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Podcast Review: This Week in Startups

This Week in Startups

The opening title card of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid reads, “Most of what follows is true.”  The same could be said for the content of entrepreneur Jason Calacanis’s weekly video/audio podcast, This Week in Startups (or TWiST, as aggressively abbreviated throughout the show).  Calacanis’s contract with his audience is that he will always speak his mind, and he will usually (but not always) be right.

Based on the episodes I’ve seen thus far, it’s hard to disagree.  In this post-postmodern age of self promotion, where every individual is a self-branded social marketing expert (expert in the marketing of ME), a camera can be placed in front of anyone. The results are hit or miss.  TWiST succeeds primarily through its honesty: it’s clear that every opinion and anecdote the host provides is passionate, unrehearsed, and (as promised) usually insightful.  The show’s unvarnished production values lend to this authenticity — for a podcast that actually has sponsors and claims to run in the black, there’s a remarkably consistent lack of visible producing involved: transitions to phone callers, video and sound cues are nearly always muffed, and expletives are rarely edited out despite references to a human tape logger that exists solely for this purpose.  Where this comes in most unwieldy is in each show’s running length: sessions can range from a little over an hour to just over two and a half hours.  There’s something to admire in the sheer audacity of this fact, but on the whole one senses the same content could be delivered in half the time; sometimes less really is the same.

Episode 13 features many of the show’s recurring segments: there’s “Ask Jason,”  reminiscent of the lightning round on Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money” where entrepreneurs call in to get Calacanis’s thoughts on their ideas; an interview with a featured entrepreneur (in this case Matt Mickiewicz, founder of SitePoint and 99designs); a segment called “The News,” where again Calacanis provides his off-the-cuff reactions to tech news stories; “The Deadpool,” where recently destructed startups are announced; and “Homework,” which appears to be an audio bookclub/marketing segment for Audible.com.

Calacanis’s personality and his ability to tell an engaging story are clearly the driving force behind the show — tangents are prone to superfluous name-dropping or backdoor bragging, but they’re usually more entertaining than not, ranging from a hilarious gift for hyperbole (“An iPhone costs what now, seventy thousand dollars a month?”) to comically vicious vendettas (pity Jimmy Wales, who had the poor misfortune to launch a competing product to Calacanis’s own Mahalo).  Calacanis’s competitive East Coast personality is a surprisingly endearing love-hate proposition, though it’s hard to envision him occupying the same room as a Mark Cuban, one of his current investors.  (For a good proxy, check out Episode 14 for some fascinating repartee between Calacanis and none other than Michael Arrington.)

Overall, the show could use the general tightening up that comes with practice.  One hopes that Calacanis will eventually be able to quarterback the episodes to a more consistent length and content, both live and in the editing room.  Guest interviews can probably follow a more standard template — perhaps prototypical of this space, Matt Mickiewicz proves an amiable but somewhat reticent fellow, requiring Calacanis to shoulder most of the work.  The number of segments could also be cut or follow a rotating schedule.

Still, Calacanis’s heart is in the right place — his fierce desire to win, his belief in the middle class work ethic and his numerous marketing ploys to boost interest and traffic for himself and his sponsors — are all worthy of admiration.  There’s also a generosity of spirit that can’t be faked; even in his harsher criticisms of pitches (during a new “Shark Tank” segment, where callers literally pitch their startup ideas to get feedback) it’s clear that he’s willing to stay open-minded and encouraging.

There’s no telling how long this train ride will last, but This Week in Startups would do well to stay true to its core passion and truths — it offers a fascinating viewpoint on the current zeitgeist of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

What is OpenSocial?

So Google launched their OpenSocial initiative last week, and despite all the requisite buzz (and uber-ridiculous stock inflation) I’m still not sure I understand what’s going on here. It’s supposed to be a universal API to create apps for all social networks, but watching the intro video did nothing but bring up more questions. Consider this: at one point, Flixster actually gives a demo showing that they’ve used OpenSocial to create a canvas page on a Ning network that recreates the Flixster network. That’s right, they’ve recreated their own network inside someone else’s network. What? What’s the point of this? Who’s the winner here if all you’re doing with this open API is spamming every social network with mini-versions of your own network? It’s kinda like a webtop interface that allows you to use a browser inside of it – mirrors reflecting mirrors. I just don’t get it.

And to top it all off: what are these Google campfire talks? This one looks like it’s been shot on a studio set that’s been somewhat dressed to look like the great outdoors. Are they beginning production designers, or (gasp) might these people actually be camping together?

Yes, I’m still in tech

I realize my last few posts have not only been infrequent but also heavily steeped in the Literary (capital stuffy L), so here’s a nod back to my (other) roots. Stay with me now.

So apparently those lovably bilious writers at Uncov are now attempting to publicly crash Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch 20 conference by asking the real and hard questions, videotaping them and uploading the shenanigans to YouTube. I’ve got similar reservations about the conference itself (that $2,495 ticket price is just ridiculous), but I’m really curious how Uncov is going to evolve the more public their personae become. It’s kind of the fundamental quandary of any critic who gives a bad review to an artist he meets/knows in real life, albeit a million times worse since Uncov rarely gives a positive review of anything: how do you socialize and interact with the very same people you’ve been publicly slamming? And if you’re about to release your own product/work of art, how can you possibly avoid others attacking you in kind?