Peter Cooper, the founder of Feed Digest, began his entrepreneurial journey with Code Snippets, which was acquired by DZone.com. Since then, Peter has been continually working on innovative technologies. After gaining interest in feed manipulation and syndication, he soon came up with a service called Feed Digest (earlier known as RSS Digest) and just like many other startups, Feed Digest also went through the ups and downs initially. However, over a period of time, Peter took it to a level where it was serving around 250 million requests per month. After about 2 years in business – in 2007, Peter sold Feed Digest to Vicman Technologies.
Today, although he has some regrets with the exit, he is greatly satisfied with the overall experience. Peter Cooper is now engaged with his latest startup, Coder.io. In this interview, Peter speaks about his lessons learned with Feed Digest and Coder.io.
Can you tell us how did you come up with the idea of Feed Digest?
script snowballed into providing a proper service, which I called RSS Digest. It was entirely “donationware” and the response was so strong that it quickly made sense to turn it into a business – Feed Digest. It launched in July 2005.
You were the sole developer and Founder of Feed Digest; What were the biggest difficulties of not having a co-founder? What do you think would have been different/better had you had a partner with you?
Feed Digest came entirely from my own whims and was then shaped by a market ready to pay for the service, so I don’t think I missed out too much by not having a co-founder. Being fueled by my own self interest meant I didn’t need the motivation a co-founder can provide (though I’ve found this could have been useful in future projects!) and I had such an eager user base that I never felt “lonely” doing the work. In a way, my angel investors were partners/co-founders. Even though they didn’t get involved with the technology or even the day to day running of the business, knowing that they were looking for an eventual return kept me focused on delivering something that people would buy.
Feed Digest had an impressive user-count, which also includes some really big names like NASA, MIT, etc. What do you think helped Feed Digest gain initial traction and how did you keep grow from then?
Having a large following of fans and people excited about RSS (it was a massive deal in 2004-2005!) helped a ton. Because RSS Digest was donation-ware, rather than a paid service, it got a lot of attention, and some of those followers went on to write about the service, such as Marshall Kirkpatrick (now one of the top editors at ReadWriteWeb).
Feed Digest also benefitted from being one of only a handful of services to provide RSS rewriting/republication tools, and they were perhaps the most powerful. As a lot of Feed Digest’s users were librarians or webmasters at institutions, I think it was “talked about” a lot and people spread the word about us around behind the scenes via e-mail. It was a tool that was easy to recommend.
Feed Digest was built on Ruby on Rails, which is considered to be the best language for rapid development. What are the pros and cons of using RoR for a web start-ups?
Feed Digest was only built on Rails for the user facing webapp, but the backend digest serving and feed crawling was done in Perl (a language I had 8 years’ experience of by 2004, so it made sense). Rails, though, made it possible to roll out the webapp a lot quicker than I’d have been able to do so with other tools, even at such an early stage of its development. I’m not a hardcore Rails users now, but it’s hard to deny that if you understand it, you can put together basic to intermediate webapps that operate upon databases very quickly. Compared to developing a webapp in the 90s or early 2000s, it was a significant improvement. Others have caught up now, but it remains a great tool.
Feed Digest was acquired by Informer Technologies back in 2007, please walk us through the acquisition?
It was extremely simple. A couple of months before the sale I was contacted by one of their executives who bluntly asked if I wanted to sell Feed Digest. I hadn’t seriously considered it before but I was keen to sell because of the time demands it was making, so I said “Yes.” After consulting with my investors, we quickly came up with terms that suited everyone, and the deal was performed through an escrow process (using Escrow.com) in August 2007. It was quite a quick and tidy deal with only a little due diligence on both sides. Believe it or not, almost no lawyers were involved. The contract was very simple and mostly involved selling a group of proprietary technology assets and a domain name, rather than a corporate entity (this is quite common with small technology related acquisitions where contracts between customers and the vendor are short term).
Referring to your post “Three years ago, I sold my start-up because I was an idiot,” you discussed that the pricing model for Feed Digest was a mistake, would you please let us know in detail about what would have been the right pricing for Feed Digest?
Monthly fees. Instead, we went with annual fees to keep the billing simple. The problem, though, is that annual fees can psychologically seem larger than actually larger monthly fees. For example, $60 a year versus $10 per month. It’s a silly psychological effect, like the way putting .99 at the end of prices can work. Further, it turned out the customer base was more business oriented than I initially anticipated, so larger fees would have been acceptable. In a way, the low prices reduced the perception of the service’s value.
If you were to go back and change some thing about Feed Digest what would it be?
Mostly the business model in relation to prices. I’d also focus a lot more heavily on business/enterprise customers. Some of the people who were paying a mere $11.99 per year for service took up the most time when it came to service but were paying peanuts. I helped everyone equally but I should have been focusing my efforts on getting and retaining higher paying enterprise customers. The few that we had were great to work with and it would have been a better use of my time in terms of value.
Things, in the RSS Feed manipulation and syndication industry, have changed a lot in the past few years; what do you see it is heading towards in the coming years?
Unfortunately, I haven’t been working in the feed manipulation and syndication industry in any serious way since selling Feed Digest. Similarly unfortunately, though, what I’ve seen of it “from the outside” hasn’t been inspiring. Google Reader has basically taken the lion’s share of the reader market with only a few companies like NewsGator tackling the enterprise market seriously. On the plus side, feed related features and technology have been slipping into other areas via the back door. Almost any good webapp or service now will offer RSS or Atom feeds, even if they’re not publicized, and a few Web browsers support feeds implicitly (Apple’s Safari being a prime example). Podcasts are also delivered entirely through feeds, so millions of people are using feeds every day without realizing.
Feeds have become such a standard piece of infrastructure that innovation built entirely around them seems to have slowed. I suspect, though, there’ll be a renaissance in their importance and ecosystem within the next few years, though it may take even more standards on top to topple the dominoes.
You are presently busy with Coder.io; can you tell us something more about it?
coder.io is my “next big thing.” As a developer, I want to keep up to date with the latest links, tutorials, and release news on all of the development topics I hold dear (such as Redis, MongoDB, Ruby, and Rails.) To do this, I usually follow Delicious tags, lots of various RSS feeds, developer news Twitter accounts, and more. coder.io, though, aggregates a ton of developer related sources and feeds, automatically tags the content, and then allows developers to perform, and subscribe to, queries over the links found. So if you wanted to know about Python releases, you could search for or subscribe to “#python #releases.” Currently you can keep up to date with the coder.io webapp or by subscribing to the RSS feeds it provides. In time I plan to add support for other notification methods, including e-mail.
What advice would you want to give to the present day entrepreneurs?
Beware of false prophets! There are always going to be people giving you bad advice or saying that your market is poor, your product makes no sense, or that that you’re crazy for trying something new. It takes years to develop a good sense of who’s giving bad advice out of jealousy or closed-mindedness from those who have a genuine concern or knowledge to share. You’re best off relying on your gut instinct and research. If being an entrepreneur were easy or developing a great product or service could be done “by the book”, you’d have a lot more competition!
Secondly, until you’re well established or have a nice pile of capital to see you through, try and work on ideas in areas that are either up and coming or that have a small number of established competitors whose products and services you can significantly improve upon. Striking off into entirely unknown areas is risky and while it can deliver big, often a lack of competition is a sign that it’s hard to make a business in that area. I didn’t consider this at the time, but Feed Digest fit into this model perfectly – RSS was a massive topic in the mid 2000s and Feed Digest didn’t exactly do anything mindblowingly new, it just did it far better than the competition.