Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Interview with Alex Benzer, SocialEngine
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Southern California has had its share of new startup accelerators launch in the last few months, however, few people here have actually experienced an accelerator firsthand. One of the few who has is Alex Benzer,the co-founder of Silverlake-based SocialEngine (www.socialengine.com) and Fanmix (www.fanmix.com). We heard from Alex to learn how SocialEngine was bootstrapped to $1.4M in sales last year, what he learned from his experience at TechStars, and where he's going with Fanmix. Plus, he told us a little bit about how he's helping to build a mini cluster of technology companies in the Silverlake area.
First of all, of those who haven't heard of SocialEngine, what is it?
Alex Benzer: I'm actually building two startups. SocialEngine is four years old, and that's the startup we applied to TechStars with. SocialEngine is a white-label, community platform. It's like WordPress, but instead of blogging, it provides an online community, which is self-hosted. We give you the source code, and you can do anything you want with it. We have a licensing business with that. We scaled that to almost $1.4 million in sales last year, with great margins, and it's profitable, with a team of ten people. That's funding our new product, FanMix, which is a social media tool. It's a unified inbox for all of your online conversations.
If you're like many people, you're having more and more public conversations, but there is no tool out there similar to Gmail which a lot of people use to organize their whole life. However Gmail is only really for private email conversations. We've built a tool like Gmail, for all of your public conversations, as a Chrome extension within Gmail. Ultimately, we're build tools for marketers on top of that. Fanmix will ultimately let you find conversations you're not involved with, but which it might be valuable for you to participate in. We now have four people on that team, and we have the whole group in Silverlake.
Is the idea to have multiple projects as part of the company?
Alex Benzer: We're building SocialEngine in parallel, and working on a new, software-as-service version. We're also updating the format. The product right now is like a simplified Facebook, and we are updating it to a new format we think more people will want, sort of a hybrid between Pinterest and Reddit, so that you can have any combination of features between those two.
FanMix we're building parallel with a separate team. Desire for FanMix came from our experience building SocialEngine. We have thousands of customers there, but only some of them have built great communities that took off. We had to figure out what would help the other 90 percent build better and more interesting sites. We noticed that many of those sites were not pre-populating the site with content, were not drawing from external channels, and were not starting conversations on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. We also noticed we had struggled ourselves to do the same thing. That's why we built FanMix, to solve our own problem, and help our SocialEngine customers to promote their own sites.
After TechStars, how did you end up in LA?
Alex Benzer: My partner and I met here in Los Angeles, in high school. We're definitely Los Angeles natives, but we got the opportunity to do TechStars. It was a no brainer, and because we knew about the program, we were really excited to do it. The most attractive thing about it was the educational value. Charlotte, my partner, and I had been bootstrappers until TechStars. Bootstrapping is a very isolated experience. We didn't have people nearby, in person, who could be role models and teach us stuff. We were learning by the seat of our pants, and reading stuff to learn anything. So, we were pretty excited to educate ourselves at TechStars. The program itself is incredibly daunting initially, but it was really valuable for us, especially as an educational experience. We have some great mentors now. People we met there were Greg Cohn, who was recently head of yahoo games. He actually left and is working on a startup, and sharing our space in LA with him. Thanks to TechStars, we've got an awesome mentor who's co-habitating with us now, and we're learning something daily from him.
You have a little mini-cluster there in Silverlake now, don't you?
Alex Benzer: We call it Silverlake HQ. It's a casual setup—it's not an incubator, it's not an accelerator, and we're not charging anyone for space. It's just an invite-only collective of friends building things. My sort of selection method is to bring in people who can teach me stuff. The other reason for building it, is LA is crapped on all the time from a press perspective and entrepreneur perspective. There are actually lots of great people, though we're relatively unconnected on the East side, which is frustrating. We're trying to build a center-of-mass on the East side, to draw talented developers and designers, to recruit more effectively, and reinvest in the local ecosystem.
What was the most valuable thing about TechStars for you?
Alex Benzer: The most valuable thing is just the validating factor, and having that stamp. It's really opened up an incredible number of doors. The other amazing thing, is getting access to people like David Cohen and Brad Feld. They'll reply to my emails in half an hour, and give us great feedback on what we're doing. The third thing, is it has given us an access to a great network of investors, not just in Boulder, but in California too. Fourth, is all the friends we've made. We've made a number of friends during the program which have been really helpful. We've learned the most from our peers during the program. Much of what I learned was from the ambient environment, being near people and watching people solve problems they're facing.
How did you and Charlotte get into software?
Alex Benzer: I was a computer kid in high school, though I thought I'd go into advertising. I was really into graphic design in high school, and TA'd several summer workshops at Caltech. I met Charlotte in high school, and she ended up going to Harvey Mudd for two years, and dropped out to start SocialEngine. It's actually uncommon to have a female CTO. We had a great connection, and we found our skill sets were complimentary. We started working on local web design projects, but got sick of that in six months. Working for someone else is not fun. It's better to build something for yourself, and then sell it repeatedly. Early on in college, we built a product called Blog Hoster, which allowed you to create white label blogs. It's like building a site like Blogger, but with your brand. We sold that for $90,000, and used that to build SocialEngine.
Is FanMix available now?
Alex Benzer: We're in private beta. We're opening our doors next week. We've got 200 people in our beta right now, and an invite list of 2500 people waiting to get on. We're really looking for feedback right now. Our goal is to build an amazing, free utility that anyone can benefit from, and make that as awesome as we can. Later on, we can add upsells for community managers and social media marketers. We want to build something unique, free, and amazing. We're fortunate we've been able to fund that from SocialEngine.
Is this something you plan on also bootstrapping, or is this something you might raise some venture money for?
Alex Benzer: We're definitely looking at taking money later this year. But, we really want to build more product before we do that. We've been three months on the product, and raising money wouldn't get us anywhere faster, it would just slow us down. Once we've launched to the public and have more adoption, we'll very likely raise a seed round for FanMix to accelerate it's growth. We'd love to take money for that.
Thanks for the time!