Thursday, January 24, 2013

What Media Companies Can Learn from Crowd-Funding Kickstarter

I frequently mention Kickstarter, the crowd-sourced funding platform, to my publishing associates, not because it represents a formula easily embraced by traditional media companies, but because the platform reaffirms a deep current of creativity in the country and in the world, with much of this energy exploring opportunities in print, digital, and multi-media magazines.  In other words, this is familiar territory for magazine publishers.  The range of activities funded is really quite remarkable.  With Kickstarter, we have a curious and to-date successful market-driven, community-shaped and governed funding formula that provides a collective nose for quality while putting its money, so to speak, where its mouth is.

I have been a fan of Kickstarter for some time but had not fully understood the scale of projects involved, the impressive success rate or the amount of money pledged.  The numbers are impressive.  The platform, launched in April 2009, has recorded over $350 million in pledged funding by more than 2.5 million people who underwrote in excess of 30,000 projects.  Kickstarter reports that 44% of projects have reached their funding goal.  Please consult www.kickstarter,com for specific project-by-project and category stats.

Each project at Kickstarter is independently created and the filmmakers, poets, artists, musicians and authors on the site have complete control and responsibility for their projects.  They share the project with the community, usually through a short video, and discuss funding goals and related details.  The community decides what gets funded and at what level.  An actual, visible clock is ticking during the funding cycle (but there are no barkers in the background).  Backers only pay if the funding goal is met.  Kickstarter draws the line at charity per se, causes or opportunities “to fund my life.”  The project requires a tangible goal, such as publishing a book, magazine, or a multi-media version.  And the site takes 5% of what is collected.

As of this date, there were 392 publishing projects either funded or looking for funding.  I make this point because this is a dynamic site populated with dynamic projects that come and go, depending on crowd-sourced funding.   In terms of successfully funded projects and interest levels, publishing comes in behind music, film and video, and art.  While most efforts raise under $10,000, an increasing number are raising tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.  “To Be or Not to Be,” a choosable path version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with jokes, ghosts and a never seen pirate scene, has raised $580,905 from 15,352 backers and is currently the most funded projects on the site.   A plan to collect and publish thirty-five years of retrospective KAL “Economist” cartoons had, to date, raised $76,655.  The cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher explains that he was an independent contractor with the magazine, thus the crowd-sourcing.  At the end of the day, the community decides.  People who might think entrepreneurs might be too well-heeled for such a fund raising effort don’t have to contribute.

And community tastes are eclectic.  A book featuring the work of Brom, the dark fantasy artist, has so-far raised $235,319;  “Howler,” a magazine about soccer: $69,000;  “Invisible,” an award-winning radio show, more than $170,000;  and a book about the connection economy, $287,000.  These projects have all surpassed desired funding levels.  The artists decide what incentives they will provide for individuals willing to fund their projects.  It could be a signed book, a special collection, a signed cartoon print, or an actual party.  It is very clear that the potential reward is not driving this support of creativity.

The preceding examples are exceptions.  As noted, most successful efforts raise less than $10,000.  And there are lots of entreaties that get little or no response.  The numbers might change, but publishing proposals, including “Car Living,” “Making Compost and Compost Tea,” and “The Unemployment Cookbook” have attracted only a few pledges.  A Charles Bronson biography has gained no traction.  “How to Survive in the Navy,” written by a twenty-year veteran, has raised $50.00.   

Have a look.  There’s an abundance of serious and playful energy on the platform, from videos that dramatize the intersection of Christianity and anarchy to a proposal for Ply, a magazine for handspinners that is already fully-funded at more than $30,000.  The video business pitches from by these entrepreneurs would be very familiar to traditional publishers.

At the very least, Kickstarter is telling us what is hot from a crowd-funding point-of-view and provides riveting examples of artists who have the will, passion and daring to bring dreams to fruition.  Up to now, these creatives have lacked a reliable source of funding.  Now they have a crack at it.

Small, independent, special-interest magazines might be on the lookout for competitors coming from this sector.  From Ziff, to Rodale, to Weider, the passion of the founders came before the money.  Nothing here would be surprising to those trailblazers.  And Kickstarter now brings the two together in a public, transparent way.

Also, given the attention to guidebooks, mountain bike trails, and local beers and wines, regional publishers might take notice.  And media companies interested in long-form journalism might consider the generous funding of Project M (Matter) that focuses on the future of science and technology journalism.  It has received more than $140,000 in pledges and is fully funded.

At Kickstarter, there is something for everyone.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Armstrong on Oprah’s Couch & Others in the Wings

Prior to Lance Armstrong’s “mea culpa” I was almost relieved to learn that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o had for months milked a relationship with his non-existent, fantasy girlfriend, who enjoyed a timely death.  With this jewel from, I knew that all was right with the world and we should be perfectly content in the digital zone of shifting personas, fictions, and occasional lies, all in service to our desperate need to be amused and at the same time pay homage to Emily Dickinson, the poet who advised us more than a century ago “To tell all the truth but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies.”

I prepared for the interviews, now called the Great Redemption or the Stale Invention by those looking for the CliffsNotes version of psyche, by reviewing the history of doping in professional cycling and reflecting on the general indifference over time to this infraction on the part of cycling associations, sponsors and the media.  All of this hardboiled information is only a Wikepedia page away.  

And the historical chatter plays nicely into Armstrong’s narrative.  I was editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine for a decade prior to Armstrong’s mountainous lies.   The magazine’s focus was on fitness and recreational riding, but we were certainly aware of instances of professional doping.  When we learned that a number of American cyclists had engaged in blood-doping during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, we were late to the fray.  Blood-doping was not illegal at this time, but the episode did not mark the magazine’s finest hour.  Certainly advertisers and sponsors are not interested in this seamy side.  This is not what 7-Eleven, then owned by the Southland Corp., signed on for when it sponsored cycling in the LA Olympics.

I halfway expected Armstrong to tell Oprah that the first confirmed case of doping was by a Welsh cyclist in 1886 who might have died from a cocktail of cocaine, caffeine, and strychnine.  There’s a good chance that the story is apocryphal, but it would have added another dead persona to an all-too-familiar refrain.  The devil and the weight of history made me do it.  I’ve been told that in 1930 the Tour de France organizers informed riders that they would not be providing drugs anymore.  This is much too precious to be untrue.  In any event, doping went underground.  Just barely.

The history of the Tour is a history of riders trying to beat the rules.  The entire Belgium team had to drop out of the race in 1956, collectively complaining that they had eaten bad fish the night before at a hotel that didn’t serve the flesh.  The fish story seemed to have currency at least until the 1970s.  Renowned French rider Jacques Anquetil is quoted as saying to the press that “only a fool would ride the Bordeaux-Paris race on just water.”  Apparently, President Charles de Gaul praised the racer for his forthrightness.  I would have been more taken in by Armstrong if he dropped a little French into his cold-as-ice, fishy recantation.

In 1965, performance -enhancing drugs were declared illegal.  Riders protested but found ways around the tests, such as carrying someone else’s urine in a condom or other vessels handed out along the way by the little lame balloon man.  Over time, cyclists got smarter, such as using masking agents to hide steroids.  In the late-1980’s, EPO, which boosted red cell production, entered the mix.  In 1991, the entire Dutch team, suspected of EPO use, withdrew from the race due to food poisoning.  And so it went. 

The storyline is sadly familiar.  Doping has been endemic in professional cycling for a century-and-a-half.  Racers took a wide array of cocktails to get the advantage.  The various cycling governing bodies have been slow to respond to changes in technology and rider ingenuity.  Given the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) and its US counterpart (USADA), professional cycling is now much cleaner.  But the record shows that as recently as 2011 and 2012 cyclists were caught using illegal drugs in the Tour de France and other major races.  

Historically, the International Cycling Association (the UCI), which governs the sport, appears not to have gotten in front of this enormous problem in a timely manner and by some accounts looked the other way, though the “biological passport” introduced a few years ago has certainly helped.  Still, the International Olympic Committee has informally suggested that it might be in cycling’s best interest to take time off from the Olympics to get its house in order.  

Understandably, professional cycling is keen to put the Lance Armstrong era behind it.  Phil Liggett, a longtime television commentator for the Tour and until recently an Armstrong supporter, wants the sport to move past “that era” to a new day with new blood, so to speak.  Fair enough, but those of us in the media who have been beating the drums might also be held to an accounting.

Professional cycling is a business and therefore is about the money.  Armstrong said during the interview that he had lost $75 million in one day when all his sponsors left him.  This is when the world really started to take notice.   I heard nothing particularly new in the Armstrong interviews.  His rationale—everybody dopes and he was just leveling the playing field—while unacceptable, nonetheless holds at least  a grain of truth.  

While there were a number of gutsy journalists and authors, especially David Walsh, who exposed the facts early on, it took the USADA , called earlier a “nefarious drug agency” by Liggett, to roll out 1,000 pages of under-oath testimony from Armstrong’s team members and associates to bring an abundance of toxic truth to the proceedings.  In the long run, this will prove to be the real story, not the Oprah soap.  

If as reported Paramount plans to release a movie about the Lance Armstrong affair, it might want to devote at least a few scenes to the legal dance about doping jurisdiction between and among the USADA, the UCI, and USA Cycling, its American arm.  You can read the documents at  I have read them all and don’t get the sense that the UCI’s first consideration was as a seeker of truth.  But the film maker should move past that and get to the Floyd Landis affidavit under oath, which has provided the basis for a whistle blower’s suit enjoined by the  federal government against Armstrong and his business associates.

Landis, an Armstrong teammate and a Tour de France winner who lost his crown due to doping, seemed to be this unconvincing guy originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  On camera, he had neither the charm nor the Armstrong charisma and few appeared to believe him.  That has changed.  As it stands, the affidavit claims that Armstrong and his associates, with big team sponsorship money from the US Postal Service in their back pocket, schemed from the very beginning  to employ systematic doping to win at least six Tour medals, thus owning the record.

The affidavit also states that Armstrong donated $100,000 to the UCI for its anti-doping work in 2001.  UCI acknowledges this, but denies nefarious intent.  Landis claims that Armstrong’s business partner Thomas Weisel funneled through a foundation “approximately $500,000 to $725,000 each year” (2000 through 2003) to USA Cycling, the US governing body.  Landis states under oath that this was an effort to control the official US race sanctioning body.  The document reads that Mr.  Landis “believes that these conflicts of interest and overlapping relationships between USA Cycling, the USA Cycling Foundation, and Thomas Weisel helped make it possible for the USPS Team to carry on an extensive program of systematic doping team athletes during the period relevant to this complaint.”  And it has been widely reported that an Armstrong representative offered between $200,000 and $250,000 in 2004 to USADA for anti-doping activities and it was immediately rejected.  Armstrong has denied this.

As someone who spent more than a decade in the cycling media business, I am less interested in Armstrong’s deceit, which has been whispered about for years at trade shows and bike events, than in whether the various governing bodies and their agents enabled his behavior and received financial consideration in return.  Racers, casual riders, sponsors and advertisers will likely want these questions answered too.

Armstrong has cast a huge, damaging and suffocating shadow over professional cycling for almost two decades, steamrolling his opposition and obscuring fine accomplishments by other American riders, especially Greg LeMond, now the only American winner of the Tour (three times; in 1986,’89 and ’90).  LeMond suffered Armstrong’s wrath and the business consequences for raising doping issues, including the loss of his bike business.

The Washington Post quotes a LeMond post-interview Facebook note in which the Tour winner calls for UCI officials to resign:  “You know damn well what has been going on in cycling ….The problem for sport is not drugs but corruption.  You are the epitome of the word corruption.”

The UCI has announced an Independent Commission to investigate doping issues but without a limited Truth and Reconciliation and Amnesty program.  USADA CEO Travis Tygart responded that the “UCI’s refusal to agree to allow a limited opportunity for riders to come forward and be truthful without fear of retribution or retaliation from the UCI” suggests that the “UCI has blindfolded and handcuffed the Independent Commission to ensure a pre-determined outcome (”

One can understand LeMond’s anger after what can be called a long and painful “shunning” by the cycling powers.  But questions remain:  how could Armstrong dope for so long, involve so many people and often in plain view without the governing bodies and other officials and stake-holders being aware of it?

Time is not on the side of the crusaders.  German anti-doping specialist Mario Thevis noted last year that “100 variants of EPO may exist without a test (”  Professional bike racing may soon face a time when drug doping becomes too sophisticated for the national and international governing bodies to monitor.  

And that would not be good for business. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Consumer Electronics Show, My No-Go, and Big Bird in the Mobile Nest

In previous years at precisely this time I would be shuffling through a casino in Las Vegas on my way to catch a bus to the CES.  My route had been dictated by the architects who designed this place of lost weekends, as both reward and punishment.  Nothing wakes you up faster than watching overnight gamblers downing neat whiskey while digging deeper into pockets and purses for the last coin that will change their lives forever.  Welcome to the Show.

Despite the casino perp walk, the hour-long taxi lines and the highly textured food at the electronics show, it has something of a funhouse quality that is hard to replicate.  Why go to the beach when you can visit 3,000 booths, most displaying products that will never get to market; listen to the endless pitches, and finally place a bet on the Panasonic Viera TV that can read your face and summon to screen your favorite features and apps?  If only that screen could read my mind.

Mat Horan in the current issue of Wired writes that “CES is the world’s greatest hardware show stuck in a software era.”  He has a point; after all, these days the world turns on apps, experiences and integration.  Horan reminds us that in 2012 the Nokia Lumia was the talk of the show and widely touted as a breakthrough product but was obsolete five months later after a Windows upgrade.  He also mentioned the BlackBerry tablet, the PlayBook, which had received similar rave reviews and made one of the show’s “best” lists.  I recall how difficult it was to get close to the BlackBerry booth because buzz was in the air and there is nothing like huge, ravenous crowds at trade shows to signal a successful product.  This tablet was a market failure.

All this is my lazy way of saying that, once the acres of CES have been walked, measured, and digitally charted for future generations, year-after-year, I can watch most keynotes on the computer and get first-hand reports from family, friends, and spies in attendance.  And I won’t need to purchase a promising new product displayed at the show.  Trakdot has a SIM card that could track my lost fantasy luggage.  Whether I leave home or not, I am keen on another offering, Flower Power by Parrot.  It monitors and tests a plant’s soil and ambient conditions against an ideal environment and updates the user through an iPhone app.  Keeping green things alive in the hot-house theater called CES is a real challenge.

All hyperbole aside, there is clearly a sea-change happening at CES, at least when it comes to the pre-show keynote speaker whose task is to prefigure the show and especially to imagine the future.  For the first time, a Microsoft executive didn’t fill this role.  Rather, the baton was handed to Dr. Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm CEO, who reminded his audience that 2013 was the first time a mobile company opened CES.  It won’t be the last (Jacobs’ one-hour keynote is available at

I’m a fan of Qualcomm and have consulted for their QMT division, but after hearing Jacob’s remarks it is hard not to see how the emerging mobile eco-system is maturing in ways advantageous to the company and those in the competitive set.  There are 6.4 billion mobile connections, just short of the number of warm bodies on the planet.  A central theme of Jacobs’ address is that we are now born mobile, with perhaps Qualcomm being the first citizen of mobile, having shipped 11 billion chipsets since the company’s founding 27 years ago.

While I loved the visuals, including a flight line of fire breathing dragons, a show-and-tell by Big Bird and an cameo by an actress from upcoming Star Trek movie, all were in service, more or less, to Jacobs’ iterative themes.  We are born mobile and mobile is fast-becoming our sixth sense, an extension of our personas and realities.  He mentioned the Vuforia platform that enables augmented reality (AR) app experiences and gives mobile apps the power to see.  Big Bird uses this application for text recognition so he can differentiate between the words for cereal and milk.  The Context Aware offering (Gimbal) includes a full library: geofencing, interest sensing, and image recognition.  For all Star Trek fans this will be used in the run-up promotion to the new film Into Darkness and allow interested players to interact through their smartphones with billboards and the like in order to gain points and other goodies, but most importantly, to add notches to their hero belts and move higher on the vanity charts.  Participants can perform such heady feats without removing their smartphones from their pockets or their bags.  The blurring between physical and the digital continues.

Matt Buchanan at Buzzfeed suggests two reasons for the decreasing importance of CES: “Software and services have become the soul of consumer technology.”  And the “social web has replaced the trade show as a platform for showcasing and distributing products.”  He’s absolutely right.  The old days are not likely to return.

One of my favorite venues at CES is the health and fitness tracks, which seem to be growing in importance every year as the health/tech connection becomes clearer.  Jacobs spoke in passing about the company’s commitment to e-health and in this context Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the prospects for mobile health in Africa and around the developing world.  Mobile health is less sexy than Big Bird or the next Star Trek, but is hugely important to the company through its Qualcomm Life business that invests in early stage high-tech health companies with an eye to accelerating wireless health services.

Arianna Huffington, who is moderating a panel at CES titled “The Digital Health Revolution: Body, Mind and Soul,” writes in The Huffington Post about “the new wave of technology that connects us to ourselves.  For example, a robust market of wearable devices—like the Nike+ Fuelband, Jawbone UP, FitBit and Lark—has emerged, monitoring everything from activity and food intake to weight and sleep.”  She is right and these developments will only quicken as more venture capital flows into mobile health.  Qualcomm Life, through its 2net Platform, which is technology and device agnostic, cloud-based, data encrypted, and linked to multiple carriers, offers a scalable, protected way to move medical data from device to server to doctor.  

We now have throwaway bandages and other sticky devices that monitor our vital signs.  But mobile health will truly become the soul of the new machine when there is an integrated, scalable platform with carrier participation.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Zynga’s Woes, Freud’s Literary Nose, and Playing Psychological Games

Those of us not following the Fiscal Cliff chatter were paying requisite attention to Zynga’s end-of-the-year announcement outlined on TechCrunch that the company would be shuttering eleven games, or pulling them from the app stores or not accepting new players to PetVille, Fishville, Forestville and others.  The constituents not in mourning could be found on the Zynga site bashing executives for producing a series of me-too, copycat games that were destined to die on the corporate vine when the blue-suited, cost-cutters came to town.

Others, more emotionally invested in the notion that family connections can even extend to fictional creatures who populate the rugged digital landscape, expressed outrage that Zynga killed their pets or, at the very least, did not give them time to download lovable Spot.  One gamer with no obvious ironic intent advised fellow players to only get open source pets and run them on their own servers.   The family who had time to dress their pets in PJs and bunny slippers and apply a little lipstick to their cheeks was the decided exception.

From a psychological point-of-view the jury is still out on the effect such imaginary pets has on the real lives of individuals.  From my study of psychology, I think such projection, play, and creativity is healthy and, short of us all becoming Spot, necessary.  The late Dr. James Hillman, a psychologist, writes in his Healing Fiction how we are constantly exposed to a pandemonium of images and from these come our art and our sanity.  In this context, Zynga might or might not be a helpful partner.

I have long been amused by Freud’s acknowledgement in 1934 that his job was “to translate the inspirations offered by modern literature into scientific theories.”  After all, Freud won the Goethe Prize for literature and not the Nobel Prize for science.

The notes Freud took while famous patient Dora told her life story on the couch behind his back became a case history.  The style in which the father of psychology actually wrote these case histories was literary and, by the author’s own account, they were closer to dramatic stories than scientific fact.  Or in the vernacular, they were fiction, which doesn’t mean they weren’t true.   Modern psychology owes more to literature than to science, as every parent who has been involved in the Oedipal wars already knows.  

Dr. Hillman, one of the most original thinkers in this field in the last fifty years, extends Freud, differentiating between case history and soul history.  The case history is a biography of historical events.  The soul history spontaneously invents fictions and “inscapes” without major outer correlations; it is reported best by emotions, dreams and fantasies. The case history presents a sequence of events; the soul history is about imagination and play. 

I have looked in vain for Dreamville, the ideal original, finding rather a company that sells hoodies inspired by a 1950's cartoon about dream chasers.   But no sectors, even our nighttime dream and fantasy worlds, are safe from SEO.  The online Dream Dictionary has identified 5,300 dream keywords that to date have at least 20,000 possible meanings.  The Dictionary has only scratched the surface of our collective unconscious.

Dr. Hillman has warned us about this attention to the literal and about assuming every image or dream has a one-to-one correspondence to events we experience in daylight.  In his words, the difference is between image as presence and image as presentation or between symbol and allegory.

Nonetheless, even with this psychological proviso, there might be a way for a prospective new Zynga venture we’ll call DreamMe that marries the essence of crude SEO mapping with the personal, interior landscapes of our psyches revealed in dreams, nightmare, fantasies and similar niceties.  This is not a stretch.  I note that Dreamvale, available on iTunes, is a perfect dungeon crawl involving four players and six levels.  I could envision a similar dungeon crawl, for example, based on Carl Jung’s Psychological Types that would enable you to find your true Self.   If that is not demanding enough, how about a dungeon crawl through Jung’s world of alchemy and encounters with the sleeping king, the wild man,, and Hermes, among others.  I should advise that these figures represent projected psychological conditions and killing the monster means we are putting the shadow sides of our psychology behind us.  In other words, the Gamer grows up.

In the meantime, until developers seize on these very pregnant and free business ideas, there’s always Dream:On, the app for those who want no more than to dream of strolling the countryside, flying, or lying on a sun-drenched beach.  It’s as simple as that.

Spot can be summoned at will.