Web 2.0 experts share startup lessons

Experts at the Future of Web Apps in Miami shared lessons they learned from starting up their Web 2.0 companies.

It's possible to launch a successful Web startup with little money, especially if you shift your attention away from the business plan and focus on building a great Web application.

That was one of the many tips that attendees at the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami heard on Friday for how to succeed as a Web entrepreneur and Web application developer.

It came from Emily Boyd, co-founder of the popular Remember the Milk task-management Web application, who explained how she and her partner managed to launch their application with limited resources.

To accomplish that, they did a lot of benchmarking and research to find cheap, scalable and easy-to-use software, she said. Then they spent about a year developing the application's architecture in a way that minimized, as much as possible, its need to tap their server by doing most of the processing on users' PCs.

Thanks to that, since launching Remember the Milk in October 2005, they haven't had to expand their server capacity very much, even as their user base has grown, keeping costs down, she said. Along these lines, Boyd and her partner jumped all over Google's Gears, a technology for giving offline access to Web applications, and built it into Remember the Milk just days after Gears became available.

She also advised attendees to take advantage, as much as possible, of available APIs (application programming interfaces), in order to quickly add features and improve their applications. This is something that she and her partner continually do for Remember the Milk, especially for features that aren't core to the application's task-management functionality.

"We love APIs," she said. For example, they have a Google Maps mashup that places tasks on a map so users can visualize a route for running errands, she said.

If APIs aren't available for certain functions or devices, it's worth it to explore other avenues for integration using more granular programming, which she and her partner did to bring Remember the Milk into the Gmail inbox screen. However, she cautioned that in these cases, it can be problematic whenever the back-end code is changed in a way that breaks the integration. In the case of Gmail, her experience is that code changes are frequent, requiring regular maintenance on their part.

She also said it's important to be resourceful. Boyd and her partner are based in Australia, where the iPhone isn't yet available. But they wanted to build a version of Remember the Milk for it, so they bought one over the Internet and set to work.

She also told attendees to focus first on creating a truly compelling application that captures people's attention, and not worry too much about a business plan. "The most important thing is to build [an application] that people really want to use," she said. "[A great business model] doesn't matter if no one cares about your product."

Finally, she told attendees to constantly be thinking of ways to improve their applications and to not be too concerned about sticking to concrete upgrade roadmaps. She and her partner always have ideas floating around in their minds and instinctively pursue those that seem timely. "The truth is we don't know what we're doing next. I'm not sure if I should admit that," she said.

At least her admission wasn't as embarrassing as wolfing down more than 100 chicken nuggets in one sitting, a feat that Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of popular blogging software WordPress and founder and CEO of Automattic, said he attempted and survived.

Then he moved closer to the conference's topic, stressing that it's key to not ignore spammers, whom he called the "terrorists" of Web 2.0 companies. "They can really kill your product," he said, adding that his team has zapped more than 800,000 spam blogs -- or splogs -- from Wordpress.com.

Mullenweg also said that startup founders must be the most passionate members of the company, who are "obsessed about everything," and he recommended that, when building up a team, very careful attention be paid to the hiring process, since the staff will be critical to success.

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