Category Archives: News

Max Levchin to be GM of Google’s new social network?

I’ve been wondering who will head up and run Google’s social network Facebook competitor. For me, the man/woman at the top steering the ship will probably be the single biggest factor as to whether Google can pull this off successfully (which needs to happen else the social network space will remain a monopoly).

And so with news that Google as acquired Slide I’m guessing that question has been answered: Max Levchin.

Max obviously has experience with social (from Slide) and also payments (from PayPal), the latter of which will be crucial to any financially successful social network/social games play going forward. Assuming I’m right (and Max must be getting some kind of top-job at Google), I’m actually glad it’s not an existing Googler – they’re are some great people working there at all levels but I can’t identify any executive-level folks who really get social.

I’m also guessing Max Levchin as GM is more palatable to Google than Mark Pincus, which further suggests that an acquisition of Zynga by Google is off the table now.

Liquidation preference?

In other thoughts, I’m wondering whether common shareholders will see any return? With Slide raising $78m at a $500m valuation and then a sale for $128m, will there be much left after costs + liquidation preferences, etc?

WPEngine: Top-tier WordPress hosting for the rest of us

I’m pleased to announce the unveiling of my latest startup from my advisory portfolio – brand new WordPress Hosting Platform WPEngine!

I’ve been involved with the WordPress community for several years (all the way back to B2 in fact, which was the precursor project that WordPress was forked from). However as interest in WordPress has steadily grown into the mainstream, one of the pain points I’ve seen people experience time-and-time again is hosting.

WordPress.com is great, but once you want to run a custom theme, plugins or embeds from sites that Automattic don’t have a BD relationship with, you’ve kinda reached a glass ceiling with the service. Self-install solves those problems but how many bloggers are really in a position to be installing, maintaining and updating a WordPress install on a hosting account? From my own anecdotal evidence most just don’t have the technical interest and/or time and I’ve spent many hours helping friends install, update and migrate WP blogs over the years.

Reports that WordPress is insecure almost always arise from people not keeping their WordPress self-install instances patched and up-to-date.

When I sat down and talked to the WPEngine founders about how they intended to solve this problem I was very excited. I love working with companies who are addressing real-life problems I can directly relate with. I’ve been working with WPEngine since SxSW to help them build the platform and bring it to market.

WPEngine is serving platform, not a hosting account

We’ve taken all the greatness of WordPress self-install and bundled it together into a blog serving platform that is designed solely just to serve WordPress.

You come to us and either create a new blog or migrate your existing WordPress blog over using some one-click export tools we’ve built.

From there we look after the installation, management, security, upgrades, backup and day-to-day running of WordPress. Everything looks and works the same as far as what the blogger uses – the same old familiar admin tools. But behind the scenes we make sure the WPEngine WordPress Platform is kept up to date and optimized for performance.

Behind the scenes everything is kept in compatible formats to WordPress self-install so you could migrate out and walk away if you ever wanted to. No lock in here.

The service is ideal for pro-bloggers, fledgling blog/news sites (like TechCrunch, Mashable, etc) and small-to-medium businesses that use WordPress as a CMS for their sites. Many doctors surgeries, law offices and other businesses use WordPress to power their site and WPEngine is ideal for those who don’t have any in-house technical capabilities to keep their sites running in optimally and securely.

Invites!

We’ve been successfully hosting in stealth-beta some pretty high profile blogs – including Balsamiq’s Blog, OtherInBox (their entire site) and Jason Cohen’s highly trafficked A Smar Bear blog (who is also a co-founder).

Tonight we’re announcing we will be opening our platform via invite. You can follow coverage on Read/WriteWeb, Mashable and others.

If you would like an invite, just visit this sign-up form to request one. We’ll be getting back to people in the next day or so.

Advisory Capital

As mentioned, WPEngine is the latest company I’ve added to my portfolio. They are actually my pick of SxSW 2010 as I now make a habit of meeting as many Texas based startups as possible each year I visit Austin, with the view to working with one as an advisor when I return to SF. Last year’s startup was NutShell Mail, which of course just had a successful exit to Constant Contact.

I intend to write more about my growing portfolio as I am enjoying that this is now taking up a more significant proportion of my time these days. Watch this space!

The real reason Bing Cashback is ending: we all scammed the f**k out of it.

Microsoft says it’s shuttering Bing Cashback program next month because:

…after a couple of years of trying, we did not see the broad adoption that we had hoped for

But while the main tech blogs are assuming that means that the site didn’t get traction, they’re missing the real story here.

What was hailed as a great innovation in lead-gen actually fell flat on its face. The idea was that users would move to searching for products on Bing Shopping knowing that many advertising retailers would then offer a 5-20% cashback on the purchases, generating leads that might not of otherwise occurred. Don’t forget, these advertisers were paying Microsoft for the placement and then having to foot the bill for the cashback too.

Instead many people, including myself, would simply get to know which online retailers offered Bing Cashback. When they went to buy something from such a retailer we’d hop over to Bing and click through via the Bing Cashback link to get the extra discount. No lead generated at all, but still with a financial cost to both the retailer and Microsoft.

I’ve probably ‘earned’ (well, saved) over $2,000 in the last few years by doing this, sometimes by saving up to 40% off during special promotions. Thanks Microsoft!

For example, every time I’ve found something to buy on eBay I’ve noted the auction details, cleared my cookie, searched for eBay on Bing and clicked through. Performing that slightly but not terribly inconvenient task has netted me up to 30% refund on my eBay purchases. Ditto for B&H, Dell and others.

The various deal sites such as SlickDeals are rife with this activity – every time a deal is mentioned that is sold by a Bing Cashback retailer you can expect a reminder to perform the above trick to get the extra discount. Here’s a super-thread on all the Bing Cashback retailers and how to get the deals. (And here’s the thread where the free-loaders are up in arms about the closure!)

Aside from SlickDeals & co, there are many other people I know who have also been doing this. And let’s be clear with these examples:

  • These purchases were going to be made anyway – thus no lead generated
  • None of these people have switched over to Bing search engine (known as the halo effect)
  • None of these people have switched to Bing Shopping for non-Cashback purchases
  • Microsoft and the retailers have been paying handsomely for our hacks

It’s my bet that the above situation accounted for a large amount of Bing Cashback purchases, especially repeat/return vistors. Microsoft has finally got wise to the game (or the cost/benefit has leveled out) and cut the gravy train.

Open Standards: Losing our independents

On hearing the news that my friend Tantek had accepted an offer to work contract at Mozilla as a Web Standards lead, I remarked via Twitter that now none of the ‘high profile open standards’ advocates remain independent.

This caught the attention of a number of folk, including GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram who wrote about my comment this evening. (a post which ended up being syndicated to Salon.com and NYTimes – congrats Om, Mathew and co on those distribution deals btw)

Indeed I was referring to the likes of David Recordan (now at Facebook), Joseph Smarr (now at Google), Eran Hammer-Lahav (now at Yahoo!, albeit for sometime now) Will Noris (now at Google) Chris Messina (now at Google) – and now Tantek Çelik (now hired by Mozilla)

All of these folks have made significant contributions to the Open Web and Open Standards movements while either being independent, working at a startup or working at a company which itself had little active involvement in open standards (SixApart in the case of David R and Plaxo/Comcast in the case of Joseph S). That’s significant because their motivation behind their labour and efforts was (I believe) altruistic and not to forward the interests of a specific vendor, employer or other sponsor.

Since making their many significant contributions independently to the Open Web, all of them have been hired by larger and/or more significant entities. All of these companies are clearly are interested in benefiting not only from the influence these individuals have in the community but also their board seats/key positions on projects such as OpenID, oAuth, Portable Contacts, Open Web Foundation, etc.

Clearly this must create a conflict with each of their previous independent endeavors. In response to my tweet, Google engineer Adewale Oshineye commented on my Google Buzz “[Y]ou could say that the ‘open web usuals’ have all found ways to make an even bigger impact.”

I disagree and here’s a stark example of why, involving Adewale’s own employer Google.

Social API panel at Google IO 2010, photo by Pat Hawks

Last week I attended a panel session at Google IO 2010 on social network standards and APIs, which included Chris Messina representing Google and specifically the Google Buzz team. Having reflected on Facebook’s current woes due to a perceived lack of respect for user privacy, panel moderator Kara Swisher asked Chris to elaborate on the virtues of Google Buzz and the way that Google have strived to protect user’s privacy. What seemed to be an intentionally ‘softball question’ towards her conference host, actually had a deeper, almost perverse, dimension to it given Chris’s staunch personal perspective that there is no such thing as online privacy.

As Chris wrote back in 2006:

“personal privacy is an oxymoron. you know less about yourself than the mass of services and companies out there that collect, individually or collectively, information about you and your activities, for their own selective proprietary uses

you think you have privacy left to protect?

privacy today in general is a fallacy: it’s an impossible dream that we should’ve woken up from some time ago.

repeat after me: “PRIVACY … IS … A … DREAM.”

not for you. not for me. only for the government, big corporations, disappearing persons.”

Do read the rest of it this in his post “Pry, To”, along with “Privacy? What privacy?”, “The Krypton of Privacy”.

It was pretty uncomfortable to listen to Chris wax lyrical about how Google understands why user privacy is important and the various steps it was taking to ensure users were aware of the privacy options Google offered.

Now before you think I’m performing a character assassination on Chris, please be clear: I agree with him. I think the concept of expected privacy in any social media setting is an illusion.

But the problem is that you have radical individuals, ones who were compelled to spend their own time ripping up and recreating the way we handle stuff like authentication and contact exchange, being forced to remain ‘on message’ with their new corporate masters.

Why is this?

Aside from the tensions alluded to above, the issue no one is talking about is that there are slim returns for being independent proponents of the Open Web. While you spend your evenings and weekends working on specifications and evangelizing these brave new ideas, there are plenty of companies who are looking to profit from the good work achieved.

I’m a member of the OpenSocial foundation, having worked on the project while I was contracting with MySpace (yes, not independently). While I have not been under contract with the former social network for several years, I still feel some affinity and sense of responsibility to maintain OpenSocial, having (in a small way) helped to create it in the early days.

However, I’m immediately bought back to reality when I remember that my unpaid time participating in work groups and/or potentially being on the board is going to help the likes of Zynga, Slide, RockYou, etc continue to innovate and generate further $Millions out of their use of OpenSocial to deliver their profitable social games and apps.

It’s not that I won’t work on Open Standards or Open Source projects for free. But simply that the returns others are making feels disproportionate to what the individuals doing the actual groundwork are getting back. While joining the likes of one of these companies could be one way of continuing this work while receiving some-what fair remuneration, it wouldn’t be the same as I would have to make decisions based on my given employer/client’s needs and not those that made the best sense for the ecosystem as a whole.

(And rather tellingly, to the best of my knowledge neither Zynga, Slide or RockYou contribute at all to Open Social or any other Open Standards project they rely on)

Ultimately I don’t know why Chris Messina ended up accepting the place at Google. The offer of a prestigious employer, intelligent peers and a guaranteed pay check may be enough – but to me that feels like selling out because you can no longer represent what you really believe in. When Chris began to answer Kara’s question on privacy in Buzz it seemed like he’d had to give up much of what he really believed in so that he could regurgitate Google’s talking points that his handlers in PR had fed him earlier.

Instead I wonder if there were more fundamental reasons why he joined Google – ones that you can begin to understand. Being an independent is hard and usually financially unrewarding. It’s a tough economy, maybe he wants to settle down with his girlfriend and set up home, I don’t know. There are all sorts of personally legitimate reasons.

But it shouldn’t have to be like this. The ecosystem as a whole (users, developers, vendors, startups, VCs, BigCo’s, etc) desperately needs independent participants like the Messina’s, Recordon’s and Smarr’s – and we can’t expect the best people to stick around looking out for our interests while others profit from the good work created.

How we resolve that, I don’t know. It’s kinda for the community to decide.

UPDATE: This post continues into the comments where Joseph Smarr responds to my post and I follow up with further thoughts.

CC flickr photo by Pat Hawks

First exit on the right: NutShell Mail gets acquired!

At the end of last week I left a cryptic tweet saying I was ‘working on some important paperwork‘… Well, I’m pleased to announce that NutShell Mail, one of the companies in the portfolio of startups I advise, has been aquired by email marketing campaign solution Constant Contact.

If you’ve not yet checked out NutShell Mail, it is one of those really smart ideas you wish you’d had yourself, which is why I was so excited at giving the opportunity to contribute to it.

NutShellMail delivers to your email inbox a nicely crafted email of the activity streams from all of your social networks. You set this up to occur a couple of times a day, and what you are presented with is an email you can quickly digest during natural breaks in the day. It’s particularly good for people who are easily distracted by the updates from a desktop client and constant Facebook email notifications.

Back to the aquisition: I’m so pleased and overjoyed for founders David Lyman and Mark Scmulen along with David N, Nirav and Todd. They have all worked so hard for this.

I’ve worked with them for just over a year and in that time they have achieved so much. Highlights for me have to be them moving out here for fbFund and their pivot expansion into providing email digests for Facebook Fan Pages, which is probably one of the areas Constant Contact is particuarlly excited about.

Advisory capital

However, this also validates my decision to dedicate a proportion of my time on forming and working with a select portfolio of companies in an advisory capacity. A concept Stowe Boyd once described as “advisory capital” (the link to his blog post sadly seems to be broken).

I love working with startups and so anything I can do to help steer product strategy decisions, give platform advice or leverage my contact network is really fulfilling.

With this in mind, I’m going to be formalizing this part of my work over the coming weeks, and no doubt taking on a few more companies to mentor and advise. If you have thoughts or ideas on early-stage startups that I might be able to bring value to, please let me know.

Twitter continues on the offensive: now iPhone

Wow, hours after the ‘bombshell’ of Twitter releasing it’s own Official Twitter application for BlackBerry, Twitter continue on the client offensive.

They are now announcing they have acquired Tweetie for iPhone.

What is crucial here is that Loren Brichter, developer of the Tweetie range of products, is also joining Twitter. Which aside from the additional discomfort of Twitter owning further mobile platforms now leaves the question as to what they will do with Tweetie for Mac . It is not clear if they have also acquired this product too. And if they havn’t, will Loren be able to continue to maintain Tweetie for Mac independently if he is a Twitter employee?

It would be strange to acquire one and not the other (especially as they share the same name and code DNA). And so I predict we might soon see the announcement of Tweetie for Mac becoming the official client for the Mac.

Further proof, perhaps, that Twitter is definitely now filling its own hole (slightly NSFW).

A passing thought on a more open iPad…

Jail-breaking an iPhone has always been fraught with danger and complexity. Much of this has been associated to the inclusion of the ever-present AT&T connection in the phone – perhaps acting as Apple’s local watchman over their your device.

I read that, for this reason, jail-breaking iPod Touches is a far more popular pursuit than it is with their cellular brethren.

I leave you, therefore, with the thought – no, hope – that perhaps a jail-broken iPad (unhinged of any AT&T connection at least on the regular WiFi-only edition) will be far easier to crack. Far easier to mod. And far easier to keep unlocked and broken from Apple’s shackles.

This, my friends, may the path to promised land for our otherwise locked and blinded shiny new tablet devices.

The iPad: it will be as successful as the Netbook…

… the question is, just how successful has the netbook craze been?

“The first five million will be sold in a heartbeat. But let’s see: you can’t make a phone call with it, you can’t take a picture with it, and you have to buy content that before now you were not willing to pay for. That seems tough to me.”

I was surprised to read this quote in the NY Times from Guy Kawasaki – who was Apple’s original evangelist.

He tends to be pretty buoyant on Apple products and so his luke-warm response on the iPad was telling.

I agree with the NY Times’ view that the iPad suffers an issue of redundancy. That’s ironic, btw, as they are looking to the iPad to form a platform for future content monetization.

This is Netbooks all over again. Depending on who you talk to, Netbooks are either a big hit or a big flop. Neither the industry nor consumers can really decide.

For me, I love my Netbook – it is perfect for taking to conferences, where I don’t really need a full MacBook Pro, and also for using on vacation on the beach. But all of this is because my Dell Mini 9 cost less than $200. I almost see it as disposable.

But I am not your average computer buyer, and it’s really hard to get a clear consensus of whether Netbooks have captured the interest of the personal and business buyer. For all their ‘accessible price point’ greatness, there remain distinct disadvantages around what they can do and the degree of overlap with both your main computer and your cell phone.

It’s worth remembering that the iPad not only suffers the same overlap but it also won’t be a cheap $200 throw-away device – at least not for the mainstream buyer. The majority of Apple’s first 5 million (to quote Guy) sales will certainly be sold to the types of folks for whom $600 is throwaway. I know loads of people in that category personally.

But I really remain to be convinced that your average Joe Public is going to be willing to shell out $500-$700 for a device that doesn’t have a clear vertical and, as Guy observes, is intended to get you to pay for content you hadn’t previously intended to consume or pay for.

On SxSW (Interactive) 2010

(Alternative title: “No, tech companies won’t bankroll your vacation beer tab”)

What needs to be said has kinda already been said (promo content may be NSFW).

As my partner in crime, Violet Blue said in her post:

This is a fork in the road for the organizers of SXSW Interactive. They either need to decide if the success of their event hinges on the parties and social events of their conference, with the panels and hard content as a sideshow, or they need to reign in the quality and depth of the panels/talks to ensure future attendance. The keynote interview disaster I describe below is a great example: you just can’t pick a semi-random dude who has never been to SXSW to do an interview with the founder of Twitter based on the fact that he was the one to come up with the idea.

For me, this is the rub with SxSWi (note: interactive) these days.

The conference is suffering from an identity crisis and expectation management issues that go with that. One crowd is turning up to Austin expecting a premium-grade tech conference, with insight and provoking thought. Another crowd is expecting beer-fueled “Spring Break for Geeks” at parties sponsored by the tech scene.

Clearly, one group is going to leave disappointed.

For a tech conference, SxSWi suffers from generally average-to-poor panels – the net result of the “crowd sourced” approach SxSWi takes.

Anyone can propose a panel and all it takes to get it approved is to get your twitter/facebook army to vote on it. Concepts like meritocracy and proven qualification to be talking about the subject matter at hand are generally non existant. Even basic tenants like ability to chair a panel debate, or hold a successful keynote interview are sometimes lacking.

Your electrical outlet is sponsored by Chevy

As a tech conference SxSW is held back by the fact its just one leg in a three legged stool – Music and Film being the others. Music and Film are clearly entertainment orientated and have the trimmings that go with that. Pepsi sponsored lounges, in-your-face promotions at every electrical outlet for Chevy (kinda) go with Film and Music scene – but feel awkwardly out of place at a tech conference. A point which Lil’ Nicky draws upon in his criticism on his SF Weekly blog.

“yo geek, you ain’t getting your beer tab bankrolled”

As Spring Break for Geeks, SxSWi is suffering from the fact that it has reached over-capacity. Every night a significant percentage of the 14,000+ SxSWi attendees want to go party. But as witnessed by anyone attending this year’s event, the venues hosting parties reached their own capacity very quickly. Sometimes lines were so long that they were several times longer than the capacity of the venue itself. One in/one out with that kinda line is rough going when all you want to do is get in to get your chance to kiss Scobie’s ass.

But what is curious is that Austin has no shortage of venues, and could easily accomodate this scale of revelers.

The problem is that the amount of firms prepared to bankroll the geek’s Spring Break beer tab doesn’t supply enough booze over five nights to cover the number of SxSWi tickets sold. Not only are ticket sales up this year (ie more party goers) but there seemed to be less parties – with big names such as Facebook and Google failing to return to host parties like they did in 2009. Equally absent was the infamous, and until now anual, 32bit party hosted by Laughing Squid and friends (which would have been 64bit this year).

If more parties were thrown in venues other than just Speakeasy, Ginger Man, Buffalo Billiards and Stubbs, things would be fine. The problem is the level of self-entitlement amongst attendees. Geeks don’t seem interested in attending parties where the tab isn’t hosted, yet there are not enough companies out there with the budgets and/or inclination to pony up the cash.

The result is people line up for hours to get in somewhere because they want to avoid paying their own drinks – which in Austin are a snip compared to SF bar prices.

“Is my event for fans or for industry?”

For next year, SxSWi needs to clearly delineate what it is and what it isn’t.

In my opinion it needs to champion that it is a ‘festival of interactive’, in the same way its brethren are festivals of music and film. However, SxSW Interactive attendees need to understand that this makes it an event aimed as much at the keen amateur who doesn’t work in the industry, as much as does the pros. For what it’s worth, this seems to be how it is with SxSW Music. Most of the attendees appear to be keen music fans rather than industry players.

With that I would urge the sponsors of parties to be clear about who they want at their event. I’m not trying to be snobbish, but with limited budget and/or venue capacity, companies like Mashable, RackSpace, FourSquare and Twitter need to decide whether their events are aimed at industry players or end users – and co-ordinate their events as such. The current status quo of randomly admitting a limited quantity of both types of attendee mixed together can’t produce clear ROI.

The three companies that handled this well during SxSWi 2010 were Nokia, Digg and Gowalla. The Digg/DiggNation party was clearly for fanboys of Kevin Rose – with a large capacity event and no-host bar to enable the masses were able to attend (there was a small VIP balcony and some VIP’s got free drinks). Gowalla gave party tickets to users of the service who checked into certain SxSW locations – ensuring the most loyal fans attended over industry types who had otherwise little interest in the local location based service (to that end, I didn’t attend because I’m not a heavy Gowalla user).

Nokia, on the other hand, ensured that only industry people and entrepreneurs participated in its well-organized cocktail events.

Regardless of what happens – how SxSW position the Interactive conference, how the party sponsors decide to manage their guest lists – I know I will be back for more next year. For me, the conference was great networking and a welcomed mini-break away from the Bay Area (even if most of my friends came with me). See, if you only manage your expectation, things ain’t so bad!

At just over $1000* spent all in for 5 days of fun, networking and (some) learning, I believe SxSWi remains great value for money.

* = $300 hotel (I split a room with 4 people), $220 air fare, $350 conference pass, the rest for misc, food, taxis, etc.

WordPress to be (currently) considered unsafe?

In the past couple of days I’ve been involved with the cleaning up of a number of successful SQL Injection attacks on WordPress blogs, including one that was running the most recent version 2.9.1.

Then last night I read that TechCrunch was also hacked (their post on it seems to re-direct to an interstitial ad – which I’ve never seen on TC before and makes we wonder whether they are trying to put up ‘interference’ here)..

From what I can see it looks as though the vector that I have seen could also have been used to do this to TechCrunch. I don’t know what version of WordPress TechCrunch runs.

I’ve decided not to give the details who was affected or too much info about the attacks, although the two common occurances I’m seeing with all of the sites exploited are:

  1. They are using WP-Cache or WP-SuperCache
  2. They are running on the RackSpace Cloud Sites serving platform

I should state for the record that at this point I do not have any evidence that RackSpace Cloud Sites is vulnerable, I’m just noting that all of the examples I’ve seen have occurred on RackSpace Cloud Sites, and I believe TechCrunch runs on Rackspace Sites too. Conversely I’ve not heard of any non-RackSpace Cloud Sites blog having any problems, and I’ve not had any issues with my blogs either (other than a botched upgrade to 2.9.1 just now due to human error, doh!).

Although I don’t want to give out specific information, some interesting discussion is occurring on a thread of HackerNews, especially this sub-thread.

Advice

While we wait to see if/how the WordPress developer community responds to this, my only advice is to make sure all of your directories and files are locked down (chmod 700 works fine on RS Sites), and that you are running the latest version of WP & all of your plugins. You might want to keep an extra eye out if you are using RackSpace Cloud Sites (or your hosting reseller does) and make use of WP-Cache/WP-SuperCache

I remain a massive fan and supporter of WordPress.