Lessons learned from the potato salad guy

ps2I am sure by now you have heard about the Kickstarter project from Zack Brown where he promises to make potato salad. In a bowl. In his kitchen. That’s the project. For this he raised more than $55,000 from nearly seven thousand backers from all over the world, including more than 20 “platinum” sponsors.

The project became big potatoes — it was the fourth most-viewed page on Kickstarter, right behind the Veronica Mars movie and the Pebble watch, with more than four million views. Many of the contributions were small — backers averaged $8 per pledge, compared with a Kickstarter-wide average of $78. Maybe because it was something so goofy, or so simple (the project didn’t have a video intro), or just because it was so incredible. When I was interviewed about crowdfunding for our local TV station a few weeks ago, I mentioned his project on the air.

Brown’s potatoes became a big deal, he got thousands of media mentions that just fed his project even further. What started out as a big joke turned into a serious effort, and now he is talking about starting a foundation and building a humor-oriented website. And Columbus, Ohio, where he is based, is holding a street festival called PotatoStock that will feature food, music, and fun. I would call it a hash bash.

So what can we learn from this meme? Here are a few suggestions.

  • If you want to make something to share with others, maybe you just need ten or 20 or 50 people to get your idea off the ground. That is from one of the conclusions from Kickstarter central, and I think it is a good one. Brown’s original goal was to raise $60, and he quickly passed that.
  • Hyperlocal is best. The Internet is great for spreading the word, surely and he got funds from all over. But Brown’s project picked up a lot of backers from the Columbus area, which is one of his reasons for holding the PotatoStock event. The project is still about one man, one kitchen and his condiments.
  • Sometimes you don’t need that next Big Idea. While there certainly have been some fascinating crowdfunded projects, the simple ideas also have their place. Yes, it would be one thing if Brown was going to take his 55 large and head off to Tahiti, or wherever. But he seems humbled by the experience. Perhaps his foundation can pay it forward and nourish another idea, or add some additional humor into our lives.
  • Humor helps. Under the risks section, Brown is very forthcoming: “It might not be that good. It’s my first potato salad.” His update videos are hilarious, and others have used humor to describe his efforts, all in a goodhearted way. We are surrounded by too much gloom and doom that having some humor helps.

The well-connected restaurant

Screen-Shot-2013-01-22-at-11.24.00-PM-1024x709You can’t download your dinner, but you will order food, pay checks, and do much more with your smartphone. That is one of the conclusions of a paid custom report that Ira Brodsky and I have published this week called Good Food and Drink and Connected Technology, 2014-2019.

The days when restaurants could rely exclusively on good food, an enjoyable ambiance and word-of-mouth advertising are quickly coming to an end. More and more restaurants are discovering that they must become better connected and use various consumer-facing technologies such as websites, social media networks and mobile apps to get a leg up on their competitors.

In our report, we looked at the largest of the national restaurant chains and analyzed their behavior, social media usage, and evaluated their digital strategies and implementations and found several trends, including:

  1. Consumer-facing connected technology is taking off in the restaurant chain business. Revenue from online ordering, digital gift and loyalty cards, and mobile payments will soar to $90 billion by 2019. No retailer can afford to ignore this trend.
  2. Our report shows how restaurant chains can improve the information content, functionality, and overall quality of their websites. For instance, restaurants who employ responsive web designs can enable access from a wide variety of devices. However, restaurant chains must never lose sight of the fact that the best measure of their website is how well it promotes their food and dining experiences.
  3. Social media is a powerful new channel for interactive advertising and market research. Our report explains how restaurant chains can achieve greater success by better allocating social media resources, monitoring how people respond, and fine-tuning their social media programs.
  4. Most restaurant chain mobile apps don’t work reliably and merely duplicate information and features found on the restaurants’ websites. Our report points the way to mobile apps that are better designed, tested, and maintained.

There are lots of other conclusions in our report, You can download a portion of our executive summary and view the entire table of contents, as well as browse a table of the leading restaurant VARs and SI vendors from the report’s website here. The report is available for purchase, too.

Here are some links to other restaurant-related tech that I have been writing about for various outlets. First are a series of stories for the site Solution Providers For Retail here, including analysis of social media usage, how Chili’s is using table-side tablets and mobile apps. And there is this piece on Restaurant Technology on loyalty programs.

The changing labor relations laws of workplace social networking

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I saw this post not too long ago come across my Facebook feed: “The best part about being over 40 is that we did our stupid stuff before the Internet.”

It is very true. But what is interesting is how our legal system is adjusting to people that want to find all this “stupid stuff” of those under 40, especially as it relates to their on-the-job performance.

Has this happened to you lately? You are interviewing for a job and things are going well. The interviewer asks you about any social media postings that you want to tell them about. You think to yourself, “thank goodness I was smart enough to have tightened all my privacy controls. There is no way that anyone can view any of my questionable pictures who isn’t part of my network.” As you are mulling over a response, the interviewer turns her laptop around to face you and ask you to login to your Facebook account. What do you do now? Gulp.

Well, it depends on what state you live in and what kind of privacy laws they have passed. A dozen states have laws restricting employer access to personal social media accounts of both potential job applicants as well as their employees. These laws try to restrict how an employer can ask for login credentials or have you login to your account in their presence or grant access to information that isn’t in a public online search. Similar legislation is pending in at least another 28 states, and Congress might even get into the act too. The National Conference of State Legislatures is keeping track here. They say:

Some employers argue that access to personal accounts is needed to protect proprietary information or trade secrets, to comply with federal financial regulations, or to prevent the employer from being exposed to legal liabilities. But others consider requiring access to personal accounts an invasion of employee privacy.

The legislation in some states extends to students at public colleges too. The laws restrict employers from requiring employees to friend a supervisor or even adjust their privacy settings on their account. Double gulp!

As you can imagine, the state laws vary in what activities are prohibited and what aren’t. “However, while state laws differ significantly, the general message is clear: employers must evaluate their current practices and policies to ensure compliance with these law,” says a recent article in Socially Aware, a newsletter from the legal firm of Morrison Foerster.

The newsletter article goes on to discuss several other aspects of the legislation, including what happens during workplace investigations of suspected wrongdoings or employee misconduct. To say that this is a legal minefield is an understatement. Clearly, if you haven’t implemented social media guidelines yet in your workplace, now would be a good time. You might also enjoy reading a piece that I wrote for ReadWrite a few years ago about creating social media playbooks.

And you might also ask for some help from Liz Brown Bullock, who created a lot of social media policies and trained thousands of folks when she was at Dell.

Ricoh blog: Is your slow website costing you business?

In a word, yes, it is. Time is definitely money when it comes to the web. In particular, the longer it takes your website to load, the less patient your visitors will be, and the more often they will leave your site without buying anything. And things are getting worse.

In this post for Ricoh’s WorkIntelligent.ly blog, I talk about ways you can speed up your site and keep your visitors sticking around longer.

Are you paying yourself too much?

As we get into the holidays, I want to ask all of your startup CEOs this question. Could you be paying yourself too much, and risk losing your business eventually? No, this isn’t coming from my Scrooge side, but some practical thinking.

Last week, a Sili Valley startup (Yet Another Social Media Posting Tool) posted, in the name of complete transparency, their entire staff salary schedule, from the lowliest workers on up to the CEO, who is getting nearly $160k. While people weighed in on whether or not this is Yet Another GenY Oversharing, what got me going on this particular screed was what the CEO was paying himself. It should be about a third of his current draw.

CEOs should be working for peanuts. Yes, they have bills to pay, but if they are in the startup scene to make money, they should stick with a salaried position at a more established company. When you go into startup mode, you want to be building a company, and you do that with offering equity and a longer-term payouts. Offer more money, and chances are good that your venture will fail because you will be burning through your cash pile. I asked a friend of mine, a tech startup CEO, for his opinion, and he told me: “I personally don’t believe in the CEO of a startup having the highest cash salary. If CEOs believe the story that they are telling investors then should be taking as much as they can in stock. If they are concerned about the cash portion of their paycheck they should be seeking employment elsewhere.” Take a look a this poll taken last year of startup CEO salaries.

And lest you think this is just for startups, the CEOs of Facebook, Oracle, Google, Yelp and HP all had $1 salaries in the past year — granted, they all made megamillions on bonuses and other incentives, but still something to think about.

And while it is admirable that this one startup wants to be so transparent, they could be hurting themselves in the long run. Again from my friend the tech startup CEO: “I would never publicly disclose my company’s compensation model. Doing so provides your competition better insight into how you think and how to compete against you. It also gives potential employees a baseline by which to start negotiations” when they start thinking about going elsewhere.” He and I both think that experience is a poor metric to be used in setting higher salaries. What should matter is results, and what each staffer produces, or how the market will respond to having a rockstar on your team.

Happy holidays and hope you all have a great break and a wonderful new year’s.

ITworld: A/B tests: Cut the fluff and spend the pixels on what works

surlatableA/B testing is like many things that can be vexing about the Web: a simple concept can turn into a complex programming project. But while the idea is simple — producing two (or more) different web pages for your site and instrument them to see which one drives more traffic or more sales – getting it to work can be fraught with politics and the actual implementation details.

Why bother? Mainly because there is almost nothing else that you can do that can have such a big effect. Just by changing the text size or button color you can generate a 50% increase in clickthrough rates.

You can read more about A/B tests in this article for ITworld and also view an accompanying slideshow that illustrates how to improve your own Web pages with four interesting examples, such as the one above showing three different versions of the Sur La Table website.

Welcome to the brave new world of crowdsourced authorship

As many of you know, I have published two computer trade books over the course of my career. One was with Marshall Rose (who I am indebted for teaching me how to write book-length manuscripts and is one of the best collaborators that I have ever worked with) and one solo. Neither did well for different reasons that were beyond my control, including the last book coming out a week after 9/11. Oh well.

But while both books were done with traditional Big Time Publishers, I probably won’t go that route again if I had another book in me. Over the past decade or so, self-publishing has become the model of choice for many authors. The economics are compelling: rather than get a dollar royalty from sales of a $25 book as a traditional publisher generally works, you get to spend a dollar to produce your book and get the rest in profit. Or so the rough numbers go.

Then came ebooks, and prices started going down, way down: a typical ebook now sells for a couple of bucks at best. The old saying about not making much money but making it up in volume come to mind.

But the publishing market is pivoting (as they say in startup speak) yet again, and this time it is combining with the crowdfunding market and morphing into something else entirely. The idea is that you promote your book idea on one of the crowd sites and get a few hundred of your friends and potential readers to pay up front for you to finish your project and get their very own copy, complete with tote bag or some other premium prize. The money they “donate” goes towards hopefully you finishing a beautiful book, raising awareness and buzz, and setting the scene for a big author splash. Or so the idea goes.

Seth Godin has written about this topic over the past year on a site that he runs in cooperation with Amazon. And he has also penned his wish list for what Kickstarter specifically should do to make it easier for authors.

dbl2But as I haven’t had the opportunity to go this route, I did the next best thing, asking a young, first-time author of an upcoming book and a project on Kickstarter that I was one of the backers. His name is Tony Brasunas and his book, set to launch on 12/12, is Double Happiness. While he might not have another book in him right now, he found the whole process to be worthwhile. “I spent several months preparing for the launch of my Kickstarter project, including doing things such as filming the video, thinking through the rewards structure, preparing the images and writing the copy for the project page.” None of these things were actual book writing, and if you look over it you as a new author (or even an old hand such as myself) might not have the necessary skills or inclination or even time to pull this off.

Brasunas raised more than he went to the well for, which is great, and a quarter of it will end up being used to fulfill his rewards for his 175 project backers. But what I found interesting talking to him is how he thinks about the process. Realize that his book is “a chapter of my life story, something that I have been working on for a decade, and I wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested. It was a wonderful surprise that I got as many backers as I did.”

His project “involved people that could be potentially interested in it. That feels like a collective and that collaboration was appealing to me. By doing this through a social platform, it added a nice piece to the whole project for me.” Again, you may just want to sit in a garret and write, so your reaction could differ. But he also found something out about his backers and his friends: “I would have guessed that people who were closest to me would have given more, while others who I haven’t talked to in years gave unexpectedly larger contributions.” That is intriguing. You would think that donations would directly relate to the distance to your immediate social network. He found that if knew three factors he could fairly accurately predict what someone was going to donate: “First, what they feel about your project, second their access to money, and finally their belief about money and whether it is abundant in their lives.”

Brasunas is using print on demand with CreateSpace and Lightning Source. Again, you’ll have to learn about these technologies and whether or not you have the skills to pull it all together.

But maybe not. There are new crowd sites that are geared towards book authors called Pubslush and Unbound. Both are trying to enter this space and connect the dots that Godin and my young friend had to do manually. There are sure to be dozens of these crowd-book platforms before long, such is the nature of this market segment. Pubslush charges less of a commission, has different funding restrictions, and directly connect to an author’s Amazon page. So far 40 books have been published. Unbound, which is based in the UK, has been around longer and has its own system and published about 60 books.

How this will all sort out I have no idea. But at least it is nice to have choices.