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Ok, maybe that’s not really true. But at least I caught your attention, didn’t I?

Honestly, it’s not really that far from the truth though. Today forums have become a big part of my everyday life. As you have seen previously on Playing With Wire, we love Open Source-software. In the Open Source-world, forums are equivalent to what phone-support is in the commercial-software world.

When you work as a system administrator, it frequently happens that you run into problems. The software doesn’t start after an update, you receive an error that you cannot really interpret in an error-log, or any other problem that you cannot solve. The thing that comes to your rescue is the forums.

My favorite Linux-distribution is Gentoo Linux, and one of the many reasons why I love it is because of their support forum. This forum has an impressive quick reply-time. Some of my posts got replied to within minutes, and this all for the total expense of $0.

So why am I writing this post? How does this relate to a startup? Well, it’s quite simple – we like forums. Web-based forums can help several users with the same problem. Rather than having to answer every question multiple times, one thread can give the answer to tons of users. In addition this, users can also contribute by helping other users. Somehow it’s the human nature to help other people because of the simple reason that we feel good about it (this is not a political statement in any way, trust me).

I must however acknowledge that forums will never completely replace phone or e-mail support, since in some certain situations, it’s simply more efficient/convenient to use phones or e-mail. My point is that if your company provides a forum where they deal with support issues, you can save costs as well as help your customers both save money and time (who hasn’t spent hours on hold to get through to a support line?).

Below I’ve listed 4 important things to keep in mind before you add a forum to your site:

  1. Select the right software. They say the best things in life are free, so why pay for something you can get for free? The most widespread forum-softwares out there are Open Source. Look at SourceForge or Freshmeat before you start spending money for software. However, keep in mind that there’re tons of people working on their spare time to bring you that software, so if you’re using their software in your business, please consider donating some money back to their project.
  2. Select a good design. Selecting a good design doesn’t simply mean that it should look good. Of course, this is essential, but it doesn’t matter if it looks good, if it looks completely different than the rest of your site.
  3. Integrate. Over and over again I see companies that have their forums on some external site where you can barely tell if it’s the official forum, or some unofficial forum. Make sure you integrate your forum into your site, make it look like it belongs there, both with graphics and layout.
  4. Answer the questions. This should go without saying. There’s nothing more annoying and frustrating than to visit a forum with little or no activity. A forum with many unanswered questions is worse than no forum at all. If you’re thinking about implementing a forum, make sure you devote the necessary time it takes to run the forum as well.

Since we’re talking about forums in today’s post, today’s link is to (as far as I know), the most well-known forum software out there phpBB. There’s also tons of other good forum-softwares out there, that come embedded in various CMSes, but phpBB is probably the most famous stand-alone forum-software.

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Introducing YippieMove '09. Easy email transfers. Now open for all destinations.
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I’m not sure how many trusted readers we have by now, but I bet there’re quite a few. Like you. You’re coming back tomorrow to read our blog, right? So you’re a trusted reader. Okay, that’s one at least.

Anyhow, as our trusted readers have noticed by now, Playing With Wire has been redesigned completely. We swapped out the standard Blogger theme for something that’s a bit more ‘us’. Based on minima++, the new design has got a new fresh logo, cleaned up links and improved minimalism. It works in all modern browsers and even limps along alright with IE6. We’re following our own advice and making our site cross-browser you know.

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SearchMash is an interesting new search engine. It turns out that it’s actually just a shell on top of Google’s search engine. It’s a pretty cool shell though. One thing you can do is to hit space repeatedly to see more and more results, without reloading. Ajax goodness. Another thing you get is image search results alongside with your normal results.

This article is about one of the least conspicuous features, which none the less might be the most important one.

You can rearrange results.

Doesn’t sound like much but lets think about it. What might rearranging the results be good for? Right now the features list says the rearranging is just for fun. This is coupled with a hint that there are ‘plans’ for the future.

Here’s the future.

Rearrangement is an intuitive way for search users to ‘fix’ their search results. For example, say that Jane searches for ‘Google’ but the top hit is ‘Microsoft.’ Microsoft has a big marketing department. Marketing or not, ‘Microsoft’ is not the result Jane was looking for. She scans down and finds ‘Google’ in the second result. Traditionally, this would be the end of the story. But with this technology, what Jane would do is to simply drag ‘Google’ to the top. She does this not because of some spiritual search for perfection. She does it because the next time she performs the same search, she wants the most relevant result on top. The search engine memorizes her rearrangement action and the next time Jane searches for Google, she gets the result she wants on top.

That’s nice and all but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

If a large number of users rearrange their search results in the same manner, the search engine can take note. If a lot of people are placing ‘Google’ on top of ‘Microsoft’ when searching for Google, the search engine might eventually say, “Hey, that’s kind of funny. Maybe Google is actually the most relevant entry. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and make Google the top entry for everyone.”

There it is. The spam result just got downgraded, the search engine’s index became better, and every person searching with the engine in the future thinks the search engine is just terrific, not realizing the betterment was caused by humans rather than technology.

There is in fact nothing surprising about this development. Sites like digg have been touting swarm functionality as their thing for a long time. The philosophy is that when many users get together and do a small bit of work each, a lot of work gets done. Ultimately even huge tasks can be undertaken in this way.

The only thing that is surprising about user sorting, and Google’s secret testing of it with Searchmash, is that it took so long. To sort the whole internet by search terms is the quintessential swarm task. It can be massively parallelized – lots of people can sort their own little bit of the internet. Each step of sorting isn’t a lot of work. In this case the sorting is even rewarding for the user – they get personalized search results with their own sort order in the future. They don’t need to be altruistic. They just have to do their own little thing and in the end everyone benefits.

Swarm ranking is the next step up from Google’s page rank. The first internet search engine to feature page rank and swarm rank simultaneously will win this round by a significant margin.

If only our startup had a couple of million dollars.

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We’ve been at this for about a year already so we have seen our share of problems with our business plan. It seems like every other day some new competitor shows up. They still don’t do what we plan to do but like with artillery shells it doesn’t feel good when they start hitting close. So yesterday I went back to basics and started doing the math and predictions. If we make this much money per amount of resource we pay for, are we doing alright? That’s the question.

The other day’s post mentioned the importance of being able to refocus when the inevitable downturn comes. I think we had a bit of downturn yesterday but we’ll refocus and come right back up.

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Introducing YippieMove '09. Easy email transfers. Now open for all destinations.

Today I found an article that really caught my attention. The article was written by Paul Graham, a startup-guru(?) who has been around for while, and pretty much knows what he’s talking about.
Anyhow, this article was called the 18 mistakes that kills a startup. So, since we’re a startup, I thought that I’d analyze his list a bit, to see how we’re doing.

  • Single Founder
    • Check. Last time I counted we were two at least.
  • Bad Location
    • No way. We’re located at the best possible location.
  • Marginal Niche
    • Not really, our potential is certainly not a ‘Marginal Niche’.
  • Derivative Idea
    • Our idea is great. It’s simple, and yet powerful. However, most importantly, I want our product. It’s something that I would use on a daily basis.
  • Obstinacy
    • I don’t think this will be a problem. We’re certainly flexible, but we still know what we want. Also, customer feedback is definitely something that will be used in the future to determine where we’re going with our products.
  • Hiring Bad Programmers
    • Not gonna happen. Alex is an awesome programmer, and he’ll code just about any language you can imagine, and he’ll do it good. It’s hard for me to imagine that he would hire a bad programmer.
  • Choosing the Wrong Platform
    • Not at all. No money will be wasted on expensive licenses. All the money will be placed right into the R&D-account.
  • Slowness in Launching
    • I don’t think this will be a problem either. We’re trying to launch our product as soon as we think it’s ready to be released. Sure, there will be some bugs, but if Microsoft can get away with like a billion bugs, I think our initial launch can get away with a couple as well.
  • Launching Too Early
    • Yeah. We’ll keep this in mind.
  • Having No Specific User in Mind
    • We know who our customers will be. And there will be plenty of them.
  • Raising Too Little Money
    • We just started, this is not really relevant right now. We have enough capital to start up.
  • Spending Too Much
    • Nope. We’re really conservative about this. No unnecessary expenses. We put all our money into R&D.
  • Raising Too Much Money
    • Nope.
  • Poor Investor Management
    • We’re the investors. I hope we can manage ourselves.
  • Sacrificing Users to (Supposed) Profit
    • No, both Alex and I are really customer-oriented. We’ll try to do our best to cater to our customers.
  • Not Wanting to Get Your Hands Dirty
    • Yeah, we admit it. Neither of us like to clean the toilet. Except for that, I don’t think there’s anything that we consider dirty. Alex is a programmer, I’m a business-guy with a background within computer-science. I think we have the field covered pretty well.
  • Fights Between Founders
    • Sure hope that’s not gonna happen. Alex’s been a good friend of mine for years, so I think I know him pretty well by now. We also share a similar vision regarding the future of the company.
  • A Half-Hearted Effort
    • Not so much.

Read the entire article at Paul Grahams’s homepage.

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