Spotlight on Alumni – Jason Ardell and Tim Dorr

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jason Ardell and Tim Dorr Develop Tool to Filter RSS Feeds

When Jason Ardell returned home from a ski trip last winter, he was hit by an avalanche. Not an avalanche of snow, which he had left safely behind him on the Alpine slopes of Austria, but an avalanche of information.

His RSS reader, set to download posts from his favorite blogs and online media outlets, had piled up more than 1,200 unread items in his short absence.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to do something about this,’” said Ardell, who graduated with a B.S. in computer science in December 2005. “I really want to read the news, especially start-up stuff. But I’ve got to find a way to dig out from under [the mountain of information].”

There were already some tools available, such as filters that work based on keywords and tags, but they obviously weren’t doing the trick.

Ardell, who was working with Siemens in Germany at the time, had begun to realize that a big company wasn’t the right place for him and was intrigued by the challenge of solving the RSS overflow problem. The timing seemed right to embark on a more entrepreneurial path. So Ardell left his job and returned in June 2008 to Atlanta, where he teamed up with his friend and fellow Computing alumnus Tim Dorr (CS, May 2005).

Dorr had begun a web hosting and development company called A Small Orange while still in college, later branching into web hosting and design. He also had been working on a PHP framework for about three years, which came in handy for the new venture.

In a matter of months the pair developed Feedscrub, a web application that relies on users to “teach” it through a continual process of choosing to save or delete individual posts. Users click “save” or “scrub” at the end of each post, and Feedscrub learns from those preferences and over time filters more and more “accurately,” according to the user’s taste. Unwanted posts go into a junk folder for verification, like spam. Ardell says the filter works best after the user has voted on 50 to 100 posts.

Feedscrub launched in beta mode on Jan. 14. The site, which was designed by another friend and Tech grad Martin Parets (Psychology, 2005), is hosted by A Small Orange. More than 1,200 users have signed up for the free service, which will filter three feeds per user. Unlimited feed-filtering is available by upgrading to a premium account, but fewer than a dozen people have signed up for the pay version so far.

“We’re really fighting an uphill battle,” said Dorr. “Most people don’t want to pay for stuff on the web.”

Feedscrub has gotten some good press, however, and has been written up in numerous blogs—including some in Spanish, Polish and Chinese.

Ardell and Dorr are exploring revenue-generating possibilities, such as selling contextual advertising that would appear based on a user’s interests. Eventually, they’d like to earn a living with Feedscrub.

Fortunately, the start-up didn’t require much capital. Dorr said they were “out the door” for under a $1,000, but the founders have been devoting lots of time to the project. For Ardell, who counts networking with other entrepreneurs and possible investors among his responsibilities, it’s a full-time job.

The launch was exciting, they say, as they did on-the-spot diagnosis and dealt with predictable scalability issues as the number of users jumped, leveled out, then repeated the cycle.

“That’s the start-up thing,” Ardell said. “You’ve just got to keep rolling with it until you figure it out.”