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A few things Mark Wallace

Month: November 2011

Startup Advisors: Defining Success

A young entrepreneur I met recently asked me how to think about advisory boards and I ended up writing him a long email, which forms the basis of this post.

The biggest value-add I can impart here is a piece of advice that was passed along to me by an associate at the VC firm that funded my first startup, and it’s this: define success for each of your advisory relationships. Don’t just sign someone up as an advisor and then start leaving them messages asking what they think of the latest site design. Instead, be very specific about the kind and amount of assistance you want to get from this person, and then hold them to it. This entails some personnel management on your part, but it’s the best way to know you’re getting your equity’s worth from them. Advisors don’t get a very big slice of the pie, but as an entrepreneur, any slice is a big slice, so you want to know you’re getting an appropriate amount of value out of the relationship in return.

So define what success is in each case. From one person, you might expect to get an hour-long conference call every month in which you can seek feedback on the latest site design. From another, you might expect a steady flow of meetings with potential investors (one a month? one a week? depends in part on where you are in your funding cycle). Or you might have an advisor you’ve recruited because they’re well connected to engineering managers, so your criteria for success here is, help us land our Director of Engineering within the next three months. Continue reading

Transmedia and the Future of Narrative Entertainment

I have a picture in my head of someone’s experience, circa 2-5 years from now (and probably starting sooner, like already), that is about how we will discover and consume our stories — our narrative entertainment experiences of whatever kind. Imagine a 17-year-old girl. While finishing some seriously late homework on her MacBook one morning before school, she happens on a Facebook post in which one of her friends has “Liked” a 6-minute video Webisode of Ninja Dino-Zombies of the Vampire-o-Sphere (more commonly known as “Ninja D’s,” or in other words, Entertainment Property X). The Like was posted from the smartphone on which the friend viewed the Webisode, and is coded with the geolocation of the bus line the friend was riding as she was watching it. Our girl watches the embedded video on Facebook and discovers a gripping tale of highly competent giant undead lizards trapped in a world of bloodsucking astronauts — naturally, she becomes interested to know more about the story, and clicks through to a page that lets her subscribe. She reads a chapter of a parallel narrative thread that’s just appeared as a blog post, checks out the zombie dino-damsel’s distress calls on Twitter, then heads to class. (What about the homework? Oh well.)

In class, she’s embarrassed by the chirp of her phone — it’s a text message with a news headline about developments at the vampire space station. Once the bell rings, she clicks through to download the next 6-minute video installment, and watches it while she heads off to Civics, which is two corridors away (so she has plenty of time if she takes it slow). At home that evening, she finds she’s gotten an email flagging the next chapter of the text-based narrative. While reading that, she notices a link to a Web-based scrapbook one of the other characters has created, explaining his love of the zombie dino-damsel and why their relationship is fated never to be (she’s just not that into inter-racial vampiric hookups, it seems). Our girl is more open-minded, though, so she posts a comment hoping he sees his way clear to confessing his affection, and — if she’s part of the 1 percent — maybe even writes her own alternate next chapter (or couple of paragraphs, anyway), in which he does confess his love, and sets off to rescue the maiden.

Meanwhile in Des Moines, there’s an aspiring writer who’s been following the same story (he’s mostly been playing the associated vampire-space-station-simulation game, though he refuses to buy any virtual blood), who spots our girl’s contribution, and who decides to run with it. Because Ninja D’s bears an accommodating license (like all truly popular works of the period), our Iowan can go ahead and cook up an entire alternate storyline in which the lovestruck bloodsucker rescues his girl and the two fly off to set up shop on a nearby planet — where a whole host of spinoff adventures start happening to them, authored both by this guy (who is so good that he’s making his living off the revshare produced by his work) and by other readers who pick up parallel threads of the cloth he’s weaving. This material too gets pushed out in the form of blog posts, chapters, video, text messages, Twitter accounts, push notifications, images, and more — all of it placed within the broad stream that is a single entertainment property in the transmedia age.

Insert end-of-vision tag here. I realize, of course, that there are already entertainment properties out there that are starting to behave in a similar manner. But what I’m really talking about here is the system that underlies those works, and that lets people create, consume, contribute to, discover, and distribute them on a synthesized, systematic basis. If you are interested in helping to build something like this (or think you already are), please get in touch.

Other Transmedia Business Models

Henry Jenkins has a great series of guest posts from Brian Clark up on his blog at the moment. It’s a five-part series on transmedia business models, and it makes a lot of interesting points, including looking at transmedia production through the lens of ten business models borrowed from other contexts. Clark looks at five bottom-up business models, and five venture-funded business models. These range from self-financing, no financing or fan financing, to doing ticketed events, enlisting the audience as co-creators, or raising venture finance, as well as a few others.

Clark covers most if not all of the bases. (I also think he discards the sponsorship and patronage model too easily.) Here are two other possibilities he doesn’t really mention:

One that is somewhat subsumed by his “infrastructure” model in Part Two (fund the production in part through revenue generated by licensing the underlying technology), is a distribution play. I think there’s a really interesting opportunity here at the moment. There is as yet no good channel for the promotion of transmedia projects and properties (nor a good word to refer to them yet). They are discovered virally, or as part of a marketing campaign around a more traditional narrative property, or around a single thread of the transmedia property. But as the games and app industry already knows, acquiring an audience member can mean more than just having that person’s attention for the duration of a single experience. Once you’ve built an audience, there’s a great opportunity to cross-promote other properties to those people — whether they’re your own productions, or those of others (in which case you’re taking a cut of the revenue that flows through you to them). This strategy is generally underleveraged outside of games, and could be of great use to transmedia producers.

The other way transmedia productions could benefit from the experience of the games industry is in relation to “freemium” models. Just as free-to-play mobile games now make more money than paid apps, we may find that ticketed events produce less revenue than experiences the consumer can get involved with for free, but that require a payment (or payments) to unlock additional content of whatever kind. This could take the form of story threads that are not available to everyone, virtual goods for use in games or in character customization, access to premium live events, etc., etc. The thing not to miss here is that consumers are still paying for content in droves, they’re just paying for it in much smaller chunks.

All that said, these models are not entirely in line with Clark’s series. It occurs to me that what he’s really writing about are (very important) financing models, rather than trying to ring the changes on all of the revenue models that are possible. Taken together, these create a much larger number of possibilities than the ten scenarios he describes. That’s not to take away from his series, though, which is very valuable reading for anyone considering a venture of almost any kind in today’s media, trans or not.

Pervasive Gaming and Best Practices at StoryWorld

I was at the StoryWorld conference in San Francisco earlier this week. It’s great to see the beginnings of a cohesive community and body of thought emerge around transmedia and evolving narrative — it reminds me of the early days of the community coming together around virtual worlds, and what fun it was to chronicle that.

I talked to a bunch of interesting people, but only sat in on one or two of the panel presentations. Herewith some notes on one of them, titled Streets That Tell Stories: How Pervasive Gaming Engages Audiencespervasive gaming being the kind that inhabits the real world around you, that takes place over hours or days or weeks or months, and has as its playing field a building or street or city or actual, physical world. You may not have heard much of this kind of game before, but there have been some very cool examples (linked below, of course).

The panel addressed techniques and approaches for creating pervasive games, and was moderated by Christy Dena of Universe Creation 101 (among other things), and featured three panelists:

Some of the recommendations and experience that came out of the panel:

  • If you trust people to enter into the world you’ve created for them, they absolutely know what to do.
  • Design to accommodate different levels of engagement.
  • You’re not just working in one medium, you’re thinking pretty much 360 every minute.
  • You have to know what the space is like at all times of day, and days of the week.
  • There’s no point in feeling you should do something in a traditional way.
  • You want to be on the ground and scout out those spaces, see what opportunities arise.
  • You have to be able to improvise as a creator and as someone running these things.
  • We’re like Situationalists 2.0, we just have better tools now. — Jeff Hull

Hull introduced himself as Creator Director of Nonchalance, “a situational design agency” in San Francisco. “Situational experiences involve spaces and people and other things to add to the environment. This is in contrast to experiential design, which very often can be kept within the two-dimensional monitor-based realm. Our mission is to provoke discovery through visceral experience and pervasive play, by reengineering the way participants and audience members interact with media, with the space around them, and most importantly with each other.”

Hull’s Nonchalance is best known for a very cool pervasive game built around an organization called the Jejune Institute, in which players worked to solve mysteries whose clues were hidden around SF, take part in protests, and participate in other immersive experiences that took place in the streets and buildings of the city. To get more of a feel for the particulars of the Jejune Institute, watch the trailer, and read this New York Times piece about the game.

While this isn’t too far removed from alternate reality gaming as we’ve come to know it, Nonchalance seems to be aiming for a more immersive and pervasive experience than most of those we’ve seen before. I think there’s a lot of potential for this, especially when combined with tools and practices from more “traditional” electronic gaming — not to take away from the pervasive experience, but to enhance it and help drive players to engage. Continue reading

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