Alive.cn covered in the press and my podcast interview

It’s been a radical summer building out Alive.cn. It’s been a while since I’ve been back to the nuts and bolts of startup life doing everything from programming to hiring to sales to taking out the trash. I’ve had my partners Patrick and Raffi living in my two bedroom apartment for weeks as we rapidly build out the new service together. Guess who gets stuck on the couch…

To that end, it’s good to finally see some coverage of Alive.cn in the press. First, here’s an article that Raffi did with Marketing Interactive introducing the new service.

In addition, I just did a podcast chat with CRI radio host John Artman about my entrepreneurial experiences. His own podcast is just getting started so the talk is all about “startups”. The chat is about an hour long — not sure who in the world is interested in hearing me blabber for that long, but if you wait till the end, you WILL get to hear my billion dollar new startup ideas.

Download: Podcast interview with John Artman

Checkout more China internet talks with John Artman

 

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mongoDB Beijing: My presentation on alive.cn and building a new entertainment database

While I’m still relatively new to mongoDB, I’m taking the opportunity to give some insights on building a new multi-lingual, comprehensive entertainment database using linked open data. The presentation will go through an evolution starting with the early days of Rotten Tomatoes when we assembled the movie information manually to my current efforts with Alive.cn.

I wanted to invite technically-minded Beijing folks again to a presentation that I’m doing on Thursday at the mongoDB conference. While I’m still relatively new to mongoDB, I’m taking the opportunity to give some insights on building a new multi-lingual, comprehensive entertainment database using linked open data. The presentation will go through an evolution starting with the early days of Rotten Tomatoes when we assembled the movie information manually to my current efforts with Alive.cn.

mongoDB Beijing Conference (Thursday, March 3)

I’m still not certain yet whether I’m going to deliver my presentation in English or in Chinese. Obviously, I’m much more comfortable speaking English, but would like to make sure that the audience is getting the message correctly. In any case, I’ve presented both English and Chinese versions of the presentation below. I decided to go with a movie theme in the visuals throughout the presentation to keep things in line with my “entertainment database” topic.

Looks like some of the presentation fonts and layout didn’t get transferred too well with the upload to SlideShare, but you can get the general gist below:

Building a super database from linked data

用互相关联的数据创建超级数据库

Anyone care to share some tips on presenting at a conference?

P.S. Thanks to Terry, our awesome UI/UX Engineer for helping me translate the slides and also, of course, for the awesome still-in-progress design work on alive.cn.

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IGN Entertainment (2004-2005)

Stories of my brief stint managing the transition for Rotten Tomatoes after acquisition by IGN Entertainment and attempts at starting a new office for IGN in Shanghai, China. Eventually, IGN was acquired by News Corp. and I departed to China for a new startup.

IGN Entertainment

Note: This post is part of an extended auto-biography which is collected in my About page.

After Rotten Tomatoes’ acquisition by IGN Entertainment, my business partner and Rotten Tomatoes CEO, Patrick, departed the company and I took over as head. For the remaining eighteen months at IGN/Rotten Tomatoes, I worked to further expand the Rotten Tomatoes traffic and brand. We developed the Certified Fresh seal as a way for movie studios to take advantage of positive film ratings on Rotten Tomatoes in their marketing. Furthermore, we did a tour of all of the marketing and online departments of the major studios to further cement our relationship with the industry we were covering. Finally, I worked closely with the IGN Entertainment team to integrate and expand our ad sales efforts with their more well-developed bi-coastal, ad sales force as well as merge our server platform into their hosting environment. Most importantly, though, I did my best to protect the Rotten Tomatoes brand and team and hire up additional team members who could continue to grow Rotten Tomatoes upon my own departure.

At IGN, I was elevated to a Vice-President position and, as part of my corporate duties, I asked our CEO for the opportunity to explore international expansion in Asia. At the time, IGN itself was preparing to go public as the largest video games content web site with the highest concentration of young male visitors online. It also had some great products such as GameSpy, the early, popular game matchmaking software and Direct2Drive, a video games version of iTunes. I wanted to explore how we might be able to partner or joint venture with companies to relicense and promote these properties in Asia. My former partner, Patrick, had already departed Rotten Tomatoes in order to startup another company  (Xiaban.com) in mainland China and I similarly felt that the growth opportunities in China at the time were enticing. As a consequence, starting in early 2004 I began frequently going to China and learning up on language, culture, and the Internet. Later on, as a part of IGN, I began visiting various gaming and internet companies and investors in preparation to create a representative office in Shanghai where IGN could begin partnering on expansion projects. The frequent visits helped cement my conviction that my next step after Rotten Tomatoes would need to take place in building something in China where the growth opportunities seemed as similarly exciting as the Internet Boom that I had taken a part of in the late 90’s.

In August 2005 and in the same month as it acquired Myspace, News Corporation acquired IGN Entertainment for $650 million. While the IGN’s acquisition was a really impressive feat by our CEO, I had only held a small amount employee shares in the company since our Rotten Tomatoes acquisition was done in cash. Furthermore, my efforts to help with IGN with opening it’s own Shanghai office were sidelined as all new efforts would be done in conjunction with the new parent company. I quickly made a decision that I wanted to return to entrepreneur life rather than working for a large company such as News Corp. and that I wanted to pursue my opportunities in mainland China. As a result, in December 2005, I left News Corp./IGN/Rotten Tomatoes and moved to join my former partner at his startup in China.

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Rotten Tomatoes (2000-2005)

How I co-founded Rotten Tomatoes, the popular movie reviews web site and stories of managing the dot-com bust and eventually selling the company.

Rotten Tomatoes

Note: This post is part of an extended auto-biography which is collected in my About page.

In late 1999, despite having considerable success with our web design firm, Design Reactor, Patrick Lee and I were interested in pursuing a new venture that could have exponential growth like many of the new web start-ups that our friends had started rather than the linear growth of our current company. In addition, we wanted to be able to dedicate our hard effort towards creating a product that we could claim as our own rather than designing web sites for other clients.

We were incubating a new project by Design Reactor’s former Creative Director, Senh Duong, who had previously created a web site that aggregated film reviews from across the web and in-print and presented a film percentile rating in an easy-to-read page, Rotten Tomatoes. Senh had spent a brief amount of time developing the initial web site from home and I was helping in free time with setting up the site on the servers and providing technical assistance when needed. Unexpectedly, Senh’s novel garage project rapidly grew in popularity, especially during the critical summer of 1999 when viral hit The Blair Witch Project and Star Wars: Episode I were released. Site traffic and media exposure grew to the point where we invited Senh to return to Design Reactor where we could incubate the project and find a way for the project to run as a business. Eventually, we decided to form a company around Rotten Tomatoes and we raised a round of funding that allowed us to transition Design Reactor to a sister company while we moved our existing team to work on growing Rotten Tomatoes as an independent company. This allowed Design Reactor to continue growing and the current management team have added large tech clients such as Apple, Cisco, and AMD.

Very shortly after we transitioned to doing Rotten Tomatoes in April 2000, the dot-com bubble burst and formerly powerful internet companies around us began falling apart. Immediately, online advertising, Rotten Tomatoes‘ primary revenue source, began plummeting with effective CPMs dropping to as little as 1-2% of their former values. Like many other companies, we had to drastically cut back on our staff in order to stay in business, eventually ending up with as few as seven team members. On the flip side, however, we had raised our funding right before the bubble burst which meant that we were able to rapidly cut back on our expenses unlike our competitors and partners who were bound by many long-term, expensive contracts. It also challenged us to engineer novel solutions towards expanding the site more efficiently and finding alternative revenue streams.

As Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the company, I managed the transition of the web site away from resource-intensive static HTML to a database-driven, LAMP-platform based web site. We developed our own, novel content management system named “Web Farm” that allowed us to rapidly expand our content to eventually comprehensively cover over 100,000 titles and hundreds of thousands of actors, directors, and other celebrities. Early on, Rotten Tomatoes editors had to read thousands of film reviews each week and extract a summary quotation and fresh/rotten rating from each one.. However, through a partnership with the the Movie Review Query Engine, we were able to comprehensively include millions of film reviews and ratings covering over a thousand sources automatically. Additionally, we developed our own system where film critics could register and login to our web site and assign their own quotations ratings and establish their own critics’ profile. In conjunction with our partnership with the Online Film Critics’ Society, an association of over a hundred of the Internet’s top film critics, we were able to greatly reduce the burden on our editors of comprehensively collecting film reviews by over half as well as play a vital role in promoting online film criticism.

With our ability to comprehensively and efficiently collect entertainment data, we began a data licensing program. We licensed our film data to numerous clients including Netflix and Microsoft. Because of Rotten Tomatoes‘ growing popularity, online partners such as Apple (integrated into the iTunes Store), Google (integrated into the first Google Desktop release),  and Ask.com (previously integrated into all movie keyword searches) have included our ratings system into their products. We also worked with both Hollywood trade industry magazines, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to include Rotten Tomatoes ratings as part of their regular film coverage which helped bolster the Tomatometer as a respected brand in the film industry. Data licensing became an important revenue stream as well as a means for expanding Rotten Tomatoes across other media sources.

Our traffic rapidly expanded to 6.2 million unique visitors a month (ComScore, January 2006 when I departed Rotten Tomatoes), largely in part to the intensive search engine optimization we performed on Rotten Tomatoes early on. While search engine optimization was still in it’s infancy in the early 2000’s, we worked hard to get Rotten Tomatoes film pages linked across various directories and link exchanges as well as optimizing on-page HTML code to rank highly on search engines. As a result of this work, Rotten Tomatoes pages have become reliably ranked within the first ten results amongst most Google-based film keyword searches. This increasing traffic helped monetize our online ad revenues to rebuild our primary revenue stream.

Another major revenue component was from partner affiliate sales. Movie fans coming upon our site were able to buy online movie tickets (via MovieTickets.com), posters (via AllPosters.com) and merchandise (via Sideshow Toy and others) from the films easily from the film pages. Additionally, we included comparison prices powered by PriceGrabber.com so users could find the most affordable DVD prices. Finally, we partnered with The New York Times and presented their film reviews in a highlighted position on our film review pages (although their ratings remained of equal value with all other reviews on the page as usual). These companies paid us every time a user clicked on a link or purchased and item and, with these partnerships, our affiliate sales grew to comprise a large fraction of our revenue, further stabilizing the declining revenue from online ads due to the dot-com bust.

In conjunction with our rapidly growing search engine-derived traffic, we also created the web’s first dedicated entertainment social network, The Vine. The Vine, launched on Rotten Tomatoes in October 2003, was modeled after a mix of Friendster and Xanga, and allowed people to easily share their reviews and ratings for all films, music, and video games. Other features which were ahead-of-their-time included structured ranking lists and customizable “groups” which allowed fans to create shared group blogs and profiles. We also leveraged this system and worked with all of the major and minor film studios and distributors to create mini-sites, sweepstakes contests, and more as part of rebuilding our online advertising revenue stream.

In addition to this early social networking system, we hosted a large film message board system. The Rotten Tomatoes forums eventually became the most active film forums online and developed it’s own unique community of film fans that went on to hold annual Las Vegas Rotten Tomatoes fans meetup events in Las Vegas (which I unfortunately never had the chance to attend). Fun fact: As far as I know, three weddings occurred from fans who met each other online in our formerly rabidly popular Rotten Tomatoes forums.

While the early years of Rotten Tomatoes and the dot-com bust felt like the online world was collapsing on top of us, eventually we were able to grow the traffic and our revenue to the point where Rotten Tomatoes was a stable and profitable company with multiple, growing revenue streams. By 2003, we were one of the few players in our niche who was able to claim profitability and the largest of the unacquired, independent film web sites. We were beginning to receive unsolicited acquisition offers from other companies, but turned them all down because we felt we had further work and expansion ahead of us. In 2004, we received a suitably large offer from IGN Entertainment, the largest video games web network (IGN.com, GameSpy.com), and Rotten Tomatoes was acquired in August 2004.

In early 2010, Rotten Tomatoes was sold by News Corporation and is now a part of Flixster, the leading movies social network.

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