Thursday, September 22, 2011
Interview with Alex Capecelatro, Hyphos
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
In his quest to better connect with new friends, Alex Capecelatro had a problem: none of the existing social networking sites were really designed to connect people with who you didn't know, and might share your hobbies and interests. To make it easier to find new people and connect with new friends, he thought he'd start his own company to help solve that issue. His startup, Culver City-based Hyphos, just launched an early beta access at UCLA--his alma mater, and that of a number of his co-founders--this week, so we thought we'd learn more about what drove him to quit his job, and start the company.
What is Hyphos?
Alex Capecelatro: Hyphos is a social discovery platform. The main idea, being that today, social networks have become really amazing tools and a platform to interact with people you know--your family, friends, and followers. But, today's web isn't optimized for meeting new people, or meeting people with similar interests. For example, when you move to a new town, you might want to find people to go biking with, go to the gym with, play poker with, and there's no way to do that right now. Along the way of understanding that problem, we found a number of issues that the Internet isn't solving, particularly around organizing people around interests, communities, and location. Essentially, we've created a platform to enable that.
How did the company come about?
Alex Capecelatro: I'm the original founder, and we have a team of eight people. I had been involved with a couple of startups in the past, mostly in the hard sciences, biotech, and hardware area. I had been moving around a lot, played in the web space, built web sites, and kept finding this same problem. Moving to a new town, when you try to meet people with your same interests, there is no way to do so. So, I built a rudimentary prototype -- I'm not a programmer, but I can put stuff together--and convinced a few friends to come on board, and we've been growing ever since. We now have a great office in Culver City, raised an initial round, and are about a week away form our initial launch.
Was that funding an angel or VC round?
Alex Capecelatro: It's an early founder's round from an amazing angel investor, David Carter.
We noticed you have lots of UCLA folks involved in the business--what's the link to UCLA?
Alex Capecelatro: I went to UCLA and graduated in 2010. When we started Hyphos, most of us were UCLA students. Currently, there are two of us who are UCLA alumni, three who are at UCLA now, and three others. Our advisor, Leonard Kleinrock, is a professor in Computer Science at UCLA. There's also a connection to the community, because students find this a great tool to have. UCLA is a terrific campus, but it's a big campus, with a lot of activity and a large number of student groups. It can be difficult to find people to relate to. As an example, ever since a child I had been into BMX trick biking. I was from New York originally, and went to UCLA, and wanted to find other people to go biking with. I found there wasn't a community forum that would enable this, especially at UCLA, and it wasn't until my third year that I was riding on campus and came across another rider. This student, Spencer Hochberg, happened to be an engineering student as well, a really bright guy, and he’s now on the team at Hyphos. If Hyphos had been around, we'd have been able to make the connection earlier on, as we wish we had.
There are lots of social networking sites out there, how to you get enough attention to build up enough users to make it useful?
Alex Capecelatro: The way we look at Hyphos, is it is evolving in different phases. In the beginning, we're looking at the web site as a site almost analogous to the way LinkedIn started, where it started out as a place for you to fill out your resume, and make it searchable, so that people can see what you have to offer and can get in touch. In the same way, on Hyphos, we let you come in and tell people that you love to go biking, are at UCLA, and are also in engineering, as well as a couple of my other interests. This way, others can reach out if there are enough shared interests. You can choose to be a passive user, and just set up a social resume, so that people have the ability to find you, or you can be a more active user. That's something you can't do on the Internet today. So we've allowed for a passive view in the beginning, putting social discovery at the forefront. That said, we think we've uncovered a really interesting niche. On Facebook, and even Twitter, the problem is you are having to deal with lots of irrelevant content in your stream. If you follow a bunch of people, whatever content you post, not everyone is always interested in that content. On Hyphos, it's the complete opposite. Instead of streaming information based on the people you follow, we stream information based on your interest groups. The advantage of this is that your stream becomes hyper relevant and we make it super easy to share with communities. You don't have to worry about exposing content to people who don't care about a topic. You don't have to worry about, for example, exposing pictures of a band you care about to everyone, because you'll only share it with those who care about that band. In a way, we're solving the issue that most blogs face. As anyone who is familiar with blogging knows, the hardest part is growing a viewer base. We're making it possible for you to post to a community of people who are interested in what you have to post, so that you have an immediate viewer base and don't have to do the hard work.
When you were coming out of UCLA, did you imagine that you'd be an entrepreneur?
Alex Capecelatro: : It's an interesting story. Many of my friends and the people who are now involved with the site found our concept very easy to relate to. All of the members of the team are here because Hyphos is something they really believe in and are passionate about. When you are in a big company, you often find you are running in circles, and doing a lot of legwork where you don't really see much of a result. Here, if you step up to the plate, you can see what you are doing has an impact up front. For me personally, I've always been starting companies. I wanted to utilize technology and good design to make a positive impact on the world. I was working at Fisker Automotive before Hyphos, as their Sustainability Engineer. That was utilizing technology to impact the world in a positive way. I want to do something bigger with Hyphos.
So what's the biggest lesson you've learned so far from starting up your company?
Alex Capecelatro: To do things right, it takes a lot more time than you initially think. You can lay out a roadmap, and get your design together, but if you think it will be just a couple of weeks or a month or two to get things together, you've got to plan for a lot more time. There are things you don't realize you have to deal with, like a complete database restructuring, issues on the product side, and things like fundraising and working out office space. I think my biggest learning lesson so far is that everything takes a look more time and resources than initially planned for.