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FriendFeed: Be good

June 5, 2008 | 10:21 am

Paul Buchheit was employee No. 23 at Google. He created Gmail, Google’s popular e-mail service, and an early version of AdSense, its money-minting advertising program. But he is best known for coining the Internet giant’s catchy motto: "Don’t be evil."

The FriendFeed teamBuchheit left Google in 2006. Now that the cherubic entrepreneur and angel investor has started his own company, you could say his new motto is: "Be good."

That’s the spirit he is trying to instill in FriendFeed, which keeps people up to date on what Web content — photos, blogs, Tweets — their friends and family are sharing. He and his co-founders are doing everything they can to make their users and colleagues happy. And for good reason.

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham calls it the Tamagotchi effect: If you take care of your users, the right investors will rally around you and talented hackers will line up to work for you.

Graham preached the "Be Good" gospel at Y Combinator's start-up school in April. In an online essay on the same subject, he says start-ups benefit in other ways: Benevolence lifts morale and gives start-ups a reliable compass that won’t steer them wrong even when making difficult decisions.

FriendFeed founder Paul BuchheitAt the heart of the FriendFeed philosophy is the desire to build positive connections between the company and its users, Buchheit says. That's why one of the most popular features on FriendFeed is a button you can click to say you "like" something that someone posted.

Everything is transparent at FriendFeed, from its glass-walled offices in Mountain View, Calif., right down to the changes it makes to its source code. The company makes public those changes in a log. That helps the company be more accountable to its users and lets users participate in the company, Buchheit says. So FriendFeed stays more in tune with the outside world.

"You can see everyone at the company and what they are doing," he said. "We keep it very personal. Empathy is the key to making a good product. Engineers who have contempt for users don't make a good product. These are not faceless masses to us. We talk to and care about our users. It keeps everyone inside the company more connected to and not insulated from the outside world."

It's his goal to maintain that openness even as ...

... his start-up grows and matures. "As companies get bigger, they tend to turn inward. It no longer matters if the product succeeds, it matters what people inside the company think," Buchheit said.

Which raises an interesting question: Can companies who start good stay good? It's a question that some have begun to raise about Buchheit's alma mater, Google. And it's also one that Graham tackles. He wrote in his essay:

"Surely Microsoft isn't benevolent? But when I think back to the beginning, they were. Compared to IBM they were like Robin Hood. When IBM introduced the PC, they thought they were going to make money selling hardware at high prices. But by gaining control of the PC standard, Microsoft opened up the market to any manufacturer. Hardware prices plummeted, and lots of people got to have computers who couldn't otherwise have afforded them. It's the sort of thing you'd expect Google to do.

Microsoft isn't so benevolent now. Now when one thinks of what Microsoft does to users, all the verbs that come to mind begin with F. And yet it doesn't seem to pay. Their stock price has been flat for years. Back when they were Robin Hood, their stock price rose like Google's. Could there be a connection?

You can see how there would be. When you're small, you can't bully customers, so you have to charm them. Whereas when you're big you can maltreat them at will, and you tend to, because it's easier than satisfying them. You grow big by being nice, but you can stay big by being mean.

You get away with it till the underlying conditions change, and then all your victims escape. So 'Don't be evil' may be the most valuable thing Paul Buchheit made for Google, because it may turn out to be an elixir of corporate youth. I'm sure they find it constraining, but think how valuable it will be if it saves them from lapsing into the fatal laziness that afflicted Microsoft and IBM.

The curious thing is, this elixir is freely available to any other company. Anyone can adopt 'Don't be evil.' The catch is that people will hold you to it."

-- Jessica Guynn

Photos courtesy of Paul Buchheit and FriendFeed

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