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Webs, wires, and wi-fi in the classroom Weaving info tech into new modes of learning
Six cyber-ideas that matter—and sell Alumni start businesses in and of the wired world
Making friends with the Web Skidmore and social networks
Wiring the muse Technology's a stage—and canvas and score—for some Skidmore artists


 

 

Six cyber-ideas that matter—and sell
Alumni entrepreneurs put digital savvy to work

by Dan Forbush

There’s a kind of creativity that compels artists to paint pictures. There’s a kind that compels writers to tell stories. And there’s a kind that compels entrepreneurs to launch new enterprises.

In its short eighteen-year life as a public medium, the Internet has proven to be an especially fertile ground for Skidmore graduates whose muses have summoned them to start businesses. They're pioneering new interactions, exploring new models, and offering new services—all in digital. In cooperation with the Skidmore Business Network, which links alumni in a range of industries, Scope Quarterly presents a sampling.

AUDIENCES TELL THE STORY
“Community-generated content” may be everywhere on the Web and television today, but it wasn’t fifteen years ago. Back then, the idea of giving viewers the ability to tell their own stories on television was revolutionary. It came to Steve Rosenbaum ’83 when he was producing a statewide news program called Broadcast: New York.

“The show was running in every major market in the state,” he recalls. “We started experimenting with an 800 number that enabled viewers to phone in comments. It became a story suggestion line, and by the end of 1992 we were experimenting with ‘Send me a camera and I’ll tell you my story.’”

What Rosenbaum calls the “turning point” came when a woman who had suffered the ravages of faulty silicone breast implants turned in her tape, which ended with her taking the camera into the bathroom, placing it in front of a full-length mirror, and lifting her nightgown to show the damage wreaked by the implants.

“One of the producers called me immediately and said, ‘What do we do with this?’” Rosenbaum recalls. “We all looked at it and were stunned. That was the moment I realized: If real people can take audiences places where journalists aren’t allowed to go, then something fundamental has just changed.”

A year later, Rosenbaum approached MTV with the idea of producing an entire weekly show around community-generated content. The meeting went this way, he remembers: “We said, ‘We have this idea that people ought to be em­powered to tell their own stories.’ They said, ‘We don’t think our audience really wants to do that.’ We said, ‘Well, we do.’ And they said, ‘All right. How do we test it?’ I suggested they just put a promo on the air that says, ‘If you want to tell your own story, call this 800 number.’”

Expecting minimal response, MTV gave Rosenbaum five thirty-second promos on a Sunday. “We got 5,000 phone calls,” Rosenbaum says. “Three days later, I walked in with this huge book of responses. They said, ‘Wow.’” Rosenbaum got the show. Titled MTV Unfiltered, it ran for four years. Time called it “the future of genX news.”

In 1998, Rosenbaum made a pilot for another national show with community-generated content, called Free Speech America, but was unable to sign up enough stations to take it into production. For the next three years, his production company Camera Planet made films and documentaries for media outlets like HBO, Discovery, A&E, MSNBC, and CNN. Then came 9/11. Explor­ing again the potential of community-generated content, Rosenbaum made Seven Days in September—a full-length feature that told the story of the World Trade Center attacks through the eyes of twenty-eight amateur videographers who shot their own stories in the week that followed. Rosenbaum still owns more than 500 hours of 9/11 video shot by private citizens—an archive the New York Times calls the “largest collection of raw visual data” gathered about 9/11.

Watching the rapid advance of video onto the Web, Rosenbaum decided it was time to launch an Internet company. So he mothballed Camera Planet in 2004 and a year later launched Magnify.net, which he describes to prospective users as “the easiest way to search and integrate video in your Web site.” Today, Magnify.net has 42,000 sites using the service and is the fastest-growing video aggregator on the Web.

Yet again exploring the possibilities and pushing the envelope of community-generated content, Rosenbaum describes Magnify as a platform to “engage, embrace, and facilitate media creating, sharing, and collective knowledge.” He adds, “I’m passionate about the sounds and pictures that real people create, and excited to help create order from chaos.”


VIDEO GAMES AS AD PLATFORMS

Darren Herman ’04 played a lot of video games growing up—enough to notice something interesting. When he played a game that included fake brands, it felt cheap, but when he played a game that had real brands—like Bases Loaded, featuring Wilson baseball gloves—”it was
exponentially cooler.”

He wondered, “Why don’t more video games have real brands incorporated within them? And what can I do to put them there?”

Herman knew a lot about video games but not much about the video-game industry. (Video games were generating more revenues than Hollywood and the music industry combined, but “no one was really paying attention, even on Wall Street,” he says.) Proficient with the tools and techniques of personal computing, Herman started thinking about ways he could help video-game publishers create revenue beyond retail sales. He thought about creating a dynamic ad-serving technology that would push ads into video games in much the same way that Google pushes ads to Web pages. And he thought about persuading media planners and brand managers that video games were as worthy of their ad dollars as other media buys, such as Web, television, magazines, and newspapers. |

“The hardest part of getting the company up and running was to convince media planners to admit that video games were cool,” Herman recalls. “The last thing anyone wanted to do was to admit in front of their peers that they played games. As the popularity of games like Guitar Hero and Nintendo Wii grew, this task became much easier.” He adds, “We also had to convince a lot of people who were skeptical at first about how well in-game advertising would do. And we had to change the minds of the creators and artists who were saying, ‘There’s no way you’re putting a brand in my art.’”

A plan came together one day when Herman was walking through Skidmore’s North Woods. But he knew he couldn’t do it alone. “I needed an amazing advertising guy, and I needed an amazing video game guy. I went out and networked, and I found them.”

That was in 2004. Last year, IGA Worldwide raised additional financing led by NBC Universal with a total capital intake of more than $40 million. Herman is no longer involved in IGA’s day-to-day operation, but he’s still a shareholder. As head of the digital media group for The Media Kitchen, a major New York City ad agency, he currently is helping such clients as PBS, Starz, Panasonic, and Bank of NY Mellon engage audiences in new ways.

“Digital offers a way to make content dynamic, meaning you can take it anywhere and do anything with it,” says Herman. “Whether you’re creative with business models or you’re creative with colored pencils, digital offers lots of opportunities.”


PIONEERING THE GEOWEB
Traditional advertising today is targeted to 40,000 ZIP codes. Mark Josephson ’94 knows a way to target it almost infinitely.

It’s Outside.In, the latest venture he has joined as CEO. “We’ve come up with an entirely new model for local media that gets beyond the local section of your daily newspaper,” Josephson says. “We’ve developed tools for publishers to ‘geo-enable’ their content.”

Perhaps the most compelling feature on the Outside.In site is its “Radar” function. Users can type in an address, and Radar will deliver a listing of blogs and Web pages that are associated with businesses, schools, or other organizations within 1,000 feet. A recent test on “810 Seventh Avenue” in New York City returned results that included the event schedule for Radio City Music Hall, reviews of nearby restaurants, and a blog post about a recent murder at a neighborhood nightclub. Can’t get much more local than that.

“Ten years ago there was an inkling of a recognition that this thing called ‘search’ was going to matter for businesses,” recalls Josephson. Then, he explains, a “search engine optimization” industry arose to ensure that clients’ content would be indexed well on Google and Yahoo. We believe that the GeoWeb is now at the same inflection point as was search back then. Publishers and content creators are going to have to optimize their Web sites and their content for location-based services, mobile applications, and global positioning systems.

“Everybody lives somewhere. That’s our mantra.”


WORD-OF-MOUTH MARKETING
People will do a lot of things for no money. One of them, as Dave Balter ’93 proved with BzzAgent, is to tell friends and family members about products and services they like.

Many entrepreneurs have an “aha” moment. Balter’s came after he began his corporate career by developing new affinity marketing programs for credit card firms, and then started and sold two conventional promotions businesses, in which marketers “dropped messages in consumers’ faces.” Balter wondered, “Why are we swimming upstream on this? Why don’t we swim with it?” He reasoned, “If no one pays attention to advertising, but they do pay attention to the opinions of their friends and family, let’s focus our attention there. Let’s figure out a better way.”

That better way was a Web site where consumers could sign up to receive free products on the understanding that they would try them and, if they like them, tell their friends. All Balter would ask in return was that the volunteers report back on how they liked the product and to whom they spoke about it. Balter would pass these reports along to the client company that funded the campaign, which typically would include coupons for the volunteer to give to friends and a training guide about effective word-of-mouth techniques.

That was the idea. The dot-com meltdown of 2001 was a bad time to find venture financing, so Balter invested $30,000 of his own money and built the business. Four years later, a reporter heard about it, and the next thing Balter knew, BzzAgent.com was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

Before that article appeared, the firm counted 65,000 “bzzagents” who volunteered to spread the word about client companies whose products and services they liked. A year after the article, there were 130,000. Today, the firm boasts an army of more than 450,000 practitioners of word-of-mouth marketing who are sharing their opinions on their clients’ behalf. The
firm has conducted successful word-of-mouth campaigns for such varied firms as Philips, TV Guide, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and Dunkin’ Donuts.

“This all comes down to people and the behaviors of people,” says Balter, who majored in psychology at Skidmore. “One study shows that 15 percent of all of our conversations include some mention of a product or service. If these conversations are already happening, effective word-of-mouth marketing is just a matter of tapping into them.”


A CURE FOR MEMORY OVERLOAD

For every business enterprise, data storage is an increasingly scarce and precious commodity. Blame it on the proliferation of multimedia Web sites and on e-mail that carries increasingly feature-rich attachments in Word, Acrobat, and PowerPoint.

As a purchaser of storage for VeriSign and other technology firms in recent years, Jeff Treuhaft ’91 saw a lot of problems with the solutions he was being offered. So he teamed up with co-workers from previous jobs to look for an opportunity in the enterprise storage marketplace. “We realized there was a very valuable opportunity for us to develop something completely new. We tested out our plan with a variety of customers, and early this year we jumped in and built a new company around it.”

The new firm is called Zetta—short for zettabyte, which is equal to 1 trillion gigabytes. That’s roughly the amount of memory that Treuhaft and his partners aim to offer clients someday by harnessing the parallel power of hundreds of thousands of hard drives. Treuhaft says his clients “will pay on a per-gigabyte basis, spending about a tenth of what they would pay if they bought boxes from EMC or NetApp or other big enterprise storage companies.” They’ll also get “massive redundancy and performance and data-protection improvements that are two to ten times better than other solutions currently available.”

Given the technical complexity of Treu­haft’s career, including senior-level assignments for Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and VeriSign, his art major may seem surprising, but it makes perfect sense when he describes his experience at Skidmore. At that time the college’s program in graphic arts was just making the shift to desktop publishing, and the technically oriented Treuhaft was recruited to help build the new digital media studio. “I took on responsibilities that were well beyond just being a student,” he says, “helping with the proposal, getting equipment, working with computer-services staff to hook it up to the network. It was my first entrepreneurial experience.”


MANAGING E-MAILS
Independent vendors, fulfillment companies, e-commerce sites, and direct sales organizations are raving about MailTank.com, the customer e-mail management tool that Chris­tian Winter ’91 launched on the Web in January 2007. Key to its success is the remark­able ease afforded by its “queue-driven workflow.” To say it simply (as its Web site does), MailTank “guides people through their work so that each message gets the correct response in no time flat.”

Winter’s idea for MailTank—so named because the system is analogous to a “private bottomless mailbox”—grew out of a decade of operating a widely dispersed network of experts providing technical advice pertaining to Macintosh computers. To respond to the support requests being made by phone and e-mail, and to ensure continuity of service for customers dealing with multiple experts on a given issue, Winter and his colleagues had to develop sophisticated work-flow tracking methods. In a major shift in strategy, they packaged these methods in an e-mail organization suite that’s now being used by 150 companies worldwide and can evolve in response to customer needs.

One example: “An organic-food certification organization in Japan brings us an issue, and we come up with a solution that works not only for them but also, say, a chain of sporting-goods stores based here in Seattle.

“I love e-mail,” he adds.

As a student at Skidmore, Winter created a small trading company to import clothes designed by him and some friends and made at factories in China. That was his introduction both to entrepreneurship and the challenges confronted by independent vendors in managing their business. “The business classes I took at Skidmore were of direct help. I still made tons of mistakes, but it was a great adventure.”