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Over the last few weeks I have been trying out a service called Simpy. Simpy defines themselves as, "a social bookmarking service that lets you save, tag and search your own bookmarks and notes or browse and search other users' links and tags." I chatted with Simpy founder, Otis Gospodnetic. I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the service, who the competitors are and how they differentiate themselves. I also wanted to find out what tips Otis has for new web app creators for success.
Allen: Can you provide a brief background about yourself?
Otis Gospodnetic: I'm originally from Croatia, but at this point almost half of my life I've spent in the U.S., where I earned my degree, built my family, went through the dot com bubble with a couple of startups, and built a few things on my own. I've been working with bookmarks one way or the other since the infamous September 11, so almost 6 years now. Simpy may give an impression of a Web 2.0-style company, but it's really a personal side project for me, though it outlived several VC-backed social bookmarking companies. I live in New York, but work for a well known company in San Francisco. I've been involved with open-source for over a decade now. My deepest and longest involvement, 7 years so far, has been with Lucene (and somewhat with Nutch and Solr) a popular search engine build under the Apache umbrella, and embraced by numerous companies, and Simpy, of course. I've written two books, one of them being a technical book about Lucene.
Allen: Where did the idea for Simpy come from?
Otis: The very original problem I wanted to solve was to index the content of bookmarked pages. I realized I had over a thousand bookmarks locked up in my browser, but could never really find anything in the forrest of folders and with the browser bookmark search functionality limited to bookmark titles. The interesting stuff one wants to find lives in the body of a bookmarked page, not its title, yet only title is searchable from within a browser. I've always been interested in information gathering (hence my interest in Nutch) and search (hence my interest in Lucene and Solr), so I built Simpy to, among other things, crawl and indexed people's bookmarks and provide a Google-like full-text search over one's bookmarks. This was back in 2002/2003. The idea and the service functionality has evolved a lot since then.
Allen: Can you share some information about your users?
Otis: As you can imagine, they are active Web users who tend to be Internet savvy. I think they like Simpy for its powerful search, for its/my personal approach to providing this service to people, etc. If the question is really about the number of users, I can say that the growth has been very healthy. Simpy has also jumped in and helped people when de.lirio.us first disappeared from the scene, and more recently it helped RawSugar users get their data out of RawSugar when RawSugar announced they were stopping their R&D and starting to look for a buyer for their technology. See the Simpy blog.
Allen: How do you monetize Simpy?
Otis: Currently, through advertising.
Allen: Do you still offer users the ability to monetize their pages with Google AdSense? Otis: Yes, certainly. This can still be done at http://www.simpy.com/3p. It won't make anyone rich, but it is a dead-simple way to make a bit of money simply by doing what you would be doing anyway – surfing the Web and saving interesting sites. How much one makes from this depends on the quality of their bookmarks and tags, and on how well one promotes their Simpy pages.
Allen: Funded or self-funded?
Otis: Very much self-funded and proud of it.
Allen: What technology is used for Simpy?
Otis: There is lots of different technology behind Simpy, but the core pieces are: Apache web server, Jetty servlet engine, PostgreSQL relational database, memcached, and of course Lucene and Nutch.
Allen: Who are your competitors?
Otis: Oh, I intend to do a little writeup about this over on http://blog.simpy.com/ soon, and cover the social bookmarking field very soon, but a short list would be: del.icio.us, owned by Yahoo!, Furl, owned by Looksmart, Blinklist, Ma.gnolia.com… the list has a fairly long tail.
Allen: How does Simpy compare to del.icio.us? Otis: Del.icio.us was just slightly ahead of Simpy in opening up to the public, but even this small timing difference made a big difference. Still, I was always surprised by how slowly new features were getting added to del.icio.us, even after it joined Yahoo! Thus, in the past, one difference has been the new feature release rate. Del.icio.us search was never too good, and as I have a passion for search, I always put a lot of emphasis on search. Simpy was also ahead with private bookmarks, groups, watchlist filters, notes, and perhaps a few other things. Del.icio.us still doesn't have some of these features, but it has its own set of advantages, of course. I often hear stories of people who didn't like del.icio.us that much, and went to some other social bookmarking service, only to return to del.icio.us. I suspect the main reason is the brand and a large user base. Psychologically, it's much like clothing fashion, I think. That's del.icio.us' biggest advantage.
I wrote a post about del.icio.us vs. Simpy a while back, so some of it may be out-dated.
There is one aspect of Simpy that I'm very proud of, and that is actually not something one would call "functionality". Simpy is available in more languages than any other bookmarking service, and new ones are still being added. It covers the major languages of all 6 most-inhabited continents: English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Korean, Russian, and Chinese.
Allen: What's next for Simpy?
Otis: Further organic growth, performance improvements, usability improvements, stability improvements, etc. I also hope to outlive a few more failed social bookmarking sites out there.
Allen: What's the Web market like in China? How has the earthquake disrupted service and affected your ability to work online?
Otis: I'm here in China only temporarily, so I cannot comment much about the Web marked in China, but I can tell you that the Internet has penetrated into the society a lot since the last time I was here in 2004. I think there is a major Internet boom happening here, although I hear some foreign investors are reluctant to invest in Internet ventures in China. There is a lot of chaos here, lots of murky waters, and as is always the case in such scenarios, the big fish doesn't benefit from that water getting cleaned up. Winners will gain a lot, but because of the chaos, the chances of navigating this foreign, chaotic waters and winning are slim. Several U.S.-based Internet giants pulled out of China in 2006. The December 2006 earthquake did a lot of damage to the undersea data cables that connect this part of the world with North America. You won't believe it, but the connection was slower than a dial-up modem for about four weeks after the earthquake. It has finally started to recover at the beginning on February 2007.
Allen: What has been the biggest mistake you have made since starting Simpy?
Otis: Although I launched Simpy in May 2004, its development started a lot earlier. I started it as a personal project at first, and thus wasn't in a hurry to get it done quickly. I kept a log of my Simpy development for some reason, and looking back I clearly see there were periods where I didn't work on Simpy for months at the time. In hindsigh, this was clearly a mistake, and I think that's the biggest mistake I made with Simpy. On the bright side, this means that since 2002/2003/2004 I haven't make an even bigger mistake.
Allen: What are the top 1-2 things you have learned since starting Simpy?
Otis: I've learned a lot about business, life(style), and technology. I've learned just how valuable and important personal relationships are for business, but also that they don't have to selfish, out of need relationships. I try to stay away from those. I've learned the importance of work/life balance, although I admit that I am very, very far from mastering it. I understand it, I believe in it, but putting it to practise is hard. As for technology, I have learned what makes applications and services scale, and about some ways to achieve scalability and performance.
Allen: What are the most important things that a startup must have to be successful?
Otis: Passion, good and fast execution, and an objectively good business model. I see so many startups and ideas that make me ask "But why? Certainly, it is cool that you can do XYZ, but who needs that and why?" It is hard to be objective with your own ideas.
Allen: Which Web apps besides Simpy do you believe is a star?
Otis: I'm a little biased, but I like Technorati a lot. I also like what 37Signals is doing – their applications look simple, are easy to use, are not inventions of some "new need that nobody really needs, long term", and they charge cold, hard cash for what they offer.
Allen: Where do you see the Web moving in the next year?
Otis: To the Deadpool. I am joking, of course, although not completely. As far as direction goes, I do not think it is going to be changing in 2007 – I have not seen any new trends that are different from those started around 2004. I am aware of several new stealth companies working on social networks. Do we need more of them? Luckily, their plans are to go beyond friendship-making. There are now a lot of players in each field: there are dozens of social networks, there are dozens of social bookmarking services, a number of video editing services and photo-sharing or editing sites. As we started seeing earlier this year, there will be some reduction in numbers, a few acquisitions, and a lot of new Deadpool members. This is Darwinism in action, and it is a good thing, even though it sounds negative. The new Deadpool members will rise again and keep this world interesting with their new ideas.