Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Interview with Chris Lyman and Corey Brundage, SendLove.to
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
The last time we spent much time chatting with Chris Lyman and Corey Brundage, they were at Los Angeles telephony software firm Fonality, busy getting their employees set up in a full blown, mixed-martial arts (MMA) "fight club". Since then, the two left to start a brand new startup, SendLove.to (www.sendlove.to), which launched Tuesday, focused on allowing users to rate public figures in news stories, blogs, and elsewhere. To get the story behind how they went from the world of telecom to the Internet--plus, how they are filming their entire startup process with Ondi Timoner of We Live in Public--and to understand what exactly they are trying to do, we sat down and talked to them (editor's note: yes, that really is Lyman and Brundage in the photo).
First off, talk about SendLove.to and what is it all about?
Chris Lyman: It's a far departure from our former life in telco. Effectively, what Corey and I are trying to do, is distill the course of opinions on the web, and turn that into a consumable format. We are trying to turn those opinions into one, consumable format that we can use to create, strong relationships with public figures. I realize that might sound like a bundle of garbage, but, in English, we're trying to create a real time system for social polling of public figures, in effect co-opting the space that--although it isn't very useful--is used right now for comments. As you know, the comments at the foot of every blog out there that is really kind of a big waste of time. There are billions of folks, every month, literally shouting into a black hole, creating relatively useless data. It's useless to the publisher, it's useless to a person running a blog, it's useless to even the person who is expression their opinions--because they are just not heard. If you look at the articles on a site like CNN, and the 650 opinions you see after every article, your eyes just start to go crossed. Instead, what we have tried to do, is turn the social web into a sort of representative democracy. We've instead taken those comments and turned them into scores and a rating platform.
Can you maybe give a concrete example of that?
Chris Lyman: The way the technology manifests itself, is we have a database of two million names. We've got the name of every politician, entertainer, celebrity, athlete, business person, and brand -- you name it, we have it. The owners of a news site or blog can then install our plugins on their site, via all six lines of Javacript. When you stick that plugin on a blog you are writing, it scans the article for names. For example, if you are writing about Barack Obama, you can, with a single click, vote him up or down in the article. Through those single click actions, we believe we can start to build authoritative scoring profiles for every person in those posts, and we can do it in real time.
Where did the idea come from?
Chris Lyman: You know me and my background. It's almost orthogonal to the business model, but it comes from fifteen years of employing around a thousand people. I had become increasingly frustrated that there was no rating system for people. There are three nouns--people, places, and things. That's everything in the direct noun space. Places are rated pretty well--you've got Yelp taking care of that, CitySearch, and other sites doing that really well. With things, for example, a camera or electronics, you can check the rating on Amazon.com. But, what frustrated me, is even with the democratization of the web as an information source, no one had paid attention on how to rate people. When Corey and I were looking at that problem, we figured out it was pretty damn hard. People are a lot more complex than a camera, or a Snuggie you are buying on Amazon, and in order to really rate a person or public figure, you need lots and lots of opinions, in lots and lots of area, to get a full prismatic view of who somebody is. That's where we came to the conclusion that we'd let the world voice their opinions, and provide an outlet for people to express themselves.
Who do you see using this most?
Chris Lyman: For the blog owner, we allow them to see the scores in real time on the folks they are writing about. It's really interesting, because they can see if their readers are leaning left, or leaning right, in a smart, demographic way. For example, you could see what male readers 18-35 think of folks they are writing about every day, and also let them see what their readership is like versus the national average, to get a sense of what their readership is really like.
It sounds like this has lots of applications in the political arena?
Chris Lyman: Yes, politics is the first big jump. We have about 50 political sites using the tool already.
So you've rolled this out to a few sites already?
Chris Lyman: We've been a month in invite-only beta. We picked up a bunch of blogs, emailed them, and have gotten a really good response rate.
And it sounds like next week you'll be rolling out to a wider audience?
Chris Lyman: We also have two engineers now on life support, from trying to write plugins for all of those articles.
Back to the product, can you talk more about how voting works?
Corey Brundage: Chris said earlier that it's as easy as a single click, and it's true. You can vote a person up and down as you are reading an article, and it's easy, and convenient, an feels good, and it's fun. There's also the ability to add your own opinions. After you've voted someone up or down, you can add your opinion on why you voted them up or down, how that made you feel, and so on. What happens is a lot of people end up writing really meaningful, thoughtful things about those people. All of that information that accompanies them, and all of those opinions, appear at the bottom of every article that mentions them, in an interactive feed. That ends up really, really interesting for publishers, because, as we said in the beginning, comments can be interesting but are essentially useless. After a week, no one is reading the article or comments anymore. Now, if when people talk about topics or people, as opposed to specific articles, those conversations can be seen site-wide. If you vote up Barack Obama, saying he does a good job, that appears on all 50 articles you might have that mentions Barack Obama, in the past, present, and future.
Chris Lyman: The key thing we are solving for publishers is stale content. For example, in my own life, you wrote about Corey and I in our Fight Club a few years ago. However, even though it was interesting, it's now gone. No one knows about that article. They don't connect that the launch of this social platform and ratings are the same dudes. However, with our system, instead of the normal, verticalized comment system, you would see comments about us then, linked to the comments about this new article. There is a Chris Lyman tab, with every single article about Chris Lyman, and when you click on that tab, it collates all of the content and opinions on Chris Lyman by your readers and puts it at their fingertips. We're hoping to create a content rediscovery tool, which helps readers discovery yesterday's content and drive more advertising to publishers as a result of people finding that older, forgotten content.
Why did you two decide to make the journey from telco and Fonality to SendLove?
Chris Lyman: I woke up, and I had the six year itch at Fonality. I did the math, and I realized, although American males live to around 76 years old, we don't all make it to that age to make that average. And, at age 35-36 at the time, I realized I wanted to do something bigger. That's an interesting statement to make, when you just had you biggest and most profitable quarter, and 115 employees. Now, we're just five folks, and we can't afford air conditioning. I guess something bigger isn't shinier. I just wanted to create a bigger movement, and become part of something larger.
Corey, when did you get involved?
Corey Brundage: My story is very much the same. I was in the online voice services space for more than a decade. I joined Fonality, as you know, a number of years back as head of marketing there. I really helped Chris build that business. I had been a young, entrepreneurial person, but I had been in voice-over-IP an real time communications for more than a decade. I had a similar feeling to Chris, and I imagined waking up some day, talking to my grand kids, and telling them "Pop Pop made phones for a living." It was just soul shattering to me. I had grown up in the social space, and was friend with Sean Parker at Facebook. We went to high school together with him. I went to high school with him, I observed the social space, and I was interested in it. I thought w could do something distinguishing in that space, something meaningful. Plus, Chris and I worked so well together, I thought we could work together and do something meaningful.
Chris Lyman: And, keeping it real, he also was fired from Fonality. (laughs)
Corey Brundage: Chris hired a punk new CEO, who didn't get along with me. But, he's gone as well now. (laughs)
Let's switch gears a bit -- I understand you guys are also filming the whole startup process with We Live In Public?
Chris Lyman: Ondi Timoner of We Live In Public is doing a documentary series on us. I'm not sure what the series will ultimately be about, if it will be about our journey from inception to success, or the opposite of that. They've been following us from when it was just Corey and I in my house, to where we are now with seven folks and about to launch nationally.
It seems like it's hard enough to get a startup running, much less have someone follow you around documenting those decisions. What made you decide to capture that all on camera?
Chris Lyman: Do you mean, why are we such idiots to do this on television? (laughs) It's a passion of mine. I invited Ondi into this project about six months ago. I have been fascinated in the live hard, die hard idea of startup birth and death that exists, and I've been surprised by the dearth of footage. Other than one document, Startup.com, there has been no cameras on the inside. The American public only relates to entrepreneurs through cheesy movies like the Social Network, to learn what happened afterwords. I'd actually brought cameras into my other startups, though it was later, when we were 50 to 100 people. You end up looking like a bunch of dweebs in cubes. However, here, the idea was literally me with a handheld camera in the beginning, and I even hired a few folks, before running into Ondi. The idea and courage behind keeping a camera running the whole time, is that you'd be able to see all the hiring, firing, failings, laughter, all the compressed drama that is a startup. All that, and more. Am I happy with every single thing on camera? Do I wish I could edit it? Maybe, but I have no creative control, and we don't really know how it will turn out. It's Ondi's baby, and we don't know where it will go, though probably someplace else with her attached to it. Heck, even right now there is a camera on me right now, and I'm mic'd. The camera was on an hour ago, too, when I was fighting of things with Corey.
Interesting thoughts. Finally, to wrap it up, what's the next big thing for you?
Chris Lyman: We want to get out to hundreds of thousands of blogs, and do it fast. We have a lot to do to get blog owners and build our revenue. However, those that do use our tool find they are getting a 70 percent increase in return visitors and a 40 percent increase in the time people spend on their sites.
Corey Brundage: Just to reiterate, that's a 70 percent increase in pageviews per session, which equals impressions, which is advertising revenues. Folks are more or less doubling the advertising revenues for publishers because of our plugin.
Chris Lyman: I think if we're able to drive dollars into the pockets of publishers with low margins, and also give a voice for people to give their opinions, it's a win-win combination, and we're going to scale it as quickly as possible.