April 2008
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
« Mar   May »

Month April 2008

Switching bits

Betaworks is starting to roll out SwitchAbit, our first homegrown product. SwitchAbit is a content router. A switchboard to connect one service to another. It will let people shuttle a flickr to twitter, or to tumblr, facebook or pownce or pretty much wherever people want. SwitchAbit doesn’t aspire to be another UI to aggregate data — in fact its the reverse — it assumes that people want to contextualize information streams within existing services and existing communities. I’m tired of companies seeking to jam users into a new user experience that is mostly designed to drive a business model rather than drive new, relevant or meaningful interactions. As a consequence SwitchAbit is designed to be a platform — Twittergram will be the first service that will be powered by the platform.

When we started working on SwitchAbit one of the foundational services that inspired us was Twittergram, a service that Dave Winer created almost a year ago. Few individuals have been more innovative in finding ways to move data — live & static data — laterally across the web. This lateral movement of data is exactly what SwitchAbit is about. Once we had an alpha version of SwitchAbit working I sent it to a handful of people, one was Dave. After a rapid set of email exchanges — we came to an agreement and Dave is joining SwitchAbit as an advisor. The last deal we worked on was back in Userland days, between AOL and Userland — after months we never managed to finalize a relationship — this time around we managed to get this done end to end in about an hour. Good stuff.

It’s less than six months since we setup the development team at betaworks and this is the first of three products that will roll out in the coming months. As I started to outline last week betaworks is a company that through focus and structure is designed to drive linkages and accelerate innovation across what we call our network. The intent is to create a set of loosely coupled components — some wholly owned, some partially owned — and drive innovation, context and value across the network — thru the exchange of data. What people today call monetization, but monetization as it applies to a network, not two isolated nodes. Over time this network will look like a company — I guess a media company is the best analog we have today — but a little different in focus, structure and purpose. And we aren’t going to start talking about new media, again. For now we are very excited about getting SwitchAbit rolling.

beta working

The past few months have been fast and hectic. The focus has been getting betaworks to scale. We call betaworks a platform for seed business creation — let me spell out a little more about what that means to us.

We are creating a network of companies — some of which we are building and some of which we are investors in — that are threaded together by a set of common themes and capabilities. A set of loosely coupled bits that over time we will seek to connect in ways that are meaningful. Some background follows on our perspective and intent.

I started betaworks in 2006 seeking to develop a new methodology, and platform, for seeding businesses. We gathered a small team and for a year we tested a series of different approaches to seed business creation. We learnt a lot, we had successes and failures, we intentionally kept it small — permitting us to learn fast, fail fast and make small mistakes. In hindsight the most important thing we learnt was a design principle. When we started out we thought we could design or architect elements of betaworks. What I learnt was that given that we dont know all of the elements we are going to thread together we needed to start by working, by building, and then in the practice of work let the components between the companies emerge rather than imposing a top down view of what the connections should be.

Mid 2007 we flipped our approach — and went bottoms up. We stayed small, under the radar, focussed on our theme, seeking not to be distracted by opportunism. We started identifying standards and methodologies to scale our work and stopped trying to over think the design. By the fall of 2007 we had assembled our learning and formally started to build out the platform. Six months later we have four things that we have built and we have fourteen seed investments.

Central to the design of betaworks is the assumption that companies building services with a common theme can and should profit from inclusion in a platform or network of loosely coupled bits and driving context and meaning across these sites is valuable. Portals are gone but a new metaphor has yet to emerge to replace the portal concept. The portal was grounded in the same set of assumptions as media has operated with for many years — as it recedes something new is emerging. Something that is more distributed — something that is not based on the assumption that erecting a walled garden around services is the way to build a sustainable long term relationship with users or a long term business. Something that actually encourages the movement of data across edge services, vs. building silos — as data moves and is exchanged it actually gains in value becoming more interesting to users not less. There is a hairball we are decoding, bit by bit, its right in front of us our job is to figure it out and scale it.

Someone said to me last week that we are a reverse incubator. Incubators share the peripheral services things that I believe entrepreneurs can and should get from the market (legal, hr, accounting, office space) — betaworks is designed to share core capabilities – software / IP, knowledge, data, standards, analytics, leadership, tools etc… Someone a year ago called it a funcubator — maybe a reversobator, or outcubator? — a little less George Clintoneque. enough.