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5 ways to break past the San Francisco echo-chamber

The Bay Area echo-chamber

It’s now been a year since I moved down from Seattle, and one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had has been experiencing the “tech echo-chamber” here. Driven by blogs, friends, co-workers, and all the other channels of information, it’s very easy to get excited about the next new thing rather than realize the eternal truth of technology:

Every new technology takes longer to permeate the world than you’d think

Whether it’s the iPhone, podcasting, Facebook apps, AJAX desktop, OpenSocial, data portability, microformats, or the other legions of buzzwords, there’s a LOT of information inefficiency between Silicon Valley and the rest of America.

How to break past the Silicon Valley echo-chamber
The question is, when everyone here talks about this stuff, how do you keep yourself from falling into the trap of building products for a niche tech audience? I honestly don’t have a great answer to this question, but here are a couple ideas:

1. Read some books about American demographics, and how you fit into the world
If you haven’t yet, I’d highly recommend that you read Bobos in Paradise, which is about you ;-) It talks a lot about a culture that values functional things, is into outdoor sports, and all that stuff. Furthermore, it ties this culture into its roots in the SAT score and new meritocracy that emerged in the last century. Absolutely a great read.

Other related books:

The idea here is to read about some of these groups, and realize how weird and skewed technology folks really are. In a country where the median HOUSEHOLD income is $48k,  the average SF engineer in his late 20s making $130k might want to read a little more about how the rest of the country is split up.

2. Spend a lot of time wandering around the top sites online
At my last company, Revenue Science, one of the most educational things we did was to buy the Alexa 100k list, hire a bunch of guys fresh out of college, and begin cold e-mailing and cold dialing them until we had talked to a good chunk of the top 10k US sites. It was a great experience because you figure out that there are HUGE sites out there, with 100s of millions of pageviews, run by 2- or 3-person teams out in the middle of nowhere, that are growing quite fast. In fact, when you have enough conversions, you’ll start to discount Techcrunch and other sources for breaking news about “successful” websites.

In fact, in late 2004, we happened on a site that no one in the blogosphere was talking about (I checked on Feedster and Technorati) yet was adding 40k users per day on a base of 15 million registered users. We had talked to a random company called Intermix that seemed to mostly deal in e-cards, toolbars, herbal supplements, and other internet-marketing programs. But in talking to their sales folks, we were told of a sister property that was exploding, but no one knew why. This site, of course, was called MySpace.com. 200 million users later, I still don’t think the property gets the respect that it deserves, just because it doesn’t cater to the tech community.

You can do a similar thing now by viewing the Quantcast list here. I would be shocked if you didn’t find a ton of sites in the top 500 or so that you’ve never heard of before.

Other sources of information like this are comScore, Nielsen, and other analytics sources, which can tell you specifically about what sites are the most common for women 35 or older, or teenagers, or other people outside of your demographic. Hugely useful. I’m also really interested in sorting large groups of sites by “longest time on site” or “high growth rate in the last month” because you always find interesting outliers there as well.

3. Visit unfamiliar retail stores, or even better, retail locations way out of your geography
Think about your average Wal-mart. It’s a well-oiled machine, stocked with products optimized to the ZIP code it was placed. Now go walk around one, and you’ll be surprised by what people are buying. Lots of outdoor equipment, or BB guns, or the book section is mostly self-help, diet/exercise, and cookbooks. Or look at the types of magazines that are stocked. Overall, the square footage of the Wal-mart will correlate with the $ per square foot in revenue that it generates, so find the places that seem to be huge (and uninteresting)

Another example of this is to go to teenage stores – when’s the last time you went to a Hot Topic? or a Pacsun? In these stores, you can learn a lot of random things about teen culture, what kinds of influences are being exerted, and so on. Hot Topic is a great one because you definitely see a lot of “video game culture” being shown, as well as a lot of Japanese and Asian stuff being imported, reinterpreted, and then sold to the American audience.

4. Talk to a lot of people different than you – pay them if necessary
I’ve learned a TON from talking to people who are much different than me – the best way to recruit them is off of a survey form with traffic driven in from Google or Craigslist. If you qualify them and make sure they are sufficiently different, you can learn a ton of information. Or maybe you have a friend or two out in Middle America? Recruit them and their friends if possible.

Ask them about their technology usage – what websites do they use, what technologies are they excited about, what their daily schedule is, etc. I’m sure you’ll be surprised by the answers.

Even better is if you can actually get a look at their computer! I’m sure you’d learn more about consumer technology working a week at Geek Squad at Best Buy than anywhere else. You’d see desktops clogged with icons, taskbars with hundreds of open IE windows, spyware everywhere, and everything else that a “typical” user is likely to do.

5. Visit the underbelly of the internet ;-)
And finally, make sure you visit the underbelly of the internet:

Websites/forums like these really epitomize the core of “Internet culture.” A lot of different memes get started there, and it’s where you can make observations about how internet culture is changing. For example, it’s fascinating to note how sharing files has changed – it used to be mostly open FTP servers, then open directories (hosted in Apache), then Gnutella links, then BitTorrent, and now more often than not, it’s mostly upload sites like RapidShare or Megaupload.

Similarly, you can see the origins of such phenomenon as lolcatz or other fun themes. Just don’t stay there long, or else your IQ will slowly plummet ;-)

An open question… any tips?
I’m sure many folks out there have their own ways of staying above the frothiness. What are they? What do you do? Would appreciate the thoughts – feel free to e-mail or comment.


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