An interview with John Fox, creator of MemoryMiner

This interview with John Fox of GroupSmarts, LLC is the eleventh in a series of interviews I've held with indie software developers about marketing Mac software. Previous interviews: Paul Kafasis, Gedeon Maheux, Justin WilliamsGus MuellerDaniel Jalkut, Rich Siegel, Oliver Breidenbach, Jacob Gorban, Jean MacDonald, and Kevin Hoctor.

John Fox A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Really young. If you look at the original photo you will learn the interesting story about it.

John Fox (@djembe on Twitter) is the creator of MemoryMiner, a cool application used to "discover the threads connecting peoples' lives across time and place." His professional background is Digital Asset Management (or DAM). At his prior company WebWare, he created a rather sophisticated web-based application used by the likes of Martha Stewart, Sony Pictures, Harvard Business School, et al. to organize, distribute and track the usage of their valuable digital media. Over a 12 month period starting in 2003, the confluence of several life-changing events (his father died, he got married, and had a child) made him want to put his skills towards more humanistic endeavors, and thus was born MemoryMiner. His goal with MemoryMiner has been to create a great tool for the recording and sharing of individual life memories which in turn could be aggregated on a massive scale. The end goal (which he admits is a huge undertaking) is to create a network of first-person accounts of modern society and culture that can be browsed by people, place and time.

DW: Good evening, J.F. To start out, can you tell us some of the marketing activities you do?

JF: In general, my main marketing activities are attending conferences in order to uncover opportunities for my app to be put to good use. I try to do a fair amount of blogging, and am the co-host of the MDN Show with Steve Scott. You have to market yourself as well as your product.

I definitely subscribe to the "always be marketing" strategy that Daniel Jalkut spoke about in a prior installment of this interview series. The goal of any marketing is to promote top-of-mind awareness of your product, service or person. I therefore try to think as strategically as possible so that one activity builds on another towards some concrete end goals. In 2007, the year after MemoryMiner first shipped, I had the opportunity to have the app included in the gift bag at the TED conference. My goal was to get an "in" with influential people who might then become fans of the software and the MemoryMiner project in general. I had zero budget, so I created a very simple letter inside an envelope which had a piece of thread sticking out of it. The letter inside spoke about the the threads that connect people which may not be obvious at first. In order to get the software, they had to send an email, and happily enough, I had a great response.

It was a bit of a pain assembling the envelopes, but I believe the hand-crafted nature of it made it stand out against the other far slicker goodies. As a direct result of this exposure, I was given the opportunity to present MemoryMiner at the Los Angeles Idea Project, which is a TED spinoff conference. I've gotten tons of mileage from this, not only because of the follow-on projects and contacts, but because the video turned out pretty well. It's featured in the Company section of my web site and provides a pretty good overview of why I created MemoryMiner in the first place. 

DW: What would you say is different in how your company approaches marketing, compared to other small/indie Mac software companies out there?

JF: MemoryMiner is first and foremost a work of passion for me. I'm as interested in what people do with the software, and how I think it genuinely contributes to society, than I am in the commercial aspects of it. I'm not looking to create a "hit single" then move on to the next idea. As a result, I tend to take a fairly long-term view with my marketing activities. 

DW: What's a marketing technique that you'd like to recommend for other indies?

JF: I give MemoryMiner for free to secondary schools and non-profit organizations. It costs nothing to do, is great karma, and you never know how some small act of kindness will positively reverberate in the future. While some larger school systems have budgets, the process of getting your application sold to schools takes a long time. An example of a positive outcome is that the technical director of a school system to which I'd given MemoryMiner subsequently went to work at the Bay Area Video Coalition. He asked for a grant for BAVC, and invited me to be a mentor at their Producers Institute, where promising documentary film makers spend a week working on their projects. I blogged about it here.

Generally speaking, you only get one "speeds and feeds" type PR opportunity per software release cycle. After that, most people only want to write about interesting things that people do with your app, not the app itself. If your software could be helpful to some group or individual, give it to them, and be willing to help them use it. The end result is that you have something interesting for other people to write about. You'll also learn a ton about how the software can be made more intuitive, or where there are holes that need to be filled. Schools are particularly good for this, since both students and teachers are always being pulled in a million different directions at once. Your app needs to be able to cut through the many demands on a person's time and attention.

DW: How do you measure success of your various marketing activities?

JF: It's hard to do this objectively. Whenever possible, I ask people how they heard about MemoryMiner. I then take the time to thank people who have written about it, or recommended it. There's nothing better than word of mouth which is something you have to earn over time. 

For more concrete measurements, I use a pretty sophisticated web analytics tool called Visistat. When I sponsored the Daring Fireball feed, I was able to track referrals using a specific URL in the link (e.g. and through the use of a coupon code. That's about as close as you can get to objective measurement of a specific marketing activity.

DW: So, what marketing activities have you found were actually not that beneficial?

JF: When I launched MemoryMiner, I hired a PR firm on retainer. They were extremely helpful for the launch, but pretty ineffective in the following months. If I had it to do over again, I would have put the money into hiring students to create sample projects using the software. You have to think of marketing as a megaphone to a great story. If you don't have a great story then you're better off working on that part first. 

DW: Can you tell me about your website, from a marketing perspective?

JF: After a few years, my website had become pretty long in the tooth: there were many pages with rather different layout styles. It was a mess. Like so many others,  I consider Panic's web site to be the best example of the "single page" website. Ultimately, you want to make it incredibly easy for people to try and buy your app. You also want to make it as fast as possible for people to get a taste of what your app can do, which is why I embed a screen movie and screen shots front and center. I think the MemoryMiner web site is now oodles better than it used to be, but there's still a number of things that could be improved. It needs a press section with screen grabs and multiple short, medium and long text snippets to describe the app. Real Mac does a great job with this.

There's no substitute for having a great website, and that costs money and takes time to develop and refine. There are a number of great designers and small firms in the Mac community and I always prefer to go to them first. The problem is that the best people and studios are frequently unavailable. A good fallback resource is CrowdSpring where you can put a graphic design or writing project out to bid. There are tons of talented people around the world looking for work: this site helps you find them. 

DW: Any other cool marketing approaches?

JF: Sometimes I blog about ways in which I'd like to see the software be used, then subtly or not so subtly point people to it via Twitter or email. Here's an example of such a post where I talk about some R&D work I did that might be productized or otherwise put to good use in museum exhibits or by lecturers. As a result of this post, I've found a collaborator who wants to help develop this idea, which is great. 

I've found in recent months that it never hurts to ask for help. For example, after attending NSConference, it was made abundantly clear to me that MemoryMiner really needs an out of the box sample library. I tweeted, asking people for suggestions of famous or important people to include in such a library. I got great suggestions (including yours for using the people mentioned in the Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire") and received several offers of help for some specific people to whom they had a connection. Had I tweeted this a year ago before I had gotten to know so many other fellow indies from being on the MDN Show I don't think I would gotten nearly the response.

I had a drum teacher in junior high who always used to say "success is a result not a goal."  Your reputation is important and this is directly related to your personal brand. I've been given so much help by people over the years that I always try to give back in whatever ways I can. In some cases, this means sending cash donations to people who create open-source code, in other cases, it's donating to a charity that's important to someone who helped you. In other cases, it's taking the time to patiently answer questions from people who are just getting started. To the extent that I've done anything well in my career, it's because people along the way have helped me out along the way. If you let this attitude guide you, good things have a way of happening. 

DW: Thanks for letting me take time away from your programming activities!

JF: Thank you for the 

(That's really how John ended it. I'm assuming he collapsed from exhaustion as a result of typing these wonderful answers. John, I hope you are recovered by now!)

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