This year we profile the 20 companies that generated the most banter among the EContent 100 Judging team during our month-long wiki-based judging process.
37signals was formed in 1999 to fill a gaping hole in the online realm: website design. That remained the company's main focus until 2003 when 37signals' president Jason Fried and his colleagues realized they needed better software than was currently available to manage projects. Since they couldn't readily find it; they created it. Their first product, Basecamp, was originally intended for internal use only, but when clients expressed an interest in using the project collaboration tool themselves, Fried saw that his team was on to something and officially launched Basecamp in February 2004. A year later, the company completely shifted to its current role as a provider of web-based project management and collaboration software, and it now has five products in its stable. Yet, while many companies choose to inundate customers with a wide range of product features, 37signals purposely keeps it simple. "The software side of our business came out of a need for this type of product and that's why we built it," says Fried. "Everything we build, we build for ourselves first. We realize we're not unique. There are a lot of other companies just like us; they probably need something just like this too, so we turn it into a product."
In addition to Basecamp, which allows for file sharing among a project team and contains features such as to-do lists and time tracking, 37signals also offers Backpack (an organizational tool), Writeboard (a platform in which users can share text documents that enable seamless editing), and Ta-da List (a to-do list application).
"Our products do less than everybody else's," boasts Fried. "You would think that would be a negative, but in fact it's quite a positive. We believe most software is too complex; it's too confusing and difficult to use. It tries to solve too many problems. Our products just do a few things really well. Instead of adding every feature, we add a few and make those really good." The products are primarily designed to meet the needs of small businesses.
In 2006, the company launched Campfire (a group chat tool with which users can invite clients or coworkers into a password-protected online environment and share files and images). "It's like instant messaging, but it's based on the group," says Fried. "Instant messaging is based on one-on-one talk, Campfire is about having a whole group of people—five, ten, twenty—in a room together, chatting."
In keeping with the company's modus operandi, 37signals' eight employees use Campfire to communicate. They all work remotely and almost never see each other; although they do have office space in Chicago. "We think there are big benefits from actually staying away from one another," says Fried. "Interruption is the biggest enemy of productivity. When everyone is in a room together, it's easy to interrupt one another. We prefer to keep everyone physically apart and we use our products to collaborate with one another. It makes us more productive."
37signals' productivity in 2006 goes beyond product launches. Also this year, Fried and his 37signals partner David Hansson published Getting Real, a book available only in PDF format. It focuses on their philosophy on design, engineering, business, software, and marketing.
Another forum for that philosophy is the company's blog, Signal vs. Noise, which has evolved with the company. "We used to just talk about design and usability," he says. "Now we talk about programming and entrepreneurship. We also talk about the industry as a whole." According to Fried, the blog has about 35,000 readers each day.
Among the plans for 2007 is the release of a CRM product, says Fried. No doubt this will share the uncluttered characteristics of 37signals' current offerings in a year when Fried expects demand for web-based software products to increase.
"All of our products are web-based and I think you are going to see more companies embracing that," says Fried. "There are a lot of people comfortable with it. But there are a lot of people who simply don't trust it, but once they start using something new and realize it's beneficial, it should get them to forget their fears and go for it. I think that's what's going to happen in 2007 for web-based software."
Fried says he sees adoption of web-based software following the course of online banking, which started slowly before gaining widespread popularity. With the easy-to-use functionality of its software, 37signals is well-positioned to increase that adoption and fill this need as well.
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When co-founders Steve Goldstein and Michael Angle teamed up to create Data Downlink Corporation in 1996, they based their company around what was then a hot business technology: Excel spreadsheets. The company has come a long way since then, with a new name—Alacra, Inc.—and has stayed at the forefront as a model of technological innovation and thoughtful customer service.
CEO Goldstein—who was an early exec blogger—sums up his company's mission succinctly: "We're in the business of aggregating content and repackaging it." What sets Alacra apart is how attractive and user-friendly they make that package. Alacra might make its financial and corporate information delivery services simple to use, but there's nothing easy about channeling information from 100 corporate databases and 45,000 relevant websites into a single customized access point for its 600 corporate clients (representing 50,000 subscribers worldwide). 2006 was a banner year for Alacra, with a slew of new releases, updates, and launches that tapped into the power of Web 2.0, conceptually and technologically.
Alacra knows that in the fast-paced business world, every bit of data left undiscovered could potentially derail entire operations. "It's hard to keep the customer happy if there's information out there that they don't get," Goldstein explains. That's what their developers had in mind when they launched the beta version of Alacra Store in late 2005. Users don't need subscriptions to all 35 premium business information databases to summon up one of the 200 million reports on more than 350,000 public and private companies—instead, they can perform a simple free search and click to purchase relevant research. Big databases require robust search tools, and their new Ajax-driven keyword search incorporates an exciting new technology to perform simultaneous searches across a number of fields, and fine-tune results on the spot.
Alacra might not have the widespread name recognition of a company like Google, but then again its search strategies are very different from one-size-fits-all engines. In 2006, Alacra was all about perfecting the very specific—and time-intensive—kinds of vertical searches into its aggregated content that its users need to perform on a daily basis. For example, the new Alacra Compliance addresses stringent financial vetting regulations with a federated search solution that lets users search over 600 global regulatory websites at once in a highly configurable setting, compressing what might previously have been a day-long slog through legal and financial records into a half hour operation.
Also new in 2006 is Alacra Current Awareness, which collects digital content within users' relevancy parameters and then delivers it daily via email, RSS feed, or even directly to BlackBerrys. The details of Current Awareness make it a smarter digital solution for corporations: Managers configure lists for an entire team, delivery is customized right down to the time zone, and Alacra's other applications are seamlessly integrated to build instant snapshots and reports out of the news items.
Alacra isn't shy about asking its corporate customers to pony up their own wealth of insider industry knowledge. In September 2005, an Alacra intern set up the Alacra Wiki, making it one of the first business-to-business wikis on the web. Many business information companies, including Outsell Inc. and Dow Jones & Company, take full advantage of this open forum to post headlines, executive bios, product reviews, links to RSS feeds, and more. Goldstein is enthusiastic about how user-generated content such as that on Alacra Wiki can be beneficial to vertical information markets, and how it encourages collaboration and contribution within specific communities. "The more places where there is accurate information about your company—well, that's a good thing," he says. Goldstein also uses his company's blog more like a two-way radio than a soapbox, putting information out there in order to get comments, feedback, and suggestions from anyone with something to say.
The company also fosters the same open exchange of ideas among its employees. Its diversity mirrors the diversity of its corporate home, New York City, with almost half of its employees coming from outside the United States. Every year, the company celebrates its anniversary with an International Wine and Food Fest, where everyone brings a dish that's either their favorite or representative of their heritage.
All of these innovations are underscored by a number of solid older products, like Alacra Book (which builds briefing reports) and Alacra Premium (their subscription database). But this isn't a company that rests on its laurels—if you've got a great idea for 2007, Alacra would love to hear it.
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Apple didn't invent podcasting, but when its iTunes Music Store and media player software integrated podcast downloading in June 2005, the time-shifted portable audio format took off. By letting iPod owners "subscribe" to shows and download automatically to their iPod, Apple provided what for many was the missing link in on-demand media. Speaking about the importance of a seamless discovery and distribution system at its launch, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in an interview, "You get to pick which ones you're interested in. And, again, have the latest episode delivered right to your iPod. And that's pretty profound when you think about it."
It proved especially profound later in 2005 when Apple added video podcasts ("vodcasts") to the mix. With a monthly iTunes audience of over 20 million this year, thousands of amateur audio and video producers now had a platform to be discovered and distributed. The directory launched with 3,000 podcasts and, according to Apple, it now boasts 65,000 shows. Some video podcasts like Ziff Davis's 1UpShow and Rocketboom claim a viewership of over 200,000, in large part because iTunes made a once-geeky process safe for well-adjusted humans. For the first time, masses of users could find, try, download, and transport their media in a single place and with no technical expertise.
More than ease-of-use, the iTunes Podcast Directory offers a glimpse into a more democratized media landscape. Users encounter clever and popular one-person audio and video shows right alongside the highly polished but familiar gems from major media like ABC, HBO, and NPR. Setting aside the fact that iTunes has attracted millions to the podcast format, its open platform envisions the next evolutionary stage of digital content, where personal media compete for our attention directly with professional media brands. The iTunes Podcast Directory may be a window into a future of much flatter content ecosystems where everyone has access to the modes of content production and mass distribution. Jobs is right. This is profound stuff.
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When Jeremy Allaire founded Brightcove two years ago, he did so with a history that parallels the evolution of content delivery itself. His first major success was co-founding Allaire Corporation, a $120 million-a-year company that developed such internet enabling technologies as ColdFusion and HomeSite. In late 2000, when the Allaire Corporation merged with Macromedia, Allaire took up the CTO post at Macromedia, where he helped co-lead the evolution of Flash.
"When I left Macromedia, I did so specifically with an interest in working with businesses in online video, especially self-published," says Allaire. "I saw a convergence of trends that would allow for the creation of new kinds of media distribution that would enable not just the traditional base of broadcasters but tens of thousands of publishers. Brightcove is all about creating an open platform and marketplace for the distribution of TV over the internet."
With this goal in mind, Brightcove launched a version of its platform in early 2006 that allows publishers of all sorts to distribute video on their sites. Allaire also has numerous plans for expanding his efforts to place Brightcove firmly at the center of the online video revolution.
These plans include the relaunch of Brightcove.com as a consumer video destination. "It'll be a digital media marketplace where publishers will be able to create their own stores and have content on Brightcove.com that they can sell or rent," says Allaire. Another key component to Brightcove's future will a service that allows publishers "to syndicate content to millions of websites that are eager to have video but don't produce it themselves," says Allaire.
But arguably the most significant initiative on the horizon is Brightcove's consumer-generated media (CGM) service, which will enable publishers to accept video and other media submissions from consumers. "It creates a way for sites to take advantage of CGM as part of their broader editorial strategy," says Allaire.
Allaire's bright ideas for Brightcove include becoming "a worldwide brand and company that offers consumers access to hundreds of thousands of unique content publishers over the web," he says. "On the flipside, I'd like to have established a marketplace for publishers to launch channels and syndicate media."
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Copyright Clearance Center
Copyright Clearance Center understands the critical importance copyright protection plays in digital content. CCC was founded in 1978 to protect the underlying constitutional purpose of copyright: to encourage progress and creativity in the arts and sciences. As the official not-for-profit Reproduction Rights Organization (RRO) for the United States, it operates licensing systems that make it easier for content creators and content users to stay in compliance with copyright laws.
By offering an easy-to-use compliance system, CCC enables organizations to respect the rights of the publishers and authors, and use content in a lawful way.
CCC offers solutions customized for three main types of users—business, academic, and service providers such as copy shops and bookstores who reproduce content for business or academic customers. Solutions range from annual licenses for business users that provide blanket protection for copyright compliance, to pay per use arrangements suited for an academic environment, and covering content use on and off campus.
In June 2006, CCC launched a new service for content users called Rightsphere. According to Tracey Armstrong, chief operations officer of CCC, it "instantly answers for employees the common question: ‘What am I allowed to do with this content?'" It's a web-based advisory system that provides a comprehensive view of all content rights held by a business. Armstrong says, "We close the gap between copyright and collaboration. We make it easy for organizations to do the right thing."
On the publisher/author side of the equation, CCC offers the Rightslink product, a point of content licensing solution that gives publishers a tool for easy granting of permissions, while capturing revenue and usage information.
With this year's introduction of Rightsphere, CCC continues building upon its rich history of making copyright compliance less daunting for both content creators and content users.
—Nancy Davis Kho
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