Web 2.0 experts share startup lessons

Web 2.0 experts share startup lessons

Experts at the Future of Web Apps in Miami shared lessons they learned from starting up their Web 2.0 companies.
Juan Carlos Perez (IDG News Service)

03/03/2008 08:14:33


It’s possible to launch a successful Web startup
with little money, especially if you shift your attention away from the
business plan and focus on building a great Web application.

That was one of the many tips that attendees
at the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami heard on Friday for how
to succeed as a Web entrepreneur and Web application developer.

It came from Emily Boyd, co-founder of the popular Remember the Milk
task-management Web application, who explained how she and her partner
managed to launch their application with limited resources.

To accomplish that, they did a lot of
benchmarking and research to find cheap, scalable and easy-to-use
software, she said. Then they spent about a year developing the
application’s architecture in a way that minimized, as much as
possible, its need to tap their server by doing most of the processing
on users’ PCs.

Thanks to that, since launching Remember the
Milk in October 2005, they haven’t had to expand their server capacity
very much, even as their user base has grown, keeping costs down, she
said. Along these lines, Boyd and her partner jumped all over Google’s
Gears, a technology for giving offline access to Web applications, and
built it into Remember the Milk just days after Gears became available.

She also advised attendees to take advantage,
as much as possible, of available APIs (application programming
interfaces), in order to quickly add features and improve their
applications. This is something that she and her partner continually do
for Remember the Milk, especially for features that aren’t core to the
application’s task-management functionality.

"We love APIs," she said. For example, they
have a Google Maps mashup that places tasks on a map so users can
visualize a route for running errands, she said.

If APIs aren’t available for certain
functions or devices, it’s worth it to explore other avenues for
integration using more granular programming, which she and her partner
did to bring Remember the Milk into the Gmail inbox screen. However,
she cautioned that in these cases, it can be problematic whenever the
back-end code is changed in a way that breaks the integration. In the
case of Gmail, her experience is that code changes are frequent,
requiring regular maintenance on their part.

She also said it’s important to be
resourceful. Boyd and her partner are based in Australia, where the
iPhone isn’t yet available. But they wanted to build a version of
Remember the Milk for it, so they bought one over the Internet and set
to work.

She also told attendees to focus first on
creating a truly compelling application that captures people’s
attention, and not worry too much about a business plan. "The most
important thing is to build [an application] that people really want to
use," she said. "[A great business model] doesn’t matter if no one
cares about your product."

Finally, she told attendees to constantly be
thinking of ways to improve their applications and to not be too
concerned about sticking to concrete upgrade roadmaps. She and her
partner always have ideas floating around in their minds and
instinctively pursue those that seem timely. "The truth is we don’t
know what we’re doing next. I’m not sure if I should admit that," she
said.

At least her admission wasn’t as embarrassing
as wolfing down more than 100 chicken nuggets in one sitting, a feat
that Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of popular blogging software
WordPress and founder and CEO of Automattic, said he attempted and
survived.

Then he moved closer to the conference’s
topic, stressing that it’s key to not ignore spammers, whom he called
the "terrorists" of Web 2.0 companies. "They can really kill your
product," he said, adding that his team has zapped more than 800,000
spam blogs — or splogs — from WordPress.com.

Mullenweg also said that startup founders
must be the most passionate members of the company, who are "obsessed
about everything," and he recommended that, when building up a team,
very careful attention be paid to the hiring process, since the staff
will be critical to success.

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