When I checked my mail the other day and saw a note from Ethan Zuckerman, a smile instantly came to my face. While at Tripod, Ethan radiated a whirlwind of energy and smart ideas constantly spilling out of his large frame and bare feet. Ethan was, and still is, good people. And then I read the email.
Dick Sabot, Ethan’s mentor and my indirect benefactor (without Dick, Tripod would never have been born), had passed suddenly due to a heart attack. My heart dropped a few inches in my chest. While I can’t say I had the pleasure to work closely or develop a strong personal relationship with Dick, the man was inspiring on numerous levels.
More than anything, I remember Dick as a generous person. He’d open his Oblong Road home to “the kids” of Tripod—we were all 20 – 35 years old, living and working in a 3,000 person town with a limited social scene—throwing pool parties and backyard barbeques. Dick was refined, but he was also extremely laid back.
This weekend, a bunch of ex-Tripoders are migrating up to Williamstown to pay their respects, sampling a tasting of Cricket Creek Cheese—Dick’s most recent entrepreneurial project—and holding a gathering in the muddy fields of a nearby meadow. While Tripod will be remembered by outsiders as the first homepage building and community service, this weekend is an example of the real community aspect of my Tripod experience.
My condolences to the Sabot family; blood and otherwise.
Back in 1999, I found myself living in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, working in an area that some called Silicon Village. Yes, the nickname was a little premature, similar to its cousin Silicon Forest in Portland, but the dot-com era was booming and the entrepreneurial spirit had caught Williamstown and North Adams square in the heart.
It was an exciting time.
Tripod (the company I joined) had just been purchased by Lycos (or as the long-timers liked to refer to them; the Death Star) for more than $50 million dollars. The young, personal web page building company and online community had made it to the big time as one more trophy brand in Bob Davis‘ portal empire.
But Tripod didn’t start off as a personal publishing domain. When the founding team flicked on the lights within the converted cable factory that served as HQ, the intent was to build a business to provide advice for college students and postgraduates, both in print and on the internet. DeWitt Clinton, a Williams student and Tripod programming intern in 1996 tells it like this:
In the beginning—and this tension carried on for years—Tripod was a content company that just happened to use the Internet. (Recall that they also had a magazine and a book published.) Thanks to some clever people like Jeff Vander Clute and Nate Kurz, a few useful ‘Tools For Life’ such as the Resume Builder, were built. These applications were an interesting synthesis of ideas from the designer(s), editors and programmers.
I would definitely say that Bo (Peabody) was in a position of watching what everyone came up with, rather than intentionally leading them there, saying as much in his recent book. The homepage builder was just one of these organic and surprising inventions.
So what happened? How did the tipping point to shift focus occur? When did management decide to move forward and focus on personal publishing and online communities? DeWitt adds more color from an outside, post-acquisition perspective:
The traffic generated by the home pages earned them an acquisition, not the editorial content. See the Geocities acquisition just a few months later for evidence.
Bo Peabody, Dick Sabot and Ethan Zuckerman hired some super smart developers to stand up their original concepts. They built the first online resume engine and created a place for community to form within first iteration of Tripod.com.
But a crazy thing was happening—people weren’t using their product the way they had envisioned. People were more intent on building their own web pages with the resume builder.
Bo and company had a choice to make; either stick to their origin vision and work against the market forming around their product or evolve to support the needs and desires of their members, moving Tripod to focus on homepage building tools.
They made the only choice that made sense.
In 1997 advertising was the revenue model, and site stickiness determined the value of most companies. Bo and Dick saw the synthesis of member desires and a business opportunity; usefulness and viability. It was a no brainer.
Personal publishing became the new focus.
The Lycos Years
When I came on board, Bo was serving his commitment to Lycos, wandering the halls at odd hours as many acquired CEOs might. And corporate refocus was quickening its pace.
The first driver I encountered was the order to cut community all together and focus solely on developing a suite of personal publishing tools—the new name of our group within the Lycos domain: Personal Publishing.
The move ostracized many of the original Tripod folk who had joined the company because of the possibilities of online community—as well as some members that chose Tripod for similar reasons—but the data showed that more people wanted to build their own web pages, so we shifted our culture and continued our focus to build tools to support what people showed that they wanted..
In order to determine where we were going to snip and cut sections and features of the current experience, I put together a precise map of pages within explicit sections. The direction given to my design director was crystal clear, so he studied my map for a few seconds, found where the “build” and “community” sections bordered one another, and proceeded to literally rip the map in half on that line.
No questions asked; no questions necessary.
Moving Towards An Exit
It took me about a year into my stint at Tripod/Lycos to start to question where we were heading as a scooped up start-up. After months of creating useful publishing tools (in the context of the times), new projects began to feel superfluous, such as creating Hello Kitty skins for the Angelfire publishing tool UI. We all began wondering what would’ve happened at Tripod if they hadn’t been sold to Lycos; if the founders were still in charge, still listening to their members with the desire to innovate.
Maybe Technorati would be serving the world of “Tripoders” today, rather than “Bloggers.”
As things would have it, Lycos was preparing to close our Silicon Village web factory for the Terra merger. I wanted no part of working in Waltham, Mass, so I moved down to Brooklyn and picked up an executive role at a dotcom consultancy. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was better than Hello Kitty.
Jeff Veen’s post the other day regarding the genesis of flickr placed me in this Silicon Village time capsule. His description of their roots reminded me about choices and their consequences—good, bad or indifferent.
There’s no “right way” to create a viable, useful product; no methodology that is absolutely sound or fool proof. The best you can hope for—as Bo so eloquently points out in Lucky or Smart?—is that if you subjugate your ego often enough, and live your life accordingly, options will be presented to you in a manner that you can act upon with intelligence, vigor and respect.
That advice should be the first amendment for both creating useful products and collaborating with smart people, as in both cases, consistently relying on a self-referential perspective is rarely ever a spot on decision.