Written by Tom Powell: Online enthusiast with an abnormal interest in innovative applications of technology, crowdfunding, co-design, co-creation, and crowdsourcing.

11 March 2008 ~ 0 Comments                                       

Odds and ends: Laser Cut Cake and more

How to Laser cut a cake

Ronen Kadushin offers up some Open Designs. Why not download a CAD of a design you like, upload it to Ponoko, and get the parts shipped to you — at a now-reduced price?

To follow on to my last post: A great list of Open Innovation projects and another list of Ideagoras — marketplaces for ideas.

In further comment about whether this is all worth it, whether open innovation and crowdsourcing will work: shouldn’t people be empowered to create what they want more easily? Whether that be through collaborative/crowdsourcing projects that facilitate graphic design, device design, feature improvements, etc.?  I mean, easier creation and distribution of content, designs, and products is what the Internet is made for. The real question: is it a viable business and can it be commercialized?  Of course, everyone asked the same question of free open source software in the early days, but the creation of open source by companies large and small, not to mention the companies who have created quite a business out of servicing and distributing open source, have put those questions to rest.

06 March 2008 ~ 2 Comments                                       

Spigit: Kluster for the enterprise… and will all of this crowdsourcing stuff pay off?

You want to know what Spigit is?  Read my last post about Kluster and imagine a more powerful, enterprise version of the service.

A friend of mine asked recently whether this crowdsourcing stuff works; if I could point to a single product that had resulted from “crowdsourcing”.  The answer is yes and no.  It depends on what you’re talking about.  Is it potentially overhyped? Absolutely. Is there one monster “Crowdsourcing Success”?  No.  Are there projects out there that are attempting to leech off of the crowd for their own gain? Yup. (I like to call these “failures”.)

It’s not a magic bullet and it definitely won’t replace a vast majority of processes for product development/design/refinement or classic freelancing/outsourcing work. But it’s an alternative, niche way to develop things and get certain things done.  (Crowdsourcing has become an umbrella term to describe a whole bunch of crap going on, so it’s a bit of a fuzzy term, similar to Web 2.0.)

But there are tons of examples of various areas that have been successful that can be called crowdsourcing in one way or another:

Open source:
No examples necessary.

Sellaband, crowdfunding of several album recordings.
A Swarm of Angels, crowdfuding and voting to create a film.
SliceThePie, funding, investing in bands
Prosper: P2P loans

Graphic Design:
Threadless, awesome tshirt designs submitted and voted on by anyone. Top 7 get made each week. I think their revenues are like 20 or 30 million a year.
Sitepoint: this is more of a design contest, you post what you want and how much you’ll pay. Dozens of people submit designs and you pick your favorite. Still, it’s crowdsourcing.

Product enhancements and new product development:
Dell’s Ideastorm, customer suggestions for new products and enhancements
P&G Connect+Develop, throw your ideas/products over the P&G wall and see if they want to buy it
Lego Mindstorms Community,

Assignment Zero, crowdsourced research and interviewing for a Wired article

Small tasks done by many people:
Amazon’s Mechanical turk.

Complex scientific/chemistry/engineering problem solving:
Innocentive, used by large companies, post a complex problem, put a price on it, and open it up to people. This has been pretty successful.  Companies get to tap into resources that they don’t have internally.

Just plain crazy:
MyFootballClub: crowd ownership and control via voting of a soccer team in europe.
Tribewanted, crowd voting, building, eco-tourism Fijian island vacation. I highly recommend it.

Yet to be proven
Crowdspirit, consumer electronics development, which is probably the closest thing to what you’re envisioning.
Cambrian House, focused on website/software ideas and creation: a good example of a ton of talk with little to show for it from what I can tell.

And, of course, there are myriad closed, high-powered, complex collaboration platforms that allow people to interact across teams/geographies to design and engineer complex equipment.

In terms of Kluster: Ben Kaufman’s first company was called Mophie and they did actually use many crowdsourcing/outside innovation concepts to develop real, successful products (specifically iPod accessories).  At Macworld last year, they had an intense, in-person version in which people submitted ideas or drawings, these were voted on, etc, and by the end of the event Mophie’s industrial designers had created a CAD mockup of the most popular designs/ideas.  They took preorders and then eventually sold them as real products.  They are taking that core concept and creating a platform for anyone to do it, digitally.  And they also had in place an early version of kluster that was actually used successfully to create products called Illuminator.  (They did a similar thing this year at TED.)

Bottom line: the basic philosophy has been applied in many cases successfully, but it is still a nascent idea that hasn’t been fully worked out yet.  (Not to mention that there have been and will continue to be many failed attempts and companies who attempt to exploit the crowd for their own gain, which will fail as well.)  Sort of reminds me of the early days of search: search engines were largely crap dependent on just counting the words on a site to see if it was relevent, then, of course, people just repeated the word they wanted to be top search for over and over again. It wasn’t until Google came in with PageRank that search took a drastic leap forward: the signal to noise ratio went way up.

(On a side note: the concept of lead users http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_user has been around for 20 years and successful harnassing of lead user innovations for the creation of real products is well documented.)

The thing that really intrigues me about kluster is: can you create a platform that can hit the required scale and quality of participation and actually create a marketplace (with real money involved) in which users are rewarded for their creativity and judgement (both intrinsically, because they are interested in it and want the products, and extrinsically, financially.) They need to: get scale and quality of participation and have a high signal to noise ratio.  My thought is that they should focus on a more narrowly defined category of goods, instead of such a wide range.

Three main points:
1) This is not magic. It still requires the hard work of individual people designing, engineering, innovating, and — my new favorite word — ideating.

2) It’s difficult to do right.

3) And most important: There is a vast difference between tapping into the innovation and ideas of your most passionate customers and attempting to incent outsiders to contribute who do not have a stake or love for your product. Projects that will most readily succeed are those that tap into passion that already exists rather than attempting to create it via incentives. 

— If you have any other examples of successful crowdsourcing-ish implementations, let me know and I’ll update the list.–

23 February 2008 ~ 1 Comment                                       

Kluster, a new wave in crowdsourced product design and development

I wrote previously about Mophie, a ridiculously cool iPod accessories company started by another one of those fantastically young entrepreneurs (he’s 21 now).  Ben Kaufman has moved on to a new venture, Kluster, after selling Mophie to mStation. Kluster is similar in philosophy to other idea generation and product development sites (Cambrian House, Crowdspirit, Dell IdeaStorm, Threadless), but they seem to be going about it in a different and superior way. Here’s how it works:

Anyone can post projects whether that be a “new product, an event, a marketing campaign, or virtually any goal that is better served by engaging a group of people”.

Break the project into phases, bite sized portions of smaller tasks to complete the project.

Sparks: anyone can post proposed solutions to a phase in whatever form of media they feel necessary.

Amps: anyone can propose enhancements or refinements to amps.

Watts: the coolest aspect. Anyone can invest watts, accumulated through participation in the site, into any of the sparks. The better your investments in sparks pay off (i.e. the more of your investments that win, are accepted, and taken forward) the more watts you accumulate. And, something I haven’t completely grasped yet, companies can offer actual dollars for specific sparks and then the winning logo/design/etc. gets money as well as the people who invested watts in that spark.  Should be very interesting to see the dynamics of this market play out, should kluster get some good uptake.

Decision making: kluster then analyzes the data, not just the most popular, to see how well each spark and participant does.

Besides being ridiculously cool (and located in Burlington, VT), this can also be an internal platform for companies to work on designs and new product ideas.

06 January 2008 ~ 2 Comments                                       

Tribewanted is not a scam. Actually, it’s ridiculously awesome.


Over the summer I took a trip to New Zealand and Fiji. I spent my time in Fiji on just one island dubbed Vorovoro by Tribewanted. Now, Tribewanted is a pretty wild eco-tourism/online community/adventure travel/communE-like experience. The group leased half of a Fijian island for 3 years. Tribe members have been voting and discussing online since mid-2006 regarding what to build and how things should be run. It was pretty incredible to be a part of the development, watch the progress, and then show up on the island to see what had been accomplished and meet the people behind it. The main point of the experiment is to have travelers very involved in the development (yup, most visitors join in the building and managing of the projects) 0f an extremely environmentally friendly and locally sensitive vacation spot.

The entire project was sanctioned by the local chief and employs a group of locals as well. It is perhaps cliche but it was incredible to see how happy everyone is on the island. No electricity. No running water. No phones. No hospitals anywhere close by. Yet, they pretty much laugh all day long. On regular occasions they come together to drink kava, a root that is pounded into a paste and squeezed into a communal bowl of water. It ends up looking like muddy water, but it is a mild narcotic. Every night they got together and invited us tourists as well to sit, sing, drink, and talk late into the night.

It’s a shame, though: a site called the Jem Report comes up in the first few results when you Google Tribewanted. The headline for that link? “Is Tribewanted.com a scam?” Now, Tribewanted has been going strong since September of 2006 and I can say, having spent a week there, it is very much not a scam and actually an incredible experience. If you go to that site, you’ll see the post has been up since July of 2006, when, granted, it was valid to have doubts about the project. Unfortunately you can’t easily email Jem and the only way to respond to the post is to register on the site and put a post up on the forum which is wildly unsatisfying.

I remember, around that time, Tribewanted had set a limit of 5,000 participants over the first 3 years. I found out about it when they had about 500 members paid up and was worried it might hit the tipping point and fill up within days. In part because of the above post (and the military coup several months later didn’t help either), I believe, the number of members shot up to 1,200 or so and pretty much stayed there. It is now at 1,328.

Hopefully this link will fall down the ranking once the book by Ben Keene about the first year and the BBC 5 hour documentary are released in the spring. (Ben is a great guy. I talked to him for hours about Tribewanted and his plans, etc. Can’t wait for the book and to pick myself out in the documentary.) For further proof: here are my flickr photos and some MP3s of songs we danced to during the wedding held on the island.

So if you’re looking for something completely different on your next vacation, check out Tribewanted.

02 January 2008 ~ 0 Comments                                       

Invest, trade, and promote bands on Slicethepie

Similar in philosophy to Sellaband.com though more complex and powerful, Slice The Pie creates a marketplaceslicethepie.jpg for the trading, promoting, financing, and finding of new bands.

What you can do:

  • As a FAN: essentially start a label with a portfolio of acts (albeit, owning just a portion of those acts); get paid to review music, finance new artists; get to know artists and be involved in the creative process; trade in artists by buying/selling contracts.
  • As an ARTIST: submit 3 tracks, then get 30 reviews. The 20 best rated artists go to the Showcase, by getting fan support they recieve 15K pounds to finance recording of album and they get to keep control of copyright
  • As a TRADER: buy and sell artists contracts, make money when the artist does; build a portfolio of great acts and help promote them.

Of course: will it work? And will it help ferret out good new bands? Who knows, but it’s friggin cool. The main issue is whether they are able to hit critical mass. An illiquid market could get pretty boring. And without enough activity on the site, they won’t be able to finance new acts.

It’s definitely a cool alternative the regular route 0f impressing (and then being beholden to) a few head guys at a label. The great thing about all of these tools and online services is that it puts the power much more squarely in the hands of the artists and the fans. It becomes much more of a meritocracy.

Here’s an example of a band that just won 15K in the showcase.

(I wonder how many bands without label support have a full time or contracted online promotions guy to manage these various contests and social computing sites….)

23 December 2007 ~ 0 Comments                                       

Which large companies are successfully participating in social computing?

GroundswellMy former co-workers at Forrester, Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff have completed a book called Groundswell that will be published in April. The book focuses on how firms should understand and work within the social computing environment. They have been blogging about it, discussing it with clients, and generally vetting their thought process throughout. Knowing their research — and of course, being all about the topic — it should be a good read.

A couple of months ago, they posted the winners of Forrester Groundswell awards: company initiatives that successfully highlight key aspects of social computing — listening, talking, energizing, supporting, embracing, managing, and social impact.

Charlene and Josh: best of luck on the book, I’m looking forward to it.

23 November 2007 ~ 0 Comments                                       

How Mophie got help from users in designing new iPod accessories

picture-7.pngThese guys have done some amazing iPod accessory design work. Mophie (now owned by mStation) also put into practice a concept I have been noodling over for a while now: involving end users in an interative design and voting process to produce innovative, niche products. They first rolled out an early form of what they call their Illuminator process at Macworld 2007. As they put it:

In less than four hours MacWorld attendees doodled over 100 concepts. Over the next three days the community and [chose] three that became actual prototypes at the show.

As I have said before involving users in the design process is not the answer to everything and when done incorrectly can have the potential to churn out total crap that no one wants. But when you take in all of the successful developments over the last year, the possibilities and power of something like this emerge:

My prediction: we will see more of this. And someone is going to figure out an awesome way to do it and bring all of these pieces together. .

12 November 2007 ~ 0 Comments                                       

Personalizing stuff with lasers is catching on….

A lot of activity lately around gadget and laptop personalization. Zune will be launching a servicepicture-45.png tomorrow allowing customers to buy their Zune with a laser etched design on the back and a few lines of text. There are only a limited number of designs available from well known artists.

Not a laser, but related: You can buy iPhone skins of colorful designs from DecalGir.


Recently, Etchstar launched. This service has some similarity to the model I am working on with my little side project Etch Connection — which has stalled horribly since starting b-school. I had spoken to a guy over at Etchstar (previously iStyleCustom) about my providing consumer generated designs for use by his laser etching service, but they have gone off and created their own supply of designs. Their approach looks pretty slick: they are an authorized Apple seller and therefore, you can order your new Macbook or ipod from them and choose one of their designs to be etched. Or you can mail it in, which I would imagine is not a terribly popular choice. Or you can go to their LA location and get it done. Designers will soon be able to submit their own designs as well.

With Etch Connection, I am hoping to provide a centralized, service-provider-agnostic source of designs which have been submitted by anyone. At this point, if you live in New York or Boston, you don’t have much to work with in terms of designs unless you know some artist types or are one yourself. That’s where Etch Connection should come it.

If I ever launch it, that is.