All posts by Jay Small

U.S. catches, passes world in mobile

Ten years ago, when I worked in consumer electronics, we coveted the advancements in mobile networks and the handsets they supported in Europe and Japan. Better mobile Web, better games, better communications, just better, better, better.

Back then, the multitude of not-yet-consolidated regional carriers in the U.S. scrambled to put up four towers on every peak, even if only one could support the entire mobile user base. We all carried handsets not much more comfortable or functional than Gordon Gekko's brick.

Today, in a report discussed at GigaOm, we learn that nearly 70 percent of U.S. cell phone subscribers are on a 3G network — best rate in the world. And all four of the nation’s top carriers are among the top 10 in the world making money from mobile data revenue.

Sheesh. I slip out of the conversation for a decade, and look what I miss. 😉

iPhone app buys: Games, yeah! News, not so much

GigaOM reports (with chart) data from Apptizr showing percentage of paid iPhone applications by category.

Games rule. They represent 16 percent of the apps in the App Store, but 29 percent of the paid downloads. Entertainment also outperforms its presence in the store: 12 percent of available apps, but 22 percent of the paid downloads.

So those two pastime categories represent more than half the paid applications on the iPhone platform.

News applications — like the ones many of us rushed to build whereby we could scramble our venerable headlines and teasers into Yet Another Interface — represent 2 percent of the available apps but only 1 percent of the paid downloads. I suppose journalists can take some comfort, though, compared to other writers. Books make up 18 percent of available apps but only 3 percent of paid downloads.

Leaving no niche un … notched?

I admire the notion of “competing against nonconsumption” put forth by the disruptive-innovation gurus at Innosight. I spent a lot of time — and the company spent a lot of money — in my last job trying to find product niches where such a seam of opportunity existed.

As I pass my 15th year in interactive services, though, I struggle more to find any online niche untapped, any opportunity to consume unfulfilled by someone, somewhere on the Internet.

I used to joke, and now say seriously: Every new interactive product already has competitors.

A new case-in-point popped up in a 30-second TV spot on a certain home-improvement oriented cable net last weekend:

Landscaping-challenged folks may not know that pine straw from the great Southeastern forests makes a good mulch material. In East Tennessee, where I live, one can buy it in little bales at garden shops and home centers. A little farther south, in most parts of Georgia, one can just rake it up from under the almost-inevitable stand of pine trees in one's own yard.

It never occurred to me that demand for the fragrant little needles arrived at a level where an e-commerce Web site could not only exist, but afford TV spots. But here's what claims about itself:

“The Pine Straw Store ships pine straw mulch (pine needles) to homes and businesses in all 50 states. We are the premier Internet supplier of pine straw in the United States and we only ship out the finest of pine needles.”

So I wonder: Does the USDA have some kind of grade scale for pine needles to distinguish the finest from just pretty-good? And, more to my concern, does represent a point of granularity where all profitable niches are hereby occupied?

The kids learn, and teach, a lesson in sales

Last year, longtime pal and former boss Rusty Coats reminded me of the concept that sales success is algorithmic.

Presuming you're selling a product with any demand whatsoever, a certain number of phone calls will lead to a predictable ratio of appointments, then a certain number of appointments will lead to a predictable ratio of contracts. The more activity, the more you close.

My twin teens extraordinaire, Rachel and Tyler, demonstrated this concept over the past week.

R&T turned 16 in November and promptly secured (a) their driver licenses, and (b) access to an old (pre-recall) Toyota to tool around town — on one condition: Get jobs and help pay for fuel for the hoopty.

So they “tried,” by which I mean they put in maybe five applications apiece to places where they thought their first jobs might suck less than most first teen jobs do. Tyler, the gamer, checked out GameStop. Rachel tried Claire's Boutique and Icing at the mall.

In their defense, the part-time job market remains tough, and adults in some cases take jobs that otherwise might be open to teens in school.

Even so, the twins did not exactly push hard for jobs. They actually believed the managers who told them they would call if any jobs opened up, and keep the applications on file. Like that ever happens to teens looking for part-time work, right?

Weeks passed … Thanksgiving … Christmas … New Year's. I started my new job and an aggressive initial travel schedule, so ol' Dad wasn't much help. Ever-resourceful Ka finally encouraged them to volunteer at the Knox Area Rescue Ministries thrift store, helping check in and stock donated merchandise, until they could find paying gigs. KARM, magnificently, took them on and provided references for their job searches.

And we kept nudging, cajoling, advising, talking about getting jobs.

Last Saturday, we had talked about it enough. I piled R&T into my own hoopty (still disoriented by the fact their car has 40,000 fewer miles on it than mine), and took them to more than 20 storefronts apiece to walk in and ask about jobs.

I gave them specific instructions: Ask for a manager. Look her/him in the eye, and ask if she/he has any openings now or soon for 16-year-olds. Get an application whether the answer is yes or no. Get her/his phone number and full name. And ask when you should call to follow up. Write it all down as you go.

Well, praise be, they wore themselves out but did as I suggested. Then they followed up with the managers who showed interest. My kids got over call reluctance, sold their abilities and found the demand.

By Tuesday night, Rachel closed the deal with Steak'N'Shake, where she started training to work the drive-through. By Wednesday night, Tyler earned his new appointment as a busser at Texas Roadhouse.

So, Rusty, thanks for a lesson I could impress on my kids. More activity leads to more sales. And to gas-and-movies money.

My tremendous new opportunity

In rare quiet moments, Ka and I sometimes talk about how change and upheaval seem to be such constants in our lives. We tell ourselves we'll be glad when things slow down. Then another shoe drops, or absent that, we seem to go out and find some new way to stir things up.

A big shoe dropped this month, and now I can tell you about it:

I will join Cordillera Communications effective Jan. 11 as its president of interactive. Cordillera owns 13 television stations in mid-size markets including Lexington, Ky.; Tucson, Ariz.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; San Luis Obispo, Calif.; and several cities in Montana.

Friends and family know I have aimed myself at just such an opportunity — leading an interactive media growth business — for years, more so recently as I wrapped up my MBA. When the Cordillera opportunity presented itself, the more I learned the better fit it became. I am so grateful to Cordillera for this chance and will work tirelessly to bring in success.

Even better, we get to stay in Knoxville and see the kids through their years at Bearden High School (go Bulldogs!) and East Tennessee State University (go Bucs!). I'll travel a lot for the job, but that's no change from my life for, oh, 12 years or so.

The other side of this change smarts a little, though: Leaving The E.W. Scripps Co. means leaving the greatest interactive team I have known in 15 years of “doing online stuff” — and that says a lot when you consider the many talented folks I knew at Belo Interactive and Central Newspapers. I told my team leaders this morning I owed this opportunity to them — they made possible all our successes these last five years. I look forward to seeing many great achievements from them in the coming years, and comparing notes over a few friendly beers from time to time.

Being resourceful vs. being a resource

Pin this on early-Monday-morning syndrome (if you haven't figured this out by now, I often write posts in the margins of my day, then set them to go live a few hours later when I figure folks are awake and paying attention). I meant, in that last post, to explain a key difference between the reasons people wanted my help as a consultant, and the reasons they should have. The distinction should matter to hiring managers in today's economy, and it applies far beyond my little world. So it's worth another post.

Most of the time, people solicited my help (and I served) as a resource. They wanted someone to design, build, and/or operate something for them.

They should have solicited my help (and I should have encouraged this) as a resourceful person: someone who can find the best tools, components and methods to design, build and/or operate something.

A resource can build you a Web site. A resourceful person can instead find you a dozen suitable systems, or hosts, or templates, or stock images, or even bits of suggested language. A resourceful person gives you choices and helps you find your way to the best combinations. That's usually faster and better than inventing in isolation.

In an interactive economy where so many great components already exist, where core components of contemporary functionality have already been invented, in many cases you simply need a resourceful person to tie it all together. That same reasoning could apply to hiring and contracting across many industries.

Reminders of why I wound down Small Initiatives

The past several days had a way of reminding me why I wound down the types of part-time consulting I did most often as part of Small Initiatives.

My Scripps job keeps me hopping, now more than ever, as we rethink what it means to be a local news media company from this point forward. That rethinking also makes the job far more interesting, mostly in good ways. I am certainly not being denied the strategic responsibilities I coveted so long.

Meanwhile, consulting tasks people most frequently asked me to do when I ran SI — and about which I still get questions most every day — frankly become less interesting by the minute:

Web site design/architecture: OK, this work can be highly interesting if it's the right kind of site and project. Unfortunately, for me, they rarely are. Instead, I get inquiries about small businesses needing to sell or service online, or start-ups needing a brochure Web presence or light content management. Those kinds of problems have been solved so thoroughly, so well at this point that I don't bring enough unique value to justify my time or rates.

Have you seen Intuit's TV spots for its small business Web site builder? You get 30 days free then it costs $4.99 a month for a decent template-driven brochure site, all search-engine optimized. Yes, Intuit will gladly upsell a custom domain name and other services to improve its margins, but why would an independent consultant try to compete at these price points?

Want e-commerce? Talk to Yahoo! or Amazon, and forget about a custom build unless, well, you are Yahoo! or Amazon.

At the highest end, top-grade graphic design and user experience work requires more immersion, more time spent refining skills, than I can do. Even if someone gift-wrapped an avant-garde project, at this point, I'm not the best person to execute on it.

Content management systems, and hosting/administration of same: I am a technologist only as self-defense, not by training. Sure, I've implemented Web content systems, kept them running for clients, and tried to optimize for performance and reliability. Had fun the first time I got a big system working; now, not so much.

Meanwhile, content management and hosting also fall in the “problem-solved/case-closed” category. Need a solo blog/social status/mobile publishing application? See WordPress. Need a robust, flexible, capable, extensible, well-supported Web content/commerce system for a wide swath of use cases? One word: Drupal. No charge for that advice. You're welcome.

(Scripps followers might have thought I would suggest Ellington or Django applications, but no. Those, too, are fine systems and tools, but not as flexible, heavily used, or well-supported as Drupal. Mind you, I stand by our decision to purchase Ellington for Scripps sites almost four years ago, and it still performs well for us. That, however, was a different era in the history of both suites.)

Does that leave any gigs I would take? Yes.

I remain highly interested in short-term consulting on overall Internet-focused business strategy. That can take the form of strategic evaluations, strategic planning sessions, training, and user experience assessments (both in a business-strategy sense and more technical heuristic evaluations). And I can still provide general advice on Web design, content systems, hosting etc. — even help screen service providers in those specialties. I'm just out of the business of “putting up Web sites” for people.

Regardless of my navel-gazing, I was not Small Initiatives' best revenue producer the past two years, anyway. Ka gets that title, for her consulting work in banking, credit unions, insurance and small business strategy. Since we mothballed SI and split out our blogs, she has added posts that demonstrate her expertise in these areas, including a new one this weekend: How's that corporate responsibility working for you? (She's also on the hunt for that next great career step post-consulting, Knoxville friends; tough economy or not, if you know of anything suitable, contact either of us.)

Areas of strategic focus for news media

A friend from a newspaper industry association asked this morning what I thought were the most important problems, issues and opportunities facing our ragtag fleet.

Here's what I said — all aimed at the whole U.S. newspaper industry, not any company in particular:

  • We need to organize ourselves in ways that emphasize journalists and salespeople in the field, deemphasize or automate production processes, and reduce management layers as much as we can, such to make room for that emphasis.
  • We need to create new value, and promote new value propositions, for advertising in all media forms — in large part by recapturing a market position as providers of creative services and aggregators of commercial messages and local deals.
  • We need to establish the role of news content and relevant local information in mobile/handheld platforms, even at the expense of the roadmap for the mainstream Web.
  • We need logical, sustainable processes for new product development and deployment that coordinate with and feed on resources from newsrooms and sales organizations, while maintaining appropriate strategic independence from them.
  • We need to learn the fields of business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketing for ourselves. We sat on a dominant marketing vehicle for decades but never learned how to sell our own value propositions.

I also advised that we won't learn these things by sharing war stories in panel discussions or over beers at industry events. Our industry is by training and experience rather insular, full of managers prone to investing in “best practices” consisting of a few compelling PowerPoint slides from a peer company's unproven experiments.

Outside expertise and the willingness to listen would help more than any of that, although sometimes only a beer will do.