When people tell me they have a book inside of them — which actually happens quite a lot, probably because I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a clutch of novels (traditionally) published — I always want to ask: “Have you considered surgery?” As George Orwell famously said: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
And writing is the easy part. Getting your book published can make the writing seem like two weeks on Necker Island. Or, instead of trying to survive the gauntlet which is the publishing industry, you can self-publish your work … and see it disappear, amateurishly produced and poorly edited, into the vast ocean of mediocrity that is most books. Either way, the tome in which you invested long hard months of your life will probably wind up basically unread, unloved, and irrelevant.
And yet it seems almost everybody wants to be an author someday. So I’ve been watching John Biggs’* Mytro Project, crowdfunding a YA trilogy, with some considerable interest, not least because it actually seems to be an example of a viable third way. He is wisely spending much of the crowdfunded income on professional editing and design, meaning the end product should be as professionally produced as anything from the so-called Big Five publishers.
True, it won’t have the full force of their marketing and distribution arms behind it, but I can tell you from annoyed experience that most traditionally published books won’t get that either. (I’ve had novels published, and then largely ignored, by HarperCollins, St. Martin’s, and DC/Vertigo.) In fact, what traditional publishers really want nowadays are authors with existing “platforms,” i.e. pre-existing relationships with mass media who will publish and trumpet their work. Unfortunately for them, though, nowadays such authors — like Mr. Biggs — have a growing panoply of increasingly attractive alternatives.
The best an author can get is a traditional publisher throwing its full weight behind their book. That hasn’t changed and won’t anytime soon. But mere half-hearted support from a major publisher seems to me in many ways worse than successful crowdfunding. You do get notability, prestige, a (probably crappy) advance, a better chance at critical reviews, and handholding; but you sacrifice almost all control, for an indefinite and probably very long period.
Which is a big deal nowadays. That control gives you a lot of ways to increase your readership online. In particular, Amazon’s Kindle Direct offers a number of effective (albeit time-limited) promotional options, including making your books available for free, or making them very cheap while still claiming their 70% royalty rate. And/or you can bite the bullet and Creative-Commons-license your work for free, as I’ve done. Major publishers are, quite rationally, rarely interested in doing this; it might be good for the author in the long run, but it’s not particularly likely to be good for them.
I’m fortunate enough to have benefited from both the prestige of having been anointed by Big Publishing, and generous rights-reversion clauses. As I mused on Twitter earlier this week:
Realized: more than half of my books' Amazon.com reviews are from last year, during which they were theoretically out-of-print.—
Jon Evans (@rezendi) January 01, 2014
But in fact they had well over 100,000 downloads/online reads (99% free.) There's a lot to be said for retaining e-rights and CC-publishing.—
Jon Evans (@rezendi) January 01, 2014
(In my case, _reverting_ e-rights, because my agents negotiated good reversion clauses. For which I am extremely grateful today.)—
Jon Evans (@rezendi) January 01, 2014
and then the very next day –
Well, hey, an unexpected check for $1600 does brighten one's day. (DC Comics paying to retain the rights to THE EXECUTOR for another year.)—
Jon Evans (@rezendi) January 02, 2014
…but if those reversion clauses hadn’t been favorable, my books would essentially be dead to the world until those publishers eventually gave up on them, probably years and years hence, if ever. That’s a real risk that authors take when they go with Big Publishing.
I’ve heard it said said that the most efficient way to take advantage of getting into a really good university like MIT or Stanford is to drop out after a year; by then you’ve already amassed their prestige, which is the most valuable thing they bestow upon you. Similarly, if you already have a “platform” but you need the prestige of having been anointed by a higher power, it probably makes sense to sell a book to a legacy publisher (ideally, one of the Big Five) if you can.
But after that, if they won’t make yours a lead title, I’m really not sure it’s worth it any more. It’s best, by far, to be a major book from a big publisher; and out-and-out self-publishing remains, at best, a lottery-like crap shoot; but successful, professional crowdfunding a la Mytro seems an increasingly viable and desirable option, compared to most small presses or afterthought titles from major publishers. In the short term, the latter is better–but in the long run, it may not be worth sacrificing your rights.
Apple has acquired the one-man photo technology startup SnappyLabs, maker of SnappyCam, sources tell me. The startup was founded and run solely by John Papandriopoulos, an electrical engineering PhD from the University Of Melbourne who invented a way to make the iPhone’s camera take full-resolution photos at 20 to 30 frames per second — significantly faster than Apple’s native iPhone camera.
I first noticed something was up when we got tipped off that SnappyCam had disappeared from the App Store and all of SnappyLabs‘ websites went blank. Sources have since affirmed that the company was acquired by Apple, and that there was also acquisition interest “from most of the usual players”, meaning other tech giants. I don’t have details on the terms of the deal, and I’m awaiting a response from Apple, which has not confirmed the acquisition.
[Update: Papandriopoulos' girlfriend posted a link to this story on Facebook congratulating the founder, effectively confirming the acquisition. We previously had a screenshot of it here but it wasn't shared publicly so we've taken it down at her request.]
Based on Papandriopoulos’ scientific breakthroughs in photography technology, it’s not hard to see why Apple would want to bring him in to help improve their cameras. The stragic acquisition of an extremely lean, hard technology-focused team (of one) fits with Apple’s MO. It typically buys smaller teams to work on specific products rather than buying big staffs and trying to blend them in across the company.
Papandriopoulos built his burst-mode photo technology into SnappyCam, which he sold in the Apple App Store for $1. After I profiled the app in July, Papandriopoulos told me SnappyCam jumped to #1 on the paid app chart in nine countries. Sales of the app let him run SnappyLabs without big funding from venture capital firms.
Back in July, Papandriopoulos told me he had a eureka moment in “discrete cosine transform JPG science” and had essentially reinvented the JPG image format. In a blog post, now taken down, the SnappyLabs founder explained
“First we studied the fast discrete cosine transform (DCT) algorithms…We then extended some of that research to create a new algorithm that’s a good fit for the ARM NEON SIMD co-processor instruction set architecture. The final implementation comprises nearly 10,000 lines of hand-tuned assembly code, and over 20,000 lines of low-level C code. (In comparison, the SnappyCam app comprises almost 50,000 lines of Objective C code.)
JPEG compression comprises two parts: the DCT (above), and a lossless Huffman compression stage that forms a compact JPEG file. Having developed a blazing fast DCT implementation, Huffman then became a bottleneck. We innovated on that portion with tight hand-tuned assembly code that leverages special features of the ARM processor instruction set to make it as fast as possible.”
By bringing Papandriopoulos in-house, Apple could build this technology and more into its iPhone, iPad, Mac, and MacBook cameras. Photography is a core use for smartphones, and offering high-resolution, rapid-fire burst mode shooting could become a selling point for iPhones over competing phones.
And in case you were wondering if Papandriopoulos will be a good fit at Apple, he once dressed as an iPhone at a San Francisco parade.
Last year, Square debuted Stand, a piece of hardware that turns a merchant’s iPad into a card-swiping register. The idea was to provide a simple and elegant way to allow merchants to accept Square for credit card processing and swiping via their iPad. In news announced today at CES, Square is extending this ease of use to iPhone users of its card readers, via a new partnership with hardware developer Griffin Technology.
Until now, Square hasn’t debuted any accessories for its card case reader. Third-party developers have created key chains and cases for the readers, but these haven’t been part of the Square ecosystem. Square and Griffin are announcing a new Merchant case for iPhone 5s and iPhone 5, which is a protective case optimized for a Square Reader and a companion iPhone. The Merchant case, which also includes a Square Reader, is available to order for $19.99.
Square is also announcing a new initiative called Works with Square, which allows developers to build accessories for Square businesses. The inaugural partnership is the one being announced today with Griffin, and Square says it actually partnered with the hardware accessories developer to design the Merchant case to enhance both performance and convenience for merchants selling on the go with Square.
The case itself is custom-molded to secure the Square Reader when connected. A groove in the bottom of the case aligns with the Square Reader to guide a credit card to a frictionless, consistent swipe. The case is made from silicone, and aims to protect the phone from bumps and drops. Additionally, the merchant case features non-slip sides and corners so it’s easier to hold the phone and to hand over for customers’ signatures. And when merchants are not using the Square Reader, the hardware can be detached and stored in the back of the case. Aesthetics wise, the case is no beauty, but it seems to be solid and functional.
It’s unclear what percentage of Square’s merchants use the iPad vs. iPhone for readers, but it’s probably safe to assume that many merchants who are on the go (i.e a massage therapist, tutor, taxi driver) would use their iPhone over an iPad. The case provides a pretty easy way to use your iPhone for personal and professional use when accepting payments. Square decided to develop this case for iPhones, and has not yet developed any sort of external accessory or stand for the Android (although its reader does work with Android).
In terms of the Works With Square program, Square is expanding its ambitions beyond just providing point-of-sale hardware into providing accessories that are optimized for the Square experience. This could mean that the company starts partnering with the developers of receipt printers, kitchen printers, cash drawers and barcode scanners to create a more connected experience for merchants. We asked Square whether there is a revenue-share agreement with developers in this program, and did not receive an answer. But the company did say that products in the Works with Square program can use the Works with Square badge on their packaging, and in certain cases, can include Square readers as part of their packaging.
As Square prepares to potentially go public, it’s clear the company is creating an ecosystem of sellers and developers around its payments products and hardware. Square just debuted an API for the first time in December and also launched a marketplace for its merchants to be able to sell online as well as in-store. Works With Square could be another channel through which Square’s brand and readers are promoted.
Airbnb challenged local hotel zoning laws, Uber took on taxi licensing requirements, and Pinterest built a business around posting copyrighted images. Startup companies that simply follow the rules risk getting left behind. The right lawyer can mean the difference between pushing the envelope and breaking the law. Many startups struggle to decide whether and when to hire a lawyer and how to make the most of their in-house attorney once they do.
I asked several prominent General Counsels of tech companies (and one VC fund) about their work and about how their companies approached the decision to hire them. Here’s what they said.
“Being general counsel is like being Tom Hagen in the Godfather – you’re a Consigliere,” the top lawyer at a New York City startup recently explained. But to achieve that kind of trust, “you need to understand where the founders are coming from – the sacrifices they had to go through to build their business.” Startup companies hire for “fit” into a company culture that celebrates and demands risk-taking – a quality not typically associated with lawyers. So when startup CEOs recruit their first in-house attorney, they look for someone who can replace “no, because,” with “yes, if.”
Why Do Startups Hire Their Own Lawyers? “Lawyers are not engineers. They don’t reliably produce products on a daily basis, but instead provide a strategic, long-term value proposition focused on smart growth and risk-management,” explained one Startup General Counsel (GC).
A typical assignment for a startup GC arises when a business idea confronts the question: how can we do this legally? The answer generally falls into one of several categories: how to protect intellectual property; how to hire, fire, and compensate employees; how to hold regular board meetings and ensure company officials honor their duties to shareholders; how to advertise in compliance with federal rules; how to enter into agreements to partner with other companies; how to maintain user privacy; how to sell things online; how to respond to government requests for user data.
GCs pride themselves on their ability to “get smart fast” on legal issues facing the company (it helps that they no longer get paid by the hour). When getting smart fast is either not smart enough or not fast enough, the general counsel acts as a savvy procurer of legal services by knowing which lawyer to hire for what and how much to pay.
As one explains, “I ask myself, ‘can we stage the legal costs?’” Another adds, “I come in with some very basic questions and I say, ‘for the love of god, don’t write me a memo. Let’s contain the legal costs to X.’ Then it’s lather, rinse, repeat. I do some more research and see if I need more from outside counsel after that.”
When Do Startups Hire Their First Lawyer? Conventional wisdom indicates that a startup’s first lawyer will have had four to 10 years of experience in a broad-based corporate practice, preferably one where the clients were themselves startup companies. Less conventional wisdom exists on the subject of when a startup company should hire that first in-house lawyer. Some startups look for a cost-benefit threshold of legal bills (about $300,000) that can be managed by bringing someone in house. Some see company size as the relevant metric, with one GC asserting that once a company has 10 employees, it should be hiring a full-time operations person to handle Chief Operating Officer duties (often times a lawyer who is not referred to as solely “general counsel”).
How do Startup General Counsels Work? At a startup company, speed counts. Driven by an ethos of “trust but verify,” many Startup GCs stress the importance of following their instincts. “You can say what you think and then go back and check. Things are moving fast, so the mostly right answer today is better than the perfect answer tomorrow.”
As a result, the single most important tool for a successful startup general counsel is a big rolodex. “Google is great. Friends are better,” quipped one GC, but Google remains first stop in the standard three step process of “Internet research,” “outreach to the legal network,” “hire outside counsel.”
As one startup lawyer puts it, “I’ve come to realize that every answer in the world is out there [on the Internet]. The decision is whether or not to spend the time finding it.” Internet research is important in priming the set of questions to ask one’s colleagues, because they have other priorities as well. “You need to pick your spots” when asking colleagues for help. One way to pick more spots is to grow your network. One General Counsel created a group of local general counsels upon being thrown into a job which seemed overwhelming at first. “I said let’s share information – you go first!” Another General Counsel joined the local State Bar Association’s corporate counsel group. “I now have buddies around town.”
A good startup general counsel has a keen grasp of what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld termed the “known knowns,” “the known unknowns,” and the “unknown unknowns.” Generally, all litigation is farmed out. Further, a general counsel may seek insight from outside counsel in case of lack of experience, or lack of time. Sometimes, it’s a lack of stomach for the attendant risk: “We’re not taking any heavy actions without getting ‘adult supervision.’”
How do Startup General Counsel’s Interact with the CEO? Being perceived as the “no guy” ranks among a startup general counsel’s top fears. “You don’t want to be the guy at the end of the hall that just says ‘no,’ because eventually people don’t incorporate you into the conversation.” Another explains, “if you want the CEO to trust you, you need a track record of not always saying no.” Some general counsels have even eliminated “no” from their vocabulary. “It’s not the GC’s place to say no. It’s the GC’s place to expound on the risk and if there is something that is super risky, make that clear, but leave the call to the CEO.” A problem-solving stance and a deep understanding of the company’s product help GCs avoid unnecessary nos.
More than avoiding trouble, some GCs see their understanding of public rules and perceptions as an opportunity to lead. One GC explained that he filters his own legal advice through the lens of the customer: “If you’re reading [the customer] correctly,” and you have an internal reputation for doing so, your legal advice, whether restrictive or progressive, “will be an easy sell.”
Cloud storage might be the most boring sounding tool on this list, but it's so open-ended that you can use it to do all sorts of awesome stuff. With a program like Dropbox or Google Drive installed you can monitor your computer from afar, start BitTorrent downloads remotely, host your own start page for your browser, and automate just about any other action.
Gmail is already a pretty feature-filled app, so it seems overwhelming even when you're just trying to make the most of your email. But Gmail also offers a lot of features that go beyond email, whether they were meant to or not. For example, you can use it to host files in the cloud when you have no other option (by attaching a file to an email draft), or use Gmail's Recent Activity window to keep track of your home computer's IP address.