The video made a profit, and Williams started a full-fledged Internet company, with a variety of ideas for businesses and products. (“It was when the Internet was new enough that you could just say you were an ‘Internet company’ and didn’t have to be more specific,” he says.) The company failed spectacularly. “It was sort of a train wreck in terms of management,” he admits. “I had lots of ideas for things that were potentially interesting products, but I had no idea what I was doing, either in terms of managing a company or on the technology side. If we could have written software, we would have been in a better position. We tried to hire people who could write software, but I couldn’t manage them, and they didn’t know much about what they were doing.” After a year or so, Williams fired his employees and shut the company down. In 1996, he moved to Northern California.
Williams is vacuuming the rug…he’s still vacuuming the rug…he’s thinking and vacuuming the rug…he’s finished vacuuming the rug!
Credit: Toby Burditt
The late 1990s were heady for entrepreneurs in San Francisco, who worked long hours, racing to build the websites that would make their fortunes. “It was a pretty wild time,” recalls Meg Hourihan, Blogger’s cofounder. “You’d finish coding some feature for a product at 10 o’clock at night and then walk over to the party next door for free food and drinks.”
Hourihan, an English major with an aptitude for computers, was a technology consultant at the time, and she craved an entrepreneurial adventure. Meanwhile, Williams was becoming interested in collaboration software that helped people work on joint projects more effectively. In the summer of 1998, he and Hourihan both attended a networking event in San Francisco. “I ended up sitting down next to Ev and talking to him,” Hourihan says. “Somehow we started talking about the Web and computers, and I felt like he was the first person I had met who saw the potential on the Web that I saw, that it was a life-changing thing.”
They started dating but after two months decided they would be happier as business partners. In the fall of 1998 they began to work together on Pyra, a Web-based project-management application. The goal was to create an online “worktable” that would keep track of project changes, questions, meetings, and more. The Pyra team became a company called Pyra Labs when a friend of Williams’s from Nebraska, Paul Bausch, joined to help write the code. In order to keep tabs on the status of Pyra’s features, the three employees posted updates on an internal blog they called “Stuff.” Both Williams and Hourihan had been early bloggers, so it seemed a natural way to communicate. Stuff became the central nervous system for the company. “That was really how we communicated and collaborated, which is ironic because we were building this collaboration tool that was much more complex,” Williams recalls. “We joked semiseriously many times that we should just make Stuff our product. I had a little bit of a thought that there was something to it, but it was just so ultrasimple that I didn’t seriously consider it.”
Then a slight modification to Stuff made Williams reconsider. One day, Bausch wrote a piece of code that made it possible to transfer an entry from Stuff to Pyra’s public Web server using something called a file transfer protocol, or FTP; the entry would then be visible to anyone. “That was really the genesis of Blogger,” Williams says. “The simplicity of having an application that ran on the Web that would then FTP a static file to your server was the key thing. Once we did that, we thought people would use that.”
Eventually, it became clear that Blogger, not the more complex Pyra, was what people wanted: Williams had found a simpler, more valuable communications product inside the more diffuse company. The team raised money in a small round of funding. Yet Williams’s colleagues were nervous because Blogger was a free service, and it still didn’t have a business plan. And Williams, who was the CEO, struggled to raise more funds. “We started running out of money,” says Hourihan. “We couldn’t stay ahead of the infrastructure we needed to keep growing. Then the market collapsed, and it seemed like we couldn’t raise another round.”