Data is more agile than code

Peter Norvig talks about the need for a startup company to go fast – and also in the right direction – at his Startup School 2008 talk.

“Sure you gotta go fast, but if you’re not getting feedback to figure out if you’re going in the right direction it doesn’t matter how fast you go.” (2:47 in the video.)

That advice can apply to both technology and the business sides of a company, but here Norvig focuses on the feedback necessary to make sure the technology you’re developing succeeds.

He suggests you can get this vital feedback by:

“Acquiring lots of data [and] running machine learning over it… The key here is that no matter how agile you are as coders, and I understand that you’re all great, data is going to be more agile than code. Because you’ve got to right the code yourself, but the data you can leverage… there’s an immense multiplying factor that way.”

I guess this Lisp/AI guru from Google knows a thing or two about using lots of data, eh?

He goes on to describe how Google has used machine learning over large data sets for their image search, text segmentation and Google Sets. It’s a great talk, I highly recommend it.

I like the idea of letting the data and algorithms do as much of the heavy lifting as possible – the knowledge I want to share with my users may already be in the data, I’ve just got to dig it out!

Online calendar Kiko sold on Ebay

As you may have heard, the online calendar site Kiko was sold on Ebay (edit June 11, 2007: auction has been aged off of eBay) for $258,100. Kiko authors Richard White and Justin Kan blogged about why they sold Kiko (click their names for their posts), Richard explains more here.

From the first of Richard’s links:

“I am actually proud of this exit strategy in a way. While it’s not the one we envisioned going into things, I still think we are doing our best to satisfy the two most important stakeholders in Kiko: our investors and our users. We do care about our investors’ money and instead of just burning through the rest of the piggy bank trying to get our groove back we are trying to recoup their investment (we stand to gain little from the auction). We have also put in place both iCal export and account deletion so our users can take their data with them over to another calendar service if they so choose (or stick with Kiko while we find an acquirer).”

I don’t know how their investors will feel about this sale, and who exactly gets the proceeds from Ebay, but it does seem like this was better than just “burning through the rest of the piggy bank.”

I am very impressed by their attitude to their customers: let them take their data with them and/or delete their account. You can’t ask for much more from a free service. I suppose they could have open sourced it or donated it to someone, but I bet Kiko would languish and die if they did that. Hopefully making someone pay a non-trivial amount for it will help it survive, since the purchaser spent good money on it. Of course Google Calendar has a lot of momentum due to their sheer Google-ness, but there may be a space yet for Kiko.

Dharmesh Shah of comments on Kiko – he says:

“I just wish all that talent had been spent doing something that was almost as fun and cool – but would have actually created something of value.”

While Kiko didn’t skyrocket to a multibillion-dollar-Web-2.0-Google-is-jealous-and-O’Reilly-writes-a-bunch-of-books-about-them type of success, I don’t think you can say they didn’t create something of value. Their users apparently thought there was some value there, even if they delete their accounts today. And the Kiko developers probably learned a ton from doing it – there’s a huge amount of value there, even if its final incarnation isn’t Kiko itself.