Garrett, congrats on entering the next phase of StumbleUpon and all you’ve done in the meanwhile.

I’ll take this opportunity to share a story about StumbleUpon…

Unlike most geeks who were heavy into blogs in the early 2000s, I was never a fan of RSS readers. Sometimes they made things easier to read, but I didn’t like how they took content out of context (especially from sites where I liked the design).

What made tons of sense about RSS though was that it made reading the web way more efficient, simply because you knew what had been updated. I had an alternative idea for reading the web, which was a single button in your browser that was wired up to an RSS/pinging service and, when clicked, would take you straight to the most recently updated site you were subscribed to.

As a first test of that concept — and part of our meager attempt to turn Blogger into a network — we added the “Next Blog >>” button to the Blogspot nav bar. We didn’t have blog subscriptions at the time, so I wrote a truly MVP-style solution, which was an end point that selected a random blog from the 1,000 most recently updated Blogspot blogs and redirected you there. Later*, it was updated to be more intelligent, as explained here:

We’ve made the Next Blog link more useful, by taking you to a blog that you might like. The new and improved Next Blog link will now take you to a blog with similar content, in a language that you understand. If you are reading a Spanish blog about food, the Next Blog link will likely take you to another blog about food. In Spanish!

*Five years later.

That button led me to ruminate on the idea of a button that didn’t just take you to an updated blog, but helped you direct your attention to wherever it needed to go (based on both external factors and your own goals). For example, it might direct you to your next to-do list item or your inbox.

Around this time I decided to leave Google, and when Larry Page asked what I was going to do, I told him I was going to go work on “attention management.” This was the phrase I was using a lot at the time to describe the need for better tools to help us direct our attention, since everyone I knew was feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information we were dealing with (in 2004!).

I had a semi-serious name for my next company, which was: B.A.M. (Bureau of Attention Management). I didn’t actually start that company, though, because I got sidetracked by Odeo.

When Odeo board member Ariel Poler asked if I was interested in investing in this thing called StumbleUpon, which was basically a button in your browser, I was immediately intrigued. I never spoke to Garret at that time, but was told I could get $50k into the round, which was being done at a $4M valuation (ah, such simple times).

I thought about it hard but ultimately didn’t, because I still really wanted to build my own button in the browser and didn’t want to be competitive with an investment I’d made.

A couple years later, StumbleUpon sold to eBay for $75m, and I still hadn’t built my button.

And I’m still hoping for better attention management.

Written by

CEO of Medium, partner at Obvious Ventures, co-founder of Twitter, curious consumer of ideas

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