5 things transmedia startups can learn from Deadwood

Transmedia is still a country for pioneers & prospectors. We are embarking on the big gold rush. Those who believe in it go all in and endure tough times finding financial and creative partners. In some parts of the world the concept has been proven viable but not yet as revolutionary or system-changing as its potential might indicate. Other parts of the world, like here in Asia, it is seen as mere illusion. A fad of the western market that will soon pass while one can maintain the status quo of overblown traditional ad budgets and cheap TV commercials while the content creators die a slow death by dumping salaries.

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As I recently revisited HBO’s DEADWOOD I found myself thinking that times might change but the social situations and behavior pattern we live in don’t. I saw a couple of similarities with being an entrepreneur and especially dwelling into an unchartered territory of new media storytelling.

DEADWOOD describes the establishment and construction of a gold prospector camp in the Wild West that turns into a functional community and town eventually. This community is solely build on the fundaments of prostitution, drinking and hardware sales. Think you’re already beginning to understand where this is headed and why this topic is relevant for ICT related startups.

Hence, here my attempt to draw some random parallels, more a shot in the dark though. The points presented below are not in any particular order.

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1) Tap into the social conscious.

Al Swearengen clearly runs the whole camp and decides about the fate of every person living within. By building up a sophisticated network of informers, prostitutes and underlings he got a tight grip around this community. Yes, he is a businessman and all his decisions result in his personal benefit. However, he also knows running a business is subject to a functioning community. Thus, he constantly adjusts his business model and market strategy towards the situation at hand. At first, for instance, he offers discount promotions when a settler family gets murdered allegedly by Indians outside the camp: “God rest the souls of that poor family… and pussy’s half price for the next 15 minutes”. Later into the series, his interests change and become more focused on the functionality of the community, making him merge with other peoples’ agenda in order to keep the camp’s infrastructure intact.

In transmedia the audience is not where the revenue comes from, but rather they are the revenue. The audience that you as content creator can reach and engage will attract other entities to put up financial assets that will eventually be your revenue stream. Building an audience by specifically targeted content, implemented to a specific time slot based on close observation of the audiences’ environment and situation will lead to a sustainable transmedia business model.

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2) Get the right hardware.

Besides the saloons and hotels a center point of Deadwood is the Bullock & Star hardware store. Everyone in the camp is an entrepreneur on his/her own, as are the two founders of this store. However, as the store turns quickly from a tent based street business into a solid building the founders begin to reach into new endeavors. While providing the main hardware supply for prospecting, which is the substrate for the camp to technical evolution, the store functions as incubator for important communal institutions as well.

First, one of the founders closest friends opens a freight service which connects the camp with the next big city and secures supplies as well as postal services. The hardware store then turns into the interim location of the newly establish bank while Sol Star will act as the bank’s treasurer. Also, Seth Bullock eventually takes on the role as sheriff and hence uses this location as center for his operations.

Now, transmedia highly relies on internet, gadgets, phones and other communication technology. Not every project utilizes all technical channels at its disposal nor should it. There are new startups popping up with new technical solutions to connect people on a daily basis. It is essential for a transmedia producer not just to rely on already established ways to incorporate and implement a project. Closely monitoring new concepts, teaming up with other startups from versatile disciplines, testing their solutions in the field. As fascinating as most technical hardware might be, always focus on how this will help your audience AND clients to find gold. Cause when they do, they will come back, asking for more and better tools!

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3) Kill your legends.

Deadwood breaks with a whole truckload of Western clichés on a minute basis. Cursing in every sentence, mud and dirt everywhere, a brothel as center of legit business. People are getting their throats slit from behind and fed to pigs rather than shot in a scenic duel on the thoroughfare during dramatic trumpet music. Deadwood makes gritty Spaghetti Westerns look like Disney films. In episode 5, one of the series’ most prominent historic figures, Wild Bill Hickock gets shot from behind while playing cards. His dead as quick and inglorious as the way he gets buried.

The way the series’ handles Western legends of all kinds can be described as ignoring at best. Of course, the producers were aiming for authenticity and hence deconstruct a very resilient mythology. By doing so a new point of view on former holy genre ingredients gets created. A fresh start for a new audience and an innovative angle for bored genre veterans. Transmedia is all about figuring out new angles, new approaches and yes, new audiences. Liberating yourself from fixed strategy thinking will make your ideas stick out more. Test how far can you go, see what sticks. After all, transmedia still needs education, on both sides, audience as well as producers.

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4) Have a Doc.

No matter how many creative minds and experienced executioners you got on your team to plot and implement concepts, you need a brilliant troubleshooter. Someone who knows how to fix things the fast way and got knowledge from all sides, technical as well as organizational. This person won’t be your leading man or no.1 in decision-making but will step forward and given the tools to be in charge when needed. In-between
times of crisis he is mostly the conscious of your team, keeping up motivation as preventive measure.

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5) Expect flak from the establishment.

In season 3 the town gets “invaded” by the tycoon George Hearst who is determined to take over Ms. Garret/Ellsworth’s gold claim, which constitutes the richest find in the area as well as the financial backing of the newly established Bank of Deadwood. As the situation gets tense Hearst brings in a troop of Pinkertons to settle things in his favor, mostly by means of violence and intimidation.

The character Hearst represents clearly the old establishment who wants to possess the new findings in order to include them to his portfolio where it will merge with the rest of his corporate assets, hence lose its edge, competitiveness and attraction. This act would not only rearrange the complex ownership relationships among the camp’s residents but also jeopardize a fragile financial ecosystem that just has been setup to serve the needs of the local community and industry in order to contribute to growth and stabilize social affairs.

Realizing this imminent threat, Deadwood’s residents unite and form an alliance to fight for what they built up. Partnerships emerge that had been unthinkable before. Hearst’s presence made all reevaluate their own role within the camp as well as putting the own objectives of making a fast buck behind those of the community. Sustainability, commitment and long term “investments” ( referring to strategically decisions and conducted labor) begin to take over peoples thinking.

Try to team up, find strategic partners that not necessarily are within in your line of work. Transmedia spreads into so many diverse areas and it takes quite an enormous network to keep your ideas fresh and business afloat. The big production houses and ad agencies will always torpedo your work. The moment something in transmedia works, they will copy it and integrated into production chains in the hope to keep the old system alive for another 6 months. Start thinking in long term arrangements, build step by step, even though today’s battle seems to be lost.

There are far more aspects and incidents not here described that hold valuable lessons for transmedia startups. And I haven’t even tackled the role of the Chinese yet. However, try to catch this series and not just indulge in its phenomenal phonetics but rather dig into it with an entrepreneur’s perspective. The gold awaits!

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