State of the Startup 1: Mowser to Mobitopia...


So right before I launched Mowser, I was all set to name it Mobitopia, a name I've been using for various activities in mobile for about 3 years now. I'm fond of the name, and it's got a good ranking from years as a blog, and a link sharing site. But then I decided that all the big things I wanted to do weren't going to get done by the day I launched the site, and that Mowser - short for 'mobile browser' was both shorter, and more descriptive of the main functionality of the site. So at the last minute, I went with the short version, and redirected everything that had been at mobitopia over to mowser.

Well, after about a month of continuously improving traffic, disaster struck... I didn't do the domain forwarding correctly (or something) and just about all my search traffic went out the window as did my advertising revenue. So in an attempt to get it back I flipped the switch and turned back on a few weeks ago, and now have two sites. But here in lies the problem: My business model was based on the idea of directories and content adaption services working *together* to generate revenue. Splitting up the sites means that the flow from one to the other is limited at best, and they don't get any bonus search ranking, etc. It also means that Mowser - which has the feeds and the content adapter - has much less traffic, and much more limited ways to make money as there's no advertising on the adapted websites, only on the directory of feeds and feed summary pages. And Mobitopia right now is stuck as yet another social bookmarking site based on an open source product with no innovation at all (besides tweaking the templates a bit to look good on mobile phones).

This situation has really stalled me mentally I have to admit - it's hard to work on problems, tweak features and create new functionality when there's such a fundamental rift in my original plan. Not that I'm stuck with just that idea - I want to be able to adjust, shift and refocus as opportunities arise, but I need a strong platform on which to move first, dividing effort and domains this way is dumb, and I've already been asked once why I'm bothering with two sites and why not combine them. Arrgh! Having two sites doesn't sound like a problem, but it really takes away from a growing brand name, a common set of technical solutions, and continuous improvements to the product without duplicating effort. And since there's just one of me, that's an important point.

So here's some of the issues that are running through my mind right now.

1. My traffic has flattened. I'm at about 20k daily mobile page views on Mobitopia, and only 7k daily mobile page views on Mowser and it's not getting higher. I need a hell of a lot more than that to make a living off this stuff.

2. Even though I believe in the fundamental need for publishers and readers to have a service that lets any website work on any mobile phone - in both the short and long term - basing a company around that alone is really going to be an uphill battle in terms of perception with millions of dollars of iPhone marketing promising the Real Internet. Too many people have already expressed a "why bother" attitude towards the site. And, in reality, if you're a heavy mobile web user, you'll probably either use a smart phone or Opera mini, thus negating much of the functionality that the content adapter provides. So as a generic browsing solution, it's probably not going to work.

3. I really doubt the short-term viability of "directories" of content. Even just a few months ago, I thought there'd be a place for a list of good links out there, but I think the idea is quickly going away. Just like on the PC-based web, no one uses web site directories any more (Yahoo, Mozdir, etc.), and in as little as 6 months to a year, there will be so many mobile sites out there that there'll be no use trying to make a usable directory either.

4. Feeds are such low-hanging fruit that there's no business advantage for anyone trying to build off them. The first iPhone apps are all basically feed readers - it takes any programmer all of 5 minutes to grab a feed parsing library and a database of feed listings and create a passable mobile-viewable feed reader - even Apple launched one at (and how many web services do they have that you know of? Not many outside of dotMac I think.) And again, if you're a heavy feed user, you most likely will use Google Reader Mobile or Bloglines Mobile or Gregarious (like myself).

Okay, so taking all the above into account, here's the status: The part of my new company that makes money is a service that's quickly being outmoded, and the part that's trying to be innovative will most likely not be used by high-value power users, and won't make money due to lack of ads even if it becomes popular in other ways (say as a way for kids to get around their school's proxies block Facebook... urgh!). Obviously I need to make some big changes going forward.

Let me interrupt and say none of this is horrible... part of what makes doing a startup so interesting is learning what works and what doesn't work. No, it wasn't fun to see my AdMob income drop from $2k to $400 from one month to the next because of the domain screwup, but making mistakes, adjusting, learning what works and what doesn't work is all part of the process. I'm so happy to be doing this full time so I can keep learning and tweaking.

So where to from here? Well, I've got some general ideas that I'm going to share here:

First, I'm going to have to consolidate the sites and names and the best one for that is Mobitopia. Despite being a pain to type on the phone, it's a great name for lots of reasons. First, it's got great Google juice and that's not to be overlooked. Also, it's descriptive of a general goal: Mobile Utopia... A name which represents not just a single service, but many services which make mobile devices more fun and functional - a concept that applies equally well to iPhones as it does to MotoRAZRs. From both a mental and marketing standpoint it's something that will help considerably. Besides, my users right now are in the hundreds... a name change isn't going to affect them all too much. :-)

Secondly, I'm going to have to re-think my focus on launching a state-free site. I wanted to try to keep everything as open as possible without needing a log-in both for philosophical and technical reasons, but for many of the ideas that I have going forward I really don't think this is going to be possible. However, I'm really wary of creating Yet Another Log In, so I'm thinking that maybe I might try to see if I can get OpenID working on mobile. Normally, this isn't usually possible because of all the secure redirects - but I'm thinking that by tapping into the code that's already in the Content Adapter, I can enable OpenID via mobile. We'll see how this works.

Third, I really want to do more to integrate Mobitopia with the PC Web. This comes under the heading of "eating your own dogfood", but with most of my day spent in front of a PC, doing stuff that only applies to mobile phones is somewhat disingenuous as well as missing a big target market of online users ready to go mobile. I'm going to start looking at ways to spread the services around using Widgets, Facebook app, APIs, etc. This was always sort of in the plans, but I think it has to be a much higher priority than it was. And hey - there's quite a few companies out there making some cash from non-mobile services I've heard (though this could be a rumor) so maybe I could make some money that way as well.

Fourth and last, I broke one of my personal cardinal rules of mobility when I launched Mowser, and even though I knew it at the time, I still went forward - doing a refresh is a great time to make amends for my mistake. That rule is this: Mobility is primarily about Communication, and the things that build on communication such as Community. When you reach for your phone, you immediately think of making or getting a call, an SMS, an email, etc. You might use it now and then as an information retrieval device, but the "natural" functionality is one that communicates to others. If you take a picture? You usually take it share it with someone. If you buy a ringtone? It's so you can show off to everyone around you your favorite song. Yes, there are obviously lots of "down times" when you use your phone for other functions such as browsing the web or playing games, but those things that are truly compelling, that make you TAKE THE PHONE OUT OF YOUR POCKET EVERY DAY, all have to do with communication. When we get an SMS, we jump for it. When we get a call, we just about stop all other activity to answer it. It's not that there's some magic here, communication is a fundamental part of humanity - but it's also a conceptual thing as well: Mobile phones are communication devices in the minds of billions, and getting them to perceive it as useful for other things is a natural progression that will take time.

The advantage of course, of integrating communication/community into your mobile product is the opportunity to go viral, letting the service itself notify others about its existence. If you don't do it that way, then you've got to rely on other external ways - such as Search Engines or Advertising - to get your service out there, right? And that's a risky (as I've come to find out) or expensive game to play. This is more of a lesson learned - don't rely too much on any one third party (like the GOOG) for your traffic, or you'll pay for it later.

So, I think within the next day or so, if I don't hear a tremendous outcry against the plan, I'll be flipping the switches to make Mobitopia the name and focus of my company, and then start work on moving away from static directories of links towards more customized, personal services where content can be created and shared in a community, and the Content Adapter is used to its best effect: enabling and insuring viewability of web content, rather than trying to be the center functionality of the site.

If you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them!


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