How much is an idea worth?

An incandescent light bulb.

When I left Automattic to start a new company, the first question all my friends and family asked me upon hearing the news was “So what’s your big idea?”. The funny thing is, at the time I didn’t have one. I had no idea what my next company would be and what it would do. This seemed to surprise people.

My take on the matter was that it was more important to figure out the team than the idea. The only thing I had decided at that point was that I wanted to build my next company with the help of Josh Fraser. We didn’t yet know what we wanted to do, but we knew we wanted to work together. To me, the important part was figuring out who I wanted to work with. I figured a couple of smart people could find a problem worth tackling.

This conversation with friends and family lead me to again consider the value of ideas. In my experience, most people value ideas a lot. When they have a good one they hesitate to share it for fear someone will “steal” it. They look at successful companies and say to themselves “If I had just had that idea”. I view ideas very differently. I think a small niche of them are very valuable, but the vast majority have little value in and of themselves. The main reason for this is that ideas are so easy to spread. Once you have an idea, there’s no way for me to take it from you, and spreading it is as easy as a Tweet or a conversation.

So if the idea isn’t the valuable part, what is? In my opinion it’s the ability to execute on the idea that is valuable. My biggest argument for this is a simple hypothetical situation. Imagine you could go back 10, 20, or 100 years – knowing what you know now – how many of the big companies could you have built knowing the basic idea behind them? Even if you knew that the idea behind Google was big, you probably wouldn’t build Google. Even if you knew the idea behind Microsoft, you probably wouldn’t have built that either. Just knowing that there is a lot of value in a specific market or problem doesn’t give you money or success directly. You have to execute on that idea, build the company, hire the right people, out maneuver your competition, etc.

I think we have a great idea with our current company, Torbit, but I think that idea alone won’t bring us success. The company (or companies) who win in this space will win based on their execution of the idea. And I for one, am excited to build this company out.

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Torbit – Making Websites Faster

Torbit I’m excited to finally talk about my new project.  Josh Fraser and I have founded a company called Torbit.  Torbit is a service to make websites faster.  On an average site 80% of the time a user spends waiting is actually on the frontend (downloading images, running js, etc), not the backend (page generation time).  This means that the majority of the performance of your site is actually determined by the contents of the page rather than the servers generating it.

There are a lot of relatively simple things developers can do to improve their performance.  Combining files to reduce the number of HTTP requests, minifying files to reduce the size of the download, etc, but many of these are still not done because they’re annoying and tedious to do and developers are often focused on other things.  Many of these optimizations (along with many others) can be automated though, freeing developers from the hassle.  We intend to make this process super simple and free developers from these headaches.  We can also do a lot of optimizations that don’t make sense for the average site to do themselves.  For example, browser specific and mobile optimizations. If you’re curious about the details you can check out our how it works section.

Josh and I met in TechStars in 2007 when he was working on Eventvue. We’ve both been itching to start something new and are passionate about the web performance space. I’m thrilled to be working with him.

40% of people will leave a site if it takes more than 3 seconds to load.  We’re ready to make the web faster for everyone.  You can sign up for our beta now, we’ll be opening this up wider soon.

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Goodbye Automattic & IntenseDebate


I recently left Automattic and IntenseDebate.  It has been a wild ride, but alas all good things must come to an end.

As many of you reading this know, IntenseDebate has been a big focus of my life for nearly 4 years now.  It started as a somewhat random side project to kill some time while I was in grad school (with two guys I met on the internet … seriously), but outgrew even my wildest expectations for it.  There have been a lot of changes over the years in the team, the product, and even the company structure, but in the end I’m happy with where things ended up.  I owe a big part of that success to David and Brad (and more generally TechStars as a whole).  It was our entry into TechStars that really launched this project beyond a hobby and into a company.  I also want to thank the one other person who rode the entire ride with me, my co-founder Isaac.  And lastly, a big thanks to Toni & Matt at Automattic for the opportunities they gave us after they acquired IntenseDebate.

I’ve had a lot of ups and downs throughout the company, and had the opportunity to learn a lot.  IntenseDebate will live on without me and continue to grow and improve the commenting experience on sites across the web.  It was exciting to be a part of and I wish the guys keeping her going the best of luck.

So what’s next for me?  That’s a good question.  I’ll be sure to let you know when I do.  Although goodbye’s are always sad, there is also an excitement in starting anew.  I look forward to the craziness that the next project will bring and can’t wait to get my hands dirty on something new.

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Email Nag

I often keep my emails unread until they need no further action from me.  Either they’re responded to, don’t require a response, or they’ve been moved to a todo list of some sort.  Unfortunately I have developed a bad habit of leaving emails in this unread limbo a little longer than is reasonable at times.  What usually happens to me is I can’t act on the email right at the moment I’m reading it (I need to do something else to respond or I’m on my mobile device and it’s a long response I don’t want to type at the moment) and it ends up going “below the fold” and I never get around to responding to it.  Sometimes I’m days or a week or more late getting back on something simply because it fell through the cracks.

This is not a good habit to have and I hate when people are so slow getting back to me, so I decided I wanted to fix it.  Which lead me to implement my own Email Nag.  It’s simply a script that runs once a day and checks my inbox for any unread emails.  If an email is older than some threshold (currently 3 days for me) it will send me a new email w/ the date the other email was received, who it’s from, and the subject line to give me a reminder to take care of the email.  If it goes beyond another threshold (currently 1 week) it will send me a text message with the same info.

I’ve been using this for 2 weeks or so and it’s definitely helped me a lot.  It’s nice to have a reminder so that I don’t let things drag on too long.  If nothing else the daily reminder helps give me an extra boost to take care of the task to keep from getting another nag later.  Hopefully this will help me fix the problem going forward.

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Do More Faster

Brad and David have put together a book about lessons learned in TechStars called Do More Faster.  The book is a bunch of small stories and lessons written by Brad, David, and a bunch of the TechStars mentors and alumni.  It’s coming out soon, and you can find out more about it here.

I have a small chapter in the book about how vesting can be good for the founders of a company which was inspired by my own experiences with IntenseDebate. There are also a bunch of other great bits of advice, though.  It’s definitely a great read and an easy way to learn from some great people all in one convenient book.

So go ahead and pre-order it now.   You’ll be glad you did.

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Gravatar in Gmail (Update)

A while back I wrote a Greasemonkey script to add Gravatars to Gmail. Unfortunately it broke after an update from Gmail and had a few issues I didn’t like.

I recently had a chance to go back through the script though and update it. It now uses jQuery, works with the current Gmail structure, and loads Gravatars for all open messages (the last one didn’t). It’s not perfect though. It will not yet load Gravatars if you click to open a collapsed message in a conversation (only the expanded messages upon first opening will have the Gravatar images loaded). It works pretty well otherwise, though, and it’s nice to see faces with my emails again.

I’ve got a screen shot below if you want to see what it looks like. If you’d like to get the script for yourself, I’ve posted it here. Just install Greasemonkey, click the link, and choose “install” when the popup comes up. Enjoy.

Screenshot of Gravatar in Gmail

Posted in Code, Javascript | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

TechStars Applications

The deadline for TechStars Boston applications for Spring 2010 is quickly approaching (January 11th). If you’re considering applying I’d definitely encourage you to do so. TechStars is a great program to help start ups get off the ground and get to the next level. It provides a little cash to keep the lights on, an amazing set of peers to work with, and an impressive network that will make all the difference. I was part of the 2007 class (Boulder) with IntenseDebate and I could not recommend it more. The program is an amazing accelerator that will help you get done in 3 months what takes most companies a year or more.

So head on over and apply. It might just change your life (it definitely did for me).

Posted in Entrepreneurship | Tagged | 1 Comment

Add a custom url shortener to Firefox

I recently wrote a post about why I made my own url shortener. I’m now porting some of my common uses over to use this new shortener (keep life simple, right?). The first thing I wanted to address was adding an option to the right-click menu to shorten whatever page I was currently viewing and copy it to the clipboard. The easiest way I found to do this was to modify an existing Firefox addon called Shorten URL. It works particularly well because it already supports a TON of shortening services and adding new ones is a breeze. So how do you do it?

  1. First, download the extension.
  2. Next, find your Firefox profile folder.
  3. In your profile folder, find and open the “extensions/ShortenURL@loucypher/defaults/preferences” folder.
  4. You should then find a file named shortenURL_prefs.js – open it in any text editor.
  5. You should see two large blocks of similar lines repeating – find the last one in the first block (as of writing this it is pref("extensions.shortenURL.name.145", "w3t.org"); and add a new line below it (incrementing the number) and swap out the name w/ whatever you want to reference your url shortener as. (in my case pref("extensions.shortenURL.name.146", "jfox.in");
  6. Continue to the end of the file and you should find a matching url line pref("extensions.shortenURL.145", "http://w3t.org/?module=ShortURL&file=Add&mode=API&url=");. Add a new line below this one incrementing the number again (to match the one in the last step) and adding the url of the page to submit a url to shorten (the url will be appended to the end). For example: pref("extensions.shortenURL.146", "http://jfox.in/make-tiny.php?url="); (note the example here won’t actually work because my shortener is private).
  7. Save the file and restart Firefox. Now go to Tools->Add-ons, find ShortenURL in the list and select “preferences”. You should now be able to find your custom shortener in the list using the name you provided above (in my case jfox.in). Select your preference and enjoy!

A quick trailing note: This all assumes that your shortener has an interface that allows a url to be passed as a GET parameter and returns the shortened url in plain text as a result of that request. This is straight forward to implement, but worth mentioning. You should now be able to shorten simply by right-clicking and selecting the “Shorten this page URL” option (which will also copy the short url to your clipboard and put it in the location bar). Enjoy!

Posted in Code, General | Tagged , , | 5 Comments