Creative COW Turns 15! A Celebration of Being Uncool
COW Library : Business & Marketing : Tim Wilson : Creative COW Turns 15! A Celebration of Being Uncool
Fifteen “Internet Years” is a long time.
Fifteen years ago is before YouTube and Gmail. It’s before WordPress, Vimeo, Twitter, and Facebook.
It’s not only before Safari and the iPhone, but 15 years ago from today is still six months before the iPod.
Fifteen years ago, there were still about as many people using AOL as were using the wild world web of “the internet” itself.
The cloud? You mean that puffy thing in the sky?
Final Cut Pro had been out for a couple of years. Premiere had just gone Pro.
Pinnacle Cinewave arrived for its first NAB Show 15 years ago, but it was still two years away from real-time performance. (Here in fact is Walter Biscardi’s glowing 2003 review of the Cinewave RT!)
The Panasonic DVX100 was still almost 2 years away. HDV and DVCPRO HD were another year after that.
Fifteen years ago, the first major all-digital film (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones) was still a year away, with the Panavision Genesis HD three years out.
Jim Jannard had 6 more years of selling sunglasses in front of him.
You getting the idea? Fifteen years in this business is a loooong time.
And 15 years ago is when CreativeCOW.net was launched by its co-founders Ronald and Kathlyn Lindeboom, on April 11, 2001.
Before the end of its first year, the COW was the world’s pre-eminent community for media professionals, a position that has only grown since then. The COW now numbers over 300,000 members who’ve made nearly 3 million posts, and has served up over 58 million pageviews in the past year alone.
A love for each other, a love for cows.
WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS
In fact, though, the events that led to the creation of the COW were set in motion in 1995, 21 years ago, when Ronald and Kathlyn (pronounced “kath-leen”) founded their first community for media professionals, the Media 100 Worldwide Users Group, aka, “The WWUG” (pronounced “wug”).
That name quickly morphed, dropping “Media 100” from front of the name and adding an “s” to the end, acknowledging how quickly The WWUG had outgrown its original charter.
Wait a minute, though.
Founded in 1995?
Wouldn’t 2015 have been a good time to have written a celebration of 20 years of community-building? Yeah, except for two things. One, the scale of the COW has so thoroughly eclipsed its predecessor that it honestly made more sense to calibrate our commemoration to the larger community.
(Speaking of anniversaries, this fall I celebrate – and I do mean celebrate – 10 years with Creative COW!)
Two, I couldn’t come up with a way to tell the story in 2015. I tried, but I couldn’t.
The problem is that everything I came up with was too self-aggrandizing. Just stating the actual, raw numbers a few paragraphs up made me feel a little squirmy, because, as impressive as they are, the story of the COW has never been adequately told by the numbers.
Then there’s the cliché, “It’s about the people we’ve been able to help.” Not of course “we,” as in the people who work here, but “we” as in “you” via the power of peer-to-peer support. Okay, we’ll take some credit for building a framework that is clearly standing the test of time. Still, my approach to telling the full story of Creative COW wasn’t coming into focus in time.
Until a few months later. You can imagine that we get a lot of fan mail at Creative COW, because, no kidding, a good-sized handful of folks have passed through the meadow in these 15 years. Some of them have been able to get a lot more than just-in-time troubleshooting. They’ve found what they needed to build their careers. We really are proud of that.
But it’s inevitable that we get a lot of, let’s say, NOT fan mail, too. I’ll mention some specifics later, but one such epistle recently arrived telling me that not only did this fellow consider us a joke, but his entire nation considers us a joke.
Two more quick observations: 1) With about 60% of our traffic coming from outside the US, we serve 240 nations and territories, with the US understandably at the top of the list and the Territory of the Wallis and Futuna Islands bringing up the rear; and 2) We get enough such pieces of NOT fan mail that you prob’ly think this song is about you, don’t you? I’m actually almost certainly not referring to you, Dear Correspondent. We get enough of these to go around.
But with this most recent NOT fan letter, I now had my story! It all came immediately into view: the story of Creative COW, and its roots in the WWUG, is a celebration of 21 years of being uncool. Because heaven knows that’s what we’ve been told at every step along the way.
Not that we haven’t had many thousands of cool members (somewhere approaching, by our count, nearly all 306,000 of you), doing some of the world’s coolest work, for a very long time. But for even longer than that, we’ve been hearing about just how cool we aren’t.
THE WORLDWIDE USER GROUPS
The fact is that none of this started as a business. How could it? The very first banner ad on the internet had just gone up a few months earlier. Nobody was making any money on the internet yet.
And in 1995, the internet was definitely not cool. Not yet. In fact, it was kind of a pain in the butt. The first widely available web browser, Netscape Navigator, had also just been released a few months before the WWUG opened, for the low, low price of only $39.
(Free web browsers? You gotta be kidding. THAT was the foul villainy that Microsoft perpetrated that led to the DOJ coming after them: bundling a free web browser with their operating system. Say it ain’t so! Found guilty of said villainy, the remedy was for Microsoft to ship versions of Windows with no browser installed! Can you even imagine?)
To finish our trip in the Wayback Machine, the WWUG was launched on the heels of Yahoo, and preceded the public launches of Java and PHP. The first realtime MP3 encoding and playback for computers (forget devices) was later that year.
A loooong time ago.
Even then, though, the professional desktop video revolution was underway. I’m not talking about the high-end transition of features and network TV to using computers to edit film offlines. Nor am I talking about the consumer-grade DV revolution. (Both DV and DVCPRO 25 did in fact launch at the same time as the WWUG, in 1995.)
Rather, I’m talking about the professional work that was much less cool. Local spots, infomercials, and news. Venue video for museums and visitor centers. Direct-to-VHS marketing and educational pieces. Corporate video. Worship video. The higher end of event video.
In many cases, this video might not even have been especially worthy of a demo reel. But hey, it was a living, and an increasingly good one, made possible by “cheap” NLEs like Media 100, in the $30,000 range. The “cheap” Sony UVW-1800 BetaSP tape deck at $10,000 meant that you could take high-quality component video out of the Media 100, fully calibrated to broadcast standards, onto a broadcast-formatted tape, and have nobody be any the wiser that it didn’t come from a much more expensive system.
The ace-in-the-hole: Aldus After Effects. (Founded as CoSA After Effects in 1993, purchased by Aldus in 1994; Adobe would buy After Effects from Aldus, along with Pagemaker and a few other odds and ends not long after the WWUG launched.) After Effects’ motion graphics power allowed artists and video editors to punch well above their weight with visuals that potentially far surpassed systems costing 100 times as much.
In this scenario, the Media 100 hardware served as playout hardware to BetaSP tape. No matter how high-quality the content being created, if there wasn’t a cheap way to get to BetaSP tape, there would have no revolution in professional desktop video.
You just couldn’t do any of this stuff quickly. Not easily. Sometimes not at ALL. Storage was a nightmare. Media 100 had a disastrous transition to PowerPC hardware, which was itself something of a disaster on Apple’s side. Playback was erratic. Worse, projects and media were simply disappearing from drives. There was nothing to recover. Your work was simply just gone.
And people like Ronald and Kathlyn Lindeboom, having invested their $30,000 in Media 100, another $10,000 for a Sony UVW-1800 deck, and another $10,000 in drives for their “cheap” systems were dead in the water. No way to earn anything to keep up payments on $50,000 worth of gear…and their house, and car, and all the rest.
The additional problem that Ronald & Kathlyn faced: they weren’t cool. They were grandparents in a tiny town tucked away on California’s central coast, roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, squarely in the middle of nowhere.
And how’s this for uncool? They not only did they do dreaded local spots, station IDs, and corporate video – they were making music videos for a Christian prog band. Very, very uncool.
(The work itself was in fact quite cool, mind you, and if you live in a world where devout Christians are cool AND prog rock is cool, well, then it was all cool. Ergo, for most people: profoundly uncool.)
There was a video and graphics professional community growing within AOL, but it was where the cool kids hung out. The ones working on high-impact network graphics, film credits sequences, even some visual effects. They were closely associated with Hollywood and New York professional organizations, with no use whatsoever for grandparents in the hinterlands making videos for a branch of contemporary Christian music considered uncool even by mainstream CCM fans, who were themselves not mainstream at all.
Publicly thwarted in their pleas for help from the cool kids at AOL, Ronald and Kathlyn took the gamble of their lives. With no money whatsoever, they went further in the hole to roll the dice to go outside AOL and build a community on the internet that had at least a prayer (a word I hope you can appreciate that I use advisedly in this context) of getting them the help they needed with their Media 100 system.
Again, there was no thought that this community would make any money. Nobody was monetizing the internet yet. The idea was much simpler: surely there are other people in the same situation, having risked everything, in the middle of nowhere, with no access to the help they needed. The most anybody was hoping for was help.
Maybe, just maybe, we could share the solutions that we found by banging our heads against a thousand different walls in remote corners of the world.
But that was it. Ronald and Kathlyn started the WWUG, not as a business, but as a place to find the help they needed.
And boy oh boy, did the cool kids ever roast them for it. The IDEA that they would leave the cozy, impenetrable walls of their corner of AOL to go onto the INTERNET, where ANYBODY could show up, with no credentials or major credits whatsoever, and just START TALKING. This was an affront to everything they understood “professionalism” to mean.
Amazingly enough, some of them have not forgiven the Lindebooms for their temerity in moving to THE INTERNET to this very day. Ronald and Kathlyn Lindeboom were the nobodies who let in all the other nobodies, and ruined everything for the TRUE professionals.
EVERYBODY KNOWS YOU’RE A DOG
Ronald and Kathlyn had no interest in hiding or overstating who they were, and who comprised the WWUG. They pioneered something that has still only occasionally been replicated in community sites in any corner of the web. Rather than having moderators hide behind overly clever or obscure screen names, the Lindebooms insisted on real names, and put these people’s ACTUAL PICTURES at the top of the forums.
THEIR ACTUAL PICTURES.
Inciting another wave of contempt from the cool kids, who openly mocked these “nobodies” from “nowhere,” with no credits, no credentials, and therefore, in the eyes of the cool kids, no credibility. The refrain we heard over and over: “Well I’VE never heard of them.”
(I say “we” because by then, my volunteering for the WWUG was more than casual, and I don’t mind saying that I was taking this personally, both on the Lindeboom’s behalf and my own.)
See, here’s the thing. You know the old New Yorker cartoon with a dog at a computer, saying “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”? WRONG. When it comes to professional media production troubleshooting, EVERYBODY knows if you’re a dog, and they know it INSTANTLY.
Troubles came fast in those days, pressure was high because we were playing with “house money,” ie, the second mortgages on our houses – and whether your suggestions were worthwhile or not was discernible typically within a few hours, sometimes even in minutes. If your advice helped me, what did I care if you were doing industrials or local spots? You weren’t a nobody. You were my hero.
You were cool to me.
WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS, PART 2
Rewinding a bit, I came along a year after the founding of the WWUG, just another nobody, parked in my town of 8000 people at the tail end of rural Florida, part of a “metropolitan” area of 40,000 in all, strung out across a 100-mile string of narrow islands.
In 1996, like Ronald and Kathlyn had the year before, my wife and I, with our own self-funded business, sank everything into our combination of $30,000 Media 100, After Effects, the $10,000 Sony UVW-1800 deck, thousands of dollars’ worth of drives (how’s this: $15,000 for 27 GB!!!!), and for us, the addition of a $10,000 Sony UVW-100 BetaSP camera with a $12,000 Canon lens.
And this was the professional desktop video revolution CHEAP price.
We took out a second mortgage, and we too were dead in the water with a malfunctioning Media 100…until we weren’t. Because a whole lot of people like Ronald and Kathlyn and scores of others around the world had a year’s head start in figuring this stuff out. I got help, and was soon able to give help to other folks in return. Nice to see the plan working.
Along the way, Ronald on the west coast, and me on the east coast, started talking on the phone, deep, deep into the night, two insomniacs who often had to pull all-nighters as we pulled out our hair. Honestly, though, we mostly talked about rock and roll. Sometimes Christian prog rock and roll, but lots more.
It turns out that our boy Boomie was not unacquainted with coolness. He spent a good bit of the late 70s as a glam rocker! A drummer with fantastic chops and a sense of swing that could have him playing in virtually any band you know, plus a surprisingly high, ringing tenor singing voice, skills on electric and acoustic guitar, violin, banjo and a variety of keyboards.
His band Streetlight inhabited the storied clubs of the Sunset Strip by night (no kidding: Whisky a Go Go, the Roxy, the legendary, lamented Gazarri’s, you name it, they played there) – and by day, Ronald worked finishing guitars for Rickenbacker, who had a plant in LA.
Now THAT’s cool.
(Also cool: this one time, his band’s opening act was a bunch of hard partiers out of Orange County who used to call themselves Mammoth, but had recently changed their name to Van Halen. Yeah, THAT Van Halen.)
In the meantime, it’s not like by the late 90s the internet had suddenly become a place where a couple of grandparents in isolated Central Coast California could monetize a bunch of “merely” 40 year olds like me at the tail end of rural Florida. But the WWUG was taking on an inexorable life of its own, so Ronald & Kathlyn had to sell their video production gear to finance its expansion.
But since there was no way (yet) to monetize the WWUG, their self-seeded money eventually ran out. They turned to friends to help pay the internet bill each month. By then, they had enough friends around the world that we were all able to lend a hand now and again. (Yep, my wife and I took our turn.)
Fast forward another couple of years, and it was clear that there was a “there” there in the WWUG, at least theoretically. Us “nobodies” were spending many thousands of dollars annually, in four areas in particular: computers, software, storage, and cameras/decks and associated production doo-dads (tripods, lights, cables, mics, monitors, etc.).
The problems remained: no money to pay for internet bandwidth, and no personal bandwidth for keeping the servers up while also pursuing biz dev.
(It turns out that once our boy Boomie hung up his platform boots and spandex, he got his biz dev on. He was an early mover into cable franchising in the 70s, satellite TV in the 80s, a top performer at one of the country’s first Saturn dealerships, and the publisher at another self-funded venture: Pacific Coast Business Magazine, where he was both the sole proprietor and the sole employee.)
So as we come to the turn of the century, a number of mainline publishers started pumping magazine money into our industry (geezers will remember the days, including the square-shaped New Media Magazine, AV Video and Multimedia Producer, and a dozen others), and these magazine publishers were trying to figure out the internet.
And one Publishing Behemoth happened upon a couple of folks who were starting to crack that nut, a pair of grandparents no less. These grandparents needed someone to sell ads for them, and they needed someone to stop the bleeding for bandwidth expenses – and this particular Publishing Behemoth happened to have a passel of salespeople, and the means to pay for massive pipes.
The cool kids flipped from disdain to quivering outrage. This couple of nobodies was now CASHING IN?
They were adamant that this was not only unprofessional, but unseemly. Ronald and Kathlyn had proven themselves to be not truly part of the world of professional content creation (which, uhm, the cool kids had insisted that the Lindebooms were never part of), and that they were “clearly” ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY.
So it’s fair to ask: how much money were the Lindebooms paid for The WWUG?
Not a typo. One hundred American dollars.
Plus, a potential fortune in pre-IPO, A-grade stock.
That was never issued. There was no IPO. There was no equity stake.
This foreshadowed other problems within Publishing Behemoth, by now starting to collapse under its own weight. Among the expenses they cut before the end of the first year: the jobs of Ronald & Kathlyn Lindeboom.
The WWUG was in the hands of Publishing Behemoth, for the cash (again, $100) and considerations (which never arrived) as specified in the contract. Ronald and Kathlyn wound up as neither the first entrepreneurs to be swindled by fast-talking sharpies with a bag of pre-IPO magic beans, nor the last.
But there they were, on their way back to the middle of the state, the middle of nowhere, no beans, magic or otherwise, and starting to think about their next move.
MA & PA CATTLE
At least Kathlyn was thinking about the next move. Ronald was burned out and broken hearted.
While Ronald had been developing the WWUG’s infrastructure and business partnerships, Kathlyn had been speaking every day with regular ol’ community members, contributors, and forum hosts like me and dozens of others around the world.
She was positive that if she and Ronald fired up a new community, that the loyal leaders would find their way back from their temporary siting chez Behemoth, and that it wouldn’t be long before this new community was even bigger and better than the WWUG had ever been.
Kathlyn took a good look at the situation, with years of laboratory research experience and 10-make-em-survive-years in Alaska.
This is where her background in medicine and research kicked in. Her and Ronald’s circumstances represented a problem, and problems can be solved. You break ‘em down into their component pieces, throw some of ‘em in a centrifuge, slice others of ‘em thin and put ‘em under a microscope. Throw in a rough stint in Alaska that had generally steeled her resolve, and her can-do spirit…did!
She and Ronald had made some mistakes that they were determined not to repeat. First, this would be a business. It would have to generate enough money to sustain itself, and in fact sustain Ronald and Kathlyn, who’d never taken much of a salary. They poured every dime they earned right back into the company.
As a result, they were only able to rent very small houses, with the office for her, Ronald, and the coders (a pair that Ronald had starting training himself when they were teenagers) taking up all of the open living and dining area, and half the kitchen.
Kathlyn was determined that this would change.
Second, the new venture needed a better name. Nothing tech-y, and nothing as limiting as the name “The WWUG” became, almost out of the gate.
She and Ronald thought about some of their favorite companies, and it turned out that they had one thing in common: organic names that did NOTHING to describe what the companies actually did!
Apple had nothing to do with food, Adobe had nothing to do with dwellings made from a mixture of earth and water, and Amazon had nothing to do with a river, a jungle, or women warriors.
You know the outcome of Ronald and Kathlyn’s discussions – Creative COW, natch – but you probably don’t know why.
The big reason for “Creative Cow” is that Kathlyn loves cows. LOVES ‘em. She has stuffed cows, ceramic cows, cow clocks, cow light switch plates, you name it. And Ronald actually grew up on a dairy farm! His family had been dairy farmers going back to their time in the Netherlands a couple of generations ago (for those of you keeping score at home, the specific nether land was Friesland) and then for a couple of generations here in the New World.
Creative Cow it was.
Sentence case “Cow” because it referred to, well, cows. Then a member pointed out that “COW” could be understood as an acronym, for “Communities of the World.” Thus: Creative COW.
Ronald & Kathlyn christened themselves “Ma and Pa Cattle.” This was a reference to Ma and Pa Kettle, the central characters of 10 features for Universal in the late 40s and early 50s, starring Marjorie Main (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Ma) and Percy Kilbride.
It was also a nod to the characters being yokels, transplanted to glitzier circumstances. The Lindebooms were gleefully embracing their uncoolness.
And so we arrive at April 11, 2001: Creative COW opens for business, pleasure, and the like.
THE FACES OF COWS
Cows are gentle, deeply domestic, and quite affectionate. They are not cool. Sloths are cool. In some quarters of the internet, opossums are cool. Pugs, definitely cool.
Let’s be honest. They can be kinda cute, but I doubt that anybody thinks of them as “good looking.” And as Ronald Lindeboom likes to say, “Creative COW has been the industry leader in ugly interfaces for 15 years.”
By the time those PHP forum kits were robust enough on the structural side, our massive database of forum posts, tutorials, reels (now over 10,000 of them!), and so on was simply too big to merge with a standard, off-the-shelf PHP database.
We are very early adopters of technology that can we can use, and we do use PHP for all kinds of tasks – but a specific to-do is different than hosting a file structure with millions of dynamically deployed elements. There aren’t even technically “pages” in the COW per se. Even permalink pages are created on the fly out of a very nimble database hand-tuned to within an inch of its life. That’s what has given us an infrastructure that has not only survived virtually intact since 1995, but shows no signs of slowing down as the demands on it continue to increase.
Nor does it show much sign of getting better looking any time soon. Ah, well.
The idea of “Creative COW,” and its members as “cows” themselves, quickly caught on.
Walking with the Lindebooms through their first couple of NABs as Creative COW was amazing. People stopped them in the aisles to MOO at them. Lots and lots of them. So many that the Lindebooms had a booth the following year that was just sofas, so the people could come to them – with an invitation to moo in exchange for a Creative COW t-shirt.
People didn’t just moo once and move along. No, once they started mooing, they wouldn’t stop, punctuating repeated moos with laughter. It was wonderful to see!
Okay, now that you know how we got underway these 15 VERY long years ago, let me give you a speedy rundown of waypoints from there to here.
Highlight: NYDV, 2002
While the events of September 2001 didn’t directly affect life in the COW’s meadow, they obviously deeply affected our members, our loved ones, and our industry partners.
Among the friends of the family were the folks putting on NYDV, aka, the New York DV Show. They’d had an impossible time booking people to travel to New York for a February 2002 show, which meant that they couldn’t secure sponsors either.
Knowing that Ronald and Kathlyn had friends around the world, and a force of will that wouldn’t be denied, the organizers basically put their fate in R&K’s hands. Told ‘em to go fill this thing up.
This falls into the “Highlight” category, because it worked. People came to New York from all over the US and Canada, and from a good bit of western Europe. It was held at the New Yorker, across from Madison Square Garden during the Westminster Kennel Club show. There were dogs everywhere, some on leashes, some stacked in crates up to half a dozen high on luggage carts, making a colossal ruckus that somehow added a crowning touch to a celebratory worldwide vibe that the Lindebooms had whipped together.
Highlight: Creative COW West, Los Angeles, Spring 2003
Having seen that they could do a favor for friends and create a show, they got the bright idea to put on a small trade show/conference themselves. More control, and hopefully more money.
That too, worked. They located the event in the LAX Hilton, make it very easy for people to get to and from the show if they lived in town, and absolutely painless if they’d flown in from afar.
They sold out vendor slots, they sold out attendance, AND they made money. Not a huge amount, but enough to sustain a comfortable trade show side business if they were so inclined – but they were not. Too much work. Even with the likelihood of another nifty profit, they didn’t have enough hours in the day, or enough physical strength to take the punishment of doing it again.
Still, a 100% success rate with a show in NY and one in LA, and some coins in their pocket in the end, was a good feeling.
Highlights: Tim Matteson and Tim Wilson Arrive, 2006
Industry veteran (as much in publishing as sales) Tim Matteson arrived in early 2006 to become Creative COW’s first full-time advertising director, helping fuel the next stage of the COW’s growth.
I came later in the year, a highlight for me as much as anything else. A sojourn in the industry’s corporate side with Boris FX and Avid wasn’t an especially good fit. The folks at both companies were supportive, and I came away with strongly positive feelings about both, but here’s a Pro Tip: if you’ve gotten to your mid-40s never having worked in an office, don’t choose then to start.
Creative COW was a return to my roots in storytelling, writing, and hoping to help folks. And talking rock and roll late into the night.
Getting tired...staying up all hours of the night talking, planning and laughing.
Highlight: Creative COW Magazine Launches, 2006
One thing that Ronald in particular had noticed is that publishers who try to apply that business model to the net fail. Often spectacularly fail. As a result, a Creative COW booth at the DV (Magazine) Expo (no relation to the NYDV folks) in Los Angeles was a gruesome affair. One dour face after another paraded by.
Ronald had a different idea. He was going to apply the COMMUNITY model to the magazine. The magazine would be built the same way Creative COW had been built, with stories about people that the cool kids would write off as nobodies.
The fact is that Creative COW was chockablock with cool people by then (thankfully, not of the “cool kid” snobs variety). As I mentioned earlier, they were doing some of the world’s highest profile work, and winning the industry’s highest accolades, including Emmys, Oscars, Grammys, and more.
We also had a huge, not especially visible contingent of industry tech leaders frequenting the COW, including broadcast infrastructure chieftans from the Big Four networks, and some extremely high-profile cable networks, some military organizations, and some enterprise-scale post houses.
One upshot of our post peers being early adopters of technologies like SDI and IT infrastructures (notably, ethernet) before the turn of the century, as well as high-performance storage and gear from non-traditional but increasingly aggressive broadcast vendors like AJA and Blackmagic Design in this one, we were accidentally well ahead of the broadcast curve for everything but uplinks. We’d had the answer for years to the questions these guys were now getting around to asking.
For the magazine, though, Ronald made a decision early on that I helped expand, which was no Hollywood stories until we established the fact that we could build a successful magazine without them.
We wanted to focus on the people who’d been the heart of the COW’s growth in non-broadcast, non-feature work, in markets all over the world. So we did.
I added a twist: first person stories only. I can admit now that I helped co-write a couple, but I tried to avoid it. The object of the game was to AVOID traditional journalistic voices. Talk to me like a peer. No need to over-explain. Get straight to the good stuff, and keep it coming.
We wanted as many voices as possible, even if they were conversational, even if they were not quite polished. In any given year, we might have had 30-50 individual writers.
Ronald added a design twist to fly in the face of then-current orthodoxy: no white space. None. Every inch of the magazine would be splashed in rich colors, with reverse-white text atop deeply composited backgrounds. This isn’t supposed to work, and there were a few years where Wired magazine helped illustrate why.
But I can now reveal that our target wasn’t Wired. It was O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine. People-focused rather than tech-focused, emphasizing what was important, rather than what was new.
We looked at "O" rather than "Wired".
Instead, we covered new stuff on the web. That’s also where we did tutorials and reviews. As a result, that left a lot more room in our magazine for stories. We counted it up. We typically had 2-3 times the number of editorial pages of any other magazine.
To put it bluntly: just as the COW’s origins were in meeting the needs of its founders, Ronald and I had set out to create the media production trade magazine we’d always wanted to read.
Lowlight: The Cool Kids Fight Back, 2007
Ronald and Kathlyn had done a few things that went down quite poorly over the years, not just with the cool kids, but with some of our long-time supporters – but mostly the cool kids.
First, advertising. More proof that the Lindebooms were only in it for the money, right? Next, no clever screen names allowed anymore. Real names only. You can’t build a community if you don’t know who you’re talking to.
There was actually a time when the industry was small enough that anyone even a little socially active could know every single person in it, at least by name. But you had to have a name to do that, which became increasingly important as the community grew.
We lost a few members over this, and it still comes up a couple of times a year as a data point in some piece of NOT fan mail explaining why Creative COW is an uncool joke.
Ironically, the rest of the world is catching up with us on this. Facebook typically requires at least a stab at a real name -- and why bother with Facebook at all if you’re not using your name, and talking to people you know? It makes even less sense than for Creative COW.
As time goes by, many comments sections of online publications are using those real names from Facebook as log-ins, further reinforcing the idea of tying real names to online identities.
For another example, Amazon has largely (but not entirely) completed its transition to real names. They even visually identify “certified” real names!
Amazon is also an example of a policy that we instituted from the outset: moderation of all posts. We have, however, lightened this over the years to include a smaller and smaller number of posts required for people to establish themselves as “real people” who will conduct themselves decorously before lifting any moderation on our part.
But ooooh, decorum. What a filthy word that was. If a post failed the test of basic civility, appropriate language, etc., we just wouldn’t put it up. Just like Amazon. Which made the idea go over no better here.
The biggie was that we forbad commercial speech in the forums themselves. Yes, some of this was to preserve the value of our advertising inventory, but recall that Creative COW’s roots in the WWUG are in peer-to-peer problem solving. We wanted to keep the forums focused on that, and not have them be flooded by announcements of sales, free this or that if you just register, or whatever else.
It was part of our commitment to High Signal, Low Noise, a phrase that we trademarked.
But boy howdy did this not go over with the cool kids. Censorship, they cried!
In the summer of 2007, they whipped themselves into a frenzy over this in a couple of corners of the web. Some of them bombarded the COW forums with spam posts on behalf of a number of companies who had been expelled from the COW explicitly for spamming the forums with commercial messages. Care to hazard a guess how many of the cool kids worked with these companies, or were pals with their founders?
Many of these companies acted like cool kids themselves. When we suggested that they advertise instead of spamming our forums in a way that we don’t actually allow advertisers to do either, we were invariably told, “No. You’re the wrong audience for us.” But apparently not the wrong audience to spam. Fine. Whatever.
Each one of these companies was also several times bigger than ours, which, on the web side, remained only Ronald, Kathlyn, and me. Frankly, it felt like a kind of commercial bullying.
Highlight: Our Traffic Quadruples, 2007
You know what, though? Negative energy comes with the territory.
We’d become big enough, for long enough, to be an easy target. While our approach to community management has since become the overwhelming choice of online communities and comments section of every sort, across the entire web, we were in fact doing things out of step with contemporary expectations.
We’d also been playing full contact in various parts of the market for a while by then – no fewer than 5 trade magazines in our space were out of business by the end of Creative COW Magazine’s first year – and it was our turn in the barrel.
But a funny thing happened. The fury burned itself out, we suppose, like Ebola – and by the end of the year, our traffic had just about quadrupled, from roughly 125,000 unique visitors a month when the year began to roughly 500,000 by the time it ended, and it kept growing from there to the numbers mentioned earlier: today, nearly 14 times bigger than in early 2007.
We don’t have much of an explanation for any of this. We didn’t really do anything different as a result of all the brouhaha. Maybe that’s why we grew. Maybe people visited for the first time to see for themselves and stuck around.
My additional theory: the sudden spike in our visibility online, in a way that was explicitly relevant to a wide range of industry topics, led Google to believe that our name should be at or near the top of virtually any related query. We’re sure we’d have gotten there eventually, but the startling growth trajectory was undeniably related, leading straight to the numbers we enjoy today.
So, thanks guys.
Needless to say, we’ve gained over 200,000 members and tens of millions of visitors since 2007 who weren’t around for any of this. This might be the first they’re (or you’re) hearing about this, so maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it at all – I say with a wink, because of course there’s no way to tell the story of our first 15 years without telling that story.
Another 2007 Highlight: Kathlyn Gets Her House!
Ronald lived there too.
Kathlyn had for years wanted a house big enough for office stuff to stay in office spaces, allowing living, dining, and cooking spaces to be reserved for those activities.
And so, thanks to the growth of the COW’s business online and in print, the Lindebooms were able to take a proper salary for the first time, save some money for the first time, and yes, as they were just the other side of 60 from each other, they bought a house for the first time in their married lives.
THAT’s a highlight.
Highlight: Our Tenth Anniversary, The Creative COW Foundation, and AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, 2011
We wanted to do something special for our 10th anniversary, so we decided to give back to the industry that had given so much to us.
When we talked about how to do that, we talked about education and enablement – how do we help new people find their way into this industry?
Then we thought about Adobe’s investment in Kathlyn Lindeboom, our company-wide commitment to hiring women (including, by then, the amazing Debra Kaufman to raise our Hollywood coverage game both in print and online) – and of course our company mascot, Bessie.
As we sought counsel from several quarters, our longtime friend Sarahelizabeth Mason, who formerly worked in development with the American Film Institute, pointed us to AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women.
Tenth anniversary, eh? $10,000 it is then, in grants from the newly-formed Creative COW Foundation to two DWW attendees that year. We’d loved to have done more, but it felt like the right way to start paying back at least a few of the people who invested in us, specifically in people like Adobe who invested in Kathlyn as the steward of the company until Ronald felt able to return, and our ongoing commitment to bringing more women into the business, and regularly featuring their work in the highest-possible profile.
(Read more about that here in Ronald Lindeboom's essay from issue of Creative COW Magazine celebrating the COW's 10th anniversary, and here, in an interview with DWW graduate and award-winning director Lesli Linka Glatter.)
We were that year, if I’m remembering this right, the only grantors for AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women. Since then, under Chief Advancement Officer Tom West, grantors now include Google, Lifetime, NBCUniversal, the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, and many more.
We don’t take any credit for that uptick of course. That’s all Tom – although we’d like to think that the light we were able to shine on the program in our own corner of the industry helped some folks see this program for perhaps the first time, hopefully making Tom’s job a little easier. We can hope so, anyway.
In any case, our involvement with scholarship grants for AFI's Directing Workshop for Women was a highlight among highlights in our first 15 years.
Highlight: Ronald Lindeboom named to the Folio 40 Print Visionaries, 2011
Here’s another highlight among highlights, actually.
It turns out that there’s a trade magazine for people who make trade magazines, and it’s called Folio. Every year, they recognize 40 people who are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with print, and in 2011, one of the visionaries they recognized was Ronald Lindeboom.
They were very impressed with Ronald’s guiding insight, that you can build a successful print magazine on the energy coming out of an online community. They liked the idea of using artists to talk about their own work in the first person, directly to their peers – as far as we know, still the only magazine to make that their all-but exclusive approach to storytelling.
To build a successful magazine on people who were declared to be nobodies by a vocal cabal of industry luminaries who turned out to be simply, demonstrably, wrong...
...now THAT’s cool.
Cows, being cool.
I’m always glad to have the opportunity to congratulate Ronald for this remarkable achievement, and delighted to do so again on the 15th anniversary of Creative COW.
Highlight: Ma and Pa Kettle Come in for a Landing, 2012
It can also now be revealed that Creative COW Magazine was basically Ronald and me.
For years, we did all the stories and layout, pretty much everything besides the ad sales. Adding Debra Kaufman to the team allowed me to start paying at least a little attention to the online component of Creative COW, which I’d to pretty much entirely drop, but it also allowed me to grow the special print edition side of the business. Print really was pretty just me and Ronald.
By now, it had been quite a haul for Ronald and Kathlyn, as close to around the clock as they could physically manage, with only one vacation that I was aware of in the years since 1995, and it was a working vacation at that, devoted to mapping out plans for the subsequent couple of years.
Those years were up in 2012, leaving the question of what to do from there. For me, the answer was clear. Ronald and Kathlyn had run the good race, had fought the good fight, and now it was time to rest. Retirement had never crossed their minds, because it never occurred to them that they’d have the means to do it.
Kathlyn still puts in some administrative time, but Ronald really has retired. This has led to, among many other projects, a return to one of his loves, writing, resulting in the book placed for sale at Amazon this very day, the 15th anniversary of Creative COW, CUTTING THE CABLE: Covers ROKU, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast & Others.
Back in 2012, though, as a result of Ronald’s retirement, we decided to put Creative COW Magazine to bed – appropriately enough, since we mostly made the magazine while wearing pajamas.
The ever-so-slightly unfortunate part is that everything about Creative COW Magazine was moving upward: circulation was up, profits were up, we were adding pages with special supplements, and we had a million ideas we wanted to pursue – but all of it paled in the face of the prospect of getting the Lindebooms as close to retired as I could help them manage.
I could theoretically have brought someone else on and kept it going. I believe it would still be making money today, and I could have implemented some of the ideas that Ronald and I sketched out. But Creative COW Magazine was Ronald’s vision, all the way, and it just seemed right for them to retire together.
We remain incredibly proud of Creative COW Magazine, though. It was really, really good work. I still go into facilities that have every one of our issues still on display.
And we successfully established that we could win by doing the opposite of what was considered cool.
Creative COW: Beyond Cool and Uncool, and into The Business of Hope
You’ve already seen Cool and Uncool as the Yin and Yang of Creative COW. Being uncool has helped us reach into – I’m gonna say it again – 240 of the world’s nations and territories, to the people actually doing the work fueling this industry’s creative and financial engines.
As a result, lots and lots of incredibly cool people have made Creative COW part of their online lives. It tickles me no end that the final issue of Creative COW Magazine featured a woman writing the cover story, Nancy Forner, ACE, about my favorite TV show, “Style, Emotion, and ‘Vamping’ on The Vampire Diaries.”
(I went into my Vampire Diaries fandom in some considerable detail at the time, in an essay called “Confessions of a Teenage Girl.” Meaning me.)
In and among our endless conversations about rock and roll, Ronald and I spent a lot of time asking ourselves what business Creative COW is in.
At its peak, our empire stretched into DVD- and streaming-based training, stock media, a dozen podcasts in the iTunes Software How-To Top 20, even a record label. We had hopes to expand all of these, to allow more of our members to make money from their time with us.
A scaled back team means scaling back ambition, to focus on what Ronald and I identified as Creative COW’s core business many years ago.
Hope in preparing for the industry’s future via training and peer-driven insight. Hope to make sense of the present as things move almost too quickly to even see, much less understand. And hope, right now, to solve this problem so I can go home, see my family, and get some sleep.
Along the way, this industry has indeed changed almost beyond recognition. Dominant tools and technologies have come and gone. The entrepreneurial one- and two-person shops that laid our foundation have given way to salaried and freelance members of dramatically larger teams.
And yes, deeper into the heart of mainstream Hollywood production in whichever far-flung locales that happens to be this season – and even moreso, ever deeper and wider into the endless variety of how and where you work, beyond Hollywood’s reach or wildest dreams.
Thank you for making the first 15 years of Creative COW such an endless delight, for making the first 21 years of building support communities for media professionals so rewarding, and for welcoming me home for my first 10 years here.
As we acknowledge the truth in anyone’s observations of how uncool we are, we also celebrate the truth of how cool you are.