When I introduced you to FindNext last year it was initially created as an overlaying enhancement to search engines. But over the past 12 months, my startup has become much more.
As a refresher, "FindNext is a social and collaborative layer on top of the search engines you use today. The FindNext app lets you add context to your search to get personalized results from trusted people nearby so you can find exactly what you need".
So - Why FindNext? - here's my answer, as well as a summary of the exciting developments in 2016 and what's planned for 2017...
Search as it exists today can be a singular and solitary activity. Just you and an input box, some results to sift through, a lot of refining, and a lot of trying again.
FindNext makes the act of searching easier by collecting the most popular search engines in one place, letting you quickly try all sources without retyping, plus gives you a way to describe what you are looking for so you can continue your search beyond just a list of links to tap the knowledge of others... that is... Crowd Search.
Start a conversation, add searches and locations putting context into your search. Invite people to assist you and share their experience and opinions. This cluster or compilation of knowledge and people becomes a 'Find' - a more complete result from your search.
2016: Building an App and a Business
The start of the year brought business planning, and the setting up and securing of servers and services. FindNext became FindNext Inc. FindNext became a registered Canadian trademark.
The first iOS build of FindNext was completed mid-March 2016. Mainly an API testbed at that point, many many more builds followed along with private betas for user feedback. And what great feedback it has been, both in helping to shape the platform but also providing some great thinking on how FindNext can succeed as a business.
In June, the Manager and Coordinator of BioLinc at Brock University were invited to participate in the Incubation Summit 2016 and invited me to tag along to Stockholm Sweden. I spent some time decompressing and thinking about next steps for FindNext. Both in checking out the fantastic tech scene there (second only to Silicon Valley in creating Unicorns) and in full tourist mode 'Jantelagen' came up - Sweden prides itself on striving for equality and 'just enough' for all. While the definition of The Law of Jante can read negatively, the cultural impact is that everyone wants to help everyone succeed, which improves the collective. This is what FindNext aims to do! I also learned about Fika - pausing to share ideas and chat over coffee and cinnamon rolls... you can expect this as part of FindNext's future company culture!
Search as a conversation came out of that week (as well as some user interviews around that time) and the app was reworked and enhanced to suit. An awkward list of links and comments became chat messages and a more familiar way to interact with eachother.
FindWords, Profiles, and Augmented Intelligence
People are helpful by nature and will jump in when they can, but it's possible open searches can get missed. FindWords connect searches with people that can help. Based on your previous Finds and results, FindWords are added automatically to your profile. As you use the app more and more, keywords are weighted and you may be contacted to share the knowledge you've gained along the way to help others complete their search. You can also manually add the topics that interest you at any time!
Your profile is also where you can build a trusted Crowd of fellow Finders who you feel have provided great search results to you and to others. Soon, those connections will also assist in getting timely connections for conversation, results, and locations for your searches and Finds.
In September, I attended the O'Reilly Artificial Intelligence Conference in New York City. I was curious about how machine learning could use the data FindNext collects to bolster profiles and the connecting of users as well as allowing bots to interact with open searches. It was quite the whirlwind and there was perhaps too much to take in, but the sessions discussing AI as 'Augmented Intelligence' and human-in-the-loop machine learning really clicked with what I had been working on.
It also became clear that anonymized data is just as valuable as data directly associated with a user or profile. I decided to open FindNext to only require signing in for providing results for others and search engine list customization - so you can get in and start searching right away.
I altered the API and app to allow this simplified operation. I also started work on a method for bots to be part of the conversation - allowing businesses to create and host their own simple systems to respond to quick queries (i.e. operating hours) or for researchers to connect to people in much more complex ways... this is what I hope to continue work on in 2017.
Also around that time, iOS 10 was released. I thought Apple's Messages app would be a great integration for FindNext's enhanced searching and browser - so you can now search inline within your existing conversations and contacts too!
2017: Next Steps
Waiting for Review
FindNext 1.0 will be pushed for App Store review momentarily. If you'd like early access, reach out via email email@example.com or visit FindNext to register and I'll set you up with a build via TestFlight right away! (iOS 9+ / iPhone 4S or newer please. Works great in iPad split view too ;)
To date, my build of FindNext has been personally financed. A big thanks to my family and friends for their support and sanity helping me stay on course!
Search and search engines are commonly supported by advertising. FindNext keeps the view of these engines just as you would see them in your regular browser (i.e. Safari or Chrome), so these ads will continue to display and support those services.
Searching using FindNext is free. Plans to monetize include costs for private profiles and Crowds, exclusive FindWords, commercial bot integrations, and verified business profiles and optimization to ensure they are connecting with their correct sales and marketing channels / staff and end users.
This encourages businesses and brands to connect person to person rather than buying links to static content that may or may not serve their customers, as is the norm in SEO and many other marketing implementations. This is Find Result Optimization or FRO for short.
Businesses can also choose to make their own public or private Crowds or whitelabel and host a FindNext instance for their own internal use.
The Next Phase
To finance user and market development - I'm considering: contract opportunities for my skillset, which may delay FindNext development; support via funding organizations, subject to availability of needed matching funds; or outside investors.
Development plans and needs include AI and bot integrations with Finds and Finder profiles, Crowd building enhancements and notifications, browser extensions, and the monetization features outlined above. It would be great to start assembling a team and connect with partners to make this happen!
About a month ago I decided to leave Volley Industries and reinvest once more in my long term product concept. Building the API and services to support the Volley iOS and web products over the previous 9 months was a great experience and trial-by-fire learning how to work in a startup environment and getting to know the startup community.
Today I'm officially committing to building FindNext.
FindNext is a collaborative and contextual layer on top of the search engine experience.
Search engines are an amazing tool. I can type in a few keywords and get some quick information. But what if I'm looking for something that simply isn't online, isn't indexed, or requires an additional layer of context in order to find exactly what I need? FindNext aims to augment search by tapping the experience and knowledge of the people around you.
People enjoy sharing their knowledge. There are topics in which we each have expertise. I'll look to friends to talk music, or movies, or photography (for example). This domain knowledge might come from one's work or simply a passion for a craft or spare time interests.
Search is personal. The results I expect for my query might be different from what you're looking for. Provide a description and some context and people will assist in finding exactly what you want. You can gather information from your existing social circle, or build a new crowd of the people who stepped up to provide the results you need.
Search is Local
The people around you know best! Radiating out from your location are others who have recommendations to share and offline real world experience. They can point you to an exact location and speed up your search.
Nearby businesses might also have the thing or service you need and can actively jump in driven by your queries and needs rather than paid keywords and ad placements.
Search is Timely
Searches regularly bring up old information. The knowledge I need is influenced by the time in which I need it. Once I've found that result, it can expire or be lost without much impact on the system. People shouldn't be afraid to search for a topic again as new and better results might be available. The information you find very valuable can be kept and added to your profile.
In addition to providing results, FindNext users can easily moderate noise and / or offensive content and make suggestions on how to improve the search itself. While a search might not draw on a Finder's knowledge directly, it might be something they find interesting and want to learn about, providing a fresh set of eyes to filter results and discover new resources unknown to the person making the original query.
There's a lot to do! Services are in place and the API build is well underway. The app build will follow. I hope to launch early in 2016. In the meantime, you can reserve a profile if you like and follow along:
I'm pleased to announce that I'm joining Volley - a local Toronto startup that aligns perfectly with my long term FindNext project goals.
In 1999 during a co-op workterm I first developed FindNext. Search engines were a new idea - web directories were still commonplace. I had the idea to combine results from many search engines, reorder and optimize their relevance, and as queries took a long time to run, deliver the results by email.
Over time, as I learned other web and server technologies and how to optimize my own code, FindNext evolved too. Queries could be run in real-time and the user interface improved. FindNext was finding an audience, but mostly to break firewalls or run objectionable content queries. Paid content started to be given precedence in search engine results also, breaking my parser. It quickly became hard to maintain. I was very early in my agency career by this time and opted to shut down the site rather than solve these issues and rework the platform.
In the many years that followed, sparks of inspiration came and went - generally driven by new technologies and devices. I made good use of my codebase to learn these new languages and concepts. This served me well in my day-to-day work at several interactive agencies but I didn't put enough back into FindNext to turn it into a public product again.
In 2009 I attended WWDC. I had been doing a little bit of iOS development in my spare time but wanted to jumpstart my understanding of developing for the iPhone. I got a lot out of the conference - mobile development came more easily and I once more turned to using FindNext as a quick trial build platform.
FindNext at this point had moved away from its search engine beginnings. Thinking about how I'd regularly tap my friends for help with unsearchable topics that aligned with their interests, and how people would ask me about movies or photography (my main interests), I began to develop an API and platform to allow people to pose queries seeking results from those friends or members of the public that could help. The wisdom of crowds in place of 'lazyweb' shouting from the rooftops on social media or hunting for the right search keywords. I also thought of some unique onboarding concepts and ways to engage users (more on that down the road...)
Meanwhile, I had transitioned to iOS development full-time at my day job. In the process of developing several production iOS apps I learned about server security, building an API, database platforms, good UX practices, and many other technologies to support an app.
At the end of 2014 the agency I was working for closed. I began having conversations with companies looking for someone with my skillset. Many interesting opportunities in many locations - some nearby, others across the continent. Admittedly I didn't do a great job of communicating with everyone who reached out during that overwhelming process, but it became clear that a role similar to my last position wouldn't scratch the itch to build something myself.
I made the decision to reinvest in FindNext. I began looking at costing new servers, seeking office space as I don't work well at home, and doing some preliminary planning to shake the dust and cobwebs away.
At almost the same time, David at Volley reached out looking to have a chat, expressing his interest in what I was planning with FindNext.
"Volley is a community of developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and artists all helping each other make better things."
David and I met for lunch and had a good conversation about my recent experiences around the agency closure. Afterward we met with Mike in Volley's space at the Ryerson DMZ and continued our chat - me talking more about my FindNext ideas and learning more about Volley. It was a phenominal conversation and experience. I messaged friends and called up family to talk about it immediately afterward. During that conversation it had become clear that our goals were the same - connecting people with the knowledge they need by creating a human / technology bridge to help one another.
Our discussions continued over the following few weeks. My potential involvement in the company quickly evolved over that time as well - from an iOS development hire to talking and brainstorming on the platform and ultimately deciding to have Volley acquire FindNext and myself via a Co-founder and CTO position at the company. I feel this will be an amazing opportunity to build a platform while seeing some of my FindNext ideas through to fruition at the same time.
Over the last few days we built Volley's first office together. We took on painting, furnishing, designing, and even some demolition work. Mike, David and I are really proud of what we've built, and can't wait to put the same effort and detail into Volley in the months and years to come!
Today marks the end of my time with Teehan+Lax. It has been an amazing (nearly) 7 years - from my first project, to TweetMag and Readability and all the iOS projects that followed, along with fun challenges working with Labs and so many smart and forward-thinking clients... I couldn't have asked for better.
To past-partners Jeremy Bell and Dave Stubbs - thank you for bringing me on. And here's to all the t+l'ers that made the office such an incredible place to work.
Thank you to the partners - Geoff, Jon, and Dave for creating an environment that provided opportunities to learn so much, evolve my thinking around client / business relationships, and make use of my personal interests and hobbies regularly in my day-to-day work. Thanks again, and all the best on the west coast.