Two kids and a full time job later

I’ve recently been provoked to take a serious look at Kaplak again. I thought I would drop a few lines in this place to announce that I’m back to work on Kaplak – if only in a tiny slice of my time – but no less ambitiously.

The truth is I’ve never really left. For various reasons, it made a lot of sense to close down the company Kaplak and focus on other things, but I’ve never quite left the ideas we worked with in Kaplak, and I believe the world still needs what we had coming for it. In the meantime there’s not much else to do but figure out ways to build upon the experience we had then.

So in the back of my head, this is what I have been doing. I am right now on three months of parental leave from work – which among other things, have lent me some long-missed time to think about the meaning of my life and the connected world. When teaching one does actually do a lot of thinking – but it’s mostly about teaching and planning classes and lessons, and not much else. Since August 2009 I’ve been teaching history and media full time at Aabenraa Statsskole – and since the summer of 2007 I’ve also had two kids (one now aged 4 and one nearly 9 months), which in sum means that my life is totally different today than what it was when I first started Kaplak.

So what did provoke me to take yet another long arduous journey to the far far away land of the slim ends of the long tail? (Plural because they come in large numbers!) Among other things, I’ve come across a couple of online phenomena which deserves a few words in this space.

Google+
Earlier this year Google launched Google+ which I have embraced and played with – at times enthusiastically, at others somewhat reluctantly. It’s like Friendfeed has come back – but different and with a whole new feature-set, which combines the best of what Twitter and Facebook have to offer. But it’s still a proprietary monster, where Google (among many other things) gets to decide what their users are ‘allowed to call themselves’, simply because while Google+ empowers users to share their stuff in ever more flexible ways, the network is still owned by Google and this ownership is never in question. Nevertheless, the ease of sharing stuff on Google+ has made me into a regular poster.

Google has been quick to add hashtags to it’s service, and I’ve now begun to add hashtags to my stuff, which makes it easy to find #copyfight stuff and posts on #landvaluetax, as well as all those #thingsthatmakeyouseetheworldjustalittlebitdifferently. It often has stricken me though, that I ought not to use Google to make what is in essence niche micro sites much like the ones we were developing with Kaplak Stream. Instead, I’d like to share stuff using WordPress as a platform as we did in Kaplak, and only use Google+ as a secondary channel.

If this then that
Just recently I stumbled (via my Google+ network) across an online service which goes by the name If This Then That, which stirred up a lot of thoughts about Kaplak in the back of my head. Occasionally I come across something which contributes a piece to this ongoing puzzle. Ifttt, I believe, is such a piece. Now these stirred-up thoughts have fallen into place again, and although a lot of the ideas we worked with in Kaplak remains (making a sound business out of less-than-popular (“long tail”) products – and transforming work life and the universe as we know it in the process), some have landed in new places.

My instinct tells me that Ifttt (and similar services) paves the way for the future of the internet. Ifttt truly empowers users because it puts users in charge of the what, when and where of their online activities – not the services they use. It widens a door already opened by the APIs of online services, which adds a new parameter to the equation. Companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter will increasingly have to compete on how well they serve the needs of users to bring their data where they need them to go (and in that process make more data available flexibly and cater to the needs of services such as Ifttt) – and not where those companies would like them to go.

Now, what does this entail for Kaplak?

We had two working strategies in Kaplak – one was widgets, the other was Kaplak Stream. Both aimed at the same target : selling niche products in rich niche contexts, which would easily be found by their niche customers, and in doing this connecting seller with buyer. The middleman – the “skipper” making the connection, would in turn earn kaplak, a percentage of the product value given by the seller.

Now, it’s a top priority to concentrate efforts on making Kaplak economically feasible. This means, that with the greater ease and the less hazzle we can create these connections, the better, as the turnout (kaplak) from each sale must be expected to be very small. Therefore, we will focus on the “stream”-approach, but with a few decisive changes to make sure we must do as little “clean up” and maintenance as possible – more on this at a later time and place.

This aligns well with what my life looks like right now. Among other things, I can not dedicate as large a portion of my time as I would like to build up Kaplak, at least at this point in my life. I will keep teaching history and media, and continue to devote a large part of my spare time to my precious family.

But what I do have, are those spare minutes during the day, which cannot be used for much else. I will continue to cruise the web and share stuff, using my phone, my laptop and my PC. But increasingly I will ‘share with Kaplak’ i.e. develop a sharing platform and work out posting routines accordingly, using Kaplak – rather than use Google+ just because I am too lazy to use my own platform. Google+ has other excellent possibilities and uses – but should never be the end destination for shared stuff, no less so than Facebook or Friendfeed should.

Using services such as Ifttt we can easily distribute items to their proper place, and since I’ve last worked seriously with WordPress, useful and valuable plugins such as FeedWordPress has only improved – and will assist to help create the niche sites, which in turn will deliver the helpful contexts for future Kaplak products.

What is important though, is that I sense that it is in fact possible – right now, using the tools that we have right now – to build a site architecture, without the need for a lot of coding, which will (if very slowly, to begin with) help accomplish the beginnings of what we set out to do with Kaplak.

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The Bumpy Rolling Out of Kaplak Stream – And What Not To Do To Piss Off Google

Kaplak is changing it’s course again. Since the inception of the first kaplak idea, we’ve come a long humbling way to only realize over and over again, how much we still have to learn. But slowly, we also realize what kind of knowhow we have and are building, and how Kaplak can help crack the problems and meet the challenges, which we set out to originally. Hence we also begin to understand what kind of value we add – and just as importantly, what we don’t add. Among many other things, this is key to learn what kind of business model we want to build – and, just as importantly, what kind of business we don’t want.

Let’s take a look at what happened with our traffic since the somewhat bumpy rolling-out of Kaplak Stream in 2008, from November 1st last year to February 1st this year :

The above is a screenshot from the Google Analytics Dashboard for Kaplak.com including subdomains. Following the launch of Kaplak Stream, sometime in November our traffic started to take off. Kaplak Stream basically consists of the present WordPress MU installation of which the Kaplak Blog is also part, along with a handful of customized plugins, of which the most important one is FeedWordPress. The idea (as sketched out in this previous blog post) is that items in the stream can be “fed out” from the stream again, which will reveal new contexts, which didn’t exist before. When two separate items which are both tagged “Barack Obama” are fed from the stream, they create a new “Barack Obama” context, even though the original items may have been produced and published in wildly different contexts.

The first installment of Kaplak Stream came with just about fifteen feeds, of which a handful were submitted by owners of niche websites. Others were feeds from sites such as YouTube, Amazon.com, Twitter (tracking particular subjects or keywords) and Boing Boing. Enough to provide the stream with some variety and “head” which would also test the autotagging performed by Open Calais via a modified version of Dan Grossman’s WordPress plugin.

Kaplak Stream managed to aggregate well over about 15.000 items, i.e. about 1000 items from each feed on average. Grossly more tweets than regular blog posts were aggregated, but posts attracted the greater amount of traffic, given that they worked much better with the autotagging functionality in place. Since they had more text, the tagging tended to be more precise – although some times tags were wildly misleading and out of place. Room for lots of improvement. Most, about 90-95% of all traffic came from search, notably Google. Visitors tended to not stay long, but quickly be on their way again. This could seem to suggest that only few found what they were looking for. However, reports also came in from feed owners, that our traffic managed to produce a meaningful sample of visits on the actual sites aggregated. This was really good news, as it suggests that a sample of our visitors actually found what they were looking for, or was curious enough to click through.

So what pulled the rise in traffic? No subject in particular, but the variety of subjects covered. What attracted users were more often than not pretty obscure pages and topics. For example, top result were the “tag page” for the tag “university-of-illinois-arctic-climate-research-center” with 641 views, and there was absolutely no recoginzable pattern in the rest of the more popular pages reached by visitors. I have not given our sample here substantial analysis, but my guess would be that there would be a neat power law graph, if one dotted in the number of visits to each page in Kaplak Stream and ranked them besides each other. But there is no discernable pattern as to what determined what aggregated items were more popular than others.

While some things seem to work, albeit still just barely, there are also problems. One of these is that apparently something happened on January 26th, which made our traffic drop drastically to before Kaplak Stream levels. Presumably this drop was caused by a Google penalty from duplicate content, which Google have been known to give websites which carry identical content across different domains. While Kaplak’s goals are somewhat aligned with Google’s, although not completely, I’m not unsure the penalty (if there was one) was not “right” in the sense that there were clearly limits to how informative and appropriate the search results which led visitors to our site, were. At least to justify the dramatically beneficial position we gained by aggregating just 15 feeds.

Another problem is the “noise” level, in our tagging, and in the combinations of feed items tagged with similar tags. Tags can be and mostly are very local. A post only remotely connected with a person and a piece which is solely about that person are usually tagged identically. My instinct tells me we need to use automated tools for what they are good for, and let filtering be more in the hands of expert users, in the contexts where it matters.

Clearly, more experiments are needed, and we need much more sustained analysis and methods to analyze our data. All this takes time and costs money. Right now Kaplak has no business model except what we can put into it of our own pockets (meaning mine) – and these are rapidly emptied. This means, for the time being, i.e. for several months now – and several months (and perhaps even years) ahead, I will not be able to work and develop Kaplak on full time. Thanks to the benevolence of our host, we can keep and continue to work on all Kaplak’s sites and projects, but we’ll make some changes which prepares us best to run Kaplak as a part-time operation.

We’ll convert the Kaplak setup to a setup more similar to that of the UMW Edublogs set up by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington. Among other things, this means we’ll focus more on building each smaller site in the network, and keep each site focused on it’s subject or theme. We’ll focus more on aggregating what happens within the Kaplak network of sites than what is going on outside the Kaplak WPMU install. We’ll still use aggregation tools to track very particular subjects, keywords and tags, but each different subject will be treated in a site of it’s own, to make things more manageable (it’s a mess cleaning up a large site based on aggregated items). In other words, we’ll run a network of small, very low-maintenance sites, and delay bigger experiments and improvements for a while. Meanwhile, Kaplak Stream will still be able to track tags across all sites and offer feeds from particular tags used in the network.

Reducing the amount of my time which goes into actual development of Kaplak also means I can focus better at building a new constellation of ressourceful people and (real) investors, which we will need to come back stronger with a revived Kaplak at a later time. This is what I hope to achieve, while I work simultanously on other things, making a living.

However, there is also a risk, that we don’t. That our ways may go in other directions. This is not necessarily all bad. See this video with Tim O’Reilly in a previous post to see why. I will try very hard to keep an open mind and attitude and not get stuck in ideas I ought better to leave behind. That said, I can’t see any companies or services which presently really cracks the problems we set out to – and this means we still need to fill that space, one way or the other. And more than anything, I can’t stay away.

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Taking a Deep Breath

Preparing a battle plan for integrating WordPress µ (or MU) with our network of sites. I will commence the execution of this plan at a non-disclosed time sometime in the near future. The Kaplak Blog and Kaplak Wiki will remain online but the site in our root will be completely removed and therefore unreachable. This in effect terminates the old Kaplak site in favour of a complete WordPress µ install. We will work from there to rebuild the root site with new texts and the subsite network reachable from subdomains to kaplak.com, which will be known as the Kaplak Stream.

I’ve never done an install of WP µ before. I’ve performed lots of installs of web software before, but I have no prior experience with µ. Installing web packages I’ve usually taken the backups I felt were necessry but otherwise simply plunged ahead and learnt from my mistakes. I’ve always learned to prepare mentally for a one way process of steep learning dotted with the occasional tumble, which makes me spend days beforehand searching for other users’ experiences. A little planning and knowing the road ahead doesn’t hurt. So I’ve spent a lot of time these past days reading up on other people’s experiences and problems, to get an idea about what to expect. Unfortunately, what we’re doing with µ doesn’t seem to be the usual thing – so we will no doubt learn things the hard way, either way.

Here’s what the general plan looks like right now :

1. Install WP µ package in our root
2. Create the pages we need to make the root site functionable
3. Create the initial round of subsites we need for archival purposes. Every external service we use will be set up to feed a site of it’s own. I.e. all of our bookmarks will be archived from delicious, all our tweets will be archived from Twitter, and so on.
4. Install and make sure WP-o-matic (or another appropriate automatic RSS feeder) is acting up to speed. WP-o-matic should be fully compatible with WP µ.
5. Feed our archived streams back into one major subsite channel, which will be the Kaplak Stream, as well as to other subsites to which they are of interest.

This completes our first setup and the site is functional. It only starts getting interesting, though. Next, we generate any subsite we wish at a particular time by feeding it the appropriate RSS lumps of interest. For this work we will use Google Reader to begin with, with it’s built-in tagging option, which makes it easy to generate new feeds from existing RSS feeds. Each subsite aims to sell preferably one product only, or a very limited range of products. To begin with, these will be products made available via affiliate programs such as (but not limited to) Amazon Associates, eJunkie and RedAntenna, depending on the product. These sites need not be popular, nor updated or visited frequently, but will seek to stay highly focused on their subject of interest, in order to offer as rich a context as possible when they are visited, commented upon or linked to. This makes it easy and valuable for related sites and communities to tap into these streams, as they build up lasting value.

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What’s brewing at Kaplak

Kaplak is undergoing some changes re: ownership and leadership these days. In short, we’re abolishing the Association of Kaplak Investors in favor of a company with clarity of ownership and leadership, and we’re doing it a bit sooner than originally anticipated. I’ll get back to why in more detail in a later post, after all formal proceedings. I just wanted to line a few things up about what’s in the pipeline :

  • We’ll be looking high and low for a high-class webdesigner, possibly at partner level.
  • We’ll start building our public wiki!
  • We’ll complete our “investor business plan”.
  • We’ll complete a pre-springboard with ConnectDenmark, which is a Danish organization who promotes and connects innovative businesses with investors, in particular growth oriented, scalable businesses and (mostly) what would probably be termed angel and seed investors in an international context.

Last, but not least, we’ll develop and launch our initial range of complementary products, i.e. services and products which complement our core idea, can give us customers and income streams, as well as further data and information on our customer’s core problem. This all means we can fund Kaplak’s core product development.

In other words, lots of hard work ahead, with only too few hours.

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When is Kaplak ready?

Frequently Asked Questions Part I

We’ve had a number of questions via email, and I’d like to answer and expand on some of them here. The type of question which tops the list is this one :

When is Kaplak ready? When can I start downloading films?

We usually distinguish between two phases of development, Kaplak v1 and Kaplak v2. Kaplak v1 is the first, simplest working solution, which helps meet the two key challenges (so we think) for digital niche producers, visibility and payments. Kaplak v2 is the construction of a backbone structure which utilizes p2p technology, and can be used by our customers for very fast transportation of data. Kaplak v1 has a timeframe of 1-2 years, unless our key assumptions prove to be misguided in the process, and we have to start over or redo parts of our development. Kaplak v2 has an estimated timeframe of 3-4 years.

In the fall of 2006 we initiated a lengthy process of researching and developing our product, organization and market. And we have only just begun. Last month we launched this website in order to reach out towards potential customers. How longwinded our process will be from here, we really don’t know. There’s a lot of financing, consulting, educating, recruiting, data analyzing and software engineering ahead. However, we believe it will pay off to take our time to do this kind of dedicated development, and do it well.

If you want to sell toothpaste, people already know what your product is, and you can go ahead producing, marketing and selling your product right away. Nobody knows what Kaplak is, just yet. Kaplak is not simply about ‘downloading’ stuff, even though we hope our product will make this a very simple (and fast) matter.

Therefore, we have to work very carefully to develop our product, while we simultanously get to know our customers and their key problems. We may think we know a lot of things, but we need to document every last one of our assumptions in order to build the right product, sell to the right customers, create the right business model, recruit the right people and construct the right organization and right type of company. To that end, we need your help. Not to buy our product (just now) but to inform us; to educate us about your product, your business and your needs.

Like to help? Please join our Mailing List.

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