OECD Observer: What drew you to the IT communications business?
Henry Copeland: I started out building websites for a publishing group in 1996. I was a journalist and very excited about both the Internet’s global reach and its zero incremental cost of distribution. But I quickly saw that lots of the software and design work we were paying for could be, in theory, more efficiently handled in bulk by a third party. Most people don’t build their own cars or slaughter their own beef; they have neither the time nor the expertise nor the equipment. So why should publishers build database-driven websites from scratch? But no affordable outsourced webmastering services existed in 1996.
And in 1998 when I finished that first project, I looked around and the “webmaster for publishers” niche was still vacant. So we created Pressflex to outsource webmastering for smaller publishers, mass-producing great websites and cross-pollinating the insights we gained from all of them. Though I’m not a programmer, I love the process of abstraction, creating generalised solutions to what appear to be discrete challenges. It turns out that even for a history major who nearly flunked his one programming course in college, IT provides a wonderful chance to solve people’s problems, twist your brain and make a living too.
Do you remember Y2K? Were we naïve then, or simply prudent? The first sign of IT consciousness?
You are right, something was happening at a metaphysical level. Y2K wasn’t just about fixing bad code, it was millenarianism. We lived a mania, believing that when the year turned to 2000, computers’ in-built timers would stop, causing money to vanish, planes to fall from the sky, pacemakers to freeze. But we had an offsetting impulse to believe in the dawning of an electronic utopia. Soon we’d travel at the speed of light, solve poverty, justify 200 P/E stock valuations, and miraculously meet the mate of our dreams. So in both our fears and our optimism we resembled the peasants and nobles in Europe 1,000 years ago. They’d fantasised and rioted and partied, anticipating the dreadful end of the world, the return of Christ and the dawn of a perfect new era. And like them, we woke up a few months into the new millennium with horrible hangovers; and, depending on our emotional bent, larders that were either empty or over-provisioned.
How would you compare users’ attitudes to IT now compared with a decade ago?
In the 1990s, we believed that eventually people might tap central computers rather than relying on local machines. Sun pushed the mantra that “the network is the computer,” and the term “application service provider” came into vogue. We started out imagining that networked computing would mean we’d rent “Word” and “Excel” by the hour online. We never dreamed how powerful shared computing could be. Today nobody pauses to think that all the innovative software we use is remote and pooled, rather than bought, installed and maintained on local machines.
We just take for granted massive computing resources at our fingertips. Excel was basically the last innovation any of us needed to buy on a stand-alone machine. Since then, all the exciting growth in software falls into the category of rented or borrowed networked software. We don’t pay a penny to use Google’s 100,000 machines to search libraries or look at maps. We can rent complex software on centralised servers by the day or week or year.
We share contacts through Facebook. We use tools like Blogger or Pressflex for publishing. For polls, there’s Surveymonkey. We “comparison shop” at Amazon. We buy music from iTunes. We store and share video on Youtube. We rendezvous through Dopplr. Our photo albums are on Flickr.
All this has basically erupted in the last five years. Where will we be in another decade?
When did you first hear about blogs and how would you explain their meteoric rise?
I first heard about blogs in 2000 from a journalist friend. He told me about a blog called “Obscure Store,” which rounds up weird newspaper stories from around the web. As it turns out, that friend today owns the Gawker.com empire. And the service Pressflex launched in 2002, Blogads.com, sells advertising on thousands of blogs including ObscureStore. Why have blogs rocketed? It’s half supply/demand and half network economics. Before blogging, there was a huge untapped supply and demand for great writing. But because of the prohibitive cost of print publishing, only a fraction of the potential market could be realised. Then blogging put decent writers within a keystroke of hundreds of millions of potential readers for the cost of a PC and a dial-up connection. The tall wall separating supply and demand collapsed, unleashing a massive swap-meet of words and ideas between readers and writers.
Then there’s the network effect. A publisher communicates with individuals one by one. Beyond letters to the editor, there’s little cross-germination among readers. Blogging allows individuals to communicate directly with each other, and for ideas to carom and fission in unexpected directions. The result is an exponential difference between the two mechanisms. A publisher messages to 100 readers and only fosters one hundred one-to-one interactions as each reader “connects” with the journalist’s words. But let those same hundred readers interact directly with each other and the conversational potential becomes 1002. Again, the future is all about network effects. When people can interact with each other horizontally rather than only “up” through a publisher or boss or government, the result has exponentially more energy and creativity.
What trends fascinate you now?
My favourite toy in the last year is a service call Twitter.com, which was created by some of the same guys that created blogger.com, which was eventually sold to Google. Twitter is essentially a micro-blogging tool, restricting each message you send to 140 characters. You push this “thoughtlet” out to friends and followers, people who’ve subscribed to your stream of what we call “tweets.” I love communicating with a finite set of friends and acquaintances versus the whole web. Twitter restores a human scale to web conversations. I can stay connected with friends around the globe. And I feel liberated from the need to be quasi-profound in every post, as has become the case with blogging. I’m not trying to win an argument or sound brilliant, I’m just letting a bunch of friends know what I’m seeing, feeling, eating or reading at a given moment. Twitter revived the playful sociability I experienced in blogging before it became my business.
What advice would you give young entrepreneurs wishing to go out and set up a business?
Entrepreneurship is organic. Ideas have to grow in their own soil and have their own energy. So my advice would be: keep it small and simple until you’ve got a smart customer base that will lead you in the right direction. Overfunding or over-determining an idea that is good-but-not-yet-fully-baked is the best way to kill that idea.
And to policymakers?
Keep the lights on, criminals at bay, taxes moderate, kids educated, hospitals affordable, lakes clean and trains running on time, and you can trust that entrepreneurs will find ways to create a lot of jobs and valuable social infrastructure.
Any business secrets you can share?
My best secret is pathetically simple but powerful. Almost nobody does it, though. Rather than jumping in with phone or face-to-face meetings, we interview job candidates with two rounds of e-mails. 95% of our business is conducted by e-mail, so we need to know: can you punctuate? Can you convey an idea in a few sentences using interesting language? Can you emote in writing without disclosing so much that you overwhelm or embarrass your reader? Does your writing have personality? We learn volumes about people from their responses to simple questions like “what was your worst grade in college?” or “what’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?” It turns out many folks write terrible e-mails. But from talking with other employers, it turns out they wait until hires start working before figuring out whether they can write or not.
Was it worth it?
Having beaten the odds to create and run a tech company that’s now 10 years old, the answer is an unequivocal yes. I remember a distinct moment in the spring of 2002. My wife had grown justifiably impatient with my stubborn pursuit of our slow-growing webmastering business. I told her I’d just had a brilliant new idea that would surely justify our huge expenditure of emotion and money. “Stop worrying honey, I’ve just figured it out.” She heaved a tentative sigh of relief. Maybe her husband was sane. I told her our future was “putting ads on blogs.” She shrieked. She’d never heard of blogs. Nobody had. For roughly two years after that moment, she reverted to worrying about my sanity. But that’s how most spouses view their mates, right?
©OECD Observer No 268 June 2008