Monday, March 19, 2007
Interview with Jason Feffer, Founder, SodaHead
Jason Feffer is CEO and Founder of SodaHead (www.sodahead.com), an Encino-based startup in the social answers space. SodaHead is funded by Mohr Davidow Ventures and the Tech Coast Angels and other angels, including Ron Conway. Notably, Feffer was one of the original members of the team at MySpace, and most recently VP of Operations at MySpace. socalTECH's Ben Kuo sat down with Jason at their brand new offices to talk about his new venture.
What is SodaHead?
Jason Feffer: SodaHead is social voting. It's not a new concept for people to vote, answer questions, and take polls--people have been doing that for awhile. However, the media of the Internet has allowed people to add the social aspect to it. Social answers is the space, but we're more than just the answers--it's the voting, and the poll element, which makes it easy for people to just vote. People vote on polls on the Internet, constantly, but now we're bringing the social element, and we're going to track that vote with your profile. We're going to allow you to create a profile for yourself, and we attach your votes to your profile. People love social networking, and they love voting. So we said--let's put those two things together. You look at, for example Bill O'Reilly, and he has 70,000 votes for a poll in a week -- massive numbers, ESPN will have 400,000 votes on a poll, and you wonder--why would anyone vote on these polls? Why would I be 400,001? I won't change that even a fraction. In a real election, people ask--does my vote count? We created SodaHead to make every vote count--not because of the numbers, but because of the social aspect. It brings the social element, the track record--all of the things that the web can bring--which polling leaves behind.
So this is sort of like an enhanced message board--where people can ask questions and get opinions?
Jason Feffer: Exactly, but there are millions of them out there--but they're not aggregated, they're not consolidated--they're just out there. They are very niche. For example, if you get one about technology, it's not just going to be about technology--it's going to be about programming, and not only that it's going to be scripting--it's very specific. And when you get that specific, you often get a single mindset and you get one profile, then you have another site to talk about cars, then you have to go to another site to talk about politics. You now have three profiles. They're not tracking your votes across sites, your profile, or your comments. So let's take the wonderful world of message boards which we love, and put them under one roof. We have over 200 categories on our site, and we don't want to be niche.
We'll allow these niches to happen under each category but you don't have to re-create your profile, your reputation, or anything like that. On top of that, we offer the concept of a reputation--a track record and a history. Just like eBay proved that the user feedback model is really important--it's the differentiator that might have made eBay so successful--if I'm going to buy something online from some stranger, I want to know that I'll get what I'll pay for, or if they send me a check it won't bounce--if I just trust another auction system that didn't have that feedback, it's a big differentiator.
Here, when someone votes, someone leaves a comment, or says something--should I pay attention to this person? They might have established a great track record, a history, or reputation under automotive--but how does that apply to politics, or sports, or music? Our system keeps track of that. Should I listen to this guy? Should I listen to my friends, my other SodaHeads? Should I go look at some experts, or just the wisdom of the crowds? James Surowiecki always talks about how the masses are right more often that the experts are. So SodaHead offers three ways to look at opinion--one, the conventional--what the mass number of people say; two, what do the experts say; and three, what do our SodaHeads--my friends, the trusted people I know, what do they say about this issue? I can share the topic and poll with them, or share it with experts. It's real powerful to do all three--more so than a poll with a percentage next to it.
So these are features that you're working on?
Jason Feffer: Yes. It reminds me of the early days at MySpace. In the early days at MySpace, we said we were a social networking site, and people said--you guys are fools, Friendster owns the market, why are you going to do this? When we launched we did not have the features that we do today--we didn't have music, and groups, and video, three hundred pictures--none of that. I think we started with ten pictures. But, we listened to our users--what do the users want. We launched the site early at MySpace, and we did too here at Sodahead--we got funded in late September and launched in March. That included the technology, getting the team together--we did a lot quickly so we could get it up in front of people and they could tell us the direction they wanted to go with the site.
Did I hear right--you got this running up and running in less than six months?
Jason Feffer: Yes, five or six months. It's important to get it up in front of people because they're telling us -- we want this features -- we want video, we want pictures, we want customized profiles, this is what we're looking for. We thought they might want to see more predictions, more analysis -- but when you get it up there, you find they like the fun aspect, the social aspect, the voting -- because it's so simple and straightforward that they can get into it and find themselves very addicted to it. Some features we thought would be priorities we put on the back burner, and other priorities suddenly jumped to the front.
The wonderful thing about the web is you put it out there, people tell you what they think--there's no version, there's no launch. Every day, we're hoping to roll out new features, and people won't know they're coming, they just know what they're asking for.
You mentioned MySpace. Can you talk about your background there and your experience?
Jason Feffer: We started MySpace August 2003 -- when it launched publicly. I was with Chris DeWolfe, Tom Anderson, Josh Berman, and Abe Whitcomb, and Colin Digiaro at the previous company called ResponseBase. We were all working together--let's do something new, something big, and something fun. What's something new that we could get into? MySpace was it. It was fun, because we actually had the domain name. I said hey, let's use MySpace -- it already has a hundred hits a day, let's use that domain name. And there were some other domains batted around. MySpace stuck, fortunately and everyone liked it. So we launched it, and a lot of people didn't have faith. A lot of our early programmers and team members looked for jobs. Some of them took jobs, and left well before the sale to News Corp. And, they're kind of kicking themselves for that. Building a web site in 2003 was very different from today. Back then, you built it--there wasn't the TechCrunch, the Digg, these big sources of becoming very famous real fast. Social networking was not a recognized term in the public's eye. It was fun to do it then, and then to try it again today. It makes all the difference. We're building our colocation with web servers which are ten times more powerful than what it was in 2003. The open source is another interesting thing--we've built on open source at SodaHead, while at MySpace we used Microsoft and Cold Fusion.
That's also been a very interesting thing. We've been able to take the money and spend on the technology in terms of personal capital, instead of on hardware and licenses. That's been a lot of fun. We've also gotten lots of feedback and interaction with the open source community on how we build things. Now, when we're building this, we have seen the first show in the revolution of Web 2.0. There are people who have been there and done it, who are still early in the revolution, and we can ask them about their experiences. It's very friendly between companies talking about past experiences, how to counter fraud and abuse and spam--as well as new laws you've got to deal with, in terms of threats, safety, and personally identifiable information and privacy. So there's a lot more hurdles than back then. It's a very different game, but a tremendous amount of fun. It's also a lot more competitive--with other companies trying to do the same thing.
Speaking of competition how does this compare with something like Yahoo Answers?
Jason Feffer: Yahoo Answers is just starting to add social features. They're just starting to add things like profiles, adding friends, and messaging each other. They're just starting to do that. Yahoo's version of social answer is very open ended--they don't have the poll mechanism. You find that if you put a question on the home page of Yahoo Answers, it zooms away really fast--the next question comes up, then the next question comes up. If you want to answer someone's question, you really have to look for it. It's not the place intended to have a thousand answers around a single question. If you look the number of answers per question, it's probably a low number. Because, people are usually looking for advice, and it's usually answered in a single response.
So polls really encourage the multiple answers?
Jason Feffer: Right, the poll with the multiple answers prompts people to ask a different type of question. One of the Yahoo Answers questions is like "do you spend less electricity on a dimmer switch if you dim it down" -- that's not really debatable. It's more of a research mechanism. In SodaHead, the kinds of questions are "Is global warming man made?", it's probably 50/50, they're going to argue back and forth and debate.
That's the more social aspect?
Jason Feffer: Yes, the way people ask questions is not research oriented. People ask the questions to cause a frenzy, stir a riot, and get opinions. Like Wikipedia is for facts--it's a Web 2.0 de-facto place for facts--we hope to be a place where people go for opinions. We want people to see us as a place where you have a question, it's debatable, and get some opinions on it. Questions like "what movie should I see this weekend?"--Wikipedia's not a place for that kind of question. I don't think Yahoo Answers is a place for that either.
Who's backing the company, and how much have you raised?
Jason Feffer: We raised a little over $4.3 million, from Mohr Davidow up in Menlo Park on Sand Hill Road and the Tech Coast Angels in Southern California. They've got about 25 years of experience and have been a tremendous asset to us. They've provided lots of assets to us--lots of resources for us to go to. They've given us great insight into the space, planning, operations, and logistics. Everything from getting payroll to health care set up. They've offered advice, and on the other side, they've been very hands off. They haven't come in here yelling and screaming like I've heard horror stories about VCs. Fortunately we've had the opportunity to pick, with other people wanting to fund us, and I heard a lot of horror stories from entrepreneurs who have received venture funding. All I heard were good things about MDV, and they've proven that. I keep going on and on about them, but it's true. I heard horror stories and horror stories and horror stories about everyone else leading up to the funding, but we've had quite the opposite experience with MDV, and I'm not just saying that.
I think it would be interesting to hear how the impact of MySpace was on your ability to raise capital?
Jason Feffer: My partner, Michael Glazer, who's been an investment banker for ten years, has never seen anything like it. Mike and I started raising money end of July/August. We didn't have our name picked out, we didn't have a team, we didn't have a prototype, we didn't have code. We had a seventeen page PowerPoint presentation that he and I sort of put together--with our own drawings, and neither of us are artists. We were sitting across the table from a partner at a firm--and he said--you came here with this? A seventeen page PowerPoint presentation? "Yes". You don't have a name for your company? "We've got a couple of names, we're still debating it." And you worked at MySpace, right? "I'm user ID number 4--I helped come up with the name and worked with the team on the executive committee." Okay then--so what's the idea? And then everyone loved the idea. Being from MySpace helped get me in the door--and not just being anyone from MySpace, because the company was pretty big by the time I left. But being there from the beginning, working with Tom, and Josh, and Chris--the decisions that made us succeed and come from the shadows of Friendster. How did we continue to grow at the astonishing rate we did, how did we become not just a big website, but a brand and phenomenon, and I was able to explain that in the fundraising process.
Being from MySpace that early, we were able to get calls back to us the same day, we were able to pitch the story right then and there--they were so excited at the time from hearing someone from MySpace coming out with a new idea. And, the idea helped--social voting, people get it. MySpace is friend sharing--PhotoBucket is photo sharing--Video sharing is YouTube--knowledge sharing. Wikipedia is knowledge sharing, that's pretty successful, but different from us. People being able to vote--they understand that concept, it's not hard, people get it. People just fell in love with that, and saw the opportunity. And the opportunity is not just another big site with lots of users, but the monetization. What I was doing at MySpace was VP of the Operations team, where we figured out how to monetize four billion ad impressions a day. So I knew a lot about monetization. With SodaHead, people are voting on issues. With these issues, the context, the intent, the demographic--these are all things that advertisers love. So besides the beauty of the advertising model around targeted demographic, psychographics, and contextual behavior around advertising, there's all this data about our users. By being able to tie these all together in a private way--that's a lot of information that if anyone wants it they can understand it. And it's not just the advertisers, but it's also the users. It allows people to connect with others.