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Brooklyn Beta

Brooklyn Beta

A couple of weeks ago, I attended Brooklyn Beta, a new two-day intimate web conference put on by Cameron Koczon of Fictive Kin and Chris Shiflett of Analog. I had the honor of being invited to present on some of our thinking and process behind #NewTwitter, the redesign of twitter.com.

Smaller, Smarter, More Intimate

The conference had only 150 people but all the speakers and attendees were incredibly bright and talented, working on a lot of great projects. By comparison, Twitter seemed like a large company which is amusing as we’re a mere 300 people working on one of the largest services worldwide. I’ve never once felt like I worked in a large company while here and in talking to the others, I understood why. Much of our approach and practices are identical to three-person startups and agencies and, if anything, our execution time is at least as fast if not faster.

Though there wasn’t any explicit theme, the talks all centered around having passion in the work you do. Christ Shiflett even said the conference itself was crafted out of love and you could tell from each presentation how much love was put into each project.

The Talks

[Brooklyn Beta]

Shelley Bernstein (@shell7) is the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum. She talked about all the ways they use social media to increase exposure and create a better experience. Her talk was a highlight for me and I hope she can come visit Twitter HQ sometime to share her experiences. Shelley talked about how they allow photography, and the Flickr photos gave more exposure to the museum but also gave them more understanding of how people interacted with the exhibits, even in negative ways. She emphasized how personal voices from the authors added much more backstory to exhibits and photographs. But to keep the voices and the attention on Brooklyn Museum, they use ConnectTweet to have multiple people contribute to one account.

Facebook and Twitter are tools they use to continue conversations so that external articles (such as negative articles from the New York Times) aren’t the last word on the museum. Using these channels has also meant a different definition of working hours, as you have to be on when your visitors are.

Her use of Foursquare was particularly creative. They created a landing page on Foursquare so staff can add tips of places to eat near the museum. They also have the rule:

“If you are staff you should not be mayor.”

When the mayor checks in, they meet the mayor and take pictures! And in order to reward other visitors, they also created a “BK Art Star” badge.

Shelley then shared a story of how HBO found a photo of one of their statues, not in the Brooklyn Museum but “somewhere online”. The statue was featured in the series True Blood and Shelley only found out through Twitter and Facebook when visitors mentioned it. The engaged museum audience then asked HBO about the statue, inspiring the writers of the show to connect with the museum. For the season finale, which featured the statue, HBO sent photo to the museum as a preview and encouraged them to share it.

Elliot Jay Stocks (@elliotjaystocks ) talked about his process and struggles with his solo creation, a print magazine called 8 Faces. Like the founders of the conference, he wanted to make a special thing that’s unlike a regular magazine. Some of the key lessons he learned included how many unseen things take a lot of time. Examples include: getting ad placements, chasing people for their advertisement assets, getting payments, and dealing with after-sales support. Although he’d completed his interviews in February in March, the magazine wasn’t printed until August because it was his own solo project that happened over evenings and weekends.

One aspect he discussed, which was echoed by both Cameron Moll and myself, was the concept of focusing on experience first. He called himself an “accidental businessman” because money wasn’t the focus but he still succeeded. He didn’t focus on marketing but wrote a few blog posts and tweeted about the project as he would any project he was working on. This was enough to garner sufficient attention and, though he didn’t do a press release, the magazine was featured in the Independent and, at its peak, was selling 2.94 copies a second.

Cameron Moll (@cameronmoll), founder of Authentic Jobs, talked in detail of how he took a side hobby and turned it into his full-time project. The job board first started with a few people trying to hire him for full-time positions. When he declined, they’d naturally ask if he knew anyone he could refer. Soon, he was posting these openings in a sidebar on his blog. This process quickly grew into a full job board, as it became clear that companies were willing to offer money for the quality of candidates he could refer.

Like Elliot, Cameron didn’t ask for money first and didn’t focus on money. Instead, he focused on creating something that could connect job posters to job seekers and even guaranteed money back to companies (very few want their money back because they care much more about getting a good candidate than being reimbursed). In its 5th year now, Cameron is expanding the job board and offered a lot of heartfelt advice on balancing such an endeavor with giving back, and giving time to family.

Marco Arment (@marcoarment) is the former CTO of Tumblr and the creator of the popular mobile/web application, Instapaper. Continuing on the theme, Marco shared how he started the project as something he was building for himself and did so on train rides during his commute. He was frank and honest about his initial attempts which, in his words, “sucked”. Continuing on, after his first attempt, he created the current version of Instapaper. His first revision of 2.0 was built in a single weeknight as a challenge to himself to see if he could. Although ugly and missing some basic “paperwork” functions, it served its purpose as a way to read links later.

As a project that was built while still at Tumblr, Marco had much advice to offer for those thinking of working on side projects. He suggested not hiding the project from your employer, getting approval, and also getting very explicit clarifications around ownership. While side projects are incredibly rewarding, he also emphasized that “day jobs are great and you get paid more than you think”. But his best piece of advice is applicable to any job:

“Spend time, don’t waste time.”

Closing out the day was Fred Wilson (@fredwilson) from Union Square Ventures (investor in both Tumblr and Twitter). His talk was concise and informative, detailing the 10 Golden Principles in successful web applications:

  • Speed
  • Instant Utility
  • Software is Media
  • Make it Personal (Voice)
  • Less is More
  • Make it Programmable (through APIs)
  • RESTful (everything should have its own URL)
  • Discoverability
  • Clean
  • Playful

He then spent some time in Q&A discussing the traits he looks for in entrepreneurs. Amongst them, he sought people who had tenacity, salesmanship, and a passion/fervor for their product. He finds that founders who are good product people with a team of an engineer and a frontend engineer and design hybrid make an incredible team, though the mix may vary. In keeping with the theme, he also mentioned that he tends to avoid founders who are “business people” or, more specifically, those who are chasing the money.

The Demos

Goodsie Demo [Brooklyn Beta]

Interwoven between some of the talks were early stage demos from small groups and companies. The demos included Goodsie, a site that makes it easy to sell merchandise online. With it, you can create a store in five minutes. Where’s It Up? is an expansion of the initial idea of Down For Everyone Or Just Me, adding location granularity to the information. Moontoast is a “social commerce platform” that allows you to embed your store elsewhere, and consolidate various communities.

Svpply is a product that’s been in private beta for awhile and is like a delicious for products/shopping. Gimme Bar, a scrapbooking tool to easily collect media and content around the web, had many conference participants saying, “gimme my gimme bar!” and Mapalong offered a more personal, open and visual approach to annotating trips, events or even your life.

My Talk

As a major site redesign, the overwhelmingly positive reception of #NewTwitter far exceeded our expectations. This level of success requires a lot of vision, teamwork, talent, passion, and a fair bit of luck. My talk described the process we went through as well as some of the thinking that went behind our decisions. Rather than recap the entire presentation here, I’ll save that story for another time and place.

What Others Are Saying

Finally, some of the other speakers have also written great summaries or linked to their talks:

Congratulations once again to Cameron and Chris and other organizers on a great conference!

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