A Microsoft venture fund

Kevin Merritt has a great suggestion for creating a Microsoft venture fund. This is not new, I wrote about my displeasure with the proposed Yahoo! deal back. Kevin has thought about a YCombinator-esque microfunding model.
  • A three person team comprised of Ray Ozzie, Don Dodge and Dare Obasanjo would be the investment committee.
  • Anyone can submit a 10-slide business plan. No NDA protection, which is the norm in the VC industry.
  • Plans are reviewed once a quarter. Those that make it through the screening are invited to a 90-minute in person demo and pitch.
  • At the end of the 90-minute demo & pitch, the three-person Ozzie/Dodge/Obasanjo investment committee makes an immediate decision. It’s pass/fail. You’re in or you’re out. American Idol style. You’re going to Hollywood or you aren’t.
  • If you pass, here’s what you get: an investment of $100,000 cash plus $25,000 per founder, but never more than $175,000;  all the Microsoft software you need; unlimited, free use of Microsoft’s cloud computing infrastructure for 3 years; mandatory office space for up to 5 people for the first year in either the Redmond or Silicon Valley Campus; all the non-sense administrative support services that typically saps a startup, a collegial environment working with other Microsoft funded startups.
  • In exchange, Microsoft gets: 10% of the company in common stock with no special preferences or rights; your commitment to exclusively use Microsoft development software and operating systems for 3 years, other than with written exception by Microsoft; your commitment to deploy your software to Microsoft platforms first (i.e. if you build a mobile app, it has to run on Windows Mobile before iPhone).

That’s it. Quid pro quo. Startups need cash, tools, infrastructure and elimination of noise and distraction. Microsoft needs access to innovation and a future generation of folks building software with Microsoft development tools and to be run on Microsoft platforms. My bet is that Microsoft will flat out buy some of the companies during their year of incubation. And if you assume each startup will have 3 to 5 people, even the ones that fail will produce a good stream of folks who could easily become employees. Microsoft probably already spends $50,000 per hire anyway, so it’s not really costing them much if anything at all.

Oh, there’s one more important twist to help stem the tide of people leaving Microsoft to found companies or join startups. Microsoft employees in good standing having spent at least 2 years at Microsoft can quit their job and can be admitted into the incubator program with only a single approval from the investment committee. No business plan, pitch or demo are required. You’re in. Your prior contributions are your ticket. How many young entrepreneurs-to-be are willing to put in two good years at Microsoft just to get into the incubator program? I think more than a few. It’s a VC spin to the army college fund. It’s the Microsoft future entrepreneurs fund.

This is a great, well thought out plan for putting $25M to work. The biggest questions for me are: how does the model scale around the world? What are the implications with respect to existing anti-trust agreements and funding companies?  What are the areas, much like the Y Combinator 30 ideas, that are part of the initial investment thesis? It feels like without a clearly defined investment thesis that this is really a public relations campaign with entrepreneurial leaning technologists.

Viigo launches at WPC

viigo-home Viigo’s Project Tango launched this week at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston. Viigo is based in Toronto and headed by Mark Ruddock, formerly EIR at Ventures West and founder of INEA Corporation. The Viigo team has included great folks like Alex de Bold who also founded ChickAdvisor.com.

Viigo is a great user experience for accessing content on your mobile. Project Tango allows access to the News & RSS services that Windows Mobile and Blackberry users already had, but now includes a podcast browser and media player, and news has been rounded out to include weather, sports, and finance information. It is a great looking application, the user experience reminds me a lot of my iPhone. It uses animations to help users understand where they are in the application flow.

It’s a great application, the user experience is one of the best I’ve had on Windows Mobile. The Viigo team is building a cool platform that allows them to add new services that can be enabled and deployed for clients. Hopefully, announcements and partnerships with companies like Microsoft and Blackberry will help them raise additional rounds of funding, now that it looks like Ventures West is having some difficulty raising another fund.

Install Project Tango at getviigo.com/wpc

Dissident, Citizen

littlebrother-corydoctorow Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Thank you Cory for Little Brother. I can’t wait for my children to be old enough to read it. It has been a few years since I couldn’t put a book down and decided it was worth giving up sleep to finish. Cory has captured the feelings behind my mistrust of government and corporations. And the power they can exert over citizens, and the challenges when this power is abused.

You’ve inspired me to take action to protect my rights. The anti-circumvention provisions of the C-61 copyright amendment does more harm than good. It prevents crucial rights for citizens in a digital age. It prevents citizens from having the right to “use digital works without permission for research, private study, criticism or news reporting”. Michael Geist has posted 30  Things You Can Do to help reflect a consumer view of this amendment.

“The Industry Minister has time to meet with the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, time to meet all the major telcos on the spectrum auction issue, yet hasn’t made time to meet with user community on copyright.”

Bill C-61 scares me. It represents a shift in public policy back towards corporations. It reminds of the acceptance of monopolies and oligopolies that Canadians accept as tradeoff for our geography. The bill makes it an infringement to circumvent digital locks to prevent copying and distribution. To make it worse this bill prevents the distribution of the tools that can be used to circumvent digital locks. This means that watching a European purchased Region 2 encoded disc, like the legal copy of The Future is Unwritten I purchased from Amazon.co.uk, in Canada is illegal under Bill C-61.

This kind of thinking is important no matter what side of security you’re on. If you’ve been hired to build a shoplift-proof store, you’d better know how to shoplift. If you’re designing a camera system that detects individual gaits, you’d better plan for people putting rocks in their shoes. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to design anything good.

Trading privacy for security is stupid enough; not getting any actual security in the bargain is even stupider. – Bruce Schneier

Help keep Canada free! Free as in freedom! We need to ensure we have the freedoms so that we can continue to think, explore, innovate, question and challenge authority and government in Canada.

Thank you Cory!

Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow
Read more about this book…

Happiness as Your Business Model

Patrick points to a presentation by Tara Hunt. I can’t wait for Tara’s new book. This is a fun evolution in thinking about people, communities, and building a better place.

There is the opportunity to make $$ making people happy – Tara Hunt

The Universals of Happiness

  • autonomy
  • competence
  • relatedness
  • self-esteem

The Powers Working Against Happiness

  • fear
  • confusion
  • loneliness
  • lack of control
  • struggle for survival

This is a presentation that should be a must read for entrepreneurs, designers, developers, and marketers. What are you doing to help your customers achieve autonomy? competence? relatedness? self-esteem? Or are you working to promote the powers working against happiness. Tara does a great job evaluating:

  • Zipcar
  • Southwest
  • Skype
  • Zappos
  • Twitter
  • WordPress

These are all great examples working to grow happiness. Thanks Tara!

LearnHub: Social View of Learning

learnhubSaw on TechCrunch this week that John, Gosia and team had redeisgned the home page of LearnHub. Congratulations!

LearnHub is the evolution of Nuvvo. It’s a set of online tools designed to make learning fun and engaging for students, and easy and effective for teachers. It’s built on new technology, Nuvvo was built on a Java stack using Hibernate and Struts. LearnHub is build on the Ruby stack using Rails. It also represents an evolution in understanding of how important communities and interaction are in the learning process.

“We participate, therefore we are”

What is the social view of learning? Joshua Porter summaries very nicely,

The mere threat of social interaction changes our behavior…if you know your work is going to be put on public display, you’ll be much more motivated to make it good.

John Seely Brown presents Learn 2.0 as a shift from a view where knowledge is something that can be transferred to students. To a view where it is the social interactions and activities that help support the learning of content.

“This perspective shifts the focus of our attention from the content of a subject to the learning activities and human interactions around which that content is situated. This perspective also helps to explain the effectiveness of study groups. Students in these groups can ask questions to clarify areas of uncertainty or confusion, can improve their grasp of the material by hearing the answers to questions from fellow students, and perhaps most powerfully, can take on the role of teacher to help other group members benefit from their understanding (one of the best ways to learn something is, after all, to teach it to others).” – John Seely Brown [Minds on Fire – PDF]

LearnHub supports a set of social activities. Including blogging, comments, quizzes, tutoring, testing, and a reputation system. The reputation system provides a mechanism for students to evaluate teachers, the input and tutoring advice of other students, and generally create a public mechanism for building trust amongst the participants. The combination of using a socially motivated reward system, i.e., reputation, along with participatory social tools seems like a fantastic start for successful social learning communities. Coupled with the lessons from Nuvvo about how to build efficient course management tools, it sets LearnHub up to be a competitive player.

Quick Analysis

Management Team

The management team consists of Malgosia Green, John Green and Michelle Caers. The team is relatively inexperienced, but looks like a strong young team. Recent experiences building a succesful acquisition in Silicon Valley and lessons learned from a failed attempt at Nuvvo, should provide a strong basis for keeping LearnHub’s product development and business development on track.

Market

Bersin & Associates estimates the LMS market in 2006 at approximately $480 million/year and growing at 26% per year. March 2008 post shows the market at over $700 million with a strong focus on Web 2.0 and participatory tools as a important focus for vendors. There is a strong market for LMS solutions in India where there is a good mix of public and private sector adoption of learning management tools, there is a strong educational market with a strong group of private universities that account for 90% of the educational spend.

Product

The LearnHub product offering shows the experience of having build Nuvvo. The learning management tools included for teachers are comparable to those included with Moodle and Blackboard: courses, lessons, polls, quizzes, tests, student management, multimedia instruction, etc. The advantage for LearnHub is the participatory nature of the product is not bolted on after the fact. The LearnHub tools appear to be built around social learning. The integration of a reputation system that leverages many of the standard social design patterns, allows LearnHub to build tools for educators around a participatory community that supports individual learners improving the learning experience. The reputation system combined with the focus on easy-to-use instructor and participant experiences really set LearnHub apart from their enterprise competitors.

Business Model

There are still some open questions about the business model. The current model appears on the surface to be advertising based, there are Google Adsense on each pages, and larger educational institution brand advertising. With an investor like Educomp, there is bound to be additional business models brewing.

Strategic Relationships

The investment and strategic relationship with Educomp places LearnHub in a very good spot. Educomp is a large Indian educational technology provider with a strong presence the K-12 market in India. This is a strength for Savvica.

Competition

There are 2 leaders in the LMS space with the closed source Blackboard/WebCT offering, and the open-sourced Moodle. Moodle offers individual professors and instructors a great course management system, but it is missing many of the features and functionality necessary to run an institution. Blackboard is the 800 pound gorilla in North America and has recently added managed hosting and community features.

Barriers to Entry

Much of the barriers to entry analysis requires looking at information dependent on details of the business model, marketing plan, and a better understanding of the relationship with LearnHub’s investor Educomp. The barriers to entry in the LMS market appear to be related to existing vertical integration and key agreements in the educational market.

  • Globalisation
    My thought here is that the partnership with Educomp provides rapid access into the larger local Indian educational market. And that the size of this market will allow LearnHub to be able to adjust the tools for use in other English speaking markets.
  • Customer loyalty
    LearnHub is building tools that people enjoy using. And is trying to build a community around learning that allows students to eventually become teachers. Customer loyalty and community liveliness are metrics that can be track as LearnHub develops. First steps include their agile, human-centered design and development process.
  • Network effect
    There are strong network effects that are dependent on finding the right instructors, institutions and courses. Content is still king, and with the right participatory model surrounding the content LearnHub is set to build a vibrant community that replenishes the content but also improves the learning experience.
  • Sunk costs
    It’s pretty easy, once you get your courses and material entered into the system there is a huge cost to move them to another provider. Getting the right content and instructors is key to leverage the learning tools and community tools.
  • Research and development
    Let’s just assume that LearnHub continues to be out in front of the R&F curve. Leveraging an existing community and layering in new tools and techniques as they are discovered, invented or evaluated for effectiveness.

One key barrier that is difficult to assess from the outside is the one of intellectual property. Much of the LearnHub system is public, and many of the social design patterns are freely available an published by others (see Yahoo’s Reputation Design Patterns). It will be interesting to see how quickly existing LMS providers adopt social tools, Blackboard has a Community System but appears to be offering this as enterprise software to educational institutions to deploy. Missing the internal insight it’s very difficult to assess the intellectual property protections. In my search of the US Patent Office, I could not find any filings related to Savvica or LearnHub.

Summary

The experience in Silicon Valley appears to have prepared John & Gosia in building a solid business plan around an existing problem with key differentiators in the community tools for elearning. There are a few open questions around a business model that allows LearnHub to generate significant revenues, and the barrirers to entry for a competitor. However, the investment by Educomp and the existing Educomp salesforce and business development efforts lends significant credibility to the LearnHub efforts. LearnHub is building tools that are leading the social learning trend and have strong investment and business development relationships in India.

Savvica, the company that makes LearnHub, is hiring.

TinEye

I am impressed with the progress that Leila, Paul and gang at Idée Inc. are making on TinEye. Yesterday, they released an IE browser plugin for TinEye. This follows their Firefox plugin and nicely rounds out the offering.

tineye-plugin

TinEye is a visual search solution. It allows you to find the web pages where an image appears.

tineye-ieOne example is you’re looking at purchasing a stock image to use on your homepage, and iStockPhoto.com says the image has been download 11,337 times, but you want to know where it appears online. You can use TinEye to find where the image has appeared. Check out what Rick has to say about the power of TinEye.

Lessons for you? Suck up to Leila and Paul. Check out the software they are building and run a check on the stock photography you are using; you never know who else is doing the same voodoo as you.

Voodoo! TinEye is like speculative fiction, that is, it meets Clarke’s Third Law.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Idee has built a great base technology for doing visual search in very large image collections. They have built a strong business around image and video monitoring. You can think of this services as a compliance and monitoring service. They help clients by providing right management and tracking. The monitoring reports provide clients a snapshot of where their images have appeared. The reports are used to automate editorial photo sales, perform competitive analysis, and copyright monitoring of collections.

Idée monitors and actively tracks millions of clients images and can identify where their clients images have been used in both print publications and the internet. They are the only company in the world to do this. Their image recognition system analyzes each client’s images and creates a digital fingerprint for each image and compares it to images scanned from publications and crawled from the Internet. The image matches found for their clients can be partial image matches as well. This means that a person appearing in one image, and then reappearing in another image but with a different background, will be found by Idée. – Jevon MacDonald on StarupNorth

TinEye is a diversification of the existing Idée technologies. Leila and Paul are trying to figure out the power of visual search.

Enterprise 2.0 – Midori + Sharepoint

My good friends Gene, Jess and team at nForm have finally demonstrated their awesome new project management applicaiton Midori.

midori

Midori is built on top of Sharepoint. And uses a completely custom layout engine.

Part of Midori is an engine that gives us complete control over SharePoint’s interface and interactions. We’re still refining the interface, but we’re able to make Midori look and work like just about any other web app (including standards-compliant mark-up and a bunch of ajax-y interactions).

The thing that blows me away is:

While we haven’t made it completely cross-browser compatible, I use it regularly from my Mac without trouble.

I don’t use my Mac for accessing many of the internal Microsoft SharePoint sites, mostly because the experience on Firefox 3 is unspectacular. But having built a truly cross-platform layout engine for SharePoint is a powerful tool. I wonder if they would consider licensing it to third-party SharePoint developers.That’s a different question.

Why SharePoint?

Gene suspects ‘we’ll even answer that nagging question "why SharePoint?"’. I have a few suspicisions including:

With companies like Atlassian shipping the SharePoint Connector for Confluence and NewsGator releasing Social Sites and SharePoint and SocialText’s SocialPoint (comments from Don Dodge), there is an ecosystem of products forming to help fill the gaps in SharePoint. It’s a product that is easy for IT departments to acquire, install and deploy. There are challenges (opportunities man, opportunities) for companies in deployment with the user experience and configuration options. But I could see companies like nForm, ThoughtFarmer and others building functional, usable, pleasurable user experiences on-top as a solution for the grow market space.

Don summaries some of Ross Mayfield’s , CEO of SocialText, interesting points about building on the Microsoft platform.

  • The "humanizing" of Microsoft has changed his mind about working with Microsoft. He cites Ray Ozzie, Robert Scoble, Channel9 and blogs from Microsoft employees as examples.
  • SharePoint 2007 is a market leader, validates the category, and grows the market for everyone.
  • The short term value (role) for a wiki that supports SharePoint is immediately apparent.
  • SocialText has a profit motive, balanced by freedom, that will sell more seats of SocialText and SharePoint. Everyone wins.
  • SocialText customers told him this was a good idea. You can’t lose when you listen to your customers.

I’ve spent the past year trying to balance my desire to build profit driven companies with the freedom of the open idea. But for companies like nForm, partnering with Microsoft is a great way to leverage a successful sales and marketing engine that can help you sell more software.

Plus nForm is hiring:

Resources

Canadian VCs: Wake Up!

Canadian entrepreneurs give Canadian VCs a really hard time. Suzie Dingwall Williams on the CVCA blog, VC Rants (which at the time of writing was not responding to http requests), puts forth a great challenge to Venture Capitalists. 

If Canadian innovation is to scale, there needs to be a call to action for all participants in the ecosystem. This is a marketing exercise that needs to be led by you, the VCs. When was the last time you went to a bootcamp? Provided sponsorship dollars to entrepreneur-generated initiatives? Extended your channels in the US to provide a broader network for your portfolio? Many of these events are not immediately accretive to you, but they are vital to community creation. Let me re-phrase that; there has never been a more vital startup community, but it is one being fostered largely without VC involvement. This must not continue. The need to take a long-term approach to deal flow has never been greater.

This is the reason that Jevon attended the CVCA conference. It is the reason we supported the Canadian Innovation Exchange. It’s the primary reason that we decided to host Founders & Funders events. There are a lot of potential misunderstandings between the people that start high-potential-growth technology companies and the people that fund them, it’s about bringing them together that these differences begin to resolved. Rick identifies VC’s and entrepreneurs need to talk early, these helps work out the kinks (I also love the tension between VCs and angels identified in Rick’s observations).

I’m unfortunately not at StartupCampWaterloo tonight. The only VC present was Peter Frisella of TechCapital. I love the Waterloo events, they are small, they are focused and there is a lot of feedback for entrepreneurs. I attended StartupCampMontreal last month, which is a totally different experience for me than a Toronto event (as I’m pretty quiet and reserved mostly due to my perceived language concerns). There is a definite understanding by the Montreal VC community that there is a lot of talent and potential dealflow that happens at these events. There were 32 submissions for the last event, with 5 presenting companies. The benefit for Montreal is the facilities provided by SAT, we’re just missing a common gathering venue in Toronto. Yeah, same old rant. Maybe a challenge to my colleagues at MaRS and BOT to move beyond breadth/reach events and to let us focus on a couple of depth events. Or maybe a challenge to the local VCs to help sponsor a series of events in FY08 and FY09 in Toronto.

As entrepreneurs we give Canadian VCs a bum wrap. Suzie makes a great point about innovation, wealth and the responsibility of entrepreneurs to be aware of impact on local innovation.

Every dollar of investment that comes from outside Canada ultimately leaks profit and wealth creation outside of Canada. There cannot be sustainable growth if the benefit of local innovation is reaped beyond our boundaries by private equity tourists. Every entrepreneur should feel a moral (if not economic) imperative to include Canadian VCs as part of its growth plans, and to serve as ambassadors for you abroad, directing deal flow from beyond your way (leak unto others as they leak unto you).

Canadian VCs are good people. They’ve build some great companies. The last 10 years haven’t been kind to them. An average 10 year return of 1.8%  when compared to the US average 10 year return of 18% (thanks Heri) coupled with the strong community connections being built to the US, is shifting the mindset of entrepreneurs south. However, Suzie has done a great analysis about the mindset of the Canadian VC community.

Many VCs will tell you that their job is to deploy capital, not to support the entire startup community. They cannot monetize spending significant portions of time with entrepreneurs and companies that may never need their money. Fair enough, in one sense. In another, it represents a huge lost opportunity.

Canadian entrepreneurs are in serious need of help in understanding how to build a $1B business (well even a $100M business would be great). As Canadian entrepreneurs we should by reaching out to our local VCs.

Microspotting

microspottingHow many times have you seen the typical HR web site that profiles the employees of a large organization? I know you’ve ignored them. Just check out Microsoft Canada, Ford, Sun, and others. It’s not a bad idea, it is one of those features you need to have, even if it is just a checkbox on a requirements form that everyone knows will never get used. I came across Ariel Meadow Stalling’s Microspotting. It’s a really fun way to learn about the people that work for an organization, in this case my current employer, Microsoft.

Before I talk about using social media for recruiting, I learned a number of really interesting things:

  1. The guitarist for Harvey Danger works at Microsoft as a PM on Virtual Earth 3D
  2. A dude rides a Segway wearing a Golden Helmet, that beats a guy with an accordion but not a guy with a chicken
  3. A double-platinum Peruvian rockstar works on BizTalk

There are a lot of crazy, kooky people that work at Microsoft. They do some amazing things. And it’s great to see their opinions about working at MSFT outside of the bounds of a corporate HR site. Obviously there are risks, but isn’t just incentive to build a company, products and culture that people want to talk about. Rather than building a cult that is always on brand, it’s great to see people in their personal contexts.

The “duh” disclaimer

Opinions expressed in this profile are those of the employee interviewed, and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer. Nor should these statements be interpreted as an official statement from the employees’ product team. In other words, Microspotting is just real people and their personal opinions.

RockingTheEmpire Wupteedoo! Microsoft has set up a blog. It looks like it’s running on WordPress, Flickr, and Dreamhost. Yeah, well so is mine. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is an interesting way to approach corporate profiles, find the people that are interesting and passionate and let them tell their own stories. In a Web 2.0 world, the technology exists to make it easy for people to connect and share. This can be blogs, podcasts, tweets, photos, Facebook profiles. You can find a lot out about a person. Employers often start with a search. It used to be a criminal record check, but it is now a Web search. As an employer you can find out that the potential employee might have a band, they may have written blog posts criticizing you or your competitors, or heaven forbid they did keg stands during university (proof that you don’t need a keg, a stand or to be in university to have drunken photos). Some employers look at this as a way to screen employees. To make sure they keep out the less than savoury characters. 

“Much of what we think of as innovation is the creative tension between differing viewpoints”

In reality, these tools are putting the control in the hands of the candidates. You can find out who works or has worked for a company – check out LinkedIn or Facebook or Vault. The inmates are running the asylum to quote Alan Cooper. It’s just as easy for potential employees to gather information and avoid corporate propaganda when choosing an employer. Hiring great people isn’t only about matching job requirements, let’s not fool ourselves there are requirements that need to be met, i.e., hard to make me practice medicine because I am not a licensed physician. It’s about building a relationship between employees and your company.

Eric Chester, author of Employing Generation Why and Getting Them to Give a Damn, says that “the only way to convince a worker, young or old, that loyalty is reciprocated is by demonstrating that value in your employment practices. If young people see older employees being casually discarded, they know that it will be just a matter of time before the same happens to them. If they see that longevity is rewarded, they’ll feel more inclined to invest themselves fully.” – Melanie Joy Douglas on Hiring and Hanging onto Generation Y

Tools like StandoutJobs and Microspotting make it easier for potential employees to learn about a company, their people, and the corporate culture. What are you doing to expose your corporate culture?

Tapping participants brillance

I seem to be having an attention-love affair with the Adaptive Path team lately. Alexa Andrzejewski has a great post about involving conference participants in the themes and conversations at their recent MX Conference. Alexa documents some of the ways she’s seen at past conferences for allowing the audience to self-organize and “triangulate” around.

    Graffiti Wall: Put up a giant piece of paper with some initial structure and encourage collaborative graphic recording — where participants can add their own notes, sketches and insights to a giant mural. Stickers and collaging images and words could be provided as well.

    Open Whiteboards: Write questions on giant sticky notes (e.g., “What is service design?”) and put them in the halls where people can write on it during breaks. It could give people something to talk about while providing a forum for expression.

    Five Minute Madness: We do this in our staff meetings: Someone makes an audacious statement that they may or may not agree with (e.g., “Experience Designer is a meaningless job title.”), and we discuss it for five minutes. Something like this could also be done on giant pieces of paper.

    Projected Messages: Have a computer hooked up to a projector where people can type (or Twitter) ideas and thoughts and see them projected. Providing a question or conversation prompt, as described in Open Whiteboards and Five Minute Madness, might encourage participation.

    Birds of a Feather: Place a “topic card” on each of the dining tables, such as “design research” or “managing internal experience teams” and encourage people to find a table with a topic that interests them.

I love the bottom up theme discovery. Events like the Sarah Lacy/Mark Zuckerberg SxSW debacle hopefully are the exception for how to rally conference attendees.

Graffiti Wall/Open Whiteboards

conference whiteboards
Photo by Obi Juan Kenobi

I’m not sure how these are different other than the surface. Perhaps it’s the intent of what people are supposed to do with graffiti versus whiteboards. It’s a great idea to place the whiteboards or graffiti wall in a central location, i.e., near the coffee or just out of the traffic flow between sessions. Basically the placement needs to be where conference attendees congregate. Also make sure there are lots of markers and materials for creative expression this includes word magnets and other forms of self-expression. I really like the idea of using large butcher paper placed around the conference.

Five Minute Madness

This reminds me of the 20×2, MiniBarCamp or Ignite ideas. 20×2 is a concept curated by Kevin Newsum and Jeff Rider. At SxSW, 20 speakers get asked to take 2 minutes to answer 1 question. The format allows a diverse group of participants to approach a common idea space.

“The results can be as varied as the emotions and reactions they evoke.”

The questions are designed to be dynamic and open ended. The questions covered are esoteric, interesting and open-ended. Designed to inspire the audience and the responses.

  • What is interactive?
  • What is real?
  • What RU W8ing 4?
  • Who Are You?
  • What’s the Secret

The Ignite format is pretty simple. Presenters have 20 slides, the slides advance automatically every 15 seconds. This limits the presentations to 5 minutes (20 x 15 seconds = 300 seconds). The rules become an interesting mechanism for self-expression.

Other formats that for a social event include Powerpoint Karaoke. Not as much about conference feedback, but a great way to get conference participants engaged and sharing. One option for Powerpoint Karaoke is to have the audience represent the slides from the main conference. It could be done in a recap format or in a completely humorous spoof of the presentation.

Projecting the Backchannel

flitterbook
Photo by Karsten Januszewski

Jesse Hirsh displayed a Twitter-based backchannel at his “Permanent Campaign: The impact of technology on politics” event. This is not a new idea. ETech has had the IRC-based backchannel for as long as I can remember, but it hasn’t been projected. Les Blogs projected an IRC-based backchannel in 2005 to very mixed reviews. Other less technical options include web-based chat like Pibb which the BarCampPaloAlto folks used in conjunction with Jyte for voting and assertions. Mix07 used Flittrbook to display a mashup of Flickr, Twitter and Facebook messages.

The backchannel at lesblogs 
Photo by advencap

Figuring out how to integrate the backchannel into the conference is a tough challenge.

mrelph twitter statuses at EnergizeIT

One thing that needs to happen at EnergizeIT, Mesh, or any other conference is that presenters need to be able to see the backchannel without having to turn around to see the screen.

Birds of a Feather

Whether it’s self-selection into groups or providing common topics for the group to collaborate on, it’s important to encourage attendees with similar interests to discover each other during conferences. My hypothesis is that conference experiences are strengthened by the personal connections made or renewed at the conference. The Community Connection events are a structured evening session aimed at facilitating discussion among participants. The Learning Circles [PDF – 154kb] are a context for sharing ideas, views and experiences in a participatory conversational format. These BOF and Learning Circle engagements are incredibly powerful community tools that have been leveraged by organizations, unions, churches and movements to galvanize members into addressing concerns through dialogue and taking action.

Participant-driven

here-comes-everybody Whether it’s participant-driven conferences, or providing tools for feedback at other conferences, engaging the audience and giving them the opportunity to connect and share is key to having a successful conference.

But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.  – Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky’s new book puts forth an interesting hypothesis, “for the first time in human history, our communications tools support the group conversation and group action”. Conference need to continue to investigate how to use tools to improve the connections between attendees. There are bound to be a set of new patterns that emerge for engaging attendees. We’re seeing the integration of participant-driven content into conferences like Mix08 (Open Space @ Mix08) and Web2Expo (Web2Open). The addition of tools like CrowdVine, Facebook and others maybe we can start to find each other and build better conference experiences.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
by Clay Shirky

Read more about this book…