Wednesday, March 19, 2008

y? y not!

Attended Y Combinator's demo day yesterday. It was a hoot, tons of bright, energetic kids doing their first real pitches to a pretty supportive crowd. I had to leave before the end, so I only got to see some of the pitches and missed some I wanted to see. A few broad trends:

  • Do anything to capture usage data. Several different groups were using different hooks to get you to install tool bars, applications, or use bookmarklets to better track web browsing. As next generations search heats up, building large corpora of browsing, buying, and social habits will become increasingly regular parts of business plans. Alas, not one of the projects I saw made privacy a serious part of the pitch, which will lead to the kind of problems Ed Felten has been writing about.
  • An unfortunate meme is propagating that "productivity" can be determined by looking at how many hours you spend using various applications. This is bunk on so many levels. Certainly, a 10 hour-a-day habit of browsing is unlikely to make you a workplace star, claiming that we know it won't is foolish. Richard Feynman worked on problems that stumped him at strip clubs. 8 hours of email use in one day could either result in zero productivity (you were coordinating timing with the Emperors Club), massive global increases in productivity (you are program managing three critical, distributed projects), or anything in between. Now, much like counting calories, getting more information is good, but perpetuating silly ideas -- and worse, trying to monetize those ideas by selling it to managers to "monitor" their teams -- is a very pointy haired choice.
  • Many of the Y Combinator companies look more like features than companies, but I'm OK with this for a couple of reasons. First, I'd take a good collection of features looking for business and product people to partner with over the reverse any day. Second, if you look at Y as a talent scout, it suddenly seems incredibly valuable. These teams proved they could execute on good ideas under pressure, which is incredibly valuable, especially when combined with the networks they're getting exposed to. Not sure what this does to Y's business model if a high percentage of teams get scarfed into other companies, but as someone hiring in the Bay Area, I love the fact that these teams are moving out here.
  • Although it had nothing to do with demo day, I had a chance to talk to Trevor Blackwell and see what Anybots is up to. Very exciting stuff! The science fiction convergence of augmented reality, telepresence, and virtual worlds is not as far away as you think.
So, on to the projects (in the order they presented):
  • Omnisio. I am torn. Omnisio is almost exactly a small side project I was spinning up my flash knowledge to write for fun. Video markup, sharing, and annotation done right. Cool features like being able to sync a powerpoint presentation to the video, tag sections of video, share video with social comments, and compilation clips. All of this adds searchable data to videos, which is interested. Not a business yet, but a great collection of features. I love this idea and think we'll see more uses they haven't thought of.
  • AddHer. Hot or Not with automatic link exchange and easy publishing to social networking sites. This is all about trying to drive more profile traffic and time will tell how valuable that will be. Good statistics interface, although user experience -- even in the demo -- was rough and had many extra clicks.
  • Snaptalent. Google meets Monster. A targeted ad network for job postings, using all kinds of neat tricks to achieve better targeting -- "Oh, you're coming from Google's IP range? Want to work at Facebook?" -- and a better user experience. Ads expand -- go DOM manipulation -- into a picture and movie covered page that allows a candidate to submit a resume, visit your site, or just learn more. All three options are instrumented, so tons of user data is generated and collected. Easy tools for building the ad, too. Snaptalent has the distinction of being the first Y company to be profitable before demo day!
  • Rescuetime. First of two "productivity == more time focused on visual studio" plays. Nice UI, cool graphs, and if lots of people use it I suspect they'll generate very valuable collections of user data, but marketing this is managers bugs me. I love the idea of bringing social networking news feeds to team collaboration, but showing programmers that they are below average for the week in terms of time spend with an editor open is not going to make your team more productive. First off, half your team will be below average for hours. Second, measuring time typing is like judging code by the number of lines produced. Third, I already talked about the dangers of too long a work week, so positively reinforcing what is already a destructive trend is a mistake.
  • MightyQuiz. Just go click on it. Come back in a few hours. User-generated trivia game with very nice social networking tools for tuning questions, easy question generation, easy syndication, and done by Harvard classmates of the Windward Mark team I acquired when at Linden. Cool folks who presented lots of compelling user data. 94% of people hitting the site answer at least one question, average is 19 and 8 minutes per day. Tons of metadata being generated.

  • TipJoy. I've already written about them, but TipJoy seems to have improved quite a bit in the last few months. I love their argument -- that micropayment attempts in the past failed by focusing on the payment part -- although if they get traction fraud may destroy some of their secondary positives (such as the Digg-like ranking on the home page). Good points about usability -- PayPal takes 8 steps, Amazon 7, to pay someone. 200,000 impressions per day at this point. Not at all sure there is a business here, but their usability lessons are worth remembering.
  • Mixwit. Slide plus iTunes. Collect online resources of photos, music, and movies and build widgets to share those collections on social networking sites. Widgets for Very early, but the widget they did for a mix tape looks very polished. 47% of people who start a mix tape publish it.
  • Wundrbar. ZOMG, it's a COMMAND LINE for the Intraweb! Yeah, you think I'm joking. It's a command line. The URI to list commands is "" Command. Line. Google could add these features in, oh, about 8 seconds. Now, to be fair, it's an interesting use of javascript and one that could probably be taken further, plus the referral business could be decent if they get a lot of use. But it's still a command line. I'm waiting for the GUI interface to create text for wundrbar. Then we'll have Windows for the Intraweb!
  • 8aweek. Another "if we just know where you surf you'll be more productive" product. I know, I shouldn't be harshing. A bunch of very heavy handed tools -- like "no, you can't go back to Digg, biatch! (click here to be lame and go anyway)" Polished, earnest presentation. If they collect data, the search implications will be very interesting, but again no mention of privacy issues. Plus, they generate great web analytics, which will also be valuable.
So, an interesting collection of bright people generating cool ideas and features. I don't know if Y is the right way to convert that energy into companies, products, and profits, but I'm glad they're doing it.


Tony Wright said...

Hey there-- Thanks for the RescueTime mention.

We wholeheartedly agree that time spent does NOT equal productivity. However, it's correlative and the data is meaningful over time. 4 hours in your IDE doesn't mean the same thing every day. However, I would say knowing that you are alt-tabbing to an IM window 70 times a day (the average number for a RescueTime user, incidentally), or spending 25% more in email than you were a month ago is critical info about your productivity. I use RT more to see how much I'm spending time doing the stuff that I know inhibits focus. All that being said, we are busy trying to understand the "fingerprint" of productivity beyond just time-spent.

We also agree on the "manager" front-- using a tool like RescueTime to monitor an individual is creepy... And RescueTime doesn't allow that. Instead, it focuses on understanding the aggregate team data, which gives managers the data they need without being draconian. We _know_ managers want this data, but we also know that they don't want to be evil. We think we can satisfy both of those needs.

Michael Hartl said...

Michael here from Insoshi. It's odd that you said we missed the obvious analogy with WordPress. We flashed the WordPress logo, and then said "Insoshi is the WordPress of social networks."

So that we can refine our pitch, which things would you have liked to learn?

cory ondrejka said...

@Tony: what if IM is how your distributed teams communicate? I think you are on to something, but misunderstood it scares me. I think you have a fine line to walk between "we aren't evil" (which you obviously are not) and "we want to sell RescueTime", which is where hearing more discussion of privacy would help me to understand your thinking. Oh, and on the plus side, you probably have a huge business on the consulting side to go along with RescueTime... "So, now that you have the data, allow our team of Management Ninja's to teach you how to use it correctly!"

@Michael: Hmm. Oddly, Mitch and I turned to each other with a "shouldn't he have mentioned Word Press?" Maybe it was that you didn't say it when my brain inserted it into your talk?

cory ondrejka said...

@Michael: The other thing don't have a good answer to this -- is how to emphasize more what the business model is. Perhaps a slide that really points out "Here's WordPress, here's how they built a business on open source communication software. We are doing this, only better because social networks > blogs, etc etc"

Michael Hartl said...


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