Internet Netpreneurs: Gorilla in our Midst

FRAMINGHAM (07/06/2000) - Company: Red Gorilla LOCATION: San Francisco PRODUCT/SERVICE: Syndication of Gorilla Time application LAUNCH: December 1999 FUNDING: Utah Ventures, angel investors and an institutional fund REVENUES: Not available (privately held company) GREATEST CHALLENGE: Finding the technical personnel to implement the sophisticated three-tier architecture. Judge's Comment: "This site provides a few important services well and explains everything in detail."

John Witchel was stuck in traffic on the bay bridge one friday evening after a weeklong consulting engagement when he realized he had forgotten to log his time and expenses for the job he'd just completed. As he fumed at the prospect of fighting more traffic and spending his Friday night at the office, he thought about how convenient it would be if he could take care of the problem right there on the bridge. n From that drive-time frustration, a new business was born. Witchel followed up on his basic idea by sketching an infrastructure that would allow mobile professionals like himself to track their time and expenses anywhere, anytime. His enthusiasm inspired several of his colleagues from the consultancy he worked for at the time to join him in forming what soon became known as Red Gorilla.

The San Francisco-based company's founders initially planned to make money by promoting a wireless application that would make life easier for legions of workers. Gorilla Time, the result of Witchel's bridge-bound brainstorm, is the company's first product; it went live in December 1999, and it's what makes the Red Gorilla website a winner. Without buying software or worrying about upgrades, registered users can enter their time and expenses via the Web, then create professional-looking invoices and send them to their clients via e-mail.

Helpful features include a handy mileage calculator--just enter the starting and ending odometer readings and the calculator will bill the miles at a client's specific rate. Clear, concise directions and a clean user interface make the site simple to navigate.

The service is free (revenue is generated by advertising), but additional functions are available for a low fee. Clients who can't always get to the Web can order the Gorilla Go Pack for US$9.95 a month, which provides wireless access to the program via telephone and Palm products--helpful if one is stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge, for example. For $4.95 a month, Gorilla Biller will send invoices via fax or regular, certified or express mail. The whole package is a boon for freelancers, independent consultants and small professional service firms.

A MODEL CHANGE as witchel and his fellow founding company members were developing the Gorilla suite, their thoughts naturally turned to ways they could make the business a continued success. They decided that keeping Gorilla Time alone wouldn't do the trick and instead resolved to adopt a new type of business model: application syndication, which involves developing revenue-generating applications for use on other companies' sites. The basic idea is that the syndicator can develop applications more quickly and less expensively than the owner of a so-called "destination website" and will therefore be able to ensure a constant supply of fresh applications that keep users coming back (or increase the "stickiness," in Web geek parlance). The syndicator can amortize development and costs across several clients, thus lowering the price for everyone. Partner sites can then offer the applications at little or no cost to their users; partners and syndicators share revenues derived from advertising and subscription-based services.

For Red Gorilla, syndication means that other companies will link to Gorilla Time applications and any future products, under any name they choose, and will pay Red Gorilla for the product and maintenance. "We understood that the most valuable asset of any website is its brand, and our private-label strategy would support that asset," says Witchel. "Through Gorilla Web, we would attract new users to our partners' websites and provide added value to their existing customers."

While it will continue to offer its Gorilla Time services free via the website, Red Gorilla's primary business comes from the partner companies that subscribe to the syndication service. Typical partners include portals, communities of interest, dotcoms and e-businesses. Currently the Red Gorilla infrastructure supports more than 3,500 partner and affiliate sites in addition to its own, such as Adobe Job Connection, and eWork Exchange. Among the end users are IT consultants, independent contractors, computer consultants, webmasters, graphic artists and lawyers. Of these, IS professionals constitute the largest group.

The syndication market itself is expected to grow rapidly over the next three years, from $2.8 billion in 2000 to $13.9 billion in 2003, according to a recent study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Red Gorilla is in a unique position to capitalize on this high-growth market segment, according to Michael Speyer, director for small- and medium-business communications at The Yankee Group, a Boston-based consultancy. "In the syndication market, early entrants like Red Gorilla will enjoy the greatest advantage," he says.

BUILDING BLOCKS An interesting facet of the company's story is the underlying website that makes the business possible. The company has put complex software together using a sophisticated three-tiered architecture and has kept it going at a high uptime rate.

Witchel entrusted the task of designing the system to Todd Fulton, Red Gorilla's vice president of engineering and its chief technology officer.

Fulton surrounded himself with a top-notch technical team and got to work.

First of all, from his prior e-business experience Fulton knew that at a minimum, he needed an architecture that could deliver high availability and reliability. In addition, because of the syndication business model, he would need an infrastructure that was highly scalable to support thousands, perhaps millions, of partner sites.

Fulton decided on a three-tier Java-based architecture, consisting of system, application and database layers for the operating environment. He chose to cluster the servers to achieve high reliability. When it came to implementation, the engineering team chose Sun Microsystems hardware, Veritas Software's clustering technology and load-balancing software from BEA Systems and F5 Networks to reach its design goals. At the application level, redundant application servers pick up application requests. At the database level, the company has employed redundant databases, disk arrays and clustering technology.

If an application server goes down, another one immediately replaces it.

Similarly, if a database or disk array crashes, the application immediately passes on to one of the components backing it up. As a result of this implementation, the system is extremely reliable, Fulton says. "I would say we're at 99.999 percent uptime."

The major obstacle that Red Gorilla encountered when building its website was getting enough qualified people to run it. "While our Web solution works very well, the talent necessary to implement the software and hardware and to understand the architecture is extremely hard to find," Fulton says. "We have been fortunate to acquire a team that was very well suited to the task."

Freelance writer Charles T. Clark is finding Red Gorilla very helpful. He can be reached at cclark1038@