Why Didn’t Pownce Trounce Twitter? – with Leah Culver

We talked about more than Pownce and Twitter in this interview. Leah Culver is a developer who launched many projects. Pownce was just the highest profile of them. I asked her about it because I’m insanely curious about why it didn’t crush Twitter.

Here’s what I saw from the outside. In March 2007,  when Pownce launched, Twitter didn’t have much of a head start. It only had about 250,000 members, and Twitter’s site was still unstable and often inaccessible. So Pownce launched at a good time. Plus it offered more features. Plus it had a real revenue plan with its premium accounts. Plus it was backed by Kevin Rose a Web celebrity with geek cred. Why didn’t it win?

I excerpted one of Leahs answers to that question below. Listen to the full interview for more.

The FULL program


About Leah Culver

Leah Culver

Leah Culver was a co-founder and the lead developer of the social network and micro-blogging website Pownce, which was acquired by blog juggernaut Six Apart in November 2008. Now a software engineer at Six Apart, Leah uses her experience with Pownce to develop large scale social applications for future Six Apart projects. While creating the Pownce API she co-authored both the OAuth and OEmbed open API specifications and now maintains the popular Python OAuth library. Leah promotes open source, APIs, and the Django web framework on her blog at leahculver.com. In her free time she likes to play around with new technology and try new restaurants near her home in San Francisco.

You should say hi to her on Twitter.

Text excerpts

Excerpt 1

Andrew: OK. All right. We talked about what you did well, what do you wish you did differently?

Leah: That’s a really good question. I really hated that the comparison to Twitter. I think, if I were to do a new start up or a different company, I would pick it in an area where there wasn’t such good competition, determined competition. I think there is definitely different levels of start ups and Twitter was definitely (laughs) a good start up, and it’s really hard to compete or be compared to.

Andrew: Why were they such good competitors? It seemed like they were down most of the time that you, guys, were up. It seemed like they weren’t doing that much on their site, it was just text. You, guys, did so much more, you are more alive. What made them such good competitors?

Leah: I think because the team is very focused, they have an excellent team.

Excerpt 2

Leah: You know, I feel like it’s really unfortunate that people saw it as that kind of rivalry because we never, that was never the intent. When we launched the site and we first got like they compare us to Twitter, it was like shocking because Pownce is definitely a very different type of a site, a different type of feel, a different type of community. I think that, you know, maybe the press jumped on it as an opportunity to write about something that just, you know, that rivalry was just never there.

Full transcript

This is a raw transcript. You can edit the transcript (or read the user-edited transcript) here.

Pre-interview ad for Haystack.com:
Andrew: Right before we get started I gotta talk to you about Haystack. As you know by now, Haystack is the place where you are going to find the right web desinger for your next project. Now, you know that you can scroll through it and see beautiful shots of past work from each firm. Mixergy fan, Jeff Hurano, emailed me and he said, “Andrew, you’ve got to tell peolpe they can narrow down their search by budget.” So, I am going to tell you, you can click right here if you want the right designer at your budget. Click right here on any budget, and you select the budget you are looking for. For example, we are looking for three to ten thousand dollars, thats what we have to spend on our project. These are firms that do work at three to ten thousand dollars. They just come right up on the screen. We can just scroll down and find the right ones for us. If we want to pay less than that, we can click on three thousand and under, and the page is going to load and we are going to see firms that work for three thousand and under. This is the way to find, not just the right web designer for your next project, but the right web designer at the right budget for your next project. Use it and give me your feedback the way that Jeff did. Here’s the interview.

Interview starts here:
Hey everyone, its Andrew Warner, founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, and home of the curious upstart; and this interview is mostly for me, but you guys are gonna get to learn along with me. I have been just haunted by the question of why Pownce didn’t pounce on Twitter, why it didn’t be Twitter. And I am so grateful that I have the founder of Pownce here with me on Mixergy to answer some of the tough questions I’ve had here. Some of the questions that in any other industry would be awkward, but because we are in the tech entrepreneurial space, we like to figure things out and we can take a little bit of a distance from our companies to really analyze them.

So, Leah, thank you for coming on Mixergy and talking to us about this.

Interviewee: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Andrew: Alright, before we get started going back in time, can you tell people what you are doing now?

Interviewee: So, now I work at Six Apart as a product manager on Type Pad, so if you guys have heard of Type Pad. I also worked at Six Apart on a new product they have called Motion, which is an open source comminty blogging project, which is really cool, I would check it out. I don’t know off hand the URL, but you can google for Motion, and I am sure you’ll find it.

Andrew: What does it mean that it’s a community blogging platform?
Interviewee: It’s very much like Pownce was, where you can, ya know, get online and chat with other people, or send messages, and everyone can contribute. There’s actually some really good sample sites you can check out. One of them is ZacharyQuinto.com, another is Rstar.net, or Rstar.net/community.zacharyquinto.com, its his community site; he also has a blog. Let me think of some other really good ones. A really fun one I would check out, they call it mmmmeow. It’s three M’s, meow, so three M’s then the word meow. And it’s like a cat lover’s site, so lots of cat photos.

Andrew: Alright, and besides that, you’re a hacker, too. You’ve got a couple of side projects your working on?

Interviewee: Yeah, I do side projects for fun. I have competed in the Rails Rumble and the Jengo Dash, and I have projects for them. One is called Hurl, its hurl.it, and the other one is Leafy Chat, leafychat.com.

Andrew: Has LeafyChat.com launched yet?

Interviewee: No, no. Well, what happened was we put it up as soon as the Jengo Dash was over, and it got too much traffic, so now we are fixing it. So, its not really a launch, its more like we need to fix it before we, ya know, let people use it again.

Andrew: Alright, so that is your personal project apart from Type Pad, thats an instant messaging or communication platform, right?

Interviewee: Yeah, yeah. I have a lot of fun doing these competitions, so a lot of stuff comes out of those.

Andrew: O.K. Alright, so let’s go back in time just to catch people up. For people who haven’t been following your career the way that I have, and haven’t been researching obsessively the way that I have. You first came on the scene, people first started to get a sense of who you were when you came up with the idea to get a computer. Can you talk about that and then we’ll go into Pownce?

Interviewee: Yeah, that’s funny. About three years ago I worked at a startup called instructables.com as a developer, and I was really jealous of everyone at my work cause they all had really nice laptops, and, ya know, I didn’t. I had never owned a laptop in my life, believe it or not. Being a poor college student, I had a six year old iMac. So, I had this idea. All these folks that worked at instrucables, we had a laser etcher, and we would laser etch the tops of their laptops with all these crazy designs. I thought,ya know, I was joking around with my friend, and I said,ya know, what if I charge people for ads, and I’ll buy my own laptop by charging the ad space on the top of the laptop with covering it with ads, and asking X number of dollars per square inch. It ended up going really well, got a lot of people involved.

Mostly friends and family, people always ask how did you get sponsors? And it was mostly I happened to know people in the Bay Area that had this company or that company, that thought it was funny and a quirky little thing they could put in their ad budget. So yeah, it turned out really well.

Andrew: The reason I love that, and I wanted people to hear that story, is because it just shows ingenuity, such cleverness… such balls, frankly, to come up with that idea, and then go out and get money for a computer that way, by charging for ads on it.

Interviewee: It was actually, I kinda want to address this a little bit. It was actually a lot of work. It actually relied a lot on things I already had. So with people asking me all the time — “Can I do this as well,” “Do you mind?,” “How did you get sponsors?” And I say you can try it, you can do it, but it kinda doesn’t always work the second time. You may or may not have luck with it. I would rather see people try to do something that is really original in their own sort of unique twist on something, their own unique little challenge. I actually have a friend, I’m going to plug his project a little bit, named Robin Sloan. And he started a kickstart project for something he wanted to raise money for. Kickstart’s a pretty good site for raising money for this kind of thing, and he wanted to write a book. And he sent out sort of a sample of his work, and he set deadlines, and he did blog posts, and he’s been really good about keeping it updated. His project’s actually closed. You can’t sponser it anymore, I don’t think. But you might still be able to buy his book, so I’d check that out. But I thought that was really nice beacuse it was totally unique. It’s his own thing; he’s a writer. He’s like a sci-fi writer. That’s his thing, and he was able to use the resources that he had to empower himself to publish a novel, which is cool.

Andrew: And you know what? What you said earlier about how these things work well the first time, but the copycat versions don’t, is so true. I did an interview with Jason Sadler, who’s the guy who does the iwearyourshirt.com site, where everyday he wears a differnt t-shirt and he charges companies to wear their shirts. $1 for the first day, $365 for the last day of the year. And there are people who tried to copy him by doing “i’ll wear your baseball cap,” “i’ll wear your this, i’ll wear your that.” None of them worked. it works the first time. It’s hot, it’s interesting, it’s worthy of talking about, but afterwords it just doesn’t come across as well.

Interviewee: I don’t even know that it’s the first time, it’s that it’s not particulately about the act itself, but about the process and who’s behind it, and how it’s an insane amount of work to do any sort of internet project, as you probably know from your site. It’s a lot more work than I think most people anticipate. And so it’s you know, doing something..

[crosstalk]

Andrew: …most people will see the idea, she’s selling ads on this new computer as a way of raising money to buy the computer, most people hear that it seems simple. You have the connections already, so it seems even easier. What was the hard work there?

Interviewee: Well it was going out and talking to everyone. And if I’d get a lead I had to go follow up. I had to get the artwork for the ad, I had to size and fit the artwork. I had to keep in communication with everyone that was doing ads. I had to make them feel like they were getting their money’s worth. I took photos when I went out with the laptop to show that I was going out. I had to sell the last little bits of space. I had to maintain the web site, keep people updated. I filmed the actual process of getting it engraved. I had to find someone to film it. Actually, I had a volunteer to film it. Thanks Eddie, for doing that. But yeah, it wasn’t simple. It wasn’t super hard, but it wasn’t a walk in the park.

Andrew: I see. Okay. Alright, fair enough. It is a lot of work to sell ads. It is, as you say, a lot of work to do everything. People see that…

Interviewee: Well it’s hard to do any sort of web project. You know, to get a blog going, even those sort of seemingly simple things. It’s hard to keep the momentum and keep it up. So…

Andrew: Okay. Alright. Let’s get into my obsession: Pownce. What was Pownce for people who haven’t been on the site?

Interviewee: So Pownce is sort of a social blogging site. It was like a community site, where you would get on, make friends, you’d send things to your friends. Funny videos, links to funny stuff, photos. It was a great community.

Andrew: Can I say that it was like Twitter, except that you could have attachments? So where Twitter it’s only text, here you can have some text, but also attach a picture or also attach a music file.

Interviewee: Yeah, there were definitely.. there were file attachments that you could add to…

Andrew: Okay..

Interviewee: …to your messages.

Andrew: Where did the idea come from for this site?

Interviewee: So.. It was actually inspired by wanting to share the funny content you found online. And doing it in a way that was very social. So not just posting on a blog and hoping people see it, but really knowing like who is seeing what I’ve posted. So that was kinda the inspiration behind that.

Andrew: Did a part of this, or to what extent were you inspired by microblogging platforms that were already out there?

Leah: I actually feel a little bad, I was vaguely aware of many microblogging platforms our team talked about it and our team wanted something that was very particular. Wanted this sharing of media, of audio files and photos and we hadn’t really found our community out there yet.

Andrew: So you had this idea how’d your bring in, here’s one of the most impressive parts of this, how’d you get Kevin rose involved? You’re an Internet celebrity; he’s like an Internet mega-celebrity. He goes on and likes a website and suddenly the site is flooded with traffic, so you got him to be part of this to be a shareholder?

Leah: Yeah. Kevin’s a great guy part of the idea was his so I guess to so he’s definitely a contributor. He’s actually a friend of a friend of mine were definitely closer friends than we were then. But we knew each other threw friends so we ended up talking about it and he said this is what I want to do and I said this is what I want to do so we partnered up on it and we were like oh we’ll put it together and it would be a better site so we partnered up on it

Andrew: What was his vision for it?

Leah: He’s really into the media sharing side of things, he’s things that’s really cool and he’s like I find something rally cool and I want to be able to share it effortless.

Andrew: And what was your vision? and your part you brought to it?

Leah: I really like social stuff and I wanted a place that I could feel like my friends were there and I could communicate with them and keep up w what was going on.

Andrew: And you had a couple of other cofounders right?

Leah: Daniel Burka who is a former, or still designer at Silver Ranch and a former designer at Digg, and is now working on another startup. He’s a great guy. Good designer.

Andrew: l yep

Andrew: And he did the design, you did the coding, and Kevin brought the spotlight and a little bit off…

Leah: He did businessey things.

Andrew: But he wasn’t sitting there with the eyeshades doing the accounting work right?

Leah: laughing He did some accounting.

Andrew: He did?

Leah: Yeah.

Andrew: What else did he do?

Leah: He did a little bit of everything. Kevin’s great at doing just about anything, whatever needs to be done for a company. I’ve heard he’s been doing a little bit of Angel Investing lately so he’s good at just getting everything done.

Andrew: Ok. By the way how does he do it all? How does he run Digg and run Revision Three and do all this other stuff and go and do Digg Nation and then help you with your site and then another million sites?

Leah: I’m pretty sure he doesn’t sleep.

Andrew: Does he obsess on one project while other people run past work? Did he spend a lot of time on Pownce?

Leah: Ya, know his help was on a lot of evenings and weekends. Like I said I just think he spends every free minute working on what he’s passionate about.

Andrew: Ok. So you guys have this idea; you did the coding you have what was the …im sorry I forgot Adam? Did the design?

Leah: Daniel.

Andrew: Look at me with my poor preparation here.

Leah: It’s ok.

Andrew: So Daniel did the design, beautiful, beautiful design and you guys launch. Everyone is paying attention to this right?

Leah: …yeah I guess so

Andrew: At least in our space. All of our friends are paying attention to Pownce because of the team behind it.

Leah: Ok.

Andrew: All right, what kind of audience did you get in the beginning, with all that attention?

Leah: We actually had a pretty diverse audience it was everyone from people who were fans of Digg, to your early adopter crowd we even managed to pull in some random people who were just interested in this type of site, this type of community.

Andrew: And the goal with these sites is to when a new person comes in is to get their friends to come in also. Right?

Andrew: so what kind of virality did you build into it in the beginning?

Leah: Well, the initial site had an invite only launch so people were sending invites and asking for invites and sending them to their friends so that’s how we got a lot the initial crowd. We later added features for finding your friends by email and by other social networks so you could search your Facebook friends and find out who on Facebook was also on Pownce. You could invite people by email. We also did a thing for friends of friends so we suggested people to be friends with based on who you were already friends with so we had a lot of different ways you could connect with people on the site.

Andrew: What was the most effective?

Leah: Ya know that would be a good metric to measure. I don’t think I checked or at least I don’t remember.

Andrew: What was your focus? What were you obsessed with?

Leah: We were really obsessed with community and building a place that people really felt that they could share openly and discuss with each other and we ended up with a really cool community so that was good.

Andrew: How did you cultivate the community? By the way, guys, if you’re watching us live, I see we got tons of people watching. Leah, you’ve got a lot of fans out there.

Interviewee: Thanks, guys. (laughs)

Andrew: If you’re watching us live and you’ve got any questions or any feedback or anything that you think I should bring up in this interview, just post it right there underneath the video. I’d love to ask your questions and get some insights from you, guys, too.

So, yes, how did you cultivate the community on the site?

Interviewee: So, we had a lot of really good moderation features so people could control sort of who they were paying attention to. Also, we had a couple of super users that were really great for our community who created this concept of like the “Question of the Day” or you ask line one thing and people respond to it. There were daily sort of events that the entire community participated on and we kept track of things via Community Wiki, which had all the latest sort of cool things to do. But it really was the community kind of grew itself, so I have to say thanks to them for that.

Andrew: So, did you, guys, do anything to push them to do this? You, guys, didn’t come up with the “Question of the Day,” you, guys, didn’t come up with the…well, you did add the events, but how much did you bring in into it?

Interviewee: We participated. So, when like a new thing came up, we really wanted to help spread that. So, we kind of advertised it and talked about it, but you know.

Andrew: I see. All right. And you said you had some moderations features that helped, what were they and how do they help?

Interviewee: Yes. I mean, I hate talking about the negative things on the site, but we had the ability to block people. So, if we didn’t like someone, you know, or we didn’t want them paying attention to you, to block them. Let’s see, I’m trying to think of other cool things, we had on the Public pages, you could report spam.

Andrew: And you didn’t have that until about two weeks ago.

Interviewee: Well, it’s one of those things that kind of sneaks up on you.

Andrew: Yes. And you said you had some power users. I remember Dave Winer, the developer, just kept loving your site, kept talking about how great it was to develop for it, kept talking about how he want you, guys, to succeed.

Interviewee: Yes, yes. Dave is a great guy. He wrote some really cool stuff, too, for advanced developers.

Andrew: All right. So, who else? What other kind of power users did you have?

Interviewee: I’m going to feel so bad if I start listing power users because I’m going to forget…(laughs)

Andrew: We’ll going to miss some people, but I want to get a sense of what were they like, were they…go ahead.

Interviewee: Well, there was everyone from people who are really community leaders to folks who were developers and building applications. In the community space, we had a bunch of folks from Minnesota–my home state–so that was really cool, that were really active. We had a bunch of developers, and actually, the second portion of our desktop app was built by someone who was just a fan and wanted to build a new app for Pownce and we ended up using it as like our official desktop app, so that was really cool.

Andrew: Was this the Adobe Air Desktop app?

Interviewee: Yes.

Andrew: Or, that was the first version?

Interviewee: The first version and the second version were both on [Adobe] Air, and they were both developed by two totally different people, so it was fun. It was nice to see a community kind of develop their own applications.

Andrew: OK. All right. So, you had this community going, you had these cheerleaders who were rooting for you, guys, and helping out, but you didn’t make that jump from being a great, respected site to being one that’s used obsessively by a lot of people. Right?

Interviewee: Well, it depends on who you ask. (laughs) We had a lot of obsessive users.

Andrew: OK.

Interviewee: I don’t know (laughs) [unintelligible] a question any more.

Andrew: All right, then I take that back, then maybe it was a loaded question. Well, what about this, at some point, it looked like you’re starting to lose your audience. I remember when Kevin Rose went from Pownce to Twitter became a big news story. What was it like internally when he did that?

Interviewee: I don’t think it was about Kevin going from Pownce to Twitter, I think he just wanted to like increase, you know, overall, like he has joined like and he has Facebook fan pages and he has like 10 different blogs. I think it’s more of the just like building community in any sort of way that he can and reaching out to his audience in every possible way. Actually, we still continue to grow. I can’t remember at what point we got involved in a bunch of other sites, but I don’t think it really affected Pownce’s growth too much.

Andrew: But it did make it seem like he wasn’t into the site anymore. No? Because whether you, guys, had the rivalry for real or not, people saw it as a two-horse race.

Interviewee: You know, I feel like it’s really unfortunate that people saw it as that kind of rivalry because we never, that was never the intent. When we launched the site and we first got like they compare us to Twitter, it was like shocking because Pownce is definitely a very different type of a site, a different type of feel, a different type of community. I think that, you know, maybe the press jumped on it as an opportunity to write about something that just, you know, that rivalry was just never there.

Andrew: No.

Interviewee: Sorry. (laughs)

Andrew: I’m still bringing it up here with you.

Interviewee: I know, I know. You’re raking me up, because I’m like a little bit, it’s like awkward, it’s like, “Well, that definitely was really the intent.” So, there are a lot of really good blogging sites like this now. You know, Six Apart has their motion site, which is very much in term of the same feel. There is Tumblr, there is like [unintelligible], there’s Jaiku, there’s tons of these sites. You know, and it’s so hard to…Status.net. I can name off a bunch of them, but it’s like a gen genre now and it’s sad that it’s kind of been defined by this competition or like everybody versus Twitter, which is just not.

Andrew: But it does seem like Twitter then suck the air out of the room, for some reason, the rest of them aren’t able to get as much attention. Why do you think?

Interviewee: Oh, geez, I have no idea. (laughs)

Andrew: (laughs) OK. All right, so what are the things that you, guys, did that worked so well that you’re taking with you to every project that you worked on afterwards? What did you learn?

Interviewee: (laughs) I mean, wow, tons of stuff. Any sort of building a new site is definitely a learning experience and you learn what you want to do for development, how you want to run a business. There’s all sorts of different aspects that, you know, it was my first time doing start up, and so it was a really good learning experience.

Andrew: What did you learn from it? What did you learn about publicity? You clearly got so much publicity for this site that I’m still talking about it today?

Interviewee: Yes. Well, you know, it was kind of interesting because at first, we weren’t doing a lot of press, but once we started doing press, it was just, you know, it’s be nice, into everyone back right away, be courteous to interviews.

Andrew: With everyone.

Interviewee: Yes.

Andrew: Even interviews with bloggers, like me.

Interviewee: (laughs) Especially with bloggers like you. I mean, if you’re a Pownce fan, you know, that’s the best person we can get talking about the site.

Andrew: What percentage of your time were you promoting the site and talking to the community versus actually developing it?

Interviewee: So, I did a lot of development. So, maybe like one or two hours of publicity versus a lot of time spent on development, but both Kevin and Dave needed a ton of publicity, too, and people definitely wrote about the site without (laughs) even asking for interviews and things.

Andrew: What was the coolest bit of publicity that you got?

Interviewee: Coolest bit of publicity, for me, it was my hometown newspaper because it was personally very cool. It’s like wow! My hometown paper hasn’t seen an article. Yes, the New York Time is pretty fine. I hate calling out people again because it’s like, “Who do you exclude?” in the awesome, awesome amount of press. It was really fun.

Andrew: Was it a PR agency that got you all these publicity?

Interviewee: You know, we work for a little bit with KF Communications. They’re really nice and helping us out, but in the end, a lot of it was just personal contacts and email and things like that.

Andrew: OK. All right. We talked about what you did well, what do you wish you did differently?

Interviewee: That’s a really good question. I really hated that the comparison to Twitter. I think, if I were to do a new start up or a different company, I would pick it in an area where there wasn’t such good competition, determined competition. I think there is definitely different levels of start ups and Twitter was definitely (laughs) a good start up, and it’s really hard to compete or be compared to.

Andrew: Why were they such good competitors? It seemed like they were down most of the time that you, guys, were up. It seemed like they weren’t doing that much on their site, it was just text. You, guys, did so much more, you are more alive. What made them such good competitors?

Interviewee: I think because the team is very focused, they have an excellent team. You know, they’ve really sort of had this really good publicity potion and they did really well. I mean, it’s kind of funny to go back and read like early articles and then see how that progressed, but they did tick. You know, they have a great service and they’re doing really well.

Andrew: The day you, guys, launched, they had about a quarter million users. That many, that’s about a year after they were already in business. Let’s see, they launched March of ’06, you launched March of ’07. In a year they had only a quarter million users that’s not very big. I’m going to be talking to Otis Chandler from Goodreads. Who on his own, no outside funding, no publicity got for Goodreads 650,000 registered users. The guy’s a master of viral marketing I got to talk to him about that here on Mixergy. So Twitter didn’t do that much, but was it once they got going they were unstoppable, they became the defacto…

Leah: I mean this is going to sound harsh, but I’m not an expert on Twitter. So, you might want to try to get one of the Twitter guys on the line to talk about Twitter.

Andrew: Ok, all right, so let’s step away again from Twitter. I don’t want to keep beating this… I don’t want to keep beating in… I don’t want to keep beating the same drum especially if it makes you uncomfortable.

Leah: Yeah. Am I not answering the question?

Andrew: No. First of all you’re answering the questions great. We’re trying to just go in there and just figure out what the company was like on the inside, and see how much we can learn from it. And not only am I loving it, but I’m seeing here we got “Johns B Harry” is promoting us, I don’t know if, is telling his friends to come watch us live. “Estherlily” is saying that she’s getting her dork on or maybe she’s quoting “Indiequick” who’s getting his dork on, and she’s telling her friends Estherlily is to come watch us. People are loving this on Mixergy, the ones who are watching us right now.

Leah: Oh, good good.

Andrew: So, let’s talk about what else then? What else did you learn, what else do you wish you’d done differently?

Leah: Oh! Done differently? I don’t know, I think we made some pretty good decisions. I think mainly just knowing the space that we were in and knowing the competition. That’s really important. Sort of, we were really lucky to have a good team. So having a good team is really important. We chose really good technology. Which again helped us really be prepared when we did have lots of traffic. So we were really good about that. It’s kinda hard to come up with really horrible stuff that we did really badly because we didn’t do that badly. In the grand scheme of things there are a lot of different kinds of startups and I think for what we did and what we were and the time, we did a really good job. We had a great community!

Andrew: You ended up selling to SixApart where you are now. What was that decision like?

Leah: Well, we hit some tough economic times. November of 2008 if people remember, and we took a look at our finances and we said, well maybe we should start looking at possible solutions to our economic issues. And one of those was getting acquired and we talked with SixApart, and I really loved SixApart as a company and I still do. I love SixApart but at the time. I thought this is a horrible thing I hate to be selling our company, and SixApart really kept us afloat(?) They had some interesting ideas for things that we could work on in the company and things they wanted to do. And we signed on and we said OK, that sounds great.

Andrew: Did you guys make the rounds, did you look for another round of funding?

Leah: I’d actually prefer to not talk about the business things, ’cause it was a long time ago.

Andrew: OK, all right. So then, what was it about SixApart that drew you in? They weren’t committed to keeping Pownce going, right? But they wanted the technology and more importantly they wanted you, they wanted the people there.

Leah: At the time we didn’t know what was going to happen to Pownce that was sort of made after the fact after the acquisition, but I really respect SixApart as a company and as a blogging company and I think they’ve made some really great products and we really want an opportunity to work with them.

Andrew: Can you talk about what that first conversation was like? How you guys approached them? Who approached them?

Leah: I think it was a back and forth of emails. Eventually we said we really like this company, they did their technical evaluation and they said we like your technology we want to moving towards doing Django development. And they have Motion’s a great Django site. It’s actually very Django-like so if you’re a Django developer out there it’s worth checking out. ’cause it’s really got some cool stuff in it. And so that was kind of how that went.

Andrew: All right, entrepreneurship. What I found in doing these interviews is that there are some people who are just entrepreneurs at birth. I remember talking to Maria Sipka who as she was talking about when she first tried entrepreneurship you could see her face light up and you could see this is who she was. Do you feel that way about entrepreneurship?

Leah: It depends, I’m not a pure entrepreneur in that I’m kinda more of a developer/product-person. So I would not do… I mean, I would never consider doing another company unless it was something that I was wholly passionate about and really cared about and in some ways I think I’m really happy doing things, I’m not such an entrepreneur in business sense but more of in a product sense. Like I really want to be doing cool stuff, it’s not about the money it’s not about buying and selling and going public and these sort of things, that’s not what really interests me. I’m really interesting in building really cool internet technologies and really being on the cutting edge.

I mean, I would never consider doing another company unless it was something I was wholly passionate about and really cared about. And, in some ways, I think I’m really happy doing things…I’m not such an entrepreneur in a business sense but more of in a product sense, like I really want to be doing cool stuff. It’s not about money, it’s not about buying and selling and going public and this sort of things, that’s not what really interests me. I’m really interested in building really cool Internet technologies and really being on the cutting edge.

Andrew: Really? Like what? What have you done that captures that spirit?

Interviewee: So, here at Six Apart, Motion, which is kind of a really weird jingle app that’s not built on a database, it’s built on the cloud, which is kind of an interesting…it’s got a lot of different technical issues that we work through on that. OAuth and OEmbed, two Web standards I’ve been involved with. OAuth is pretty cool, I was involved with it back in 2007. If you’ve ever involved with a Twitter API, it’s used on Twitter, it’s used on Google, Netflix, and that’s pretty cool. OEmbed is another Web standard that I’ve been kind of passionate about. So, I really like working on just like Web technologies and Web ideas and really sort of advancing the Web.

Andrew: What’s the first computer you worked on?

Interviewee: I think my family got their first computer when I was in sixth grade and I think it was an Apple 2.

Andrew: OK. When did you start developing?

Interviewee: I started programming in college, and at the time, I had an iMax. (laughs) Nobody can beat me for awesome development environment.

Andrew: How did you get into it?

Interviewee: College [unintelligible] school. I was planning on being a graphic designer because my mother is a graphic designer, and I wasn’t so good at design. I shouldn’t say I’m terrible but I’m, you know, not a designer, and took up programming class and did a lot better at that.

Andrew: Did it get you the way that Maria was gotten by entrepreneurship that as soon as you sat down, you said, “This makes sense, everything about this is logical,” unlike maybe the rest of the world, the online entrepreneurship.

Interviewee: It was more of like I kind of had like a rush of power, like, not only can I come up with cool ideas but I can build it myself. You know, I don’t have to rely on getting other people to do work for me, I can have an idea for a website and I could build it. I think that’s when you’re talking about some of my side projects, that’s really what they were. It’s like, I can have an idea and not only can I have this idea but I can try it out, which I think is fantastic. I wholly recommend to anyone who really loves websites to go out and really learn how to build them themselves. It’s very cool.

Andrew: What was the first project that you built from start to finish that was live online.

Interviewee: So, that’s kind of tricky, because I’ve worked on a lot of live websites before. Pownce was sort of the first one I built from the ground up myself that wasn’t like for school or my own personal website, so I guess I had my own blog before Pownce. Yes, it’s kind of tricky. It all kind of came in stages. It wasn’t like all I said, bam, I had this awesome website totally done! It doesn’t really work like that.

Andrew: All right. Let’s see what else. OK. I got to talk about how you say you’re uncomfortable in front of the camera.

Interviewee: Yes.

Andrew: Why? I mean, first of all, I got more people watching you, more unique viewers on this than I’ve had for anyone except for Gary Vaynerchuk. You’re clearly a draw, you’re clearly a personality.

Interviewee: (laughs) Oh, you’re putting me in this hot seat here, too, with hot questions. You’re a good interviewer. I’m just like, I’m stumped, like wow, I don’t even know what to say to have these things. This is tough. I don’t have prepared answers to things. I don’t know! Maybe it was just the Pownce community, the topic is kind of interesting.

Andrew: You know what? I like to dig in, when a company succeeds or a company fails, I like to go in there and find out why, what happened, in the most curious childlike way, and I’ve asked you a lot about Pownce…

Interviewee: That makes for some good questions!

Andrew: But I feel like you’re a little uncomfortable talking about it. I mean, you said it yourself that you’re uncomfortable talking about certain parts of it. Why? Why is that?

Interviewee: Mostly because it was a group effort. So, I feel really bad when I say, you know, it was this way, because Daniel and Kevin were equally involved and I hate to say something that sort of, you know, people pick up as, “Oh, this is the reason for this and the reason for that.” I also don’t want to portray Six Apart in any bad light. I think they are a great company and I love working here, so it’s kind of like, you know, I may not have had the best media training and I try and be candid about things, but it’s difficult, it’s tricky to be put on the spot. (laughs) You’re such a good interviewer.

Andrew: Thank you. Thanks for saying that.

All right. We got a couple of more minutes here, if anyone has any questions, please bring it on. Let’s stay away from Pownce, maybe there’s something else that we could talk about.

Interviewee: You could talk about Pownce. (laughs)

Andrew: We’ve talked about Pownce, I think I ran out of questions about Pownce. Danny McGrady, thank you for telling people to watch us here, I love when people promote us, and they love you, I’m telling you.

All right, CNET. In fact, I’ve looked on your LinkedIn profile and, except for Six Apart, you’re pretty much spending a couple of months in places and then bam, you’re on to something new.

Interviewee: That’s just because I am, I was young. I think I was really looking for a company that really fit and I didn’t know how to do that via interviews. So, that’s another, I don’t know, maybe thing we can talk about is how do you find a company that really fits you and how do you…

Andrew: How do you do that?

Interviewee: Why, I never wanted to stay in some place that I didn’t quite feel was a perfect fit. I mean, I worked for some great places, but, you know, I don’t know.

Interviewee: …put on the spot by such a good interviewer.

Andrew: All right, well thank you. Thanks for saying that.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Andrew: All right we got a couple more minutes here if anyone has any questions please bring it on. Let’s stay away from Pownce. Maybe there’s something else we can talk about.

Interviewee: Oh, we can talk about Pownce.

Andrew: We can talk about Pownce? I think I ran out of questions about Pownce. Jonnie Nagretti,[sp] thank you for telling people to watch us here. I love when people promote us and they love you, I’m telling you. All right, CNET, in fact I’ve looked on through out I’ve looked on your linked in profile and except for Six of Heart, you’re pretty much spending a couple of months in places and then bam, you’re on to something new.

Interviewee: Oh, that’s just cause I was, I am, I was young. I think I was really looking for a company that really fit and I didn’t know how to do that via interviews. So that’s another maybe thing we could maybe talk about is how you find a company that really fits you.

Andrew: How do you do that?

Interviewee: I never wanted to stay some place that I didn’t quite feel was a perfect fit and I mean I worked for some great places but you know, I don’t know, I don’t know that I’ve still figured that out, you know. I’m pretty happy now but it took, you know, how many years to figure that out.

Andrew: All right, what are you doing when not working?

Interviewee: Ugh, work some more. [laugh]

Andrew: Really. So you’re quoting at home the whole time?

Interviewee: Yeah, I mean I have side projects. I work on open store stuff. Yeah, I quote a lot and I watch TV and movies. That’s kinda my relaxation.

Andrew: Who are your high-profile friends? You seem to know some of the top people in the space. You and Kevin Rose are now friends.

Interviewee: Yeah, I guess I used to go out to a lot of events in the Bay area. I mean I’m pretty lucky to be here and there’s always things to go be involved in and events to check out.

Andrew: Are they useful? Are they just fun?

Interviewee: Well it depends. Some are just fun, some are more useful, some are, you know, helping out other people and yeah, it’s a variety.

Andrew: How do you make an event useful if you go to it?

Interviewee: When I say useful I mean there’s all these hack days and things where you’re really creating. Creating code and there’s other ones where you’re making contacts with people and getting to know folks and I guess the way to get the most out of it is just to go with like an open mind and to be positive and be encouraging and to really sort of get involved in not only the online community, but the in-person community.

Andrew: All right, I’ve got a couple of questions coming in. First of all, Benefrem.[sp] I don’t think she’s going to answer that question about what somebody else in the company thinks of the company so I better not even ask it. I will ask though-S Colher[sp] is asking-why’d you use Jengo to build Pownce?

Interviewee: Well, I was formerly a Java developer and I’d done Java for about three or four years and a little while in professional settings. So for companies. And I wanted to try something different. There’s nothing wrong with Java, I just like eh, time to try something new and I had heard a lot about Rails and I heard a bit about Jengo and those were kind of like the two that were in my mind, things to try out and I actually wrote a demo site in Rails and I wrote one in Jengo and Jengo just kinda clicked with me. Like I think it has this, you know, vibe that just- it had great documentation. [laugh] And I always need documentation so that was a big plus and at the time Rails didn’t have much documentation online and there weren’t that many other web frame works besides Java. So that’s kinda how it came about.

Andrew: All right, any bit of advice for an entrepreneur out there building a company?

Interviewee: Oh, I don’t even know if I’m qualified to give advice.

Andrew: Sure you are. You know what, you’ve been through this, you’ve done something that people who are watching us and listening to use right now are dreaming of doing.

Interviewee: Well, they should do it! [laugh]

Andrew: You’ve built a company, you’ve raised it. They should do it right? That’s the first bit of advice that I get from everybody. Just go and build the site. Build something and make it public.

Interviewee: Yes. Just go and do it. If it means you to learn to program, learn to program. [laugh] That was my little bit of lecture but, you know, you’ve really gotta just get out there and try it, you know. One of the things that I always did when confronted with problems at Pownce was I was like, ‘What’s the worse that could happen?’. And if you make a list, or you say it out loud, you know, like what’s the worse thing that could possibly happen, it doesn’t seem that bad, you know. When it was Pownce, I had quit my job, a pretty good job, because I wanted to do my own company. And it was like, well what’s the possible worse that could happen? I run out of money and I have to go live with my parents in Minnesota? [laugh] Like that’s not that bad. So worse case scenario is I’d have to move back home, I’d get a little bit of debt and, you know, the worse case scenario is never what happens hopefully.

Andrew: No, and really going back home if you’ve got parents to go back home to it’s great. Mat of WordPress said the same thing. He said if WordPress didn’t work out I’d go live with my parents, it’s not the worst thing.’ I lived with my parents while I was building my first company.

Interviewee: [laugh] I thinking of it. [laugh] Yeah, no, I mean there’s nothing wrong. There’s only so far. You know, and you gotta have that point and buy it. Like how far, how bad could it get before it gets there. But it never gets there.

Andrew: It never gets really bad. That’s another point that Mat Mullen White made. It never gets really bad for a developer because if you’re a developer, you’re always gonna be in demand. There’s always gonna be someone who said they will hire you. So you lose all your money. You fail completely as an entrepreneur. Somebody’s gonna hire you and they’re gonna love you more cause you took that shot. Because you know what it’s like to do it.

Interviewee: Yeah, it’s a learning experience right? Yeah, definitely.

Andrew: All right, finally… well I’m looking, I wanna make sure that we at least get 45 minutes here in the conversation. Anyone who want to do an interview with me, can I get a clip from you telling them what day, should they do it, should they not, can I get a testimonial from you about Mixergy? Mixergy is-. Take it from there. Start with that and take it from there.

Interviewee: Ohh. [laugh] Well, you Andrew are a tough interviewer so I maybe would have come a little more prepared. Yeah, Mixergy seems like it’s a great site. Has some good interviews, some good topics. I would recommend any entrepreneurs out there to check it out. Check out what people have been saying and talking about and really take some of that advice and stuff to heart. You’ve done some great interviews.

Andrew: All right well, thank you. Thank you for doing this interview with me. I really hope I wasn’t being a tough interviewer. I never wanna put anyone in a tough spot.

Interviewee: No, it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing.

Andrew: Curiosity of the child they say. Thank you for doing this and let me say this: Let’s both of us thank your fans for coming in here. Not only have they come in here but they’ve spread the word about us doing this interview. I’m gonna gonna say it first. To everyone who’s a fan of Leah, thank you very much for being supportive of this interview.

Interviewee: Yeah, thanks you guys. Sorry I’m kinda camera shy but yeah.

Andrew: Nah, they’re loving you. What’s a good way for people to connect with you if they wanna get together with you after this? Go to events right? Number one. Come say hi. Are you approachable?

Interviewee: [laugh] Yeah, I guess. I hope so.

Andrew: All right.

Interviewee: I hope I’m not too scary. I’m often around the Bay area. If you have anything you wanna ask me you can email me Leah@SixApart. That’s probably the best way to get in touch with me. I’m often running around crazy so.

Andrew: All right. So there you go. Thank you very much for doing this interview. Lets say good bye. Stay on with me as I say goodbye to everyone. Everyone there it is. That’s the end of the interview. Thank you all for watching. Get connected with Leah one way or the other. Find her on one of these social networks, email her, go on her blog. I do not want people to just take this information and watch it like a TV show. This has got to be action oriented and the first piece of action you could take is go and connect with the people who I interview. Leah just gave you her email address. I’m amazed you were willing to do that. But you got tons of other ways to connect with her on blog.

Interviewee: [laugh] Well, it’s on my blog so it’s not private. Also if you’re starting a new project and you just want to like, show it off or get me to sing up, I’ll sign up for it if you send me an email. So [laugh] I’ll be at least one user for you to sign. There that’s my offer. [laugh]

Andrew: Awesome. And I will be user number 2 and if you’ve got any comments on this or any other interviews leave them in the comments and I’m looking forward to talking to everybody and getting your input. Thank you Leah. Thank you everyone for watching. Bye for now.

Full program includes

– What Leah is working on now.

– How Leah got money for a new laptop by selling ads on it.

– How Pownce started.

Suggested comments

– What did you think of Pownce?

– What’s your biggest take-away from this interview?

– I got a lot of complaints about the way I showed transcripts by embedding EtherPad, so I switched to the method above. What do you think now?

Share

  • abhic

    You are on a roll Andrew. I was an early user of Pownce and had gotten about 6 of my family/friends to join in just cause I liked sending photos inline vs. Twitter (in those days; still no inline support though). Leah and Kevin were two people I was reading up a lot on and glad to catch this interview here.

  • tym

    Andrew, you're going to have to change your blog tagline to “failures in the entrepreneurial world” after this interview. I am so disappointed you have stooped to this level of pathetic. There are about ten thousand other successful entrepreneurs in the valley who are more deserving of your press than this sack of whining, self-obsessed vapid scum.

  • briteguy

    I don't see any value in such so-called SNS websites like Trounce. Twitter maybe ok but, I still don't get it.

    It is something for fun, but for real business, we need to get real and either sell products or sell services.

  • http://mixergy.com Andrew Warner

    What I admire about the site is that it was a real business from the
    start. They had a revenue model that made sense.

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  • Gary

    Bit harsh! Surely you can learn from failure as well as success, probably more so!

  • http://OpenSwipe.com Casey Allen

    Tym, get a grip. I've started 5 companies and I still derive value from interchanges like Andrew's and Leah's. She's not your typical hardcore business entrepreneur, and you know what? I think that's exactly the point.

  • http://youbrandinc.com brian fanslau

    Woot Minnesota! I'm in Eagan :0) Working right now on a startup too!

  • http://youbrandinc.com brian fanslau

    Gary Right On! I couldn't have said it better myself.

  • El Rorro

    I call this BS. The user experience in Pownce was better at that time than Twitter's. I think there was a shady negotiation under the table.

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  • devmentor

    Andrew, as always I love the work you do and the interviews you have. People don't realize the amount of work that goes into this and you my friend make it look so easy, maybe too easy =)

    I think you really need Leah on here again. She seems a bit nervous, as her giggles seem to indicate but I think Leah has something great to share and I'm hoping she offer more insights for people like myself about getting ideas off the ground and starting a startup. This interview seemed more like friendly conversation to me and I didn't get anything out of it unfortunately.

    Dam it looks like I have 2 accounts and keep logging into the wrong one, there is no way to delete a comment?

    Kind Regards,
    Rajinder Yadav

  • Martin

    It's a shame the interview didn't really answer the question in the headline even though Andrew tried really hard to ask it. I'm always always interested in thoughts from entrepreneurs about businesses which didn't do as well as they expected. As mentioned Leah seemed uncomfortable answering them which I can understand.

    I thought pownce had better design and features than twitter but I think pownce had a couple of things going against it. a) The name and b) Influential tech bloggers were already very actively promoting twitter and had invested time building their networks there.

  • http://thetaoofdad.tv/ Jayce

    Perhaps it was because she was nervous or just tired of the Twitter comparison, but nonetheless, she did NOT want to answer your questions.

    I am a big fan Andrew, but I would not have posted this interview…she did not want to be interviewed.

  • goodiet

    Thanks for the mention Andrew.

  • http://damiansen.com damiansen

    Great interview… and she's cute…Leah, i'll email you shortly about the coolest concept ever (mine)

  • http://whoisvince.com/ vincebaskerville

    I also was one of the 1st early adopters to Pownce and I always had 2 ideas why I thought it lost the battle against twitter.

    1st was their invite only program I thought ran on a bit too long.. it was great to get people excited, but then it was difficult to just add all my friends quickly.. which was one of the winning strategies that Otis Chandler mentioned in his interview with you..

    2nd I think it was just too ahead of the curve. I think it was perfect how you could share files easily and micro-chat.. but twitter kept it extremely simple which was easy for the main stream crowd to catch on..

    just my thoughts… but yeah, loved the interview as usual

  • http://www.Spidvid.com Jeremy Campbell

    Come on Leah, you should have known that Andrew was a hardcore interviewer, you were cute though being shy and flustered, I liked it.

    You got to love the fact that Leah loves building great products though and not just all about the money, something to respect and be said about that.

    I enjoyed the show on my walk yesterday, and even learned a couple things. Quite possibly the sexiest guest on Mixergy ever!

  • http://www.Spidvid.com Jeremy Campbell

    Come on Leah, you should have known that Andrew was a hardcore interviewer, you were cute though being shy and flustered, I liked it.

    You got to love the fact that Leah loves building great products though and not just all about the money, something to respect and be said about that.

    I enjoyed the show on my walk yesterday, and even learned a couple things. Quite possibly the sexiest guest on Mixergy ever!

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