Thursday, February 18, 2010

From Zero To Ramen-Profitable In Two Months

An angel-funded startup sells itself on eBay:

Today we announced the sale of my company, Open Box Technologies. We will be selling the company – including our SesameVault online video platform – via an eBay auction that will run for 7 days, ending next Wednesday, February 24th.

The decision to put OBT up for sale came about as the result of our recent inability to raise investment adequate to support our plans and objectives going forward.


The original inspiration for using eBay came from a Y Combinator-funded web calendar company named Kiko, who after being made irrelevant by Google Calendar put their business up for sale on eBay.

While these guys were building this thing, and struggling to keep it from falling apart, I went from zero to ramen profitable in two months, part-time, with very little effort. For the skeptics, I suppose you could say it took eight months, if you count the six months of studying Internet, affiliate, and information marketing beforehand; or even five years, if you want to include the years of blogging and conference presentations that gathered my audience. The true skeptic would also count the conference presentations as a business expense, and by that measure I'm still a long way from profitable, but on the one hand, the conference presentations helped me get various programming jobs and therefore, in a sense, paid for themselves, while on the other hand, true skeptics are boring people who deny the obvious truth that I was abducted by UFOs several times in the late 70s and early 80s. So fuck those guys.

By the way, on the topic of "fuck those guys", let me just say something. There was a theme on Hacker News of posts arguing against ad hominem attacks. I run afoul of ad hominem all the time. Whenever I say anything controversial on HN or Reddit in the comments, I usually leave more than one comment; a comment that makes people mad will not only get downvoted, it'll lead to the immediate, punitive downvoting of innocent, unrelated remarks. However, I think that's fine. I also think the anti-ad hominem theme was really a bit hypocritical and precious.

You should expect ad hominem attacks, and you shouldn't take them too seriously. They're inevitable. You have a group of people who spend a great deal of their time, in aggregate, setting up web apps to make just about everything social, from pet food to bulldozers, via conversation-driven social software. These people all agree that ad hominem attacks are inappropriate. But are they? Social software which transforms every process in society, making it conversation-driven, destroys the societal framework which necessitated professionalism, which is a historically recent phenomenon born of the Industrial Revolution and its requirements for networking and education. Systems which destroy that societal framework remove the incentives for its artifacts - which means that the same people complaining about ad hominem attacks are building the software which transforms society in such a way as to increase the prevalance of ad hominem attacks by many orders of magnitude. Social means social. You can't have your conversation and eat it too.

I'm not saying you shouldn't aim for civility in public discourse. I'm just saying that people who act aggrieved when they encounter something other than civility in public discourse might be completely full of shit if they've just spent months, years, or even decades building systems which in practice inevitably lead to public discourse which is more casual and less civil. If you build a system which makes everybody else's public discourse less civil, it's not all that reasonable to complain when your own experience of public discourse becomes less civil as well. There's a certain inevitability to it.

Anyway, even given the idea that trolls are people (like Socrates) who make other people get off their asses and think for a change, this is still probably more trolling than I can get away with in one post. So let me wrap up. Ten years ago, as a programmer in San Francisco just before the dot-com crash, I looked around and realized that every business that I or my friends ever got into was complete bullshit (with the exception of the parties and club nights we put on). We were mostly Web programmers, and at the time, the only business making real money on the Internet was porn.

This insight led to an unfortunate period where I decided I should become a pornographer and even embarked on a series of experiments in art-film porn. In some ways I'm very glad that time is over but in a certain sense, it's happening again. In 2001, the only people who really knew how to make money on the Internet were pornographers - the scuzzy, low-class people who everybody else looked down on. In 2010, I have a ramen-profitable business based on information marketing tactics, specifically tactics from Dan Kennedy - tactics that we fancy Web people often look down on and associate with get-rich-quick schemes.

There's something very insane and dysfunctional about how the American class system manifests itself on the Internet. Chances are, if you're on the Internet, and people look down on you and think of you as scuzzy, it means you're doing business and they're building a company which won't last nine months. I think that runs backwards. Before Ruby on Rails, the same dynamic drove language perception: if people looked down on your scripting language and its open source framework, it meant you were writing good code and they weren't. With Rails, I think the battle is long over and the dust long settled, but we've not yet seen an equivalent change in how businesses are perceived.