Friday, October 1, 2010
Interview with Taher Scherzay, FavRav
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
For today's profile, we decided to talk with Taher Scherzay, Founder of FavRav (www.FavRav.com), a Los Angeles-based firm which has created a Facebook application to help small businesses find customers through social media, and also allow consumers to better tap the referral network of their friends. Taher tells us about his journey from Silicon Valley to Southern California, the inspiration behind the site, and where he hopes to take the business next.
What's the idea behind FavRav?
Taher Scherzay: FavRav is basically a platform that allows small businesses to get a footprint with customers, using the referral network of social media. For businesses trying to generate a good customer response, that's often based on referrals. Say you're a Realtor, you probably get lots of business based on referrals, and when past customers talk about you in a good light, that sends more customers your way. We've created a way that allows businesses to automate that process. We create a profile page, which allows referrals to be sent out, to allow businesses to request things from their customers. But, the real value is from the consumer side, because we allow individuals to talk to and refer businesses to their friends, and just to their circle of friends. That's where both sides of the puzzle come together. A good example of this, is when we first had a baby, my wife wanted to find a pediatrician. The normal way to go about that was asking friends if they could recommend someone. What we've done is we've taken advantage of the Facebook community, and are trying to use that social graph to get a good recommendation for something. What we do, is we post the request on your wall, as well as send a referral request to the people you follow. That way, you can start filtering back that information, and you're not just getting a random recommendation, you're getting that from people who are truly your friend or who you've chosen to follow.
How did you start the business?
Taher Scherzay: Honestly, it had to do with finding our own pediatrician. We had a baby two years ago, and my wife and I needed to find a pediatrician. All of our friends also were having kids, and so we started calling friends about their recommendations. The problem is, although they had good intent, they didn't necessarily get back to us in a timely fashion, or told us they knew a friend of a friend who might be able to help, but in the end we still needed to find a pediatrician. As a result, I came up with the service as a way to help solve the problem, and not burden friends, who might have goodwill but who weren't able to help solve the issue.
What's your background and how'd you get into the startup area?
Taher Scherzay: I spent 20 years working for the industry, working for Lucent Technologies. As the Dot Com boom hit the Bay Area, I also worked for a number of startups. I have always been in engineering, and was a software developer for some time, and also Director of Engineering. I decided to move down here for the weather, plus my wife is an actress. My sweet spot is taking companies to market. I've actually gone to four startup, so far, taking them from prototype to production, when they are able to sell the company or have it run on its own. One of the previous companies I worked on we sold to Microsoft in 2005, and I then spent some time at Microsoft to get that company integrated. I also worked with a company working with online lead generation product get to production as CTO, and then for the past six years I was working at a company which just was sold to 1-800-DENTIST two months ago, where I was the founder and CTO of the company.
How far is the product?
Taher Scherzay: Our product launched into private beta in January, and we had our first public release on June 28th. You can log into FavRav using your Facebook login, and you can pop right into it. It absorbs into your social graph using the Graph API. It used to be a Facebook application, but we decided to come off of that. When we launched in January, we were purely a Facebook application, but we noticed some problems with that, and decided to get off of it. We redesigned our service and migrated to another platform. We now have a fully functional site, both on the consumer side and customer side.
What were those problems you ran into with Facebook?
Taher Scherzay: You name it, we ran into it. A lot of it was around stability. We started building our application last June, and had a full blown version in December. ARound January, when the product was released, we realized that the stability was not there. We were not only getting strange application layer errors, but we also kept seeing that Facebook was returning that it was down but they were working on it. Then, we were seeing round trip time exceeding timeouts. Things weren't working right, and it was one story after another. You'd see a new feature in Facebook, and then they'd change something, and there was no real consistency. That might be acceptable for users of Facebook, but not for a business, where they were paying us a service fee to put a profile of them on FavRav. We decided the application platform was not something we could rely on for the long haul. But, this coincided nicely with the Graph API. The Graph API was a godsend. It happened when we were stressing out about the app platform, and we were on the app platform only because of the social graph. We realized that if we could take the social graph with us, we could go into our own, dot com environment, where we had control. There was a night and day difference.
What's the business model behind your service?
Taher Scherzay: The consumer does not have to pay anything, and it's free to them. They can recommend their favorite things, like their favorite restaurant, yoga instructor, and so on for the benefit of their friends. All their friends can see that, and that can bring them lots of goodwill. How we make money, is we sell profiles to businesses, and also have business applications on the back end. Businesses can pay $29 a month for a subscription fee, and we'll go online and develop a micro site and profile for them. It will include their logo, a bunch of information about the business, a gallery of pictures, and essentially allow them to control their message. Beyond that, the system allows them to automate business applications, such as promotions. For example, we have a promotion engine, which might allow them to send out a holiday special. They don't have to worry about things liked Adwords or click marketing. The other thing, is we give a way for businesses to communicate regularly with their customer list. Let's say you're a yoga instructor, and you have 200 to 300 customers to keep in touch with, and who you want to spread the good word. We can set up a campaign in our system, and every four weeks we can send out a newsletter about yoga or whatever. It will automatically send it out. On the site, we have lots of content already developed, so you might send out a newsletter out about yoga, health, or wellness, or for a specific customer you might send them information about weight lifting, and another one information about nutrition. We automatically send out that notification for the yoga instructor to their customer base. The intent is to build a stronghold, so that your customer base will start recommending the service to their friends. Our slogan is, always make yourself referable. It's a service to the customer, and also gives consumers a central place to get trusted referrals and recommendations from their trusted friends.
Finally, how is the startup funded?
Taher Scherzay: We've been boostrapped. Luckily, I had sold my last company to 1-800-DENTIST three months ago, and have had prior exits, with Microsoft and what not. My business partner, William Manos, who is out of New York City, and I have funded the company from the get-go. Once we sold our other firm a few months ago, we also infused a bunch of cash to spend on marketing and PR and that sort of thing. That's what we're going forward with for the next few months, and then will actively go about raising venture capital. Although we joined up in June/July, we didn't incorporate until November, and we've been entirely bootstrapped. We quite our jobs, built the system ourselves to understand the business model and customer base, and created a working application. Now what we want to do, is go and raise some venture capital for a large scale rollout to the market.