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Lessons from a career marketing big ideas

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Slides from a talk I gave at the TED Fellows Retreat in Whistler, BC on August 18, 2013. It tells the history of my activism about the web, open source software, and open government, with an emphasis on lessons learned.

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Lessons from a career marketing big ideas

  1. Lessons from a career marketing big ideas Tim O’Reilly O’Reilly Media @timoreilly TED Fellows Retreat August 18, 2013 Thursday, August 22, 13
  2. Changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators Thursday, August 22, 13 For those of you who don’t know who I am... I run a technology publishing and events company called O’Reilly Media and an early stage venture capital firm O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures. It was once said “The Internet was built with O’Reilly books,” and indeed, there is more than one internet billionaire who told me that his company was started with little more than an O’Reilly book. But I’ve long framed the real business of my company as “Changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators” That’s obviously closely aligned with the mission of TED, and that’s why I’m honored to be here to talk with you.
  3. Work on stuff that matters Thursday, August 22, 13 When I give talks to Silicon Valley audiences, I generally remind entrepreneurs that they should “Work on stuff that matters”
  4. Create more value than you capture Thursday, August 22, 13 and “Create more value than you capture,” but I don’t need to do that here, because all of you are already doing both of those things. Instead, I want to talk to you about marketing, and specifically, how I’ve learned to market big ideas and social movements, and to tell a story by bringing communities together.
  5. Commercialization of the World Wide Web Open Source software Web 2.0 The Maker Movement Open Data Open Government Thursday, August 22, 13 Here are some of the movements I’ve been able to help shape. My company created the first ad supported web site and did much of the early work to establish the web as a commercial medium. I organized the meeting where the term “open source software” was agreed to and adopted by key free software developers.
  6. In 1992, few people had heard of the Internet “We’re not going to market the book. We’re going to use the book to market the Internet.” - Brian Erwin former director of activism, The Sierra Club Thursday, August 22, 13 My story as an activist begins with a book I published in 1992, The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog. I had recently hired Brian Erwin, the former director of activism for the Sierra Club, to help me with marketing. He said to me.... We went on a press tour, we sent a copy of the book to every member of the US Congress, and I spoke to congressional staff. But I wasn’t pushing myself, or my product, but the internet itself.
  7. Lesson One: It’s not about you Thursday, August 22, 13 We were unknown, but that didn’t stop us, because the story wasn’t about us. I was background - never quoted or mentioned by name - for many early stories about the internet. I’d spend hours educating reporters. But that gave me the chance to frame the story, even though I didn’t get any obvious press. And eventually, I did go from being an unnamed source to being frequently quoted.
  8. Lesson Two: It’s never too early to tell a big story Thursday, August 22, 13 At the time we published the book, there were only 200 web sites. But we knew the web was going to be important.
  9. In 1993, we created an online magazine and catalog to celebrate the people who were making this new medium happen. Thursday, August 22, 13 It was originally a demonstration site for the power of the web - we installed kiosks in bookstores so people could experience the interent, but then we realized “It’s not a demo, it’s a product.” It was the first web portal, and the first site on the web to have advertising.
  10. We ended up developing the business model for the web Thursday, August 22, 13 GNN turned into a business - one that shaped the whole future of the web. We were the first site to provide advertising on the web. But GNN started just as a way to celebrate the people of the web.
  11. Lesson Three: “It's very hard getting communities formed. But if a community is already formed and it doesn't know it's a community, that's easy.” Brian Erwin Thursday, August 22, 13 But there was another lesson I learned from Brian. In describing the early work he did to market the Whole Internet User’s Guide by harnessing online communities, he wrote:
  12. Thursday, August 22, 13 That was the playbook I put to work when, in 1998, I organized a meeting that came to be called The Open Source Summit, because it was there that the leaders of most of the world’s most popular free software projects voted to use a new name, “open source software.” I realized that the subjects of most of my bestselling books were free software packages - and what’s more, while I knew the authors of all these packages, they didn’t all know each other. There were overlapping communities just waiting to be formed into a single super-community. You can see in the press release that we sent out announcing the event how much we focused on the people who created the programs that ran the internet.
  13. The 1998 Open Source Summit Thursday, August 22, 13 It was all about the people and their place in the story. When we held a press conference at the end of the day, I could say: “If your company has a domain name, it works because of the software written by that long haired guy at the end of the table. If you send an email, well, it’s routed by the software written by that guy there. If you have a web site, well, that’s the long haired guy at the other end of the table. And when you use a web browser, it was written by *that* guy...
  14. The 1998 Open Source Summit Thursday, August 22, 13 Front row, left to right: Larry Wall (Perl), Linus Torvalds (Linux), Sameer Parekh (Apache), Paul Vixie (Bind) Second row: Jamie Zawinski (Netscape), Brian Behlendorf (Apache), John Gilmore (Cygnus Solutions/GNU Project), Guido van Rossum (Python), Eric Allman (Sendmail), John Ousterhout (Tcl) Back row: Phil Zimmerman (PGP), Eric Raymond (The Cathedral and the Bazaar), Tom Paquin (Netscape)
  15. Africa! Thursday, August 22, 13 There are so many of you here, doing amazing work. There’s more: High profile Investors - e.g. Mark Shuttleworth, Cheryl Mills - focused on Africa But what’s the unifying story? It would be easy to tell a story about the African renaissance, but I think that there’s more to be said.
  16. Lesson Four: Language is a Map Thursday, August 22, 13 There’s another big lesson from my open source activism. Language is a map. It describes the world. And if it does a good job describing the world, you can get where you want. But if it doesn’t, you can be led astray.
  17. Words help us see and make sense of the world Alfalfa Orchard Grass Oat Grass Thursday, August 22, 13 Let me explain what I mean very simply. When I first moved to Sebastopol, before I had horses, I’d look out at a meadow, and all I’d see was grass. But eventually, I got a language for what I was looking at, and could distinguish between alfalfa, oat grass, orchard grass, rye grass, and many more.
  18. Thursday, August 22, 13 For example, look at the map that the Free Software Foundation was offering the world in 1998. Free software was about developing a “free” variant of the Unix operating system.
  19. Thursday, August 22, 13 Now let’s look back at that press release I sent out for the freeware summit. It was all about the Internet, and the role that various free software programs played in making it work. My message was that free software wasn’t some fringe thing out to destroy the software industry - it was at the heart of the next big software revolution, and people were already relying on it!
  20. “The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” Edwin Schlossberg Thursday, August 22, 13 As Edwin Schlossberg once said:
  21. Thursday, August 22, 13 Around 2002, I wrote a paper called “Remaking the Peer to Peer Meme.” In that paper, I used a diagram I called a “meme map” to show how I’d transformed the storytelling about free software into the storytelling about open source software. I know these are eye charts from here, and there’s no way you can read them now, but I’ll put the slides up on slideshare, and even better, you can go read the original paper. http://www.openp2p.com/pub/a/p2p/2000/12/05/book_ch01_meme.html
  22. Harnessing Collective Intelligence Data is the “Intel Inside” Thursday, August 22, 13 For example, after my colleague Dale Dougherty coined the term Web 2.0 to distinguish the companies that survived the dot com bust from those that had gone down in flames, I told a big story about what made them different. Because these were powerful ideas that became clearer and clearer to everyone over time, the story had power, and it continued to have power long after the original “Web 2.0” meme had passed.
  23. Harnessing Collective Intelligence Data is the “Intel Inside” Thursday, August 22, 13 For example, after my colleague Dale Dougherty coined the term Web 2.0 to distinguish the companies that survived the dot com bust from those that had gone down in flames, I told a big story about what made them different. Because these were powerful ideas that became clearer and clearer to everyone over time, the story had power, and it continued to have power long after the original “Web 2.0” meme had passed.
  24. Government as a platform Thursday, August 22, 13 Similarly, when everyone else was all excited about social media uptake by government, I told a deeper story, about what government could learn from the iPhone about becoming a platform.
  25. “We’ve opened up huge amounts of government data to the American people, and put it on the Internet for free.... And what’s happening is entrepreneurs and business owners are now using that data -- the people’s data --to create jobs and solve problems that government can’t solve by itself or can’t do as efficiently.” Barack Obama Thursday, August 22, 13 Last month, when President Obama talked about his second term management agenda, open data, and its role in enabling private sector to build on government as a platform, was a key part of the message.
  26. ? Thursday, August 22, 13 My point is that if I were going to try to tell a big story about Africa, I’d think hard to understand what is driving the African renaissance that many of you are a part of, and what lessons it might have for the rest of the world. This morning, over breakfast, I was talking to Bright Simons about the informal economy in Africa, and Africa’s unique style of entrepreneurialism. I think there are some real lessons for the West there, and that’s one thread I’d be pulling on. The same is true for any of the other possible conjunctions of communities and big ideas that characterize the TED Fellows community.
  27. Reinventing the Faire Low Tech Meets High Tech Thursday, August 22, 13 It’s important for your story to draw the right lines. Many of you are part of a movement that we named in 2005 with the launch of Make: magazine, and the 2006 launch of an event called Maker Faire, which you can think of as a kind of county fair with robots. There are artists and scientists among you who can call yourself “makers” and say something important about the overlap of art and science.
  28. Maker Faire 2006 Thursday, August 22, 13 One of my favorite juxtapositions of that first Faire was between a booth for Swap-o-Rama-Rama, a clothing swap in which people remanufacture the clothes with the help of onsite designers, sewing machines, silk screens, etc, and put on a fashion show for each other at the end of the day, and the Alameda Contra Costa Computer Recycling Society, which was showing off their biodiesel powered supercomputer made from recycled PCs running Linux. It was a brilliant stroke by Dale Dougherty to build a tent big enough to include both crafts and the geekiest of high-tech. Drawing the right map of the world you want to create can make a huge difference.
  29. TED Makers: Engineering, Science, AND Art Thursday, August 22, 13 You see how this bracketing of both the arts and sciences has continued in TED’s selection of makers as Fellows, from Marcin Jacubowski’s Global Village Construction set and Jose Gomez Marquez’ homebrew medical devices to Kate Nichols nanoparticle art and Christina Marie’s shadow performances. This is a good sign.
  30. Lesson Five: Change happens slowly... Then all at once Thursday, August 22, 13 I still remember the early years of evangelizing the world wide web, or open source software, or the second coming of the web after the dot com bust. It was hard. Nobody believed me. But eventually, the world caught up. You are all on the cutting edge of world changing movements. Keep pushing, and the world will catch up.
  31. What we fight with is so small. And when we win, it makes us small. This is how we grow: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings. (Paraphrase of “The Man Watching,” by Rainer Maria Rilke) Thursday, August 22, 13 And I’d like you to remember this advice from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, The Man Watching. He describes how Jacob and the other wrestlers of the Old Testament used to wrestle with angels. They had no hope of winning, but they were strengthened by the fight. Rilke goes on to say, “Winning does not tempt that man. What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated, decisively, by progressively greater beings.” So, relish your challenges, and keep picking big fights. Thank you very much.