ailon's DevBlog: Development related stuff in my life

My Startup Series: How I Built and Sold almost-Digg 5 Years Before Digg

1/10/2012 8:26:59 PM

After my first startup was killed by the evil IP thieves I’ve lost faith in entrepreneurship… I’m just kidding. I was just finishing school, then university, then getting married, then getting my first “real job” at a bank, etc.

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Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

The Meeting

By 1999 I worked at a small company (with a big name). There was huge financial crisis in Russia and our CEO had lots of bets on several projects that fell through due to the events in the eastern neighbor. So the salary was always a couple of months behind. But we were expecting our daughter, therefore switching jobs wasn’t on my radar at the time. So I set up on a mission to find some side work.

I’ve responded to an ad of a local company looking for freelancers to work on some web project for some US company. I’ve been offered the job as was one other guy. We’ve met to discuss that project for a couple of times (I’m not even sure I remember what it was) and then were told that the project fell through and our services were no longer needed. Little did I know that I will end up working with the dude till this day.

So we were out of our freelancing gig, without anything to replace it with, but still willing to do something.

The most popular site on the internet at the time was Yahoo! (I think). And it wasn’t the huge behemoth it is now. It was mostly a manually managed directory of web sites on the internet. Yeah, it was actually possible to manually manage a list of all the meaningful sites on the internet at that time. I could have navigated to a category of interest and see all the sites about, say, web development.

That was great, but how do I know when one of these sites posts new content? Believe it or not there were no RSS readers (or RSS feeds for that matter) and stuff like that at the time. So the only way to know when there is a new article on 4 Guys from Rolla – a hugely popular ASP developer site of the time – was to actually visit the site.

AC not DC

So my idea was to create a directory of content for web developers. Or as we called it “The Content Directory for Web Professionals”. I’ve pitched the idea to Martynas after he promised not to screw me over and implement it without me. Classic first time entrepreneur move. Fortunately he thought it was a good idea too and turned out to be a cool guy in general.

We have started working on the project. Martynas did the public part of the site and I did the administrative part. It’s funny that even in 1999, coming up with a decent .com domain name that was not taken, wasn’t easy. After a lot of deliberations and domain name checks we’ve settled on ArticleCentral.com.

On some day in 1999 ArticleCentral went live.

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For the next several years we were doing daily rounds around the sites in our database and [selectively] list new articles. Users would come to ArticleCentral, check the new articles, suggest other articles and rate them (sounds familiar?). It was possible to filter articles by category and rating, search through our article database. We even had a “tracker” – a piece of JavaScript that you could embed into your own site and show newest content from ArticleCentral. I totally forgot about that and, frankly, was shocked when I remembered that we had that in 1999 :) One may argue that the web didn’t come a long way since then.

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Later on we’ve added a sister site for hardware articles and reviews.

We had several mailing lists sending out thematic updates to thousands of web developers and designers. We were writing editorials for our weekly newsletters and we had a weekly poll. After several years coming up with editorials and poll ideas became a real chore. Fortunately later in the life of the project we were approached by a young guy (I think he was still in high school at the time) who was willing to write the editorials and think of new poll ideas and we happily delegated these to him. After ArticleCentral he got “promoted” to HotScripts where he still blogs regularly.

We’ve sold quite some advertising on our site and in the mailing lists at rates that would make any modern content publisher salivate. Unfortunately traffic at the time was a joke looking from 2012, so great rates didn’t materialize into nice red Ferraris and beach houses.

The Exit

Anyway, by 2001-2002 the dotcom era was long over. We were pretty bored with the project and it was too early (on the internet scale) for us to come up with something that would transform AC into what later materialized as Digg. We decided that it was time to make an EXIT. Even though we didn’t know the term at the time. So we have just published a splash page on the site that it was for sale.

This was a long shot, but we were contacted by a couple of parties and, while I was on vacation in Turkey in September of 2002, closed the deal. I doubt that I’m allowed to disclose the amount of the deal, but lets just say that it paid for the vacation and I still had some change left.

This concludes a story of how I became a serial entrepreneur with one successful exit. (Haha. Sounds cool when I put it this way). But I have a couple more startup stories up my sleeve.

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