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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

mesh - day 2

The first ever mesh conference is now in the books.

After day 2 yesterday, my impression was even more positive overall than after day 1.

The day began with a contentious keynote Q&A in which PR expert Steve Rubel traded perspectives on corporate blogging, and whether "character blogs" (like let's say Mickey Mouse blogged) are inauthentic. The exchange with the audience was rather electric. As a mere spectator to that whole area (other than being a "character" who "blogs"), I'm not sure if I 100% picked up on every nuance, but it looks as if there's a continuum: those that are 100% "authentic" in their conception of blogging, who feel it works best if the writer has a true voice, on one end, and on the other, people who are in the grip of the advertising industry's aspirations, so will say anything to justify a blog that can push somebody's product (so, the people who say that "character blogs" are "successful"). Rubel seemed to come down somewhere in the middle, though it has to be said that this is a rather strange middle if his company is taking promotional materials from Wal-Mart, sending it to bloggers, and "hoping they'll find it useful, but knowing they can comment on it any way they like." Honestly, this doesn't sound anywhere close to my idea of blogging. Web 2.0 it ain't. It's "push".

But am I saying that just because it's Wal-Mart?

Albert Lai of Bubbleshare, Malgosia Green of Nuvvo, and Michael McDerment of Freshbooks were asked at a later session how they promoted their startups. Green's and Lai's companies directly approached hundreds of influencers in their field who blog, and got great word-of-mouth response. McDerment mentioned that his company needed to spend a bit more on AdWords ads to get his product, an online invoicing system, noticed. In any case, there seems to be a clear distinction between the type of engaged word of mouth in the blogosphere created by entrepreneurs like Green and Lai, and Wal-Mart sending PR puff out to (so-called) bloggers in the hopes that they can dominate the discourse. In part because Wal-Mart has so many products and so much to say. That's not how real word of mouth works, is it? As someone who might actually be looking for a cool online app, hearing about one from a blogger I trust seems intuitive. It seems like the kind of conversation we need, when it fills a huge void and gets us to the real goods faster.

Dr. Paul Kedrosky gave the second a.m. keynote, on the current venture capital environment. From the back of the room, Kedrosky looked like a handsome version of Harold Ramis, I thought. My next thought, as he talked animatedly about the overfunding of certain sectors by Silicon Valley investors, was: "Stiller-like." But facial superficialities aside: Kedrosky is a great educator on the whole capital funding infrastructure that supports and creates both bubbles and legitimate forms of growth. There was some consensus between Kedrosky and the audience that deals like Skype being bought out and the funding of a mere browser front-end such as Flock were examples of the irrationality that takes hold, where non-businesses get more money than makes sense. But there was also the important point that it doesn't matter, because VC's are trying to win through dealflow, by finding the one or two good deals that do work. So not only will they fund a lot of duds, they'll look at 1,000 business plans, most of which suck, because that's the nature of their business. In this economy, Kedrosky argues, "it takes a lot of bodies to fill a swamp." A clear conclusion, if you don't want to be one of those bodies, is to run your business and your career a little more conservatively -- don't seek VC funding, don't quit everything to chase a hot sector. Or, if you want the world to be a better place... and already have some economic security or are a little bit crazy... do it. :) After hearing about a wide range of trends and hot sectors in this session, some from audience discussion, it wasn't all that much of a shock to me to hear that pretty much the only profitable startups out of the gate are dating sites. One niche play out of Vancouver was mentioned, doing something like $10-15,000 a day in advertising revenue, while charging lower fees than usual for memberships. If the fact that things like dating sites are the only clearly profitable plays worthy of mention in a Web 2.0 conference shocks you, well... where have you been!?

Kedrosky and the audience also agreed that companies are being funded today on the basis of features - not products. But that wasn't surprising, Kedrosky argued, in a world where Google is willing to release features and call them new products? (Isn't Jeteye, a startup, better than Google Notebook? Is either a product?) Sure enough, shortly after hearing that comment, I received an email reminder from Jeteye's PR that I really should take time to compare Jeteye with Google's new "product." I plan to do so, in fact have been planning to do so since founder David Hayden was good enough to talk with me months ago! Arrgggh...

Seriously, though, if we're talking about tools that make it easy to build a dossier of information, files, etc., based on your research, and to share it with others, that's just another choice of platform that you'd need to make. It really might well be a feature as opposed to a product, in the sense that many at the conference are pondering issues like corporate Wiki adoption, etc. There are no silver bullets, but you can only persuade colleagues to participate in so many different forms of collaboration. If there are too many product (feature) pitches, we're all back to email attachments and apathy. :)

All in all, the conference exceeded attendees' expectations. I did hear a couple of minor complaints about people with an agenda (a product to push) tilting things. That's always a concern, but I felt a fair balance was mostly struck.

It's just not very often you get to hear speakers of this caliber. Hearing lessons from the owners of living, breathing, and successful startups - not in any canned way, but in an interactive format - is all too rare. There were several packed sessions on other topics, also. For example, Canadians just don't often get too hear directly from the managers of their leading online brands -- the senior VP of Chapters Online, Jonathan Ehrlich, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd.

One of the odd meetings I had, at the reception afterwards, was with the brother of Mark Evans, one of the conference organizers. Mark is more high profile with his blog and writing in the National Post. But it turns out his brother manages e-commerce for Canadian Tire, which is more practically related to some of what I do. He introduced himself and said he'd read my book. That was unexpected.

I also met one speaker, Elissa Gjertson, who got some rave reviews for her innovative "15 minutes of fame" company presentation. After taking her transparent business card, I enjoyed her departure from the serious advertising vernacular and into uncanny impressions of her own Minnesota accent. I told her I was speaking in Minnesota at a MIMA event on June 14, and she told me she was a member so would definitely be showing up to heckle me. :) Small world! But I guess making it just a bit smaller was the point of mesh.

The last session of the day really confirmed for me how rare it is to get a group like this together.

In a session on how Web 2.0 will change the software industry, reps from companies like Flock and Wordpress offered piercing insights on how the user experience is changing. As evangelists for certain (modest-seeming) improvements in the way we accomplish daily tasks, there was a refreshing radicalism to their takes on various topics. For a change, they were in a room where they were largely preaching to the converted, which made for a nice comfort level and a willingness to open up. It's just interesting to hear how many people are using certain kinds of collaborative tools (like Basecamp), how someone is working on "microformats" to make little pieces of your online experience more interoperable, etc. The most impressive thing is, the panel wasn't cowed at all when challenged by an audience member who had an admitted vested interest in saying "online banking apps are currently perfectly usable." This group was clearly not interested in "saying the right thing," but rather in imagining the future, and so -- if necessary -- saying wrong things to see if it leads to innovation. Possibly this attitude is more prevalent among software developers, especially at maverick startups (Automattic of Wordpress fame has only five people!). It's quite possible that the majority of "business" conferences -- even those that claim to be about innovation and change -- are substantively more conservative than those centered around the goals and aspirations of Web 2.0.

Throughout the day, the gang from G4TechTV Call for Help were shooting on site, unusual for them as they usually shoot out of the Rogers studios on Lake Shore Blvd. Various attendees and random passersby were being asked to come down the escalator, and "look natural." A producer on the show confided that mesh was a hotbed for him in terms of booking guests for future shows. Probably 95% of the speakers would say yes to coming on the show in a heartbeat, at least if they're locals.

One of my clients, CEO of a local tech company, bought a whole table beer and nachos afterwards - hungrily devoured by a couple of the university students who had managed to snag free "student designated" passes to the conference. That worried me, because he'd announced that "suppliers buy for all his customers," but then, I realized, I'm not only a supplier, I'm also a customer. Yep, both! Small world.

Events like mesh are not easy to put together. This one was an unqualified success. To the organizers - Stuart, Mark, Michael, et al., - please do it again!

Posted by Andrew Goodman

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