When I was at Amazon, I was a strong believer in the idea of launching early and often. In our group, new features typically launched in weeks, then were modified repeatedly. Often, projects were completed in just days. Projects spanning multiple months were unusual.
I carried this philosophy over to Findory. Findory was built on rapid prototyping and early launches.
When Findory first started, the company was targeting personalized web search.
A quick prototype revealed the need for more data about user behavior. The recommendation engine reached out to ask, "What have other users done?" and always got the answer, "I don't know."
For a brief time, I looked at whether I could acquire the necessary information about user behavior. Were there old weblogs available from major search engines (without restrictions for commercial use)? Would Yahoo consider a deal to share an anonymized sample of their logs? Could I acquire logs from an ISP (as Snap.com later did)? No, no, no.
With some amount of frustration, I abandoned this web search prototype and switched to news. With news, bootstrapping is a bigger issue. Old news is no news, as they say. The advantage some may have from massive amounts of log data is diminished by the need to a good job handling the cold start problem.
I spent some time prototyping a personalized news application. I iterated. Eventually, it looked good in my tests.
I decided to launch Findory.com as a personalized news website in Jan 2004. At that point, Findory did not have its own crawl. Findory did not even have a search engine. But the personalization worked. I iterated on it rapidly over the next few months, launching new versions nearly daily, including a Findory crawl and a custom news search engine.
In June of 2004, I launched a version of Findory for weblogs. The underlying personalization engine had to be adapted for blog articles, articles that are often short, almost always opinion, and frequently crappy. Several iterations on an internal prototype tuned a version of the engine to the characteristics of weblogs. A crawl had to be created to cover the most interesting and useful weblogs. Tools were needed to process new weblogs and filter out spam weblogs (splogs).
With Findory and weblogs, I made the mistake of launching as a separate site called Blogory. It was a foolish decision and one that later would need to be reversed. Blogory is now merged into Findory.
Over the next many months, we iterated, iterated, and iterated. There were several redesigns of the website, all looking to figure out what format worked best for readers.
In May of 2005, personalized advertising launched. Findory's advertising (which is sourced from Google) is targeted by Findory not only to the content of the page, but also to the specific history of each Findory reader. Findory focuses the ads both based on what each reader is currently doing and on what that person has done in the past.
Now, in 2006, Findory has many products: news, blogs, video, podcasts, advertising, and (alpha) web search. Findory is personalizing information in many different areas.
Looking back, I think a few things are critical for a strategy of launching early and often.
First, you need developer websites, a full testing environment where programmers have a toy version of the website with which they can tinker. To iterate and test, you need to see everything working together in a sandbox environment.
Second, you need some objective test of the ideas, some measure of what is good or bad. You need some way of evaluating the prototypes even if it is not ideal.
One important point is that not all prototypes should be launched. Yes, I know, you worked hard on that thingie. But, many things should be throwaway, just experiments. At Findory, many things did not look good during testing and were abandoned. They were a path not followed. That work is still valuable, mind you. We learned what works and what does not work. That information is valuable even if the feature was discarded.
Finally, I want to point out that the strategy of launch early and often is not without cost. It is true that some people and press looked at early versions of Findory.com and saw things that were still really prototypes. Sometimes, they judged it harshly and never returned. That has real cost. The damage to the brand is not insignificant.
I remain a strong believer in launching early and often for web development. Findory is learning constantly. We get immediate feedback. We get rapid gratification. The benefits far outweigh the costs.