Archive for November, 2010

@MazdaRacing

This is a memoir about my involvement in establishing and running the @MazdaRacing Twitter feed.  It will be one of the longest pieces I’ve ever written, as I explore the thoughts behind a gift I was eager to give.  I hope you’ll stay with me, but I’ll understand if you are less enthusiastic about this subject than I. 

I’ve broken this down into sections.  Maybe, if you don’t have all day but you cared about @MazdaRacing at all, you’ll skip to the last section or two.

Background

Mazda’s involvement in racing (and dearest to my heart, in open wheel racing) is arguably unprecedented.  Very few manufacturers of parts or vehicles have done more for racers in North America than Mazda has in the last half-decade.

If you’re familiar with the Mazdaspeed Driver Development ladder, then you already know its impact.  If not, then I’ll summarize that Mazda’s motorsports legacy is long and storied, but in recent years, it’s become even more legendary.  The reason is the company’s conscious, dedicated, heartfelt, and expensive effort to ensure that young drivers can progress from the very lowest levels of racing — go karts — to the upper levels or sports car and open wheel racing, on talent, passion, and hard work alone.  As a racer wins at each level up the “ladder,” Mazda has been awarding full scholarships to the next level.  It’s impossible to overstate the peace of mind this brings to the winning racers, who are guaranteed a spot on an ever smaller playing field that has been nightmarish to try to attain on one’s own.

If you have any interest whatsoever in racing — including the environmentally friendly variety that Mazda is calling “sustainable Zoom Zoom” — then you can and should read more about these topics at Mazdaspeed’s official website.  However, I should also point out: Mazda prides itself on having more of its vehicles racing on road courses on any given weekend than any other manufacturer.

Getting to know Twitter

I’ll now transition to my central reason for writing this article.

I began to use Twitter personally in mid-2008.  That year, and the beginning of 2009, was tumultuous for open wheel racing, due to the sale of the top-level Champ Car World Series to IndyCar, and what can fairly be described as a difficult transition process.  The implications were extremely far-reaching, as I’ll touch on a bit more later.

Like many people, I noticed the following amazing strengths about Twitter:

  • Usable from any mobile device that had text messaging ability
  • Ability to deliver real-time information in very “digestible,” short messages, limited only by the author’s creative use of abbreviations, characters, and some tools like URL shorteners

Obviously, Twitter was an even deeper tool, but both of the above concepts intrigued me as a racing fan.  I noticed that relatively few “Twitter feeds” at the time were covering motorsports, and no feed was consistently paying attention to the dedication of Mazda that I mentioned earlier.

It seemed obvious that using short-burst messaging, often directly from the track, to fans with ANY Internet-enabled device was a winning concept.  The fans needn’t be in front of a TV, or even on their computers.  They just needed to be carrying a cell phone with SMS.

Establishing @MazdaRacing

Another thing that seemed obvious was that Twitter’s millions of new followers were snatching up Twitter user names at remarkable speed.  I checked my favorite brand names often, and as a race fan, naturally did some checking to see if Mazda had secured a name specifically for their racing efforts.

And so it was that in early 2009, I discovered that an unrelated individual had already grabbed the Twitter name “MAZDASPEED,” and wasn’t “tweeting” (messaging) about the company’s racing efforts at all.  This disappointed me, because Mazda’s pride at being the marque with the most cars on road courses on any given weekend was a fantastic concept for a Twitter feed.  But anyone looking up their famous racing brand name would see some random personal “tweets.”

Thinking that perhaps Mazda would still initiate their own feed, I waited until March, 2009, on the weekend that was one of the most important in all of racing: the legendary 12 hours of Sebring.  Two of Mazda’s open wheel series, the Atlantic Championship and Star Mazda, were competing on Friday, March 20th.  The next day would see two turbocharged, Mazda-powered cars compete in the American Le Mans series.

That Friday morning, I checked one last time to see if anyone was going to cover the Sebring action live on Twitter, and when it wasn’t happening, I secured the @MazdaRacing name, purchased and set up a very simple website to point to that address (www.MazdaRacingNews.com), and obtained a generic Gmail account to link everything together.*  By the time the Star Mazda cars got under way, I was all set up to cover all the action, and I did just that.

And so it all began with this Tweet: ”This Twitter presence is in honor of Mazda’s racing ladder. For any updates, send an @ message or e-mail me at mazdaladder@gmail.com.”

Mazda’s commitment to have more of its cars on road courses than any other brand was inspiring.  Its commitment to making sure young racers could attain their dream, paid in full, was even more powerful.  And my initial dream that anyone in the world could use any Internet device to follow any of those races has essentially come true. 

Costs and rewards

Presuming that someone is curious about the process of creating and managing a niche-brand, truly real-time Twitter feed with about 2,700 followers, one of her questions might be, “did Mazda authorize this or compensate you?”  I’ve been asked this question on occasion in various circles, so I think it’s worth discussing.

Mazda, as a corporation, has approximately two or three full-time employees who attend important North American racing events outside of California.  These folks, who I’ve met, are passionate, indeed nearly obsessive about the principles I’ve discussed earlier.  They also have other assistance from paid marketing / social media contractors.  The employees are focused on two main areas:

  1. Ensuring a viable ladder for the young racers; this also includes providing well-rounded driver training on the track, and in sponsorship/media relations
  2. Proving to Mazda corporate how important racing is for the success of the company’s street cars (and vice versa)

I understood all this, and when I chose to establish Mazda’s motorsports presence, I did it as my own gift in response to the gifts they’ve given to racers.  I also explained to these Mazda folks – and others – that I would relinquish @MazdaRacing and all associated resources to them at any time of their choosing, at no cost.

Since March, 2009, I have absorbed all of the costs of running @MazdaRacing and MazdaRacingNews.com.  I paid my own way at tracks.  I even pioneered the concept of Twitter contests to win Mazda racing memorabilia, which I paid for and shipped with my own funds.  I believe Mazda stepped up their involvement in racing at a crucial time, and provided as much stability as was possible in the period from 2008 through the present.  It was my intent to provide the same stability in return.

As for rewards, I had access to a hospitality suite on one occasion, where I got some wonderful memorabilia, and I attended an awards banquet as Mazda’s guest.  Again, this is more than what I expected.

But the real rewards are more lasting.  I have an increased awareness of Twitter trends, and exposure to so many desktop and mobile tools that have allowed me to bring Mazda racing to devices all over the world.  And it’s a race fan’s dream to be able to converse with team owners, racers, and other fans, while enjoying some fantastic events. 

Here are just some of the series I’ve been able to cover:

  • Skip Barber National Championship presented by Mazda
  • Star Mazda
  • USF2000 powered by Mazda
  • Grand-Am
  • American Le Mans
  • Formula Drift
  • World Challenge
  • Trans-Am
  • and the Atlantic Championship

Here are some of my favorite moments:

  • Mazda winning the GT class in the famous 24 Hours of Daytona this year
  • Mazda, via Dyson Racing, winning overall in an American Le Mans (ALMS) race at Mid-Ohio this year
  • Seeing Mazda be the first manufacturer to bring sustainable iso-butanol fuel into ALMS
  • Covering every session of the Atlantic Championship in 2009

Another reward: it’s a small world, and the racing world is even smaller.  My wife started racing in 2004, and shortly thereafter, she had a car built for her by a gentleman from HyperSport Engineering.  HyperSport Engineering is the team that’s provided the foundation for Patrick Dempsey’s racing career, which now sees him owning his own Grand-Am team.  The same gentleman who built my wife’s car has gotten some great press this year as a result of Dempsey’s success.

And finally, if you’re reading this, then it’s probable that you’ve been part of my reward also.  @MazdaRacing has received countless Twitter messages since 2009, and I’ve enjoyed getting answers, responding, and sometimes forwarding you to other sources.  Mostly, I’ve enjoyed how easy it is to connect people to each other on Twitter, exposing racers to other racers or sponsors they may not have known.

Giving up @MazdaRacing

Looking back, it’s amazing to know that I have written approximately 476,000 words about Mazda motorsports in two racing seasons.  As you’ve guessed, the reason for me putting these thoughts into writing has been because it’s time for my involvement with @MazdaRacing to be minimal, or non-existent.  Assuming you’re interested in reasons, I can offer a couple:

  • The aforementioned expense is not something I can cover indefinitely, with other projects that need my attention
  • The amount of time spent during race weekends – which occur constantly in a world where Mazda is a leading road course brand – is not sustainable with other projects
  • The continuing hiatus of the Atlantic Championship series**

And the big one: some race tracks still have horrific communications infrastructures, even when paying out of one’s own pocket for high speed Internet access.  When not in hospitality, it is often impossible to provide real-time information due to bandwidth overload: every other person with a cell phone and/or laptop is competing to send information.

So, I’ve now notified Mazda employees and contractors about relinquishing the feed into their control.  It won’t cost a thing for them to inherit the web presence I wanted them to have for their racing efforts.

As for me, I’m a much stronger communicator and networker thanks to taking on this project.  I’ll always be happy to advise Mazda – and specific racers and teams – on lessons learned.  I would love to think that Mazda might be considered a leader in Twitter motorsports reporting, and it was my intent to leave when that occurred.  Therefore, with 13 years of management experience under my belt, @MazdaRacing was one of my biggest, and most rewarding, leadership challenges yet.

Thank you so much. Can we still be friends?

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated every second of this project.  With @MazdaRacing almost in the rear-view mirror, I’m excited to focus on some other projects that I believe have extremely far-reaching potential.

If you read all these words – especially if you were one of those who read most of my 476,000 words of Tweeted Mazda content – it’s impossible to put into words how much I appreciate you also.  This article has seemed so self-focused, and I hope its length and self-referentiality hasn’t turned you off.

I would love to hear from you.  Please consider talking to me at @JayInAtlanta.  Heck, even consider partnering with me on other things.

Oh, wait!  Can you hear that?  I sure can.  It’s the sound of pure Zoom Zoom.

—————————————————————

* The lightning-quick speed that enabled me to purchase and set up a fully functioning website in under an hour was brought to me by my long-time host, www.IncredibleHost.com.  No, I don’t get any compensation from telling you that, I just love the service by “Reg” and the team.

** I mentioned earlier that the transition caused by the purchase of Champ Car by IndyCar had far-reaching implications.  The Atlantic Championship, called by other names but historic and decades old, has been on hiatus since earlier this year, largely a victim of that transition process.  Atlantic’s hiatus has left a hole in open wheel racing, and I won’t lie, it’s left a hole in my motivation for covering Mazda open wheel weekends.  In under three years — February 2008 to now — seeing two series disappear that were on my wife’s dream path as a professional racer has been an emotional earthquake.

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Tech startups: heed this warning

It’s a fact that we’re going to witness an explosion of tech startups again, led by those offering stand-alone social media applications — or plugins for platforms like Twitter and Facebook — that reach huge audiences. In fact, VC firm Kleiner Perkins recently started a fund worth $250 million to capitalize just this particular niche.

I have been getting in early on a lot of private and public betas recently. I’m seeing some fantastic ideas with the potential to change communication. Some tools are going to do this by simultaneously simplifying and broadening the networking reach of individuals and corporations. I’ve got some ideas of my own, and have begun to secure the domains and sketch out the plans.

But tech startups: if you have a concept with the potential to connect people, please do yourselves and the world a favor and heed a simple piece of advice.  I believe with every fiber of my being that you need to do one thing before you launch: make absolutely certain that your tool is available from as many Internet-enabled devices as possible.

One Case Study
If you’re lucky, you already know that your startup must offer something that’s available on mobile. Okay, wonderful. Do you have any idea how many portable platforms are currently available to the world’s connected users? I’m sure you can name iPhone, Blackberry, and Android, and a couple of others off the top of your head. I’m just going to take one example, so please set aside any personal bias about any one OS.

Next week, we’ll see the release of Windows Phone 7 (WP7), which I believe is an innovative, attractive, and easy-to-use mobile operating system.  But it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters that millions of people will adopt the device. Heck, Microsoft gave 80,000+ people Windows Phones (okay, those were MS employees).  Home Depot is already all over a WP7 adoption, and Dell’s waving goodbye to Blackberry while giving 25,000 Windows Phone devices to its employees.

Guess what?  It doesn’t matter that the scale of WP7’s adoption is smaller than the iPhone or Blackberry or Android, so I don’t even want to hear about market share. If you’re a startup founder, your mind is already working on the thought of whether you want to give up millions of potential users due to not being ready for a platform.

Let’s assume we have very little time, a very small staff and budget, and let’s examine some options. And I’m begging you again, please do not let your bias influence this one theoretical case study:

  1. Forget the Windows Phone users. I’ve got my developers already building an iPhone app, an Android app, and a Blackberry app.
  2. Okay, I’ll find someone who knows WP7 development already, and I’ll get on with making a WP7 app a priority.
  3. I’ll create a very lightweight m.[mystartup].com site that’ll work for any device.

It seems simple to me. The investment of time and money in taking approach 3 is minimal. You might even be able to code the site yourself. You also thereby ensure that your potential customers can access your product from any Internet-enabled device.

How to change the world
Many great eConcepts have started with a full webpage, optimized the page for mobile, and THEN thought about apps. Unless you work for — or want to sell directly to — Microsoft, Apple, RIM, etc., then I urge you to get your paradigm in order and work from the simplest to the most difficult. Do not alienate any potential customers. Trust me: your customers will understand when you tell them that a WP7 app — heck, even an iPhone app — is on the way! 

But your customers will NOT understand when they get a link to your concept from their buddy, and they can’t read it or use it on even the best mobile browser. In 2010, you might get their eyes when they get to a desktop. In 2011, you’re done if they don’t see it on mobile the second they first get the link. This behavior is pervasive today, because there are a lot of concepts based on an existing CMS or framework, and no quick plug-in exists to display the site well on mobile.

If you’ve got an app for every device in the world, great. Apps are wonderful, and I download them constantly. But there are 300,000 available for iPhone and 100,000 for Android. How do folks find yours?

And ponder this. Will Sony release a PSP phone soon? Will your customer’s next car come with decent touch-screen Internet embedded in its entertainment system? How about that Microsoft “slate” that might come out? It doesn’t matter what devices you can name right now or even what you can visualize in your head. Have you already heard the whispers that HTML5 might eliminate the need for all apps?

I know you’ve read the word Microsoft in this post more than you thought you might have. I don’t work for Microsoft. But food for thought: Microsoft Sync has rave reviews for voice recognition, and it’s in more Fords every day. We’re going to see an evolution in voice technology in cars and on phones (like WP7). Could your social app be activated and used with a few words, like “invite” or “intro” or similar keywords (like Hashable)? Then tomorrow, someone who just got done with a meeting will be asking themselves whether they can use Microsoft Sync to activate the lightweight version of your app while driving:

“Intro @JayInAtlanta and @IngridIrby and cc @Hashable.”

I’m a trained filmmaker, so I grew up with the idea of “High Concept.” Change the world. But change it with a High Concept tool, with a lightweight version fully accessible and ready to go when you open the doors.

UPDATE – Check http://www.jnjmobile.com/ and http://www.MocoSpace.com. MocoSpace is a browser-based gaming platform which is going the direction I described, away from phone-specific apps, and it appears to have a hit on its hands: http://ow.ly/19TVHh.

On Roy Barnes’ request to congratulate Nathan Deal

[A letter sent to ex-Governor Roy Barnes, care of his campaign, after receipt of this email.]

Dear Governor Barnes,

You, or someone from your campaign acting on your behalf, just sent an e-mail to me and the rest of your supporters asking them to join you in congratulating Nathan Deal. Frankly, I’m surprised at that. 

One of my relatives founded the Buckhead area of Atlanta, and I am fortunate to live in this vibrant city and travel all over Georgia to support the state’s economy.  I feel a profound connection to this land of mountains, ocean, and red clay, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to share my thoughts with you.

While you were governor, you tackled difficult issues, and made tough decisions that cost you politically.  Faced directly with serious problems that could have inflicted long-term damage, you took on issues including education and the Confederate symbolism of the Georgia flag.  Reasonable Georgians understand that your work on those issues was out of love for our great state.

Why would I now welcome a person into office who has not proven that he has this state’s best interests at heart, but appears to have a pattern of behavior of using political might for his own personal gain?  In addition to having been one of Washington’s most corrupt insiders, Mr. Deal has, at best, lied directly and by omission since the beginning of his campaign.  It remains to be seen whether he’ll become civilly or criminally liable during his term as Georgia’s governor, which I personally don’t doubt.

Soon, good citizens of this state will experience government furloughs, the stifling of innovation, and poor transportation and energy/environmental policy.  Even setting social wedge issues aside, you demonstrated knowledge during this campaign that this state needs to stop being a laughingstock and think FORWARD rather than backward.

No, I do not welcome Mr. Deal to the governorship.  The economy in Georgia may recover, as a direct result of the hard work by President Obama and Congress over the past 21 months.  But what will Mr. Deal be doing?  Slowing the recovery by attempting to repeal healthcare reform, slashing needed government services, and continuing to let Georgia’s archaic infrastructure lag behind.

At best, the state we love is more of a laughingstock than ever under Mr. Deal, as you correctly emphasized during the campaign.  At worst, this could be the beginning of a new dark ages for Georgia.  Therefore, this governor — and those in state government who resist forward motion — deserves constant protest, not congratulations.

Thanks again to you and your family for your political and personal sacrifices on Georgia’s behalf.  Best to you in the future.

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