Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

Write like the President’s Speechwriter

Remember, President Obama’s triumphantYes, We Can” speech, or the hopeful New Hampshire concession speech or most recently the comforting Newton tragedy speech

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Words matter and a President’s words carry meaning to hundreds of millions of people; it helps sooth, comfort, and uplift a nation.

So there’s a lot we can learn about writing from the President’s young speechwriter Jon Favreau (not the guy who brought you Iron Man). This past week Favreau crafted one of his penultimate speeches for the President and shared some of his secrets gleaned while writing for the President.

First, nail the theme

One of the biggest mistakes you can make while writing an essay or a blog post is to blah, blah, ramble on relentlessly towards an unspecified goal in the far distance. Smart writers always get the theme right first, which helps with Act 1 and 3 of the piece, and then work around it to get Act 2 right – usually the toughest part.

The President’s working style with Favreau is no different.

“We wanted to make sure that we were going to pick one theme and not go all over the place. And the president said, “Look there’s the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and for 200 years the American story has been about making those promises real,’” recalled Favreau. For an underlying theme, they settled on the notion that “alongside our rugged individualism, there’s another strand of American belief which is that we’re all in this together e pluribus unum, out of many, one.”

Keep it short, keep it real

For cryin out loud, please keep it short. Everybody’s got ADD (thank you, Twitter!) these days, so holding their attention is gonna be your biggest challenge.

As Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter, said about JFK’s speeches:

No speech was more than 20 to 30 minutes in duration. They were all too short and too crowded with facts to permit any excess of generalities and sentimentalities. His texts wasted no words and his delivery wasted no time.

And, boy did Kennedy’s speeches work because of that very fact:

For he disliked verbosity and pomposity in his own remarks as much as he disliked them in others. He wanted both his message and his language to be plain and unpretentious, but never patronizing. He wanted his major policy statements to be positive, specific and definite, avoiding the use of “suggest,” “perhaps” and “possible alternatives for consideration.”

Yes. Always be specific.

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

Nah, I wouldn’t recommend that rule because not all things that work for Hemingway work for mere mortals. But, Hemingway was right about one thing – relentlessly edit your work till its worthy of public consumption.

Editing is an art form with the structure depending on how you choose to approach it. In some cases, logic will be the guide:

“He’s known for his rhetoric, right?” said Favreau. “But he’s also got a very lawyerly, logical mind. And so the thing he always does best is putting every argument in order.”

The night before the inauguration, Obama was done editing. All that was left were words to underline so that they’d get proper emphasis in the delivery. The president did a read through in the map room of the White House that night.

And, in other cases, reason will dictate the contents of a speech as Ted Sorenson describes JFK’s goal with his speeches:

At the same time, his emphasis on a course of reason –rejecting the extremes of either side –helped produce the parallel construction and use of contrasts with which he later became identified. He had a weakness for one unnecessary phrase: “The harsh facts of the matter are . . .”–but with few other exceptions his sentences were lean and crisp. . . .

But regardless, if there’s one thing I’d like you to takeaway from this post, it’d be edit, edit, and edit until your post is worthy of being seen by people. Or as Hemingway said to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934:

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Put it in the wastebasket, not on your blog.

Filed under: Best-of, Leadership Communication, Public Speaking, Writing, , , , , ,

Is Facebook’s Graph Search a Giant Killer?

Will Facebook’s “Graph Search” be a threat to Google, LinkedIn, Yelp, or Foursquare asks a question on Quora?

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No, No, No and Definitely Not. Yet.

The key is expertise.

Beneath the obvious user delight, Facebook is betting a lot on Graph Search’s core ability to connect people with what they’re looking for accurately and immediately. And obviously as the middle man, they stand to gain. Fair enough.

But will Facebook’s imminent functionality be a threat to well established vertical searches like Google, Yelp, LinkedIn and Foursquare?

All of the four kinds of search you can do today: Photos, People, Places and Interests, bear commercial implication. But the most immediate remain People and Places, which as bloggers speculate may pose a threat to Yelp, Foursquare, Google (Places) and LinkedIn (People). So, let’s take simple examples and compare Facebook Search with the other four searches.

Facebook vs. Yelp

I started with a simple search for “bars,” something I presume will be a common search on any local product. Here’s what I got with Facebook. For starters, along with actual bars it also pulled up law and bar associations or offices which was a bit odd.

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Now try the same with Yelp and you see how right away, they try to segment that query into the different types of bars you’re potentially searching for.

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Once you get a set of results, Yelp then allows you (and this is the most useful feature on yelp currently) to convenience sort by “rating,” “proximity,” “price,” “open now,” or even better by neighborhoods.

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I’ve gotta tell you; if you go out often, this filter is magical. But again, the filter is by utilitarian ratings by foodies and not by friends around you. More on that in just a second.

But before we leave Yelp, the third most useful feature on Yelp is their surfacing key elements of the review. So you’re at a restaurant and you’re wondering what’s the best thing on the menu. In days past, you’d have had to ask the person serving you but now you can rely on “the wisdom of an expert crowd” what’s the best food here and it works. Like magic.

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Facebook vs. Foursquare

Back to the topic of friends which is Facebook’s biggest competitive advantage. If you do wanna take into account which restaurants your friends are frequenting (ignoring the fact that expertise is the key), then try Foursquare.

The first thing you’ll notice yet again is the structured data (categories like Bar, Sports Bar, Salon) right up front (similar to Yelp) that Foursquare now provides you; though not as in depth as Yelp, can still be a tad useful.

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Digging deeper through the results, you’re gonna find them sorted by Foursquare’s own proprietary “Zagat number” that they conjure based on multiple data points.

Foursquare comes up with its score by looking at tips left by users, likes, dislikes, popularity, check-ins and it also weights signals more heavily for local experts.

They also show you a self-selecting group of folks who you know. Chances are most of these folks are more prone to bar hop than your other friends. But still Yelp really nails it with their community that they have nurtured for many many years who continue to write meaningful reviews that makes a world of difference when it comes to local search.

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Facebook vs. Google Local

While on the topic of a Zagat number, Google recently bought restaurant ratings site Zagat which now powers their Google Local ratings.  Zagat which originally started off compiling restaurant ratings of the Zagat’s friends, does something very similar to Yelp and the model here is yet again – expertise.

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Facebook vs. LinkedIn

Shifting gears to people search, Facebook’s people search is three years after LinkedIn launched its faceted people search. I know because I helped launch it at TechCrunch Disrupt where product manager Esteban Kozak demoed it right before CEO Jeff Weiner went on stage. (Disclosure: I no longer work at LinkedIn and don’t own any stock either) My mind was blown when I first saw what we could do with faceted search on LinkedIn both from a user experience perspective and I’m sure recruiters have found even more value from it.

Take a look at this demo video we shot in 2009 that shows you the plethora of signals a site like LinkedIn uses to hone in on the right professionals in a search. Easier said than done, and much like with Yelp, these signals have been gathered over many many years and such a search isn’t something you can turn on willy-nilly.

In all four instances the quality of Facebook’s search is insipid today compared to the robust community based expertise that the four sites have either built or bought .

The key is expertise. 

Now granted there are many things Facebook could do to build or buy their way into each of these verticals but the key point is that strength in local search across People and Places is not “friend” related, but rather “expertise” dependent and it takes years to build that. And frankly, I’d go with the critical reviews from experts in these fields and that’s an area that Yelp, Foursquare, Google and LinkedIn have Facebook beat.

Filed under: Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, LinkedIn Features, Local Search, Location, Mark Zuckerberg, , , , , ,

Bad Communication, according to Larry Page

I’ve written about great communicators like Steve Jobs, I’ve called out lame attempts by Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos who tried copying the master and failed, and I now gotta write about bad communication, courtesy of Google CEO Larry Page.

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Scott Edinger’s recap of Aristotle’s three rules of rhetoric helped me pull together the three elements of Larry Page’s bad communication skills.

1. Lack emotion and logic

Aristotle’s rules of rhetoric are credibility, emotion and logic. While credibility is a given with folks like Page and Zuckerberg, it’s emotion and logic (!) that these CEOs stumble upon.

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Let’s take Page’s comments on Google+, an area that’s obviously not Google’s brightest spot today. In Dec 2012, this is how Page addressed its “success“:

Fortune: It is a big bet. What’s most important to you? Is competitive with Facebook (FB)? Is it about weaving identity across all of Google’s products? You’ve talked about adoption being higher than you expected. What’s the measure of success going forward?

Page: I think it’s gone pretty well. I’m very happy if users of Plus are happy and the numbers are growing because that means that we’re on to something. We’ve got a huge team actually in this building. If you walk around, you see everyone’s excited and running around and working hard on it. I think that they’re doing great stuff. They’re making it better and better every day. That’s how I’m measuring it.

That made no sense. After months of touting meaningless numbers to showcase Google+’s “success”, the past couple of months have seen Page just bullshitting us with nada.

Take a another example just a few days ago, in Wired Magazine:

Wired: What’s your evaluation of Google+?

Page: I’m very happy with how it has gone. We’re working on a lot of really cool stuff. A lot of it has been copied by our competitors, so I think we’re doing a good job.

Now, obviously there’s no way in hell this is how Google (one of the smartest companies on the planet) measures success for a key product, ranging from “excited employees, running around, working hard, doing great stuff” to “lot of is copied” so we’re doing good.

Now who does this kind of talk remind me of: Dubya!

He answers questions like an 8 year old does when they didn’t read the book.

He just describes facts.

People always say: “President Bush. I think he’s stupid.” He’s not stupid. When you listen to him you realize, he talks like he’s talking to someone stupid.

And that in essence is how Larry Page sounds most of the time. Especially when he’s talking about Google+.

Wanna know how it’s done right? I can give you so many examples of Jobs’ masterful answer to tough questions.

Jobs was one of those rare leaders who was able to combine both emotion and logic in his answers, much like he presented Apple at the intersection of Art and Technology. Even when heckled, Jobs knew how to respond to it with a unique blend of emotion and logic.

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As I’ve mentioned earlier, the key here is to earn the respect of your audience.

2. Badmouth your competition

An unwritten law of communication is to not badmouth the competition, but somehow Larry Page sounds either condescending, like a douche (more on that in just a second) or plain clueless.

Wired: One area where people say that Google is indeed motivated by competition is the social realm, where in the past two years you have been working hard in a field dominated by a single rival, Facebook. That’s not the case?

Page: It’s not the way I think about it. We had real issues with how our users shared information, how they expressed their identity, and so on. And, yeah, they’re a company that’s strong in that space. But they’re also doing a really bad job on their products.

The part that really gets to me, is you can’t just throw stuff out like that without getting examples! It’s a whole other problem that the interviewer didn’t ask the obvious question: which Facebook products are you referring to? Wouldn’t that have made for a fascinating follow-up.

And it ain’t just Page; others in his “L Team” (yuck!) have done it earlier to which Jobs responded:

Just because you’re a competitor, doesn’t mean you have to be rude.

3. Sound like a douche

Finally, as I said earlier, you don’t wanna come off as condescending to your competition (or worse still) sound like a dick about your users.

Fortune: While the company has touted the success of Google+, its answer to Facebook, many analysts say they see little activity on the social network.

What you should want us to do is to really build amazing products and to really do that with a long-term focus. Just like I mentioned we have to understand apps and we have to understand things you could buy, and we have to understand airline tickets. We have to understand anything you might search for. And people are a big thing you might search for.

And so we think about it somewhat differently. We’re going to have people as a first class object in search. We need that to work, and we need to get started on it. If you look at a product, and you say the day it launched, “It’s not doing what I think it should do.” We say, “Well, yeah. It just launched today.” Part of this is you have to interact with it and you have to claim your name and make it work for you. And so I think for me I didn’t have any issues around that. I think that people weren’t focused on the long-term. And I think again it’s important if we’re going to do a good job meeting your information needs, we actually need to understand things and we need to understand things pretty deeply. People are a component of that.

As you can see in both instances people always seem to be “a component of” Google’s “need to understand things pretty deeply.” People are a necessary cog in Google’s need to “understand apps and things you could buy and they have to understand airline tickets.”!!!

Jobs on the other hand always began with the user in mind. Even in the example I gave above, he says:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve gotta start with the customer experience and work backwards the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re gonna try to sell it.

And as recently as with his last interview at the D Conference, this is a word cloud of his responses and as you can see “People” figures quite prominently.

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So if I can leave you with two last words, two more lessons from Jobs, it’d be transparency and consistency. Transparency because every word you say on stage has to be backed up by your product actions not the other way around. Consistency because what you say today should match with what you say in your last interview.

And that’s something we can all learn from Steve Jobs. Especially if you are a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company.

Filed under: Best-of, Larry Page, Leadership Communication, Public Relations, Public Speaking, , ,

Why I blog and why you should too

The toughest part of blogging is keeping up the urge to blog seven days a week. This post, inspired by Orwell, started out  as my quest to find out why I  blog, but it kinda evolved into an outline on why you should too.

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Trust me on this one: blogging’s tough to keep up with, there’s no clear end game but it’s totally worth it!

So blogging newbies, if you’re expecting a quick return on investment with your new hobby I’d say, don’t even start. You are likely to shed your blogging interest much like a New Year’s resolution:

“Avocational” bloggers are likely to drop off simply because it’s hard work to keep up the pace. Writing an insightful 700 word article several times a week, for no or little money, is far more taxing than snapping a photo or sending a 140 character tweet. That’s part of the reason a 2010 Pew study showed that the rate of blogging was declining among teens and young adults, who were instead spending their time on social networks.

But if you’re willing to stick with it, read on. Here’s why blogging matters to every single one of us (yes, every one reading this post):

1. Blogging gives you a voice

Blogs traffic in ideas and as a professional if you’ve ideas other than what your boss demands of you in a daily job, than a blog is the best way to share it widely. Quora or LinkedIn or Twitter sure help, but you’re playing in somebody else’s playground. I say build a blog yourself and it’s all you. You own your words, your ideas.

Get creative. You’re gonna feel the urge to do that someday soon. @dorieclark summed it best:

Writing is still the clearest and most definitive medium for demonstrating expertise on the web. But as thought leaders like Gary Vaynerchuk have shown with video blogging and fellow HBR blogger Mitch Joel with podcasting (i.e., audio blogging), as long as your content is rich and thoughtful, you can still build up a massive following and reputation regardless of your channel. In an information-hungry world, there will always be a need for expert content. And there will always be more readers and “retweeters” than there will be creators.

2. Use that voice with purpose

If you want to have an impact, you might as well be the one setting the agenda by leading with your ideas to influence the world. Reminded me (yes, I think of most things in life as a Steve Jobs quote) of something Steve Jobs said:

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you’re life is to live your life inside this world; try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life.

Life can be much broader. Once you discover one simple fact and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.

You can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

This thinking echoes one of Orwell’s motives for writing:

Political purpose: Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

And, I think any good blog or book has a serious purpose. The rest of them blogs are boring as hell; kinda like some of the older posts I wrote in Act II of writing this blog. A mistake I don’t plan on making again.

3. Blogging sharpens your mind 

Nothing clarifies the mind better than the concerted effort to write a blog post. I learned this from @adamnash who, besides being a prolific blogger himself, also used to be a strong advocate of product managers on his team writing posts for the company blog as an exercise in thinking through product features from a user’s perspective.

What’s true for product managers is true for any professional across the board. Much like the iPhone’s limited mobile real estate forces designers to surface the most important features efficiently, a blank page on a blog forces you to channel your ideas on topics that mean something to your career.

Open an empty word document and try writing down the first thing that comes to mind about your “job” today.

Try it, it’s a liberating act.

4. Blogging helps you connect the dots

Facebook may connect you with people you already know, but knowledge networks like Twitter or Quora connect you with people you gotta know. A blog is the epitome of this dynamic.

I’m still good friends with the first group of bloggers I stumbled upon when I started this blog. Folks like Ann Handley, Jeremiah Owyang or Mack Collier among others. As time progresses, your thinking evolves, you focus on areas your mind leads you to (in my case – social networking) and you find other equally insightful bloggers to friend.

Fact is: blogging expands your circle of professional connections but more importantly guides you towards people who are more in line with your professional thinking.

So have I made a persuasive case for blogging? Frankly, this post is more a personal rallying cry to help me sustain my blogging, but rest assured blogging changed my life once and I’m betting on it doing the same again.

As Steve Jobs said:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.

So blog. Do it if you really love what you do. Heck, do it if you don’t love what you currently do.

And the dots will eventually connect.

Filed under: Best-of, Thoughts, Writing,

The magic left the building with Jobs

I remember the moment Steve Jobs scrolled through his music and uttered those magical words – “scrolls like butter” – while illustrating the beauty of the original iPhone.

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It’s moments like this that you lived for, as a technology obsessed professional in Silicon Valley. And with Jobs we got to watch the Michael Jordan of technology, courtside, at his best. iPods, iPhones, iPads, the hits kept coming and Jobs made them look great.

So, it’s a pet peeve of mine these days when companies try to rip off Steve Jobs’ launch style. Not Apple’s style because the new PR machinery at Apple leaves a lot to be desired. But what Jobs created, no one else can put together, because it was and will always be classic Jobs.

Jobs in the above video is the same age as Zuckerberg is today. Incomparable!

Why “Public Relations” sucks?

Kevin Roose writes of the Applefication of Facebook PR in light of today’s Facebook press conference.

I’m sitting in the Facebook headquarters, in Menlo Park, in a room filled with the symphonic clicking of keys produced by hundreds of tech bloggers, all writing the same stories and updating the same live-blogs on identical Apple laptops.

Go on…

Zuckerberg has long departed — he was disappeared from a teeming pile of reporters and cameras and out a back door like a sitting president — so now it’s just us and the PR Borg. Oh, the PR Borg. Facebook’s communications staffers are paired up with reporters at demo stations, showing off Graph on a series of computers. The spares are milling around the room. There must be 50 of them — a phalanx of fresh-faced professionals with smiles on their faces and carefully scripted responses to our questions in their hip pockets.

These are today’s news factories. These are things I’d hoped would change with social media but frankly the hand that runs the machine continues to operate with an old playbook. And that sucks…

But wasn’t social media meant to change these things… Hold that thought.

Because no company can ever be Apple with Jobs 

I never went to an Apple event in the Steve Jobs era, but I gather that the pitch is nearly identical: the charismatic founder, the well-paced presentation, the subtle way that certain media outlets are subtly given preference. (This time, major news outlets — this one not included — were given off-the-record briefings about Social Graph.) It’s all drawn from a playbook that was developed a decade ago and has been used to transform a smallish computer company into the largest corporation in the world.

Not so fast. This playbook copied by every large company from Amazon to Facebook forgets three key elements for this communication to work: killer product, charismatic founder, real user values.

The magic with Steve Jobs was his effortless communication. A passionate user himself whose demos communicated his wonder around Apple products that truly changed the way we interact with technology.

Yes, Apple had their PR machinery but the difference was Jobs.

  • The difference was in backing up those missives by publicly sparring, evangelizing and winning over developers or journalists when they called him on it.
  • The difference was a holistic approach at communicating openly to users by treating them as adults.

Wasn’t that the utopian goal of social media? To help companies talk one-on-one with their users. Instead here we are, still mass producing press releases around giant product announcements, trying to reach the lowest common denominator at the lowest possible price. In some cases, at the ridiculously low price of $100.00!

Welcome to the future of social media communication.

[Disclosure: I own public stock in Facebook, I do not own stock in Apple. This blog holds my my personal thoughts on all things marketing and communications since 2006.]

Filed under: Best-of, Facebook, Public Relations, Social PR, , , ,

All the iPhone apps a Writer needs

Since my return to blogging, I’ve been trying to develop a regimen to get my writing in shape. A process during which I’ve put together an ideal stable of iPhone apps that enable me to save your fleeting thoughts – write and publish – whenever, wherever.

Every writer has their writing setup.

This is mine.

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I think to be a good writer, you’ve got to read, read, and read more. And then when you’ve an idea – write, write and write – wherever you are. Over time you learn how to discern good from bad writing, understand sentence structures, how to play with them, and finally through that knowledge how to break rules. Robert Louis Stevenson says it best.

All through my boyhood and youth, I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside, I would either read, or a pencil and a penny version-book would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting stanzas. Thus I lived with words.

If you choose to do the same – “live with words” – in today’s smartphone world, there’s a slew of apps to check out, but the sad fact is most of it is crap. After wasting hours investigating these apps, I’ve curated the best; 4 reading and 4 writing apps, that’ll help every writer keep their New Year resolutions this year.

Reading iOS Apps

My two biggest sources of daily reading are: Twitter, and Google Reader. Anything I see there that I don’t have time to read I schedule for end-of-day on Instapaper; also sent daily to my Amazon Kindle, which is my fourth reading app.

One of the main reasons I picked the apps below is their multi-platform capability. You start reading a book on your Kindle, pick it up on your iPhone’s Kindle app later or maybe read it when you get home at the end of the day: all synced up. Same for the other three apps below.

By syncing a book across platforms, including a Kindle smart phone app, a dedicated Kindle reader, and the audio version, we can read more by reading in smaller chunks. We can get a bit of reading done whenever we have a few minutes. And then we can transition to longer stretches of pleasure reading with our dedicated Kindle reader.

In general I prefer web based apps for twitter and like @Tweetdeck a bunch, but the main reason I switched to Tweetbot was the ability to sync up tweets based on were you read it (Mac, iPad or iPhone).

I was stuck on @reeder, a very pretty Google reader app on Apple’s iOS universe, but given the number of feeds I subscribe to the entire process of reading became a chore.

What I needed was an app that made it easy for me to skim through hundreds of feeds and Newsify is the solution. Works great on the iPad and the iPhone.

This one’s a doozy. I’ve oscillated between Pocket and Instapaper, back and forth, for a while now. But, this past week as I figured out my writing style, I settled on Instapaper. I bet Marco’s smiling. Here’s why.

Search archives: I knew this feature existed, but as a writer, I didn’t realize how critical it was. As I mentioned above, reading is critical, and with a lil digital savvy you shouldn’t have to struggle finding great pieces to link to or re-read just because Chrome does an awful job with their not-so-Awesomebar.

Now if you route all the articles you find, whether it’s on Twitter, Google Reader (Amazon Kindle: can we send highlights and notes to Instapaper?) to Instapaper, now you can search through all of them later so you can link to exactly the right article you’re looking for.

Amazon Kindle integration: There’s magic in the power of habit, powered by the habit of one.

The goal is to channel as many of these curated, high-quality articles, you stumble upon during the day, into one distraction-free reading app just for your eyes, for the end of the day.

Instapaper has this amazing feature to route the day’s read-laters to Amazon Kindle at a specific time of day. I usually set it up for end of day and read these before I get ready to blog for the next day. That routine works great for me. Here’s how to create that setup for yourself. Hat tip @_davidsmith.

Before diving into the details I want to try and explain why this feature is so incredibly useful and has changed so fundamentally how I read content from the web. The Kindle is a device with a singular focus, reading. While it isn’t without flaws, the experience of reading long-form content on the Kindle is the best of any device I’ve tried. The e-ink screen is gentle on your eyes. The insane battery life and tiny size means that you can always have it with you. But most importantly it can only be used for reading which enforces a mental focus that I find very relaxing.

Within that context reading my Instapaper queue on my Kindle is the most comfortable experience I’ve found. I even find it better than the iPad app, which will good in its own right but provides far too much opportunity for distraction.

Agreed, agreed, and agreed.

Writing iOS Apps

Inspiration strikes anywhere. Just ask Galileo.

Today’s digital world allows you to do things that a moleskine just couldn’t. The most important moleskine notebook you can ever have is the one you carry with you everywhere and that’s your phone.

While picking these apps my goal was yet again multi-platform compatibility and inter-operability. The four apps covers the journey your words make from your mind to being written and published.

This goes without saying: it’s always good to carry a dictionary with you and the iPhone app’s dictionary is stellar, not only allowing you to find meanings and synonyms but also helping with pronunciation. I wish there were a similar app for grammar but too bad there isn’t a Kindle version for “Strunk and White’s Elements of Style” – 85 pages of Grammar Gold. That’s Gold, Jerry. Gold!

All you need is a blank page. Now imagine a blank page with a blinking cursor.

As intimidating as it has been for writers world-wide, for centuries; a blank page is the perfect way to get your ideas down as they flow freely onto paper.

And, I can’t think of a better app that allows you to just [focus on the writing, one sentence at a time], while the rest of your words on that page wait for your edits. I can’t recommend iA Writer enough. The best part is that it syncs up your words on iCloud (preferred method) or Dropbox (which would be my second option since it may lose stuff when offline).

Give it a try.

Of course, in some cases when I’m working on projects I have it saved on Google Drive or Google Docs. It’s definitely no iA Writer but if you have your stuff there, then it makes sense to have their iPhone and iPad apps cos it allows you to edit content (spreadsheets or docs) on your iPhone.

The last piece to this puzzle is publishing your thoughts; a blog being the easiest way to accomplish that. My blog’s been on WordPress for two reasons: it was the easiest to setup when I started nearly 8 years ago and it is great at helping your words reach the right audience when they search for your on search engines like Google (it’s called search engine optimization).

But the downside to WordPress is that they suck at designing beautiful apps and frankly their iPhone, iPad app sucks.

So imagine my surprise when I found Poster, the most beautiful, minimalist WordPress app you’re ever gonna find. And, it works with Markdown which I use on iA Writer to write my posts. Secondly, if I want to publish in HTML, iA Writer makes it super-easy to export-copy in HTML which I can then publish in WordPress. Plus, Poster has Dropbox integration so you can carry your posts on the cloud.

** Markdown is the simplest way to format your posts within the realm of your keyboard.

Now that you have all the tools you’ll ever need to write – at any point of time in your daily life – all that remains is to write like you give a fuck.

A better metaphor I couldn’t have thought of, so here goes. Robert Louis Stevenson, take it away

To know the secret of skating is, indeed, I have always thought, the beginning of winter-long pleasance. It comes as sweet deliverance from the tedium of indoor isolation and brings exhilaration, now with a swift glide to the right, now with a deft swerve to the left, now with a deep breath of healthy air, now with a long exhalation of ozone, which the lungs, like greedy misers, have cast aside after draining it of its treasure. But it is not health that we love nor exhilaration that we seek, though we may think so; our design and our sufficient reward is to verify our own existence, say what you will.

And so, my dear young friend, I would say to you: Open up your heart; sing as you skate; sing inharmoniously if you will, but sing! A man may skate with all the skill in the world; he may glide forward with incredible deftness and curve backward with divine grace, and yet if he be not master of his emotions as well as of his feet, I would say—and here Fate steps in—that he has failed.

Filed under: Social Media Tools, Writing

Quora’s Vision, Competition

Quora’s Adam D’Angelo penned an interesting year-end post where he articulates Quora’s mission better than they’ve ever done before. As a huge fan of the site and a disappointee with some of their recent work (Quora boards anyone?) I’m glad to see Quora returning to its roots.

Quora’s mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge.

LIBRARY-OF-ALEXANDRIA

Much of Adam’s thoughts reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, which predicts the beauty of Quora and it’s goals many years ago.

I read with joy some of the auspicious signs of the coming days, as they glimmer already through poetry and art, through philosophy and science, through church and state.

Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized.

Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.

That to me, was and is, Quora’s highest ambition: to educate, organize and share the world’s knowledge  from the sublime to the mundane (which is very different from Google’s “organize the world’s information.”) And, it was refreshing to read echoes of that in Adam’s recent post:

We hope to become an internet-scale Library of Alexandria, a place where hundreds of millions of people go to learn about anything and share everything they know.

Or as Emerson said from the users point-of-view:

The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges.

Matthew Ingram over at GigaOm suggests this pits Quora with Wikipedia, while Owen Thomas is more like Google v. Quora. Frankly, it’s neither of them.

The battle lines are drawn. Its knowledge platforms that Quora will find itself facing off.

1. Knowledge Platforms: The Old Guard

WordPress, Typepad, etc.

Frankly, any site or service that dabbles in knowledge dissemination is competition to Quora, the only difference here being Quora could be both the platform (like WordPress) and the connector (like Google). I’d have counted Answers sites in this mix but they’re either too niche (Stack Overflow) or dead (Yahoo! Answers and LinkedIn Answers).

So, blogs. There are close to 150 million blogs in the world with Google doing a pretty decent job of corralling that information, sometimes connecting the highest bidder with the rest of us with questions. But that’s not the market Quora is going after. It’s knowledge; a higher quality of information. And where do people share the knowledge they have – mostly on blogs and niche social networks. Think about this: the biggest drawback of most blogs is the ability to build an audience (the more influential, the better) but Quora is great at helping you find that audience and helps you connect with those who seek that knowledge (like Quora credits?)

But before they get there they need to scale their knowledge platform; hence, I’d guess, the push away from Q&A to everything that constitutes knowledge.

2. Knowledge Platforms: The New Wave

Svbtle, Medium & Branch.

Increasingly I’m seeing sites that aim to one-up the WordPresses of the world with “a curated collection of great people who have things to say, “a new way to talk to each other,” or “the sharing of ideas and experiences.”

Oddly enough, two of the above come from the House of Obvious Corp. (the brainchild of Twitter co-founders, Ev and Biz), both of whom “would rather build the next Wikipedia, than Zynga.” Guess who’s building the next Wikipedia – Quora.

While Branch forces us to take a second look at commenting systems, cryptic Medium seems to be aimed at publishers and media companies or something like that. Either way, all of the above are aimed at scaling the quality of knowledge that’s distributed on the internet. And by doing so they aim to become the Google at connecting knowledge with those who seek it.

You may notice I didn’t mention Tumblr because I feel they’ve carved out a unique niche for themselves far from either “quality” or “knowledge” by becoming a social entertainment platform with a specific audience (teenagers and time-wasters?), much like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post both of whom feed off of Tumblr.

3. Social Platforms: News and Blog Niche

LinkedIn Blogs, Facebook News

Much like Tumblr and Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn too have a distinct purpose that immunizes them against Quora. But increasingly, both of these social networking giants, especially LinkedIn seem to making subtle inroads into knowledge sharing. Heck, LinkedIn even recently launched a curated blogging platform. As LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, says in his recent post “It’s Not Just Who You Know, It’s What They Know.”

I’m also personally looking forward to posting on a number of subjects I’ve grown passionate about during the course of my career: how to scale a company; the most valuable management lessons I’ve learned; thoughts about the future of work; how to close the skills gap; and many others.

Topics that you can find answers to on Quora along with the more mundane questions that professionals across various spectrum have asked questions on, but LinkedIn’s scale makes this an interesting one to follow.

Granted, this is but a hobby for LinkedIn; their very own “Apple TV” but as I see it, 2013 is shaping up to be the year of knowledge networks.

Filed under: Branch, Knowledge Networks, Linkedin, Medium, Quora, , , , , , , , ,

Find your Inner Blog.

“Don’t censor yourself. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be cheap.

Young as you are, play dead — so that your eyes will stay open.” - Nadine Gordimer

bigstock_Diamond_In_The_Rough_6613316-e1313788970475

Thus ends Jeffrey Eugenides’ advice to 10 Whiting Award winners this past year. Words that resonate strongly with me during this holiday season for one reason: it’s a swift kick-in-the-pants I need to get me back to writing.

But, more importantly, it’s a welcome thought reminding me of the real reason I started this blog: to find my passion, and to find my inner voice. Words that give me hope that it may not be too late to revive my writing after all.

Other points of wisdom in the article that bestirred my writer’s conscience:

1. “A serious person should try to write posthumously”

That was Nadine Gordimer to Christopher Hitchens. Mortality’s a theme revisited by many artists because “almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Or as Hitchens put it:

“By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints — of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion — did not operate.”

Either way, it can be a most liberating thought. And one that frees up a creative block and forces you to think straight – for the long term.

2. Write with purpose, find your calling

For a while there, I halted my blogging coming up with a flimsy excuse that I needed to find an audience before I shared my words. Every day was an excuse to skip putting my words down on WordPress, while I evaded the hard work of capturing those fleeting thoughts.

I still recall the first time my blog got recognized with a spike in traffic (hat tip to Jason Calacanis). It was one of those magical moments where my passion met an audience. It can’t be planned, it can’t be faked.

You write your first stuff pretty much for yourself, not thinking anybody will read, much less publish, it, not thinking it’ll earn money, therefore not worrying about pleasing anyone or falling in line with any agenda; not worrying about censoring yourself, either, because who’s going to see it? And, miraculously, it worked out.

But once you find the audience, your mind starts working in reverse trying to please that audience, grow that audience, so you repeat yourself with popular “Top 10″ posts, etc. And over time all you’re left with is drivel.

You might begin to forget the person you are in order to write and sound like someone else. Alternately, you might be tempted to repeat yourself. To follow the fashion of your own previous work, to stop exploring, learning and trying new things, for risk of failure.

If you try to write posthumously, however, fashion doesn’t apply.

As far as a blog is concerned all that’s within my control is to write with honesty and try to share that with a few good people who may appreciate it.

As Kurt Woolf, Kafka’s first publisher in Germany, wrote to him after Kafka’s book tanked, “You and we know that it is generally just the best and most valuable things that do not find their echo immediately.”

Fashion is the attempt to evade that principle: to be the echo of someone else’s success and, therefore, to create nothing that might create an echo of its own.

3. Remember when and why it all started

The fuel to keep going is simple yet elusive. My favorite passage in the entire article is Eugenides reminding the writers of why they started writing.

“When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight.

It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive.

Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish.

As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother’s orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn’t. Even your dog knew to keep quiet.

And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.”

That’s it. Every blog post I’ve written that was ever worth reading was a response to that overwhelming desire to describe…

“The majestic advance of ice in the river.”

And somewhere along the way, somewhere in 2012, I completely lost that wonder. Circumstances and stress may have had something to do with it but I’m sure there will always be opportunities for stress. I feel like it’s about time I once again started reacting to the magic around me.

And over time, I bet, the rest will add up too.

The magic will happen. The dots will connect.

As a wise soul once reminded us:

“Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.

And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

Filed under: About Mario Sundar, Best-of, Thoughts

Did Steve Jobs change the world?

In the beautiful, rarefied bubble called Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs is God. Kind of like the tech world’s Eric Clapton. As a Jobs enthusiast, I’d consider it blasphemous to think otherwise of Jobs’ enormous impact in the convergence of technology and art.

But it’s an exaggeration (most of these articles offer business pablum, not facts) to suggest he actually changed the world. Did DaVinci or Picasso change the world? No they did not. Nor did Jobs.

Particularly in the Silicon Valley, a place I call home, some folks may be missing the bigger picture. A recent Quora answer by Susan Wu kinda hits the nail on the head. Thoughts worth reproducing in most of its entirety. So here goes…

Most of Silicon Valley is focused on building products for the top 1% of the world’s population.  Most of the world needs solutions to problems we rarely talk about, in areas like health care, agricultural production, sustainable construction, citizen activism and empowerment, childhood education, affordable transportation, supply chain optimization, community solidarity and efficacy, etc. And I’m not solely referring to base of the pyramid topics (like clean water access), either.  The average “middle class” citizen outside the US doesn’t have as much luxury to indulge in existential crisis and loneliness.

Most of the world is not 16-29 year old males. There’s a whole range of perspectives that go underrepresented in Silicon Valley. There are a lot of women out there. Older folks. Also, it might be hard to imagine, but there are a lot of kids not growing up on video games.

Given the above two points, the emergent ‘morality’ of the products Silicon Valley creates can be limited and not particulalry reflective of much of the world’s compass. All products inherit the values of their creators and have a sort of corresponding ‘morality.’ When you create an algorithm, it’s optimizing for something — it might be that you think “saving time” is a value worth optimizing for. Or it could be that what you’re trying to optimize for is quantity (quantity of access, of distribution), which can often come at the cost of quality and depth of interaction. Or like most of us who are successful Americans, we automatically assume that our stance on individual rights and belief in the individualistic survival of the fittest / the elite will rise are “ideal” or “optimal.”. Another example is our cultural bias towards the “cult of the celebrity.” And we tend to measure success by economic output.

These assumptions aren’t necessarily true or as relevant or perhaps ideal for a large part of the world, yet we often imbue the products we create with these values.

I’m not saying any of this is good or bad, it’s just worth thinking about. What are the values you are imbuing your product with?  Do they fit into your vision of the future? Be thoughtful not only about all of the stuff we talk about openly (design, business model, user interaction, hiring and culture) but also be thoughtful about this stuff too.

In this context Malcolm Gladwell’s recent comments that “50 years from now Gates will be remembered for his charitable work seems to make sense. No one will even remember what Microsoft is, and all the great entrepreneurs of this era, people will have forgotten Steve Jobs.” ring true. Even in the technology space, it’s Microsoft who has put a PC (may not be pretty, but it’s affordable) on every desk world wide.

So taking pride in your work, working like an artist (this is far less common than one would like) and designing the heck out of your products with a fierce attention to detail will probably be Jobs’ legacy.

As for changing the real world, there’s no shortage of hard work that needs to be done on products and issues that impact billions of people world wide.

Coming Soon: A list of non-profit startups that are actually changing the world. Here’s just one tackling a big problem.

Filed under: Steve Jobs

Why Instapaper should be afraid of Pocket

I’ve been using Instapaper for a while now, except for one short-lived attempt at trying out the gorgeous Readability app. I’d since then returned to Instapaper whose genius is just being there for you – wherever and however you access the web – making it the easiest way to save news and text content for reading later.

Enter Pocket.

Pocket is to Instapaper what the iPad is to the Kindle. Both of them have their own virtues. Both of them do what they’re good at very well, but unlike the Kindle whose biggest strength in my opinion is the ability to read any book glare-free on a digital surface that’s closest to paper, Instapaper plays in a mostly iPad world.

So, why should Instapaper care about Pocket

  • The barrier to switching apps is minimal

As I’d mentioned earlier, this was my 2nd attempt at switching from Instapaper to another site, despite both loving the utility of the product and saving thousands of articles on the app (more on that in just a second).

But, it was trivial for me to pick just the 10 most interesting articles to transfer over to Pocket. For the most part their save-to-read-later actions are similar, Instapaper wins in Safari while Pocket requires you to email the article to save for later. But, I digress… Switching over was not a problem at all and one of the main reasons I didn’t feel the pain of switching was that most of the articles I save for later are ephemeral in nature and don’t matter much anymore. The ones that really mattered were @longreads from various magazine articles that I hadn’t read because there wasn’t an easy way to pick the most interesting ones among hundreds (I save hundreds) on Instapaper.

  • Pictures helps you prioritize reading or viewing

Speaking of prioritizing which articles to read; when you’ve saved tons of articles to read later, and believe me you will when you are accustomed to clicking read-later links whenever you stumble upon something, chances are you’ve got so many posts that at times you just give up on reading them.

The Instapaper look

On using Pocket I realize a great way to pick articles to read is to sift through this content visually, which makes it easier to pick the article du jour that you feel like reading at that moment. Oddly enough I find myself reading more content on Pocket because of this one reason.

All articles; articles, pics and videos are displayed here.

Plus, since there’s an easy way to sort through videos Pocket makes it a one-stop shop for most multimedia content as well.

  • iOS world of Multimedia

You may think it’s not a big deal right now but in a world that’s increasingly gravitating towards videos consumed through your iPad on your couch at home, Pocket’s filling an important need. The reason this assumed even more significance for me is that I also do have Apple TV and so throwing content I find on my iPad over to the television screen is now such a favorite habit of mine, that I find Pocket’s ability to gather all those interviews I’ve been intending to watch on the web throughout the day truly changes the way you consume content on your Apple TV.

The videos only tab in Pocket

Granted, it’s gonna take a deep-rooted change in people’s habit to start using these read later apps, but I think the impending Apple TV revolution (I’m talking about the real TV Apple’s working on) affords Pocket the chance to really go mainstream while Instapaper will remain the amazing utility that it currently is to readers everywhere.

What problem does Pocket solve?

Pocket’s competitive advantage comes from an increasingly iPad fueled world of multimedia content. While Instapaper essentially became my TiVo of news, Pocket has now become my online TiVo, whether it’s News, online video content whether it’s YouTube or Vimeo or even twitpics for that matter (though I rarely use it to view pics later).

Individual Video page

By becoming the one-stop shop for all content, Pocket gives you fewer reasons to try out or stick with Instapaper, as awesome as it is, which is why I think Marco should be concerned right now. Who knows? At some point he may release the “Kindle Fire” version of Instapaper.

Do you use Read Later apps on either your browser or phone? I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are on Pocket? Leave a comment or tweet me @mariosundar.

Filed under: Miscellaneous, , , , , , ,

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