Archive for June, 2007


Are you using OpenDNS? You should be!

Earlier this year I started using OpenDNS and it has completely revolutionized the way that I navigate the web. In the old days I accessed websites by typing in the URL or by searching for the link in a mess of bookmarks.

Now I use OpenDNS shortcuts.

For example, to start writing this post I simply typed “blog” into my address bar. If I want to see how many people have been reading my blog, I simply type “stats”. To check my minutes on my Verizon phone, I type “v”. To check my balance with Bank of America, I type “boa”. OpenDNS stores the full URL for me and allows me to recall any website with an easy, self-defined shortcut. As a result, I am able to get where I want to go much quicker than before. OpenDNS also provides a javascript bookmark that lets me create new shortcuts with a simple click of a button.

Shortcuts are my favorite benefit of using OpenDNS, but there are many more:

  • It’s faster
  • It automatically corrects spelling mistakes (www,google.cmo becomes www.google.com)
  • It warns me against phishing attacks
  • It only takes about 30 seconds to set up

If you are not using OpenDNS yet, I recommend that you try it. I promise, once you use it, you’ll never go back.

The slightly-less-technical explanation for my mom:

Every time you view a website, your computer sends out a request to a domain name server. This domain name server is used to convert human readable domain names (www.google.com) into computer readable IP addresses (72.14.253.104). The average person does hundreds of DNS lookups every day. Usually these lookups are handled by your internet service provider (ISP), but you can actually use whichever service you like. OpenDNS is the world’s largest and fastest-growing DNS service. They are currently handling over a billion requests a day.

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I’ve not pulled this many all-nighters since sophomore year!

We had our one-month demos last night. It was a lot of fun seeing what the other teams have been working on this summer. I am blown away by the vision and talent of the other companies here at TechStars. It’s been cool to see the friendships developing between us.

I also love the way the various teams are helping each other out. Take the villijers for example:

  • Mike has been putting in as many late nights as we have. He’s been helping Rob get our server tricked out with cool stuff like mod-rewrite.
  • Anthony helped us design our business cards.
  • Theron drove us to Colorado Springs since we don’t have a car here. (To be fair, he did get to spend a day at the Broadmoor)
  • Aaron keeps us continually entertained with his card tricks and philosophical conversations.

It’s people like this that are making our summer so incredible.

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One blog that every team should be reading

My general expectation for blogs is for them to provide me some basic value. Every now and then you should probably post something insightful, interesting or funny to keep me coming back, but I certainly don’t expect you to blow my mind with every post.

That’s why I’m so impressed by one blog that knocks it out of the park every time!

I’m talking about ParticleTree from Ryan, Chris and Kevin at Wufoo.

They don’t post that often, but when they do, it’s good. The article they posted today is no exception. What’s cool is that they aren’t that far ahead of us. Not too long ago they were building their product at Y Combinator in Boston. They have gone through the whole process of starting a Web 2.0 company and are eager to share what they have learned along the way.

They have some really practical articles like:

Wufoo guys, thanks for the great posts! Let me know if you’re ever out in Colorado. I’d still love to meet you all in person.

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Want a sneak peak at EventVue?

We are not going to have a public launch of our product until the end of this summer. The good news is that our friends, advisers and loyal blog readers will be offered sneak previews long before then. If you want to be in on the fun, just go to our shiny new website and give us your email address. We’d love to keep you up to date on what’s happening here at EventVue.

The first 100 people to sign up get a free cookie!

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Platypus update

This is what happens when Facebook adds your application to their directory:

Here is a quick summary of the other numbers from the Platypus experiment:

  • 416 people have looked at it
  • 227 people have installed it
  • 158 people are currently using it
  • 69 people (30%) installed it and then removed it again

The biggest surprise to me with these numbers is the low retention rate. Why am I loosing 30% of the people who install my application? Has anyone else noticed this trend with their Facebook applications?

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Watching and learning

Last night I got to sit in and watch companies pitch to an angel network from CTEK. It was an amazing learning opportunity for us. Here are some of the things that really stood out:

Know your business

Last night one of the presenters made the following comment:

“We don’t track anything. I couldn’t tell you how many people use our product”.

What!?! Are you kidding me?

Contrast this to another presenter that stood up and demonstrated that they knew their business inside and out. They knew everything about their customers – where they live, where they shop, what they like. They knew the size of their market and had a reasonable strategy for increasing their share of it. They knew their business model. They measured and evaluated everything. They knew exactly how much it cost to move their product into a new region and they knew how much revenue that would bring in. They had a mathematical justification for how much of a return you should expect from your investment.

Which company would you trust with your money?

Know your pitch

Know your pitch! This seems like it would be intuitive, right? Last night I saw a CEO get up in front on everyone and just start rambling. Another one kept turning around and reading from his PowerPoint. By doing this he:

  • Showed that he didn’t know his numbers very well
  • Communicated that he didn’t take the time to prepare
  • Missed out on crucial eye contact that would have allowed him to connect to his audience and get instant feedback on what he was saying.

Your pitch should be clear and should answer the big questions right away. At the very least I should understand:

  • What you do
  • Who your customer is
  • How many customers you can realistically reach
  • How you plan to reach them

If you get done with your pitch and someone has to ask you what you do, I doubt they’re going to give you any money. And yes, this really happened.

Know your audience

I realized last night how important it is to pitch to people who know your industry and can understand your business.

One of the presenters did a great job outlining their strategy, their competitive advantage and their knowledge of their business. The problem was that no one else in the room knew anything about their industry. They could be sitting on an amazing opportunity, but it wouldn’t matter. No one is going to invest in something they don’t understand.

It pays to find people who get what you’re doing.

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#1 on Google

If you search for “online aspect” on Google my blog comes up as the 1st result out of 92,800,000.

Thanks Google. You made my day.

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Content aggregation: Am I missing something?

With new web services appearing every day our information is increasingly spread out over a myriad of different platforms. As a result, active web users are forced to log into dozens of different sites to keep up with their online life. There are a lot of people currently working to solve this problem with content aggregation. The idea is that you should be able to log in to one website and see all your relevant information in one place. It’s a great idea, but there are some big challenges that are worth considering.

Let me start by sharing a personal story. When the Google Maps API first came out I built a mash-up that allowed people to move around a map and see the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone who lived in that area. I used a reverse geocoder to convert GPS coordinates to street addresses and then an address lookup service to get the information about the people who lived on each street. Since I didn’t have access to these databases myself, I extracted the data from several other websites. Everything worked great until someone found my site and posted a link on digg. About 10 minutes after my website made the front page of digg, two of the services I was using blocked my IP address. My 10 minutes of fame were over. My site was as dead as a doornail.

I learned an important lesson from this incident. When you pull content from another website you are ALWAYS at their mercy.

A good number of websites now provide API’s that allow third parties to interact with their data. Theoretically this makes the task of content aggregation more reliable since you have defined methods by which to access information from that provider. Unfortunately, even with API’s you are still defenseless to the actions of the API provider. For example, last week Facebook made several code updates that broke the majority of applications on their platform. I’ve experienced the same issues while using API’s for PayPal Pro and Google Maps. In each case, they made an “update” to their code which put my website out of business for a day. When you use an API, you must understand that it can (and will) change at any time. There will also be times when it will be broken or unavailable.

The bigger concern is when you need to aggregate content from websites that don’t have an API. The reality of the internet today is that API-offering websites make up a tiny percentage of all the websites on the internet. To provide a truly valuable aggregator you need to scrape data from all relevant websites, not just those that offer API access. The problem is that you are completely vulnerable when you are scraping data. Any time a change is made in their code, it has the potential to break everything you are doing. If they ever decide they don’t like you anymore, blocking you is as simple as adding your IP address to a restriction list. No matter what, you are at their mercy.

Keep in mind that few websites have an economic incentive to let you scrape their data. This is especially true for websites that make their money from advertising. When you scrap their content you are depriving them of their main source of revenue. If they ever decide they don’t like you, there’s not much you can do about it.

For those of you who are currently working on building content aggregators, I am curious to hear how you plan to address these issues. Is there another side to this that I am missing?

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The story of how I became a programmer

The story of how I became a programmer is really a story about my dad.

As long as I can remember, my family has had a computer in our house. My entrance into the programming world started when my dad bought me some books on how to program our Apple IIe. I spent hours trying to write programs for that thing!

Then early in high school I decided I wanted to be a website designer. My dad encouraged me to build a website for a local company and see if they would pay for it. I guess my price was too high. I asked for $100 and they turned me down!

My dad told me not to be discouraged, but said “If you really want to be good, you should learn HTML”. So I did.

A few weeks later I was showing off what I had learned about HTML, and my dad said “That’s great, but if you reeeally want to be good, you should learn JavaScript”. So I did. And after I mastered JavaScript, I learned PHP. And after PHP, I learned mySQL.

After I graduated from high school, I went to Clemson to study Computer Science. My dad never had a college education, but he made huge sacrifices so that I could.

During the summer, my dad landed me an incredible internship with a company in Charlotte. By my second summer there, I was the project lead for multiple clients. I probably learned more about programming at Orbis, than I did in college.

For 23 years my dad has shown me how to work hard and not give up. He’s taught me to think outside the box, and has continually pushed me to take on bigger and bigger challenges.

Dad, thanks for being such an incredible example to me. Happy Father’s day! I love you.

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The 4 coolest people I’ve met in the last 24 hours

One of the things that is really cool about TechStars is the number of amazing people we’re continually surrounded by. Here are a few people I’ve met within the past day that have really impressed me:

Todd and Eric from myBlogLog (now a part of Yahoo)

Todd and Eric win my “most-encouraging people of the week” award. From the moment we started talking about EventVue, they were excited about what we are doing. They dove right in – drawing on the white board, sharing ideas and asking deep questions that forced us to think about what we are doing. These guys are natural marketing masterminds. I look forward to learning more from them.

Casey Schorr from Printfection

I liked Casey from the minute I met him. Casey is only 23, but already he’s the president of his own profitable company in Denver. Printfection provides on-demand printing over the internet for a fraction of the cost of traditional screen printing. Their industry is changing rapidly, and Casey’s company is in the best position to take advantage of these new opportunities. Check them out for yourself. Get a custom designed t-shirt for only $2!

Noah Kagan from Facebook and now Mint

Noah is a genius with a hyperactive mind. He spent the morning talking to us about what he learned from his time at Facebook and how we can build better products. He gave us some great insight on how to get people on board with what we are doing. Apparantly, this comes under the new buzz word called “onboarding”. Yep, I learned something new today! Noah’s passion is contagious and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

Todd, Eric, Casey and Noah, you guys blow me away. Thanks for taking the time to hang out with us. I want to be as cool as you when I grow up.

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