Interview with Phillip Reitz Hofmeyr, Founder of hidden little gems.

Web site: http://apps.facebook.com/hiddenlittlegems.

Tell us who you are and your role in the company:

My name is Phillip Hofmeyr and I am the founder of hidden little gems.

What is your company’s mission?

To be the most trusted social discovery tool for people looking for both local tips and holiday suggestions.

In 140 characters or less, tell us what your company does:

hidden little gems is a Facebook app that helps you find things to do and places to eat, drink and stay through your friends.

Tell us about your Azure based solution.

If you search for best restaurants in London on Google you get 300 million results. It’s overwhelming! And a lot of the results are out of date.

On TripAdvisor I am always struck by the conflicting opinions. The same hotel gets 1 star and 5 stars. Who do you trust?

When people are looking for places to eat and stay they face 2 big problems: information overload & credibility.

hidden little gems solves those problems by helping you find things through your friends.

There are 2 ways you can use it:

You can ask your friends a question - This broadcasts the question to the newsfeeds of a user’s network (or specific friends).  Friends’ recommendations are saved and also appear on their wall. What’s cool about this is that it builds a genuine viral loop into the product.

Or you can Search - Our search feature gives you access to everyone’s recommendations but filters your friend’s results to the top.

How is Azure implemented in your solution?

Our application runs entirely off Azure. It has a distributed architecture built on Asp.Net 4. We use SQL Azure for relational data and take advantage of Azure's blob storage for most of our content. Azure AppFabric cache is used for caching database data and session state. In addition to our web roles, we have worker processes for indexing, queues, message processing, etc. We use a Lucene library on Azure for search.

How did you get excited about Azure?

We pay only for what we use, and there are no set up fees.  With a goal of several million users (ambitious I know - but you have to shoot for the moon), the ability to pay as we grow without additional coding was critical.  It’s really easy to add more Roles and dynamically manage them. 

Azure also reduced administration headcount for us (e.g.: we do not have to run our own backups).

What were the Azure features that prompted you to decide to build on Azure?

Here are a couple of the obvious ones:

System Administration is more flexible and requires less resources to handle.

Networking, load balancing and firewalling for multiple instances/multi-Role Setups

Automated server management: Security patches and software upgrades are handled by Azure itself, not requiring a system administrator to install and deploy them.

Closer connection with our data storage

Automatic load scaling

Ease of Deployment

What specific value are you getting from BizSpark beyond the technology?

We’ve been invited to several Microsoft events and specific BizSpark events. We’ve been introduced to other BizSpark members. The opportunity to network always ‘sparks’ new ideas and opportunities.

What has been your biggest “aha” moment since founding your company?

There’ve been 2 “aha” moments really: firstly, after building our first startup, snagsta.com (also a BizSpark company) we realized people had social network fatigue. Since our business depended on people’s relationships we were better off putting our business on a platform were people’s relationships were already established - hence launching on Facebook. Secondly, we realized it that making a list of suggestions was really hard work. We were better off allowing our users to ask questions, as they do in the real world and crowdsourcing the answers from their friends. This meant people could make one of suggestions which only took a moment instead having to gather several ideas which had been a big barrier in the past.

What advice do you have for companies that are thinking about building in the cloud?

There are a lot of special benefits (see above) associated with building in the cloud offers that people don’t realize. But it is important to spend time looking at adjustments needed to your system to take advantage of these.

What is the one thing that you would like readers to take away about your Azure app?

hidden little gems is a new way to find recommendations you can trust.