How We Moved Thomas Hawk to WordPress

It’s been about a week and I haven’t said a whole lot about one of the most special projects I’ve ever worked on. Thomas Hawk has been one of the people I’ve most looked up to since I began shooting photography. I’ve never met the guy before, but I hope to at some point. I also keep my eyes and ears open to absorb anything and everything he ever says about photography in a hope that I will learn from him. Mentor from a far? Maybe.

A few weeks ago, a comment was made on Friendfeed (I don’t remember how it started) and it became clear to me that Thomas desperately wanted to get off of the Blogger blog platform. I can’t blame him. I’m always looking to help people move to WordPress so I asked him to contact me. As a veteran of “moving people to WordPress”, I was sure I could help him out.
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We exchanged emails over the subject and his biggest hurdle seemed to be the number of comments that were housed on Blogger. He was concerned, naturally, that all of his content would not be able to come over. I asked him to give me a shot at it and he obliged.

Blogger Problems

As I’ve mentioned, Blogger can be a bit of a pain. While it used to be the great granddaddy of blogging software, Google has done little to keep it nimble and competent. That, I hope, will change in the months ahead as my friend and colleague, Rick Klau, formerly of FeedBurner has taken the reins as the product manager and has been incredibly helpful working with me on this project.

The problem was a pretty common problem. It didn’t take long Googling around to find hundreds of other people who were having problems with Google having a 5000 comment cap on their export. In other words, if you had over 5000 comments (Thomas had over 21000), you were screwed and could not get all of your data.

I went to Rick and asked if he could help me get this problem solved. He happily obliged, asked me to wait a few days, and went off to his team. Within a few days they had solved the problem. Not only for me, they solved it for everyone.

WordPress Problems

For an unknown reason, though, the WordPress Blogger Importer did not work the way it was supposed to. Though it now accurately reported that there were over 21,000 comments that could be imported, it failed to do so. As a result, I was forced to improvise using the Blogger-supported format for data portability – a super large Atom-format XML export that included all the data I needed. Unfortunately, importing this data was now impossible in its present form unless I decided to build a WordPress import script for the occasion. Instead, I discovered the Google provided Blog Converters, open source scripts that could convert WordPress or Movable Type exports into Blogger Atom formats and vica versa. With this tool in hand, I was able to successfully convert the Blogger Atom file into a WordPress native WXR file.

Importing the new file was a breeze but created a new problem. I needed to maintain all of Thomas’ permalinks for the search engines. Blogger has a strange way of creating permalinks that involves breaking the title of the post into “word chunks” then piecing together a permalink out of a seemingly random number of words. In WordPress, permalinks are generated by taking all the words in a title, and piecing them all together to make a link. So I needed to find a way to preserve all of this.

I found the Maintain Blogger Permalinks plugin, a single use plugin that would alter the post slugs to the previously used Blogger slugs. Unfortunately, it relied on content that was pulled directly out of Blogger, on import, using the Blogger import script. Since I had gone around that by using the Blogger export format, I had to figure out how to get that data. Fortunately, it was as simple as actually running the Blogger importer. Since the importer only did not work with comments, all I had to do was make some simple PHP changes to the script in order to make it not skip over already existing content, and instead update that content with the appropriate data I needed.

I could outline those details, but that is special sauce. I’m happy for you to pay me to do this for you. ;-)

WordPress Perks

Once all the data had been moved over and Thomas had blessed the “flipping of the switch”, we kicked it on live. All the permalinks still worked. All the data was successfully moved into its new home. Comments were good. Posts were good. We had a nice minimalistic theme that brightened up his digs. I used the Picturegrid plugin to pull in his Flickr photostream.

We, of course, encountered some problems involving caching. WordPress still doesn’t do well on high traffic sites without some caching. I implemented WP-Super Cache, an absolutely essential plugin for high traffic sites.

I am Available

This was a special project for me as Thomas is someone I look up to. At the same time, it’s what I do. It’s how I make a living. And it’s how I am able to continue keeping this site going. Contrary to popular belief, it is not sustained by advertising.

In the next few days, I will face the darkest time of my life so far. At this time, I have exactly one week to extend my pipeline with additional work, find viable employment elsewhere or simply… I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it. The economy sucks right now, and I’m in the middle of it. Though I know everyone is tight and hiring is frozen, there is still some liquidity available. I am asking, even begging, that if I can help you with WordPress (or any) consulting work – even short term – that you let me know. I hesitate to strike this tone, yet I am in in dire straits right now and need a breakthrough.

If you work for a company, go lobby for them to employ my services. If you are a CEO, I ask you to consider if you could try to get me for a discount. If you are an entrepreneur, I ask you to consider if you are able to pass me projects that are filling your plate. I have put up a consulting page to provide an overview of some of the services I have done and can do for you.

Thank you all, and thanks Thomas for letting me work on your site. It was great fun.

Google Predicting the Future?

Geeks among us will recognize the term “chaos theory”. It is a highly philisophical, and yet scientifically unproven, theory of physics that says, among other things, that there is a natural order to the universe that cannot be observed directly, but can be seen in patterns. Popularly known as the Butterfly Effect, it theorizes that though there appears a dissonance and disorder in nature, nature actually behaves in an orderly and predictable way. Examples of chaos can be seen in weather, the flow of currents and even the natural cycle of economic conditions. Though no two iterations of an event happen exactly as they happened before, there is a pattern that is distinguishable if charted or mapped.

Ike Pigott requested my input on a theory he floated last night on his blog. The theory is that Google, in their attempt to meet their stated mission of “organizing the world’s information”, is attempting to predict the future. He framed his argument around the dissolution of many Google services over the past week, in an effort to economically streamline their business and Steve Rubel’s prediction that their Google Reader product is next on the chopping block.

Ike’s argument was that, through Google’s monitoring and recording of key behavioral patterns – such as reading and sharing of stories, commenting, time of engagement, and subscriber base numbers – that Google is able to create a massive database over time that “learns” the patterns of human information engagement. With these patterns (and a nod to Chaos Theory), Google can accurately predict a large number of events, or cultural shifts before they come to be. Additionally, as the only owner of multiple copies of the internet in their massive server farms, Google positions itself to be the one and only benefactor of such information. It could be argued that “the Machine is among us” (in another nod to common science fiction themes),

It has long been my assertation that the tendency of the internet world to easily trust and adopt to Google efforts is a dangerous precedent to set. Increasingly, people rely on Google for mail, calendaring and even productivity. New bloggers tend to setup blogs on Google-owned Blogger and the saturation of video content is due, in no small part, to Youtube. Why? Because Google makes products that are easy and ease of use is more important than virtually any other factor that consumers might think of.

Without raising the alarm bells, folks should be cognizant about entrusting Google with all of their data. Personally, I use Gmail, FeedBurner, YouTube and other services, but the data is yours and should be diversified as much as possible.

Question of the Day: Is this theory of future prediction fact or fiction, good will or conspiracy? Isaac Asimov outlined the rules for robots in his book I, Robot:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Food for thought.

Monetize . . . or Die?

What we say to dogs.jpgA few months ago, my pitch to Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) for their GAP funding program was turned down. I actually thought I had a fighting chance, having worked with the good folks there before and produced a plan that set the stage for their first $100k GAP disbursement. But my app-in-progress CHALLENJ was turned down, for, among other things, “We are unsure about your ability to monetize the site.” Gee, I thought — I had scoped out several alternatives . . . one of them should surely yield.

What I said was, “The revenue is, of course, dependent on my ability to acquire millions of users.” And what they heard was “I don’t really care about revenue.” Like the classic cartoon, listening, understanding — and in the case of investors, believing — are often completely different things.

I had built a financial model — I love building models — that suggested revenue somewhere between $10M and $20M was achievable in Year 3. (Maybe I should have given them an interactive model or web toolkit, that would let them dial in their own scenario.)

But truth be told, my focus was primarily on getting users. I was willing to bet on our ability to do so, and that’s fine for founders . . . but for CIT (and others), the risk was too high — certainly to place a $100,000 bet.

(Incidentally, I still recommend applying for GAP funding — it’s a relatively easy application, and structured as a convertible note, avoids issues surrounding valuation, which can be very touchy these days.)

The conclusion I soon reached — months before the economy flip-flopped — was to build and launch before resuming the quest for investment. (Now pretty much a fait accompli for any web start-up.)

Launchbox Digital co-founder (and most recently, Thummit co-founder) Sean Greene suggested an alternative at BarCampDC2 last week: sustainability with small numbers: “VCs need things to be big — you don’t. You might be perfectly happy with 10,000 paying customers. And if so, you don’t need a VC.”

Point well taken. For that matter, maybe you don’t even need angel financing.

In a recent BusinessWeek story, New York Angels chairman David Rose — and several others — remarked they’d like to see self-sufficiency on the initial investment. Jeez Louise, how many businesses can get to self-sufficiency on a couple hundred thousand bucks?

Maybe it’s my upbringing. My first venture-funded company was in the computer-chip business. Talk about a leap-of-faith investment — money comes in, and a year or two later, you hope to have a working product, a receptive customer base, and good market conditions. In that world, there are only two qualifications for investment: 1) the pedigree of the team; and 2) the gut of the VC.

Google was a gut investment; the founders were super-smart, but still in school. Twitter had a mix of both — the founders had proven their smarts and ability to execute with Blogger, which was acquired by Google in 2003; but well before the meme had proven itself with the masses (some say it has yet a ways to go) a few VCs — notably Union Square Ventures‘ Fred Wilson and Spark Capital‘s Bijan Sabet, were also trusting their instincts that Twitter was not destined to be another PointCast. They believed instead they were on the very brink of a phenomenon . . . even without a revenue model.

Recently, a bit of tempest in a teapot brewed around a comment USV’s Wilson made about Twitter, as reported in a Wired blog:

“œIt’s like the stupidest question in the world: How’s Twitter going to make money?,” said Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson, another investor. “It’s like ‘How was Google going to make money?’

Wilson subsequently apologized for being snippy, but I knew what he meant. Throughout my startup career, I rarely worried about revenue models — the hardware companies of course made products to be sold, so the only concern there was could we sell thingies for more than it cost us to build them. But even in the software and Internet companies, there was a general belief in the notion that if we produce something people use, we’ll figure out a way to make money.

It may all be moot, because most of you are probably thinking more about sustainable revenue models than ever before.

Call me crazy . . . but I’m still a fan of go big, or go home.

In any case, we believe in our ideas, exuberant (if not irrational) as ever. And we remind ourselves that, as David Hornik, of August Capital has said: “One VC’s next Google is another’s wasted hour.”

Which is why I continue talking to VCs. And in fulfilling my personal mission to improve the VC-entrepreneur dialog, I’ve organized my first OpenCoffee, where we’ll have two local VCs in attendance. Join us, if you can, for some stimulating discussion!