Talkshow: I hope this is a joke

1gy0-4kj3qjurm9cybw87paThis morning one of the top stories in my Nuzzel newsletter – which puts together the most shared stories from people I follow on Twitter, so that I don’t get FOMO – was about Talkshow, a messaging app that allows you to text publicly.

Don’t get me wrong, I like texting. I text cat pictures, screenshots of internet funnies, comments about my breakfast, questions about my friends’ relationships, all the standard stuff. I use iMessage interchangeably with WhatsApp. And the majority of my message threads would be totally fine to appear in public. What I use Twitter for is public conversations: things I’d be happy for my friends to see, but I would also quite like other people to see it if they want to.

Anybody with a significant following on Twitter is likely also using it to have public back-and-forth conversations with one or two individuals. Often the same individuals – maybe their former editor, or a housemate, or someone from their industry who they like to engage in a bit of lighthearted sparring. It works well for public chatter, only occasionally interrupted by random Twitter users.

The two forms of communication – texting and Twitter – serve different functions as far as I’m concerned, and they work relatively well for these functions (even if Twitter is on the decline). But ultimately, quite a lot of what is shared publicly and privately is pretty bloody mundane for anyone not directly involved in whatever is being talked about. Cat pictures, Beyonce comments or otherwise.

So what the hell is Talkshow here for? This has got to be a joke. The messaging app for “texting in public” lets you invite whoever you want to be on your “talkshow” (aka your text thread), and it seems to have blown up in the tech press and beyond overnight (see Mashable, BuzzFeed, all the excitement on Twitter). The idea of it makes me shake my head and tut like a grandma. “Kids these days!” What is so appealing about sharing your random chit chat for others to see? You were doing that anyway on Twitter! And Instagram to an extent. And Snapchat. And so on.

The main reason I thought the app was a joke was because in the blogpost they shared, called Talkshow is texting in public, the founder cites a screenshot of what I think might be the most boring interaction I’ve seen in months:

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Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran’s fascinating text conversation

Internet, we have reached new lows. If that is what I’ve got to look forward to working with as a marketer or a writer, then things look pretty bleak. I don’t care that it was created by Michael Sippey, former VP of Product at Twitter. I don’t care that instant messaging via robots is going crazy at the moment. Or that Christopher Mims, the tech columnist from the Wall Street Journal had this to say about Talkshow:

Screenshot 2016-04-27 10.01.25.png

What I really think – after having laughed and maybe cried a little – is that Talkshow might go the same way as Jelly and Peach both did, which is to have massive media interest and hype for about three or four days, and then never be mentioned again.

Tweet me if I’m proved wrong @fakebananas

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Obituary of a startup: How.Do

Last month creative Berlin-based startup How.Do announced it was closing, and today, June 30th, marks the end of their journey. Despite a short lifetime, the company’s achievements and potential, which inspired a huge network of makers, seemed to merit the obituary of a long, well-lived life. If you believe in life after death, do you ever wonder where the spirit of a startup goes?

How.Do is – or was – a platform started in 2012 in Stockholm for sharing micro-knowledge, that is to say an app for recording photos with up to eight seconds of audio to create chapters of a How.Do, a way of sharing everyday knowledge in a beautifully simple way.

How.Do wasn’t originally supposed to be an app. It was concocted like a potion, with ideas, academic theories and philanthropic desires stirred into it, but when the founders Emma Rose Metcalfe and Nils Westerlund concluded that the tools needed to share knowledge were a camera and a microphone, they concluded that everyone carries these tools around all the time.

Maker Faire, How.Do founders

How.Do founders Emma Rose Metcalfe, Edward Jewson and Nils Westerlund at the Maker Faire, New York

Metcalfe, from the north of England, came from a background in service design amongst other things, and has all kinds of unusual stories to tell such as the period of her life when she lived in a cabin in the woods. Westerlund, on the other hand, was an expert in sound, very data-driven and had been working at SoundCloud, the darling of Berlin’s startup scene. It was on a study trip to India as part of their Masters that the pair realised they wanted to work on something together, combining sound and image to create an experience that’s meaningful.

Their academic approach is immediately obvious if you speak to either of them about How.Do – the choice to make the audio eight seconds per chapter was drawn from research at the time about learning, memory and our ever decreasing attention spans. Both founders were fascinated by what Metcalfe refers to as the “emotional durability of sound”, and they remained concerned during the lifespan of How.Do that content should have a longer term social value, rather than appear fleetingly on a homefeed.

“Oh shit we made a company”

Suddenly what had been a study project had gained momentum, and they’d already brought on Edward Jewson as a co-founder and CTO, who pushed out a beta product for friends to experiment with. Friends and acquaintances asked regularly when to expect a new release, and Metcalfe explains that this was empowering and encouraging, but they said to themselves “Oh shit we made a company. What do we need to learn now?”. Metcalfe soon found she was at risk of failing her Masters degree due to pouring her energies into How.Do, and during a crisis meeting with her professor it was suggested that she should combine the two, resulting in her degree being on the meaningful distribution of experiences. They had to start behaving more like they were running a business, rather than like students, which meant following in the footsteps of other startups.

BANANAS!

Invites to beta test How.Do

In May 2012 they registered as a limited company in the UK while still based in Stockholm, with the rather charming name How Do You Peel A Banana? Ltd, and at the end of the summer they raised a significant seed round and officially launched How.Do. The funding came from Horizon Ventures, Peter Read (an angel investor in the UK who also invested in another creative startup which later failed, Gidsy), and Wellington Partners, which praised the How.Do founders’ “extraordinary vision”. People had faith in the company and the product. One of the founders’ mentors Henrik Torstensson, who was the head of marketing at Spotify, had used the app silently while the founders watched him and anticipated his opinion. After what felt to them like an interminable wait, he simply said, “There’s some kind of weird magic in this. I can’t tell what it is”. Alex Ljung, co-founder of SoundCloud, was also impressed, stating “That’s the magic of sound right there”.

I’m a dreamer

With gold lining their pockets and ready to scale their business, they continued their journey on the startup trajectory. The team moved from their living room in Stockholm to Berlin, a cheaper hub of creativity, and found it suited them well to be amongst a keen ‘maker’ community. At first they shared an office with other startups at the Wostel, a coworking space in the trendy, low-rent area of Neukölln in the south of the city. The Wostel has also previously housed other popular Berlin startups Amen (which has since disappeared) and Loopcam, and out in the back yard sits Hüttenpalast, an unusual hotel of caravans and dens where dreamers can roost for a weekend.

What lay ahead was endless potential. The founders drew up a list on the wall of who they would love to employ, and were unafraid to approach anyone, finding that everyone was accessible and happy to have a chat: “It was incredible,” they breathe. They set about assembling their fantasy team, employing creative spirits from Italy, the UK and even flying a software engineer over from Argentina. They listened to feedback about the app, they iterated and they analysed. Co-founder Westerlund says “We were tracking every move of our users in closed beta”, aiming to understand how people used the product, what users wanted out of it, and learning in the process what the constituted the “right information” to track.

Despite being another app on people’s smartphone, How.Do cultivated an incredibly passionate community. The team hosted regular ‘Fix-It Nights’ where strangers and friends met to help each other fix broken things. There was no pressure put on attendees to create a How.Do tutorial while they were there, about for example ‘How do you solder wires to fix a broken electrical cord?’ which I learned from a friendly stranger. They cut up their pizza with scissors, shared beers amongst their disciples and spread a lot of positivity and human kindness in the process. Their app, after all, was to “empower people to empower people” as Metcalfe described their philanthropic leaning.

making making making

How.Do captured the imagination of the maker community

How.Do’s efforts gained support and encouragement from other startups which are now enjoying success and wider recognition, such as Sugru and photography app EyeEm. How.Do did not garner as much media attention as these peers, though tech website GigaOM profiled the app. David Meyer, the journalist who wrote the piece, described the app – which admittedly went on to be improved in functionality – as being “not quite there yet”. He also said that it was “maddeningly close to be something else” and that “there’s something in this thing”, which seemed to ring true even as the company started to wind down recently. There was some kind of weird magic in there.

“We almost made it work”

Interestingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, research this year has shown that startups that fail tend to end 20 months after their last round of investment. How.Do raised in October 2012, and is now closing exactly 20 months later. It would be easy to dismiss How.Do, treat the failure as an inevitability; another casualty of the bloodthirsty startup scene. It unwittingly fell into the grooves left by other failed businesses. But How.Do just didn’t fit the mould of being a ‘tech startup’. It broke the rules in a sphere that is all about breaking the rules. Trying to fit How.Do into the tech startup straitjacket is like trying put more and more helium balloons into an unsealed box. There is simply too much colour, and energy, and human emotion bursting out of the sides for it to behave like other businesses.

The app was in some ways superseded by other apps with different purposes but convergent technology such as Vine, which appeared in the early days of How.Do, and using Twitter’s clout and an even easier interface than How.Do, it rocketed in popularity. YouTube, an internet dinosaur compared to How.Do, also improved its offering during How.Do’s lifetime so that viewers could see in a pop up bubble a preview of that section of the video. How.Do had wanted to give users control of video in the same way, to skip forwards, backwards or right to the end to find the part they needed. It’s now hard to believe that YouTube didn’t have this chapter view previously, but this iteration made How.Do a little more redundant. “We almost made it work” says Metcalfe.

Startup graveyard and startup ghosts

Although it is accepted that startups fail, nobody tends to visit the startup graveyard, lay flowers or even celebrate the ideas that were once alive and gleaming. Ideas get dismissed quicker than users delete a ‘has-been’ app from their phones, but these businesses, even if they no longer leave tangible things in their wake, they leave their users behind.

In spring of 2014, the How.Do founders had to make an unpleasant decision and pull the plug. “When we pushed out the blogpost, it was quick. We realised it was really happening”. They began moving out of their office, which by now was in Etsy Germany’s studio in Kreuzberg, Berlin. They sold off their officeware, tables and chairs using a Google spreadsheet to update people as to what had gone already. The official ending day is 30th June, and by the time of the founder interview in early June, it was still unclear what would remain of the technology. The servers, the founders explained, are much too expensive to run to allow people to keep using the How.Do service, so the future availability is uncertain.

For now, the founders are in limbo while the creative spirit dissipates from the business corpse. The feeling of freedom finds them a little uneasy; unsteady on their feet. Metcalfe has been making the most of her differently shaped days, “I can spend my lunchtimes doing whatever the hell I like”, she says, and was pleased to find out that it’s free to watch the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsing during the day. “There was a man laid down listening to the music with his eyes closed and his shoes off, which is quite fantastic”. As for what’s next, the team members have different plans ahead but for the moment are keeping quiet about where their creativity will manifest itself.

“So that’s what freedom feels like” says Metcalfe, “I don’t know if I like it”.

5 New Ways To Consume Information

mmm learning

Feed your brain

Several young companies are looking at the way we consume information and news, throwing what exists out of the window and demanding a radically different experience. The sites and apps below cover fiction, non-fiction and news. Do you use any of them already? What do you think of them?

News:

1. Quartz: a business news site owned by Atlantic Media. The idea behind it was to “devise how the Economist would look like if it had been born in 2012”, says their co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Kevin J. Delaney. Articles on Quartz have unusual story angles, witty writing and huge photos, all provided on the infinite scrolling landing page. Unlike the majority of older publications, here the writers themselves choose the photos, write the headlines, and provide links in the body of the text, ready for the editor. This seems like a very sensible approach, and apparently it works well too, pulling in five million unique visitors per month despite only launching last year. Rather than having a strict, defined roster of topics, Quartz organises its news around changing ‘obsessions’, for example explosive growth, China’s transition, and the mobile web. They also place a lot of value on transparency – when content is sponsored, they tell you. They don’t accept gifts from PRs, and they disclose an awful lot so they don’t mislead readers, as seen on their ethics page. They also have geeky credentials: instead of building separate apps for iPhones, iPads, Android and so on, they simply built an HTML5 website which fits any size screen.

2. Pandodaily: a news site covering all the action in Silicon Valley as it happens. Their main page contains a ticker of news from other sites – the way they see it, if they weren’t the first to get the news story, then they won’t rewrite it for the sake of it. So instead, they aim to be first! Besides, there are so many startups in the world (of which apparently 90% fail), covering every story with one team of writers is just unrealistic. Pandodaily was started in 2012 by former TechCrunch senior editor Sarah Lacy, who became disillusioned with TC’s profit chasing after it was acquired by AOL in 2010, and she says of her team “As a writer, I’m creating the ultimate club of which I’d want to be a member”. Contributors to the site include Mike Arrington, who started TechCrunch back in 2005, and Paul Carr, who is mentioned further down in this post under NSFWCORP.

3. Circa: an app for accessing news on the go, Circa gives you the news in snack-size manageable chunks, with a Google map of where the news is taking place, short hard facts and one or two quotations from key people. It launched around a year ago and has been getting a lot of positive press, though some publications are nervous that unlike news aggregators, Circa does less to direct traffic to news sites with the full story. Two very helpful functions are the subscription function, so you can get push notifications when there’s developments in a news story you want to follow, and the greying out of stories you’ve already read. Personally I’m not a fan of the swipe scrolling style in the app, but you can change that very easily in the settings. Overall, it’s a rather beautiful app with a neat design, and you’ll find yourself using it more and more.

Fiction:

Readmill app

Readmill for iOS and Android

4. Readmill: an ebook reader app that makes reading on a device more beautiful and more shareable. It’s finally also available on Android (rejoice!), and is a firm favourite amongst fans of typography and design. You can save highlighted sections of text, comment on them, and also follow other readers if you like their taste in books. For those who prefer to keep their reading time private and separate from the world around them (like myself), Readmill still has plenty to keep you interested. It gives you stats on how quickly you read, can sync your books and your progress across devices and has a black background nighttime reading option. If you’re a fiction lover, you should take a look at their blog for some daily inspiration, and check the app regularly for free ebooks.

Non-fiction:

5. Blinkist: an iOS and web app from a German startup that gives you concise summaries of non-fiction books, in a series of 2 minute ‘blinks’. It’s a great app for absorbing knowledge on the go, you get unlimited access to their books for the first month, after that there’s a subscription model. It’s helpful if you’ve heard people talking about a book, bought it months ago to see what the fuss is about, and haven’t had time since then to read it. The Blinkist app is not intended to replace the full version of books (many readers will feel inspired to read the whole thing) but to provide bite-sized learning. You can read my TechCrunch article about it here.

NB. I came up with a very similar business idea when I was a teenager (but in print form) and never tried to make it happen. Kicking myself now!

Honourable mention goes to:

NSFWCORP: describing itself as “The Future of Journalism (With Jokes)”, this monthly print publication is headed up by another former TechCrunch journalist, current Pandodaily contributor and outspoken character Paul Carr. You need to be a subscriber to access the content online, and unlike other publications it doesn’t operate on a freemium model. A quotation from Ryan Lizza from The New Yorker on the NSFWCORP landing page echoes my own sentiments: “I don’t really know what NSFWCORP is”.

Have you come across other noteworthy sites or apps? Where do you access the news?

Berlin and the tech startup scene – 10 things to know before making the move

This blogpost was commissioned by The Guardian, appeared on their site on 25th October 2013 and was shared over 600 times. It caused quite a stir – more than I had expected – so see what you think.

Europe’s hippest city has a thriving startup ‘scene’, but beware, it’s not quite as wonderful as the media make out

Sunday afternoon in Goerlitzer Park

Berliners relax on a Sunday afternoon – it is very easy to fall into the city’s non-stop party scene. Photograph: Lauren Ingram

I moved to Berlin in January this year and lived there for eight months, in which I gained and lost three jobs, two boyfriends, and one flat. Clearly, I had a whale of a time. Nonetheless, it’s not quite as wonderful as the media would have you believe. Here’s what I wish someone had told me beforehand:

1. The Berlin startup scene is a total bubble

It is without a doubt a ‘scene’: people value being part of it, they socialise within it, use startup buzzwords like UX and MVP, and in the process they cut off access to outsiders. Some people don’t actually know what startups are. Seriously. When I first got a whiff of the startup scene, I was intrigued, and I think I started emitting some kind of hormone and was quickly dragged into its orbit.

2. Wearing a tiger onesie to work isn’t necessarily a smart plan

This one I should have been able to work out for myself. Morale was low in the office as the future of our startup (Gidsy) was uncertain, and a tiger suit seemed like an excellent idea at the time. As it turns out, that was the day I was made redundant. So that was awkward. Lesson learned.

3. Nobody has a real job

Admittedly, people tried to warn me. Like a relationship with a dodgy new boyfriend, I said: “Oh but it’ll be different with me”. It’s not different. Proper, full-time jobs are few and far between, everybody else works weird hours for low pay, has various “projects” on the go which never materialise, and goes out on Sunday nights until 5am. It’s a totally unsustainable (if highly enjoyable) lifestyle.

4. It’s possible to fall down the party hole

Clubs stay open from Friday until Monday, so it’s no wonder that people don’t have real jobs. In fact, from my tireless field research, I’ve concluded that clubs are open all week too. Sometimes you find yourself coming home at 7am on a Wednesday, wondering what you’re doing with your life. Spotting a man with a syringe doesn’t help.

5. It’s incredibly inward-looking

Everyone living in it is very Berlin-centric. They talk about the city, they love it, they live and breathe it and they complain about it. They follow Berlin blogs, they post about Berlin on Facebook, they share Berlin moments like in-jokes. The very act of writing this is hypocritical because it’s all about Berlin. “Oh, how meta,” the hipsters would say.

6. Getting paid is a luxury not a right

There’s no minimum wage in Germany (land of plenty, yes, that economic superpower). Luckily, it’s possible to live even on the princely sum of €491 (£418) per month. Expats love to complain that rent is no longer cheap due to the flood of expats (!) driving up prices. However, my rent was €225 per month including bills. It wasn’t even a crack den.

7. Fail culture rules

Talk of failure is everywhere, and to be honest I would rather be winning. Startups choose to ‘fail fast, fail hard, embrace failure’, and so on. Sometimes this probably means: “We have no idea what we’re doing, but when we get it wrong it doesn’t matter because we’re a startup, and failure is awesome. The internet told me so.”

8. The independent bars and cafes are surprisingly similar

Berlin hustles harder

When I was a tourist in Berlin, I bemoaned the lack of indie cafes in London and preached to the uninitiated about the myriad places in Berlin. Living there made me realise that 90% of them have identikit mismatched vintage furniture, candles, and possibly the same playlist audible in the background. Still rather lovely though.

9. Nobody speaks German

That’s a slight exaggeration. However, despite spending time, money and effort grappling with the unwieldy German language, I found that I was surrounded by people from Spain, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands, everywhere. So English is what you hear in the streets and the office, and Germans I met spoke it fluently. So all this “ich habe eine Schwester” business was frankly embarrassing.

10. Your circle of friends will be ever decreasing

Berlin is amazingly transient. When I arrived, I went to lots of networking events, and a friend who had been there for two years asked if I could take her along as many of her friends had already left the city. Fortunately, the constant shift means that people are very open and friendly, and you might leave with a different batch of pals than the ones you started with.

Ok, so it goes up to 11 … Hey, it worked for Spinal Tap.

11. The streets are not paved with gold

They are strewn with graffiti and crack-addled weirdos, but don’t let that stop you from visiting. A whirlwind weekend break in the city will leave you a little breathless and wanting more. I made the decision to break up with Berlin. We were in love, we fought a lot, and it was exhilarating for the most part, but I’m getting back together with London, my long-term love.

At the end of her time in Berlin, Lauren compiled a list of people to see, places to go, and more, in the form of the Berlin Startup Cheat Sheet.

You can see the original Guardian article here.

What’s the recipe for success in Silicon Valley?

This post appeared on the Startupbootcamp blog back in April 2013 but I hadn’t added it to my personal blog. The majority of the information is still very relevant now!

On the 23rd and 24th of April, Startupbootcamp Berlin went to the NEXT Berlin conference, and in between seeing Google Glass in action, hearing from the CTO of Obama’s winning campaign, and watching Startupbootcamp Alumni LoyaltyLion pitch, we also spoke to several well known names. Here we share their advice for startups pitching in Silicon Valley.

Know who you’re pitching to

Max Niederhofer from Sunstone Capital, who was named Best Startup Advisor/Mentor 2012 at last year’s The Europas in Berlin, says that Europe doesn’t understand venture capital. He finds that European startups often offer too little equity, which is unappealing to VCs as European startups tend to make less money anyway. But for Max, a surefire way of spotting potential in a startup is when he has FOMO (fear of missing out) – if other investors are sniffing around a startup, they probably have something special that’s worth knowing about.

Be an engineer. Or think like one.

Hermione Way, journalist for The Next Web and serial entrepreneur, has lived in the Valley for the last 3 years, and finds that investors tend to look for engineer founders. As engineers have the potential to go straight from Stanford into high-paid jobs (as much as $200k), they are considered gold dust – Stanford’s top engineers provide much of the lifeblood of Silicon Valley startups. So if you don’t have the advantage of being an engineer, you still need to think like a techie. Julia Hartz, co-founder of ticketing giant Eventbrite (based in Silicon Valley) says that part of the success of Eventbrite is down to thinking like a tech company rather than thinking like a ticketing company. Indeed the overwhelming conclusion of the conference was that we all need to fail faster; “You can’t get anywhere unless you’re willing to fail” says Julia.

A great product alone isn’t enough

“We put emphasis on the product and the customer. It’s a dual focus”. A lot of companies offer a simple, self-service product but do not provide human support. At Eventbrite they set out to create a product that’s easy to use but they married that with human contact. Combining these factors with a carefully-selected, well-supported team makes for a fantastic package, and could be what helps you gain investment.

Thank you Julia, Hermione and Max for sharing your experiences.

This post originally appeared on the Startupbootcamp blog in April 2013.