For the second year in a row, I’ve been in start-up mode for the early months of the year, and I thought now that I’m in a real start-up existing outside of a large corporate structure, it’s time to reflect a bit upon what the past two years have been like: the similarities, the differences, and why I love doing this.
When Jason and Brian sold Weblogs, Inc. to AOL in October 2005, I was a lead blogger for TUAW, contributor to about 4 other Weblogs, Inc. blogs, and perhaps the most vocal (admittedly often noisily so) WIN blogger on the Weblogs, Inc. mailing list. When I first met many of the Weblogs, Inc. bloggers in NYC at AOL HQ at 75 Rock post our acquisition in November, many of them said, half in awe / half in jest, “How do you have time to blog with all the emails you send to the WIN list?” The answer is the same that I gave them when I was the first one at the 2nd day of meetings despite being the most “outgoing” at the previous night’s celebrations: I’m an energetic workaholic / playaholic maniac.
At those meetings, Jason was talking quite a bit about how several of us would be moving into full-time positions soon enough. Privately, I lamented to him that I was stuck in an odd position, as I had workaholic’ed myself into the highest position I could get within Fordham University’s Instructional Technology and Academic Computing department, as the Instructional Technologist in charge of the Faculty Resource Centers and in charge of helping the faculty use technology in the classroom. I was making more money than I would be able to make starting out as an English Professor (which was my career path) and I was locked into my salary due to my wife, our mortgage, student loans, and a litany of other real-world factors. Jason smiled, patted me on the back, and said, “Soon, brother. Patience.”
Fast forward two months to early January 2006: I walked into Fleur’s office at Fordham, and she (the Director of the Instructional Technology and Academic Computing Department at Fordham) said the same thing she had said many times before when I walked into her office: “You’re not leaving me.” Except, this time, I didn’t say “no” and she immediately said, somewhat distraught, “You *are* leaving me.” I was. Jason had offered me the position of Managing Editor for Netscape and it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass by.
What followed in the next two months, at face value, was little more than me becoming a full-time blogger for TUAW, all the while trying to staff up the blog and prepare for my departure from TUAW. In reality, I immediately began looking for the team of people who would build and maintain the new Netscape. I immediately entered into meeting upon meeting with different departments within AOL clamoring for a piece of the reinvented Netscape pie. To a large degree, this meant meeting upon meeting of me saying “No. No. No. We cannot do that. No.” Such is the life of a start-up trapped within a large corporate structure. For all the positive energy that one aggregates in producing something new and good in that structure, there is an equal expenditure of negative energy holding back the swarms of people who don’t understand the product, who only think in terms of cookie-cutter monetization, and who miss the point: if you make something cool and pure and nice AND (most importantly) useful, the Internet will reward you. If you put barriers in the way of that, you’re screwed. Also, there’s the nightmare of process in such a structure for things like expense reports that I won’t bore (and horrify you) with.
Aside: I must take a moment here to implore everyone at AOL: release the new Netscape Browser. I’ve played with early versions of it and it’s great. The best browser out there. You will reap great rewards and good faith from the Internet community if you would simply release the bugger. The people who used to be my team worked hard on that thing and they deserve to see it released. It’s Firefox, but better.
Jason, myself, and our entire team worked hard to re-launch Netscape in mid-June, 2006. We continued to work hard to make sure it was a success, and our hard work paid off.
After Miller was ousted from AOL, Jason left. I took over the position of General Manager of Netscape in November 2006, looking forward to working with Jim Bankoff to continue to grow Netscape. A week after my team met with Jim, who is a great guy, to discuss the future of Netscape in a post-Jason AOL, Jim announced that he was leaving. This was in early November, almost an exact year after the AOL acquisition of Weblogs, Inc., and here I was experiencing that same uneasy feeling that I had painted myself into a corner. My job switched from being the type of editorial and product growth position that I enjoyed to being more of an umbrella position, attempting to protect the start-up culture of Netscape from the big corporate culture of AOL, and I wasn’t enjoying myself day to day. In early January, again, almost an exact year after giving notice at Fordham, I gave notice at AOL.
That single decision was the smartest one of my life. As soon as I announced my resignation from Netscape, I began receiving inquisitions from possible future employers interested in my expertise. I had been so busy working to build a social news network for the masses that I had failed to see that I was one of the few people on the planet with the expertise of running such a site, of helping to build such a site, and of managing a dynamic group of people working remotely on such a site. I was in demand.
I consulted on a few projects and was looking forward to getting back into the freelance writing game when Jason contacted me with the idea behind what would become Mahalo. At first, I didn’t get it. I thought, “Search? Why would you throw yourself in front of a train like Google?” Jason flew me out to LA one weekend. We had dinner in Westwood and he drew an early description of a Mahalo search result page on a legal pad and walked me through the idea and suddenly it clicked. Mahalo wasn’t about trying to beat Google, but about trying to work alongside Google to provide a guide to the search experience, spam-free, to help save people time. It was something good and nice and especially useful.
Fast forward to today in early June. I started later on Mahalo than I did on Netscape and we launched Mahalo (albeit in alpha) sooner than we launched Netscape. In that time, we have done far more than we did on Netscape. We’ve hired around 40 people. We’ve hand-written over 4000 search results. We’ve built a smooth-running fast website on the back of MediaWiki. We’re already providing a spam-free search alternative to the masses and we’ve done so in record time. Most importantly, we’re just getting started. There’s been no negativity. It’s all positive. I work with an amazing group of positive people, focused on a project that is any editorially-minded and educationally-minded person’s dream job. I get to support a growing group of talented search experts in building a spam-free and advertorial-free oasis on the Internet. That doesn’t just help all the web 2.0, Internet-savvy people out there. We have the potential to help every single Internet user who has begun to feel the burden of the time they waste parsing through all the spam and noise that is growing on the Internet. We’re here to help. I’m here to help. And, I feel helpful. And that’s why I love this job.