Australian entrepreneur with FanFooty (alive) and Tinfinger (dead) on his CV. Working on new projects, podcasting weekly at the Coaches Box, and trying not to let microblogging take over this blog.

Friday, March 24, 2006

How to Fu** a Startup

1. I have four Keith & The Girl episodes to catch up on. I've been busy.
2. Oh god, the pain of moving to your own server. The pain. (A week of pain.)
3. Our private funding officially ran out today. Yay!

I have found a (very) short-term consulting job - my first one! Not that much different to being a journalist, really. You're still sitting at a computer researching and producing text for 95% of the time and talking with people the other 5%, although in this case the text is whiles, selects and load data infiles instead of headlines, standfirsts and bodies. Tai has been looking for something similar, and you'd think that considering he is a far better programmer than me it would be easier for him, what with his 10+ years of experience and the bit of paper with an official stamp from a university. Perhaps there's such a thing as being overqualified.

Paul Graham's essays on startups aren't getting any less accurate, in my current experience. Take the one on How To Fund A Startup. His cautionary words on the perils of combining a startup with third-party consulting are particularly apposite.

So you have to be very disciplined if you take the consulting route. You have to work actively to prevent your company growing into a "weed tree," dependent on this source of easy but low-margin money.

In the spirit of Paul's warnings, we will have to make sure not to forget about Tinfinger or our other business, FanFooty. The new AFL season starts next Thursday and FanFooty will be running as usual. I'd like to blog more, but Dreamweaver is calling.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

We made the Financial Times... or so I hear

Comes from bookofjoe news that Tinfinger was mentioned in the March 8 edition of the Financial Times in an article by Chris Nuttall. joe quotes Chris as writing that "it produces ordered profiles of people and related articles rather than pages of search results", which is wrong since in addition to the profile pages we also have pages of search results for news, profiles, articles and pictures. I'd love to know what else Chris got wrong, and the context in which he mentioned us. I can't find the article online anywhere... can anyone help me?

joe correctly points out that this is not the time for us to get press, since we're pre-beta - and right now is even worse because our databases are down in preparation for a move to a new server today or tomorrow. You can't control journalists, but I guess I can't complain since I annoyed enough people in my own J career.

UPDATE: joe kindly gave us the link to the FT story. Just another MSM snark piece, boooo-ring. Gah, they even got our name wrong. It's Tinfinger with a little f, not Tin Finger or TinFinger! I guess the logo is confusing, but the name is right there in the title bar of you browser. Anyway, thanks joe!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Topix to lose one of its three daddies

The sale of Knight-Ridder to McLatchy will have a non-zero knock-on effect on the online world in at least one sense: KR was one of the three newspaper companies to buy 75% of Topix.net. McClatchy wants to break up the conglomerate and keep the small market rags, which presumably would mean that it wants to offload its quarter stake in Topix.

So, who wants to buy a piece of Topix? Rich Skrenta says in the comments to Susan Mernit that it doesn't matter, which is probably true. None of Topix's innovations since the buyout, like geovisualisation and photo tagging, have leveraged synergies from the tripartite equity partners. Perhaps if McClatchy does sell, it would be to a company which actually can provide a value-add for Topix. If not, Topix doesn't lose anything.

Topix has not made any major jumps in reach lately, especially compared to its competitors, as shown by this (salt-grain-compliant) Alexa comparison. Break it down to the last three months and you can see that Newsvine had a spike when it graduated out of beta but has a way to go to pass Topix, and might even be suffering a post-launch letdown. Newsvine has been the one getting the press - although strangely it got a lot more press during its beta and very little when it did actually launch - but Topix still has the solid numbers.

With sparse fanfare, Topix has quietly been building its forums into a formidable traffic juggernaut. While the general topic forums are much like any other forum on that subject, Topix's location-specific forums feature a sprinkling of citizen journalism on many local stories. Nevertheless, I have doubts about whether forums are really all that important from a business standpoint for ad-driven sites, because history has shown that regular forum users don't click on ads at all. The most lucrative readers to have for advertisers are those who jet in from a search engine, spend as little time on the site as possible, and then click on an ad to leave again. What we used to call "stickiness" only matters if your site has a transactional element, so unless those forum readers are ponying up the dough for forum accounts, or e-commerce is somehow involved somewhere, forums are at best a loss leader.

But at least Topix has a revenue source, which is more than can be said for some of the megahyped memetrackers. Is it just me, or are the memetrackers' reach figures looking a little stale?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Why meme tracker/diggers suck

There has been much conjecture lately about memetrackers, or the new nomenclature of memediggers (just call them Digg clones and be done with it, Pete), how they all look the same, how they encourage snark over substance, and how they are unsatisfyingly static to people who prefer river-of-news formats.

The problem is not with the theory of clustered news. It is with the application. To be more specific, it's not that everyone is doing it wrong, it is that they are prevented from doing it best by scale. When you see the front page of Memeorandum or Tailrank or any other clustered news service, you are seeing a flat text file, or a pre-ordered result from a small database table, which in itself takes little or no processing power on the server side. That's not to say it is simple to create that cluster, far from it. Clustering algorithms require a great deal of processing on the server. To enable a blindingly fast load time for you on that page, those algorithms are not calculated in real time. They are prepopulated and written to that text file or small table every X minutes so that you have a seamless reading experience.

This is the heart of the problem that users are experiencing. In a perfect world with unlimited processing power and zero latency, readers would have a bunch of sliders on the client with AJAX-powered dynamic result updating for things like immediacy, meme size, link numbers, article length, orthogonality to your OPML file, and anything else that can be thought of as a filtering variable. Unfortunately, we are stuck in the real world where the best that can be hoped for is a standard 24 hour window and fixed algorithmic relationships that only vary slightly from aggregator to aggregator - and form much of the competitive differentiation of the various players.

The obvious next step is not necessarily to shift from one static view to another, as Kevin Burton has done with Tailrank at Dave Winer's suggestion. That's not to diss Kevin though, as more than anyone he has led from the front in the battle to escape the legacy of being a Memeo clone, something that none of the Digg clones have managed to do (or seem to want to do). No, the only way to be truly free of the baggage of the hegememeony is to get bought out by one of the major players who have humungous server farms to devote to the scale problem: i.e. the big G, since they're the ones with the best iron. If one of the tracker/diggers had access to enough parallel cycles to do justice to their algos in the same way PageRank is calculated on the fly by football-field-sized farms of corkboard-insulated droneboxen... then you have something. More than in most other Web 2.0 startup sectors, the memetrackers are crying out to be flipped because they would benefit so crucially from the toys that the GEMAYA sugar daddies can let them play with.

Ah, you say, but what about Google News? No. GN is not a long tail play. It only covers a small amount of the media, namely the major outlets, and the major outlets have a very narrow focus. GN does not use anywhere near the full power of the company's vast server farms. Judging by the size of its database, I would estimate (© PNOOMA Research) its scraping could conceivably be performed on a handful of boxes. The independent memetrackers are different beasts, that could eat GN for lunch if just given enough room to grow into something that doesn't suck.

My picture appears to the right in an effort to get it to appear via Memeorandum's new picture clipping feature. Link me early and often!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Can't sleep, hax0r'll eat me

I had my first Web 2.0 nightmare this evening. Sleeping in a west-facing room after a 38C-degree day with no air ventilation makes for fitful rest at best. I remember someone had hacked my blog, though for some reason it was a Wordpress blog instead of Blogger. They had also hacked FanFooty and Tinfinger, and unspeakable things were posted all across them. Apart from the heat, I also blame the chilli in my evening meal. Never again!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Fun and games, tra la la

It's all fawns gambolling through meadows of daisies around here at the moment with our funding due to run out later this month. The reason I haven't blogged for a week is that I've been flailing around in ever-decreasing circles trying to find some short-term cashflow. I've managed to keep the wolves from the door with a small injection of Mawsons despite getting doors slammed in my face at every other turn. I even dabbled with the thought of moving to the US, since it seems (as I have found through first-hand experience) that getting a gig with a Silicon Valley company is damn near impossible if you and the company's offices are separated by water.

I have made many mistakes with Tinfinger and FanFooty so far, mostly due to poor timing: meaning, being late. Everyone I talk to agrees with me that the two businesses have great long-term potential. Witness the Herald-Sun getting into the fantasy football business this week with a big new comp. That market is hotting up and FanFooty is well-positioned with the only other whitelabel product in Australia. I'm kicking myself that I didn't approach Fairfax or News Corp three months ago. I should have known that the local rags would have seen the 131,000 users of the AFL Dream Team in 2005 up from 52,000 the year before, looked at how all the big newspapers in the UK have fantasy soccer comps, and put two and two together to figure out that fantasy sports comps can be solid circulation boosters. Oh well, next year (of course, I was saying that last year - idiot!).

And yes, Tinfinger hasn't launched yet. Sorry about that Cam.

If the above didn't cause you to head off to the sink to open a vein, here's something to cheer you up: my early pick for Blog Post Of The Year. It took a self-described "former Drug and Alcohol abuser and addict" to nail Scoble's self-aggrandising bullshit and portray it as a pitiful cry for help. Alan Herrell, I salute you.