Webjay

Lucas Gonze explains how he was able to build and sell his project to Yahoo through laser focus and help from the community.

How did you get started working on Webjay?

In 2003 was working from home as a programmer. I had plenty to live on given limited needs. I was doing regular hacking sessions as a creative outlet and found that it was hard to make a playlist that I could share with a friend. So I started experimenting with solutions. My solutions were always as low-tech as possible.

My friends joined in to share playlists. They were my user base, so the things I was building had a market to test against from the very beginning. After a while, I got something finished enough for other people outside of my close friends.

Where did you find the time and funding to work?

I was living on contract work as a programmer. When I was employed, I did my own thing nights and weekends. Otherwise, I went without paid work as long as I could stand, kind of like holding your breath.

As the site grew, my personal reputation increased, and then consulting projects that were sufficiently lucrative and undemanding came in. And I was eventually able to sell enough ads to help with bills.

From the very beginning my users contributed much of the work. A community member coded and hosted the search engine, another one did the embedded media player, the logo and graphics were done by another community member, and the help forums were "staffed" by community members.

What marketing techniques did you use to grow Webjay?

I grew Webjay through word of mouth, inbound links, and embeds on third party sites. Embedding my media player was a major feature, so there was organic viral growth.

I experimented constantly with ways to make users happier. Eventually viral flows surfaced naturally.

How did you deal with incorporating and other legal issues?

I never incorporated. I had already done two startups and had learned to avoid all distractions from creating value. In my earlier startups, my partners and I had wasted crucial resources on sexy logos, a spiral-bound business plan, incorporation, arguing over equity shares, etc.

I didn't make that mistake again. This was crucial to my success. If your product is adopted, everything else follows. If not, you will fail.

How did Webjay make money?

I monetized through banner ads. It was a native format where a sponsor's music was available for adoption among my users. I also monetized by using my accrued reputation to get better contract work as a programmer.

Eventually I was acquihired by Yahoo. It was much easier to close a deal, because I had no investors. I didn't get rich, but I got enough to buy a house and dramatically improve my standard of living. I also got a big promotion, from coder to exec, and now make a much better living.

Yahoo shut down the site after creating a lame clone. This broke my heart. But Yahoo also put significant resources behind my next-generation version that hadn't yet shipped. The next-gen version went on to wide adoption and stayed in production for a long time.

What were your biggest challenges, fears, and mistakes?

I worried about the site going down, which happened constantly. I worried about not being able to keep up with growth, which was a major problem. I worried about getting sued.

My code was super ugly. I put all available time into scaling or developing new features, and never regretted it. This was absolutely the right choice!

What habits helped you the most? And what's your advice for others trying to do what you did?

  • Do things the easy way.
  • Have a razor sharp bullshit filter.
  • No metrics unless you will act on the data. No work that doesn't matter to users.
  • Be yourself. Be a human.
  • Don't try to raise money from investors. They will waste your time and your project will die. Be deeply suspicious of anything like YC.
  • Be very careful about lawyers. They have little to offer you.
  • Be tough. Things worth doing are usually hard.

What was your tech stack?

I used LAMP: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.

Where can readers learn more about you?

They can find me at http://gonze.com or leave a comment below.

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