* consumer internet exp, customer driven
* prefer technical over business background unless solid tech companies employed by
* able to lead a team of 3-7 incl PMs, Product Trainer and Designers
* able to properly define what a great PM is and hire/train for that level
* opportunity to advance into VP role within 18 months
* define and execute since we are still a small startup
LMK if that's you. I'll connect you.
When Facebook released it’s Timeline earlier this year, I met it with some mixed emotions. As the Co-Founder of Dandelife.com, at the time a groundbreaking venture we called a Social Biography Network, I was at once happy that my hunch about timelines being important to the online story-telling world, and sad that it would be another company making my hunch a success story. While the Facebook Timeline story is still yet to be proven to be a success, I am hoping it will be. My reasons for this hope are grounded in what I learned about this particular approach to our medium. If there is any insight for the developers and product managers at Facebook to learn from my experiences, here it is.
To get at the importance of Facebook’s entry into the space I must ask, Why timelines? Why now? Why Facebook?
Timelines are a convenient way to encode experience. I use the word “encode” purposefully. By looking at a timeline, the viewer instantly understands its meaning. The points on the line have meaning beyond their titles. What’s on the timeline has as much meaning as where it is on the timeline. The viewer can look at a timeline and see the whole story much better. All she must do is read the titles and decode the sequence. As such, timelines are by now a near universal format for displaying and understanding experience. Encoding and decoding experience was not what I had in mind when I created Dandelife.
When I originally came up with the idea for Dandelife, it was an effort to re-create what to me was something I had long valued in my personal life: campfire chats, dinner table banter, and dinner party small talk. It was during those conversations, usually with food and drink, where looking back and taking stock was at a premium and conversation was a means for achieving it. Catching up with each other - asking each other what’s new since we last met? - was itself such a rewarding experience that I posed my geek self a problem: How can you capture and record one’s life with enough detail and with the least possible effort? My fascination with the subject led me to believe there was more to story-telling and truth-seeking than catching up. I had a hunch that people wanted to share their experiences, past and present, and the tools for doing so in 2006 were inadequate. Naturally, I turned to programming which led to launching a dot-com with the mission of allowing anyone with a story to have a safe place to archive his or her experiences and share them with as many or few people as possible. I wanted to make it easy to write and rewarding to share.
To answer my own question about how to help record things in the past, I naturally turned to timelines. The Web already had an architecture for the now. But it lacked an architecture for the then. In fact, the Web’s very nature is timeless. Take blog posts for example. Every blog post is published with a timestamp - but only the publish date. Blog posts have a limited architecture for defining the past. In short, they had no meaningful timelines. After a year or two of posting, one could easily put together a timeline of events based on one’s blog content alone. At best they could become diaries. But what if I were to publish a post about an event in the past? Which datestamp would apply?
At the time Dandelife launched in the summer of 2006, we simply made a blogging tool that allowed you back-date a post. To write in the present but publish in the past. And what ended up happening to our timelines based on this approach was remarkable. You could read about your life from birth to now regardless of when you wrote the story. All posts were assembled as a book and could be read chronologically. That was the start.
Timelines showed our members the gaps in their life record. And by using tags to mark events, and sharing stories publicly, you could get a sense of where one life overlapped with another. You could read all the love stories. Or all of the stories about 9-11. We encouraged users to read about other people, places and things and thus be inspired to relate similar stories about the same types of events in their own lives. But what was far more popular caught me by surprise.
When a new user came to Dandelife, we were required to have the member confirm his or her birthdate in order to comply with law. No-one under 13 in the US is allowed to join a Web site. For Dandelife, the birthdate was an important bit of information not just a legal agreement. It signified the first mark on the timeline. When someone joined Dandelife they had two stories already written for them, just by signing up: “The Day I Was Born” and “Today.” Everything event between was yet to be written; a blank page.
As I write this post, I do so in Google Docs. Until I started typing it was a blank page. For many people, the blank page is intimidating. Few are skillful writers. Few have patience for filling a page with thoughts and experiences. Of the patient few, fewer still were taking the time to take stock. And yet, after spending years talking with members and non-members alike, I do know that nearly everyone has a desire to have his or her life recorded for posterity. At one point, a close friend said two-thirds of Americans claim to have a desire to write their own biography. I don’t know if that’s true. But I can say unequivocally that there are few who want leave life without having made and measured its effect on the world.
With a timeline that has only two events, it’s much more clear what stories should fill the space between “The Day I Was Born” and “Today.” I thought the blank space between the two events would be incentive enough. On Dandelife, I noticed a peculiar behavior. I call it Timelining. Members of the site quickly took to the challenge I had laid before them. By signing up, Dandelife issued an ultimatum to fill in the details as much as possible. And the tool we had given them was simple to use and provoked users to begin outlining their lives. Each new user would spend an hour or so writing headlines from their lives and plotting them on the timeline. They had titles like “First Car” and “When I met my wife.” While there was space to fill in the details with photos and text, members were more concerned with just getting a Timeline together that looked more or less complete. While we spent a great deal of promotional effort to get people to share stories and organize them with the People, Places and Things that filled their lives, they were mainly interested in looking at the whole. The first step was always to outline the major events in one’s life and from there, fill in the details. But titles were all that were needed.
In 20 minutes one could have 20 stories that covered his or her entire life. Many approached the site in this manner. 20 minutes. 20 stories. 20 titles. No stories. That’s where our first problem arose.
What displayed for the member looking at himself had more meaning than those looking at the same timeline. Timelining is not a social experience in the same way that conversation about one’s life around a campfire is. You could easily say that the first problem I had with growing Dandelife - getting people to tell stories, to fill in the details- was its constant struggle. In no uncertain terms, getting members to write their lives down in detail through conversation was a much bigger challenge. While 20,000 members got started timelining, only 200 really spent any time in conversation and by the same token going deeper into the pasts than a title on a timeline.
One of the major distractions for me personally on Dandelife was chasing VC money. I had been encouraged by the successes of my advisors to get funded. My advisors were and are still friends. And they wanted Dandelife to go big. It made sense that our collective picture of success was sprayed through a VC stencil. Nevertheless, I had no idea what raising money actually meant. I was personally never a party to a VC-backed company. Yet I felt sure that the right amount of funding from the right people would help Dandelife address my main point of pain: how could I quit my job and build an idea without some financial support? Together, with enough financial support, passion for the product and business acumen, we’d arrive at a sustainable, profitable destination where people felt fine sharing their stories. If I am to answer the question Why now? it will come in juxtaposition to asking the question, Why not then?
To that effect, I have a story to tell.
Some time in November 2006, I was invited to attend a party in the Bay Area at August Capital, a staple VC firm with a history of funding dot-com’s. Two of my advisors, Mike Jones and Ross Mayfield, would be there and they promised to introduce me to people who’d be interested in helping me. I had two conversations that night that have since stayed with me. The first was with Jeff Clavier who had read about Dandelife on TechCrunch and told me point blank it would never succeed. I asked him why and he said, “Timelines are a nice feature. But your site isn’t a destination.” He was right. I had witnessed it first hand. People came for the timeline, but they left because there was no conversation.
The second was with Seth Sternberg, the founder of Meebo. Mike introduced us and told Seth that we were doing Sand Hill Road tomorrow and encouraged Seth to offer me some advice. Seth had just closed a round from Sequoia which was at the top of my list of firms that might share my vision of the future. Seth looked me up and down and said, “Are you going dressed like that?”
I was wearing business attire. Slacks. Collared shirt. I looked nice. Feeling confident I said, “Yes.”
His asked another question. “Is that how you always dress?”
Immediately I understood what he meant. VC’s don’t invest into ideas. They invest into people. I needed to give anyone who was going to get behind me and my idea a clear picture of who I was. I would go into those meetings talking about timelines and community building and a growing market but in a pair of slacks and a nicely pressed shirt I’d look like a fraud. It just wasn’t me. They were going to meet with a handful of entrepreneurs that year all talking about timeliness, community building and a growing market. What would make each pitch different was what would make each company different. Rather than heed his advice to be authentic, I succumbed to my original intent. I thought if you show up begging for money, you better dress for respect. In my experience, clothes were not how you describe yourself so much as how you want others to value you. Dress for the job you want. And by wearing someone else’s style, I was signaling someone other than me should be sitting at the conference table pitching a deck for the very first time. I left the Bay Area, flew back home, none the wiser. I thought for sure I’d made an impact. Months late, I realized both Jeff and Seth were right.
Dandelife never got funded. What few conversations our members were having happened on Facebook and Twitter. True destinations.
It should be noted that at the time, there were other companies that launched into the space Dandelife did. None of them were successful. A few had “exits” but all of their backers bet on the timelines, community, the market and the founders and as a consequence also lost millions. That’s why it’s called Venture Capital. We crash, we burn, life goes on.
And yet, Dandelife did have traction. We were not first to market, but we boasted as large a community and in most cases better traffic than the competitors. We were frequently talked about in the dot-com echo chamber. And at times it even felt like the site would turn. But I kept asking myself why it so difficult to raise money? What I know now that I didn’t know then was that I didn’t raise money because it was clear I didn’t know what to do with money. As the CEO of a one-person company, I could look at $500 and know exactly how to spend my budget each month. If I suddenly had $2,000,000 - what then? I wouldn’t know where to start and soon enough we’d be at the end.
That said, why was the VC community so interested in Timelines? This is less so a mystery to me because some of them made it very clear what they saw of value in Dandelife. Baby-boomers. With so many baby-boomers about to retire, surely they’d all come flocking to Dandelife and sites like it to record their memories. Right? Wrong. Baby-boomers - to be sure, we had our fair share of them - just don’t feel comfortable doing that kind of thing online. The way Baby-boomers share life stories is the way they did everything up until they retired: the old fashioned way. Sure, they had cells phones. Sure they had iPods. And some of them had Facebook accounts. But they also had seen their albums get replaced by cassettes get replaced by CD’s. They weren’t about to invest so much of their lives into a fickle, digital world, would they? The lesson I learned from Baby-boomers is that nothing we do online is as archival as a hand-written letter. By its very nature, online expressions are ephemeral. They require context and they require less architectures for remembering, but architectures for forgetting.
Baby-boomers and VC money aside, I was asking the wrong questions. Instead of searching for money, I should have been building a business. The distraction of fundraising was consuming all of my attention. No wonder there was no community. It was clear even I wasn’t paying attention.
Facebook is nothing if not a destination. If we forget for a moment what a wall is and what posting on it does; if we forget what checkins are and what it means to poke someone; if we forget that relationships can be complicated and how rewarding a like can be; what then does Facebook represent? As a destination it is more than a campfire around which we tell our stories. It’s more than that. Facebook is a campground. It’s a limitless domain of endless campfires. It’s not just a place to visit but an excuse to do so. It’s not just a place to see and be seen, it also motivates us to do so.
Think for a moment what an accomplishment that is. The value of Facebook is directly related to the number of people it has and the number of hours those people spend there. In the beginning, Facebook was both a market and technical risk. At its foundation, if you believe the movie, Facebook first addressed the market risk. It answered from its very first night the question “Will people come?” Without saying as much, it simultaneously answered the question, “Can it be built?” On the Web, the latter is less risky than the former. If you’re building a dot-com, it’s much healthier to focus on garnering and keeping attention. Founders are not in the business of asking themselves if it can be built. Of course it can. Dot-coms, while no trivial technological feat, are easy to build. Curing cancer, not so much. But building a place for cancer survivors to congregate? Surely more easy by comparison.
At launch, Facebook was tractable. It hasn’t stopped becoming more attractive every day since. Why is that? Is it the architecture? Is it the content? Is it the people? Is it the technology? Yes. To all above. It would be impossible to enumerate its successes along any of those lines. The Facebook experience is more complicated than that. Isn’t that the very nature of a phenomenon?
It has become something of a sport for digital pundits like me to point out Facebook’s every flaw. Yet, to do so would ignore its immense, continued and indefatigable success. If its outcome is the some of its choices (and not a little luck) then good choices Facebook has made far outweigh its bad choices. Whenever it has failed, it’s done so boldly and rebounded successfully. Buy me a beer and I’ll enumerate the many non-technical choices that resulted in its success. When I look at Facebook timelines, I don’t see features. I see an idea put in front of a community. They will learn to love it or leave it, but they’ll stay on Facebook all the same.
I won’t pretend to know if its venture into Timelines will be successful or not. In fact, I don’t really know how they plan to measure its success. More stories? More engagement? More eyeballs? Even though they have not publicly launched timeliness yet, they already have a larger number of users with more content and more data to measure. They’ve done more for timelines in thirty days than the companies I was competing with have done collectively since I got started five years ago. Sure the early results are in.
A lot has happened in five years. When we started Dandelife, we were trying to solve a problem inherent in blogs: they represented one’s past poorly. Five years ago, I couldn’t get a Facebook account because I no longer had a .edu email address. MySpace was still the king of social media. It made more sense to share photos with my folks on Flickr than anywhere else. Smartphones were dumb. Twitter hadn’t yet been launched. I had two sons and started two more businesses.
Since then Facebook has grown to 800 millions users. When I got married in 2004, Flickr took off because of the attention it got during the Tsunami that December. In November 2008, the US Presidential election was won and lost using social media. In early 2011, the Arab Spring surged on Facebook. It’s hard to imagine a world differently and yet it wasn’t that long ago. Facebook is ingrained in who we are. I’d argue that Facebook isn’t so much a destination anymore, but a way of life. The world as seen through these changes, seems to be saying, “We post, therefore we are.”
What about Google? Facebook is to people as Google is to pages. Where google attempts to archive and organize the contents of the Web, Facebook attempts to archive and organize the contents of our relationships. While Google’s content is limitless, Facebook knows its upper bounds are the number of people on Earth. Google need never worry that it will run out of content to index. As Facebook approaches 7 billion users it will, one day, run out of people. But it will never run out of time.
Where my tech bloggin' ladies at? Go forth and encircle
Who else? Leave names in the comments.
- Realtidbits.comCo-Founder, CEO, 2011 - present
- 3ones.comPresident, 2009 - 2012
- MindTouchVP, Product Development, 2010 - 2012
- Red Door InteractiveDirector of Digital Strategy, 2001 - 2005
- PBJ DigitalSoftware Engineer, 1998 - 2001
- Dandelife.comPresident, Co-Founder, 2005 - 2008
- Fairfax Elementary
- Wiley Middle
- Worthington High
- Linworth Alternative
- UWC Atlantic
- The Ohio State University
- Uppsala Universitet
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