Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Interview with Brian Norgard, Namesake
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
One of the stealthiest Los Angeles startups to emerge in the last few months has been Namesake (www.namesake.com), headed by Brian Norgard and co-founded by Dan Gould. Norgard has been keeping Namesake close to the vest, but we were able to visit him at the firm's headquarters in West Hollywood, where he gave us an overview of what the firm is doing. Norgard is a serial entrepreneur, having co-founded NewRoo (acquired by Fox Interactive Media/MySpace) and co-founding Twitter advertising startup Ad.ly.
First off, what is Namesake all about?
Brian Norgard: Namesake is a conversation community. It's a place that people go to discuss things that interest them, and find people that are like them. It allows you to act like a real human on the Internet. I felt like there was an extreme void when it came to true conversation on the Internet. I'm a huge fan of Twitter, but I felt like it had become just a broadcast medium, and Facebook's closed graph doesn't allow for a lot of serendipity, because it's most only people you know well. So, we wanted to build an experience where people could interact in real time, with people who share similar interests and expertise. So, we're doing several things at Namesake. We're enabling real time conversations around topics, and we're also building out the interest graph. What that means, is that people have the ability to put in their areas of expertise into the system, and other people can comment on their expertise in that area. That is socially proofing what people do well. We think that combination of conversation plus interests plus what people do well creates an interesting context to create an environment where people can do all sorts of things. Today, we have people watching live streams on Namesake, we have people with programmatic questions, we have people about where should I go in Las Vegas, and we have stuff which is very news driven. There are lots of use cases for Namesake, but I think what we're really enabling is human conversation.
Where did the idea come from and how did you start working on this?
Brian Norgard: We use the term around here evolutionary development. There was no "eureka" moment. Oftentimes that's a fallacy. We started with the initial idea of building vertical, B-to-B social environments, and soon figured out that was a terrible idea. So we started experimenting. Dan and I, my co-founder, obviously have social networking and advertising backgrounds. We started experimenting with lots of ideas, and Namesake is the evolution of a thousand small tweaks. There was never a really core idea there. But, very quickly we realized that real time conversation is something people love. That feedback led us to really craft something around that core idea.
You have an interesting strategy, which is a closed beta. What were your thoughts behind limiting things to people?
Brian Norgard: It comes form a DNA that I want to create product experience that wows people. It takes a long time to build a great product. You never get it right on the first evolution of your product. What we have really been doing, is using lots of the momentum from our community to continue to craft the product. Every day, we make incremental improvements, and over time you get compounded interest from those efforts. That means, your product is 10x better than it was even a couple of months ago. So, we just haven't been ready yet for that next phase of growth. But, I think we're getting close. The chatter is overwhelmingly positive about the experience. And, it is a social network. A social network without people is an oxymoron. We're definitely getting close to the phase of making it more public, but at this stage of the game, Dan and I have wanted to do it our way this time, which is build it slowly, build a great experience, and when it's time we can put the gas down.
You've still got a pretty small team, don't you?
Brian Norgard: It's a relatively small team, but the interesting thing about consumer Internet today, is it used to be a badge of honor to say how many team members you had.. Now, it doesn't really matter, as long as you have really, really proficient and qualified people. Everyone here is a domain expert have done this for love, for many many years. This product is built out of love, and we continue to craft it because we want to create a great experience for our customers. The difference between Namesake and lots of other companies today, is we think about the customer first. We talk about this entrepreneurial revolution going on today, which every industry is being touched by. But, there's a second revolution happening, which is the customer revolution. That is thinking about what is the way to create the best experience for them, where we delight them, where every single day they open up their browser and say--this is awesome. We strive for that. We've created lots of crappy experiences, and we've killed them. You have to create seven crappy experiences to create that one piece of delight.
It sounds like you've really taken the Internet philosophy of release often, modify, and fit what works, to heart?
Brian Norgard: Yes, we're releasing code sometimes four times a day. It's how we do things. The interesting thing is nowadays you have your customers as a sounding board, and you can release software four times a day and get feedback immediately. If you're not doing that, you're not utilizing the medium.
A lot of folks compare you to Quora -- how do you compare and contrast what you're doing? Are you trying to be similar to them or did that just happen?
Brian Norgard: We're just trying to be like us. That's not hard. The difference is that Namesake is about conversation. We think that conversation has a ton of different directions it can head. When I look at Quora, it's about this amazing knowledge repository, about the defined right answer. We've heard this from tons of different users. If Quora is the library, Namesake is the quad. It's messy, sometimes it's the most interesting answer, sometimes the most pithy, sometimes it's a joke, sometimes it's a Youtube video. But, the difference is we're trying to facilitate the interaction between humans. Once in awhile, you'll get a perfect answer, but that is not the end goal. The systems are similar--they were at Facebook, we were at MySpace--and we know what it takes to build a great system. But, our end goals are different. I think Namesake is a much more social environment. We actually go to Quora all the time, and refer back to Quora as a knowledge source. I think in some sense they are actually very complimentary.
It looks like you're taking the early Facebook approach by limiting signups -- when do you think people will be able to get into the system?
Brian Norgard: It's invite only today, because we're controlling the context and quality of the community. We think it's important, because you can always go downstream but you can't go upstream when you're building a social environment. But, I'd like to extend a personal invite to socalTECH readers, because I've been reading the blog forever, and if they click on this link they can access Namesake directly. (Editor's note: You can connect into Namesake via this special invite link.)
Thanks, and good luck!