Archive for the ‘general assembly’ tag
Jump Ramp Games founders Alex Betancur and Tony Vartanian are teaching a class on Selling to Middle America at General Assembly next week. I don’t typically blog about GA classes, but I think this is one that everyone should take. Not only are Alex and Tony great guys, but they have a rare understanding of how to craft products and marketing campaigns to appeal to Middle America. At one point, this class’s working title was simply “Schlock”, which should give you a good idea of what it’s about.
We’re teaching this for a few reasons. First, selling to Normals isn’t easy. Lots of startup folks think that appealing to Middle America is intuitive, which is totally untrue for most of us. Rather, the people who do get it typically come out of the offline direct response world — think bulk mail and magazine subscriptions. Traditionally, these have been the things that have gotten Middle America to open its wallets. But as online products get better and faster, it remains an open question to see which startups can get Middle America to buy in.
Some examples of companies that have done this well on the web include Zynga and PCH, both of which make compelling use of games to engage. And let’s not forget NYC’s least well-known successful consumer web company, PlasmaNet (where are you, Adrienne Jeffries and Alyson Shontell?)
Second, the payoffs from building a rapport with Middle America are overwhelmingly larger than serving the tech niche. Not only is the market much bigger, but it is often more willing to pull out its wallet while asking fewer questions and demanding less. It’s shocking what can work on the web with normal Americans — I was certainly blown away when I first saw the success of a coreg path from the publisher’s side.
And it’s important to note that Middle America is a diverse place with lots of different markets and psychographics. It’s easy to lump all of “Middle America” into one group — which I’ve been doing for most of this post — but even the most jaded hipster wouldn’t confuse a Hot Topic with a TJ Maxx. Understanding psychographic-specific marketing and what tactics work with what groups are critical parts of growing a mainstream business.
As a final word of warning, don’t confuse poor aesthetics with poor design. Lots of sites — such as PlasmaNet’s FreeLotto — are ugly and challenging to navigate. But they don’t look like that for want of trained designers — rather, they are compulsively driven by analytics and build what works. And in many cases, schlocky-looking stuff plays with Middle America in a way that sleek, intuitive design doesn’t.
On June 4th, my own General Assembly will be co-producing its first conference: the Mobile Gaming Summit. The fairly literal title of the event belies a deeper meaning — a meaning that speaks to me as well as to General Assembly’s mission. In many ways, the Summit should really be called “The Democratization of Gaming Summit”, or more broadly, “the re-democratization of application development”.
I started programming in middle school, building games on my TI-83 calculator while bored in class. Word of mouth was the only way to share applications — typically games — and doing so required connecting the two calculators with a special cable. It was hardly a scalable distribution channel, and I can only imagine where Texas Instruments would be today if they had built a robust app store and marketed it to bored hackers in junior high. While Objective C is certainly more challenging than the BASIC* we all learned for the TI-83, the relative openness of the Apple and Android app stores nonetheless represent a remarkable democratization of game development.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe there is any secular force ensuring that this trend has to continue. The creation of popular native PC apps fell out of popular reach over a decade ago and hasn’t come back. There are a number of reasons for this, but ultimately, the continued democratization of mobile platforms must be in the hands of the platforms’ minders — Apple, Google and to an increasing extent, Microsoft — to ensure. While I hear a lot of complaining about Apple’s strict and often Byzantine app store rules, I think the biggest threats to the democratization of app development come not from top-down restrictions and regulation, but from the sneaky and un-competitive practices of established studios.
To give a specific example, it is remarkably easy for well-capitalized developers — be they established studios or spammers — can buy good market positioning by purchasing app downloads. To keep competition fair and developers honest, those who control the platforms must put some limits on these practices.
For the rest of us, it’s all about education. Apple and Google will do whatever they’ll do, but it’s on us to make sure that we as developers know the best practices and methodologies of working within the system. That’s what the Summit — and General Assembly’s educational offerings — are all about. Some of the most creative, interesting and transformative products are created when regular people are given the tools to create and the avenues to distribute and monetize those creations. The more regular people know how best to work the system, the cooler stuff we’ll be able to create.
And that’s why I’m thrilled to be working with the Mobile Gaming Summit. I hope many of you can join us there.
* You also could build TI apps in Assembly, but c’mon.
Hackathons are the new hot thing. We’ve done a few at General Assembly, and we’re planning to host more — such as Lean Startup Machine this April.
But there’s a gap in our hackanthology. Specifically, almost all of these hackathons employ “lean” or “agile” development tactics, a vague and unproven yet trendy fad. Thus, I make a modest proposal: that we may have a Waterfall Model hackathon, showcasing the best that 1960s-era manufacturing process theory has to offer.
Getting it together is simple enough. All you need is a group of consultants to come up with business ideas, a handful of business-oriented “product people” to design specs, a bunch of developers — but only for a few hours given our constrained development timeline — and an expert QA team. Here’s my proposed schedule:
Friday 6PM: Consultants assemble to brainstorm project ideas. Ideas are evaluated on size of market and apparent complexity of the end product. Consultants must have no prior relationship with anyone participating at any other stage in the process and only a rough, high-level understanding of the industry behind “hacked”.
Saturday 8AM: Business teams assemble. Projects are assigned to business teams through a process of drawing straws. For the next 12 hours, the business teams will begin the grueling process of writing and assembling spec docs. As with the consultants, business teams must have no prior relationships with the people involved at any other stage in the process, especially the previous day’s consultants. Preference is given to MBAs.
Saturday 8PM: Developer recruiting dinner. Business teams sit down with hackers over wine at a pricey yet mediocre Midtown steakhouse.
Saturday 11PM: Implementation phase unofficially begins. Although developers have five hours on Sunday (plenty of time) to complete the projects defined earlier in the weekend, no one will complain if they start work a bit early.
Sunday 9AM: Implementation phase officially begins.
Sunday 2PM: QA Handoff. Developers hand off their completed work to a crack QA team assembled of NYU students and the homeless.
Sunday 8PM: The main event! Final products are judged on the following criteria:
– Adherence to the spec document
– Apparent time it took to develop from the perspective of a non-technical person
– Number of lines of code
– Resumes of consultants who came up with the original idea
So who’s with me?
General Assembly is an urban campus for technology, design and entrepreneurship. I founded it last year along with Adam Pritzker, Jake Schwartz and Matthew Brimer.
As you go deeper into the technology community, it gets harder to remind yourself that the global economy is struggling. Every startup in New York and the Valley has open positions that go unfilled for months. Salaries for developers and designers continue to rise, and entrepreneurs are creating real businesses with real revenue.
It’s all too easy to forget that our nation still has the highest unemployment rate many of us have ever seen, especially among young adults. Over 15% of people aged 20-24 are without a job, the highest in more than a generation. Students graduate from college and often times spend their days fruitlessly emailing their resumés to deaf corporations. Clearly, there is a mismatch between what we are teaching our newest citizens and what they need to succeed.
Critical courses are absent from the state curriculum and given only token acknowledgment in higher education. Design and software development, two of the most relevant 21st century skills, are glossed over throughout our educational system. It’s in this context that we’re launching General Assembly, a new kind of campus to educate designers, engineers and entrepreneurs.
That said, an education is only meaningful in the context of an environment that reinforces its message and provides a community to stimulate ideas and growth. This is why we built General Assembly on the model of a campus. We’re crafting a curriculum and have created a physical space in the heart of Manhattan for hackers and designers to work, collaborate and learn. We’re trying to tackle a big problem, and we certainly can’t solve it alone. But we have to try, and I hope you can join us.