Scientists among artists

A bit more than a year ago, O’Reilly Media hosted an “executive roundtable” just ahead of its 2012 Tools of Change (TOC) conference in New York. For an audience of publishers and industry partners, Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, described the data-driven approach he took to writing and marketing his book.

While the roundtable presentation and the subsequent dialogue were not recorded, you can watch Ries give a shorter version of his remarks as a TOC keynote. After he finished his presentation at the roundtable, members of the audience posed a number of questions challenging Ries’s approach. One question described his use of market-driven data as “dangerous”, something that potentially would encourage authors to write to the lowest common denominator.

Ries did a credible job defending his approach; he’s all-in on the ideas contained in his book. By the end of the session, though, I kind of felt as if a core set of publishing veterans had sequestered his ideas as things that were interesting but not really relevant to the business.

That roundtable experience came to mind recently, when I started re-reading “The vine nerds”. A Wired story written by Jeffrey M. O’Brien, the article profiles Thibault Scholasch and Sebastien Payen, two Frenchmen who founded Fruition Sciences.

The company monitors the amount of water in the vines whose grapes will be used to make wine. A small but apparently growing number of vineyard owners have hired Fruition Sciences to help them improve the quality of the grapes they produce. Along the way, many vineyards have been able to significantly reduce the amount of irrigation water they consume.

Helpfully, O’Brien spends a good deal of time explaining the science of raising grapes. What reminded me of that roundtable with Eric Ries, though, was the reaction of some successful vineyard owners. Brad Grimes of Abreu Vineyard offers his thoughts:

For us, farming is about gut feeling, common sense, and the relationship we have with our properties. We don’t utilize any of those services, and we stay away from technology. What Fruition has done has been pretty radical. Maybe it’s archaic and old-school, but I just have a problem with having so much data. There’s a scientific part to their business that I just can’t align myself with.

In a similar (and somewhat more pointed) reaction, Jayson Woodbridge of the Hundred Acre vineyard told O’Brien:

I farm in the old-fashioned way, and I win the races. If they’re going to tell me that giving the plants water before it gets hot is wrong, they can [deleted because this is a family blog]. When you’re in a vineyard and it’s 120 degrees, all the leaves are turning upside down. They shut down.

There’s no doubt that vineyards like Abreu and Hundred Acre are successful now, but their owners may also be playing the roles that the skeptical audience did with Eric Ries last year. Disruptive innovation can start small, offering a more efficient solution (reduce or eliminate water consumption) with at least momentarily lower quality.

What happens next is reflected in history: the leading disk-drive manufacturers and steel mills were replaced as the old paradigm limited their visions. It’s fair to say that disruption is now finding its way through ad-supported media companies. I don’t know if Eric Ries is right (though he makes a good case), but it’s more than fair to ask any publisher “What would you need to do differently if his idea is valid?”

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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