Webstock: Making Magic and Other Stuff that Matters (Day One)

webstock-logo-smlThere is a quotation etched in the cement in Wellington’s Civic Square. It’s by Bruce Mason – a famous Wellington playwright – about the impact of theatre on community.

It reads:

bruce mason quote: "I ask not only that my city, but all, give themselves to the essence of our cult - the ritual assembly of an interested coterie in a space where magic can be made and miracles occur".

Quote by Wellington playwright Bruce Mason

I’ve been to Civic Square many times, but I only noticed this quote last week. I found it particularly poignant, because a kind of theatrical magic happens in Wellington this time every year: Webstock week.

Some people see Webstock as a web conference, but those of us who attend regularly know it as The Week That Magic Happens. Mike Brown, one of the Webstock organizers, recently commented to me: “I love that you book your Webstock ticket without even checking who the speakers are“. For me, that is the impact of the Webstock brand. I don’t need to justify the ticket price by seeking out the headline acts, because regardless of the programme, Webstock is guaranteed to be magic.

What do I mean by magic?

Let me explain. I don’t cry very often. I didn’t cry while watching Titanic, heck, I didn’t even cry while watching The Notebook. I certainly don’t cry at other conferences. But I cry at Webstock.  Every. Single. Time. This year, I cried at three different points. Once when Garr Reynold’s voice broke while he was sharing a video of his now-deceased parents. Once when Mike Monteiro told us about Bobbi Duncan from Texas who was inadvertently outed as a lesbian to her homophobic parents on Facebook and again during Tash’s closing speech, when she was given a standing ovation before she even got halfway through.

Registration desk

Even the registration desk is beautifully designed. (Photo courtesy of Webstock.org.nz)

If you were peeking in through the auditorium doors at any point during Webstock, you could be forgiven for thinking there was some type of Christian Revival meeting going on. And you wouldn’t really be too far off the mark. The eloquent speakers carefully chosen for Webstock are evangelists of sorts – preaching to us about the importance of creating a better world wide web and therefore a better world, making us stand up and yell out affirmations of our commitment to the cause with passionate gusto – “Yes we can!”

But although, as one non-attending Twitter observer wryly commented, the Webstock speakers seem to be inspiring rousing renditions of Kumbaya, in reality, they just serve as a reminder that we CAN change the world, one pixel at a time.

It’s not the speakers who make Webstock magic, it’s the inspiration they spark within us, the audience, that makes Webstock magic. We leave the conference believing in our own superpowers, our talents and our ability to make stuff that matters.

The thoughtful Webstock swag

The ever thoughtful Webstock swag (thanks to Diane for sharing the pic)

I hadn’t been at the conference more than an hour before I made the decision to radically change my business. I realized that if I’m going to make stuff that matters, I have to throw myself into my online training business and make it my #1 priority. Because it matters. It matters a LOT. It’s not enough to Write. Speak. Educate.  I have influence over students in 57 countries and counting. That matters. I can no longer treat my company as a hobby or a second job. I need to set an example and the only way to do this is to stop working for clients and start working on stuff that really matters to me.

From my perspective, Webstock 2013 can be summarized in those three words: STUFF THAT MATTERS. Below are my own takeaways from some of the presentations and how they fit into this three word mantra.

work on stuff that matters

Clay Johnson kicks off the Conference mantra


Clay Johnson: Industrialized Ignorance

Clay Johnson is best known as the co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008.

The fact that we know the name of at least one Kardashian but NOT the child poverty rate in New Zealand is because of the way we consume media. Pizza tastes better than broccoli. Opinion tastes better than news. Confirmation bias is the new H1N1.

It’s up to us to be responsible and create a more honest media. Clay says we should try to write 500 words first thing in the morning before checking email or Twitter. Consume with care. Stick to a healthy information diet and stem the tide of industrialized media. Your clicks are votes for crappy content. Produce rather than consume.

Key Takeaway: Work on stuff that matters.


Jim Coudal: Digital is analog

There isn’t room to be afraid, be open to serendipity. If you don’t get started, you won’t get started. You need adversity in order to change your goals. Ideas take the path of least resistance, and it is very easy to talk yourself out of something. Don’t talk yourself out of a good idea, treat it like a regular client, give it the respect it deserves. If that means sacking all your clients to concentrate on your passion, do it without fear.

Why make profits for your client when you can be creating opportunities for yourself? Trust your instincts.

Key Takeaway: You make stuff that matters.

Webstock inspired nail art

Webstock inspired nail art, courtesy of @narelle_nz


Jason Kottke: I built a web app (and you can too)

Listen to your slow hunch. You can do it – things you don’t know how to do are documented. Creating is about showing up and doing the work.”Sit in the chair and do it.”

Key Takeaway: I built something that matters.


Aza Raskin – Design is the beauty of turning constraints into advantages

It’s not about thinking outside the box. It’s about finding the right box to think inside. It’s the box itself that matters. Context is important. Perceptual scope is crucial because perception is different for everyone depending on how you phrase a question.

Aza demonstrated this concept by showing us beautiful architecture created within extreme size constraints. One example was the architect who wanted to keep the tiny Hong Kong tenement apartment he grew up in and made it work by using sliding walls and panels to create 24 beautiful, functional rooms within a single tiny space.

The power of constraints is learning to choose the right problem. Constraints force us to overcome obstacles and create solutions. Find your creativity within contraints.

Key Takeaway: Constraints matter.

Aza Raskin on Perceptual Scope. Do you see H's or S's?

Aza Raskin on Perceptual Scope. Do you see H’s or S’s?


Miranda Mulligan – Your Survival is Designed

The work of the typical web designer goes well beyond pixel-pushing beautification and rare is the project that has no need for a designer. At one point or another, nearly all departments cross paths with “design” in order to conceive or execute a project, and the most successful ones engage a designer from concept to completion.

Therefore, the designer is uniquely positioned to be one of the most informed people in any organization, knowing most of the idiosyncrasies of all the moving parts.  Understanding our medium makes us better storytellers. But most journalists dont understand the Internet: Terrifying! Therefore, journalism needs more design thinking.

Key Takeaway: Design matters.

Miranda Mulligan on why media needs design

Miranda Mulligan on why media needs design


Artur Bergman – The Internet, performance and you — mysteries of a CDN explained

Speed is good, slow is bad – self evident. If you decrease your site load time by 1 second, you might half the bounce rate for your site. Make the Internet fast:

  • Avoid latency
  • Appear fast – users can be tricked in to thinking your site is fast with good UI
  • Be fast.

Key Takeaway: Deliver stuff that matters faster.


Kelli Anderson – Finding the Hidden Talents of Everyday Things

Although they were all brilliant, Kelli’s presentation was the one that probably inspired me the most.

We can all make disruptive wonder. The familiar face of a thing often belies the complexity of its underlying material (or digital) conditions. You should regularly “hack” your mindset and experience to find the hidden awesome. You should better understand how things work in order to demonstrate the surprising capabilities in the world, hiding in plain sight.

To demonstrate this point, Kelli showed us how she created a Fake New York Times and what happened when she distributed it to a bunch of people outside the NYT offices. People were forced to change their perception of the world for just a few moments and wonder “what if…?”

She also showed that you can take mundane, everyday items and make them into something magical. For her friend’s wedding, she made plain paper into musical wedding invitations. Paper became a completely different, unexpected medium with a little clever thinking and thoughtful design.

Key Takeaway: Use disruptive wonder to make stuff that matters.


Kitt Hodsden – Set yourself up to succeed

Many of the successes we hear about these days are the big ones, the ones that are most sensationalized, given the loudest voice or the most coverage.  What we often don’t hear about are the small steps that, over time, avalanche into those big successes.

Learn to streamline your digital work. Utilize digital shortcuts and the power of the command line in your day to day routine so you can make more stuff that matters in less time.

Key Takeaway: Small steps matter.

Refreshments, Webstock style

Refreshments, Webstock style


John Gruber – In Praise of Pac-Man: Lessons all designers can learn from the perfect video game

“You’ve done your best when people don’t notice what you’ve done” is an adage that applies to designers in nearly any field. Game designers have created a body of work that can serve as a model for all software designers, whether they’re creating apps, websites, or anything else.

In the first few years, Pac Man earned more than Star Wars. It was so successful it had a cartoon and song on the radio. John thinks Pac Man was successful because it was:

  • Fun
  • Simple
  • Obvious
  • Challenging

If it’s meant to be simple, you should be able to explain it in one sentence. Simple designs are often the most popular – complexity doesn’t necessarily add value. Keep that in mind when designing for the web.

Key Takeaway: Simplicity matters.


Garr Reynolds – Story, Emotion, & the art of 21st-century Presentation — aka No Sleep Till Webstock

Garr talked about the importance of storytelling principles and how to evoke emotions in modern presentations.

Things that annoy us about presentations include :

  • presenters who read slides
  • too many transitions
  • cat photos!
  • incorrect information
  • too many fonts/colours/words/lines

Things that make for successful presentations include:

  • no bullet points
  • beautiful images
  • simplicity
  • story telling
  • moving away from the podium
  • knowing the content
  • confidence

Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) once said:

Dilbert on Powerpoint presentations

Dilbert on Powerpoint presentations

Powerpoint slides should be more like zen gardens – a few things are given power by the empty space that surrounds them.

Key Takeaway: Create presentations that matter.


Tom Coatest at Webstock 2013

Tom on stage (image courtesy of Webstock.org.nz)

Tom Coates – An animating spark: mundane computing & the web of data

The way we think about the future is betraying our present. The goal is to demonstrate importance of tech, but they are overselling its power.

We need objects that are useful and practical, with an incremental value. We don’t need network computing, we can add value for 50 cents. Everything we need is sourceable from Alibaba.com. Imagine what would happen if any powered object over $50-100 was connected to the internet? What would that look like? What could we do?

Screw the impolite devices  – the fridge door alarms, the frenzied microwave beeps – instead, give me useful connected devices like fridges that tell me when I’ve run out of milk, or vacuum cleaners that tell me where the floor needs vacuuming. Sensor based door locks make sense but expensive Twitter-enabled Internet fridges don’t. We need connected computing devices that solve everyday, mundane goals and core functions.

The future isn’t *future enabled products* it’s just *products*. The future is already here.

Key Takeaway: Make stuff that matters work smarter.

The Plotting Tom meme develops in response to Tom's presentation

The Plotting Tom meme develops in response to Tom’s presentation


That was my summary of Webstock 2013 -Day One. My Day Two summary is over here.


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Off to Webstock 2013 : Expect Postcards of Joy

webstock-logo-smlSo tomorrow I’m heading off to Windy Wellington once again to experience the geek love-in that is Webstock.

The last time I punched my timecard in at Webstock was in 2011 and it literally made me rethink my life and my business direction. After chatting with some of the speakers and attendees, I was totally inspired to creatively mess up my business model and take some risks. The notes I made during the plane trip home loom large on my laptop to this day.

Unfortunately, my post-conference euphoria (and renewed business confidence) was rudely interrupted by the Christchurch earthquake on 22 February.

It’s taken two years of emotional turmoil, financial hardship and physical displacement to get back some semblance of life, let alone confidence in myself and my business. The earthquake stole the passion I previously had for my industry, as well as my ability to write and educate. My interest waned, my writing ceased and I stopped going to conferences. I moved with my family to Australia and had to cancel a whole year of speaking engagements because of mental and physical displacement.

We moved back to Christchurch a year ago. I thought about attending Webstock 2012, but an empty wallet and empty heart conspired against me. Plus I knew I wasn’t in the right headspace to soak up the inspiration and actually DO something with it.

Well, fast forward a year. We are back in our Christchurch house, repairs are underway, the business is humming along and I am about to roll out some of the exciting concepts I came up with during that Webstock week of 2011.

Booking my ticket for Webstock 2013 was an absolute no-brainer. I feel great, the cobwebs are clearing and I am can’t wait to get amongst it and speak geek non-stop for 2 days.

Expect postcards of joy and inspiration from me for the next few days!


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Incubation and Innovation at Christchurch Startup Weekend

What did you do this past weekend? Did you build a business from scratch? Me neither, but I CAN say I helped 10 teams of people do just that.

Mayor Bob Parker opening Christchurch Startup Weekend

From 6pm on Friday until 8.30pm Sunday evening, I was a mentor at the inaugral Christchurch Startup Weekend, which was held at the Westpac Business and Community Hub in Addington.

Startup Weekend  is an intense 54 hour event which focuses on building a web or mobile application which could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend. It’s open to anyone, but primarily attracts software developers, designers, marketers, product managers, business strategists, students and startup enthusiasts. More than anything else, Startup Weekends are all about education.  The idea is that teams learn through the act of creating, building a strategy and testing it as they go.

Part of the global Startup Weekend phenomenon, the Christchurch event (hashtag #chcsw) was more popular than similar events held in Auckland and Wellington, attracting over 100 participants and 31 separate business pitches, much to the delight of organizers.

The weekend kicked off at 6pm Friday night, with registration and a casual networking dinner, enabling attendees and mentors to mix and get to know each other prior to the pitch frenzy. There were plenty of beards and geek tees on display, a few larger than life personalities and even a team of nerdy hopefuls that had driven a campervan down from Wellington and set up camp in the stadium carpark. What intrigued me the most was a gaggle of young male high school students, who I (wrongly) assumed were attending in support of their older siblings.

After dinner, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker officially opened the event, reminding everyone that entrepreneurship such as that being incubated this weekend, was crucial to the post-quake rebuild efforts of our city.

Following the welcoming address, whoever wanted to pitch a business idea had 60 seconds on stage to impress the room and attract others to form a team around their idea. Halfway through the pitches, two of the 14 year old high school students got up with a pitch of their own – knocking the socks off the audience and reminding me not to ASSume anything!

With 31 ideas pitched, each pitcher was given a sign and each attendee given stickers with their name on to place on the sign of their choice. The more stickers on your sign, the more likely your idea would make it to the team formation stage. Only 10 ideas could survive the cull and it was no surprise that the most confident and amusing pitches attracted the most votes. The surviving teams emerged as:

Christchurch Startup Weekend experience

  1. Deal-Freak– a web site and mobile app that allows business owners in the hospitality trade to list food and beverage specials and allows consumers to find these specials in their local area using geo-location tools.
  2. GetItFixed (team campervan) – an online booking service to enable tenants and property managers to more efficiently schedule trades-people to perform property maintenance.
  3. Tsk – This team of 6 developers and 2 marketing/business minds had quite a journey, starting out as My Wish List which then became I Want It, which finally became Tsk. It began as a social media app to enable buyers to find sellers using product-based hash tags, but ended up as a task fulfillment application for local communities, driven by Twitter and Facebook. The idea is that people post jobs they need done using the hashtag #tsknz e.g. “I need someone to drive me to the airport tomorrow #tsknz” and then registered users respond based on either a fixed price or via off site negotiation with the poster.
  4. Anticounter – a cloud based anti-counterfeiting/copy-detection service suitable for packaged goods. Relying on QR codes on authentic goods, manufacturers are notified as soon as copies are detected, enabling them to pro-actively warn consumers in the target market to beware of fake products circulating in their market.
  5. IQnGo – initially known as My Bank Boss, IQnGo morphed into a prepaid beverage token system using QR codes, which allows vendors to serve more customers faster, stadiums to decrease congestion and patrons to have shorter wait queues at sports events, trade shows and festivals.
  6. InstaBeer – probably the most straight forward of all business models, Instabeer is a smart phone application that allows you to buy your mates a beer / beverage anywhere, anytime. Using your credit card, you can buy a beverage for anyone with a cell phone number and they redeem it by having their code swiped at participating bars.
  7. Media Mansion (the 14 year olds) – a download hosting site that distributes local indie music, merchandise, event promotion and tickets to consumers. Locally based, and 100% free for users and artists, the site requires significant buy in from local artists and music lovers, but would, to some extent, resolve music piracy issues in NZ.
  8. LoVo / LocalVoice – a smart phone / ipod application that uses data mining to provide real-time, tour guide style information about New Zealand cities in an audio format.
  9. BuyNow – a self-checkout mobile application that reduces queue time for shoppers, while providing real time customer feedback to vendors.
  10. Keeping Tabs – originally called CheckIn, Keeping Tabs developed into a sophisticated security monitoring smart phone application to enable parents to keep tabs on their children’s location and safety in a non-intrusive way via mobile phone.  The application has different levels of risk-monitoring, allowing parents to  taking their child’s social context into account before raising the alarm.

More than half the teams changed business models and/or product names over the course of the weekend, most forced to do so after performing market tsk screenshotresearch and customer validation. Along the way, they were observed by 20 mentors who watched closely how they responded under pressure, how they negotiated egos and meshed with other team members in a common cause to build a viable business in 54 hours.

Whenever the pressure got too much, teams would break out the V energy drinks and hold Nerf gun wars in the corridors.

Part of the challenge of being a mentor is to hold back from becoming too involved in team strategy. The role is actually similar to that of a counselor – the best way to help is to stand back, observe the team dynamic, ask questions that get them to look at things from a different angle and know when to step in and steer them back on course. I often joined fellow mentor Wendy from Hot Pyjama Productions to observe and guide a team in a joint effort rather than provide them with a single perspective.

A couple of times over the weekend, I found myself getting caught up in the excitement of features, benefits and long term product potential. It’s tempting to inject your own ideas into a team’s business model, but as Lead Organizer Alan Froggatt consistently reminded us, the personal journey of team members is what Startup Weekend is all about, not the product they end up with. At the close of the event, it doesn’t really matter who wins, because every team member has learned something about themselves and their abilities that is much more valuable than the $2,500 prize package.

So who won the prizes and what did they get?

1st Place: Tsk – who receive:

  •     $1000 worth of MYOB solutions, and profiled on a regular basis in MYOB  client communications.
  •     powerHouse 1 hour mentoring per month for 4 months.
  •     Two, one hour, 1-on-1 planning workshops (via Skype) with Derek Handley.
  •     HyperStart/Webfund an initial $1,000 to the company’s bank account once they have registered with the Companies Office.

2nd Place: Keeping Tabs – who receive from Accelerate Business:team tsk accept first prize

    •     2 hour business plan workshop to define essential input information.
    •     1 hour follow up meeting to review written business plan.
    •     Arrange introduction meetings with 5 relevant potential Customers.
    •     1 hour Pitching Presentation and Practice Session.
    •     Arrange introduction meetings with 3 relevant investors.

3rd PlaceThe Media Mansion – who receive:

  • No prize, but the kudos of having been recognised as standing out above seven other teams.

There was also a vote by all team members on their favorite pitch, a People’s Choice award if you like. It was a lovely testament to the event that Team Media Mansion won that as well. We were all incredibly impressed by the maturity and business savvy demonstrated by the youngest team to ever participate in a Startup Weekend.

All in all, a fascinating 54 hours and extremely worthwhile for all involved. My biggest takeaway is that the participants taught me much more than I could have instilled in them – education in the true sense of the word.




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Kia Kaha Christchurch

Flowers and road cones

A year on and still strong. Kia Kaha Christchurch.

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Is offensive media commentary spoiling the Rugby World Cup?

This is the image used on the TV3 site to represent the WallabiesIt’s been a while since I’ve had a rant on this blog and this one is unrelated to the search industry, so please bear with me.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a rugby NUT and an All Blacks tragic. So I’ve been following the Rugby World Cup action very closely over the past few weeks. The thing is, I’m finding this particular RWC season to be almost unbearable from a media perspective.

First it was the media coverage following the All Black’s 41 to 10 win over Tonga. The New Zealand media were bad enough, claiming the All Blacks played poorly and that the 41 point victory wasn’t decisive enough.  Which prompted me to ask Twitter:

“If a 31 point win margin *fails as a decisive victory* then how many freaking points did the #allblacks need to win by?”

Then there was the Wall Street Journal piece, written by someone who clearly doesn’t know anything about rugby (“New Zealand – nicknamed the All Blacks due to their attire” – REALLY?), claiming that the All Blacks “failed to inspire” and that “the win wasn’t sufficient to reassure fans”.

Of course, there have been the expected digs at the All Blacks team by the Australian media, about how they were going to choke, just like the last World Cup and Aussie television news anchors having a good old chuckle at the done-to-death sheep / Israel Dagg jokes wheeled out by the sports reporters. Commentators Andrew Slack and Ken Sutcliffe for Channel Nine in Australia clearly find it difficult to hold back their bias when it comes to their coverage of Wallabies matches. But in my opinion, there is a clearly defined line between light-hearted fun poking and outright racist commentary.

Today, New Zealand’s TV3 stepped over that line, in my opinion. With their One Eyed Kiwi Commentary of today’s game between the All Blacks and the Wallabies, I think 3News have sullied New Zealand rugby with their offensive, juvenile and racist pre-match banter. I wanted the All Blacks to win as much as anybody, but that promoted commentary was simply embarrassing.

Think I’m over-reacting? Here are some extracts:

  • “Well here we go… the big one, the All Blacks totally dismembering our Aussie cousins from across the ditch and marching on to hand a hiding to the limpet mine-carrying nation in the final.”
  • “Refresh your browser occasionally. We’ll warn you when video is up with the words ‘VIDEO UP’ (even an Aussie could follow that)”.
  • “…here’s some friendly folly fire at the convicts from the island.
  • “The first Wallaby has been seen inspecting Eden Park.” (accompanied by the picture above of a giant convict carrying a rugby ball and chain).
  • “What do you call an Aussie with half a brain? Gifted.”

And on it goes, with more crude anti-Australian jokes thrown into the mix. Based on his tweets, the content appears to have been written by a post-grad journalism student called Michael Oliver who is apparently about to be employed by TV3.

Now my main problem with this is not so much the content, as juvenile as it is. You can see this type of immature trolling on Twitter or Facebook about any big sporting event. No, my problem with this lies in the way it is presented on the 3News web site. It is published as *official* RWC content. There is no banner or byline indicating this content is written by a guest blogger or a student. The content is simply presented as endorsed coverage of what is likely the most important game of the World Cup, on the site of the official media sponsor covering the event.

I am concerned that the content will be viewed as offensive, if not outright racist and by allowing it to be published, TV3 is endorsing those views. As an Australian, I was quite offended, even though I (mostly) live in New Zealand and am a hugely vocal supporter of the All Blacks. I can only imagine how Wallabies supporters would feel upon reading that. And the petty limpet mine (Rainbow Warrier) reference is really quite a controversial and dangerous topic to bring up with so many French media representatives in NZ right now.

What’s worse is how proud the author is of his field day approach:

@mj_oliver : I’m manning tonight’s live updates for 3News.co.nz. We’re gunning for the most parochial commentary known to human kind. #RWC2011 Link to tweet

@mj_oliver: Sanctioned trolling. I love my future job. http://www.3news.co.nz/One-eyed-Kiwi-VIDEO-LIVE-UPDATES-All-Blacks-Vs-Australia-semifinal-2-RWC-2011–highlights/tabid/1534/articleID/229706/Default.aspx Link to tweet

With millions of international viewers studying New Zealand closely right now, can TV3 really afford to be seen as endorsing such potentially racist drivel? I don’t think so.

TV3 have a very strict policy when it comes to comments left on their site:

  • No comments that seek to cause offence on the grounds of race, sex, sexuality, religion, age or ethinicity will be tolerated
  • No comments that are obscene, offensive, pornographic, vulgar, profane, indecent or otherwise illegal
  • No comments that are defamatory in nature

Right. But that apparently doesn’t apply to their own contributors?

I left the very first comment on the page, politely expressing my concerns, but for some reason, @3newsnz seems to be only publishing positive comments. When I tweeted Mr Oliver about this, he claimed he didn’t have control over comments.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments. And unlike the team at 3News, I’ll actually publish them.

POSTSCRIPT 1: Since I started writing this blog post, TV3 have put up a pseudo disclaimer in red text on the page. It reads:

“Thanks for tuning in to tonight’s completely biased commentary. It was all in good fun, and no offence to our friends across the ditch was intended. The Wallabies weren’t allowed to play, and that’s entirely due to their opposition being on another level.

Yeah, that’ll fix everything.

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