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 Monster.com, we launched GoodTree.com 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 Orkut.com, 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 facebook.com to get to FB apps, people go to google.com 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. 


Health information + Internet

On the one hand, we see a mess:  we see 6.5+ billion people most of which know nothing about managing their health, we see the wasted billions people spend on their health every year (or is it trillions), we see charities spending billions (e.g. Gates Foundation) to improve health, we see the battle between scientifically proven medicine and the persistant superstitions, we see obesity and late night TV, the list goes on.  On the other hand, we see the Internet, free, increasingly robust, growing like a weed to every corner of the globe, fully capable of getting the right information to the right place.  So what gives?  Why is health information on the Internet still so bad 13+ years into this?

Has anyone been on WebMD recently?  Given it’s the #1 medical site (by Comscore, so take it with a grain of salt), I found the experience suprsingly lacking…lacking in depth, readability, clarity, humanity.  Not only does the site navigation and design feel so 1997, so does their unwillingness to give much information other than “consult your physician.”   I was hoping that Revolution Health was going to make a difference, and their interface does scream Web 2.0, but I don’t see them getting much traction, and I heard they are burning $6 million per month.  With deep pockets, strong vision, real passion and a bunch of very capable management, Revolution Health has probably bitten off more than they can chew. 

60% of all medical searches online start at Google, and they do seem to be making some small adjustments to their product that may pay off for users.  (See screen shot)


Right above their results for “common cold,” they let you narrow your search so you have a better chance of avoiding the Spam Sites that are trying to swamp their SEO results.   If they do that, people will certainly get marginally more educated.  But Google, from what they say, are not focused on education as much as they are focused on patient records.  It’s certainly a huge mess deserving of attention, and if they solve it, it would make a big difference.   (That’s also probably a wise strategy for them — letting other companies come up with the great health information sites they can spider and put ads next to.)

So we are still left with the sense that getting good health information to people in a way they can absorb it and use it could have a big benefit to the world.  Could be world changing.  The fact it hasn’t happened could be a result of 1) intractability of the problem, 2) entrenched interests don’t want it to happen, 3) good laws and processes we’ve put in place to stop health fraud are now also stopping us from sharing truly useful health information.  I’m interested to find out which one it is.


Love to the Innovators, Part 1: InfoSeek, Bill Gross and Yahoo!

This is the first in a series of posts where I want to make a record of the consumer Internet innovators, so we don’t loose track. They deserve credit for their contribution, as well as our love and admiration, particularly because, if I’m seeing it correctly, I don’t think many of them made much money on their innovations or were recognized much. In fact, I’m thinking there maybe a somewhat negative correlation to being an innovator vs. making money and/or getting the credit. We’ll go through it, see if I’m right, and I expect people to correct me so we can get the record straight.

Let’s start way back in 1994 with InfoSeek. I believe these guys were the first to do Web search by spidering HTML pages. I also think they were the first to do a simple page with a search box in the top and middle, something Google got famous for. Here’s a screen shot from Archive.org of Infoseek’s home page in 1996.


InfoSeek eventually got killed in the search business by Yahoo, Lycos, Excite and AltaVista, and sold to Disney for $76 million. Ouch. No credit, no money. And this was all before Google was well known. (Along the way, InfoSeek’s stock was worth significantly more than $76 million and I don’t know, but perhaps some of the innovators cashed out. Let’s hope some of them did. I know we did at Battery Ventures, but it was at 16X our money, not the 220X the guys at CMGI got from their investment in Lycos.)

Since we’re talking about search, I think we also need to recognize Bill Gross, founder of Idea Lab, who in 1997 or 1998 invented the pay-per-click business model for his company, GoTo.com, which later became Overture.  UPDATE, Sept 16, 2007:  James Hong of Hot or Not emailed me to say that little known fact is that Scott Banister actually invented the pay-per-click ad, brought it to Bill Gross, and then became “VP Ideas” at idealab.  Great stuff, James, thanks!

Bill Gross

Now, Overture eventually sold to Yahoo for $1.4 billion, so Bill must have made some money from that one, right? Well maybe not, because IdeaLab raised so much money from investors in 1999, that the investors may have gotten most of it. I really don’t know. In any case, another vindication of his invention was that when Google went public, I believe it was disclosed that they paid $300 million to Yahoo for the license to their patents so Google could continue to use them. Bill Gross is a smart guy and an innovator for sure. Love and recognition to him.

Further on search, we have to give credit to Yahoo! for being the first to come up with the crazy Internet company name and breaking the mold.

Yahoo logo

Prior to Yahoo!, all important companies needed to have serious names like InfoSeek, AltaVista, and Digital Equipment Corporation. Yahoo! made it safe to have fun, and paved the way for a name like Google. That’s a big deal when you’re talking about marketing to consumers. I love Google as much as the next guy, I really do. I frankly think we’re lucky to have such well intentioned people running it. But I do notice a discrepancy between what they are credited with innovating and the reality. Did they invent Web search? Spidering HTML pages? Simplifying the interface? Business model? Attention grabbing name? They were followers in all of those.

I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong, seriously) the record shows that Google was simply a little bit better in ALL those things in a proven market. At the right time. With the right people. My guess is their success can be boiled down to two main things. First, they turned out to be great consumer marketers. That fact is typified by my favorite innovation of theirs – and I give them lots of credit for this — the “This search took 0.29 seconds” read-out in the upper right corner. I give them a lot of credit for that because that one little feature summarizes the beautifully cohesive, simple and powerful story line which allowed them to grab consumers minds and hearts. It goes something like this: two young Stanford PhD students with a patented algorithm, top venture capitalists come in to help make it a company, biggest server farm, all the techies in Silicon Valley are using it so you should, too, unique culture with 20% time, IPO coming soon so you can get in on it. The story was beautifully played and simple and heart warming enough to be absorbed by consumers.

The second thing Google has is excellence. They have built a culture of unremitting quality which allows them to scale their great product. They have focused on people and never let down their standards. That is something very few companies ever do, and for that, they deserve it all, even if we can’t give them as much innovation love as Newsweek might.

Analysis, Cool companies

Kevin Rose — Silicon Valley’s first Tom Cruise?

Here’s more indication that the consumer Internet is moving closer to the Hollywood operational model. In Hollywood, movies are often popular because of a star power like Tom Cruise. The movie doesn’t have to be good, but if Tom is in it, it will make money. In tech, things have traditionally been different: your product has to make sense and work. Value is created, not just through popularity, but by first-mover advantage, or technical excellence, or discovery of a new business model… typically something substantial.

Certainly there are a few serial winners in Silicon Valley like Steve Jobs, or Mike Cassidy (directhit, xfire) or Peter Thiel (paypal, facebook), but each time they’ve succeeded, they’ve done it from scratch, producing great products and great teams that battled their way to the top. They were never Tom Cruise. Their involvement didn’t guarantee success. In fact, most of the time, when you see people say “He’s done it before, so he can do it again this time, I’m puttin’ money in!” … it typically doesn’t work out. The tech market is unforgiving.

But Kevin Rose, with Pownce at 700 on Alexa in the U.S., may be revealing himself as Silicon Valley’s first Tom Cruise, where if he’s involved with something, it gets high adoption, which creates value, as long as it’s a network effect business. Is “Executive Producer: Kevin Rose” (ala Speilberg) far off?

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.