I’m launching the Murmuration blog with something I’ll likely never do again: a first-person narrative. A paean to me, it could be argued. Or (worse), a “humblebrag“.
But I’ve given this post lots of thought, not only in writing the actual content, but also in whether this ought to be my blog’s introduction to the world.
I decided it should, and there are reasons beyond simple self-promotion. (OK, I must admit that there is some self-promotion involved, but when you think about it, all blogging must have some element of self-promotion; it’s almost tautological.
My defense, in short: I’m going somewhere with this. The story of Moveable Feast Mobile Media (MFMM) is, I think, an excellent introduction to where I’d like this blog to go. So if you have time to read a somewhat-lengthy but I-hope-not-too-boring story of how I tried and failed to build a successful mobile media company, please read on!
My future posts will be more focused on observing, analyzing, and informing. I hope to provide useful, practical advice on data & media ecosystems, entrepreneurship, analysis, and a few other things in which I’ve picked up some expertise or hard-learned lessons. And there might be a post or two with opinions on society & culture, because I’m old enough to think my opinions have some merit.
Part I: A Brief History of Me
It was 1991 – the Fall quarter of my first year of business school. I was working on a team project for Organizational Behavior (which is Ph.D.-speak for Human Resources), and we used some classmate connections so we could study a local Fortune 500 company in detail from the inside.
We interviewed several senior managers, including the CEO, to propose some solutions-to-unasked-questions about their Organizational Behavior. The idea was that we’d treat the subject company as a consulting client.
I remember suggesting to the group that the “client” needed “a database that could keep track of employees and all the relevant information about them”. Reading this now, you might say, “Yeah. So?” But consider this was 1991: around the same time that Windows 3.0 introduced support for sound cards and CD-ROMs. Besides, the client didn’t actually have one.
I studied abroad the next fall. My school had a foreign exchange program with a business school in France, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to study abroad as an undergrad. I returned from Paris in December 1992 with knowledge of Minitel and all sorts of dreams about technology & media.
Later that winter, while walking to class one day, I saw a crudely hand-lettered sign stapled to a telephone pole. It said something like “order your groceries on your computer!”, and had a phone number to call! Of course I called it. They sent me a special number to program into my computer’s modem, and a 3.5-inch floppy disk with their software, Peapod, on it. (I kept that floppy for quite a while, too. Wish I still had it!) With Peapod installed, I could get my computer to dial in to the Peapod server, get a “handshake” sound (that same screech you used to hear right before the AOL guy said “Welcome!”), and get a screenful of text directly from the local Jewel grocery store, where I could place an order for delivery.
I finished business school and went on to work for a local Fortune 500, because that’s what you did back then when you came out of business school: Big Company, Consulting, or Wall Street. This Big Company was in the printing business – which is nothing at all like your local copy shop. We’re talking enormous factories churning out magazines and catalogs by the 10’s of millions. Getting it all into the mail: databases with millions of names & addresses, attached to label printers. And also “EDI“- Electronic Data Interchange. As it turns out, these Big Printing Companies (and there were really only three in North America at the time) were genuine early innovators in the use of data-driven customization, which shouldn’t be too surprising when you think about it.
My exit from Big Printing Company was gradual: I worked on a team planning the merger/spinoff of one of our business units with an outside company. When the deal was done I was offered an executive role in “Newco”, which I gladly accepted. In my new job, I was responsible for the global rollout of a huge database initiative.
After the rollout I had an exciting opportunity to “pursue a passion” as the first Product Manager at an upstart manufacturer of bicycle components. Like so many people before and since, I had always heard that one should pursue one’s passions, and I had been a cyclist since buying my first Peugeot with money saved from mowing lawns. It took a little time before I discovered that what I considered a passion for cycling was more like a casual interest to most of my colleagues, who were bona fide bike-heads. I mean guys – and it was very largely male – who had been competing on two wheels since they were 11.
In retrospect, what I somewhat subconsciously focused on while there was business innovation. (The company itself was more of a Product innovator, and a damned good one at that.)
I used process mapping to reduce our time-to-market by almost 4o%. And I conceived & prototyped a database-driven tool that our OEM clients could use to “spec” their bikes, and it would help funnel them to choosing our products over our competitors’. This was 1996: Siebel Systems, a three year old company, and had just started shifting its focus from Sales Force Automation to Customer Relations Management, which was not yet really a named discipline.
I ultimately returned to the media industry, where I’ve been ever since. I relocated to New York City to work for an internet company – about a year before Internet 1.0 was proven irrationally exuberant. That company failed spectacularly, but I was able to conceive and implement several data-driven marketing ideas, and conceive and try to implement several others, before the implosion.
Next came a brilliantly innovative ad-tech company, where I was responsible for figuring out how to feed the data furnace with high-grade coal. (To torture the metaphor, I ended up recommending we switch from a coal-fired furnace to natural gas, which seems to have worked out OK for that company, who was just sold to Comcast.)
In the years since, I’ve consulted for numerous companies – mostly small, with one notable exception – and worked for a seed-funded startup in Predictive Analytics.
Part II: Genesis of an Idea
I moved to New York in 1999, having visited the city only twice before. True, I came here from another large American city, and I have lived in other megapolitan ant farms … but the size and velocity of Gotham was stunning nonetheless. It took some adjustment.
On Christmas Day, 1999, the local PBS station aired Ric Burns’ superb New York: A Documentary Film in its entirety, back-to-back. I watched all 17 ½ hours, mouth agape. (Well, not literally.) It left me feeling proud to live here, and it left me feeling that we denizens are not simply inhabitants of tiny, expensive apartments; we’re custodians of an American treasure.
Fast forward a couple of years. A friend who sat on the board of a venerable-but-dusty Food & Wine association called and said they needed to reinvigorate their member programing, which had become a little stale. My friend knew that I’d long been an aficionado of all things food, and asked if I had any ideas. After some thinking, I proposed a food tour of the Lower East Side, which I volunteered to research, write, and lead.
The tour was a smashing success. We ended at a brunch place about 1PM; people stayed until six. The seed was planted.
In 2007 Steve Jobs announced a whole new category of mobile phone, a device that could not only make & receive calls, and take some pictures, but could also play music, and videos, and it even knew (and could tell you) where you were. The seed germinated.
In 2009 my life changed pretty dramatically. I’ll skip the details, but the gist is that I decided that I would not give myself permission to let this idea die without trying it. And I started doing the background research for what would become Moveable Feast Mobile Media.
Moveable Feast’s initial idea was pretty simple: I would dust off my old walking tour of the Lower East Side – and adapt it for the iPhone. This way, my thinking went, I could run my tour without having to be physically present. This meant that people could take it how & when they wanted, without having to worry about scheduling, overbooking, underbooking (who wants to go on a sparsely attended walking tour?), inclement weather, etc. And as a bonus, I could charge people a few bucks.
The idea quickly gave way to a broader plan: why not build a company that published walking tours onto the iPhone platform?
Part III: Building Moveable Feast
I sat down for coffee with my friend and former colleague, Brad, in SoHo. Brad & I had worked together in 2007 at that early stage (and early entry) company in Machine Learning/Behavioral Analytics I mentioned earlier. Brad is a full-stack engineer, and known for his ability to master languages – and by that I do not necessarily mean French, Spanish, and Russian. When we met, I was just testing my idea with him to see what he thought, both from a “market” and a programing perspective. Brad was – and remains – one of the few talented programmers I’ve worked with who also has really good sense about business and marketing.
He surprised me when he said, “you know what, I have some time. Why don’t I join you and we can build it?” (I’m probably paraphrasing; my memory isn’t that good!) By late 2010 we had wireframe models for the initial product, and were ready to roll.
The next thing we needed to nail down was the UX/UI. For those who are not familiar with software design, this means “User Experience and User Interface”, and they are often spit out as a single term – like I just did. They are very different things though: UX is about the overall ease of use of the product, while UI is more about look & feel. (For a good “disambiguation”, read The Difference Between UX and UI Design- A Layman’s Guide; it’s a very good explanation.)
One of the “mantras” Brad and I agreed on vigorously was that in software design, the UX and UI matter a lot. When considering any feature, the rule was, “if it mucks up the UX or the UI, it stays out until we can figure out how to get it in without mucking up the UX/UI.”
Anyway, this was 2010 – five years ago. Five years may not seem like much, but in the world of mobile it’s a lifetime. There were a few designers out there at the time who claimed expertise in mobile UX/UI, but I think that was just a land grab; my feeling was that no one could really have gained any true market-leading expertise yet. Consumers were still getting used to these devices. (And I think we still are now.) We spoke with a few of these “experts”, but they were very expensive, and again, I didn’t think they had enough real expertise to justify their hourly rates.
I picked up the phone and called another former colleague, from a different part of my past. Kent was an Industrial Designer at the upstart bicycle company I mentioned before. Kent’s job was to take completed designs from the mechanical engineers and make them into products that were aesthetically pleasing and ergonomically efficient. I reasoned that this was a perfect analogy for what we needed to do, and I knew Kent to be conscientious, enthusiastic, and highly talented. Kent had left the bicycle company, and now headed a boutique product design firm. I pitched Kent on the idea of his team using our product to expand their portfolio and gain a new set of skills in the process. And Kent loved the idea. We got to work building.
In April of 2011 we “pressed the big red button” – we submitted our app to the then-onerous Apple Approval Process – and crossed our fingers. At the time there was still a relative trickle of app submissions, and Apple had enough staff to be extremely picky about the criteria for app acceptance. And we thought we’d hewed closely to the requirements. But a few days later we got our disappointing news: we were turned down. Six months of work! Fortunately, though, Apple did provide the reason we were rejected: we needed to add the Google Maps branding on all of the maps we used in our product’s designs. Trivial! Well, sort of. It did take some genuine effort to add that little graphic in a way that didn’t muck up the UI. But we did it, and this time, Apple allowed our app into the iTunes App Store℠. We ended up losing just a few days.
We were now a company with a real product, and an app in the App Store℠. April, 2011.
Part IV: Fans!
Talented marketers know to keep an eye out for “unintended use cases” (( this is the true meaning of “the customer is always right”, but that’s another post)). I’m not really a talented marketer, but I am a trained one. So I knew, too.
Moveable Feast is actually a simple idea: marry storytelling tools to a map interface. The intended use case was for people to create walking tours. (And, of course, for other people to take walking tours.) We thought initially of the thousands – yes, thousands – of professional tour guides in New York City, and presumably their counterparts in essentially every urban destination on Earth. And then the amateurs: people who have guests in town, people who are hopelessly gregarious, people who are passionate historians, or educators, or adventurers.
We built in the basic four media types – text, images, audio, and video – as the “storytelling tools”. We gave the walking tour guide an easy way to draw out a route, and then drag-drop any of those media items onto the points along the route. It was easy: Route ➛ Media ➛ Publish.
We did think that travel journalists would eventually be interested in this. Think about it: if you deconstruct a great walking tour, it’s really an experience-based article about a place. What we didn’t expect was the filmmakers and dramaturges. In hindsight it makes perfect sense to me, but we weren’t even thinking about that at the time. Some examples of things we didn’t really expect to see:
- The very first example came from a filmmaker & “transmedia(( I’m not a big fan of the term “transmedia”, but that’s what they call it)) storyteller”. She created a feature-length film, shot in a way that took her audience from place to place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the action unfolded. She was invited to present this project at Tribeca Interactive, part of the annual Tribeca Film Festival.
- One very forward-thinking playwright designed an episodic series, where each episode took his audience to a different part of New York to follow the characters through the story. The story and characters were fictional, but the geography was real. He sold tickets, and he made arrangements with local businesses that incorporated their products & services into the storyline. For example, audiences went to the restaurant where the characters had a date, and were given a special prix fixe menu as audience members. They went to a bar, where the bartender offered a special cocktail that one of the characters drank. And all of these were included in the ticket price. Brilliant!
- A British teacher of English as a Foreign Language, living in a small town in Portugal, used Moveable as a teaching tool. He had his class of Portuguese adults create an English-language walking tour of their town. His work was nominated for an ELTon Award – the “Oscars” of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IAETFL).
I’m still astounded by the myriad possibilities these projects bring to light, especially as the technologies get better and more accessible.
Part V: Downward Spiral
I very briefly dabbled in fundraising. (In an upcoming post on the “Venture Finance” ecosystem, I intend to go into some details on this.) But the bottom line is that the financing strategy for MFMM was simple: build a product that could generate some repeating revenue – no matter how small, but repeating. Then, and only then, go try to raise some money, first from clients (as more revenue), then from “angels”. It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that this strategy was about retaining all of the equity. It wasn’t. It was about retaining decision-making.
Nevertheless, the strategy came apart. Brad (my CTO/partner) and I were not paying ourselves salaries, which was OK for me. Tough, but OK. Brad, though, had obligations he had to meet, and the “just until we get some traction” scenario eventually became more than he could reasonably abide. Brad left Moveable Feast in 2012.
I can dabble in code, and I can hack my way through SQL. I have even built a standalone database application that tracked reimbursable expenses for a professional services firm. But I know the difference between that and a Real Programmer. A Real Programmer can make things work, elegantly and efficiently. To become a Real Programmer takes much more than teaching yourself a programming language or two; it takes both experience and a natural gift. I am not a Real Programmer, and never will be.
Without Brad, product development stopped. And this launched a cascade. It was slow at first; I didn’t really even notice it. But from the moment product development stopped, the product’s obsolescence clock started ticking. Features we had fully designed went unimplemented. Revenue-generating ideas stayed in PowerPoint decks. User feedback went unaddressed. And without money, I could not replace Brad and get these things back on the rails.
Part VI: A White Knight?
By summer of 2014 I had transitioned to the somewhat schizophrenic model that I think is both under-reported by and unsustainable for entrepreneurs: I was consulting to keep paying bills, and trying to keep Moveable Feast alive by looking for the “Unicorn Client”. It was in precisely this schizophrenic mindset that I met someone who looked like he could actually help. He had connections to a major company that was specifically looking to make a lot of relatively sizable investments in young companies, and he had connections to some governmental programs that seemed perfectly geared to startups in the earliest stages. Plus, he might even have some consulting work for me!
The rest of that story, but the ending, is best saved for my memoirs, should I ever need to write memoirs. The ending, though, is that after several months, international conference calls, several presentation decks written in a language other than English, ad hoc spreadsheet models, and not a little bit of cautious optimism … nothing happened. But I wasn’t deflated yet! I decided to double down.
As we entered 2015 I stopped consulting to launch a crowdfunding campaign. I reasoned that we did need to update our UX/UI, and we did need to add at least one feature that had been left on the drawing board, and we did need to brush up our software a bit. But I’m very resourceful; I don’t think I need $5 million to do all that. I can get it done with 1% of that! And then, finally, touch off that wildfire that I know just needs a single spark. Right?
I hired Jesse, a very talented video producer (( please contact me if you’d like to get in touch with him)) to create the all-important campaign video. He did excellent work, especially considering the budget I’d given him to work with:
The crowdfunding campaign did pretty well, considering it’s a software project. It’s not a celebrity-backed film, and it doesn’t have a manufactured product you can pre-order with your contribution. We raised a little over $10,000; our goal was 5 times that. On the platform we chose, the rules are: you don’t meet your goal, you get zero. We got zero.
Here’s a quick postmortem analysis of the campaign.
Part VII: Postmortem
The picture below is of a “safety coffin“. We all learned about these in high school; during the cholera epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries, people were afraid of being mistaken for dead, and then buried alive. Safety coffins provided a string attached to an above-ground bell that the unfortunate not-departed could ring in case he “woke up” to realize his fate, and wanted to change it. (And may I say: can you imagine? Holy crap!) Incidentally, for you etymology fans, this is the origin of the phrase “saved by the bell”.
I’m talking about safety coffins, and I asterisked the title of this post, because Moveable Feast Mobile Media is “maybe dead”. But I still believe – with every fiber of my being – that it could be saved by the bell. Here’s why:
- “Location-based media” companies have neglected the storytelling component of geography
- “Traditional” media companies are too hide-bound to be truly innovative about location. (Hide-bound, here, is a bit of a cop out, because it doesn’t explain the systemic problems within traditional media companies that leads to their inability to innovate. I will cover that, though, as a separate subject.)
- The small handful of competitors that has recently emerged are not treating location-based storytelling as a data play. (( Much more on this, too, in later posts.))
- Experiences are capturing the attention of both researchers and “lifehackers”, because “[i]t is the experiences that will last a lifetime, that you will look back on with joy and appreciation” (( This is why, in fact, I named the company “Moveable Feast”. It has nothing to do with food. It is because Ernest Hemingway once said “if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then for the rest of your life you take it with you, for Paris is a Moveable Feast.” It was this quotation that his posthumously-published memoirs of actually living in Paris as a young man that lent the book its title.))
- We really are at the beginning of the mobile era, and with new technologies finally entering the mainstream (e.g., Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Beacons, and many others), the possibilities for reinventing Travel Media are endless.
Our business plan has much left unimplemented – and it’s all aimed at a sustainable revenue model with growth potential, not simply hacking subscriber growth. I still want to build it! But all that said – over 3,500 words so far, I am at a juncture where I can share some learnings. And this is why this first-person narrative, this paean to me, is a great first post for this blog. I will use the blog to share some learnings, and I’ll do my best to couch them in ways that can be helpful in practical (( prac·ti·cal (ˈpraktək(ə)l/), adjective: (1) of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas. “there are two obvious practical applications of the research”)) ways.
Persistence isn’t just a trait, it’s also a resource.
I’m proud of Moveable Feast Mobile Media. I’m proud of Brad. I’m proud of Kent, and Eric, and Tune, and Jesse. I’m proud of Caitlin, and James, and Paul. We built a visionary product with no money at all, and I think that the product, even today, remains visionary, even if it needs some TLC. I think it is the future of travel media, and much more. As a CEO, I made some mistakes, and I learned from them. I still dream of being able to pick it right back up, and do it even better, with fewer mistakes.
There’s a conventional notion that “failed” entrepreneurs gain valuable knowledge from their failure. I’d always nodded faintly to myself at this notion – I mean, of course they do, right? But the assumption I’d made, implicitly, was that the “learning” was in the form of decisions you’d make differently the next time around, or maybe some deeper understanding of some case study from business school all those years ago, or maybe a client situation you’d faced.
Those hashmarks do end up on your sleeve, and I have no doubt they’ll prove valuable. But looking back now, in the very moment that comes immediately after (or while?) internalizing “failing” a startup, I realize that the more valuable lessons are the ones you learn about yourself.
To be an entrepreneur, you must either have a strong safety net, or be willing to be poor. You may never need the safety net, and you may never be poor, but to play the game you must start with one or the other. Either that, or you’re just a fool.
Last but not least, I am currently looking for opportunities as an acting/interim COO. Interested? Please get in touch.