Getting the lay of the land

March 16, 2009

As Erick Schonfeld was kind enough to announce in a post on TechCrunch last week, I've left my position at TechCrunch to build and run my own startup.

In many ways, this is what I intended to do all along, at least ever since I graduated from college almost two years ago. After joining TechCrunch in 2007 (as an intern anticipating that I'd only be there for a couple of months), I quickly realized that it would be a great place to lay the groundwork for my own venture. Working there keeps you in constant connection with the consumer internet technology scene, since you're always reading news and analysis (especially as a writer) and meeting people from all parts of the industry (PR, management, investment, development, etc.). Of course, it doesn't hurt to work for a brand that has great name recognition in the Valley, especially when you're returning from four years in Maine - basically Siberia, as far as people around here are concerned.

I learned a lot about new media, internet technology, the culture around internet technology, and the inner workings of a startup during my time at TechCrunch - lessons that perhaps I'll explore in a later post. But now my sights are set on building a viable web service (and later, a profitable business) in a down economy…something that with any luck won't fall to the wayside like so many of the startups I witnessed at TechCrunch. It's not going to be easy; in fact, I'm sure it's going to be one of the toughest things I ever try to pull off. The reassurance is that even if I fail, I will have learned and experienced much along the way.

Ok, so enough sappy reflection and introspection. What am I actually trying to build? Or as my friends and family keep asking, "What's your website about?"

Let me start to answer that question with a description of how the idea for my startup came about. When I moved back to the Bay Area after living in a tightly knit community at Bowdoin, I had a new set of needs - most of them social. And like many needs, they could only be fulfilled by gathering information, not just once but on a continual basis. For example, I wanted to know:

  • Which of my friends now live in the Bay Area, and where exactly do they live and work? Do any of them live together?
  • Who do my friends know in the area that I might like to know? Do they live near me, and what kind of people are they looking to meet?
  • Where do my friends and their friends like to hang out on the weekends? Where do they go out to eat, and where do they do other things like going to the gym or perhaps volunteering in their free time?
  • What kind of plans do my friends and their friends have coming up in the near future? Are they thinking about going somewhere fun in San Francisco, or do any of them plan to go running around Palo Alto?
  • Are any of my friends actively involved in particular interest groups? Maybe a few get together with others to, say, play tennis or hit up the farmers market every weekend?

Questions like these are just begging to be answered by web services - especially by the type of those we've seen sprouting up in the past few years - because they all call for social information. Unfortunately, no web service adequately answered them in 2007, and still none does today. Sure, we have a plethora of sites intended to help you figure out what to do and where to go in your area. But those with the most data are not personal enough (i.e. they don't help you see the world through your existing connections), and those that are personal lack data, and the proper architecture for that data.

So, on a high level, I've set out to build a service that will answer the questions above and many others, a service that will help you engage more actively in your community. Call it a city or location-based social network if you want, but hopefully you'll see that those terms tend to misrepresent what I have in mind. I'm not looking to set up a site where you simply post a profile for others around you to view and write things on. I'm looking to set up a site that makes it easy for you to share information about who and what you know, and what you do, around the area in which you live. And conversely, a site that makes it uber-easy to digest useful local information shared by others.

No service does this to my satisfaction yet, but there are many related sites out there. After all, the desire to meet people and learn about what's going on around you isn't new. Here's a list of the names currently scribbled on my whiteboard:

  • Loopt, Brightkite, et al. - Services that detect your current location via a mobile device and then broadcast that location to your friends are all the rage right now. Perhaps we'll encroach more on each other's territory down the line, but I don't really care about helping users find out that their buddy is in the bar next door. I care more about providing you with social information from and about the area in which you live.

  • Yelp, Goodrec, Citysearch - Local review sites are great since they have a ton of information. But unfortunately, the information comes mainly from the public at large. Goodrec is a step towards personalization and simplification, but reviews and recommendations need to be even more socially focused (Whrrl had the right idea but didn't execute successfully.

  • Facebook, MySpace, TheScene - "Traditional" social networks, no matter how innovative, define themselves broadly. They aren't interested, for the most part, in local discovery. Look at how Facebook abandoned network pages. And new sites like TheScene ostensibly help you go local but simply aren't innovating much in how people publish and share information (for this, just look at the ripples that a deceptively simple service like Twitter has made).

  • Match.com, Okcupid, Mixtt, Engage, etc. - Dating sites are still holding down the fort when it comes to local discovery services. One problem - they suck, and they only serve one particular need (ok ok, it's a good need to serve, but even that need can be served better). It's great to see sites like Engage and Mixtt try to innovate by making things more social, but so far their efforts haven't worked out all that well.

  • MeetUp, Upcoming - Sites that help you meet up with interest groups and attend local events. Good. But who are all these strangers?

  • Outside.in and other local news sites - Local news is also good, but if there's anything that's easy to find online, it's news. And local news is often far more boring than national news, so it's an uphill battle to build a service that just revolves around this.

  • Craigslist - Amazingly great and amazingly bad at the same time. I'd like to think that this site isn't a testament to how the last 10+ years of web technology advancements don't matter when it comes to local classifieds.

Those are the services on my mind as I start the process of creating something new and improved. What did I miss?