Ooga Labs

Speed Teams

At Ooga, where we’re building 5 separate products (with separate code bases, URL’s, business models, corporate entities, etc.) we develop in what we call Speed Teams.

A Speed Team is composed of two people: an engineer — who is responsible for programming the database, the application, and some of the front end — and a Designer — who is responsible for the look and feel of the site and most of the front end code. Each Speed Team works with me and Stan on a daily basis, and the project is held together with a simple document that lists the tasks and help us prioritize them. No Product Requirement Documents, no Marketing Requirements Documents, just talk and go. We find this gives us maximum freedom to iterate on a project as it moves along. Without a Board of Directors to hold us to a plan we might have come up with in the past, we are free to do what makes sense based on new information, new ideas, or feedback from the users without having to convince anyone, again adding flexibility.

By constantly adjusting to new information, we hope and expect that it will increase our odds of building something that works. Time will tell. In larger companies, they often have large groups of people on a project, each with a designated expertise. We don’t think this makes sense in the consumer Web space.

At our last company, Tickle, where we also were developing about 5 separate products, we got it down to 5 people per project: database, application layer, front end coder, visual designer, and product manager. This was pretty good and pretty fast, but still time consuming to manage everyone.

When you have good people, they all have an opinion, and it takes time to let everyone have a say. So at Ooga, we’ve taken it the next step, down to 2 people per project. Ideally, in the future, we will experiment with getting it down to 1 person, although finding someone who likes doing all layers is rare. (If you are one of these people, let us know.) As a website grows, we’ll add one or two more engineers, keeping the one designer. We’re not sure it gets much faster after 3 engineers + 1 designer, unless you have a business that can be easily modularized. That group of four will then tap into shared Ooga resources for customer service, IS, and revenue.

We’re confident we can grow a business to a significant size with that configuration given the right people. Some of the challenges with this Speed Team approach so far: 1) Having only two people on a team means each person must be learning constantly in several skill areas to be good enough to execute. 2) It’s pretty intense because the whole product rests on each person’s shoulders. There is no hiding. 3) Our one simple document let’s us know what to do on a weekly basis, but doesn’t yet let us break down tasks into sufficiently small chunks where we know what to do on an hourly basis, so we’re changing that.We’ll talk more about this in the future.

And right now we’re looking for people who think this sounds like their cup of tea.


The Age of the Studios

I’ve got a theory that the digital media industry will go through the same general phases that the film industry went through.  Try this on.  In the 1920’s and 1930’s, people were just learning how to make a film: the machinery, lighting, developing the film, etc.  The tech was unfamiliar and it was hard to get  film out the door and in theaters.  Knowledge of the technology to make a film was not widely disseminated during this first phase.  The same was true of Internet websites between 1994 – 2004 — Phase 1 of the Internet.  

In 1937, out came “Snow White” and in 1939 “Gone with the Wind.”  Those two films blew the viewers away, and showed the true potential of the medium.  The lucky people who were on the crews of those two films were now among the few that knew what it looked and felt like to make a GOOD film.   This was then the second phase of film, the Age of the Studio, where the few people who knew how to make a good film turned their resources into building film portfolios.  Talented actors/actresses worked with the same studio for long periods of time, starring in multiple movies.  The studios had the money to make a lot of movies because they were previously successful, and because they didn’t need every movie to be a hit to survive.  The more movies the studio produced, the stronger their distribution network became, which in turn helped the success of their movies.  Their success bred confidence which attracted more talent and customers.  The studios ruled. 

That knowledge, what it was like to make a GOOD film, spread slowly as more film projects produced excellent results, and by the mid 1960’s it became possible to collect a random group of experienced people in Hollywood and have as good a shot as any to make an excellent film.  That permitted the rise of the Agents, who ended the Age of the Studios and took control of Hollywood.  I think the Internet has now entered a similar second phase and may see the rise of vertically integrated Studios like Ooga Labs and Obvious for the same reasons we saw them in the film industry.  I wouldn’t expect this phase to last 25 years, as film did, but perhaps 12 years, beginning in 2004.  It will end by agents, or by government regulation, or by excessive competition (as we have in the film industry, a near zero-margin industry) or perhaps by platforms which will make it possible for literally anyone to play, but I suspect the end result will be the same: that the essence of the endeavor becomes more about politics and who-knows-who, then about talent.  If so, then these are indeed the good old days.

Cool Stuff

Fractals yes!

Here’s an old 50 minute film by Arthur C. Clarke I’ve been watching when I can called “Fractals, the Colors of Infinity.”  It’s the first video I’ve seen talking about the clear connection between the world we see around us and fractal geometry, even though it’s kind of obvious.  You can see some fractals coming out of the fire on the Ooga Labs home page

Analysis, Cool companies

Facebook F8, a big mistake?

Given the glowing reviews F8 is getting, can we pause for a minute and consider that F8 was a pretty big mistake for Facebook? They say that smart people don’t make small mistakes, they make big ones. Consider that Facebook was going to win anyway, so they could have held off for another 12-18 months before they “platformed” their company. They weren’t facing much tough competition, they had a lock on the flexible clean interface, they were simultaneously growing their new user base and deepening the number of connections per user. By opening up, they have taken on a number of risks they didn’t have before:

1) Their site could MySpace-ize pretty quickly, get chaotic and ugly and loose its interface advantage

2) Worse yet, the UI could get so confusing with so random apps being thrown at you and the feed getting too long that users wouldn’t adjust their settings to reduce the chaos, rather they’d just get overwhelmed and stop using Facebook

3) What Facebook IS to people (their brand) could get confused, and it would be picked apart by a swarm of competitors like LinkedIn, MySpace, Yelp and the 10’s of new vertical social networks. Maybe even some clean college networks would spring up to siphon off users.

4) Maybe this would give too much value to their partners, and the resultant energy would dissipate into the wider net rather than accrue to Facebook like it would if they just build the key apps themselves

All are still possible downsides for Facebook, but in the end, after considering these issues, it’s still a very strong move. First, it is energizing and exciting to their young staff, who are working longer hours than any other startup in the Valley. That alone could be worth it. Second, sure they could have waited another 12 months, but this leaves their any competition flat-footed. Third, there is a magic and a power to the distributed mind, in the collective efforts of 10,000’s of smart people. We saw it with Microsoft and you can see it at SecondLife. Now, of course API’s are not nearly as hard as Win32, so Facebook’s defensibility isn’t necessarily the same as Microsoft’s, and I expect other big social networks to get in the platform business over the next 10 months, but by then, Facebook will be well ahead and be down the learning curve on managing this business.

I think they were right to trust their instincts and fall backwards off the stage into the crowd. For instance, already, several of the applications being built by some of the 30,000 platform developers address my four concerns above. Magic and power. Facebook may not have all the answers, but they’re betting 100,000 smart people do, and that’s not a bad bet. My props to the team at Facebook. They are showing themselves the class of the competition, and they are accelerating the evolution of the social Net dramatically by letting 1000’s social application ideas be tested quickly and easily. Everyone in the social Net, including Ooga Labs, now gets to accelerate their thinking.

As a side note, people have asked what Facebook is worth now. I think of it rather like Schroedinger’s cat where the actual state of the cat cannot be known. This is true for Facebook’s valuation because there is no transaction to be had, so the valuation is indeterminate. Given that the management team knows they will create $X billions of value over the next 12 months, and given that they haven’t done it yet, no one can step up and pay something close to what they know they will be worth. And most likely, even if there were such an offer, it would cause the management team’s belief in their prospects to increase. Perhaps justifiably. And since the company isn’t ready to go public (and shouldn’t!), there is not deal to be done, either by a corporate buyer or the public to establish the state of the cat.

Oh, one more thing, small companies to sell to Facebook in the next 6-9 months will do well. RockYou?