Saturday, December 01, 2007

What does: The Vizrea/WebFives Shutdown, Techmeme Whoring, Sinefield, and My Early Mistakes at BubbleShare Have in Common

I don't know how some folks do it. Between trying to keep up on my own company, I can hardly find the time to read blogs, much less actually produce something for others to read on a regular basis. Kudos to those who can juggle a startup, staying up on top of things, and being able to produce meaningful content for others to read (mind you, I do this blogging thing mostly for therapy).

So for those of you who don't know what Techmeme Whoring is, here's my hack at a defintion:

Techmeme Whoring: Techmeme is a very popular blog amongst bloggers who want to keep track of what people are talking about in blogosphere. To whore oneself to Techmeme is to basically try systematically game/take advantage of what is a hot topic at the moment so as to hope to get listed in the conversational topics and back-links from Techememe and others that are blogging about the subject.

I'm not really much of a Techmeme whore... "Not that there's anything wrong with that." I wish I was, and probably would be more of one if I could blogged more.

So back to Vizrea/WebFives: I noticed that there was some talk on Vizrea by my blogger friends and others on Techmeme here. I thought I'd throw in my 2 cents as someone who has participated in the media sharing space, and had Vizrea and its competitors on my radar since day one during my BubbleShare days.

Vizrea had a highly experienced team with executives from Microsoft, raised $4M in venture capital, focused on bringing a solution, which at the time when I looked at them, what I call the "personal mobile media syncing problem." In the early days of BubbleShare, we were dealing with a similar problem set and also worked on a desktop application -- a scrolling desktop app that "looped" photos into your field of view in a dockable bar. This was almost identical to the now defunct FlimLoop (ex-Adobe folks which built a desktop product with a beautiful user interface that was far better than ours) -- and the first version of Slide (yeah, that Facebook/Slide - as in -- which has also now rapidly evolved out of building a desktop app - just as we did at BubbleShare -- killer example of how to evolve/iterate rapidly against your biz plan/market-feedback). There is a longer story about this for a different blog posting, but the gist of it is that unbeknown to any of us at BubbleShare (or even FilmLoop and Slide we think), FlimLoop and Slide were both building the exact same desktop app (with almost identical user interfaces and concepts) as we were at BubbleShare. Except we actually decided to put it on the app on the backburner instead of realizing it after realzing how crappy an idea it was in practice and focused on a pure web app -- see item #4 below).

As a sort of a side effect of helping folks share their photos via this desktop bar application, where in theory one could drag and drop photos into this bar, which would then have photos appear on other desktops that also ran the bar -- a user would be able to established a peer to peer connection that enabled them to deliver high resolution photo to the other person with very few steps and hassles (our pitch was that the tool also pseudo-synced photos between machines).

What we quickly discovered...

  1. Desktop applications are a pain to build
  2. Desktop applications are hard to get distribution (think 100x harder than web, just as facebook/socialnet apps are 10x faster to get distribution)
  3. Desktop applications make bad (b2c) startups (for the most part -- unless your company name is Skype)

Keep in mind this was circa ~2004, so these things were not obvious yet, and I was more stupid then I am now)

We shortly after, also came to discover...

  1. The Universal Law of StartUpping #13: Your first idea always suck.
  2. Your only real advantage of being a startup is your ability to be strategically agile and adapt more quickly to your market/enviroment than your (usually much larger) competitors (i.e. admit you were stupid, and move onto Plan-B)

So what the hell does this have to do with Vizrea?

Well, having watched Vizrea at a distance, our initial impression of it was (when it was IMHO, positioned much more like a SharpCast/cross-platform content syncing competitor -- judge for yourself in this video here where they demo'd at Demo in 2006 last year): Whoa, this seems like really cool tech, but in a classic MS v1.0 (i.e. initial v1.0 software releases in its earlier days) sorta way, it had issues:

  1. Tons of gee-wizz features ("not that there's anything wrong with that”... unless you have issue number 2)
  2. Too complicated for most. Came across as being “Built for Geeks by Geeks” (“not that there's anything wrong with that unless you've got issue number 3 as well)
  3. The Geeks don't think its a painful enough problem or haven't caught up to your vision of the world yet (i.e. Universal Law of StartUpping #502 [- yes i am making these numbers up - but the laws are real]: don't build way ahead of even the early adopter curve - most of the time, its better to be too late than too early)

I noticed that Vizrea had then later reposition themselves to be more of a combination of Cognima/Shozu and Rockyou/Slide (but without the focus of each?) -- a tech that seems to be more about helping users with mobile devices post content to the web and a much greater focus on the web community side of things (vs. a focus on the desktop app). The Vizrea management team might disagree with the interpretation of its evolution/current stance, but read and interpute it yourself here:

With the WebFives free account, you get:

  • Free sharing of Internet and mobile video, photos, audio, and blogs
  • Your own personal web site at that you can ultimately personalize
  • Your own personal mobile website at that will work on any Internet enabled phone
  • WebFives player and widgets that you can put in your Facebook, MySpace, Hi5, or other WebSite or social networking account
  • Tracking of content views, re-sharing of your content, and more
  • Social networking, messaging, and keeping up to date with WebFives friends
  • A chance to make money and benefit charity if you are contributing to the community and people like the things you share (details soon)
  • 200MB of shared content

(grabbed from Vizrea's website here)

IMHO, the community and web angle was too little, too late (as one can see with their less than stellar Alexa ranking graph that shows them being ranked at around 1.1M at the time of this writing) . I'm sure given how deep the desktop tech looked when I last tried the Vizrea product (which was what they were called before becoming WebFive - and a more web focused company), that they burnt though a ton of cash building out something on the desktop that synced with the web with a mobile client. The company's fate probably did not have a optimal outcome, perhaps more grim than what Rick Segal had alluded to, and less grim than the note from John Cook

The final and perhaps most important lesson that we learned from my BubbleShare experience as it related to Vizrea/WebFive, and watching others in the space around me grapple with the transition from "Desktop 2.0" to "Web 2.0" between 2003-2006 was how much of a siren's song the mobile application space is during the past several years & to Focus on customer problems that they have TODAY that can get viral/cheap distribution (i.e. facebook+web app vs. web only app) or rapid/low-cost adoption (web app vs. desktop app).

This of course, on the mobile front is changing. My predictions previously on "Web 2.5" and "Web 3.0" had been nicely echoed by Google's back to back announcements on OpenSocial (i.e. my so called web 2.5 analogy) and the GPhone/Android platform (i.e. Web 3.0).

Had Vizrea been 2 years later, they probably would have been in a much better position.

Regardless, kudos to fellow entrepreneur Mike Toutonghi's for having the courage to tackle some very hard problem -- and despite some hard challenges, able to find a buyer at his former employer's at Microsoft.

My final disclaimer is that, its always easy to play arm chair startup critic, but its much harder to actually DO a startup -- and to appreciate how much hard work and courage it takes to get something off the ground -- no matter where it ends up.

Mike Toutonghi: if you're reading this, kudos for pushing things forward for all of us in the space, you have a free beer on me the next time we're in the same city together. ;-)