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Interview with Seth Sternberg, Founder Meebo
I have always liked Meebo since the first day someone shared it with me. It’s light, it’s easy and you can use it anywhere you can use a browser. I wanted to find out more about where Meebo comes from, where it is and where it is going. Also discuss the technology behind Meebo and if the team has learned anything that can benefit you as you create your web apps. So I chatted with one of the founders, Seth Sternberg.
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Below is a partial text transcript of the audio interview. Please listen to the audio for the entire discussion.
Allen: Why don’t we start with a little background about who you are and where you are from.
Seth: I am from CT and I went to undergrad in CT (Yale) and then worked for IBM for a while before attending Stamford business school. And then founded Meebo with Elaine and Sandy between first and second year of business school. Ended up leaving a few weeks after beginning my second year and working on Meebo full-time.
Allen: What the heck is a Meebo?
Seth: Meebo is a web-based IM client, kind of like how Hotmail is to email, Meebo is to instant messenging. So we let you get on IM anywhere: work, school, home, friend’s house, while traveling, etc. The second thing we released is where you can embed IM into your web pages into MySpace or your blog and anyone who visits your web page can send you IMs from those pages and you can see them in your buddy list as visitors to your web page. (note: this is Meebome)
Allen: Who is using Meebo?
Seth: Mostly people who are 25 years and younger. From there the demographic gets really wide. We have US soldiers in Iraq and Meebo is the only way they can communicate live other than calling them. We have people who just graduated from college and want to communicate with their friends from work. Teachers are using Meebome on their class blogs to allow students and parents to communicate them from the class blog. Retailers like unclesamsdeals.com which is one of the biggest military surplus sellers on the net uses Meebome to talk to their customers. Librarians love Meebo because it is a way to talk to their patrons, Meebo has such a wide user base.
I should also mention the international usage. Thirty percent of people using Meebo are in America, the balance is abroad. Meebo is available in 53 languages and the way that came to be our users really wanted Meebo in multiple languages so we asked for help on our blog. So we threw up a Wiki with the english strings and people came and helped translate the strings into 53 languages.
Allen: Who are the Meebo competitors?
Seth: The major IM clients have their own web clients which have been out for years. There are a whole host of startups that saw Meebo launch and have tried to do similar things. From what we can see they don’t get very much traffic. They are certainly there and innovating and we are aware of them. eBuddy is the biggest out of .nl and started about a year and half before Meebo. They are a great team and we like them a lot and talk to them a lot but they would be competitors of Meebo.
Allen: How does Meebo generate revenue?
Seth: Well today we don’t. In the future Meebo will integrate various forms of advertising. Could be a banner ad or video ad or sponsored backgrounds, similar to Yahoo! IMvironments. Ultimately we will add other items like SMS messages. So there is a whole host of things that will come in the future that can be monetized. But our real focus is on building the base product. We decided to launch it with no money and very few features. It was just a very basic send/receive text product and we feel like we are always in catch-up mode. And so our number 1 goal is to get the features into Meebo to make it a fully functional IM client and then we will have time to focus on revenue. We want to make it a great product for our users. Meebo does 70 million minutes per day served up to our users. If you throw ads into this you can be profitable right away. (Seth provides a good explanation about when to monitize – worth listening to – not transcribed)
Allen: I see the team has continued to grow – what’s the team like today and where do you see it 1 year from now?
Seth: Today there are 5 people on Meebo. The way we oriented the team is around a culture fit and at the same time do they have the skill set for the positions we need to fill. We are very careful with hiring because we feel it is super important to have a really cohesive team.
In the future we plan to keep on the same model. We hire into pain points, we don’t hire just because we want more bodies. If it takes us 3-4 months to find the right person, that’s fine.
Allen: Do you have partnership agreements with the companies you allow people to use?
Seth: We are officially unofficial with the major networks so we don’t have direct partnership agreements with them. But we still talk to them a lot. We talk to AOL, MSN, Yahoo a lot and let them know what we are doing and ways we can work together more directly. Our realtionships with them are very strong.
Allen: Are you planning to integrate any sort of video or audio into the Meebo platform? is it a priority?
Seth: We built Meebo based on what the users request. Video/voice will ultimately will make it into Meebo but it is #7 on the list. The question is when and the order is mostly determined by the users.
Allen: I know I would love to see Skype integrated… any thoughts?
Seth: Skype is an interesting case and is much harder to integrate because of its peer-to-peer architecture. The web does not support p2p architecutre very well so it is a very hard one from a technical standpoint to get into there.
Allen: Alright so you said that audio/video is #7, what’s number 1 or 2 on the user wants list?
Seth: Number 1 is buddy list reorganization. Users really want to move buddies from group to group. There is a whole list of social things users have asked for. And users are asking for basic IM functionality like reorganizing my buddy list and better visual notification that users are asking for.
Allen: Let’s talk about privacy – how do you protect my username, my messages, etc. Do you store any of this information?
Seth: If you have a Meebo user account and have chat logs turned on then we store your messages. If you don’t use a Meebo account or if you have a Meebo account but have the chat logs turned off then we just pass the message through and we become just a conduit. So it is up to a user to decide how they want their information stored. It is the same for user id. If you have a Meebo account and use Meebo to login to multiple accounts at the same time, then we have to store your account. If you don’t and just use your id, then your password is not stored and your username is stored on a list of usernames that have used Meebo at some point in the past but no private data is stored to get into your account for example.
Allen: I think you were one of the first in the Web 2.0 space. As a pioneer, what do you have to offer our listeners who are budding web app creators?
Seth: I think there were a lot of successful companies before us. I think there are a couple of things that are very important. It must be super-simple. When a user arrives at meebo.com, the first page they see needs to allow them to do anything they want to do. And that is consistent with YouTube, Flickr, you get there and it is clear what the action is that you should take and what you get out of it.
And the other thing is to do what you are passionate about. If you love retail stores, then do retail stores. If you love music then do something in the music space. If you just do what you are passionate and love, then you will create something for yourself that is really good that a lot of other people will love as well.
Allen: So you will celebrate your one year anniversary this week… do you think you accomplished everything you set out to do? What is the one thing you had hoped to do that you were not able to do?
Seth: We have accomplished a lot, we are very happy with the progress of the product and how much users return to it once they try it and the passionate community behind it. Meebo would not be what it is today if it were not for all of the users feedback about the product. I am most thankful for all of the users and their feedback.
In terms of what we didn’t get to do, we always feel like we are behind. There are a lot more things that we really want to do for Meebome a lot better and a lot more groups oriented and things we want to do with Meebo to make it more social. There are a number of features that we know the users really want; it is just very hard to program in a heavy Ajax environment like Meebo it just takes time. There are probably 4-5 key features that I really wished were there but aren’t there yet but will get there.
Allen: So let’s put your Meebo’ness to a simple challenge – there is a quiz on the Meebo blog and one of the questions I wanted to check with you and see if you know the answer…
5. (20 pts) Which of the following is not a preset color scheme available for the meebo me widget
b) apple (correct answer)
– appears he got the question wrong :)
Allen: Where does Meebo go from here?
Seth: Meebo continues on the path of being an instant communications hub. It continues to grow and let people communicate with their friends and others. It is very much about instant communications on the web.
Well we have reached the end of our interview with Seth. Thanks to Seth for participating and to you for reading and listening.
If you would like to participate in a conversation on CenterNetworks, or if you have any comments or questions, you can contact me via e-mail at allen===at===centernetworks.com or visit CenterNetworks for all of our news, reviews, insights and conversations.