Happy 4th Birthday, Motive Force!

Today marks 4 years since Motive Force LLC was officially founded. I’m proud of my baby growing up! There are various stats about survival-rates for nascent companies, there but in general they say that about 50% die off in the first year, pregnancy and then 50% of the remaining companies die each year after. If those stats are true, dosage that puts Motive Force at about the 94th percentile so far. Way-to-go, kiddo!

It’s been a blast running it all this time, and by any measure they’ve certainly been four of the most eventful years of my life.

LyricWiki's last year and a half of growth

LyricWiki's last year and a half of growth*
(click thumbnail for large pic)

Although it has released numerous sites and products, Motive Force’s most visible success so far has been LyricWiki. I felt this would be an appropriate time to share a graph of some of the traffic growth since I don’t often get a chance to do so – and we all like to show how our progeny have progressed!

Happy Birthday Motive Force!

* For the curious and/or mathematically inclined: an exponential trend-line has a slightly better R-squared value than a linear trend line for the current data (0.89 versus 0.86). This implies that it’s likely that the growth is exponential, but it isn’t quite enough data to be sure in my unprofessional opinion.

“What gets measured gets managed”

That quote is a relatively common business adage which is attributed to a ton of different people – so many that I’ll just consider it public domain. The reason for this post is just that I’d like to draw attention to it and maybe as you read this post, decease you can think of how this can be used to help your own productivity and success.

As with any business advice, ed this tends to be more digestible with some anecdotes so I’ll give a couple of examples of how this has helped me lately with running LyricWiki.org.

Example Uno: Server Uptime

Without a doubt, sickness the biggest problem with LyricWiki up until recently had been uptime. The site was constantly slow or completely unavailable from its inception. The reason is that we were always short on servers since the company had minimal capital, and setting up new servers took a great deal of time and fell on my shoulders during a time in my life where I always had at least one fulltime responsibility other than LyricWiki.

When I cut back my other job a bit to give me more time to devote to LyricWiki, one of the first things I set out to fix was the reliability of the site. In order to know if it was improving, I would need to know how long the site was down each month so I could track whether the number of minutes was going up or down.

I created a small spreadsheet to track outages, and each time the site went down I logged when the outage was, the duration (in minutes) of the outage, which server(s) had the problems, the apparent cause and whether or not the cause was resolved. Much to my surprise, I didn’t really need to graph this over the months. After the first couple of days, it became very apparent that there was one huge problem still lingering and it would be worth my time to automate a fix to it instead of responding ad-hoc each time the problem cropped up.

I whipped up the code to solve the problem while I was on a layover in Philadelphia, uploaded it when I got home – and the site stayed up for almost a month straight! That’s pretty huge. I don’t think that had ever happened in LyricWiki history until just now. Very cool.

Example Dos: Intractable To-do Lists

A major personal time-management problem I had recently was that I couldn’t tell if I was just spinning my wheels or if I was actually making progress on my backlog of LyricWiki tasks. It felt as though I was getting emailed so much work that I barely ever got to break out into the tasks on my talk page let alone the “Mid-term Actions” list I made which was my conscious plan of how to make LyricWiki rock your socks off in the mid-term.

To solve this problem of not having a grasp on my tasks, I whipped up a little widget which you can see in the side-column of the blog, near the bottom. The results were much better than I expected: I actually instantly felt like I was in more control, I felt comfortable removing tasks that were duplicated across lists, and I can finally tell when I’m moving fast enough to make forward progress.

The widget tracks the size of all of my various to-do lists and updates that number hourly. There are two reasons for the caching: 1) checking the lists requires hitting the sites and that takes at least 3 seconds total 2) if it updated in real-time, I’d sit there refreshing the thing all day!

The widget actually has some neat hidden features. Here is the to-do list widget on its own page which also tracks the number of tasks I’ve had at the end of each day and charts my progress (using the Google Charts API). If anyone is interested, maybe I’ll write another post where I give out the source-code to the widget.

Conveniently, the widget is narrow enough to both fit in a blog sidebar and be displayed on a smartphone. It’s currently the homepage on my blackberry and I don’t see that changing any time soon!

Conclusion

The quote “what gets measured gets managed” always seems to ring true for me. I think of it again and again – usually after-the-fact when I’ve just saved time by being OCD about something. I strongly recommend that you take a second (right now) and think of an area of your life or your work which you feel isn’t getting sufficient attention and consider tracking meaningful statistics about it. Please share any similar successful experiences in the comments!

How Google Steals from Publishers

I recently discovered a very shady practice in AdSense for Search where they make you believe you are earning revenue, no rx then quietly at the end of the month they deduct a fee at payment-time equal to the amount you earned (ie: you net nothing).

It’s pretty hard to believe, what is ed to the point that you may think I’m confused. However, I’ve checked. I’ve double checked. I’ve uttered expletives, calmed myself down and checked a few more times. Here’s the money shot:
AdSense sketchinessI checked back and they’ve been doing this for months. I checked the documentation that’s linked to from that “Fees” line, and long-story-short: it’s a hidden fee affecting “less than 1%” of users which they don’t warn you about nor give an explanation of how to avoid it. It’s also barely mentioned at all in their Terms & Conditions (section 11, second sentence) which, of course, protects them legally but is an extremely shady business practice even if they had explained it in detail in the T&C.

This post probably isn’t very eloquent at the moment. It’s hard to write intelligently with steam pouring out of your ears. So without further ado, here is a copy of the letter I sent to their Customer Support which has much more information.

Open Letter to Google AdSense

I’d like to express my extreme dissatisfaction with the hidden AdSense for Search fees. I feel that the way in which you handle these fees is disingenuous on several levels and jeopardizes your integrity from a publisher’s perspective.

There are several areas where I think you guys really dropped the ball:
– When we sign up for AdSense for search there is no visible indication that there was even a possibility of getting charged. Burying it deep in the Terms and Conditions isn’t sufficient when it is completely contrary to the ad-network model of publishers-use-your-network… publishers-get-paid.
– There was no warning at all while this was happening. I very regularly check my stats on AdSense for the day and the month and there wasn’t any indication that each day my revenue was in fact zero, not the number I was being shown. Even if users are aware of this policy, they won’t know that they’re not making money until after the month is over and you decide to take it away.
– There is no easy way to notice this discrepancy after the fact. Old monthly reports will STILL show fake revenue (“fake” because you may take away every cent of it), and they do not show the deduction. Even upon looking at the payment history, there is no indication on THAT page of the deduction unless you drill down to yet ANOTHER page.
– There was never a notification that this was happening even though your FAQ alludes to this being extremely rare (“less than 1% will be affected” in answer 9890), my notification settings are set to the highest level possible, and this program even had the nerve to send me an ad on “New and improved AdSense for search” so I could generate even more money for your program of which I would not see a cent.
– The documentation mentions that some magical equation may take our money at the end of the month but does not provide any transparency into 1) what the metrics were that caused this or 2) how to avoid having this happen again. For what it’s worth: I’ve looked back through my payment history and every cent of revenue from when I first started AdSense for Search back in September has been taken every month, so this isn’t a fluke. Something about my site is angering your algorithm.

I feel robbed. Worse than just tricked; I feel like you stole money (hundreds of dollars) that I had every reason to expect was earned and was going to be direct-deposited.

One of AdSense’s differentiators is that it’s simple and turn-key so that publishers can focus on creating a valuable website instead of dealing with ad sales or applying to ad networks. If publishers have to spend time pouring over every available report to watch our backs for hidden fees, then your offering would clearly fall short in providing that value.

Based on this lack of disclosure, I think your fees should be re-evaluated. I ask that you let me know what you think is fair.

*Shuts eyes & takes a deep breath*. Hokay, I’m back now. I’ll keep you updated when/if I hear back from them.

Speaking at University of Pittsburgh, May 14th.

I’ll be speaking at the University Of Pittsburgh’s School of Pharmacy (in 810B) for a “Lunch and Learn” on May 14th. The talk will be on SiloSync (which will need to be updated quite a bit before then) and will probably go into a more general discussion of Social Networking and Freeing the Social Graph during Q&A.

From what I understand, more about the Lunch and Learn series is mostly attended by faculty and staff, visit but we’ll see. The last talk was by Jesse Schell of Schell Games, so I guess I’m in good company!

Thanks for inviting me, Pitt!

Freedom! – Opening the Social Graph and all of its data

Braveheart battle-cry

There has been tons of buzz lately over the “Social Graph”: an atrocious misnomer (won’t get into why) which is used by Mark Zuckerberg to mean “the data which represents all of a user’s social connections”. Facebook is getting a $10 billion to $15 billion valuation because they “own” this graph, search and the entire world of developers is supposed to be forced to bow and write all future social web-applications as facebook apps.

While I would still consider it a decent investment in Facebook at this point because they have this data locked down, I cannot support this tyranny. It is not only intuitive, but now also the general internet consensus that users own their own data.

So what on earth are we to do? Free the data! Brad Fitzpatrick of LiveJournal/OpenID fame and David Recordon who worked with Brad on OpenID stirred up this whole movement in Brad’s widely cited braindump. They laid the groundwork for an uncentralized set of tools to use microformats and clever spidering to figure out a user’s ownership of several accounts from a single place and calculate all of their friendships to find missing links. Missing links would be for example, if you have someone in your gmail contact-list and as a facebook friend, but you don’t follow their twitter account.

Subsequently, both of these hackers have built code and convinced their companies to open their data and have made announcements to that effect – Brad at Google and David at Six Apart.

I’ve been involved in the conversation a bit, and as I’ve mentioned before, I think that not just friendships, but other data is an equally important part of a user’s data, and they need to own that too.

Right now, the users’ data is spread throughout many silos: their photos in Flickr, their blog posts on wordpress, etc.. This is a major limitation and is starting to get on people’s nerves. As of right now, there is no ´┐Żbersilo where a user can sync up their info and social connections.

The solution? A commercial, but completely open site which lets a user aggregate all of their frienship data AND all of their other data (photos, videos, blog posts, tweets, bookmarks, etc.). This data can then be pushed to other networks on the demand of the user. Furthermore, the user can export all of this data in a standard format and just up and leave the site if they don’t like how they’re being treated. Beyond that, new social applications will be able to implement an API that can pull the user’s data down for them (only with their permission of course).

Side note: I bounced this idea off of Brad Fitzpatrick who said I should “go for it”… there really is no conflict of interest in being a commercial site in an open endeavor.

This solution would have to exhibit several traits:

entry posted to:
SeanColombo.com
Motive Blog
  • No compliance required – to be useful, this tool has to work with the most popular networks, even before they explicitly open their data through APIs. Since users are accessing their own data, this doesn’t violate ethics or terms of service… it just takes more code to accomplish this.
  • Extensibility – it has to be easy to add an arbitrary amount of new networks even if the site doesn’t have any idea what these networks are. Likewise, it has to be equally easy to add new types of data. For instance, tweets were a new concept… the system has to be able to sync up with entirely new types of data seamlessly.
  • Portability – it’s the problem we’re here to solve, so obviously this tool can’t lock down the data. It has to go to absurd lengths to make sure the data can be moved around easily.
  • Clarity – everyday users don’t know what all this “social graph”, “XFN”, “FOAF”, “microformat” talk is. The tool has to be extremely easy to comprehend for all users, not just ´┐Żber-geeks and technocrats.
  • Privacy & Controlthe user has to be the one in control of the data. Not the tool… not the social networks accessing this ubersilo… the user. They have to control what goes where, and they need to be able to easily control how this data will be accessed on other sites.

Sounds pretty sweet, huh? Well I’m not one to sit back and watch an important fight from the sidelines… I’m going to have to do something about this.

Google… the new Microsoft? (response)

In response to a fellow coder/entrepreneur’s article that Google is the New Microsoft, anaemia I wrote a comment that I later realized should be a post… here is my reply:

I feel your pain… but keep your chin up!

I agree that Google is flattening competition in a very Microsoft-esque way. Their honeymoon should have been over after they started ignoring customers as a policy or maybe when they refused to tell publishers what percent of the share they will get on AdSense. If everyday people were exposed to Google Labs, order they may also have noticed that the number and scope of projects they are undertaking leaves very little space for anyone else.

On the brighter side… in a keynote that David Koretz (CEO of BlueTie) gave at RIT, he pointed out that in all areas other than search, Google is number 2. It doesn’t matter whether it’s calendars, video, picture-sharing, etc… they crush 90-some percent of the businesses, but someone still beats them. This shows that if you can get to a market before Google does, there is still some (although not much) hope for you.

Even with this encouraging news, that’s not going to help you get funding. I’m also trying to raise VC for a web-application, and although my site is in an area that is miles from where Google has ever touched (because “Sergey doesn’t like music”), I always hear the same question: “How are you going to stop Google from coming in and beating you?” I don’t know what they expect to hear in this scenario, because they already have Google built up in their minds as the brightest and fasted coders on the planet (far from true).

Fortunately, Google gives us one parting gift… hype. Their IPO, then their large buyout of YouTube paints quite a picture in the average investor’s mind (talking about laypeople here, not VCs) that The Bubble is Back.

Good luck to you!

For more information about Google, I recommend reading The Search by John Battelle.

Wikimania 2006 – in review

Last night I got back from Wikimania 2006 at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, sanitary Massachusetts. The conference is put on by the WikiMedia Foundation which runs Wikipedia and other similar projects. Here are some of the highlights of what came out of my visit:

  • Brewster Kahle – founder of The Internet Archive and Alexa Internet – gave a keynote address in which he talked about providing universal access to all knowledge. A sub-theme was that our country “massively screwed up” copyright law in 1976 when we said anything ever written down was automatically copyrighted. This applies in part to LyricWiki which always has to look over its shoulder since the law is really unclear on whether song lyrics are copywritten material or if they are distinguishable as different from the songs that they represent. I think it’s safe to say that if you bought a CD and all that was inside the case was the lyrics you would be understandably peeved since lyrics are not the same as songs, but legally there have been some precedents in which lyrics sites have been shut down. About this legal uncertainty surrounding copyright, Kahle had this to say: “The way you ask a question in this country is you go out and, uh… cause a lawsuit”.
  • Legal Stuff – At the legal discussion led by Brad Patrick, the General Counsel for WikiMedia, the only resounding point was that the laws governing copyright and many other online issues are still very much in a gray-area, but in general it is fairly safe to do something ethical without having to be afraid constantly. After saying that we have to “get used to this idea of ‘I don’t know‘” in current laws, he pointed out that the highly controversial Wikipedia has still only had 1 litigation (in Germany, that resulted in a victory) in its entire existence.
  • LyricWiki non-profit? – I have tentatively decided to spin LyricWiki out of Motive Force as a non-profit organization. There are a couple of reasons for this decision.
    1. It doesn’t turn a profit anyway, and would be very hard to make it do such a thing without endangering the vision of the site.
    2. If it gets sued, I don’t want to risk losing Motive Force LLC over it.
    3. If it is non-profit, I would have no qualms with accepting donations for it. Hopefully, this could offset the costs which are not nearly being covered by the Amazon commissions from in-page links to albums.

    This may take a little while to finalize since I’m not familiar with the process for setting up a non-profit organization and legal paperwork is oppressively time-consuming in general. Furthermore, there is still a small possibility that I won’t make the conversion to a full third-party entity, but I see that as unlikely.

  • AboutUs – In one of those weird small-world coincidences, I was sitting next to Ray King, founder of SnapNames and the new AboutUs at one of the sessions and – because of the LyricWiki.org shirt I was wearing – he asked me if I was the one who wrote the review of WetPaint. Awesome! People actually read my blog! Traffic is relatively low on my blog compared to several of my other sites, but now I’ve recieved comments from the people who created WetPaint, AboutUs, and (the code for) Atlassian Confluence. That feels rather fulfilling. Making the small-world coincidence even stranger is that I had just been to AboutUs a few days earlier even though it is just now making a major (still beta) launch. AboutUs is basically a whois site taken to the next level and then made into a wiki to boot. Personally I think it’s pretty cool, you might want to check it out also if you’re into domains.

LyricWiki.org – DreamHost Site of the Month April 2006!

Great news! LyricWiki.org just won the DreamHost Site of the Month (DHSOTM) for April 2006!

DreamHost is a popular web-host that allows any of it’s hundreds of thousands of users to submit their sites each month to be evaluated by the other members to determine a winner.

It was really uplifting to hear all of the positive feedback from the public in the commentary, adiposity and I was thrilled by the great review that one of the founders of DreamHost wrote in the newsletter about LyricWiki:

5. DHSOTM

Is this month’s DHSOTM winner yet another beautiful flash-based website,
sucking our bandwidth and making us wish for the sweet release of death?

That would be a surprise. Another surprise, a bigger surprise, a much
HUGER surprise, would be if this month’s winner was actually based
entirely on a simple DreamHost one-click install!

http://www.lyricwiki.org

As you might surmise, this site is a wiki. It’s not just any ordinary
wiki though, it’s a fun and useful wiki: a wiki of song lyrics! That’s
even better than a wiki of spy codes and ciphers! Chicks just don’t dig
spy codes and ciphers the way they do lyrics. And what better way to
organize a bunch of lyrics than in a wiki, where everybody can submit
modifications and new songs without any kind of central authority or
even basic fact checking? No better way in my mind! This is my favorite
site of the month, EVER. I love that they just used our 1-click installs
to make the whole thing! I love that there are no pop-ups or spyware!

https://panel.dreamhost.com/?tree=home.dhsotm

That’s right… he said it was his favorite EVER!! :D That kind of feedback is what makes it all worthwhile when I take a significant amount of time away from Motive Force‘s commercial products to make something purely for the benefit of the internet community.

Needless to say, traffic has jumped considerably with the exposure from the newsletter (it was already doing as well as any other Motive Force site) and someone even “Digg”-ed it which will hopefully drive even more traffic. This is exactly what a wiki needs to thrive!

doItLater.com – New site!

doItLater.com – movies, tuberculosis pictures, there flash movies, order and games is the newest site from Motive Force LLC!

doItLater.com is an amazing domain name, I have no idea how it wasn’t taken!
The site is really simple: just a place to check out cool, interesting, funny distractions when you need a mental break.

doItLater is something I put together because I realized that my friends were always going to movie and picture sites when they wanted to procrastinate, and I had one of the hardest parts of the code already written for a client whose website I wrote.

The whole idea was founded with a more group-based feel than any of my other projects. I’m opening it up to all of my friends to submit their fun content, and add to the site in whatever way they want to (for example a friend in Graphic Design is going to make a logo that he can brag about in his portfolio). Hopefully even users will begin submitting their content eventually. This group/party feel really makes it so this project is very fun for me!

My main focus will still be CollegeInfoDesk.com, but this code is easy and clean and fun so I will use it as a sort of recreational outlet. Since this is a side project for me, I’ve taken on a partner – Myles – to co-run it with me. He’s the most motivated and “hungry” guy you could ever want working with you, so I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what we can do together with this site.

Check it out: doItLater.com!

Inspiration

Quick updae: RIT has accepted CollegeInfoDesk (and the newly formed 5 man CID team… one of which is myself) into the High Tech Incubator which will give us with free office space for the next quarter. There are other benefits too including guest speakers and mentoring from professors & business people. This is going to be a great opportunity, glands we’re gonna rock this thing!

In a somewhat related event, pills a serial-entrepreneur (and very nice guy), surgery Bob Fabbio, President & CEO of Cesura Solutions came and spoke at RIT today. He is one of our most successful alums, and has started seven (and a half) businesses, most of which became multi-billion dollar companies. Some of the more famous companies he started were Tivoli and DAZEL.

Anyway, before he gave his presentation in the Gollisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, he was in the College of Business, and we were asked along with some other student entrepreneurs to show up and give him and idea of what our businesses were about. Being a college, they were probably hoping he would be impressed and invest in the school.. but in the end, I feel the group definitely got more from him than we were giving to the school by showing up. He is very intelligent and it was awesome to be in a room with only about 10 people and get advice from one of the leading entrepreneurs in the world.

I don’t want to give away the content of the meeting or the presentation afterwards (because it is lucrative to write books, and I don’t want to dilute the value of his Intellectual Property), but I have to say I found it informative and inspiring. Many of the things he said echo advice that my dad (equally qualified) has given me about business before. It is going to take me some time to apply everything that I keep hearing from the tons of helpful sources around me, but I’m really getting inspired by seeing successful people everywhere. It proves that if you put your undivided effort and skill towards a goal, it really can be achieved, and it’s not some pipe-dream to expect success.

The team that will be working with me this winter is very ambitious and they are all really good at what they do. We are getting course-credit for this (because of my Entrepreneurship minor this is being set up as my field-experience course), which should give us the time needed to make sure we can focus on the site.

I’m really excited to be able to attack this market all next quarter, we’re going to make it happen!