August 14, 2008

Transparency, Disclosure and Opening Up the Kimono

On Wednesday, I was pleased to announce my beginning a new, formal, relationship with the ReadBurner team as an advisor, where I'll be looking to help provide guidance and strategy and be more of a colleague with the already-successful team, who is looking to make the site a one-stop destination to find the most popular content online, today starting with RSS feeds, and maybe tomorrow, much, much more. Who knows?

In advance of this announcement, I reached out to a pair of folks who I perceive to be competitors of ReadBurner, and told them exactly what the plan was - that I was going to be helping ReadBurner out, and that I wasn't going to be paid, but instead, would essentially have a small potential equity stake, just like any employee, advisor or board member at a private company. ReadBurner's success, essentially, could be my success as well, should the stars be aligned.

Crossing the chasm from a completely neutral party to a biased party, or at least having the perception of bias, isn't something I'm used to. My enthusiasm for ReadBurner, as well as my enthusiasm for FriendFeed, AssetBar, Social Median, Feedly, Ballhype and other services over the last few years, has been seen here, and in each case, it has been done so without compensation, or expectation of compensation. Now that this has changed in one specific example, it of course raises questions. Will competitors of ReadBurner ever talk to me again? Will other companies try and guess where ReadBurner is headed, and trusting me less, go a different route? Maybe they will, and that's a risk that's assumed.

Only hours after my first post did I get a question like this from one developer, asking if ReadBurner should be considered competition to their work, and should they "be careful about sharing things we're working on"? Well, in all truthfulness, you should always be careful about sharing pre-release content with anyone, to start with, and second, you should always think about whether that person will have pre-conceived biases, or will be abusing your trust. And it makes sense to protect your proprietary data.

With that said, over the last few years, I have tried to be as transparent as possible, and it is important to me to be trusted. I have never written a single post on this site for pay, or in exchange for goods. I've also tried to be reachable by anyone, occasionally to my detriment. My cell phone number and personal e-mail address have been on this blog since early 2007, and even in the footer of every RSS feed. In one example where I was concerned there could be a perception of bias, I told you when I won an iPhone from Social Median and asked you to judge me to see if I unequally gave praise to the site as a result. And I expect to keep telling you if I can be found in any way to be uneven in how I view a site, person or anything else.

In 2008, especially, I've worked with developers and entrepreneurs, getting early access to sites sometimes weeks or months ahead of their roll-out, and have done so without leaking their information early, and often, worked to provide informal QA to help get their product ready for announcement, with Feedly being the best example. As I said this evening in a fun ReadBurner podcast, if I can help make the products and services we use online better, then I've done my job. I often want these products to succeed, even if I'm not their target demographic and am more than happy to keep things close to the vest, and often offer advice for free. It's what I'd been doing with ReadBurner off and on before they asked for more of my time and make it official.

But truth be told, in the online space, sites that look completely different today could look similar tomorrow. The LOUD3R family of Web sites offers many different topic-driven news aggregators, as did the Ballhype/Showhype/Beltway Blips family, each of which I covered. SocialMedian, similarly, can offer an aggregation of news on the same topics, and sites like MyBlogLog, and Technorati use topics to bring similar bloggers and posts together. In theory, so could FriendFeed, ReadBurner, Feedheads or RSSmeme. And each of the last few sites could be rejiggered to take on more horizontal plays like Google News or Techmeme.

Allen Stern of CenterNetworks, on the podcast, made it clear that if he were a competitor to ReadBurner, not only would he not want to share any information with me, but he recommended to us on the call that we should be especially careful, so no entrepreneur could claim we had stolen their ideas. Allen is a smart guy whose ideas I respect, and he's right. But you shouldn't expect that overnight I'm going to start saying ReadBurner every other word and talking smack about their competitors. And I've never received anything like a confidential roadmap from anybody - so that's not an issue.

To help with clarity, I am going to add details about the ReadBurner relationship to my "About" page, and I'm going to get even more transparent so that anybody who does have questions can get those answers. There is one more small company I've been helping in an advisory role since early this Spring, and soon, they will be public, so I can talk about it, and again, be transparent. But that's in a space I don't write about, so much of the above doesn't apply.

Since starting this site, I've very visibly eschewed advertising, and haven't been making any money for what I write or where I participate. Maybe working in a consultancy or advisory role to companies like ReadBurner is where I end up "monetizing the blog", even if that isn't my sole goal for being here. As previously mentioned, I enjoy the conversations and the camaraderie, and have been doing a lot of "advising" for free for a lot of different sites. That's why I wrote "10 Suggestions to Improve Google Reader" back in March of 2007, and offered "10 More Suggestions for LinkedIn" that same month, as well as 10 Suggestions for FriendFeed last December. That's why I asked What Is the Future Of MyBlogLog?. In none of those cases were my suggestions requested or compensated, and I hope to keep thinking out loud and offering advice for free.

My activity with ReadBurner, in actuality, will be very small, compared to everything else I'm doing. But if there's ever a chance where I could be seen as being biased, or needing to disclose that relationship, I will absolutely do so, and I both expect you to and want you to keep me honest - as I've tried to be so far. And if or when I screw up, call or e-mail. Transparency is the best policy.