10 things i got wrong about FeedBurner
the pr machine is really cranking up here at FeedBurner, so much so that a good part of our week is now giving interviews, taking pictures, speaking at conferences, doing podcasts, and so much so that we've had to start saying no to a lot of these requests. gotta get some work done. invariably, being one of the founders, i get asked a lot about "web 2.0", what i think it means, "is there a bubble?" then there are a lot of questions about advice for other "web 2.0" entrepreneurs.
one piece of advice is "know your strengths and weaknesses. make sure you surround yourself with people who can supplement your weaknesses. admit when you are wrong and move on." i say that, because well, my weakness is that i'm not particularly good at predicting what or won't be successful from a software service perspective. when it comes to doing what is right for most users, i'm wrong a lot. luckily, my other cofounders are usually right about the things i'm wrong about.
surely, some of the things i have been wrong about were because in the early days of FeedBurner, i was cranky for sure. it was hard to fund the first year of a new venture ourselves (that is, before we closed our A round of venture financing), but clearly worth it in retrospect.
so what the hell are my strengths? i don't really know. people tell me i have a sixth sense. i see dead people. i guess when i'm in a room with someone, i can read their mind. that's useful in some situations.
anyway, here were some of the things i was wrong about in the creation of our business over the last 3 years (so far):
1. i didn't want to create an ad network, because i thought it wouldn't be fun - actually, creating an ad network has been pretty fun. making money is fun for sure, and building an ad network from scratch to optimize for this new medium of RSS feeds has been a great combination of technology and business, and obviously has is still evolving. mostly though, it's clearly the part of our business that where we are just miles ahead of any competitor in what we know, and in what we have planned. creating an ad network has made me learn a lot about how the media business works that i had never realized before, and i find it fascinating whenever i find out about a new ecosystem that you just never realized was there. and did i mention making money? watching the business start to really make some serious money is great fun. watching the average order multiply by a factor of 10 is exciting.
2. i thought RSS could be monetized by a micropayments mechanism charged to the subscriber. one of my original ideas was that we could create a micropayment marketplace for content where a subscriber got charged a fraction of a penny for reading rss content, we would take a small tax and handle the collection and settlement on the publisher's behalf. this may still evolve someday, but the RSS/Atom world is just still too fragmented to support this right now or for any forseeable future. there is no such thing as a private feed these days. you can search MyYahoo and find all sorts of private feeds out there if you know the right searches. how can you pay for something that gets immediately shared and becomes public? more than anything, i hate paying for anything. if a medium can support advertising to help subsidize its cost in a non-obtrusive way, fine. (Skype should figure this out for skype in/out internationally. I hate paying for Skype!)
3. i didn't think i wanted to code anymore. i remember telling the team "i'll do 'the RSS thing', but i just want to run business development". well, i kinda do that here, but i've been programming ever since my dad brought home a stolen IBM XT (he didn't steal it, but he bought it from someone who did - a better phrase would be "hot IBM XT") or perhaps when i got my Commodore Vic 20, so it was silly to think i wouldn't want to write code. so i still try to do that when i can. it helps me understand what we do a lot better. i wish i had more time to write code for feedburner.
4. i thought someone would create an open-source version of FeedBurner that could be installed locally and stifle our business. even if someone did this, and i fully expect that someone will create a something with similar features to what we offer sooner or later, it wouldn't matter. that's because the value of the business is in the scale and quality of the network of publishers and advertisers we've created, the efficiencies we gain by managing hundreds of thousands of feeds, and the absolutely rabid customer service and insight we've provided to all the users of our network over the last 2.5+ years. there's a lot of myopic skeptics out there that just don't get that. i won't expand on all of it here, but there's more and more features coming soon that can only be used by members of such a large, diverse network of publishers.
5. i thought publishers (bloggers mostly) would just modify their RSS templates to do a lot of what we do. a lot of what FeedBurner offers can be done by a blogger who modifies his/her blogging software, but it turns out it's a really, really small percentage of bloggers who actually have the know-how, the time, or desire to do this. some of that small percentage are in the vocal minority, so you hear a lot about that, but the reality is, most publishers don't want to modify the core in their templates beyond design. furthermore when it comes to advertising, there's a lot of good reasons not to modify your rss template - it's really hard to control the user experience to do such things as spacing out advertising in a user-friendly manner, or optimizing the impressions according to what the advertisers want. we've discovered quite a few things that you simply cannot do by modifying your template as well. just inserting a text link advertisement in your content is a really, really, bad idea. some bloggers will find this out the hard way.
6. i thought people would only want to get RSS as email. i remember telling Eric that i thought rss to SMTP was the killer application, and that i would never want feeds delivered any other way. boy was i wrong about that one. i still like getting RSS as email on my E61, mostly because the on-board RSS reader is so sucky, but otherwise, i much prefer getting RSS in a portal or homepage view, and it turns out so do most other people. not that feeds-as-email doesn't have its place. it's actually a pretty successful service we offer, but it's not the leader, and with the advent of RSS support in IE7, Outlook 2007, and Vista, it never will be.
7. i thought mobile takeup of RSS would happen a lot faster than it did. i still think rss is a killer app for mobile. the RSS integration on the SonyEricsson K790 / K800 is excellent. really excellent. (of course, i also think they stole some of their ideas from me and a project Matt and i did for Blogger) - but anyway, there still hasn't been a large intersection between the consumers of RSS and the people who have mass-market phones. this will change soon,
8. i thought we could use a third-party search marketing network in rss feeds. it turns out ads and ad networks optimized for search and contextual-content don't perform equally as well in feeds and blogs. this makes a lot of sense in retrospect. a) feed subscribers are a totally different audience than those people performing a search. they have a totally different intent. these are people you are reaching every day, not people who are performing a search looking to find something. b) you start splitting the pie too many ways, and no one is happy. building the FeedBurner Ad Network was the right choice. RSS advertising is a totally different animal than AdSense or YPN. we sell audience, not intent, to advertisers. this is a big difference most people don't get.
9. i didn't think i could work with the same co-founders and have a more successful company than our last company. the best analogy i can make with the FeedBurner founders is that of a rock band. now, which rock band is open to debate, but one thing holds constant: we all have complimentary skills that we add to every song. sometimes i play guitar, sometimes i play bass. we can all sing. i used to compare us to pearl jam, but i actually think we're a lot like the Beatles. we've certainly had our fallouts over the years for tons of reasons (actually, more similar to the Beatles than you might believe), but it pretty much always comes back together for something bigger and better. next we plan to travel to india, drop lots of acid, and see what happens.
10. i didn't think commercial publishers would adopt RSS so quickly. we kind of all expected commercial publishers to embrace RSS sometime around Q1 of 2006. the wave came much earlier than that. about six months earlier, in fact. i wish i could say this was serendipitous. if this were called "11 things i got wrong about FeedBurner", number 11 would be "i thought if we built it, they would come." now, that has certainly been true to a large extent. every week i look and see a commercial publisher you all know and had heard of convert their feeds to FeedBurner that my business development team has never talked to. it has happened a lot (in which case we start talking to them immediately!). but the vast amount of our publisher acquisition has been because of personal contact and lots of hard work. it also has to do with hiring the right people who have skills that i do not. i couldn't give a rat's ass about politics. i've never read the daily kos or instapundit. but Rick and Jake do and have, and guess what? political blogs are pretty popular. and they've got them all. i hate talking on the phone. i'm unable to process spoken audio without visuals. Don knows everyone and can spend all day on endless conference calls, thank God. Likewise, Eric Olson can cold call anyone and talk them into using FeedBurner, for the benefit of everyone involved. All that aside, my team has blitzkrieged the publisher market and it goes to show you that with the right talent and hard work, that you can accomplish the impossible.
next: 10 things we all got right with FeedBurner. hey, i'm not a total moron.