Thursday, January 31, 2008

AbleGrape: Superb new vertical search engine for wine

I love this story. It's what Web 2.0 is *supposed* to be about, but rarely is.

Here are some of the key themes of Web 2.0:
* Search is centric
* Open-source software makes starting up cheap
* People who lived and learned from Web 1.0 applying the lessons to succeed
* Increased internet usage makes niche sites possible and profitable
* New UI tools (AJAX etc.) make UI innovation possible again

So what do we actually get? A few great new companies, and a bunch of silly no-hope websites trying to make money off of each other's widgets. Uncov, we miss you already.

That's why I love AbleGrape, which my friend Doug Cook just launched earlier this week. AbleGrape is a vertical search engine for wine:

ablegrape vertical wine search

At launch, it supports English, French, and Italian; it has fully international content; it has really interesting new UI features for fast, sophisticated searching; and it's astonishingly relevant for even obscure wine queries.

ablegrape SERP

The release email states:
We aim to be your first online stop for trustworthy, up-to-date wine information. Our public beta covers some 32,000 wine sites, with about 10 million pages of content, and we've put a lot of work into returning highly relevant results and providing an innovative, powerful user interface that helps you find things faster.
Doug Cook, the founder, coder, sole proprietor, and general polymath behind this achievement, was formerly a search engineer at Inktomi, and rose to VP of Engineeringat Yahoo! Search after the acquisition. He's also a world-class wine guy, who speaks several wine-useful languages fluently and has one of the better wine collections I've ever seen.

He has spent the past 2 1/2 years building AbleGrape himself from the ground up - coding, tuning the crawl and relevance, and engaging with the thousands of vineyards, negociants, appellation boards, government agencies, and other businesses and entities that make up the wine world. This has been a huge solo effort -- a personal memory I have of the process is watching Doug attempt to check the status of his crawl over a 9800 baud dial-up connection from a house in the Tuscan countryside of Italy - in August, 2006.

Let's walk through that supposed Web 2.0 stack again:

* Search is centric
--> AbleGrape a search engine. A damn fine one.

* Open-source software makes starting up cheap
--> Doug built AbleGrale with major pieces from the Lucene/SOLR/Nutch open source projects

* People who lived and learned from Web 1.0 applying the lessons to succeed
--> Inktomi to Yahoo to AbleGrape. Check!

* Increased internet usage makes niche sites possible and profitable
--> Let's hope -- for every wine question that you have, this is the first place you should go.

* New UI tools (AJAX etc.) make UI innovation possible again
--> Doug has a number of fast, clever, interactive features for search refinement based on his years of search experience that take a second to learn, but are really useful. Doug describes them better than I would.

Amidst all the baloney, hype, and general mediocrity of much of the Internet space, examples like this give me hope and happiness. This rocks. Great job, Doug!

Sadly, I have no financial interest in this company. But Doug does share superb wine with me from time to time.

TubeMogul's sweet new video distribution and analytics service launches at DEMO

Video distribution on the Internet is already a huge and fragmented market, with consumer traction spread across a host of destination sites and widgets from VideoEgg to Vimeo to YouTube. It's also a rapidly growing and evolving market, with potential big players like Hulu lurking in the wings.

So if you've got video to distribute, and understanding consumer uptake is the lifeblood of your business, what do you do?

One great answer is TubeMogul, which formally launched its distribution and analytics service at DEMO yesterday. I am proud to be an investor in TubeMogul via my partnership at NetService Ventures.

tubemogul video distribution & analytics

TubeMogul has a great product that's gotten significant initial traction, both with major users like CBS Interactive and with a long tail of more than ten thousand video creators. Their launch saw some great press commentary as well. Hats off to Brett and the team for a great job thus far!

I think that TubeMogul, as well as another NSV investment, SingleFeed, are representative of an emergent trend toward distinct buyer- and seller- focused analytic offerings as multiple Internet marketplaces evolve from their initial stages toward a more sophisticated bid/ask framework. I'll have a further post on that soon.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Google Newspaper Ads 2008 = CueCat 1998

Congratulations, Google. You've managed to revive one of the dumbest and most reviled companies of Web 1.0 Your new newspaper ad bar code plan smacks of nothing so much as CueCat, the ill-fated money pit that Forbes, Radio Shack, and others poured tens of foolish millions into. People really hated the CueCat.


Good luck with that.

Update: Commentary on this is breaking out into two distinct camps: Those who were grownups during Web 1.0 and paid attention, and those who were either younger than 12, or missed what went wrong.

I'm proud to be with the grumpy oldsters here, and Joel nails it with "it doesn't say much for the quality of those 150 people Google hires every week that they're now chasing some of the worst of the bad ideas of the fin de siecle."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Zvents launches federated local search

I try to keep the Zvents product announcements to a minimum, but I'm really excited about this one. As part of our ongoing expansion of focus on local search, we've launched a new federated local search page on We've been live with dozens (now hundreds) of media partners for over 18 months, and we've observed behavior of both searchers and local merchants that strongly suggested that we should unify our search experience across events, venues, restaurants, and performers. As we add in additional categories of local merchants, this blended result becomes even more important.
Zvents federated local search page

Doing federated search well is a hard, open problem, and while I don't think we have the perfect answer yet, this is a huge step forward for us, and an indicator of many great things to come. I'm loving our role as the deep technology provider for local media, and looking forward to more cool things we'll be rolling out in 2008.

There are a couple of nice writeups from Chris Smith at the Natural Search Blog and Greg Sterling at Screenwerk.

Check it out!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dear Hippies: Your cool car is starving poor people

I've always thought that biodiesel was a dumb idea. Maybe it's because I grew up on a farm in Ohio, where a yield of 180 bushels of corn to an acre of land is considered outstanding, on some of the richest farm land in the world, where water falls from the sky. 180 bushels of corn may sound like a lot (a bushel is about 9 gallons for you city types) but this site says you get a grand total of 2.7 gallons of ethanol from a bushel. At 25 miles per gallon, that will drive one car about 12,000 miles -- the average distance that most people drive in a year.

This other site (thanks, Google!) says that you get 134,000 food calories from that same bushel - which is enough to feed a person for 61 days.

So that's your tradeoff -- from a single acre of good farm land, enough food to feed 30 people for a year, or enough ethanol to support one single car, driven as we do today, for a year. 30 people vs. one car. Huh.

It is just about now, dear reader, that it should be dawning on you that the oil economy only works because the entire biomass of millions of years worth of extremely energy-rich plants and animals were compressed into this super-handy stuff we called oil. We have busily extracted this incredibly concentrated goodness from every convenient and many inconvenient places on earth, to the point where its future supply grows uncertain; and we frac it down into the gasoline we put into our cars, and kid ourselves that cleverness and progress is the root cause of our luxurious lifestyles, rather than the tapping of this one-time bonus from the geophysical history of the earth.

From Flickr: Originally uploaded by Michiel2005

And now, as the remaining loose change from that historic bonus starts to rattle around in our pocket, we're desperately casting around for alternatives - and wondering if the globe's yearly spread-out dose of agricultural sunshine can somehow support a lifestyle grown large and fat on the hyper-concentrated fossil extract, without negative consequence.

Um, no.

But don't just take my word for it. Bitter economic truth is exerting itself as we speak, as demand for biofuels grows due to a combination of dopey hippies, foolish politicians, and farmers who never saw a subsidy they didn't like -- I'm looking at you, Iowa-caucus-goers and your bizarre cartel to mis-direct the agenda of U.S. presidential politics. Here's a great article in the New York Times that lays out how globally,poor people are either paying more money for oils or eating less calories because of this trend.

I am a big fan of environmentalism, but at its core enviromentalism means that we must do more with less. Many big green trends today - can you say "carbon credits" for your sports car -- are attempts to deny reality and kid ourselves about the innovation or sacrifices that are yet required of us. Biodiesel is yet another of those false, self-indulgent dead ends.

But there's hope. "The do more" part of the honest environmental equations fires me up. One reason I love the business of computers and communication is that it drives incredible efficiencies in the physical world. I am wildly excited about the many opportunities for innovation - which is what drives TRUE progress - but in order to concentrate on what matters, we have to stop pretending that dumb farm subsidies can save us, and get to work.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Rich Democracts vs. Poor Republicans

The results of the Iowa caucuses presage the coming big shift in American electoral politics. The Democrats are going to become the party of money and modernity, and the Republicans are going to become the party of economic populism and social conservatism. Some interesting results:

* Mike Huckabee (economic populist, social conservative) won the Republican vote.
* John Edwards (economic populist) won the self-described conservative vote caucusing Democratic.
* Mitt Romney (A Democrat in spirit - the Bain Capital governor of Massachusetts) lost the Republican race big to Huckabee.

Obama is a candidate that can deliver the White House to the Democrats in a transitional phase from 2008 to 2016 -- in part because he will hold the votes of African-Americans, who otherwise favor both economic populism and social conservatism. Look for a Republican to win a surprising victory around 2020 in part by winning black votes, and look for increasing rejection of President Obama as "not a real black man" by the end of his second term.

Meanwhile, the Democrats become the party of business and trade. John Edwards may run for president again, but he'll do so as a Republican -- and the unions (the few that are left) will back him again, and vote a Republican ticket.

The Hispanic vote will become the new Democratic flank, replacing blacks - since "economic populism" will include anti-immigrant and anti-Spanish-speaking sentiment, expressed by both blacks and whites.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled technology.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Calculated Risk: Great finance analysis, great writing

Or, Uncov for the mortgage industry ;-)

Silicon Valley is as much about finance as it is about technology, and I appreciate great finance writing as much as I love great technology analysis. Silicon Valley is also a real-estate-obsessed place, so when that finance writing is about the greatest financial calamity to ever beset the housing market, the enjoyment is multiplied.

I'd like to call out Calculated Risk, a superb blog on the mortgage and housing industry, with two pseudonymous authors (CR and Tanta) who write with enormous knowledge and great flair about the debacle in progress on Wall Street and in Middle America right now.

In particular the recent post, "The Un-re-dis-inter-mediation Blues," is a scathing indictment of the sort of business model foolishness -- in this case carried out by Merrill Lynch -- that you may have thought was only the province of Web 2.0 startups. Highly recommended, and a good mental tonic when too many thoughts of advertising-supported business models and viral marketing are getting you down:
Aside from the idea of loan officers having sufficient spelling skills to play Scrabble, which is new to me, here we have the two same old dumb ideas that emerge in any mortgage downturn, with a delicious twist that it's Wall Street getting it instead of Main Street.

First, there's the old "let's retrain a bunch of subprime loan officers to be prime GSE loan officers." You civilians might think this should be fairly easy, but the fact is that training a lot of these people to be prime loan officers basically means training them to be loan officers. If they had any basic depth of understanding of the business they're in, they could move to prime origination by just reading that other rate sheet. The reality is that they've been doing no-doc no-down no-sweat stuff for so long--some of them have never done anything but--that they're sitting around with the PlayStation waiting for someone to tell them how a 30-year fixed rate loan with a down payment and verified income actually works...

Item the second causes a deep belly laugh in anyone who ever worked for a depository in a mortgage downcycle: "Why can't we just put the loans on the balance sheet?" I know it makes me a bad person, but the thought of Merrill getting this one from its mortgage people is floating me heavenward on a warm tide of schadenfreude...

That is--or once was--an old strategy for depositories: when you can't sell your loans, hunker down, stuff 'em on the books and wait for the tide to turn. We are seeing depository after depository shutting down its wholesale and correspondent lending divisions, meaning it will, as always, only allocate those portfolio dollars to keeping an expensive but much safer retail operation alive...

But Merrill really really wanted to be a retail originator in its own right. Welcome to the other side of the mortgage world, Mother Merrill, and try turning in some tiles. Maybe you'll get a vowel.