Microsoft Book Search

December 6th, 2006 by Hugh

Here’s the biggest piece of news for a while on the printed word / digital convergence theme: Microsoft is to launch its ‘search inside books’ service this Thursday, in beta. The BBC reports that the digital archive will include out-of-copyright texts from the British Library, The University of California, and the University of Toronto. Later, Microsoft intends to integrate the service into its main search engine. Naturally developments like this greatly help Exbiblio, which wants to link printed texts to their digital equivalents.

Day Off

November 29th, 2006 by Hugh

Wednesday has been snowed off at Exbiblio. The terrible weather in Seattle has caused traffic mayhem, and people are finding it hard to get into the center. This combined with what I imagine (from London) is not the highest morale right now, has prompted a ‘company holiday’ to be declared.

I don’t know what plans there are for Friday, but with such a mass exodus of staff this week, I imagine that everyone will get into work, come what may, because surely there will be quite a party.

Goodbye Exbiblio

November 27th, 2006 by Adam

It has been an whirlwind year and a half at Exbiblio. This will be my last week as an employee. Hugh did a good job of describing the current situation in his post, so I won’t rehash it here.

I’ve been able to have lots of different roles: Contract Programmer, CEO (in the early days), Mac Developer, Beta Manager, Blogger, Web App Developer, Product Designer, Operations, Branding, Mail Delivery, etc… I’ve had seven different offices if you count the first months when I worked from my Bee Documents office!

I recently came across the phrase “boiling the ocean” which is a good way of describing my frustration with Exbiblio. We have been trying to change the world, business, and technology all at once without a clear plan to do so. I think we could done a much better job at carefully choosing targets and knocking them down one at a time. Hopefully, the team that remains at Exbiblio will be able to find this kind of focus.

Certainly, there have been many great positives to working at Exbiblio as well. The biggest joy has been all is the people I’ve had a chance to work with, both past and present team members…

Martin has an idea a minute, challenges convention at every opportunity, and feels that a business is only worthwhile if it changes the world for the better. Hugh takes honesty and openness in corporate blogging to a new level. Lauren has the coolest music collection ever which got me re-interested in the Beatles and older Wilco stuff. Noah introduced me to sushi which I am now addicted to. Hap exhibits the kind of living that we all aspire to. Janinne is passionate about creating the kind of work environment and culture that everyone dreams about. Arial has “integrity” tattooed to her hand, literally. Claes-Fredrik can make a game out of any technological innovation. Ed M does the best job of herding cats that I have ever seen. Thanks to Ed T for the phrases “vaguely Asian” and “classy” which I have adapted and made part of the my vocabulary. Hillary has a passion for the environment, that if it could somehow be converted to electricity, would solve all the world’s energy problems. Richard is often a cool voice of reason which is at least as valuable as his brilliant technical ability. Quentin pointed the way towards bringing Martin’s crazy ideas to fruition. Ania asks really hard questions about beauty and truth in design meetings. Ian is the kind of person everyone wants to work with and be around. Damon is so smart it’s scary. Brendan is quiet until the topic of bicycles or politics come up. Jer’s blog posts about green design speak to his passion and he illustrates images of dog food surprising well. john makes sure that we are not just a pizza pocket and Coke type of operation (who knows why we aren’t allowed to capitalize his name?). Jesse makes everything work that way it should, and has a good answer for every question.

There are many others who have been apart of the Exbiblio team. Sorry I can’t list all of you. Thanks for the memories and the knowledge you have given me.

The other great aspect of working with Exbiblio is that big dreams are the fuel that this company runs on. The dreams of the founders and employees are a very explicit part of daily operation, which is a rare and valuable environment to work in. I hope that many of the dream come true.

Thanks for the great ride, I will always be a friend and fan of Exbiblio.

Retrenchment: team reaction

November 27th, 2006 by Hugh

I’ve been ringing round the Exbiblio team looking for reaction to the news of the retrenchment and staff cut-back. Not everyone has been at their desks, but this is what I’ve been told so far.

Brydie Ragan, who has been just five days into her job as Exbiblio’s “hardware evangelist”, says that she was still learning about Exbiblio, its people, and its projects. Even so, she wasn’t bowled over, as she’s worked on startups before, including one of her own, and “there are always surprises”. She adds that it’s just part of “life’s great adventure.”

Engineer, Brendan McNichols, tells me: “In a sense, I’m not surprised because it’s a startup and we’ve been spending a lot of money on a piece of hardware that was ridiculously expensive to bring to market. Where the surprise comes in, is that just a week previous, things had been seeming to be going okay. We’ve been getting software stuff on track, and then we’ve been hiring , and usually that’s a sign that things are going well.”

Ian MacDuff, the engineer who has been co-ordinating the relationship with contractors Synapse, tells me that he has been discussing with Exbiblio’s management how to wrap-up the hardware project. He suggested that they should document the oPen’s architecture and explain how it works. However, he adds, “I’m not feeling hyper-motivated. I would like to be, but I’m pretty disappointed about the whole thing.”

(update) Lauren Summers tells me: “I was surprised at the announcement last week because it was very sudden, and am sad to break up from this team of people. I do hope Exbiblio can figure out a way to make it work. The growing idea of the (working) device over the past months, and seeing each new development, makes the idea of not using it soon feel like a loss.”

Adam Behringer will be writing shortly about his own impressions.

Speaking to a couple of others off-the-record, I get the impression that there is not a huge deal of surprise about the event itself – these things happen in startups – but the timing and suddenness was unexpected. There is some bafflement about why the management appeared not to know about potential problems – even to the extent that they were hiring recently.

A Sudden “Awakening”

November 27th, 2006 by Hugh

I received an email from Martin King at the end of last week saying: “only drastic action will save Exbiblio.”

Well that’s one way of getting the company blogger’s attention.

A telephone call this weekend filled out some of the details. Martin tells me that conversations have been taking place, both on an individual and a collective level, in which he has informed Exbiblio’s 17 employees that the company will retrench down to a core of about 5 to 8 full time staff by the end of this week. The consultants, who form a large part of Exbiblio’s cost base, will also be cut back – if not to zero, to something close to that.

The news seems all the more unexpected when you take into account that Exbiblio has hired four new people over the last month. In fact, I was just about to publish a portrait of one of the new arrivals. But if you follow some of the links in this post, you will see that all the warning signs have been there.

Martin described the decision as “a sudden awakening”. The company is burning through its resources “way too quickly”. Week after week has passed when there was supposed to be a fully functioning prototype of the oPen scanner pen in their hands. Each week has been met with disappointment.

As well as these continuing “challenges” there were two immediate causes that precipitated the ‘awakening”. Exbiblio found on November 17th that the price of a key optical component was going to be two and a half times what it had budgeted for. Then, on November 21 came another blow: it found that a critical component, the oLed display wasn’t going to be available, and it would require a major redesign to incorporate another display.

In addition to all this, the software project to accompany with the hardware has been progressing slowly.

Martin now acknowledges he made a fundamental mistake six months ago. He insisted that the project would progress in ‘experimental mode’ discovering what worked as it went along. It didn’t have a full spec- just a sort of general direction.

“That was a terrible mistake”, he admits, “I should have allowed people to develop formal product specification, and let everyone know that it would change as we went on. People don’t like working in environments of uncertainty. Formal disciplines are necessary.”

On my last visit to Seattle, I was pleased and surprised to see Exbiblio starting to work in a more formal manner, with milestones that had to be crossed built into the system, and progress ticked off each day. Two months ago I was astonished to discover that Exbiblio had only recently hired a part-time bookkeeper – and could only now present its financial position in detail. I had noted the lack of a finance director but I had wrongly assumed that there was somebody I hadn’t met yet keeping a close eye on every last figure and doing financial projections.

I think that part of what’s happened is that the real picture has started to appear out of the mist. In the new spirit of ‘formal discipline” it has become much clearer just what an enormous undertaking Exbiblio has made, how far away it is from completion, how little room there is for setbacks, and how much it is likely to cost.

I put this point of view to Martin. He doesn’t deny it. Perhaps he is feeling a little low, because normally he is more combative when I put forward my views. However, I have a strong feeling that this is a big part of the truth.

I don’t think Martin made these mistakes unawares. He is experienced in business and knows how things are normally done. He has been – and to an extent still is – determined to do things his own way. The cost of the experiment so far has been high with precious little to show for it. I will be interested to see how conventional or unconventional Exbiblio will be in its coming phase of ‘retrenchment”.


November 22nd, 2006 by Team Member

by Jeremy Faludi

Now that we’re using a metal extrusion for most of the main body, we also need to use some glue to stick plastic bits to it (such as the window you see the display through), since there just isn’t enough room in the tiny body for strong snap-fits. This makes recycling harder, for two reasons: first, because now the device is harder to disassemble into its component materials; and second, because now the component materials will have some gunk on them (adhesive residue) that cause problems in recycling the metal or plastic.

Don’t Be Too Strong

Fixing the first problem is fairly simple: you just use weak enough glue (or a small enough amount of strong glue) that whoever disassembles the device can just pop the parts out by hand, overwhelming the strength of the glue. This way, disassembly doesn’t take significantly longer than it would with snap-fit parts. If the glue is too strong, you have to pry things out with a tool, or (if the glue is stronger than the plastic itself) you have to release the glue somehow. Most glues can be released by dissolving them in nasty solvents like acetone, or burning them off in a furnace, but some glues dissolve in water, and other glues melt at low enough temperatures that your plastic parts won’t be affected. The advantage of dissolving or melting your adhesives is that then they can be removed from your parts, avoiding the problem of getting gunk in the recycling furnaces.

Read the rest of this entry »

Exbiblio’s Share Option Scheme

November 21st, 2006 by Hugh

Martin King told me about Exbiblio’s innovative share option scheme on the ferry leaving central Seattle. I recorded his thoughts using a digital recorder, and he tells me that one day I will be able to use the oPen which will include a voice memo facility.

He feels passionately that the option scheme is central to Exbiblio’s values, and he hopes that it will be emulated by other companies and help redefine American capitalism.

“The historic model of options in early stage technology companies is the American lottery culture model,” he tells me. “The first 20 people to join the company win the lottery and end up making $5 million to $10 million to $20 million dollars each by sheer luck. And that is a terribly costly outcome both for society and the natural world.”

“To put those kinds of extreme resources in the hands of individuals to the complete neglect of competing interests like the natural environment and society is just not a model that works in the world. It doesn’t address our needs.”

Bearing the above in mind, Exbiblio has devised a share option scheme to provide motivation and opportunity to employees, while also taking into account competing interests.

Employees at Exbiblio who qualify for the scheme receive options in two forms. Half their options come as a traditional right to buy Exbiblio shares at a certain price. This part of the scheme is more or less like the majority of share option schemes, with unlimited upside for the employee if the company prospers.

However, the other half of the share option grant has a capped upside. Once the company is deemed to be worth $100 million in total, Exbiblio’s non-for-profit foundation, Compendia, will have a right to buy out this part of the employee’s grant. The employee will receive fair value for the shares at the time. If he or she holds holds half a percent of the company in this part of the scheme, then it will be bought out for $500,000. However, from that moment on, the shares will belong to Compendia.

For example, should Exbiblio ever be worth $1 billion, then the half a percent that Compendia has bought from that employee will be worth $5 million. This money will be spent by Compendia on environmental causes, thus achieving the aim of sharing a company’s success with the world.

Sustainable Companies

November 20th, 2006 by Hugh

Here’s a speech which I think is worth quoting at some length:

Many people seem to think that companies only exist to make money.

Well, companies do need to make money – to reward those who trust us with their capital and also to enable us to invest for the future. No business can exist for long unless it makes money.

But making money really isn’t the purpose of business.

Our purpose is to supply the goods and services which people want to buy at a cost they can afford. If a business can’t meet the needs of its customers it will cease to trade.

Those needs, of course, are not expressed through a single transaction. Business is about meeting customer needs again and again over a long period of time and building a relationship which enables the business to respond as the needs change.

That means that to be a sustainable business you have to look at the challenges which are facing your customers.

You have to examine the things which threaten the sustainability of the relationship. And in a spirit of mutual advantage you have to examine what you can do, as a business, to remove those threats. To make the relationship sustainable. To ensure one transaction leads to another, and another.

That’s about relationships with individual customers and with the communities of which we are part.

Business is part of society. Business is affected by what is happening in society and business can and should be an active agent of change and progress. Meeting challenges and offering new and better choices.

I’ve often heard Exbiblio’s Martin King say similar things, but this quotation is from a speech by the CEO of the world’s third largest oil corporation, BP. The speech by Lord John Browne was entitled, “Sustainability – A Pracitcal Agenda.”

It’s always nice to know that you are in good company

Arrival: Brydie Ragan

November 16th, 2006 by Hugh

brydieExbiblio has recruited an evangelist for its oPen hand-held scanner due out next year. Her name is Brydie Ragan.

Brydie’s career resume made quite an impression at Exbiblio. Her many achievements include developing the East Coast Sales channel for Aldus Corporation, where she managed strategic co-marketing relationships with Apple, IBM, and numerous computer dealers.

Later she helped set up the design and communications firm, Bridgemark, but as you see from this extract from her resume, her interests range far and wide and include Exbiblio’s passion for social responsibility. She is a true “Exbiblio” person.

During my years as co-owner of Bridgemark, I made a personal commitment to social responsibility. Two of my first steps included joining one of the first Community Supported Agriculture farms in America and living without a car in a small city that had no public transportation. In addition, I also became a mentor for Project Soar, a program for women on welfare who were starting entrepreneurial endeavors.

I also decided to heed Thomas Jefferson’s advice to practice “eternal vigilance.” I started by making a commitment to attend all of our city council and school board meetings for one year. After sitting through the first city council meeting (for over four hours), an elderly council member approached me and asked, “Oughtn’t ya be home with ya husband at night?” I will never forget his question, which I now see as the deciding moment that marked the beginning of my deeply-ingrained habit of civic involvement.

During my years as a citizen activist, I have become involved in many issues, including land use and planning, affordable housing, and education. I have attended countless public meetings, conducted research, and written and designed reports, press releases, fliers, and newsletters for many causes and citizen projects, suffering through my failures and delighting in my successes.

In addition to my volunteer work, I incorporated activism into Bridgemark’s business by designing, producing, and distributing a kit for refusing junk mail. I succeeded in selling thousands of kits nationwide with virtually no advertising because I was able to gain national publicity. Substantive articles about the kit appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and in many major city newspapers, prompting stores such as Urban Outfitters, the Boston Museum of Science, and Ben and Jerry’s company store to retail the product.

My effort to reduce junk mail also resulted in invitations to speak publicly about the effort. One of my most memorable speaking engagements was at Dartmouth College, where I enjoyed a meal with the Club of Rome author, Donella Meadows. Luckily, public speaking had been an integral part of all of my work as a professional, so I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity,and others like it, to generate interest in the issue as well as sales of my product.

Buddhist Design

November 10th, 2006 by Hugh

Somewhere in the Exbiblio HQ there is, or used to be, a meditation room. I believe it has been used for yoga and naps, but not very often, and is now an office.

It seems that praising the Asian way of doing business is back in fashion (it rather went out of fashion during the long years of Japanese deflation). I think the team at Exbiblio would be interested in this post about Apple, Buddhism, Design, and Corporate Culture.