SHARING THE PAIN
Regular readers have seen me take Typepad, the host for this blog, to task in recent weeks for posting problems. These posts were written both in a frustrated frame of mind (here), and an understanding one (here).
I've generally been an admirer of the service, one of the fastest growing Web 2.0 businesses, despite the occasional, but REAL frustrations (Most current gripe: fix the ability to issue trackbacks...I've not been able to issue proper trackbacks for a couple of weeks).
Most recently I complimented them on their attitude towards helping their users reap the rewards of posting their content (here).
But today I saw a letter to Typepad users posted by Typepad founders Mena and Ben Trott, that needs to be highlighted.
The letter starts off with a comment by Mena:
"As many of you have noticed, during the last couple of weeks TypePad performance has not been what we aspire to and you pay for. While I am as displeased as you, at the current time I can do nothing more than apologize -- a weak sentiment without action to back it up.
Ben has been in the midst of understanding and fixing the problems so I have asked him to write an update on the situation and tell you what we are doing to get back to the great service you have come to expect."
And goes on to Ben providing relevant and informative technical details* (see excerpt at end of post) on the challenges faced by the company in moving the service to bigger and better infrastructure that would address the high-class problem of hyper-growth.
But they had me at "As many of you have noticed..."
It reminded me again how this young start-up has gotten a key part of early DNA right. It's reflected in an attentive group of folks at Typepad/SixApart that seems to listen to rants in the blog wilderness, as when Anil Dash from the company responded to a separate Typepad venting post from me a few weeks ago.
Facing hyper-growth is not a new problem...as I noted in the earlier post:
"This is a rite of passage for great technology businesses...lots of companies have had to go through it, aka as Crossing the Chasm...Dell in the eighties, AOL in the nineties, eBay in Web 1.0 (late nineties), and now Typepad in Web 2.0.
It's always the toughest when the ramp affects your core product and/or service as experienced by your customers."
And Ben's technical explanation* is a reminder that each company's ramping problems are uniquely different.
- Dell needed to ramp up a customer service organization in an era when PCs were new and uppity (I know the latter still hasn't changed).
- AOL had to ramp up a nation-wide bank of dial-up modems.
- And eBay had to ramp up a consumer service that needed to provide real-time auction status on tens of millions of transactions to millions of buyers and sellers around the world.
In many of these situations, as with Typepad today, the technical problems being surmounted have not been faced by anyone before, pushing the technologies being used and the vendors being asked to respond, to the limit.
As Web 2.0 goes onto 3.0 and beyond (think audio, video, IP TV, wireless, etc.), many more companies will encounter similarly unique ramping challenges.
But the most important feature they all need to build in from the beginning is: USER COMMUNICATION. Communicate with your users early, with candor, directness, and frequency.
And of course, FIX the dang problem.
* Ben's explanation of Typepad's unique technical difficulties, excerpted here for reader convenience:
"TypePad-hosted blogs are, to say the least, incredibly popular, and growing at an incredible rate. We're currently pushing about 250mbps of traffic through our multiple network pipes, and that's growing by 10-20% each month. (If you're more familiar with bandwidth stated in terms of transfer allowances, that's a transfer rate of almost 3TB (terabytes!) per day.) And because TypePad customers are so invested in their blogs, we see activity on the service-both reading & writing-that equals services with 100 times the number of users on TypePad.
Because of the growth of the service, we've been increasing our capacity steadily, but a few months ago the data center we are in ran out of space and power, limiting the amount of equipment we could add. After some shopping, we found a great new data center and have been building it out for over a month. We're currently in the middle of that move, and that's when the trouble started.
While a data center move generally tends to add some risk to running a service day-to-day, we could never have anticipated anything like the last couple of weeks."