The creator of Del.icio.us has big plans for his innovative social tagging site but has no regrets about selling it to Yahoo!
Even though Joshua Schachter was rumoured to be about $30m richer, this was far from his best Christmas. Just nine days after Yahoo bought his company, Delicious (http://del.icio.us), and at a time when all eyes were on it, the power failed - leading to a service outage that meant 31-year-old Schachter had to work all hours to fix the site's technical emergencies.
Small wonder that when I got in touch, the guy who invented one of the hottest new ideas online - and just sold it for a personal fortune - couldn't have sounded more miserable. Online, the gossip was about how much he sold for, and the reach of "user tagging", the idea that Delicious introduced. But Schachter, the site's creator, mainly sounded relieved to have the $57bn corporation taking over.
Why? Because from Delicious's inception in September 2003 until the founding of the actual company last March, he did most of the work himself. At times, it was incredibly stressful. "It would crash occasionally, and it would largely stay down until I could deal with it, but often it would happen while I was trying to get on planes. So I would be sitting on a plane trying to login from my PDA."
Until last March, Schachter led a double life. By day, he worked for Morgan Stanley, and by night was a key developer in the world of web technology. While most people go to Wall Street for money the way others go to Hollywood for fame, he joined for the geeking. "Working in finance with someone like Morgan Stanley, it's one of the only things you can do in New York that's technical, very creative, and pays enough to pay the rent. There's not a lot of pure tech there, I wanted to live in New York City, [but] I went to college for engineering, not business."
While work was great for Schachter, it didn't occupy him fully. Outside projects such as Delicious always caught his interest. "They were fun - a different community, and a different kind of fun. At the end of financial stuff you either made or lost some money. The stuff I built was the opposite - not with commercial intent, just to solve problems."
In 2001 the first version of what would become Delicious appeared - a web application called Muxway. Schachter explains: "I originally created [Muxway] to manage my own bookmarks. Before there even was a system, I just wrote little coded notes in a flat file I used for links, #wifi or #cs or whatever. And I could just search them out, so tagging significantly predates Delicious itself." What Schachter added next was the social aspect: Delicious is Muxway for everyone. Anyone could add tags to their bookmarks, and see each other's tags. Quickly, del.icio.us went from being a place to stash your own bookmarks to a place where you could quickly browse others's selection. Want to laugh? Look at what people have tagged as "funny".
It was simple compared to the complex website filing systems that companies such as Yahoo spend millions on, but it worked. Delicious was special from the start. "It's something I focused on enough to grow up. None of the other projects took over my life." As to why Delicious and not one of its many predecessors, Schachter says, "it was just so sticky. It was so useful and so compelling". It was the right time in his own personal life, and the right product.
Still, Schachter doesn't see himself as the startup type. "I made a thing, right? So call me a producer. I produce things. I would not say entrepreneur - the enterprise of the thing was always dragged along by the thing itself." In this case, the thing doing the dragging was the idea of tagging.
Others picked up Schachter's approach, and soon tagging became the must-have feature for web startups. Stewart Butterfield, chief executive of photo site Flickr, also a recent purchase by Yahoo, credits Schachter: "Joshua is the one who told me to add tagging to Flickr. I ignored him the first time, but I eventually got the idea."
Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University, studied tagging and advised Delicious. He describes Schachter as "the first person to figure out the social value of labelling. Any one person's labels are messy, inconsistent and partial, and are therefore much less valuable than formal classification systems. However, if there is a way to aggregate those labels, and therefore their value, they become more valuable than formal systems, because they are robust, socially accurate and cheap."
It's not what Schachter set out to do, and he's not one to believe the buzz."I still don't know how big of an idea this is." That doesn't stop his dreams for Delicious from growing. He envisages the site becoming something that "stores and categorises and lets you share the digital pieces of your life - a large-scale outboard memory".
Schachter thought carefully about where Delicious would find a good home. "I tried to do the right thing for the developers, the company, and obviously for me. But it was not really about the money." He wanted "a place my employees could be happy, a place that would do the right thing for the product."
Publisher and Delicious investor Tim O'Reilly sees Schachter's work, and tagging itself, as part of a social memory project. "We have a vocabulary for innovation, when people add to the vocabulary the richness of the language allows other people to say new things. A lot of people are using [tagging] now in many ways.
For Schachter, it's all about handing over management to Yahoo and getting back to the code. "I want to build something that grows from large to huge. I don't know if I have another innovation in me, but it would be nice to try."
Education Graduated in 1996 with a degree in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh
Career Previous to del.icio.us, Schachter worked for Morgan Stanley. He worked in the New York City financial services industry for 10 years
Hobbies Schachter has set up several websites, including GeoURL and memepool.com. He also enjoys browser-based games such as Kingdom of Loathing, Travian and Urban Dead
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