Democracy and Leadership in Business

October 3rd, 2006 by Hugh

Kibble DemoOnce upon a time (roughly last Spring) Exbiblio was a bright and bushy-tailed young software company. It was also a very democratic place, where decisions were made as the result of lengthy brain-storming sessions. Its ideal was a ‘flat management structure’ without any job titles. In fact, when I read the ‘people page’ on the website as it stands even now, it’s hard to tell what anybody does at Exbiblio. Most seem to grow organic vegetables and ride bicycles to work. You certainly get no idea of who the CEO is (apparently they are still looking for one).


Back to School

September 28th, 2006 by Team Member

By Ariel van Spronsen

Allen Library

Today is my first day back to school, entering the second and final year of my Master’s degree at the University of Washington.. The energy on campus is amazing, especially as compared to how quiet it was the week I was here for the Information Architecture Summer Institute. This feeling of starting anew every fall is one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about returning to school after 10 years. There is a cycle to it, a sense of beginning and end. I remember transitioning into full time work after I finished my undergraduate degree, and after a year or so, realizing that there was no end. I would work for the rest of my life. These days I’ve found work that I am happy to do for the rest of my life, but at that time it was a depressing thought.

I’m going to be doing things a little differently this year – I’ll be working with Exbiblio part time and taking only two classes per quarter. It’s going to be interesting to see how I manage shifting gears between my student and professional lives. Fortunately I have strong role model in john durand, who is currently doing his MBA while working full time at Exbiblio. Another difference for me this year is that I will be carrying my sexy Exbiblio-issue MacBook Pro to school. I have a laptop PC at home, but it’s large and powerful and not meant to be portable on a daily basis. The Mac, so far, has been much more convenient. I’ve already used it to catch up on Exbiblio email and blogs, as well as review course syllabi in advance of my first classes, and also to type this post while eating lunch in the HUB.

I also just spent several hundred dollars on books for my classes. One of my books, “Looking for Information” by Donald Case, was nearly $100 on its own. When I spend this much money on books I always have a little inner struggle over marking them up. Highlights and notes make a world of difference to how I review information that I’ve read, and also help me to set knowledge in my head. Effective highlighting can mean a huge time savings when I sit down to write papers and have to go back to original sources to locate support for my points. I think I’m going to be an interesting test case for the oPen. I’m going to try using it to highlight and annotate virtually. The important thing is that this be easier than I’ll be a very happy camper. It will have to be easy enough that it weighs positively against marking up my precious, expensive books.

Wish me luck!

Hello Rainy Seattle

September 18th, 2006 by Hugh

I left a beautiful sunny autumn’s day on London yesterday and flew out to Seattle for my third trip to Exbiblio. I didn’t bring a coat or an umbrella – an omission considering the rainy weather here this morning.

It’s easy for me to stroll into work early as I’m still on London time and am staying just around the corner near Pioneer Square. I’m able to chat with the office early birds, Spencer and Claes Fredrik. I’ve not met Spencer before, but he helps me find a room in the new “wing” of the expanding office. I’m strategically positioned just near the table with the enticing snacks – fresh berries and tangy sheep’s cheese. Claes Fredrik helps me get my aging laptop plugged into the network. We chat a little bit about some of the technologies that have been showing up on the blog.

While blogging away in London, I’ve been trying to fill in the picture of the universe in which Exbiblio is operating. There seem to be a number of companies working on bridging the divide between paper and digital. They are rather disparate, and I don’t think you can quite call it a movement yet – but there’s a lot going on in this space. This week I’m planning to write more about what Exbiblio’s up to.

On this trip I’m hoping to see the first prototype of the Exbiblio Scanner Pen, code-named Falstaff. I believe there have been some glitches causing delays – which is only to be expected on a project of this nature, but it can be hard to get engineers to talk about glitches.

As Spencer has just been saying to me a minute ago, Exbiblio is a stimulating place to work, both intellectually and on the “values” level of not being overtly hyper profit-driven. It’s striking how recruits say they were attracted by Exbiblio’s values page on its website. However, I am hoping to tease a business / marketing plan out of the more “senior” people in its “flat” management structure. It’s time to write about matters such as useful applications for Exbiblio’s technology, target markets, return on investment – the sort of stuff that business people normally talk about. I haven’t heard a great deal of that ilk on my previous trips. Perhaps I haven’t asked the right questions, but I also get a sense that these matters are not always to the fore, perhaps because the technical challenges are so absorbing for Exbiblio intellects. I’m also going to ask about Exbiblio’s laudable aims to change the world for the better (which I think people will be very glad to talk about) but Exbiblio’s good intentions depend on being a business success first.

Company Lunch Pics

September 8th, 2006 by Adam

I wanted to give some more visuals to go with Hugh’s description of our company lunch. Here are some shots from this week’s lunch taken by Claes-Fredrik.

hardware test Spencer Demo

The above photos show Spencer demonstrating how the laptop can participate in round trip communications with our new hardware device. All I know is that I saw the lights blink… If you want more detail than that, we’ll have to get Spencer to write a blog entry!

Adam Demo Exbiblio Folks

Here I am presenting some design concepts for a new product idea to the team. That’s all the lawyers will let me say for now, stay tuned…

Exbiblio’s Office

September 8th, 2006 by Hugh

My Exbiblio Office

All buildings have a personality, and to a certain extent an office sets the tone for a business, as does its environs. Exbiblio is based on First Avenue in Seattle. I’m told that a couple of decades ago it was a rather seedy area, full of shops selling guns, porn, and worse. Now there are book and art shops. Many have a trendy ethnic feel – tribal masks at fabulous prices – that sort of thing.

Exbiblio is based on the fourth floor of a former hotel. On the ground floor, there is a large airy coffee shop. An impressive staircase with an art-deco carved banister leads up to the office floors. The walls have been taken back to the brick. The carpet smells of newness. Judging by the brass plates, many of the other occupants of the building are lawyers. Exbiblio has a good chunk of the fourth floor. The walls of the reception room are covered in book shelves, mostly bearing classic novels in pristine covers. I noticed the complete cartoons of the New Yorker among the library. One or two well-thumbed computer manuals are often lying around.

One room, which is always be pointed out with pride on a visitor’s tour, is the “meditation room”, which is furnished with orange floor-cushions. It has a glass wall and I have never seen anyone inside it on my way past. Elsewhere there is a table with organic muesli bars and other healthy eats spread out on it. The stationary cupboard contains boxes of various brands of scanner pen, and a good supply of a small book called “The Corporate Mystic”, which is a sort of Exbiblio Bible.

The hardware project has its own small lab, which contains all sorts of impressive looking optical instruments and circuit boards. Even so, part of the scanner pen’s development happens off-site at a contractor called Synapse which is based in a suburb. You’ll often bump into a Synapse person at Exbiblio.

The 15 or so Exbiblio workers inhabit various rooms in ones or in pairs. The corridors are somewhat labyrinthine, and I often wander round in circles. In other words, Exbiblio people are fairly well dispersed. I’m told that computer programmers prefer to work in solitude, as they need to concentrate hard on their code. Only Lauren, the HR and office manager, told me that she is a more sociable creature and might prefer an open-plan office.

I’m writing this up in London from memory. I drop into Exbiblio about once a month for a week. My third visit is scheduled for about ten days from now. Do I look forward to breathing in rarefied atmosphere of the Exbiblio office? To tell you the truth, not hugely. I’m with Lauren on this one – it’s a bit lonely. It’s quite hard to break the ice with people when you have to knock on their door. I do, of course, find my visits intellectually stimulating – Exbiblio’s that sort of place – but it’s my job to get to know everybody, and the office-layout is not a great help in that. When I do chat to somebody, usually by appointment, it’s always enjoyable.

I’m told that Exbiblio people communicate by instant messaging. There are also webcams, but I don’t believe that people use them much, if at all. People do of course visit each other’s offices and hold discussions in meeting rooms. As far as I can tell, the conversation is pretty serious. In fact, when they start a discussion about computer code or optical theory, I simply can’t understand a word.

The big social event of the week is the Wednesday lunch, with take-away pizzas. This is when you will hear people chatting and laughing – but the conversation usually has a bit of technical bent. Topics have included the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner and the Tesla electric sports car. Towards the end of the lunch, there’s usually some announcement about the latest Exbiblio thinking. I once heard the founder, Martin King, give a small speech on how Exbiblio encourages career development, and it’s not disloyal to look for another job.

Outside the Wednesday lunch, I’m not aware of office socialising, but no doubt it does go on. It’s not like any office I’ve worked in before. I suppose I’m used to working in media companies where people tend to express opinions all day long, until the deadline approaches and they start working like mad. The phones are constantly ringing. People talk loudly, and sometimes I have to put my fingers in my ear when I’m reading. Tempers are are often frayed in a newspaper or broadcasting office – but everyone knows that it doesn’t really mean anything. It can be rather boisterous. Exbiblio is not at all like that. It is much more cerebral and high-minded. It’s the nature of the company. But it is certainly not unfriendly. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any bitching, not once. People seem contented.

Perhaps on my third visit I’ll start to have a different view. I’ll fill in some gaps and my understanding will become more rounded. I’ll keep you updated, but it’s good to have a record of how I see it now. It’s quite easy to forget your early impressions.

Website Design Review

September 1st, 2006 by Team Member

Web Site Design Meeting

Earlier today I presented my preliminary design proposal to a group of Exbiblio team members including Ania, Martin, Jesse, Ed Tang, Ed Mahlum, Adam, and Hugh. The meeting was held as a review point at the boundary between the planning and development portions of the redesign effort. When it comes to building things, I’m of the “measure twice, cut once” mindset. Careful planning and consideration does much to prevent having to do the whole thing over again.

On the other hand, change is the only constant, and a web development effort should plan for change so that the redesign effort results in a scalable solution. As Peter Morville put it, we can avoid “The Infinite Loop of Destructive Creation” by seeing a web effort as a program rather than a project (for more of Peter’s thoughts on this topic, see his article entitled The Speed of Information Architecture). Web Site Design MeetingThis is a sentiment that was echoed during the meeting today, as we stand poised at the transition to product launch, creating a need for growth in web-based user support.

The group generated some excellent structural suggestions that will be considered in the final site design, proposing changes to navigation elements and reinforcing the need for fresh content at regular intervals. But what struck me most were the deeper levels of thought. A major topic of conversation was how we will use the site to not only communicate from the company, but to also encourage participation and communication into the company. I think it’s rather unique that we are not only are we talking about citizenship, but we’re also actively looking for ways that we enact and cocreate citizenship with our users.

All in all, I thought it was a highly successful review. Thanks go out to the participants for their focus and attention during the meeting. On to processing everything we’ve discussed into a final design proposal!

By Ariel van Spronsen

Website Redesign

August 21st, 2006 by Team Member


This is a re-post of a blog entry I made to my internal blog on August 18. Internal blogs are one of the ways we communicate process and progress with one another at Exbiblio, and I thought I’d share it on our main blog as well since it’s about a process that many other small companies face at some point or another. So, without further ado, the post. — Ariel

What’s happening in my world (long)

Perhaps it’s hubris to think so, but maybe there are one or two folks out there who wonder what the heck happens on my side of the office every day. Well, among a couple of other smaller projects, I spend the majority of my time working on the website redesign.

Traditionally, web presences for small companies have been built as an afterthought. Many of these entities don’t want to devote time and resources toward building what is seen as simply a static brochure, so a site is launched with no planning or concern for the needs of its audiences; the goal is to just have a web footprint. I’m sure each and every one of us has been directed toward a company’s site hoping to learn more about it, only to find vague text and a directive to call the company for more information. How many of us pick up the phone?


Departure: Noah Iliinsky

August 15th, 2006 by Hugh

I speak to Noah the day after it has been decided – by mutual consent it seems – that he is to leave Exbiblio in a week’s time. His view is that the parting is for the best. His primary interest is in User Experience, and he is trying to get away from his earlier career writing code (previous to his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication). Exbiblio would now like him to concentrate on coding. The split seems inevitable, although rather sudden, at least by my European standards. He leaves on what he calls “generous” terms.

Noah doesn’t believe that Exbiblio has a strongly implemented process for product development, and that as a result, his User Experience skills cannot be fully utilized. But first I ask him to explain what User Experience is all about.

“It’s partly Demographic. Who do we believe the audience is? How much money are they willing to spend? What are the comparable tools that they are using? What are the tasks the users are trying to achieve? What are the problems we are solving for them? This is at a different level from asking what features they want – they don’t know what the choices are – but they can tell you what they want to get done in life. They won’t say that they need a scanner pen – but you can watch them work and how they collect quotations from various papers and draw conclusions from those observations.”

At the next stage of development, he sees User Experience as being central to the creation of an effective product experience – its features, interface, and flow – based on the information that has been gathered.

“To do the second half well requires good research from the first phase, as well as knowledge of fields as diverse as graphic design and cognitive psychology. All of these aspects contribute to the creation of a superior product,” he says.

I press Noah a little (It should be remembered that the brief of this blog is total transparency) and he admits to some frustration with the Exbiblio approach to product development, and the way that it rapidly changes its mind about who the early adopters of its technology will be.

“It’s reached the point where if you were to ask most of the development team who is our main audience, they may or may not be able to tell you. It’s an issue if you don’t know who it’s for, because you don’t know what their needs are. It doesn’t make it impossible to make a successful product, but I think it makes it more difficult.”

He believes that if Exbiblio went through a different sort of design process – asking more questions about the users and their problems before throwing resources at product development – there would be a continuing role for him at the company.

For a different view, see the post on this blog by Claes-Fredrik Mannby For Love of Product

After completing his degree in Physics in 1995 at Reed College, Noah worked for a year at a small company in Portland, Universal Algorithms: “Actually, there were some interesting parallels between that company and Exbiblio. They had a brilliant founder with strong ideas about how to do business. In that case his direction ultimately led, in my opinion, to squandering some amazing IP and opportunities.”

He followed his intuition and left Universal Algorithms to join another local start-up, Quando, which was eventually bought by Infoseek and Disney. He moved with the company to its new headquarters in Seattle. He had spent his time at Quando – which has a highly specialised search technology – working as a coder, but he says that he had been very aware of design for a long time. This led him to take his Master’s Degree at the University of Washington, where his thesis was entitled Generation of Complex Diagrams: How to Make Lasagna Instead of Spaghetti.

He came across Exbiblio at a jobs fair earlier this year, and was attracted by the company’s vision, its technology, and its approach to business. He joined in April and is leaving with warm feelings about the company .

“It’s a remarkable work environment. People seem pleased to be here. The character of company, its way of doing business, treating employees well, treating partners well, its environmental awareness, and the sort of people it attracts – all of that is remarkable in these days when most companies focus on this quarter’s returns, short term gains and stock market price. But perhaps it’s a little too much vision- guided. Perhaps if it more focused on ensuring success, there might be a different approach to the process. ”

On another occasion, Martin King (Exbiblio’s founder), has told me that experience suggests that the average start-up will part with one in three of its hires. He says it’s the normal course of events, and that there is no shame in it for either party.

On the way to the airport, I give Martin a brief idea of what Noah has said and remind him that he has the right of reply. He has his own views on the problem that Exbiblio is trying to solve, and on how to go about creating a product. His views will surely work their way onto the blog by one route way or another, sooner or later.

In Defence of Two Seattle Firms

August 11th, 2006 by Hugh

seattle 013Seattle has more than a smattering of world famous businesses: Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft. Are the citizens of Seattle justly proud of their global titans? Not if the employees of Exbiblio are anything to go by. In particular, Microsoft and Starbucks don’t have a great name around the office. In contrarian spirit, here’s a defence from a visiting Londoner of these two Seattle home-growns.

No self respecting Exbiblio staffer would be seen dead with a PC type laptop in his/her hands. Apple is the constantly worshipped at the Exbiblio shrine. By implication, and sometimes more explicitly, Microsoft is given the thumbs down. But I would argue that the raw, competitive capitalist drive of Microsoft has done more good for the world than almost any other company over the last 20 years. The combination of Windows and a PC box has has brought cheap computing to the world. Factories in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia turn out millions and millions of low cost PCs that are affordable for ordinary people, ordinary schools, ordinary hospitals. Those Asian PC assembly businesses would never have taken off without an operating system that they could use as just another component. Microsoft has brought us close to the vision of a PC on every desk and has truly changed the world for the better.

By contrast, what has Apple done for the world? It’s produced admittedly sleek and stylish computers with nice interfaces that look really cool – but at a price. In truth, Macs are fashion statements for rich bohemians. Apple is greedy. It wants the margin from the box and the software. It charges a premium for looks. Apple never has had and never will have the democratizing effect of Microsoft.

I admit that this Seattle business does not make the best coffee ever tasted, but it has spread the coffee culture around the globe. Before the arrival of Starbucks in London, the “greasy spoon” culture reigned supreme. You were offered of a strong cup of tea (the color of coffee) and egg and chips. Starbucks has spawned many imitators and those who have sought to improve on its formula. But the original Starbucks still has one of the best reputations as an employer and it shows. Here in Seattle you do at least get served in Starbucks. At a more trendy coffee shop I waited almost 20 minutes for just a cup of coffee. I couldn’t understand how they get any repeat custom, but passing by the next day I saw they that drew a crowd of customers patiently waiting to be served. I happily walked past to my friendly service, comfy-armchair, and mediocre cup of coffee at Starbucks.

All in all, I think Seattle should be proud of its contribution to the world via these companies. You don’t have to agree with me – that’s what the comment box is for…

Hello from Ariel

August 10th, 2006 by Team Member

ArielGreetings and salutations. By way of introduction to the occasional posting I’ll be doing here in the near future, I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself. My name is Ariel van Spronsen, and I’m heading up the Exbiblio website redesign effort.

Though Seattle has always been the place I call home, my story is an amalgam of experiences living in places as diverse as Michigan, Saudi Arabia, Texas, New Jersey, and most recently, San Francisco. A keen interest in the wide range of urban social systems I encountered led to a BA in Urban Studies at Vassar College. My grounding in communication systems combined with an innate tendency toward organization has translated more recently into a passion for information architecture, and I am now pursuing an MS in Technical Communication at the University of Washington.

I’ll be posting periodically about the nuts, bolts, and discoveries in my work here at Exbiblio, and about the larger topics of information architecture and communication.

By Ariel van Spronsen