Brian Alvey: The real creative cloud is made of people

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Recurrency CEO Brian Alvey (Photo: Job Portraits)

Recurrency CEO Brian Alvey (Photo: Job Portraits)

Over two decades, serial entrepreneur Brian Alvey has helped start more than a half-dozen companies, from an early blog network that included Engadget and Autoblog, to his just-launched crowdfunding platform, Recurrency. Along the way, he’s helped pioneer the concept of cloud-based collaborative content-management systems with Crowd Fusion and its successor, Ceros, where he still holds the title of Chief Scientist. In this interview with Thoughts On Cloud, Alvey reflects on his experience creating new platforms — and how some of the same concepts that make cloud computing an efficient way to operate a business apply equally well to managing other resources, including human resources.

ToC: You launched your first cloud-hosted web site — Warner Bros’ TMZ.com — five years ago. Tell us what that was like.

BA: TMZ was huge; it was Warner’s biggest site, and had broken news like Michael Jackson’s death. When they moved onto Crowd Fusion, we told Warner Bros we wanted to put them fully in the cloud. They told us we were insane. No one was doing that with a top 100 website in 2010. The cloud was for overnight batch processing or video game backends.

They were also concerned that we wouldn’t be able to keep up with demand, with TMZ’s massive traffic spikes. We told them that was the point of the cloud: with autoscaling, you can spin up new server instances based on demand. Even today, it takes a few minutes to fire up another server instance. But back then, it could take eight or 10 minutes even if you’re automatically deploying based on load. With breaking news, you can’t have your servers go offline even for a minute or two. By the time you come back, someone else has scooped your team. TMZ was like most publishers. They hired reporters, not a big ops team. 

houston traffic spike

So we did something crazy. We built server management right into their CMS. The same site where editors could add photos, add stories and manage comments also had a tab for cloud servers. So they could go in and see, okay, we have 18 servers running. We’d better double that right now, because we’re about to post exclusive photos and interviews from the hotel where Whitney Houston died, and nobody else has this, and we know we’re going to have a spike that looks like a wall, a line that goes straight up. Now they could spin up new instances preemptively, based on their gut, how well they know their audience, whether anyone else has the news. It was an insurance policy. Spend a few dollars to hedge against an outage instead of relying on autoscaling, which can’t predict that you’re going to go from normal load to 20x in the 30 seconds after you hit the publish button.

ToC: What made you realize the cloud could be a good platform for collaboration, as well as for hosting content?

The Ceros platform at work.

BA: With Crowd Fusion and Blogsmith [Alvey’s first CMS, which was sold to AOL as part of its acquisition of Weblogs Inc. in 2006], our goal was to make it easy for content producers to publish their work quickly. It was all about getting articles out immediately. But by 2012, when we helped News Corp. launch The Daily, we had to make sure that they could do the same thing with all kinds of media. The Daily was a tablet-first news site, created for the iPad. It was the first app to have its own Super Bowl commercial.

So we wondered, what if you had a tablet-first CMS, where, instead of typing text into form fields, you could drag and drop, and create dynamic Flash-like content all in the browser, and collaborate with the rest of your team in realtime to build these rectangles of infinite interactivity? You could rapidly create things like a content carousel for a web page or a catalog of pages with video, text and all kinds of widgets. The iPad didn’t support Flash, but it was built to be interacted with. It was a piece of glass that compelled you to touch it. It made sense to us to create a publishing platform that could do the same, and to let people collaborate at creating content. The content lives in the cloud, not on your tablet or laptop.

ToC: The Daily, unfortunately, didn’t survive. What happened to your platform?

BA: We took what we had learned with Crowd Fusion, and merged it into a company we acquired called Ceros, and their sales team has sold it into more than 100 brands. Big brands like Gucci looked at this and realized they can put an entire interactive catalog into apps, sites or even Facebook with this, and their designers can all work together from anywhere on Earth, and they don’t need any developers to make it happen.

That’s the thing about using the cloud for creative work. It’s like Google Docs, but it’s not a clunky Google-style interface. My theme through all the things I’ve done has been about helping creative people amplify their abilities. The cloud does that. Even if you’re just one person, if you’re working on one machine, and you get up and go to another one, you pick up where you left off. The cloud knows where you were and you just keep working. And you’re collaborating in realtime. So, if somebody in London changes a background and someone else updates the pricing information in Poughkeepsie, it all happens in realtime, and all the changes are saved in realtime.

It even works if you’re just one person who wants to check that what you’re building works on all possible devices. You have an iPad in landscape, an iPhone in portrait, a couple of different laptops, and they’re all spread out on a conference table. You make a change on your workstation, and it updates on all of those other machines instantly, because they’re all connected through the cloud. Plus your boss is on the beach with her iPad, looking at the same piece, giving you approvals in realtime. You make a logo bounce in from the top instead of fading in, she sees it, and tells you to keep it, and you’re done. Hit publish, and it’s out there for everyone to see.

ToC: So, you’ve used cloud to enable creativity. How does that relate to what you’re doing now with Recurrency?

BA: The reason cloud is so powerful is that it provides on-demand resources. You don’t always need a hundred instances, but when you do, they’re there. And that same model applies to a lot of new businesses. Uber is a cloud; I don’t always need a car, but when I do, I know I can spin one up. AirBnB, too. I have access to a cloud of vacation homes. The whole sharing economy is about clouds of resources, based on making use of excess capacity, which is really how the cloud caught on in computing. Amazon had excess capacity on its servers, and realized it could make some extra money leasing it out. You can do that with your home through AirBnB, or your car through Uber.

It’s the same thing with people. Clay Shirky wrote a book called “Cognitive Surplus,” about how people can use their excess capacity to solve problems and help people. It’s how Wikipedia got built. It’s a cloud of smart, creative people, who have excess attention, and donate a little of it here and there. With Recurrency, we let people donate a little bit of money here and there to pay creative people whose work they like. In traditional crowdfunding, you make a one-time payment, and it might be pretty big, but it’s a one-time thing. With Recurrency, you can pay $1 a week to support a musician or author or podcaster you like. It’s more about funding someone than something.

 ToC: Where do you see the collaborative cloud going next? Do you see more companies using platforms like Ceros to get their work done?

BA: What really excites me now are products like Slack, which let you collaborate in realtime on just about everything. People figured out that emailing files back and forth is too slow and you end up with all of these copies of messages and attachments. You might use the cloud to transport data, but with Slack, you live and work in the cloud and everything is based on realtime communication. I see that as the future of not just content creation, but consumption as well. 

The Slackification of communication means you’re always able to interact, and you publish everything that you’re doing. It’s not static. It’s better than email, it’s better than a web site, and it’s always there, in the cloud. There are some other services doing the same thing on the front end like Livefyre, which started as a commenting tool for blogs, but is all about realtime communication. Businesses are increasingly moving to virtual teams, on-demand teams, clouds of people. Collaboration tools like Livefyre and Slack, that live in the cloud, are the ideal way to connect those teams, and we’re going to see a lot more of that.

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