What follows is an interview with Nicholas Wieland, CTO of Italy-based Zooppa, a fast growing social network for creative types. This is the second in a series of interviews I will carry out with interesting figures from the micro-ISV and startup scene. If you have a compelling story to tell, own or run a tech startup, and would like to be featured, please drop me a line via email.
1. I’d like to start by tracing your background. What did you do prior to Zooppa?
Programming, programming, programming. I started out working for Neato Europe as their “one-man-band programmer”, building their e-commerce site and taking care of their infrastructure (nothing more than a bunch of servers). In those days my love of FreeBSD, PostgreSQL and dynamic languages started to grow exponentially. As the only employee I had to find a way to produce quantity and quality at the same time, and the technologies above were a perfect fit for the job.
After leaving Neato I did consulting work for a few years, for customers like Monte dei Paschi di Siena and Italian Telecom. Albeit those are big names, it was with the smaller scale customers that I enjoyed working the most. I won’t mention them by name though as they don’t impress people as much as big banks. I used to work primarily with Python, while developing a growing interest in Ruby, which blossomed when Ruby on Rails was released.
In the meantime I was helping Marco Ceresa writing the first book in Italian about Ruby (thus cheating on Python officially for the first time) and working part-time for Assembla on their Hotchalk project.
2. What led to the creation of Zooppa and how did you become its CTO?
Zooppa came from an idea that Davide Lombardi, an Italian journalist, had to found a company with the help of Riccardo Donadon and his firm, H-Farm, an early stage startup incubator. I joined Zooppa almost by accident, having answered a job posting thinking that it was some kind of consulting position for RoR from a forward-thinking employer. I soon found myself talking with Riccardo and Peter Caiazzi (of Netscape fame) at a wonderful countryside farm, full of fellow geeks. I was immediately sold.
I was first hired as a consultant and a few months later become the CTO. I guess the reason is that I’m a good programmer. You should ask Riccardo.
3. Can you explain to our readers who may not familiar with it, what Zooppa is? (Think an elevator pitch.)
Zooppa is a web application for designers and other creative types. It’s based on a new approach to online advertising and on a value proposition that goes beyond the simple “click” formula. We give our users a brand that is looking for a commercial, they create ads through a competition (videos, print ads, radio commercials, banners or simply concepts), and these ads are voted on by the site’s community. Eventually the ad makers win money (I think we’ve awarded $400,000 to date) based on the popular vote and the choice of the customer who commissioned the project.
In my opinion it’s a wonderful way for people to show what they’re able to accomplish for companies like Google, Nike, TomTom and many others. And based on the number of people from our community who have been hired by these companies, it is clear that the companies agree as well.
4. What kind of funding did the company receive?
No funding other than that of H-Farm. I strongly believe that you need to have a product before you ask for funding. I’m absolutely against the “promise-based” economy we all know. We’re going to be looking for our first round of substantial funding very soon, as we’re now able to show our polished product and our large community (something we couldn’t do one year ago). We have been able to give Zooppa its own character and goals, and we proved that it worked. Now we are able to make promises that we can stand behind.
5. How are things going? At this stage have you been able to be profitable, and can you disclose a few statistics about Zooppa? How many employees, users, pageviews and so on?
No, we haven’t been profitable, but we’re getting very close. We are somewhat akin to a combination of YouTube, Flickr and Facebook (in the sense that we serve videos, images and have a timeline), and we had huge startup costs, so it was basically impossible to be profitable initially, which we knew from the get-go.
We have 40,000 users more or less, 12,000 print ads, 2,000 videos and so on. It’s quite impressive when you consider that these videos are the result of a creative process and not, say, simply the recording of your cat a la YouTube. In terms of employees, we’ve got about 20 people.
6. It seems to me that the idea is innovative, the videos are fun, and there is a solid business model behind it. Why do you think the company has received little attention outside of Europe, especially by specialized blogs that cover all kinds of startups? Can you tell us about your struggle to get exposure?
Oh well, you’re opening a can of worms with that question… We made a huge mistake at the beginning: we focused on our own market without “attacking” the US one. Other than that, we didn’t receive any coverage outside of Italy, even if I did all I could to reach out to the biggest blogs that cover startups. It seems to me that you only get coverage if you are burning VC money or in some way are doing something that’s fashionable at the moment (such as with Twitter right now).
I’ve even seen one of our clones getting more coverage than us, which is kind of ridiculous as that competitor implemented the idea horribly in my opinion. I would say that the originality of the idea doesn’t really matter to such bloggers, just the funding and related issues (not to mention the various possible conflicts of interest…). Honestly this is very hard to swallow.
7. How did choosing Ruby on Rails impact the project?
We are incredibly productive. We normally code a prototype and write specs before putting it online. This is awesome, I can turn ideas into code in no time, test and refactor them later if I realize that performances are not as I would like them to be.
I strongly believe we wouldn’t survive without Rails. I still remember the presentation I gave to RailsToItaly, I just had done a complete redesign and rewrite of the site in 38 days. My presentation’s title was “Productivity with RubyOnRails or how I stopped worrying and learned to love Zooppa”. I think this title speaks for itself.
On a side note, I would also like to say that as an old school web developer and early “Railer” (you can find my posts whining about DB serials stretching as far back as 2004 with answers from DHH himself ). I think we have the best provider ever. I work with EngineYard and their service is terrific. I have no idea how they can offer the sort of support they do and still keep prices so reasonable. Never in 10 years on the web have I experienced the type of service I get from EngineYard. They are one of our most precious assets.
8. As CTO for the company, what are your main duties?
I code like crazy, as I already mentioned, and I take care of our architecture and its evolution. I’m in charge of other developers (http://twitter.com/oscardelben/, http://twitter.com/michelegera and http://twitter.com/smash) and provide them with specs to implement. And I whine about everything. Whining is the defining skill of every CTO, trust me.
9. Where is Zooppa heading and what plans do you have to bring it to the next level?
I want to integrate Zooppa with the major video and image platforms. And with Twitter of course. I would also like to experiment with Sinatra for a Facebook application. As well I’m coding my own blog/static site solution with Sinatra and Metal (I really dislike WordPress). And I do so in my free time, which means BSD license all the way. I also plan to use CouchDB for our timeline.
We have a lot of stuff going, and we’re going to hire more employees, so feel free to send your CV to firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to include Erlang and Haskell if you are brave (I received complaints about my choice of technology, because it’s hard to find Ruby developers around here. If I start requiring Erlang and Haskell skills I will definitely establish a record number of complaints here in H-Farm). It’s going to be a lot of fun, really.
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