dinner with surf canyon and the realities of getting software & toolbar installs

Surf Canyon is a startup focused on improving search results that a college friend of mine, Dave Hardtke, is chief scientist (despite my prior stated views on inflated startup titles I bit my tongue and didn’t but Dave’s chops).  We had dinner tonite in SF in order to catch up socially and talk shop.  This is Dave’s first startup so I’ve been more then open about sharing whatever experience and lessons I can.  As Lee Lorenzen noted on a panel at this week’s Snap Summit conference and Dave’s coming to learn,  startups represent a lifestyle as much as a career.  It’s certainly a nutty way to make a living, but one where I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  Welcome aboard the start-up train Dave – I hope you enjoy it as much as I have and do.

Dinner tonite was actually the birthday dinner for Surf Canyon’s CEO – Mark Cramer (I was Dave’s rather poor second choice to his lovely wife who couldn’t make it).   Mark’s friends were all in attendance and since Mark has been on the startup ride for a while was a chance to meet a bunch of other startup folks.  I got a chance to meet an entirely new circle of startup folks.

One of the interesting points of the conversation when talking shop about Surf Canyon was talking about how they could get more downloads of their search plugin and toolbar.  I spent a number of years in the toolbar space and have been surprised by how many questions I have been getting recently about my toolbar years especially from folks in the social networking space.  So here’s my general take – in an increasingly web and browser dominated world – getting any user to install software is an increasingly difficult.  Users have become wary of hidden risks and potentially harmful software coming from seemingly innocuous software.  The adoption/conversion rates from web-based applications vs. downloads can be a factor of 3x difference if not more.  Also web-based applications have the potential to be tied into social network platforms which can be very effective channels for incredibly cheap user acquisition.

At the same time, the toolbar market from a user perspective is highly saturated.  Google is the dominant toolbar today and it’s hard to find virgin users who either don’t have a toolbar or are willing to replace what they already have.  And the competition to reach those users is fierce and being fought be folks who are making a lot of money.  Ask.com’s Smiley Central toolbar group pays $1.50 to $3 per install in part because of their Google ad syndication deal they can make $5 to 6 per install (at least that and likely even higher).  So for new anyone looking to offer a toolbar as their primary business model – I usually offer a strong word of caution.  Even if you have a better mouse trap, if you can’t pay for shelf space, then you might want to consider a different model.  And case in point, the only “viral” toolbar from the last few years that was reasonably and widely successful has been Stumbleupon.  Every else – even Google – can bring their war chests and buy up the market.

Now Surf Canyon has a real cool browser plug-in and a great product is a great place to start.  I just hope that the competitive and financial realities of the toolbar market don’t prevent them from being a big success.

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2 Responses to dinner with surf canyon and the realities of getting software & toolbar installs

  1. Mark Cramer says:

    Thank you, Todd, for the compliment on our product. While your words of caution are well taken, please keep in mind that our product is not a plug-in. It’s a real-time implicit personalization engine for Google/Yahoo!/MSN that happens to be delivered as a plug-in. It also has the advantage not requiring the user to uninstall or change anything, including their search behavior.

    One can only hope that browser extensions that deliver real value to users will find acceptance. StumbleUpon is a great example, but here are four others:

    SiteAdvisor – over 50 million downloads: http://www.mcafee.com/us/about/press/corporate/2007/20070425_191010_v.html
    AdBlock – almost 14 million downloads in a little over two years: http://adblockplus.org/blog/statistics-statistics-statistics
    CustomizeGoogle – over 5 million downloads in a little over a year: http://customizegoogle.blogspot.com/
    DownThemAll – almost 1.3 million downloads: http://www.downthemall.net/latest/1278074-people-cant-be-wrong/

    I doubt these companies had big war chests, but I could be mistaken. SiteAdvisor was acquired by McAfee so I’m not sure how many of those 50+ million downloads were before that.

    I hope your enjoyed the birthday celebration and I’m glad that you were able to make it. We look forward to you helping us get our product into the hands of millions or users who will appreciate and benefit from the value our technology delivers. Please contact me when you have a moment. Thanks!

  2. Mark, I know where you’re coming from. I’ve written about toolbars vs. web sites (see http://kickstand.typepad.com/metamuse/2006/12/toolbars_vs_web.html) and have been in your shoes.

    While there are many examples of plug-in or toolbar distribution going off (as you’ve provided), those are the exceptions not the rules. Just know it’s *harder* to scale a user base when you have a installation requirement.

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