His message comes just over a week after he officially started working at Battery Street, and it’s something of a personal piece, explaining why he decided to take-up the challenge of helming the Lab (and doubtless much to the delight of LL board member and close personal friend, Jed Smith, who has apparently been trying to get Ebbe to work with him for quite a while…). The post drew immediate comments in the forums … to which Ebbe also replied.
At the same time the blog post came out, Ebbe sat down with a small group of us in an informal meet and greet arranged by the Lab’s Director of Communications, Peter Grey, to talk about his appointment, Second Life, Linden Lab and its products, and other things joining Ebbe and Peter in a friendly session which lasted about an hour at the Lab’s PR island were myself, Saffia Widdershins, Jo Yardley, Mal Burns, Draxtor Despres and Daniel Voyager.
Some of the highlights of the chat were:
- Ebbe has had a long-term awareness of both Linden Lab and Second Life. He is close friends with board member Jed Smith and also friends with Philip Rosedale. his knowledge is not in-depth, but it is certainly not an unknown to him
- He is deeply passionate about user-generated content and about empowering people’s creativity
- His son, Aleks, actually joined SL while still too young and got kicked from the platform – twice! – prior to becoming one of the founding members of the old SL Teen Grid
- He is aware that the new user experience needs to be addressed, as does user retention levels and is already starting a preliminary look into the history of these issues
- He’s already providing guidance on simplifying the Lab’s portfolio of products, and news is due on that later in the week
- He’s conscious of the fact that the Lab no longer carries the message about Second Life where the media and the world at large are concerned
- He is enthusiastic about Oculus Rift, Leap Motion an emerging VR and AR technologies and the potential for Linden Lab to help shape how they are used and gain acceptance.
While I had sound issues, I recorded proceedings, and have permission to reproduce Ebbe’s comments in this article. For those who want to know more, please do also listen to this Friday’s (February 21st) The Drax Files Radio Hour, where there will be more analysis of the conversation. Please note that what follows is not presented in the order in which things were discussed. Instead, I’ve ordered things to try to give something of a progressive flow to the comments made in response to questions and observations.
A Little Introduction
“Hi, everybody! I’m Ebbe and I’m extremely excited to be here. I’ve already interacted with a few of you a little bit, or at least read or heard or watched your amazing videos or cities or whatever, and I’ve only been here for a week, and I’ve spent pretty much of the whole first week doing almost nothing but just talking and meeting with employees. and so that’s been pretty much wall-to-wall, so I’ve explicitly avoided diving into Second Life … but I’ve managed to get just the basics going; signed my paperwork and managed to log-in find parking and all these little things, just to get comfortable and getting my office up-and-running, my computers up-and-running.
“So it’s been just fundamentals, no extreme things. I’m obviously starting to have some meaningful conversations with team players and customers alike about top issues, top concerns, top opportunities; things to do more, things to do less and stuff like that. Just a few decisions have been made so far; most of it has been just conversations with team members and colleagues. So with that … I’m really excited to get to talk with you in person right here.”
On Deciding to Join the Lab
“I’ve known Linden since [its] early beginnings. Jed Smith, who is on the board, is a good friend of mine … I was an early beta user and as Drax said, my son was very involved early on, and I thought it was a fantastic experience for him, the ability to create, collaborate and also to earn. At a young age, he became sort-of a producer working with engineers and designers and clients and partners in creating solutions for people.
“So I’ve always known about it, then I’ve really been too busy in my work life to really participate on an ongoing basis. but when Jed came to me and said he wanted me to do this – and he’s been trying to get me for a number of companies, but this was the first time he succeeded – it was not a difficult decision for me at all with regards to what Second Life is or what Linden Lab is or what we can do because those things are just instantly fascinating to me. I love products that empower people to do things that otherwise would not be possible. I prefer these kinds of products. Call them products that are enabled user-generated opportunities or platforms that can really scale and empower people to succeed as opposed to doing products that are just selling widgets to people.
“So I was instantly passionate about the subject matter, or the materials as they call …a product that enables this tremendous creativity but using technology to do it on a massive scale, and the communication and collaboration elements are also very near and dear to me. So the materials to work with, if you’re someone like me in software product development and digital product development, are just fantastic.
“The only thing that took a little while to overcome was Jed and I are close friends and we had to look each other in the eye for a few days and make sure we could this together, him being on the board and me being CEO, and not have that be damaging to our personal relationship. But after having talked to our wives and families, we completely agreed that we could do it and do it very successfully.
“So that’s kind-of a little bit about why I took this on … I’ve worked on similar things for quite some time at Ingenio, the start-up I joined having left Microsoft, where we basically worked on apps, or I worked on apps – although very successful apps, I think all of us have used those at some point – at Ingenio it was really a marketplace for people to sell what they know. We thought of it as the E-bay of what’s in the top of your mind as opposed to the top of your attic. And we empowered a lot of people to run some very successful businesses on top of the platform we created by just taking ‘phone calls and helping people. and the three days later we would direct deposit their earnings they’d made from helping their customers.
“And at Yahoo!, even, there were a lot of UGC [user-generated content] products I worked on; I was responsible for Yahoo! answers for a while and also at the end responsible for a platform … we bought a company that created the Yahoo! Contributor Network, where we could have hundreds of thousands of people contributing content which could make it into one or many of the Yahoo! verticals to broaden the amount of content we could create, and again empower people to do what they love and to make money doing it.
“So this is a context that’s very familiar to me and near and dear to things that I’m passionate about.”
On Plans for Second Life and What Excites Short-term and Long-term
“It’s hard to say if I have specific place just yet. So my “plan” so far as I have come, is that I have a huge belief that Second Life is just the beginning of something that can me much. much, much bigger. If I didn’t believe that, then I wouldn’t be here. I had options for doing so many cool things., and this is absolutely the coolest thing I could imagine doing. And I’ve only worked on things that had an opportunity to have massive reach. I’ve had the luxury of working on products that have reach north of a billion people … And I believe we can make the on-line world a much, much more interactive, engaging, social experience than the Internet has offered so far. I have a huge belief in that.
“So making it appealing to a much, much broader audience is obviously the long-term goal. How can we get tens of millions, and hopefully hundreds of millions, of people to participate in the things that we enable them to do.
“Most excited about in the short-term / long-term? Well that’s obviously what I’m most excited about in the long-term, is to get to massive scale of users that enjoy what we do … And the things I have to focus upon in the beginning is understanding my team, understanding their talents, understanding how we work, are we productive are we focused. Do we have a clear path that everybody’s aligned with? … Just looking at our organisation and how we interact with those around us; our users, our partners. do we have the best ways of getting the best ideas and then having tremendous execution to implement those ideas … Is that what we are? Are we a world-class organisation when it come to understanding what to do, and then understanding how to do it, and then be able to repeat that with a very high velocity? That’s what I’m going to be focusing my immediate, short-term future on.
“It seems to me that when I look at … some of the assumptions I had about where we were, I’m a little disappointed about some of the things that aren’t where they should be when it comes to quality or how we do things. So I will be hoping to raise the bar in our productivity, in our focus and dedication. some of that may be related to having a clear vision and a clear mission for people to understand, so that we are all heading in the same direction for the same purpose. and other things are just tactical things, operational things I can help-out with my experience and making sure the team know how to do things at scale, but at the same time still be very agile and able to move very quickly. Those are the things I’ve helped organisations with in the past, and i will help the team here with some of those things in the short-term.
“We won’t do everything right; we won’t necessarily have all the right answers. but these days you have to be able to do things very quickly and react very quickly and try things very quickly. I’m all fine with lots of little failures, but you have to constantly be trying and looking at data and users and feedback and understand whether you’re on the right track and be able to quickly adjust if you’re not.
“So those are some of the things I’m going to have to learn about my organisation, and see what I can do to help us improve.”
On The New User Experience and Improving User Retention
“It is difficult. Actually, one of the meetings I’m going to have this week – it was one of the first things I started asking people here – what are all the things you have tried to get new users [engaged in SL] … The conversion rate is obviously not where we need it to be. for people to go through the funnel and come out the other end and feel that they’re in a place that they understand and be productive in some capacity. So I’m going to learn more about years and years of attempts in various ways to improve that.
“And part of it is also that it is a blank canvas. It’s a bit like you put someone in front of Photoshop, and you start-up the app, and you say, “Now do stuff.” OK? What am I supposed to do? And who am I supposed to do it with, and why am I supposed to do it? It might be that we can make it easy to create the tools once you know those things. so the power of the blank canvas may be also its weakness … it’s not guiding people towards something. And you can see how what I would call very stupid apps that are very explicit, you know – just take a flappy bird or something, where the intent is very clear of what you’re supposed to do, and it’s very minimalistic – there’s only one thing you can do – and you can have a tremendous success, if you want to call it that, in how many users get engaged with something like that.
“So it’s a sort-of double-edged sword, this thing with the openness, the endless possibilities, the blank canvas; and then at the same time to have … most users accustomed to things getting so simplistic that the application tells them what to do, how to do it, when to do it – click the button, jump – and we’re obviously enabling something much broader than that.
“So I’m going to learn more this week, of all the things that have been tried, and try to see if I can help guide us; because many of those attempts were maybe the right idea, but the execution was wrong. Or maybe there’s some ideas that haven’t been tried.
“It also depends a lot on the intent of the person. a lot of people want to create; some people want to communicate; some people want to find people or groups or interests to belong to. so even understanding what the user’s intent is, when we have such a broad set of possibilities for people, and then helping to guide them to finding the thing that matters to them; whether it’s the right, call it a vertical subject or topic. Or what skills do they have where their skills could be meaningful to the rest of the community, whether it’s design or create or build or organise, or something like that. So helping people find the activities and interests that are relevant to them is always going to be a challenge we have to get better and better at.”
On Involving Users New & Old in improving the New User Experience / Retention
“It would be silly to imagine that four or five of us sitting here in the office and just thinking about it will have all the answers … I don’t know how much has been tried here, but it doesn’t seem like it’s been a very normal process to do usability testing, user testing, so that’s something i have to look into as well and see how people react to things that we create. I’ve grown-up with that. Even at Microsoft you couldn’t do a single feature for Word without sitting in a lab watching people struggle with using your feature.
“So the challenge for us is that it’s so broad you have to try so many different types of user that want to use it for so many different reasons, to try to get to the bottom of things. But hopefully there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit we can do to, to get there.”
[It’s worth noting that the Lab has, or was, engaged in A/B testing with the current “new user experience” with social and learning islands, and the “drop and go” approach introduced when the sign-up process was simplified. Also, so far as I’m aware, exit questionnaires are still available for those leaving SL to complete.]
On the Stigma Attached to SL
“It probably was a little bit in the minds of people, you know inside and outside, became bigger than it was. And there was sort-of a backlash. Maybe it over-promised and under-delivered a little bit, and it got spanked because of that, and it hasn’t come back to people’s minds again.
“And there could be a few things related to it; it could be performance, it could be quality, it could be subject matter. It could even be our own marketing of how we describe ourselves. It could have been a lot of things, but clearly, getting people to re-discover or for the first time discover the amazing place called Second Life is something we’re going to have to work hard at to make sure it happens, because I think right now it’s getting – I think the market ended-up dictating what they thought about it, and we lost our ability to tell the story, and the story was being told to us…
“Maybe the quality of product today is where it had to be when it created that big buzz in the first place. It really wasn’t prepared for the big buzz it got. And it’s since grown up. I mean, the team’s obviously done a tremendous amount of hard work to improve the quality. But it’s been fighting uphill and against the wind because of the reputation it gained early on. And some of it was silly stuff because the press likes to talk about the silly stuff, like the adult-themed stuff, as if none of those things happen in real life. So I’m looking forward to turning the story around and getting people to discover it for what it really is.”
On Attracting Business and (particularly) Educational Users
“I’ve just heard a little story about how we used to have good deals for our education market, and we pulled that good deal away from them, and more recently Malcolm [Dunne, LL’s CFO] put it back in place again, which I think is great. I think the education market makes a lot of sense for us … I don’t know how much work we’ve already done in understanding the different types of segments of customers or partners, and how we’ve specifically empowered them at scale to succeed with our product offering. but yes, I would love to be appealing not just to individuals, but also to organisations and institutions and companies, to be able to do things at scale. That makes sense to the use-cases that they want for their students or for their customers as well, yes …
“… From what I understand, we used to have a good understanding, for example in education, because of the rates we gave them, of who they were. and i guess we used to have some people who were engaged with that community, and I guess we pulled back. And I would love to understand the history of that and see what I can do to get us started with having the conversation with that community again. I would love to go to places where I can meet with those kinds of communities and understand what they would like to do with the product and what we can do to empower them to succeed.”
On a “lightweight” Viewer / Client
“The notion of the visitor versus the creator … a lot of sense to me. I visit movie theatres and supermarkets and I had no part in making them … and most of the things we do is participating in the creations of other as opposed to creating things ourselves; or if we’re creating, it’s usually for a very particular audience. so making it very easy for people to visit, to come to Second Life on a vacation or for a meeting or an event without having to be exposed to all the tools used to construct those kinds of things makes sense to me.
“Now I know some of those things have been attempted before. and my first reaction is, “Well, why isn’t it easy for anyone to create an experience and easily create entries into that experience where the users entering that experience don’t necessarily have to absorb everything that we can do, and just participate in the experience. So you could almost have users who could experience Second Life in a dozen different ways without actually realising that they are all Second Life and that they all have the capabilities that we all know about. That makes total sense to me, because then you can become a natural extension of real life into Second Life … where that context between the user and Second Life is already set-up, and the user can walk into an extension of that versus coming into a place where they have to find that from within.
“So I’m going to learn more about what we’ve tried about that in the past and see if this is just something we failed in execution. For example, I heard about the registration API that allowed people to … enabled creators to enable users to enter into a particular context, and i guess the conversion rate from that didn’t impress us either. So I don’t know if we didn’t give the creators the right tools, the right data, what have you.
“You’re always going to have the challenge of who owns the relationship with the user. Today we do have a primary relationship with the customer as far as the registration and all that, and at some point you become a platform that becomes agnostic to all that as well. I’m not sure that’s how far we want to go, but it’s something to be thought about.
Thoughts on the Lab’s Other Products
“Yeah, Linden has a few other products. I’ve already helped support some decisions of simplifying our portfolio a little bit, and there will be more news on that later this week. They won’t have significant ramifications for us with regards to resources and stuff like that, so it’s more lightening the load on our minds more so than the work we do every day, but it’ll be a little bit simplified.
“I’ve very interested in Blocksworld, because it’s very aligned with what we do in Second Life, which is empowering users to create things, to share things, and hopefully over time to monetize their creations.So that one is clear to me.
“Some of the other products, I’m sort-of still getting up to speed on, I haven’t even necessarily had product reviews or anything like that on those. but there will be a little bit of … a simplification of our portfolio later this week.”
On Oculus Rift and Other Technology
“There’s a lot of interesting hardware. Yes, I did try the Oculus downstairs, Friday afternoon last week; that was a great finish to my first week. So we have an earlier version of the hardware where the lag and the resolution – I know they have better versions, and we’re trying to get our hands on the next upgrade. And they still have quite a way to go. I’m not sure when they’re going to release, but it’s probably later this year or maybe even next year.
“But The experience of being in-world, where you’re truly in-world rather than looking at the world, you’re inside it, is an incredible feeling. Now I got motion sickness probably within about eight to ten seconds, but a lot of that has to do with the quality of the early generation of their device, and they’ve already made a lot of strides to try to solve a lot of those things so that your average person’s tolerance for that incredible immersive experience is much, much higher. So absolutely, and also other types of input, whether it’s Leap Motion or other types of input devices where you don’t have to be attached to a keyboard and mouse necessarily to navigate and to move and to do things.
“In my previous job, we actually shared the same office building as Leap Motion and I let them use some of my space for a developer meet-up they had, and I got to see some of the demos they were doing. And one demo, where a person put a piece of clay material on a pottery wheel , and then with his hands in the air, could start to shape this piece of clay and start to form it, and I was like, “Wow! That is so cool to be able to have that much more natural user interface.” And then at the same time to be inside that world and over time have those natural interfaces for meeting people, for shaking hands with people, to connect, to build, is just unbelievably fascinating where it’s going to be. In a few years from now, the way we interact with something like a Second Life will be at a whole other level, and I’m really looking forward to taking advantage of those capabilities … Not just take advantage of them, but actually help drive the direction of where those things should go.
“So I know we have an implementation that’s pretty good. Right now all it is, is a proof of concept because your normal consumers can’t get their hands on this stuff, so we will continue to evolve with them, and hopefully collaborate, because I think we’re one of the month interesting canvases that the Oculus has.”
On SL and the Younger Audience
“I haven’t had time to fully give that thought, whether we will. I mean with Blocksworld, we’re definitely targeting a much younger demographic in enabling them to create things and share their creations as well … I don’t even know where we are with Second Life with regards to the teen grid [the two merged in 2011 and the teen grid regions subsequently closed].
“My son actually joined the main grid when he was too young and got booted and because I knew Philip, I got him back in again and then he got booted, appropriately, and then when he came to the teen grid, he was actually one of the founding ten of the teen grid, … one of the first ten teenager to be there; and it instantly was much less interesting to them because they lacked the incredible supply of creators that they could work with. Whether it was artists or designers, they just didn’t have enough of those to be able to create the fantastic things they could participate in creating in the main grid …
“But I’m obviously hoping that we can create something that appeals to a very broad audience … I think Second Life has been a very successful product, and a part of why I think it hasn’t become more successful, I think, is the learning curve is very high and it’s become a bit of a niche product. And trying to figure out how to have the power that it has to appeal to really strong creators … and at the same time be easy enough for someone to just be able to walk in and just get going is going to be a tremendously interesting challenge to try to solve. You can get to a point where you dumb it down and more broadly appealing, but it wouldn’t have the depth that we have today. so having the depth and the breadth all at the same time obviously creates tremendous user interface challenges and community challenges, and what have you. But obviously trying to make that expand is … going to be a really fun challenge.”
On the Potential of “Blank Canvas” Creative Spaces for Younger People
“My son, obviously, had no issues with Second Life even back in 2003 or whenever it was, when it may have been even more rough around the edges than it is now, and now we have two-year-olds very successfully using iPads to do all kinds of things, so clearly the next generation will have a very easy time of a product like Second Life, and yeah, how to deal with … I mean, it’s a little bit like the Internet itself; how do you restrict access? But because this is also a communications product, and a very easy for people to start and engage in conversation. it’s maybe a little bit different because it’s one thing to be able to create, and it’s another thing when you start having conversations … with adults with strange motives interacting with children, so it’s going to be an interesting problem to solve, because I hope we can create an environment where young and old can participate together.”
On Having a Home in SL
“I don’t know if I’ll have a home or if I’ll be more on consistent vacation visiting as many homes as possible. Probably more so the latter. I’m not sure I’m going to have enough time to really set-up my own home. So the time I do have to be in-world I’m probably spend visiting everybody else’s homes.”
Thoughts and Observations
Ebbe Altberg is a lot more aware of Second Life and the Lab than has perhaps been recognised – that should be very clear from the comments he passed during the meeting. It’s also fair to say that he has an eye for areas of weakness in the way in which it handles some of its business. He’s clearly keen to carry the company forward, and looks to be as equally keen to build on SL’s solid foundations.
For me, of all his comments, that he recognised that the Lab has essentially lost the message within the media where SL is concerned – and also, I would add, among users past and present – most excited me. It’s something I’ve banged on about at length in the past. As such, I’m really happy that there is someone now helming the Lab who seems ready to do something about regaining control of the message, and as such – and at the risk of sounding like I’m tooting my own horn – I offer him an article I wrote together in 2011 on the subject of narrative marketing, and how the SL user base can help positively tell SL’s story and assist in shaping the message to reach a range of audiences.
His comments on user retention and the new user experience were equally heartwarming – although I would have been surprised if little had been said on the matter, given the Lab had started to once again poke at this issue under Rod Humble’s tenure, and there does seem to be an underlying strategy in all that has been going on technically with the platform which is aimed towards getting it fit for purpose in terms of increasing user numbers. Some of the ideas touched upon echo my own sentiments, so again with a toot, I took the opportunity to point him towards a piece on business, collaboration and creative growth he may find interesting.
It was interesting to hear that a simplification of the Lab’s portfolio of products is about to be announced. Does this mean we’re about to see some dropped or the Lab divest itself of an acquisition? Or is it more of a tactical reorganisation, as seems to be suggested in Ebbe’s comments? “Simplification” could mean either or both. We look set to find out some time before the end of the week, unless any announcement gets delayed.
Some are doubtless going to see talk of teens and younger people being involved in Second Life somewhat uneasily. I’m actually not, because while the questions were framed in terms of SL, I’m not entirely convinced Ebbe was replying in terms exclusive to SL. I could be reading far too much into things, but this struck me about a number of his answers; they could easily be applied (and in some cases would appear to have more relevance) to whatever the Lab may be working upon as a follow-on / successor / replacement for SL (if indeed that is what they’re doing amidst everything else, as has been hinted-at in the past).
On a personal level, Ebbe is engaging, openly honest and seemingly easy-going, as many have already found out via his Twitter comments and engagement and his willingness to pop-up on the SL forums and SLU. Obviously, as CEO he’s not going to have the time to constantly blog or add comments to forums (or even blog posts from others!), but he is aware of the value of communications – and as I recently said, it’s actually not that important if he’s driving things in this regard himself, just as long as someone is in a consistent manner.
I do hope we get to see him in-world, however; while the final comments quoted in this report were in response to a tongue-in-cheek question from Saffia, I rather like the idea of a CEO who comes into SL as a means of “vacation” and uses his own lack of a home in-world as a reason to visit with others.
Oh, and on that note, Ebbe, I’ll be more than happy to show you around Blake Sea (by boat and air) and introduce you to the neighbours! Oh, and if you’re up for trying an SL sport, happy to take you skydiving! :).
With thanks to Ebbe Altberg for agreeing to meet with us in-world, and to Peter Grey for extending the invitation and arranging things.