SXSWi 2010: Joel Bush on amplifying yourself

Online creators: Stomp loudly and carry a big horn!

From South by Southwest Interactive 2010: Amplifier.com's Joel Bush helps online content creators afford to do the things they love by increasing their volume, modulating their frequency, and reducing the noise.

Scott Laningham (scottla@us.ibm.com), developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.



24 March 2010

developerWorks: Scott Laningham again at South By Southwest 2010, joined by a neat guy that I've gotten to know in Austin, Joel Bush, who is at Amplifier.com. How are you doing, man?

Bush: Doing great. It's wall to wall down here. Dawn to dawn.

Listen to this podcast

Keep up with Joel, ideas for online content creators, and what's happening at Amplifier.com at the undependent blog.

developerWorks: I wanted to spend a moment chatting with you both for people to hear about who you are and what you do and also just get your take on this because, you know, you're a thinker and you're focused on the kinds of things that are going on at this conference on a regular basis, not just in what you do at work but in the kinds of folks you like to talk with and visit with. So first tell people who you are.

Bush: Sure. My name is Joel Bush. I co-founded a company here in Austin. We started in 2000 and we help creators, people who run Internet indigenous Web properties, monetize their audience via merchandise.

Fundamentally if you've attracted an audience and they're into what you're doing, you have two ways to make money which helps you keep doing what you love to do:

  • You can take that accumulated audience and sell them to someone else; and that's called advertising.
  • Or you can sell things to them.

And so we help our clients sell things to their audience.

Our services include screen printing, traditional printing of t-shirts. We see tons, thousands and thousands of t-shirts come through the building. We also have a digital production capability, so we make calendars on demand that can be personalized, poster prints that we frame after ... you know, on demand. Greeting cards, laptop skins. We've just recently added mugs and mouse pads to the product.

And then that's integrated with an order fulfillment platform, so we're doing all the pick, pack, and ship as well as the post-order support. And it's white label. We're completely invisible to the end audience, so they never know that we're there. They think they're interacting with our client and in a sense they are.

And that has a lot to do with Amplifier, the name. Our mission, the metaphor, is encased in our name. It's all about boosting the signal with no noise about us and helping our clients get their volume up. It works really well as a metaphor.

developerWorks: And I've been to your operation, and it's impressive, man ... I mean, it's like, you know, a three-, four-story high ceiling in a big warehouse.

Bush: It's a lot of fun. Come by some, you know, holiday season and see it at full tilt. The interesting challenge that we have that we still think is somewhat unique is we enable all of this on demand personalization, but we also support traditional stocked merchandise. And that's very important because if you're moving a tremendous amount of volume in a particular t-shirt or DVD or book, you get much better unit margins.

And so CafePress ... and Zazzle ... and there are a dozen or more wonderful on demand engines out there, thousands that are wonderful solutions, but in our case our clients really depend on that margin delivery from these product sales to fund their business and to keep doing what they do that the fans are responding to. And so that integration is very vital.

developerWorks: Who are some of your clients?

Bush: We work with The Onion, the satirical paper.

developerWorks: Very cool.

Bush: Our clients are ... it's interesting ... they're tremendous and they're tremendously successful, but often they might not be known universally because they're kind of niche-y. So Despair Incorporated is a humor publisher of what they call demotivational products. But they have a wider variety of stuff than that.

We work with the guys behind the Cheezburger Network. They power the FAIL Blog, I Can Has Cheezburger [and I Has A Hot Dog], the purveyor of Lolcats and Loldogs. I mean, they're just amazing, the sort of captains of user-generated content.

We work with Webcomics like Penny Arcade and PvP and Achewood. Glenn Jones at GlennzTees is one of the most successful threadless designers ever. He broke out on his own. And we do all of his printing and fulfillment.

So it's a very interesting, vibrant group of people at the cutting edge of sort of Internet content, really delighting their audiences. So it's a whole lot of fun.

developerWorks: You ran a panel, right?

Bush: I moderated a panel. We had the individuals who ran BustedTees, a very, very significant t-shirt seller online that's connected with collegehumor.com and Connected Ventures, Vimeo. They're a wonderful group.

We had the CEO of Despair, the head of Rooster Teeth. Rooster Teeth runs Red vs. Blue, very popular machinema series built on Halo.

And, Jennifer Shiman who runs Angry Alien Productions best known for the 30-second bunnies clips that she does. She takes a movie like "The Exorcist" or "Indiana Jones" and turns it into a 30-second cartoon where all the characters are played by bunnies. It's wonderful.

developerWorks: [LAUGHTER] I need to check that out.

Bush: It's great stuff.

So it was great because we had a real ... just in that group of four there's a ... their business models are all quite different but they've all achieved success and they've all been running for some more than a decade now. So they stand as a solid demonstration of what's really possible with this kind of audience relationship today.

developerWorks: How do you gauge, what's the penetration like, what's the awareness like, are you telling a story that's very clear to people or ...

Bush: We're getting there. Yes, I think so, well, but it's a very select group. Our constituency is, we're very particular and we very tightly focus on this group of people. So it's an interesting marketing challenge because we want to be known by them. We want to be in fact the default choice, just sort of ... you know, I'm not exactly sure, what I need is what those Amplifier guys do, that's what I need.

But we don't ever want to be out in front of them, right? We don't want the noise to be about us, so we don't sponsor parties and things like that because we're not a consumer brand. We really cultivate the trust with these kinds of folks.

So for us, for Amplifier and just for myself separately, but for Amplifier, South By Southeast Interactive could not be delivered more right in our bullseye. It is the best event, we could never have imagined an event that so wonderfully brings every client and everybody that we would love to be a client right to our doorstep every year.

So I spend a lot of time shuttling people by the warehouse and taking them to get barbecue and have all kinds of Texas fun going up and down South Congress and stuff. It's just a wonderful annual tradition now. Interactive has really carved out a wonderful place. It's an amazing event.

developerWorks: Why is that for you? What is it about the way the thing is themed and the focuses and the kind of people that come?

Bush: They've become sort of ... there's this ... across a wide range of Internet business models and services and ideas and thinkers. It's probably, it's definitely in the short list. If people had a list of one it might still be the entire list of the one stop.

Internet makes, in a sense, makes distance less relevant. And you can have virtual companies and virtual officers and co-working and all this amazing stuff, but people still like to be in the same place at the same time. And so this event has such a footprint and so many different subsets of the Web that it brings everybody here for four days, it's in Austin which is a wonderful place. March is a great time to be here. If you can hang out for an extra couple of days, the music stuff starts up. The film stuff's overlapping.

So it's just this union upon union upon union of wonderful stuff all here at the same time. And what's great too is last year, I know Mark Cuban was here this year again. I didn't get to see him. Last year he interviewed Michael Eisner.

So those are like industry-titan billionaire-type figures. And you kind of know that the scrappy, brand-new, 20-something crazy-idea folks are running around here too. So it's got this amazing mix and spectrum in every dimension. It's awesome.

developerWorks: Yes, he was here interviewing or in a panel with the CEO of Boxee ...

Bush: And so they were having their argument.

developerWorks: They were having quite a debate about the future of television.

Bush: So the challenge for me now is there's no way to see everything and there's no way to see everyone. So next year I think Amplifier is going to need to figure out a way where we can get a bunch of people in a place at the same time just to compress time because there's so much to do.

So I'm going to spend the next few weeks going back to podcasts from South By Southeast and catching up to a lot of the panels that I had to miss because it's just an embarrassment of riches here for four days.

developerWorks: Did you hear Evan Williams, Twitter CEO ...

Bush: No, I was, we were shooting guns with BustedTees. [LAUGHTER]

developerWorks: You know, he at one point, he said, "our interest is in helping people more effectively follow what they're interested in. We're not interested in just getting their attention. We want to help them do more with what they want to be focused on." And it sounds...

Bush: They're well on their way.

developerWorks: And it sounds like what you guys are talking about at Amplifier too. And that does seem to be a theme that's going on in the maturing of ... you know, last year it was very social networking, and very buzz ...

Bush: Sure.

developerWorks: ... around all of that. How do you see this year's conference as evolving from last year's conference topically?

Bush: Well, first of all there's four sites now. Last year there were two. Before that there was one; everything could be in the convention center. So it's growing. The interest level just keeps building on itself. I think they're holding it together pretty well.

Jim Collins, the writer and sort of business thinker and researcher, and I think it's Built to Last, but it might be Good to Great ... he's got the whole idea of, you want to preserve the core so you have these core ideas and principles and services that you keep the same but you stimulate progress around the edges.

And I think South By Southeast Interactive is doing a good job at hanging on to what's really signature and then while embracing all this new stuff and new interest that's coming. So they're known now. Twitter sort of exploded here a few years ago and then got really even more explosive when the Facebook CEO's keynote was going on and there was all that commentary.

And this year it seemed to be, you know, Foursquare, Gowalla, location services everywhere. And you can just kind of, you know, you follow the space and cover all kinds of folks. And you can ... any of those trajectories out into the future a couple years, you know all that stuff's going to want to course through here.

It's going to be happening. People are going to be coming through South By Southeast Interactive to share their stories. So I don't see that crossroads ... everybody in the same place at the same time sharing ideas and talking about what they're up to ... waning at any time soon. All of these services and platforms are brand new, new ones coming on that stream everyday. So there's still so much development yet to occur that I think this event will remain super-interesting for as long as we can imagine.

developerWorks: I know you think a lot about new directions, new ideas, new possibilities, opportunities, the frontier, you know, all of that aspect of the Web. If Joel Bush was looking ahead and planning the conference for next year, what do you think is going to be the focus next year?

Bush: There's ... the true answer is there's just no way to know. It's so early. And we don't even have the iPad out yet. And I hope what that does ... an interesting moment happened. I was sitting in the room when Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners was interviewing John Gruber, "Daring Fireball," and it was a great discussion. I think half of the time one was interviewing the other and then they switched halfway through.

developerWorks: Right.

Bush: And it was a neat panel. But the interesting thing was at one moment Gruber asked the audience there "how many of you use Google Reader?" And I bet 75, 85 percent of the hands went up. Now, imagine going to an average coffee shop in Austin on a Tuesday afternoon and asking, "how many of you use Google reader?" Two hands out of a hundred might go up; five maybe. And Austin's a pretty tech savvy place generally. And if you then asked, "how many people know what RSS means?" Maybe you'd get 10 hands or 15 hands out of 100.

So one thing that's coming that's interesting is the iPad seems to represent a tool that's trying to make it easier to consume this stuff which hopefully then will make people more motivated to produce this stuff which hopefully, you know, that cycle begins to hopefully feed on itself and broaden the use of these tools into a wider body of people because this is clearly a subset of pretty Web-interested technically capable folk who come through here.

developerWorks: You turned me on to Google Reader. I had heard of it but I didn't start using it until you explained the way you use it.

Bush: It's great. It's wonderful.

developerWorks: And it's helped me reclaim some of my day which is very important.

Bush: That's great.

developerWorks: And, you know, it was interesting. I heard Nicholas Carr, the author, speaking about his forthcoming book, The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to our Brain. And it's interesting to consider some of the negatives in some of these trends in order to be more thoughtful about how we're using all these tools and our time spent, isn't it?

Bush: Yes. Well, I sort of am trying just for fun in my non-professional life or just sort of my citizen sort of life, I would love to see Austin become the most Web-engaged city ever. But simultaneously in aggregate spend far less time in front of a computer screen or online or thinking about mobile devices which really means I'd love for Austin to become the most engaged city ever.

And there's a important interplay between the offline and the offline and the online and the offline. So that reflects, that manifests itself inside Amplifier. We, for our clients, anyone that wanted for free with our print-on-demand capability, we printed up cards that they could just hand out as they were meeting people.

And each of them contains a single use coupon code. So if you sell t-shirts or you sell DVDs or whatever you've got, as you're meeting people you're also giving them the opportunity to go save inside the store. Whatever promotional rate you deemed, you know, that fit for you, we would, we can set up these could you upon codes and print them on their cards.

And the idea is to take someone you meet at an event or an event fan and turn them into a store buyer. But then, when you send them the packing slip you want to put on the packing slip what your up coming event schedule is. So you take a store buyer and turn them into an event fan.

Similarly, within a city if there's an arts fair coming up, all of those artists should be on some blog platform, Wordpress or at least Tumbler, at least Twitter that's even easier, Tumbler allowing you video embeds and photos in a rich sort of expression. And if you do, if you manage that online signal better, you're going to get more people to your event.

But the people coming to the event should know about Flickr and how to take photos and share back into the online sort of world to their friends and followers.

We don't all need to be famous. We can't all be famous. Fame is about an imbalance of attention. More people are looking at you and you're not looking back at them.

What we all have in the real world are all these important connections — family, friends, people we know from all walks, all areas of our lives that we would connect to, that we are connected to.

And so if you saw from one of your friends that they had been to some event, it might motivate you to go next time. You might go follow one of the artists or, you know, grab an RSS feed from somebody that was there. And so the next time there's an offline event, the audience is bigger which is more content going back online.

So there's this sort of participation and engagement model that's coming because, again a lot of the people, the vast majority of the people RSS hasn't really penetrated, you know. Facebook's doing a wonderful thing. I don't know, I'm not yet, I don't know if they'll have a permanent seat at the table. You know, will they be a Google or an Amazon versus sort of a MySpace or an AOL and it sort of rises and seems to fall a little bit. They've done some really smart things with Facebook Connect and all kinds of stuff.

Without question right now, they are to sort of Web 2.0 what AOL was to the first generation of stuff.

AOL made it very safe for everyone to understand getting information and content through a computer screen that was kind of like the Internet. Even when it was sort of its own walled garden, AOL was its own thing, separate from the Web.

But it made people comfortable with that mode of getting information and it made people so comfortable with email that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starred in a movie called "You've Got Mail." It just became THE consumer phenomenon.

Well Facebook right now is making everyone comfortable with friending, connecting, uploading photos about what they've been up to and status updates. Twitter, there's a lot of players in that, but Facebook is sort of, feels safe, it's got a uniform user interface and it's providing a tremendous amount of value for the whole ecosystem in that regard because it's getting everybody comfortable with this new stuff.

And of course, this week we're talking about Foursquare versus Gowalla [Ed: And just for laughs, Foursquare versus Gowalla], but here comes Facebook. You know, we've got the iPad coming soon that could change everything and Facebook has announced but not yet deployed, by the way, we're going to become location-aware, too. And so there's a lot of exciting development and open questions left to play out. And we don't even know what the questions are going to be in a year.

developerWorks: No wonder you don't want to project what we're going to be doing. So much happening so fast, it's a pretty exciting time ...

Bush: It's interesting.

developerWorks: ... to be in, isn't it? With big, big challenges. But maybe the ...

Bush: I've heard that the registrants were 40 or 50 percent up this year. And I've heard that, I don't know if this is true, but I've heard ... that's the talk around. And I've also heard that more people now register for interactive than for music. And for this city, that's quite an amazing thing.

developerWorks: It sure is.

So nice to talk with you, Joel. I'm glad we finally got to hook up. And since we're in the same town, we need to do this on some kind of regular basis.

Bush: Any time. I really deeply appreciate it. It's a privilege. Thanks.

developerWorks: Joel Bush, Amplifier.com. Check him out online. I'm Scott Laningham at South By Southeast Interactive 2010. Talk to you soon.

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