Brad Feld

Month: December 2007

Tom Evslin picked up my challenge to help invalidate the proposed patent in my post Have You Ever Coded a Progress Bar?  Tom has prior art going back to 1987 from a program he wrote called Desktop Express (Dow Jones Software). 



He writes his thoughts and how he’s nailed 5 of the 20 claims in his post Patent Absurdity – A Possible Cure.  Tom got on the Peer-to-Patent site and entered a detailed challenge to five of the claims

Thanks Tom!  Anyone else game to play?

I didn’t listen to any voicemail in 2007.  I got plenty of them – but I didn’t listen to any of them.  Yet I got 100% of the information that people left to me.  I discovered a magical system that transcribes voicemails to emails.  And it doesn’t involve anyone that works for me.

I’ve been searching for a speech-to-text voicemail conversion system for a while.  I approached the problem incorrectly – I assumed that it was a technology issue.  I’d periodically come across something that tried to do what I wanted but truly sucked.  For a while I had my assistant transcribe my voicemails, but that was tedious, a poor use of her time, and often had a lag if the call was after hours or when she was in the middle of other stuff.  Plus, she hated doing it (think "extremely tedious part of the job – yuck.")

In my quest for a solution I came across SimulScribe early in 2007.  It’s exactly what I want.  For $30 / month I have my voicemails immediately transcribed and sent to my email account with the text and an attachment of the message (if – for some reason – I have to listen to it to pick up a nuance that the transcription missed.)

The real aha was that SimulScribe didn’t actually try to solve the hard technology problem (in this case – translating voice to text.)  They simply outsourced it to India.  Transcription has been around for a long time (it’s what your doctor’s office has been doing for decades) – using the Internet, email, low cost outsourcing, and a simple web service makes this a marvelous solution for the voicemail haters of the world.  I wrote about an analogous dynamic on the post Manually Automate Your APIWhile it’s nice to believe that technology can be applied to processing any and all data, there is an old fashioned way to get there quickly.  In some cases, like SimulScribe, it’s quite elegant.

Other folks are using this same approach, including SpinVox and Jott.  I’m been happiest with SimulScribe for voicemail and can’t imagine living without it.  I look forward to 2008 being another voicemail free year.

It appears that Vonage had something in its patent portfolio that Nortel didn’t like.  Several weeks ago Nortel sued Vonage for patent infringement.  They just settled for a limited cross license to three patents.  Good for Vonage for standing up to Nortel. 

Facebook.  MySpace.  LinkedIn.  Plaxo.  Gmail.  Email Contacts.  Bebo.  Every individual social networking software product that I use (Dogster, Shelfari, …)

Oh how I friend thee.  Let me count the ways.

I’m already seeing "predictions for 2008" that it will be the year of "friend consolidation."  How exciting.

Phase 1 (of at least 10) is starting to appear.  You can now see your LinkedIn data inside of Facebook (but you can’t really do much with it – yet.)  And of course this isn’t an "official LinkedIn app – just something someone else put together.)  Or – using Fuser – you can now see your MySpace data inside of Facebook.  Again – you can’t do much with it.

The dynamics this time around are pretty interesting to me.  Usually data follows apps.  This time the apps are following the data.  And the data is proliferating very quickly.  While OpenSocial theoretically "solves" this, we know that there are at least 9 phases to go before we get to a happy place with this.

Our friends at IBM are trying to patent the "progress bar."  EDN has an article about it titled U.S. patent office looking for prior art on IBM patent applicationAs a result of the Peer-to-Patent: Community Patent Review process, there’s actually a chance that this stupid patent will not get granted.

There are 11 days left to comment on the Pre-Grant Publication Number: 20070220238.  If you don’t want to go through the brain damage of setting up an account, just leave a comment on this blog post and I’ll consolidate and post them on the Peer-to-Patent site.  If you really want to dig into this yourself because you’ve actually written the code for a progress board, you take a look at the overview and the claims (keep a barf bag handy.)

Dave – do you have any of that Clarion code from the late 1980’s with progress bars in them?  I know I’ve got some examples written in Basic for Petcom’s PCEconomics from 1984 – now all I’ve got to do is find something that can read a 5.25" floppy disk.  Nari – thanks for the heads up on this.

I spent 45 minutes this morning desmegmafying three new Xbox 360 controllers, three new Wii controllers, a Wii charger, and a bunch of videogames.  Thanks to everyone that suggested Wii and Xbox 360 games to me – BioShock ate my morning (after I got the controllers out of their packages.)

My experience reminded me of Mark Cuban’s brilliant post from 2006 titled Seagate Leaves me bloody…  My right index finger is now sliced, my left palm has a cut on it, and my left index finger is still bleeding a little – five hours later.  But I’ve liberated the controllers from their plastic jail, inserted the batteries, and gotten my butt kicked at Wii Table Tennis.

When I looked at the damage I had done (including scraping up over 50% of the brand new controllers I’d gotten, including one particularly gruesome two inch long scratch in the black plastic of a brand new Xbox controller), I pondered the pile of crumpled and useless plastic that will take 154,792 years to decompose.

I spent some time on Wikipedia trying to figure out the type of evil plastic that is used for this stuff and got bogged down in common plastics and their usages.  I now know more about polycarbonates, polystyrene, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene than I thought I’d ever want to know.

Why, oh why, do consumer products companies insist on using this shit?  There has got to be a better way.  I’m sure I would have done better at Wii Table Tennis if I hadn’t damaged my hands.

As my Quixotic adventure for abolishing software patents continues, I’m starting to come across essays, examples, and suggestions from software engineers that support and confirm my point of view.

Terry Gold of Gold Systems pointed me to an article from Art Reisman, the CEO / CTO at APConnections.  Terry is on Art’s advisory board.

Let’s start with Art’s recommendation

Patents should be allowed for:

  • 1) devices with mechanical components
  • 2) physical compounds that can be weighed on a scale.

Patents should never be awarded to:

  • 1) Ideas
  • 2) processes, recipes, software programs

I believe that these already have other appropriate means of protection (trade secrets, copyrights).

Perfect.  I strongly agree.  Art’s article in ExtremeTech is titled Analysis: Confessions of a Patent Holder starts with his fundamental problems with the Verizon patent that has caused Vonage so much difficulty.

The problem with this patent, like many others in a misguided flood of new filings, is that it describes an obvious process to solve a naturally occurring problem. Translating a phone number into an IP address must be accomplished by any provider offering Voice Over IP. Not only is it a common problem, it is a relatively simple problem to solve with multiple natural solutions — not that that was apparently made clear to the jury. So simple, a first-year computer science student could do it as a weekend homework assignment.

Art is also transparent about the "bigco patent manufacturing machine" problem.

In my time at major telco providers, all of the patents I was privy to were taken out for something that occurred in the natural course of finding a solution to a larger problem. I was never comfortable with being a part of this game, but a previous employer of mine provided an eager legal team to help in the process, and paid $1,000 to any engineer who won a patent. I had colleagues that were virtual patent mills. Patents sound impressive on a resume, so why not?

Art warms my heart with a nice punchline: "It’s like hate and war: nothing productive can come of it."

The Vonage decision is the ultimate example of a small player eating into the revenues of a larger player, and the underhanded techniques that the larger player can impose with an unchecked patent library. Vonage was brash, bold and constantly in the face of the big players trying to get market share. Although I give them little chance of competing in the long run, I hope that everyone at Verizon who was involved in winning this case realizes that their tactics undermine our ability to compete as a society and may backfire against them someday. It’s like hate and war: nothing productive can come of it.

Just Gas

Dec 28, 2007

Creating companies from scratch is really difficult.  Every successful entrepreneur knows the daily challenges and struggles that conspire against him.  Sometimes the entrepreneur thinks to himself "there must be an easier way."  A long time friend and successful entrepreneur – Steve Munroe – provides a creative solution.

I don’t know if I ever explained to you my premise for a business model whose main goal is to own a business that squelches the entrepreneurial drive.  It is called Just Gas, the premise being that I would buy a Marina on the lake and just sell gas, nothing else.  By naming the business Just Gas, it would force me to not expand into other areas, or maybe leave enough room on the sign so you could expand after a couple of years and sell Ice also, thus: Just Gas and Ice.  But that’s it.  The focus would force the expansion, entrepreneurial part of the brain to shut down, thus decreasing stress and increasing quality of life.  That’s the premise.

Anyway, if you pay attention to this groundbreaking business philosophy, you will begin to see examples of it everywhere.  And, to tie this whole ramble together, my favorite example was a restaurant in the Dominican Republic called Solo Pollo, Just Chicken.  Brought a tear to my eye.

The massive proliferation of web services, their corresponding APIs, and the notion that "the web is the platform" has caused me to spend a lot of time in what I call "horizontal land."  This is a special place where software that nits everything together (sometimes nicely, sometimes not so nicely) lives.  Our RSS theme and corresponding investments (FeedBurner, NewsGator, and Technorati) arose from one aspect of this problem.

Shortly after I started thinking about the implicit web several years ago I hooked up with Eric Norlin.  We bounced a bunch of thoughts around and Eric proposed the idea for what became the Defrag Conference.   We had the first one in 2007 – I thought it was superb as did a bunch of other people.  As a result, we are doing it again in 2008.

As Eric and I were debriefing on the 2007 conference, we realized that there was an interesting layer that we didn’t really address at Defrag.  We started calling this layer Glue – some examples follow:

  • Marketing Glue: the abstraction of the management of ad platforms into a common interface
  • Enterprise Glue: a "rest-ful" service oriented architecture via mashups and RSS
  • Social Network Glue: the movement toward cross-network interoperability and data sharing
  • Interface Glue: cross-platform, cross-browser technologies like Silverlight and Apollo
  • Messaging Glue: tools that are evolving for meta-messaging
  • Identity Glue: reputation, user-centric identity and web single signon

We are now working on how to integrate Glue into our thinking – either as an extension of Defrag or as a second conference.  If you have ideas or want to be involved in helping us think this through, please comment or email

I love a good rant.  I got one several months ago from Janet Stites in reaction to a post I wrote about financial projections.  I asked her if I could publish it and she said "yup."  Here it is.  Janet’s thoughts are her own and come from her experience, but I thought her perspective on entrepreneurship and VC’s was a useful perspective to ruminate on.

Dear Brad: I’m Janet Stites, cofounder/ former publisher of AlleyCat News now founder/publisher of Talent Pool New [east]. I came across your posting on the issue of projections always being wrong and how you mentioned (in a small way) the value of creating a business which scales. I wish you could open this dialogue on a larger basis with VCs and particularly early stage investors because one’s company can go under while taking the time to create these models. If VCs, early stage and particularly angel investors, would begin to ask for the revenue model, price point, universe of the market, competitive advantage and, from there, try to ascertain how flexible & creative, in terms of tweaking the b-model, the entrepreneur might be if the market changes, war starts, economy falters.  Investors might see a lot better deal flow in terms of quality and management in terms of tenacity and the entrepreneur might be able to avoid having to walk away from a potentially great company because his/her credit line has run out…spouse left…child starts college (I remember when the founders of iVillage thought, in 1995, chat was their model and, thought, in 1996, they would make their fortune off of subscriptions.).

As you mentioned, it often takes one and a half to two years to start accruing revenue. I bet what stands between entrepreneurs and the finish line a few months out is often about $75,000 to $100,000–which may be too much to come up with personally after two years of no income and, no doubt, already a second mortgage, college fund diminished, etc.

I wonder how many viable businesses have had to fold because the entrepreneur wasn’t a trust fund baby or student just dropping out of Harvard (often the same) and able to live with 6 friends in a closet for a year or so (don’t forget the Teva’s and the bike!) What missed opportunities for investments and innovations in general? VCs might say that "if it was really worth it, you would make the time," but that is easy for them because VCs get a money management fee–you don’t have to wait until one of your investments has been acquired, gone public, or is simply in the black, to make your money. During the boom any number of VCs made a fortune as their portfolio companies were acquired or went public and they could cash out, even though the companies were never profitable and shareholders lost their shirts.

Also, often VCs –based on the many I know–are not the primary care takers of their kids so they are not choosing between making sure there is something fresh and green on the table for dinner, all the permission slips are signed, etc. or sitting in front of a computer all night creating multiple case scenario spreadsheets. One VC who has a blog once wrote that if he wasn’t writing the blog, he’d be changing diapers. My heart went out to his wife. What if she wanted to start a blog or a business? That would be one stinky baby.

Unlike the west coast, many early-stage or angel investors didn’t make their money as entrepreneurs —never even sweated payroll or signed personally for a credit line, so it’s hard for them to understand the time-value ratio of seeking money vs. credit card debt, vs. just calling it a day.

Anyhoo–I wonder what would happen if someone with your visibility in the financial community would encourage VCs/angels to re-think what they want in terms of projections (given they’re always wrong). You are in a position to create change…but your audience has to be your peers, not the entrepreneurs.