It was actually the winter of 1999 to be exact, and it was around the time I shook hands with the CEO of ImageX (then a high flying newly public company) to sell my company – Extensis, for about $140 million. Extensis also started and owned CreativePro.com, the first portal for the creative professional market segment. This is important for the story, as you see Extensis/CreativePro.com had grown to be an industry leading, profitable $24 million business selling graphics software to creative professionals all over the world. Funded by Adobe Ventures and H&Q Ventures (now Granite Ventures), we sold to the exact same customers as Adobe and, like them, had millions of users. It was a lot of fun, we built great products and kicked-ass.
This was the same time that the new bubble bible Industry Standard dominated the conversation in our industry. Back then, and for those who didn’t get it or are too young to remember, this magazine was often ½” thick and made it very clear that the web was taking over. “Creative Professionals” in particular were being affected so it dominated my thinking. Print was moving to the web in a big way, banner ads were the rage, and our customers were the ones creating them. We all have our own recollection of what happened next with Internet advertising, but what’s important for the story here is that we recognized as many have since 1999 that banner ads were wrought with problems and the industry needed a solution.
Knowing that I had the proverbial “desk by the door” having just signed to sell my company, I got a lot more serious about solving the “problems with internet advertising.” Dissecting a lot of research available at the time from Jupiter and others, and having a lot of conversations around our proposed solution, we distilled the “problem” down to two main, directly related, reasons why Internet (banner) ads didn’t work:
2) Even if there is enough information, the user doesn’t want to “detour”
We developed the “panel” to solve these two problems for any ad of any size from any network. The same problem still exists today, and though some ads are more targeted, these two keys problems persist. The nutritional panel was and remains our model and inspiration. We figured, and tested the hell out of it too, that if people could find out the who/what/where/when/why etc, without clicking or being interrupted – everybody would benefit! Specifically, users would get the info that want/need without leaving the page, Publishers could keep users on the page, and lastly the Advertisers’ ads would ultimately work better. Yes I know there are rollover from Pointroll, and others, we tested all of this before all of that in 2001/2002.
This is what panels looked like then vs. what you see today (examples on this blog.)
This is demo of a panel coming off of a BMW banner ad for the x5, back then our panel was the same width as banners by default. Today our panels are standard white, much smaller, and tabbed rather than specific regions as you see here - though we had tabs then too. You'll also note the "call to action" box on the bottom right, which have not yet exposed in the "new" panel.
We finished the system and rolled it out privately in 2002. And, it worked great, really great in fact. For now I’ll spare the details, but we delivered panels as a component of national campaigns for BusinessWeek, InFocus, and Adidas. Results were amazing. But, investors didn’t care. And we needed them. You see as we rolled it out the bubble had burst and we ushered in the “internet advertising nuclear winter.” We needed about $5 million basically just to turn on the system and run in for a quarter or two. There were just no funds available. “Internet advertising is dead, didn’t you hear?!” I heard this 20 times at least from VCs up and down Sand Hill Road and Highway 101. So, despite stellar results, proven success with real campaigns, there were no funds to be had. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
So, we mothballed the system, and the team and I started another company now called Attensa – focused on Enterprise RSS. We raised a little over $12 million for it over several years, which is not nearly enough for the enterprise business incidentally, but we built a best in class offering nevertheless. I left in April 2007 to focus on resurrecting “panels.”
“We’re getting the band back together”
The team has worked together on a few dozen projects over the past 20 years at Now Software, Extensis, Attensa, and Panels and our software is in use by millions. The guys have won a lot of awards too including various editors’ choice, eddy’s, people’s choice and even an “Apple Design Award.” Panels mainly consists of my long-time collaborator Eric Hayes (CTO), Eric Barnes (BizDEV), Russ Hayes (Web Czar), Kevin Fox (Product Manager/New Guy), and several other all-stars that we'll just have to call the horn section for now.
Panels Network a.k.a. “panels” is what we are now sharing in our public beta and rather than waste the space here just check out the web site at www.panels.net where there is a video demo. We have improved, streamlined, and retrofitted the technology to make blogs considerably more useful than ever before. Early stats and feedback has been phenomenal.
The objective of panels is identical to the original vision of satisfying the readers desire for real-time information, without interruption and doing so in a standard, predictable user interface. Panels is a rich platform, built to scale, and is already making people’s blog reading lives better.
It’s great getting the band back together.
OK, panels was early, sure, but it is by no means too late!
Here’s an excerpt from the letter I sent all of our shareholders about a year ago. 2003 was indeed a very tough time as we were just “too early.” I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve entered markets “late” and “just-in-time,” and with Panels we were simply too early. When I say too early, we were not too early for the market, we were too early for venture investors. To be clear, we finished and tested the platform, but the internet advertising bubble had not recovered.
Here’s an excerpt from a letter I wrote to Panels shareholders early this year on our "timing":
Then vs. Now – When we suspended operations in early 2003, we had exhausted all means to continue, despite the fact that we completed development and deployed the system with astounding results. From 2000 – 2003, Panels Network essentially invented, or at least brought to market first, numerous capabilities that are now industry standard practices. As you recall, the technology bubble had burst, and internet advertising was perceived as “broken,” with investors leery of anything that touched the category. Google and other companies like it the world over have proven that contention very, very wrong.
I am often asked, “Is the technology and opportunity still valid?” Well, I can confidently and unequivocally announce to you…Panels is now more than ever an opportunity of a lifetime. Substantial and numerous favorable conditions exist today that made it essentially impossible to move forward in 2003, including;
- Infrastructure Expenses: The capital outlays associated with the hardware/software/broadband requirements and associated personnel were too rich for most investors six years ago. We had earmarked ~$5MM to basically turn the system on in 2002. Time and progress has provided the company, and the industry in general, with a 20:1 improvement. Today our system runs on the “Amazon Cloud” and the related costs are “pay as you go” and in the $250K range in totality.
Panels Beta 2008 and beyond
Panels is a massively scalable platform designed to give users a standard “nutrition panel” for any object on the internet – starting with breathing life into your blog’s links for businesses, schools, and non-profits. Users love them, they don’t interfere, and they just work! It takes a few minutes to add to any blog and automatically make it, well, amazing!
Panels is a game-changer. And we think you'll agree that blogs are much better with them than without them. There’s no reason to not give panels a try.
Please drop me a line any time with thoughts, ideas, comments at firstname.lastname@example.org