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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Whozat cheeky lot?

The logo of my recently shelved "people omnibus" startup Tinfinger, drawn by professional illustrator Ray Frenden based on my concept:

The logo of Whozat, people search engine startup based in California headed up by an Italian and an Argentine:

Anyone see the similarity? Yes, the colouring on both sets of lettering is based on skin tones of people from around the world. I don't know how long ago Whozat thought up their logo, since the Wayback Machine is not cooperating, but I'm tipping theirs was done later than October 2005 because their site lists their inception date as 2006.

It's just not cricket.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Some points on live video

I've been using a goodly number of live video services over the last month or two. They seem to have sprung up like topsy recently, evidently due to innovations made by Adobe with their Flash Media Server 3 and ancillary products, not to mention support by Akamai et al. Those very few of you who remember my Table vs Jetski startup idea will know that I have some interest in this area, and I have a few thoughts about the nascent industry.

I have used Stickam, Yahoo Live, LiveVideo.com, and even an Aussie site which was in painful alpha (someone remind me what the name of it was!) which was populated by lots of screaming Germans. I'm going to concentrate here on the services which allow multiple live video streams on screen at once, including the ability to join the conversation yourself. That knocks out places like Ustream and Seesmic, which are otherwise worthy of discussion but not in this post.

I'm not auditioning for Duncan Riley's job at TechCrunch so this will be somewhat half-arsed. Lets' go with point form.

- Flash has always remained a dark mystery to me, so I would love to know why some services decide to go with four of the smaller "viewer" windows, like LiveVideo and Yahoo Live, whereas Stickam goes with six. What's the upper limit, if any?

- Any developers out there in this space should be following the Watch KATG Live thread on the Keith & The Girl forums. There is some interesting stuff there about KATG's previous video streaming partner, PalTalk, and how paid-up subscribers of PalTalk have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Web-based client era, not just due to the financial investment they made in PalTalk accounts but also the technical limitations of the new delivery platform, i.e. Flash, and the move away from an intimate micro-community to a wide open free-for-all.

- It strikes me that the interfaces to all of these applications could do with a dose of modularity. What if a user wants a 3x3 wall of 9 mini-screens? What if a user just wants to view the main screen and maximise the text chat window? What if a publisher wants to show their own video but only accept audio from the crowd, in a call-in environment? Maybe I'm spoiled by NetVibes. These things should be possible, surely? They would be pretty difficult in Flash, I bet, but it will come.

- I suppose you have to recognise that Silverlight is coming round the mountain when she comes, but Flash is dominant in this area. Does it occur to anyone else that this is a tad weird? Why hasn't a startup taken this obvious opportunity to develop a competing solution? Have the days of new proprietary Web client apps gone forever? I remember the days when every week would see the announcement of some new "rich media" downloadable thingumabob for Netscape, complete with its own file format and brand new entry to a standards body. That doesn't seem to happen any more: Flash gets bundled with every browser and that's pretty much it. Good for Adobe, I guess.

- Is there an industry here? I mean, one that allows profits? It hasn't immediately been smothered by the tough love of the RSS/podcasting crowd, which means that it hasn't been infected with the Californian hippy bullshit about it being "all about the community, man". However, is it going to be possible to sell TV-style interstitial commercials into live streaming video? Would the audience wear it? I suspect it has a better chance of happening than with audio podcasting, if only for cultural reasons. It would take a startup with a lot of connections to make it happen, nevertheless. One wonders if anyone other than Google could pull off a video advertising business.

I am a firm believer in live events being an underexploited opportunity for Internet startups. It is what my only successful business so far has been based on. Live events, especially those that go for hours with constantly updating content, deliver a startup huge amounts of page views even if the audience isn't very broad. Live video should be the next huge thing on the Internet. I only hope some of the little guys can get on board before the GEMAYA giants gobble up all the gold.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Steeeeee-rike one

I coffeed with Ben Barren today in the comfy surrounds of Errol St - or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I became immersed in the Ben Barren Experience. More than anyone else in my travels meeting the best and brightest of the Australian Web 2.0 scene over the past four years, Ben embodies the entrepreneur in my mind: gregarious, inquisitive, disarming, irrepressible... a creative mind so rich with imagination that he can't stop talking for fear of the spigot in his brain drying up. It is exhilarating to talk shop with him.

It struck me, as we swapped war stories of pitched PowerPoint battles across parched McCubbinite business landscapes, that it is a tragedy that the current Australian industry is not structured in such a way that people like Ben and myself, and others like us, can find an easy way to work together towards a common goal. Like the spinifex tussocks that my dad and I (mostly Dad!) used to have to attack year after year on our 20 acres outside Seymour in my childhood, Australian Web startup founders have to grow resilient and spiky to avoid getting consumed by the inexorable hunger of our oligopoly-dominated economy.

Many of us strive individually, feebly watered in various tenuous hierarchies by money men, activated actuaries and impatient investors. While it is true that startup founders need money, founders also need a creative environment in which to flourish. Something Keith Malley of Keith & The Girl said the other day about relationships is pertinent, even in a business sense: when you start dreading the knock on the door by your partner [personal/business/whatever], then you should know that it's not working and you should get out.

Thus we come to the subject of this post: my co-founder Tai Tran and I have decided to dissolve our partnership. This means no more Tinfinger, and it also means that I'll be the sole operator of FanFooty in future (handshake deal, a la Joe Wilson and the Galletly brothers). Yes, Tinfinger has joined the deadpool, become epic fail, et cetera: write its obituary up for your blogs if you care to. I feel confident enough to confront that fact head on, unlike some recent ex-founders, because I can hold my head up high and say that I have already had one success with FanFooty, so a failure doesn't mean I'm worthless. As I've said before, I'm following the Hitwise template of the cash cow followed by the home run play. I guess I didn't hit a home run this time, but I hear they give you three strikes before you're out. ;)

I should also say that I will be proud to have Tinfinger on my CV. It is a fine application in a technical sense: it works, there aren't any major bugs, and it had a rather high degree of difficulty to build. I learnt a lot in building it, and it contains a lot of elements that may prove useful in future efforts, like proprietary spidering scripts. It could even prove useful if someone bought the code off us (email me for inquiries/offers at m0nty dot au at gmail dot com) and put the elbow grease into it that we can't.

I have to admit, though, that I got a number of assumptions on the business/marketing side of the project wrong. The first of these was that the virality of Wikipedia would just "happen" for us too. I'm sure both Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger would tell you that it requires a lot of work from a lot of people to become that viral, and we're just two guys in a house in Geelong. (I'll try not to use that excuse too much.) Our second mistake was that we entered a market in which, apart from the unstoppable juggernaut that is Wikipedia, we were competing with Squidoo, Spock and Mahalo, all of whom have major venture capital backing and roomfuls of employees. The industry, such as it was, evolved over the length of Tinfinger's development time into a fairly blatant Google SERPS spamming subculture, Frankensteined by more cash than we could shoot our popgun at. In particular, this Valleywag comment by Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis rang warning bells in my mind. Jason's back-of-napkin calculations meant that to keep up with his pace of bootstrapping, Tinfinger or any other small startup in this new ego-arbitrage space would have to be even more unscrupulous about middlemanning the barricades of constantly updated content that we didn't own.

And we were just two blokes in Geelong. (Sorry.)

So it's back onto FanFooty, and whatever else the future may hold. I don't really know what is next. I have a few crazy ideas at the back of my head, but they all require knowledge I don't have and resources I can't tap. I'll have to be satisfied with milking the cash cow for now, and looking for the next opportunity to step up to the plate and swing for the fences again. Hopefully next time I'll get a bigger piece of the ball.