Goodbye Old Year, Hello New: The Best and Worst of 2018

Here’s an understatement:  It’s been a year. I’m happy to say that all is overwhelmingly good. The family has health and good fortune and despite the ups and downs of daily life we have had no major difficulties to speak of. That said I thought I would put together a quick rundown of the best and worst of 2018 – this should give you and me and clean slate to work from in 2019.

green grass covered rock formation at daytime
Photo by Jacob Aguilar-Friend on Unsplash

This year included our first forays into youth baseball, cub scouts and a full year with our puppy Hazel.  We’ve made new friends and neighbors, made great progress at work and managed to fit in a few fun family reunions this year.

Social Media

Social media really has been turned on its head this year! I say this as a digital marketer and long time user of several social platforms. 

  • Facebook has gone from being the tool of choice for businesses to one that has left brands scratching their heads. 
  • Google Plus has finally been shuttered.
  • Twitter has sorted some of its technology handicaps and resolved controversial features such as the 140 character limit, and it’s actually become a joy to use, yet the user base has shrunk. 
  • LinkedIn has become overcrowded and sterile. 

All in all, it has provided those of us in industry with an opportunity to reevaluate how we use these platforms, what engagement is really valuable, and what ways can we differentiate our content.  I think the next year will prove to be interesting and exciting, but we’ve got quite a bit of work to do.


I made a single post this year, not including this one. Not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I didn’t prioritize posting next to other things. I started many but broke my own commitment to finish those posts and launch them. I resolve to get over that and post regularly this year. 

The post I did make was one out of frustration with the growing amount of anti-semitism in the world today. Pittsburgh was a wake up call that it is still alive and well here at home in the US, but recent news shows it starting to manifest itself in many other places ranging from the writings of Alice Walker to Belgian soccer matches. Turns out this trend has been visible for the last several years, particularly across Europe as noted in this recent report on antisemitism in Europe.


Greats that we lost this year were many, but I was especially touched by the losses of Stan Lee, Stephen Hawking, and Johann Johannsson. Stan started the comic book universe that was so foundational to my youth. Hawking taught me to unlock my love for hard science through application and imagination. Johannsson was an artist I only discovered in recent years for his incredibly powerful film scores that left me searching for the composer.  Such giants in their respective fields.

TV Winners: Game of Thrones (S7), Westworld (S2), Better Call Saul, Narcos, Homecoming and Ozark.

TV Losers:  House of Cards and Homeland final seasons

Podcast Favorites: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, The Daily, Song Explorer, How I Built This, Love Your Work and Westworld: The Recappables, 

Books I Enjoyed This Year

I read and listened to a ton of books this year, which was great. That said, here are a few of my favorites. 

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work – A very poignant new volume from DHH and Jason Fried over at Basecamp. A reassuring manifesto that you can do good, smart work in a civilized fashion and know that you can thrive at work and at home and be satisfied while doing so. This has influenced many of my interactions with colleagues this year.

The Strange Death of Europe – I’m a couple of years late on this book, but it’s been an unexpected treat in how provocative its been to my own thoughts on the global challenges with immigration and what it means to current nation states now and in the future. The book has had some harsh reviews, given its politics can be interpreted to be very conservative, but I think its a very powerful review of recent history.

The Sirens of Titan – I was inspired to read this Kurt Vonnegut classic after seeing it on the coffee table in Westworld. The book is a sometimes silly and other times horrifying adventure through our solar system, pairing ordinary people with extraordinary beings. The ultimate conclusion is a powerful sentiment about the meaning of human life, that is to love and be loved.

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic – A meaty and somewhat heady tome on the philosophies and writings that inspired the American revolution. Highly recommended but this one takes some time to work through, particularly given how many other references it makes that you may wind up checking out. 

Turtles All The Way Down – Great young adult fiction.  I stumbled upon this and was intrigued by the title. After learning it was written by the writer of a number of really popular YA books/films, I thought I would give it a try.  Turned out to be a fantastic look into mental illness in teens that was a page turner all the way down (err.. through). Highly recommended.

Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI – Probably the greatest piece of content marketing I’ve read in years. This text by the CTO of Accenture, is effectively a pattern language for businesses exploring automation at enterprise scale. Starting with a primer on basic machine learning concepts, it expands to talk about how human resources and organizational design will change to account for these new technology paradigms.  A must if you ponder the future of work. Also great if you are trying to figure out how to make your business’ content educational and relevant to your customers.

When Breath Becomes Air – Heartbreaking true story of a surgeon gripped by cancer. The book tracks his discovery of the disease, his fight against it, and relationships with coworkers, friends and family during the period. It approaches head on the idea of preparing one’s self to die. 

The Hard Thing About Hard Things – In recent years, this became one of those business books that you’re expected to read if you follow the startup technology scene. Written by one of the founders of the leading VC firms, Ben Horowitz, this is an easy to read and honest transfer of lessons from someone who has been a part of growing or helping to grow some very significant companies of our time.


This year was one to be proud of for our digital and demand generation team at ICF.  We successfully implemented and launched Marketo across our organization and made some key hires on our demand generation team.  Our web team has really started to come into its own, with a new leader and solid contributors on all fronts from content and design to SEO to analytics and optimization.  The organization also successfully completed four acquisitions in which our team played a major role of integrating sites into our experience. We also worked on launching a new brand for our marketing services agency, ICF Next – expect more on that in the coming few weeks.

Health and Fitness

This year, Yoga continued to be my go-to method. I’ve become stronger and improved my balance overall, but I’m starting to feel that I need to diversify my workouts to stay fit.  While I’m happy that I could recently get into my wedding suit comfortably, my goal is to get myself back into the shape I was when I felt best in my life. More to come in the next couple of weeks as I put my program together.

Family Trees

I’ve been deep into family tree research over the last two years, and this year led to some huge discoveries on both sides of my family. I managed to meet a few of my third and fourth cousins around the country, that I had never met and developed some great new online relationships with others. I also have managed to trace back a few of my family lines further back than I thought would be possible through DNA and document research.  I’m very excited to see what I can learn in 2019!

Thanks for reading!

Please comment or contact me directly to let me know what you have been up to. I promise to keep up my writing this year, but look forward to hearing from you and what posts you have enjoyed.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’ve allowed myself to wrestle with a number of half finished posts for a while. Today the news has me so overcome with sadness that I have no choice but to post something. Earlier today, an anti-Semitic terrorist burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue and shouted “death to all Jews” before gunning 10 people down, all on a Shabbat morning.

All of this happened after an especially tough week, one in which an old friend became horribly sick and home just seemed too far away again.

It could have been my family today.

I’ve spent the last two years digging deep into my ancestry, uncovering the towns from whence my great great grandparents came. They escaped the pogroms of Russia and Poland only to create the seeds of a better life here in America. Now it feels like we’re right back where they started.

We were already dealing with the boys having to grow up with drills in school in the case of active shooters. Now they need to learn that there are people who simply want to kill Jews wherever they are. How did we get back to this place?

Who pays the bill for eliminating net neutrality? You and me.

When I started my career, I was not certain that I wanted to be a technologist. I took a job with a higher education publisher because I thought that books and education were cool. My experience there excited me about software development and I took on a voracious appetite to learn how to build software.
Complicated Computer Code
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
What was interesting about this time was that you couldn’t just decide you wanted to learn how to program as an adult, at least not easily. This was because most of the software programming languages actually cost a significant amount of money to buy, as did the books and courses to learn how, even if you could get access.  There were several enormous barriers to entry in the way of prospective developers including: money, status, and corporate sponsorship, all before hard work.  Then there was bandwidth: even if you could get the other parts to line up, you still had to go home to a dial-up internet service provider and try to pull down whatever content you were lucky enough to find over a small pipe.
This all changed when the world wide web started to roll out in full force.  Soon people were publishing courses on how to program different languages. Not long after that, we started to see more powerful software like programming languages and operating systems get open sourced.  This was the beginning of a new kind of free culture that was put on hyper-speed once broadband internet made its way into homes and schools.
Along with these developments came the ability for any average person to get an idea and learn how to implement and distribute it freely and quickly.  Sure, you still needed access to computers and networks, but the price of these had been driven down so much that it was virtually free to innovate with little up front investment.
The specter of the repeal of net neutrality runs the risk of taking us back to a different time.  This would be one where access could be throttled for those who cannot afford the same fee structure.  I’ve forgotten what it was exactly like to try and pull down file archives from a dial-up bulletin board, but I remember it being awful. 
Net neutrality was the concept that all content should be treated equally by internet providers based on consumer choice.  This implied that delivery and content should be separate in order to keep organizations from favoring their own content.   
The Master Switch by Tim Wu is the authoritative text on the subject. It was eye opening when it was published 7 years ago, and slightly more terrifying now. We’ve been watching convergence of bandwidth, content and copyright happen at a speed that we have never seen before, and now, the lobbying pressure has been put on full blast for the FCC to eliminate Net Neutrality provisions. 
I don’t want to go back to a world where information is expensive. Where its hard to create new things because you simply cannot afford the tools. I hope you don’t either.
Do what’s in your power to get educated on net neutrality and the battle for the open web. Talk to your friends, relatives and congressional representatives.  The cable companies and wireless firms are utilities that provide a public service and should be treated as such.  Putting velvet ropes around the best parts of the web will not accomplish anything other than slow our productivity and stifle innovation.

Buyer Beware

I’ve been spoiled. Spoiled in that I’ve had the privilege to work with some pretty amazing software developers in my day. The kind that are always looking to be better at what they do.

pawn shop photo
Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

During the last couple of years, I’ve been reminded that solid software craftsmanship is a rare thing. In fact, there are just a great number of companies that make a good living off of poor workmanship. They do some hand waving in the design workshops, print really colorful journey maps on large sheets of paper and make nice license origination bonuses from software vendors. They don’t develop a shared vision with their customer and they certainly don’t stand by their work.

I had worked with companies like this in the past, but then was lucky enough to avoid them for several years. I guess I tricked myself into believing they didn’t exist anymore, but I was wrong. They’re still out there.

It’s up to you as a technology buyer to own your solution. This means understanding the requirements, the technology and the talent. It also means that the only one to blame for picking a bad partner is you. You need to know when you’re partner is not going to stand by you every step of the way, and when that happens, find a new one.

Bad technology partners are like ungrateful houseguests that overstay their welcome. They take advantage of your good nature when they repeatedly cut and paste their way to your first release. They unpack their 7 different javascript frameworks into your codebase without having an opinion why. They fail to install the software licenses they were rewarded for selling to you so that your website crashes.

Great technology partners are like good friends. They’ll be with you through good times, and likely lots of bad times, but they’ll stick with you every step of the way. They clean up after your bad partners after they’ve left the party. They ask for things that make it easier for them to help you. They educate you on better ways to do things and they consistently exceed your expectations of value.

What kind of partner do you want? What kind of partner do you want to be?

Growth Hacks Gone Too Far

Advice for software companies looking to delight users

During my career, I’ve been a major fan of enterprise collaboration tools. I was always quite excited about trying new applications and recommending some of them to colleagues.  
Later, as I made my way into marketing I became very interested in the place where the disciplines of marketing and product intersect.  The “growth hacking” industry has become  quite popular and as it turns out somewhat ruthless in terms of what it will do to get new users to target.

Case in point, is a very popular design prototyping and collaboration product, InVision.  One of our partners introduced me to the software years ago. It is a very convenient way to showcase designs in progress to stakeholders.  Unfortunately, being on the receiving end of a share link to a project and choosing to comment on a design puts you in the crosshairs of their sales team.
I understand that the application currently requires you to create an account to comment on a design. It is a bridge too far to assume that everyone commenting is considering purchasing a tool for prototyping designs.
I’m all for ingenuity and creativity in trying to gain new users. I also think there is a balance to achieve between an individual’s privacy and right to work and not be prospected. There is an opportunity for InVision to pop a simple message to a user who has logged in to comment. Something like: 
“Hey there, We hope you’re enjoying the experience of working with our product to review a design with your team. Do you know anyone who might be interested in this product for their work? Please tell them about your experience!”
I’m not naive, but I am getting a bit jaded after seeing these tactics explode during the last decade. Let’s start a new trend of making sure people have a delightful experience and then making them feel special rather than jumping to what they can do for us.  


What examples have you seen from other organizations in this vein?  Please share in the comments.

Innovation Hibernation: The Road to Straight-Through Processing

Effective last week on September 5th, the investment industry moved to  “T+2” settlement.
This new rule makes investment transactions complete two business days after the actual transaction date.  This is a change to the long standing “T+3” settlement rule which since the 1990’s has caused investors to have to wait three business days before they could consider their transactions closed. Keep in mind this was a huge jump from the T+6 rule that existed previously.
Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash
Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash
What’s fascinating to me is that the last time I was thinking about this rule, it was 2001. That year, there had been a huge push by the major investment banks to move to what would be called “Straight Though Processing” or STP for short. If you worked in financial systems integration consulting, you were working on STP.  In any event, I can remember being perched in our Manhattan offices through the midnight hours to develop our several hundred page proposal.
Later that year our attention turned to 9/11, and STP was no longer as important as keeping the financial system running. Just a few years after that, we lived through another financial crisis, this time due to mortgage-backed securities fraud. That crisis which brought down several of the largest players in finance also pushed the notion of STP further away from public awareness.
So here we are, 16 years later with a reduction in settlement time of one day. The nirvana of STP is still elusive, but it’s kept alive in terms of progress toward an ideal: you’ll see clearing houses now present their STP Rate (e.g. 95% STP).  That said, the road to T+2 is one that illustrates some important points about innovation in business.
  1. You can never underestimate the ability of a crisis to sideline even the boldest business ideas. 9/11 was an event of monumental significance where the sheer emotional and destructive forces unleashed succeeded in pushing this initiative far from the minds  of those who would champion it.
  2. Incremental improvements can often be “good enough”.  In this case, 16 years later, the industry pushed to “T+2” while maintaining the spirit of STP. While this was short of the goal, the reality is that one day gained back by investors is enough to eliminate mountains of incomplete trades and put more money back into new investments.
  3. You’re going to need a bigger framework.  STP was trying to make a number of existing complex systems work together. In contrast, the greenfield Securities Process Automation (SPA) movement has shared many of the same goals as STP while also proscribing a more far-reaching ideal. That said, it has been much more modest and pragmatic in implementation recommendations.
In any event, it’s great to see something you worked on come to fruition. I wonder what we’ll be saying about Blockchain in 16 years.

Climbing family trees: Research lessons from my personal experience

Some years ago, I read the book , and I finally thought that it might not be impossible to learn about my family history.  When you’ve descended from eastern European Jews, this is not uncommon to hear.   
After a lifetime of hearing that we did not know origins of my maternal family prior to my great grandfather, I was intrigued to know that it might actually be possible to track them down. I started researching names of villages and found a few clues.
Fast forward several years later, and a DNA test that my wife purchased for us awoke my curiosity again and got me into pulling in resources from both sides of my family.  Luckily on my father’s side, there had been a tremendous amount of research done by two of my cousins and on my mother’s side, a distant cousin had already started pulling together quite a bit of detail about her wing.
After several weeks of obsessive researching, I can say that I haven’t necessarily gone that much further back, however, the richness of the information I’ve found is incredible.
I’m still untying a few interesting things that I’ve found, but in the meantime, I thought that I would share a few interesting lessons from the journey so far.
A neighborhood of Eastern Europe likely not much different from where my family lived.
What’s in a name?
We take so much pride in our names and what they mean. I’m beginning to think we shouldn’t take so much stake in them.
Unless you were extremely wealthy, it’s likely that you may not have even had a “last name” until the mid 1800’s.  Even then, traditions vary by country.  In the case of of the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the leadership there forced them to start taking surnames in the mid-19th century.  In Italy, where my father’s family hails from, names were very complex as some regions saw children carrying both a maternal and paternal element in their name whereas others included a descriptor of their village.    And those are just surnames.
Given names (or first names) can be even worse.  If your great-grandparents were native Yiddish speakers, I can tell you their names were probably not originally spelled anything like what you remembered them to be.  It’s likely that they either made up something so that it was easier to relay to customs, or it was written down wrong.  I just learned a great-aunt Carrie was originally named “Kreince”.
Skeletons in the closet
Do you have skeleton’s in your closet? Probably. It might not even be that anyone tried to hide it from you. It’s more likely that you just don’t remember clues they dropped when you were younger. It’s been pretty exciting to be digging through old records and finding out that certain relatives were married multiple times or had kids incredibly early.  It was a bit more shocking to me when I learned my great grandfather after becoming a widower, remarried only to have his new wife try and kill him!  My favorite yet was a great uncle who was apprehended as a stow-away on a freighter in one of multiple attempts to emigrate to America.  
Nationality is a pretty ephemeral concept
Most of my mother’s family comes from a region that was tossed between oligarchs and landlords during medieval times, later possessed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then passed back and forth between Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Many of my relatives lived through some of those very transitions.
In my father’s family, they came from Italy in a time when it was barely a single country. In fact, my Grandmother’s family was so far north in Italy that it was practically Switzerland.  A bit of my most recent research suggests that the generation prior was actually from the Zurich region of Switzerland.  This doesn’t shock me given my complexion, but I never would have known without some deep sleuthing of shipping manifests.
Technology made quite a bit possible, but networks have truly enabled genealogy for the average person
I am completely in shock at how good the automated character recognition software has become to allow so many historic documents to be read, cataloged and indexed. That said, you still can’t rely on it entirely as software makes large numbers of mistakes. Especially when trying to decipher handwriting of people writing down spoken word answers from immigrants speaking a different language. 
It’s the power of the network that allowed me to identify a strange notation appearing on a great-great-uncle’s ship manifest that indicated his hometown was in a specific region of Switzerland. That annotation was so commonly used that I was able to find websites dedicated to these shorthand markings used by immigration officials.  
Similarly, it’s the power of the network that has allowed grassroots organizations like JewishGen to fundraise to secure, preserve, translate and index massive collections of records from the historic regions of Poland and Austria from which my family came.
Kolomiya - Turn of the 20th Century
I think I’ll end up with more questions than answers
I’ve certainly found that I know so little about the people who decided to upend their lives to travel to America. Presumably it was to escape what history suggests were some terrible times in their home countries. 
That said, when I look at their arrival documents, I see they came with frequently zero dollars in their pocket (sometimes as high as twenty).  Many times they were coming ahead of a spouse. Sometimes they were completely alone, maybe meeting a friend or a cousin. Often they were detained for multiple days at Ellis Island only to then head out into the world to have to make sense of this country.
They worked hard. They had hard jobs, lived in small apartments, often with extended family. Their existence is so far from the comfort I have come to know.  
I wonder if they felt they achieved a better life. I suppose above all else, I’m thankful that they let me have one.
Stay tuned as I’ll be sharing more specific stories as I solidify some of my research. 

Front Stage to Backstage

Photo credit, Seabass Creatives
During the last several years of my career, I have played a series of internal operations roles. This was a nice change after so many years being a client-facing consultant. 
You have a different view of constraints when you come out of a client-delivery context.
Client constraints help you focus.  In the backstage world, there are less boundaries to keep you corralled: as a result, you can spend too much on supplies or take too long planning.  It’s important to remember to deliver.
Then there’s ego. You don’t get the glory.  Sales get glory. New deals in the pipeline get glory.  You don’t get glory for streamlining messaging, no matter how it goes. 
Many internal employees like things to stay the same.   I am spoiled. Being a traveling consultant for so many years, I learned to get bored if I’m not looking to improve my work.   
I always loved working with customers. Still do. The only downside of consulting was not being around long enough to understand how your work would survive without you. Now I can get the best of both worlds.
I’m finding it refreshing to bring a client delivery mentality to an in-house role these days. I’m also lucky to have a team that is sinking their teeth into a more agile style of working. 
Love what you do. Find something you can improve tomorrow. Make it better. Keep going.

Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Harari

This week, I managed to finish .  Not long ago, I listened to Harari’s interview on the James Altucher show that introduced some of the concepts in his next book, Homo Deus.  That book picks up on some of the threads presented at the end of Sapiens; I look forward to reading it next.

Sapiens was for me personally, very engaging. While it was long, it wove a narrative that bridged a number of my personal passions:  ancient history, anthropology, language and technology. 

The book is long, rich and complex and I am not going to attempt to summarize it all, but I did want to capture a few of the key themes I took away.

Happy Accidents

Something about homo sapiens allowed us to outlive several other human species that walked the planet at the same time. Harari doesn’t pick a side, although you are left to determine for yourself whether you think this was due to evolution, luck or some intelligent design. The important thing is realizing that mankind did not have to turn out the way it did. In fact, even the word “mankind” is misleading as we are but one branch of mankind.

Slaves to the Grain

Our discovery of farming, specifically of wheat, put mankind on a path away from its hunter-gatherer roots. We began to become stationary people.  We grew in numbers and required greater numbers to farm more wheat, to feed more people, and so on.  This concept was incredibly powerful for a number of reasons.  Not only did we set ourselves on a path away from our original skills, but we became highly dependent upon a food source which was initially more rare to come by, due to its fussy growing behaviors.  By nurturing wheat, we effectively became a slave to it.

Hierarchies: Our Favorite Growth Hack

From kingdoms, to religions to politics, homo sapiens have managed to scale the growth of society through the creation of hierarchical tribes. We first learned as a people that we could stay safe in numbers. Then we realized we could amass more food.  Ultimately, we realized we could accomplish greater feats of building and conquest as we developed larger tribes. Ultimately we created the concepts of nation and religion to justify our new roles.  

From Middle to Top

It’s easy to forget that our ancestors were once in the middle of the food chain: larger than some animals, but ultimately easily killed by larger beasts that roamed the earth.  Over time, we would develop the tools and organization to drive those beasts to extinction and ultimately sit where we are today: in command of the global food chain.

Technology Has Accelerated Our Development Like Never Before

Since the industrial revolution, homo sapiens have been accelerating in their understanding and mastery of the world at a speed which had never been known.  We now have the ability to create life, organically and inorganically. This suggests that we are likely very close to breakthroughs that will change the future development of humans.

Oiriginal photo by Nathan Anderson, Frisco

Read for Yourself

I love controversial titles, and this was no exception. As you can probably infer, there are a number of arguments contained in the book that can rankle those of different political or religious persuasions. Overall, I felt that it was a mind-opening book that provided an updated history of civilization while dipping into futurism to suggest where we might as a species be going.

Note:  There are some glowing and some harsh reviews of this book out there. I’m not saying its perfect, but I think it’s worth spending some time with.

I look forward to hearing your opinion. Get in touch or leave a comment to let me know your thoughts.




Masters of Content Marketing

Content Strategy Lessons from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

I consider myself lucky to have been a part of the golden age of toys.  Born just before the explosion of Star Wars into the world, I would experience some of the greatest content marketing projects of all time.  The toymakers of the 1980’s such as Hasbro and Mattel would create a generation of toy fanatics by building a content universe around their products, capturing our hearts and minds in the process.

Over the last few years, I’ve delved into the basements and closets of my parents home and emerged with great relics of my childhood. With two young boys that have overlapping interests to mine, these tattered findings are real treasures.  That said, something struck me while thumbing through a stack of Masters of the Universe comics a few weeks ago.  These miniature comic magazines that accompanied each action figure sold by Mattel in the 1980’s were a genius act of content marketing. 

Assortment of Covers from Masters of the Universe Comics
Assortment of Covers from Masters of the Universe Comics

For those unfamiliar with the legend of He-Man and the Masters of The Universe, I will provide a brief overview.  Mattel initially introduced the first few action figures in the early eighties accompanied by a set of great mini-comics.  He-Man was a warrior in the land of Eternia who is granted access to the magic of the mysterious Castle Greyskull and the Power Sword. He soon learns that both are coveted by an evil being known as Skeletor who sends his henchman after He-Man at every turn.  The stories were very much drawn from classic sword-and-sorcery material but peppered with modern sci-fi weaponry and strange beings. It suggested this might be past or future, but definitely somewhere very different.  For us kids, it was brilliant.  

Little did we know that Mattel was feeling sore over having missed the boat when it declined to take on the Star Wars toy line that Hasbro was now reaping the rewards of.  The concept of the He-Man toys was one designed to start with the outcome in mind: a set of action figures in every kid’s toy chest.  Targeted at kids already enthused with fantasy and science fiction, the content strategy painted a larger picture that a wider group of parents and kids, boys and girls included, could latch onto. This strategy would drive the franchise into a long running animated television series, a DC comic book series and a full length motion picture (which if I remember was not very good).  Along the way, I dare say they succeeded in driving quite a few toy sales; certainly enough to expand several years of expansions of the line and multiple reissues of the original characters.   

Here are some of the characteristics I’ve observed about the franchise in retrospect.

They started with the product

Unlike Star Wars, this was not a film that led the charge and followed by the toys. The initial figures were these musclebound, 5-inch hulks, permanently molded into a squat stance that indicated they were “ready for battle”.  They came with their weapons and a small comic that painted a slice of the mythology of the land of Eternia, its heroes and villains.  I believe that the toys were on the market in toy-stores, relying on those comics and the word of mouth of fans to make the rounds with kids for a couple of years before they ventured into the animated television series.

They allowed the story to emerge over time

Each comic also revealed a few other pieces of the universe on the back cover: other action figures, vehicles and play sets. Some of these were revealed in the comics, but others were mysteriously omitted. It let you know there was a bigger story but also allowed you to create some of that narrative in your own imagination.

There was also a degree of ambiguity surrounding who was good and who was evil.  In the first few issues, it was clear that many of the protagonists were themselves strangers, drawn together by some mystical forces.  Often they would also have certain characters depicted in the shadows; you could recognize them by their silhouette, but their role could be construed as observer or participant.

They revised the narrative to speak to their broader audience

When the animated series hit the air, there were a few new elements introduced in order to make the story more accessible to a wider range of fans.  He-Man now had an alter ego, Prince Adam, the royal ruler of the land of Eternia would be gifted his power sword by the feather clad Sorceress. 

Classic image from the original animated He-Man series
Classic image from the original animated He-Man series.

Signaling a desire to reach a broader audience than just the male fantasy geeks, the series introduced a number of new characters which would later be implemented as toys. These included several new female heroes and villains.  The series also brought comedy into the fold by including a goofy wizard named Orko and even a cowering version of He-Man’s trusted Battle Cat that shivered in fear until emboldened by a blast of energy from the power sword.

They grounded themselves with influencers

Knowing that parents were ultimately the gatekeepers to getting their products adopted in the homes, the series creators began to articulate a moral lesson in the epilogue to each story.  This was a helpful counterweight to justify watching a program that was filled with violence between battling factions. This would become a popular tactic in other series launched around this time, including the popular G.I. Joe.  

A good run while it lasted

By the time the full length feature movie and DC comic series came out, I had outgrown the franchise.  I remember seeing the film and hating it.  Of course my opinion might have been colored by the fact that I was no longer playing with the toys, but I suspect it really was horrible. Let’s face it: it starred Dolph Lundgren who had previously played Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, another famous franchise “jump the shark” moment. That said, the films did not discolor my love of the original concept and characters.

On a final note, I am excited to have learned of a book written on the rise and fall of the He-Man toy empire by its creator. I’m looking forward to reading, Mastering the Universe by Robert Sweet.  Apparently the toys sold more than 1 billion dollars worth in their time on the market!

I look forward to exploring the content marketing strategies behind some of my other favorite toy franchises in future posts as I unearth more of my childhood from the depths of my parents’ basement.