Flipboard’s Mike McCue: from paper to pixels, the mom test, and the magic innovation checklist

mike-mccueThe man who represents the anti-thesis of paywalls, Flipboard’s Mike McCue, came to talk to my newspaper recently and tickled some stirrings of thought among some cynical hacks.

McCue, a genial 44-year-old technologist and serial entrepreneur, made a packet selling companies he’d built to Netscape and then Microsoft, making genuine strides in connecting internet and good old fashioned telephones. In January 2010, he co-founded – with Evan Doll, one of the early engineers on the iPhone team at Apple, with $10.5m of VC funding – Flipboard, the internet’s ‘first social magazine’ which blended news websites with social networks such as Twitter and Facebook into an addictively page-turning newsreader on the iPad. In 2010 it was named Apple’s app of the year, and has blazed its way to 20 million users. It is currently adding, as McCue proudly boasted, one user a minute.

Fantastic, you might say, for Mike McCue, but do we really want to institutionalise the cannibalising/enhanced enjoyment of free web content from our newspapers? Why would anyone pay for any online content if they have the beauteous experience of Flipboard?

The answer goes to the heart of whether you see the economy of ‘free’ as the answer or a threat to newspapers in the digital space. Clearly, big brand papers like the New York Times and the Times of London are sceptical. They are gambling that they can cultivate lush gardens within their paywalls that people will clamour to enter. And there is compelling evidence that people will pay to be part of an exclusive club, not least the sharp rise in online shopping clubs etc.

In contrast, the papers that have hopped on board with Flipboard are betting that the healthy traffic it generates – a significant number in our paper – will drive greater numbers of readers to consume their news etc content, and keep the ad revenue rolling in.

So McCue had his audience in the palm of his hand as he launched into the talk by stating his deep admiration for “great journalism” and how he was “trying empower great journalism to happen in the digital world and to help the transition from paper to pixels to be more profitable as opposed to less.”

He proposed a simple criterion by which he likes to judge a product: does it pass the mom test?

“I’m trying to build a product that my mom would love,” he says. McCue says you have to pass three questions: she has to understand what it is, want to use it, and be able to use it. “When she ask what I’m doing, she has to be able to understand. If I tell her ‘well mom, I’m building the leading provider of enterprise resource planning solutions hosted in the Cloud,’ she’ll say ‘that’s nice dear, so how about that football game last weekend?’

So I would say: ‘Well mom I’m building a magazine that runs on your iPad, and it’s put together just for you and it’s made up from all the best content in the world that YOU care about.’ So she says, ‘that’s cool, how can I use it?’ So I would tell her ‘you download it for free and it’s on your iPad.'”

“And then she has to be able to use it. and there are very few products, if you think about them, that answer all of those three questions with flying colours.” McCue says he is proud that Flipboard has done that for 20 million users.

He went on to share four key ‘innovation’ elements on his team’s checklist which are required in every  product they build:

1) It has to change something. It has to be a big idea that will be part of changing a huge industry. For Flipboard, it’s applying the world of social media and iPad to the world of print and journalism. “When you think about one world for the perspective of another, you come up with new ideas.” (such as internet meets dial tones in his business TellMe)

2) Wow factor, that leads to a collective ‘aaah!’, examples being early iPod clickwheel, or iPhone scrolling with momentum (ghost  of Steve Jobs never far away). Never gratuitous, always functionally part of the experience.

3) The details: all the little things that matter, that people don’t always notice or can’t put their finger on, but that make it awesome! Days and days of work to perfect a button (for example that button on the top left corner of Flipboard)

4) Engagement: at least half of the items that users have requested on forums (fora?) such as Twitter or a service such as GetSatisfaction have to be delivered on in the next major release (typically every six months for Flipboard).

These four come together, says McCue, to make a product that people truly love. A product that “respects who they are, respects their time, respects their investment in choosing that product”.

He believes that kind of responsiveness to the reader, to the customer, can help in situations where a competitor releases a product with whizzy new features, because a loyal customer won’t switch. They’re more likely to be patient for the next iteration of their chosen newsreader, knowing it will probably have that feature, but be done even better. He offers Apple again as a model.

Winding up, McCue says that people will pay for great content, but it’s too hard to pay in the online space. Too complicated, too many layers. When the ease of payment improves, more people will be ready to do it.

He also believes that ad banners and impressions-based advertising is on its way out. He claims that ads on Flipboard, which are generally full page glossy like you see in magazines, are 10-15 times better monetised than the equivalent on the web.

Compelling, positive stuff from a tech entrepreneur who’s rooting for the newspaper business. It’s enough make you optimistic for the future of papers…!

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