MoSoSo Player Taps Hedge Funding

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UK-based Trutap has raised a follow-on Series A round of $6.5m from the Tudor Group to bring total funding to date to $13m.

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The company recently beta lauched at TechCrunch40 what they claim to be the first service to combine all the elements of a young person’s social life into one.

Their product allows their target market of 18-24 year olds to instant message (AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo!), group message, upload text and pictures to blogs and send pictures via their mobile phones.

I’m not sure I agree with their pioneer status, but it is definitely a space to watch…

Josh Dhaliwal, the Head of Client Services at the  Wireless World Forum, commented thus on the market opportunity Trutap and others are playing into: “Social networks will grow by 150% in 2007. We believe the long-term continued growth lies in mobilizing those relationships. We predict 2008 to be the breakthrough year not only for mobile social networks but also for mobile social networks in Europe and North America as mass use has so far only been limited to Asia.”

“There are 45 million mobile social network users in Asia, globally this figure will be 178 million by 2010. Mobilizing social networks is not about trying to replicate the full MySpace, Bebo or Facebook experience on mobile — but allowing the consumer to remain connected whilst unconnected.”

I agree with Josh – mobile social software plays should not simply try to replicate the web social networks, but utilise the key features of mobiles to extend the social frontier for users.

[Picture courtesy of Ti.mo]

Relevant Mind: What to buy on the web

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Back in January I blogged about Mayfied and Bessemer funded Wize, a company which uses the wisdom of the crowds to alert consumers to products worthy of their attention. The company’s CEO, Tom Patterson, responded that he had spent the summer of 2006 as an EiR at Mayfield analyzing the really important uses of the Internet versus the current gaps in satisfaction.

For Tom the “what to buy” process (product research) kept coming up as a major opportunity.

I totally agree with Tom – there is hurt there. I recall my experience a few months later when I wanted to get a new mountain bike. The process of researching what bike to buy was painstaking. Besides trawling through product sites I wanted peer group validation. A friend had bought a Specialized and so this got me interested in them as a brand. I was still undecided and it was only when another colleague arrived at a breakfast meeting on his Specialized Stumpjumper that I was sold!

Not everyone has the time or motivation to trawl the web or wants to rely on serendipity to get their next bike or set of golf clubs.

Others have noticed this hurt spot in the way we buy products on the web.  Looking to buy a new road bike, it dawned upon another entrepreneur, Aaron Mann, over the northern summer of 2007 that there has to be a better way.

I caught up with Aaron, CEO of Relevant Mind, for a chat about what his company does to reduce the pain in deciding what to buy. The self funded, San Fracisco start up launched on the 24th September and they liken their product to having a highly knowledgeable friend to ask advice of while going through the buying decision making process.

At a 45,000 foot level what Relevant Mind does is make it easy for people to connect to what’s going on in user communities related to products and services they are interested in.

Their starting point was crawling Internet forums because the data on these forums doesn’t move around much and so it is easier for them to index and organize it. Their focus has been on how do you make information that is out there more accessible to more people.

Essentially, Relevant Mind is trying to find the nexus point between research on a product and what it does and what your peer group feels about it.

In one of their verticals they are aggregating about 9 million posts from over 200,000 users. They then datamine all that information against the products that they have – organizing and making this information useful.

I asked Aaron to drill down into how their system works. He explained that they have raw posts sitting on one side, and products on the other. It is then an iterative process of generating the best set of results and the learning part of that is basically running a bunch of reports that come back with how many results they are getting per product. On the real outliers, the ones with zero or a hundred thousand they know their search term combinations aren’t correct so there will be some manual intervention.

He recognizes that one of the challenges moving forward will be mining other information sources. It’s relatively easy to mine user groups and blogs, but social networks like MySpace and networks of networks like Ning present a greater challenge.

Aaron assured me that they do have a Facebook strategy. The first part of it is to look at ways they can add value to users. He points to Visual Bookshelf as a really good model for them. Because Relevant Mind organizes around people’s special interests, their hobbies and their sports those are often the kind of things users might want to feature as part of their profile.

For example, if you do a lot of surfing, what boards do you have? What kind of mountain bike do you have? These are the kinds of things users want to share with other people that are interested in the same thing.

The second and deeper part of their Facebook strategy is to watch how the user interactions grow in terms of what they are discussing on Facebook. Right now he finds the groups very active in certain things but not around many of the special interests (personally I find Facebook groups to be one of their weakest points). He is really interested to see how places like Facebook develop a really cohesive user community.

I asked Aaron what his take was on microblogging and he sees tools like Twitter evolving around products and services mainly for things a user is trying to find out about quickly. If a person does not have the time to do a lot of research, reading and diving into what communities are saying, microblogging can be useful. This is because it enables a user to extract data quickly due to the fact that information is coming through  in a constrained format.

Relevant Mind has initially launched in products that tap into the special interests of some of the six person management team, namely road bikes and golf. They intend to launch climbing in a fortnite, and have a range of other outdoor sports and interest areas, like cooking, that they will target. In total they have a list of forty high dollar item interest areas they will focus on.

Their revenue model is linked into affiliate programs. On product page there are links to all the places where people are talking about that product and then there is a tab called ‘buy now”. This tab features that product available new from multiple retailers as well as current eBay auctions.

Because they want to be as transparent as possible for users, Aaron is ambivalent about product sponsorship and advertising on their site.

Relevant Mind is planning a capital raising in the near future and they are also presenting at Chris Shipley’s DEMOfall this week in San Diego.

Another interesting company extracting value from the collective wisdom that is available on the web for web users.

Facebook: Apps Get Content

Check out these screen shots from the latest Facebook application to point towards a growing maturity in apps and a deepening of their content level.

Mashable explains it:

To promote his “Dylan Greatest Songs” album that’s coming out in October, Bob Dylan has created a Facebook application that lets you enter 10 lines of words or phrases. A video of Bob Dylan holding sheets of paper will read out your message. The last few sheets are a promotion for his album, but who cares? It’s a cool app. Create as many as you’d like and send them to friends.

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Hedge Fund 2.0 – what’s the footprint of a next generation fund

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Paul Kedrosky commented that “hedge funds are the new software companies”. It’s certainly no stretch when applied to funds like DE Shaw. They have computer scientists beavering away on new algorithms to drive their investment methods. They opened up a VC arm (operates out of Apple’s old offices in Cupertino). But is this enough?

Should hedge funds expand their opportunism – the analogy is the Facebook “fund” that Accel is participating in. Would a hedge fund that allocates a small team and capital towards a Web 2.0 Platform “fund” clean up the space (given the alleged expansion of Google into opening up its platform the space will grow exponentially).

Should hedge funds invest even more into tech development – for example would a hedge fund with order of magnitude better machine learning algorithms be able to steal a march on competitors?

[Picture of Wall Street courtesy of Stuck in Customs]

Facebook adds to funds pool for app developers

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Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced at the TechCrunch 40 conference the establishment of a $10 million funding pool for Facebook app developers.

The funding is being provided by Accel (who are investors in Facebook) and the Founders Fund. Developers will be given grants of between $25 and $250k.

The main conditions are:

  • Applicants cannot have already received a funding round; and
  • Accel and the Founders Fund will have a right of first refusal to invest in the first round of financing for any successful company.

Accel’s Jim Breyer and the Founders Fund’s Peter Thiel will work together with Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s VP of Product Marketing & Operations on managing the fbFund pool.

This initiative will also have a Board of Advisers, which includes notable angel investor Reid Hoffman (Founder of LinkedIn), Josh Kopelman from First Round Capital and Google’s Rajeev Motwani.

This changes the playing field somewhat for Bay Partners’ AppFactory and Altura Ventures’ Facebook fund. All competition is good, but when it’s from the Social OS mothership itself…suffice it to say it makes the next three month instalment in the unfolding of the Facebook ecosystem very interesting.

The general feedback out there is positive. As Fabian Schonholz says: “I think this is brilliant. It keeps the machine self feeding and creates a tighter ecoystem. Basically internally supported external ideas. The best of all worlds. Really smart.”

I’ve posted the formal Q&A below. Two questions, though:

  • They make mention of a business plan with your application — Bay Partners isn’t looked for a fully formed plan, is the fbFund raising the bar — I suspect not, and when they put up the online application form the answer will be revealed
  • Can developers apply in relation to an existing app already running on Facebook?

What is fbFund?
fbFund is a fund focused on continuing to create incentives for the development of applications on Facebook Platform by accepting applications for $25,000-$250,000 non-recourse grants from anyone interested in building their business on Facebook Platform. The grants will not come with any conditions except that the grantee use the funds to build their company on Facebook Platform.

What is the total investment in the fund?
Initially, the fund will make available $10 million in capital. This may grow over time.

Who is eligible?
Any individual or company, anywhere in the world can apply as long as they have not raised any formal venture funding.

What companies are involved?
fbFund will be administered by Facebook and funded by Accel Partners and The Founders Fund.

Will there be any equity granted in exchange for the investment?
No, The Founders Fund and Accel Partners will have the right to fund these companies first, but beyond this, no equity or debt will be associated with any grant made.

Who is participating in fbFund?
The investment committee will be comprised of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, and Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook vice president of product marketing and operations. Facebook board members Jim Breyer (Accel Partners) and Peter Thiel (The Founders Fund) will also be part of the committee. Additionally, the fund will rely upon an advisory council that includes Reid Hoffman, founder and chairman of LinkedIn; Josh Koppelman, founder of First Round Capital; and Rajeev Motwani, professor of computer science at Stanford University and early advisor to Google.

Why are you forming this?
We are forming this fund to help grow the Facebook application ecosystem. By decreasing the barrier to start a company, we hope to entice an even larger group of people to become entrepreneurs and build a compelling business on Facebook Platform. We hope this is also a funding model that other venture capitalists will follow.

How will you decide on investments?
Anyone will be able to apply for an fbFund grant from the Facebook website. All proposals will be reviewed by the advisory council and then approved by the investment committee. The goal is to get decisions to potential grantees within the month that they apply.

How does an individual or company apply?
Initially, you can mail your business plan to platform@facebook.com. In coming weeks, we will set up an online submission process. Submissions are being accepted immediately.

What will be the criteria for selection?
We want to see the most innovative and ambitious proposals for building a business on Facebook Platform.

How long will it take to hear back from the fund?
The goal is to get a response to the applicant within 30 days of receipt.

[Picture courtesy of 704 Race]

Acquisition time on the web

Idearc acquires Switchboard

Idearc, which publishes Verizon Yellow Pages, is set to acquire Switchboard from InfoSpace for $225 million.

Switchboard provides local online ad solutions and online yellow pages and assists consumers to find and compare local businesses offering specific products and services, while also creating revenue opportunities for merchants.

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Yahoo acquires Zimbra

Yahoo has also been on the acquisition trail. In a mostly cash deal, Zimbra will be changing hands for $350 million. The open source enterprise email provider is based in San Mateo and received $30.5 million in venture funding across three rounds. Investors included Accel, Benchmark and Redpoint Ventures.

The Rocketscience of Starting Up

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The world of starting up has fundamentally changed in the last 12 months. It’s no longer some form of black art and it’s definitely not rocket science.

Many of the folks I’m working with have heard me bang on about this ad nauseam, but it’s worth repeating. The advent of infrastructure solutions like Amazon Web Services and attention platforms like Facebook enable companies to rapidly deploy product in huge markets and test for traction points. If it sticks go hell for leather, if not innovate and redeploy.

As Liz Gannes reports from the Silicon Valley Startup Project event at Stanford – Amazon Web Services hosts over 265,000 developers …that’s one mighty sand pit …assuming some of them are throwing up 5 billion sand grains against the Internet wall to see if they stick…and evidently many of them are sticking – there are approximately 25,000 requests per second.

Commenting on this phenomenon, Kleiner Perkins partner Randy Komisar said: “We’re now at a point that business plans really don’t matter. It’s an iterative process of quickly getting your ideas into the hands of others…before – there was a black art, (but now) we have a market.”

The best quote from the session was made by Jon Boutelle, CTO of Slideshare, who said: “Failure is an option.” My point above stands: If it sticks go hell for leather, if not innovate and redeploy.

[Picture of a Golf Ball Rocket courtesy of Steve Jurvetson]

Focusing Attention on the Social Graph

Brad Fitzpatrick has written a comprehensive post regarding the global mapping of everybody and how they are related, aka the social graph.

Alex Iskold has taken a stab at tying the social graph into the attention discussion. His premise being that they are interconnected.

Brad calls for a brokerage-type service that collates attention data from the growing diaspora of social networks and passes it on end-users. It’s an interesting concept and Alex touches on whether a standards based body can fulfil this role. Doing so would require a catalyst – as with many IEEE-like standards this usually takes place when a powerful consortium or grass roots community coalesces with the intent of creating such a standard.

It’s doubtful the individual social networks will be motivated to join such a consortium ad initio. Others will need to take on this mantle and drive it forward.