Sunday, April 26, 2009

Blinkx Acquired 100% of Zango’s Assets

I've seen a number of online articles (here and here, for instance), which say that Blinkx has acquired only "ten percent" of Zango's assets. This wouldn't be the first time that a corporate spokesman has honestly misunderstood the actual state of affairs, or has been badly misunderstood by the reporters to whom he was speaking. So I don't want to jump to any conclusions. But I should be clear that Blinkx acquired fully 100% of Zango's assets. As a Zango shareholder, I now own a percentage of precisely nothing, and the banks have nothing left of Zango's which they can sell. Blinkx owns it all.

In addition, there have been postings on various forums which indicate that Zango's assets were purchased by a company called "Pinball". In this case, not being a Blinkx insider, I'm not entirely sure of the relationship between Pinball and Blinkx: Pinball may be a subsidiary of Blinkx, a DBA, or something else. But Zango's assets were acquired by Blinkx, not some hitherto unknown company, so it's clear that the corporate "thing" that is Pinball is not appreciably different from the corporate "thing" that is Blinkx.

I should note that Zango itself had a variety of subsidiaries and brands, such as Hotbar, SmartShopper, Platrium, and so forth, so there's nothing necessarily nefarious in Blinkx doing this – unless, of course, they're trying to obfuscate or deny their involvement. But that would sure seem like a foolish thing for a public company to do.

Backyard Coyote

One of the coyotes that frequent our neighborhood showed up in our backyard today – but unlike most of the numerous times we've spotted coyotes, he stuck around just long for me to get a few (slightly blurry) pictures.

From 2009-04-26 Coyote
From 2009-04-26 Coyote
From 2009-04-26 Coyote

Friday, April 24, 2009

Excerpts from Some Old Zango Emails

In reading through the comments on my last several posts, I get the impression that a lot of people think that Zango winked at the silent and/or inappropriate installs perpetrated by its distribution network. I can assure everyone that was not the case. I first found credible evidence of silent installs happening in mid 2004, and the emails that I sent on the topic for the next year or more were not exactly models of tact and discretion. But they also show the dawning awareness that our distribution model was broken, and badly needed to be revamped from the ground-up. A few examples out of many emails on the topic that I personally sent.

Sent on 11/8/2004, after one of my developers noticed a silent install taking place through a sub-affiliate of LoudMarketing, our largest distributor (and the company that eventually became ZangoCash):

It looks like 2229 is from Loud, which is not a good thing.  They need a good swift kick in the balls for pulling shit like this.  Tell them in no uncertain terms: THIS IS FUCKING UNACCEPTABLE.

We need to get this taken care of, and ASAP.  This is absolutely intolerable.  We can't have folks going around giving us this reputation.

We'll be able to detect this in a more automated fashion once we get the CET running – but for now, we'll have to put up with ad hoc information like this.

Sent on 12/2/2004, after I found Zango being installed through a security hole by a company called CrazyWinnings (or one of its sub-affiliates):

And these guys are definitely bundling a Trojan.  No doubt about it.  After I uninstalled everything that I could find to uninstall, AdAware still found hundreds of entries – and so far as I can tell, at least four different pieces of spyware.  And no matter how many times I ran AdAware, they still came back.  These guys are a bunch of frigging bastards.

I can't say too much that we HAVE to completely and permanently distance ourselves from players like this.  If we are ever going to build trust as a brand, we need to never, ever be associated with guys like CrazyWinnings.  I would strongly encourage us not to wait until tomorrow at 3:00, but just drop them now.  We will never, ever be able to trust them.  They're slimy, and they're associated with guys that are even slimier. 

Zango will never get any traction – and 180solutions will never be able to build a legitimate, long-term business – if assholes like these guys are still dragging 180solutions' name through the mud.  Fuck 'em.  Get rid of them now, and sue their asses.

Sent 4/11/2005, after I found Zango being installed on a page that was using an exploit to install other software:

Although they [IST] don't install the slotchbar AX without asking, my own testing actually indicates that they are using an IE security hole to install some stuff besides the slotchbar.  And although a number of the things that get installed from that page have uninstalls, a number of the uninstalls don't work (including IST's).  After I finished uninstalling everything that could be uninstalled, and rebooted, MS AntiSpyware still found four separate and working installations of various spyware applications.  And yes, they install us (through the slotchbar, not through the security hole, but given that it all happens at the same page, and given that the slotchbar uninstalls don't work, that's not relevant).

This is a big, big problem.  This is a clear violation of our code of conduct.  We can't have ourselves out there associated with this kind of stuff.  Ken M., it seems to me that legal action is clearly warranted here.  What's your take on this?

And it's another problem that I'm the one finding this.  We clearly need to do our testing better.  I'd like to call a meeting to discuss how we handle testing applications like this, to figure out why my own testing was able to find such a clear violation of our COC, and our formal testing didn't.  Who all should be there at that meeting?

Diplomacy has never been my strong suit as an executive.

I should also note that although I was probably the most vocal, my concerns were taken very seriously by the folks in charge of our distribution relationships. Not only did they work very hard to address these issues with the distributors in question, they also proposed the strategy which eventually fixed the problem, namely, to acquire our largest distributor, and clean up their network.

Should we have been associated with guys like IST, Aztec and CrazyWinnings in the first place? In hindsight, of course not. But we honestly didn't know the extent of the problem, and even when it became clear, it took real time, effort and work to fix it. And ultimately, and regrettably, my predictions came true: they dragged our name through the mud, we were unable to build trust as a brand, and we were never able to build a legitimate, long-term business. Zango had other problems besides this one, but this was the largest.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What Zango Got Right

I suspect that there will be two sorts of reactions to this post. If you worked at Zango, or even if you knew people who did, your response may be to wonder why such obvious things needed to be said at all. But if, like most people, you never worked at Zango, and your only acquaintance with Zango as a company was through the various things that got reported about us in the media, you may find most of what I say to be strange or even unbelievable. But it's precisely because many people will have this reaction that I think these things need to be said.

In my last blog post, I talked at some length about what Zango got wrong: and because Zango was ultimately acquired for fire-sale prices, it might seem like what we got wrong is the largest part of the story. But in the end, I don't think it is. What Zango did right was fairly impressive, and is worth talking about publically. I'm well aware that not everyone will agree or even believe me: and maybe some of those folks will even be former Zango employees. But I'm writing this post, not because I think it will meet with universal agreement, but because I believe it to be true.

  1. Zango had a great culture. OK, yes, in the end, work is work: it's never interesting all the time, and even in the best job or at the best company it's sometimes plain drudgery. But most of the time, work at Zango was exciting and engaging. Zango was possessed of an exuberant and vibrant corporate culture which valued its employees, encouraged friendships, never took itself too seriously, and had a whole lot of fun. Dan Todd, one of Zango's co-founders and its president for many years, did a phenomenal job of fostering an almost "summer camp" atmosphere. I could go on for quite some time listing the great things that he introduced: semi-annual dodgeball tournaments, a weekly morning basketball game, free lunches, "Beer Friday" (later neutered to "Friday at Five"), and on and on. It was a hoot to work at Zango, and I'd venture to say that nearly all its employees counted themselves fortunate to be able to do so.

  2. Zango had great employees. Some years ago, when our VP of HR, Ring Nishioka, was trying to clarify what sort of employees I was looking for, I said I had two requirements: (1) They had to be scary smart, and (2) they couldn't be an asshole. Appropriately neutered by HR ("looking for people who are scary smart, but also really cool"), this became our hiring slogan and the criteria by which we measured every potential employee. (It also became a famous internal poster, when some anonymous graphic artist John Mitchell added a rather frightening picture of Jeff Malek, our VP of Engineering, and the words "Two out of three ain't bad.") Not everybody we hired was scary smart, and a few failed the asshole test badly. Sometimes I failed it too. But that's just life. On the whole, Zango was composed of the smartest, kindest, and most ego-free people I've ever worked with. And I would work with them again in a heartbeat. (Blinkx, be warned that you should treat your new employees well. I'm working on another startup, and I've never signed a no-poaching agreement with you. Expect me to come after your people as soon as I can.)

  3. Zango developed a unique and innovative business model. OK, yes, I can hear the snickers from the peanut gallery already. (Hi, Paperghost!) But it's true. On the advertising side, Zango introduced the idea of "CPV", "Cost Per Visitor". From one perspective, CPV is just CPM / 1000. But from another, it's a radically different animal, because rather than displaying an ad, Zango displayed a page. This removed the first click from the advertising funnel, which was a significant innovation, and accounts for much of the effectiveness of Zango's advertising. On the distribution side, Zango is one of the most effective monetization vehicles for long-tail websites. There are webmasters in their mom's basements who make six figure incomes because of Zango. As I explained in my last post, using time-shifted contextual advertising to sponsor online content was a great idea when Zango introduced it, and it remains a great idea today. It just needs a company better positioned to execute on it than Zango could. For the sake of its newest employees, I really hope that blinkx is that company.

  4. Zango made some great acquisitions. Between 2004 and 2007, Zango acquired five different companies, of varying size and significance. Two of them, EasyMessenger and Full Armor Studios, were small, and were mostly about beefing up our content library. (We later discovered we could do this more effectively through licensing than through acquisition.) But the other three, LoudCash, Hotbar, and SmartShopper, were substantial and critical. They not only brought some really great people onto the Zango team (Benoit Aubuchon, Mathieu St. Denis, Moti Ankonina, Meir Uziel, Ziv Gonen, and lots of others), but they also helped to fill significant holes in Zango's business and technical portfolios.

    The acquisition of LoudCash in 2005 was the first major step in solving our distribution nightmare, as it brought our largest and most important distributor in-house. For the next four years, the ZangoCash platform (as we renamed it) remained our most efficient and cost-effective distribution channel. York Baur deserves special credit for recognizing the strategic importance of this deal, and for pushing it through substantial opposition (much of which came from yours truly).

    In 2006, Zango acquired Hotbar, a competitor based in Tel Aviv. At one level, it was probably the best acquisition Zango ever made. Within hours after the papers were signed, Zango set to work to add a reskinned Hotbar toolbar to its own brands, and to replace Hotbar's popup engine with Zango's. When we finished the integration two months later, we had effectively doubled the size of Zango's audience, and had increased pro-forma per-user revenue by nearly 50%. Unfortunately, several factors conspired to make this deal less successful than it should have been. It started when scanning applications, many of which had ignored Hotbar, suddenly began scanning Hotbar's application off the desktop simply because it was now associated with Zango. This was especially frustrating to watch, because the new application's behavior was, by any conceivable standard, safer and less intrusive than before. Then, again simply because of Zango's reputation, Yahoo stopped allowing the Hotbar toolbar to use its search feed, which made the toolbar itself much less profitable. And finally, it turns out that the Hotbar content (primarily emoticons and anti-spam software) was already fading in popularity, and acquiring users through these channels became more and more expensive. These three setbacks, which we could perhaps have foreseen but were otherwise outside our control, were compounded by a mistake that was well within our control, namely, choosing to finance the deal primarily with debt rather than equity. If our models had been accurate, we would have had no problem in paying off this debt, and quickly: but because our users were suddenly more expensive to acquire, more difficult to retain, and less profitable each day they stuck around, we found ourselves forced to cut our user acquisition budget to make the debt payments. Predictably, we watched in horror as our audience shrank, month after month, and the debt payments became ever more difficult to make.

    Our 2007 acquisition of SmartShopper, Hotbar's sister company, almost allowed us to pull out of this spiral. With SmartShopper, for the first time we had a technology that would allow us to fully replace our admittedly annoying popups with a less intrusive, more helpful form factor that nevertheless had a similar monetization profile. We immediately set to work on the product that eventually became known as Platrium. Platrium was designed to fix the two major problems we had identified in our business: (1) It would have a clear and easily branded value proposition; and (2) it wouldn't have popups. Our hope was that these two changes would finally convince the scanning apps to leave us alone, would persuade users of our value relative to the ads, and would allow us to partner with companies that had hitherto remained out of our reach. It was the SmartShopper acquisition which allowed us to make this move, and I really think that it might yet work. Unfortunately for Zango, the change in product focus came too late. After our June 2008 layoffs (which is also when I chose to leave), Zango didn't really have the staffing needed to move Platrium forward without sacrificing our existing revenues: every resource allocation Keith made was going to starve either the Platrium or the legacy lines of business. There were no more good choices.

I want to end this post on a couple of more positive and personal notes.

First, the decade I spent with Zango was the best of my entire life. I'll always be grateful for that day in 1999 when Keith called me in a panic because his new website was down. I learned more, grew more, worked with better people, and had more fun than in anything else I've ever done. Yes, parts of it were frustrating, but even our defeats were instructive, and some of them were glorious.

Second, I want to say that it was a privilege beyond my expectations to have spent so much time in Tel Aviv, working with that strangely obstreperous and beautiful animal, the modern Israeli. To everyone from Hotbar and SmartShopper, I'm very sorry that things wound up the way they did. Even though I was no longer with Zango when it was announced, it was a blow to me that we had to close our Tel Aviv office. I hope that everyone lands quickly on their feet; and I continue to hope that my connections with Israel are not yet at a close.

And finally, and again, I can't say enough good about the people at Zango. Doug, Jeff, Val, Bill, Cris, Murph, Madhuri, Galina, Danny, Benoit, Moti, Meir, Nick, Willie, Lance, Jesse, Rob, Robert, Rich, Andrew, Yuval, Tommy, Heather, Ayelet, Rinat . . . and many, many more. I'm proud to have worked with you and honored to have served next to you. And if it's ever possible, I'd like to do so again.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What Zango Got Wrong

When the six original Zango founders gathered at the Centralia McMenamins pub in July 1999, we really had no idea what we were getting into. None of us besides Keith had ever started a company before: all we knew is that everyone around us was starting one, and we had to be in on the goldrush. Our original idea – "pay people to surf the Internet" – was laughable in hindsight, but back in 1999, even the stupidest ideas made a certain kind of sense. And even in that silly idea there was the germ of something that still has the potential to make someone a lot of money.

The idea that still makes sense is something we called "time shifting", or in a slightly more verbose formulation, "online content sponsored by time-shifted contextual advertising". For background, start with this article from Business Insider about Google's YouTube division. Google is, of course, insanely profitable, largely on the basis of its AdWords and AdSense products: but it's losing nearly half a billion dollars annually (around $1.3MM each day) on YouTube. Google acquired YouTube for way too much money on the assumption that they could apply AdWords economics to an entertainment site. And of course, the economics simply don't apply. When I go to, I want to be taken away from the site: that's the whole genius of it. So a well-targeted ad is, for all practical purposes, precisely what I'm looking for. But when I'm on YouTube (or Hulu, or any of the other video sites), I'm going there to be entertained: and the last thing I want is to click on an ad that at best distracts from the experience, and at worst interrupts it entirely. It doesn't matter how well you target the ads: they will always return dramatically lower CPM's than an ad on Google's home page.

Zango's answer to this problem really was genius: keep the content free, and sponsor it with ads, but don't display the ad to the user when they're consuming the content. Rather, show it to them later, when they're doing something which indicates they're potentially in mood to act on the advertisement. The CPM's tell the story: over the last several years, Zango's average CPM was somewhere around $25, which is phenomenal. And it would have been higher, indeed, much higher, if it weren't for several other factors that I'll go into shortly.

In other words, Zango's business proposition was more-or-less unique, and solved perhaps the most significant problem facing the current Web 2.0 generation of companies. So why did Zango ultimately fail? (Because yes, that's what the acquisition by blinkx represents, even if blinkx keeps the brand and systems going and retains some of the employees.) From the perspective of nearly a decade at Zango, and a little less than a year watching from the sidelines, I think that of the numerous contributing factors, the following five were most significant. Not everybody at Zango would agree as to which ones were most important, but pretty much everyone would agree that they all played a significant role.

  1. Zango screwed up its distribution. Back in 2003-2005, we partnered with some people that we should never have partnered with. We almost completely outsourced our distribution to them, and we let them promote and install our software without adequate oversight or supervision. During that time period, my best estimate is that something like 4% of our installs during that time period were completely silent, i.e., were the result of affiliates using browser security holes to install Zango's software with no knowledge or consent by the user. The bigger problem, however, is that the vast majority of our installs received inadequate consent, i.e., the user technically had an opportunity to decline the install, but wasn't presented with enough information to make an informed choice.

    We acknowledged this problem a long time ago, and well before the FTC ever came knocking on our door, we were working our asses off to fix it. And eventually we did. It's been years since the last inappropriate Zango install, and Zango's notification and consent is by any reasonable standard better than Yahoo's, better than Microsoft's, and better than Google's. But it was too late: the damage had been done. Zango's reputation was never able to recover. And having a bad reputation as an Internet company is somewhat worse than having a bad reputation in high school. Instead of not getting invited to the cool parties, you find yourself unable to close deals with strategic partners, which is a lot worse.

  2. The desktop advertising industry screwed up even worse, and took Zango down with it. It's significant that of all the major desktop advertising players (the others being Claria, WhenU and DirectRevenue), Zango was the last one standing. Partly this is because we made some strategic product and acquisition decisions the others didn't, partly it's because our major sins were sins of omission rather than commission. But in the end, it wasn't enough. Back in 2003, spyware meant "a program that your wife puts on your computer to track what you're doing." By 2005, it was synonymous with "adware", which was an awkward if reasonable description of Zango's business model. How did this happen?

    Well, folks like DirectRevenue, IST, MindSet, and others of that ilk didn't just miss that bad installs were happening: over the years we saw plenty of evidence that they actively encouraged it. And when they found a security hole, they would typically install dozens of different pay-per-install applications. And very few of those programs had any sort of notice, QA, or presence in Add/Remove Programs: in contrast, Zango had all of those things. So all the user noticed was that their machine had suddenly slowed to a crawl, and they find this "Zango" program on their PC. It wasn't Zango that was slowing their machine down, but how could they know that?

    Keith dubbed this the "tallest midget" problem: we were the tallest midget, so we were the ones that got noticed. I remember one incident very well: an AIM worm making the rounds was installing both Zango and WhenU (among others). When the worm attempted to deliver its payload, Zango automatically popped up a notification to make sure the user was appropriately informed, and to give them the opportunity to cancel it if necessary; WhenU, in contrast, installed silently. But precisely because Zango was trying to do the right thing, all the news articles mentioned Zango, and precisely none of them mentioned WhenU. That was very frustrating.

    The result is that a cottage industry (and eventually a mansion industry) grew up around adware/spyware removal. Sometimes those programs were well-designed and helpful, sometimes they were worse than the spyware they proposed to remove. But either way, it meant that the average lifespan for a desktop advertising install decreased dramatically. Over the years, we negotiated extensively with these companies to understand and address their concerns, and some of them were willing to work with us, but many simply refused to talk to us. After all, they were in it to make a buck as well: and from their perspective, nothing good could happen from not aggressively removing us.

    Even more damaging, many advertisers began to institute "no popup" or "no adware" policies. Almost none of our largest advertisers in 2005 were with us by the end of 2006. The few content partners who would talk to us were extremely skittish. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL all refused to give us their search feeds, nor would they permit us to advertise Zango on their properties or through their networks. It's frankly impressive that Zango was able to stay in business as long as it did, when we couldn't even do business with the majority of the Internet.

  3. We failed to deliver adequate value in exchange for the advertisements. Let's face it: it's a fairly aggressive tactic to pop an ad unexpectedly over somebody's browser session, no matter how targeted. If you're going to get away with it, you need to offer a pretty good value proposition in return. With a few exceptions, Zango was never able to do so. Zango has hundreds of thousands of pieces of content in its content catalog, but users generally conclude (and fairly quickly) that the tradeoff isn't worth it. As one Zango manager put it, "We're trying to sell people a Yugo for a Mercedes Benz price."

    There were many reasons Zango wasn't able to fix this. A major one is that the folks who owned the compelling content, and could have benefitted from our monetization, didn't want to work with us (see points #1 and #2). But probably the biggest is that we were brain-dead, and didn't recognize this problem until too late. We focused on optimizing our sales workflow, our ad targeting mechanism, our BI systems, and our installation process: but we spent precious little time improving our content. This was an institutional and cultural problem at Zango for far too long. Periodically, someone would come along and talk as if the consumer experience mattered, but it rarely got beyond words and speeches until late 2007. (To Keith's credit, he did ultimately declare this emergency, and the result was Platrium, which does a much better job of balancing the cost-benefit equation: but it was too little, too late.)

    On a side note, this is also the problem that I personally take most responsibility for. As the CTO, I was ultimately responsible for the product that we delivered. If I knew then what I realize now, I would have made dramatically different product choices, would have fought a very different set of internal battles, and most importantly, would have brought somebody like Val Sanford on board much, much sooner.

  4. Zango was unfairly charged with affiliate commission stealing. This is a complicated story, and I'll forgive anyone who doesn't want to read through the gory details. Back in 2004-2005, Commission Junction and LinkShare were two of Zango's largest advertisers, and we were one of their largest publishers. We displayed targeted ads promoting their advertisers' products, took a share of the proceeds when a user bought something, and pretty much everybody was happy. Initially, we sometimes used the advertiser's home page as a targeting mechanism, and I'll have to confess, this never struck me as particularly fair to the advertiser. (If the user is already sitting on eBay's site, why should we get a commission if the user happens to make their purchase through our ad rather than their original browser instance?) There are some instances when home page targeting is justified: if Alaska doesn't want Southwest's ad to show up when someone visits their website, they should pay for the privilege. (You'll note whose ad shows up when you google "Dell", and that doesn't happen for free.) But most of the time, I think the advertisers who complained about it had a reasonable point. However, as soon as LinkShare and CJ asked us to stop this practice, we did so. We even implemented a number of fairly complicated and expensive features to ensure that we wouldn't inadvertently display ads that would violate their terms of service. (In fact, Ben Edelman once badly misinterpreted a packet sniff to imply that we were being particularly nefarious, when what it actually showed was us trying desperately not to step on somebody's home page, and going through some admittedly strange gyrations to refrain from doing so.)

    But here's the frustrating part. Imagine the following scenario. A user with Zango's software visits a CJ publisher who is promoting some eBay products. That publisher sets a cookie on the user's machine that says, in effect, "If this user buys something from eBay, I get the commission." But then, before the user visits the eBay site, but after the first cookie was set, Zango happens to pop an ad that sets a different cookie, this one claiming the eBay commission for Zango. Given this scenario, I'm perfectly willing to grant that Zango should not get the commission, and the original publisher should.

    So the question is: how do you make sure that the first publisher gets it, and Zango doesn't? For a variety of reasons, this was a difficult scenario to prevent from Zango's side. (Among other things, how are we to know that the site in question belongs to a CJ affiliate?) This is a very simple problem to prevent, however, if you are Commission Junction or LinkShare. Your script should just place different cookies for each publisher, and you should give the commission to the owner of the cookie with the earliest timestamp rather than the latest. But for reasons that I don't understand, neither CJ nor LinkShare would agree to make this simple change: and eventually, under pressure from their other publishers, they stopped doing business with us altogether, to nobody's benefit.

    I should note that this is made a little more complicated by the fact that some of the folks who advertised through Zango did in fact engage in nefarious cookie stuffing and commission stealing. The way that Zango's advertising system worked, an advertiser could make the link they insert do pretty much anything allowed by the browser sandbox. And some of our advertisers did engage in commission stealing. It was never possible to catch every instance of this, but we did our darned best, and implemented a number of processes, systems and features to catch folks who were trying to do so. In the end, the extent of such third-party advertiser fraud was minimal.

    There's been a lot written about Zango "cookie stuffing", but I should say very clearly: Zango does not stuff cookies, has no interest in stealing somebody else's commission, and did everything it could to prevent this from happening. Yes, Zango did display targeted ads, and would have liked to display ads from affiliate networks: but those ads introduced an ambiguity into the process which the affiliate networks refused to resolve. The net result was that Zango was shut out from what once had been, and should have remained, a mutually beneficial and profitable advertising channel.

  5. Zango financed its acquisitions with too much debt, and not enough equity. If you ask Keith what went wrong, this is what he'll tell you. And while I don't believe it's the whole answer, he's got a point. Zango was trying to fight a four-front war, keeping advertisers, publishers, content providers and users all happy simultaneously. To do this requires a certain economy of scale. And those economies of scale required a significant investment in user acquisition to maintain an adequate audience. Unfortunately, because we financed our acquisitions primarily with debt rather than equity, we had to spend almost all our spare cash on servicing the debt, and were unable to adequately finance our publisher channels and direct-to-consumer advertising. Due to this lack of investment, Zango's audience continued to shrink, which meant that we had more difficulty servicing the debt, which meant that we had even less to spend on user acquisition. You see where I'm going with this. If we had been willing to dilute ourselves more, we would have had smaller debt payments to make, which would have allowed us to continue investing in our audience. It's all very simple once you point it out.

If I get a chance and feel like it, I'll post another set of thoughts on what Zango did right: because while we ultimately weren't successful, we made a hell of a good run at it, and did a lot of impressive stuff along the way.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

How Not to Acquire a Company

  1. String the banks and management team along for months. Change the deal terms twenty times.
  2. Show up unannounced with a huge team 15 minutes after funding, when the CEO and former owner is out of the office.
  3. Immediately lock out everybody's email and network account.
  4. Post armed guards at every door.
  5. Break your word about how many people will be laid off and under what circumstances.
  6. Lay off nearly everybody, with a, ahem, promise that they might get hired back at some point.
  7. Try to run the remains of the company with approximately 20% of the people required to make it a success.
  8. Neglect to have an external communication plan in place to support existing customers and affiliates.

Just in case you were wondering how it should be done.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Things I Want to Do in Gmail and Can’t

On the whole, I like gmail. I've almost entirely switched over to it, and the more I use it, the more I find that I like it. (That's as opposed to some of my friends, who can't stand it.) But there are several things that Google still needs to fix:

  1. I can't change the subject line of a reply, even when the new topic is obviously unrelated to the original subject matter of the thread.
  2. I can't insert pictures into emails. (I can attach them, but that's not the same thing by a long shot. Would Picasa or Flickr be as popular as they are if you had to download the pictures manually to see them?)
  3. I can't get a horizontal line to show up between replies, a la Outlook. This is probably just stylistic preference, but I like an <hr/> element to show up between replies in a thread, to make it easier to see where one reply leaves off and another starts.
  4. I can't easily delete a single email in a thread. The vast majority of replies to a thread don't need to be saved, and just clutter things up if you don't get rid of them. But it's a pain to select each individual response (the thread is initially collapsed, of course, so you can't easily distinguish between responses), and then with my mouse choose "Reply/Other Actions", "Delete", "Yes". There should be a single keyboard shortcut for deleting the current message, just as there is for deleting the current thread.
  5. I can't easily select multiple items to perform an action. There are times when I want to select, say, 20 contiguous emails in a list. This is easy in Outlook: select the first, press shift, and then select the last. But in gmail you have to select all 20 individually, either with a mouse (uggh), or (slightly better) with the keyboard.

Don't get me wrong: I'm very grateful that Google has at last added offline capabilities (which was a pretty neat trick for a webmail package), and the search is dramatically better than Outlook (or at least much faster). And a whole new world opened up to me when I figured out that gmail had keyboard shortcuts. (I should note, however, that gmail's keyboard shortcuts are of the utterly unintuitive, only-an-engineer-could-have-thought-of-this variety: how else do you explain "#" == "delete", "e" == "archive", and "u" == "return to inbox"?). But now that they've got the big stuff nailed, they really need to finish their UI.