"Livatars," a Portmanteau for “live avatars,” is a pretty simple concept: Take a traditional headshot and make it subtly animated so the person in it appears alive. It’s an homage to the living newspapers in Harry Potter and player popup profiles that appear on tv during sportscasts. We tried this on Aviary’s company page and have gotten great feedback on it from people who stumbled across it by accident.
I wouldn’t even call it a pattern yet, except I just noticed it has also popped up on wefollow’s company page as well. They did a more technically elegant implementation than us (if you don’t care about IE7-8 support): We used animated gifs and they used HTML5 background video with a CSS vector mask on top of it.
Benefits over a traditional headshot:
Not boring, without being too over the top or trying too hard. It will probably make the viewer smile when they notice what’s going on.
Makes the people in the photo that much more relatable.
Seeing one makes you want to see a photo yourself alive on that page as well. What better way to unconsciously recruit?
Simpler to implement than other about page easter eggs: Just record a few seconds of video of someone standing still and loop it back and forth.
The trick is to shoot for subtlety and have everyone try to stand completely still when you record them. You want the viewer to do a double take when they think a static snapshot blinks at them out of the corner of their eye as they quickly scan a page.
Chanukah fell out in late December 2008. My parents took my children to a Chanukah party that was open to the community in a local storefront. It was a community festival and there were inflatable rides and food and games for the little ones. Everyone was having a great time. It was a party put on by a charitable organization called the Chabad, that hosts Jewish themed events around the globe.
This was just a few short weeks after the tragic massacre in Mumbai, where terrorists deliberately attacked a Chabad house, among other targets. Although we were out in Long Island, NY, anyone attending a Chabad event anywhere in the world was on high alert.
But still, nothing could happen to us right?
Aviary’s office at the time wasn’t too far from where the event was happening, when I heard ridiculous amounts of sirens in the distance coming from the vicinity of where the party was and my cell phone started getting flooded with texts asking if my children were OK? and Did I hear about the terrorist attack at the Chabad event? A car had driven through a storefront and run over dozens of people.
I thought, no way. Impossible.
I thought… nothing.
I just ran.
There were crowds of people and ambulances and police cars and helicopters circling overhead. booming above all of them was utter confusion and panic.
People were crying. Parents were searching for their children. Police were trying to separate nosy neighbors from those who were locating relatives.
My cell phone rang – it was my parents. My heart skipped a beat.
I learned we were fortunate. My children were on the other side of the room and were not in specific danger, though they had watched the scene unfold. My parents didn’t know much except that a car had accelerated through the storefront window at full speed and plowed through the crowd of adults and children, running over several.
My parents said my kids had been playing in that spot 30 seconds earlier.
My father helped other people lift the car off of someone trapped underneath – someone I learned later was a close friend who suffered permanent damage and was taken by helicopter for emergency surgery.
14 people were injured. Fortunately, everyone survived.
My heart goes out to the parents and community in Connecticut who lost their children and loved ones. Their tragedy is so difficult to comprehend, even with this relatively small reference point of my own.
I’ll never forget the panic and dread and numbness I experienced that one afternoon when I didn’t have answers.
I can’t even imagine what it feels like as a parent to get the answers you didn’t want to hear.
My god is this app gorgeous. One of the best-looking iPad apps ever created, and a perfect example of creativity/creation on the device.
This is the first pure creativity app that has ever made it onto my dock. I use it EVERY. SPARE. SECOND. I find that it’s a form of creative meditation for me. This is the drawing app I have been waiting 15 years for, ever since I first discovered the clunky Wacom tablet experienced.
I haven’t even really tried it with a stylus yet. I almost don’t even want to.
I’ve had the app for 48 hours and it’s woken something hungry inside of me.
My wife stepped carefully over a paint can and one of my legs. She peered quizzically at my lower half, sticking out from under my 8-year-old’s newly painted desk as if I was tuning up a car.
"I’m teaching Kayla a lesson."
"By painting under her desk?”
"Wait, what? That’s a lesson?"
"It’s one of the most important ones I know. I’m also inscribing a note."
I finished up, snapped a photo of the inscription and popped out from below. I showed her the photo on my phone.
The desk was a present. My daughter turns 8 today and more than ever I feel like a father. It’s not just her age that makes me feel this way, but her growing talents and my responsibilities in nurturing them. She, like me, is a Builder of Things.
She draws. She paints. She makes books (as in literally, *makes* them, from the bindings to the illustrations to the stories within). She makes puppets. She takes photos. She. Makes. Things.
And she is very, very good at what she does.
I want to help her channel her creative energy in a way that will let her inspire others as she grows. She is a next generation maker and the creative tools already at her disposal make my childhood tools look like Play-Doh in comparison (because, actually that’s what it was). She will be leaps and bounds ahead of me. I want to pass on some of the lessons that I only learned in my twenties and thirties, now, while she is still moldable.
This particular lesson is simple:
I’m not going to tell her there is an inscription under her desk or even that I painted all the areas normally hidden from view. But one day - probably at some point over this year or the next - she will be playing hide and seek and find shelter under the desk. Maybe she’ll be recovering a lost toy and happen to look up. She might notice that I have taken time to painstakingly paint an area of her desk that is normally never seen.
She might not.
But at some point in the near future, she will notice the inscription:
When I first started @Aviary, I planned to be completely transparent about the company’s progress with everyone: employees, users and total strangers.
I understood that traditionally, early startups were in complete stealth mode and closed about their plans and progress.
That seemed silly to me.
It didn’t make those startups seem mysterious. It made their ideas seem indefensible if the only way to protect it was to keep quiet about it: A good startup idea is one that leverages the founders’ unique insight, backgrounds or positions in a defensible way. Worse, being silent made their progress seem minimal: It’s rare that a successful startup stays quiet for very long.
There is cruel irony in that even people who think they are being stealthy aren’t. You are always sending signals to everyone around you, even by not sending any at all. When you are quiet about your progress or lack thereof, you are actually sending out terrible signals to the world.
For us the main indication of impending doom is when we don’t hear from you. When we haven’t heard from, or about, a startup for a couple months, that’s a bad sign. If we send them an email asking what’s up, and they don’t reply, that’s a really bad sign. So far that is a 100% accurate predictor of death.
Transparency is good across your company
One of my good friends and former Aviary engineers, Mo Boehm, once commented to me:
"It’s probably a good idea to write all of your code anticipating that a thousand people will see it."
Damn straight. Transparency (or the intention of it) leads to better decisions, in code and the real world.
Once you’re in the habit of being transparent, you make better decisions simply because you have no choice. You are being judged by everyone, and that’s a great thing. You can’t coast along or plateau without being held accountable by the world. An underperforming startup flying under the radar of the world is the worst thing for everyone involved in that startup. You can only coast for so long. Money runs out and investors will eventually see your flat stats. Being transparent with the world will force you to deal with problems immediately, before it’s too late.
And if you have no skeletons in your closet, you can’t be caught off guard when sensitive data inevitably leaks (because it will).
Learning the hard way
In Aviary’s early history and against my better judgement, I abandoned being transparent after someone close to the company told me I was being naive and that data shouldn’t be shared, not with strangers and not even employees. I wasn’t experienced and confident enough at the time to trust my instincts. This person was well meaning, but in retrospect it was wrong advice for Aviary.
There were repercussions in a variety of ways:
Our users lost a personal connection to the team. We were no longer Aviary: the Product Team, a scrappy, enthusiastic group of individuals trying to change the world by making cool products. We were just Aviary: The Product. Users can’t have a personal relationship with a product.
Our users no longer had any insight into our product plans. Some of our earliest feedback and user excitement came from regularly checking the Aviary blog for new tidbits on what was coming out and how traffic was performing. After getting quieter we lost a lot of that prime buzz among our earliest adopters.
Our employees no longer had any window into how we were performing. When we tightened our belts, as will happen in startups, it caught them completely by surprise. Not cool. It makes those who stayed with the company lose their feeling of job security that comes with a window into the data. NOTE: Startup employees don’t fear being let go. They fear it happening unexpectedly.
The lack of transparency filtered out into other ways, that ultimately infected the company DNA. For example, my team would be loathe to share bad news about late deadlines, etc… with me. And I in turn would be loathe to share bad news with investors and the board. Not healthy.
It reached a point when I decided I had enough and was going back to the basics. At the same point we officially repositioned Aviary as a photo-editing API that developers could plug into their apps, I sat down my team and told them that from this day on we’d be completely transparent as a company. The culture had to change.
We make it a point to share key aspects from our board meeting with the entire team afterwards. Every week the team is given a full update on our growth metrics, product roadmap, current strategy, bd partnerships, etc… And most importantly, we’re back to interactively sharing our progress with the world.
In retrospect, I learned two very valuable lessons that I won’t ever need to repeat:
Always be transparent.
Trust your own instincts. But that’s a post for another time.
If men did this it would be considered sexist… just sayin’
It had 6 likes, which bothered me more than the comment itself. I replied:
I hear this argument all the time for different underrepresented demographic groups. It’s a weak argument. The point of groups like this is to bring equality to the industry as a whole. An over-represented group should not be given tools to maintain it’s dominance. That’s not just sexist or racist or bigoted: It’s inequitable.
Chad wrote back:
Avi Muchnick I don’t think the tech industry is against Women at all. I think it’s just been a lack of momentum and drive. I’m all for Women in tech and support their want to be accepted into such an industry. However it’s true. If men created a “pro men” group it would be criticized every which way for even existing.
Ouch. “Lack of momentum and drive?” Not even worth addressing that. My final point to Chad:
Chad Moran Yes, it would be criticized because it doesn’t need to exist in order to help men out. It’s a pointless group whose existence is really predicated on keeping women out of tech, rather then keeping men in.
I think any movement that is founded for the purpose of boosting an (unfairly) underrepresented minority in an industry should not be viewed the same as a movement founded for the purpose of maintaining an unfair monopoly.
Hey LinkedIn, you have a serious user experience flaw
A couple of days ago I decided to update my LinkedIn contacts and see who I might have missed. I used their handy import contacts form and without realizing it, inadvertently spammed 1500 of my contacts (I’m lucky that LinkedIn sets a max import of 1500, or this would have been much, much worse).
The problem seems to be that with the update to OS X Lion, scrollbars no longer appear… so it’s not obvious that in addition to the 8 contacts displaying on the screen, there are also 1492 selected by default, hidden below the fold.
Look at this image (click to open in a new window) and tell me how you could know that more people are hidden if you scroll in that area. Technically, LinkedIn does tell you that 1145 are selected in small unnoticeable font, but the implication from looking at this page is that only 8 are appearing on screen (and I just assumed since only 8 were showing there would be multiple pages of contacts to choose from).
So why is this bad? Well, the implications for me personally are obvious:
I annoyed a lot of people I don’t know (since Gmail adds anyone you have ever communicated with).
Worse, I invited some people I do know, but didn’t really want to add on LinkedIn. I try to keep LinkedIn strictly for professional relationships, preferably ones where I have actually dealt with the person directly.
Now I’m stuck in the awkward position of having to unconnect from countless people I’m going to have to bump into in the grocery store, at family events, etc… Or I could ruin the integrity of my LinkedIn network by leaving them connected. Either way, no good.
But the implications for LinkedIn are far, far worse:
LinkedIn’s value proposition is the integrity of its network. LinkedIn knows this and seems to take this very seriously (the site is peppered with reminders not to add people you don’t know). Having a network of people who were accidentally added dilutes the power of someone’s real network and undermines the value of the system itself.
I have a problem trusting LinkedIn with any of my data going forwards and will give the same negative recommendation to anyone I interact with on or off LinkedIn when the subject comes up. And every single one of the people I invited was given the same warning.
From talking with my friends, I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one to make this mistake. Many of them had either this exact thing happen to them or have received LinkedIn spam from someone else. This is not the reputation a professional social network should want.
LinkedIn needs to update this major user experience flaw ASAP – I would disable the import contacts form completely until this is addressed, if I was in their shoes. The number one priority for a social network should be making it’s users feel that their data and network is safe from abuse.
When it comes to priorities: Treating customer data with integrity trumps viral growth, every time.
You can't compete if you're not solving a new problem
From this TechCrunch piece on how Microsoft is losing badly with Bing:
Bing is not a bad search engine. I repeat: Bing isnot a bad search engine. But when you’re wondering directions to a place, shopping for something new, or just curious about what this or that means, you’re likely not thinking to yourself: “Oh, I’ll Bing that.” No, no, no. You Google that sucker. Because Google is a verb. And Bing is not.
Exactly right. Google is literally a part of people’s vocabularies at this point and Microsoft is trying to compete with them without solving any new problems.
It’s not lowering consumer costs. Google is free to use.
It’s not offering a better user experience. Google is relatively simple and the ads aren’t too obtrusive.
And most importantly:
It’s not offering better search results.
Microsoft isn’t solving any problems by offering an alternative search engine. Google wasn’t broken. Or at least not broken enough to drive users to try multiple search engines. Those days are long gone.
This war isn’t really a search engine war anyway. It’s an advertising network war and search is just the lure to bring targeted eyeballs that can be sold to advertisers.
If Microsoft really wanted to innovate, instead of chasing after a 10-year market leader in computational search on a purely “I want to play too” basis, it should have set it’s sights on new waters: Social search. Instead of investing in Facebook and sinking $9 billion into Bing, it should have bought Facebook in 2007 and attacked the advertising network war from the social front instead.
Because ultimately, there’s going to be one winner in this advertising network war between Google and Microsoft, as social search becomes more and more relevant.
Earlier today I got this polite, but spammy note… which represents the umpteenth time I have been cold emailed by various individuals from this company.
My name is Tom H———— from COMPANY and this is an unexpected note. Thanks in advance for the time and consideration.
COMPANY understands that there are 3 undeniable trends online businesses like yours are looking to take advantage of:
1. More and more content is moving online, thus end users have a broadcast quality expectation whereby revenue dollars are aligned to their experience
2. There is explosive growth in web enabled mobile devices and in mobile content consumption. Reports show more smart phones will ship worldwide in 2011 than laptops and PCs combined
3. Gartner states most companies are leveraging about 10% of the computing resources available them via their own infrastructure (owned and managed infrastructure is not optimized). Therefore there is huge movement to cloud infrastructure so you pay for what you use and nothing more, further lowering CapEx costs and costs surrounding the management of infrastructure.
COMPANY helps its clients solve the challenges mentioned above and many more. I was hoping to gain some insight into whom within your organization would be best to discuss this with. I am equipped to discuss with various stakeholders within your organization if need be. Marketing, IT, business development, etc. Can you point me in the right direction?
Tom H———— COMPANY
I was in a snarky mood and replied:
My name is Avi Muchnick and this is an unexpected reply. Thanks in advance for the time and consideration.
Avi Muchnick understands that there are 3 undeniable trends in sending unsolicited emails that businesses like yours are looking to take advantage of:
1. Provide a polite but carefully worded apology in the initial introduction, thereby acknowledging the awkwardness of the intrusion and humanizing the interaction to combat said awkwardness.
2. Immediately follow up on the introduction by providing a numbered list of no more than 3 examples, as people’s attention spans are short and providing a modicum of organization that the eye can gravitate towards will gain their respect.
3. Reference an unverifiable quote from a semi-famous and trustworthy source, thereby following up on your humanization and organization with some tacit data that makes the reader more likely to believe your sales pitch (which will follow the numbered list, of course). For example, did you know that Abraham Lincoln said that 90% of the quotations on the Internet are made up?
Finally, introduce your sales pitch! Did you know that 100% of Avi Muchnicks on the Internet don’t appreciate receiving cold calls from telemarketers or template emails? Avi Muchnicks are best equipped to use email to reply to actual communications from trusted members of their network. On the off-chance that Avi Muchnick wasn’t the best target recipient of your sales pitch, you can now leverage your temporary established bond to request a warm introduction to a fellow member of his organization.
"Many of us have experienced the feeling of being in a lonely crowd: Walking through a crowded city or being in between sessions at a conference and *knowing* that dozens of the people you pass by might be likeminded and fun to hang out with, but there’s no easy way to meet just them (without cutting through dozens of awkward icebreakers, small talk and then personal discovery to see if you align).
What if you could pass someone on the street and get an automated alert if they shared your interests (and were looking for a meeting as well)?”
I’m sharing the idea along with the branding (which still needs a bit more polishing), domain name, 5-year roadmap and adoption plans.
I don’t really expect anyone else to use it, but even if it results in some great conversations and me meeting other interesting people then it’s a post that was well worth it.
For this particular idea I am asking 10%, an advisory role and right of first refusal to invest in any startup that makes use of the idea and executes the hell out of it up to the prototype phase.
Is that too much? Too little? Please do let me know your thoughts. It took a lot of rewiring my brain to get comfortable posting this completely publicly (but knowing that I would have no time outside of my duties at Aviary.com and Worth1000.com to execute on this myself). So I’d appreciate any and all feedback. If this generates an interesting discussion, I’ll definitely post more.
I realized I have too many business ideas and simply can’t iterate on all of them (especially since my first priority is Aviary). After speaking with MSG, he suggested I post my ideas publicly whenever I have them.
My first instinct was to protect my idea, as is the first instinct for almost all entrepreneurs. After all, they are my ideas, right? If I post them, can’t anyone just take it and run?
After thinking about it, three good points made me feel otherwise:
If I don’t have time to execute on them and I don’t share them with the world they will never have a chance of being seen through fruition with a chance to share in credit for the concept.
Odds are pretty good that someone else out there is already working on something similar. There’s nothing new under the sun. Really.
Sharing my thoughts in this manner will help introduce me to other tech people that I do want to know and give people a good insight into my approach to business. Whether that will help me in future endeavors, who knows. But it certainly can’t hurt.
So given that: A) I continue to have interesting ideas all the time, and; B) that my first priority is to Aviary prevents me from executing on them, and that; C) thinking through them is an excellent thought exercise in general, and D) if I don’t post them, someone will eventually do something similar anyway or worse, the idea will never blossom at all; I have decided to share my ideas with the world.
Of course, should you adopt one of these ideas and pursue them I will be your biggest proponent in the world - and would like to be an advisor to your company.
I will help with introductions, guidance, funding, promotion and team building, from now and until you go public.