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Friday, January 21, 2005

Mark Carlson - SimpleFeed CEO Interview

A few days ago I had the opportunity to speak with Mark Carlson a gifted entrepreneur and CEO of SimpleFeed is a web based application that allows marketing departments to implement, manage and modify customer communications programs.

Translated: It allows visitors interested in receiving updates on different areas of a company [new products, press releases, etc...] to generate a "one-off" RSS feed.
This means that every visitor has the ability to receive updates on items they're most interested in from a company without giving up any personal information. That means marketing departments are literally giving away information to their users without knowing a thing about those users other than the areas of the marketer's site the users are interested in. This isn't your typical marketing model, but then again, neither were search engines when they started popping up back in the day.

Obviously, the marketer needs to see a return on their investment in order for this model to work. Mark says that one of their larger clients VMWare is thrilled with the succes they've seen thus far. VMWare has called SimpleFeed's solution "polite marketing", "respectful marketing", and described it as "winning the trust battle with their customers". I must say that from what I know of VMWare [based on my interview with Mark] that they are one of the most avant garde companies with respect to marketing. They don't require visitors to provide any personal information in order to access their vast knowledge base of white papers and this is not the norm. However, they found many problems with email marketing and found SimpleFeed's custom RSS feed solution completely avoids those issues.

Without further ado, I'll post the questions and answers from the interview. I summarize the interview at the bottom of this post and also provide some of my personal opinions on Mark Carlson's SimpleFeed.

Jason: What is your background?

Mark: I started a software company called Walk Softly in '96 and developed a piece of privacy software called WatchDog. I saw privacy issues could and would be a problem in the future. Then I read the Dan Gillmor article about cookies and one thing led to another and we put an application together. It started as a free download and was purchased by an outside firm. Privacy is key and selling things to consumers one at a time is really hard to do. I wanted to put the customer in control. With SimpleFeed marketers don't know anything about the customer but that keeps the customer in control.

Jason: Who are your competitors?

Mark: We currently don't have any competitors. Feedburner doesn't do unique urls and it's based on traffic from specific ip addresses.

Jason: What about all the sites that roll their own RSS apps?

Mark: IT departments can't stay on top of it and provide as much reliability on the feed. Some people put up an RSS feed for their press releases and the customers like it. However there are weaknesses with this approach.

Jason: What are some of the weaknesses?

Mark: There is a need for personalization (multiple feeds) and it's hard to do. The Java section of Sun's site has over 300 different RSS feeds and customers feel bombarded by that. Presentation issues of the quality of the RSS feed. All of SimpleFeed's xml feeds have stylesheets and that validate. We provide measurability and that in and of itself is hard to do. We also act as the hub for the RSS aggregators like Bloglines and MyYahoo. When someone adds one of our feeds to their aggregator, the aggregator has to come to us to retrieve the feed. We're scalable and can handle high traffic loads so IT departments don't have to worry about managing servers dedicated to RSS feeds when they're getting a lot of traffic or requests for the feeds. We provide built in user management and role management which allows larger corporations to maintain control and only publish items once they've gone through the complete workflow cycle. In a day when Sarbanes Oxley issues are a hot topic this is important.

Jason: Do you think there needs to be a generic language in order for low tech verticals to adopt RSS feeds?

Mark: I'm hopeful it will be put into Microsoft products like the Microsoft Office suite and Internet Explorer because those products have such a large user base. If it's in ie like it's in Firefox then it'd be great.

Jason: Do you see enterprise solutions for integrating w/client databases seamlessly.

Mark: Absolutely - The first area we'll target will be support information.

Jason: How do you track stats?

Mark: It's a one to one ratio. A feed is created for ever user and their unique content interests.

Jason: What's the pricing model?

Mark: Companies pay only for the active feeds served. An active feed is a feed that has had at least one click or view in a month. We use a 1 px gif to determine reads and we also track the clickthrus for feeds down to the item level.

Jason: How does a customer manage the conetent users can receive via custom RSS feeds?

Mark: Via a web based admin system written in jsp and running Linux. There are four tabs in the admin system. Setup, Reporting, Simple Tags, Articles. The Setup tab is where they manage site templates, the security system, and the user management area. The Reporting tab is where they see their feed statistics. Stats are available in the form of charts and are downloadable in .csv format. The Simple Tags tab is where they create their personalization categories. The Articles tab is where they add the content that goes into the feed. The statuses of feeds are as follows: [drafts|submitted|approved|live articles|archived], create a new article]. Every article has a title, url, content, and the ability to upload a file directly.

Jason: Can you show me an example of what a visitor sees when subscribing to a feed?

Mark: Sure, VMWare has an example. SimpleFeed RSS Icon

Jason: Who runs SimpleFeed?

Mark: Me, my business partner Alik and a dog [Lab Poodle mix].

Jason: Where is SimpleFeed based?

Mark: We're in Los Altos which is right next to Palo Alto.

Jason: Did you fund the company using venture capital?

Mark: No, we're building it by not taking salaries and reinvesting profits into our technology and systems. We have relatively low overhead so that helps as well.

Jason: What is the pricing model?

Mark: We charge on an active feed per month basis. Clients are only billed for feeds that are being viewed.

Jason: What happens when a subscriber doesn't view the feed anymore but their aggregator is still retrieving the feed?

Mark: In a case like that we can contact the vendor [such as BlogLines] and have them stop retrieving the feed.

Personally, I think Mark is onto something here. His company is providing a service that's relatively easy to outsource and relatively complex and expensive to manage internally. I'd compare it to an RSS aggregator. I could easily write one for myself but by the time I wrote one I'd have to upgrade the code in order to stay on the same level of a commercial feed aggregator. Additionally, I'd have to provide the bandwidth, hosting, and backup for such a service. Likewise, SimpleFeed provides some great features and they have a slew of more features en queue.

One of the key principles Mark enforces is privacy. SimpleFeed allows subscribers to remain completely anonymous. They never have to give even an ip address to the marketer and in return they love it. This is one of the principles that made search marketing so popular. A user can execute a search and is returned a list of results that matched their query. Then they chose which sites they went to but they didn't have to go anywhere, they had the power, and that mentality is what has made search such a hot vertical.

Additionally, Mark is building strong relationships with his current customers. By providing a service that helps them connect with their audience they're building brand loyalty. So when SimpleFeed starts offering other services they'll have a great chance for upselling their existing customers and the word of mouth referrals will abound.

I found Mark to be an enthusiastic entrepreneur that knows his limits and knows what he's good at. He's building a business on it's own profits which means that if his product isn't any good then his business will die. This is the essence of being an entrepreneur. He's putting his profits where his mouth is and he's passionate about his product. I'm betting his formula will work...

Opportunity + Passion + Talent + Persistence = Success

Plus, he and I share the same birthday so that's gotta count for something. Seriously though, I actually didn't see a value in his product when I reviewed his site initially but after my interview with him I was a convert.

By Jason Dowdell at 12:58 AM | Comments (0)

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