The Thrill of the Launch

It’s 7pm in Austin Texas and I’m in a deserted lobby at South by Southwest with Nick Gonzalez from TechCrunch. Tomorrow is the day we’ve been building up to for ten months, the day we launch our product, Clickpass. I’m now demoing Clickpass to Nick who wants to review it for TechCrunch.

Almost everyone has left the building and are either back in their hotels or at the Facebook party, but for some reason the wireless is still saturated and has almost slowed to a halt.

On this grindingly slow network, our homepage hardly loads. When it finally does — in an irony not lost on either of us — Nick can’t remember the password he created six months ago when he last tried Clickpass and has to try several times to get back in.

Clickpass was designed to make single-sign-on easy. Before someone starts using it, though, they need to connect it to their sites.

The connection process is not going well. It’s been a while since Nick’s used any of the sites we support and we cycle through yet more password attempts as we try to hook into them. We finally manage to connect up to one of them but, for no apparent reason, Hacker News keeps failing. The demo part of the interview winds up and we get stuck into talking about the business instead. I’m starting to feel decidedly nervous.

Storm clouds gather

Ten months earlier we left London, moved to Boston to join YCombinator and started work on Clickpass — which was back then called Remember Me. We firmly believed that OpenID was one of the most important things to happen to the web and that the core issue standing between a brilliant protocol and widespread adoption was its unintuitive usability.

At the time we started the work of evangelists like Simon Willison, David Recordon, Chris Messina and Scott Kveton have succeeded in making most of the technology community aware of the protocol, but there was still a lot of cynicism and doubt.

As 2008 began and Yahoo and Google both announced their support for OpenID, something began to change.

Earlier that day, the SXSW OpenID session had been standing room only. Despite being in a sizeable room, every seat was taken and people were being turned away at the door as others stood around the walls and down the aisle.

That afternoon in a panel-session on distributed social networks, someone in the audience stood up and asked how OpenID was going to become easier to use. Following a mention from Jeremy Keith (moderating) almost the entire panel complemented our about-to-launch product.

It was a huge room, with hundreds of people and I could hardly believe it as Leslie Chicoine from GetSatisfaction described Clickpass as the “first time that OpenID’s actually made sense”.

Back at the demo now with Nick, in the middle of what seemed to be brewing into a perfect tech-storm, but with our ship still side-on to the wind. We finish up the interview and Nick heads back to his hotel room to write up while I hop next door to use the wireless in the Hilton.

Final tweaks

As the night wore on, many of the problems started to fall away. It turned out that the fact we couldn’t connect to Hacker News was indirectly because the site had, by complete coincidence, been TechCrunched that day.

The massive traffic had revealed a registration bug that was slowing the login system to a standstill. Had it it not been TechCrunched, the same bug would have killed the Clickpass experience the day after. By 10pm though Paul Graham had posted that it was fixed and the site was back to normal. Sometimes you just get lucky.

March 11th — day of launch

1am: Immad has crushed every bug we can find, our four servers are all idling happily and I’m about to head back to my hotel when I get an email from Nick saying that he’s sent the piece to Mike Arrington, but that Mike wants to ask us some questions. Can I hang on to take a call?

2am: I’ve just uploaded the company details to CrunchBase as requested when Mike Arrington calls. We talk for almost two hours about Clickpass, about the pains it’s solving, about how it takes the confusion out of OpenID.

As an entrepreneur you spend a lot of your time explaining things to people who aren’t always paying a lot of attention. However, Mike is 100% engaged throughout the full two hours and totally focused on understanding the product. I’m impressed.

Mike hasn’t used OpenID that much though and at the end of the interview he’s still keen to publish the story but feels we need something more to explain our unique selling point.

He advises me to produce a screencast and hold back from the prescribed 9am embargo for a couple of hours until it’s ready. We finish up and I leave him with an article from Marshall Kirkpatrick highlighting the difficulties around OpenID.

4:10am: I email Chris Messina and arrange to do a screencast with him the next morning. Chris is great at explaining these things and drawing out their significance in a way that people get.

4:20am: Take a taxi back to the hotel.

5am: Bed.

Launch morning

8am: Get up and promptly field a call from Joseph Smarr at Plaxo. With tens of millions of users, Plaxo are by far our biggest launch partner and the integration is yet to go live. Joseph’s hit a couple of small bugs at our end and and works with Immad back in SF to iron them out. SF is two hours behind Austin so it’s 6:30am over there and we’ve still got a bit of time before the 9am PST publication embargo.

At this stage I’m still expecting TechCrunch to hold the article until 11, when they get the screencast, and assume we’ve probably got a couple of extra hours more on top.

Joseph tells me that Techcrunch is twittering our imminent launch. After 10 months of designing, documenting and building it’s hard to believe it’s all really happening.

9:30am: SXSW convention center — I find a table and start testing all of the partner sites making sure everything is doing what it should be doing. Immad is doing the same back in San Francisco. David our designer is producing a “We’ll be back soon” page in case anything goes wrong.

Plaxo has pushed their code live and our little button is now on the bottom of their site. Nobody can see it until we drop our beta-cookie, but it’s there, and ready to switch on for their 40M users.

Disqus.com is looking good. Simon Willison’s Django OpenID libraries are blazing fast and Hacker News is now back to normal loading time. Plaxo is as fast as ever.

10:30am: With everything looking good I start getting to grips with the screencast software and mail Chris to fix up a place to meet.

11:25am: As I shut my Mac and go to do the screencast I happen to glance at TechCrunch. We’re on. Top story. No comments. It seems Marshall’s OpenID critique hit the spot. It’s an incredible review — everything we could have hoped for. Fantastic, except that we didn’t expect this for another two hours and the site’s still behind a password!

11:25am 10s: I call San Francisco: “Immad, we’re live, TechCrunch just published the story — let’s push!”

11:25am and 30s: <ping> Aral Balkan twitters that he can’t see the site — how do people find these things out so quickly?!

11:26am: Immad, as fast as ever, IM’s to say that everything’s live. Clickpass is go.

11:37am: An email arrives kindly offering to sell me Clickpass.cn. Un. Believable. I start buying other countries.

11:40am: Joseph publishes a great post about us on the Plaxo blog. I can’t help feeling a flush of pride.

11:50am: 50 new registrations on the site. Congratulatory emails and twitters start coming in. We’re the top story on Hacker News.

2pm: 300 registrations. The traffic is ramping up but thanks to Martin, our sys-admin, the servers don’t even blink at the extra load.

2:40pm: I call Immad and David back in the office. Everyone is excited and so far, everything’s holding strong. I tell the guys that there’s a bottle of champagne waiting for them in the bottom of the fridge.

3pm: <ping> — twitters keep coming in. I didn’t use Twitter much before SXSW but am amazed at what an incredible realtime snapshot it gives of the early-adopter web. Most are positive but a couple of people don’t really get what we’re doing. There’s clearly still work to be done.

3:30pm: An email comes in from one of our new users asking if they can join the company.

3:40pm: And another.

4pm: We make it onto Techmeme and one of our new users has already written a brilliant blog post about us.

5pm: 600 registrations. The adrenaline is starting to wear off and I suddenly feel exhausted. Draft an email to investors to bring them up to speed and realise that we haven’t even emailed our pre-launch list to tell them we’re live yet.

Lock-down

5:30pm: We haven’t set up our email marketing software yet so after writing up an email of the day’s events, I check, double-check and check again that I’ve put 1000 email addresses into the BCC and not the CC field on GMail.

GMail won’t take 1,000 emails at a time so I split them down into chunks. First chunk — okay. Second chunk — okay.

Write an email to another friend thanking them for their support. Send.

“GMail has detected an unusually high volume of mails being sent from this account. Access to your account will be frozen for the next 24 hours”. Bugger.

5:40pm: Phone a friend at Google. Fingers crossed.

6:10:pm: Hurrah — email back on. Silicon Valley is crazy-connected.

6:30pm: All of my electronics are about to die. MacBook is flat and hard-disk is starting to make strange, not-good, marble-on-a-stone-floor sounds and won’t sleep. iPhone has enough juice left to take a call from Joseph suggesting dinner. I catch up with him and John McCrea and we dissect the day’s events over Guinness and burgers. It’s a great evening and when they head back to their hotels I peal off to join the obscenely long queue for the Digg party.

10pm: Immad calls and we review everything. We’ve got a couple of glitches in some of the ancillary features but the whole core has been as solid as a rock. He’s an incredible developer and together with David’s design skills the product hasn’t just pleased us but also, it seems, our users too. We’re on track to hit 1,000 registrations in the first 24 hours and loads of people are installing the WordPress plugin. We agree it was a good day.

The next fortnight

The first couple of weeks have been a bit of a blur of emails, investor meetings and bug fixes. They’ve also revealed a ton of work still to do. The concept of password-less single sign-on is totally alien to most people and Clickpass doesn’t yet do enough to explain things.

We did a lot of work to make sure we didn’t contradict the decentralised ideals of OpenID and that people can still use their existing OpenID’s with us. Even so, feedback and reviews have highlighted that there are still things left we can to do to make it easier still for those who want to use pure OpenID.

Making OpenID easier is our raison d’etre. I’m pleased with just how much we’ve done for users but we’ve now got to turn our efforts to developers. Installing OpenID isn’t too difficult but it’s intimidating and we need to change that. Over the coming weeks and months we’re going to be releasing both libraries and plugins that should start to help a lot.

Live on new sites — Ma.gnolia

We’ve also got more sites coming online and at the same time as this article is published, so is our integration with Ma.gnolia.

If you’ve not tried Ma.gnolia before it’s a beautifully designed social-bookmarking site which, like Plaxo, has also always been on the cutting edge of OpenID.

We’re really pleased that people are going to be able to use their Clickpass with it.

Celebrating the victories

There’s an undeniable cult around internet startups and a generous helping of hype. As with any other project, 99.8% of the time is spent coding, designing, documenting, answering support and making sure the finances stay sound.

When the exciting times do come though, they come thick and fast and are exhilarating and nerve-racking all at the same time. Launch was exactly like that for us and a day I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Image credits:

Austin is the killer app: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid: laughingsquid.com
Data Portabilty Panel: Ian Kennedy: everwas.com/
Blackberry:1 Entrepreneur: 0 : VCWear.com

Comments

0 comments on “The Thrill of the Launch

  1. Thanks for this, I love this article! I’m hoping to launch a site soon and am terrified at the prospect, but your article has given me a little insight into what a good launch can be like – still terrified and lacking the fantastic support network you seem to have. Congrats on a fab launch, I wish you every success!