Sunday, September 30, 2007

Facebook App Idea - Study Aid

Although I've always wanted to add something to the Facebook Application community, I don't feel that my target audience will be found in abundance on Facebook. So I've always put most of my ideas in a notebook and tucked it back into my desk drawer.

But after reading about all the amazing stuff that went on at Startup Weekend, I thought I'd dust off my notebook and share an idea with the people out there who have the desire, time and resources to build an app. This isn't some blockbuster idea that's going to change the world, but I think it solves a problem for students and could be something fun to work on for those who are interested.

The only thing that I ask is that if you find this idea compelling and want to take it to the next level, that you share your development experiences/process with me so I can write about it here (obviously write about it on your own blog as well) :)

So here goes...

The Problem

There are a ton of applications on Facebook that allow members to track the classes they're currently taking and find out who else is taking them. Then you can connect with other students, possibly friend them and message them through Facebook's existing infrastructure.

This obviously adds some value, but it definitely misses the mark on what we could be doing with an application like this. The social graph exposes a lot more than just simply connections between people, it also allows for communication and collaboration between community members as well - so we should be leveraging that within the applications themselves and not relying on Facebook's communication tools.

For instance, what happens when 2 or more students taking the same class are all having a problem with that week's homework assignment? Or what if they're in a study group but one student gets sick and can't make it? Or while they're in the study group they want to share a single source of study notes after the meeting?

What if we could build a "Courses" application that really took advantage of the communication and collaboration features found in many other applications on the web, but brought them into Facebook?

The Solution

Create an application where students taking a course can join an associated group on Facebook for that course. Then within that "Course Group" they can utilize a number of collaboration utilities:

1. General White Board - I'd keep this fairly basic: no advanced formatting, basic text stylization (underlines, bolds, and italics) and allow for HTML links. No advanced permissions: basically anyone in the group can edit the write board. This will be good for keeping ongoing notes, ideas, and general assignments posted.

2. Files - This is where I'd allow students to upload any and all files related to the course they're in. This would also be a perfect place to charge for premium services (e.g. anything over 50 MB and if they want a direct URL so they can access them outside of the system and it'll cost $X per year/month).

3. Advanced White Board - This is the place where users can create multiple collaboration spaces based on the assignment they're working on. For example, if you're in the same study group for a particular class all semester, then you'll obviously be working on different projects. Here you'll be able to create a white board for each project and it'll have some advanced features.

Instead of just basic text editing you'll be allowed to import files - from the files section or linked to from 3rd party sites - add descriptions, easy PDF creation and printing, etc. A 3rd party HTML editing tool will be necessary but those are a dime a dozen now.

4. Deadlines - Simple calendar module with built in reminders and notifications (e-mail, Facebook message, Facebook notification, etc.).

5. Privacy and Preferences - The name of the game these days is privacy and control when it comes to social media applications (Case in point: See TechCrunch's piece of Facebook's new "friend grouping"). So the same must hold true for this application as well. I don't think ALL of these privacy controls need to be incorporated on the first build, but they should be included at some point in future iterations.

  • Group Creator Preferences - Allow/disallow members (ie. only members can see content in this group). Group expiration - meaning, will the group die out after this class is over or should it be kept up for future collaboration and/or use by future students in this class.
  • Member access - All members can/can't edit specific pieces of content, upload files, etc.
  • E-mail notification - let members know about updates, new files, etc. via e-mail.

I'd host this thing on EC2 and Amazon S3 hybrid solution - all of the files could be pulled from multiple S3 instances and perform weekly/monthly backups to a physical server to ensure data is never lost. Use multiple EC2 instances to serve up the application and keep 1 physical web server to act as a load balancer and admin for the instances.

Obviously folks out there with more infrastructure experience than me will likely poke holes in this setup but I think it's a good, low-cost starting point -- especially if you slap a flash front-end on this, then an Amazon AWS solution would definitely be the way to go.


As you can see this is a mix of Facebook groups and Basecamp - in fact, it's more like Facebook groups on steroids! This is something that students will definitely find useful if it eliminates the friction found in Facebook's infrastructure and has an intuitive interface. I mean, Zuckerberg himself talks about building an app like this while he was still in school. And even if that's just PR fluff, it still illustrates the value something like this would bring to the community.

Making it go viral wouldn't be difficult at all because the application relies on invites and group collaboration for its most basic uses. That takes a lot of pressure off of thinking about marketing and will allow the developer to focus on the user and on the product.

And picture this application in the next year, 2 years or even 3 years. The data assets that will have been built from the millions of students putting up course material, study notes, papers, pictures, etc. will be a study tool in and of itself outside of Facebook.

I'd like to hear any thoughts and feedback you may have. And like I said, if you decide to go ahead with this please share your experience with developing it.

Good luck!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Creativity Defined

Been thinking a lot lately on what makes a "great" start-up.

You obviously need a good idea and to solve a real problem for a large amount of people.

You need a talented team and access to resources (technology, capital, etc.).

But what else gets a company from a pipe dream to a multi-million dollar enterprise?

Rock solid execution, that's what!

And I guess that's one of the things I've been wrestling with as my product gets closer and closer to launch. There's so much inherent risk in operating in unchartered waters; how is a founder to know what to do every step of the way? How can we mitigate this risk?

Well, there's no formula - if there were then everybody would know it and successful founders would be no different than anybody else.

My feeling is that many successful start-ups and founders all operate within a certain unteachable thought framework - a framework that marries logical reasoning with creative problem solving. Now, the "logical" part of that framework isn't very difficult to grasp....

If we have this much money, then we can buy this many servers and hire this many staffers, etc. etc. No sweat...

But the "creative" aspect of this framework is where one founder shines and another flops.

When a founder, a CEO or any stake holder in a project thinks creatively and critically about a problem they tend to not only find new solutions, but they gain an edge over other players in their space.

For instance, when James Hong, et al. first launched they got so much traffic that their server was crashing all the time. They had no money and no time to raise capital. So what did they do?

They got creative!

They negotiated a deal with Rack Space where they gave Rack Space free advertising on their site and in turn Rack Space gave them free hosting for a year!

A month or two ago Hong participated in a panel where he quoted somebody else (I forget who) as defining "creativity" as:

"Creativity is what happens when you chop a zero off the end of a budget".

I was reading Shel Israel's blog tonight and he had a great quote from Steve Larsen:

"Constraint spawns creativity"

And I really have to say that both of these quotes are amazingly accurate - and why shouldn't they be, they're both spawned from experience in the trenches.

I think most entrepreneurs would agree -- our best decisions have been made under less than ideal circumstances. We've created the most successful features, we've cut the best deals (sometimes) and we've hired the best people all under circumstances where others might've just folded their cards and went home.

And that's what I think differentiates a successful businessman from a bad one - the ability to creatively construct solutions to problems.

Some may call it luck, but Sam Goldwyn said it best, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

fbFund - What does it really mean for Facebook?

So about a week ago Mark Hendrickson at Tech Crunch reported that Facebook (along with a number of high profile VCs) will be launching a $10 million fund for Facebook application developers. However, instead of investing in these applications and taking an equity stake, the fbFund will simply be giving cash "grants" to these budding entrepreneurs -- very similar to the cash grants many students receive while attending college.

So what is the fbFund?

Is this is an education fund for would be entrepreneurs -- the principle being to teach them to develop on the Facebook platform before deeming them worthy to conquer the rest of the web? Or is Zuckerbeg such a "good guy" that he just wants to throw money at ideas and see what sticks? I mean, it's a win-win for Facebook anyway - a tremendous amount of value gets added to their system each and every time an application gets developed. So they're just adding fuel to the fire that's burning within this hot mini-market of companies.

This must've thrown a bucket of cold water (no pun intended) on Bay Partner's idea to start a fund to do the exact same thing -- however, Bay Partners would be looking for equity right away while fbFund simply gets right of first refusal on any follow-on financing that takes place.

But is that the only benefit for Facebook?

Could these guys simply be looking to add incremental value to their product and possibly invest in some of these start-ups before anyone else can get their hands on them? That sounds possible - it seems like a sound business strategy...

But yours truly has a conspiracy theory hatching in his sick, twisted brain.

As some of you may or may not know, Facebook recently acquired web-OS company, Parakey. Parakey was founded by the same dynamic programming duo that built the oh-so-popular Firefox web browser.

And while most folks thought that the investors who put $2 million into Parakey walked away with a handsome reward of Facebook stock, that just wasn't the case. According to Arrington, it turns out Facebook paid only $4 million for the company - considering the previous round was done for just under $2 million, which probably had a much higher post-money valuation. In fact, I'd be surprised if investors made anything at all on this deal (read Mike's post to see his ideas on why investors even let the deal happen).

The founders of Parakey, however, walked away with a Facebook employment contract that included Facebook stock and options compensation agreements!

So it looks like these guys sold themselves AND their even though Facebook came out of pocket for $4 million (not a large sum of money for this company), they in turn got two rock star developers.

Conspiracy Theory

Facebook isn't only looking to add value to their platform by encouraging people to develop great applications. Nor are they simply looking to invest in those companies down the road.

Facebook is looking for developers that know how to create very popular consumer software applications.

It's like a publisher being able to find an author like J.K. Rowling -- someone who already has a following and can consistently write list-topping best sellers over and over again.

Think about it: the relative cost for acquiring top talent is huge. By funding some of these companies for a comparatively small amount of money, Facebook sees some tremendous upside:

1. They add value to the Facebook community by making it easier for new applications to get launched.

2. They have the ability to invest directly in these applications as they become more successful and potentially move away from the FB platform.

3. They have the ability to acquire top talent after already seeing them in action (a HUGE cost savings along with a tremendous benefit).

So while I called this a "conspiracy", it's more of a very savvy business move on their part.

Go Facebook!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Beware the Banks and Brokers!

After reading a post by Fred Wilson yesterday, I started to get a little concerned about an impending economic downturn. While it's always been in the back of my head - considering we've been in a bull market for the last 4 years - I haven't paid it much mind in a while.

Now Fred was talking about a downturn specific to the web - I mean, that's where he makes his bread and butter so it's something that is near and dear to his heart - but my concern is more broad based. I think we can see a major downturn hit the stock market and that will have a reverberating effect throughout the economy, and especially in the fragile tech space.

Here's my take:

After working on Wall Street for a few years you learn a couple of tricks. One of which is, if you want to know which way the market is headed six months in advance, keep an eye on the banks and brokerages.

Once you see the banks and brokerages start to take a dive, you know that the rest of Wall Street isn't too far off - we'll call them a "leading indicator". Every major bear market was preceded by sub-par results in the banks and brokerages.

Now, much of this is going to have to do with the recent mortgage crisis the country has plunged into. A lot of these banks are going to take a monster hit on all of these defaults we're seeing.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal just reported that Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) took a 17% hit to Net Income this quarter. Lehman Brothers (NYSE: LEH) showed an increase in profits but took a hit in fixed income due to the mortgage issues.

I also think that many of the banks and brokerages have been reaping the benefits of an unsustainable bull market - the market has been up almost 20% a year for the last 4 years - that means that when this market heads south (or stops rocketing higher) these companies can no longer use their trading and investment banking fees to compensate for losses in other divisions. And that my friends means the brokerages will be headed south for the winter.

When that happens many of the IPO dreams and lofty valuations for many of today's web startups will go into hibernation for the winter as well. But in all fairness this "dot-com renaissance" we've been seeing isn't solely predicated on the public equity markets. But at the very least I think we'll see VC's and other private equity firms tighten the purse strings a bit.

Like I said in my comment to Fred's post, I don't think we're headed for an all out crash in the Internet space, but with the market looking like it might take a bath, investors and entrepreneurs alike need to be cautious now and prepare for a potentially tough winter.

Some steps to take:

1. Batten down the hatches and lower your burn rate: If you're currently supporting high fixed costs figure out ways that you can right-size your Income statement if revenue suddenly takes a hit (i.e. if revenue drops 25%, how can you cut costs by 25%?).

2. Stockpile your supplies: For investors and entrepreneurs this means you need to get capitalized! If you've got enough cash on hand and this downturn isn't "too" bad, you'll be just fine. But for those operating on a shoe string budget already, you might be in for even tougher times if this downturn hits.

3. Focus on the Fundamentals: At the end of the day most of this stuff is beyond any of our control, so there's not much we can do by worrying. So focus on your business - continue to execute on all fronts and proceed with your plan. Don't take your eye off the ball for a single second.

I think James Dean said it best - "Dream as if you'll live forever; live as if you'll die tomorrow."

I prefer, "Act like your company will be around forever; but plan like it could be gone tomorrow."

Monday, September 17, 2007

On the road...

Sorry for the lack of posts - I've been on the road, mainly down in South Florida.

Surprisingly there's a bit of a hustle n' bustle down here - not in the tech sector, but rather in sectors like mortgages (well not so much here anymore), finance, insurance, etc. The standard of living is so cheap that if you make a moderate 6-figure income you can live like Puff Daddy.

There's also a booming adult entertainment sector in Miami - mainly for online-only companies, but these guys are doing big business nonetheless.

On a whim I decided to check out home prices - not that I'd ever move down here, I'm a New Yorker all the way - and I couldn't believe what I found.

I checked out a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom, multi-floor home with a built in pool, court yard and jacuzzi with a 2 car garage...price tag?

$1.5 million!!

Do you know what $1.5 million would get you in New York? Maybe a 1 bedroom in a decent building in the West Village.

It blows my mind at how overpriced New York Real Estate is. However, the situation may be changing soon, for renters at least. Over the next 12 months there's going to be roughly 160 new buildings going up in some of the trendier (highest demand) areas of New York. In my opinion, this is likely going to cause a drop in rental prices across the board, especially in these areas (West Village, Chelsea, Midtown west).

So anybody thinking about renting, sit tight for a few more months and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

I don't really have enough expertise to make any calls with respect to the home buyers market in New York, but with interest rates where they are I wouldn't be so quick to take a mortgage out right now.

Hopefully the Fed will do something to fix that this week.

On another note, I'll try to post more this week. I've been busy working on the front-end for my new web project and it's been taking up a heckuva lot more time than I thought it would.

Hope you're all doing well...Wayne, over and out!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Community Management

I'm not sure if I like this term "Community Manager" or not . Something about "managing" people - and in this case, managing how people interact with your product - just seems counterintuitive to everything that's going on in the social media space.

Granted I'm fairly new to blogging for myself, but I've studied the medium, participated in it and have developed relationships with people who helped shape the blogosphere. You see how I said developed "relationships"...that's what this thing is all about!

If one were to "manage" all of their relationships then wouldn't the authenticity and underlying importance and value of those relationships diminish? They'd become nothing more than numbers on a progress report at the end of every quarter.

Granted, some relationships are purely business and thus have to be consciously managed, but when you're trying to build a sense of community and evangelism around a product then why on earth would you use the title of "Community Manager".

It's like calling yourself the "Mayor", indicating everybody else is beneath you.

Sorry to go on a tirade here but I couldn't get over all of the posts I had read on Jeremiah Owyang's blog. Just to be clear, I have the utmost admiration and respect for Jeremiah, I've been reading his posts for a long while now and I think he's probably one of the most well versed people in this space. Furthermore, he's not the only one who uses that title. Look around, it's almost become "conventional wisdom" to use that as a moniker for the employee who reaches out to the customers. However, the implication of using a title like that is far reaching in the impression it gives to:

- Corporations
- Other bloggers
- And (most importantly) the consumers

After having worked in sales and owned a number of my own companies, I know that the only way to get people involved and to become excited about something is to get them on the same side of the table as you. The only way to do that is to present the opportunity for an equally beneficial relationship - EQUAL!

So what would a more appropriate title be?

I think Jeremiah used this term several times in reference to his various roles at different companies, but he didn't use it as his official title. I propose all "Community Managers" officially change their title to: "Customer Advocate".

That's really what you should be doing if you're reaching out into your community of customers, you should be their advocate -- their voice in and outside of your company. Take their input, give them credit for it and make the changes that they want.

It seems like a facile statement but we all know that this is something most companies just pay lip service to - but the ones who practice what they preach are the ones who will succeed.

Mark my words!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Your Face(book) on Google!

After reading Michael Arrington's post about Facebook allowing non-Facebook members to use its People Search feature, I decided to sign into my account and see what's what.

I wouldn't have been concerned at all until I read the announcement a bit more carefully:

Now people can search for this listing from Facebook's Welcome page. In a few weeks, it may also be found through search engines like Google.


People might be able to search for me, see my photo and personal information directly on Google? That's a little weird for me and I really think it goes against some of the early values of Facebook - privacy and control!

I understand what they're doing from a business perspective, but I just don't agree with it.

I'm sure they'll give us the option of changing our privacy preferences - which I'll be sure to do - but for people who don't check their accounts very often, or who simply don't pay attention to these sorts of developments, this could come as a HUGE shock to them to see their face plastered across Google.

Maybe I'm blowing this out of proportion but it just doesn't sit well with me.

Got Picked up on Found+READ

I feel like a kid who just got a "gold star" on a spelling test. I submitted my last blog entry to Found+READ late last week and it appears that they liked it. The article is still on the homepage at and I've included a direct link below:

I'm an avid reader of the blog so I was pretty proud/happy to be featured there. Hopefully I'll get a chance to put more entires like my last one together so I can submit a few more to the site - I'd be thrilled if other entrepreneurs found my advice helpful.

On another note, we're kicking off the design of this week with our new design partners, - I can't begin to tell you how excited I am!

More news coming soon...