A place to put random occurrences in my life...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

AOL Acquires Goowy!

Alex, Jeremy, Sashi and I embarked on an adventure a few years ago.  We came together as a unit, with a simple goal - build a much better web based email system than anything in existence, with a major focus on the graphical user interface aspects (GUI - hence the company's name). 

We started designing in October of 2004.  At that point, we didn't even have an office, so we collaborated at each other's apartments, in coffee shops, and wherever we happened to be.  When we finally found a "nice" office space which we could afford (meaning it was cheap), we jumped at the opportunity - it was a second floor walkup, above a porno store (adult videos and novelties) and right next door to a psychic - fun, fun, fun!  Nonetheless, working nights and weekends, we cranked out code and had a "friends and family" release in March of 2005.

The initial product was called Goowy Mail.  It was written with Flash as the front end.  This meant that we could offer desktop-like functionality - right-click context sensitive menus, drag and drop, keyboard shortcuts, etc. - all while delivering the experience in a browser without the need for any downloads.  This was just at the time that the term AJAX was just coined - making our product fairly revolutionary. 

We started gaining some traction, with a few nice reviews from all of the top blogs including Techcrunch, but we quickly discovered it was tough to convert users to a new email system, no matter how good it was.  As Alex used to say, it's like giving someone an incredible phone (now that the iPhone is out, I'm sure he would have plugged that right in), but insisting that the person had to have a new phone number to go along with it - as great as the utility is, the inconvenience of informing all of your friends of your new contact information is sometimes a bit too overwhelming.  In addition, Yahoo (with their purchase of OddPost), Hotmail (with an internally created app call Kahuna), AOL (with their purchase of Mailblocks) and GMail all began releasing compelling versions of email products.

With that in mind, we added in more functionality which we believed would help in solidifying the experience and enhancing the offering - calendaring and then a start page-like interface, complete with widgets.  All of this contributed to our continued user growth and to our believe that we were onto something.  It even helped with our fundraising, and we were fortunate enough to partner up with the ultimate maverick - Mark Cuban, towards the end of 2005. 

We continued to innovate and add in more components into the overall solution.  We added in file storage with a partnership with our friends at box.net and also layered in integrated instant messaging - both in March of 2006.  We had what I consider to be the first, application rich, webtop.  Essentially, everything (other than a virtual Office) that a user would need to manage their digital lifestyle, all available in an awesome interface, and accessible through the cloud.  And that's when we began to think that maybe we had built too much - that the webtop had become a bit overpowering for people.

In the summer of 2006, we did some deep soul searching - trying to figure out the best foot forward.  Maybe we hadn't yet reached out to the perfect demographic?  Maybe we needed to build in yet another killer feature to put us over the edge?  Maybe we needed to invest in some outside expertise (buzz creation, marketing, PR, etc.) to get to the next level?  In the end, we decided that we had the internal expertise to push forward - and that we needed a simpler product to bring to market.

yourminis.com was launched in November of 2006 as a completely Flash based start page.  We knew that we would have to iterate, while keeping the environment and the product as simple as possible.  Rather than focusing on building applications with complex infrastructure requirements (email and IM are two of the biggest), we concentrated on widgetizing content by creating small, vibrant, interactive "minis" that would run inside of our start page.  We built a ton of these widgets for various web services including Digg, Craigslist, Amazon, Flickr, etc. - and our users loved them.

The next step was to "release" the minis from our own start page, and to turn them into true widgets.  Widgets that can run everywhere - and behave appropriately in each environment!  Initially our widgets worked in environments such as MySpace, blogs and personal sites.  Shortly thereafter, we developed hooks to third party start page environments such as Netvibes and iGoogle.  And as demand for our widgets increased, we quickly deployed onto the desktop, initially with Adobe's Apollo product (now called AIR - Adobe Integrated Runtime) and expanded to Vista Sidebar, Mac Dashboard and the Yahoo Widget Engine.  Our widgets really do run everywhere.

Along the way, we started selling the widget platform to media companies, large and small.  The thought was that we could build some great widgets better and faster than anyone else leveraging our API and then we would provide the hosting of the widgets, which would allow us to provide for syndication and detailed analytics.  We quickly realized that customers will willing to pay an hourly development fee and a monthly hosting/syndication/analtyics/maintenance fee - this revenue helped us to maintain an incredibly low burn throughout - and we even turned in a few months straight of profitability!  Many thanks to our friends at MTV who were among the first to validate this model and who became a showcase customer for us.

Alex and I have worked together for virtually our entire professional careers (other than the first three months post college) and we've worked with Jeremy since January of 1997.  Even Sashi, the newest member of this foursome, has been with us for over eight years at this point.  There's nothing like working with your closest friends to make your dreams come true.  As an added bonus, the four of us have picked up a couple of new friends - our star employees, Hart and Gavan Woolery, without whom I think we would have had a very different product and company.  The twins have played a major role in the Goowy story and I know that our friendship will continue on.

In the end, this was a very long road, one filled with more ups and downs than I can possibly recount - thankfully the ups were always much higher than the downs.  This was an incredible experience which I will cherish forever.  I look forward to continuing the adventure as a part of AOL, hopefully impacting a much larger audience, while contributing to the growth of AOL.

Further reading, courtesy of Techcrunch.