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Chris Cardell

Interview with Stephen Starkey (Pegby)

Pegby is an online application that allows friends to collaborate using virtual peg boards.

I interviewed Stephen Starkey, Pegby co-founder to find out more. This interview is the twenty third in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Stephen for the interview!

How would you describe Pegby in under 50 words?

Pegby enables you and your friends to get stuff done together without getting in your way by emulating the “pegging” of 3×5 cards to a virtual board. The core principles behind the design are: simplicity, flexibility and above all, fun! And it’s tastier than chocolate, according to Matt.

What made you decide to start working on Pegby?

As a software developer, over the years I grew more and more dissatisfied with the tools that were available to my trade. They were either too specialized or too difficult to configure. Not to mention — they were entirely too expensive for what you got!

I recruited my co-founder Matt, an amazing interface designer (Matt would disagree with this description), and we set out to build what we thought would be the next evolution in software project tracking tools. We spent a few years prototyping and nothing seemed to be exactly right; we didn’t want to use our prototypes! After a couple years of on-again, off-again collaboration, we scrapped the whole thing.

Not wanting to let the energy die, we got to thinking — it’s not just people who work on software who have collaboration problems. After scrapping our prior project, we came up with the initial thought for Pegby — a tool modeled after Kanban (a concept related to Lean Engineering) — and designed to appeal to a much broader audience.

So, we got to work. Our first mockups were well-received by family and friends, and as we kept iterating over it, more and more people were getting excited. It was that energy that kept us going.

How did you come up with the name?

We noodled for a while, and stumbled about looking for a name that would be really easy to say and remember. Also, it had to reflect that this was not a tool for people who take themselves too seriously. If you’re going to use something to keep yourself organized, it had better be fun. Otherwise, it would be a drag every time you had to think about all the stuff you had to do.

It’s bad enough to have too much to do!

So I started bouncing ideas off my boyfriend, and as I described the project to him, a “virtual cork board, or pegboard,” it hit him — “Pegby!”

Instant success. I got so excited I emailed my partner on the spot. Matt loved it, and we adopted the name immediately. To this day my boyfriend still brags about how he named Pegby.

How have you got together a team of 6 without any venture capital?

As I have moved through life, changing jobs faster than I change clothes (it’s hard to find the right culture!), I encountered people that made me think, “I have to make sure I work with him/her again!” So, the people on the team are people in that group. If they’re on my team, I’ve worked with them in the past and decided they were amazing at what they do.

So, I have been doing a lot of convincing. And selling. And cajoling. And begging. And of course ensuring each and every member of the team that should Pegby turn a profit they would share in the reward. It doesn’t hurt that they all believe in the vision of a tool that can help anyone, regardless of their work or position, to keep themselves organized in a more and more chaotic world.

Who did the copywriting for Pegby? What made you decide to go with such a whimsical tone?

The initial copy was written by my co-founder, Matt. And he did an excellent job of channeling our vision — that Pegby should be a whimsical sort of collaborative productivity tool. It’s bad enough we’re overloaded with stuff to do — the tools you use to get organized shouldn’t add to that feeling. We want to be friendly and helpful — not serious and overwhelming.

When do you see Pegby moving out of beta?

As soon as the core team is working on Pegby full-time, allowing us to be committed to supporting it, we will move out of beta. Unfortunately, it is very much a part-time project. Since we have no funding at the moment, we have to rely on the generosity of our subscribers.

And Pegby has very few subscribers right now.

But once the demand rises, and people start finding it useful enough to pay for it, we’re hoping our income will eventually be able to pay salaries for the co-founders so we can quit our day jobs and spend all our time on Pegby.

How do you make time for Pegby and who has contributed the most?

Pegby is a free-time project. When I’m working on Pegby, I don’t watch TV or do my chores or socialize. My boyfriend picks up the slack and makes the apologies.

As for contribution levels, take a look at the Credits on the front page. The order in which the names appear is the order of contribution levels.

What technologies have you used to build Pegby?

Pegby is a Java web app using jQuery and Ajax on the very front end and MySQL as the very back end database. We have a bit of Clojure code mixed in there to do some authorization magic, but all in all it’s standard Java with Hibernate, Stripes, and Guice.

Has Pegby got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

Honestly, we had no expectations and still have few as to its growth, and we had no idea who would pick it up or how they’d use it. As we’ve engaged a few communities and shared Pegby with friends and family, we’ve received the kind of feedback we expected: users want it to be more mobile, and they want it to be even more flexible than it is. And they’ve shocked us a bit with how they’ve integrated Pegby into their lives.

Who do you see as your target audience?

Our target audience is everyone who works in a group that has lots of things to do and needs to keep organized. We hope that programmers, for example, will find it useful (Since I am a programmer and I find it useful!), but we have been finding that:

  • Teachers love it, and are sharing it with their students,
  • College students use it to track their homework,
  • Independent movie directors use it for building story boards,
  • Parents keep track of chores and share their family board with their kids,
  • and so on.

So that’s very encouraging!

Who is your biggest online competitor?

That’s the thing. We compete with everyone who tries to help people stay organized. Which is a HUGE and diluted market. It’s going to be a big struggle to convince folks that this is the way to go.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Time. Full-time jobs keep us from working on the things we’re passionate about. We keep hoping that we’ll hit on the magic formula that makes it so folks want to give us money so we can quit our jobs and work on this all the time. But until then, we have to scrape up energy when we can get it, and get far less sleep than we should be getting.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

More and more people are using Pegby on a regular basis. Yesterday we had over 500 unique visitors. Which excites us to no end — especially when the first year of Pegby’s life our high mark was 10 — and that was all family and friends.

Can you convince the reader to start using Pegby in under 50 words?

If you spend a little time with Pegby you’ll fall in love; its simple approach to task management is endearing and we promise it is flexible enough to match the way you work. Life with Pegby is better! Plus, task lists are boring and inhumane and made by Stalin.

Finished reading? Check out Pegby!

Interview with Art Holland (Splarchive)

Splarchive is a free online service that converts your files to PDFs and stores them for you online for you to search and access from any device.

I interviewed Art Holland, Splarchive co-founder to find out more. This interview is the twenty second in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Art for the interview!

How would you describe Splarchive in under 50 words?

Splarchive routinely converts all of your online data from email to databases and web services to custom PDF’s. These are accessible online to desktops and mobile and down-loadable.

What made you decide to start working on Splarchive?

It actually started when I was doing some consulting for a medical practice that wanted to convert it’s medical records to a cloud-based Electronic Medical Record system. I talked to the doctors about who would actually control their medical records and they kind of freaked out. I thought, there must be a good answer to enabling the doctors to take advantage of the EMR while also enabling them to still control their medical records. From this, Splarchive was born. It seemed like a problem that everyone with important data in the cloud needs a good answer to.

How did you come up with the name?

Since our core premise is about archiving and the original company is called Splarky and the domain name was available…

In regards to your background, you created Disney’s initial website, how did this come about?

It was in 1993 when I first heard about the Mosaic browser and the World Wide Web. I was an IT Director at Disney and started to play around with it and thought, holy crap, this is an amazing way to easily publish information online without having to go through one of the online services (AOL, Compuserve, etc.) We created a website, the Buena Vista MoviePlex (Buena Vista is Disney’s film distribution company) which was a virtual movie theater using images to guide you through a theater to find Quicktime movies of trailers for our current film releases. I pitched it to film marketing who loved it and we got funded to put together a team to build and deploy it. Disney did control disney.com, but at the time it was only being used for email by a couple of guys. So we deployed our first site.

How long did it take you to put together the first version of Splarchive and how much time has been spent on it since?

The first rough version of Splarchive took about a month. It then took about 6 months to really design, build and test it.

Has Splarchive got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

We’ve been pleased with the overwhelming response since launch. The adoption rate of user sign-ups is ahead of our projections and the reviews from industry columnists have all been positive. The current version of Splarchive is a late stage beta and even in this early form, it’s over-delivering and ahead of schedule. We’re grateful for all the encouraging feedback and enthusiasm the Splarchive users have expressed to us.  As the general public becomes more aware of their cloud-based vulnerabilities, we think the value of our evergreen, agonistic approach will attract broader users seeking more control of their document archiving.

How has work been split up between yourself and David Vogler?

David’s a designer with a deep understanding of product design and marketing and I’m a developer. We both share a passion for Internet services and how they are built, used and sold.

Who do you see as your target audience?

We think it has great institutional relevance as well as for individuals.

Who is your biggest competitor?

Backupify is probably closest to what we do though we also convert all of your data to PDF. This protects you not just from cloud service problems but also insures that your data will always be accessible regardless of how the data might have been stored in the cloud.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Clearly, getting the word out and getting people to appreciate the vulnerability of their valuable data.

What has been the most technically challenging part of building Splarchive?

Getting high quality PDF’s created regardless of the source and making sure we only process the stuff submitted via email that we should be processing.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

David and I are focused on building a variety of new services that leverage mobile technology. Like Splarchive, the common bond across all our products is solving a problem or fulfilling a need with simplicity and elegance. Our company, Beta Bros., has over a dozen apps in the pipeline for both the iOS and Android platforms. Along with the further growth of Splarchive.com, we’re exciting with the slate of services we’ll be launching in Q4 of this year.

Can you convince the reader to start using Splarchive in under 50 words?

What if any of the cloud-based services you use including email, social, photos etc. folded tomorrow? Protect your cloud-based information with Splarchive.

Finished reading? Check out Splarchive!

Interview with Chris Fay (AdRavage)

AdRavage is a web based tool for automating the Craigslist search process. Instead of going to Craigslist, you can use their site to poll Craigslist for your search terms and notify you when matching items are created.

I interviewed Chris Fay, AdRavage founder to find out more about how he founded AdRavage and went onto sell it. This interview is the twenty first in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Chris for the interview!

How would you describe AdRavage in under 50 words?

AdRavage is a notification service for Craigslist – you can create a search and get notified when items match your term(s) via email and/or sms.

What made you decide to start working on AdRavage?

I was in the market for a car and repeatedly missed out on great deals due to my inability to sit at the computer all day to search. I set out to create a system that would do this for me – 24 hours a day – and I could just sit back and wait for the deals to come to my, on my terms.

How did you come up with the name?

I conducted about two days worth of brainstorming and produced a list of about 200 domains – I wanted to quickly convey the idea of ad searching and AdRavage ended up being the top choice for my wife and I.

Did you do any research to come up with your monthly and lifetime pricing plans?

As an avid consumer of online services I went with a pricing scheme that I would pay for – $3/month I felt was a low enough barrier to entrance for most, and if you really liked the service I felt an outright price of $29 was fair. The free plan has always been robust and a great way to test the service. But, I suppose no – I didn’t do any legitimate market research to define the pricing, more a gut feeling on the value of the service and my personal belief of what others would be willing to pay.

How long did it take you to put together the first version of AdRavage and how much time has been spent on it since?

I spent about 4-5 months building the first version of AdRavage – there was a fair amount of complexity to the processing of searches across the US due the lack of an official API, but I think that’s what makes the service unique. I continued refining AdRavage and ultimately released version 2 of the application with a much more robust front-end in late 2010, before selling it in 2011.

Has AdRavage got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

I think so. Not a single penny of advertising was ever spent on the service and growth was fairly consistent via word of mouth. My one regret with AdRavage, being my first pet project, was that I didn’t push it to it’s full potential in terms of growth and exposure. Looking back, there are many things I could have done to heavily increase it’s penetration. At a certain point I stopped developing on the service and put focus into other ideas, which I think detracted from the vision of AdRavage and hindered it’s progression. It was then that I knew it was time to sell the site and let someone else take the rains who could really push it to the next level.

Is there anyone else providing a similar service?

Yes, I won’t name names but there is one other primary service, though I don’t believe they are charging nor offering the same featureset that AdRavage does. There are also other ways to pull in Craigslist data matching your terms, but nothing as complete, self-contained and feature-rich as AdRavage in my opinion.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

The biggest hurdle was the technical challenges in actually building the site. Considering Craigslist does not provide an API, there was significant research into how to mesh the service requirements with the available interfaces that Craigslist does provide. That process took quite a bit of refining, and I think even now the biggest challenge to expanding the service is sustainability – you never know if Craigslist will change the format of their rss feed or other structures AdRavage uses. Although unlikely, they do update things and could have implications on the service.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

As I have sold AdRavage I’m now mostly focused on fixing/flipping distressed web properties for either long term revenue or quick gains. I recently purchased PoopReport, a site dedicated to the intellectual appreciation of brown humor, pulling in over 20K unique visitors daily and over 2 million page views per month. The site has a huge community and I purchased at a good price. The last few months were spent working on a major infrastructure upgrade process and facelift of the site – which has just gone live. Building a strong advertising revenue stream is the next phase of the project and from there will decide on whether to sell or hold on for some long term passive revenue.

You recently sold AdRavage. How did you find a buyer? Would you recommend selling your startup to other founders?

I ended up selling AdRavage to a college friend of mine. He was around during AdRavage’s initial development and helped beta test things during first-launch. I felt he would be a good candidate for expanding the service and continuing the vision. Jesse has since built in numerous features and increased the site’s social presence considerably.

I think the decision to sell requires consideration of many things, but for me it came down to my available time – I wanted to focus on other things and AdRavage had not grown revenue-wise to a level that justified holding onto it. Rather than sacrificing it’s potential and stagnating the site I decided to sell. I think building something is great, selling it off is just as exciting!

Finished reading? Check out AdRavage!

Interview with Dan Ushman (SingleHop)

SingleHop is a dedicated server hosting provider. They provide award winning dedicated servers and cloud hosting servers with free setup. They grew 673% in 2008 and generate revenue in the region of $20 million.

I interviewed Dan Ushman, SingleHop co-founder to find out more. This interview is the twentieth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Dan for the interview!

How would you describe SingleHop in under 50 words?

SingleHop is an innovative company focused on improving the customer experience through technology. The simplest way to put it is we are obsessed with making the IT hosting experience better for our customers while having fun ourselves. We also like long walks on the beach.

How did you meet your co-founder Zak Boca? What made you decide to start SingleHop?

Zak and I met when we were both running competing online advertising businesses on an AOL chat room in the early 2000’s. We became friends and decided to start a shared hosting company (midPhase) together. Nine years later we are 100% focused on dedicated hosting.

How did you come up with the name? Was the domain available?

Zak and I have always had (healthy or not) domain collection hobbies. Zak happened to own the SingleHop.com domain name and we thought it was a great fit. The domain has technical value to a network engineer, but also has the qualities that make a great name great… short, easy to remember, and easy to spell.

Where did you grow up and how did your interest in computers develop?

I grew up in Palatine,IL, a northwest suburb of Chicago. Zak is from Bowling Green, Kentucky. I’ve always been obsessed with computers. I remember begging my father to buy me my first computer when I was a kid. It was a Packard Bell and it further exasperated my extreme apprehension to all things athletic. But I am a geek at heart and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. After all, I can type at 100wpm w/ 95% accuracy.

Your professional background is completely hosting related, what made you decide to make this your area of expertise?

Well… Honestly, I fell into it. When I was in the advertising field, I found a niche in the hosting world. Hosting companies were rapidly expanding and had to find new places to market themselves. After spending a while doing that, and meeting Zak, one of us said to the other: “Hey, we’re pretty good at this.” So, we both sold our respective hosting marketing directories and started midPhase. The community, early on, was very welcoming and supportive. And that certainly helped push me along to Hosting. Now, it is second nature and hosting is truly a way of life for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You co-founded midPhase in 2003, what made you decide to leave after almost 5 years to co-found SingleHop? What did you learn from the experience and why did you move from low-cost shared hosting to dedicated and Infastructure-as-a-Service?

We learned a LOT from managing a shared hosting business. And many of the lessons we learned helped us do a better job starting SingleHop. We founded SingleHop while we were still operating midPhase because we saw demand from our customers for dedicated products. It took on a life of its own and the rest is history.

SingleHop has revenue in the region of $20 million. You grew 673% in 2008, what are the principal factors that have lead to your continued and rapid success?

We have always focused on being different from our competition. Our marketing, websites and products all reflect a strong desire for differentiation. Being different is hard in this business… most providers sell roughly the same products at roughly the same prices. Most providers use the same control panels and the same technology. Many even resell for the same data centers. SingleHop is different because we own all of our own equipment, and we own all of our own technology. We built LEAP ourselves, and we did it with a vision, not just to make a control panel.

Our desire to find innovative and technically impressive ways to do routine and non-routine tasks has really driven demand for our products. But more importantly, it creates a type of loyalty that is rare in this business. As good as we are at growing from new customers, we would be nowhere if we didn’t also invest the same effort in keeping our existing clients happy and to WOW them on a daily basis.

So it’s a combination of two things. A desire to be different through technical innovation and a desire to be different through the customer experience. Combined these two types of differentiation really create a lasting impression on clients, new and old.

Who do you see as your target audience?

Anyone who has a website, owns a business or needs a good home for a project is our customer. We don’t have narrow niche definitions—anyone who needs a better place for their website or web app should talk to us.

Who is your biggest competitor?

We compete with a lot of different great companies… in different areas we compete with different providers. On the managed hosting end, I have to name RackSpace as a very formidable competitor. On the unmanaged end, SoftLayer is an obvious competitor.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

One challenge we face is to be able to continue to differentiate ourselves on an on-going basis even as the marketplace evolves and technology advances. Five years ago having amazing support and 24×7 service was enough to differentiate a company from the crowd, but today these are simple prerequisites to doing business—the threshold and customers expect and demand these things from their providers. For us, automation and accessibility have provided us with a great degree of differentiation but as the market evolves we will have to continue to find new ways to stand out.

What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now? Where do you see SingleHop in 5 years time?

No comment. Seriously, though, I wish I could have predicted the shift to grid and cloud computing. It would have given us a great jump start on the rest of the industry.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

We have a number of unique products coming out this fall… but if I told you now I’d have to kill you. You’ll just have to watch and see.

Can you convince a business to switch to SingleHop in under 50 words?

Anyone can sell you a server. But only SingleHop can offer such a high level of automation, accessibility and control coupled with such a positive customer experience.

Finished reading? Check out SingleHop!

Interview with Christopher Minson (iaza)

iaza is an easy to use online image conversion and manipulation application. It’s also available on the iPhone and Android as Ezimba.

I interviewed Christopher Minson, iaza founder to find out more. This interview is the nineteenth in a series of DoesWhat interviews. Big thank you to Christopher for the interview!

How would you describe iaza in under 50 words?

iaza allows you to do cool and creative image conversions online – simply and easily. Hundreds of options are available, ranging from the mundane to the insane.  And they are all easily accessible and simple to use.

Just upload, click and have fun.

What made you decide to start working on iaza?

A few years back I needed to do some image processing for a non-profit website that I was helping out. So I got Photoshop and fired it up.

Now Photoshop is a great product. Definitely the thing to use if you’re a pro. But it’s also complicated and intimidating. I swear, when I first launched it I thought I was looking at the wiring diagram of a hydrogen bomb. Where to begin? Cut the blue wire or the red?  I didn’t have a clue.

So I bought a tutorial book, complete with guided examples, exercises and tests. Upon getting to Chapter 18 I finally rebelled and tossed it. After all, I just wanted to do some neat things with a few pictures, not launch a Space Shuttle.

So I went online looking for alternatives. No lack of options there but I found that all of them were either limited, slow, buggy or just too stupid for words.

That seemed to point to an opportunity. That’s how iaza was born.

How did you come up with the name? Did you already own the domain name?

Once I drafted a spec I went looking for a domain. I wanted a name that was short and distinctive, reflecting the personality of the product I had in mind.

Unfortunately I’m not good with names and so for a long while nothing came up. But then one day –  as I laid rather inebriated on a local beach – the name “iaza” just sort of materialized. That name seemed as reasonable as any and so I ran with it.

Later on I came upon a much cooler name courtesy of my wife: ezimba. I liked it more and have used it for my follow-on iPhone and Android products.

Of course, that meant I was now pushing two names rather than one. Suboptimal from the branding perspective, as they might say at Harvard. So eventually I’ll probably coalesce around ezimba. However given iaza has really run away from me in terms of success, that’s not so easy to do. In short, in terms of brand focus the naming could be better.

What made you decide to charge for the iPhone version of your app, but provide the Android version free of charge?

I originally didn’t charge for my Android version because of the bugginess of the platform. In the early days Android had some “issues” and I didn’t want users to pay for my product and then watch it crash. People remember that sort of thing. Not the way to build brand loyalty.

Android is very stable now and I plan to start charging eventually. However I’ve been in no hurry, as I’ve been happy with my revenue stream elsewhere. Meanwhile the free android version helps me to gain mindshare, particularly in overseas markets.

What made you decide to start a blog in June?

I think of iaza like I think of my toaster: it does one thing and it does it really well. You pull a lever and good stuff happens. Does my toaster need a blog? Nope, and so neither should iaza. In short, I don’t approve of product blogs. Who really reads them?

But I recently relented and started a blog. I did that because that’s the “done thing” nowadays and many of my users claimed they wanted one. People kept asking: where’s the iaza blog? Everyone else has a blog and you don’t – what are you, a loser? It got to be annoying.

And so now iaza has a blog. No one can accuse me of not going with the flow.

Which technologies are powering iaza?

The iaza stack is LAMP.  The image-processing code itself is a hodge-podge of open-source stuff written in C, plus some proprietary C code, plus some shell scripts. The servers themselves are quite heavy-weight and reside in two physically distinct data-centers for redundancy.

How long did it take you to put together the first version of iaza and how long has it been open to the public?

For a long time iaza sat latent, as I was busy starting another company (Baynote – an enterprise SaaS firm).

Once I was finished with Baynote, alpha iaza took 6 months to create. And for a period it was kept locked for a small community until the right level of quality was reached.

Three years ago I announced public availability. From there it has grown organically and iteratively, based off user feedback.

Has iaza got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

Growth has been explosive. I’m shocked by it, especially given iaza has never been promoted or marketed in any way – everything is viral, by word of mouth and personal recommendation. It fits a niche far better than I expected.

I’m particularly pleased with the feedback from the user community. iaza has some extremely dedicated users who are basically camped out there, and they don’t hold back on their commentary (both positive and negative). That has been invaluable.

Who do you see as your target audience?

The target audience is people like me: those who want to have fun with images and do creative complicated-looking things, but without having to think about it too hard. Basically those who are into immediate gratification, image-processing-wise. Lazy, in other words.

My users span all the demographics, from kids to grandmothers. However the center of gravity is definitely with the young wired set. The average age of a iaza user appears to be about 20.

iaza comes in 12 different languages. Outside theUSthere are particularly strong user communities inBrazilandIndia, withChinacoming up hard and fast.

Who is your biggest competitor?

Any other online image conversion service is at least a partial competitor. Hard to say which is the biggest – there are so many. Frankly I don’t pay attention anymore as I find looking at them them too painful. Just Google “online image conversion” or some such and you’ll get the latest list.

Photoshop of course isn’t a competitor, as it’s in a higher league of power and has a completely different orientation. It appeals to serious people doing serious work. If you’re working on the cover of National Geographic or enhancing photographs of a brain surgery operation, well, you need Photoshop. In contrast, if you’re just one of the proletariat that wants to have some good quick fun, you use iaza.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Keeping server capabilities a few steps ahead of growth. The key to a SaaS firm is to over-build and always keep several steps ahead in terms of load.

Of course, that’s often easier said than done.

Do you have any features in the pipeline?

New conversions are constantly being added of course. Beyond that I’m working to extend horizontal reach. An Arabic version will soon be available for instance, inshallah. Also, a version will be coming out for Microsoft phone.

Which conversion or effect is most popular with your users?

Interestingly, feature usage is very heterogeneous and distributed. There are many different iaza communities and each seems to have their favorite feature set. I’ve learned to not assume too much about what people really like.

Can you convince the reader to start using iaza in under 50 words?

Of course. The site will look very different from anything you’ve seen before – but you’ll immediately know how to use it. And in one minute you’ll be having loads of creative fun.

Finished reading? Check out iaza!

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