The story of a startup that wasn’t

Put together on January 10, 2013 3:12 pm by Dimitris

Today the domain for a startup that we started back in 2009 expires – and I’ll let it do so.


CobaltBox started off with great ambition and a vision to become something significant – only it didn’t turn out as planned.

The idea was that we could use the web as a platform and include additional information on it – all in a relevant and contextual manner. Essentially, we aimed to allow web users would see the usual content of the webpage augmented by additional, personalised information brought to them with the help of other services.

So for example if you were reading an article on the economic crisis you would be able to see relevant Amazon book suggestions, similar Wikipedia article suggestions, YouTube video links and so on in a way that would enrich your browsing experience without leaving the website. Sounds pretty interesting right? Well, at least for 2009.

Plus, over time a user profile would be build so the information displayed would be even better targeted to the individual web user.

 On top of that we thought that we should open the project so that third-party developers would be able to use popular services’ APIs and write their own layers of information – web apps essentially – meant to run on our platform.  That way further user personalisation could be achieved: users would select which web app layers to see when browsing.


We went on to release the first such app – Parallel Links – a Firefox plugin (the architecture was such that at least initally web apps would be in the form of browser addons), which embedded additional links on top of a page.

Surely an ambitious plan with multiple (even if somewhat sketchy at first) revenue possibilities: affiliate links, ads, apps’ monetisation to name a few, all could be a part of it – plus a couple which were bound to come up down the road.

Although we spent nearly a year on developing both the backend and the frontend at the end of that period we realised that we wouldn’t get very far and gradually decided to abandon the project. So the least I can do is share some of the lessons learned in the process.

1. When you start you should be sure you can build – product-wise – at least 80% if not 95% of what you’re trying to make. Otherwise you’ll spend way too much time learning the tools and solving otherwise trivial problems. That time is something you simply don’t have especially if you’re like us where we didn’t have any revenue while developing.

2. Speaking of revenue, unless you’re super confident you can make it – preferably with proof for that, i.e. a previous successful effort – don’t postpone putting in place a way to monetise your efforts. In other words, it is vital to structure your progress from day 1 in a financially viable way.

3. Stealth mode is probably not that much worth it. Were we more vocal about our efforts maybe we would save ourselves of wasting some time or picked better tools or steered the entire project to a better direction altogether. Or we would be just taking instead of making and learning from our mistakes – which would also be wasting our time. Nobody can really tell but I think next time I will be trying the more open approach.

4. Build something that works as quickly as possible – the famous minimum viable product but at an even more simple scale. Namely, it doesn’t have to start paying for itself, it just needs to do something. In other words make something that works and can be shown to people – even if it’s buggy and half-baked. That helps a ton in getting actual feedback and boosting your morale you’ve actually delivered something.

5. There are many ways to do things wrong and only a few things to do them right. When it comes to technology the wrong ways are generally more obvious than the right ways. So if you’re not sure which is the right way of doing things (which tool to use, which architecture, which library, etc) at least avoid doing it in one of the wrong ways. If it looks like too much effort, if no one else is doing it that way, if you think it’s unlikely to work, if there seem to be steps missing (to be figured out later), then it’s most likely wrong and you should find another way.

These all are sensible advice you can probably read all over the web. The reason these tips are offered again and again is that it’s actually quite hard to follow. Maybe we’ll be wiser to follow it and other minor things that definitely went wrong.

Until the next time, then.

If someone is interested to have a look at our efforts, feel free to contact me and we can share how we approached the whole project.

Enhanced by Zemanta
tags: lessons

Digg Digg | | Ma.gnolia Ma.gnolia | Newsvine Newsvine | Technorati Technorati

Why cigars symbolize success

Put together on January 23, 2012 1:37 pm by Dimitris

(copyright & reuse license under CC)

It’s been ages since I last wrote here but a lot has happened in the past couple of years. I co-founded a startup which didn’t go so well (a story to be told, for sure), I have been contributing to another which is moving on strong, I changed over to the industry described by the dreaded term of ‘social media consulting‘ (Greek) and last but definitely not least got married and became a father.

Why come back to this blog after so long then? Well, the blog was never really abandoned in the back of my mind and all it needed was a bit of free time and an excuse. I got one of the two now so here it goes.

In a couple of weeks a good friend (whom I unfortunately see all too rarely) will be walking into a room full of his peers looking forward to learn the results of his and his team’s efforts in the Berlin Film Festival 2012. He’s very pro-health so I doubt this will actually be true but let’s assume for the sake of this story that in his suit’s inner pocket there will be a cigar waiting to be lit when the good news are announced.

And the night will unfold and expectations will keep growing. And eventually it’ll be them who win the prize and everybody will be happy and at last justified for all the costly decisions they have made, all the work and the time spent on this and other projects building up to it. It will be a great moment which will be made even greater by the doors it will open and the roads it will pave for higher goals. But that will be a thing of the future because that night at some point my friend will light his cigar and celebrate his success in this among other ways.

Or the results may not favor them.

A good possibility as it is their first time there. Somebody else’s name will be announced, they will probably be happy for them but they will also be definitely disappointed for coming so close and not making it. Surely, being nominated is important and some things will be better than before but it’s not the same as taking the award, is it? And my friend will celebrate the night but with much less passion, less whole-heartedly. Because the cigar in his suit inner pocket will remain unlit.

But it’s ok. He can keep the cigar, save it for the next such occasion – cigars don’t go bad. In fact, you can keep them somewhere at the back of your room (or mind), properly cared for, and work towards them. So, that’s it, even if you don’t get it right the first time, or the second or the third for that matter, the cigar is there to remind you that the game is still on and you’ll have other opportunities to light it.

tags: lessons

Digg Digg | | Ma.gnolia Ma.gnolia | Newsvine Newsvine | Technorati Technorati

Respect, fame & money

Put together on November 11, 2009 2:22 pm by Dimitris

Will code for food...
Image by Sara Golemon via Flickr

These days everyone seems to be making an app store. I think it all started (or at least became popular) with the iPhone releasing their SDK or – or was it with Twitter opening up their API? And then Android, Facebook of course, Yahoo, MySpace as well as any startup with a few miles behind them are opening up their platform so that 3rd party developers can create value for whatever it is they are making.

And soon after that even more mainstream companies like Nokia and Vodafone weigh in by making their own platforms (more) available – something that should have happened much earlier actually.

The problem is that there are only so many people with the ability (let alone the interest and time) to actually sit down and create something worthy. Sure, providing a means to make something (i.e. some sort of income for the developer) out of the time and energy spent creating an app – like Apple does with the iPhone – works as an incentive. But what else can be used to grab the attention of the creators – something perhaps even more important than the attention of the crowds?

Some say – even more than money – giving respect to a developer/coder/programmer is enough to attract his attention. I guess it’s respect by demonstrating you’ve created something worthy technically speaking. It may also be respecting his or her values – e.g. by releasing open source or contributing to it if aiming for that community. Or you could show developers respect simply by admitting that they – collectively – know better and as such should be able to significantly contribute to (if not be in charge of) where your platform is going.

Or, finally, it could be a simple list of top peers whose first places they can aim to achieve. I guess that’s taking respect to a whole new level – and turning it into old-fashioned glory and fame among equals as well as the broader public.

What do you think? Is there another factor that developers covet?

tags: insight

Digg Digg | | Ma.gnolia Ma.gnolia | Newsvine Newsvine | Technorati Technorati

Large followings’ advantage

Put together on November 8, 2009 1:43 pm by Dimitris

In a previous post I mentioned that most of the Greek TV channels main asset is live content: sports and music events is content that cannot be found elsewhere (neither online nor in competitors) so it keeps viewers faithful to their brand.

But that’s not entirely true: live content is not their only remaining major asset much as TV channels like to think so.

They have something else – the effect you get when many people start and keep following a source of information (in whatever medium). It doesn’t matter how bad or good the information quality is, people will still follow it unquestioningly exactly because everyone else is following it.

It’s the same with the Financial Times (you read them to see what’s the information everyone else is getting), it’s the same with Fox News (you watch it to see how mass opinion is formed even though it’s well known it’s biased), it’s the same with sites like Techcrunch (you read their blog to understand what’s on the tech sector map currently – regardless of a million other worthy news that go uncovered by it) and the list goes on.

It’s basically about the basic need that we (or at least some of us) have to belong in some sort of social group – and sharing a news source enforces this. In other words, if everyone at your office keeps talking about how fun or interesting was yesterday’s X show on TV, if you don’t want to stand out too much from that crowd of your peers, you will eventually watch that show too in the weeks to come.

So if you’ve managed to create a considerable following you have – as a bonus – this card to play too. Of course this can only last so long and providing a relatively low signal-to-noise content can burn this asset too.

tags: insight

Digg Digg | | Ma.gnolia Ma.gnolia | Newsvine Newsvine | Technorati Technorati

Commoditizing live content

Put together on November 5, 2009 1:46 pm by Dimitris

Image by Monica’s Dad via Flickr

As I said in my previous post, Greek TV channels most sought-after content is live events (sports, music etc) which cannot be found elsewhere (neither in competitors nor online). Securing licenses for such content turns out as a major asset for such providers – and I can imagine that this holds not just for Greece but any and all countries.

So what would it take for this last castle, which offers possibilities of monopoly to a single (or a few) providers, to fall? What would allow even live events to escape from the stranglehold of large, existing content providers? The making of a commodity out of watching live events could be (one of) the next big things if someone manages to get it right.

Now, most mobile phones can capture video these days and that’s a powerful medium that has remained rather untapped when it comes to live events. So here’s an idea: let’s assume we want to cover a live event, like a football game. All it would take would be to allow everyone who was planning to attend the event to sign up to also stream a portion of it. The streams from all users present at the event would arrive at a website dedicated to the event. There they would need to be synchronised (and perhaps even auto-selected based on quality) and then restreamed to visitors of the website in real time or semi-real time.

Now add to that that most such phones have or soon will have GPS information appended to them and you could even identify where in the event’s location the incoming streams originate from. Given enough people offering their streams, visitors on the website would be able to select a point of view and follow the event from it.

Perhaps a nice concept but where’s the catch? Actually there are two.

For one thing, we’re used to watching content from a few given angles and changes between them are managed by a single human being – the event’s director. Having the viewing experience be governed by whomever happens to be holding his mobile up at a given time and place, will definitely result in a dizzying reproduction of the event. Camera and sound quality will change abruptly along with location, stops will be inevitable, essentially no commentary will be possible, etc. At the very least it will take some getting used to, at worst it will be unwatchable. There is an answer to that however and it is of course adequate – and committed – streamers.

For another, a streamer will need a considerable incentive to do it. Holding a mobile up and stable for any amount of time will make the event less enjoyable for him and even more importantly streaming video will pump his bill by quite a bit if not on an ‘unlimited data’ plan. Obviously the platform which will organise and offer the content of the streamers online will have to share some of its revenue with the streamers – or at least those that offer the best quality streams and whose streams are the most viewed.

Overall, the experience will be pretty much nothing like what we’re used to but I think it’s terribly disruptive if you think about it. Using such a platform, a group of people can organise and relay an event pretty much on their own.

tags: idea

Digg Digg | | Ma.gnolia Ma.gnolia | Newsvine Newsvine | Technorati Technorati