Why now is the time to be in #IxD and #SocEnt

We are interaction designers. We are social entrepreneurs. We want to work toward social change. We want to make an impact. And we want our lives to have meaning. The moment is more than ripe. The possibilities are breathtaking if you think about where we are now as…
  1. As designers and the general public start to embrace that design is a verb, is a liberal art, is a collaborative effort, and is about the WHY. (Questions designers were asking during ‘one day for design,’ curated by Frank Chimero.)
  2. As technology makes the boundaries between the internet and life “so porous as to be meaningless.” (Beautiful and thought-provoking presentation on what’s Beyond the Mobile Web.)
  3. As we infuse ethics, commitment, values, and creativity into all of our work, no matter the channel or platform or means. (What nuns, yes nuns, can teach you about social media)

Yowza.

Theory of Social Entrepreneurship

AC4D is a different kind of school. We quickly realized on day 1 of student orientation that we were all here to work toward social impact. There weren’t going to be endless discussions about whether or not we should be “doing good” because it was pre-defined and a given in all of us as AC4D students. As Steve Portigal observed after guest lecturing:

The school is focusing on applying design to social change, but the discussion is about the problem solving power of design – to understand, reframe, and innovate, rather than an excess of earnestness or worrying. I suspect their point of view is maybe what you could call post-worldchanging…of course you want to address homelessness, let’s use the tools we’ve got to look at it.

We can’t just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk.

The great thing about the mix of method and theory classes we’ve been getting in Interaction Design is that we can both walk the walk while being able to talk the talk. We are able to frame our work within the larger context of the design community while understanding the history of what’s come before us.

We are missing the same kind of framing in the world of social entrepreneurship. We need a “Theory of Social Entrepreneurship” class to support our real work in the social enterprise space.

  • If the history of Xerox Park and Lisa and desktop publishing enrich our understanding of what is possible in our interaction designs today, the history of philanthropy and social finance and the sustainability movement give us a frame of what social entrepreneurship means in today’s world.
  • If we must read and engage in critical class debates about John Dewey and Richard Buchanan and Emily Pilloton to be able to attend IxD11 and not feel like a noob, we must also read and engage in critical class debates about Muhammad Yunus and Jacqueline Novogratz and Jeff Skoll to start to find our place in the SocEnt space as well.
  • Our stimulating discussions about the hot questions in design today (design with vs. design for; the role of technology in our lives) should be partnered with stimulating discussions about the hot questions in social entrepreneurship today (measuring impact; how does scale affect impact; passion vs. burn-out; legal structures and not getting sued by shareholders).

A couple of our classmates have been living in this stuff for the past couple of years and know how to talk in the language of social entrepreneurship. And while they were sometimes frustrated with the all talk and no walk of their previous SocEnt communities, we are now in danger of the opposite. I’m lucky enough to be able to pick their brains.

I’m starting to understand that SocEnt in the U.S. is different than its movement in Canada or the UK, and I’m starting to see why I’m still struggling to fit in. In other countries, SocEnt is tackling urban planning and local community issues. In the U.S., the SocEnt projects that get the most buzz and the most traction are targeting developing countries and the bottom of the pyramid. In other countries, SocEnt is tied to universities, research grants, and government money. In the U.S., our funding comes from VCs and philanthropic investment funds—and I’m not sure how funding of research (not just tech R&D) plays into it all yet. (Hope Lab is an interesting model: non-profit org that funds research and development, eventually spinning off social enterprises such as Zamzee.)

I’m wary of VC funds because I can’t guarantee 10x return if I’m operating a double- or triple-bottom-line business. My solution is to simply bypass it altogether (without much critical thought into the matter). I’m sure some debate and discussion would at least help me see my options more clearly.

I also believe that social enterprises and typical business ventures are different and require different types of incubation. Yes, they share the same backbones of business, and yes, fiscal sustainability is tantamount to success. But there are some new core questions that social entrepreneurs have to weave into their start-ups. How do you get your business off the ground while fueling your mission at the same time? How do you define success, and how to you measure that? How do you position yourself in the current marketplace? Cliché but: where is the line between you and your business, your passion and your investment?

Then throw in the questions that design brings to the picture of enterprise…let alone social enterprise. For most entrepreneurs, proof-of-concept and market validation typically come after you have a working beta, whereas designers create their products out of user research and synthesis and have to prove fiscal traction in addition to market validation.

Typically, we find MBAs with a business know-how searching for their passions; in SocEnt, we get reluctant innovators pursuing business know-how. Where do we interaction designer social entrepreneurs fit into these frameworks? We come at it from multiple sides, trying to make things meet in the middle. We’re making it up as we go along, as all adults do. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

Here are some examples of social enterprises that might provide some clues:

  • Tom’s Shoes
  • Catch a Fire (channel corporate employees to do pro bono consulting)
  • Ecojot (recycled paper notebooks)
  • Seventh Generation
  • Para Vida (coffee)
  • Better World Books
  • Good Capital (investment firm that invests in social)
  • Ben and Jerry’s business
  • Brand Aid Project
  • Root Capital
  • O Liberte (shoes)
  • Acumen Fund
  • Grameen Bank

Web sites where the debates are happening:

Books to whet your appetite:

  • David Borenstein: Social Enrepreneurship – What Everyone Needs to Know
  • Jacqueline Novogratz: The Blue Sweater

Conferences:

  • SOCAP
  • A Better World for Design
  • Harvard Social Enterprise Conference
  • re:Vision 2011
  • RISE

Incubators focused on social enterprises:

  • Unreasonable Institute
  • Good Company Ventures
  • Echoing Green Fellows

[Thanks to Hour School co-founder Ruby Ku for a lot of the above links and resources. In the spirit of Hour School’s mission to transform learners into teachers, I believe either she or Ryan Hubbard is fully capable of teaching a kick-ass course in IDSE 402: Theory of Social Entrepreneurship.]

On Design Education

Scott, Ruby, and Chap making things happen

The biggest takeaway from AC4D, and more generally design education, is the learned discipline of making.   Design exists not in thoughts and ideas, but in the practical implementation of ideas in the digital and physical realm. It’s really easy to live in idea land, talking about the possible.  Often times, conversations provide a false sense of accomplishment and progression toward an end goal without any actual movement. Design teaches that if there is no artifact during or after a conversation, the conversation might as well not have happened.  If nothing is made, nothing is accomplished.

Why is this?  The truth is that the best thinking takes place in the process of externalization.  Most non-design disciplines tacitly recognize this, which is one reason why there is such an emphasis on reports and documentation.  Synthesis happens in taking an idea out of the air and communicating it on paper. To communicate anything requires clarity of thought.  Design, however, distinguishes itself from other disciplines by stressing the importance of the visual vocabulary in addition to the written one. Based on the ubiquity of post-its, for a designer, even words are better understood when represented visually.  These visual artifacts help a designer process an idea but also give team members and clients something concrete to react to and evaluate.

Even once a project gets past the initial idea phase, it’s easy to get sidetracked by tangential ideas, the “wouldn’t it be great if…” conversations.  It’s easy to fantasize about how good or cool or useful an idea might be, but it’s quite another thing to actually solidify an idea and evaluate it.  In the former, nothing is proven or tested, and therefore nothing is learned, produced or accomplished.  In a way, this mentality protects the ego and requires little work.  The latter, requires a willingness to be proven wrong, to throw away code, or realize that a cool idea is not so cool after all.  However, none of that could have been learned just by talking about an idea.

Over an over again at AC4D, Justin Petro repeated the mantra, “Less talking, more making.”  It’s great practice in design, and it’s great practice in all of life.  Stop talking about what you are going to do, and do it already.

Minimal Viable Product and Design Research

Recently, the phrase MVP – Minimal Viable Product – has come into vogue in circles of startups and bootstrapped entrepreneurs. It refers to the bare minimum functionality necessary to bring a new product to market in order to attract early adopters. Eric Ries – who is credited with coining the phrase and the methodology of a lean, measurable startup – states that early adopters are “the most forgiving. They will fill in, in their mind, the features that aren’t quite there… The minimum viable product is one that allows you to ship a product that early adopters see, and at least some of them pay you money for, and start to give you feedback on.” The intent is to launch something quickly, position it directly to people that can see beyond (and are willing to put up with) a broken and incomplete product, track metrics aggressively, and capitalize on the learning from this subset of individuals.

In circles of innovation, ethnographic research and design synthesis are considered pivotal for arriving at a new, novel, useful, and powerful design solution to a given problem. Known as design research, or DR, this is a form of provocative and exploratory applied anthropology; the intent is to rapidly gain an understanding of a novel space, but more importantly, gain some degree of empathy with a target audience to better understand desires, aspirations, and mental models.

I’ve had success combining the approaches. But I’ve also identified something that bugs me about the “MVP” approach.

DR and MVP give us data. MVP is about gaining detailed metrics that can be used to understand the way a product is working. Design Research is different; it’s about establishing a basis for design synthesis. Through synthesis come formative pillars or themes that can be used as rallying points for the preliminary product design that is created. These become the foundation of the “minimal viable product”. And these are explicitly _not_ features or optimizations; they are thematic design principles that point to the major user goals that a given design will support. DR requires a design team that’s skilled in translation; an utterance from a user isn’t a design solution. Neither is a click trail. Someone needs to interpret the data and make meaning out of it.

DR and MVP share a goal of provocation. Using design research to guide synthesis, and alpha-testing incomplete software with early adopters, are both intended to provoke a reaction. They aren’t intended to offer statistically significant views of how the market might behave, and they don’t act as predictors for mass-consumption or mass-behavior. Instead, they provide product designers with a platform for abductive thinking – for informed decision making. The focus on metrics in many lean startup conversations is used as an unfortunate abdication of point-of-view; it’s easier to say “let’s A-B test this” then offer an informed opinion based on experience and information intuition. But when metrics are combined with qualitative findings from design research, a design team can move beyond an A-B answer; they can answer the elusive question of “why”, arriving at a rationalization of why one decision is a better decision than another.

DR and MVP drive towards reduction. As a designer begins to realize the value of research and synthesis, a curious thing happens – they begin to arrive at the same high level design principles in extremely diverse contexts. Typically, these focus on issues of simplicity, a “hero-path” through an interface, a reduction of linguistic complexity, and so on. MVP arrives, explicitly, at the same conclusions. A minimum level of viability implies that a product offer value – just enough value – to attract or hold someone’s attention (or entice them to pay for a given product). This drive towards reduction is also supported by mobile computing, which forces a level of simplicity due to small screen size, a lack of explicit focus from most users, and a constrained series of inputs. And it falls nicely in line with the ubiquitous trend towards “app stores”, as this implies a modal focus on Doing One Thing At a Time.

But while there are a lot of similarities between DR and MVP, there’s seems to be a subtle difference. The focus of an MVP is on early adopters – those at the front-end of the bell curve, savvy with technology and forgiving with complexity. The emphasis is on features, functions, and advancement; color is a wonderful example of technology-driven product design, or even venture-driven product design, in the same way that boo.com was successful in pioneering massive technology advances on the web. But a DR approach emphasizes and embraces mid or late adopters, or ignores the adoption curve altogether. The focus is on people, humanity, and culture, and the goal is empathy-driven design. Value is created by providing products and services that resonate in new, exciting, useful, subtle or magical ways. It really is a subtle distinction, but one that can be found through intent. As Ries describes, “Why do we build products in the first place? In the end, we hope to be able to launch a product for a lot of customers and have them give us money, so we build a great business.” Many who embrace a DR approach have a passion not for piles of money, but for changing the world, driving a particular value system by shifting behavior, or improving the quality of life.

I wonder if a subtle shifting of MVP focus – from early adopters, to appropriate audiences – can be introduced into the conversation of lean startups?

The Changing Game of Funding

At some point, a startup needs money. That’s pretty obvious; what’s less obvious is that the landscape of venture has changed – and not all capital is equal. While the giant VCs are still doing what they do best, a vast array of smaller players have emerged. These incubators and accelerators realize that an early-stage company needs more than just money; they need things like physical resources, design and strategy resources, camaraderie, and a creative environment. In fact, in a landscape where there are as many as 500 open recs for various “UX” talent, design talent may be the most persuasive facet an accelerator can provide.

Austin Center for Design students are four weeks from graduation. Teams have working prototypes and sound business plans; they are now looking for the next step in order to successfully move from a proof-of-concept stage to a live alpha stage. The following are some of the funding sources they are considering; note the unique qualities and competitive landscape that’s emerging in the VC world. The various data in the chart is simply aggregated from each website.

Company In more detail Differentiators Principals
500 Startups
Blowing up startups with design, data and distribution
Successful startups don’t just need great coders and designers, they require scalable and cost-effective customer acquisition. At 500 Startups we specialize in online distribution techniques for search, social, mobile, and email platforms to help our startups get eyeballs and new customers. In particular we focus on solutions for Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Android, and Apple iOS, and by day many of our super mentors work as mild-mannered reporters at these very same companies.
  • Design. Great products start with a great user experience—one that makes customers happy and brings them back for more. We help startups design functional solutions, not just pretty pictures.
  • Data. Successful startups can make informed product and marketing decisions, know how much customers are willing to pay, and what it costs to acquire them. We help startups learn how to define and measure customer-driven metrics.
  • Distribution. Startups need scalable, cost-effective customer acquisition. We specialize in distribution for search, social, and mobile platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Apple, and Android.
Dave McClure
Christine Tsai
Enrique Allen
Capital Factory
Roll up your sleeves and get to work
Capital Factory is an early stage accelerator program for tech startups that provides a small amount of seed capital and weekly mentoring sessions by entrepreneurs who have founded successful companies. Startup companies apply to participate in our 10 week summer program intended to get a startup pointed in the right direction with a clear path to profitability and growth. In 2011 the program runs from May 25th to August 11th. On September 7th, we will host more than 250 investors and entrepreneurs for Demo Day and stream it live over the Internet.
  • Free basic IT infrastructure for email, website set up and hosted on Google Apps
  • Free office space with the other companies
  • $1,500 in free hosting from Rackspace, Slicehost, and JungleDisk
  • Free company formation and legal documents by Wilson Sonsini
  • Free brand development and logo (if needed) by Clutch Creative
  • Free help with your financial plan from vcfo and The Accounting Group
  • Free banking from Square One Bank
  • Free press support Free software from Balsamiq Studios
  • Free software from UserVoice
  • Free software from Microsoft BizSpark
Josh Baer
Floodgate
offering a unique fundraising model that bridges the gap between initial seed money raised from traditional “Angel” investors and the much larger investments that characterize traditional Venture Capitalists
We’ve developed a new approach to investing in world-changing ideas. Looking at the world through the eyes of the entrepreneur, we’ve filled a widening gap between Angel investors and venture capital firms. But we help companies with more than just fundraising: we help them discover, refine, evolve, and master the core elements of their businesses so they will be in the best possible position to one day “open the floodgates” to market disruption and dominance. We help start-ups accelerate their growth, supporting their efforts in the following areas:
  • Identifying key opportunities to generate profitable revenues
  • Determining what not to do, in addition to pursuing the most important opportunities
  • Attracting and hiring the most qualified people
  • Finding like-minded partners who can help you achieve your goals faster
  • Avoiding unnecessary competition by focusing on the areas that create the most value for your customers
  • Generating enthusiasm inside and outside the company
  • Linking you to the best, mostreadily available financing
Mike Maples Jr
Ann Miura-Ko
Founder Collective
A new (old) model for venture investing
As venture capital funds get increasingly large, we have created a small fund (~$40M) that is dedicated to investing in seed stage deals. Unlike big venture capital firms, we expect to generate returns almost exclusively from seed stage investments. Hence, we have the same incentives as founders to increase the value of the company in future financings. We are also comfortable with smaller exits if that’s what the founders want.   David Frankel
Eric Paley
Lowercase Capital
Venture Capital Is Broken
At Lowercase Capital, we invest in startups, acquire later stage companies, and advise businesses and funds of all sizes on strategy and execution. We take you seriously, and ourselves not so seriously. We wear our hearts on our oft-wrinkled sleeves. We are grateful for the companies who have chosen us, feel lucky for the chance to collaborate with such brilliant and happy people, and we are proud of how hard they work to bring smiles to their users and customers. Our approach isn’t exactly customary, and our founder doesn’t act like a traditional VC/private equity guy.   Chris Sacca
Tech Stars
Do more faster by joining forces with the #1 startup accelerator in the world
TechStars fills the experience gap by bringing together the best and the brightest in one place and surrounding you with incredible proven mentors for the three months. With this much talent in one place you’ll get great advice on your product and strategy, thereby ensuring the best possible start for your new business. We provide working and meeting spaces, as well as a nice lounge all with super fast and reliable wireless Internet access. Media Temple is a sponsor of TechStars, and they provide our companies with free top-notch hosting during the program. Cooley Godward Kronish and Kendall, Koenig, and Oelsner are two outstanding legal firms who provide free legal council and services for our companies. Metzger and Associates is a premier new media public relations agency who is also a sponsor providing free services. Basically, we’ll help you get everything covered with minimal expense. We just want you to focus on creating a great product while you’re here, and not have to worry about all this other stuff. David Cohen
Brad Feld
David Brow
Jared Polis
Thinktiv
Thinktiventures invests expert human capital in the best venture acceleration opportunities
In early-stage investing, expertise is the new currency. In competitive marketsmoving at warp speed, investment capital alone isn’t enough to win. Your investors need to be actively removing the obstacles to your success, or they are simply slowing you down. This trend is evident in the rise of value-added incubators and “super angel” investment funds, whose investment dollars are often far less valuable than the mentorship and exposure they provide. Expert human capital creates leverage for startups – the ability to acquire and grow tremendous equity positions without paying full price up front. When a startup invests $100,000 of capital to forcefully apply the right kind of expertise at the optimal time, that $100,000 can create $1 million or more in asset value. That’s what we call “venture acceleration” – focused investments in expert human capital that create non-linear outcomes. For startups, it makes the best things happen faster, reduces overall capital requirements, and maximizes equity upside potential for management teams and early investors. That is the essence of Thinktiventures. Jonathan Berkowitz
Steve Waters
Union Square Ventures
We invest in information technology
Union Square Ventures is a venture capital firm based in New York City. We are a small collegial partnership that manages $450,000,000 across three funds. Our portfolio companies create services that have the potential to fundamentally transform important markets. We can work with you whether you need $250,000 to test an idea, or $25,000,000 to buy an undervalued asset. We can invest in New York, San Francisco, London, or Berlin and most places in between. We evolve our investment thesis in an ongoing and open dialogue with the market. For entrepreneurs, this means that if you are leveraging the economics of Internet-based networks to transform some aspect of the global economy, Union Square Ventures can be a partner, whether you are just launching your service, funding rapid growth, or spinning your business out of a larger entity. We can work with you if you need $250,000 or $25,000,000. We can invest in New York, San Francisco, London, or Berlin, and most places in between. We hope you’ll think of USV as stage-agnostic, highly-focused investors who can add value to your company. That’s how we see ourselves. With the Opportunity Fund, we are better equipped to deliver that offering to you. Brad Burnham
Fred Wilson
Albert Wenger
John Buttrick
Y Combinator
Y Combinator does seed funding for startups.
In 2005, Y Combinator developed a new model of startup funding. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money (average $18k) in a large number of startups (currently 43). The startups move to Silicon Valley for 3 months, during which we work intensively with them to get the company into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors. Each cycle culminates in Demo Day, when the startups present to a large audience of investors. But YC doesn’t end on Demo Day. We and the YC alumni network continue to help founders for the life of their company, and beyond. We think hackers are most productive when they can spend most of their time hacking. Our goal is to create an environment where you can focus exclusively on getting an initial version built. In any startup, the first couple months tend to be the most productive of all. Those first months define the company. So anything you can do to maximize their effects is probably a good idea. We seem to have succeeded in creating a good environment, because many founders have told us that the first ten weeks of Y Combinator were the most productive period of their lives. Trevor Blackwell
Paul Buchheit
Paul Graham
Jessica Livingston
Robert Morris
Harj Taggar

Learn to build an airplane in hours because that's the only way you'll be able to build one. When do we ever learn the lesson?

I thought I understood think/make. But I didn’t really understand think/make.

For the last few weeks, we have been working on marketing plan, crunching financial spreadsheets, moving pixels, and entering the matrix doing a lot of git push heroku. You know, the nuts and bolts of starting a business and building a product. The things that will give our potential customers an actual site to use and let investors know how much we have thought through this stuff.

All the right stuff to do. But a conversation with Justin yesterday reminded me of how “we still don’t have anything to show”. After internalizing more, I think the larger point being, if we’re really building on existing behavior, really meeting an actual need, really making our customers’ lives easier – we should be able to show demand with or without technology. If it takes the two of us manually coordinating classes, then that’s what it’ll take. When it becomes too much, we’ll move to a spreadsheet in order to keep track. When that becomes too much, then we’ll figure out something else. But until we get to that point, it feels rather empty that we’re sitting in front of a computer projecting revenue.

Fast Co.Design had an article posted on Monday on “Wanna Solve Impossible Problems? Find Ways to Fail Quicker“:

MacCready’s insight was that everyone who was working on solving human-powered flight would spend upwards of a year building an airplane on conjecture and theory without a base of knowledge based on empirical tests. Triumphantly, they would complete their plane and wheel it out for a test flight. Minutes later, a year’s worth of work would smash into the ground.

Again, nothing we don’t know already, nothing we haven’t been taught. But what stuck out to me in the article was when the author said:

Progress was slow for obvious reasons, but that was to be expected in pursuit of such a difficult vision. That’s just how it was, went the common thinking.

We’re looking to address wicked problems – the large-scale ill-defined complex social problems that have been around for decades and centuries. We expect things to move slowly. We expect not to solve things overnight. But a little re-framing will get the momentum going, like when Paul MacCready built that airplane in half a year after nobody could for 18 years:

He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: How can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months?

So lesson learned (for the nth time):

When you are solving a difficult problem, re-frame the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster. Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.

This morning I sent a bunch of emails to people who have previously expressed their interests in holding/taking classes so we can start having real customers. Fundamentally, our idea holds true with or without Facebook Connect on Rails.

I think I understand think/make a little better today than I did yesterday.

Design For Impact Bootcamp

AC4D, along with our generous sponsors frog design and Thinktiv, completed our second annual free Design For Impact Bootcamp. This aggressively-paced boot camp is intended for designers, technologists, marketers, and other professionals who are interested in extending their skill set into the realm of social innovation and design for impact. Participants spent eight hours learning the fundamentals of research, synthesis, and ideation – focused on large-scale social change through new and novel product, system, and service design.

Materials from the bootcamp are available for download below:

Designing for Impact | Jon KolkoIn a group conversation, we will examine the precedents that have been set in the social innovation space, discuss the holistic process of design, and understand why the methods of design are most appropriate for tackling these complex social problems.

A Process for Seeing: Guerilla Ethnography | Lauren SerotaIn the first methods session, we’ll learn how to practice “guerilla ethnography” to engage with and quickly gather meaningful insights from target audiences.

Understanding Insights and Themes | Jon FreachAs we progress through meaning-making, we’ll begin to identify insights and themes through a bottom-up approach. These methods will describe how to capture these high-level takeaways, and how to form actionable design directives out of these conceptual frames.

Rapid Ideation and Forced Provocation | Jon KolkoWe’ll begin to create new ideas, giving form to our insights and finding a way to connect insights to problem solving.

Interface Visualization and Design | Justin PetroThe insights and themes that have been extracted can now be visualized. We’ll use rapid iterative sketching and ideation in order to focus on a breadth of new ideas.

About AC4D | Jon KolkoWe’ll discuss the qualities of the AC4D program, and how they relate to what you learned today.

We look forward to seeing you at our next bootcamp in 2012; if you want to be alerted of events like this, join our mailing list and we’ll be sure to let you know.

* Update: Read the nice writeup of our Bootcamp on Core77.

Bootstrapped Publishing – DIY FTW

I’ve had a few different publishing experiences. I’ve published a book entirely by myself, I’ve worked with a large-scale publisher (owned by one of the Big Houses – Elsevier), and I’ve worked with a traditional and respected academic press (Oxford University Press). Here’s what you can expect from a DIY approach.

I. The problems with giant publishers

In the glory days, big publishers theoretically played a critical role; they were internally and externally respected, could claim a talented staff, and were companies where young journalists, designers, and novelists could make a living and absorb technique and method from the pros. Unfortunately, if that pictureesque view of the past was ever true, it’s laughable now. My experiences with publishers indicate that the art and science – and craft – of making a book has all but disappeared.

One of my publishers didn’t know what a gutter was, or how to spread content across it.

One of my publishers didn’t know how to calibrate spine depth, and calibrated it incorrectly.

One of my publishers outsourced typesetting to a foreign firm, who neither understood nor cared to learn about the subject matter of the text.

One of my publishers “reorged” their Executive Editor out of the company in the midst of printing my publication.

Death by a thousand paper cuts, all indicating a much larger and institutional problem: publishing as big business has become so reliant on low-cost offshore development that individuals engaged in the process literally don’t know how their business works. They don’t know the end-to-end process; they have no visibility into the larger context of the book, the market, the process, or the literary goal; and they’ve become dependent on the rote execution of a series of activities that have to happen in the same commoditized series in order to achieve some financial success within the confines of razor thin margins.

The lack of a refined process is just one of the few things you can look forward to when working with a major publisher. You’ll also experience:

  • An absurdly slow pace. I signed my contract with Oxford in July of 2009. My book was released in February of 2011. Each step crawls forward. No one can explain the rhyme or reason behind the various process dates assigned; they seem arbitrary, likely picked for convenience of the production machine, not timed with any relationship to the book or content itself.
  • An absurdly small piece of the pie. With Oxford, I receive 15% of Net Receipts, stepped to 17% on sales over 2,000 copies, stepped further to 19% on sales over 4,000 copies. Net Receipts means end profit from the book, not including returns or credits or reprint funds. As a point of reference, my book retails for $49.95 on Amazon. That means Oxford likely sells to Amazon for $25.00/copy. A generous assumption would indicate Oxford making $10 per copy sold – I get 15% of that, or $1.50 per copy sold. The per copy profit with Elsevier is even worse. As a point of reference, I made about $16, profit, per copy, of my first book when I self published it; see below for a more thorough breakdown of the DIY process and financials.
  • Little support on marketing and self promotion – and little visibility into any activities that may be planned on my behalf by the publisher. I do a fair amount of public speaking, and it makes a great deal of sense to offer my books at each event. But the publisher has no time or interest in proactively tracking these events, and so it’s my responsibility to coordinate book sales for my speaking engagements. It’s as if I had published the thing myself – I’m in charge of all of the marketing activities. I asked one of my publishers for a marketing plan; he sent me a one page, 230 word document. Ouch.
  • The ambiguity of dealing with a giant company. I had sixteen different contacts at Oxford during my time working with the company; my editor went through at least four different assistants, we had three different typesetters, and I’m still not entirely sure what a few of the people involved in emails actually do at the company. A cup-half-full perspective would say “so many people, dedicated to making your book a success!” – the reality is cup-half-empty, as with any project with that many people, no one person knows enough to make a decision, and no one person is actually _empowered_ to make that decision.
  • Lack of understanding about new digital formats and platforms. The people I interacted with were all, generally, unaware of the use and potential of the internet as a mechanism for marketing and promoting a book, and unaware of the fundamental necessity for digital delivery of books. I still have no idea if Oxford plans to release a digital version of Exposing the Magic of Design, and Elsevier hasn’t made any traction on the promise of a digital copy of Thoughts. Arguably, the digital copy should be released before the print copy, not after. Or never.

That’s a lot of downside on traditional publishing. What’s the upside of going DIY? It’s summarized in a word – control. By pushing forward with a DIY model, you control the cost of the book (believe me, I’m not thrilled that my book retails for $45), the aesthetics of the book, the timeline of the book, the presence of the book in various markets, the availability of the book – you control everything. And through that control comes reach, financial reward, and perhaps the most important part of a book – the structured context in which your message is presented.

II. How to self-publish: the mechanics

While it’s pretty intimidating to go it alone, it’s really not that hard. I’ll try to describe the various parts of the process that confounded me along the way.

As a bit of background, I wrote a book called Thoughts On Interaction Design in 2007. I wrote the majority of it myself, solicited some related essays from friends, and then shopped it around to a few publishers. I received a few leads, and went through the peer review process with a few selected companies. And after I received pretty negative reviews back, the message from the publishers was clear: you’ll need to change a great deal of this if you want to work with us.

I felt the book was pretty strong, so I decided to publish it myself.

I recruited my friends at Thinktiv to do the design work, and we agreed to split any profit that came from the work, 50/50. We did a photoshoot, went through editing and revisions, came up with a visual and semantic approach for design, and published 1000 copies. My wife and I played shipping and receiving – we set up a company in Georgia to manage the financial aspects of the book, and started filling orders placed on our site via paypal and through Amazon’s affiliate program. Ultimately, we sold all 1000 copies, making on average $16/copy, profit.

(As a footnote to this story – Elsevier then signed a reprint contract for this book, and subsequently sold another 4000 copies. We made about $16,000 profit on the first 1000 that we did ourselves; we made about $6000 on the next 4000 with Elsevier. Go, team.)

I’ve considered all the parts of the process where I nearly gave up, and I’ve listed them here.

Writing. Clearly the most mentally challenging part of the process was the writing. You’ll need something to write about, a context of authority that makes it worth reading, and enough content to fill a book. I wrote Thoughts on Interaction Design because I was trying to synthesize other readings, conference discussions, and a changing culture of design into a cohesive whole. My goal was to externalize my thoughts (get out of my head!), not to publish a book. It was only after 2/3 of the thoughts were externalized did I realize I had enough content to fit a book, and maybe someone else would want to read it. As a point of reference, the self-published version of Thoughts on Interaction Design is 60,000 words, and the book runs 162 pages. Call that a short-to-midsize book. The bottom-line advice on writing is to write for yourself, and write about something you know a thing or two about. It has to come from the heart, and it has to come from the head.

Editing. After I wrote the book, I rewrote the book. And then I did it two more times. And then I had an editor look at it, who had me re-write it again. And we still missed a few typos and some grammatical issues, not to mention some pretty awful language usage. The only real highlight of my publishing experience with Oxford was the copy-editor they assigned, who was absolutely amazing; she found ways to cut, and cut, and cut. And that’s the primary thing you’ll find when you work with an editor – they don’t so much edit, as they do censor. We cut over 50% of the book out, and I rewrote that content from scratch. It’s hard to kill your baby, and it’s time consuming, and it’s personal. But it’s worth it. The bottom line on editing is to find an editor, pay them well, and listen to them.

Sources. Since I was as young a writing student as I can remember, I have been taught to cite my sources; I was instructed that you could use any material you wanted to strengthen your argument – in fact, the more material you had to substantiate whatever you were saying, the better – but citations were critical to staying legitimate, and that without citations, you were breaking the rules. The rules eventually became the law, and I was always under the impression that one could face penalties if they didn’t cite their sources in professional work.

Citing your sources is nice. But you can’t use other work in your text – cited or otherwise – without explicit permission from the author or copyright holder. Fair use doesn’t extend to commercial work, and while it is vague enough to seem like it would cover academic-style writing that is written for profit, I’m certainly not going to put my bank account on the line and get sued over a few quotes. So I spent a few days identifying the source of over a hundred quotes in my small book, finding the publisher and respective address for the permissions department, and writing letters to each one asking for permission to use their words. And then I waited, and then I received approval to utilize the quotes I needed. Most of them. And then I changed the rest. It’s tedious.

Design. My book is a design book – it’s about design – and the aesthetic and temporal qualities of the thing should match the message, lest Malcolm McLuhan roll over in his grave. My friend Paul Burke is one of the best print designers I’ve ever met, and so I asked him to do the layout for me. He agreed – and we agreed on a 50/50 split of printing costs as well as profit. That is, he paid half of the printing costs, and got half the profit. We worked on a theme through email, outlined a list of photographs that would support the theme, and held a photoshoot (it took about a day). I recently asked Paul what he would have charged for a similar project if it was cash only; he said to expect to pay $15,000 for the cover to cover layout and about $5000/day for a photoshoot. The bottom line is that you get what you pay for; if you want a stunning book, hire a designer and pay them their asking price.

Printing. As a general rule, a black and white offset print run will be affordable and elegant. A one-color-plus-black offset print run will be affordable and elegant. A full color offset print run will be obtusely expensive – and elegant. Thoughts on Interaction Design was one color and black; we contracted through Horizon Printing in Austin, Texas, and the total printing cost was $6754.24. Shipping from Austin to Savannah was $156.50, which yields a total of $6.90/book. Considering we retailed at $30, that’s a great profit margin, an affordable up-front cost, and a pretty inexpensive end product. The bottom line is that offset printing with two colors (a single color and black) is affordable and can produce beautiful results.

ISBN & Bowker. You’ll need an ISBN number for your book. When I printed my first book, I bought a pack of 10 ISBN numbers from Bowker for $269.95. Bowker is basically a monopoly – while they claim to be “the world’s leading provider of bibliographic information management solutions designed to help publishers, booksellers, and libraries”, they are essentially the only place authorized by the government to distribute ISBN numbers. You can buy a single ISBN for $125, what a steal! You’ll need a company to buy your ISBN through, so I recommend setting up a LLC. Our LLC cost $25 for the name reservation and $100 for the registration. The bottom line is that you need an ISBN number and Bowker is the most immediate way to get one.

Amazon. We made approximately $23 per book for every book we sold through out site, powered by paypal, and approximately $8 per book for every book that we sold through Amazon. The reason is simple – Amazon takes 50% or more of your profit off the top, so we would sell our $30 book to Amazon for $15. Subtract the $7 it costs to print, and you’re down to $8. But what you lose in profit, you gain in time and confidence. Once we joined Amazon’s Advantage program, they ordered two books. And then three. And then eight. And then 50. And while we made about 1/3 off those 50 books as we could have, it feels damn nice to ship 50 books at a time. It’s less trips to the post office, less packing and shipping hassle, and once they buy the books, they own ‘em. The bottom line is that Amazon is a convenience/profit tradeoff; for us, it was a no-brainer. And the first time they order in quantity, it sends chills down your spine.

Shipping & Receiving. When you buy 1000 books, you get… 1000 books. They show up all at once, on a palette, and are loaded into your driveway via forklift. And then you carry boxes of 44 books into your living room, until you have.. 1000 books in your living room. It’s a sight to behold, and it’s not something we were really prepared for. Of course, the fact that your living room is full of boxes is a pretty strong incentive to market all hell out of your work of art. (Our cat loved it.) We purchased boxes from PackagingPrice.com, and ordered a stack of newsprint; we wrapped each book in newsprint, stuck it in a box, and printed mailing labels on the computer, using Word/Excel mail merge. It became fairly automated, and the guy at the post-office soon started remarking on volume (“Things going a little slow at the publisher? Maybe you could do some more advertising?”)

After experiencing different publishing models, including self-publishing, a big academic press, and a big fat company, I’m happy with my decision to go DIY with my last title. I hope this helps you if you plan to go the same route.

Business Model Generation

Meet my first business model canvas. Isn’t she cute?

I was spurred on by our IDSE 401 discussions about income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements—and the ‘oh snap!’ realization that we haven’t solidified our revenue streams. I’ve been using Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Generation book (recommended by Justin Petro during Q1) to walk through key considerations of a business plan:

  • Customer segments
  • Value proposition
  • Channels
  • Customer relationship
  • Revenue streams
  • Key resources
  • Key activities
  • Key partnerships
  • Cost structure

The Business Model Generation book offers common patterns, examples, and good questions to think through each of these sections in their version of a business model canvas. The authors approach business model generation with a design sensibility and encourage ideation and prototyping to arrive at a proper and/or innovative model for your idea.

I’m gonna go off and do 10 more iterations. See you later.

Thanks AC4D and Mr. Miyagi

After 3 months of a dry patch where blogging disappeared into the horizon, I am back with a personal post about my AC4D journey and answers to some personal questions about why I am in this program. My break from blogging was a conscious decision resulting from some chaos and confusion about my expectations from the program, the divergence, the convergence and sense-making. I contemplated for a bit about posting this as this was more personal than being ac4d related. But, maybe, just a small maybe, it will help someone coming into the program when the number of questions prevail the number of answers.

When I started the program, I wanted to change the world. The passion was intense. I could see myself going out and doing several great things. I had figured out the mental visualization part of achievement. Thus, I began my journey with AC4D, hoping to change the world the way I saw it. The journey was sentimental and passionate. There is a great quote by Mary Aster –

“It's not good to make sentimental journeys. You see the differences instead of the sameness.”

I realized this very late. But, with every step I was taking,  I started seeing things were different than my expectations. I wanted to work on “information” because that is where my passion is. I did not get a chance to work on that. I was working on a different problem. The frustration caught me unaware. I questioned my reason for being in the program. I thought whether I was doing the same thing that led me into the program in the first place. Was I working on something that I didn’t want to be working on? Ah, the peril with a sentimental journey! I argued with my professors, my project outputs varied in quality. Not that I was bad or anything. It was just that, the sentimental journey was telling me that my goals were different than what I was being taught at school. It was chaotic. At some point, I started doing the assignments and projects because they were part of the curriculum. It had to be, because the emotion of not being able to work on what I wanted to work on, overpowered me.

Life was turbulent and chaotic. I had quit my full time job and was excited to work on some neat ideas. It just wasn’t to be. The Karate Kid story comes to mind. The Miyagis at AC4D were teaching me to wash dishes and scrub floors. I was not there for that. I wanted to learn Karate. There were moments where mind was messing with me and telling me that this was not what I was here for. Struggle and chaos had become part of my everyday project at AC4D. My biggest strength through this process was that chaos has always been my friend and I was familiar with it. There is another nice quote I read from ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ –

“One must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star”

I never ever realized how true this was. I persisted with chaos, stuck with my schedules and did the best I can. There were multiple epiphanies which gave a great insight into flaws of my own thinking, which could never have come if I had not questioned everything. I never stopped questioning the things I was doing but not for one instance I let the questions completely over power me and take a wrong step. And eventually, things started falling into place over numerous conversations (with Kat, Justin and Jon – thanks guys!). Today was one such moment. After a great guest lecture from Gary of Union Square Ventures (@gcsf), I went into Justin’s office and asked him what I was doing at AC4D. There were things I cared about that I wanted to work on, and I wanted to find out why I was not doing that. Then came the Miyagi moment. For me, Justin will forever remain as  Mr. Miyagi. He showed me how scrubbing floors (not literally) has made me a better person and entrepreneur. He gave me the famous talk about “leap of faith”. It was a great conversation that brings me back to my original quote that I referred to…

“It's not good to make sentimental journeys. You see the differences instead of the sameness.”

At AC4D, one is taught to be a better entrepreneur. The emphasis is on making you a better person. That is all it is. Every student works on this. It is not the project or idea that matters. It is the spirit. The biggest thing I have gained out of this experience is that, there is a great person (teachers or students) sitting at the other end of the table, listening with attention because they want you to succeed in your dreams. I learned more about myself. Like Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford speech, “You can only connect the dots looking backwards”. There might be frustration and chaos but if you change the lens with which you view,  you will see a friendly Miyagi teaching you to become a zen master in Karate.

Any future student reading this blog post – Do apply for next year’s program. I guarantee that it will change your life. It has changed mine.

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