It’s with both excitement and sadness that today I announce I am stepping back from my full time position at ReadWriteWeb to build a product and a company. I’ll be continuing to post at RWW regularly, but I’ve got some big new things up my sleeve as well. (Update: I haven’t announced this yet but as of May, 2012 I’m actually done with that too and am 100% all-in on Plexus.)
After years of writing about startup companies, I’m now building one myself. Specifically, I’m building a company that’s developing a technology based on some of my favorite consulting projects I’ve done for clients over the years: an app and data platform that discovers emerging topical information. It’s a learning-curve busting, “first mover’s advantage” as a service, technology for information workers who want to win. It’s about helping users “skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been.”
It’s called Plexus Engine, it’s in private beta and you can sign up to be notified when it launches at PlexusEngine.com. A Plexus is a place where nerves branch and rejoin in the body and the Plexus Engine analyzes points of intersection online to detect emerging signals. Update: After we got underway and before launching Plexus Engine, we renamed it Little Bird! It’s now at GetLittleBird.com.
What’s it do, specifically? It’s not ready to be talked about much, but I will tell you this:
I’ve built my career as one of the web’s leading technology journalists by making strategic use of lightweight tools for processing data to gain first mover’s advantage.
I’ve also consulted for companies large and small on how to build and use new media technologies, launch products and identify potential hires and industry experts, using tools as well. That’s where Plexus Engine was born.
Now I’m building a technology for everyone to use in order to save time and derive value from the huge sea of data being published online.
Josh Dilworth, founder of Austin’s Jones-Dilworth, who’s done PR for SXSW, Siri, Wolfram Alpha and many more, says – “For years Marshall has had a leg up and now we know why. We are already using Plexus at Jones-Dilworth and it makes us look smarter every day. It’s instant domain knowledge — ideal for getting up to speed in new categories.”
Richard Snee, VP of Marketing at data warehousing company EMC Greenplum, with whom I was consulting when Plexus Engine was born, puts it this way: “For many B2B marketing professionals effective use of social media can be mysterious and frustrating. The work we did with Marshall helped create a blueprint for success in our social media efforts at EMC Greenplum.”
Sam Whitmore, editor of Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey in Oakland, CA says of Plexus: “Mining the info that this technology does, quickly and easily, is money.”
Plexus Engine is going to be especially valuable for people working in marketing and PR, but I think anyone who does business on the web is going to want to use it.
Ok, that’s the end of the short version of the story. You should go to PlexusEngine.com and sign up for beta access. I’ll let you know as soon as more information is available. You can follow @plexusengine on Twitter for updates on the company and you can follow me at @marshallk
Now, who wants to hear some cool stories about the Internet?
I’ve been learning about how to do this kind of stuff for as long as I’ve been working online. The methods I’ve explored have been complicated, experimental and challenging but now I’m going to productize the lessons I’ve learned in a way that anyone can use them.
Back when I started blogging AOL’s Weblogs Inc. I signed up to get RSS feeds from the key tech companies via SMS alerts. (Using Sameer Patel’s old startup Zaptxt.) No one else was doing that at the time and it helped me report on news before all the other tech blogs. That landed me a job as the first hired writer at TechCrunch.
When I was at TechCrunch, I used a variety of other tools to segment my inbound streams of information and broaden the range of information I could consume. (See Open Sourcing My TechCrunch Work Flow)
At ReadWriteWeb, I’ve used a wide variety of tools to mine signal from a whole lot of noise around the web. Here are a few examples of tips and tricks I’ve employed there so far that I’ve already written about before:
Delicious Data Mining
When social bookmarking service Delicious was being “sunsetted” by Yahoo, I wrote about a system we set up for mining it for streams of valuable signals.
Here’s how it worked: we went through the ReadWriteWeb archives and grabbed URLs of companies and products we’d written about before. Then we took those URLs over to Delicious and we looked up their bookmarking history. We scrolled back to the first 20 user names of people who bookmarked those links, then we copied and pasted them into a spreadsheet. Then we repeated that process 300 times or so. Finally, we sorted the spreadsheet alphabetically and found 15 people who on 5 or more occasions had bookmarked something we had later found of sufficient interest to write about. They had a proven history of finding things early – so we subscribed to an RSS feed of everything those people bookmarked in the future. That worked really well for a long time.
One day we caught wind of a local Salt Lake City newspaper that ran a story about a big new data center opening in town with a mystery anchor tenant. The paper believed that the tenant was Twitter, opening its first data center outside of San Francisco – as the company said it would, in a location undisclosed. We used the (now Google-acquired) web app called Needlebase to investigate.
We grabbed the URL of the Twitter List of the staff of Twitter Inc. and we trained Needlebase’s point-and-click screen scraping tool to recognize what a user name, Tweet text and location field (when there was one) looked like on the page of staff Tweets. Then I clicked a button and said “go!”
In just a few minutes, the most recent 1125 Tweets from staff were pulled into Needlebase and we said “show ‘em on a map!” Sure enough, one Twitter network engineer had posted a Tweet with a location attached to it right across the highway from the alleged mystery data center. He’d just left San Francisco, he had Tweeted, and arrived in Salt Lake City ready to get to work.
That Tweet was quickly deleted after we reported on it. Six months later, it was reported that the Salt Lake data center efforts were plagued with all kinds of problems and got called off at great expense. (Here’s a screencast about how to use Needlebase to scrape at least the old Twitter interface, things have changed but it’s an ok intro to Needlebase.)
ReadWriteWeb is where I learned to use Twitter as a journalist and it was only slight hyperbole when I wrote four years ago that Twitter was paying my rent. (It was through my use of Twitter on ReadWriteWeb, by the way, that Mashable learned to make use of Twitter, too.)
Backtyping Your Comments Around the Web
Backtype, a startup that got swallowed up by Twitter, used to offer the coolest feature: an RSS feed for comments posted to blog posts all around the web and signed with a particular URL in the URL field.
We took Robert Scoble’s Most Influential in Tech list of Twitter users, grabbed the home page URLs from all the Twitter bios on that list, then ran those URLs through Backtype and got an RSS feed for any comments posted by the people on the list. For some people we put their feeds in an RSS to Instant Messaging alert system, so whenever Chris Messina posted a comment on any blog around the web and signed it FactoryJoe.com, I’d get an IM within 5 minutes. We got to write several stories before anyone else that way.
Unfortunately, that service doesn’t exist anymore, but it was born from the same kind of thinking as the other examples above: what new fields of data online could I gain programmatic access to, subject to some analysis and then use for strategic advantage?
That’s part of the thinking behind Plexus Engine, too.
I’ve written about lots of other ways to use publicly available data and services to derive value from the web: How to Build a Social Media Cheat Sheet on Almost Any Topic, How to Use Blekko (or any Custom Search Engine) to Rock at Your Job, How to Use Mechanical Turk to Rock at Conference Blogging and even How to Find the Weirdest Stuff on the Internet.
If those kinds of things are exciting to you, I think you’re really going to enjoy Plexus Engine. It’s going to be some internet magic, with a ribbon on top.
I think it’s going to be a must-have technology for anyone who does business on the web. I’m looking forward to showing it to you, as soon as its ready.