Dave Cohn and I will be co-panelists for I screwed up (and you will, too) at this week’s Online News Association conference. Dave published a post on lessons he’s learned from failures and inspired this post as well.
This last week, I was invited to the Knight Community Information Challenge Boot Camp as one of the panelists and consultants to 20 new grantees in North America that are using media to enhance refugee information networks, entrepreneurship in rural communities, etc.
One focusing on addressing food deserts reminded me of a past “failure,” Nibs + Noms. The project was a dual media platform in the form of a quarterly zine (Nibs) and an ongoing community site (Noms). So much of this renaissance of food culture is focused on self-sufficiency (meal calculators 1 and 2) to empowerment (I CAN model a chocolate-covered strawberry after a football!), but I’ve not come across anything that connects people to one another. Magazines such as the Edible Communities (my original inspiration) tell the story behind food, but editors are the ones who determine when and whose stories are told.
N+N was meant to give Grand Rapidians the opportunity to connect with one another across class, nationalities and ethnicities by telling their own stories and connections to age-old recipes, fast-food favorites, etc. After all, we all eat.
Food: the most delicious embodiment of memories and storytelling. We all eat, and we all have stories, from whipping up family classics to the corner eatery serving up comfort in a bowl. Nibs + Noms is a platform and resource for Grand Rapidians to interpret ways of collecting, making and eating food, and a chance to explore food curiosities. Nibs is a collaborative, themed zine that will be published on a quarterly basis and Noms is a site for Grand Rapidians to share sustenance-related content that catches their whimsy.
On New Year’s 2010, I shared the idea with a partner-in-crime, and by summer, the N+N team had facilitated several community brainstorms. We had a few bake sales while a prominent Grand Rapidian business owner was looking into fundraising to put out our first issue. Eateries and businesses expressed interest in carrying the zine and a popular arts institution offered to double one of their quarterly socials as a launch party for N+N. There was plenty of community buy-in, but we never launched.
What happened? We had four main facilitators for the project—all volunteers—and life came into play. One person was laid off, another lost interest while the third finished school with all the existential trappings of a recent grad. It was too big of a project for one person to handle, and facilitation was a high engagement role that few others were interested in taking on.
Here are a few things I learned:
- Start lean – It’s easy to go all out, and with a two-pronged platform, N+N was plenty to chew on. As we began to develop, there were many features we wanted to incorporate, from “foodtography” to Foodspotting, a wiki and a particular way of structuring food reviews that we called “The Golden Standard.” Placeblogger’s Lisa Williams said it perfectly at the boot camp: “you don’t know what will succeed, so make the smallest bet possible.” Instead of making more work for ourselves by creating decked out features, we could launch small and develop iteratively, thereby having the site mature with our audience.
- Volunteer management – When building a community around your platform, net a wide base so you don’t rely on just a few volunteers to come through. You are, after all, competing against so many other priorities. Create milestones so the progression toward your goal is palpable; this becomes more important the longer the project stretches out.
- Don’t go big too soon – Know what your goals are and stick to it. If I’m honest, N+N didn’t originate from my passion for storytelling and food but first as a fun project to learn web development. By bringing too many people into it before I had created a basic platform, I ended up living my entire life outside of work doing what I already do for The Rapidian—community building and outreach—instead of learning new skills. Also, it didn’t give us a product to exhibit—not a fail, but it helps to be able to show interested parties something more concrete.
- The whole team should be involved with the community process – While there should be a point person for community building, all players, from designers to developers, should be in touch with the community (i.e.: community brainstorms) so they know who is relying on them and can anticipate what that community needs. Each team member has a distinct perspective, and they can’t know what they don’t know if their only connection to the community is via a summary report.
When things fell through, I felt like I had let the community down. But now that the blush of embarrassment has faded, I see it as an invaluable start-up experience. We don’t like to admit it, but there are things beyond our control, and a botched or unfinished job doesn’t keep the idea from living on. If someone chooses to pick it up, more power to them—I’ll give them what pieces I still hold.