On Canvas, Communities & Commerciality


Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing. Particularly when the person blessed with it is speaking from the sidelines of an event, having passively observed, rather than being stuck in the action.

I say that because I am very aware that it is very easy to pick holes in failed projects when the projects in question were conceived, set-up and run by other people. Because I know that it’s far easier to criticise than to create. And because I don’t want to sound like a bad version of Valleywag.

But, having said all of that, is it really any surprise that Canvas is to close? For those who don’t know what Canvas is, or was, it was set-up by Christopher Poole (founder of the infamous message-board 4chan) and was going to be:

the most exciting and interesting community for real-time creativity on the Internet

According to a very thoughtful post by Poole about the site’s failure (and that of the app they tried to spin out of it):

It may seem surprising that a seemingly successful product could fail, but it happens all the time. Although we arguably found product/market fit, we couldn’t quite crack the business side of things.

None of this is particularly revelatory and it has to be said that both Poole and his investors have written about the experience in a very open, honest and humble way. But a couple of things strike me.

1: There are limited ways to make money online, particularly with communities (the factor that investor Fred Wilson pulled out in his original post): you can sell advertising designed to reach the members of the community (Facebook), you can create a community designed to sell things to each other and take a cut (Etsy) or you can charge people to be a member of the community (I can’t actually think of an example).

These broadly match the three models of physical goods, advertising and SaaS that Ben Thompson pulled out in a recent post. And Canvas was never an obvious example of any of these.

2: Poole had no background of creating successful businesses so I am not sure why he was entrusted with $3.6 million. I realise that many successful entrepreneurs are also first-timers (though actually most of them are older than the myth of the 20-something genius) but Poole had singularly failed to make a fortune out of his existing site 4chan – probably because it’s entirely uncensored and has a (not undeserved) unsavoury reputation.

It seems that he had a change of heart when it came to Canvas, saying:

We approached a few companies and no one was buying what we were selling…The nut that was interesting was the community, but it wasn’t really clear what exactly this community would do for their business

It’s quite a striking admission from this defender of internet freedoms that he tried to sell a community (presumably for the data it held) but, again, at least he’s being honest. But I’m not sure why anyone ever thought that this community would be of interest.

I realise that people questioned the likes of Twitter and Facebook when they started, but Facebook was following in the footsteps of Friendster and MySpace, so there was obvious commercial opportunity, whilst Twitter was simply more accessible – the barrier to usage were and are low, whereas wanting to remix random images was surely always going to be a niche interest.

At the end of the day, we can probably see the seeds of failure in Poole’s own words.

Firstly, they spent half of the $3.6 million they had raised trying to flog the dead horse that was Canvas before trying to pivot when they released a drawing game called DrawQuest: what I find amazing is that they actually raised the bulk of their funding after they had been live for a year, when I would have thought that the seeds of their failure should have been visible, but I guess not.

Secondly, when they did try to pivot they thought that they had created a business model by allowing people to buy virtual paintbrushes but, as TechCrunch explained:

[They] found that selling paint brushes in a drawing app is a lot harder than selling extra lives in Candy Crush. There’s just not the same emotional ‘I can’t play if I don’t pay’ urgency. “I definitely have a new appreciation for game designers,” [Poole] tells me.

Maybe they should have used some of the money to hire some.

Rather than just highlighting faulure I think it’s useful to look at what other companies have done right.

Paint, another app, has pivoted to creating physical products (as the Thomson post above highlights) whilst WhatsApp, which was founded on the mantra of ‘no ads, no games, no gimmicks’ has built up an audience of 430 million active users and now handles almost as many messages a day as the entire global SMS system.

The scary thing is that the most insightful comment on this whole episode came from a man pretending to be a dinosaur way back when Wilson announced the investment.


I really hope that Poole does bounce-back, because he’s obviously an intelligent and honest man – two virtues not necessarily widely associated with the West Coast tech-scene. And I hope that Wilson backs him again. But I just hope that it’s something that has even a slight hope of success.


Play It Cool Trig

Sad news that Roger Lloyd Pack, known to millions as Trigger in Only Fools And Horses, has passed away at the age of just 69. I’ll always remember him because the famous “Play it cool Trig” scene was one of the first I remember seeing in an online video.

It was the days before YouTube and I was working in an internet cafe in Kings Cross; I’d never really watched Only Fools And Horses as a kid and when someone sent me this (I can’t remember in what format – presumably an actual file, rather than a link, which would have taken-up half the cafe’s bandwidth back in 1999) I couldn’t stop laughing for about 10 minutes.

God knows what the customers thought of this weird English skin-head having hysterics behind the counter. Whatever they thought, he was part of one of the funniest British comedies of the 80s (which got an astonishing 24 million viewers when it returned for a special in 2001) and created a character who became shorthand for a certain type of lovable idiot.

Play it cool Trig, play it cool.


Paid Media Isn’t A Four Letter Word

Some time last year I was having a meeting with a start-up that had just launched in the Australian market. I explained that whilst clients often like to be involved with new and exciting projects, they also want to invest in products and platforms that are, or will be popular with a decent likely life-span. No-one really wants to invest lots of time, energy & money on the next Gowalla.

What, I wanted to know, would this start-up being doing to advertise its product and drive new users.

Well, we don’t believe in paid advertising, we’ll just be using word of mouth.

Cool, I said, I’ll tell our clients not to buy ads with you then.

Although I was joking (kind of) this chat has stuck with me, encapsulating as it did the beliefe that many people seem to have that paying for advertising somehow lessens the purity of your creative message; that it’s a bad thing to do.

I was struck by the same thought just before Christmas when I was judging some awards. I would estimate that something like 25% to 50% of the entries mentioned that the success of their campaign was in spite of the fact that they hadn’t spent any money on paid media. And again, yesterday, I was watching this (otherwise) excellent case study for a Fiat campaign from Germany which seems to boast about spending 0 on media.

Why is this something to be proud of? If your campaign was successful despite spending nothing on media, imagine what could have been achieved if you had done so. From my perspective, it almost feels like not paying for advertising is a sign that the creators aren’t confident in their work; if you haven’t spent money on paid media then expectations will be lower so success is easier to achieve.

As Eaon Pritchard points out in (another) excellent post on branding and promotion:

According to…data the single biggest predictor…of online video sharing is it’s initial distribution. For the best performing videos it’s about 8 views to 1 share. 24 to 1 is the average. So to get sharing, initial seeding/paid support is key.

And this, surely, is the key. Every-time an agency shouts about how they achieved something without paid media, they are essentially saying that they didn’t do their job properly, assuming that their job is to get their client noticed. And when a media platform or owner does this, they are saying that they don’t believe in the model they ask their clients to believe in; a media version of the greater fool theory if you like.

When Google started they were very proud of the fact that their success was built on recommendation and word of mouth. And they should have been. But as they have matured they have come to accept and realise the value of paid advertising. And Apple, surely one of the coolest companies out there (in the eyes of the sort of people who tend to sneer at paid media at least) have long known its value.

As Eaon puts it so succinctly:

Even the greatest, most creative most exciting video if only seen by a few people, wont get many shares. Get it in front of as many as possible.

Unless you don’t actually want anyone to see it, in which case, go right ahead.


Ty – Kick Snare And An Idea


The massively underrated British rapper Ty has just released the latest part of his ongoing project Kick Snare And An Idea, following last year’s parts one and two.

Part one is available on Spotify, but you’ll need to download the full bundle to get two and three, and I’d suggest you do. Otherwise, if you live in the US at least, you might not be able to get it in a year or two if it’s not on the ‘right’ service.

I can’t help thinking that Ty could probably make an interesting rhyme about corporate behemoths who kid themselves, and try to kid the rest of us, that the internet and world wide web were created without public money and government support. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s one of those things that makes you laugh, because the only other option is to cry.



The Best Of The Isley Brothers

The Guardian have started an interesting new feature where they will be highlighting the ten best songs of  key artists or genres and launched it with a look at the Isley Brothers.

I always forget just how far back the Isley Brothers go, but it’s kind of incredible that the first song on the list is from 1959 and the last from 2001. What’s even more incredible is just how long they managed to keep up the quality; Shout & Testify, recorded in ’59 & ’64 respectively, are up there with the best of James Brown’s early output, whilst the likes of That Lady & Harvest For The World, from their 70s purple patch, are simply up there with the best records of that decade.

The Spotify playlist above is one that The Guardian put together but I thought it would be interesting to also pull together a video mix via Dragontape, the app that the Brownswood crew used to highlight Gilles Peterson’s favourite tracks of 2013. Which all goes to show, of course, that it doesn’t matter what type of tech you use to listen to it, it’s the music that really matters at the end of the day, whether it’s 5 months or 55 years old.

Picture: United Pentecostal Church on flickr

The picture at the top has nothing to do with The Isley Brothers. I was trying to find a picture for the word harvest (see what I did there) and this came up. How could I not use it?


Gilles Peterson’s Best Albums Of 2013


If you have an interest in finding out about new artists, enjoy listening to someone with an incredible love of music and have seven minutes spare, then this is for you.

Honestly, I would challenge anyone to finish watching that and not be enthused about something you’d not heard of a couple of moments before. Unfortunately voting has now closed, so you won’t be able to pick your own choice for the Worldwide Awards but if you’re in London, you should really try to go.

In the meantime, why not enjoy this rather nifty Dragontape mix of the nominees for track of the year.


TV Is Dead. Long Live TV


Well, I know what I’ll be doing the weekend after Valentine’s Day.

Yep, Frank’s back.

Apparently Orange Is The New Black has actually done better than House Of Cards (no massive surprise as it’s a more mainstream kind of story) but Kevin Spacey’s remake of the BBC classic was the series that proved, once and for all, that TV is a type of content not a means of delivery.

In fact, Kevin probably said it best himself:

It’s just stories!

And the audience has spoken: they want stories. They’re dying for them. They are rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook, make fan pages, silly Gifs and God knows what else about it, engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of. All we have to do is give it to them. The prize fruit is right there. Shinier and juicier than it has ever been before. So it will be all the more shame on each and every one of us if we don’t reach out and seize it.

Here’s the full 45 minutes.

House of Cards image courtesy of Netflix


Bonobo, Thom Yorke & Spotify

I was recently having lunch with a good friend who often tips me off on good things to listen to. He’s the man behind this playlist which amounts to my hip hop homework (Golden Era hhip hop albums I ought to own). We were chatting and he mentioned a Late Night Tales mix by Fatboy Slim he’d discovered. After digging it out on Spotify I then found another such mix, this time by Bonobo.

I’ve always liked the idea of Bonobo more than the reality (I find that I like one or two tracks on their albums, but they can get a bit wearing after a while), but this mix picks tracks that bring all of their best characteristics to the fore, but leaves out the annoying bits. The fact that I had found this mix on Spotify got me thinking, again, about what Thom Yorke recently said about the service.

In case you missed it, millionaire musician Thom Yorke was rather scathing about the music streaming service, calling it:

the last desperate fart of a dying corpse

Apart from the fact that a man as intelligent as Yorke should realise that a corpse can’t die (it’s already dead), his entire attack seems to miss the point. He seems to dislike the fact that Spotify is trying to make money from the distribution of music.

When we did the In Rainbows thing what was most exciting was the idea you could have a direct connection between you as a musician and your audience. You cut all of it out, it’s just that and that. And then all these fuckers get in a way, like Spotify suddenly trying to become the gatekeepers to the whole process

What Thom is missing here is that it’s not Spotify who are illegally downloading music in plague like proportions. It’s not Spotify or even the labels who refuse to pay for music; Spotify is trying to find a way to make money out of giving music away for free, and share that with musicians and it’s trying to find new ways every day.

No, the ones killing the music industry are the ‘fans’ Yorke seems so desperate to have a connection with who are reluctant to get out their wallets.

In fact it’s interesting that he mentions In Rainbows, the album Radiohead released over the internet with the option for fans to choose how much they paid for it, right down to 0. Because despite there being an opportunity for fans legally to download it for free, or even to suggest that they valued the band’s work by actually paying for it, more people downloaded it via unofficial torrents.

Therefore it strikes me that Yorke blaming Spotify for how much money musicians make for the internet is rather like blaming newsagents for the decline in fortunes of the newspaper industry. If he really wants to blame anyone, he should blame the labels for the proportion that they take out of the revenue Spotify does generate, which is not insignificant. That’s a boring contractual discussion though, and probably wouldn’t get as much newsprint.

It’s not often that I would side with Moby against the man responsible for Radiohead’s output, but when it comes to Spotify, and the future of music, he’s bang on.

To summarise, I think it was Jeff Jarvis who said:

Should isn’t a business model

He was trying to highlight that whilst the people who make newspapers (or, in this instance music) might think that people should pay for their content (something I would agree with), that isn’t going to stop people taking it for free if they can. Jeff Jarvis may be annoying and easy to ridicule but in this instance (if it was him) he was right.

It strikes me that it would be so much better if people as talented and clever as Yorke and David Byrne actually engaged with the future and started trying to find solutions, rather than just shouting at the trains.


Where’s Whoopie? In The News Of Course


A while back I wrote about the recent trend for tweet-writing, the spiritual descendant of churnalism, whereby journalists outsource their jobs by simply publishing tweets from random celebrities when something momentous happens, even if there is no connection or context.

Earlier today the great Nelson Mandela passed away. Which means it must be Whoopie o’clock, at least for one bored journalist.


It’s not Whoopie’s fault she keeps getting used in these ridiculous lists, though I do hold her responsible for her own turn of phrase which manages to be both twee, patronising and pretentious, all at the same time. But it really needs to stop; Pedestrian.tv, I’m looking at you.

And yes, it can get worse. That is Fergie you can see below Whoopie. MENSA must be having the day off.