Alumni create Web software to monitor time wasted on the Internet

It happens on computers all over campus every day: someone logs on to Facebook to read a message or poke a friend.

One message turns into five, which snowballs into posting on walls and clicking through a photo album or two, and suddenly two hours have gone by. At the end of it all, that midterm paper still hasn’t been written.

As experts become increasingly concerned about the addictive properties of the Internet, two University alumni realized a more widespread problem may be Web procrastination.

Zack Garbow and Dave Fowler said they discovered this problem during their college days, and now, with start-up funds from investment firm Y Combinator, they have designed a software tool to combat this problem.

8aweek, a toolbar that users install into their Web browsers, launched last week – the result of a three-month startup process that stemmed from $15,000 in seed money from the firm.

“A recent survey says that the average paid employee wastes eight paid hours online browsing the Web,” Fowler said. “This toolbar is kind of a way to get those eight hours back.”

The pair met while working at IBM in Rochester, where Garbow worked from 2003 until he left last year. “We just had more of an entrepreneurial spirit,” Fowler said.

Garbow and Fowler were one of 20 startups that received funding from Y Combinator this year. Now, they are nearing the end of their three-month cycle in Palo Alto, Calif.

Jessica Livingston, a partner at Y Combinator, said the group started giving out small grants to startups in 2005. The partners are independently wealthy, she said, from having sold their own software company to Yahoo! in the early 1990s.

The partners choose 20 startups twice a year; each is given their seed money and three months to launch a software company, she said.

It all concludes on “demo day,” Livingston said, where the founders present their product to over 100 capital investors in hopes of securing future business investments.

“The 8aweek guys have already launched,” Livingston said. “Their statistics are really good; they’re growing their user base. Our philosophy is launch early and launch often.”

As of the end of February, users who had downloaded the software left more than 600 product reviews.

Garbow said the community of startup companies and investors in Silicon Valley has provided great motivation for the 8aweek founders during their stay.

“Any time we’re not working, we see other people working, hear other meetings going on,” he said.

Fowler and Garbow both said they received a view into the problems of Internet procrastination while wasting time on entertainment sites like Facebook and YouTube during their time studying at the University.

“Even just five or six years ago, there was so much less stuff online,” Fowler said. “Doing work on a computer, you can’t, right now, escape from those entertaining parts (of the Internet).”

Prejournalism junior Gabe Erickson said he took himself off Facebook partially because of the amount of time and priority he was placing on it.

“There’s just so much to be constantly looking at,” he said. “You lose so much time.”

Erickson said people put a lot of importance on their Facebook accounts and on checking the updates of their friends.

“I think any time I spent on Facebook could have been spent doing more productive things,” he said.

Garbow and Fowler said they initially created their product with themselves in mind.

“We were designing about a problem we have, and thought, hopefully there are people out there like us,” Fowler said.

The initial feedback has been good, he said, “(It) makes us believe there’s a big market here.”

Garbow’s former professor in the physics department, Marvin Marshak, said he remembers Garbow being “clearly ambitious and smart, and interested in software.”

Marshak said he hopes 8aweek becomes successful and that Garbow will want to donate a scholarship fund to the school.

“If he gets rich, I’ll definitely hit him up for a donation,” he said.