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Category: Entrepreneurship

The wisdom of the crowds

 

This post is based on the excellent session, “Crowdsource Your Success”, that was given in Affiliate Summit East 2010 though I expanded it and added my own perspective.

 
Crowdsourcing is becoming increasingly popular these days. According to Wikipedia, Crowdsourcing “is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open call“.

 

Using Crowdsourcing, you can submit a job description and get multiple bids each already satisfying the specifications you desire. Since you get multiple people trying to create what you want, the results are potentially diverse and can be surprisingly creative. Of course, this is usually more expensive than just using regular outsourcing sites such as oDesk or Elance – but the disadvantage of those is that no matter how good your contractor, you are ’stuck’ with a single design.

 
Crowdsourcing works because of the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ principle: the idea that a crowd – a collection of individuals – is much more likely to get the right answer than a single individual.

 
A good example is the game show “Who wants to be a millionaire?”. Asking the audience for the answer is more likely to result in the right answer than asking your friend or Regis Philbin.

 
This principle has been adopted by computer science as well (and probably other fields). In my academic career I used to create multiple artificial neural – instead of a single one – networks that solved a problem. The right solution was determined by taking the solution that the largest number of networks ‘voted’ would work best.

 
Here are some suggestions given at the talk to get the maximum from crowdsourcing:

  1. You reap what you sow: define your project properly or you may get something very different from what you had in mind.
  2. Tight deadlines are very effective as people like discovering quickly whether they’ve won a bid.
  3. Don’t be a jerk: Designers thrive on feedback, give feedback and recognition.
  4. The project has to require your involvement: a crowdsourcing project is not ’set and forget’.
  5. Keep it simple: be realistic in your expectations and ask for what is reasonable.
  6. Don’t be too cheap: most people aren’t going to be paid, so keep this in mind.
  7. Announce there will be multiple winners to boost designer participation (assuming that is the case!)

Until the talk in Affiliate Summit, I (naively) thought crowdsourcing is limited to graphic design/web design and 1-2 other types of applications. I was mainly familiar with 99design.

 
The following is a list of crowdsourcing resources given at the talk. I had no idea there were so many! When I’ve done a Google search I found even more though it’s hard to tell which are good. If you are familiar with anything that is not included and is a good resource, please let me know and I’ll add it.

 
Note that I’m still looking for a place to crowdsource copywriting (sadly, not my strength!) – so if you are familiar with a good site for that purpose, suggestions would be welcome.

 
Banner, landing page and graphic design
99designs: the most well known resource for Crowdsourcing.

 
Landing page optimization:
FiveSecondTest: allows you to get quick feedback on landing page designs.

  • Are your calls to action standing out? Get people clicking on hot spots
  • Can visitors understand what the site is about?
  • Give viewers a memory test: what can they remember about the landing page?

 
PPC management
Trada: Allows you to turn over PPC management to a group of AdWords qualified professionals.

 
Ad copy
BoostCTR: allows you to outsource your ad copy so that your CTR is boosted. Guaranteed improvement!

 
Videos
GeniusRocket: professional videos and animations.

 
Product development
Quirky: submit new ideas for products or influence products currently in production (and earn cash)

 
Feature Requests
UserVoice: a giant suggestion box. You get a lot of comments which are prioritized. Best ideas are voted to the top.

SuggestionBox

 
Software development
TopCoder: an excellent resource for software developers.

 
Find JV partners
Jigsaw: a massive crowsourced database of contact information

 
Content writing
Spudaroo: useful for web content as well as resumes, leases, etc.

 
Beta Testing
UserTesting: usability testing for your website.

CrowdFlower

 
Ideas/Names
Amazon Mturk: Although the Amazon Mechanical Turk is not exactly a crowdsourcing resource, by offering to pay a small amount for ideas, you can effectively crowdsource names. An example was given of a person who paid $27.50 to get name ideas for his iPhone app (the result was iReadFast). Note that there used to be a site (which I vaguely remember) that was used for this purpose but has been apparently closed.

 

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The third and last day of Affiliate Summit East 2010 started with a great keynote speech by Jim Kukral, who also gave his recently published book: Attention! This Book Will Make You Money: How to Use Attention-Getting Online Marketing to Increase Your Revenue to the first 300 attendees.

 
Jim’s talk focused on providing guidance to businesses and individuals who are unsuccessful so that they can become successful. Here’s his five step plan:

  1. Say what you do: be specific.
  2. What you do should solve a problem or entertain: All problems in the world can fall into either category. (Someone tweeted afterwards that this is incorrect and stated that looking for information is a third category. I disagree – looking for information solves a problem: getting information you lack).
  3. Know your customer: Ask them why they use your services so you could further hone your message.
  4. Be the alternative: If you have a tough competition, find an alternative way. The example given was of the 5 hour energy drink – the alternative to coffee, which many drink for the energy boost.
  5. Make it easy: Easy as in simple, instant, quick, hassle-free. One suggestion Jim gave to businesses is to avoid the Paypal button as most ‘normal’ people simply aren’t familiar with it. Real world businesses and individuals pay with credit cards – so give them that option.

An interesting anecdote: one of Jim’s tips was that if you come up with an idea and get a reaction – even a very bad one – it means you’re on the right track. After saying that, he shared the story of a company who came up with a bizarrely disgusting line of juices. Someone in the audience blurted “Ewww” and Jim responded – see, that’s exactly what we’re looking for. This company was very successful.

 

 

The Info Product Co-Creation Formula
Later I went to the breakout sessions. This one session in particular was very good. Despite the fact these sessions were 20 minutes each, it lasted more than 30 minutes and there was so much information given it could’ve easily filled an entire hour (I add this picture simply because I liked the speaker’s official title..).

 
In this session a ‘formula’ for creating info-products was given which is said to be so effective that it can be used to sell products even before they are actually made. This was compared to a tennis match, where you, the product creator, ask questions and get feedback from your prospective buyers multiple times.

 
Although the speaker gave a precise list of steps, there was so much information I wasn’t able to type them exactly as specified. Here’s my amended version (I probably split certain steps).

  1. Start with a survey
  2. Get responses
  3. Identify core needs of the people in your list
  4. Verify this is what they want: they confirm or deny.
  5. Give them a free report based on their responses.
  6. They read the report and respond
  7. Pre-sell the full (nonexistent) product. If you do it right you can sell more before the product exists to justify your costs. Be fully transparent about this, that you haven’t created the product and want to make it if it’ll appeal to enough people.
  8. Create the full product.
  9. You already have enough buyers to return your time investment, and can get many more now.

 

 

Affiliate Platforming: How to Attract & Retain Audiences
I went to Scott Stratten’s (@UnMarketing’s) talk. I spoke to Scott during lunch just before – since both of us are very active Twitter users, we exchanged amusing anecdotes (well, mainly horror stories..).

 
Scott’s talk was excellent, not to mention, absolutely hilarious. He advocated using social media as a platform to engage people and build an audience both for individuals and for businesses. This session would’ve fit perfectly with Social Media 201, the conference I helped organize (and gave a talk) back in April.

 
Here are guidelines towards attracting an audience (this is relevant for blogging, tweeting, any relevant medium).

  1. Traction: “nothing works at first”. This is the hardest phase. You blog and/or tweet and it seems no one is listening.
  2. Momentum: starts taking care of itself. People are coming to you. The ratio change.
  3. Expansion: you built so much traction and momentum you can expand it.

 
A few more general guidelines.

  • Don’t use Twitter as a one way communication stream and expect success. Scott suggested the key to success is 75% replies.
  • To those who just use scheduled tweets – you can’t automate authenticity, people know this and react.
  • Social Media investment is much more than dollars (.. and this relates to my own blog post, Twitter: Beyond Immediate ROI)
  • Be ready for negative comments. The 1% happiest and the 1% unhappiest are the most vocal.

To demonstrate these points, he gave both good examples and bad ones, i.e. a coffee shop that criticized at length a customer for tweeting a complaint.

 
Blogger room
Since I was running back and forth between sessions and the exhibition hall, I barely spent any time in the blogger room. To be honest, I didn’t really need to, after all, we had wireless access. But I went there to spend some time with friends.

 
The blogger room was run by the amazing BlogMistress, Heather Smith. Heather told me about Missy Ward’s competition and I am very sad to say I did not win, though I was runner-up with @loxly. Next year I vow to win.

 

Missy Ward's competition


Heather Smith at the blogger room and the prize I almost won

 

To summarize: I had a fantastic time at the summit. I think the fact I spent much more time in sessions than in parties really gave me a different affiliate summit experience. Despite not going to parties, I did a good share of networking – I talked to a lot of people at the exhibition hall/meet market, during lunch breaks and in between sessions. Personally I feel this is more effective than exchanging business cards while shouting during a loud party (though I can’t argue with a friend of mine who said “people spill their secrets when they’re drunk”. True.)

 
Looking forward to the Affiliate Summit West 2011!

 
p.s. Still have two sessions I intend to summarize as independent posts.

 

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Contests are a really useful way of drawing traffic and attention to a site. They can be used to launch a product, a site, a television show… You, of course, know all this since so many companies utilize them in order to get subscriptions, feedback, reviews, tweets, whatever. They gain potentially a very large amount of publicity (at times) for a small amount of money.

 
But let’s disregard that. I think contests are fun. I’ve won a handful during my lifetime and that was always exciting (even if I didn’t want the prize).

 
The very first ‘modern’ site I created is a book and movie review site (I’m not considering the sites I created in the mid 90s nor the eCommerce-type sites I created for work). This site is still up and running – it’s the site I put the most effort into, but, unfortunately, is practically abandoned. The problem is that even though it has quite a lot of dedicated followers (and a Facebook group), it is simply not worth the time I put into it: no ad or any form of monetization seemed to work and I just couldn’t afford working on it.

 
At the time I thought of running weekly contests. I never finalized the details, but I thought of sending a book (of choice) to the person who will write the most interesting book review, which I could use. I thought it would be a good way of getting content, even if somewhat expensive, but more importantly, it would be fun! BUT I was too busy so I never did it.

 
Several conversations I had recently made me feel like running such a contest again. This time, here, on my blog. However, I am still unsure about the details. Nor am I sure I want to go ahead with it.

 
I figured, why not use the blog itself to get answers to my dilemma? At the moment I’m considering that in order to participate in the contest a person will have to:

  • Sign up to my blog newsletter (he can always unsubscribe later).
  • Tweet about the contest
  • Leave a comment that he’s signed up
  • And that sort of thing. Nothing that requires any effort or commitment.

In exchange, I’ll help the winner get 3,000 followers – actually, almost certainly more – in about 10-12 days (I don’t want to commit myself to a certain number of days because this largely depends on the starting point: a brand new user is definitely harder). If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you probably know I’m pretty good at getting many followers, and quickly too ;)

 
For some people this might be trivial. For others uninteresting – many people don’t want more followers. However, I know people who both want more followers but don’t know how to get them. Often they are “stuck” at the 2,000 Twitter follower barrier.

 
A friend of mine said that people might think there’s a catch. No catch. The thing I will gain is potentially more traffic to this blog and have fun. Furthermore, it would involve some work on my end; I wish I could wave a wand and make an account suddenly have 3,000 extra followers – but I’m not Ashton Kutcher, you know (for me he’ll always be the king of Twitter! You hear this, Britney??). Also, obviously I’d need to know the user’s password to arrange this, but he/she can change it every day and let me know, whatever. I truly don’t care.

 
If people think this is a good idea, I’d also need to determine a way to pick the winner. Could be random, could be another criteria, like, coming up with the funniest Twitter Jail joke (a trend I began at the time!). Frankly, I’m undecided.

 
Is this ‘prize’ worth it? You tell me. Let me know your thoughts. I really like the idea of running a contest but as I said, still fine-tuning the details. I only want to do this if other people think this could be fun too.

 

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Me and my son, taking a nap

Me and my son, taking a nap

 

This is a bit different from what I normally discuss here.

 
A few years ago, while I was still employed, the thing I hated the most about the jobs I held was the rigidity of the work schedule. Even though many workplaces brag about their flexibility, and I worked in at least two such places, in practice neither was flexible. In fact, one was the most rigid place I ever worked at: it’s very easy for a company to claim it offers flexible hours as a perk but put so many conditions that in practice it’s impossible.

 
I remember thinking: if only I can get 2-3 hours a week where I come late to work and leave much later to make up for this time, that would be perfect – then I could go see the occasional movie without requiring a babysitter, see doctors if I need to without having to describe my ailments to my boss, etc. But even that was frowned upon. Why? I suspect because if I did this, then my colleagues would be jealous and would resent me and/or my boss. Alternatively, they would want to do this too. And if everybody did this.. well, most companies don’t really want flexible schedules… it’s just a method of enticing people to come work for them.

 
Another point: even though I heard of people working in 9 to 5 jobs, I never had such a job in my entire life. Ever. It’s probably a matter of industry, but the vast majority of jobs I held required at least a 9 to 7 workday, sometimes a lot more. With this type of work day, often there were days I would not see my son at all: I’d leave when he’d still be asleep, and return when he’s asleep. What’s the point of working if you don’t get to enjoy the after hours?

 
Therefore, when I started my own company, one of my primary goals was to work when I want to. If I want to go see a movie, then I go. If I want to take a nap, I can. Of course, there are always limitations (clients, meetings, etc) but still this was my goal. Note that this requires discipline – something that is actually harder than it sounds, but is definitely possible.

 
So I did it. I structured my entire workday in a bizarre way. Specifically, I work around my family’s hours: whenever my son & wife are at home, I am with them. When they go to sleep, I start working again. This results in two shifts: a day shift (10:30am – 6pm) and a night shift (10:30pm – 4-5am). I know I don’t have to work so much, but since there’s so many things I want to do or learn, I feel I need this time.

 
At first I didn’t like working after 1am… but I got used to it. It’s quiet.. no one calls. Now there are days I finish everything I planned to do at 3:30am but still pass time for an hour or more (sometimes just chat or watch videos). I once collaborated with a team who had a similar work schedule, so often we’d have conference chats at 4am – which was admittedly bit strange (even though I do work at these hours, I’m definitely not at my best).

 
I also nap quite often during the day. I think companies would have much more productive employees – not to mention happier ones – if they allowed an optional 30-60 minute nap during the day – even demand that employees work late if they choose this. I find that napping really refreshes me.

 
I’m curious: if you’re self employed, how do you manage your time? What do you allow yourself to do that you wouldn’t in an ordinary job? And if you’re not self employed, what would you like to have as a perfect work day?

 

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iStethoscope


 
I thought I’ll share this story with my readers because I find it inspiring and because it happened to a good friend of mine.

 
My (ex) Ph.D. supervisor and friend, Peter Bentley, has an iPhone he really loves (I mean it, he really loves it). I became Peter’s student after I read one of his books – he’s published quite a number of academic texts and popular science books. Peter is a great writer, and I learned a lot from him (regardless of the fact I got a doctorate thanks to him!). Here’s Peter’s Wikipedia page (yes, I’m mentioned there too).

 
One day, purely for fun, Peter created an iPhone app: it was called iStethoscope and with it you could basically use your iPhone as a stethoscope: listen to your heartbeat, etc. Since he genuinely created it without any intentions of profit, he distributed it for free, and it became quite popular. I remember recommending it to a friend of mine who downloaded it and thought it was quite cool. I never used it myself since I don’t have an iPhone (or any other Smartphone), but that’s another story.

 
It turns out such an application has commercial usages. Peter was contacted by a cardiologist who was really interested in the application and suggested creating a commercial version: one which will allow people to record their heartbeats and send it to him to check for irregularities. Apparently this is much more powerful than many existing “real” medical applications. Moreover, people from all over the world can use it to get the services of a good cardiologist, as long as they have an iPhone and an internet connection. Peter naturally agreed, and the result is iStethoscope Pro, a commercial iPhone application that’s being now sold.

 
When he told me about this I thought it’s a really cool story: this truly demonstrates the strength of our present day society which is backed by modern technology, everything is so well connected that potentially someone in the other side of the world can utilize something you’ve created for yourself as long as you’ve shared it – or talked about it – online. Collaborations become easy, and as this story demonstrates, at times you don’t even need to seek them – they’ll come to you (though I assume usually that is not the case).

 
I like this kind of story, where someone does something for altruistic reasons and it results not only in helping people in a far greater extent than he anticipated, but he also ends up getting a reward for his efforts. In particular I like them when they happen to a friend of mine.

 
To read more about iStethoscope Pro, check out its page on Peter’s site.

 
I’m also going to share a number of videos Peter created to demonstrate how to use it which are useful.. but I also find them quite funny too since he doesn’t say a word in any of the videos! :)

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