Parting Thoughts

Celebrating a Year of Freedom

Posted 2 December 2007

One year ago today I embarked on my current adventure, leaving Adobe after five years there and two years creating the startup they acquired, Fotiva. At the time I left Adobe, I had only the fuzziest idea of what I was going to do, but I knew it would be related to the web, and I was pretty sure it would be connected to Ruby on Rails. And that it has turned out to be.

I’m as busy as I’ve ever been, and my income in the past year is the lowest it has been in more than 25 years. But I’m having a great time, and I have a good feeling about where things are headed. I thought I’d take the excuse of this one-year anniversary to look back on my decision to leave Adobe, and catch my readers up on my business thinking.

Looking back on Adobe

I’ve not written much about my experiences at Adobe, in part because I want to avoid any possible appearance of breaking confidentiality agreements, and also because I wanted to gain some perspective first.

Looking back on my five years at Adobe, there’s a lot that I’m grateful for. I learned a tremendous amount about digital imaging and the PC software business, and about life inside a big company. I met a lot of great people, was able to immerse myself in digital photography, and had the opportunity to lead a research team and do technology licensing with the power of a big player behind me. The team I helped build for Fotiva continues on, in large part, as Adobe’s Santa Rosa office, and I’m pleased to have had some small role in growing the software business in the North Bay. And the product that started life at Fotiva has an enduring role as the organizer in Photoshop Elements.

In a strange way, though, I’m most grateful to Adobe for being so thoroughly dysfunctional when it comes to enabling innovation that it drove me out. As someone with a entrepreneurial heart, I found Adobe stifling. If I had been able to accomplish a bit more at Adobe, I might still be there, and then I would have missed out on so much.

To a large degree, the challenges I faced finding happiness at Adobe would be there in any businesses at that scale. But not entirely. Many of the other entrepreneurial folks I met at Adobe, who tried valiantly to build new products and services, have also left. They’re at an assortment of small companies, but also at Google, and Yahoo, and Apple.

One of Adobe’s biggest weaknesses, in my view, is the distance between top management and the people who have passion for innovative new product ideas. It is exhausting, and usually dispiriting in the end, pushing ideas up through a chain that, at it’s pinnacle, doesn’t seem very interested.

The difficulties I had getting new concepts to market at Adobe, especially when they were web-related, are symptomatic of top management’s resistance to exploring new concepts in the marketplace. Adobe doesn’t like to accept the risk of new markets in return for a role (and learning opportunity) as an early player. Perhaps at Adobe’s scale their approach of waiting until market opportunities are clear, and then buying their way in as needed, makes sense. But it did not make for a satisfying place for me to work.

My evolving Ruby on Rails business plan

When I left Adobe, I had done a little Rails development, and read a lot about it, and I felt strongly that it was going to be a big deal. I spent the majority of this year building custom Rails sites for small businesses, and set up Topaz Web Solutions LLC as the home for that work. I enjoyed it, and some of it is ongoing, but my focus has now shifted to Collective Knowledge Works, Inc., the company I cofounded this fall with my partner Christopher Haupt.

I spent quite a while looking for ways to build a business around delivering Rails-based solutions to other small businesses. I continue to believe there is a great opportunity in this domain, but the sales and support challenges are significant.

Collective Knowledge Works grew out of an idea I had to create a portal for Ruby on Rails developers. We’re now deep into doing just that: you can sign up for the beta list at Within a couple weeks, we’ll be letting in beta testers, and early next year it will be public. I can’t wait to show it off, and I think it’s going to be a great resource for the Rails community. After eight years away from the editorial, publishing, and training business, I’m glad to be back in it.

Initially, we don’t expect to generate much revenue directly. Our first revenue stream will be from the Ruby on Rails QuickStart Seminar that we’ll be presenting in February in San Francisco. Later, we believe we can create revenue from the site itself in various ways.

Christopher and I have just launched the Learning Rails podcast, which has been an adventure of its own.

There’s a bigger plan in the background, too. All the technology we’re building for can be used for any knowledge domain. After we’ve had time to build out this first site, we’re going to develop additional knowledge domains, and enable others to host their own knowledge domains. That’s why we named the company Collective Knowledge Works.

It’s great to be back in this early business-building phase. And it’s wonderful not to have to try to sell new ideas up through multiple layers of management, but simply to decide what to do, and then do it.