With the launch of my product Dashter, I wanted to share a little bit about how the company / product / solution came to be. One part of that story is how my attendance and participation in two great Meetup groups here in Orange County helped spark, nurture, and evolve the product & the business – and ultimately myself.
About a year ago I started attending a group that I’d found on Meetup.com called Orange County WordPress (OCWP). I’d done numerous WordPress sites for myself and my clients in the past, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to attend and learn more about the platform beyond what I could gather off the web. I also suffered from what so many small business owners can attest to – which is when you’re running a small business you crave interacting with people. So I figured what the hell – I’d show up on a Monday night and see what it was all about.
Meetups – just like any new networking event – are always a little nerve-wracking. I walked in alone and didn’t know anyone there. The space at the old Zeek offices were cramped like you wouldn’t believe – there were 40 people fitting in to a room that was probably intended to hold 15 people comfortably. Lots of folks knew each other already, were sharing inside jokes, asking about friends & family, etc. It took a little while to get my bearings, but overall I could tell instantly I was in a good space with people I could definitely get along with.
From the first OCWP meetup, I managed to get a pretty good lay of the land. The guys who ran the meetup – Steve Zehngut and Jeff Turner – seemed like good guys. They both had different styles, and you could tell instantly they realized there was a wide-range of experience in the room, so they acted accordingly. Steve especially demonstrated an excellent tolerance for new users and really basic questions – things that would frequently tick off the typical “developer” didn’t seem to affect him at all. He led the group with comfort & ease and kept everyone on course. Jeff had a different style – more authoritative and polished. I didn’t realize at the time that he’d been as significant of a business professional or public speaker as I know now. But the two of them along with several guest presentations (and even a Skype’d in presentation if I remember correctly) provided a great foundation for the meetup.
Needless to say, I felt like I was welcomed. And that means a lot these days.
I kept returning to the monthly OCWP meetup. Though I craved more depth to the technical discussions, I started transitioning from attending merely to get a couple hours of WordPress tips & tricks, but rather I’d found a group of friends who shared a common interest and a wide range of backgrounds. It was a fun group to hang out with.
Timely and The Rant
A couple months after my first visit to OCWP, I attended one night and got to listen in on a damned fine rant by Jeff. The rant was prefaced by a walkthrough of the Timely Twitter app. He showed off how you could schedule tweets to post throughout the day, how it had a cool browser button, and how it attempted to “detect” the most effective times to post throughout a day. I hadn’t really paid much attention to social scheduling before that demonstration, and though it had really nothing to do withWordPress it was interesting nonetheless.
Accompanied by the demonstration was a meandering half-praise, half-frustrated rant by Jeff about how these tools could be so much better. Though I’m hard-pressed to quote anything directly, the gist of it was something along the lines of: “Why do I keep having to use the little one-off social tools to try to do every little thing?” There was also a segue to some other 3rd party tools that Jeff was toying with, and each one of them did one thing in a kind of cool way, but none of them really “nailed it.”
It struck a chord. Perhaps it was because of the client work I was doing that I paid attention, or just my basic inquisitive tekkie nature, but I was surprised that someone hadn’t done more to make social channels more responsive. But what really made the rant stand out was the source & the venue. Here he was – the owner of a tech development shop – surrounded by technology developers – giving an impassioned plea for a better solution. And nobody in the room perked up and responded with, “Oh, Jeff, you’re looking for so-and-so product. It’s awesome. Does everything you’re frustrated about.” Nobody. Everyone just nodded along and agreed. There were no really good solutions.
Once Jeff showed off Timely, I immediately installed it, and found it really fun & interesting for a couple weeks. But I also came to the same conclusion as he did. There were huge gaping holes in how useful a tool like this could really be. But I didn’t do anything about it. Not just yet.
At one of the OCWP meetups that I attended, I heard a discussion amongst a few attendees about another group called “ess-emm-emm-oh-see”. I flipped back over to Meetup.com and sure enough there was a group called the Social Media Mastermind of Orange County: SMMOC.
There were two things about this group that immediately raised red flags. One, it was called a “Mastermind,” and two, it started at 9am every Saturday morning.
At the time, my experience with the term “Mastermind” was limited to the pay-to-play seminar industry – and I’d heard far too many silver-toungued pitchmen describe the powerful transformational effect of their $10,000 “Mastermind” event. And every time I heard this, I had to exert actual physical effort to not jump out of my seat and yell “bullshit!” and storm out of the room in the disgust that this was even an acceptable notion – let alone something people actually did and paid for. So when I saw that SMMOC referred to itself as a mastermind I immediately looked for the price tag. Surely someone involved was suckering all these poor downtrodden social media nomads in to paying big bucks to show up & chat.
But I looked around, and there was no price tag to be found. Just a list of 40 or so people eagerly signed up to the next Saturday morning. Which was the other thing. Morning. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the antithesis of a morning person, and the thought of cutting in to Saturday morning? Outrageous. Heading to a football game tailgate or a trip up to Lake Irvine to go fishing are about the only two things worth cutting in to that time. But, I decided, why not give it a shot? Just once. Seemed like plenty of people showed up, and if it wasn’t worth doing again at least I’d know the answer and be able to sleep soundly again on Saturday mornings. If someone tried to sell me something, I was out of there.
So I RSVP’d, and on Saturday morning I showed up.
Just like the experience with the OCWP meetup – it’s a room full of people who I’d never met (maybe a couple of people I recognized from OCWP), many of whom had known each other for quite a while. But just like the WordPress group, the people at SMMOC were absolutely great.
At the front of the room standing between two whiteboards (a good sign for a whiteboard junkie like myself) stood Bob Watson – corralling the conversations on a meandering journey from topic to topic. Unlike the WordPress group, there was no pre-defined agenda. There were no presentations, no themes, no objectives. Hell, there wasn’t even a projector. As the meeting got started, the ground rules were set out:
“Acronym free zone. No pitch zone. No question is a dumb question.”
And that was it. Away it went. 2 hours later, I’d scribbled a couple of ideas down, gotten to meet a few friendly people, and generally had a good time. It wasn’t technical in nature – it was more about the whole social experience. Topics ranged from how to use certain features on Facebook, whether or not Foursquare would last, what was a good way to do email marketing, and more. The whiteboard filled up with website names, little diagrams of how things worked together, and keywords that were interesting or new to the majority of the audience.
OCWP was a monthly meetup, but SMMOC was weekly. Though I dreaded cutting in to my beloved Saturday morning sleep time, I decided to make a concerted effort to show up again.
Communities are funny things. You start out on the outside, but the more you’re present, the more you’re part of it. Until at some point – you’re part of it. You become a member of the community, and the community accepts you as one of theirs. That’s what happened for me at SMMOC. I just kept showing up, and kept adding my two-cents as best I could. I was more technically-minded than most of the people in the room, so I often found an opportunity to share ideas with a technical-bent. And after showing up 6 or 7 times, I simply was one of the “cool kids.”
There’s Got To Be A Better Way
Between these two Meetups, I now felt like a member of two very cool communities. The people involved were giving, friendly, patient, and interesting. A few people – such as Scott Schang – were members of both (like myself).
Through the course of attending these sessions – I realized that the things that Jeff had included in his rant were coming up time and time again – at both OCWP and SMMOC. There was a great deal of confusion amongst “old-school” bloggers about how to participate in social media. And the social media people; almost without fail – kept going back to the “hub and spokes” model. I pitched in my comments where appropriate, got involved in the online discussions, and generally tried to add value to the groups where I could. But there grew a lingering suspicion that there had to be a better way for people to manage their social media activities. It just didn’t make sense to me. Why was it that all these systems couldn’t talk to each other? Why was it so frustrating for people on all sides of the communication mediums to interact with one another?
The Blue Ocean Swimming Pool
Last Spring, I wrapped a project with my previous firm, and decided that I wanted to change my direction. I’d had a great time working on all sorts of projects for our clients, but I desired a different type of business. I didn’t know what it was or what I wanted to do, but I knew that I needed to take a jump. So, I wrapped my last project, made sure everything else was on auto-pilot or had been resolved, and resigned.
After a couple years without a quality vacation or time away – I was now 100% free. So I went out to the pool at my complex and just relaxed. While there, I let my mind wander – and the topics that had been discussed at SMMOC and OCWP finally had the opportunity to meander through my brain. And I started wondering about problems & challenges that had plagued my previous business venture as well.
I recalled Jeff’s rant, and I recalled many conversations at SMMOC about the “hub & spokes.” And then it dawned on me.
Why couldn’t I manage my spokes from my hub? All these social media tools & gizmos that I’d played with up to then had been services in themselves. Little subscription plans, small solutions here-and-there with no cohesive business objective or structure to them. But I realized that what I really wanted was to be able to draw my social audience – across all channels and verticals – back to “home.” Back to my website. Back to the thing I owned, the thing I could modify & tune to my exact specifications, and the thing that couldn’t be flipped off.
So I assumed – someone must have come up with this solution. So I went to look. And within 5 minutes I’d decided nobody had.
By that afternoon, I had a bunch of sketches together of what I thought a social media management platform could look like from inside of WordPress. It started flowing so naturally that I was convinced that I’d heard about this somewhere else and forgot where. But I kept looking – and nobody had done it. This was the blue ocean: A fresh marketplace where an innovative idea could roam free to define the market & the category.
So I had dinner & drinks with a friend of mine, and though he didn’t understand a thing about Twitter, the appeal of the platform was immediately obvious. If I could explain it to my friend who’d never done a minute of blogging or a single tweet – and get him excited – I was certain this was an opportunity I wanted to explore.
So I started building. I asked him to keep my honest and I said “I can have a prototype done in 4 days.”
Sure enough, Friday evening just past midnight I had my first shot at what would become Dashter. I emailed Scott Schang and a couple other folks from SMMOC and asked for a few minutes of time after the general session to share what I’d cooked up.
I showed it to Scott, expecting “Oh, yeah, that’s just like __[insert plugin / service / solution name here ]__” He took a look and started exclaiming that he hadn’t seen anything like this yet. This little ship was floating in a virtual blue ocean. It was barely working, had a horrible UI, had numerous glitches and crashed like crazy. But it was out there.
In the past 6 months, the product has gone from a half-baked prototype to something I can be genuinely proud of. Jeff & Steve have transitioned from “hosts” to partners and incubators. With the exception of a few Saturday mornings dedicated to either catching some “must-see” college football games or killing some “must-kill” bugs inside of Dashter, I still attend as many SMMOC’s as I can.
I’m glad to be part of two amazing communities – and I’m grateful for everything that I’ve been given because of it. Thank you all. I’m looking forward to seeing y’all at the next meetup.