Blogger, a product of Pyra, started in August of 1999, and never stopped growing. A web application to make updating a page easy, it's simple functionality gave a voice to tens of thousands. A cult-like following grew out of the Blogger-using community. Thousands of young and old alike, beginner and expert started using their website to communicate their voice, build a brand, feed an ego, and spread their ideas through weblogs. At the center of it all, was Blogger.com, and it showed no signs of stopping.
But backstage, things were falling apart…
Apologies to VH1, but great lead in, eh? If this were VH1, at this point I would chronicle every little mistake, point fingers, name names, all from the comfy couch of hindsight. But there's no point in doing that. What I want to do is share lessons.
When Deepleap closed, I pestered Lane, Bryan, and Ben about it. I had an inkling of a feeling that someday we'd be in the same position, so I wanted to know what new insights they were discovering and what the most important Thing We Should Never Have Done was. I listened to the things they passed on and tried to see if similar problems at Pyra could be avoided.
I'm an information junkie and I love to help others, so take these words as cautionary lessons. I've certainly learned a lot in the last year (mostly in the last month or two) about building a business, so here's a run down of them.
Indecision is a decision
The most important thing I learned from this whole experience is that focus is more important than I thought, and when given a handful of choices, it's better to pick one, any one, when compared to picking none of the above. When I look back, I see we all spent too much time trying to figure out if A, B, C, D, or E was the best option. And spending months sort of doing A and C while thinking about D is a waste when compared to just doing B or spending 100% of our time and effort on completing E.
There's no one person or one main decision to blame for everything, indecision was a factor for all of us in many, many things. So for anyone running or starting a company, pick an option and run with it. Even if you meet with failure, at least you know that option wasn't the right one, and you can move onto the next one. For us, we still don't really know if any of the options are particularly good or bad.
We did do something amazing
I have no regrets about ever taking a job at Pyra or moving to San Francisco for it. I've always had one goal in my life, and that was to make the biggest impact possible, in a positive way. I loved Blogger when I used it, and could tell it was capable of something great. Meg, Ev, and Paul built an amazing thing, and Matt, Jack, Derek and I helped it along too.
We enabled thousands and thousands of people to share their thoughts, images, music, and words with millions of readers. I have met numerous people I never knew before they started using Blogger, I have a circle of dozens of friends I didn't meet before Blogger, and I have at least ten numbers on speed dial, all of whom I met after Blogger. I'm grateful I got a chance to help with something capable of starting a movement and getting normal, everyday people to communicate. Two years ago, many lamented the death of the non-profit, personal webspace, and I think weblogs and Blogger can be thanked for much of the additional output in that space.
If you ever get the chance to follow a dream, or take a big stupid risk on something that can help out a lot people, by all means do it.
A whole lotta shoulda's
Hindsight is a cruel thing, cousin of regret, and uncle of sorrow. I think deep down, we all knew it couldn't possibly last forever, I was hoping for a lot things I was sure would certainly happen.
The market should have never gone sour: we had no idea a correction was so imminent, or that it would be so extreme. But then it happens and what you think should have happened (like magical VCs raining down from the sky), doesn't.
When you build something great, and most everyone that uses it loves it, you expect everything else to fall into place. I kept thinking the business side of things would come together on its own. Tripod, Geocities, Freeservers, and/or Xoom would have contacted us, and allowed us to integrate with their free hosting systems, or even a popular paid provider like Verio or Interland. Heck, Blogspot was an example of what that could do, we bought a $400 low-end celeron PC, put some RAM into it, and 25,000 sites with millions of pageviews to date ran on it with very little effort. Did no one else see that and figure out how it could benefit their hosting business?
When you get press in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USNews & World Report, all within a couple months, you think someone's bound to notice. Everyone's always looking for the next big thing, and we kept thinking that Blogger could be that, if the right people suddenly found us and figured out what we were doing. We put so much of ourselves into it, buried our lives into Blogger, how could it not be wildly successful?
Not really a lesson for everyone, but personally, I should have never re-read Microserfs a few months back. When the book first came out, I never imagined I'd be in a similar situation – a ragtag bunch of coders struggling to build something big. In the end, the fictitious lego-like 3-D builder app gets bought out or something and they can finally take a breather and relax, but our story didn't end quite so lovely. heh.
Overall, a lot of things could have happened, should have happened, but didn't. If you're still following me, I guess the lesson to learn from all of this is if anything does happen, respond to those inquiries. If someone is interested, by all means bring them in and see what can happen. I fear our small team let a lot of opportunities go, or didn't see the open hands that were presented to us.
Business is a really big deal, after all
Ye gods, it's absolutely crystal clear that we should have taken the business side of things much more seriously than any of us did. Although this sounds like another shoulda, we should have had a business expert on board, to handle all our business dealings. It seems stupid now, but when you make web pages and web applications, you get this weird sense of god-like power. You can make the sun rise and the sun set, you can kill someone's application with a single blow, you can create whole new worlds in which thousands dwell. So certainly, when it comes to making money, your swelled, I-can-code-anything head figures it can do the business aspects too, right?
Wrong. Designers are great at designing things, coders are great at coding things, and while everyone is off doing their best at what they're good at, a business person can be trusted to kick ass on the business things. It's definitely hard to find a business person with any idea of what the coders and designers are doing, but I kinda wish we looked harder in the beginning and left them to handle the icky parts we weren't all that great at.
Personality is important
This is sort of an extension of the "we did great stuff, didn't we?" point, but I am so glad that even today, most people know Blogger was a handful of dedicated people, in a leaky basement, toiling away on the product. We never became a nameless, faceless borg of an organization, and I hope that if we ever did make some big money deal, that we never would have. Someone emailed us once telling us that we had struck upon the magic of lovemarks. Apparently, in the branding world, this is the goal, create a brand so strong, so effective, and customers love so much that the product essentially sells itself.
I don't know how we carried that on so well. None of us are branding masterminds or mad-marketing types. Perhaps it was absolute honesty through the whole thing (well, actually almost up until the end, the last month or so we couldn't say what we wanted to). We gave a lot of ourselves, and were upfront with people, and I think putting our personalities out there, and everywhere within the application, kept that message alive.
Send in the clones
So now, the hard part is over. There's nothing really technically difficult about making a streamlined CMS, so I expect to see a rash of Blogger-clones coming out soon, and I sincerely hope they get the business side of things right. The rules are all out there, you know the pitfalls, you know what the program should do, and you know what people like. Go nuts. Just remember to make an import feature for your new system, so people can give it a try.
So how am I doing? I'm fine now. The sleeplessness and stress of the past couple months is starting to fade away, and I have a few job leads to attend to. I hope I can find a new place I can get behind, and believe in as much I believed in Blogger, but only time will tell. If you're working at a cool company in the Bay Area and you need a hand, let me know.