Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

The story behind ww.com / camarades.com.

This is all done from memory without any fact checking, chances are I’m misremembering stuff or leaving out important pieces, in that case please forgive me, it’s late!

I may revisit this at some point to correct and revise it.

Personal note, I’m a high school drop-out, have been coding since roughly 1978 (when I was 13 or so) and if it weren’t for a few very nice people would have never ever gotten where I am today. Piet Tacx gave me a job in the mailroom of a bank in Amsterdam when I was 18, had no house and no income, another (Eddy de Leeuw) gave me my first ‘real’ programming job for that same bank simply because he got totally sick and tired of telling me that he wasn’t going to hire me. He literally gave me one chance, go to ‘Volmac’, learn Cobol in the next three months and don’t bother coming back if you don’t succeed. (it took only a month and I passed with the minimal grade because they suspected me of cheating because I aced the tests…).

So, on to the story of the live webcam:

In the dark ages of the web one of my former partners (Michael Erkelens) bet me for a bar of chocolate that I couldn’t come up with a way to make ‘animated gifs’ ‘live’. I figured it had to be possible somehow and in one of those famous allnighters I produced a very primitive version of the first streaming webcam software. Basically it produced an endless animated gif, which the browser dutifully downloaded and animated. It wasn’t much to look at but it was years ahead of the competition.

That first black and white image showed a crossroads in Hoofddorp near schiphol airport.

Before long we found a way to do it with jpegs (which gave a tremendous boost in quality), this must have been somewhere around ‘95 or so. With every iteration of the software the quality, speed or features improved and before long the software was sold on a license basis to lots of companies.

As a demonstration I set up a little box with two relays controlling a fan and a lamp. The fan blew a mobile of small paper cranes around my desk and the lamp would light up the scene, to create a bit of variation and proof that the thing was real and not just some elaborate hoax (in spite of that there were still plenty of people claiming that it must be a hoax…).

The first real breakthrough came when Gilbert Cattoire who was working for a French media company spotted the software and suggested Yves St. Laurent should use it to broadcast their annual fashion show. This was quite the event for me, going to Paris with my trusty SGI hardware in the back of the car and being treated to the finest french hotels and cuisine :)

In turn, this webcast was spotted by someone working for NetNitco, an American ISP who had contacts with NASA. The next thing we knew we were transmitting the launches and flights of two space shuttle missions. One of these was to repair the Hubble space telescope.

Suddenly the live webcam software started selling like hotcakes, and we went from a 1 man 1 woman show to several employees. Licenses were sold to just about every large ISP and webcams started popping up all over the place. Rembert Oldenboom did a first rough port to the windows platform (up to here it was strictly SGI) which opened up a big market, the first commercially available colour webcams were reaching the market but people did not have software.

The Michael mentioned above became a partner in the company and suggested we give away the software. This scared me very much, after all, our livelihood depended on selling those licenses but I relented and we started giving the software away. This was somewhere in December of ‘97. Another new partner in the business, Taco Scargo came up with the idea of making a ‘live index’ so that the page where we linked to our customers would not show so many dead links. From there it was a small step to make it a condition that if you wanted to use the free software your webcam had to be in the live index and on the 1st of March ‘98 Camarades.com was born.

The next night the server was a smoking slag heap, over 10,000 downloads that first night and no way were we prepared to handle the traffic. With a lot of help from friends in various places we managed to weather this first crisis and we invested a ton of money in a large dell server (which was already too small a couple of weeks later when it was delivered).

A downside of this free webcam business was that it seemed to attract a different kind of audience than what we had hoped for and we had to establish 24 hour oversight in order to not end up with a porn site instead of a webcam site. (even today this is still a problem, I recall clearly the first time we had someone strip on the site and we all went like ‘What?, did I see that right?’, so much for our naivity I guess…).

A full time designer (Jonathan Kraij) was hired who made the site look good and came up with the idea of ‘chico’, our little webcam like mascotte.

We attracted some investors but this was quite a rocky ride, one of them basically wanted to leverage his investment into a large amount of cash within a few weeks of buying in (he did get us an advertising deal with 24x7 though), another used his shares and some smarts and a crooked notary public to gain control of a joint venture and sold the software source code to a German porn company. This was a busy year for the lawyers, we learned a lot about how not to do business. Around this time our contacts with Logitech started to warm up, and their subsidiary (spotlife) had a look at us for a potential takeover. For years (even after spotlife died) logitech sent us tons of traffic from people that were looking to getting software with their new and shiny webcams.

In the meantime we had opened up an office in Toronto because we were literally kicked off the international backbone because we were saturating it with traffic, keep in mind that up to this point most of the content on the internet was static and we were pumping video over that line, at some point we had more than 1200 live cameras online at any time of the day, each of those serving a large number of viewers.

Toronto offered room for expansion, front street was only a block away and we managed to get some bandwidth on a fibre-optic line that had just been installed with a company run by friends of ours.

This worked well for about a year and a half, the site got remade by Julian Kreho and kept on growing. At some point in this period we were roughly in the top 300 or so of all the sites active at the time, but you have to keep in mind that the web was a lot smaller then than it is today (I think we had about 100,000 uniques per day).

Then the internet started creaking, in december of ‘99 or so I had my first warning when a cheque from 24x7 was late. I didn’t like it one bit because 24x7 was all of our turnover at this point (the license business had dried up completely once we started giving away the software) so behind the scenes we started to work on what is now known as the ‘freemium’ model, a basic service that would give everything that we did already away for free with a premium package that you had to pay for. Still, the speed with which the walls came crashing down was more than I had bargained for, and with our half baked version ready 24x7 media went bust leaving us with 0 income. We had to lay off a lot of the people that worked for us and I really hated that bit of it, it certainly wasn’t their fault.

Somehow we managed to survive this period, but it was pretty scary. Every month we ended up with a few more paying subscribers than the month before, and after half a year or so we were back on a fairly solid financial footing.

We even managed to save a bit and when ww.com came up for auction on Ebay we managed to buy it for a bunch of cash, I always thought camarades.com was an ok name (and a nice pun) but it was too long and too hard to spell, ww.com is much easier to remember (it stands for webcam world).

I sold my house to buy out my partners and emigrated to Canada with my wife & kid, we ended up on St. Josephs Island in rural Ontario and ran the seriously downsized business from our house there over a bunch of modems that were bonded to give us reasonably fast internet access.

After several years of trying to get our permanent resident status we gave up on that and moved back to the Netherlands.

Since then it has been an uphill battle, the company is still making some money, not enough to make it the full time interest of two people so we used what little money we still had to restart our lives here and have invested some of the savings in to other companies and projects, some of which are doing well and others which are doing not so well.

Since december ‘08 we’ve been busy working our way to a complete revamping of the site, new software, a new website layout but this is a major project and it will still take some effort and time before it is completed.

The take home lessons from all this for me are that timing really is everything and that it is better to not have done a deal than to have done the wrong deal.

Your partners are a bigger deciding factor than the product and you have to make sure that everybody plays by the rules.

Also that it is better to hire people that may not have the qualifications but that are willing to learn than people with lots of papers and no desire to give their 100%.

I’m grateful and honoured to have worked with so many people over the years, I remember everybody and most of them - with a very few exceptions - fondly.

In no particular order, Camarades / WW.com was made possible by the efforts of:

  • Mirka Jucha
  • Michael Erkelens
  • Bianca Bode
  • Jonathan Kraij
  • Bob Arends
  • Taco Scargo
  • Andre Mozes
  • Nick Hurst
  • Julian Kreho
  • Keir Mierle
  • Lennart Driehuis
  • Marco van der Does
  • Rembert Oldenboom
  • Nubia Godon
  • Tanya Battaglia
  • Mina Stauber
  • Jeffrey King
  • Ratko Vidakovic
  • Paul Mokbel
  • Tim Boling
  • Richard Burry
  • Wen Chen
  • Jacques Mattheij

And possibly others who I don’t recall right now.