In most technology circles we talk to people now, it's inevitable that when the topic goes towards MySpace.com, there's a huge divide between people who are big fans of the huge audience and traction the social networking site has, and the many detractors--mostly parents--who are aghast at what their kids are being exposed to. It's an almost visceral reaction--we've seen several venture capitalists and lawyers almost come to physical blows over whether MySpace is good or bad. The other day, we ran across a local company, Sherman Oaks-based BeNetSafe (www.benetsafe.com), which is looking to help parents out in dealing with MySpace. We spoke to co-founder Brad Weber the about their solution to monitoring what kids do on the Internet and on MySpace.
Ben Kuo: Where's the idea for the company come from?
Brad Weber: My partner, Michael Edelson and I, started about 5 months ago. The two of us have six teenagers online between the two of us, and we didn't see a product addressing our needs. We came up with BeNetSafe as something that is a different approach and solution to making sure your children are safe online. The service allows you to make sure your children's information is not out there without your knowledge. As parents, we tried monitoring programs, filtering, and blocking programs. The bottom line came down to they were too burdensome, and required lots of time to set up and adjust as the kids age. It came down to we just wanted to know if our children's information is out there. We needed a search tool, that could provide meaningful info to see if our children's information is out there. Right now, we're providing information for MySpace, an in a couple of weeks we'll be adding information from Xanga.
Ben Kuo: What's the background of the founding team?
Brad Weber: We have been in technology and system integration for 20-30 years. Michael has patents in credit card processing and high risk management--developing automated decision making on credit cards, to determine if they are being used for fraud or not. We both have a history of being programmers. When we recognized the need for the product, we also pulled engineers from other projects we had in-house to work on the BeNetSafe product. We're technologists--not just parents who know a little HTML, and have a background in search and databases, along with big systems. We owned an ISP in the past, and one of our other companies develops a privacy product that runs on a USB drive--so we're very familiar with people wanting their information to stay private.
Ben Kuo: It sounds like this is an offshoot of another company?
Brad Weber: It's a completely different company, but we're using engineering and other people we've worked with who have joined to start this project together.
Ben Kuo: Tell me a little bit about your funding?
Brad Weber: We're self funded, and also have some angel funding--under the half a million dollar range.
Ben Kuo: What's the product you launched a few weeks ago?
Brad Weber: The initial version we launched goes out to MySpace and searches for basic information. It uses a decision making process to bring back results to present to parents--we've had some engineers working full time on that. For example, if you're looking for a John Smith you don't want to come back with hundreds of results, so we've been improving heuristics. We search anywhere and everywhere where children are putting their information, and showing it in a concise report, which parents can access from one place.
Ben Kuo: What kind of information, and how do parents use that?
Brad Weber: The interesting thing is, we're technical people, and we found it time consuming to pull information from MySpace. That's even more so for non-technical folks, who don't want to log into MySpace to see what their kids are doing. Our service is easy to use, so that a soccer mom or soccer dad can log in, and in a few minutes create a profile, enter some information about your child--their name, email address, instant messaging accounts, and easily go out and search for information. As long as you have a first name, last name, email address we can find information. If you also include instant messaging, city, and school information the searches will be all that more accurate.
Ben Kuo: There have been some services that have been pulled from MySpace because they were pulling information from the site, what's their opinion of your service?
Brad Weber: We're meeting with them this week. There have been products out there just for MySpace, and we're not just doing this for MySpace. They're just the first social network we're going to because they're the largest. We're crawling and searching other places, as well. We think they are going to be positive to this, because there is legislation in congress to control social networks. They need a third party solution that offers parents a good solution to monitoring children's information. We think it will be a positive, not a negative response.
Ben Kuo: How is competition in this space, it seems like there might not be many barriers to entry for a service like this?
Brad Weber: We don't see anyone else out there, and certainly not any automated search for profiles. There are complementary products--things that log what children are doing, and filter or block web sites. These are good products for parents, except for being time consuming. There are not competitors at this time offering the same solution. The barriers of entry could be low to do a limited scrape, but we have a lot more under the hood than web pages and copies of links. If you look at our reports, we not only give a link, we give pertinent info on a page. For example, on MySpace, we give a list of friends and ages of their friends. Say you have a 13 year old, you'll want to know two of their friends are in their forties. This kind of information is reported concisely. There's a lot under the hood to providing this information to parents in precise detail. that, and we already have engineering resources building it out to other social networks, which we think gives us a significant competitive advantage. We're also in the process of filing some patents on our technology.
Ben Kuo: Thanks for the interview, and good luck!