Cool Stuff



Because of this medical project the Ooga team has been working on, I’ve been introduced to some physicians who are at the top of that industry.  I have been absolutely blown away by them.  They are like astronauts.  Focused, clear, physically talented, mentally agile, gracious.  Sitting and talking with them you can FEEL this amazing depth of knowledge, ability and character.  The rigors of that medical hierarchy must be like the astronaut program, where it both trains people and also weeds out those it can’t train, until all you’re left with is the diamonds.


The Economics of Creativity

Creative endeavors are, for creative people, estatic experiences.  Playing music, writing poetry, sculpting, designing websites, cooking, etc.  Fun and spiritually fulfilling, creative endeavors also make you popular.  Creative people will create for free.  Even at free, it’s a good deal. 

But in every age, technology favors some creative talents over others with huge quantities of money.  Often shocking amounts of money.  I started thinking about this when I read Billy Bragg’s editorial calling for Michael Birch, the creative genius behind Bebo (who is a friend and Adviser to Ooga) to share some of his earnings from the sale of Bebo with the musicians who put their music and video up on Bebo’s site and contributed to Bebo’s popularity.  A good summary of the resulting debate is here on ReadWriteWeb

It occured to me that Bragg feels wronged because he doesn’t understand that a technology shift has taken place and he, with his talent for recording music, will no longer be over compensated for that talent, something which he would actually do for free.  The new creative talent which is being over-rewarded is inventing great user experience on computer screens — something Birch would probably do for free, given that it’s fun, inherently fulfilling to do for him, it touches millions of people and it makes him popular.  His particular bundle of creative talents happen to fit with the economics of creativity in this age. 

Let me flesh out a few more examples to amplify.  In the mid 1800’s a grandfather of mine (who was an American) married a Von Brandenberg woman in Germany, where he was living with his dad who was the conductor of the Berlin Orchestra.  I found out a few years ago that a Von Brandenberg is kind of royalty in Germany.  How could it be, I thought, that my dumpy ancestor could marry a royalty.  I didn’t make sense.  Until you realized there was no radio back then.  People who played in the orchestra were rock stars of their day, and the conductor too.  Even the conductor’s son was part of the creative elite.  Royalty lavished big bucks on musicians and, I guess sometimes, fell in love with them.  That was the technology of the day, and it happened to favor the particular bundle of talents my great great great grandfather had.

Fast forward to 1925 when my grandfather was trying to make it as a cellist in Boston.  He got paid for playing his cello at dinner at the Chatam Inn on Cape Cod but he could barely support himself and his bride.  When the kids came, he became a machinist and a fork lift driver at a brewery.  His creative endeavor no longer paid the bills because radio was availble and the transition was underway in the 20’s from rewarding live music to rewarding recorded music.  Later in his life, my grandfather would practice and play the cello for free.

Forward to the 1940’s when my grandfather’s sister, Florence, 20 years younger than my grandfather, loved to sing from the time she was three years old.  It was in her nature and she would do it for free.  She recorded 8 albums in the 1950’s which were distributed on vinyl and played on radio stations around the U.S.  She’s loaded!  The technology available to distribute creative endeavors richly rewarded the talent for recording music.

Forward to the 1990’s, when a friend from college who won the Julliard Prize for playing piano, tried to make it as a concert pianist.  She was much more talented than my grandfather, but by the 1990’s, the economics of live music had deteriorated to $50 stipend for an hour performance.  And it takes her 80 hours to prepare for that hour.  She still performs every chance she gets.  She’s willing to do it for free today, while my ancestor got to marry royalty 150 years ago for a similar talent.

Designing user experiences on computer screens may be one of the creative endeavors economically favored by the state of  technology today.   How long do you  think it will last?

Cool Stuff

Video from my Singing Group

The Richter Scales is a 15 man a cappella group I founded in 2000 with some friends. We often practice at Ooga Labs on Thursday nights. Over the last 6 weeks or so, one of our group members, Matt Hempey, decided to do a project to create a funny music video. The idea for the video, to make fun of Silicon Valley and the current Internet bubble we’re in, was a group idea, but the execution was all him. The name is “Here Comes Another Bubble,” and over 600,000 people have seen it in three days. Matt wrote the words, did an original arrangement of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” sang the solo, and edited the video. Like a man possessed, he pushed this thing forward.


We put the video out there on Monday night, and by the end of Wednesday, it was getting rave reviews, had over 300,000 views on YouTube which was good enough for the #2 most popular slot on YouTube (for the minute or the day or something). (For you data junkies, we’ve seen that since we put it up on YouTube, we’ve been getting 94 views per minute.)Today, Yahoo saw fit to put it on its homepage as the main piece of content at the top. Hellooooo!The Video has been reviewed on Kara Swisher’s blog, Battelle’s blog, Scobelizer, TechCrunch, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, etc.There is still some viral left out there, my friends, you just have to become obsessed about it and pick something that strikes a chord.


Health 2.0 Thoughts

I went to the Health 2.0 conference September 20th, and I’ve been mulling what I saw there.

There were health information aggregators like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and WebMD. I think we all agree that these players are doing a mediocre job. As you would expect from public companies with a lot of pressure on quarterly financial results, WebMD, Yahoo and Microsoft pages seem optimized for revenues, not optimized for answering people’s questions. Also, the language on these sites is inconsistent, so you never know if what you’re going to get on the next click is what you want or not. Google is the one that is trying interesting things, as this link shows and as we’ve mentioned before on this blog.

There were lots of social networks for patients at Health 2.0, the best being Patients Like Me, covering conditions like ALS, MS, Parkinson’s, and HIV. They said they’ll soon be expanding from those four conditions which is good news. In general, social networks for patients seem to exhibit a tendency to become whining sessions. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m sick, I like to bitch too. But the long-term, hard-core members of these sites — the ones who end up shaping the tone of the content — tend to be the personalities that never get enough of bitching, it seems.

There were a bunch of doctor rating sites, like, Careseek, HealthGrades, and RevolutionHealth. I think this is an admirable thing to do, but rather than rating doctors as bad or good, I’d like to see people rated on their expertise in relation to particular topics and diseases. Who are the experts in the world? Which are the expert organizations or hospitals in a particular condition? Of the professionals within driving distance of me, who is the most expert in the specific thing I’m interested in?

And there were some social networks for doctors, like Sermo, Medical Alliances and Within3. These sites are a bit like LinkedIn for MD’s — professional networking. Cool, but do these guys really have time to get online and chat away? I suppose if it furthers their research, but man, are those MD’s busy. Sermo has a unique and suprising business model — pharmaceutical companies pay them to listen in on doctors’ email and bulliten board conversations on Sermo to hear first what they are saying about conditions and drugs etc. It’s market research for pharma companies. Interesting.

Vimo was a thinly disguised healthcare-insurance-lead-generation site. Smart to go for the money, but tough for Chini Krishnan to pretend he’s trying to help consumers. It’s like LendingTree, where “when banks compete, you win,” but in this case “when health insurance companies compete, you win.” The fact is they are just selling your contact info for $8 or $16 or $22 to these carriers so they can pester you. Ouch.

There were lots of search engines, all optimized for something different. Kosmix’s RightHealth, in particular, appears optimized for revenues. Healthline seems comprehensive, but I’m still not sure what they do that’s different from Google, other than reduce search spam (and Google is working on that as well).

Then there were various insurance companies, content publishers, and associations who were locked in the past and locked in to how they make money today. There is so much money, the systems are so complex, the number of people and organizations that are affected by any change so numerous, and the moral imperative so strong to “do no harm,” that it’s clear why our system feels at once screwed up and at once impossible to change.

There was a lot of discussion about the future and helping people, but the smell of money in the room was palpable. Most of the people on the stage were stuck in this painful tension, talking about all the good they were doing for people, while their faces and voices revealed a desperateness to punch across some invisible line into a place where the cash flows like rain, as it does for many companies in the health industry. It was a common tension in the presenters, and one I came to believe is endemic to this industry, not just in Health 2.0 companies.

The health industry has a dual mission: help people who are often very desperate for you help — and also make money. In this way, being in the health business is not like the auto industry, or the movie industry, or the finance industry, or the electronics industry, or almost any industry, really. There is a moral imperative that comes to bear, but the reality is that we want to have the most talented people in the world working on saving lives, right? And those people could go become investment bankers or real estate developers and make millions, so we need to pay them a lot to focus on improving health. Thus, businesses in the health area need to make quite a bit of money to support the talent and the R&D required to keep pushing the edge. It’s a powerful tension.

As a final note, I had an interesting conversation with a woman who had been trying to change the system from the top down for 30 years, and was finally giving up. She was starting to pin her hopes on some bottoms-up ideas, and she felt the biggest thing we could do to change the system from the bottoms up would be to create a “computer program to diagnose people.” So a person could type in their symptoms and some other personal data (anonymously) and the system would pop out probabilities for various diseases and conditions you might have and what further tests you could do to refine the probabilities. Does anyone know of any efforts to do something like that? I’d love to talk with them.

Ooga Labs


In July 2004, we came up with the idea to create a customizable portal like MyYahoo but have it let people do some good in the world everytime they use it.  I have beliefs, values, and causes I care about… shouldn’t my Internet portal be serving me easy opportunities to make a difference?  I would feel better about myself, the world would get a little better, and my loyalty to the portal would increase. 

 While still working at Tickle inside, we launched in July of 2005.  Monster shut it down in November and I left Monster in January.  I bought the site back from Monster in the spring and relaunched in the Fall of 2006.  We quickly discovered the product and business infrastructure wasn’t ready, so we stopped trying to attract people to it.  In the last year, a small team of dedicated people added a raft of new features:

  1. A customizable homepage, the type of which is now familiar from MyYahoo, iGoogle and 10’s of other customizable homepage startups
  2. A full social network
  3. Causes which people can create, join and suggest actions we all can take to make a difference
  4. An area for charities and financial info

The goal of GoodTree is to get 10 million or more people using it as their start page and portal, to make a significant impact on people and causes, and to keep it profitable.  We have a long list of things we want to improve on the product such as the image search and news areas.  But it’s good enough that we’re going to start attracting people to it again, and we’re excited to see what happens. 

From my experience so far, building an enterprise which has a mission to make an impact while maintaining break-even or profitability is significantly more difficult than just trying to make money.  Competitor portals like Yahoo, MSN, Ask, and MyWay have a hard enough time and they aren’t even burdened by pushing a social mission.  Wish us luck and give us support if you get the opportunity. 

Ooga Labs

Hit it Hard

STIRR is a notable organization run by Dan Arkind and Sanford Barr that puts on gatherings for founders and entrepreneurs around the Bay Area.  At last Wednesday’s event they had a few of us do 5-minute “Founder Hack” talks.  It was really fun and the crowd lively.   <see video>


Love to the Innovators, Part 2: InCircle invented Facebook, didn’t they?

All this talk in the blogosphere about who invented Facebook. Shouldn’t the credit go to the 3 guys who built InCircle for Stanford students and alumni back in 2002-3? Two of their names were Orkut Buyukkokten and Tyler Ziemann. I don’t know the name of the third guy,

InCircle was one of the first social networks, and the first to limit members by email address. A Stanford Alum showed InCircle to me in 2002 or early 2003 (I can’t remember) and told me that 80% of the people he knew from Stanford were on it in about 3 weeks after it launched. These three founders realized it was a good idea and wanted to start a company to pursue it. At the time, 2002 or 2003, no venture capitalist would fund a consumer Internet company, so they made it an enterprise software company and called it Affinity Engines. (Remember, this was way before Friendster and way way before Facebook)

The goal of Affinity Engines was to sell the software to colleges to run their own student and alumni networks. One of the three founders, whose first name is Orkut, left Affinity for Google to pursue the social network idea there, dropping the email exclusivity and college focus. The other two kept running Affinity Engines and then sued Google over, claiming Orkut stole code from Affinity Engines. Sound familiar?

If you search GoodTree for — Orkut “Affinity Engines” — it’s easy to find the whole story. Here’s an excerpt from the Wired article in June 30, 2004:

After graduating from Stanford in 2001, [Orkut] Buyukkokten and fellow graduate Tyler Ziemann built a social-networking service called Club Nexus, which they sold to Stanford for use by the university’s undergraduates, according to the lawsuit. Club Nexus was a success, and Buyukkokten and Ziemann subsequently decided to form Affinity Engines and design a product for the Stanford Alumni Association called inCircle. As a developer of social-networking software for university students and alumni, Affinity Engines was among the first players in what has become a very crowded field. Today, social-networking services like Friendster, Tribe, LinkedIn and orkut attract millions of users by giving them a way to easily connect to friends and friends’ networks of friends.

Seems that the “college-social-network” idea is a bit like King Tut’s tomb. Whoever opens it is cursed with lawsuits. Many have tried this idea, and it seems only one has succeeded. (By the way, I may have this story wrong in places. It was a long time ago, and I’m working off my own memory of it, so if I’m wrong, in places, please let me know)


Consumer Fatigue

We saw this near the end of the first Internet boom, and we’re starting to see it again — consumers are just getting tired of trying out all the new online services we all are cranking out. What that means is that even if you find a way to get a great, new, differentiated service in front of them in a cost effective manner, the consumer is significantly more likely to pass just because they’re too busy figuring out other services they found earlier.


Let Social Networks Turn Your Organization Inside Out

Time Magazine has an interesting article this week about a new book out called “X-Teams” by a professor at MIT Sloan School and one at INSEAD. The thesis is that in corporate management theory, we have become overly obsessed with the internal dynamics of teams as a way of improving productivity and happiness in our companies, while, in fact, the relationships and communications employees have with people external to the company are equally important to productivity, happiness, and ultimately to success. The authors show decades of research proving this is the case.

The article doesn’t mention online services, but it got me thinking that this is yet another reason companies should actively embrace work-oriented social networking services like LinkedIn and Xing even though those services are hosted outside the company firewall, and even though those tools open up their employees to being poached.  For anyone reading this blog, I’m not saying anything new.  But the “X-Teams” research at least provides a credible and logical counterpoint to the fears of corporate managers who have blocked these services or purchased social software tools that are hosted inside the company firewall (company directories, blogs, etc).

The turning of companies inside out is good for them, ultimately. My bet is that tools like LinkedIn and Xing are in their infancy as to what can be done for making work much more fun and much more productive. Those companies will keep pushing the boundaries, or other companies will come along that do even more to connect people inside their company, turn that network outside to great benefit, and make it all more fun, fast, and productive. Regardless of who does it, we will continue to need arguements such as that of “X-Teams” to help managers get over their fears so they can let these services turn their companies inside out to great benefit.


Google is the Platform

A lot has been written about Facebook getting thousands of developers to build applications inside the Facebook wall using FML and other proprietary languages.  The excitement is in part due to the idea that much of the value created will somehow accrue to Facebook because they are now the platform (even though it’s unclear Facebook has figured out really slick ways to monetize all that action, but they probably will).  I agree it’s very cool.  Like Second Life has been doing for 5 years and Microsoft did so well 20+ years ago.  But as I was thinking about building a branded destination site today, it occured to me that because 65%+ of all Internet visits start with them, Google is the real platform and we are all building applications on top of their platform, the Internet, using their languages HTML, XML, etc.  Just as people go to to get to FB apps, people go to to get to ALL the apps.  And with Ad Words, Google has actually figured out a slick way to make money off it already.  And they make us bid against each other!  A pretty slick way to monetize us app builders on their platform.