In a little-noticed deal that closed yesterday the Silicon Valley startup apostrophree secured a $25 million first round with Bolus Venture Capital of Palo Alto. apostrophree received seed money from Paul Graham’s Y Combinator earlier this year.
apostrophree is currently conducting a private beta test of their product, a proxy service that corrects common errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage in blogs and especially comments and discussion forums. I spoke with John Scogan, founder of apostrophree, about his product and company.
Typical Programmer: I have no idea what apostrophree does.
John Scogan: Every day hundreds of thousands of blog articles are posted, and those articles generate millions of comments. Aggregator sites like Digg and reddit also allow comment and discussion, so comments to blog entries are posted all over the web. We studied comments posted on popular blogs and aggregator sites and found that 45% to 50% of the comments contain at least one serious spelling, punctuation, or usage error. Almost 18% contain (sp?) or some other indication that the author knew their writing was questionable.
So apostrophree corrects the errors?
Yes. Apostrophree corrects many common errors on the fly, before readers see them. For example, the homonymns there, their, and they’re are frequently confused. Words like affect and effect or imply and infer are often mixed up. And missing or misplaced apostrophes abound — that’s where our name comes from.
Usually I don’t get through three articles in my RSS feed before I encounter it’s when the author meant its, or FAQ’s, which is almost as common on the web as FAQs, and more common than the correct FAQ, since the Q stands for “questions” and is therefore already a plural.
How does apostrophree work?
It’s a proxy service, installed on the customer’s LAN. Apostrophree looks at all incoming HTML content and applies proprietary language processing algorithms to find and correct the most egregious errors. It also looks at articles that contain flags like (sp?), which is the author telling us that he or she failed high school English. Apostrophree won’t catch everything but it will fix enough to pay for itself within a few months.
Why would an organization buy apostrophree? How does it save money?
In a typical company a small but significant number of employees read blogs and comment threads every day, sometimes several times in a work day. I say a significant number because the people who read comment threads and post comments of their own are very often among the most highly-paid people in the organization. The time apostrophree saves goes right to the bottom line.
But how does apostrophree save time? Don’t people just read through bad spelling and ignore missing apostrophes?
Most people either don’t recognize or don’t care when they encounter a misspelled word or incorrectly-formed plural. But some people do notice, and there’s a personality type that will spend a lot of time demonstrating their superior English skills online. We’ve studied this for over a year, in many settings, and over and over we find the same thing: the most expensive employees, especially technical people such as programmers, can be provoked by the smallest error to post a comment of their own correcting the error and chastising the original poster. Observing technical staff in one organization we found that just two common errors — it’s instead of its and there instead of their — accounted for six hours of essentially wasted time per month per employee.
We’ve also found that authors who flag their lack of writing ability with (sp?) actually attract more corrections, because on top of the corrections to the original error the laziness implied by (sp?) works some readers into a froth. Correcting such self-identifying comments, or just removing them altogether if there is no chance of converting the gibberish into proper English, stops another source of wasted time.
I can’t believe that posting corrections to comments takes that much time away from real work.
In a double-blind experiment at OSCON last month we scheduled a presentation that began by showing the URL of the blog the presentation was posted on. We invited the full room of 163 attendees to comment on the presentation in real time. We had introduced some errors into the presentation, some obvious like it’s and its, and some more subtle. We measured the time attendees spent composing and posting corrections. Over half of the attendees posted at least one correction, and 57 posted lengthy corrections with links to online references when we used elude instead of allude and imply instead of infer.
Programmers seem to divide into two groups when it comes to writing: nearly illiterate on the one hand, and pedantic on the other.
It’s worse than that — tempers flare and comment threads feed on themselves, corrections made to corrections. Sometimes a thread that starts out correcting something relatively benign like irregardless turns into an all-out attack on the author’s intelligence and competence, with the kind of name-calling and closely-reasoned arguments and links to Wikipedia that you find all over Digg and reddit.
So apostrophree corrects these kinds of errors before people see them, preventing employees from spending time posting corrections and engaging in online flame wars about English usage?
That’s our business model. We’ve obtained several patents on the technology behind apostrophree and we have some big organizations in our beta group. One of our beta testers, a large software company, is already reporting that their technical staff is spending less than half the time posting comments over the same period before installing apostrophree. They are also reporting, anecdotally, that some of their more volatile engineers seem more productive and less anxious than before, but that isn’t something we measure.
Do the people reading the corrected content object to this kind of editing?
They don’t know it’s happening. None of the employees involved in the beta test have asked why the literacy levels on their favorite sites have gone up from fourth grade to college junior, and that’s pretty close to the improvement you get with apostrophree.
Does apostrophree save time for all employees, or is it mainly for technical staff?
Everyone will benefit from fewer errors, but we’ve found that technical staff benefit the most. Executives and managers seem unaware of most errors, and even when errors are pointed out to them they are not usually inclined to post a correction. Technical staff are both likely to notice and get upset about errors in things they read, and they are far more likely to read articles online and post comments than managers or hourly line workers. We observed that non-technical staff with Internet access are more likely to use their computers to view and collect pornography than to post spelling corrections.
How do you plan to grow apostrophree so you can sell upgrades and keep money coming in?
We’re working on some things now, like cliché removal, that look promising. We have a team in the U.K. working on changing passive voice to active. Even something as simple as correcting capitalization of technical words and acronyms can pay off. If one of your expensive programmers comes across PERL instead of Perl he can spend thirty to forty-five minutes posting a correction, including extracts from two or three Wikipedia articles and Usenet archives. That’s ten to fifteen minutes per uncapitalized letter. And your programmer will compose and post a new version of the correction every time PERL is encountered online. That’s more than five times as long as is typically spent correcting presently when currently was meant.
Any plans for spending your venture capital?
Part of the deal we have with Bolus is the acquisition of a Russian company that is working on what they call a “clue gate.” The idea is to identify and filter out postings from newbies, particularly on technical forums, so employees are not tempted to insult someone who can’t install Python, for example, or to spend an hour explaining why a real programmer has to know C and not just Java.
Sounds like an interesting product. Good luck to you and the team at apostrophree.