The Story of Bessie: Happy 10th Birthday, Creative COW!
COW Library : Business & Marketing : Tim Wilson : The Story of Bessie: Happy 10th Birthday, Creative COW!
The story of Creative COW's founding in April of 2001 actually begins in 1994, the year that Ronald and Kathlyn Lindeboom bought their first NLE, from Media 100. The system offered the first and only truly broadcast-quality video found then on the desktop, for the breakthrough price of "only" $30,000. Later, in 1995 when they founded the Media 100 Worldwide Users Group -- or The WWUG as it came to be known -- it wasn't a business. It was simply to find the peer-to-peer support that they needed for their own fledgling video company. And I needed it for my business too.
Like the Lindebooms, my wife and I were captivated by a vision of desktop video that could far exceed desktop publishing as a force to change the world. To my $30,000 Media 100, we added a whopping 27GB of storage for $15,000, a Sony BetaSP camera with Canon lens for another $20,000, and the bargain of the lot, a Sony UVW-1800 BetaSP deck for $10,000. So for around $70,000 all-in, I had a "cheap" video system that we re-mortgaged the house to buy -- and not a scintilla of real support by anyone who knew how the system actually worked.
After the adrenaline of setting up our new business wore off, and the burden of paying off the loan with gear that had never been designed to work together set in, it was looking mighty lonely out there.
Today, the idea of support on the web is so obvious that it's almost impossible to overstate how strange this idea was at the time. Hardly any industry vendor had a meaningful web presence in 1995, and why should they? The first widely-available browser, Netscape 1.0, had only been released in December of 1994, and they expected people to pay for it! More importantly, the web wasn't seen as the home of "true professionals." It was for the cat-loving alien abductees and others on the lunatic fringe. No, the "true professionals" were exclusively resident at AOL (or America Online as it was known then), and on internet mailing lists and Compuserve newsgroups. If you weren't around at the time, you really can't imagine the intensity of the offense that people took to the idea of trying to move professional discussion of video support to the web.
The internet was impossible to stop, of course. The Lindebooms quickly added support for Adobe After Effects, and a raft of other important software and hardware as the community grew, adding an expanding library of articles and tutorials -- again, an utter anomaly at the time, since AOL and mailing lists had nowhere to host these. The WWUG counted among its hosts some of the leading names in tutorial training, including Brian Maffitt at Total Training, Douglas Spotted Eagle of VASST, and authors Trish and Chris Meyer, among many others.
The Lindebooms in the meantime found themselves in unexpected straits. Their support venture became so time and resource-intensive that they had to close their studio in downtown Cambria, California and sell its assets just to pay for the bandwidth they were serving. It was a tough decision but Kathlyn, whom many today call 'Mama Cow,' felt that the community they had helped form should not come to an end. With their production business dissolved, they privately turned on a few occasions to friends to help pay the ever growing internet bill. I was proud to be one of those who helped.
You see, by this time, the community had become deeply personal to me, too. We had all risked everything, including our families' futures, on this thing. We had to help each other, because none of us could afford to fail. The WWUG began to use its slowly growing resources to secure loans for its members, and to find vendors to sponsor them with gear, to help each other through lean times. I can tell you that more than once I saw the Lindebooms give money to leaders who needed help. in fact, there are a number of top names in the market today who would not be where they are, or likely even in business, were it not for the generosity of the Lindebooms.
I was volunteering many hours a day in the WWUG by then, hosting a dozen forums and writing tutorials. Ronald and I had taken to talking for an hour or more by phone each day, typically in the wee small hours as we tried to unwind. We probably talked about music more than anything else, but also our dreams for when all this stuff might actually work as advertised. In the meantime, Ronald and I remarked that "workaround" was probably the most powerful word used among those working in nonlinear post production.
This business as a whole was only barely beginning to mature. 1995 was the year that QuickTime added timecode support, even if some NLEs were years away from proper drop-frame timecode support. You think your NLE's titles bite today? Photoshop didn't even add editable text until 1998. That was the year that the Mac-only Avid Film Composer was awarded an Oscar(R) statuette for the way it had changed Hollywood, although strictly as an offline tool. Media 100 remained the only truly useful broadcast-quality system within the reach of normal users -- if prices that had lowered to $40,000 all-in by then could be considered within reach, or users like us considered normal.
Software-only, pro-caliber NLEs? I don't remember thinking that this was even worth speculating about in 1995. Even seeing Macromedia Final Cut demonstrated in a basement in 1998, running on Windows(R) with a Targa 200RTX card, didn't make it feel much closer. (It's easy to forget now that Apple was in a bidding battle for Macromedia Final Cut with Media 100, who wanted to use it as the front-end for their Windows-based, hardwareaccelerated compositing system.)
From its earliest beginnings, the WWUG moderated discussions. Ronald and Kathlyn felt, quite rightly it turns out, that paying attention to what people posted in the forums was the best way to make sure that signal outweighed noise. It was the way to eliminate and prevent hate speech, sexist and racist attacks, and religious intolerance that were all too common elsewhere -- and mostly, still are. Then came advertising to subsidize spiraling expenses, and quite frankly, to support Ronald and Kathlyn's need to make a living from what had become a more-than-fulltime job.
Web advertising and moderated discussion are taken for granted now, but at the time, were considered a shocking affront to the idea of online freedom. People berated the Lindebooms, online and in person, but these things were adopted internet-wide in the most successful and respected sites because they work, and indeed, the WWUG's growth sharply accelerated each year. Until it almost ate them out of house and home. Which brings us to the turn of the century. The good news: in 2000, the WWUG was seen as worth investing in. The bad news: with the Lindebooms now as employees of said investor, they were summarily fired, dismissed with nothing to show for their own investment in the WWUG for its first four-and-a-half years.
CREATIVE COWRonald was done. Brokenhearted and without any financial reserves or options to draw upon, he said it was time to throw in the towel. But Kathlyn refused to back down. She was determined to start a new community, building on the lessons of the WWUG to "learn from the mistakes we made and do it even better this time. "If you could visit the Lindeboom's home, you'd see that it is full of cows, cows of every description: stuffed cows, kitchen mitts and towels, knick knacks, clocks, art, cookie jars -- you name it. It happened that Ronald had grown up on a dairy farm, so when Kathlyn decided to name the new community Creative COW after her favorite animal, it fit. Her idea was for a gentle, organic name, like fruit (Apple), mud (Adobe) or a river (Amazon). Only later came the happy accident that, as an acronym, COW could stand for Communities of the World. Yes, the name came before she turned it into an acronym.
"Creative COW" it was, then.
The COW was a business from day one. If Kathlyn had learned anything, it was that they were going to need money to build this thing. First to step up: Adobe, with a $15,000 grant for the COW as a woman-owned business. It was enough to prime the pump, and others soon followed. Because COWs were (and are) pros, these vendors quickly found their money returned in spades. It worked for everyone.
The COW begins. In early April 2001, this was the only available page when visiting CreativeCOW.net. It would soon change.
Including Ronald, who found himself energized by how quickly old WWUGsters formed a center of gravity that drew new pros to it, the community exploding beyond the Lindeboom's previous dreams as gear became really, truly affordable.
At the same time, COW member businesses were growing so that buying even expensive video cameras like Panasonic Varicams and the Sony F-900s became reasonable alternatives to renting film cameras, enabling the highest levels of production to move outside traditional centers. (Those cameras and their progeny, including the ARRI Alexa, remain the heart of the COW's camera communities.)
If you've been reading Creative COW Magazine for any length of time, as recently as our "Five Years" issue last December, you know much of the rest of the story. Ronald was now adding his energy and vision to the COW again, which had hired a couple of coders and a full-time salesman. Success online led to a tradeshow, Creative COW West, in 2003, which made a profit out of the gate, even if it proved too exhausting to repeat. (Thanks to the repository of eternal knowledge that is Google, you can still find enough fragments by searching for "Creative COW West" to give you some idea of its scale. I was there as an exhibitor, manning the booth for Boris FX, and I can tell you, it was the biggest small show I've seen to this day.)
After volunteering at the WWUG alongside my "day job," I moved to Boris FX, and from there to Avid, to be lured into a full-time job at Creative COW in 2006. I came into the tail end of the second issue of the COW Magazine, which was founded flying in the face of every bit of wisdom, both conventional and otherwise. I have held on for the ride, and it's the best job I could ever imagine. I couldn't possibly be more honored to be part of this. The Creative COW Foundation was established in 2010, with 100% of funds going directly to educational scholarships, first to the AFI Directing Workshop for Women as a tribute to Kathlyn, Bessie, and the COW's commitment to keeping the online production community safe for all women - far, far from a given, even in the 21st century.
So here we are. The COW team has expanded to a dozen people. Over a million and a half monthly visitors, with over 200,000 active membership accounts, newsletter subscriptions approaching 300,000, and over 100,000 monthly readers of the COW Magazine -- all representing the largest numbers in the industry.
You'll see the first glimmer of the year-long celebration of the COW's 10th anniversary begin with the Creative COW Magazine app, now almost done. I'll save more of the surprises for later, but then again, none of it should be surprising by now. It has been an insanely long road, obstacles obliterated and success won through a combination of inspiration, force of will, and a community of undeterrable professionals.
As they considered the COW's founding in difficult times, they recalled the prophet poet king David's words, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."
Or as Ronald has observed, if cast your bread upon the waters, it will come back to you as sandwiches.
Happy Anniversary, Bessie, and many more.