Abe Dane is COO of Providence-based Tizra, whose Tizra Publisher web app lets users create highly flexible websites fast from standard PDF files. He began as a print journalist, including a hitch as science editor at Popular Mechanics, but his career was hijacked by the web while at MIT in the early '90s and he's worked on online products ever since. Abe and some of his Tizra colleagues will be presenting at next week's Providence Geek Dinner - 5:30-8:30pm, Wednesday, Dec. 17th. RSVP and details here .
On one level, Tizra is based on that laziest of business ideas: “Let's come up with a machine to do our jobs for us!” Before we started Tizra, we were consultants, designing and developing custom web software for publishers like McGraw-Hill and Oxford University Press. The product we’re now rolling out, Tizra Publisher, is essentially a machine to enable publishers—both inside and outside the traditional publishing industry—to do that job without people like us.
As anyone who’s tried it can tell you, this idea may be lazy in conception, but it’s anything but in execution … even with all the great new technologies out there for building web applications. Now that we’ve completed our first fully self-service version of Tizra Publisher (free instant signup here), a few thoughts on what does and doesn’t seem to work.
For one thing, much as you may have learned from previous iterations, you really do need to start from scratch. Aiming for a DIY level of usability changes everything and you need to architect and build for that from the beginning, revisiting a lot of assumptions along the way. For example, we decided to skip XML in favor of PDF as a publication format, even though we’d long advocated XML in our consulting and our CEO David Durand helped define the standard. We may support XML in the future, but for now the simplicity of PDF production means a much broader market.
Another benefit of this rethink is that we wound up with shiny new technology that is extremely well integrated, and will provide competitive advantage for a long time to come. Our CTO Francisco Rosa is an open source veteran with many high-traffic applications under his belt. He made great use of the opportunity to adopt new technologies that combined well-tested performance, agility, and a broad developer base, including Struts 2.0, Spring and Hibernate to reduce the “weight” of the underlying J2EE enterprise framework, and of course, AJAX for usability in the control panel UI. A nice business advantage is that open source means no significant licensing costs as we scale.
We also learned you sometimes have to depart pretty sharply from the conventional startup wisdom we all swim in everyday. It turned out the approach of Web 2.0 trailblazers like Flickr, Basecamp and del.icio.us of getting something simple live fast then working a tight customer feedback loop, just didn’t make sense for us. Delivering the kind of flexibility and simplicity our market needed, ironically, meant we needed fairly broad capabilities to get out of the gate, including feature-complete content management, access control, commerce, and an end-user UI that was both polished and highly configurable. All needed to be designed to work together with the kind of conceptual integrity that enables users to do what they think they should be able to do in a straightforward way through a single control panel.
Of course, now that we’ve been through all this we’re happy, since it means high table stakes for anyone else who wants to get into the game!
So how has this progression from lazy idea through laborious implementation panned out? The self-service rollout is in its early days, but I’d cite a few early proof points. First, the system has been able to meet some very demanding customer requirements that seem superficially diverse, but in fact validated that we can meet them with the single codebase we have developed. For example, these two sites are running on exactly the same application…
MIT Press CISnet
Different as they look, both were built entirely via our web control panel … with no behind the scenes hacking!
Second, and more exciting, the time to deploy sites like this has gone down faster than even we expected. Just thinking through and implementing the design and architecture for the MIT Press CISnet site this past summer took roughly two man-weeks (still a far cry from the man-years projects like this used to take on a custom basis). The most recent deployments have taken on the order of ten minutes of web design time. And users of the new self-service signup can get live with canned templates with no design time at all.
We’ll be demoing the new, fully self-service interface and talking through some of the thinking behind it at the Providence Geeks Dinner next week. Look forward to seeing you there!
Click Here to see PBN's interview with Abe.