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Blog Tool Writing Its Own Story of Success

The weblog has now reached the point in the cultural life cycle where the word is on everybody’s lips, even if most people aren’t sure what it is.

Perhaps the best way to illuminate the phenomenon is by introducing Ben and Mena Trott, both 27, respectively the chief technical officer and president of the San Francisco company Six Apart.

Mena, a web designer, is the voluble and irrepressible one whose bright office is filled with stuffed animals and gaily colored posters. Ben, the taciturn one, is an engineer who prefers an office cubicle where the only light comes from a computer screen.

They’ve been together since high school. They don’t exactly finish each other’s sentences like some married couples; rather, Mena mostly does the talking until she runs into a wall and prods Ben for help, at which point he composes an appropriate one- or two-word coda.

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Together they developed a software tool for designing and organizing weblogs called Movable Type. Market statistics are rare in the informal blogosphere, which is estimated to include 8 million blogs. But considering that it’s hard to find many weblogs, save for the most rudimentary, that don’t run on Movable Type, it’s not a stretch to say the product is probably the world’s leading blogging tool.

It allows bloggers to generate pages, archive their postings by subject or category and distribute content in other Web-friendly formats. Six Apart says that Movable Type and TypePad, its paid Web hosting service, have at least 1 million registered users between them (though it doesn’t break down the numbers further). Google Inc.'s Blogger weblog publishing program and BlogSpot hosting service are competitors, but they are largely free and aimed mostly at novices.

Movable Type was born in the high-tech bust. The Trotts spent the first two years of their working lives at Silicon Valley start-ups destined for the boneyard. After one Web design firm employing both of them went under, Mena found herself spending more time working on her own weblog, dollarshort.org.

The weblog then was a format used mostly by Web designers and software engineers, who viewed it as a kind of private tech-support networking tool. As users’ personalities crept into their postings, the format evolved into something indefinably broader.

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Frustrated by the plain-vanilla character of the earliest blogging tools, meanwhile, Mena had been submitting wish lists of features to Ben, who spent his own spare time implementing them in programming language. “I was her personal engineer.”

At first they viewed Movable Type as a hobby. They designed it for individual use and planned to distribute it free to friends and associates. In October 2001 they posted a public version online. Within an hour it had been downloaded 100 times.

The 9/11 attacks had propelled blogging into an all-purpose social echo chamber. Over the next few years the format kept spreading -- cyberspace seemed to have given birth to a new entity called the blogosphere. During last year’s presidential campaign, it seemed to burst into broad public consciousness; partisan bloggers’ noisy role in some of the more contentious episodes of the election started people talking about whether blogging is good, bad or indifferent for society.

My own take is that the question is irrelevant. Blogs are tools for self-expression, no better or worse than the thought that goes into them. Some are indispensable, others vacuous; some brilliant, others infantile; some left, others right; some have things to say to the entire world, others seem to speak exclusively to their owners’ navels. I couldn’t say which way the balance tips in any of those categories, but I suspect that it’s the same balance one will find among American newspapers, movies and the inventory at Barnes & Noble.

In any event, by 2002 it was evident that Movable Type had commercial potential. The Trotts incorporated as Six Apart, an allusion to the time span separating their September birthdays. They soon heard from Joi Ito, a Japanese venture capitalist with his own blog that ran on Movable Type.

Ito and a consultant, Barak Berkowitz, a former executive at Apple Computer Inc., Infoseek and Walt Disney Co.'s Go Network, had concluded that the blog space was worth an investment. Movable Type looked like the best opportunity in the field.

Their first lunch meeting with the young couple almost ended the venture before it began. “Ben and Mena had, on paper, everything you do not want to invest in,” Berkowitz recalls. “They were inexperienced. They were married to each other. They’d been working by themselves. They had a cult-like status in a community that was very protective of the technology. They had very little motivation to do something big. Both their fathers were lawyers.”

The Trotts, for their part, weren’t even sure they wanted to own a business. As lunch wrapped up, Berkowitz remarked that they didn’t seem to have much ambition. He didn’t know it at the time, but his remark got under their skin.

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Within a week they were back in touch. Ito’s firm, Neoteny Co., put up $1.2 million as seed money. A later investment round brought in $10 million from Menlo Park-based venture firm August Capital. Berkowitz eventually moved up from a board seat to chief executive.

In the last two years the hobby has become a business. Movable Type is licensed to multinational corporations that use it for internal communications and offer it to customers. In January, Six Apart acquired LiveJournal, a largely free service that hosts online diaries and journals for about 6.5 million members, of whom a small percentage pay a fee for enhanced features. The acquisition (for an undisclosed sum) brought the company’s payroll to about 70 employees, including sales teams in Europe and Japan.

What’s next? “The future of blogging is not about bloggers who want audiences of thousands,” Berkowitz says. “The majority will be those communicating with four others or so.” He may be right: The key to making an invention useful is to turn it from a technology into a tool.

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.


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