much-happier person. I guess four-years is where most people give up the dream when they don’t get anywhere. For me, four-years is what it has taken to believe, without any doubt, that this is how I want to live the rest of my life. More importantly, four-years is what it has taken to for me to get a bit of a clue.
I still remember the early meetings with many who mattered in the industry and sitting across the table from them, trying to sell them something. I was not sure what exactly was it that I was trying to sell. It sounded grand, but it made no sense. My personal folders are still littered with product and service ideas, half-done code, architecture diagrams and other plans for world domination.
There were some promising starts too along the way, but they mostly fizzled out. Sometimes, for reasons that had everything to do with me, other times for reasons that had nothing to do with me. Thankfully, a couple of clients who I started with in 2008 stuck it out with me and kept me going. I mostly did technical work, writing well over 20K lines of code to manage a fairly complicated gated private social network. Somewhere along the way, I also managed to keep a few big WordPress MU installations going that were not full of cat pics, but were full of information that is still helping small nondescript organizations and locations around the country to have a digital foothold.
And to think that I am not even a programmer or a sysadmin.
Looking at it by the normal start-up metrics, my four years outside the corporate loop has been an utter failure. The total strength of my little company is well, one, which is me. I never launched a product. I never managed to raise any money. I have done some bit of useful work, but I have done nothing that would be deemed to have created any kind of an impact anywhere.
The truth is that in 2008 I thought I was the cat’s whiskers. As the years rolled on, I realized how little I knew. I could visualize and build out a product, but I knew nothing about running a business, marketing, pricing and a million other things. It is not that these things are incredibly difficult, much like how cycling or walking is pretty easy once you learn how to do it. It was that I did not realize that I did not know most of these things and made the mistake of assuming that being passionate would cover for all such shortcomings of mine.
I’ll be the first to admit that it has been a struggle at times. It is not easy to see your peers who stuck around in the normal corporate world climb up the ladders and do well while you meander along wondering if you should kick your tail back between your legs and sheepishly go back to that world. The temptation to do that was strong at least through most of last year.
On the other hand, these fours years have been the most fruitful of my life. I have travelled a lot (mostly not on work). I have had the time to sit and reflect on things personal and professional and work on myself. I am the healthiest I have ever been in a long time and pretty fit too. I can afford to sit back, take half of the day off and have a pretty flexible schedule, unlike how it would have been in the corporate world. I treasure that more than anything else and would never want to give it up if I can help it.
That said, I also feel that it is time to make a firm commitment and get started on something more substantial than doing just enough to keep going by myself. I have planned similar things many times, but always backed out and never followed it through. Most of this was because I was never sure, till now, about what I really wanted to do. Since I did not have that certainty myself, it did not feel right to pull anyone along on this ride, only to cut them loose a few weeks down the line.
So, I am ending the year letting go of the oldest clients I have had. I love what I created with them (including the warts and all), but I don’t feel that excited by pure-play techincal work anymore. I feel that I can contribute value elsewhere in the ecosystem, mostly in the strategic domain. It is going to be a hard one to crack. Nobody pays you, unless you happen to be a McKinsey, for strategy in India. But I don’t want to die wondering.
This, though, is my personal experience. I would not recommend either doing your own thing or staying in the corporate world. Each has its own benefits and the corresponding downsides attached to it. We all live different lives and realities and have to make choices with only one end in mind – to do exactly what makes us happy. Success, failure, riches and poverty will all come and go, but if you are not happy about what you’re doing in life, what you have with you won’t make an iota of a difference.
So, choose wisely, live well. You can’t go much wrong with that even when you have nothing with you.

Filed under: Frontiernxt