Andrew Chen's BitTorrent Adventure

May 22, 2006 - Get free updates of new posts here

Entrepreneurs: Andrew Chen, Will Portnoy & Rebecca Sinclair
Company: Monkey Methods Research Group

Written By: Andrew Chen

Like many in Silicon Valley, Noah is embracing the outsourcing trend –
only his racket is inviting bloggers to do his writing for him 🙂

But onto my topic: My interest in entrepreneurism has always been to
turn geek technologies into useful products everyone can use. When
geeks live side by side with non-techies as they do here in Seattle,
it’s often obvious that there’s an enormous gap in culture and
communication. So it fascinates me when techies embrace a huge trend,
but it fails to break into the mainstream. When it happens, all sorts
of pent up energy get created just waiting to be simplified,
streamlined, and unveiled to the world at large.

In late 2004, it seemed clear that Internet video would be such a
trend. In particular, my friends and I had a strong interest in
BitTorrent, which was evolving rapidly as a protocol and as a
community. While VCs might focus on industry trends like broadband
adoption, cheap disk space, and so on, we saw it even more closely, as
BitTorrent won over geeks from across the Web. From Red Hat mailing
lists to user forums like Something Awful, it was clear that
BitTorrent had become the de-facto choice for shipping large pieces of
content across the Internet.

Unfortunately though, from an average user’s point of view BitTorrent
is very hard to use. Not only do you have to download and run a
BitTorrent client, you also have to find and download the torrents
themselves – and with bits and pieces of these steps found across
multiple websites. We realized that other P2P clients with deeper
mainstream adoption, like Kazaa, had approached the product in a more
holistic way, combining search, download, and play in one client. We
decided that the only way to make BitTorrent mainstream was to build a
similarly integrated experience into the browser. Plus, search was
already big at that time, and was clearly very easy to monetize.

So in late 2004, my good friend Will Portnoy and I started working on
a BitTorrent toolbar for IE, which featured an embedded client and
search box. At the time, Will was a CS grad student at UW, and had
interned for a whole bunch of years at Microsoft. Besides the fact
that I really like the guy and think he’s a genius, Will also has the
right skills to mess around with the Internet Explorer. Along the way,
a friend of ours, Rebecca Sinclair, worked on the project to help us
collect feedback from real-life users – she knows a lot about
usability, having interned at Amazon and Microsoft. She did all sorts
of things, like neat PowerPoint prototypes, to collect information
that would eventually save weeks of work. All in all, our search
engine became a fun side hobby, and we worked on weekends and odd
hours to cobble the project together.

In mid-2005, when we got a prototype of the search engine running, we
were eager to get real-life feedback on our product. To promote it, we
gathered up some interesting info from the search engine’s index,
wrote an article about it, and published it on Slashdot. Within hours,
we suddenly got a rush of traffic – we were being slashdotted! Of
course, that meant that our servers crashed, but it also meant that we
had a huge ecosystem of links pointing at us, from del.icio.us to MIT
Tech Review to hundreds of blogs. In the first 2 weeks, we generated
nearly a million queries.

The project ended positively for us, and we no longer run the site – I
can’t give more detail than that. All in all, I learned a hell of a
lot from the experience, and most importantly of all, it was a lot of
fun. The biggest personal lesson is that I really love to tinker, and
that I find as much pleasure from building websites in my spare time
as I do watching TV or going out. It was, and is, a simple tradeoff
that anyone can make every day to build something cool.

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