Sherlock Holmes and the case of the Supply Chain.

The Solarpunk Art Contest I am helping to fund is closing its submissions on November 1st – one week from now. We are waiting for your art with a vision of a better future! You can find the submission procedure and all the details in this post.

The problems of today are in the seams of things

Have you heard about the supply chain problems? Hundreds of ships are waiting off the coast of California, which means those ships cannot be transporting goods from Asia, which means clogs, long wait times, and interruptions all around.

Since our economy is a Just-In-Time system, relying on the freight getting on time where it needs to be, the series of “hiccups” (Ship stuck in Suez Canal, Covid, Remote Work) overloaded the system. The problems are cascading, to the point where people are advised to get their Christmas shopping done in October because things will only get worse.

And, of course, nobody is to blame. Everyone is just doing their job, shrugging sadly and saying that there is nothing they can do. The stalemate of bureaucratic responsibilities causes the gridlock of shipping routes, but the solution is simple: Take charge. Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen rented a boat to inspect the situation in person:

It seems that everyone now agrees that the bottleneck is yard space at the container terminals. The terminals are simply overflowing with containers, which means they no longer have space to take in new containers either from ships or land. It’s a true traffic jam.

Right now if you have a chassis with no empty container on it, you can go pick up containers at any port terminal. However, if you have an empty container on that chassis, they’re not allowing you to return it except on highly restricted basis.

If you can’t get the empty off the chassis, you don’t have a chassis to go pick up the next container. And if nobody goes to pick up the next container, the port remains jammed.

The situation is getting worse because there are more ships coming, and more trucks rendered useless because they cannot unload the empty container:

This is a negative feedback loop that is rapidly cycling out of control that if it continues unabated will destroy the global economy

Ryan continues to recommend a list of interventions, but what struck me the most is that empty containers can only be stored two stories high because of zoning regulations. These are meant to protect the skyline of Long Beach, California. Ryan recommends temporarily allowing up to 6, tripling the capacity. The really impressive part is that Long Beach Mayor took Ryan’s advice!

I’m sure many experts and smart people were working on the problem. But no smart person can beat somebody willing to get their hands dirty and work across responsibilities to get the job done.

Sherlock Holmes is really Dr. House.

Sherlock Holmes is an inspiring character. Over the last ten years alone, we’ve seen three mainstream depictions (BBC Sherlock, Elementary, Sherlock Holmes with RDJ), with two Avengers playing their parts.

Sherlock was based not only on the previous characters by Edgar Allan Poe but also on the brilliant physician Joseph Bell, who trained Arthur Conan Doyle in his medical practice in Edinburgh.

Joseph was a pioneer in connecting the dots between his patients’ living conditions and their afflictions. He could deduce where they work and live by their clothes and quickly infer what could be troubling them.

Think of him as a nicer version of Dr. House. The similarities range from subtle to obvious, but it seems that Dr. House is closer to the “original” than Sherlock. Go figure.

Arthur Conan Doyle got his hands dirty, and his detective resonates so much as a result. Even though the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin (Edgar Allan Poe’s character) was the first hero of the genre, Sherlock became the archetype because he’s based on experience, not imagination.

Later in his years, Arthur Conan Doyle started dabbling in spiritualism – trying to communicate with the dead was a popular pastime in the early 1900s. His growing belief in the supernatural began clashing with his character’s skepticism, and he slowly started losing enthusiasm for Sherlock.

A case against degrowth

The degrowth argument goes something like this:

“Infinite growth is unsustainable and we need to stop it if we want to save the environment and the human race”

It is most popular in great cities of the western world. In Poland, it is sometimes met with confusion, but in the developing countries, it’s just plain ridiculous. Noah Smith makes a great case against degrowth in his article:

Growth doesn’t just mean using more and more stuff; instead, it can mean finding more efficient ways to use the stuff we have.

Enforcing global degrowth would require freezing world income at about $17,000/year. That means that most people in the world would never even come close to current rich-world living standards

There’s some genuine appeal to the idea of an end to “consumerism,” but the pandemic offered a taste of how a sudden drop in rich-world consumption would actually affect the developing world. Covid-19 dramatically curtailed Western imports and tourism for a time. The consequences in poor countries were devastating. Hunger rose, and child mortality followed.

No hacks in getting featured on Hacker News

Twenty-six-year-old me would be very proud. Four of my essays have trended on the first page of Hacker News, bringing thousands of like-minded technologists to the site you’re currently reading. In this post, I’m going to share a few tips. And I am kinda proud, too.

What is Hacker News?

What is the website you open when you’re in the mood to read something? New York Times? Reddit? Facebook? For me, and millions of other technologists, it’s Hacker News. It is an aggregator of links gathering content from around the web, with a voting system, created by Y Combinator – a startup accelerator.

Open-plan offices offer few pleasures; one of them is snooping on other people’s browsing habits. When, years ago, I began working for tech companies in San Francisco, I noticed that my co-workers were always scrolling through a beige, text-only Web site that resembled a nineteen-nineties Internet forum. They were reading Hacker News—a link aggregator and message board that is something of a Silicon Valley institution. Technologists in Silicon Valley assume familiarity with Hacker News, just as New Yorkers do with the New York Post and the New York Times

This New Yorker article is not exaggerating. While working in a Polish subcontractor to the mighty western technology companies, it was my (and my friends’) morning ritual to begin every day with a copy and browsing of Hacker News. It was there, and then that my dream to work in a Silicon Valley startup, like the ones I read about, began.

When I circled back, we treated this site a little too seriously. We probably made technical decisions based on pieces of technology that happened to be popular and deemed everything trending worthy of our attention. Our views on social issues were quite in sync with the site. The other users are builders, techno-optimists, fans of obscure historical trivia, socialists, libertarians, and billionaires. For better or worse, my people. And some of them have read my stuff.

How did you launch on top of HN?

Go to your people

As I pointed out before, I spent significant time browsing the articles on the site. Is it possible that I somehow internalized the algorithm to think like the hive mind of Hacker News?

For an individualist, this is a scary thought. But it’s reassuring to feel like a part of something. The lesson is boring, and not very novel – promote your writing in the community you are already a part of.

When I heard this lesson in the past, I used to think that’s because of the trust you radiate as an established member. But now I realize that promoting in your existing online communities works because you deem them interesting and they influence your writing. It’s a self-reinforcing loop.

Where do you spend your online time?

The hardest problem in computer science is naming things

Hacker News has a very minimalist design. You don’t judge the book by its cover, you judge it’s by the title and others’ upvotes.

Notice the third one?

While wrapping up my essays, I find myself thinking “Hey, this is an interesting twist. How can I adjust the title to tease that promise?
And later, after adjusting the title I make sure the rest of the article follows that promise – it usually makes for a much more interesting angle. That’s why in the Write of Passage community, we call that a shiny dime.

Hacker News has a voting system, and clickbait is definitely not the way to the top. When I now reflect on the titles that have trended, they share a few common characteristics:

  • Something that makes you “huh, that is interesting, haven’t thought of that”
  • Has to have something with tech
  • Has to have a promise of teaching something new
  • My combinations have this vibe of “old + new”:

Here are my successful submissions. Each one brought about 4000 – 6000 visitors during the first day:


The content triangle

That last essay is an expanded version of my response to Paul Graham’s Tweet. It got a bit of attention, so I transformed it into an essay.

Only after the essay has taken off on HN, I realized that Paul Graham’s followers ARE HN readers, since he built the site. In Write of Passage, we call it the content triangle – you move the idea onto a “higher level” (in this case, an essay) only if it succeeded in conversation, on Twitter, or in your DMs.

There really is no way to cheat the system, but there is an extremely pleasant obvious route: Write content YOU would like to read and share it with people like yourself.

Your Hacker News visitors

You also need to know a few things about the browsing habits of the HN crowd.

We are reluctant to convert

We really hate spam, so converting these spikes of traffic into an email list requires a really good pitch.

We are blocking Google Analytics

This article suggests that 58% of Tech-Savvy HN users block Google Analytics. My own findings suggest a different figure, but there is a significant difference between my GA stats and WordPress.com stats:

3159 visitors according to WordPress.com

2472 visitors according to Google Analytics:

Other people’s experiences

Good luck!

Oldschool Internet & The Blockchain

Oldschool Internet and Open Standards are under assault from big corporations. Blockchain can help.

Aren’t you tired of typing your passwords over and over again? About wondering which email did you use to sign up for this particular site? Was it Facebook login? Oh no – you got another notification that another site got hacked. Jon Stokes, The author of “The Billion User Table” predicts that these problems could soon be over, with identity moving on the public blockchain.

the public blockchain amounts to a single, massive users table for the entire Internet, and the next wave of distributed applications will be built on top of it.

He presents a future where the equivalent of “Google Login” will be baked into the fabric of the Internet in a safe, distributed (not owned by any corporation) and secure fashion.

When you’d visit a service you want to sign up for, you click a button, the browser already knows who you are, and BAM, you’re there.

There’s no on-boarding or sign-up friction

If you are not creating software, this may not seem that important, but you’d be surprised how effective removing a single step is for helping users join. When I was working on monetization tools for WordPress.com customers, simplifying one step in checkout resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for the creators on our platform.

Jon summarizes it succinctly, and I love this phrasing:

Adding rows to your platform’s users table is how you win at software.

He also presents this outcome as inevitable, since the companies using the protocol would benefit from the network effects of this protocol being already present in our digital lives:

My guess is that the temptation to take advantage of blockchain-sized network effects will be so great, that companies will default to putting data on-chain rather than keeping it siloed.

The idea of an interoperable, distributed user table sounds very appealing to me as a programmer/hacker. That is also why it sounds very scary to me as a user. Let’s explore how can we make it safer, and why we need to.

We’ve already been there

The first thing that came into my mind is that we’re already there. We have email, an open standard that is effectively a distributed “user table” – when you sign up for a new service, they will most likely ask you about your email address.

  • The addressing system ( user@domain ) is distributed between domains.
  • It’s an open standard, not owned by any one corporation
  • It has built-in messaging, so at least one level of interoperability
  • One-click sign-ins are possible with email. Slack and WordPress.com will sign you in to your account with one click by sending you a “magic link” to your email. I have implemented this functionality myself and wish more services used it
  • It can be even turned into a “Social Network”, with built-in DMs and distribution – something that newsletters take advantage of
  • Tangentially: The biggest gripe that people have about email – long reply-all threads – have a few characteristics of the blockchain itself

In the 2000s, we have regressed from Email and other (like XMPP and RSS) open protocols. I remember being able to respond to Facebook Messenger messages over email. Now, the consumer internet seems to have fractured into private data silos, requiring a separate app for each simple thing I’m attempting to do. Ben Thompson points it out in “The Web’s Missing Interoperability“:

That, though, points to Web 2.0’s failure: interoperability is nowhere to be found

Sometimes this interoperability is removed on purpose, in an effort to bootstrap a gatekeeper that could reap all the network benefits:

The Facebook Cannibalisation manouver

Facebook also used to support XMPP – an open messaging protocol. I think it was the key to bootstrapping their Messenger platform in what I call The Facebook Cannibalisation Maneuver:

  1. Support wide access to your platform by supporting open APIs
  2. Attract technically sophisticated early adopters because they have nothing to lose – the platform already supports their apps
  3. These technical users help convince more people to join the platform
  4. Reach a critical mass to start seeing network effects on the platform internally
  5. Turn off the open APIs that were previously supported. Technical users are disappointed, but it’s not an issue anymore.

That’s why I’m skeptical about this assertion from the Billion User Table:

My guess is that the temptation to take advantage of blockchain-sized network effects will be so great, that companies will default to putting data on-chain rather than keeping it siloed.

I’m sure big players would welcome this protocol with open arms, suck any data out of it, and turn off support later, citing privacy issues.

Privacy&security concerns

The author does not go into privacy concerns too much, and I think these are all solvable problems that will be worked out in time. But I’m going to list them regardless because we don’t want to escalate problems to the level where the federal government has to step in, like in Europe with GDPR.

  1. We need to prevent users from being tracked across sites without their explicit consent. You probably don’t want every service you use to know you have a Tinder account, for example
  2. There needs to be built-in pseudonymity (as explained by Balajis) and a mechanism to switch “contexts.” People need burner identities and a mechanism to transfer data or “karma” to those,
  3. We need mechanisms for permission levels.
  4. We need a better mechanism for retrieving access than a private key. People will lose access, or fraudsters will steal them,
  5. At some point, governments will need to be involved, and this will create a whole new set of issues,
  6. We need to solve the spam

The Apple problem

The biggest obstacle to adopting a distributed, interoperable data store will be Apple. They deserve recognition for their effort in keeping your data private, but it’s downstream from their business model – lock you inside their ecosystem and prevent others from challenging their position.

You could argue that there are alternatives, but the dominant position of the iPhone means that you have to obey their rules if you want your app/service to be successful. And you know Google will eventually copy each one of these rules into the Android ecosystem:

  • If you want to distribute your app to iPhone users, Apple has to review it and agree. There is no other way
  • If you are offering a “federated login” option, like Facebook Login or Google Login, you have to offer the “Login with Apple” as well
  • If you are selling access to any digital goods on iOS, you have to use the Apple In-App-Purchase system, giving 30% of your income to Apple
  • Apps cannot “talk to each other” directly, only through a very small set of APIs. Apps don’t have any access to the filesystem, because of what is called “app sandboxing”.
  • Offering a different version of the experience provided by Apple is often forbidden

Apple’s strategy seems to move all interoperability into the Apple ecosystem and frameworks, making apps themselves interchangeable and commoditized. “The Billion User Table” is unlikely to work on iPhone because Apple effectively monopolized all the exciting benefits.

The app and services developers have to fight back by closing their own gardens and motivating users to stay within their properties. That’s why I think it’s unlikely to see big players participating in this interoperability.

We desperately need it to work

We still have a few open standards left: RSS is still powering podcasting, although Apple and Spotify are making moves to supplant it. The Web is still working, although it wouldn’t be permitted on the iPhone if it was created today. We have to protect and extend them. Working on open standards, and adopting them by “small players” is the only way to protect the Internet against the network effects of big players, and The Apple Problem.

I think we can extend existing “footholds” of interoperability, and work from there:

  • RSS: Sync the state of what podcasts I have listened to, or am listening so I can easily switch between the apps,
  • Email: Earn.com was a nice idea to give you money for replying to messages so people have to be motivated to spam you. Although I’d prefer a karma sytem.
  • XMPP: the open messaging protocol is close to dead, unfortunately and I have no ideas how to save it
  • HTML, JavaScript and CSS are being obfuscated by source minification and precompiling of source code – something that blockchain probably won’t solve and it’s a different story.

I agree with the author of The Billion User Table that we need interoperability, and I’d be happy if we started by bringing back the protocols of the 1990s. Blockchain solves the issue of “who hosts the user data, ” which is a brilliant insight in the original article.

But I’d start with throwaway identities and small stakes. We need to prove the concept before attracting regulator attention and big players’ cannibalization. Starting with extending and protecting existing open standards will let us understand the tradeoffs between privacy and interoperability. And we desperately need the latter – as the current privacy debate favors Big Tech. Per Ben Thompson:

I worry even more about small businesses uniquely enabled by the Internet; forcing every company to act like a silo undoes the power of platforms to unlock collective competition (a la Shopify versus Amazon), whether that be in terms of advertising, payments, or understanding their users. Regulators that truly wish to limit tech power and unlock the economic potential of the Internet would do well to prioritize competition and interoperability via social graph sharing, alongside a more nuanced view of privacy that reflects reality, not misleading ads

Where I disagree with Jon Stokes is that it will upend the present Internet. It is the missing piece of the original Internet, which was correct on so many ideas. I miss it a lot.

How to start your own podcast on WordPress.com

This is a story of how I started a podcast, in 3 hours (apart from waiting for iTunes verification), with a total cost of $5/month. And that included my own domain name! I share detailed instructions on launching a brand new podcast on WordPress, and later promoting it on iTunes and Spotify.

Why would you want to start a podcast?

Podcasting has been hailed “the new blogging”. According to Edison Research, 51% of Americans have ever listened to a podcast and the medium use has grown 122% since 2014. Listening to a conversation creates a deeper connection and for some, it is more entertaining than the written word.

Together, with a group of Polish bloggers, we were dreaming about a foray into podcasting. We created Placebo Podcast in hopes of meeting interesting people and frankly – having fun.

The title reads “Your dose of absolutely nothing. Confirmed clinical efficacy”

What are the benefits of podcasting?

  • You can connect with your audience on a much deeper level thanks to your voice and the unscripted nature of the conversation,
  • It is a fantastic excuse to reach out and meet interesting people,
  • Interviewing people can help you practice listening skills

How does it all work?

You may have listened to a podcast on iTunes, Spotify or another app. But did you know that the content you are enjoying does not originate there?

The beating heart of every podcast is it’s RSS feed. It is a particular format of new blog content that other services – like iTunes or Spotify can consume and display in the appropriate apps, Alexa devices and various services.

To start a podcast, you need a blog. Then you submit it’s RSS feed to podcast services – like iTunes or Spotify.

Enter WordPress.com

What is the easiest way to start a blog? With WordPress.com you can be finished in 10 minutes. You don’t have to worry about hosting, hackers, FTP, GIT, NSA, and other scary 3-letter acronyms. The service has been around for more than 10 years and you don’t have to watch out for ground shifting under your feet. You own your domain and can take it to any competitor.

WordPress.com has built-in podcasting tools, and you can read about how to embark on an audio journey here. You can set up the site for free, but to upload audio files, you need to upgrade to “Personal” plan ( currently $5/month ).

Full transparency: I work for the parent company (Automattic) on an unrelated product line. I was motivated to check out how our podcasting offering works.

These instructions will also work if you have your own installation of WordPress, on your own host. Once you set up a site, and connect a domain – the following tutorial should be similar.

What do you need to start?

  1. Settle upon a memorable and distinctive name,
  2. Record at least three episodes, so when you are published on iTunes, your listeners will have a better taste of your style,
  3. Edit them with intro and outro so that your listeners can recognize your work. Also, if they listen to a standalone episode, it’s good to explain to them what your whole podcast is about and ask them to subscribe,
  4. Make sure iTunes and Spotify present a fetching cover art so that it is easily recognizable on the list of podcasts,
  5. Make sure your episodes have a place to live, where you can connect with your listeners, posts notes, etc – that is your site!,
  6. You have to submit your podcast to iTunes podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. Majority of podcast listeners use one of these services, so you have to meet them where they are,
  7. Promote, promote, promote,
  8. Keep recording!

The name

The name of your podcast will help your listeners find you in their favourite podcasting app. Making it memorable was our main goal and trying to be somewhat humorous was the second. We came up with “Placebo – podcast with a confirmed clinical efficacy”.

Cover art

People will consume your amazing podcast through an app. You have only a few places to stand out:

  • Cover art
  • Summary
  • Title

Cover art should be simple and easy to recognize. Since my podcast is named Placebo, some kind of satirical medical vibe would be best. One of my co-podcasters had a Shutterstock account, where we found a nice graphic. After a few tweaks, tada!

Cover art should have 1400×1400 px, so remember to find big enough image

The summary

Itunes limits the summary to 250 characters, so you have to distill the description of your intended content. We wanted to give listeners a taste and encourage them to give us a listen.

We also made sure to link to our site, where they can learn more.

Podcasting Settings on WordPress.com are located here.

How do you record? Do you have fancy gear?

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

I have some good news and some bad news for you. Good news:

You don’t need fancy gear!

Bad news:

You have no excuse to keep browsing podcasting gear.

You should get to work right away. Here is what we do:

My podcasting friends live in different cities, so we decided to record our podcast in a distributed fashion.

We are using zoom.us, a teleconferencing software similar to Skype. Because our meetings have 3 participants, we are limited to 40 minutes if we want to keep using the free version. We embraced this limitation – 40 minutes of listening to me can drive anybody mad.

The audio will travel through the magic portals of the Internet to the meeting hosts’ computer, where it will be recorded. After wrapping up, we have a recording to publish. If you decide to go this route, I have a few tips for you:

  • Buy some decent (not fancy) microphone. I am using Sennheiser SC-160. Just don’t use the earbuds you got with your phone
  • Jump on a quick call before you start recording to make sure the audio is ok
  • Turn off video if you want to save transfer for better sound. Video tends to steal from audio quality
  • Remember to press record! You don’t want to have the most exciting conversation in the history of conversations only to find out you never captured it. Or maybe you do – in which case podcasting may not be a good fit.

After you finish your zoom call, you will have a file `audio_only.m4a`.

Here is how you can edit using most basic tools

Photo by Adam Sherez on Unsplash

What is the best tool? The one you already have. My Mac came with GarageBand preinstalled, so I decided to stick with it. There is now a plethora of fancy podcast-editing setups, but this is just a fun session with friends, not money-making business recording.

Podcast editing in Garage Band

  1. Get your audio logo. This will be the piece of music that will evoke memories of your other episodes and make sure listeners recognize you. I purchased a one for $10, but there are sites with free music you can download,
  2. Fire off Garageband, with a new “Voice” project,
  3. Record your intro. We decided that intro should give a taste what is in the episode and entice the listeners to give it a try,
  4. Record your outro. After the episode, we want to convince the listeners to try other episodes or check out more on our sites. We recorded outro once and reuse it on all episodes.
  5. Now you can overlay your audio logo with your intro and outro.
    1. Drag audio logo file to Garageband
    2. To create nice transitions and regulate audio levels, Select Mix->Automate and select “Volume” from the menu that just appeared under your audio track.
    3. Now clicking on your audio track will create a graph that will help you create fade in and out
  6. Drop your recording file, adjust the volume
  7. Export the audio file
  8. To make sure iTunes presents your image next to the episode as well, you have to edit what is called ID3 tags. The easiest way to do this is iTunes. Select your file, click “information”

After you edit the information in iTunes, upload your cover art and click OK, your episode will appear in iTunes Podcast library. You can find this file in your Home Directory / Music / iTunes / Podcasts

Uploading to WordPress

On WordPress.com, each episode of your podcast will be a separate WordPress post. You will have a unique link to share with your audience, a way for them to listen to your episode without the app and the place to share notes and links to the episode.

To start a new podcast episode:

  1. Write a post with the notes
  2. Upload your audio file as an „Audio” block
  3. Add the post to the „Podcast” category.

This guide on WordPress.com support has more details.

Making sure everything is proper

Maybe it is my scout upbringing ( “be prepared” ), but I like to double-check things. I recommend submitting your podcast feed to a service like https://podba.se/validate/ .

The online validator will do a few checks and reassure you that you are ready to submit your podcast to iTunes or Spotify.

Time to go live

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Let’s recap:

  1. You have your domain and a site for your podcast,
  2. You recorded a few episodes, gave them intro and an outro,
  3. Uploaded them and published on your site,
  4. Checked your podcast feed and everything is working

Now it’s time to publish your podcast to the world!

As I mentioned, majority of people consume podcasts through an app. Be it iTunes podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, etc. Fortunately, they all work by checking your RSS feed. After you submit it to those services, your podcasting magic will work seamlessly!

Spotify

  1. Go to Podcasters Spotify
  2. Submit your RSS feed
  3. Wait about 2-3 days for your podcast to show up

iTunes

  1. Go to Podcasts Connect

After your podcast is reviewed and approved in the libraries, remember to publish those links on your site. That way you will be able to promote your beautiful WordPress.com domain and when somebody visits your site, they will be able to choose their preferred podcast consuming technology. We put these buttons right up at the top:

You can download these buttons here:

Promote, promote, promote!

As you can see, publishing a podcast is not hard. That means a lot of people can do it – and indeed, they do. The number of podcasts is exploding, and that is a good thing – more and more quality content (like yours) will be created.

But it also means more competition.

You will have to promote your podcast on Social Media or meet with other podcasters to appear on their shows. I do plan on doing that myself, and I will share my findings.

Keep recording

Now that you have everything set up, whenever you publish a new post with the audio file, it will automatically be picked up by iTunes and Spotify.

Your listeners will marvel at your brilliance, and advertisers will fly bags of money directly into your mansion so you can fill up your Jacuzzi with $100 bills.

Or, you end up like me, with about ten people listening to you 🙂

Good luck!

Overprotecting your creation hurts you the most

How can I ensure my customer won’t share the video they purchased? Can I protect the PDF I sell to be shared only once? How can I lock my daughter in a high tower, so that no worldly harm befalls her?

The tension between sharing our creations and being paid was always tricky. But the digital world adds another layer of complexity – your creations can be copied and distributed also after the purchase, keeping you out of the loop of future profits.

A natural instinct is to seek the answer in the technology that permitted sharing in the first place – can I protect the content I sold, so that only the customer has access to it?

Yes, but you shouldn’t. Over-protecting your content focuses on extraction over providing value. Here are 10 reasons why (Digital Rights Management)[1] DRMs are a bad idea:

1 – It is just impossible to prevent sharing

Trying to effectively protect content against sharing is like fighting against skilled guerilla units in the digital jungle. Sure, you can deploy your defenses, but they will always find a sneaky way around them while you drain your resources.

  • You will use streaming service to gate-keep your videos, They can use a project similar to `youtube-dl` to download any video file.
  • You will block downloading images on the page, they can just take a screenshot.
  • You can password protect a PDF, they can use a „virtual printer” to generate a new, open one.

If you give a customer any way to access the content, that way can also be used to copy that content and/or record it.

This is a fundamental feature of the Internet. Content is meant to be easily reproducible and shared. The only way to win is to make it easier and more compelling to pay.

2 – You are treating your customer like a thief

Imagine if visiting your friend was like going through airport security. Did you bring any liquids? What’s that in your backpack? Oh no, your belongings are 300 grams too heavy, better pay for extra luggage!

Jumping through DRM hoops is sending a clear message to all your customers:

We don’t trust you. You have to go through this process because we think you may steal something. We’re watching you.

This message gets sent whenever a person who decided to pay you opens their purchase. It’s your biggest fans’ first experience with your product.

3 – People who steal are not your customers

Do you have a portrait of your ideal customer?

Is it a teenager sitting in a warez bulletin board all day and polishing his torrent workflow? If not – why are you focusing on them?

People who download loads of content are not used to paying for it. When they won’t be able to find a free copy of your content – they will steal from your competitor or resign before they open their wallets.

And if you don’t know who your ideal customer is – maybe you should focus on that.

4 – But they may become them

Sure Artur – but what about when somebody buys something and then gives away to all their friends?

  1. What do you think about sharing books? Borrowing a blender? Some sharing is healthy and natural.
  2. It actually benefits you.

Bootleg content is a customer acquisition mechanism.

The most successful Internet entrepreneurs build sophisticated sales funnels. For example, they would have many interactions with the customer before they buy:

  1. A visitor interested in your field finds your article online.
  2. After the second article, they sign up for your email list.
  3. You provide consistent value and build up trust.
  4. After a few months, you release a product and the follower becomes a customer.
  5. Profit.

Even if they try to “convert” their friends to trust you too, the friend lacks the relationship you have built. They didn’t receive your emails and they didn’t laugh at your corny jokes.

Demonstrating the full value of intellectual property requires giving it away. Once the friend sees the value you provide, they will either:

  1. Be blown away by the quality.
  2. Decide it’s not for them and they will never be your customer.

Both of these outcomes are ideal for you and save you considerable time in the signup funnel and marketing.

This is what trial period and discounts aim to accomplish, but they have side-effects. When you repeatedly discount, customers start treating the lower price as the ‘real’ one, and value the product less because ‘it must not be worth the full price’. Keeping a blind eye to questionable behavior gives you a way out. You can demonstrate how valuable your product is, without discounts that lead to price erosion.

People who “sneak onboard” often become customers themselves – and even the most loyal ones! The converted always are.

5 – You are making it hard to enjoy your content.

Open standards empower creators to build new tools or use the content in unpredictable ways. Things are better connected. These are the core assumptions under which the Internet was built. You will not be able to predict all the weird, fantastic, and inspiring ways your content will be accessed.

  • I may read your PDF on an iPad, iPhone, Android tablet, Kindle, or printed out,
  • I frequently save workout or yoga videos to watch while being offline in the garden or on the road,
  • I like to read the text in my Pocket or Kindle apps.

Any sort of „protection” breaks my ways of consuming your content and often makes it useless for me. Sometimes enough to give up on something I have paid for (and that is the reason I stopped doing yoga, your honor).

6 – You are blocking people with disabilities from accessing it at all.

I can manage the inconvenience with some grumbling – however, not everybody has that luxury. Tools that people with disabilities rely on are by nature incompatible with any sort of content protection schemes. Content protection’s entire purpose is restricting access to the narrow subset of users and use cases.

Mind you, that you yourself will join those “people with disabilities”. You will get older, lose a little clarity in your vision, and suddenly the new sexy apps developed by 20-year olds in their glass palaces will become confusing and unusable.

Helping my grandparents navigate the changing digital landscape is a sad and sobering experience. Any additional hoop that you make them jump through may render your content inaccessible.

7 – You are turning your creation into a commodity

The best online businesses rely on fostering the relationship between you and your customers. You share some free content, they are more receptive to trust you with their hard-earned money. It’s a dance of mutual respect and the first sale is only a part. If they like what you are doing, they will return for more, or even support you financially.

DRM software turns this delicate relationship into buying a sack of coal under the watchful gaze of security. Not even a fistful too much! You are being watched.

You are signaling to your customer that this is a purely monetary transaction. They are not entitled to even sharing your work with a friend, because they would be violating rules ?. Oh, the rules.

8 – Are you really losing anything?

If you are selling digital products, what is your marginal cost? How much do you pay to create another copy of your PDF, video, software?

When your content is being shared, it is not stealing. You don’t lose your income whenever somebody downloads a copy. As I mentioned – people who are likely to download illegal copies of your work are either never going to be your customers, or they will because they had a peek.

9 – What is your true motivation for blocking the content?

What is the core motivation for trying to protect your piece? Is it some misplaced sense of justice or is it legitimately best for your customer?

If that content truly makes you proud and you believe it would help them – what is the best outcome if the customer does not want to pay? Is this motivation coming from a place of fear?

  • Fear of your work being „not good enough” to pay for?
  • Fear of the offer not being compelling enough?
  • Fear of not having enough paying customers to make it all worthwhile?

Fear is not a good place to create amazing content people are going to love. This mindset will drag you down and prevent you from soaring into creative skies.

10 – What do you choose to believe about people?

Do you really want to believe that people are only waiting for an opportunity to steal? Or do you want to trust them to appreciate the value you provide?

What can you do instead

  1. Focus on the relationship with the customer. I have written a little more about it in Your product is either hospitality or a commodity.
    I believe that all kinds of digital goods will be commoditized sooner or later. The only “moat” you can build is the customers’ trust.
  2. Put the energy you would spend on DRM into innovation and creating new products. Once your old one gets shared, you should be already releasing a new one.
    Subscriptions are an effective form of protection here – instead of sharing your content once, you drip the value to the customer – and they see the benefits of paying you.
  3. Sell more. Get more paying customers – after all, it’s about how many customers choose to pay you, not how many choose not to.
  4. Raise prices. Focus on the customer who is not driven to pay less, but the one who is driven to get more value. Paradoxically, more expensive products get downloaded less.

Now go, create, and sell.

402 Payment Required and why micropayments are doomed

The promise of fast, seamless micropayments (by micro I mean <$1) has been circling around the web for a while now. The original HTTP status codes, created over 30 years ago, even contain a „placeholder” for such a system, which is still reserved for future use:

The HTTP 402 Payment Required is a nonstandard client error status response code that is reserved for future use.

With the advent of Bitcoin, related arbitrage opportunities, and attention economy problems, cryptocurrency experts have renewed interest in providing micropayments solutions.

But I am not convinced this is a problem worth solving.

The administrative cost of accepting payments

Accepting payments and donations has their administrative cost. Taxes, fulfillment, answering support questions, upkeep of the payment system – most of this stuff can be automated, but you are never able to get rid of these pesky details.

Of course, the answer is easy – just make it up with higher volume!

But there is a catch-22. With more volume, there is more upkeep, more treadmill, more support, and bigger risk that you will run into a problematic customer. This constant administrative cost is a reason why every Credit Card processor charges a roughly similar rate for processing payments. They have overhead too.

2.9% + 30c of the fixed cost.

Dire reality of Paypal, Stripe and other processors

The cognitive cost of the purchase

Each payment has not only a material cost but also a cognitive cost. While you are purchasing something, you not only whip out your hard-earned cash, but you also have to make a purchase decision.

  • Is this really worth paying for?
  • From the myriad options available, is this one the best?
  • How much did I spend already this week?

All these decisions go through the customer’s head each time they are trying to buy something on the web (and IRL). That means, that each customer can only make so many purchases, regardless of their price.

While customer pays a higher price, you benefit. If they pay a high cognitive cost, everybody loses.

Subscriptions and bundles

Bundles and Subscriptions are both ways of addressing this issue.

  • The purchase decision is made only once. In case of a bundle, its spread over items and in case of a subscription – over time.
  • The administrative cost for the seller is also more manageable. It’s one customer instead of many, one fulfillment and one line item in a tax sheet.

That is why you are witnessing an explosion of subscription services – Spotify, Disney+, Netflix… Even Apple is moving to Apple TV+ because iTunes pay-for-a-single-episode model didn’t work out.

Micropayments are never taking off.

There are a million exciting technical ways of making micropayments work. Cryptocurrencies, in particular, are a favorite tool of those working on technical details.

The problem is human nature (and isn’t it always?). By putting the value of 50c on something, you are signaling that this is what it’s worth.  Higher price means higher perceived value, and as recounted by Robert Cialdini, raising prices can, surprisingly, bring more customers.

Micropayments are a favorite excuse of non-customers. If you have something worth paying for, it will be worth paying more than $1. People not willing to shell out a $5 will find an excuse not to shell out 50c either. You don’t want these people as your customers. Pricing psychology and market economics are against < $1 transactions, and maybe that is why there is not a single successful micropayment startup.

Provide real value, raise your prices, and start solving $300 problems instead of 30c problems. Better yet – start a subscription!

In the words of Patrick McKenzie:

And if you came here from Hacker News, you might like another one of my articles:

A tale of two paywalls

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of me helping the WordPress.com users earn a living.

We are building a whole suite of products and features that would unlock the economic potential of the people starting their journeys as the publishers. Our goal has just the right keywords to suggest that we are building a „paywall.” But, Paywall is not a straightforward affair. Let me explain how I think about Paywalls:

Traditional Paywall – let’s call it „big publisher paywall.”

This is the paywall we all think about and see in leading publisher sites like New York Times, Washington Post, and similar ones. Since the business model of those sites is publishing, they produce news articles. That is what they get paid for, and that is what they are meant to guard.

They are usually monetizing through the quantity of content. There are several modes of operation here:

  • “Metered Paywall” is the most popular approach of “3/ month free” articles
  • “Nagwall” is where you get progressively worse reading experience, or they would badger you to sign up, but they will not block the content outright.
  • “Hard paywall”, where you have no way of accessing the content without a subscription

That technical solution is tightly coupled with:
Producing a lot of content with a short shelf life.

If a site had 3 evergreen, amazing pieces that are bringing the majority of traffic and the rest would be meh content, then there would be no reason to pay! A quota of 3/month is enough to consume this great content, and there is no reason to sign up for more. Because there IS no more. So these sites are producing content that is enough to draw the traffic and give you a taste of future goodies, but not enough to fill you up. Additionally:

  • Since you pay for quantity, it incentivizes larger teams or news organizations
  • It’s best to have a uniform quality. If there is a breakaway hit, it is used to draw traffic and not be value in itself
  • They tend to focus on general topics (news, sports) to have the biggest possible total addressable market.
  • They have already a huge back-catalog of existing content when starting a paywall (hard to pay for quantity when there are only 20 pieces on a site)
  • The signup messages are short and minimal because it’s clear what you pay for – more of the same

Publishers using these paywalls have other, complex needs – customization, email newsletters, corporate strategy. They don’t exist in a vacuum and are usually connected to a bigger organization and budgets.

“Member features” / “Niche blogger paywall”

Now, let’s consider a case of the smaller blogger, maybe even a 3-person team running a site.

  • They have no hopes of competing with NYT or Washington Post on quantity and broad-spectrum journalism
  • They cannot put out more than one piece per day
  • They tend to be very niche, and their Unique Value Proposition lies in being practical and having a perspective not found anywhere else
  • They don’t have an institutional brand like NYT, so they have to earn trust by producing great (free) content as well
  • They have a tiny (or non-existent) back-catalog of existing content.

Because of these traits, bloggers overwhelmingly are separating free and premium content.

  • Promotional content is what made them famous. Free articles with great quality and unique perspective are bringing traffic to the site
  • Paid content usually has a very clear value proposition, based on the blogger’s expertise.

Some of the ways for bloggers to monetize is to offer:

  • Drip feed, where you get access to “private blog”, with new relevant content being consistently added
  • All-In membership, where you get access to the back catalog of private content
  • Online Course
  • Online Community – where you pay for ongoing relationships with the blogger but also other people that paid for the same access (being connected to a blogger’s message enough to pay is a good filter for other people willing to do so, hence you can connect with similar-minded folks easily while skipping the internet randos that never pay.)
  • Product – (software download, excel spreadsheet for job hunting, or a physical product like a planner)
  • A Service – say coaching, private lessons, etc..
  • Hybrid – any mix of the above

The Source of this list is Membership Guys.

None of these business models are compatible with readers being able to “peek” pieces of content of their own choosing. Bloggers/site owners are making a clear distinction of what pieces of content are free and which ones are “premium” worth paying for. Sure, they tease what’s inside the „premium”, but they are explicitly choosing which parts can be accessible.

Additionally, the “free” section has to be pretty accessible as well. Before a customer trusts a blogger “out of nowhere”, she has to form a relationship based on time and trust. There is no brand like NYT to help with this decision. It will often take way more than 3 or even 30 free articles to convince a customer to pay.

If you are starting up, you are better off starting with:

  • Building up your catalog of the entirely free content that will help others discover your site
  • Once you have some free content, you should introduce „member only” section with something extra
  • Don’t concern yourself with the fancy mechanics of content blocking. You can start by sending your paid content manually via email. Don’t spend time on site features! If you are on WordPress.com, you can use the Premium Content feature we just released.

Your product is either a commodity or hospitality.

Have you ever been to a truly great hotel? You walk in and find yourself thinking:

  • “Oh, this makes sense” when you see an extra pillow
  • “Ok, that’s nice” when you discover a lovely porcelain tea set, with all you need prepared for you,
  • “That’s beautiful” when you open the window.

Everything is just where you want it, whenever you want it, just how you want it before you even realize what it is that you want.

You feel like all your concerns are melting away, and you don’t have to deal with minutiae anymore.

These are the same thoughts I would use to describe my Apple experience. Of course, we can talk about the declining quality of the keyboards, but when interacting with Apple products or great hotels, I don’t mentally tick off the list of benefits. I enjoy the feeling ‘everything being in its rightful place.’

MacBooks and iPhones are expensive – they don’t stack up feature-to-feature or number-to-number to other offerings on the market. My more technically-inclined friends keep reminding me that a different machine has more burro-bytes or zetacycles than a $2000 Macbook.

What I usually tell them is hard to justify, so I started viewing it through a lens of how I would judge a hotel.

Welcome to the Hotel California

Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)

Such a lovely face.

– The Eagles

That hospitality is Apple’s entire business strategy. Playing in the commodity sandbox requires you to play the cutthroat game of racing to the bottom of the lowest margin.

According to Forbes, Apple’s profit share is over four times larger than Samsung, its nearest competitor. 

Despite this success, people rightly point out, that by most of the measurable parameters, devices from Cupertino are falling behind – they have slower processors, smaller pixel density and are more expensive.

And yet, this is not the game Apple plays.

The full vertical integration is the strategy that also works in luxurious resorts. They have thought deeply about every single need of their users and designed an experience to cater to them. There is rarely a need to venture outside.

‘We are programmed to receive.

You can check out any time you like,

But you can never leave!’

– The Eagles

I won’t belabor the Apple point any further, I promise.

Think of the great products you really love. Maybe it is an app for tracking your fishing expeditions or a tool you use at work.

If you feel at home while using this product, then it’s real business is hospitality. A great host knows exactly what his guests want and provides it to them before they realize it themselves.

Focusing on the user’s secret needs, of course, is simple but not easy. Your business has its own budgets and trade-offs, and you will have to make it all work. Both types of businesses have to tackle logistics, value chain, porter’s forces, and labor laws.

But the first question they ask is different.

The hospitality business is about leading with Qualitative Questions, like:

  • “How can we make this experience better.”
  • “What do our guests secretly want?”

Commodity business asks Quantitative Questions first:

  • How can we make this cheaper?
  • How can we have more feature X?

Hospitality is opinionated. To best suit your specific needs, it has to know what is the group of people that it does not want to make happy. In a truly great hotel, the other guests matter. They make you proud to be a part of the group and – in truly exceptional ones – they help you learn a thing about yourself.

There are, of course, hotels that I would consider a commodity and not hospitality. The proliferation of price comparison engines makes it easy to shop around with numbers, commoditizing the whole industry.

When searching for a hotel during my travels, I’ll use Booking.com to find something affordable. But inevitably, after an hour or two, I’ll stumble upon a photo that will make me abandon my price limits.

I’ll know if this hotel is genuinely hospitable if it has a working iPhone charger by the bed instead of some useless desk phone.

The Hospitality vs. Commodity lens helps me better understand the product-market fit for consumer businesses. B2B and enterprise markets have their specifics – like bundles and vendor relationships that make it play by different rules.

But every consumer business can learn a lot from great hotels.

Feel free to attach this post to your expense report, but don’t blame me if it gets rejected.

Still, the stay will be lovely.