Category Archives: Life

5 Years ’til the Future

I was thinking about and progressing a five year goal of mine this morning and I realised something cool.

FLYING FUCKING CARS

Did you know that in 5 years it will be almost 2020? That is THE FUTURE. All of a sudden it felt to me that the future is almost here. You know, the real future. 2020. It sounds like a real futuristic year. After the year 2000 we went into this period of lame years. Not that the years were lame in content, but the numbers just sucked. First of all we went through that period where no one was really sure what to call the years in short hand. “oh-one”, “two-double-oh-seven”? Then Twenty Ten arrived and it sounded better, and I was expecting it to be impactful in some way. The sound of it was quite punchy, and you could imagine a sci-fi film from the 80′s leading with “It was the year Twenty Ten!” and it would be all future and shit. But it didn’t happen. Twenty Ten just felt like any year.

I got to thinking about Twenty Twenty over coffee this morning as I pondered my 5 year goal I am working on (I will share at a later date). Other than an assessment of how well you can see, this year 2020 sounds like it will, finally, be an impressive future year. I have high hopes because today, right now, we live in an age now where the future feels just around the corner. We have Elon Musk and Richard Branson (and others) going into space. We are entering a golden era of manufacturing, with electric cars (Musk again), Makerbots and Kickstarters for almost anything you can imagine. Innovation used to be “The Internet”, now it’s real stuff of the future, and anyone can build it. Things you can touch, and sure that are connected via The Internet, but finally the future is almost tangible.

Five years is not that long. Like, if you had a five year goal to do something, then you would do that, THEN IT WOULD BE THE FUTURE. And this excited me no end. This is what excites me about 5 year goals, amazingness waits at the other end. But there is another reason I get excited about the impending and exciting future, because there is a dark side of five year goals that people don’t usually contemplate. It is something I have known about for a while, and probably explains some things about me and what motivates me.

Five year goals are awesome. 5 years is long enough to achieve something pretty cool, and because it feels like half a decade is a good nice rounded (yes I know it isn’t a round number) period of time. People always tend to think in terms of 5 years. It is a tidy number. You can fit two in a decade. And you can do all sorts of things in a 5 year goal.

Start a business.
Learn a language.
Move to a new city.
Have kids.
Grow kids.
Wait for kids to move out of home.
Change some aspect of you physically.
Get fit.
Build a house.
Travel the world.
Change some part of the world.
Fall in love.
Get married.
Achieve great things in your career.

There are all sorts of more interesting things you will think of as you contemplate what you want to achieve most in a 5 year goal.

There is one reason in particular I love the 5 year goal. I want to share it with you and this may be a little depressing. But it’s super important to contemplate and I ask you to contemplate this. Not to depress you, but hopefully to get you to think about 5 year goals a little differently. I am a little nervous about this, because it took me by surprise about 10 years back and I didn’t want to leave my room for a week.

Using the 5 year goal as a rough unit to achieve all the great things in life you want to achieve. Big chunky meaningful things. How many can you do? I mean think about it, and assume you can’t do many of the goals in parallel. And some of them may just be unattainable. The reality is life is all consuming and if you want to achieve something big you need to give it 100% of your focus.  So if you had to give 100% of your focus on achieving amazing new things, outside of the noise of regular daily life, how many could you do before you, you know, die? Kick the bucket.

Say you are 30. You can do two chunky 5 year goals then you are 40. That is cool. 40 is cool. I am 40. It IS cool. Then you can do two more the you are 50. I am sure 50 is cool too, but at 50 you will find that perhaps the options of goals in your list shrinks somewhat. It is kinda late to be thinking about growing kids or climbing Everest, not too late, but you know what I mean. Not the optimal time to do it. Two more then you are 60. That business you wanted to start? You can still travel, but not backpack like when you were 30.

You have a finite number of 5 year goals. Pick the wrong ones, or get them in the wrong order, and you find yourself wondering where all the years and your dreams to spend them on went.

Sucks huh? Sorry.

I personally hate thinking about the fact I have perhaps 6 – 8 big goals I can achieve, and all the ones I am most excited about doing right now have an expiry of perhaps 55 years of age. So I only have 2 or 3 of these I can do. Arggggh! What? CHEATED!

But I don’t think about that, you can’t because it is just depressing. Instead I think about what if you only had 3 things you could achieve in your life. Not an infinite number, just 3. What would they be? This I find incredibly liberating as it really focusses me on the things I want to do with my life. Before I use it all up. It focusses me on the future constantly, wondering what the next 5 years will bring, and how I will maximise them. And that’s why I am pretty excited about 2020. I have the feeling there will be some pretty cool stuff to do in the future. Perhaps some new goals will become apparent, like go to space! But one thing that won’t change is I have only a fixed number of goals left to achieve.

And that is why I get impatient in life. And why when I find myself procrastinating I get on with living it and achieving one of those 5 year goals.

CEO Idol

Every year I do an impossible challenge. It’s a thing. Okay so obviously the things I attempt are not impossible, because impossible is impossible! Right? It’s funny how often we use the word impossible in life not really meaning what we think it means.

impossibleImpossible. We say it but really, is it?

In previous attempts I have cycled solo from Steward Island to Cape Reinga. I told people and they laughed at me in my face, as I was a 100 and something KG fat guy who hadn’t done anything physical ever, and hadn’t ridden a bike since I was 13.  I dropped from 100+kg to a trimer 80ish on the way.

I’ve quit drinking for a year, quit watching sports. I’ve quit reading, listening and watching any form of news media.  I have started my own software startup. I have run 1,000km including 5 half marathons.  Again not bad for a recovering fat guy.I am pleased to confirm that I have succeeded in every challenge so far. See, not impossible.

I’ve mainly been alternating between quitting things and doing crazy physical things. I figure this way I gradually remove all the things that make my life worse, like bad news and smoking and do lots of good things for my body that make my life better, like running and cycling crazy distances.

This year I am adding a new category to my impossible challenges. To learn a new skill. I’m not talking about learning to do woodworking, or pottery, or hand-gliding. I have to learn a new skill and reach expert level. Well perhaps not expert, but generally nail it in some epic way.

This year my challenge is to learn to sing, in a band. Now, that alone sounds pretty doable. So to make it an impossible challenge, I need to learn how to sing (I am not a singer. Ask my kids) and get a paid gig singing in front of at least 100 people, for MONEY. And not get booed off. So not only do I have to learn to sing, but master a level so I am good enough that someone wants to pay me money and attract a crowd of 100 or more people. I have to overcome all my horrible fears and demonstrate my new skill publicly in front of a bunch of really critical people, basically not my family. Considering that any form of public speaking turns me into an incredible sweating twitching nervous wreck, singing is bound to give me a full nervous breakdown. I think I can probably get half decent enough at the signing bit. It’s the public gig part that is the impossible bit for me. But just as I felt a few years ago when I announced my bike ride of NZ to everyone, and quietly shat myself, I then overcame all my own doubts and I then went about doing it. One step at a time. Instead of focussing on what you have to do at the end, focus on each step that will get you there. One at a time.

That’s the bit I think that makes people think things are impossible. Self doubt. When you stop saying “I can’t” and then start saying “I’ll give it a go” you will find out there is a whole lot of things you can do. Amaze yourself at how impossible you are.

So I have the most part of a year to get a paid gig and nail this. In the meantime, DO NOT ask me to sing a song for you. I might punch you in the face. I am terrified of this challenge, and I need to slay some demons first before I can even consider humming a tune. But I will invite you along to my gig, if you are happy to pay ;-)

 

 

Keeping busy, aiming high, and taking names.

I am part way through a bunch of projects so it is probably time for an update as I have been quiet lately. For very good reason.

For those that don’t know, I do a crazy goal every year. So far I have stopped reading newspapers (online and the “offline” versions) and TV news media for a year. That was a few years ago and I haven’t resumed media consumption since. I cycled the length of New Zealand solo, from the bottom up. Uphill. Started a startup. Gone from watching 5+ hours of rugby a week to none. Did a year of not being a consumer. And some other weird but interesting challenges.

Last year I was a little late in starting, and at the beginning of August I kicked off a dry year. 12 months of no alcohol. 10 months in and I can report some interesting findings.

Firstly, wow! Is alcohol really a big part of our life and culture or what? You don’t really realise this until you step outside and look in. The simple gesture of sharing a drink with someone is the thing I miss the most, and it is really hard replacing the significance of this with some other social interaction. Mostly people expect you to have a beer with them after doing a deal, or completing a project, or hitting a milestone, and when you suggest an orange juice, there is that awkward “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had a problem with drink” situation or are you some religious fundamentalist where you have to explain that it is a dry year just for the challenge, and no other real reason other than just because. Going to a party and watching everyone progressively turn into morons over the course of the evening is quite surreal, and highly amusing. I can’t rate this high enough for it’s entertainment value. Sometimes I miss being a moron.

So two months to go and not sure if I will resume my habit of a glass of pinot in the evening. Running has become my new wind down tool.

About that running. So this year’s goal is to run 1,000km. The 1kk it has been dubbed. Roughly 3km a day. 20 a week. I picked 1,000k’s as it is specific, measurable (with your iPhone or a GPS watch), achievable, realistic (anyone can run 3km, you just need to do it every day) and time-bound, 1 year to do it. That makes it a SMART goal. Or something. But yeah, like my goal from 4 years ago to ride NZ solo, it comes down to being able to do something really achievable (run 3km, ride a bike for 6 hours) and repeat it on a regular basis, like daily.

In the first month I wondered if I could ever run 5k’s without stopping or puking. Now I can run 15km without any pause. Crazy to think I went from desk jockey to serial runner so quick. I now can’t wait to get out for a run. I love it.

I am 39% through on my 1,000 and on track to complete it by 31 December.

Screen Shot 2013-05-25 at 9.10.30 AM

I do a couple of 5km runs during the week then do a big 15+km run on the weekend. This works the best. I tried running 3km every day, then 6km every second day, but have settled on my current regime and it means if I feel like it I can push for a 20km run on the weekend. A secondary goal for the year is to do a half marathon.

The other thing I am running is my startup Vend, my goal from 3 years ago to do a startup my way.  Well, not 100% my way, I am not inventing anything new here. But 100% how I want to do it, and so far I have learnt my approach is not conventional, well in New Zealand anyway.

Vend is going exceptionally well.

There are many ways to measure the success of Vend, depending on your point of view. We are not cashflow positive yet, which seems to be to some the only way to measure success. Obviously that’s the endgame. Same for Xero and other high growth companies. We have been cashflow positive twice! First time it lasted a day then we bought a new laptop. We were a handful of people then. Second time we hired 4 new people, and havent stopped hiring since. We are, as Rod so eloquently puts it, not going to swim to the side of the pool. I think of us as going from the “Medium” speed swim-lane to the “Fast” lane. We want to grow as quick as we can to capitalize on the opportunity we have to establish Vend as the #1 platform for bricks and mortar retailers globally.

We have been doubling, tripling, quadrupling the value of the company every year, supported by our customer and revenue growth. We are growing between 10% and 20% month on month.

We have won a bunch of awards. 2011 Innovator of the year, Xero add-on partner of the year, Best Workplace 2012 in the Small Business category, 2013 Hi-tech Exporter of the Year (under $5m), 2013 Best Service Product, and others. I am proud of every award my team has earned. It is great recognition that we are doing amazing things, and will continue to.

Our team has gone from 1, me in 2010 to 11 at the end of 2011, 40 today and heading for 140 people as soon as we can find them, in three countries as we roll out our teams to the US, Australia and Europe. If you are looking to be part of something big, get in touch.

When I started, I wondered what it would be like to have 10 people on board. Then 40. Culture is a big part of our success. We have fun, work hard, and are passionate about retailers. We have built an amazing team who all feel like they have always been on board. That tells me we are doing something right when your team feels like one big family. 140 people will be the next cultural challenge for us, something we are not attempting lightly.

 

We have raised money four times. $100k, $1m, $2m, and just the other week we closed a round for $8m meaning we have raised $11m of capital in 3 years. We have raised all of our capital outside of the US with a large chunk of it coming from NZ, but half of our investment coming from offshore from Germany and Australia. I have an amazing shareholder list including Sam Morgan and Rowan Simpson from Trade Me, Christoph Janz, Christopher and the Point 9 team, Paul and Matt founders of Seek, Craig Winkler from MYOB, David & Nicki Wilson, Brian Gaynor and the Milford team, Koz and Amnon and the Southgate crew, Josh, Lance, Sacha, Nina and Craig, Miki and each of the Vend team who are all shareholders too. All A listers and all see the same big picture we see. We are building the #1 platform for bricks and mortar retailers. They all know a think or two about building big things too.

Not that there are rules around how you build a startup, but we feel we are writing our own in a way. Everything from our focus on culture, how we have raised capital, our global approach, and our product strategy. We are aiming high and pulling the slingshot back as far as the team can pull it, and are launching into the stratosphere.

 

So that is my update. Exciting times. Super busy times!

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

1,000 1,000

Update: Oh, BTW. I clocked up the last k at 3pm on 31 December. I had to take the last 3 weeks slow just so I could hit the last KM on NY eve.

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Next year, 2013, I am doing something I am calling my 1kk challenge.

“What’s a 1kk challenge Vaughan?” I hear you ask. Well, as you asked…

Every year I do a mad challenge. A few years back it was cycling the length of NZ solo, this year is going dry for a year, a couple of years back it was starting some startup thingy. I have quit watching all televised sports for a year (now into my 6th year), quit all mainstream news media for a year (into year 3 now).   Sometimes it is quitting things, sometimes doing new things.  I try and alternate.  And so next year I am doing a 1kk.

The idea is simple, you can run, walk, swim, ride, pogo but you have to do it for 1,000k’s (1k-k).  Or 1,000,000 meters.  Woah, that sounds a lot.

1 million meters

You don’t have to do it all at once, that’s a lot of running or walking and would be MAD, but the aim is that over the course of a year (or a bit longer or shorter) you clock up 1,000k’s.

I am going to run it. The aim is a daily 3km run, or a weekly 20km run. 1,000km is far enough that you would need to keep to a regular commitment to do it, and obviously measure it.  Doing something 3km a day is achievable by almost anyone, and get’s you into a good regular fitness pattern.  Well that’s what I figure anyway.  Ask me again in July if it is a good idea.

You should do it to.  If not only so I have someone who can hold me accountable, but more importantly ’cause I think it would be awesome!  We can become best buddies on RunKeeper.

You may just walk it, that’s a 3km walk a day (2.74km to be precise). Rollerskate? Might be tough. It is a WHOLE YEAR, and trust me, that’s a long time to do something EVERY DAY. But the rewards from doing something like this are huge, HUGE! How great will you feel at the end?  AWESOME, trust me.

I will post how I go here.  If anyone is keen to do something similar let me know.  Think twice about that xmas ham.

New York, Chicago (and Ottawa)

I just had an amazing week travelling to NY, then Ottawa, then Chicago.  Loved the snow, and the buzz of NYC.  I would go back in a heartbeat.

Times Square

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Happy times

I have been quiet for a while as I put my head down on my latest work projects. Things are rocketing along and going pretty damn well, but the last 12 months have been anything but a walk in the park.

My mother, my mum, the inspiration for my NZ long bike ride in 2009, passed away in October.  It was unexpected and heartbreaking.  I spent half the year sitting beside her in hospitals, unbeknownst to me at the time, watching her slip away.  The doctors all told us she would be home by Xmas.

Mum was one of these special people who touched so many.  At her funeral people were spilling out the door.  We underestimated just how many people needed to say goodbye to someone very special to them too.

So I had an idea last night looking through old photos, as I am so busy with life and work at the moment, and I am pretty poor at blogging these days, that I should at least take the time now and then to post a happy photo of something from the last few years to share it, and hopefully make someone else happy. That’s the sort of thing that Mum would have liked.

And so, upon reflection about Mum’s passing, and as I started writing this post , I looked at life and the things I might not be so proud of, or might not have made Mum so proud. The one thing that pained Mum, every single time I would walk into her kitchen she would say “When are you going to stop working so hard, you are going to kill yourself you know, you should slow down and enjoy like, smell the flowers…” and so on usually for the next five minutes, and I would nod and say “soon, soon Mum soon”.

Working hard is just what I do for some reason, I can’t help it, and right up until a few minutes ago, as my fingers started tapping the keyboard, as I thought about this post and if I could spare 10 minutes to write this now,  I could hear Mum’s words and see her disappointed glances in her kitchen (which would quickly turn into warm smiles) and I berated myself yet again that I never took the time to slow down for Mum. I should have been more like her, kind giving and always doing things for others as she always did.  But then I realised something. I work hard because that’s exactly what she did.

Mum was a solo parent, raising three boys, in a wheelchair.  She did everything for us, she never stopped.  We were always broke, Mum didn’t have ACC to fall back on, we had to get by on an invalids benefit and she fought for every cent of it to get us kids fed, through school and where possible making sure we never went without. She had super human strength, and she never let her wheelchair stop her.

In the 80′s Mum took out a series of bank loans to buy us a computer. Actually not just one but a Spectrum, a Sega, then a C64, followed by a series of PCs, unheard of at the time, and her friends and neighbours thought she was mad.  Why was this woman on benefit buying crazy expensive computers?  Well us boys lived on them, when we weren’t climbing trees, playing with fireworks, and getting into trouble with the law (ssshh) we were punching in hex games from a magazine, and saving them to cassette.  We were writing programs, dialing up BBS sites till 3am on our 2400 baud modem.  We were dreaming of the possibilities  of what we could do.  We were learning a trade that would see us set up well for the next century.  She worked hard to pay those loans back and to make sure we didn’t miss out.

I don’t slow down because she didn’t. I always push myself because I wanted to make her proud and to show her all her hard work and her investment in us was not wasted. She was proud. You don’t usually learn how proud your parents are until you lose them, going through all her boxes, full of things from your past that she kept as momentos, from report cards, to newspaper clippings, to a lock of hair. She was so proud, she just wanted me to be happy more than anything else.

Even though Mum worked so hard raising us boys, and making sure we had everything, what Mum could do was take the time to smell the roses too. She was always one for a laugh, a glass of wine and lending a hand. I have only just realised that Mum wasn’t telling me to stop.  She was telling me to slow down now and then.

I am not superstitious or overly spiritual but I think Mum is still there somewhere not necessarily “out there” but more “inside”. I am my mother’s son, and I will work hard to make sure the people I love don’t miss out.  But my girls will be their father’s daughters, and as Mum showed me how to work hard, but find the time to slow down now and then, I need to start learning how I can do the same for my girls, show them how to live a good and happy life.  Work hard for the things and people you love, but find the time to sit back now and then and take it easy.  When they walk into my kitchen in 20 years time, I don’t want to feel like too much of a hypocrite when I berate them for not smelling the roses.

And so, here it is.  One of many happy photos to remind me to smell some roses now and then.

The girls hanging out at Granny's

Starting with a clean plate

Well I have just cycled the length of New Zealand. Cool! Now what?

I did the cycle to prove a point, that nothing is impossible. Somethings are improbable but there is a big difference between improbable and impossible. I never thought I would be able to do something like ride a bike from one end of the country to the other, very improbable. So I broke it down, figured out what I needed to do, I came up with a plan and I did it. I took the improbable, removed as much of the risk and uncertainties as possible and boiled it down to a bunch of smaller things I could achieve:

  • Ride a bike? check.
  • Ride a bike up a hill (without vomiting)? check.
  • Ride a bike for a whole day? check.
  • Ride a bike for a day then be able to get up the next day and do it again? check.

That was it. I found a replicable formula and then kept doing it until I got to the end. It is often too easy to put up barriers in front of goals, some fickle and no more substantial than a sheet of rice paper, and for you to use these as excuses as to why you can not achieve your goals. Along the way I lost 20kg, met a heap of interesting people, and had plenty of time to just think, something we all deprive ourselves of in our busy lives. The trip was a journey of discovery for myself, and I learnt a lot. Okay, I will get off of my horse now.

So, now that adventure is complete, I have this bubbling enthusiasm running through my veins and I now found myself at the next start line ready for the next adventure, which is pretty exciting. No I am not looking to roller-skate around the Antarctic, or pogo Route 66. As a part of preparing myself for the ride, I cleared all of my commitments from my plate, and now I have one of those rare and exhilarating opportunities in front of me. The opportunity to load my plate up as high as I like with new and exciting things.

So if you have any ideas, or you think I might be able to help you out with something let me know. There are some brief details on my background here. If you know me you will know I also posses boundless enthusiasm and optimism, something I am not afraid of offering about myself. I can’t offer my time free, I have bills to pay. But get in touch I would love to hear from you, before my plate fills up again.

Geeking my ride with my mobile office

You know what they say, “You can take a geek away from his computer, but chances are it’s a laptop and he will take it with him.”

When planning my ride up the country I wondered if I should just leave all the gadgets behind me for two months and go cold turkey, but who was I kidding, not anyone who knew me that’s for sure. And so as I ride the length of New Zealand I will be blogging, tweeting and posting videos to YouTube. I may even chip away at the new start-up project that has been keeping me busy for a bit. The thing is, you can.

When I came back from overseas 9 years ago, freshly inspired by seeing the world and travelling, I set up my first business, which specialised in tele-computing and mobile computing, and at the time you could finally put together all the building blocks to achieve true mobile computing. The technology at the time sucked comparatively to what we have got now, and even what we have now sucks a wee bit and is slowly getting better, but it still let people operate and stay connected on the move. At the time everyone went on about the remote workforce, tele-commuting and the mobile office but people weren’t interested in implementing it. Companies didn’t want people to work from home, not because it was too hard, but because they didn’t trust them and it was too hard to keep an eye on them. This is all another story, which I may well come back to in the near future, but for now my point is that today it is really easy to get away from the shackles of your desk and do business on the road.

At work, we operate the [business:Voom Studio] office totally in the cloud. We use Google Apps for email and documents. We use [business:WorkflowMax] for job management and time tracking. All our billing and accounts are handled through [business:Xero]. The new software product we are developing is SaaS based. Our code repository is totally up in the cloud also so there is no physical reason to physically be in there. The only gear that sits in the office is a printer and an Apple Time Capsule used for storing any large files we are working with, but mainly for storing software, video and any other heavy files (games usually). For collaboration however you cant beat having a chat at someone’s desk or just calling out across the office. That and the fact that customers like to know you “exist” are probably the only reasons we have a Voom office at all.

Here is my mobile office.

My mobile office

My mobile office

This setup lets me do everything I would normally do from my desk, with the added bonus of taking video and photos, neither of which would be very interesting taken from my desk.

There is only one thing that bothers me about my mobile office setup and that is that everything on the left should actually be just one device. If I could have an iPhone that took HD video and let me access the net on my laptop via mobile data then I would be in heaven. In fact I would put money on Apple including fairly decent video camera in the next hardware version of the iPhone, then it would be the single pocket powerhouse computer you would need. Apple, please buy Flip. Samsung and LG are both on the market with a HD video phone, but they are not iPhones are they. The good news is all these devices charge via USB, so I can leave all their associated power cables behind.

The Flip Mino is my latest toy, and I had to ship one in from the US at the last minute when I discovered Flip had removed the off shore sales limitation on their products. It is pocket HD juiciness. I have already in one afternoon put together my first video as an experiment. 30 minutes of footage from a ride, condensed into 2 minutes with voice over and music, thanks to the brilliance of the Mino, and the magic of iMovie. The Mino HD can record on device an hour of video at HD resolution. The brilliance of the Flip cameras are their easy of use and convenience. Smaller than your average cellphone, and lighter, with a single big red button that makes it really easy to point, click and you are recording your next YouTube masterpiece. No fiddly focus rings, or zoom buttons. No back light controls and no on camera effects or editing. Just record. When you plug it into your computer, you can suck off all the video and fiddle with it in your video edit suite of choice. In my case I have a mac so it is iMovie, which does the job just nicely. Today our home computers have plenty of grunt to process video and audio and all we want from a camera is the data.

On my ride, for the mobile data side of things I am using a vodem, and I will pop my SIM card out of my iPhone and use that so as to not have to maintain two data accounts. Hopefully this works. I have tried it out and I could connect from my MacBook, but knowing Vodafone and their screwy data connection settings, my usage may not be billed against my iPhone data allowance.

Finally my iPhone will be my phone, GPS and map, and email and twitter on the go.

All this fits into a surprisingly small bundle. I have water proof bags so no need to stress about being caught in the rain. So I can be anywhere and do everything I would normally need to do on any given day. Customer meetings will be a bit of a pain, but otherwise it will be just like I am still at work, but with 7 hours cycling each day. Now if I could figure out how to type as I ride then life would be just grand.

Make an online newspaper worth reading, please

A little while ago I saw a fantastic TED talk by Jacek Utko, who told us how through design he helped turn around flagging newspaper readership numbers in Eastern Europe through good design. He basically turned what was your standard boring and drab newspaper format and turned them in to a more designed and visually rich experience that readers wanted to hold, read and enjoy.

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“Design can change not just your product, it can change your workflow, it can change your company. We just need inspiration, vision, and determination to operate at the highest level. To be good is not enough.” – Jacek Utko

It is no secret that newspapers are facing extinction in the print form. People are looking online for their source of news and current affairs and they don’t want to read yesterdays news any more. The monopoly on news is no longer tightly controlled by the media agencies. Each day they lose a little bit more control to independent blogs, websites, twitter and Facebook, although slowly, one by one the media agencies are buying these up in an attempt to maintain the control. No surprise there but they do this so they can continue to replicate a formula that has worked pretty well for them so far, which is.

  1. Write some words about something topical which could be news, or opinion
  2. Take a photo to make it more interesting (so it isn’t all just words)
  3. Add lots of ads
  4. Print it

Now, in an age where your teenage kids are producing videos, 3d animations, flash movies, and mashups in their bedrooms, why god why are the online “newspapers” not doing the same thing? Why must they cling so dearly to their archaic model for presenting the news? White paper, serif font, colour photo. Sure they have made the paper digital, but it is the same ole same ole when it comes to content. In fact, the print editions are more interesting and interactive, with their big awkward pages, and the occasional multi-page feature which has some nice colourful graphics.

For the online edition however, I would much rather look at something that is designed, and crafted, to stimulate and engage me. Just as Apple made a portable music thing-a-majiggy an object of desire through design, newspapers should try to do the same with their news. Seriously, lets take Jacek’s ideas another step further.

What if along side the “news”, newspapers made an actual attempt to add form to their current (and in many cases lacking) function. The first thing they could do is actually “design” their sites. Make them visually rich, easy to view, less cluttered and have some semblance of style. Things may not fit into tidy boxes and columns all the time, but they will just have to deal with that. But not only change the form of the news online into something more attractive in general, what if they, say, ran interactive features along side the day to day news, that gave you in-depth analysis on topical events. That’s the cool thing about the web, you don’t have to have just words and a photo. There are all sorts of cool things like Flash, JavaScript and Video. Plus each article is it’s own island, and is not connected to the rest of the news other than by a single link.

There is so much the format of the web allows you to do. For example, imagine if you can, a digital version of the traditional two-four page spread analysis piece. This digital version could be well designed visually to stand on its own as sort of a feature portal. It could be interactive, media rich and highly informative. Imagine still (are you still imagining?), as an actual example, a dedicated feature on the global financial crisis. This is a complicated story to report on because there are so many different levels of complexity to it, and it means different things to different people in how it effects them. Business readers will want to know different things to say, an at home dad, but both are desperate to understand the topic. Now you could give them a series of individual and non-connected articles on a daily basis that use text and a photo to communicate, or you could:

  • Provide interactive graphs, and timelines demonstrating the scale of the crisis detailing critical events and the impacts on world markets over time. A nice interactive draggable graphic timeline would do this nicely. Here is a nice example at the NYT (its a nice start).
  • Embedded YouTube style video of analysis. Here is a good one.

    The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.
  • Add other interactive elements that provide visual analysis on the crisis. Like graphs. Lots and lots of graphs and data depicting the scale of bailouts and blowouts. I like pictorials and graphics.
  • Use maps as a visualisation tool, here is an okay example, but you could do much more exciting things
  • Provide links off to key news articles elsewhere within the site about the same topic. Link them coherently, like “To read more on the effect on the New Zealand economy…” . Visually group the articles together under subject headings so you can see related articles at a glance.
  • Provide feeds from Twitter, so you can see what other people are thinking about the topic
  • Have some fun, include a flash game or two.
  • Wrap the whole feature up in a great fully themed design that stimulates you visually, and entices you to explore, and be informed. Make the whole thing an experience.

Or you could do this:

picture-26

What is wrong with the above (the idea, not Kermit)? Well for one, newspapers are geared up to write text articles. They employ journalists and photographers. They syndicate text and photos through existing channels, that are used to text and photos. To start producing video, Flash, and other media formats they, the news agencies, would have to evolve considerably. How would the editorial process work? What are the costs involved? Could they outsource the creation of such things to people who are good at doing media rich content? Possibly. There is a whole web full of content out there that the online newspapers could be using, but by including information from various sources, feeds and other websites they are potentially losing control of your viewer-ship. They fear that you may wander off to the sources directly (the Internet lends itself well for this you know) and that means you may look at and click less ads in their website. Or worse, you might discover another site that is more informative and interesting than the newspapers.

For a newspaper to change from the crap format they have right now, and their sole reliance on advertising to something better and more engaging online, it will cost them. But, is this a new opportunity for them? Would you actually pay to be better informed and to get your news presented well?

What if they offered a free “news and ads” version of the site (this is pretty much what you get now). Then, what if for a month by month subscription you can get access to media rich, and more comprehensive detailed analysis on the news and current affairs. I want to be informed and to learn. I want the information in forms other than text and photos, and I understand that this costs money to produce. I am immune to online advertising anyway so they need a better model to earn revenue. I want to be entertained, and enjoy the news. If they priced it right I would pay.

Lets say they charged $4 a month (or a dollar a week), and perhaps 5% take up this new news+ option. If your online readership is 600,000 unique browsers a week/month/year, lets say that adds up to $100,000 a month in news+ subscriptions. That is $1.2M extra for an online news site like nzherald.co.nz, and for that money you can generate a lot of nice content. For you at home, for the price of a cup of coffee a week you can get your news looking better, more coherent and interactive. I would pay it.

Will it happen. I think it has to. News content on the Internet could be really interactive, engaging, and informative, but at the end of the day it might be hard work and they might need to adapt to new ideas. It will take some balls to change. Anyway, I made my New Years resolution to not read online newspapers. It might take a few more people to do the same before they change their ways.