Who's Got the Right Idea? Dave Sifry Has

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Dave Sifry is a serial entrepreneur – and a real fighter.

I first spoke to him in 2000, when he was running a company he had founded called Linuxcare. The idea was great: to offer independent support for open source programs, at that time tarred with the brush of being unsuitable for business precisely because they lacked such support. Unfortunately, the dotcom crash meant that money suddenly became tight in the computing world, and people cut back where they could – including areas like support.

The next time I interviewed him was in 2006. By then, he'd founded a new company, Technorati, which had already become the place to go for tracking the blogosphere. Alas, that too started to lose momentum a little, and Sifry stepped down as CEO in August last year. Undeterred, he has bounced right back with new idea, the charmingly-named Hoosgot:

Hoosgot (pronounced “who’s got”) is a simple way to ask who’s got what you’re looking for. Just put “hoosgot” in a blog post or a Twitter tweet and it’ll show up here in Hoosgot. It’s meant to give you a place to send the requests for all of those things that you’ve wanted, but just can’t find - chances are, what you want already exists and someone else out there in the ether knows about it.

In a fascinating blog posting, Sifry explains the genesis of the project:

Hoosgot's Roots

Hoosgot humbly traces its roots to the wonderful lazyweb which unfortunately shut down in 2006. It was a glorious experiment in what the web could produce - co-creation on a global scale. Many many thanks to Ben Hammersley and team for setting it up, and running the original site.

Why did I do this?

I love the lazyweb. You know, the idea that if you had a need, a wish, an interesting "what-if" thought, you could make a suggestion on your blog, your community on Seesmic or Twitter, and every now and then, the gods of the interwebs would answer your prayers thrown out to the ether. It bummed me out that a central place for these requests was nowhere to be found, and all these great ideas (and pleas!) were being lost in the ether.

You gotta love Holiday Weekends

Friday night (the 28th) The lazyweb popped back into my mind. I missed it. I started asking myself the question, "Why hasn't anyone reconstituted the lazyweb?, What if we could rebuild the lazyweb for the 2008 web? What if we could take advantage of all the cool tools that have arrived in the last 5 years? Would it work?" Rather than wait around, I realized I could just build it, and maybe folks like me would use it. At about 5am on Saturday morning, the first prototype was up. I made some major changes, including twitter support Saturday night. And launch is today, on Sunday morning! Ain't working on the web fun?:-)

They key point, then, is that Sifry had the idea Friday night, coded it by Saturday, and launched it Sunday. Very impressive.

But what interests me is how Sifry was able to do that. I knew that both Linuxcare and Technorati were both built on open source, so I asked him whether the usual LAMP (GNU/Linux-Apache-MySQL-Perl/Python/PHP) stack lay behind Hoosgot too. Here's what he said:

It's basically LAMP, yes. It uses Wordpress as a platform (Apache/MySQL/PHP) and some Perl on the backend to do the searches and postings. Working on some more interfaces in Perl and Python. Outputs everything in HTML and RSS (thanks to wordpress and its large supply of themes and plugins). It uses Technorati and a few other services, all of whom have RSS and XML outputs, so parsing them was pretty straightforward.

The secret, then, of Dave's amazing entrepreneurial fecundity – aside from his own DNA - is the rich array of open source tools that he has at his disposal (and which he is sufficiently skilled to deploy effectively). Using them, he is able time and again to turn an idea into reality very quickly, and then release it for comments and fine-tuning by real users. And Sifry's not alone: practically all of the well-known Web 2.0 companies – Digg, Flickr, even Google – began in the same way, with prototypes being lashed together using freely-available open source code and then launched without long periods of internal testing.

There's an important lesson here for every Net entrepreneur or business with an idea: don't just sit there, grab some open source apps and start coding. And if you fail, so what? Just come up with something better next time.