Work Note – Back in the writing business

A big update after a long pause.

Clever strategy to first announce a massive change in how we want to approach publishing and than just stop writing all together.

Please don’t do this at home. Or at work, for that matter.

There are both professional as well as personal reasons that led to this particular (non-)execution of a strategy that we still want to test in the field.

Professionally, we have experienced a peak in work load. Not utterly unexpected, but mixed with the fact that I became a dad (it’s a girl!) a tiny bit earlier than estimated, it led to an unprecedented reshuffling of priorities, in which family and direct client work have top priority.

Practically speaking, while I was enjoying and easing into a family routine, Johannes successfully managed to juggle all project at once. The understanding and flexibility that all of our partners and clients showed to a sudden change of pace reminded us how privileged we are to be able to work with those people.

Now that I’m back, we returning to an old routine and this post is an attempt to get back to writing. In that sense, here is a run down of things that we have been up to.

Publishing, publishing … and publishing

In various capacities, we maintain our focus on the publishing industry and keep a very close eye on industry news and developments. In that context, we couldn’t avoid the leaked New York Times report and Amazon’s very public confrontation both with Hachette as well as Warner Bros.

NYT Report

It’s a rare gift to get access to an internal strategy document from one of the leading brands in the publishing industry. There are a couple of findings that sprang to mind, but overall I’d have to agree with BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti that they are very hard on themselves and especially on their digital team and not hard enough on the print people. Considering especially the scope of things in Germany, where the pinnacle of news innovation seems to be a crowd funding project by journalists, the NYT performs beyond what most other media organizations can offer.

On a side note: it was reinforcing to see some of the findings and business model adjustment suggestions that we made for a client in Moscow last year in a similar form in the NYT report.

Amazon vs Hachette vs Bornier vs Warner

In a remarkably public way, Amazon and Hachette (they apply similar mechanics with Bornier and Warner) decided to show the world how much both sides don’t care for each other. The mechanics that Amazon applies have been document fairly publicly and – probably not to a big surprise – not quite in the market places favor.

Despite the assumed premise that Amazon does everything with the consumer in mind, they do not seem to back off in highlight of all the negative PR. In this context, the only thing that we can now hope for is for a leaked report on how much business they lose. If any.

Be it for the consumer or not, the consumer is the one that made it possible for Amazon to pull this off. The “everything store” has created a cross-industries pull effect of unprecedented proportions. They fell comfortable enough to not provide the customer with the exact thing that they want, because they know that the same customer will come back to buy something else from them anyway. A book or two more not sold isn’t going to make a behemoth of that size flinch. At this point, it would need a cross-industries collaboration to back Amazon into the corner they so deserve to be in.

Mobile Payments

As for years now, we are still constantly involved in various projects about mobile payment.

There is an unravelling happening in the industry. Starting with Square. A company that went quickly from being the darling example of all innovators to a disputed, cash-burning entity that apparently can neither find a buyer because of its overblown valuation nor does have the balance sheet that would make an IPO possible.

Despite all that, Square’s solution was regarded as the benchmark of the industry. It has to say something that this very solution is shelved now.

Mobile Wallets don’t catch on, because they are build in a way that mostly benefits the maker of the wallet, not the user. Many, if not most, mobile wallets are made by companies outside of the finance business. The play is to take away some of the power from the companies who are making a profit on cash and credit. Banks, credit card issuers, etc.

Problem is: for now, mobile wallets can’t be designed in a way that assumes that they are the only way to pay out there. Which they aren’t. Cash and plastic aren’t going to go extinct any time soon. I see a bright future for companies who succeed in building a mobile wallet as part of a larger ecosystem of payment methods. There is plenty of money in that too.

That’s basically what we have been exploring in the field. What might this look like? Where is the market for such a venture? Making feature lists, discussing business plans. This is an ongoing project, expect us to talk more about some of the insights.

With that, I’m signing off after a long update.

Week 113: More Writing

As our 4-day-work week experiment is coming to an end (and becomes normality), we start a new experiment.

4-Day Workweek

Two months ago, Johannes and I started the experiment of having one dedicated day just for consuming information. The simple idea was: if we know that there is one day in our work week that we can fully dedicate to reading, we will be able to focus more on the tasks that we are supposed to do in that particular moment instead of glancing at Twitter. Since I picked Monday and Johannes picked Friday, we also had the luxury of having only three days for meetings. That too is immensely helpful. It shapes the week in a very natural way.

As reported in the previous week notes, we do not see this as a rigid system that needs to be enforced no matter what. Instead we used it as a guide for structuring our work week. Some weeks, we won’t be able to dedicate a whole day to consume as much as we want and need to. That’s alright, because we are likely to do something else that is exciting and fun.

To make a long story short: the experiment of a 4-day work week was a success and will now become a general routine for us.

New experiment: more writing, more structuring

As one experiment found its happy ending, we decided to start a new one. This one was solely inspired by something that I have read about the way Jeff Bezos works.

Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

While we will not directly start reading out our memos, we decided to start writing down our ideas. No bullet points. Real sentences, real structure, real depth. From now on – and until the end of February – only ideas can be discussed in meetings that are have been written out by the person who proposes one and who actually saved their text in a specified folder. This sounds a little bit more rigid than usual and it is.

We are starting this for multiple reasons. The most obvious one is of course already in the quote from Bezos. Having an idea is very easy, especially for meta people like us. Shaping this idea into something more than a spontaneous line of thought is much harder and requires either a lot of discipline or a structure that helps you deal with that particular problem. That’s where our experiment comes in. It will help us reflect and it will help us make the most out of meetings. It will also make it easier for other people to help shape this idea.

On top of this, it will also help us get into the routine of writing more. It’s a skill that, if mastered, can be of an immense value and we all want to get better at it.

With that, I wish you all a pleasant week.

Week 112

Maddie discusses the process of writing to strangers.

Writing to strangers

One of the most intimidating things I have to do now and again, both at work and outside of work, is writing to people I don’t know. There is something about contacting people in writing that can be scarier than in person.

In person it is far easier to correct yourself, and to read how your communication approach is working through the other person’s behavior and reactions. This is especially the case upon meeting someone for the first time, at which point you’re still trying to figure him or her out. First-time conversations are constant revisions of strategy, in terms of language used, but also in sentiments expressed and body language. I have little trouble doing this; I usually enjoy it. In writing, these revisions are not as readily available, and while the outcome may be good, the process can be stressful.

An even scarier situation is where you want to make a good impression on somebody you don’t know. The scariest of all goes one step further: you also want or need something from the other person. There may be a benefit for them too, but ultimately you want them to do you a favor. Even if you have the best of intentions and your request is not at all unreasonable, this can feel uncomfortable, or even grimy.

This situation can be embarrassing, though quite often unjustifiably so. I’ve decided that at least for me the embarrassment is inevitable, and that as long as my intentions were good, and I tried my best to be polite (but not too polite) and friendly (but not too friendly), I don’t need to feel ashamed about contacting this person. And should things go pear-shaped and my words are wildly misinterpreted, I can always do as various GOP politicians have been doing of late, and say that ‘I felt it in my heart’ that I had to say the things I said. (I jest.)

What further complicates this matter, and as a linguist I’m perhaps a little too tuned in to these things, is that different languages/cultures deal with these situations completely differently. In Irish and British English at least, the tendency when writing to someone for something you need or want is to make yourself smaller, apologizing, using conditionals (‘would you please,’ ‘it would be very helpful if,’ ‘if you wouldn’t mind, could you’) and plenty of pleases and thank-yous. The unfortunate thing about this technique is that it can come off as disingenuous or even passive-aggressive. In German it seems to be more acceptable to be carefully polite, but still direct about your wishes. Since I write in these and a bit of my first language, American, it can be complicated to respect the respective traditions.

I have a sort of mental decision tree that I traverse in order to decide whether to, and if so how to, write to a stranger. This is a strategy still very much in development, and it certainly has its shortcomings. (Feel free to suggest improvements.)

  1. Do I need to contact this person at all?
    No? Then don’t, unless 2. is the case. Especially if it’s to ask them to do work you could really have done yourself. That’s when things get properly embarrassing.
    Yes? Then proceed with 3.

  2. Do I want to contact this person?
    No? If you don’t need to and you don’t want to, then what are you doing here?
    Yes? Proceed with 3.

  3. Do I want to contact this person to get to know them better? Or, do I only wish to thank or congratulate this person, or show appreciation?
    No? Proceed with 4.
    Yes? Write. Be quick, don’t overthink (but reread to be sure your message is clear), don’t throw out the draft or leave it sitting around for ages out of shyness. The person may not read your message, or may not care, but chances are that he or she will be happy to have made an impression on someone. And there’s even a small chance that it could be hugely encouraging, and really make a difference. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even get to work together on some project in the future.

  4. Do I want something from them but don’t really mind if I don’t get it?
    No? Proceed with 5.
    Yes? Ask away, but do so out of a genuine appreciation, and figure out a way that the thing you want could be of use to them too. Don’t be presumptuous, ask very nicely, and explain the situation and your motivations. If the motivations aren’t reasonable, don’t write.

  5. Do I need something, and this person may be able to help, or may know someone who could help?
    No? Then unfortunately the solution isn’t in this tree, and you’ll have to figure out something new.
    Yes? If contacting out of necessity, make sure beforehand that you are not able to get what you need on your own, and that there aren’t people you already know who can help, since these are usually more likely to respond. Once that is established, .

In higher-risk situations, I tend to get someone else to look over my note, especially if it’s in a foreign language, to make sure I haven’t said anything unwittingly that is inappropriate or ambiguous.

Of course the whole process of writing to a stranger is even more complex than all of this. But I think discussing the complexities can help identify which concerns are justified and which ones can be safely ignored. It can also help in figuring out whether or not the point of the conversation is a worthwhile one, or if it could be adapted to produce more interesting results.