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I love to invest in companies where I can be actively involved as a user of their products. One of the benefits of actively blogging over the past two years has been an opportunity to play / work with numerous entrepreneurs in my own “lab” (my blog) to understand how their technologies and products work, how the ecosystem around them evolves, and what seems compelling (vs. just interesting or clever.)
Several of my companies give me great opportunities to dig really deeply into their products and help with strategy, product vision, and implementation. They intelligently keep me away from any real coding or product development activity, but I’ve developed skills as a great alpha tester and feature describer.
An example of this is FeedBurner. I’ve been an active user of their service since May of 2004, well before I invested. I got to know the founding team (and they got to know me) through my use of their service. I was suggesting features and finding bugs well before I invested – and their reaction to the feedback was part of what caused me to invest (not simply listening to me, but arguing with me, and often explaining why I was wrong.) I’ve continued to aggressively use all the features and am excited whenever something new – like the early beta (or even alpha) of the FeedBurner Networks comes out – and I get to help dig in and help shape the final product. Of course, the real benefit (ultimately to FeedBurner and their publishers) is the phenomenal feedback loop – both positive, negative, critical, and random – that emerges as a result of both users and observers – and – in today’s world – is readily available on blogs commenting about the service.
Another example is NewsGator. I downloaded NewsGator for Outlook the day before I met with Greg Reinacker for the first time in 2004. I didn’t completely understand it, but after we met, I completely got it. Since then, I’ve been banging away with glee on all of the NewsGator products – along with the competitors products – as we try to stay solidly ahead of the pack with regular innovation across the entire product line.
Every now and then I stumble into a fun random gem buried in a product that I never realized as I’m trying to solve a problem. I had one of these experiences today – Amy asked me if she could have the blogroll on the right side of her blog be the same as a subset of the feeds she subscribed to in NewsGator. She had been manually maintaining this in TypePad (and I was doing the same on my blog on the left hand side – I subscribe to 800 or so feeds but only list the ones I regularly read on the blogroll.) I knew about the NewsGator Online “locations” feature that allows me to create different locations – my Homer computer, my Laptop, my cell phone – and select a subset of the entire feedlist for the specific location (e.g. I don’t want all 800 feeds on my cell phone.) However, I’d never thought about using this for the blogroll.
- Log into NewsGator Online
- Click on My Settings
- Click on Edit Locations
- Create a new location (call it SiteBlogRoll)
- Click on the Feeds link in the section SiteBlogRoll
- Check the feeds you want to appear on your blog’s blogroll.
- Click on the Blogroll link in the section SiteBlogRoll
- Click the Checkbox that says “Check here to enable Blogroll settings for this location.”
- Change the text in the text box if you want the link to be the actual site name instead of the feed when you click through on your blogroll (this should be the default – simply change $xmlurl$ to $link$)
- Copy the bold script link that starts script src=”http://services.newsgator.com/ngws/blogroll.aspx…” to your blog template in the right place, just like you would any other script line
Yes – that is way too fucking hard. But – since I worked through it once, I was able to do it in under 5 minutes for Amy’s TypePad blog. Plus, because of the magic of synchronization, you can change the blog titles in whatever reader you user (e.g. Amy uses NewsGator Inbox – she right clicked, chose Properties, and changed the names of the feeds to what she wanted – e.g. “Feld Thoughts” became “Brad Feld: Feld Thoughts” and then appeared correctly on her blog in TypePad.
When I think back over the past dozen years that I’ve been doing this, my most successful investments were ones that I personally related to, could use their products, and could really dig into them. Now – I know I’m not the broad market user, and I never confuse myself with that person (especially with enterprise related products), but I do play one on TV. Plus – it’s a really satisfying approach to this business.