About a month ago I was having a talk with someone who was interested in Approver.com. They’d tried the site and liked it, but they couldn’t believe that I’d have the audacity to compete against Google.
To be honest, competing against anybody didn’t enter my mind when I built Approver, since I built it to solve a somewhat narrow document-sharing problem that had bugged me over the years and at the time there was really nothing like it. At any rate, what Approver does is sufficiently different that what anybody else does shouldn’t cause us to lose much sleep. An internet business is way more than a bunch of web pages and a database. Yes, we have an in-browser word processor too, but in some respects, we come to praise Microsoft Office, not to bury it.
But this person I was talking to wanted to know how a small team could possibly build a business that could possibly withstand the Google juggernaut.
Set aside the fact that, for whatever reason, Google doesn’t execute in a particularly overwhelming fashion across more than a few of the product areas it competes in, not for lack of trying. I’ve blogged about this before, although you don’t have to take my word for it: statistics say it more compellingly than my Google-dissing potty mouth ever could. Google is no 800-pound gorilla, they’re not Microsoft circa 1995, and internet businesses can certainly compete on a lot of different levels with Google in the room.
"Noreply" emails are okay in certain situations. But sending out an email message pertaining to a revenue-generating activity, then telling the potential customer that you don’t actually want to hear from them, is completely ass-backwards.
A lot of big companies fall into this trap. Remember when a lot of big banks shut down their branches in the 1990s because they’d decided that coming into contact with customers cost too much money? The joke was that the ultimate design for a future bank branch would have a moat and barbed wire around it. Google’s passion for automating everything and minimizing contact with real people is the internet version of the bank branch with the barbed-wire moat. I’ve seen eBay run into problems with this from time to time, but Google seems to be raising it to an art form.
I’m religious about looking at all the feedback email and support requests for Approver.com myself. I’m going to keep doing it until they come and haul me away. I’ve gotten a few startled emails from users who couldn’t believe
that I give out my personal email to everybody who registers for the
site. I figure, if I require you to give me your email address to sign
up for my site, it’s only fair that you should have mine, too. Is that
totally insane of me? I suppose time will tell.
If I don’t have time to look at the mail that users send me, I really shouldn’t be in business. The common response to this (usually offered by internet dudes who have never run their own businesses before) is "oh, that will never scale." But one need look no further than Craig Newmark to see an example of a nonlinearly successful internet business person who somehow finds time to do this well, and to do it himself (although I’m sure that with millions of users, Craig has at least a little help these days).
I should mention that I was originally trying to reply to Google to let them know that the link they referred to in their email — the one that would hypothetically lead me to pay them money — was broken. Oh, well, I’m they’ll find out about it eventually from somebody, or maybe they’ll write a Python script to take care of it or something.