Entries in 'Identify challenges' ↓

A Xerox for the Internet

Sometimes you can get very valuable insights from someone out there, if you try to listen instead of continuously ‘shout’ on your own. It’s especially crucial, if you’re building a startup, because you want to understand and learn how your potential market relations (especially potential customers) think about what you have to offer, and how they see the world and what their problems are. In the oft-quoted but still wise words of Steve Blank, “opinion is inside the building, data is outside the building”.

Recently I received an email from Søren Storm Hansen, a Danish blogger, from whose blog I had shared a handful of posts using Google Reader, Ifttt and Kaplak.net. Søren didn’t want his posts ‘republished’ on Kaplak.net. Apparently not because he wanted to keep his readers fixed to his site (he publishes full feeds and every item carries ads) but because he didn’t want “his name associated with services, which didn’t contribute anything”.

As it is of no paramount importance to me personally whether Søren’s stuff is shared on Kaplak.net or not I ended up removing Søren’s feed from my Google Reader subscriptions, so in the future I will not read (and therefore not share) items from his blog. But his request still left me slightly puzzled, because why would you want to risk losing readers or potential readers like this, if you’re a blogger? I suppose even a successful blogger wants more readers? Apparently Søren shares no similar reservations as to whether his readers share items from his blog with services such as Google+ and Facebook, and they’re not even so kind to email him a pingback (which I do precisely because I want the sharing to be noticed which may spur conversation), and they do not carry his ads.

As a blogger I’ve had stuff shared or republished from my blogs in the past too. Some of my writings have even appeared in self-published antologies about web entrepreneurship. I do not share Søren’s reservations about this as I do not believe my ‘personal brand’ is associated in particular with any one particular item, or with any one context in particular (which potentially could damage it beyond repair, or more plainly, risk not to contribute anything to it). Similarly I do not believe in copyright, because I don’t think I (or others) would or should benefit financially from any particular work. Rather I believe I benefit from what may be termed my total brand equity value – what I’ve proven I can do in the past, and so in what I may be able to do in the future. In fact, this is the crucial factor which got me my current job, which has gotten me earlier engagements, and no doubt will help me receive offers in the future.

What I learned from Søren’s request is something along these lines : the distribution as well as the ‘non-distribution’ (control of distribution – in so far as this is possible) of one’s online activities and the contexts they create, seem to be two sides of the same concern : to build one’s online reputation (or ‘personal brand equity’ in advertising speak) to a level where one may successfully convert this to financial benefits, job offers, speaking engagements etc. – and therefore also take steps to protect it. If one specializes in one line of work, one may not be interested in seeing one’s stuff in a context which puts it in another light. The question is though, if the cat is not already out of the bag, once you hit the “publish” button? Meaning – is it really up to you, how your recipients use what you’ve given them yourself?

As many people building websites are, I’ve been preoccupied with eyeballs, i.e. the problem of ‘how many’ a given message or product may reach. I’ve seen Kaplak through the lense of aggregation and syndication of RSS feeds, and as such, my first instinct upon receiving Søren’s request was to jump in and talk feeds and the ‘grey zone of syndication’, as I’ve discussed previously on this blog. But this turned out not to be Søren’s concern. His perception of Kaplak is more in line with a ‘xerox for the internet’ – a place where you can make a copy of an article or blog item and share it with others to read. This certainly makes sense, although this has not been Kaplak’s primary focus – instead we use already established technologies and services such as RSS/Atom feeds, Google Reader, Ifttt and Posterous for the ‘xeroxing’, while Kaplak admittedly (yet) doesn’t contribute much, except try to make a number of shared items available in a new context, where they may ultimately reach recipients, they would otherwise not reach, and reduce costs in creating these new connections, so that products on the ‘slim end’ might benefit from these.

I’d certainly be interested to hear other POV’s on what online sharing (or ‘xeroxing’), aggregation and syndication mean for the value of one’s online reputation or ‘personal brand equity’. In what ways are the ‘xeroxing’ of items on Kaplak.net different from the context, one’s published items may appear in, in say, search results or in one’s feed reader?

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The Locality of Real Marketplaces

Recently, Doc Searls, for whom I have the deepest respect, summed up a recent piece on his blog with this :

Here’s where I’m going with this: The marketplace that matters is the primary one where we live and work and shop. Not the secondary one where people we don’t know are sniffing our digital butts to see what we’ve consumed and might want to consume instead (or again).

To which I had to add the following comment (replicated in this space for convenience) :

Is the world really this simple?

I believe one of the great promises of the internet/web is to help us create a much more pinpointed communication and accordingly a much more efficient and less wasteful distribution : in other words, let producers sell their products to their customers in more targeted ways, and let their customers more easily find what they’re looking for (and find what they’re not looking for, but are intensely interested in). In other words, a more connected world, with less waste of eyeballs, time, energy and ressources. Local producers need to reach their potential customers on the other end of the internet, especially if they’re producing within a niche, which does not make economically sense if based solely on their local customers (say, those within driving distance).

I agree very much the “sniffing of digital butts” (what a magnificent expression!) has come much too far. It extends and twists the thinking of conventional one-way marketing to “fit” an internet context and sees internet users as nothing but consumers in need of convincing to (occasionally) click on banner ads. It is indeed one-dimensional and short-sighted.

But where I disagree is that “local” businesses won’t need to connect with their current and potential customers on the other end of the internet, and in the process collect data on their transactions along the way. I believe you can do this respectfully and transparently, and partly have to, because you want to deliver the best possible (and less wasteful) communication and service.

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Why Trent Reznor’s Business Model Works So Well

Got to share this talk by Mike Masnick, who analyzes in depth the methods used by Trent Reznor to “connect with fans” and give them “reason to buy” and create a very well functioning business model :

Among other creative initiatives to connect with fans, earlier this year Reznor released 400 GB worth of HD video footage recorded at his concert tour, which supposedly could be put to use by “some enterprising fans”.

What I really like about Trent Reznor’s style is that he hasn’t “worked it out”. He hasn’t discovered some magic formula for how to make money selling his music using the internet, and then simply lean back, enjoy the money and not care about developing his business model anymore. There’s no autopilot. He seems to genuinely want to connect and seems to enjoy the work involved in connecting, sharing music and creating new intriguing ideas for how to get his music out – and make a decent income in the process. That’s also why it works so well. He really do connect with fans, he really do give them value for their money. And he enjoys it too.

What Trent Reznor does so remarkably well may also serve as an example for all those engaged in promoting or selling a product online, to quit the thinking that they simply need to “work out” a method, which will instantly make them “connect” with thousands of people and let them become rich and successful overnight. That well will run dry for them sooner or later.

Make real connections. Engage others. Give them something of real value. And have fun!

(via Digital Waveriding)

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Lessig, the Abolition Movement and the Wicked Problems We Face

Stumbled over this very thoughtful interview by Charlie Rose with Stanford professor, Creative Commons founder, copyright reformer and Change Congress-initiator Lawrence Lessig (via Lessig’s Blog) :

Lessig has some very interesting remarks re: his meeting with Barack Obama years ago, where Lessig encouraged Obama to seek public office. According to Lessig, Obama responded, “you know, Larry, guys like me don’t make it in public service like that”. Obama presumably felt politics would demand too great compromise, than he felt he was able to give. Seems like he changed his mind. Here’s fingers crossed he’ll have some success in changing that game.

On another interesting note, Rose asks Lessig if he has any concerns in regard to filesharing and what’s happening in ‘free culture’, if he’s to take the perspective of ‘the other side’, i.e. the entertainment industry and MPAA intellectual property lobbyists. His answer is thoughtful and enlightening. Lessig fears, he says, the extent to which the reactionary and draconian IP legislation has created such resistance to copyright law, that the new generation – or a substantial segment of the new generation, will simply abolish copyright law altogether – just get rid of it :

Lessig : I think there is a real risk, because of the growing – I think of it as a kind of abolitionist movement with copyright. People who think that copyright was a great system for the 20th century, but we just need to get rid of it now. It’s not doing any good now, it’s not necessary, let’s just abolish it. Well, I am not an abolitionist. I believe copyright is essential in the digital age. I think we have to find a way to make it sensible in the digital age, but we have a richer, more diverse culture with it than we would without it. But my real fear is that the last ten years has unleashed a kind of revolutionary attitude among the generation that will take over in ten years and it’ll be hard for them to distinguish between sensible copyright legislation and the kind that we’ve got right now. So my real fear is we’re gonna lose control of this animal. Not in the sense, that we’re trying to guide it, but in the sense that we’re creating an environment where we can really have rich, diverse culture. So in this sense I feel like I’m Gorbachyov, not Yeltsin, I’m like an old communist who’s just trying to preserve..

Rose : (laughs) – who’s not gonna let go of everything…

Lessig : Yes exactly right. They just wanted to reform it, to make it make sense.

Rose : But can you do that, I mean?

Lessig : Gorbachyov couldn’t. So I don’t know. But that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid we’re gonna destroy something important. Because the thing copyright does, when it works well, is it’s very democratic. It gives the artist an independent ability to create. He doesn’t have to worry about his patron, supporting his kind of creativity. He can create on his own. And he creates on his own, and he owns what he creates.

Lessig emphasizes the importance of businesses to understand, harness and protect creative communities, like a Yahoo does in ‘securing’ the community of Flickr and the built-in ability of that community to use Creative Commons licensing of their images, or a Google does in similar ways with Picasa.

However, on this occasion as on others Lessig fails to enlighten us on what good copyright does us, when businesses vigorously seek to uphold IP rights in software. Google may harness the creative community of Picasa and enable free licensing within their software and as long as it provides value to their business, but what about the rights of Googlers, whose entire creative work by contract ends up being owned by Google, not by themselves? What good does it do us as a society, that companies benignly builds in free licensing, if, when and where they choose to do so, but seek to uphold IP barriers for users to change the actual software they use daily and operate on their own machines? Does that make us more free as a society, or less free? Does it give us a more diverse or less diverse culture?

Wouldn’t it be better, for transparency, for competition, for our culture of understanding and sharing; for our die hard focus on what’s really at stake; the big problems and big challenges we face as a global community : poverty, disease, pollution and international, armed conflict – to abolish a system, which systematically gets in the way of solving problems we face and which we need to solve? Which systematically gets in the way of enabling us to work together to help share information to crack the hard problems facing all of us? In what way is it democratic for a western author to deny the unauthorized distribution of his audiobook in a third-world country? In what ways do the distribution of Lord of the Rings (itself based on another work of fiction) via p2p networks harm anyone in this culture or another?

Lessig have always been careful not to associate himself with the pro-piracy movement. In 2006 a very nervous Morten Blaabjerg met briefly with Lessig to conduct an interview for a film project. Lessig was then visiting Denmark on the occasion of the official launch of the set of Danish-context adapted Creative Commons licenses.

Among the things I asked Lessig about in this interview was his attitude to what was then happening in Sweden, the police raid on the Pirate Bay. Lessig responded :

The Pirate Party and the people behind it are extraordinarily sophisticated, and this most recent post, a speech at the Reboot conference, called The Grey Commons, is an extremely sophisticated analysis of the problems.

In America, in my view, it’s counterproductive to encourage something called quote ‘piracy’. And the reason it’s counterproductive, is that if that’s what you push, then people stop listening to your argument, because they think that it’s all about, you just wanna be able to get something for free. And, if they stop thinking about the argument, then we’re not gonna make any real progress. So in America, I think this would be a bad strategy, and in fact, I’ve come to regret my role in certain lawsuits, that have gone to the supreme court, defending the right of peer-to-peer filesharing. Not because I don’t believe in the right of peer-to-peer filesharing, but because, as a strategic or even tactical move, focusing on that activity causes more confusion, than it causes understanding.

Now it could be, certainly could be different in Sweden and in Denmark.

There’s a long way from Lessig’s warning to ‘talk of piracy’ as a ‘bad strategic move’ to his talking with Charlie Rose about an ‘abolitionist movement’. This goes to say a lot about what has happened during the last 2-4 years. Use of bittorrent has been and is rapidly expanding, some of this no doubt due to the publicity surrounding the Pirate Bay. What’s more important, IMHO, is that social networking have become near mainstream, as a recent local television story about Facebook, in which I participated, made totally clear. Apparently, the popularity of Facebook among the +45 years old is a lot greater than people usually think. The sharing practices of these social networks have made copyright concerns a lot less practical. If I want to share photos with my friends, why bother thinking about copyright? Why bother about what they do with those photos? Why protect us against who they’re going to show them to, if they will make money on it or not, or whatever protectionist concern there may be. If you put it out there, it’s beyond you and your control. With or without copyright. It hardly makes any difference, as the ability of law enforcement to actually crack down on these sharing practices, is inefficient and good for nothing.

The only problem remains that services, such as Facebook or Google, seek to retain all rights to their users’ activities and information. This creates great problems for users, if they wish to ‘take out’ information and use it elsewhere. The loss of freedom lies not in the architecture, but the inability to help change those architectures, so that users may take their data where they’d like to go, in what ways they’d like to do so. To create a free and culturally diverse online environment, we need not protect ourselves from the use of ‘our data’, but from the entrapment of ‘our data’ in systems beyond our control. We can wait until doomsday for such companies to embrace the GPL. It’s not likely to happen. Our focus should not be the data, on ‘works of art’ – it should be on the systems which enable us to transport data, enable us to work together, share information and solve problems. Right now IP is used to prohibit or make this harder, as it is used to protect software and software companies and their incumbent business models – not the creativity of individual ‘artists’. This is why it is enlightening to read about the open source business strategies of companies such as Sun Microsystems and others. There are other ways to go. Abolition or not-abolition is not really the question. It doesn’t really matter, in so far as just discussing it doesn’t improve our architectures of communication or our problem solving capabilities. Embracing free software now does. Embracing Wikipedia now does. Embracing copyleft licensing does. Embracing tools of sharing, aggregation and open publishing does. Showing the effects of what you do does. Theory doesn’t. Fighting over legal matters doesn’t. Arguing back and forth about abolition of copyright with someone somewhere who doesn’t understand what you’re talking about (and doesn’t care to either) doesn’t.

P2p filesharing is the hope that we can create and maintain architectures of data transportation beyond centralized control. That we can reach out on our own, to reach others and understand each other. That other someone chose to share that particular movie, book or piece of software with us, which might or might not otherwise have reached us via different channels. That particular movie, book or software today – tomorrow something else of great importance. The channels of distribution are not really that interesting, except if your business model depends on measuring numbers of eyeballs, so that you may cash in on the commercials broadcast to these numbers of eyeballs. That’s what seems to be the concern of IP holders. Not to harness creativity, not to nurture a rich, diverse cultural landscape, but to protect incumbent business models, which stands in the way of creating and improving our decentralized methods of data and information sharing.

What’s interesting and what’s at stake is far more important than creating a culturally diverse environment : it’s about saving lives, about enabling us to live together peacefully and take a deep look at the world we’re in and imagine, what kind of place this could be, if we treated it with the same kind of generosity, as it treats us with.

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Eye-opener : Dreams of a Diva

I’d like to share some of the insights which motivated me to deliberately, willfully and consciously choose to spend a considerable number of years of my life enduring the hardships of building a startup business from scratch. What motivated me to found Kaplak? What motivates me to work on Kaplak, each and every day?

There are a number of avenues to take to answer these questions. One of these is Dreams of a Diva (org. Danish title Diva Drømme), a documentary film I produced/directed in 2005. This trailer for the film gives you an idea of what kind of film this is :

The film was produced under the FilmTrain program, and therefore, to a certain extent, sponsored as part of my participation in this program. FilmTrain was financed as an Interreg IIIA project, which basically means it was funded by the EU. It was a cross-border Danish-German project of which one particular objective was to try and develop and keep young and independent media professionals in the regions of Odense/Funen and Kiel/Schleswig, rather than “lose them” to the big cities of Copenhagen and Hamburg.

I’ve never been very good at thinking about how to market any film I produced. In short, because I never cared. Every current project interested me, and older ones were soon shelved, after airings on local or national television, or screenings at festivals. None of my films have attracted or tried to attract a mainstream audience. I made films about subjects I liked and which interested me, despite the fact I never earned more than a little on any of them. In 2004 I met Sofie Krog, which is a world-class puppeteer, and she hired me to do a promotional video for her. I knew already then, that it would be great to eventually do a longer film about her and her show, and decided to make the film the following year.

Much hard work later, the film had a blast of a premiere in a local movie theatre in Odense in January 2006, with an invited audience of about 100 people. The following week, when the film stood it’s ground in the theatre on it’s own merits, it attracted as many as two paying moviegoers, of which one was my aunt. And this was after what I’d say was decent local press coverage, on television, in radio and in the printed press.

Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed. Some rational analysis later, this was hardly surprising, even though we’d hoped for more. The film had a niche subject, puppeteering, which was little known about locally, featured an up-and-coming star in this field, which were little known outside theatrical circles – and to top it, it was a documentary film. Apparently, documentaries never do very well in theatres (with the rare exception).

This was what I call an eye-opener to me. What may have been latent knowledge before then, was then crystal. It was clear to me, that I couldn’t rely on any traditional distribution channel, such as movie theatres, for my work – and nor for financing my work, if I wanted to continue to do the kind of non-mainstream creative works I wanted to do.

At the same time I released the film on the bittorrent-indexsite The Pirate Bay, from where the torrent spread to other torrent-indexsites. Also the official FilmTrain DVD (which was free) was later leaked to the bittorrent network. While none of these files were ever big hits on the torrent networks, the traffic they brought from as far away as Greece and Japan revealed new avenues of distribution. Gargantuan amounts of data were transported to far away places – not with the speed of light – but comparatively hazzle-free, for such a young technology. It was in fact possible to distribute large amounts of data to the other end of the world with comparative ease and very little cost. It was clear, there were problems. Lots of problems. At one point I managed to send 13 GB or so across the Atlantic. It took 14 days or so to do it, though. With just two people connected, this was not the economical method of doing this, but it still amazed me. Shipping this amount of data from a home computer to another through the internet was unthinkable just 5-10 years ago. Eventually I got tired of seeding myself, which basically made the torrents unavailable (and they are so now, not just this film, but most of the stuff I put up there). But the possibility existed. We “just” needed some method to pay for the bandwidth and hosting. We needed to make it even easier.

I can’t possibly go back to directing and producing a film, before I get to a point where I can rely on the architectures of it’s distribution to actually bring the film to those interested in it, and give me a decent living from it, which helps finance my work. Sending a film in 100 physical copies to 100 different film festivals around the world can’t do this for me, it’s only further expenses. Now, we have a global, open architecture of distribution at our feet. We “just” need to tweak and improve the tools at our hands to enable us to create new business models.

I can’t publish my work online without a method of making a living from what I do. I found back then, that there were a ton of videosites and p2p networks which enabled internet users to distribute their stuff. Yet, amazingly none took seriously aim to crack what I increasingly saw as “the niche producer’s problem”; financing, and what’s going to get a niche production financing : increased and targeted visibility towards it’s niche market. I also found that there were lots of methods to put advertising on one’s website – and earn a dime doing so. But what if you don’t have a website? What if you don’t want to become entangled in online advertising, but would rather go about your business doing what you do well? Or what if you can attract so little traffic, that it isn’t really worth your while? I found none which were interested in appealing to niche markets, on what I refer to as “the slim end” of the long tail. This was the situation Kaplak was founded to remedy. Not just for myself, but for anyone for whom this resonates.

[Updated June 17, 2008]

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Incentives for the slim end of the P2P tail

This just in from Chris Anderson :

Bootstrapping the Long Tail in Peer to Peer
Bernardo Huberman and Fang Wu from HP labs have just released a paper describing a way to help P2P networks deal well with niche content. “It is difficult to satisfy the diversity of demand without having to resort to client server architectures and specialized network protocols… We solve this by creating an incentive mechanism that ensures the existence of a diverse set of offerings regardless of content and size. While the system delivers favorite mainstream content, it can also provide files that constitute small niche markets which only in the aggregate can generate large revenues.”

Going to dive into the research of Huberman and Wu during the following days, as their work seem to complement the thinking about p2p incentives we’re doing in Kaplak. This is what I call important stuff.

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We, the drowned

I’ve had a few days these past weeks where I’ve been kicked out by a fever and a sore throat. When you’re sick you’re not up to much. And when your 8-month daughter is sick too, it’s really no fun at all being sick, if that wasn’t enough.

On the bright side, this gave me some deserved time to finally get into Carsten Jensen‘s epic Vi, de druknede (in English, We, the Drowned, appearing later this year). I’ve been looking forward to reading this novel for a long time since it was first published in 2006, and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

It is an epic about the history of a 100 years from 1848-1945, not through the eyes of kings or generals, but from the perspective of the sailor, the adventurer, the flogged, the fugitive, the runaway, the outcast, the drowned (in all kinds of meanings of that word), and the wives and children who were left behind without being asked, all native to Marstal, a Danish port town on the island Ærø. With the obvious exception of the shrunken head of James Cook, which figures prominently in book. The novel leaves one with a few interesting perspectives on things global and local, which is inspiring, not least in the context of the global internet, and in the context of Kaplak.

In a Danish context the novel is not exactly marginal. It received rave reviews and has been extensively marketed by it’s publisher and by booksellers, and has sold well. In this sense, it is an industrial product, mass produced and sold via traditional book selling channels. The book’s IP (i.e. translation and distribution rights etc.) has been sold to more than a handful of other countries.

On the global web, however, the novel is a marginal niche product. It exists at the mercy of search and an exponential growth of information on the web. In this sense it faces precisely the same challenges as a completely unknown novel by a completely unknown author, if it wants to move beyond the local context and use the internet as a marketing or distribution channel. Like many similar products, Vi, de druknede has it’s own website, but to find it one almost has to search for the book’s exact title. At least, one doesn’t find it by searching for the author’s name, which was my first choice, because apparently Carsten Jensen doesn’t have his own website! The first hit is to an architect of the same name, and another to a LinkedIn profile for a CEO with the same name. And Carsten Jensen is even supposedly the most prominent “Carsten Jensen” in a Danish context, which would lead one to think that he had a greater amount of links pointing to information about him and thus a higher Google PageRank. The most authoritative (international) source on Carsten Jensen remains a stub on Wikipedia.

Even if one does manage to find the book’s website, one will find that it is only available in Danish. Apparently the publisher has thought only about using the global internet for targeting the book to a Danish audience, even if the book rights have long since been sold to a number of other countries. This of course just underpins the status of the novel as an industrial product, which seeks to appeal to a national, mainstream audience. An English reader will learn more from this article, which appears as the second hit, when one searches for keywords such as marstal + sailors.

As a niche product, Carsten Jensen’s novel doesn’t fare much better on the web than most niche products, despite local rave reviews and traditional marketing campaigns via conventional channels. It is as less or as much seen, as it has customers who search for it. Making this easier for potential readers has apparently been of very little concern to the publisher, if one takes this superficial analysis at face value.

We, the drowned is an obvious metaphor for all the unanswered queries of the web. When writing this article I had to find out what a “shrunken head” was in English. It is easy when you know it, but how do you show a search engine what you mean? I knew the Danish word, “skrumpehoved”, but finding the English term was pretty tricky. Kaplak doesn’t have any ambitions for creating new or more intelligent ways to search, but we do think the activity of our network will likely help generate more relevant and context-rich web results, which will more likely cover a much much longer tail of niche interests and pursuits, than is the case today.

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The freelancer

Thomas Magnussen is a British-Danish actor with a voice talent. His first job was a minor part in Tom Hanks’ tv-series Band of Brothers (2001), and since then his work has been a mix of theatrical plays, voice work and a number of roles in film and television. He has done a few international commercials. On his website, Thomas uses this video to introduce himself :

Thomas was kind enough to send me a quicktime file of the film, which I uploaded to YouTube (whose true merits we discussed briefly here), because I think it is important to show the video here as well. When you expressly put a text, an image or a video (like in this case) into a new context, it makes it stand out in a new way and helps create new meaning. And create meaning is what we want to do, because this creates value for this particular spot on the internet. I’m surprised, with Thomas’ resume, that I couldn’t find him on YouTube or in other places, because this kind of activity helps build traffic for his website, and it doesn’t cost anything.

Kaplak : Can you tell us a little about yourself and your niche business? How did you get involved with your line of work?
Thomas Magnussen (TM) : I am an actor, trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, working freelance in both theatre and films. I have several years of experience in doing various voicework such as: Documentary speaks, cartoon dubbing, voiceovers and commercial speaks. As I am bi-lingual English-Danish I’m equally skilled in both languages, and therefore work in both.

Kaplak : What kind of digital product do you produce (if any)?
TM : The digital products I produce are primarily the above mentioned voice related works, but I would be open to any idea which could involve acting related jobs, such as e-learning products for instance.

Kaplak : What constitute the greatest opportunity for your business on the internet?
TM : The greatest opportunity the internet offers me is that I can reach out to potentiel clients/employers in every part of the world by simply being visible via my website.

Kaplak : What are the greatest challenge?
TM : The greatest challenge is to find out where to focus my attention and how to get people to find out that I exist.

As an actor, Thomas is a hired gun. He is primarily a freelancer. The main portion of his work is done for clients, i.e. other creative producers and companies. Even when hired by a theatre, jobs are per project and run for a limited time. In several respects, this makes him different from the hobby-oriented “just for fun” niche producer and the professional-level producer we’ve met earlier on this blog.

First, he doesn’t usually own the digital end products he helps create. There could be exceptions to this, and surely there’s a lot of convergence happening, where a one day freelancer may be a producer on his own terms the other day (I’ve worked like that myself for years). As a “classic” freelancer though, one doesn’t usually gain rights to the work produced, but more often has to give them up.

Second, Thomas’ primary problem is visibility. But not towards people who buy the end digitial product (still, we keep out all points about convergence for now), but towards his clients, the producers all over the world, who want the product he offers. In other words, to get in touch with the producers who will want to hire him, if they knew he existed.

To sum up, it’s not the visibility for “end customers”, transport of data og payments which are Thomas’ challenges. In this sense, at first glance, he’s not an obvious Kaplak customer. But still he’s a very attractive customer for Kaplak. Why? Because he has a website! And he has something to sell, besides his acting product.

Thomas’ website is right now not much more but a showcase of his previous work, a curriculum vitae and some contact information. But it is also (or could be) an entry point to Thomas’ fan base or network. These people are valuable customers for the products, which Thomas’ acting efforts help produce, and possibly also for other types of related products. Imagine, that Thomas could help sell one of his recent projects, i.e. James Barclay’s next feature film Aurum, via his website. Imagine that the entire cast on this film (most actors have their own webpages) could help sell the film via their websites. Not only would this be great marketing news for the producer, but could also help provide a little extra for each actor.

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Solely for fun

Kogt i Roen is a Danish comedy band based in Skive, a town situated in northwestern Jutland in Denmark. The band name is difficult to translate directly. It is Danish slang which could imply that the band members have stayed out too long in the sun… So far the band have made three CD’s of songs and acts, of which all tracks are available from their website.

Mikkel Christensen, who incidentally also run the hosting company which hosts Kaplak.com, is a member of the band, and we caught him between two jobs to get his take on what kind of project Kogt i Roen is.

Kaplak : Can you tell us a little about yourself, your niche community and/or business?
Mikkel Christensen (MC) : Our music is solely for fun. We basically want to have some fun and want to share our joy with others. If we can get people to “donate” a few Danish kroner each time they download our music, it only makes us happy. We don’t expect to get rich from it. We call our genre for Standup Rock. I think we spend no more than a few weeks every year on our hobby.

My company is the complete opposite. We are professionals and among the best. We don’t compromise with quality, and when we engage in something, we do it wholeheartedly, or not at all.

Kaplak : How did you get involved with your community/business?
MC : I really don’t remember. I have been in this business since my early teen-days.

Kaplak : What kind of digital product do you produce (if any)?
MC : We produce digital entertainment :)

Kaplak : What constitute the greatest opportunity for your business on the internet? What is the greatest challenge?
MC : Nothing really, we don’t expect to earn any profit from our music but if the opportinuity emerges we will certainly take advantage of it.

The first thing that strikes me from Mikkel’s answers is that Kogt i Roen is a completely different type of niche producer, in comparison with DigDoc Film Production, which we met last week. Where DigDoc is a professional “expert-driven” company working hard to create documentaries which do sell, Kogt i Roen is a completely hobby-based project, which do not critically need to earn money on their music and acts.

We’ve seen, that DigDoc’s end products were directly and entirely digital in their nature, i.e. films, videos, audio and photography. Kogt i Roen‘s digital product (the music and acts) may perhaps be said to be almost a biproduct of the band getting together for a lot of fun. The “real product” is the gig. The music files are also used on the band’s website to “sell” the gigs. As both a biproduct and something used to promote the band, the band apparently can afford to give the music away for free. Or perhaps more simply, because it doesn’t cost the band anything extra to put up the songs anyway.

It’s difficult to estimate the global appeal of something as “local” as Kogt i Roen. However, there are Danes everywhere in the world, and the band’s humour may find appeal anywhere, especially if the word is spread by likeminded, exiled Danes from northern Jutland via networks of interlinked personal websites, forum posts and social networks such as MySpace or Facebook. The website is in Danish only, however, as well as most of the band’s lyrics and acts, which supposedly limits it’s audience to Danes and Danish-speaking almost exclusively, although some songs such as the English-worded, Iraq War-critical Mr. George Bush may find broader appeal.

What’s more important however, is that there’s a lot of likeminded bands globally. A lot of people simply play and enjoy music (and standup) as their hobby. It just so happens, that the internet makes it very easy to make your music publicly available while you’re at it. While the band do not necessarily need to make a million on their music (those days of the “hit economy” seems counted anyway), their product (and many, many other products, which are similar to it in “localness”) may help contribute value to other products, so much so, that it may turn in some extra income. Even though Mikkel understates any need for this, even an amateur band has costs to pay, including the website and gear for the band, so a little extra may not be what drives the band, but may come in handy, while they’re at it.

To create a surplus of value, which goes beyond the “cost per song” economy of the industrial model, the trick is to reach the creative audience who need to tap into this wealth of material. And then to give them access and allow them to rip, mix and burn what they like. In some cases this creative audience are hobby producers such as Kogt i Roen themselves, but it could also be more professionally oriented producers, who are able to ask a higher price for their product, and therefore to pay a higher price for their “material” in return. We’ll have to see if this analysis holds up, when we put it further to the test.

Kogt i Roen is not an ideal first customer for Kaplak. The band doesn’t feel the “pain” too hard – there’s no imminent need for greater visibility or financing. However, the band is a shining example of the creativity being unfolded all over the internet, simply because it can be made accessible very cheaply. They, however, and the many, many other hobby producers of the web could be slightly better off, if they were able to tap into the surplus of value they create by giving away their music for free.

Kaplak need not motivate a hobby producer customer like this band so much (it won’t work anyway, as they don’t do it for money or fame) but rather simply demonstrate, that it is possible to earn a little extra just as easily, as it is to make their product publicly accessible.

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A rocky, yet scenic path

The first potential customer to test our assumptions about what niche businesses look like is Hilke Elisabeth Saggau of DigDoc Film Production, which (among other things) have specialized in documentaries on archaelogical digs. In 2006 she produced the remarkable documentary So süüt dat ut – Ausgrabungen in Hüsby (English title That’s the way it is – The excavation at Hüsby), which follows the dig of a bronze age burial mound through more than a year.

Elisabeth agreed to answer a few questions, and I’ve decided to quote her at length, because her answers give great insights into the life, work and challenges of an expert documentary producer.

Kaplak: Can you tell us a little about yourself, your niche community and your business?
Hilke Elisabeth Saggau (HES) : As a media producer I see myself not sitting in a niche but walking barefoot on a rocky yet scenic path. My various current clients have one thing in common: they can pay me only little or no money at all. Among others my topics are history, archaeology, ethnology, arts, religion and politics.

Kaplak: How did you get involved with your business?
HES : Growing up in the 50′es on a remote estate in Holstein, TV was my only window to the world. I always wanted to climb through that window and become a filmmaker myself. But I was born too early – film cameras were still expensive and unwieldy, and filmmaking was men´s business anyway. At least plan B worked out and I became an archaeologist. When video equipment eventually became affordable I bought a camera and an editing programme and started filmmaking in the late 90′es. In 2004 I got a chance to take part in FilmTrain, a two year’s German-Danish Interreg project for media start ups. In 2005 I founded DigDoc Film Production as an independent filmmaker.

Kaplak : What kind of digital product do you produce?
HES : I produce mainly video documentaries, but also music clips, image films and experimentals. Recently I started producing audio files for a digital tourist guide.

With co-producer Moses Merkle I just finished a 1h documentary “From Kiel to east of Warsaw” on the Australian musician Phil Conyngham. Also with Moses Merkle I am editing footage which we shot in Kosova. With editor Imke Scholvin-Watts I am working on a 1h documentary on the revival of a historic ferryboat on the Eider river. With Ahmed Rashid Mohamed I am working on Arabic subtitles and an additional Arabic booklet for my documentary “That’s the way it is” (2006). Moreover I am doing a very time and energy consuming research for a new documentary on the history of Buddhism in Schleswig-Holstein.

Kaplak : What, in your opinion constitute the greatest opportunities for your business on the internet?
HES : The distribution of my products will be easier. No need for burning DVDs, buying envelopes printing covers und bills, buying stamps… I could probably save time, sell my products for less money and still have a better profit. Probably much more people will come across my products and have an easier, direct access.

Kaplak : What is in your opinion the greatest problem for your business on the internet?
HES : Right now there still seem to be technical problems in launching my films. The access via mobile phone has to be improved, especially with regard to my audio tourist guide. People who are interested in the topic of my products tend to be very old fashioned when it comes to digital equipment and are reluctant to buy or to use it.

Elisabeth is an example of a niche producer who fits our customer profile near perfectly. She is an expert in her field. She has a recognizable problem, and one we’d like to help out with (earning enough money). She produces high-quality films. She has a website and seeks to promote her productions online, yet it is difficult to find information about her film and subject matter (visibility problems). She has interested markets globally (there are archaeologists, film festivals (of which So süüt dat ut has participated in a handful) and historically interested audiences all over the world), and therefore potentially could connect to and open new markets.

In addition to these things, there are a few other important insights to note. The first is the old-fashionedness and resistance of her market, which could be a problem. Are her customers currently using the internet to obtain films like this? No. Will they?

It’s also obvious that she is involved with a lot of different projects, so there’s something which will or could appeal to different kinds of markets, which means there’s a greater chance at least some productions will fly. It’s also interesting to note the conception of the internet as a means to save time, and the technical infancy of some product solutions, which reflects the insecurities of a new media landscape : what technologies will fly, and how? What formats should be used, so that customers will be able to receive and get the picture in the other end? This is also related to the need for subtitling, for translating a local language to languages spoken and understood at the receiving end (in this case, audiences in Arabic-speaking countries).

Lastly but not least, Elisabeth bears witness to the media revolution which has made digital cameras and other means of production so inexpensive and accessible, that it is even possible to create the films she produce.

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