Learning from Flathunt

An old friend sent me this piece of nostalgia:

(full size)

This screenshot was taken in late 1999, shortly before launch.

If you look closely you can see some SQL debugging code and even a “blank cell” at the bottom.  All of the click HERE links are also a special touch.

Anybody else remember this old design?

Looking back, I can’t believe that I quit a perfectly good and well paid job to do this!

Everybody who thought I was a bit mad was clearly right.  I literally knew less than nothing when I started – because as lot of what I assumed I knew was wrong.

The very first feedback email I ever got was from a friendly stranger who explained why contextual links are generally better.  You do well to only make each mistake once, I suppose.

It’s now just over 10 years since I started working on this stuff.  That’s getting to be so long ago that it feels like a completely different time and place.

The web as it was back then is barely recognisable today: a relatively tiny population of connected users, the vast vast majority on dial-up (browsing with images turned off, to make it faster and cheaper was not uncommon); very primitive browsers which were rapidly evolving and quite unpredictable (CSS and JavaScript were only for the brave); tiny screen sizes (remember 640×468?); development tools and languages that required a bit of brute force; no conventions to build on or follow, etc etc.

The way we thought about the web back then, and what it took to create a successful site and successful business, is in some ways starting to look a bit dated  too.  Or, perhaps idealistic is a better word?

Here is one of the lessons that does still hold, I think:

The people who got up the learning curve the quickest were those that took off shoes and just jumped in, however unimpressive the initial things we were building seem looking back.  Those that sat on the sidelines desperately hoping to come up with a great idea for a website, or worse, spent all their time refining a concept or design until they considered it good enough to actually show people, were generally left behind.

I think there are a lot of parallels with the web back then and the way that mobile applications are developing at the moment: there seems to be a new or improved platform every week; nobody really has any idea about the best way to present applications to users (Objective-C or HTML5?) or to try and make money from them; the conventions and standards in interaction design are to a large extent still to be discovered and agreed; there is only a tiny user base (I’m told there are now ~50,000 iPhones in NZ, compared to about 8x as many internet users in 1999); pricing is an evolving art; and yet as all of this is playing out there is a huge amount of innovation happening.

If I were a discontented 24-year-old today this is what I’d be working on.

Or, a reasonably contented 34-year-old, for that matter.

More about that soon…

(In the meantime, if you’re a Powershop customer please download our meter reader and top-up app which launched this week).

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6 thoughts on “Learning from Flathunt”

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more, Rowan. There are certain phrases embedded in New Zealand lexicon that really lend credence to this. The phrase, “Give it a go,” is the one that comes to mind.

    The phrase not only gets you over the (self-created) fear and embarrassment of failure but also gives the user a sense of accomplishment despite being “unsuccessful.” This commonly held attitude is one of the main reasons I love and live in New Zealand.

    1. Yes, a motivated hacker could have taken down my Microsoft Access database very easily, massively inconveniencing the tens of visitors I got each day at that point. :-)

    1. Yes, well spotted. The URL and email address give it away too. :-)

      I needed something to keep me occupied all those nights waiting in the Qantas Lounge waiting to fly back from Sydney!

  2. Nice site buddy,
    Jumping in and getting runs on the board whether they be successes or failures is the one constant driving change.

    I’ve had my fair share of failures among the successes, and can thank every one of them for the endless gifts these experiences bring

    You supported me on one of my earlier web product ventures, started in the most un-natural situation I’ve started any business, that yielded more learnings than profits, and for that I thank you for being part of helping another journey head on to the next stage…

    Each step while in hindsight could have been avoided if learnt from takes its place as an integral part of creating success.

    Still full of quality that Trademe manifesto… I’ve continued to use it as a reference check in the noise of jumping in, no matter how long it may take for it to sink in for a cat like me.

    When you try to make real what you see in your heart and minds eye, regardless of where exactly you get to, you’re on the road and you just can’t help but smile : )

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