Analysis

Talent or Luck?

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There’s a lot of discussion about “bad luck” and “good luck” around here. My mom, who was visiting from Boston last week even asked me, “Do you believe in luck?”

My answer is that our concept of “luck” is fundamentally time-based. In other words, given enough time (or iterations), luck, or randomness, melts away, and each of us tends to our talent level.

For example, you can look at a guy like Matt Cohler.  He joined LinkedIn when he first got to Silicon Valley around 2003. Luck? Maybe. Then he joined Facebook. Luck? Hmm… Now he’s an equal Partner at Benchmark. At this point, it’s getting hard to claim luck as the explanitory variable for his success.

Were you unlucky not to raise money before the crash? Were you unlucky when your co-founder went wacko? Were you unlucky not to sell your company when it was soooo close? Maybe, but there may also be a pattern that a third party could easily discern.

I can point to 30+ lucky things that happened to me in the last 10 years that have allowed me to be where I am (where ever that is…). When people ask me about it, I tell them it’s mostly luck. And that’s true for each individual event. However, the full truth is that if you back away and look at a person’s career over 10-15 years, those thirty lucky things happen because of their processes and decision making.

For instance, those thirty lucky things happened because my team and I always work hard enough to have multiple options for every key success factor such as revenue sources, where to lease real estate, who to raise money from, who to hire for a key position, who to partner with, methods for trimming costs, etc. These thirty lucky things happened because I had reasonable judgment on who the good people were. They happened because I chose to move to San Francisco instead of staying in Boston. They happened because I stayed in the game long enough to survive 300 bad things so the 30 good ones could fall on me. Etc. My processes and judgment were such that over time, I am where I am. Over the same period, some people have soared higher, some lower.

It often feels like luck plays a huge role. But as time goes on, there is no such thing as luck.

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We’re looking for a Lead Artist

Here was the post we put up on CraigsList:

Lead Artist for our online games company with 1 billion page views/mo.

We’re building an online games experience second to none. We already have 2 million users and 1 billion page views per month and we think it can be 10X better. All we’re missing is a passionate and creative Lead Artist to lead the way on the art side.

You’ll get to work with a team whose last company signed up over 200 million people and with one of the legends of casual games who has done this three times before. You’ll be the go-to person for creating the visual look and feel of our games and our website. You’ll be first among equals of a talented team of artists and designers who will work along side you. This is a very hands-on position. You will get to supervise outsourced teams of game developers, providing them with the art and design to implement and insuring they maintain the integrity.

We are building casual games and targeting a female audience, so you should be interested in those types of games and in serving that audience. Our games are Zen-like, they are not violent, they are low on competition, and they are high on cooperation.

We have a sense of humor, we like to have fun, and we are pretty innovative so you must be the same. We also love what we do and work our asses off.

We see a huge opportunity in the casual games business over the next 4 years, and we are running toward the opportunity. It’s that time of life for us, and you should be in the same place.

You should have prior experience developing social or casual games with strong visual appeal for web platforms or PC. You must have superior artistic skills and background with producing visual art. You must have strong team building skills and the ability to communicate with other studio disciplines and management.

Skills

  • Experienced artist and manager capable of working in a wide variety of appealing styles. Our core audience is social and casual game players, primarily women 35+.
  • 3 years experience in game development with 1 year as lead artist or art director.
  • Strong illustration skills.
  • Strong character design skills.
  • Strong animation skills.
  • Excellent knowledge of Adobe Photoshop, Flash animation, and other art/design apps.
  • Bachelor of Arts and minimum 2 years training covering design, illustration and animation.

Our last company sold for over $100M. You’ll be mentored here by the best in the industry. Our offices are in downtown San Francisco, near BART, Muni and MoMa.

Send your bio and portfolio to our talent czar jwong@oogalabs.com

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Ooga Sponsors Social Games MeetUp

As we continue to build our gaming company one of our goals is to promote community in this space.  We are literally surrounded within a 12 block radius by some of the coolest companies in social games now.  Ooga wants to provide a forum for sharing ideas, insight, metrics, and experiences together…so we started the Social Games MeetUp.

Our kickoff event on Dec 9th was a wild kick ass success.  Held at the art gallery 111 Minna, we hosted over 200 game aficionados.

The event was titled:  “Five Minutes With Ten Social Gaming Virtuosos”

Check out this speaker lineup:

  • John Nguyen from MySpace
  • Bret Terrill, writer of “Bret on Social Games”
  • James Currier, CEO, Ooga Labs
  • Marc Wilhelm, Creative Director, SGN
  • Jing Chen, Co-Founder, Developer Analytics
  • Sean Clark, EA Pogo
  • Craig Sherman, CEO Gaia Online
  • Saurin Shah, Digital Chocolate
  • Hugh de Loayza, VP, Zynga
  • Jim Greer, CEO, Kongregate

In attendance was a who’s who of the local gaming space; MTV, Peanut Labs, Small Worlds, Mochi Media, PlayFirst, Yahoo, Google, RockYou, Slide, OfferPal, Zynga, SGN, Pogo, Dev Analytics, Three Rings, Kongregate, Gaia, and many many more.

If you are an Engineer, Dev, Designer, Art Director, Entrepreneur, Investor, and/or passionate about Social Games please join our meetup;
http://www.meetup.com/SocialGamesSF/ and look for the next event invite.

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Social Gaming

Gamification: Game Mechanics is the New Marketing

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In the 40’s and 50’s, companies discovered that if they put convincing messaging in front of people while they are listening to the radio or watching TV, they could influence behavior. But as those mediums and techniques begin to fade in their natural cycle of age and decline, what if instead of getting interrupted, people get wrapped in contexts filled with game mechanics that DIRECTLY induce them to take action. After all, there is no more consistent way to predictably induce desired behavior in humans than engaging them in a a context that uses game mechanics such as leader boards, leveling, currencies, stored value, privileges, super-powers, status indicators, random reward schedules, etc. It’s like life, and we were designed to respond to these stimuli.

A good example of this is Tencent in China, a social network where many members have virtual pets. If Tencent wants to increase revenues at the end of a quarter, they simply write a script that make a large portion of those pets sick, which causes the owners to need to buy virtual medicine for the pet to heal it. Voila, a strong finish to the quarter.

MyCokeRewards is another good example. It’s a loyalty program involving many standard game mechanics, which last year accounted for an enormous portion of Coke’s ad spend. Instead of spending the money on TV ads, they spent it on getting people engaged with a virtual currency, leaderboards, quests, and each other. (Gabe Zichermann calls this stuff “funware.” It’s a good name for it. I also like the idea of the “gamification” of everything, which I’ve heard Clay Shirky and Bret Terrill use.)

Gamification is coming to everything in the next few years. The next portal is a game. The next email is a game. The next social network is a game. Your next trip to the supermarket could be a game. Your next job could be a game. That means a lot of things, but for one, people with an understanding of those mechanics and how to create contexts will be highly valued. Second, gamification is just the beginning, and will continue for decades.

So forward thinking people should consider marketing dead. To heck with cajoling, influencing, convincing, and motivating. Create contexts for people where it is in their self interest to do what you want them to do. It works for them, and it works for you. And that might be the best part of it, is that as everything gamifies, we’re going to like it. It’s fun! and taking action in a well defined context with a clear rewards structure can be flat out meaningful for people.

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Ooga Labs

Ooga Labs Talent Czar

Hello world, it’s about time I posted on the Ooga blog. My name is Jon and I go by the title of Talent Czar for Ooga Labs.

I keep hearing from other companies and headhunters that there’s a talent war going on for the best engineers.  My job is easy because we offer something completely different. I probably speak with a dozen engineers from top schools a week.  I just have to lay out the facts about Ooga Labs:

  • We’re a team of super intelligent nice people that love to code and build stuff (RoR, PHP, Java, CSS, Python).
  • You get a wealth of learning because there are multiple starts under one roof with an open and transparent culture.
  • We build mission-driven companies that can change the world.
  • We’re viral experts, a successful team and proven management.
  • We’re a flat organization, working in small intimate teams in cool offices downtown SF.
  • You get equity in every company you work on.
  • We’re privately funded; it’s all about the product and our customers.
  • We’re a think tank environment with stimulating projects.

The most common comment I get from candidates is about James’ “Don’t make my Mistake” open letter to graduating seniors calling on them to come to the Bay Area and join a startup.  It’s a good (and short) read, and expresses well some of the personality and drive that you feel when you join the team here.

So contact me if you’re a software engineer or web designer/UX person and you think there is any reason we should be talking.  jwong at oogalabs.com

 — Jon Wong, Talent Czar

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Cool companies, Ooga Labs

Medpedia preview site is now live

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Tonight, Ooga Labs announced The Medpedia Project!

Press release here

TechCrunch here

Los Angeles Times here

This project has been in development for two years, and the site will launch officially by the end of the year.  It is truly an honor and a privilege to be collaborating with such amazing, supportive, and thoughtful people from the medical world on this.  See the list of them here.  Their vision and ethusiasm are a gift.

Medpedia is a collaborative project in the extreme, so please shoot us any thoughts you have and we’ll try to get them in before the launch of the live site.

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Cool Stuff

Astronauts

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Because of this medical project the Ooga team has been working on, I’ve been introduced to some physicians who are at the top of that industry.  I have been absolutely blown away by them.  They are like astronauts.  Focused, clear, physically talented, mentally agile, gracious.  Sitting and talking with them you can FEEL this amazing depth of knowledge, ability and character.  The rigors of that medical hierarchy must be like the astronaut program, where it both trains people and also weeds out those it can’t train, until all you’re left with is the diamonds.

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Analysis

The Economics of Creativity

Creative endeavors are, for creative people, estatic experiences.  Playing music, writing poetry, sculpting, designing websites, cooking, etc.  Fun and spiritually fulfilling, creative endeavors also make you popular.  Creative people will create for free.  Even at free, it’s a good deal. 

But in every age, technology favors some creative talents over others with huge quantities of money.  Often shocking amounts of money.  I started thinking about this when I read Billy Bragg’s editorial calling for Michael Birch, the creative genius behind Bebo (who is a friend and Adviser to Ooga) to share some of his earnings from the sale of Bebo with the musicians who put their music and video up on Bebo’s site and contributed to Bebo’s popularity.  A good summary of the resulting debate is here on ReadWriteWeb

It occured to me that Bragg feels wronged because he doesn’t understand that a technology shift has taken place and he, with his talent for recording music, will no longer be over compensated for that talent, something which he would actually do for free.  The new creative talent which is being over-rewarded is inventing great user experience on computer screens — something Birch would probably do for free, given that it’s fun, inherently fulfilling to do for him, it touches millions of people and it makes him popular.  His particular bundle of creative talents happen to fit with the economics of creativity in this age. 

Let me flesh out a few more examples to amplify.  In the mid 1800’s a grandfather of mine (who was an American) married a Von Brandenberg woman in Germany, where he was living with his dad who was the conductor of the Berlin Orchestra.  I found out a few years ago that a Von Brandenberg is kind of royalty in Germany.  How could it be, I thought, that my dumpy ancestor could marry a royalty.  I didn’t make sense.  Until you realized there was no radio back then.  People who played in the orchestra were rock stars of their day, and the conductor too.  Even the conductor’s son was part of the creative elite.  Royalty lavished big bucks on musicians and, I guess sometimes, fell in love with them.  That was the technology of the day, and it happened to favor the particular bundle of talents my great great great grandfather had.

Fast forward to 1925 when my grandfather was trying to make it as a cellist in Boston.  He got paid for playing his cello at dinner at the Chatam Inn on Cape Cod but he could barely support himself and his bride.  When the kids came, he became a machinist and a fork lift driver at a brewery.  His creative endeavor no longer paid the bills because radio was availble and the transition was underway in the 20’s from rewarding live music to rewarding recorded music.  Later in his life, my grandfather would practice and play the cello for free.

Forward to the 1940’s when my grandfather’s sister, Florence, 20 years younger than my grandfather, loved to sing from the time she was three years old.  It was in her nature and she would do it for free.  She recorded 8 albums in the 1950’s which were distributed on vinyl and played on radio stations around the U.S.  She’s loaded!  The technology available to distribute creative endeavors richly rewarded the talent for recording music.

Forward to the 1990’s, when a friend from college who won the Julliard Prize for playing piano, tried to make it as a concert pianist.  She was much more talented than my grandfather, but by the 1990’s, the economics of live music had deteriorated to $50 stipend for an hour performance.  And it takes her 80 hours to prepare for that hour.  She still performs every chance she gets.  She’s willing to do it for free today, while my ancestor got to marry royalty 150 years ago for a similar talent.

Designing user experiences on computer screens may be one of the creative endeavors economically favored by the state of  technology today.   How long do you  think it will last?

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Cool Stuff

Video from my Singing Group

The Richter Scales is a 15 man a cappella group I founded in 2000 with some friends. We often practice at Ooga Labs on Thursday nights. Over the last 6 weeks or so, one of our group members, Matt Hempey, decided to do a project to create a funny music video. The idea for the video, to make fun of Silicon Valley and the current Internet bubble we’re in, was a group idea, but the execution was all him. The name is “Here Comes Another Bubble,” and over 600,000 people have seen it in three days. Matt wrote the words, did an original arrangement of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” sang the solo, and edited the video. Like a man possessed, he pushed this thing forward.

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We put the video out there on Monday night, and by the end of Wednesday, it was getting rave reviews, had over 300,000 views on YouTube which was good enough for the #2 most popular slot on YouTube (for the minute or the day or something). (For you data junkies, we’ve seen that since we put it up on YouTube, we’ve been getting 94 views per minute.)Today, Yahoo saw fit to put it on its homepage as the main piece of content at the top. Hellooooo!The Video has been reviewed on Kara Swisher’s blog, Battelle’s blog, Scobelizer, TechCrunch, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, etc.There is still some viral left out there, my friends, you just have to become obsessed about it and pick something that strikes a chord.

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Health 2.0 Thoughts

I went to the Health 2.0 conference September 20th, and I’ve been mulling what I saw there.

There were health information aggregators like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and WebMD. I think we all agree that these players are doing a mediocre job. As you would expect from public companies with a lot of pressure on quarterly financial results, WebMD, Yahoo and Microsoft pages seem optimized for revenues, not optimized for answering people’s questions. Also, the language on these sites is inconsistent, so you never know if what you’re going to get on the next click is what you want or not. Google is the one that is trying interesting things, as this link shows and as we’ve mentioned before on this blog.

There were lots of social networks for patients at Health 2.0, the best being Patients Like Me, covering conditions like ALS, MS, Parkinson’s, and HIV. They said they’ll soon be expanding from those four conditions which is good news. In general, social networks for patients seem to exhibit a tendency to become whining sessions. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m sick, I like to bitch too. But the long-term, hard-core members of these sites — the ones who end up shaping the tone of the content — tend to be the personalities that never get enough of bitching, it seems.

There were a bunch of doctor rating sites, like Xoova.com, Careseek, HealthGrades, and RevolutionHealth. I think this is an admirable thing to do, but rather than rating doctors as bad or good, I’d like to see people rated on their expertise in relation to particular topics and diseases. Who are the experts in the world? Which are the expert organizations or hospitals in a particular condition? Of the professionals within driving distance of me, who is the most expert in the specific thing I’m interested in?

And there were some social networks for doctors, like Sermo, Medical Alliances and Within3. These sites are a bit like LinkedIn for MD’s — professional networking. Cool, but do these guys really have time to get online and chat away? I suppose if it furthers their research, but man, are those MD’s busy. Sermo has a unique and suprising business model — pharmaceutical companies pay them to listen in on doctors’ email and bulliten board conversations on Sermo to hear first what they are saying about conditions and drugs etc. It’s market research for pharma companies. Interesting.

Vimo was a thinly disguised healthcare-insurance-lead-generation site. Smart to go for the money, but tough for Chini Krishnan to pretend he’s trying to help consumers. It’s like LendingTree, where “when banks compete, you win,” but in this case “when health insurance companies compete, you win.” The fact is they are just selling your contact info for $8 or $16 or $22 to these carriers so they can pester you. Ouch.

There were lots of search engines, all optimized for something different. Kosmix’s RightHealth, in particular, appears optimized for revenues. Healthline seems comprehensive, but I’m still not sure what they do that’s different from Google, other than reduce search spam (and Google is working on that as well).

Then there were various insurance companies, content publishers, and associations who were locked in the past and locked in to how they make money today. There is so much money, the systems are so complex, the number of people and organizations that are affected by any change so numerous, and the moral imperative so strong to “do no harm,” that it’s clear why our system feels at once screwed up and at once impossible to change.

There was a lot of discussion about the future and helping people, but the smell of money in the room was palpable. Most of the people on the stage were stuck in this painful tension, talking about all the good they were doing for people, while their faces and voices revealed a desperateness to punch across some invisible line into a place where the cash flows like rain, as it does for many companies in the health industry. It was a common tension in the presenters, and one I came to believe is endemic to this industry, not just in Health 2.0 companies.

The health industry has a dual mission: help people who are often very desperate for you help — and also make money. In this way, being in the health business is not like the auto industry, or the movie industry, or the finance industry, or the electronics industry, or almost any industry, really. There is a moral imperative that comes to bear, but the reality is that we want to have the most talented people in the world working on saving lives, right? And those people could go become investment bankers or real estate developers and make millions, so we need to pay them a lot to focus on improving health. Thus, businesses in the health area need to make quite a bit of money to support the talent and the R&D required to keep pushing the edge. It’s a powerful tension.

As a final note, I had an interesting conversation with a woman who had been trying to change the system from the top down for 30 years, and was finally giving up. She was starting to pin her hopes on some bottoms-up ideas, and she felt the biggest thing we could do to change the system from the bottoms up would be to create a “computer program to diagnose people.” So a person could type in their symptoms and some other personal data (anonymously) and the system would pop out probabilities for various diseases and conditions you might have and what further tests you could do to refine the probabilities. Does anyone know of any efforts to do something like that? I’d love to talk with them.

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