Interview with Peter Cooper

If you do not know who Peter Cooper is yet, chances are you will soon. Peter is the creator of FeedDigest, a tool that very neatly creates a way to include customized “digests” of live feeds in the content of your site (see the “New Internet Press” section on the TECHNOSIGHT homepage for an example). Dissatisfied with the slowness and approach of other options to put his del.icio.us bookmarks on his blog, FeedDigest (then RSS Digest) was originally a pet project that he eventually made public. His service now boasts of 9500 verified users – with no formal advertising to this point.

Although FeedDigest has paid for itself until now, Peter recently received an angel investment (amount and investor were not disclosed) that will allow him to work full-time “for real” on his once pet project . His immediate plans are to focus on the usability and interface of the FeedDigest service, expand the already impressive feature set, and ensure that the technical infrastructure will support the growing user base.

The complete text of the interview follows below. It consisted of Peter answering some questions I sent him via email and an informal chat via Gizmo Project.

Alternatively, you can use Talkr to listen to the article

Peter, you are the creator of RSS Digest (recently renamed FeedDigest), correct? Tell us a little bit about yourself – what has kept you busy to this point in your life? What is your professional background?

Yes, I’m the creator of RSS Digest, which has now been entirely redeveloped into the FeedDigest service.

My Internet life started out by doing Web design around 1996. I got bored of that scene pretty quickly though, and wanted to develop applications, tools, and services to bring Web sites to life instead. I started a Yahoo! style search index in 1996, but had to drop it after I realized I needed some Perl skills. A shame – it might have been big!

I spent a few enjoyable years during the dot com boom as a writer and content manager for startups that were mostly bought out by their larger rivals, and I came to work with the then giant Internet.com. Managing large Web properties gave me a good view into a world which lacked RSS, but was sorely crying out for something to fill the gap.

Throughout, I kept programming, both for fun and for profit, and now I’m effectively a full time Web services developer and systems administrator with my major interests in Perl, Ruby, SQL, Rails, Linux, BSD and OS X. So my background has been varied, but I think I’ve finally found my niche! The dissemination and management of information has always fascinated me, which is why I enjoyed being a writer so much. FeedDigest lets me hook up the technology of processing and managing information with the art of actually publishing it.

According to your website, RSS Digest has been around for a year but RSS has only recently really gained popularity. What prompted your creation of RSS Digest? How did you see the need for it before in many ways, RSS was even on the radar screen.

RSS Digest began life as a simple RSS-to-JavaScript service. I wanted to put my del.icio.us bookmarks on my blog and the few existing RSS to JavaScript services were slow, imposed ads on their users, and didn’t let you change the formatting or use your own templates. I made a quick prototype and began using it. A few people suggested I make it public, and it blew up from there.

Now it’s a lot more than RSS to JavaScript. FeedDigest, the successor to RSS Digest, can mix and merge multiple feeds, output to HTML (for PHP or ASP includes), output to a new RSS or Atom feed, or to a growing range of other formats.

In terms of being a pioneer, RSS Digest certainly wasn’t. I’ve learned that my prime skill is to see where people are doing things wrong, and to build what users want in a certain niche. Companies like FeedBurner were in niches we plan to occupy way before we were, but we want to do it right. First mover advantage can stand for a lot, but I’m more interested in a “right mover advantage”. I want to get it right.

RSS Digest has now been renamed FeedDigest. What prompted this name change? Can you highlight some of the new features of FeedDigest?

The industry has opted to use “feed” to define what we know, technically, as RSS and Atom. FeedBurner and Feedster are two examples of established companies in the industry. Using RSS in a company name doesn’t seem to have worked yet, and to use it would deny the simplicity of “feed” as well as the existence of competing formats like Atom and, potentially, OPML. In order to become more commercially acceptable, I felt FeedDigest was the way to go.

Can you tell me a little more about FeedDigest and the “radically different (better) architecture to that of the current RSS Digest”? What was the architecture of RSS Digest and why was this change needed for the FeedDigest launch?

RSS Digest initially ran on a single Perl CGI script. It was okay for perhaps 10,000 requests a day, but no more. It was laggy, but workable. As people signed up, I faced an immediate need to rewrite it from scratch. RSS Digest 2 was born, and it still ran in Perl, but ran as its own server process to make it fast and lean. Over several months I added caching features and constantly optimized the code. It eventually scaled up to 1,000,000 requests a day before it began to show signs of cracking, by which time FeedDigest was released.

FeedDigest’s architecture is radically different. Its feed parser is still written in Perl, but parses feeds in a whole new way using a proprietary XPath based parser containing tens of “rules” of how to parse feeds. The parser is so flexible that if a new format comes along, or if I were pressed to support another format, I could have FeedDigest understanding it within an hour. Every part of FeedDigest is loosely coupled. Each part could, if necessary, run on different servers. The server process which delivers the digest, the user interface, the feed parser, and the feed cache are all independent and use normal Internet protocols to talk to each other. This gives us the ability to scale to 10 million requests a day and beyond.

FeedDigest is listed under your “Ruby on Rails” work. Many people are either unfamiliar with or have never heard of Ruby on Rails – can you quickly summarize it and why you choose it to implement FeedDigest?

Ruby on Rails is a Web application programming framework by Danish coding superhero David Heinemeier Hansson. In a non-technical sense, it’s like “programming Lego” for building Web applications. You still have to be smart and know how to design, but once you do, it’s a case of pushing the bricks together. At every stage you can see what you’ve built accurately, and you’re never under tangles of code. It keeps things simple and lets you focus on development rather than working around annoying limitations.

It seems that FeedDigest is a one man show, is that true or are you working with others on this project?

Until this point, I’ve been the only one working on RSS Digest and FeedDigest. No one else has even seen the source code. This should be changing soon, however, as the company begins to invest serious amounts of money into bringing FeedDigest up to enterprise quality. We plan to reach Technorati, MoreOver, and FeedBurner levels on a percentage of the budget, and we’re already a long way along that path.

Here is the million dollar question, how are you making money off of FeedDigest? Everything appears free – it seems that you host your own servers, do not include ads in the digests, and are continually making improvements to this tool. It seems like it is a full-time gig but are you paying the bills?

FeedDigest easily pays for its own technology expenses. It’s not making a living wage, by any means, but it makes a profit. 8 years of Perl experience, a deep knowledge of the industry, and Ruby on Rails have enabled me to develop most of FeedDigest quickly, while appearing to be working on it “full time”. As luck would have it, however, I’m now working on FeedDigest full time.

With FeedDigest now on the scene, is there any action that users of RSS Digest need to take? I noticed that recently my RSS Digest scripts were not loading on some of my pages. Are the servers that RSS Digest run on, which I think are Big Bold servers, going away?
No. Indeed, I upgraded the server RSS Digest uses just this week, and it’s a lot faster than before. RSS Digest users will be encouraged to move soon, but all migration so far has been by people keeping an eye on the RSS Digest site. FeedDigest has a long way to go, development wise, and I want RSS Digest users to be blown away even more than they have been so far.

Approximately how many people are using RSS and FeedDigest right now? Have you recently seen an increase in its popularity?

RSS Digest peaked at approximately 9500 “verified” users, that is, users with unique, valid e-mail addresses. As RSS Digest didn’t require e-mail addresses for the first several months, there may be up to 15,000 users in all, but I approximate about 12,000.

FeedDigest, which has a proper user sign-up and login system, has just topped 2400 new users in its first month of release. With no real promotion work done yet, other than seeding it amongst a few of my favorite bloggers, I’m delighted. The coming months are only going to get better as we now have a proper advertising budget.

Is there anything similar to FeedDigest out there? What is the closest “competitor” to it?

FeedDigest is not directly competing against anyone else, but other services have similar aspects to them. RSS Digest was competing against FeedRoll and RSS-To-JavaScript.com, but FeedDigest’s features go a long way beyond those basic services. I now see FeedBurner as being a main competitor in a certain sector we’re about to expand into, feed statistics and click tracking, but they’re not an overall competitor. It’ll surprise a lot of people, but I see MoreOver, a very old and well established news delivery service, as being our primary competitor soon. We want their market, but we want to do it properly.