30 April 2006

Joshua Schachter


Joshua Schachter
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
Joshua Schachter of del.icio.us spoke at Startup School about how his company got started. He was working in an investment bank and originally made memepool (a single-user ancestor of del.icio.us) to cope with his bookmark overload. del.icio.us was "the massively multiplayer version."

This is my writeup of Joshua's talk. I also have notes for the presentations by: Paul Graham (YCombinator), Om Malik, and Caterina Fake (Flickr).

Initially, Joshua did all the coding for del.icio.us at night and on weekends, so it had to be simple and additional features had to be easy to implement and incremental.

Joshua's advice about doing a startup: "you must be passionate about it. You can't be the smartest guy, but you can be the most passionate by finding a problem that is important to you."

On ideas:
- Write them down
- go back and review them
- Keep an idea log
- Then, figure out which ones are low-cost to implement.

This way, you can quickly go from an idea to seeing what it's like. Implement these ideas. You get good by doing this a lot. Expect some of them to flop.

On secrets: Secrets are a bad idea. There's more value in talking than in keeping something a secret. Companies that operate in stealth mode aren't helping themselves. Go from idea to implementation - get it out there - "none of this send us your email address and we'll tell you when we launch stuff"

On marketing: everything you do, every feature you release, is marketing.

On openness: del.icio.us is the only one of its kind that allows you to import and export your bookmarks. The competitors only allow you to import (from del.icio.us, of course). The message del.icio.us sends to users is that "it's your data." Joshua says this has helped del.icio.us succeed.

On users and usability: listen to your users. Joshua would never have guessed that most uses don't know what a bookmark is -- on IE, they're called favorites. He and his friends were all Firefox/Mozilla users. For usability testing, he related an idea from Mark Hearst of Creative Good - go to a Starbucks and offer a free latte to anyone who will try out your software.

On design: Simplify, simplify, simplify. Del.icio.us has no messaging feature because users already have a perfectly good way to contact each other - email.

Make the URL readable. This is prime real estate at the top center of the screen. No session IDs or ".php"

On scalability, his advice to startups is "don't yet." Wait for real cases once you launch, because you'll have to do this anyway - you will not correctly anticipate where the issues are, so any effort on this is wasted.

Consider social scaling issues too -- a forum works for 500 participants, but not 10,000.

Also, don't worry about spam too much in advance. Just build in logging so you can track behavior at least 24 hours back - "do not underestimate the power of spammers to annoy you" - in other words, you can't anticipate everything they'll do, so you need mechanisms to look for anomalous behavior early on.

On technology: you will go 3x over budget, things will break when you didn't expect them to, CSS bugs on Opera will take you 800 million hours.

For browser issues, get good at dealing with these or find someone who can, but do this later; when first starting, ignore these - get things working for a single platform.

Moving day


Moving day
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
While I was at Startup School at Stanford, a house rolled by.

Om Malik's advice to startups


Om Malik
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
Here are my notes from Om Malik's presentation at this year's Startup School. I also have notes for the presentations by: Joshua Schachter (del.icio.us, memepool), Paul Graham (YCombinator), and Caterina Fake (Flickr).

Om started off by saying he was going old school by using index cards instead of a notebook for his talk, and later wove this back into a point -- index cards are a $6bn business, a great enduring technology that dwarfs Powerpoint. They'll be around forever; in 20 years, Powerpoint will be forgotten.

Earlier, a speaker had said that doing a startup wasn't about money. Om's response, made humorously and insistently: "it is all about money." To make sure he drove the point home, he said it three times in a row :)

"If we forget about money, we get companies like Enron, WorldCom, and Pets.com!"

"But money should be the end product, not the reason to start the company. But you should get rich, this is America!"

[I don't think this was "greed is good" so much as "pay attention to the money -- how you're going to make it and how you're going to spend it -- don't waste it." --Pat]

If you can change a lot of people's behavior, you can make a lot of money. For example, Flickr did this. There were plenty of photo sites, but Flickr got people looking at photos in an entirely new way.

Memeorandom and Netvibes similarly change the rules.

"The problem with many Web 2.0 products is that they are aimed at the alpha geek, tend to focus on Firefox users, and ignore the 85% on IE."

"Silicon Valley is insular. We look at what our friends are doing and say 'that's cool!' What's cool is never profitable!"

"Keep it simple. Listen to the world -- your mailman, the guy pumping gas next to you -- take their experience and incorporate it into your product. That's how you can reach the ultimate audience that can tell you how to make things simple."

"If it takes me 15 minutes to figure out what a company is going to do, that company is going to fail. Flickr, iPod each took 5 seconds."

Caterina Fake answers questions about starting Flickr

(This is a quick upload of my notes. Please give me feedback in the comments section at the end. Thanks. --Pat)

At Startup School today at Stanford, Caterina Fake answered questions about Flickr - starting it, what like is like post-acquisition, and how it came to be. I also have entries for the talks by: Joshua Schachter (del.icio.us, memepool), Paul Graham (YCombinator), and Om Malik.

Flickr grew out of the efforts of Caterina and Stewart Butterfield's company, Ludicorp. They set out to make an online multiplayer game and had a successful prototype called Game Never Ending (GNE). However, the backend development on this game fell behind the client development, and so they put together seven products in six months using the basic GNE framework. Flickr was one of these.

In its original form, it was a chat client with the ability to share photos. But as they watched their users, they realized that the chance of two people winding up on the same chat at the same time was small, so as an afterthought, they added the ability to share photos via web pages.

The new application took off. Ludicorp only had six people, so they chose to pursue this unintended direction and kill off GNE.

They announced Flickr at O'Reilly's ETech conference in 2004. By November of that year, they were talking to Yahoo, and the acquisition was finalized in March 2005. The Flickr team moved to the Bay Area in June 2005.

After talking about the history of Flickr, Caterina took questions. I've transcribed some of these here:

What did you do wrong, and what would you do differently?

When you're small, each person is critical. Early on, Ludicorp/GNE probably hired too fast and fired too slow. The backend fell behind as a result. But that led to Flickr being born, so maybe it wasn't so bad :)

"Foo"-up fast (she joked about going for a PG rating in her talk) development strategy - you should create and kill lots of projects. Learn from mistakes rapidly (mistakes are inevitable, it's trying things and learning from them that's important).

They did no formal usability testing, and instead relied on a constant dialog with users.

"Get it out early" is the best usability testing.

As an example, they redesigned the front page back when they had 25k - 50k users. Within ten minutes of pushing the new page out, they new it was a bad design. Their users were not reluctant to tell them.

Did you consider video sharing?

You need to be able to say this is what it is. GNE was a big morass, so they had to strip it back. [that said, I got the feeling they're still thinking about video --P]

Starting as a game was useful. It gave the naive optimism. Had they started on day one designing a photo site, it wouldn't have been as successful or playful.

What did they look for in their negotiations with companies

We were looking for a place that would preserve our essence, and after seeing Yahoo from the inside and out, they felt it was a good fit.

How did you get your PR? Did you hire people to talk about you?

Flickr did not have a PR budget, so they had to come up with features that would get the word out. Stewart and Caterina were bloggers since 1998 or 1999, so they deliberately designed blog-friendly features like the "blog this photo" button.

80% of Flickr's new users found Flickr through blogs.

Flickr's initial press was unsolicited from alpha geek writers.

Stewart and Caterina would give interviews to anyone who asked, even high school newspapers.

They eventually hired a PR firm not to generate publicity, but to handle it.

How did you design the UI

The user interface evolved organically. They wanted to preserve so much of why the internet was interesting -- people with interests in a culture of sharing. Back when, people would hang out on IRC channels and have long conversations about their interests (danish scholars and US techies). It was a culture of generosity.

Caterina quoted David Weinberger: "strangers are the source of fear - they lurk in the shadows - but on the internet, strangers are the source of everything good."

They wanted to make Flickr so that users were facing each other, instead of facing the website.

To encourage this, George Oates and Caterina spent almost 24/7 greeting each person who came in to the original chat client when it launched. They had an app called "the newbie spotter" which would tell them who was new and what their interest was (you filled this in on your user profile) so Caterina or George would then introduce them to other users: "I see you like ... Black Metal. User GeorgM in Berlin also likes Black Metal."

Flickr is like a party with a good host. Someone there to take your coat, get you a drink, and introduce you around. By setting up this culture of meeting people, they made Flickr a distinctive, friendly, and ultimately successful site.

29 April 2006

Startup School

I just got back from Startup School at Stanford. StartupSchool is a one-day bootcamp where founders, VCs, lawyers, and visionaries get together to present an intense "here's how to do it" to the mostly techie attendees. A lot of practical advice and wisdom, along with some funny stories.


My first writeups of the presentations are now up. See my writeups for the presentations by:



Joshua Schachter (del.icio.us, memepool)

Paul Graham (YCombinator)

Om Malik

Caterina Fake (Flickr)


If you're interested in creating a startup, or want to know more about how they work, I highly recommend this event. I expect there will be another one this time next year. Check the Startup School site for details.

Here's the list of speakers.

Caterina Fake
Co-Founder, Flickr


Mark Fletcher
Founder, Bloglines; Founder, ONElist


Paul Graham
Partner, Y Combinator; Co-founder, Viaweb


Joe Kraus
Co-founder, JotSpot; Co-founder, Excite


Page Mailliard
Partner, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati


Om Malik
Senior Writer, Business 2.0


Tim O'Reilly
Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media


Chris Sacca
Head of Special Initiatives, Google


Joshua Schachter
Founder, del.icio.us


George Willman
Associate, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati


Ann Winblad
Founding Partner, Hummer Winblad

28 April 2006

l33t shop


IMG_1561
Originally uploaded by tantek.
This is teh awesome.

25 April 2006

Programs you can run from a USB drive

I found this list of programs that you can run from a USB drive. This is handy when you're travelling and want to work with your own custom setup. The list includes email clients and web browser, so you can carry your environment with you and not have to lug around a notebook.

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19 April 2006

Samchillian relative keyboard

The Samchillian keyboard is a midi-controller interface using a Kinesis keyboard. The innovation is that, rather than a key corresponding to a given note, a key instead describes the relative change (up one, up two, down one, down two) from the current note. The interface also allows for key changes. One nice thing is that the fingering remains the same across different keys. This allows a performer to play extremely rapid, complex sequences with a minimum of motion and consistent motions.

It's weird but also very practical. See more here.

You can try it out by downloading this implementation (Windows only) and typing away. Number keys change the key, left hand increases pitch, right hand decreases.

(Thanks for the tip, Jonathan!)

14 April 2006

How to tie your shoes

Ian Fieggen's Ian's Shoelace Site is a useful, well-illustrated list of ways to tie shoes. Of course, it has the standard shoelace knot and variants, but it also has the Halloween knot, complete with noose.

08 April 2006

Stick Figure in Peril


Stick Figure in Peril
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
One of about a dozen stick-figure parodies in Emeryville, CA. Jef has the full set of 13!

07 April 2006

Oldschool Mac "emulator" in flash

This simulation of an old Mac (Mac Plus era) in Flash is a work of art. They evey have the calculator and the screensaver! It's a loving recreation of Mac OS 7.

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06 April 2006

Ginbis animal crackers


Ginbis animal crackers
Originally uploaded by ptufts.
These crackers look perfectly normal, until you get to the ones labeled furseal and rat (the second photo shows a list of the animals).

List of animals, in Russian, Japanese, and English

04 April 2006

Leonardo grids: structures built with only one rule

Leonardo Grids are a system of construction using linear elements (beams) with a single placement rule. This system is sufficient to construct domes. Modify the basic element to be curved and you can create spheres, cubes, and other polygons.

Bridges Conference Proceedings Guidelines: "Leonardo grids is the name I gave to my bar grid construction system with which I was able to construct domes and spheres out of simple elements using one constructing rule. Most of the constructions I made where planar and static."

(via Reddit)

02 April 2006

Super Mario Bros. is not a crime

Beacon Journal | 04/01/2006 | Girls attempt real-life version of video game: "Five teenage girls from Portage County face potential criminal charges after attempting to play a real-life version of Super Mario Bros.

The Portage County Hazardous Materials Unit and Bomb Detection Unit were called in to downtown Ravenna on Friday morning after seventeen suspicious packages -- boxes wrapped in gold wrapping paper with question marks spray painted on them -- had alarmed residents."

01 April 2006

I want to believe

Google Earth shows Area 51 has some visitors on April 1st. Click through to see the images.

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