How Long It Takes Me to Write a Blog Post

So one thing I had sort of meant to do is write about how my experience has been blogging 5 days a week (as I outlined in my post “Writing More”). I plan on doing a full recap after the four weeks eventually but here’s something interesting: a minute-by-minute break down of how I write my blog posts.

I tracked exactly what I was doing in 5 minute increments for two posts and here are results. I was honestly surprised at how long it took me to write each post – but that’s the power of actually measuring what you do, right?

First breakdown:

Step Up and Deliver: What Gymnastics Taught Me About Performing Under Pressure

This was definitely going to be a substantial post, though I didn’t realize how big it would be at the time. It’s funny how taxing an exercise writing can be. You’re not just hitting keys on a keyboard – it’s like doing pushups with your mind. You get tired and need to recharge. The dashed lines delineate different writing “sessions” – sometimes it was the same day sometimes it was a different days.

10 mins – getting bullet points for post in shower
10 mins – rapidly putting down an intro in wordpress
10 mins – listing bullet points in wordpress
20 mins – watching youtube videos of jordan, paul hamm, li xiao peng, jonathon horton looking for clutch performances,
10 mins cleaning intro, organizing bullet points, embedding video
10 mins distraction watching unrelated videos
20 mins – fleshing out the first half of the bullet points
—-
10 mins – fleshing out half of the first bullet point
10 mins – more distractions
20 mins – more fleshing out

10 mins – re-reading, editing, adding picture
20 mins of editing
10 mins – final touches


Total time: 170 mins (2 hrs 50 mins)

Second breakdown:

How Blogging Can Increase Your Luck Surface Area

This post originated as a response to a question posed on an email list – so it has a different profile, which is why I thought it would be a good one to look at. I dashed off the original email quickly and then thought it would make a good post – but of course it would require a bit of touching up. It turned out that I would spend 7x the amount of time it took to write the original email to finish a post.


15 mins – writing email response to question from the list

10 mins – added two 2 paragraphs

5 mins – reread, kill intro
20 mins – write new intro / 1st half
10 mins – reading posts from Lingbo, who I quote
15 mins – writing more
10 mins – getting a picture, formatting it, getting photo credits
10 mins – adding in links to certain sections, formatting changes for quoted sections
25 mins – edits, clarifications, making it tighter, adding more links, scheduling post


Total time: 120 mins (2 hrs)

Summarizing the Best of Hacker News – Michael Khalili of SkimThat.com

Today I’m excited to share an interview with Michael Khalili, who is the creator of an awesome brand-new service called Skim That which summarizes the top articles on Hacker News. He’s been iterating on the product with a private email list over the past month or so and now is releasing it to the public.

Readers of this site know that I’m really into HN – it’s an aggregation of links to important news, interesting ideas, valuable advice, personal stories and hard data, all with a tech/startup bent. It’s also a community of smart folks and a wonderful traffic source should you hit front page.

I’ve been getting the Skim That emails for a while and when Michael said he was launching the site to the public I thought it’d be cool to interview him and support his project. In this interview you’ll learn:

  • How he’s intimately connected to the founder of Mixergy.
  • What caused him to start reading Hacker News
  • How Skim That differs from his earlier projects
  • How he got 130 subscribers in 90 minutes
  • When he knew it was time to launch

I hope you enjoy it!

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Michael Khalili, 32 living in LA. I’m a web entrepreneur and been a coder from the age of 16. I started my first business when I was 18 with my brother, Andrew Warner, during the first dot com boom. We built a large subscription email business (word of the day, joke of the day, trivia, gossip, etc) and several greeting card websites. After that, I took several years off to recharge my batteries. I returned to the community about 4 years ago and experimented with different website ideas.

What is Skim That?

My latest project is SkimThat.com where my team of writers create summaries of popular articles found on Hacker News. Eventually this will expand to Digg, Reddit and main stream news sources. It’s important to note that the summary isn’t a tease of the article, it’s the content brought down the main point. My goal is to give you the relevant information from the story in a dry and direct manner similar to a news crawl. If the reader is interested in the topic, they can click through for the full article.

Each summary includes a link to the source article, link to the HN comments and the size, in percent, the summary is relative to the source article. You can see from the example below, we were able to cut the information down to 7% of what the source article was and still make the same point. Here’s the source http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/18/technology/18talent.html.

How did you come up with the idea for Skim That?

The idea for Skim That came from reading verbose articles. Often times I would have to skip the first or second paragraph because they were reiterating and elaborating what the title already said. Other times there’d be too many examples when proving a point. Those things are great for a casual reader but I just want the TLDR version. At times it felt a game of “Where’s Waldo” as I skimmed through the writing. The tipping point came when I was interested in the HN comments but couldn’t enjoy them until I read the whole article.

When did you start reading Hacker News? What did you like about it?

I started reading HN early 2009 when Andrew insisted I check it out. I was reluctant at first because I thought it was just another news aggregator. The articles were of definite interest to me but what really surprised me was the community. It’s a perfect size, just large enough to get a good response for a topic but not too big that it’s flooded with noise. There are also a ton of industry people giving great feedback and quality information.

Tell us about how you iterated on earlier versions of Skim That before the release

My past projects were based around code I’d write using asp.net. I’d spend months building out the entire site, then release it. With Skim That, I went the MVP route and posted a Show HN article http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2407388 I was on the front page for about an hour and a half and got about 130 subscribers. The list grew to over 200 after my sister tweeted about it to fans of her comedy podcast. That gave me a good mix of industry and casual readers.

This time the development work didn’t come from the build out of the site – WordPress install, a nice design and some configuring. The real work was figuring out the style of the summaries. For 6 weeks I sent 15 emails with sample summaries to my subscribers and asked for feedback. Sometimes I’d ask specific questions like “How do you feel about the level of detail?” Other times it was just a request for general comments. The feedback helped me hone the writing style. Eventually the only feedback was praise and I knew it was time to launch.

Is there anything else you want our readers to know or do?

As a child, my writing and spelling was atrocious. Seriously, it was horrendous. I even had to take a remedial writing class when I was 17. It’s funny to think back to that time now that I’m an editor.


Thanks for the interview Michael! Everyone – go sign up for SkimThat.com and check out Michael’s website at: http://www.michaelapproved.com/

Three Ways to Move Ahead in Your Career at BigCo

In which I discuss career development in large organizations and three strategies that can help anyone looking to get ahead when they’re feeling stuck.

I recently caught up with a close friend the other day about the “bamboo ceiling” mentioned in the Paper Tigers article by Wesley Yang. We’ll call him Dan. Dan is an Asian-American guy working in a large organization – he has been there after finishing graduate school awhile back. He’s been trying to move into a different position for a while – he’s currently working as a data analyst but wants to be doing something closer to policy development since that’s what he studied in grad school and it’s what he’s really passionate about.

Dan has been rejected a few times when applying to more policy-oriented positions within the department and thus feels that he is hitting the “bamboo ceiling”. Now there may or may not be an anti-Asian sentiment in his department but I don’t think his situation is hopeless. I believe my friend Dan is lacking the “political sense” needed to move up.


As an aside – I grew up hating the idea of “playing games” – whether it came to dating girls, negotiating scholarships or other “political” stuff. It annoyed and frustrated me to no end. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’ve learned the lesson that management guru Tom Peters has hammered home – “Implementation is about first, middle and last about politics – that is, dealing with your fellow human beings”. And as a guy who likes to make things happen – I’ve begun to study and sometimes relish the art and science of the political game, which, it turns out, is less “dirty” that I originally thought.


I think there’s a whole blog post or three to be written about what “political sense” means but for the sake of brevity, let’s call it: understanding how you can get people to help you reach your goals.

But let’s cut to the chase – after a long conversation, we identified three things that Dan could do to move ahead in his career, and I’d like to share those ideas with you here.

Note: I haven’t worked in a large organization (mainly startups and small businesses) but like Sebastian Marshall writing about getting a raise, my thoughts here are based on observation, reading lots, and talking to people who’ve been successful. Take them with a grain of salt.

Identify and Observe The People Moving Ahead

Dan has seen some people that he’s felt were at his level / similar to him that earned promotions or exciting new positions while he hasn’t. Whenever I hear about a situation like that, I treat it like reviewing the results of an experiment – you started with more or less the same but got different results. What caused it?

Dan noticed two things in particular that these people who moved ahead did:

  • They went to Happy Hour and made friends with other folks in the department. Dan is a little uncomfortable with going to Happy Hour – he doesn’t know what to say, who to talk to, what to drink, etc. So he doesn’t go.
  • They left positions they were unhappy / dissatisfied with. For a variety of reasons that include needing a steady paycheck to support his family and simply lack of courage (his words) Dan has stayed in his current position even though he isn’t quite thrilled about it.

I think he’s noticed two interesting things already that he could potentially use to increase his chances of getting the promotion. If Dan went to Happy Hour – . But we’ve just started. Let’s keep the advantage stacking going.

Ask Them For Advice and Bring Them to Your Cause

You can learn only so much by looking from the outside. I encouraged Dan to reach out to his colleagues who have moved on to bigger and better things and take them out to lunch – so he can hear directly from them what they felt made the difference in their careers.
Continue reading…

An Interview with Rico Andrade of Picturelab: The Go-to Company for Tech Videos

Visual.ly “Big Data” from Picturelab on Vimeo.

Today I’ve got an interview with Rico Andrade, who is the co-founder and vice-president of PictureLab – one of the leading video producers for tech companies and a division of Transvideo Studios, which has been doing this stuff for 30+ years. He also happens to be the guy I mention as the crazy, balls-out guy who deliberately did a one-armed catch on a high bar release move.

After seeing my post on how we worked with Media Sauce on our isocket video with isocket he was like “You used a competitor?!!  Don’t you know I make these??” And I was like “Really? Somehow I missed that.” Turns out Picturelab is a powerhouse in this area – they’ve worked with Google, Facebook, Intuit, Qwiki, Yammer, Box.net, Cisco, StumbleUpon, Mint and many more.

So in order to rectify this mistake, I decided to interview Rico and get his perspective on how startups and tech companies. In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • The recommended length for your overview video
  • The two big mistakes people always make when doing a video
  • What separates Picturelab from other competitors
  • How to make sure people actually watch your videos
  • The three major reasons why videos are kinda pricey – and how to work around it if you’re a cash-strapped startup

So let’s jump right in and I hope you enjoy it!


1) What are some top mistakes that people make when deciding to do a video?


There are two big mistakes we see very often.

The first big mistake is try to make a viral video or just try too hard to entertain. Making an overview video isn’t about creating the next “viral” phenomenon – it’s about helping users understand what your product is about, and why it is important to them. Most companies, especially startups, would be better off leveraging the organic traffic that comes comes to their site, and turn more of those visitors into users or customers, as opposed to creating more buzz via a viral video. There are a few lucky exceptions, but videos that try to be too cute, too out there, or two entertaining miss that point, and most fail at going viral (or at explaining the value proposition of the product).

The second big mistake is trying to do to much with the video - showing off all the features, describing several use cases, listing all the benefits, doing a full walkthrough of the product, etc. The goal of the video should not be to show everything about your product, but just enough for the user to say “oh, I get it,” then move on to learn more. We have plenty of evidence (some of which is public), that incidental viewership just drops off precipitously before the 90 second mark (here one such survey).

What our own experience suggests is that for these explainer-type of videos, 30 seconds is too short, because the explanation feels shortchanged and incomplete, and feels like a commercial. The sweet spot for introductory videos seems to be somewhere within 45-90 seconds. So unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, keep it within the 90 second mark.

Another reason to keep things short because is because conversion rates improve when there is a specific call-to-action at the end of the video explicitly telling the user what to do next (sign up, download, try, call). You want viewers to stay on long enough to be told what to do next. A longer video, even one that front-loads the your important information, is not as effective as a short video if the viewer drops off and doesn’t see the call-to-action.

Our suggestion: prioritize the few things you want to say, as much as you want to really show off that little feature you spent so much time working on…


2) What do you think makes Picturelab different from other vendors out there?


There are three things that separate Picturelab from everyone else.

Long-term experience in Silicon Valley. Transvideo Studios has been in business for 30 years, doing demos for companies (on VHS) since the early nineties, and videos directly for the web since the mid-2000s. We were lucky enough to be working for Google around the time they acquired Youtube, and as a result, did literally thousands of videos for them very early on, experimenting over in over with what worked and what didn’t. Because we have such large, metric-driven clients such as Google, Facebook, Intuit, etc… we were able to get a lot of data to learn what tends to work and what doesn’t, and we use that knowledge in all our videos. I don’t know anyone who has the same access to data and information as we do.

Adaptability to brand requirements. We work backwards from the look of brand, to make a video that seems that was created organically by the company that hires us. We take pride in the fact that we don’t have a signature that identifies our studio per se (sketch drawings, cutouts, etc…), but have an incredibly diverse portfolio in terms of art direction, tone, content, etc…

Absolutely the best quality animation, that makes our clients look good. If you get a video for us, you can rest assured it will be top-notch. We don’t want the animation that gives the impression that a site is run by two college students in their dorm. We want to convey that your site has the thoughtfulness, experience, and resources to invest in a video that shows you know exactly what you’re doing.


3) Why are videos so expensive to make?


I think a great video is an investment, especially early on with startups, when they could use the most outside help focusing their message and presenting their value proposition in an elevator pitch. If a video really helps with user acquisition, press, or funding, the investment is worth it, I certainly would not call it expensive in the grand scheme of things.

The cost that is there comes from a few factors…

1) Animation is fairly labor intensive. Worlds need be constructed from scratch in a computer, and then meticulously manipulated. And that doesn’t include the time and team it takes for the design and creative. And because of the technical nature of the tech industry, you need professionals who understand the language of early engineer founders, and translate it into something that will be effective with a diverse group of people. (My major, for example, was CS).

2) Infrastructure to be able to respond quickly in the ever-changing world of tech companies. Software changes on the fly, things get launched without notice, so the infrastructure needs to exist to respond accordingly.

3) Demand is really high for most everyone doing this. The ROI is pretty clear, and the more people are realizing, the smaller the bandwidth is necessary to meet all of the demand.

I know cash flow is an issue for a lot of startups, but there certainly are creative ways of arranging payment. One of our favorites involves a partial payment early on, with the remainder, plus a premium, at the next round funding or acquisition.


4) Walk me through a recent engagement


We have thousands of examples, but the most recent one has been the launch for Visual.ly. The combination of Launchrock and a killer video has led to tens of thousands of views and signups in less than three weeks for a product that doesn’t even exist yet.


5) Once they have a great video, how can a company best leverage it fully?


You may have a nice video that explains your value proposition perfectly, but it won’t be very useful if people can’t find it. Don’t hide it behind a few links – feature it prominently on a home banner, with an big, inviting “Play” button in front of a still. In general, people like to click “play” buttons. The clicking action also implies a certain amount of deliberate attention, where the brain is engaged and ready to absorb the information that is about to follow. And promote it on all your channels… Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, blog, etc…


And that’s a wrap! Rico also suggests you check a post he wrote a while back called Why Overview Videos Matter. And of course, you should check out Picturelab and Transvideo Studios to learn more about them.

And finally – a sweet picture of Rico doing a Kolman (a full-twisting double back flipping release on the high bar). Enjoy =)