MS Podcast#155 : Micah Baldwin, Graphic.ly

Comics go social

The MediaSnackers podcast focusses on individuals, organisations or companies who are simply impressing us and which are crying out for more discussion.

Micah Baldwin is CEO at Graphic.ly, a multi-device comic book store and reader with a social layer.

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0.00—0.15 intro
0.16—0.40 background on Graphic.ly
0.41—1.36 layer of social manifestation
1.37—2.27 social as differentiator
2.28—3.31 the numbers
3.32—5.26 unmoderated comments
5.27—7.42 giving the company to the community
7.43—9.40 becoming the iTunes / Etsy for comic books
9.41—11.05 the interface
11.06—12.53 future
12.54—13.05 outro

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TRANSCRIPTION

Micah: Hi, I’m Micah Baldwin. I am the CEO of Graphic.ly.

DK: Brilliant. It’s a pleasure to have you with us Micah. Tell us a little bit about Graphic.ly for those who’ve lived under a rock and don’t know anything about you guys in the background.

Micah: Sure, so Graphic.ly provides a social experience and market place around digital comics. Our belief is that comic books sort of have two sides. You have the, the art and the story telling and then you have the, the sharing and discussion. And we look to provide both of those under one roof.

DK: Right well, well lets ask straight away about that layer of social that you got there, that discussion that you called it. How does that manifest itself in your product?

Micah: There’s a couple of ways that we, that we kind of integrate it. One is that within the interface itself there’s an activity stream, so record all the various activities that people do around comic books. so you read a comic book, you buy a comic book, you comment in a comic book, which is probably our most innovative social feature which is where you can comment in any x y coordinate within a comic book. so you can comment on any panel, you know you can say I like that guys boots or it’s really interesting art that’s done here, or I can’t believe the story went in that direction. And there’s been some really interesting discussions that have sort of grown through this opportunity to comment within the book itself.

DK: And your take is that that is a huge element of comic book reading if you go back ten years, fifteen years or whatever. And you’re almost integrating that into your product and that’s what’s missing in other people’s, is that your differentiator?

Micah: Yeah, I mean social is definitely the biggest differentiator we have. I think there are other things that we do that are fun and exciting. But in general I would say that social is the most evident. You know going back to sort of integrating within the comic world, I mean the question I always ask people is when’s the last time you saw a movie and walked and told nobody what you thought about? You know like the reality is we all talk about the media that we consume and it makes the experience that much better if you’re entertained by something and you’re entertained by something with a group of people that are equally entertained, it just makes the experience that much better.

DK: Totally. The conversation is definitely ruling out there. So tell us a little bit about numbers, you know how many comics you got in there, how many people are signed up, artist or whatever. Give us a kind of a scale if you like.

Micah: Yeah, so this is off of the top of the head and they’re not exactly scientifically accurate, so they’re probably off by a factor of two or three percent. But we have about 1,200 books in the system. There are approximately 70 publishers and creators in the system. We’ve had close to, I guess about three quarters of a million app downloads now. You know we’re primarily on the desk tops, so we’re talking desk top downloads, not necessarily mobile downloads. What else? Everybody, you know is high rate of commenting. Probably about seven to ten percent of people will comment on a book after buying it. And yeah, been around about six months or so.

DK: Well that’s huge, just the numbers there. And we’ll forgive you the two to three percent.

Micah: Yeah.

DK: That’s cool. So give us a little bit, you talked about comments there. Now one thing I want kind of draw out of you, if you like is the idea that you don’t actually moderate your comments as a community. So how does that actually work if you don’t actually look at what’s been told, so that’s opening yourself up for some kind of negativity? I don’t know?

Micah: I mean I suppose so, right? Like in any situation, un-moderated forums tend to, I guess we need to look at forums specifically. Forums that are un-moderated have a tendency to spiral out of control. But most of the time when you look at those forums that are spiraled out of control, they’re within communities that don’t self police, right? They’re in communities that don’t care about the greater community. They care more about themselves, the individuals.

In the comic community it’s much different than that. In many ways the people that are actually enjoying comics, and by comic community I don’t mean hard core comic book collectors only. But I mean anyone that understands or enjoys sort of the art and story telling that are behind comics and graphic novels. They understand that by adding to the story in a negative way, right? By commenting and being really evil about other people that the experience is just lessened. And nobody really wants to do that, right? I mean you’re literally commenting on somebody’s creative juices. And I think that our community believes really strongly in that in that we want to enhance the experience, not take away from it. So in essence, I mean I think over the course of time I think we’ve deleted three to five comments maximum. And a lot of that is just because they were really, really inappropriate or they just were spamming, much less so than about the content itself.

DK: Wow, that’s incredible. And this ties into a bigger discussion about your ideas around the company as it exist, but also the community. Because I know you wrote a blog post about handing over the company to the community. And is the moderating or not moderating comments, is that an idiom, if you like, of your over all idea about the community driving the company forward or, tell us a little bit about the background behind that and your thoughts.

Micah: Sure, you know the, there is, we’re building a community based site, right? Like how silly it is that us to build a community without asking the people in the community to get involved? I mean it’s, there’s a reason why, you know old school barn races and other things where communities sort really helped each grow, thrive and survive even if the rest of the world is, says that they shouldn’t, you know? So I think for us what’s really important is that because you know again when you look at it as two halves, I mean there’s two halves to a comic book. You know there’s the book itself and then there’s all the people that are around it. And I think often companies forget that people are involved and they have a tendency to just want to sell product or they just want to, you know push this or push that. And for us it was really important in the very, very beginning to say we are a people driven product, we are a community driven product. And the only way for us to do that successfully is to ask the community to be a part of it from the very beginning.

And it’s been awesome. We hired somebody from our community, you know we asked for, excuse me, we asked for QA, you know some feed back on the product and we had somebody write us literally fifteen pages of QA. So we brought her on full time. We have a guy out in L.A. that’s working for us that was introduced to us through our community. We have creators that have come to us through the community. We have features that we have added and subtracted because of the community. So for us, I mean we’d be nowhere without the community. and so for us it was very important to say that very, very early to ensure that everybody knew exactly where we stood, which is we work for our community, not the other way around.

DK: Really interesting. And that kind of leads me on to my next question which is about the, well basically the platform as it exists. I know you got, you know publishing contracts with people like Marvel, obviously the big comic manufactures, but do you go as low as, you know if I wanted to create a comic and come to you and say I’d love to put, you to guys to host this and sell it for us. Are you becoming, hopefully in the future like the iTunes for comics?

Micah: Yeah, you know iTunes is an interesting comparison because I think iTunes again leans really heavily on the commerce side. And we will always have the ability for people to be able to sell their comics or for publishers to sell their comics and for there to be revenue generation. I actually like comparisons that are closer to something to a Etsy, if you know that site. With Etsy you’re talking a lot more around the community driving commerce and I think that for us that’s kind of where we want to be, much less sort of iTunes-esc and much more sort Etsy-esq if you will.

But at the end of the day, I mean we’re going to be us. I think that the question about whether we would allow anybody to upload, the short answer is yes. There is a longer answer there when you talk about any type of art based community or creative community which is how do you separate people that are — I decide to draw a comic book on the weekend, right? And I want to put it up on some site and see if I can sell it. Again somebody who’s been working in comics for 25 years, has you know published thousands of books and has you know a lot of creative juice behind them, how do you put those two people together in a way that doesn’t take away from the professional but adds value to the amateur? And that’s something that we’re struggling with and trying to figure out the best way to put that forward. But again, you know it’s the type of thing that I think our community will come up with a solid answer.

DK: And I can’t leave you without a question about the interface because I’ve played with a desktop download, I’ve also got an iPad and played around with it on that and it’s just beautiful, you know —

Micah: Thank you.

DK:— so just tell us, I don’t know was that integral to the product to make the user experience that slick? Because it is that slick from my perspective.

Micah: Yeah, thank you. I think our interface has been both a bane and a boom, right? I think in some ways when you work in a medium that is all about art you need to have something that looks really nice, right? I mean it just has to. You’re talking about people that see art differently than people that aren’t into. So we have to have a better interface. At the same time it becomes really difficult to put together the perfect interface for everybody.

And so I think sometimes we get caught up a little bit in how things look rather than how things function. And so one of the things that we’re actually doing right now is that we’re going through a process of removing features and removing elements from that UI. so we’re actually bringing down to sort of a base level and then interacting with the community to determine what types of things we should remove, what kinds of things we should add, direction where we should go so that we can have sort of a unifying front to all of our interfaces.

DK: Makes sense. So one last question before I leave you sir. What are the future plans for Graphic.ly? What’s it going to look like in the next couple of years for you guys?

Micah: I wish I knew. I think, you know I think future questions or start ups are a tough one, right because one is what’s the big vision that CEO has and the founders have versus how do you, what is the, you know what is the market really drive? I was reading — Reed Hoffman spoke at a startup school this past weekend and he talked about a feature that he wanted to have on LinkedIn which was a friend finder basically. And early on they said, you know he said well can we launch without this friend finder feature? And the engineer said we could but you know we think it’s really, really important. And they launched without it and now seven years later they still don’t have a friend feature finder, right, a friend finder feature.

So I think for us it’s really going to come down to the community is going to drive where we got to go. I think long term I would say that you would see comics become more mainstream in terms of the usage, like you’ll see less sort of collectors. I also think that we’ll change less than the industry will change. I think the concept of what a comic book is has to change, you know in order to really do well in digital. So I think you’ll see different, whatever your belief is of a comic book, it’ll be completely different three years from now. I think more than anything, that’s what will happen. You know with us we’re trying to add as much value around the comic book as possible through things like DVD back features and interactivity. And I think those things will drive kind of where creators can go with their books.

DK: Brilliant response. Well thank you very much for time, giving up —

Micah: Thank you.

DK:— sorry, to speak to MediaSnackers Micah. I really appreciate it.

Micah: You’re welcome.