Uncov Guys Launch a Web 2.0 Startup

Posted on February 8, 2008
Filed Under Web 2.0 Kool Aid |

Somebody emailed me last week to let me know that the guys behind (Matt Kent, Ted Dziuba, and Kyle Shank) have stopped publishing the popular anti-Web 2.0 blog.

I never really got into Uncov. Although Uncov, like The Drama 2.0 Show, was decidedly negative about most of Web 2.0, I never really found Uncov’s brand of humor to be entertaining and to be honest, it was all a little too geeky for me.

What I do find interesting is that well into Bubble 2.0, the Uncov creators have stopped publishing to (cough) start a Web 2.0 company. That company, Persai, is a recommendation engine with the obligatory Web 2.0 gradient logo. According to the :

Persai is a content aggregator that is specific to your interests. You specify a topic that you’re interested in with a few words, and Persai will find new content relevant to that interest and recommend it to you.

This doesn’t excite me. Maybe I’ve been dreaming all this time, but aren’t a bunch of other startups doing essentially the same thing? And maybe I’m being far too critical, but the screenshots don’t seem to indicate that the private beta is anywhere near polished enough to release to the general public. Of course, Persai has “only” raised $35,000 thus far, so it’s unfair to make such a judgment. After all, a good design costs at least 100,000 angel bucks.

The person who sent me the news about Uncov also pointed me in the direction of a Wired interview with Ted Dziuba:

What I’m seeing now with a lot of these Web 2.0 companies is that they’re not based on technology, but on a dog-and-pony show. Under the surface, there’s nothing noteworthy going on.

You know you’re a bullshit company when your core technology is Ajax. If the business is every widget under the sun conglomerated into this giant application, there’s no real technology there. There’s no noteworthy computer-science problem being solved. The Ajax stuff is pre-written. You just have to go to the libraries and put it all together.

When Gmail came out — and Gmail is a pretty kick-ass product — it was like, “Ha! Ajax for dynamic web apps! We can use it for everything!” So now you have companies like Zoho, for example. Their sole goal is to take every desktop app that ever existed and reimplement it in Ajax with no added features or functionality. It irritates me as an engineer that companies with no engineering merit, first off, are getting funded and, second off, are getting bought out.

I find these comments a bit amusing. While I’m a huge fan of defensible technology, when discussing consumer-oriented startups, I think Ted’s focus on technology is far too one-dimensional. Words of entrepreneurial wisdom: in any industry, a successful company provides something that stakeholders perceive to have value. Typically this is accomplished by providing a solution to a painful real-world problem - not a computer science problem. Sometimes innovative, proprietary technologies need to be developed to do this; oftentimes they don’t. When they don’t, some level of defensibility can frequently be built on the business side of the equation.

Ted’s Zoho comment reflects his misguided perspective: if Zoho fails, it won’t be because it has “no engineering merit.” It will be because it didn’t offer a compelling solution whose perceived benefits enabled it to lure enough users away from already-successful desktop-based products, like Microsoft Office. At the end of the day, the average mainstream user of technology products and services has no idea what is “under the engine,” he just knows if those products and services “get the job done.” And that, in addition to cost, is primarily all he cares about.

Ted also has some interesting management philosophies. While I’m no fan of stupidity, incompetence and negligence, it’s clear from that Ted does not have a sensible understanding of good management principles. I’m no fan of lovey dovey New Age management coaches either, but any leader who takes joy in focusing on failures and who thinks that “if you punish teammates severely enough, [mistakes] will happen less” lacks leadership ability. Maybe Ted can get away with it because his two other co-founders are of the same pedigree, but if somebody was to implement Ted’s philosophy at a “real” startup that had to attract talent and build an efficient team, I’d “preemptively detect fail.”

Lastly, I’d be interested in learning what the business model behind Persai is. I’m assuming it’s going to have to be advertising (if they operate solely as a consumer-oriented business) or licensing (if they try to go B2B). In either case, given that there are already a significant number of other companies offering content recommendation services and engines, I think Persai is going to have an uphill battle and I find it a little bit ironic that anti-Web 2.0 types have, this late in the game, started a company targeting such a saturated Web 2.0 niche (even if they are trying to replace the Web 2.0 “community” aspects with “artificial intelligence” instead).

I wish the best of luck to Matt, Ted and Kyle. Somehow I suspect that they’re simply taking an alternate road to the same destination other inevitable Web 2.0 failures are en route to: an understanding that real money is usually made when you offer something of real value.

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