Strands Labs Seattle, A Retrospective

New sign for Strands Labs Seattle On October 1, Strands Labs Seattle effectively closed. With the tightening economy, our parent company, Strands, has decided to focus its resources on its three primary business units - Strands Business Solutions, Strands Personal Finance (moneyStrands) and Strands Social Discovery ( The CoCollage application that we developed in the Seattle lab continues to be supported by Tyler Phillipi, our Business Development Manager, who will continue to develop business prospects for the system: generating revenue by selling advertising on our network of 23 community displays around Seattle. However, further sociotechnical research, design and development activities have been suspended. Our former Tech Lead has left the firm to join another startup company down in the SF Bay area, our former Lead Designer has been reassigned to support one of Strands' three core business units, and our former Principal Instigator (me) is now, in effect, an instigator without portfolio. I've had some time to work through most of the first four stages of grief, and as part of the fifth and final stage - acceptance - I wanted to engage in some personal reflection on this latest chapter of my professional life.

Shortly after joining Strands (then called MyStrands), I defined the mission upon which we were preparing to embark:

To design, develop and deploy technologies that weave together the various strands of our activities, interests and passions to bridge the gaps between the digital and physical worlds and help people relate to the other people, places and things around them in ways that offer value to all participants.

As we converged on an application designed to manifest this mission, we iteratively pared it down to a more manageable mouthful:

Cultivating community in great, good places

CoCollage-Screenshot CoCollage-Trabant The application we created, CoCollage, was designed to promote conversation and connection in coffeehouses and other community-oriented places by showing a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded by customers and staff to a special website on a large display in that place ... or, as I sometimes like to put it, CoCollage is a place-based social networking system designed to bridge the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between their online and offline worlds.

The initial design and deployment of CoCollage at Trabant Coffee in Seattle's University District - two blocks from our now-former office - in August 2008 was reasonably successful, attracting hundreds of users who uploaded thousands of photos and quotes. Our interactions with the owners, staff and customers - through a combination of semi-structured interviews, online and offline surveys, and other sources of online and offline feedback - provided a number of insights, many of which are captured in a paper on "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software", which we presented at the 4th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2009), the slides from which are included below.

These insights were also incorporated into a second version of the system, released in November 2008, just in time for our expansion into four additional coffeehouses in Seattle: Tougo, Neptune, Kaladi and All City. We continued our expansion throughout the first quarter of 2009, partnering with a total of 20 venues by April, incrementally adding new features to support conversation and connection, as well as the integrated advertising - on the large displays and on the web sites associated with each venue - that we hoped would eventually support CoCollage as a profitable product for Strands. While most of our new venue partners are coffeehouses or cafes, we also started working with other types of third places, including a bookstore, a bar, two restaurants, a barbershop and a religious community center.

During the second quarter, however, we encountered some unexpected turbulence. Our initial goal was for the advertising to come only from local businesses: ideally, independent "mom & pop" stores within walking distance of our venue partners. Just as each CoCollage instance was designed to provide a window into the commonalities and diversities among individual members of its community - helping customers and staff better appreciate the interestingness of the people around them - the advertising component was intended to provide a window into the relevance of local businesses - helping people better appreciate the value small businesses right around the corner had to offer. Unfortunately, selling advertising to small businesses - many of which had little or no experience with traditional advertising, much less a new-fangled approach to advertising on a community display and web site - turned out to be far more challenging and time-consuming than we'd anticipated.

Others have commented more extensively on the challenges of hyperlocal advertising, and I'm reminded of a remark made by Scott Svenson at NWEN's Entrepreneur University 2005 about one of the greatest strengths he and his co-founder at Seattle Coffee Company (acquired by Starbucks in 2003) benefited from was what they didn't know (e.g., they didn't realize that opening 8 stores in 12 days was something that not even Starbucks would have attempted [at that time] ... and even Starbucks is still learning about a sustainable number of stores). In any case, we relaxed our advertising constraints, shifting from community-based to community-oriented, hoping to tap into a broader base of potential advertisers while still maintaining relevance to the communities with whom we we were working.

We finally succeeded in signing a significant advertising contract in the third quarter, but by then there were other, external pressures mounting: the continuing recession was creating increasing constraints on Strands. The company had created two innovation labs in late 2007 / early 2008 - one in New York City, the other in Seattle - and had also funded a smaller innovation project in the fall of 2008. By the summer of 2009, the company decided to focus its resources on the three larger, more established, business units, which were producing the most revenue, or expected to produce the most revenue in the near term. Prospects for spinning off the other projects into new, separate companies were discussed, but in the case of Strands Labs Seattle, we were unable to converge on terms acceptable to all parties.

Although I've been reading more about the perils of positive thinking, I remain an irrepressible optimist. While I'm sad about the dissolution of Strands Labs Seattle, I'm grateful for the opportunity I was given to create and lead - or, as I like to put it, "instigate" - a research lab: defining a vision, hiring and working with some amazing people, finding and furbishing a fabulous office (and deck), and producing a prototype that progressed so far down the productization pathway. I'm also grateful for the opportunity to work closely with so many owners, staff and customers of independent coffeehouses and other third places around Seattle. It has been an honor, a privilege and a delight to engage in such a variety of conversations and connections that have been cultivated through our collaborations on CoCollage.

The Community Collage at Trabant: a Proactive Display in a Cafe

CoCoAtTrabant We recently deployed a proactive display application at the Trabant Coffee & Chai Lounge in the University District of Seattle. The Community Collage (or CoCo) shows a dynamic collage of content drawn from a pool of photos and quotes uploaded to the CoCo web site by customers and staff. When customers visit the café and use their Trabant loyalty cards, their content gets a higher priority to be selected for insertion into the collage. Anyone can visit the web site to view a chronological stream of content that has been shown on the collage, but only registered users can vote or comment on other users' content, post messages on the site's MessageBoard, or send short text messages directly to the CoCo display.

Sample sketchbook page at TrabantThe owners of Trabant, Tatiana Becker and Mike Gregory, along with the baristas and customers at the coffeehouse, have co-curated a creative community space, and we are delighted to have the opportunity to work with all of them. The art on the walls and the music being performed on Mondays (open mic) and weekends reflects some of this creativity, but one of the strongest markers of the creativity that flows through the space is the sketchbooks Trabant has put out on tables in the coffeehouse that various people have contributed to over the years. The sketchbooks reveal a wide variety of depth and breadth of individual personal introspection and community-oriented social, political and artistic commentary - as well as conversations and connections being formed as people riff on each others' words and pictures across space (pages) and time ... a form of reciprocal self-disclosure. One of our goals in deploying CoCo at Trabant is to offer a new channel for expressing this creativity and revelation to all members of the community.

CoCo-Trabant-CommunityCard Given our goal of situated or place-specific community development, we are restricting the population of users to people who visit Trabant. We have printed up business cards (shown to the left) - or perhaps we should call them "community cards" - with a link to our web page, and an invitation code on the back. Customers can pick one up when they visit, and either create an online profile for themselves during their stay (Trabant offers free WiFi - in addition to great coffee) or at a different time or place. The profile enables users to upload photos explicitly, and/or provide a link to their Flickr photo sharing account (if they have one), in which case their Flickr photos are uploaded implicitly. They can also add any number of inspiring quotes to their profile.

TrabantCoCoGiftCard If CoCo users have a Trabant loyalty card (shown to the right) they can enter the code on the back of that card to their profile, so that whenever they use their loyalty card at Trabant, their profile content will be featured more prominently on the collage. The loyalty card is not required: the collage draws content from all users, but it will give priority to those who have - and use - the loyalty cards. And as noted above, anyone can view the content being shared by members of the Trabant community - on the display or on the web site - but only members who have created profiles can vote or comment on the content, or send messages to the MessageBoard or the display itself.

Introducing a new generation of proactive displaysTicket2Talk-UbiComp2003 We call CoCo a proactive display because it senses and responds to the people in a physical space (in this case, a coffeehouse). Although it has an interactive element - people can indirectly interact with the display via the web site - it's primary mode of operation is proactive, showing content relating to people it senses nearby. Earlier examples of proactive displays have involved the use of infrared badges, RFID tags and Bluetooth phones for sensing people, and have been situated in workplace or conference contexts. This is the first time we've deployed a proactive display "in the wild" - a place where you don't need an ID badge to enter, and where the community (and, presumably, the content) is considerably more diverse. We are currently using the Trabant loyalty cards for sensing who is in the coffeehouse, and we currently require an explicit card swipe by the user, but we plan to incorporate other sensing capabilities and explore better integration with existing practices and systems as we progressively refine the design and development of the application.

CoCo is not the first system designed to augment the social space of a cafe. My friend Elizabeth Churchill and her former colleagues at FXPAL created the eyeCanvas, a large touchscreen display that showed content relating to the Canvas Gallery in San Francisco, the place in which it was deployed for a 4-week pilot, and allowed visitors to contribute "finger scribbles" they could draw on a virtual canvas shown on the display. While the Canvas Gallery owners had a profile, of sorts, other users did not have persistent profiles or the ability to upload images (they could, of course, draw images or handwrite quotes to share); I believe this limitation reflected the preferences of the owners rather than the system designers ... and am glad the owners we're working with are so open about enabling other people to share their stuff, on paper (sketchbooks) and now on the big screen.

Another friend, Sean Savage, created PlaceSite, a place-based community web application that enabled people in a cafe to create and share profiles. Unlike CoCo, PlaceSite did not have an associated large display, and the system was more conservative with respect to privacy and did not allow people outside the cafe to access profiles. PlaceSite was piloted at a few coffeehouses in the San Francisco Bay area in 2005 and 2006, but it's interesting - one might even say synchronistic - to note that Sean started formulating the early designs and site selection criteria for the system during his internship with me at Intel Research Seattle in the summer of 2004. He'd even identified Trabant as a promising site, but for a variety of reasons I've alluded to elsewhere, the local Intel lab was not a conducive place to continue pursuing this kind of work, and he decided to postpone deployment until he returned home to the UC Berkeley iSchool, where he was finishing up his master's degree.

Oldenburg-GreatGoodPlace CoCo, eyeCanvas and PlaceSite are all examples of what we might call situated social software - participatory systems designed to reflect the rich digital lives of the people, by the people and for the people in a shared physical space, and [thereby] to promote conversation, connection and community in a quintessential third place. Unlike mobile social software, which enables people to use their mobile phones to maintain connections with their remote friends regardless of time and place, our goal is to use technology to help people establish new connections - or improve existing ones - with the people with whom they are sharing time and space. A quote by Will Rogers captures the essence of this goal:

A stranger is just a friend I haven't met yet.

Many coffeehouses offer wireless Internet (WiFi) access, which enables people to maintain remote connections to their friends in online social networks such as MySpace and Facebook via their WiFi-enabled laptop computers or smartphones. While these online communities offer great value, the cost of maintaining connection with virtual communities is the consequent disconnection with the physical community. Perhaps this is a new variation on Timothy Leary's famous exhortation, "turn on, tune in, drop out": people turn on their laptops, tune in to their online social networks and virtually drop out of contact with the people, places and things around them in physical space.

James Katz offered a great quote in "The New Oases", a recent article in The Economist, describing the impact of WiFi on some of the coffeehouses that offer it: "physically inhabited but psychologically evacuated". Three years ago, I - and others - wrote about the costs and benefits of WiFi use in coffeehouses, triggered by a report that another local coffeehouse - Victrola - had decided to turn off the WiFi on weekends to encourage people to tune in to the people and other things physically present in the place. Trabant offers full-time WiFi, and while we don't want to prevent people from connecting to their virtual communities or compel them to engage with people in the physical coffeehouse - ambience, glanceability and plausible ignoreability are three important design criteria for the collage, to ensure that coffeehouse visitors can [still] enjoy their aloneness together - we want to offer new opportunities to connect with their proximate community.

I've been spending a great deal of time at Trabant lately, and although I spend some of that time virtually tunneling out through the WiFi, CoCo has already helped me learn new things about - and engage in conversations with - the owners, baristas and other customers ... including my creative colleagues on the Strands Labs Seattle team (three of whom - Richie, Shelly and Yogi - are shown in the photo at the top ... and all of whom are, I should note, primarily responsible for the design, development and deployment of CoCo ... I'm just the "front man"). The mission of Strands is to help people discover things they like and didn't know about; CoCo represents a physicalization of this mission, migrating from the online to the offline world(s). We hope that other members of the Trabant community will find that CoCo helps them discover delightful new dimensions of the people, places and things around them!

[Update, June 2009: we've published a paper - "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software" - and gave an associated presentation (embedded below) on the system, now called CoCollage, at the 4th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2009). Unfortunately, while CoCollage is no longer deployed at Trabant, it can be found in over 20 other venues around Seattle.]

More Better Design[ers] at Strands Labs Seattle

We're delighted to be joined by two designers at Strands Labs Seattle: Josh Lind and Daniel Norman. Although all of the other members of the team have some knowledge of and experience with design, none of us has been trained as designers, or see that as our primary skill set. With the arrival of Josh and Dan, we have considerably increased our general and specific design capabilities.

DoubleJosh Josh Lind, a local web designer/developer and co-founder of ReadyDone, a talent agency for design, web development and business services, joined Strands Labs Seattle a few weeks ago as a contractor. Josh is a friend of Shelly's, and designed the logo for Swaggle (shown below right), one of the applications created by the company Shelly co-founded, Waggle Labs, and has done some user interface design and development for YourSports, another local startup company that used to be located across the street.

Swaggle-logo Josh brings considerable skills in web design and development, a keen sense of social computing, and [I was pleasantly surprised to discover] a prior awareness and appreciation of some earlier incarnations of proactive displays - large computer displays that can sense people nearby and show content related to those people and their activities in a shared physical space. We're delighted to have him working with us on designing and developing our next generation proactive displays

Danthinking Dan Norman is a graphics designer with experience in both print media and motion graphics (as well as other areas) who recently graduated from Cornish College of the Arts. I discovered Dan via an announcement of the Cornish BFA Art & Design Exposition, showcasing the work of graduating seniors, that I saw on some online event listing site (perhaps After perusing every project on the page, Dan's project, (ad)infinitum, really stood out. It is a dynamic - and dramatic - large screen visualization of pictures from magazine advertisements and tags that people have associated with those pictures. The visualization is very closely related to what we hope to do in our next generation proactive displays.

Dan-thesisShow Delving into Dan's design notebook for his project (a photo of the installation is shown right) - in which he delves deeply into interesting and relevant areas such as semiotics, psychology and linguistics, and their application to advertising - provided further confirmation that our project would benefit a great deal from his involvement. One of the things that resonated most deeply with me was his observation that "the viewer is a co-author", which I believe applies much more broadly than the world of advertising (and I believe Dan believes this, too). Proactive Displays are, in many ways, a vehicle for co-authorship: layering people's personal interests - represented by their online media - in the physical spaces they share with others, actively invites co-authorship among the inhabitants of those spaces ... and our new generation of proactive displays will offer even more ways for people to co-author the content that shows up on a community display. We are delighted that he accepted our offer to join us ... and to do so early enough to help smooth the transition of responsibility for the new dynamic visualization that Sameer has designed and developed for us during his [nearly completed] summer internship with us.

We will be sharing the fruits of all these labors very soon.

Richie Hazlewood joins Strands Labs Seattle for the summer

Whazlewo_lRichie Hazlewood arrived a few weeks ago from the School of Informatics at Indiana University to work with us on our next generation proactive display applications this summer. Richie has been working with Yvonne Rogers, Kay Connelly and others at Indiana on a variety of interesting and relevant projects involving ambient information displays, data mining, information visualization, and using handheld devices for collaborating with people and interacting with physical artifacts.

Twitterspace-300x187 Most recently - and relevantly - he has been working on Twitterspaces, an ambient display application that offers a dynamic visualization of "tweets" posted by the Informatics group - though it can be easily customized for any group - on Twitter. Tweets, and thumbnail images of their authors, scroll horizontally, and the vertical access represents hours of the day. I'm including a screenshot to the right (a real-time view can be found by clicking on the image).

In addition to his own work, he is co-organizing the Second Workshop on Ambient Information Systems (which is still accepting submissions thru July 11) to be held at UbiComp 2008 - he was also a co-organizer of the First Ambient Information Systems Workshop at Pervasive 2007 - and [thus] brings a broad range of awareness and interactions about designing and using ambient displays to promote awareness and interactions.

We're delighted to welcome Richie, who helps fill key gaps in the team - and team space - as we move forward on our new applications, about which I'll write more in the near future. Meanwhile, I'll include a couple of recent photos of our space, after Richie's arrival.

Richie joins Strands Labs Seattle Our growing team (and filling space)

New Faces at Strands Labs Seattle

Yogi and I have recently been joined by some wonderful new people at Strands Labs Seattle, and our new office space has some new surfaces that make it increasingly habitable.

SameerAhuja Sameer Ahuja, a graduate student intern from Virginia Tech, arrived May 12, and will be spending the summer with us. Sameer has been working with the Digital Government Research Group under Dr. Manuel A. Pérez-Quiñones and Dr. Andrea Kavanaugh, where they have been researching and developing social software, visualization tools, and content aggregation tools with the purpose of enhancing citizen awareness and promoting greater participation. We are delighted to have him participate in our efforts to research and develop new tools for enhancing awareness and promoting interactions in other contexts.

ShellyFarnham Shelly Farnham, co-founder and Social Architect at Waggle Labs, joined us as a part-time consultant on May 15. Shelly brings a wealth of experience in prototyping, deploying and evaluating social technologies designed to enhance communication, community, social networks, identity, knowledge sharing, and social coordination. Before co-founding Waggle Labs, Shelly was a Researcher with the Social Computing, Community Technologies, and Virtual Worlds Groups at Microsoft Research. She is also an accomplished artist. I've known Shelly - and admired her work - for over 5 years now, and I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to work directly with her.

Frank Kemery, principal at PPM Wireless, LLC, also joined us as a part-time consultant on May 15. Frank brings deep and broad expertise in identifying new market opportunities, strategic planning, business development, alliance building, product planning, development and management in startup and mature environments. Earlier chapters of his career include senior positions at Real Networks, InfoSpace, and Activate (which was acquired by Loudeye (which was acquired by Nokia)). Frank is our point man in addressing one of the principles outlined in our innovation manifesto for Strands Labs Seattle: aligning innovative social technologies with viable business models.

StrandsLabsSeattleSE StrandsLabsSeattleNE StrandsLabsSeattleDeck

In addition to the new people faces, the lab itself also has a new face. The front area, facing University Way, has fresh paint, new carpeting and a new deck overlooking "the Ave". We are still sitting at temporary folding tables, using chairs that will eventually be moved to a conference room, and using 8' x 4' laminated melamine boards propped up against the walls as temporary whiteboards. The main thing, though, is that we have a nice open area with big windows with lots of light ... an increasingly conducive space in which our growing team can effectively collaborate on designing and developing new social technologies that bridge the gap between people - and the places we inhabit - by bridging the gaps between our online life streams and the physical spaces we share with others.

[BTW, speaking of life streams, Strands has a new feed (or lifestream) aggregator in private beta that will likely play a significant role in our projects in Seattle. I'll write more about that once it is publicly available. Meanwhile, as with nearly all major developments in our company, more information can be found on our corporate blog; ReadWriteWeb also has a review ... and a private beta invitation code to give away.]

Move-in Day for Strands Labs, Seattle

Today we moved into our new office at 4143 University Way NE - right on "the Ave", the heart of Seattle's University District, and literally a stone's throw from the University of Washington.

View Larger Map

We occupy the top floor of a three-story building, with 3400 square feet to grow into, and two (!) decks, one of which overlooks the Ave.

StrandsLabsSeattle StrandsLabsSeattle-ViewNW


Yogi and I - and others who will be joining us soon - will work in of one of the back offices while construction continues on the front office area (several interior walls have been removed to open up the space facing the Ave).



We'll be using a motley collection of furniture until we get some new "system" furniture, which we hope to order by the end of this week ... and which probably won't be delivered and installed until mid-June. In any case, we have plenty of room to grow, and growing the team will be increasing in relative priority as space-related issues are settled.


We've been finding it rather challenging to determine how to configure a system of furniture that achieves an appropriate balance among occasionally conflicting goals - providing similarly-sized and well-delineated individual workspaces, promoting collaboration and teamwork between workspaces (and the people who occupy them), maximizing the "access" to natural light and offering sufficient storage. We also want to find the right balance between wanting to configure the space that best suits the people and the work in Seattle and not wanting to deviate too far from configurations used in the other Strands offices. A learning and growth opportunity, along several dimensions.

Of course, leasing office space was also a learning opportunity for me. Early on, we decided that being close to the UW campus would offer long-term strategic benefits, enabling us to more easily attend talks and other events on and around campus, and making it easy for UW students and faculty to visit - and perhaps work with - us. Even within the narrowed search space of the University District, there were a number of options available, in various shapes, sizes, locations and prices. This was a pleasant surprise, given recent reports that Seattle is the hottest office market in the country.

Typically, real estate brokers - commercial or residential - operate on a commission basis. Although a prospective tenant may utilize the services of a broker, they are paid by the landlord, based on the lease terms that are negotiated with the tenant. While this may be the usual arrangement, I wanted to have a commercial real estate broker who would be paid by us, to ensure that he would be working solely on our behalf without any conflict of interest. We were very happy with the tenant representation services provided by Tom Baker, of Office Lease, who helped us identify features and evaluate options along dimensions that might not have occurred to us, and ultimately helped us arrive at a decision on a space that we believe will best serve our long-term needs. Dennis Counts, of Yates & Wood, who represented the landlords, was also very helpful throughout the process.

The landlords, Sunny and Sarah Lee, have also been very helpful and accommodating throughout the process. We were grateful for their willingness to reconfigure the front space, and for their ongoing responsiveness as issues have arisen during demolition, reconstruction and refinishing work proceeds in the space. We look forward to a long, happy relationship with them, as well as with our new neighbors downstairs - Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches on the second floor and the Ave Copy Center at street level.

Listening to NPR on my way home this evening, I was reminded that today is May Day, on which some people celebrate International Worker's Day. We did not take a holiday or participate in a demonstration today - in fact, we didn't even have a celebration (we'll have to address that oversight tomorrow)! We are still not quite in a position to work a "regular day" at the office yet - we still have a few connectivity [Yogi has figured out how to alligator clip us into an Internet connection (!)] and logistics issues to work out. But today did mark an important milestone for us, as we set the stage for innovation at Strands Labs, Seattle.

Rebranding Strands (formerly MyStrands (formerly MusicStrands))


Strands is the new brand - and name - for the company I work for, which was formerly known as MyStrands (which was formerly known as MusicStrands), and has offerings that include partyStrands and openStrands.

The change signals both a simplification - unifying the theme that runs through all of our offerings and activities - as well as a diversification - reflecing the broadening number and types of strands (digital representations of our interests, activities and tastes in a variety of media) that we are tapping into in order to help people discover new people, places and things they didn't know they'd love.

Merriam Webster offers a number of definitions for "strand"; the one that aligns most closely with Strands, Inc., is "one of the elements interwoven in a complex whole <one strand of the novel's plot>". The evolution of a company can be seen as a novel, and thus new strands of the plot of this novel will be revealed in the near future (and beyond). As usual, more about this new development can be found on the Strands blog.

Yogi Patel joins MyStrands Labs, Seattle, as Innovationeer

Yogi I'm delighted to announce that Yogi Patel has joined MyStrands Labs, Seattle, as Innovationeer! Yogi's arrival doubles the size - and probably quadruples the productive capacity - of our new innovation team. He brings 5 years of development and program management experience, most recently in the area of wearable computing, contributing to the U.S. Army's Land Warrior system. As an example of walking the talk, Yogi was actually a land warrior himself - an infantryman (rifle and anti-tank leader) with the U.S. Army. In addition to his talents with non-traditional designs and deployments of technology, Yogi brings a passion for social media and using technology to help people connect in new ways. He has also inspired - or perhaps inadvertently instigated - two recent blog posts, on The Paradox of Choice and Dark Nights of the Soul.

I met Yogi during a guest lecture on proactive displays I gave at Ankur Teredesai's class on Social Networks at University of Washington, Tacoma, in February. I was immediately impressed with his curiosity and knowledge of both the social and technological issues involved in some of the proactive display applications I presented ... insights that would typically only arise through actually working on such systems. We continued the conversation after class, and I found myself thinking how great it would be for him to be actually working on such systems (with me) ... and I'm really happy we are now continuing the conversation into our planning for the next generation of proactive displays.

We discussed a number of prospective titles (as a self-titled principal instigator, I enjoy interesting titles). Yogi's official title is Innovation Engineer, but we both rather like the mashed up version of Innovationeer.

As I'd noted in my initial announcement of the new lab, I'm hoping to avoid writing job descriptions, but from our planning so far, it's clear that we will need one or more people with keen design skills who can help engineer ambient but engaging user interfaces for our new proactive display applications. We welcome opportunities to expand the conversation with other talented and passionate parties!

Innovating at MyStrands, Seattle

It's been a little over a month since I left Nokia and started principally instigating at MyStrands, Seattle. Most of my time thus far has been devoted to talking with people and looking at places, as my top two initial instigative goals are to attract a dream team and setup shop in a dream space. Eventually, we'll make progress on other p's - prototypes, papers and patents - but not without the right people and only (or, at least, more easily) in the right place.

I'm making some progress on these initial goals - I will be making official announcements when formal transitions take place - but meanwhile I thought it would be helpful (to me, at least) to write a little bit about what kinds of innovation - and what kinds of innovators - I hope to facilitate with this great new team and great new space! Taking a cue from one of Glenn Kelman's pearls of wisdom - "We never say 'I'" - during an inspiring presentation at my crash course in entrepreneurship (NWEN's Entrepreneur University 2005), I'll be using "we" liberally below, even though "we" is, technically speaking, "I" at this particular moment.

The mission of the Seattle Innovation Team for MyStrands is

To design, develop and deploy technologies that weave together the various strands of our activities, interests and passions to bridge the gaps between the digital and physical worlds and help people relate to the other people, places and things around them in ways that offer value to all participants.

That's quite a mouthful (even for me) so I want to unpack that a little:

  • weave together the various strands of our activities, interests and passions: MyStrands started out as MusicStrands, a web application that can recommend new music based on the music you listen to ("what you play counts!"). Since then, the company has branched out into other types of media (e.g., MyStrands.TV), and we want to further extend this extension to additional types of media, as well as other digital representations of our activities, interests and passions.
  • bridge the gaps between the digital and physical worlds: with the growing wealth of digital representations of our activities, interests and passions, and the proliferation of mobile devices and wireless connectivity, there are increasing opportunities to create new value by opening portals to that wealth in the physical world, either through mobile social computing (MoSoSo) applications or more situated social computing (SiSoSo) applications, such as proactive displays.
  • help people relate to the other people, places and things around them: we all long to feel a sense of belonging and connection to other people we encounter, the places we inhabit and the things we see (or at least some of those people, places and things); our technologies will be designed to help real world communities better enjoy the benefits of virtual communities, digital communications and electronic commerce.
  • offer value to all participants: one of the things I learned - the hard way - during my earlier entrepreneurial endeavor (Interrelativity, Inc.) was the importance of aligning innovative social technologies with viable business models; although our primary focus will be on technical innovations with significant - and positive - social impact, we want to do so in an economically sustainable way that enriches all stakeholders.

As for the types of innovators (we don't call ourselves researchers - or developers - at MyStrands, though we will be doing both) we hope to attract, the primary criteria will be a passionate commitment to the mission of the lab. Of course, following the precepts of Joel Sposky, we also generally want smart people who can get things done. Among the more specific types of smarts that we value are insights into and experience with social computing, mobile and ubiquitous computing, human-computer interaction, many flavors of design (user interface design, interaction design, user experience design, visual communication design), web programming, rapid prototyping, personal and social psychology, economics, business models ... and, of course, recommender systems.

I'm planning to follow the lead of Lars Erik Holmquist with respect to [one of] his goals for the PLAY Research Group: build a multidisciplinary team composed of multidisciplinary people. As Anne Galloway relayed this idea (in what may be an unexpected recursion based on something I may have sent / said to her about Lars Erik's CHI 2000 organizational overview talk):

Alan Kay once remarked that he was attracted to the MIT Media Lab because of the..."attempt to collide technology with the arts, rather than [to] collide technologists with artists," and continued "You're always better getting people who have already had that collision in themselves." In PLAY, rather than composing a multi-disciplinary group, we try to have a group of multi-disciplinary people ... No group member specializes in only one topic. A typical member has a degree in a relevant field such as computer science, informatics or fine arts, but a strong interest in several other fields such as electrical engineering, linguistics, literature, film, or music. Whether accompanied by academic degrees or not, a wide range of interests is seen as a vital factor in the composition of the group.

Ideally, we will compose a diverse group of diverse people, with a variety of skills, from a variety of backgrounds, who respect each other and work well together, even though - or perhaps because - we may not always agree with each other (indeed, I hope we won't always agree with each other). I have enjoyed many conversations with many talented people so far, and I welcome the opportunity to initiate or renew conversations with other talented people. If current trends continue, we may be able to assemble a dream team without ever having to compose or post a formal job description.

As I mentioned in my review of First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, I subscribe to the philosophy of Bud Grant, former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings:

You can’t draw up plays and then just plug your players in. No matter how well you have designed your play book, it’s useless if you don’t know which plays your players can run. When I draw up my play book, I always go from the players to the play.

Given my commitment to multidisciplinarity, I'm going one step further and not even specifying player positions at this early stage, hoping that we will be able attract just the right people with just the right talents to accomplish our innovation mission.

[Update: I forgot to mention that we have a number of more formally specified job openings at many of our other sites around the world. The (Senior) Mobile User Experience / Interaction Designer position may be of particular interest to some of my international friends.]

Entrepreneurial Karma: Call for Early-Stage Recommender System Startups

This is pretty cool (though I'm admittedly biased): a mid-stage startup (MyStrands, the company I work for) that has recently secured funding now offering an opportunity to fund an earlier stage startup - a sort of entrepreneurial karma, where we keep the investment flowing in ways that will [hopefully] benefit us all. This initiative is inspired, in part, by the Y-Combinator, but is more narrowly focused (recommender systems). [BTW, one of the partners in Y-Combinator, Paul Graham, writes provocative essays that I highly recommend to anyone interested in entrepreneurship.]

Here are the details (from the MyStrands blog announcement, Looking for the best early-stage recommender start-ups):


MyStrands is announcing today the “Strands $100,000 Call for Recommender Start-ups“.

We seek to identify the best early-stage project in the area of recommendation technologies, considering the technology, business opportunity and team behind the project (without limitations as to which field the technology is applied).

The Winner will be offered an investment of $100,000 from Strands, Inc. the parent company of MyStrands.

Candidates should submit a one-slide presentation in quad-chart format (example, more examples) by September 15th, 2008 to [email protected], together with the team bios (in addition to this, an optional 2-minute video uploaded to YouTube describing the start-up enterprise would be highly appreciated).

Eligibility: The Call is open to individuals or sole proprietors and privately held businesses throughout the world.

Five Finalists will be invited to present their projects during the ACM Conference on Recommender Systems (RecSys08) next October 23rd to 25th, 2008 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Finalists will be announced on October 6th. All Proposals will be judged using the following judging criteria: (a) implementation and integration of recommendation technologies, (b) originality and creativity, (c) likelihood of long-term success and scalability, (d) effectiveness in addressing a need in the marketplace, and (e) team bios.

Five grants. Each Finalist will obtain a $1,500 travel grant to attend RecSys08; Strands, Inc. will also cover the registration fees for the Conference, for one person per Finalist.

The final selection process will include on-site presentations of each project during RecSys08. Finalists will make three presentations of 5 minutes each (focused on technology, business and the team respectively) in front of the Jury and the attendees of the Conference.

The Jury will be composed of renowned experts in the academic, industry and venture capital communities.

The Winner will be announced on October 25th, 2008 during the Gala Dinner at RecSys08. The Winner will receive a commemorative plaque and an offer of a $100,000 investment in the form of a convertible loan.

Proposal submission period begins on March 12th and ends on September 15th, 2008.

Further information: Please visit or contact the Strands $100,000 Call for Recommender Start-ups organizers at [email protected].

Important dates:
March 12th: Proposal submission period begins
September 15th: Proposal submission period ends
October 6th: Five Finalists are announced
October 23rd-25th: Presentations of Finalists at RecSys08
October 25th: Winner Announced

Contact and updates:
Email proposal to: [email protected]