Saturday, July 29, 2006

Starting Findory: Launch early and often

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.

8 comments:

roy said...

Greg,

Thank you very much for sharing your experience.

Your opinion on product launch does make lots of sense for Internet products. Have you thought about bucket testing?

I am curious about the feeling of working on a tiny startup and potentially competing against big companies like google, yahoo, microsoft. How do you deal with the pressure? How do you motivate your team?

BTW, would you talk a bit about how you solved the cold start problem?

Again, thank you!

Otis Gospodnetic said...

Greg, nice series. Inspired by you, I may write one up for Simpy when the time comes.

Time for questions:
- You mentioned virtual office in an older post. How many people are there behind Findory? All technical, I imagine?

- You mentioned personal funding. Where did that money come from, if not a secret? (sorry, didn't research your background)

- Regarding ads that you derive from Google. Are those AdSense ads? You typically need to feed those ads some keywords/content, so they can be targeted. Does this mean you feed them user's reading history? Can you share some technical details about how you do that? Do you just include the key terms/topics/whatever in the HTML source, so that Google's AdSense JavaScript gets it?

- I understand the attraction of running a (successful) independent service fully well (Simpy.com again)
Thanks. Have you ever thought about selling/licensing the guts of Findory for other web sites/services?

I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

Greg Linden said...

Thanks, Roy. Sorry, I do not feel comfortable talking about solving the cold start problem. I am afraid that would be a little too close to the secret sauce behind Findory.

Thanks, Otis, glad you are enjoying it.

On the size of Findory, there were two people at Findory from Sept 2004 to Nov 2005. Other than that, it has just been me. I funded Findory, though, as you can see from the "On the cheap" post in this series, expenses are fairly low. The overwhelmingly dominant cost is not taking a salary for an extended period.

On AdSense, the interface Findory has to Google AdSense allows us to provide them with keywords (though you are only allowed to use this feature if you are a premier client). Findory picks the keywords to give to Google based on both the personalized content of the page and an individual reader's history. I would prefer to work with an ad broker where we could pick the ads directly, but this is the interface we have if we layer on top of Google.

On licensing, I have gotten many inquiries, but the licensing route is a smaller business that I personally would find much less enjoyable, so I have declined to pursue that direction.

Thanks, Otis.

Otis Gospodnetic said...

Thanks for the answers, Greg.

Regarding AdSense premium - I didn't even know this existed. I imagine the requirement is a certain number of page/ad impressions and a good CTR. Do you know what those numbers are? I checked AdSense Help, but found no mention of AdSense premium. I'll go email AdSense folks.

Greg Linden said...

I think you need over 10M page views per month for AdSense Premium. Findory is a little below that, but not much below, and we're doing interesting stuff, so they let us slide.

Otis Gospodnetic said...

Thanks Greg, although this now makes me extra wonder about Alexa, where Findory and Simpy traffic numbers seem to have just crossed, and Simpy doesn't serve 10M pages/month yet. Weird... but thanks for the number.

Greg Linden said...

Hi, Otis. Alexa numbers are unreliable at best. I talked about this at length in an earlier post, "Accuracy of Alexa metrics".

roy said...

Greg,

I understand the solution of cold-start problem is your trade secret. That's fine.

I wonder if you can answer my other questions about dealing with competition pressure and motivate your team?

I want to join some startups but not so sure about those two issues.