Yahoo plans to compete on mobile by way of partnerships, not hardware or operating systems, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told Bloomberg at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where the subject of the talk was the future of Yahoo’s business. The talk also delved into other areas of focus, including Yahoo’s homepage, media properties, and where it could compete on search and personalization going forward.
“I think that’s it’s really important,” Mayer said of competing on mobile. “If you look at what’s happening in terms of the shift to mobile, the number of mobile phones and smartphones in the world has tripled in five years. Tablet sales will outsell laptops this coming year, if predictions hold true,” she added.
PLAYING TO YAHOO’S STRENGTHS ON MOBILE
She said that for Yahoo, that shift means the company now has to focus on how these devices work, what they provide for and how they can best meet users’ expectations. In Yahoo’s case, she noted the strong correlation between its strengths and the daily tasks that users’ do on their phones – email, check the weather, check the news, share photos, get financial quotes, check sports scores, and play games.
“The nice thing at Yahoo is that we have all the content that people want on their phones. We have these daily habits. I think whenever you have a daily habit and providing a lot of value around it, there is opportunity to not only provide that value to the end user but to create a great business,” Mayer said.
But the bigger question is how will Yahoo monetize that shift to mobile? Mayer says that same type of question was the “bane of her existence” from 1999 to 2004, when for five years, everyone outside of Google had asked her how the company was going to make money from search. Now that question seems “almost absurd.”
“Whenever you see consumers adopting a technology, a platform, a particular application like search with this much volume, you know that advertisers will want to participate in that. And you know that there’s usually a way where you can introduce advertising such that it’s not intrusive and it actually adds value to the end user, and it actually enhances the experience,” she said.
Plus, she noted that mobile itself was already being monetized via application stores, meaning that the question is not can mobile make money, but how will Yahoo do so on mobile?
YAHOO’S A “FRIENDLY” COMPANY, WANTS TO PARTNER
One interesting question which was asked was how Yahoo can compete without owning one of the key distribution platforms on mobile?
“It’s funny because one of our employees asked that at one of our company meetings. Given that we do not have mobile hardware, a mobile OS, a browser, or a social network, how are we going to compete?,” said Mayer. “Of the four horseman of the Internet to adopt that analogy, almost all of them are playing in one if not several of those medium.”
It is funny, because Yahoo actually does have a web browser – it’s called Yahoo Axis, and it debuted this past spring. Although it never seemed to generate much attention after its big splashy launch, the browser app was “surprisingly good,” we said in our initial review. Yahoo also has a social network, Flickr, which it recently revamped on the desktop, and more critically to become stronger on mobile, adding Instagram-like filters, and an improved way to build up your social graph quickly.
In an era where the next generation of mobile users seems poised to communicate more with media than ever before – not only on Instagram, but tweeting micro-videos on Twitter’s new app Vine, and sending disposable images instead of texts via Snapchat – it seems that Yahoo might want to highlight that it does actually have a position on mobile and social networks that it could leverage here with Flickr.
That position is even more valuable now that Facebook has apparently clamped down on letting other networks leverage its social graph. If the next new thing in social graphs is those you like to share photos with, Flickr has room to compete.
The point of Mayer’s comment, though, was that however popular Flickr may be (which is even more impressive given the lack of attention it received over the years), it’s no Facebook. So for Yahoo, Mayer said, it will be about partnerships on mobile and beyond.
“Yahoo has always been a very friendly company. Our focus, in addition to technology, but also on media, means there is an opportunity for strong partnerships. That is what we will be focused on. We work with Apple and Google in terms of the operating system,” she said. “In terms of social network, we have a strong partnership with Facebook. We’re able to work with some of these players that have a lot of strength in order to bolster our user experience that we offer on the Yahoo site.”
FUTURE OF SEARCH
Yahoo is still invested in search, too, of course, and here, Mayer had a lot of ideas about what search’s future looks like. “I think all the innovations you’ll see in search will be in the user interface layer,” she said. She mentioned that in the past, the innovations have focused on universal search, instant search, and non-text search like voice search. “I think there’s a huge opportunity in the future around personalization. Understanding ‘what do I know already, what are my preferences, and how to present the information.’ I think that extends beyond just search, or broadly to discovery. We can think about ‘how do we take the internet and order it for you?’”
To personalize the web in this way, the engine has to know where you are, in what context, who you’re talking to, and more. This personalization technology that she envisions will come about in the next three to five years, Mayer predicted.
In one example, Mayer explained that this personalized technology could involve understanding a user’s Facebook Likes, tweets, and what they’re pinning on Pinterest.
That’s also an especially interesting comment, given the recent moves by Russia’s Yandex, which launched an experimental personal assistant yesterday based on Facebook data, which Facebook effectively down within three hours of launch. Clearly, Yandex, too, understands the value that’s there in Facebook’s data set, but moved forward without having the critical discussions with Facebook about what it was planning. If Mayer was to take Yahoo on a similar course, it would be via a partnership is what these comments make clear.
Mayer also expressed enthusiasm in developing users’ “interest graph,” to help build these personalization technologies. On that front, Yahoo has a lot of potential for understanding its users thanks to its homepage and media properties; it understand their likes in areas of finance, sports, games, and news. Mayer said there’s a lot of opportunity around interests, as a new disruptive force to follow the waves the tech industry has already been through in the past fifteen years: directories, search, social and mobile.
“Twitter is very interesting,” she said, noting that it is often left out of that “four horsemen” analogy, which takes about tech’s biggest current players (Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon).
“I definitely think that with the web becoming so vast, there’s so much content and there’s so much social context, and now with mobile there’s so much location context and activity context, how do you pull all that together? The interesting way to take it is to bring some of that information….to actually make sense of the content. It’s the internet ordered for you,” she said. “That’s interesting, because it actually brings Yahoo back to its roots – that’s what Yahoo was – it took the internet and ordered it up. Now it’s so vast, you can’t just categorize it any more but could we provide a list of information, a feed if you will, of information that is the web ordered for you, and is also available on your mobile phone?”Read More →
SurveyMonkey CEO Talks About Why His Company Won’t IPO After Raising $794M And Reveals Other Big-Name Investors
“We could go public,” SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg says, “but the cost of going public — of running a public company — outweighs the benefits.” As the founder of LAUNCH Media, which he took public before selling to Yahoo! (where he stayed for six years), Goldberg is familiar with the IPO process and isn’t in any hurry to repeat it.
In 2009, Spectrum Equity and Bain Capital purchased a majority stake in online survey veteran, SurveyMonkey, installing Goldberg as Chief Exec in the deal. Fast forward to today and, as you may have heard by now (courtesy of ATD), the 13-year-old, under-the-radar survey giant has become the recipient of one of the largest private capital investments on record for an Internet company.
The whopping $794 million debt and equity financing round values the company at $1.35 billion, and the amount raised rivals the mega-investments generated by Groupon and Facebook on the road to IPO. Companies typically raise this kind of funding when they’re gearing up for a public offering, but not in this case. Instead, the SurveyMonkey CEO tells us that the company plans to use the massive recapitalization cash out employees and early investors by buying back shares from its employees and stakeholders and, in turn, eliminating most of its existing debt.
It’s a big win for SurveyMonkey’s two primary existing stakeholders, Spectrum Equity and Bain Capital. The former, for example, has reportedly seen more than a 7x return on its $64 million investment.
Not bad for a day’s work. And, hey, if you don’t need cash, why not?
“We don’t need the cash to run; we’re profitable,” the CEO tells us in an interview. “The money isn’t going into the business, it’s going directly to investors and employees. For us, this approach affords many of the same benefits — like the liquidity — of an IPO, without the roadshow, the distractions and the demands of meeting quarterly projections.”
Another reason Goldberg may not be eager to IPO? As if Zynga and Groupon weren’t reason enough, it happens that the SurveyMonkey CEO is also married to Sheryl Sandberg — the same Sheryl Sandberg who became the COO of Facebook in 2008. Sandberg played a key role in turning Zuck’s Social Network Project into a legit, profitable business, and in setting the stage for the “largest Internet IPO in history.” Of course, while Facebook is back on track today, we all know how that IPO went. (It was a disaster, in case you were in a coma.)
Seems reason enough to add another check in the “Reasons Not To Rush An IPO” column, even though SaaS (especially SaaS that’s consumer-facing) is a hot space, and SaaS IPOs have tended to fare better than their consumer web counterparts. Plus, there’s reason to believe the SaaS IPO market will continue to be active — a check in the opposite column.
Nonetheless, SurveyMonkey’s massive round means it can put the public markets on hold, at least for now. Of its $794 million raised, $350 million came in the form of debt financing (from a syndicate led by JPMorgan). Why debt, you ask? Because it allows the company to reduce its share cap, the CEO says, and enable new investors to own a larger proportional stake in the company. Without that debt raise, he continues, SurveyMonkey wouldn’t have been able to pull off the additional $444 million it raised in equity.
While Spectrum will continue to hold a stake in the company after the raise, it reduces the firm’s share of the company, although it remains one of the top shareholders. The same is also true for Bain Capital, as the investment means that the firm is no longer one of the top three shareholders, Goldberg confirms.
Instead, the largest chunk of its equity investment was put up by first-time SurveryMonkey investor, Tiger Global, leading the VC giant to replace Bain as the top stakeholder. Google followed, putting up the second largest share of the investment, with Google’s head of corporate development, David Lawee, joining the company as a board observer. In turn, Tiger Partner Lee Fixel gained a directorship.
The round also saw significant contributions from Goldberg himself, Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social+Capital Partnership, LA-based VC and private equity firm Laurel Crown Partners and, of course, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
While much of this has already trickled out in the press, no one has of yet detailed the involvement of Iconiq Capital in SurveyMonkey’s equity raise — specifically, the handful of notable tech industry CEOs that contributed significant investments via the under-the-radar money management firm. Goldberg confirmed that Yammer Founder and CEO David Sacks participated in the investment, along with Dropbox Founder and CEO Drew Houston, early Facebook employee/CTO and Quora co-founder and CEO Adam D’Angelo, former Yahoo COO, Guitar Hero CEO and current Chief Exec of Chegg, Dan Rosensweig and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.
Of course, given the significant capital put up by Tiger, Google and an impressive list of investors, the question remains: Why SurveyMonkey? Well, when it comes to affordable, easy-to-use online surveys, SurveyMonkey is the service of record. Its cloud-based, consumer-friendly and freemium SaaS model has created the foundation for a sustainable, high-growth business. Over the last four years (since its deal with Spectrum and Bain), the company’s traction has increased significantly, to the point where it today has 14 million free users, 360K paying customers (who pay $200 to $300/year) and its website averaged 65 million monthly visitors last year.
In addition, the company saw $113 million in revenues last year, which have been growing 30 percent year-over-year, the CEO said. And, according to Fortune, its earnings last year were $61 million at a 54 percent margin.
Given its capitalization, SurveyMonkey manages to remain lean compared to its constituency, employing around 200 people. This has allowed the company to reinvest significantly in its technology, and over the last three years, it has completely rebuilt its entire stack. In turn, it’s been hard at work on APIs and a developer portal and recently debuted an entirely redesigned analytics platform.
The current analytics offerings that accompany its surveys have been sufficient but have been without support for more complex analysis. The new platform aims to fix that, offering a more robust solution for individual and enterprise users.
Going forward, Goldberg sees big growth potential in international markets. While its English language surveys are now in every country in the world, it got a slower start in non-English-speaking countries. While the site now supports 15 languages (and accepts payments in 29 currencies), the CEO says it has a long way to go.
Luckily, that measly little $794 million investment buys SurveyMonkey a lot more time. Down the road, restlessness will grow among its new investors and the company will have to head to the public markets. But until then, quarterly earnings calls are far from Dave Goldberg’s mind.Read More →
Zettaset, a startup focused on big data management and security, has raised a $10 million Series B round of funding led by HighBar Partners, with additional participation from Brocade and Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Epic Ventures.
Zettaset has developed a distribution-agnostic management platform for Apache Hadoop-based big data deployments. Designed for enterprise environments that require high levels of security and compliance, Zettaset allows for the mitigation of the common security vulnerabilities in Hadoop through role-based access control, authentication and logging capabilities, among others.
For the uninitiated, Hadoop is an open-soucre distributed data storage technology that allows for retrieval and analysis of large data sets. Originally used by Yahoo to optimize web pages, advertising and content, Hadoop has become an enterprise favorite for doing data analysis.
But optimizing web pages does not have the same security requirements as a company may have when analyzing sensitive or private data. There are access control issues, questions about data ownership, and how to treat new data sets that get created from the analysis.Read More →
SigFig, the startup that tracks your financial assets and provides detailed visualizations of your investments and recommendations on how to manage them, is now officially playing in the big leagues.
SigFig tells TechCrunch that it just crossed $50 billion in assets on the site’s platform.* For comparison, that’s in the ballpark of decades-old financial planning stalwarts such as Edward Jones, which reportedly has some $68 billion in assets under management. Not bad for a startup with around 40 staffers that officially launched its app to the public just nine months ago.
SigFig’s growth has almost certainly been bolstered by the fact that it has inked some big-name partnerships in its relatively short lifetime. The company’s technology already powers portfolio trackers for the likes of Yahoo Finance and USA Today, and just recently signed a deal to power brand new portfolio tracker apps for CNN.
It also bears mention that SigFig is not as new of an entity as it seems on the surface. The company was formerly best known for building Wikinvest, the financial Q&A site that also provided portfolio tracker tools — in December 2011, the company had $20 billion in assets under management thanks to Wikinvest users. But I’m told the majority of growth in terms of assets under management has happened over the past nine months with SigFig as the main driver.
SigFig is certainly not the only startup looking to lead the trend of bringing the financial planning industry into the digital realm — Personal Capital and Betterment are just two prominent players also in the space, although it bears mention that they are not all completely direct competitors. Just as there has historically been room for a plethora of traditional financial planning and advisory firms to prosper (and how), we may see a variety of web-based companies to establish themselves as the new generation of money management experts.
*UPDATE: SigFig has reached out to clarify that $50 billion in users’ assets have been plugged into its platform and managed through it. The term “assets under management” is typically used by licensed broker/dealers, which SigFig is not. SigFig users keep at their respective brokerages and sync their accounts with SigFig; SigFig does not actually control money and invest it on its users’ behalf. This story and headline have been updated to clarify that.
Watch the video embedded below for a closer look at what exactly SigFig is; this interview is from May 2012, when co-founders Mike Sha and Parker Conrad stopped by TechCrunch TV to demo their app and talk about their aim to disrupt traditional investment consulting.Read More →
Yahoo! is making moves in the new year already. Today, it announced that it has hired Disney/ABC’s Sandy Gould to lead talent acquisition and development. His official title is “senior vice president of global talent acquisition and development.”
To attract talent, Yahoo! must continue on its path of rebuilding with its new leader, CEO Marissa Mayer. Having a sense of revival makes a company attractive to others again, specifically talent and smaller startups and companies. I would not be surprised to see Yahoo! be very agressive this year in picking up small teams, much like Facebook has done over the years with Karma and Gowalla.
Here’s what the company had to say on its corporate blog today:
As we work to transform the world’s daily habits, it’s critical that we have the best, brightest and most talented teams in the world. That’s why we’re thrilled to welcome Sandy Gould, who is joining Yahoo! as senior vice president of global talent acquisition and development.
Sandy has more than 20 years of experience leading global recruitment and talent for well-known brands across technology, media, and financial services. He comes to Yahoo! from Disney/ABC Television Group, where he was responsible for global recruitment, executive coaching, organizational and talent development initiatives. He has held leadership positions in recruiting, talent strategy and development for companies including Linden Labs/Second Life, RealNetworks Inc., and Washington Mutual Bank.
Sandy will lead all of our recruiting, learning and development efforts for Yahoo!. And if you haven’t heard, we’re hiring! For more information about how you can help build experiences that make the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining, please visit Yahoo! Careers.
Clearly, Yahoo! has a few media properties at its fingertips, which it can turn into powerhouses again. One of them being its homepage, which pushes out fresh and original content to its daily visitors. Those visitors then perform searches and watch video, giving Yahoo! that old-school portal feel.
It’s not a bad thing.
Is it “cool” to work at Yahoo! again? My sources within the company tell me that the spirits are higher than they have been under previous regimes for sure, and all of the change that has happened internally lately has been for the best.
At Disney/ABC, Gould led recruiting for over two years, and before that he was VP of HR for Linden Lab/Second Life for three.Read More →
One of technology’s most persistently prescient crystal ball gazers is Betaworks CEO John Borthwick, a guy who – from Summize to Tweetdeck to bitly to Digg to his latest baby tapestry - always thinks ahead of the crowd. So, as a follow-up to Borthwick’s review of 2012, I sat down with the Betaworks CEO in his New York City office to get his take on what will happen in 2013. As always with Borthwick, the conversation was free-ranging and bold – particularly his prediction of how bad ideas will die sooner in 2013 and why that will be a good thing for startup entrepreneurs. And I was particularly struck by Borthwick’s vision of the “persistence of old platforms” in 2013 – a theme that TechCrunch’s Keith Teare also touched upon this weekend in his provocative Unnatural Acts piece.
So rather than a “web of things”, perhaps 2013 will really be a year in which we all go back to the future – back to a “re-portalization” craze and platform wars in which reinvented giants like Yahoo! and Microsoft realize new relevance. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French – a nation who knows a thing or two about persisting with old platforms – might say.Read More →
It’s that time of the year again: it’s time to promise to go on diets we won’t stick to, miles we won’t run, and projects we won’t complete. Maybe, this year, it’s time for a change? For 2013, I’m making a list of New Year’s resolutions that I actually might be able to keep. This time around, my resolutions will be internet and technology-focused – things I actually care about and enjoy – which betters the chance that I’ll be able to stick to my goals…well, at least until March.
Throughout the year, our lives become so busy that a lot things fall through the cracks. For me, it’s been about taking action following big (tech) decisions: to adopt or abandon a service, to transfer data, to upload files, to fix a problem using an online tool, to engage more, to read more, to clean up and clean out.
I doubt I’m alone in some of these things I plan to do this year, so I’m sharing my New Year’s resolutions with you – and the tools I’ll use in 2013 to get these things done.
Pick a preferred, paid* music streaming startup, and stick with it. One of the problems I had in 2012 was being too fickle. Under the banner of “it’s my job to try new things,” I’ve bounced around from music service to music service, but this, unfortunately, has the downside of never really being able to fully enjoy any of them. In 2013, while I promise to keep my eye on the competition, it’s time to start settling down and calling a personal winner. For obvious reasons, I’m leaning towards Spotify – which I’ve been mostly happy with in the past, during times of heavier use. However, Rdio’s recent app redesign is attractive, so it’s still in the running. I’ve enjoyed MOG in the past as well, but I’m worried that I’ve now spent too much time on a service that may not have lasting power. *Note that I’ll probably still bounce around for radio music, e.g. Pandora, 8tracks, etc.
Make a decision about Flickr. I know, vague resolution, right? Well, I’m going to give it a few months, considering it’s undergoing a major overhaul right now. But in 2013, it’s time to decide: I need to either leave or commit to Flickr for good. In the past, it has simply been too difficult to spend the time or energy to commit to a massive photo migration from Flickr to another service, but thanks to Pi.pe, I now have the tools to automate what would have otherwise been a tedious photo transfer project. The destination that makes the most sense for me is Google’s Picasa, since I’m already paying for increased Google storage due to my Gmail needs. That being said, it’s still unclear how or when Google will migrate and merge its Picasa photo sharing platform with Google+ photos – and I don’t want to make a leap before I know exactly what’s going on there. Another possibility is Facebook, of course. That makes sense for most photos, but some more personal ones – like those from my daughter’s birth, for example – I don’t trust on Facebook…or Google, for that matter. Maybe not even online at all. I’m newly considering Shutterfly, as well, now that it finally has a worthy iPhone app, not to mention free, unlimited storage.
Automate More Things. I have not taken enough advantage of the newly-funded IFTTT.com, despite my enthusiasm for its general existence. In 2013, I want to auto-post from Instagram to Flickr (or wherever else I end up), configure more SMS alerts, oh, and fix that Instagram/Twitter problem, for starters. Every time I find myself repeating a common task, I vow to stop and think, “is there an IFTTT for that?”
Clean out my Pocket and start over. I love to mark things “Read Later,” but I don’t actually like, um, reading them later. This is a problem with services like Pocket (formerly Read it Later), Instapaper and others. For me, the problem is one of being overwhelmed with choice – I save too many things to “read later” when really they’re not of the quality that deserves the extra time. In 2013, I’m going to be more choosy about the articles I save, and thanks to a cleaned out Pocket, when I dip into the service to actually do some reading, everything will be worthwhile. Also: no more saving things I “should” read, but don’t actually want to. That makes me avoid usage. Additionally, I’m keeping my eye on Blackstrap, which promises to turn my Read Later queue into a book for $15. Yes, I need this. Something about the printed word still draws me in, especially for long-form content.
Upload my music collection to Google Music/iTunes Match. On one of these old hard drives sits about 70 GB of MP3s, and it needs a new home. Because much of it is classic, not current, music, it hasn’t been a priority to cloud-enable this archive. But thanks to the new and improved “matching” capabilities in Google Music as well as those that already exist with iTunes Match, putting the music online shouldn’t be so difficult…at least once I find that hard drive.
Go Android for an extended period of time (again). My last Android phone was the Nexus S, and it was well-loved before the screen-shattering drop. Going Android again is a resolution that’s limited by budgetary constraints, so it might not be one that can be completed immediately. But it’s going on the list regardless because I want it to happen. I’m committed to the iPhone ecosystem currently, but today there’s too much going on with Android to not spend some solid time using an Android-based phone this year. I’m especially interested in using Google Now – the mind-reading search service Google offers in the latest version of Android. In addition, Google’s voice recognition is so much better and faster (and sometimes even funnier) than Apple’s somewhat disappointing Siri. Yes, I know. Siri is in beta. It’s still disappointing.
Watch more original programming. Did I really just put watch TV on my list? Hey, it’s “work-related,” OK? But in all seriousness, there’s an interesting shift going on now in the television industry where internet players like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, Yahoo and others are in an original programming arms race, which may soon establish each of them as the premiere “TV channels” of the internet age. In 2012, it’s been about making the investments, but the first shows to hit - like Hulu’s A Day In The Life, Battleground, Up to Speed, etc. or Netflix’s Lilyhammer, for example – have been so-so in terms of quality when compared with network TV, and decidedly lacking when pitted against premium content producers like HBO. But it’s a start. And Hollywood has plenty of talent to spare – they just need the funding.
Clean up my contacts. This one is on my list every year, but it has never been completed. The problem? So many of my contacts aren’t even in my contacts ( that is, my iCloud/Gmail contacts) – they’re just in my email. That’s where WriteThatName comes in. For a mere $30, the service will scan through my past emails and update my address book using the info it finds in senders’ email signatures. Uh, genius. Then for an extra $35, I can keep this going all year long.
Trick more people into signing up for Dropbox using my referral link. Because I need more space, of course. (Hey, one down!)
Those are my resolutions, but here are a few other suggestions of things that might help you with yours:
Want to get through your inbox faster? Keep an eye out for the official launch of Mailbox, a new iPhone app that uses gestures that allow you to swipe your way to inbox zero.
Need to stay focused on your work? Addicted to Facebook? Force yourself to stop checking it using self-control tools like FocalFilter or StayFocused, for example.
Can’t get into extreme couponing, but still looking for deals? You can save money by using apps.In addition to old standbys, like Amazon’s price scanner, ShopSavvy or ShopKick, for example, new apps can alert you to nearby bargains (Shopular, RetailMeNot), help you save after purchase (Ibotta), find coupons for your favorite stores (SnipSnap, Coupons.com – now with Passbook integration), and others.
Good luck and Happy New Year!
Image credit: flickr user shakakahnevanRead More →
Inky, a new email software company, has accidentally found itself in the spotlight this week after hiding in plain sight for over half a year. The company is aiming to offer a better email experience on the desktop, and later on mobile and web, by providing an alternative email client that works with webmail providers like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail/Outlook.com, Apple iCloud email, or any POP or IMAP account, while also providing a feature set that targets today’s email pain points.
The company had not sought press, but a random post on Hacker News started to create some buzz for the startup, whose app was first available for download this May.
For those unfamiliar, Inky’s client software application isn’t just a nicer-looking email desktop experience, it’s also working to deliver practical innovations that will make email more usable, like its inbox sorted by relevance, automatically created “smart views” that handle organizing everything from personal emails to daily deals to newsletters, and much more.
“It takes a crazy, rich guy to actually fix email,” laughs Dave Baggett, co-founder of Arcode, makers of Inky. “Big companies have all these corporate antibodies against innovation, and little startups – it’s a really challenging problem for a startup. It’s borderline not doable by startups. There’s so much basic stuff to get right.”
That’s true. Our hopes for an email savior have been dashed time and again, as email innovators either fold or exit via acquisitions – as was the case most recently with Sparrow, one of the few to really attract a serious following outside of webmail providers like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and others. But Inky creator Baggett says he’s up to taking on the rather hefty task of fixing email. Baggett was the first employee at Naughty Dog, the game company behind the Crash Bandicoot games, and was the third co-founder at ITA Software, the travel software company acquired by Google for $700 million in 2010.
That latter experience, Baggett explains, is especially applicable to building a better email client. “The goal [at ITA] was to fix travel – travel search, in particular. Back in the day, you would call up a travel agent and they would type stuff into an ASCII terminal and it was really slow. We wanted to make a new platform for doing that better. We spent about five years working on that search product,” he says, “and there are a lot of parallels with email. There’s a lot of investment you have to make into the platform – especially if you’re doing it from scratch like we are, or like we did at ITA – which the users don’t see.”
For starters, he explains, email has to be highly available. That is, it has to work. All the time. Unlike social services, where things can go down on occasion, email has to stay online. “It’s part of your life, it’s like picking up the phone and not getting a dial tone,” Baggett says, describing what an email outage feels like. The bar is extremely high for a minimum viable product in this space, which is why so few startups can take on the job.
In addition, there are other things users don’t think about that go into building an email application, too – all those little functions that email has to provide, like handling different languages and character sets, managing attachments, providing real-time spellcheck, etc. These have to work, too, before you can even start layering on the new innovations like those that Inky is working to deliver.
Inky’s “Email 2.0″ Feature Set
In short, the vision at Inky is to start fresh with modern technology, and build an application that can understand your email. In terms of feature set, that means things like the above-mentioned relevance sorting and smart views. Inky’s algorithms use machine learning to sort mail by importance – similar to Gmail’s priority inbox in spirit, but not broken up into separate sections (“Priority” and “Everything Else”) as in Gmail.
It also automatically organizes emails, tucking away social updates, daily deals, subscriptions and other non-critical messages, keeping them out of your inbox. And it can learn from your actions, too. For example, if you’re always moving messages from a particular sender into a particular folder, then it will start providing a button that lets you do that in one click. That’s the kind of thing power email users build rules to handle. “Filter rules are the usual programmer’s answer to this problem,” says Baggett, “but the problem is that for the vast majority of people, if you ask them to set up a rule they’re just going to be confused and their eyes are going to glaze over.”
So instead of rules, Inky will just learn. And that learning applies to not only discovering a message’s importance as sort of a binary function (important / not important), but also how important it is as related to others. For example, algorithms can identify who your boss is, or who’s family. This level of understanding isn’t yet fully developed in today’s beta product, but the overall goal is one of delivering that smarter inbox. “We like to call it email 2.0, where email is smart and knows what your mail is about, instead of being sort of a passive observer,” says Baggett.
The team at Inky is also working to find a better balance between Gmail’s conversation view and Outlook’s message list view. They’re working to make autocomplete smarter and faster. Inky’s inbox can already identify package tracking emails. And the team is thinking about how to simplify client setup, so the process gets easier today’s a multi-device environment. To this end, Inky’s “zero setup” process involves a one-time configuration involving the creation of an Inky account and providing your email credentials. The security methods were the subject of debate on Hacker News, with the common refrain being “I’m not handing over my password,” as per usual. It’s not that simple, though, but explaining Inky’s security is a challenge Baggett knows the company needs to figure out.
Inky takes security and privacy very seriously, he says, and they’re even consulting with crypto experts on the implementation. Details are explained here in the original thread, but the short of it is that Inky uses a method based on Zero-Knowledge Proofs where it proves to the server that you know your password without actually sending over your password. ”Silvio Micali was my academic advisor at MIT and he’s one of the pioneers of this class of techniques,” says Baggett. “This is all incredibly geeky stuff, but it actually matters in protecting people’s mail from hackers.”
Inky’s monetization plans haven’t been announced yet, but there are a variety of options, like providing a free service for users, and a paid option for companies, for example. Right now, however, the company is just focused on building the product. “We’re not going to compromise users’ privacy, though,” Baggett adds.
Bethesda, Maryland-based Arcode is self-funded, primarily through Baggett himself, and he has no plans to change that anytime soon. Windows and Mac beta builds are available for download here.Read More →
Oh, Yahoo! Mail. It’s one of those products that many of us used at one point, and it either stuck or didn’t. For a lot of users it did stick, as it is currently the No. 3 mail product on the web, behind Microsoft and Google’s products, of course.
Today, the company announced a redesign across all platforms: iOS, Android, Windows Phone and web. Internally, the company called it the “Cuatro” release, for obvious reasons. I had a chance to speak with Adam Cahan, SVP, Emerging Products & Tech, at Yahoo!, who is in a role that’s just a month old, set up by its CEO Marissa Mayer.
We talked about today’s release, and how Yahoo! is entering a shift into iterative product design and maintenance, letting user feedback and usage patterns guide their way. This is nothing new as far as products go, but for Yahoo!, this might be a complete cultural shift.
Adam Cahan: I think the most important piece is that we’re really focusing on the user behaviors and what users are here to do with email. The funny line we’re using internally is “we want to re-imagine email to be email.” When it comes to email, what you want is fast and easy, anywhere access. What we learned is that speed and simplicity are features, and that’s what users are trusting us with. We spent a lot of time not only on the details of the performance here, but also watching how it impacts everyone. We do a lot of bucket testing to see what happens.
It takes a tiny bit of time for users to re-adapt, then we observe behavior. What we’ve found is that we’re getting more of their time.
In terms of mobile, people expect that their products and providers are available anywhere they go. For email, it’s important for our users to have access to that.
TechCrunch: Tell us about the cross-platform approach to your products, specifically something like Mail.
Adam Cahan: There’s a tremendous amount of nuance on every platform. Folks have been using webmail, so they come to expect certain things from Yahoo! and expect consistently. Each platform has its own subtlety. Nobody wants Mail on iOS and Android to act the same way. Our principles carry across though.
For iPhone, infinite scroll is something that’s there. In the same way, for Android, we focus on screen density, seeing how many things you can display on a single screen. These are metaphors you see across devices. On Windows 8, we’re emphasizing things like Snap view and tiles, which are a new thing.
The big emphasis is when we focus on these questions about users’ daily habits and what they’re doing on a regular basis, you start to see how small improvements on performance impact their daily life.
The metric we know from the web release is that we’re saving 36 million minutes a day, which are tremendously meaningful minutes. That’s the scale of impact. We’re watching performance by the seconds and the minutes.
TechCrunch: How do you talk to your users?
Adam Cahan: It depends on the nature of the product and design. In the case of something like Mail, you have the classic opportunity for bucket testing. This is where we can test behaviors. We want people to come back to email more, and get more done. It’s a bit more complex on mobile. We’re monitoring true performance there and the core technology: scroll view, battery, and things like that. Very product centric.
We do get user feedback all of the time, we do read them and see what people are saying about the product. We have customer care that people reach out to, and we learn a lot through those channels. Something like speed and performance isn’t something that can really be articulated. If users are happy with your product, and your product is speedy and easy, they will change their behavior.
TechCrunch: Iterative design. Tell us how launching things more often beats big yearly redesigns.
Adam Cahan: I was not directly involved in the 2010 Mail design. I’ve taken on my new role as taking on mobile. I will say this, you’re starting to see a lot of the guiding principles that we focus on coming to light in these products.
We’re really actually focusing on the user and ensuring that we’re bringing out high-quality products with great design and performance. Also, we’re raising the bar on ourselves. We’re following a much more rapid cadence with iterating on our products now.
There’s lots of other things going on.
TechCrunch: Your role is new. Can you tell us more about it?
Adam Cahan: My group is called “Emerging products and technology” – we brought together our mobile teams, any product that has a mobile component. Flickr and our connected TV platform. Bringing those three together as a focus is about these shifts in behaviors. People are engaging with all different forms of devices and we wanted teams to engage with our products on them.
Personally, I came to Yahoo! a little over a year ago through the acquisition of IntoNow, a second screen application. I previously worked at Google as well, and did another startup called Auditude that Adobe acquired. Marissa created this role about a month ago.
So here you have a golden opportunity for Yahoo! to grab marketshare in any number of verticals. Mail is clearly the focus right now, as it’s one of the most-used, fully-owned products at Yahoo’s disposal. Can it do the job right? Can it really bring an experience that keeps users happy, as well as potentially pull others away? Those are questions that need time to be answered.
Without a doubt, Yahoo! Mail is starting to a look a little like Gmail, and that’s not a bad thing. Simple is better, especially when it comes to something like email, which nobody likes to do.
What I can say is that for a lot of Yahoo’s products, there’s only one way to go, and that’s up. Make no mistake though, there is a long, long road ahead for Yahoo! Will it be paved in purple and gold? Stay tuned.
[Photo credit: GigaOm]Read More →