Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Place Called Blogsville (Addendum, Part I)

NOTE: I had originally intended the following to be the opening of my little tribute to Blogger. It seemed appropriate to me to introduce my relationship to this medium I love by first introducing those brilliant and inspired individuals to whom we owe its existence.

And while it’s a well-established fact that the more elevated of standing among those who lead the medium today would suggest that Blogger is now passé by comparison to other, more elite platforms, I couldn’t care less. Blogger is special — to me and to millions of its continued, devoted users.

I mean, seriously; say what you want about a product, but in reality, who is more important — the person who refines it, or the one who invented it in the first place?

And because of that, I decided to go beyond cursory mention and give what, based on my research in writing this account, is the most extensive biographical sketch of the company that founded the modern blogging medium: Pyra Labs, and their ‘accidental’ phenomenon: Blogger.

Ev and Meg’s Big Adventure
As large and everyday-ubiquitous as the Web is, currently, it’s hard to imagine that as recently as ten years ago it was a much smaller place.

It was a world of fertile ground, untapped resources, and breathtaking discovery. It was a world prepping for a huge growth spurt.

Once the near-exclusive domain of nerds, geeks, and academia, the phenomenon of ‘weblogging,’ originally born very early in the decade of the 90s, emerged from its infancy with the growth and popularity of the HTTP-encoded World Wide Web, popularized by the Net’s first graphical browser, Mosaic in 1993. founders, Ev Williams, Meg Hourihan, & Paul Bausch founders (from left), Ev Williams, Meg Hourihan, & Paul Bausch.
However it was nearly ten years later before the team of Evan Williams, (yes, the same Ev Williams, who would later co-found Twitter), and business partner, Meg Hourihan, would spur the medium to the new heights we know today.

In a wonderfully informative podcast interview she gave to the website, IT Conversations back in 2005, Hourihan discussed the beginnings of — the blogging portal that she, Williams, and Paul Bausch developed — almost by accident.

According to the interview, Williams and Hourihan formed Pyra Labs in 1999, operating out of the latter’s San Francisco apartment.

Their new company’s original goal was to create a web-based project management application targeted at web developers to improve upon the often cryptic and inflexible Microsoft Project. They wanted to come up with an online tool that would make the process of updating a project plan easier and more immediate —across cyberspace as opposed to the more static constraints of updating a physical MS Project file and then distributing it via email or FTP.

Interestingly, what would become Blogger was a sideline component developed in the midst of that effort, which was essentially a ‘throwaway’; a free feature intended to entice potential buyers to purchase their primary product.

Instead, the sideline overtook the mainline.

It is significant to recall that 1998-99 was the crux of the dot-com boom’s initial period of rapid ascension. Thousands of enterprise web sites were being created at that time, often by teams of developers scattered across the country. The Pyra Project’s main focus was to make the management of such efforts easier, more accessible, and more immediate.

It was a great idea, but it spawned an even better one in the process.

While working in the same room, but not wanting to disturb each other with interruptions to present new ideas that might pop into their heads throughout the day, Hourihan said she and Williams created a simple, internal weblog, aptly named, ‘Stuff.’ Its purpose was to register brainstorming thoughts and other flashes of enlightenment that either one might come up, but in so doing, not disturbing the flow of work in the office.

They later decided that including a similar weblog feature as a standard component of the Pyra application would be a beneficial value-add for their customers, just as it had been for them in developing it.

However, as Hourihan recalled, “through a bunch of…random happenings,” the server that hosted the ‘Stuff’ weblog was a different one than that which hosted the site itself, which had a separate weblog as well.

This would be a problem should they wish to avoid the extra work of posting an entry in both places. So later, for purposes of both internal and external communications, to solve the problem they tasked Pyra’s first employee, developer Paul Bausch, with creating some code that would allow entries written to the ‘Stuff’ weblog to automatically appear the on weblog as well. As Hourihan explained, Bausch’s code would become the foundation upon which Blogger was built.

Hourihan described the Blogger ‘Ah-HA’ moment thusly: “Hey, this is kinda neat! You can write something in one place, and it’s appearing in another place.”

But again, the key intent was not to develop a blogging platform, but rather to use this new innovation as an inducement to market the bread & butter Pyra app.

As Hourihan described, the bulk of weblog users at that time were the indeed Pyra’s target audience: web developers. The hope was that once the developers saw how much easier this new ‘push button’ method of weblogging could be, they would then in turn be inclined to believe that Pyra was a cool company that they would want to do business with; purchasing the Pyra project management software tool for use on their web projects, and in general, making the world a better place for everyone.

Som’ ‘bout the plans of mice and men oftentimes going awry…?

By the first quarter of 2001, however, much had changed in the world of emerging web companies. The DotCom boom began its steep slide into full bust mode. Times grew tough for San Francisco internet startups like Pyra.

Pyra’s "Team Implosion"
A change in direction had actually begun a year earlier, in the winter of 2000, when team Pyra, then consisting of four members, decided to seek outside funding for the first time.

The Pyra project management app was still struggling through development. Mucking up the waters further was the fact that the company was actually being supported via contract work relationships that Ev Williams had brought with him from his previous freelance career. One developer worked full-time on the outside contract jobs while the other three continued developing the Pyra app and Blogger.

This model of self-funding “just wasn’t gonna scale,” recalled Hourihan, “unless we kept hiring people to do client work, and that wasn’t really the type of company we were interested in building; we didn’t want to do professional services; we wanted to build really cool web applications.”

Fortunately, by this time, the contacts and reputation that the company was creating, along with the ongoing relationship Ev had with a former employer, O’Reilly & Associates, allowed Pyra to acquire the seed money it needed to really sink its teeth into its work. They could now dispense with the unrelated contract work they’d needed just to make ends meet. It was the opportunity to finally be the company they wanted to be.

The initial funding round for Pyra began on February 14 — Valentine’s Day, 2000; for the company it would be a significant spot on the calendar, not only at that time, but later on as well.

They decided to suspend work on the primary Pyra app, and focus on Blogger, the former spinoff that ironically was receiving increasingly rave reviews, and in fact became Pyra’s first officially released product.

They would build out the team, adding another two people, bringing the total compliment to six, and as Hourihan put it, “see what we could do with it,”

However not all would go as planned. Over the next eleven months the DotCom bubble would finally burst, sending tech stocks tumbling and bringing most startups to their knees, financially. Most tech development went into a deep freeze.

At the same time, from the opposite end of the spectrum, Blogger was facing its own problems. The platform’s tremendous popularity created more traffic than their existing servers could handle, leading to lapses in reliability. New features weren’t being added fast enough, leading to more customer complaints, including, ironically, one that led directly to the development of what would become one of Blogger’s chief competitors, Movable Type.

Mena Trott and her husband, web developer Ben Trott, created Movable Type as an answer to Mena’s frustration over Blogger’s period of arrested development in 2000.

Trott, originally a Blogger enthusiast, confided in Hourihan that she felt such loyalty to Blogger, that she couldn’t bring herself to use a competing product, so she decided to develop one for her own personal use. That effort, designed by Mena and coded by Ben, worked out so well that within a year the Trotts indeed decided (at the insistence of their other friends) to market it as a competing product.

Later, under the umbrella of their new company, Six Apart, the Trotts would additionally develop two other varietal blogging platforms: TypePad and Vox, in addition to the premium Movable Type.

Next: Addendum Part II: Every Picture Tells a Story
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