Afterthoughts from Re-wiring Distribution Networks

Last week, I had the privilege of joining my friend Karin Chien in a conversation on "Re-Wiring Distribution Networks" hosted by The International Documentary Association as part of their Getting Real Now summer series.

A video should be posted on YouTube shortly for all to see. Update: here it is!

Upon reflection, there were a few points I'd like to emphasize, if not re-state altogether:

  1. Everything is changing. The installation of large-scale, ubiquitous, real-time information networks is the single most impactful development in our lifetimes. It's not just affecting distribution networks or business models, it's affecting society and culture. As such, it's worth thinking about the ways in which we, as individuals, need to change in order to adjust to this.
  2. Attention is now the scarce resource. Advances in technology have lowered barriers to participation—which is great for everyone—but it also means that competition for our attention has never been greater. What used to work in a world of surplus might not be viable anymore.  This is a good post to read for more background.
  3. What are the networks that you need? You're going to need access to different networks of people for different things (i.e. your collaborators aren't necessarily your financiers or your friends or family). If you lack sufficient access to relevant networks, consider whether the immediate work you produce be something intentionally designed to help you gather the people you will need for your journey vs. focusing solely on your creative vision.
  4. Signaling helps your network find you. If the network you need doesn't exist, you'll need to consider forming it yourself, through a committed, regular practice of signaling. What is something you can regularly and sustainably share that is of interest to those who are best positioned to support you?  This could be as simple as starting a blog or newsletter, or it could be as elaborate as a speaker series or a club. As this is really hard work—particularly for creators who are under-networked—it's a prime opportunity for foundations, intermediaries and other support organizations to operationalize and/or specifically fund.
  5. Collective action can take on many different (new) forms in a networked world. We're still in the early stages of understanding how to wield the power afforded by networked systems and there's tremendous opportunity for creativity here.  In addition to Tracy Chou's work mentioned on the call, which resulted in greater transparency in the tech industry, there are other interesting collective efforts like the Letters for Black Lives project, which brought together hundreds of strangers to coordinate mass translation efforts; as well as efforts to include diversity riders in term sheets.

Q&A Redux

Finally, there was a question posed towards the end of the Q&A session that I'd like to revisit, as my initial response zeroed in too narrowly on the topic of online advertising, which wasn't really the point, and it's a rather pertinent question:

When we think of distribution, we usually think of mass, untargeted distribution always hoping to expand our audiences. Can the panelists talk about distributing to more specific, pre-inclined audiences but using the worldwide network afforded to us by the interwebs, perhaps akin to how big tech companies use granular algorithms to target ads?

Here's what I would have liked to have said:

I'd reframe this question slightly—instead of thinking about how the big tech companies have leveraged this infrastructure, I'd look at how tech entrepreneurs have adapted to the changes in the environment as a result of the installation of these networks (which are the same problems we talked about in the conversation).

What's changed for tech entrepreneurs is that there's now an abundance of:

  • free information and educational resources contributing to an increasingly global trained labor force
  • free open source tools and frameworks which make it easier and faster to build applications
  • easy access to cloud hosting providers which make it possible to deliver and scale your application globally and instantly
  • global capital willing to fuel new ideas, good or bad.

All of this has resulted in an unprecedented amount of competition (and innovation) chasing a limited amount of attention. Thus, the hard thing about building a software business is no longer the software, it's the distribution—how you get in front of people who are likely to want your product, and how you get them to pay while fending off all of the competition.

We've seen two different strategies emerge, which depend upon how well-funded a company is.

If you're immensely well-funded and you have a product or service with good unit economics (meaning that you make money on every sale, unlike Moviepass), you can afford to raise a lot of capital and spend it on online advertising to acquire customers, and then re-invest your profits into even more online advertising and continue to grow until you can't.

But, the majority of businesses aren't immensely well-funded and so they can't run this playbook and spend their way to success.  So, they've had to adopt a slower and more modest 3-part strategy in order to grow:

  1. Find or gather a community of people who you hope to serve, and gain their trust / get them to care about you.
  2. Set aside your grand vision, and instead build something small and focused (commensurate to your cost structure), which is compelling for this community.
  3. Collect and share stories of success from your community and repeat step 2, incrementally expanding the size/scale/footprint of your vision each time you do so.

The core difference between these two strategies is the order of operations. Rather than trying to find more people (i.e. customers) for your stuff, it's about building stuff for your people.  In essence, the marketing comes before rather than after.

What this means for filmmakers is two-fold:

First, instead of targeting audiences after you've made your film, focus on gathering allies before and while you make your film. Having more allies doesn't guarantee you success, but it increases the likelihood of unlocking new resources and paths as you move forward.

This doesn't mean you need to become yet another ostentatious internet influencer or turn your project into a reality TV show, nor does it mean you need to take on a second job as a promoter or marketer.  

There's always a story behind the film's story: who you are and why you're choosing to spend your precious time working on this project. Often, this story unfolds over the course of the project itself.  And so, there's a lot of value to be had simply by adopting a practice of working in public—publicly sharing the exhaust of your process: your artifacts, your lessons, your story—and enabling people to learn along side you.

There are a lot of practical reasons that drive secrecy in filmmaking, but I'd argue that these only benefit the existing gatekeepers. And certainly, if you're asking about how to fully leverage the value created by this internet infrastructure we're all stuck with, the system is designed to favor openness. (Pre-internet, startups commonly embraced secrecy by working in "stealth mode", and this cultural norm has flipped as well.)

Second, create a space that is intentionally designed to welcome these allies into your circle and where you can sustainably keep them engaged over the long term.  The simplest space is an email newsletter, but this could be something more elaborate like a club.  Consistency is better than frequency, and ideally, there's an opportunity for your allies to see each other and not just you.  

(If we stick with our example of a newsletter this could mean that you're not only sharing your thoughts and stories, but that you're also inviting them to contribute questions and comments, perhaps monthly or quarterly.)

There's a tremendous opportunity here to get creative, and while it may initially seem like an onerous chore by itself, in the context of your broader career aspirations, this will increase the surface area of your optionality so long as you continue to tend to your garden.

And so, rather than leverage this new internet infrastructure simply to target the masses in the hopes of consummating a transaction, I'd take advantage of its ability to connect people, globally, in meaningful ways at virtually zero cost to form new networks—or gardens—around you and your practice.

But it won't be an easy shift because done right, it will require a different way of working.

The upside, however, is the ability to change the equation in this discussion around re-imagining distribution networks (and models) from a conversation about what a collective of individual filmmakers can do to a conversation around what a cooperative of gardens can support and grow.