Web app developers showered with advice

Successful Web application developers suggest using enthusiastic users, not the standard influencers, to market products

Hopeful entrepreneurs and developers attending the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami Beach received a heavy dose of real-world advice from successful peers, including some tips that at first pass seem counterintuitive.

A sampling: Blab about your idea to as many people as possible, without fear it might be stolen. Let your Web site crash often. Skip industry "influencers" when marketing. Use open-source software liberally.

The advice came from people who work at places such as Mint, Facebook and Reddit who shared their experiences to help the hundreds of peers filling the Colony Theater on Wednesday, hoping to get tips to improve their chances of success.

"I knew nothing," said Steve Huffman, co-founder of social news site Reddit. "I made so many silly mistakes along the way."

Huffman, who co-founded Reddit with his college roommate Alexis Ohanian shortly after graduating from college in 2005, slept with his laptop and woke up every two hours to check if the site was down. His phone rang constantly with reports of site problems.

Eventually, he and Ohanian discovered a nifty utility that monitors Web performance and restarts sites automatically when they crash. It was so convenient that Huffman and his partner ended up knocking out Reddit when a significant system error popped up, letting the Supervise tool from Daemontools boot up the site automatically.

The lesson: By adopting existing tools and technology to automate time-consuming tasks, Huffman and the Reddit team were able to devote more time and energy to improving the site, which became so popular that media giant Conde Nast bought it in October 2006.

David Recordon, who is in charge of open source and standards efforts at Facebook, sounded a similar note, advising attendees to become acquainted with open-source software that they can use, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

"Don't be afraid of building on top of open-source infrastructure," he said, adding that many Facebook components run on open-source software, which the company has generally found to be very stable.

Recordon suggested attendees check out wares like Facebook's Tornado Web Server, Google's publish/subscribe protocol extension to RSS, Pubsubhubbub, and the authorization protocol OAuth.

Meanwhile, developers with a great application idea shouldn't be secretive about it, said Aaron Patzer, co-founder of Mint, the personal finance site acquired last year by Intuit for US$170 million.

"Tell anyone and everyone your idea without fear they're going to steal it," Patzer said. The world is full of people with great ideas that will never be implemented because it's hard to execute on a plan and bring it to a successful completion, he said.

While the risks of the idea being stolen are minimal, the benefits of receiving a lot of early feedback on the idea are invaluable, Patzer said. For example, Patzer initially had planned to build an application to help people manage their goals in life, an idea he considered fantastic until he started sharing it with friends and family.

Only one person out of 80 expressed interest in owning such software. However, many got excited about the personal-finance management component Patzer planned on putting into the application. Patzer then realized that people needed a better alternative to Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Money.

"That early feedback was key to the success of Mint," said Patzer, who is now general manager of Intuit's Personal Finance group.

Specifically, the feedback helped Patzer identify a real, irritating problem for many people in a large market with real revenue potential, which he said are all essential elements for a successful Web application.

Once an application has gained a certain following and the startup is ready to boost its marketing efforts, the company should leverage its fans to help promote the product instead of trying to get the attention of industry gurus, said Tara Hunt, an entrepreneur, author and online community marketing specialist.

While the "influencers" have a big audience, they are much in demand, low on time and unlikely to be familiar with a relatively new product, while "enthusiasts" are loyal, excited experts about the products they love, she said. Entrepreneurs should thus cultivate their relationship with their enthusiasts, who will be their best promoters, she said.

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