In a second floor office of the Pike/Pine corner of Capitol Hill, Todd Gehman and his six coworkers at robotcoop.com work full-time originating the ideas and code that comprise their people-driven websites. The first, 43 Things, began in September of 2004 and officially launched January 1, 2005, with others soon to follow. The industry term for Mr. Gehman's position is "software development engineer," though the guys at robotcoop.com refer to him as "amateur holiday inventor."
Todd was interviewed in early 2006 by board member Allison Gegan.
3/8/07 UPDATE Woman on board: Robot Co-Op welcomes Laurel Fan!
L-R; Ivan Opalka, Laurel Fan, Daniel Spils, Buster McLeod. Above; Daniel Spils.
Tell us about 43 Things.
Our first and most popular site, 43 Things, allows people to publicly share lists of goals they would like to accomplish in their lives. At the most basic level, creating a list like this makes people more likely to act on their aspirations. But there is also a blogging element to the site, allowing people to write about their progress, and a social networking element where people trade feedback and mutual support.
Our next two sites, 43 Places and 43 People, extend from that idea but are specifically related to exploring places and connecting with people. Our sites are open systems where the content is created entirely by our users. Many people who'd never think of themselves as "bloggers" become prolific writers on our site, inspired by the things, places, and people they are passionate about.
One guiding principle of our existing sites and those we hope to build is that we want the web to enrich each user's offline life, not merely distract from it.
Is your group the first to pioneer this kind of project?
We're the first to apply what some call Web 2.0 features to the tracking of life goals. We're mixing ideas found on modern blogging and social networking sites with our own ideas for creating what we call "useful social networking." Over time we expect our sites to become more and more distinct, but remain integrated together as a suite of sites. Ultimately we'd like to employ some of our personalization know-how and leverage our data to create features that help people live their lives more fully.
How did you find each other? How is it working with all guys?
All but one of our employees worked in Amazon's Personalization group at various points over the years. So we were all known quantities to each other and had similar interests in how the web could be used, how dynamic websites could be attuned to the unique interests of each user. The non-ex-Amazonian we hired is an expert in Ruby, the programming language behind our web application framework, Ruby on Rails.
About the gender imbalance, I guess I could say that a friend of mine describes our office as being like a boys locker room. Just bare white walls, no plants, and, sadly, no one has a candy dish on their desk either.
What is your source of revenue, is it advertising, membership, other?
We have inconspicuous keyword-based ads on the side of most pages. For instance, on the page for the goal "design a font" you might find ads for typeface editing software. On the 43 Places page for a popular tourist destination, you might find hotel or tour guide advertisements. These ads are served automatically via Google's AdWords program.
Our users are continuously generating content that ends up feeding into Google's search results, Google searchers can then get lured to our site based on the keywords they're using to search, and if they arrive and click through on on of our ads, we get paid a percentage. Having everything automated in that way, thereby being able to grow our user base significantly while keeping our employee count low, is central to the business model.
Where did you get your degree?
While at Penn State, I studied Integrative Arts, an independent studies major where I focused on Music Theory and History.
If you weren't a developer, what would you be?
Dream jobs include musician, composer, college professor, writer, scientist, photographer, and documentary filmmaker.
How do you measure the success of your websites?
Right now our main focus is on becoming self-sufficient as a business, we're focused on the growth of our user base. Our two ultimate goals are to create ideal jobs for ourselves and to significantly enrich people's offline lives using the online applications we develop.
How do you incorporate user feedback?
The main channels for user feedback are our ideas sites, like ideas.43things.com. The "goals" listed on those sites are bug fixes and feature requests generated by our users. Similar to the 43 Things site, we can track our feature development progress there, sort ideas by their popularity, and so on.
What are the most important qualities one needs to possess to be successful in your field?
The most basic requirements are to be smart and productive. Curiosity is something that feeds into both of those, since technology changes so quickly you have to be constantly learning and adapting if you want to stay productive. For instance, only one of our five software developers knew Ruby when the company formed, the rest of us had to learn the programming language from scratch while we were building the sites and before the application framework had even reached its 1.0 version. It always feels like you're building a car while simultaneously driving it, then having to adapt to the fact that it's really a truck, then finding out that it's got to be an airplane. Agility and fexibility are key.
How important is it to be a good writer?
It's important to be able to communicate well, especially to explain technical ideas clearly to non-technical people.
From 1 to 10, how much stress do you feel on the job?
Maybe a 3, but I'm a pretty mellow guy.
Do you believe the grass is always greener?
Who are your heroes?
I've recently been learning about Alfred Stieglitz, one of the early champions of fine art photography. As he achieved fame and influence, he channeled it into supporting other painters, sculptors, and photographers. He founded a magazine, opened a gallery, and championed unknown artists working beyond the pale of the curatorial trends of the time. I like people who leverage their own personal success into working for the greater good. He also married Georgia O'Keefe. His was not a bad life.
What music are you listening to this week?
I'm a geek so I listen to music almost entirely through my computer and have my listening habits automatically tracked using the last.fm website. According to their data, I'm all about Neko Case at the moment.
Any thoughts about outsourcing?
The negative would be that software development becomes more of a commodity and job security for software developers is reduced. But the software industry is historically risky, so outsourcing is just another piece of that. Also, I like the fact that small companies like 37 Signals can function as a virtual office, with employees spread out across the country and the world. There are huge benefits to being able to live in a place that you love regardless of the location of your headquarters, and for companies to be able to hire talented developers independently of where they live.
What should a website never, ever do?
My biggest pet peeve is giant, uninformative Flash files functioning as the front page of a site. I call those "skip intro pages" because they serve no purpose but to make you hunt for the "skip intro" link and get to the real content. Auto-playing music, like you get on a lot of Myspace pages, is another no-no, since I'm usually listening to my own music while I'm on the web and the automatic players just cause a clash between what I'm listening to and what they've decided I should hear.
Any advice for students?
I could rethink this answer about twenty times and still not get it right, some philosophical BS about taking risks and being open to chance, so I guess the answer is no.
Finally, if you knew you wouldn't fail, what would you do?
I'd probably run some sort of creative organization where musicians, writers, and artists could share working and socializing spaces all under one roof. There could be artist studios, recording studios, classrooms, a bar, a live music and theater venue, and so on. Maybe living spaces too. Come to think of it, maybe it'd have to be a whole city block. Or a whole city.