I had a great chat with founders of Bloglines and Feedster at Gnomedex conference. Two computer scientists turned entrepreneurs. These guys know their stuff. Good content. Thanks Mark and Scott.
Mike Fletcher and Steve Johnson InfoTalk Podcast
John Furrier (JF): Welcome to the PodTech.net InfoTalk Series timeshifted live at the Gnomedex Conference. We’re here with Mark Fletcher, the founder of Bloglines, recently sold to AskJeeves, and Steve Johnson, the founder of Feedster, one of the leading/growing search engines/feed engines. Well, guys, welcome to the PodCast!
Mark Fletcher and Steve Johnson: Thank you very much!
JF: Hey, did I get that right? On the Feedster description?
Steve Johnson (SJ): Yep, yep.
JF: What’s the soundbite for Feedster these days?
SJ: We’re a search engine and advertising network for feeds.
JF: For feeds, and for blog,s and PodCasts, and what not. Great. I’m very familiar. Great product. And everyone knows about Bloglines, Mark, that you started, which is an aggregator.
Mark Fletcher (MF): Yeah, our view was that we wanted to be the universal inbox, so you should be able to subscribe to any sort of content and be notified when anything is updated or new.
JF: So on Bloglines, which everyone knows about, what’s your market share right now? Do you have any numbers on how big the user base is?
MF: You know, the market share numbers are all over the map. I’ve seen numbers where we’re between 25-50% of the market, and what the total size of the market is, is anybody’s guess. It could be a couple million, it could be ten million, I don’t know.
JF: So I was talking to someone and I was like, “Hey, Bloglines is a great product, they just got sold to AskJeeves, which everyone knows is a search engine.” What’s happening? What’s the latest thing happening with Bloglines? What’s coming around the corner? Any news?
MF: Well, I’m limited in what I can talk about since we’re part of a public company now, but we recently launched package tracking so you can track your FedEx, Postal Service, or UPS package and be notified when they reach weigh points or are delivered. We also launched weather so you can get weather forecasts daily for any city in the U.S.
JF: So when you started Bloglines basically what it was, was a great tool for reading RSS feeds and for users to consume content, so it’s really a user interface, isn’t it?
MF: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things that I don’t think a lot of people, or some people, miss as part of the challenge of dealing with information overload, an important aspect of that is the interface. There are millions of websites right now, so having an aggregator lets you pull in all of the information that you’re interested in without having to visit all of these websites. And having a good interface to your aggregator helps even more with your ability to process this ever-increasing amount of information people are seeing.
JF: It’s interesting, too. There’s been a massive influx of content from people with blogs and producing content, and you’ve really cracked the code in terms of presentation layer. Now you guys are moving with AskJeeves and building robust services like news and weather, so it’s just basically a UI. It’s the browser’s agnostic… they’re… irrelevant? Or what’s happening with that as a user consumption piece?
MF: Yeah. Well, we want you to be able to access your Bloglines feeds from any device, weather that’s your web browser, whether that’s your mobile phone, whether that’s your iPod. Any device, any time, anywhere.
JF: So if people want to keep up with feeds, I was talking to Robert Scoble at Microsoft. He was saying that he reads 15,000 blogs a week. I mean, that’s a shit load of blogs. That’s a ton of blogs.
MF: He’s an outlier.
JF: But that’s what it’s all about - it’s about productivity, right? It’s about consumption productivity for users for users, right?
MF: Absolutely. He’s at where the average user will be at in ten years, or five years. So, the first challenge was coming up with a tool that lets you follow 100 or 200 feeds, and that’s what a basic aggregator is. The next challenge is to be able to expand that to 1000 or 2000 feeds, and there are lots of interesting challenges to that. The great thing is, you know, I’m a computer science guy, and the real interesting thing is that this is not a solved problem. This is a completely new problem in computer science that we didn’t have to deal with ten years ago, fifteen years ago, whatever. So to be able to work on a problem where we don’t have all of the answers is incredibly exciting.
JF: Let’s talk about that problem. What in particular are we talking about – the user interface? The aggregation? The consumption piece? What particular?
MF: It’s all of that. Right now it’s really easy to subscribe to a whole bunch of feeds. So what happens when I’ve subscribed to four hundred feeds now? Because it’s been so easy to subscribe to all of these feeds that you end up with a new type of information overload. Now, what’s the next thing that you need to do in order to whittle that information down? Part of that is search, part of that is filtering, part of it is changes to the user interface, and part of that is we don’t even know yet.
JF: It’s a good problem to work on, because at the end of the day you want to make it easier for users, right?
MF: Absolutely. Get what they want, when they want it, and not overwhelm them.
JF: Let’s talk about the other piece of information overload. You know, Scott Johnson is with Feedster, which is a great program for people who want to find stuff. So, Scott, on Feedster’s end, it’s really about discovery, right? People are publishing stuff all of the time. I mean, barriers to entry for guys like me doing PodCasting or blogs is almost zero.
SJ: Correct. So we are… We monitor the blogosphere on a 24/7 - 365 basis, we’re constantly looking for new feeds, we are indexing every ten minutes. So, whenever you go to Feedster and do a search for terms that are common like “Microsoft” or “Google,” you’re oldest result is three or four minutes sometimes. It’s just bang, bang.
JF: It’s real time web, the classic, just what everyone was talking about, right? Microsoft’s announcement with RSS is almost an explanation point that this stuff is right now, this stuff’s happening.
SJ: Correct. And Microsoft is going to drive it right down into the browser and actually into the operating system API’s level.
JF: And that’s a big thing I want to ask you about with this whole real time web. I noticed that it’s great to see what the fresh stuff is, and in fact my show is called “Fresh Voices: The Fresh Voices of Silicon Valley and Technology,” and it’s all about freshness. But some stuff is enduring. Some content is actually timely, like we’re at Gnomedex. But I do InfoTalks with gurus about advice for legal, for entrepreneurs. That stuff is classic long tail stuff. What is Feedster doing to that? Are you guys archiving that? Or doing like Bloglines with AskJeeves, something like that?
SJ: We maintain our full history, back to the day I started crawling the web, which is March of 2003. So we have everything back that far up to 300 million posts. That said, if you look at the problem, I mean, people go to Feedster for the newest and freshest stuff. If they want stuff that’s sort of the more enduring web, they turn to a Yahoo or a Google, and that’s sort of been the dichotomy in how people use the engines, because right now our customer is very cutting edge, very much wants to know what’s going on.
JF: So do you feed some of that stuff to Google and partners? Do you share that?
SJ: We don’t at present.
JF: It would be good for them to come to you and actually work on that. Let’s talk about the cutting edge stuff that you guys are doing with advertising – big topic here at Gnomedex. Last controversial session. But really it’s about consumption. Advertising is the model (I’m in the ad business), but it’s all about consumption. If you have consumption, there will be an ad business. You guys are doing some cutting edge ad stuff, explain some of that.
SJ: That has always been the case, right? As soon as there has been some mass media, advertising goes out and fills it. So, what we’ve done, our ad network is in its very early stages, right now we’re working with very selective clients. So, for example, if you’re getting RSS feeds from SlashDot, we’re the ones actually doing the ads and searches in there. Feeds from OSTG, we run a hand full of campaigns, we’re in the process of scaling that up and making that a self-service process so that any publisher with an RSS feed will be able to subscribe and get ads inserted into their feeds.
JF: So you guys right now are doing ad insertion and you see that as the cutting edge stuff?
SJ: Right. So basically contextualizing.
JF: It’s highly targeted. If someone says, “I want to subscribe to something,” or “I’m looking for this particular product,” or information, or whatever, you can match it up.
SJ: Correct. And bear in mind that we have the history of that publisher. It’s not just what’s in that feed today, or right this second – the classic Java model for advertising pioneers – but we know what the person does over time, which is a huge different in classical ad targeting. So we know that this publisher has regularly, for example, hosted things about Nikon digital cameras. This is a great place to put a digital camera ad. As opposed to someone who happens to mention in a post, “I bought a camera.” So it’s very much the being a question of context and being on point.
JF: And some of the companies out there, and I won’t mention the companies’ names, do that. There is one post, and there’s a key word, they scrape it off, and the next thing you know there are ads on it that are completely irrelevant to what that demographic and what that peer group is, I mean, people cluster, right?
SJ: Right. We look at this in terms of subscriptions. A subscription is an ongoing commitment to read something in a consistency.
JF: Right. And what Bloglines has marked, and your product, has never been advertising driven. It has always been about providing utility in terms of ease of use and productivity. Where do you see the ad side going to it from your end? Obviously AskJeeves is a big ad business with their search.
MF: We’re in a very fortunate position. AskJeeves just wants us to focus on building up the service, and we have no revenue expectations right now. That’s excellent.
JF: That’s great for a computer scientist like you. You just get to go play and just go do good stuff.
MF: It’s fantastic for us to just build out the service. So we don’t know what our business model is going to be. There are several different possible ones. One is advertising base. One is that we never end up monetizing the blog service directly, and instead we end up using Bloglines to drive traffic to AskJeeves, and now IEC, which bought AskJeeves just recently, through their various properties as well. So, there are several different models, and at least for the next year we’re just going to focus on building out the service.
JF: That’s actually a smart move. When you think about it, Scott, your company is perfectly matched for advertising because you can perfectly match stuff on search, and that’s an expectation users are used to.
SJ: People are used to it. It’s a little bit different in an RSS context.
JF: Because it’s new.
SJ: Because it’s new. And right now someone at Gnomedex analogized it to internet 1994 when people were resistant to advertisement and stuff, but the simple fact of it is that you are going to see advertisements and feeds.
JF: And that’s no problem. I think users won’t balk at that. And Mark, I think you’re smart because, you know, at the end of the day, if you build a damn good product, you’re going to have longevity in market share, user experience is going to be game number one. And if you start tinkering with that now, and start to force a business model? … You just kind of wait and figure it out. If you’re building a damn good product, you’ve got AskJeeves behind you to fill in the ad model, when it (ad model) kind of peaks its head up. Is that your strategy?
MF: Absolutely. Google did the same thing. There’s a long line of precedence for actually just concentrating on building out the service for several years, in fact, before you figure out what your business model is going to be.
JF: Well, that’s great. So I always ask my guests of caliber like you guys, to give me one big prediction. And it doesn’t have to be related to the company, but in terms of the Gnomedex feel, in terms of the next five years. Next big, profound, prediction.
MF: Things are going to get huge. It’s very easy, certainly, with the early crowd here. We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game for all of this. Everybody that uses the internet is going to be exposed to RSS in aggregation over the next five or ten years and it is going to become an important part of their life. They may not know it yet, but it will happen.
SJ: Your mom will actually care what RSS is.
JF: Whether she knows that she’s using it or not, it’ll be serving stuff to her right?
JF: So mainstream.
SJ: It will go mainstream.
JF: One of the things that I think is so profound is that this really changes people’s lives. You allow people to put out good content, whether it’s user generated content. You’ve got discovery tools and now user interface, and I think that’s huge. But one of the things I want to chat with you guys about is, aren’t we in this huge perfect storm of innovation? We have this massive shifting going on in the business front: margins, cost of distribution… I mean the syndication costs are so low. On the customer end we’re talking about massive change on the productivity. And on the technical side we have huge development going on. In the hallways of Gnomedex we’re talking about a lot of stuff going on in between the sessions. All three theaters are going through radical shifts. Isn’t that massive? Isn’t that a great opportunity for entrepreneurs?
SJ: It’s a great opportunity. It’s a huge opportunity. And you’ll see an awful lot of things launched, some of them aren’t going to hit, and that’s okay. That’s just the nature of the business. People have to make experiments and see what works.
JF: And work together. Like you said, it’s the first inning, so normally it’s a growth business. Everyone here at Gnomedex is basically a partner. There’s a lot of beachhead, isn’t there?
MF: Correct. I’ve been through really early stage markets before, and the nice thing is that you don’t have to worry about taking market share away from competitors because the whole market is growing faster that the competitors, anyway. So basically it’s all about organic growth.
JF: So you guys have just secured funding lately, so you have some gas in the tank, you’re going to do some new things with that rocket fuel, obviously some financing. And obviously Bloglines, which was a great service that you started basically from scratch with a huge following, you got some rocket fuel with AskJeeves dollars, right? So, you guys have some big things coming. Any teasers? Any hint? I know you’re public, but you’re private, so you can say anything you want. Come on, give me something. One last thing.
SJ: You’ll see some pretty major customer announcements from us in the next couple weeks.
JF: Mark, can you dare? Would you want to go there?
MF: Yeah, I really can’t talk about upcoming features. We’ve announced that we’ve got an upcoming blog search initiative coming. Sometime this summer we’ll drastically be improving our blog search, but you know, looking forward is just going to be continuing to improve the service and adding features.
JF: Well thanks so much. We’re here with Mark Fletcher and Scott Johnson, two great computer scientist guys, doing some great work, and thank you for the PodCast!
MF and SJ: Thanks for the time, thank you.