Building a startup? What’s your “viral side-along”?

Through the course of launching several products at QLabs and on my own, I’ve been building a thesis: When building a project, you should always consider whether you need a “viral side-along” to help the initial spread, and what that might be.

So what’s a viral side-along? Nearly exactly what it sounds like – a mini-project that complements your main business, with some press appeal and natural mechanisms for spreading.

Our first attempt at this was Bleeoo was a cheeky art project where users could record themselves “preserving an oral history our digital traditions” by making modem sounds into their webcam. It was delightful and funny, and made the rounds of the geek/tech press nicely.

Bleeoo was also a great showcase for – we built Bleeoo in a few days using the easily embeddable video recorder that Framey provides. Framey is a great product, that fits a need, and is extremely helpful for the people that need it, but it’s not a mainstream press item.

We saw a great traffic spike from Bleeoo, a good number of paid accounts created, and some high-profile signups that have lead to great integrations of framey with national brands, nonprofits, and bands.

Naturally there’s a steep falloff from press coverage, but the initial push (and google juice generated by the organic inbound links) have helped us keep Framey signups flowing.

For our most recent project, Huntsy, which provides tools for job hunters to get employed faster, we released a free, funny ebook on the topic well before the release of Huntsy (in fact we’re still a few weeks away from launch).

This time, we didn’t get as much press coverage around the ebook as we would have liked, but we were still able to work our social media channels and move around 750 copies, each with an email address essentially consisting of a “warm lead” – someone who is likely job hunting and needs some help in the process. We’re reaching out to those folks now as early adopters during our beta tests. Getting from 0-1000 users is often one of the hardest parts about launching a new app, so having that initial base to begin from is extremely helpful.

Finally, I’ve just launched a new side-along to go with, the greeting card company that my wife and I are starting.

Postkin e-cards provides free, niche marketed e-cards, starting with a set of fantastically geeky Valentine’s day cards sourced from US Patent filings. It was a weekend project and is cheap to run, so as long as people need e-cards, we’ve got a nice little loss-leader for, our physical card business which will be launching in a few months.

Although seemingly a diversion from your core business, fun side projects like this can introduce new people to your idea and help build your audience. So far from our experiments, they seem to be some of the most effective ways to expose people to our products while adding a bit more awesome to the internet.

So, what’s the viral side-along for your project?

Skim: A free and easy way to sign a PDF without a scanner

Every few months, someone sends me a PDF document to sign. Miraculously, we’ve survived without a printer or scanner in our house for 2+ years now without really minding, but this particular flow is always difficult, especially when people need things returned quickly.

Generally, I would crack open the PDF with photoshop, extract the page I wanted, and sign it with the brush tool, etc. It does the job, but when faced with a long document that had tons of pages to sign, I needed something better.

Enter Skim.

It’s meant for annotating scientific documents, but with a few quick tweaks it functions as a great tool for quickly signing a PDF and sending it back.

  • Set some preferences
    • Under Skim -> Preferences (all of the options below can be done through the point & click interface under preferences)
      • Change the Text color to 0 opacity
      • Change the freehand color to black (or dark grey, if the scanned doc is a little faded looking, and you don’t want your signature to obviously stick out)
      • Change the freehand line to 1px
      • Change the Text line (border) to 0px
  • You can now zoom in on sections where you need to sign and use the freehand tool to hand-sign your docs.
    • To select the freehand tool, you may need to hold the mouse down on the rightmost element of the “Tool mode” toolbar
  • If you need to enter text, use the text tool (again, hold down the rightmost element of the “tool mode” toolbar to select it). Click the spot on the document where you want to type, enter your text, and adjust the control points to make your text fit.
  • Save your document
    • IMPORTANT! Your saved document might have annotations attached, but unless you export in a certain way, they will not be viewable in standard PDF viewers by default.
    • File -> Export -> PDF with embedded notes
      • This will generate a file that has your signature and text visible and printable.

Example code: capturing webcam vids with flash

This file is a super-simple example of capturing a webcam up to a flash media server
You can use RED5 1.0, Wowza, or FMS for this example – there are demo recording apps
(oflaDemo for red5, vod for Wowza) included with each. Note: red5 .9xx reportedly
does not like the buffered upstream sending we’re doing here.

All of the existing examples I could find simply had you “stop” the netstream object
when the user was done record, which, if you have any client-side buffer at all completely
borks the recorded FLV. This example uses a 60 second client-side buffer, which
allows you to capture high-quality webcam videos even if the upstream bandwidth
isn’t perfect or consistent. Once the user is done, the buffer continues sending up
the data, and as long as you didn’t overflow the client-side buffer, the video should
be perfect.

Recipe: Chocolate Cherry Almond Cookies

Double chocolate cherry almond cookie boo-yah

Recipe: Chocolate Cherry Almond Cookies

Summary: Like chocolate covered cherries in cookie form!


  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups semisweet chocolate chunks
  • 1/2 cup slivered almond
  • 1/2 small jar of maraschino cherries + juice


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. In large bowl, beat butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla until light and fluffy.
  3. Combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt; stir into the butter mixture until well blended.
  4. Mix in the chocolate chunks, cherries, and almonds.
  5. Drop in large 2 tablespoon-sized balls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Beware, this batter will be sticky to work with, but the cookies will come out great.
  6. Bake for 9-12 minutes in the preheated oven, or just until set.
  7. Cool slightly on the cookie sheets before transferring. Once cooled, these cookies should be firm at the outside edge, and filled with moist chocolate cherry goodness in the center.

Cooking time (duration): 45

Number of servings (yield): 12

Meal type: dessert

Glass Blowing demo at Fritz Glass

On vacation on Cape Cod, we happened into Fritz Glass and were treated to an amazing demo by Fritz himself as he made some incredible glass platters start to finish. I caught a good chunk of the process here with his permission, but there was so much more in his banter about the Cape, the process of glass blowing, and his history in the art that I didn’t have room on my camera for. If you’re ever on Cape Cod, stopping in to see him is a great way to spend an hour or two, and the store attached to his studio has beautiful dishes, ornaments, marbles and lots more.

High-Res quicktime file

Music: Learn to Fly by Josh Woodward

Unraveling Capacitors

What’s inside a capacitor? Watch this video to find out! (and then, go read the wikipedia entry for waaaay more info)

Credits: Zach Hoeken, Adam Mayer, Raphael Abrams, & Eric Skiff

Music: Ascending from:

Count to 1023 on your fingers with binary!

Bre and I shot another video this weekend, this explaining the basics of binary, and I got a chance to show off a skill that I never actually expected to find useful 😉

This video is part of our “Fameoff” battle with F.A.T. Labs, and as such, diggs are highly appreciated!

Making a DIY Robotic Arm

I stopped in at NYC Resistor Saturday night looking to really start learning how to program electronics using the Arduino platform, and started taking apart the twitchie kit that I’d bought from Raphael to hack on.

It turns out that Bre was already in the middle of a similar project, and had fashioned a DIY robotic arm out of servos, a twitchie board (which uses the same firmware as the Arduino Lilypad) and Popsicle sticks. We joined forces and put together this amazing little thing:

Things – Eric Skiff and Bre Pettis created a Popsicle Stick Robotic Arm from Bre Pettis on Vimeo.

We hacked an old Atari joystick to control the arm, and each servo is manipulated in turn as you press the red button. It really was a ton of fun to bring this project together, and I’m amazed at what we did in a few hours. Huge thanks to Bre for having the hardware all set to go and to Raph for his awesome Twitchie kit and all his advice along the way.

If you’d like to embark on a similar project, here’s the code for SuperRobotArm v0.2.

Bre is debating keeping the popsicle stick aesthetic or making a slick laser-cut body, and is taking votes via comments on his blog. Let him know what you think!

By the way – this video is part of Bre’s excellent “Things” series, where he features a new awesome thing each day. You can check out the archives at, or Subscribe in itunes to get new episodes as they come out!

D.C. Segway Tour!

Sara and I took a Segway tour with “Segs in the City” a few weeks ago when we were down in D.C. We had a great time, and both remarked at just how intuitive the Segways are. You step on the and for 2 seconds you think “this might be interesting,” and then you’re off! It’s really incredible. If you get a chance to try one of these things, it was a cheap, fun way to tour the city, and you really have to ride a Segway once to understand the amazing technology inside them.

Music: “Come On” by Number One Fan, via the Podsafe Music Network

Videoblog: Making Guacamole

Thanks to Chef Mark of ReMARKable Palate and Remarkably Mark for his twitter advice on keeping Guacamole fresh.

If you like this episode, be sure to check out and, two of the shows that inspired it.

Want to get new videoblog posts on your iPhone, iPod or other device? You can subscribe to this show in iTunes or via RSS

Guacamole Recipe:

Fresh Salsa base

  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped, seeds and pulp removed
  • fresh cilantro
  • Lemon Juice and Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Salt to taste


  • 2 Ripe avacados, sliced
  • 4 tablespoons fresh salsa (tomato, onion, cilantro)
  • Lemon or Lime juice (keeps avacado fresh)
  • Salt (I use morton’s hot salt for salt & a little kick)
  • Combine ingredients and stir / mash lightly. Don’t overmix – big chunks of avacado are nice!