Podcast Episode 2: More of a Plot Twist than a Pivot

By Paul Ford

So how did we get here? Why didn’t we launch? What the hell is Aboard? What is this big plan? Paul and Rich reveal what’s happening, offer at least a little detail, and talk in broad terms about “making a better web,” and how now they must turn their big words into deeds.

Paul Ford: [00:00:00] Rich Ziade, it’s good to see you.

Rich Ziade: Paul, always nice to see you.

Paul Ford: Tell me who you are.

Rich Ziade: I’m the co-founder of Aboard, a New York City-based startup.

Paul Ford: Ah, crazy coincidence. I’m also the co-founder of Aboard, a New York City based software startup.

Rich Ziade: This is episode two of “The Aboard podcast”.

Paul Ford: It’s, it’s nice to be back podcasting with you Richard.

Paul Ford: Last one was an apology. We came out and we said we’re sorry. We said we were gonna launch our software and we didn’t.

Rich Ziade: I don’t think that’s how you should kick off a podcast, but here we are. We had to apologize because we did a hard left turn.

Paul Ford: So let’s tell the story about why we shifted. Let’s be clear to everyone. We’re not gonna spend the rest of this podcast. Pause. I wanna be clear. Future episodes of this podcast are gonna be about technology subjects [00:01:00] and things we’re learning and things about culture. We’re not gonna just spend the next several episodes describing software you can’t use, but we thought we should give you some context about where we’re coming from and why we’re here.

Paul Ford: So…

Rich Ziade: I think we’ll, we’ll, we will. We will also share the pain of starting a company.

Paul Ford: I love to share pain. So speaking of sharing pain, why don’t I tell people the story of how you and I came to work together?

Rich Ziade: You’ve got one minute.

Paul Ford: Okay. So just for people who don’t know us, which is, you know, 99.999% of the world, uh, my name’s Paul Ford. I’m a writer and journalist, and Richard is a technologist and entrepreneur. Rich, you and I met because I was advising you about a startup you had called readability. Readability made webpages readable. How am I doing so far?

Rich Ziade: Excellent. 1.5 x. 

Paul Ford: Okay… you came to me and you shook my hand and you said, let’s start an agency. I think you can sell software. And I said, wait, what? Huh? And then seven years later, we sold that agency. It was a big success! In those intervening seven years. We learned how to work together. We built a lot of software. We managed a team of about a [00:02:00] hundred plus people, and we looked inside of enormous organizations, governments, banks, not for profits, everything.

Rich Ziade: Ran the gamut.

Paul Ford: And we saw how they worked. And what we saw was that they worked in the same ways, poorly.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Rich Ziade: Using enterprise software.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: And so with Aboard, let’s go out there and let’s make it better. Let’s fix it. Let’s create one tool that they can all start with to build from. And that’s where we started and that’s what we’re not doing.

Paul Ford: So first of all, let me slowwww downnn.

Rich Ziade: Geez

Paul Ford: Yeah, Why?

Rich Ziade: You started getting me nervous. 

Paul Ford: I just didn’t have a lot of time. And you know, people don’t need to hear that whole story exhaustively.

Rich Ziade: Fair.

Why Is Enterprise Software Bad?

Paul Ford: Okay. Why is enterprise software bad? What, what is, what are the things, what are the pain points that we’re talking about? When we say enterprise software, we mean software that you don’t just like go to a website and click a button. You gotta call someone they set you up. Salesforce is the canonical example these days.

Rich Ziade: It’s all, well, I mean, enterprise software is bad because it doesn’t have to be good.

Rich Ziade: You get [00:03:00] paid to use it. Versus consumer software where you, you give, you download an app and you give it about 20 seconds and you’re like, if you don’t like it, you just toss it, toss it away.

Paul Ford: You know what I love is the advertising because Slack. Slack, it’ll be like Slack “It’s a place to talk with your friends and communicate and do things”. Enterprise software will just be like “SAP” and it’s a picture of like a shadowy man in an airport.

Rich Ziade: Oh, you go to, you go to air, like major hub airports, you’ll see ads for SAP that just say, um, “Risen”.

Paul Ford: Exactly.

Rich Ziade: You just have one word.

Paul Ford: If you go to a website for a software company and on that website, there is absolutely no way to know what that software is or what it does.

Rich Ziade: That’s right.

Paul Ford: That’s enterprise software.

Rich Ziade: And so it’s not good, and it’s terrible because it doesn’t have to be great.

Paul Ford: But every single one of these tools, sales, usually men come to your, come to your office and they say, “Let’s get this thing installed you’re going to be good. You’re never gonna need an expert anymore”. 

Rich Ziade: That’s right. 

Paul Ford: And then what happens? [00:04:00]

Rich Ziade: You need an expert.

Paul Ford: You always do.

Rich Ziade: You need experts, uh, the history of technology, um, on the enterprise side and frankly, yeah, no, no pause. The history of technology on the enterprise side is, About as, as we’ve innovated and as Moore’s law just keeps doing its thing, uh, it just spins up. New professions, new experts, new areas of expertise. It’s a human thing. We could get philosophical here, but this whole pitch of like, “Well, guess what? You don’t need engineers now it’s low code, no code, schmo code”. And it turns out you still need experts and it’s not much better.

Paul Ford: I’ll tell you the funny thing with engineering is everybody loves infrastructure and nobody really likes structure that much. Like they don’t, they just go for the infra over and over and over again. So it’s just this, like everything is a thing that lets you build other things in a more abstract way, that’s enterprise. And so what happens is you end up cobbling all these [00:05:00] tools together. So Slack is a good example. Or, um, different kind of document managers things that replace your file system so that you can all work together in a truly new collaborative way.

Paul Ford: Anndddd then what do you do to make ’em all glue together Rich? How do you make it all fit in one piece?

What are Integrations?

Paul Ford: Integrations.

Rich Ziade: Integrations are awful. Integrations by the way, is big business. There’s a company called MuleSoft that has built bridges for every point to every other point.

Rich Ziade: It’s called MuleSoft, by the way, because it, the imagery they want you to kind of take in is a mule carrying buckets of water, which is integration. Integration is essentially systems that don’t connect or communicate with each other, have to connect somehow.

Paul Ford: Let’s, let’s just think for a second. They could have called it Data Burro. They could have called it Ass Mover.

Rich Ziade: They called it MuleSoft.

Paul Ford: MuleSoft.

Rich Ziade: It’s bizarre. Uh, I Maybe there’s an acronym in there that we don’t know about?

Paul Ford: No.

Rich Ziade: I think there is. I think it’s MuleSoft and in a way it’s sort of part of why [00:06:00] things are awful. So look, we built a ton of software. It’s worth noting. It’s not like we’re white-boarding. We’ve spent a lot of energy, a lot of resources. There’s a full-blown team that has built all this stuff and it culminated in a big party in October.

Paul Ford: I love, resources is a, is a nice, um, co-founder way of saying money. That’s pretty good. We’re gonna be transparent with people, not that transparent, but we spent a lot of money.

Rich Ziade: We spent a lot of gold coins,

Paul Ford: Yeah [chuckles].

Rich Ziade: building this software.

Paul Ford: Mashing gold coins.

Rich Ziade: Yeah [chuckling].

Paul Ford: We, we butchered a lot of bureaus,

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And so, um-

Rich Ziade: So what did we build Paul?

Paul Ford: Okay. So what happens with Aboard is you come in, you log in and you see these different columns and on the left it looks like chat, but it’s actually a place to put in data. It’s like a spreadsheet turned into chat. That’s what we were going for. That’s what we aimed for. And so it was this conversational data thing where you could talk about the work you were doing and move things and statuses and do all that stuff that you would expect.

Paul Ford: So [00:07:00] like imagine Slack and Trello had a baby. And it looks pretty good! It’s got my avatar in it. It’s got notes and comments and all the things you like in software. So why the hell didn’t we launch it? We had a party, we said we’re gonna do it.

Rich Ziade: We took a couple of calls, we started to get some positive feedback. We could have kept going.

Paul Ford: People were using it productively. They still are using it productively. It has users. And so we go out, we threw a party, we said, this is ready for the world. And then boom, we go, ehhhh, hold on. Are we dilettantes?

Rich Ziade: Yes, but that’s beside the point.

Paul Ford: Fair enough. 

Rich Ziade: I think it’s worth talking about what was happening in the background while we were building this tool, while we’re getting ready for that party while we’re starting to reach out to people.

Rich Ziade: And that is, the web is melting a little bit.

Paul Ford: Oh, like Velveeta cheese over nachos.

Rich Ziade: Even worse, like Velveeta cheese that was forgotten on the front [00:08:00] porch in August.

Paul Ford: So the thing that people are saying, and I hear this more and more, “Google sucks now. It’s all ads, and the search results don’t make any sense”.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: Why Rich? Why does Google suck now? Is it because Google’s a bad company that just wants to exploit people and put advertising up?

Rich Ziade: No. I like Google. I use Google all the time.

Paul Ford: I think Google’s doing the best it can. It’s just who’s making webpages, who’s making stuff that’s usable? Wikipedia is the most usable website right now, in my opinion. Like if I want to know something about something, Wikipedia is like 80% of the time where I want to go. If I wanna find real estate, I go to Zillow, right? Like it, but, but Google is just kind of traversing and all that, and I think it’s, it’s gluing it all together as well as it can. But the web itself, the platform of the web just isn’t what it used to be.

Rich Ziade: Why do you think that is?

Paul Ford: I think it’s a lot of reasons, but I just think the incentive structures for people to create really good high quality content, people extracted all the value over the last 20 years. They took the money home and they didn’t [00:09:00] put money back into making it better.

Paul Ford: Right? They… basically, we over farmed, we didn’t plant the crops that you would need in order for the soil not to die.

Rich Ziade: Right. Creation, creativity, creators are not, it’s not a nurturing place for creators. There are corners, there are spaces where people get to, to, to share their creations, but it’s a place that shifted and became much more optimized to rapid fire. Content creation. So the barrier was incredibly low and the quality went down and also caused harm in a lot of ways.

Paul Ford: Yeah. Social media, I mean, I, we don’t need to rehash that, but the reality is like, ultimately places like Google and Amazon, there are plenty of good actors who are trying to make a better web inside of there. But if you look at the general thrust, it’s, I’m gonna make a platform. I’m gonna pull it away from the web and I’m gonna extract a lot of value out of people,

Rich Ziade: Yup.

Paul Ford: And then I’m gonna decide how it goes back out.

Rich Ziade: And, and-

Paul Ford: Instagram, Facebook, all of these.

Rich Ziade: So I think there are two things that came together that have kind of taken the web [00:10:00] from like this glorious place of just all these wonderful resources to a place where, um, it just tires everyone, everybody’s kind of done with the, the negativity, the anger, the divisiveness and whatnot.

Rich Ziade: So what are the two ingredients? Ingredient one, if I told you to diss me with a painting, Paul,

Paul Ford: Yeah,

Rich Ziade: Go paint something. Here’s some oil paint.

Paul Ford: I mean, you kind of want to see that, right? Like that’s it’s, it’s worth it.

Rich Ziade: It is worth it. A, you can only produce so much on a given day cause you’re gonna have to paint it.

Paul Ford: Correct.

Rich Ziade: And B, how angry can you be after four hours of relaxed painting? Bob Ross style.

Paul Ford: You start to forgive.

Rich Ziade: You start to forgive. The web today allows you to create content instantly. It’s to the point where it’s like, “Hey, chill. Just hit one button, take a picture, put it on the internet, it’s fine. Take five seconds of video, put it on the internet”.

Rich Ziade: Type a hundred characters, on the internet. Off we go. So the friction was reduced to near zero on one side. On the other side, the platforms that this, this content [00:11:00] ends up on, keeps score by popularity. And popularity doesn’t mean like homecoming queen, popularity means you pissed a lot of people off. You caught a lot of people’s attention and that’s what works.

Paul Ford: Or you’re just, and you and I would have no experience in this, incredibly hot.

Rich Ziade: I don’t know anything about that,

Paul Ford: No.

Rich Ziade: part of it, but Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look hot. I can- look as long as the right lines are stayed within, but hot is fine.

Paul Ford: Well, that’s just, that’s just humans we’re primates, right? But the, um, so-

Rich Ziade: This-

Paul Ford: You, you know what I think about a lot, I think we, we get really angry at the founders and managers and CEOs of social media companies. But if you look at it from their point of view, it’s just like, “Oh wow. I created enormous mass of humanity. I can’t stand them anymore”.

Rich Ziade: I have empathy for those leaders who, like, they had no idea this is where this was going to go.

Paul Ford: go. Well, I’m all, you are.

Rich Ziade: They had no idea.

Paul Ford: You and I are also disillusioned with humanity.

Rich Ziade: I’ve been disillusioned since I was 13, but that’s separate.

Paul Ford: Exactly. Well, but that’s [00:12:00] the thing. It isn’t for them. Right? Because they actually have humanity in their purview. So there is now, and, and I should be clear–you and I actually aren’t tired of humanity. We like the web. I still care a lot about creators.

Are We Going to Fix Social Media?

Rich Ziade: We should say it out loud. We’re not gonna fix social media.

Rich Ziade: We’re not coming up with a new social media platform that is going to make it a much warmer cuddlier place. That’s not, that’s not the goal of Aboard.

Paul Ford: We’re too old and too wise to attempt to make like, humans better.

Rich Ziade: However, we saw that we have in this platform the building blocks to create better, safer spaces for people to collaborate, talk to each other, share expertise, which you know, a lot of the positivity comes from showing off and actually educating others for any corner of knowledge that is out there. And YouTube does this in a lot of positive ways. There’s amazing gardening videos on YouTube. There’s all kinds of stuff.

Paul Ford: Wow. We sound so nice [00:13:00] and thoughtful. Let’s be clear, Rich. We had a perfectly nice enterprise software product. It looked just as good as any of the others and we were ready to sell it and we were ready to go into organizations and then we looked each other in the eyes and we said “We need to do better”.

Rich Ziade: We were nervous about going back to the team with this. The team had been head down, chugging along towards this event, this launch event. We were going to invite thousands of people in. We had a big list of people who wanted access to the thing. We were anxious about it. What’s really exciting is that once we presented this bigger vision. Everyone really connected to it and got really excited. They may not have it, it could have gone the other way. It didn’t, and that was great. And the team is very engaged and we’re very excited to share more. Um, I’m not a to be continued kind of guy.

Paul Ford: Well, look, we can’t just keep talking about software that doesn’t exist on this podcast, we’re gonna talk about all kinds of things. We’re gonna talk about the web as it is now, and then we’re gonna bring in as we can get more [00:14:00] people onto the platform using it. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’ll be the first to know we’ll get you, we’ll get you on the software if you want to see it.

Paul Ford: But, uh, we’re not gonna turn this into pure marketing every day. We’re gonna talk about all sorts of stuff. Let’s leave people with a question. What do you think? What do you want to talk about next episode? Let’s get everybody thinking.

Rich Ziade: Why is Wikipedia an absolute shining light on the internet?

Paul Ford: I have an enormous number of thoughts on that.

Rich Ziade: Putting aside…, the donation box that takes over not only my entire screen, but somehow bleeds onto my phone.

Paul Ford: That alone is an amazing conversation because the Wikipedia community fought back about the donation box and has changed the whole strategy. Let’s talk about what makes Wikipedia great, because if we’re gonna make a better web, let’s not just focus on what sucks, but what really is wonderful.

Rich Ziade: Absolutely! Absolutely. Uh, we hope you stay connected. Spread the word about this [00:15:00] podcast. Aboard is coming, and we’re gonna share our journey with you.

Rich Ziade: Paul. Have a wonderful holiday, a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

Paul Ford: Uh, thanks, Rich I will, even though I’m probably gonna see you like four times [chuckles].

Rich Ziade: I’ll see you tomorrow.

Paul Ford: Yes [laughter].

Rich Ziade: Um-

Paul Ford: Okay. Yeah, I’m gonna do that if anybody needs us. hello@aboard.io and you can also, uh, check us out @aboard on Twitter,

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: if it’s still there… and, um, we’re getting started. Get in touch.

Rich Ziade: Stay tuned. 

Paul Ford: Buh-Bye.