Whatever happened to the Lean Media framework?

I received a message from a European media executive about my Lean Media framework proposal from a few years back. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

A few years ago, before the mobile startup, I heard Eric Ries give his Lean Startup stump speech at MIT. It immediately clicked with me. His focus was software development, but I realized that the things he was saying about product development, feedback cycles, and speed applied not only to software, but to media content as well. I had seen it with my own eyes. Print content, websites, video, music and other products/projects that were developed with these qualities in mind had many positive qualities. They were cheaper to produce, they made it to market more quickly, user feedback loops started sooner, and if they were new brands, they got a huge head start. They were also more fun to work on.

Conversely, products that took the big media approach — bloated teams, top-down directives, planned by committee, limited feedback cycles, etc. — encountered problems. They required huge staff and budget commitments, took years to complete, and seemed to have a higher rate of failure.

Almost immediately I realized there were some issues I had to think through (see Lean Media: The Importance Of Intangibles And Brands and The Lean Media mindset: Can it work for large companies?) even while I found more examples of lean media such as Led Zeppelin (who started lean) and The Deftones (who returned to lean).

Earlier this year, I started writing a book about lean media, but quickly realized that the idea still needed to be refined. This is what I told the European executive:

Thanks for reaching out. I started to write a book about lean media but stopped because A) I have too many other things going on with my business and B) it was hard to think through some aspects of the framework.

For instance: talent/creative can make such a huge difference in the success of a lean media project but “dream teams” with lots of resources can fail. “Creative” is also hard to measure, which in turn makes it hard to translate into actionable advice

Another intangible aspect: “Brand.” It is so easy to create in the lean media world but how it fits in with existing brands (if it is part of a corporate effort) gets very tricky.

There is also the issue of scaling a lean media project into a true business, if that is the goal. Perhaps it is beyond the scope of lean media, though, because more resources and coordination is required.

As you can see I still have some thinking to do about this. Ideally, at the end of the day I want to have a simple framework that managers/companies/entrepreneurs in all kinds of media industries can apply. But I am not sure if such simplicity is possible.

What I probably should do is talk with more people in the trenches. I know there is something here, but expressing it cleanly will talk more contemplation … and perhaps collaboration.

An action plan for telecommuters and their managers

Mary Meeker’s latest report on Internet trends was recently released. While many observers are pondering the some of the big stats relating to the size of the digital economy and the big companies that stand to benefit, I was interested in a data point that pretty much slipped beneath the radar. Buried on page 126 of Meeker’s slideshow was this finding, relating to freelancers:

Freelancers = Significant & Growing Portion of Workers @ 53MM People, 34% of USA Workforce

She broke down the numbers further, relying on data from oDesk/Upwork:

Mary Meeker Internet trends freelancers vs telecommuters and virtual office action plans

If these numbers are correct, it represents a huge change in the way Americans are working. Certainly, the data shows that freelancers are ready for virtual work, if tens of millions are already doing it.

But are companies ready? The slide did not break out the telecommuting workforce. Millions work from home on a full-time or part-time basis for employers located elsewhere (ranging from across town to the other side of the globe). But it’s a drop in the bucket, compared to the numbers of people who could be telecommuters if their companies allowed it.

As author Melanie Pinola pointed out in her book The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes: Best practices, tools, and setup tips for your home office, coworking space, or mobile office, most jobs that take place in front of a computer screen are candidates for being done remotely. But not all companies are on board. She cited the example of Yahoo, which killed its teleworking program in 2012 because its new CEO thought collaboration and innovation were suffering.

As Melanie noted, “Good collaboration and innovation don’t require you to be within touching distance of your coworker.” If companies have the right team in place, and the right tools, telecommuters can not only be productive, they can successfully collaborate and innovate, too. Melanie’s book covers many of the tools and best practices that can help a virtual team — as well as individual contributors, their managers, and their freelance partners — operate at peak efficiency. She has also written Virtual Office Action Plans, which describes strategies and approaches for telecommuters, freelancers, and business managers.

What’s the best home office setup for a virtual office?

I’ve worked out of three home offices in the past ten years. I’ve been able to get a lot accomplished in these offices, including writing a graduate thesis, managing a virtual team, and starting my own publishing company. However, if Melanie Pinola’s The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes had been available at the start, I would have been able to get a lot more done. This blog post will serve as a review of the book, albeit a biased one — while I really did get a lot of useful information from Melanie’s guide, I am the publisher of the In 30 Minutes series.

Best Home Office book Melanie is the author of a top-selling LinkedIn book and writes about home offices, telecommuters, and virtual work for Lifehacker. She’s also About.com‘s mobile office expert. As a virtual worker for decades (she started working from a home office in the 1990s) she knows the virtual mindset and what’s required to have a successful virtual office. It’s not just a matter of wanting to work from home, or assuming a Wi-Fi connection and laptop is all that’s required. She methodically works through the different aspects of setting up and maintaining a high-performance virtual office, starting with legal and technical requirements and finishing with a list of Top Tech Tools for home offices. Specific topics include:

Finding the best place to work and creating an efficient home office or remote workspace (Chapter 1)

  • Recommendations for setting up the ideal virtual office, based on the latest research.
  • How to use alternative offices such as coffee shops and libraries to get more done.
  • Four elements of a productive home office.
  • Ergonomics (or how to stay healthy)
  • Must-have supplies for your home or mobile office.

Learning strategies to help you work more effectively on your own and as a virtual team member (Chapters 2 & 3)

  • How to ward off roommates, spouses, children, pets, phone calls, and other daily distractions.
  • Crucial time-management tips.
  • How to work well with other virtual team members.
  • Best practices for effective communication across a distributed team.
  • Dealing with resentful coworkers.
  • Coping with isolation.

Using technology to help you stay productive and connected (Chapter 4)

  • Useful apps for real-time collaboration.
  • Software that can make you work more efficiently.
  • How to secure your digital data.

Reading Melanie’s book, I immediately picked up some tips that I could apply right away to my home office setup. They included installing a door to keep out family distractions (especially in the evening, when I am most productive) and dusting off an old space heater to keep my home office warm in the winter months (much cheaper than cranking up the heat for the entire house). The recommended applications included a few that I want to explore further, including Slack. There was also an extensive list of tools and apps relating to coworking spaces, which is a popular mode of work these days (see my review of the CIC).

This new book practically pays for itself, in terms of the increased productivity and better insights into virtual offices. Whether you are a freelancer, consultant, small business owner, or are interested in telecommuting, this is a wonderful and effective guide for getting the most out of your home office.

Creating a special Google Docs resource for educators

Google Drive For EducationWhen Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes was first introduced more than two years ago, almost immediately I noticed an interesting trend in the traffic logs to the product website. Lots of visitors were coming from schools and school districts all over the country. Then, I started getting huge bulk orders for the books from my two print distributors, CreateSpace and LSI. Emails from some teachers confirmed that their schools had ordered the books as K-12 teacher training for Google Drive for Education. In this post, I am going to discuss the creation of several new products intended to serve teachers, curriculum managers, school administrators, and educational IT professionals who are interested in providing a Google Drive/Google Docs training resource for their schools.

First off, I would like to note that Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes is not only about Google Drive and Google Docs. It covers the other programs in the suite, including Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Forms, and Google Drawings, as well as collaboration and other features. It is the top-selling In 30 Minutes guide, and I just released a revised and expanded 2nd edition.

That said, Google Docs for students is the top draw for K-12 educators. Primary school students are not likely to need spreadsheets or presentation software. In many school districts, starting in 3rd or 4th grade, students begin to practice typing and composition. Google Docs provides an excellent platform to practice, and its collaborative nature also allows teachers to check progress and make comments. For teachers who are new to Google Docs and are using the educators’ version of Google Drive, Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes provides an excellent starting point.

My first thought was to create bulk ordering options for educators at a steep discount. That was easy enough to do. But then I got an interesting request from a teacher:

I also want to know if your would be willing to offer a license for people to have access to it at our school. You see, there are about 150 people learning about Google drive. Maybe 30 of them are English speakers. The school might consider getting a license for people to view the .PDF, but individuals probably won’t want to shell out $4.99 since they see it as something that the school is making them do.

This was an interesting thought. How about offering an affordable license that any teacher or staff member could access on their computers, tablets, or Kindle? I put together a simple license, priced it attractively, and let it fly. The teacher recommended it to his school, and then I started getting other sales.

This month, to coincide with the release of the 2nd edition of Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes, I updated the license to include two versions: A single-edition license as well as an educational license subscription, which will provide regular updates to the text of the books as well as extra materials such as videos. You can see the descriptions and prices on the dedicated Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes page for education.






How the C. diff book is doing, 18 months after launch

C diff bookIn mid-2013, my publishing company released its first medical-related title, C. Diff In 30 Minutes: A Guide to Clostridium Difficile for Patients and Families. Publishing a C. diff book for patients and their caregivers was a risky proposition. At the time, there was only one other similar title available on Amazon, which didn’t appear to be selling very well, judging by the the publicly available sales data that Amazon displays.

But we had a few things going for us: A well-respected international C. diff expert, Dr. J. Thomas Lamont, was the author of the book. We used an easy-to-understand structure that featured practical information as well as case studies based on the author’s extensive experience with patients. I created a solid website with lots of resources for browsers, including a simple guide to what is C. diff, a list of C. diff symptoms and a resource describing basic C. diff disinfectants and procedures for healthcare workers and patients.

I also priced C. Diff In 30 Minutes strategically. It was hard to justify the same cover price as the competing title, which was much longer and had several reader reviews in mid-2013. On the other hand, C. Diff In 30 Minutes wasn’t some Kindle freebie. It contained expert information that can help patients understand and cope with a little-known but devastating gastrointestinal infection. I priced the ebook at $7.99, and the paperback under $15 (which was often discounted).

The result? The guide has been a steady seller almost since launch. With almost no promotion beyond a few hundred dollars in Adwords, the book has sold nearly 1,000 copies, generates a nice revenue stream for the author and my publishing company, and has gotten consistently high reviews from real customers (to date, almost all reviews have been 5-star reviews). Here are some samples:


“When I learned in 2013 that I had c.diff, I found this little book to be a lifesaver!!! Many doctors don’t know what to tell patients regarding the best ways to treat c.diff, but from guidance in this book, it was a slow process, but I was able to fully recover in roughly 6 months. The book is WELL WORTH its nominal cost!”


“This has been the best information yet. I am a former c diff patient. My mother is currently hospitalized with it. We now know what to do for her and how to protect others over the next few months.”

The second reviewer also noted that she was glad we had published books “other than computer books.” This naturally made me wonder: What other health/medical titles could we publish? These require a certain degree of expertise and/or deep experience. Unfortunately, doctors are hard to recruit for these projects, mainly because they are so busy (as you may have guessed, C. Diff In 30 Minutes is written by a relative, and he’s too busy to do another one). I had another potential writer with expertise in Alzheimer’s, but he backed out later when he made a cross-country move.

As for C. Diff In 30 Minutes, I hope to expand distribution to hospitals, nursing homes, and healthcare workers. We may also have to release an update in the next few years to cover fecal transplants, which have really taken off since 2013.

Harvard Extension faculty and the Harvard Instructor requirement

So you’re thinking about attending the Harvard Extension School, or you want to know more about the degree programs. A common question that prospective candidates have is whether students are taught by real Harvard faculty. Others are interested in whether Harvard Extension faculty are tenured professors at the University.

The short answer: It depends on the concentration and the classes being taken.

Looking at the Harvard Extension Faculty Directory, the first page of results contains numerous associate and assistant professors, lecturers, and preceptors from FAS, the Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health, and other units. The page also lists faculty from other area universities (Boston College, Suffolk, Northeastern, UMass, etc). There are many non-academic-affiliated instructors, too, who teach in the Extension School’s professional programs.

Generally speaking, the liberal arts and science classes are more likely to have Harvard faculty, including tenured professors. The Extension School has a “Harvard Instructor” requirement for the liberal arts masters degrees, requiring 7 out of 9 courses to be “a faculty member with a teaching appointment” at Harvard.

However, the school bends the rules for Summer School classes. All Harvard Summer School instructors are regarded as Harvard Instructors, even if they don’t have a teaching appointment. That’s not just for Extension School students taking Summer School classes; the rules are bent for Harvard College students attending the same classes — most on-campus Summer School coursework counts for credit for attending Harvard College students, with some conditions. Online classes offered by the Summer School cannot be taken for credit by Harvard College students, though.

I was a history concentrator in the Extension School’s Master of Liberal Arts program from 2003-2008, taking all of my classes on campus. Here’s the Harvard/non-Harvard faculty breakdown:

  • 2 classes taught by tenured Harvard faculty members
  • Thesis project directed by a tenured Harvard faculty member
  • 1 class taught by a non-tenured Harvard lecturer
  • 2 classes taught by Harvard post-docs/research affiliates
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Boston College
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Northwestern
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Western Michigan University
  • 1 class taught by Museum of Fine Arts research affiliate

The 3 or 4 courses I took during the summer generally had non-Harvard instructors, but counted toward the Harvard Instructor requirement based on the Summer School exception described above. The Northwestern and Western Michigan lecturers had received AB/JD and PhD degrees from Harvard and had visiting scholar affiliations at Harvard, while the late Professor Thomas H. O’Connor of Boston College was considered the leading scholar in his field.

For other liberal arts concentrations, it’s possible to choose classes so most or even all instructors are tenured Harvard faculty or tenure-track professors. I know students who have done this, or even applied for (and received) Special Student status to take GSAS/College classes taught by Harvard faculty.

As for the professional programs (Finance, Digital media arts, etc.) there are no longer any Harvard Instructor requirements. This is not surprising, considering many of the topics being taught have no equivalent in Harvard College or any of the professional schools. Practically speaking, this means it’s possible to receive a degree from Harvard without ever taking a class with Harvard faculty. It’s ridiculous, and reflects very poorly on the Extension School, as I noted in another post several years ago:

… The professional degree programs have failed to fit the model established by the Extension School to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members to students. It further sets a precedent for launching new professional degree programs that have no connection to the University’s existing areas of study, and opens the door to criticism that Harvard Extension School degrees aren’t “real” degrees because they no longer represent study under Harvard’s top-notch faculty.

I advise students considering these programs to make every effort to take actual classes with real Harvard faculty. For some fields, it’s impossible because there are no Harvard instructors available or willing to teach in these areas. But for others, there may be course offerings from time to time.

For online courses, there is an additional dimension to Harvard Extension faculty participation: Whether the classes are “live” with a participating professor, or whether they are prerecorded lectures with no opportunity to interact with faculty. In such classes, online discussion and assignments are handled by non-faculty TAs. Many students don’t know this before they sign up, and are disappointed by the experience, as one student discovered:

… Most of my distance classes were recorded lectures of College classes from the current semester. I had problems in both of my prerecorded classes that were related to the fact they were prerecorded and the professors were not involved. In one class, I had an outstanding TF and she made a huge difference; in the other things went badly and students complained. The professor was not accessible and this was not explained prior to the start of the class. …

In summary: If you are looking for a real Harvard experience, take as many classes on campus with real Harvard instructors as you can.

Harvard headlines: Clickbait and the Extension School

Last week there was a flurry of Harvard headlines, after a male student attacked a senior citizen at Logan airport. I won’t get into the details of the story itself, but wanted to talk about the sensationalist coverage and the collateral damage to the Harvard Extension School.

When the story first hit the Internet, it was all about the Harvard connection:
Harvard headlines extension school
Many of the initial headlines, including those from Boston .com, the Huffington Post, and other national and international outlets, omitted the fact that the student, Cameron Shenk, was an Extension School student. In the absence of such context or knowledge of the Extension School, many people skimming the news would assume it was a Harvard College student, even though Mr. Shenk and his lawyer did nothing to insinuate otherwise. It’s a common assumption, as I’ve cited repeatedly on this blog (see my earlier article about Harvard Extension School resume guidelines).

Predictably, when the Internet commenters and follow-on coverage appeared, the angle turned from tragic crime to criticism of the Extension School and its students. Boston .com’s Eric Levenson claims that Extension School students “just need an interest to learn and some money to spend,” neglecting to mention the wide gap between casual class takers and degree candidates who have to prove they can do coursework at a high level before being admitted.

As I said in the comments section of the Boston .com article, there are a couple of issues at play when it comes to mainstream media stories about the Extension School:

  1. Clickbait headline writers who want to play up any story involving weird/unstable/criminal behavior and “Harvard”
  2. A continuing education division that is not well understood (for example, there are casual class takers as well as degree candidates) and often gets defined by strange headlines or fakers.
  3. A student and alumni population which includes a fair number of people who are apt to play down their Extension School affiliation or deliberately mislead others into thinking they attended Harvard College or one of the highly competitive professional programs, such as the Business School.

I think journalists such as Eric Levenson deserve much of the blame Unfortunately, previous stories about Extension/College imposters, combined with a large number of alumni who claim “Harvard” while hiding “Extension” are adding another negative context to this story.

It’s unfortunate, because the Extension School has some great classes and degree programs, and have helped hundreds of thousands of people further their educational goals. Most of them are good people and are honest about the Extension School affiliation, yet the fakers and bizarre headlines are increasingly defining what it means to be an Extension School student.

I welcome your comments below.

Zuckerberg can speak Mandarin. Why can’t Rupert Murdoch or other foreign expats?

Mark Zuckerberg speaks MandarinMark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, did something remarkable at Tsinghua University this week. He had a 30-minute Q&A with faculty and students, and most of it was in passable Mandarin (the video was posted on Facebook, unfortunately I can’t embed it here). His example raises the question of why other foreign expats — including high-profile CEOs such as Rupert Murdoch – can’t speak Mandarin.

I learned Mandarin as a young adult, living in Taiwan and taking classes for about 10 hours per week. It took about 6 months to get to the level of vocabulary that Mark is using, and another 6 months to get to the point where I could handle a job interview.

Mandarin syntax is surprisingly easy, with no articles or weird things like irregular verbs or messy conjugations. The tones throw people off, and the written characters are extremely difficult to learn (for Westerners; Japanese, who have exposure to Chinese characters, do quite well at reading and writing). Fortunately, there is a Romanization/phonetic system called pinyin that makes it quite easy to get started with pronunciation and tones.

Mark Zuckerberg speaks Chinese in ChinaYes, Mark is speaking with a very heavy accent and needs to work on his tones. But the fact that Mark was able to get to this level without living in China (he says he’s only visited 4 times, although it sounds like he’s able to practice with family members, including his wife’s paternal grandmother) is very impressive. According to the LA Times, he started learning Mandarin about five years ago:

Several news accounts at the time said he took morning lessons at his kitchen table with a tutor. Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, whom he met at Harvard University and married in 2012, grew up in the United States as the daughter of immigrants and spoke Cantonese at home.

I think many Chinese citizens would be right to ask, if the busy CEO of a major American company who seldom visits China can learn Mandarin, why do many foreign businesspeople who have lived in China for years fail to learn the language?

Case in point: Rupert Murdoch. He was married to a Chinese woman for years, owns (or owned) a house in Beijing, and had significant business interests in China. Yet he did not learn how to speak Mandarin, according to his ex-wife, Wendi Deng.

For that matter, there are millions of foreign expats living in other countries who never bother to learn the language, despite having opportunities to take classes (or study with a tutor) and practice every day with their colleagues, neighbors, and shopkeepers.

Certainly, there are circumstances which may make study difficult. The ones that I heard a lot when I lived in Taiwan were, “I am only stationed here for a few years” or “I don’t have time.” However, practically anyone can make the effort to hire a private tutor for a few hours per week. And even if you are only in-country for two or three years, why wouldn’t you want to make a real effort to learn at least basic conversation, to better communicate with the people around you, including employees, partners, local officials, etc.?

Twitter’s retention problem

Twitter for Dummies alternative

This week, I released the second edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes. It’s a Twitter book that covers the basics, starting with registration and working its way up to more advanced features such as hashtags and lists. In this post, I would like to talk about a surprising research finding that I stumbled upon while preparing the latest edition.

This Wall Street Journal blog post from April highlighted the data, which had been gathered by Dutch firm Twopcharts:

A report from Twopcharts, a website that monitors Twitter account activity, states that about 44% of the 974 million existing Twitter accounts have never sent a tweet.

An earlier WSJ blog post based on Twopcharts data noted that only 11% of the Twitter accounts created in 2012 were still tweeting more than a year later. Twitter subsequently restricted Twopcharts’ access to Twitter data, and a senior executive later claimed Twitter was “happy” many users decided not to tweet — in other words, Twitter viewed some of this inactive population as passive consumers of Twitter, rather than active participants.

Regardless of Twitter’s spin, Twitter has had a problem for years getting people to participate in the service after they’ve signed up. Despite adding tips and constant reminders to tweet and follow other accounts, lots of users have trouble figuring out what to do once they are plunked down in a firehose of short messages, random photos, trending topics, and mysterious Twitter syntax. As the WSJ blogger indicated, millions simply give up.

Some of them ended up coming to my Twitter guide. While the first edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes targeted totally new users, I found out that many of my readers already had accounts, and had trouble getting the hang of Twitter. They used the guide to boost their efforts and figure out the more confusing elements of the service.

For the second edition of Twitter In 30 Minutes, I wanted to make sure that I served these two audiences (totally new users, vs. people who already have an account). I tightened the focus around these three elements:

  1. The importance of a good network on Twitter.
  2. How engagement takes place, using examples from real life.
  3. Best practices for creating Tweets, posting photos, and participating in discussions

I also completely redid the screenshots. Many of the first edition screenshots were rendered obsolete after Twitter updated its interface earlier this year.

Google support falls short when it comes to Blogger domains

Google blogger custom domains renew support
Earlier this year I published a short “how-to” blog post titled How to renew a Blogger custom domain through Google Apps. I’m mentioning it here, not only because it’s a useful resource for anyone who purchased a custom domain through Google’s Blogger service in recent years, but also because it points to a problem with Google support.

Google has a myriad of wonderful products, ranging from basic search to advanced tools such as Google Earth. I use many of them every day, and even wrote a book about Google Drive. But the fact that I even had to write such a title indicates that Google’s interface design and online support resources don’t work well for everyone.

For instance, Google Blogger has thousands of support articles and forum posts scattered all over the net, as well as related resources from Google Apps and other tools that interface with Blogger. But when it came time for me to renew a Blogger domain that I had purchased through Google in 2012, these help resources were useless. I simply couldn’t find what I was looking for to help me access the control panel for my domain.

As described in my blog post, I eventually found a contact form and asked how I could proceed with the renewal. To my surprise (Google has a reputation for limiting contact with actual Google employees) someone responded within 12 hours, with an answer for my problem. It worked! I posted the solution on my blog, so other people in the same predicament could help themselves.

Some people might say that the fact I got a response from a real Google employee so quickly is a sign that Google support is actually quite strong. But I suspect the only reason I got any support was because I was A) using a paid feature (custom domain purchase) and B) it was tied to Google Apps, a premium service aimed at small businesses. The New York Times summed up Google’s attitude toward human support in this 2012 article:

Google, which at 14 years old is a relative ancient in Silicon Valley, is one of the few companies that publishes phone numbers on its Web site. Its phone system sends callers back to the Web no less than 11 times. Its lengthy messages contain basic Internet education in a tone that might be used with an aging relative, explaining, slowly and gently, “There’s nothing Google can do to remove information from Web sites.”