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Why do I leave Volunia?

Update Note (Nov 2013): this is the original message I sent to the press on June 8, 2012. At that time, I couldn't be more explicit because of legal reasons: I sincerely hoped the funding enterpreneur would have stepped down from his incredible behaviour, like, to name just one, wanting at the time of the public launch to become, beyond CEO, also CTO... (sigh!). Instead, this guy went on, and one year and a half passed under his full control: zero innovation, zero marketing, zero ideas. As a result, the company Volunia Holding is now under liquidation, and so I will soon have no reasons to refrain from telling the whole, astounding, story: life goes on, but at least other startuppers will be warned about all the nasty tricks, and risks to find "enterpreneurs" like that.

Life is made of stories. And the story I am going to tell you is not the whole story (the complete story would be as long as a book), but it has the main elements.

Let us start from the end: I am no more the technical director of Volunia.

And not only that: I will never say a single technical word, never give an idea, no more contribute to maintain and improve the code I wrote and the algorithms I gave to the project, let alone create new ones.

All this, unless the situation changes.

In order to understand how this could happen, we need to go back, back to the beginning of the story.

Volunia

Volunia, as it is already known, was born some years ago, from a series of ideas that I joined into a structured and ambitious project. A project, in my opinion, too good not to be realized, and with an enormous potential. So, I decided to get back into the game, putting body and soul into this adventure, even if that implied big personal sacrifices.

What maybe is not known is that I am not the CEO of Volunia.

In other words, I am not the number one of the company. Why did I accept then? Because in all of my life, so far, I had always been working with persons that had passion, trust and honesty as their top values. And then, because I have been convinced by an argument that is also true at the present days: that the project would not survive without me. I created a team and I have been guiding it in the construction of the whole system from scratch, I have been facing all the difficulties of a startup, looking for solution while the overall complexity was growing, always with the global vision in mind.

Sure, I was aware that leaving to someone else the CEO position could have been a delicate matter from the strictly economic viewpoint, but accepted to put all of myself into this project because what I do in life – Volunia included – doesn’t have the primary goal to “make money”. If my objective was to be personal enrichment, I would have left University and Italy a long time ago, and accepted one of the offers coming from abroad.

Instead, I have been deep into this project, body and soul, for the beauty of making the world of the web progress, for the pleasure of shacking the future and do something useful.

And also for other reasons, like to stimulate Italy, show that you need to try to innovate, and you don’t necessarily have to escape this country to do it.

True, a project like this has to be profitable, in order to be successful. I had created this part of the project in quite a precise level of detail, with specific ideas and suitable algorithms (which, I repeat, I will not give to Volunia anymore), but the final goal was to provide the web users with new methods of conceiving the web, and use its potential to the maximum.

So, I trusted somebody, and accepted not to be the number one. I devoted myself to what was anyway fundamental: the technical direction of Volunia.

A technical direction ought to realize, in complete autonomy, its innovative ideas, in the best and more efficient and fastest possible way. So it had obviously to be. But it didn’t go this way, and the results are there to prove it.

So far I didn’t speak, bearing many adversities for the ultimate goal of the project, but the latest developments now urge me to intervene.

The Criticisms

Along with the launch of Volunia, and subsequently, there have been many criticisms, both regarding the technical side, and on the communication/marketing, handling and relationship to the users.

Regarding the technical side there have been two main criticisms: how is it possible that you are coming out with a search engine so poor compared to Google, and with a graphics so old-fashioned and “eighties”? All this just in the project born and created by a person that has been working on search engines from a lifetime, and that lives and creates web technologies since when the web was born!

The answer to this apparent paradox is easy.

The Engine

The original project – as I conceived it already years ago – has never had a proprietary search engine. The codename was “metamaps”, and the comprehension of everything is in the name, indeed: meta. A metalevel, because this is the key: to be on a higher level, and reuse the information present in the levels below. Search engines have been the first example of successful metalevel, with respect to the Web. Metamaps had to go beyond, to be the “level 2” and therefore stay above the web and the search engines too.

Sure, I have been making up ideas for a long time regarding a semantic search engine and not just that, and above all, different from the existing ones. But the metamaps project, that now you too know albeit in a small part, is ambitious and requires time, resources and attentions. To build a proprietary search engine is a completely different thing, which calls for time and totally devoted resources, and has high degrees of difficulties: you can’t do both of the things at the same time.

Nevertheless, the term “search engine” attracts much more, especially the non-experts, rather then a “metalevel”. And – against my opinion – the project was augmented with the construction of a proprietary search engine.

I have been working on this engine using the little time left after all the other tasks, and I admit it, I did unwillingly: a compromise for the project’s good. Even if my opinion was that there was neither the time nor the resources to make it even just comparable to the other engines, Google in primis.

And in fact (as people could see) the final quality of search wasn’t even comparable, both for the search in itself (where I didn’t inserted any semantic technology, not even some of the ideas born during all my years of studies in search technologies), and foremost for the evident hardware limitations: building a search engine doesn’t just require algorithms, but also tons of resources, that a startup busy in other things just cannot have. The hardware limitations problem showed to be critical: the indexed web part was extremely limited. Eventually the majority of the web pages just weren’t present in the search engine: it’s hard to find something that is not there. You tried that, with the first version of Volunia…

After the launch, at last, the Volunia management realized this simple truth: it didn’t make sense to do a proprietary search engine now, we rather had to stay at the meta-level. Because all of the resources of Volunia, in this critical phase, have to be engaged with the most innovative parts, the meta parts, so not to lose other precious time.

And in fact (better late than never), Volunia now relies on another search engine, and therefore stays at the upper metalevel.

Despite that, as you saw, it has been announced that the development of the internal search engine is proceeding: a sign that, alas, the lesson hasn’t been learnt yet.

The Graphics

The other criticisms went to the “eighties style” graphics. The graphics is an essential component of the Web, as for many other areas, although it can give the false impression to be, after all, an easy thing, to the point of being developed by people without specific web competences; as, what’s the fuss about it?

Unfortunately it doesn’t go this way: it is not sufficient to read email or surf the web once in a while in order to be able to do web graphics. Likewise, it is not enough to be expert in printed brochures. Every communication media is different – as I have been teaching for years to my university students – and the successful web graphics is the consequence of specific competences, together with years of experience, study and talent.

It had to be this way for Volunia as well. And evidently – the results showed it to everybody – so it wasn’t. Against my opinion.

People’s reactions have then made understand a bit that web competences are essential, and now finally Volunia is back on track with, partly, a more decent web graphics. There is a lot to do, but we are on the right direction, even if there is still the map graphics that needs to be modernized and made eye-catching: it’s not sufficient to change the background from green to white…

Communication

A great number of criticisms have been raised for the way communication has been handled, even after the first launch of Volunia.

Here as well, this is a rather obvious thing to understand: you can have the best product in the world, but in our society it is essential to present it in the right way, to create efficient communication campaigns and rely on the best skills.

The worst side in this part is that, unlike the technical aspects, the feedback got soon after the launch didn’t bring to any consequence. Handling of the subsequent communication has gone along essentially like the old one. Instead of activating ahead of time, or anyway as soon as possible, a communication campaign that could protect the ideas of the project, both on the web and on the other media, that tried to remedy what had been done until that moment, that explained how things really were, it has been preferred, contrarily to my opinions, act in a totally different way.

All the commentators have criticized the fact that acting that way Volunia had lost the “momentum” created by the big attention that it had managed to foster.

And so, why do I leave Volunia?

Someone, reading up to this point, might have understood why I am leaving the technical direction of Volunia.

You might be thinking: it is impossible to go on this way.

Well, no, this is not the reason.

I would have gone on, trying to make Volunia progress, as I have been doing all this time, despite the difficulties. Giving my contribution of ideas, project vision, technical handling, problem solving, code writing, algorithms creation, even with all the due compromises, trying to arrive to success. Despite of all.

To give up just now, wouldn’t make much sense. Especially after having sacrificed years of my life under extreme working conditions, cutting almost completely my spare time, sacrificing family and personal relationships, vacations and health. After all this work, even with the known hardships, we are there, the project is ready to start, the house foundations have been built, and the adventure can begin: the true challenge. I still believe: as I said many other times, the overall project as in my mind is much bigger than what has been shown so far, the present Volunia is just a small part, we are just at the beginning.

And so, why do I leave Volunia?

The reason is another one: I leave the technical direction of Volunia because someone else wants to do it instead of me. This person wants to decide everything, without me. And so, he put himself into my shoes, commanding me to step aside. This truly let me flabbergasted. Someone thought that after all these years of work and sacrifices, with the project infrastructure ready to start, now he can kick off the person who conceived and created this project.

The future

On the personal side, what is left to me about Volunia in the present situation is the entrepreneur part: my shares, my place in the board.

The implications are I will not guide the team any more, I will not find any more solutions to all the problems that daily will arise in the project, I will not give support to the code and algorithms that I created and that are presently used in Volunia. I will not give to the projects all the things I had thought to let it grow, to stay always a step ahead.

Definitive separation then? I think so if the situation had to stay this way, because it’s clear that getting back to work in a situation like this is very hard.

A new management would be needed, for the sake of the project: at that point, I could get back in.

As far as the future of Volunia is concerned, I really don’t know what to say. My first base ideas have been implemented, even if there are many things to settle.

Beyond the difficulties, what will be needed is also having an evolutive vision of a project that stems and lives in the Web: in order to be successful in this environment, you’ve got to live Web, breath Web, feel the heart beating in the net.

In all this, there is the need to act fast, not to lose time, know what to do and the best way to do it, foresee what will happen, what problems will arise, what solution adopt in the quickest possible way. And meanwhile, innovate or perish.

Is all this present in Volunia now? In this situation and with these premises?

Innovate… or perish….

[English | Italiano]