Eight Questions for Cameron Koczon

Jul 25, 2011DesignDevelopment

I first met Cameron when I paid a brief visit to Studiomates in Brooklyn back in 2010. His passion and enthusiasm for the internet, design and entrepreneurship is truly infectious and inspiring, which is embodied by his conference Brooklyn Beta. — Daniel Howells

Can you introduce yourself, and introduce the wider Fictive Kin team - what do you guys do?

My name is Cameron. I go by Fictive Cameron on the internet. I work with 6 other obnoxiously talented, handsome, charitable, witty folks building predominantly web products. Their names are Sean, Evan, Bedrich, Frank, Ed, and Tyler. Our current focus is an app called Gimme Bar which makes it dead simple to save anything on the web. We hope it will change the way people interact with and share content.

I attended your new conference Brooklyn Beta last year, and it was a fantastic event. What was the idea behind the conference, why did you feel it needed to happen, and what are your plans for this year’s event?

Nice of you to say. Folks definitely enjoyed the conference last year although neither Chris, my co-organizer, nor I really got to see much of it. We had our whole teams (Fictive Kin and Analog) running around like crazy to keep things from falling apart. It was our first conference so we had plenty to learn.

The idea behind the event was to create a web conference that embodied the friendly spirit of the web community. We wanted a single important narrative aimed at a target audience. The narrative was roughly “build something you love” and the audience was experienced web practitioners. It was mostly friends of ours the first year because we were pretty unproven and its tough to get folks to travel for a brand new conference run by two guys who have never done it before. A lot of our friends took a risk on us and it was nice to know that they had a good time and felt the risk was worth it.

Elliot Jay Stocks at Brooklyn Beta; image by Jon Tan.

Elliot Jay Stocks at Brooklyn Beta; image by Jon Tan.

This year our current plan is to not have heart attacks. Chris just had a baby and work on both of our products is pretty intense right now. Take that and combine it with selling out way too fast and a whole lot of hype and you got yourself a recipe for some stress. That said, we have some really great speakers lined up and weʼre trying to do as much of the same as we did last year to keep it consistent. Weʼre also getting help from Jessi Arrington in addition to, as always, our teams.

One of the things that distinguishes us from other conferences, I think, is a focus on attendee interaction. We think thatʼs where the magic really happens, in the white space of the conference. The talks are meant to be appetizers for broader discussion throughout the event. Weʼre also expanding our narrative a bit. In addition to inspiring folks to build something they love, weʼre having professionals from other industries (education for example) come in and talk about the problems in those industries and how they think the web might be able to help. The idea is to give some direction to that inspiration so hopefully it will turn into action.

As well as BB, you’re going to speaking at Simon Collison’s New Adventures in Web Design 2012: how did you guys meet and can you tell us what you have in mind for your talk?

I think I met Simon because he knew Jon Tan pretty well and Jon works with Chris so when Simon came into town he swung by Studiomates to hang out for a beer friday. I had already known of his work and was a big fan. It was around the time that Chris and I had been talking about BB (although it didnʼt have that name yet) and Simon was also considering doing a conference. I think we all got each other psyched up and out came Brooklyn Beta and New Adventures.

He ended up doing a workshop at BB which was excellent and legitimately saved Chris and I from losing a lot more money than we did. Then Chris and I made it a point to go to Nottingham (by way of a visit to The Mild Bunch in Bristol) and attend Colly Con. Enjoyed the hell out of that. Picked up a trick or two for BB 2011 as well. Hadnʼt thought about all this in a while. Kind of cool to see how the threads weave together.

I want to see more designers building great products for the world at large instead of doing client work or creating things for the insular design community.

As for my talk, Iʼm kind of a one trick pony when it comes to my message. I want to see more designers building great products for the world at large instead of doing client work or creating things for the insular design community. Iʼve been outlining a talk to sort of forcefully make that point. I donʼt plan on speaking at a lot of conferences so I hope to make this one a really good one.

The seven of you in Fictive Kin work in different States. How do you handle collaboration and managing your work across State borders? What are the challenges you face as a team and how do you overcome them?

We have 7 full-time folks living all over the place:

  • Sean - Montreal
  • Evan - San Francisco
  • Bedrich - Baltimore
  • Frank - Washington, DC
  • Ed - Indiana
  • Tyler - San Francisco

We also have a Gimme Bar intern in Denmark, two new interns starting next week here in NYC, and 3 designers doing some top secret work in our design R&D program (UK & NYC).

We basically rely on three tools to get our job done.

  1. Skype: We use this for our morning calls and any sort of interaction that requires extra nuance or clarity that text canʼt afford.
  2. IRC: Most of us use Adium as our IRC client. IRC is basically our office. Itʼs where we hang out, tell jokes, and feel most like a team. Somehow the magic of IRC makes it feel a bit like youʼre in a similar space despite the geographic distance.
  3. Pivotal Tracker: We use Pivotal for project management. Anyone who uses PM software knows how bad it all is. Pivotal gets the job done, but I really donʼt like their pricing and their visual design hurts my soul. I day dream constantly about simplifying it, redesigning it, and releasing a basic FK pm tool.

A couple random notes on this kind of co-location.

  1. Time Zones are killer. It makes a big difference that five of us are in the same time zone and on the occasions that Tyler and Evan are on east coast time, the increase in energy can be felt by everyone.
  2. Meet in person as often as possible. Whenever we get together as a big group it pays out enormous dividends even if we donʼt get a ton of work done. It just feels great to be reminded of how well you get along with your team and just how smart they really are. You can only get that from in person chatter.

You mentioned one of your new products, Gimme Bar. What’s the story behind the app?

We wanted to reinvent usersʼ relationship with content. Iʼve got a pretty long form essay on A List Apart called Orbital Content that touches on our views, but hereʼs the key points:

  1. Saving beats the shit out of bookmarking. Bookmarking is like creating a little map for yourself to get back to the spot where you located some piece of interesting content. Saving is taking the piece of content that you are interested in and creating a copy of that content for yourself to keep forever. Different and better. With bookmarking you rely on content not to change or be moved. You can also suffer from the mediocre url structures that plague the web. For example, if you bookmark something on http://pleaseadoreme.tumblr.com/page/2, because of the nature of a tumblog, that content will likely be different when you go back. You also canʼt get more granular than a full page. You canʼt target specific quotes, images or videos with a bookmark. 
  2. Users should own their data, not applications. This is a core part of our philosophy. Right away with Gimme Bar you can back up anything you save to Dropbox. And when iCloud comes out, weʼll do the same for that. Gimme Bar doesnʼt own your saved content, you do. If we start slacking, you can pick up and move to another service. A lot of apps out there are going to use things like bookmarklets to help you build collections of interesting content from around the web (Instapaper for articles. Svpply for products.). We think that you, and not those services, should own that content. Otherwise you get into a sort of Last.fm scenario where one service has a ton of valuable info about you, but they donʼt open it up with any kind of API so itʼs basically worthless. Imagine what Rdio, Spotify, Turntable, or Pandora could do with that info.

Anyhow, we still have a lot of work to do on the app, but itʼs coming along nicely and we really hope people like it. Weʼre going to start rolling out lots of invites next week so be sure to sign up if youʼre interested.

Gimmebar

Gimmebar

You clearly love Brooklyn, and have chosen to peruse your technology career there rather than your home state of California. Why?

Iʼve never felt more at home in any other city. Iʼve never felt more at home in any other workspace than Studiomates. When I moved here, I attended a design event at which Massimo Vignelli was speaking. He was asked why he left Italy. His response was that “In Italy, the ceiling is to low. In New York, the ceiling is…there is no ceiling.” That describes part of what I feel when Iʼm here. There is no upper limit to what you can achieve.

“In Italy, the ceiling is to low. In New York, the ceiling is…there is no ceiling.” — Massimo Vignelli

That said, I love San Diego. Los Angeles is full of beautiful people. And SF has a nostalgic soft spot in my heart. Also, California Summer destroys NYC Summer. Hands down. Southern California is basically the physical embodiment of a perfect Summer.

When did you first hear about Tina, and what made you want to work there? And further, what is it about Studiomates that make it work so well as a work space?

I actually canʼt remember how I first heard about Tina. Sheʼs kind of omnipresent on the web so it could have happened any number of ways. It was at a time when I was aggressively studying design and development and looking for an excuse to leave SF and head to NYC. The opening at what was then called Studio 612a was all I needed to make the move. It just seemed like a great opportunity to relocate and start with a basic social circle. I can imagine that the move to NYC could be a bit alienating if you show up not knowing anyone. That wasnʼt really a problem for me because Tina was so welcoming.

The colourful Studiomates.

The colourful Studiomates.

Studiomates works well because of the people. Itʼs a pretty organic beast these days with 30-35 folks in and out. Thereʼs a sort of self-selection that happens after a while that has resulted in a culture. If you are a hard worker, if youʼre talented, considerate, giving, and generally nice, you will fit in great. It also doesnʼt hurt if youʼre willing to have a couple of beers and play rock band or march around DUMBO in a rainbow birthday parade. Studiomates is at times way more friendly than it is professional which comes with itʼs own set of problems, but those are problems that at least I am super comfortable with.

Working hard at Studiomates.

Working hard at Studiomates.

Jessi Arrington leads the Studiomates Rainbow Parade.

Jessi Arrington leads the Studiomates Rainbow Parade.

The incredible view from 10 Jay.

The incredible view from 10 Jay.

Finally your to-do app - Teux Deux, a collaboration with Swiss Miss - seems to be going from strength to strength. Why do you think it has been so successful?

I canʼt say for sure because we didnʼt plan for it to be so successful. The number one comment we get is how simple it is. People love that. Itʼs not intimidating, itʼs easy to understand quickly, and itʼs beautifully designed thanks to Tina.

I also think that there is something fundamentally right about organizing your tasks by the day you will do them on instead of by projects. I essentially use mine as a combined calendar/task manager. Everything I need to do and everywhere I need to go is in there and assigned to a different day. Gets things out of my head and into a place where they can theoretically get done. If you havenʼt tried that style before, I recommend giving it a go. Itʼs really effective and our app is free.

A final point is that I think Tinaʼs brand of niceness gets infused into everything she does. Itʼs not an act. She is just actually one of the nicest people around. People who read her blog root for her and I think that carries over to Teux Deux.

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