FOWA 07: Richard Moross & Stefan Magdalinski – How we Turn Virtual Stuff on the Web into Beautiful Things in the Real World


Loves print. Books, magazines, greeting cards. Who really Bluetooth’s their contact details to people? Internet is just the internet. You can’t touch it.

Moo is a new kind of business. New media is creating new kinds of content, communities. Can create, edit and publish our own stuff on the web, and it’s kinda good. Uploading terabytes every month, but it’s stuck up there. Only way to set it free is to print it.

How we turn virtual stuff on the web into beautiful things in the real world.

The challenges. Business started with one person, and it’s a printing business. 500 year old business model producing a product that’s 300 years old – business cards. How do you get someone to care or notice you? Challenge to stand out and build a remarkable company.

Do things that are different enough to be worth talking about. It’s all in the details.

If you look in the usual places you’ll get the usual people. Need to hire unusual people. Everyone hired was through friends of friends, not recruiters. Only one person, Berhane, in the company who isn’t a DJ. Reversed engineered their existing software in a weekend.

Products. The difference make all the difference.

Three steps:
– Look at the marketplace.
– Have a cup of tea.
– Do something completely different.

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Qoop launched 2 weeks before Moo, did the same thing as Moo, but Moo had an unusual shape and size, every card could be different, and they are very high-quality. All paper is from renewable sources, and the best paper stock they could get.

People talked more about Moo than Qoop.

Partnerships. Products on their own are nothing, but partnerships are important. Moo is fuelled by other people’s passion for their own content. Flickr are great to work with.

Marketing. Is a four letter word that begins with an F. Pronounced ‘free’. Gave them away free, and if people like them they will buy them. Gave away a million free cards in their first year. Got incredible conversion from free to paid. Did all their marketing in the beginning and got lots of feedback in.

Details: e.g. packaging; confirmation email from Little MOO, which says it’s a bit of software; every card is shipped with a ‘luggage tag’ which is superfluous bit of operational data that tells them where stuff has to go and who it’s for.

Needed to pack and post cards. All hand-checked and packed. Only printing is done by machine. Would be smart to out-source, and can’t guarantee the quality people will like so they don’t do it.

Based in London, and has been a revalation. US businesses look at the world as America, but the UK looks at it as the world. Code, 100 yds away from the printer, then get packed, and then the Royal Mail come and pick them up and bung them in the post. Couldn’t do this for the price and with the speed if it was anywhere else.

Can get them to NYC from order to deliver in just a few days.

Stef to talk about the technology.

Eight things we have learnt
1. Run our business on outboard brains, on kitchen tables and sofas. So had to outsource almost every part of their infrastructure.

2. No beta, no gamma, just permanently 1.0. Never occurred to think about labelling. Role out every day, except Fridays. Continuing improvement driven by user feedback. Have a weekly meeting about user feedback. Want maximum number of orders and minimum requests for new features.

3. Code (not too) recklessly but watch closely and fix fast. Building websites is harder than it used to be, but Ajax has ruined that. If users had problems they could send a URL and you could see the problem and fix it. Now the logs files aren’t there so hard to track what’s going on. Monitor everything, use error handling within PHP, so every developer gets an email when there’s an error in PHP or MySQL. Wanted to do the same thing with Ajax, so if there’s an error in the Javascript it tries to call PHP to send an email. Another cron job tracks the error log and every developer gets an email.

4. APIs are cool, but dangerous. Source of subtle bugs that aren’t yours. If you’re authenticating on someone else’s API, it’s hard to profile. Only as reliable as the combination of all your partners. Solution to this was to get mentioned on Plasticbag and BoingBoing and then run round panicking.

5. Don’t internationalise. Doesn’t work for everyone. If you do this, you have to do it 100%, have to have customer support in all languages. So MOO is so simple that non-english speakers can use it. Very strict about the use of English on the site and try to have clear pictures that explain what’s going on.

6. Do internationalise. Built an infrastructure that allows us to ship to every place in the world, and the cost is the same around the world. And stuff that’s free is free, regardless of where you are. Need to support Unicode properly – great in theory but it’s not just a ‘switch it on and off’ thing, you have odd support in Apache, and there are no fonts that fully support Unicode. But can print cards in some pretty obscure languages.

7. Give more by giving less. Could have built the Ajax photoshop, given more fonts and colours, but wanted everyone to feel like a designer, which meant didn’t want to give themselves the opportunity to create ugly cards. Had to give people a lot less – only essentials. Doing less meant that they had happier users, fewer bugs, faster site. If you ask people if they want more features, they say yes, but they never use the ones you gave them.

8. Biggest problem: how to sell a 2.01D product? As hard as trying to sell any physical product online? How do you convey texture and quality of these things? In the end, never figured it out. Flickr group pictures convey how lovely they are. 3340 photos in the Moo Flickr group, lots of things written on Blogs about them, veyr public debate with users. This has kept them honest. Flickr group was an afterthought, but now it’s essential. Best solutions to technical problems are often human.

What does all this mean?
If there’s one thing that’s common to it all, its’ three word: keep things simple.

Richard again:
Customers are most remarkable thing about the business, the cards are just a canvas for other people’s creativity.

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