A Web Of Innovation
Meg Hourihan, co-creator of the personal publishing application Blogger, has already changed the way people interact and find information online. But she's only just getting started.
While the dot-com frenzy blossomed around them during the late 1990s, Meg Hourihan (A'94) and her two colleagues labored in a San Francisco basement, unaware that an accidental success would soon turn them into trailblazers of the World Wide Web.
When Hourihan and two other web developers founded Pyra Labs in 1998, they set out to create an online project management tool for businesses. The potential of the tool they used to keep an online log of the company's activities - a little application called Blogger - began to grow in their minds.
"We came to the conclusion that if we release this other product, perhaps that would introduce us to these tech insiders and web geek people who we thought were pretty influential in their circles," Hourihan says, recalling that they thought of the public release of Blogger as a "backdoor marketing technique" to draw attention to their project management tool.
Upon its release in August 1999, Blogger was a hit. The team - also comprised of web developers Evan Williams and Paul Bausch - was then faced with a dilemma: two products, just three people. They needed to raise funding, but to support which application?
A friend of Hourihan's from Tufts who was in San Francisco put it to her bluntly: "It's clear: the market has spoken, people want Blogger." So Blogger it was.
And it was huge. Now, Blogger - a web publishing tool that helped revolutionize personal publishing and make ‘blog' (short for weblog) a household word - has more than 1.5 million registered users, and countless millions more readers.
"I'm astounded everyday when I pick up the newspaper, and it just casually mentions the word ‘blog' and you don't have to define it anymore," she says. In a relatively short time blogs have become part of everyday media consumption. Their authors, the bloggers, have emerged as a powerful bloc in producing content on just about every subject - from weighty topics like politics and world affairs to niche interests like knitting, baseball and jazz.
Hourihan is currently on sabbatical after a hectic decade spent building companies, leaving companies and forging a legacy. Besides being profiled in numerous media, she was named a "Young Innovator Who Will Create the Future" by MIT's Technology Review in 2003 and, along with her two Pyra colleagues, one of PC Magazine's People of the Year in 2004. But her career path wasn't completely intentional.
After a childhood spent playing around on her mom's Apple II computer and learning elementary programming languages at school in Brookline, Mass., her early interest in math and science gave way to an emphasis on literature and writing by her senior year of high school.
"By the time I got to Tufts, the only thing I was using a computer for was writing papers, then helping other people format their papers in Microsoft Word," the English major recalls. While temping after graduation, she found herself working a lot in desktop publishing, mostly due to her skill with Microsoft Word.
When one investment firm decided to post its prospectuses on the web, Hourihan jumped at the chance to teach herself HTML and spearhead the project.
There was no turning back. "That was it, I was hooked," she says.
As she moved on to work for a consulting firm, she evangelized about the web being the next step for businesses. Her technological interests finally found their outlet.
"It wasn't until the connectivity of the Web really came along that I realized what was really interesting about it all for me," she says.
Blogger emerged at the height of the dot-com bubble, and for Hourihan and her hard-working Blogger colleagues, it was a crazy time. Companies sprung up overnight promising "the next big thing" for the web, and venture capitalists threw funding at them freely.
"It was such a weird time being inside that world, because everybody you interacted with knew it wasn't going to the last," she recalls. "We would go to these parties every night that were just ridiculously over the top - free booze, free sushi. Everybody's standing there saying, ‘Wow, this is ridiculous, but it's kind of fun. I'll ride the train as long as I can.'"
But for the Blogger team, which struggled to make ends meet while working night and day on their publishing tool, it was a bittersweet time, too.
"I never wanted to go work [at a dot-com], but at the same time it was kind of hard because you could see all these people making so much money and we were struggling," she says.
But recognizing the value of her work helped Hourihan and her co-workers soldier on.
"I couldn't get really excited about selling pet food online," she says. "What we're doing with Blogger is important because it's helping recognize the potential of the internet and this potential could really change things."
"More proactive encouragement of women in technology needs to happen," Hourihan says. "At least now it seems like girls have more exposure to it at younger ages and the opportunity to be familiar with it from the beginning."
Just how much it would change continues to surprise Hourihan to this day.
In this past presidential election year, weblogs took center stage. Bloggers were heralded for investigating scandals, promoting candidates and raising money. And around the world, from war zones in Iraq to disaster areas in South Asia, blogs became online beacons for disseminating information and building communities.
While Blogger is now only one of many blogging tools, it's widely considered to be the application that helped introduce weblogging to the everyday internet user and, eventually, the cultural mainstream.
Of course, with the good comes the bad. Nations like China have cracked down on blogging services, and Iran has arrested weblog authors.
"I want to be like, ‘No, not for stuff you wrote on Blogger, it's not that important, don't go to jail!'" Hourihan laughs.
The scope of influence that tools like Blogger have enabled still surprises Hourihan. "I never really believed it would break out as broadly as it has and that it would have so much power."
Despite the success of the Blogger tool, the company was straining. Disagreements in strategy and a lack of funding resulted in Hourihan's 2001 resignation from Blogger.
"I didn't really want to leave but there was no way to stay," she says. The Blogger service survived and, in early 2003, was purchased by online search giant Google.
After leaving Blogger, Hourihan wrote and spoke widely about weblogging, including co-authoring a book called We Blog. She advocated the power of personal publishing and the potential for new media.
"Each time I think I've predicted or thought of what people will do, somebody does something new," she says.
The next step, she believes, is connecting all the people who are publishing. That means after years of focusing on how to write to the web, she wants to focus on to how best to read the web.
"If there's all this content out there, how do you find it and slice it and dice it and deliver it to people in ways that are interesting and relevant?" Hourihan asks.
Hourihan tried to answer this question with Kinja, a weblog indexing guide she co-founded with self-made weblog mogul Nick Denton in 2002. She spent two years with the startup before going on sabbatical in 2004.
Part of her time off was spent working at a Nantucket restaurant. To her surprise, after ten years spent reinventing the Internet, it took a series of conversations there to give Hourihan the perspective on the blogging revolution she was looking for.
Patrons at the eatery where Hourihan was working described blogs as "those sites where people talk about what they've eaten." She called it "the first time I had to interact with people who weren't regularly checking their e-mail." It was an eye-opening experience.
"We're just so disconnected from the people who are actually trying to use this stuff,'" she recounts.
Another disconnect Hourihan hopes to bridge is that between women and technology.
Companies like Google advertise for employees with computer science degree, but as Hourihan herself points out, "On paper I don't qualify for what their requirements are, and yet they bought my company. Looking at different types of experience and different types of backgrounds is important."
Having founded two pioneering high-tech companies in the past five years, Hourihan's English degree may seem a bit incongruous. But she doesn't think so.
"My career path in technology is not at all an aberration," she explains. "Many women in technology come to technology later and don't come through traditional academic, undergraduate degrees."
She is a strong advocate of creating an educational environment where women are encouraged to enter the math, science and technology fields.
"For me, when I was growing up, I felt there was a stigma of computers and being a nerd," she recalls. "I went to computer camp in sixth grade. I told people when I got back to school that I went to computer camp and I was just mocked. That definitely had an impact on me."
While she feels there is still a ways to go, Hourihan notes that some progress is being made.
"More proactive encouragement of women in technology needs to happen," she asserts. "At least now it seems like girls have more exposure to it at younger ages and the opportunity to be familiar with it from the beginning."
In the nearly five years since releasing Blogger, Hourihan had been living a whirlwind life of innovation, creation and Web stardom. But it was taking its toll.
"I just felt exhausted and drained by kind of everything, starting two companies and leaving two companies," she says.
Her time off, which has been spent in Nantucket, New York City, and now New Hampshire, has been refreshing.
But while Hourihan is pretty certain the entrepreneurial bug will bite again, she's taking her time. Meanwhile, Blogger and weblogging continue to exceed her every expectation.
"It must be like having a kid that becomes president, and you're just like, ‘Wow, I always thought they were smart, but who knew they had that potential?'"
Profile by Georgiana Cohen. Photos by Danny Gawlowski.
This story originally ran on June 6, 2005