Sampa: From Birth to Death

[If you don’t have time for the long version read the short version]

Sampa was first conceived on my mind around 2001. The story is one of those “personal pains” kind of story. I’ve been building websites for family and friends since 1996. Every time I built a new website I’ve got annoyed by how much pattern there was on building a website, yet I had to start each one from scratch every time. My mother has a PR company in Brazil. I’ve built her first website in 97, a new one in 2001 and a new one in 2003. Between 2001 and 2003 I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at PR companies websites. They are all the same, except by the copy, logo and colors, they all contain fundamental website elements: An about page, a contact page, a list of clients, case-studies, a news page, press releases, etc. So I thought it would be an interesting business if I could automate the process of building a PR companies’ websites. Then I realized there wasn’t enough PR companies in the world to make this an interesting business opportunity.

Between 2001 and 2003 the idea of a “PR Company Site Builder” sat on the back of my head while I tried to figure out how can I make this an a larger business concept. By early 2003 I realized that like PR companies, each industry had their own website pattern (yes, it took 2 years for me to realize that, but I had a more than full-time job at Microsoft). Not only industries, but personal websites, family websites and group websites, also had patterns. So I started looking into Churches, Dentists, PTAs, Homeowner Associations, and pretty much everything that wasn’t about selling something on the Internet. After writing a super-crappy business plan and code-named it “Sampa” (the nickname of the city I was born) I went selling the idea. Of all places, I started selling this idea inside Microsoft in mid-2003. I spent a 1 year trying to convince a half-dozen VPs/GMs to take on this project without success. The feedback was always the same “it’s a great idea and building websites is broken today, but we only do [package-software/client-software/biz-service/consumer-web] on my division”. At the same time I was working on MSN Search (now Bing). In early 2002 I had become the Dev Manager of MSN Search on a very small team. Once Gates, Ballmer & Co. realized search was worth something they invested heavily in bringing more people.

What attracted me to MSN Search when I went there in 2000 was the small team, lots of technologies and cutting edge on web work. But by mid-2004 MSN Search was already 150 people (about 45 developers) and growing non-stop. My scope of influence was diminishing (like everyone that works on a big team) and the pleasure of coming to work every day had turned into depression. So we took some vacation time and went to Europe. I remember sitting at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and in an instant it hit me. I should just quit Microsoft and do “Sampa”. So I told my wife “When we get back to the US I want to talk about a new career” without telling her anything else.

We went back at the end of September and I started documenting my thoughts on this business. Then on a Saturday afternoon I told my wife I wanted to quit Microsoft and invest everything we had into this new startup. Silence. I don’t think that’s why she thought about a change of career. After the silence came her panic. My wife is not the risk-taker. She saw it as just too risky. It took her a week to absorb the idea and accept it. For two weeks I spent time talking with people who had done startups before asking them tips and ideas on how to do this, and at October 15, 2004, a Friday morning I went to my manager at Microsoft, Randy Kern, and told him I was quitting to do a startup. I’ve got a few offers to stay, but my soul was already sold on the idea. There would be no position and no amount of money that would’ve made me stay.

We were about to ship the first beta of the new MSN Search using our own indexing technology, so I stayed for 6 weeks while wrapping up my part of the project (mostly Instrumentation, AB testing and data logging). After Microsoft we took a month vacation in Brazil (in December/04), followed by a one month “warm-up project” (A social network for college students in Brazil… wait, isn’t that Facebook?). And in February/2005 I started working on Sampa. 

I coded non-stop between February and August of 2005 at the office on my house. It was very hot during the summer to the point of being unbearable on that room, so I would code between 10am and 3pm, then take a break because of the sun and go back to code between 6 and midnight. In September of 2005 I decided to get an office space so I leased one and at the same month I released the “Alpha 1” of Sampa to about 75 friends. It was the first time most of my friends learned what I was doing. At the end of October I released “Alpha 2” and on December 31st, 2005 I released “Alpha 3”. I remember sitting on my new office with my pregnant wife while she was finding dozens of bugs per hour and I was fixing them. We left for a New Year’s Eve party around 6pm after I just released “Alpha 3” of Sampa.

On May 19, 2006 I dropped the “Alpha” phase and released the public beta of Sampa. About 20 friends signed up the first day. I’ve got some press coverage (but not much). The problem at the time was that I was running out of money. So, I started poking around the investment community and end up going to a meeting at Ignition Partners. I presented there twice and they passed on the deal. But I end up meeting Paul Gross, which was doing an EIR (Entrepreneur-in-Residence) stint. Paul, joined Sampa as a Chairman and investor in October of 2006 and in March of 2007 he became a full-time CEO.

If you go back to the original concept of Sampa, which was an easy-to-use Website builder for everyone and anyone you can see that it lacked market focus. That all changed when Paul came onboard. The first thing we did was to drop all the business-oriented features. Sampa was then converted into a consumer product. In 2007 we started to focus more and more the product into a “family website builder”, then to a “family web presence”, then to a “family personal private place on the web” (ah, the magic of marketing).

But there was a big issue: Our UI was built by an engineer (me) and had complexity written all over it. The business was not getting traction and every investor/advisor we talked to said we need to fix our website, our sign up process, our product. That’s a lot. Between 2007 and 2008 we released about 5 different homepages, each one making the message clearer, cleaner and the sign up process smoother. So we were getting a good number of sign ups (thousands per month), but we were retaining just a tiny amount of users. The product was very broken from a consumer point-of-view. From the get go, the product was not task oriented (as in “I want to upload some pictures and do a blog post about it”), but very object-oriented (an hierarchy of folders, with security, objects, drag-and-drop, etc.).

Starting in late 2008, with the help of our marketing firm, a great designer and a UX expert, we worked until March 17, 2008 when we released Sampa V2. A new, beautiful, streamlined experience to build a personal private place on the web. In a week we knew we had a product hit. Our engagement and viral numbers doubled, our churn was half and everything was great. At the same month we closed our Series A round of financing, raising $1MM from angel investors. Having worked on MSN Search for so long, particularly with lots of expertise in data-collection and analysis, I knew it would take months for us to really understand the changes the new V2 would have on the long term viability of the business. 

In mid-2008 we hired an engineer to help us revamp our “stats database”. We need better ways to analyze all the data we were collecting to make better decisions. After some time, the data started showing its ugly face. Sure, the viral coefficient had double after V2, but the decay and churn were not under control. In other words, the business was organically growing at a turtle pace.

In September 2008, before the collapse of the banks in the US, Paul and I had a meeting where he laid out the sad reality: Sampa was not viable as is. That was probably the worst moment for me in Sampa’s history. He just told me we didn’t have a business (more on that on a separate blog post). We failed to achieve the traction necessary to have enough revenue to continue growing or to raise a second round of financing. It was hard on me. Sampa as a business was a failure because no matter how much we tried, it could not generate a profit at its current format.

So, we spent about 6 months pursuing partnerships with larger business that could bring either a large number of customers or a new business model, and preferably both. We found several candidates and several were very interested in what we had. One by one these potential partners started to fall off our whiteboard, because they decided to built in-house, or they acquired a similar solution to Sampa, or because they weren’t ready to do the deal.

On Friday, June 1st, 2009, our last chance was gone. The partner with the highest value to Sampa decided they are not ready to do anything on this space yet and this was the final blow to Sampa’s existence. We’ll be shutting down our servers for good in August (which will give our customers many weeks to export their content) and liquidating the corporation. That’s the end of the Sampa story.

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.