July 22, 2013

Building A Social Network

Brendan Kearney  /  Post and Courier

Mount Pleasant entrepreneur hopes it will be the next big thing

Tom Klein remembers the last time he had an idea this big."I thought of eBay back in 1994," the Mount Pleasant entrepreneur said.

Maybe not the colorful letters, but Klein claims he conceived of an online marketplace where people from all over the world could offer and bid and buy and sell. He told his friends about it as they celebrated Klein's 24th birthday that Sept. 29 at a Japanese restaurant in his hometown of Darien, Conn. "We ended up talking about it exclusively for about two hours," Klein recalled. "We all knew it was an amazing idea."

The next year, eBay was founded by someone else, Pierre Omidyar, and a few years after that was well on its way to becoming the electronic-commerce giant it is today. Klein, now 42, father of four and founder and president of his own website, PhoneDog.com, sees lightning in a bottle again.

"This is my next eBay," Klein declared. "I let eBay go by. I had no experience. There's no way I could make it happen. Now, I'm in a position to relive that 15 years later, or 20 years later. Maybe it's just that: not letting another one get away." The "spark" of Klein's new company, IM5, came a little more than a year ago. PhoneDog co-founder Andre Refay's father, Hassan Refay, a retired German psychologist, wondered aloud why social networks aren't as productive as they could be. Klein said it took only hours for Andre and him to see the potential and decide "we have to build it."

Predicated on the belief that today's major social networks are too past-focused and, frankly, time-wasting, IM5 is dedicated to future achievement. Short for Individual Mastery 5, the network will allow people to tell each other the best way to accomplish particular objectives –- basically crowd-sourcing for goalsetters.

"Most people in technology know that the current social media – social media 1.0 – is not the end-all, be-all," Klein said, citing conferences he's attended and industry blogs and email lists he follows.

Simple solutions
Klein describes his service, which won't go live until next year, as a combination of search and a social network. "If you were going to search for knowledge, what if you could have the best, most proven action delivered to you in a bite-sized simple step?" he asked. Internet denizens can get decent information through Google, Answers.com and the like, Klein conceded, but he said the advice on IM5 will be proven and measured.

And he conceded that social media has been used for collective action, such as during the Arab Spring, but said Facebook is not "primarily designed to do that," like IM5 is.He said Google's Schemer is something like IM5, but he said he worries more about fellow start-ups than the established powers.

"It's obviously coming but nobody has figured out how to do it," he said. Tom Forte, who covers Internet companies like Facebook for a N.Y.-based investment firm, said there are services that offer similar user-generated insight and that IM5's "ultimate hurdle" will be drawing enough traffic.

Klein says he hopes to do that both by building a good product and then allowing users to spread the word about their objectives by posting on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or the other already popular social networks.

"Social sharing is not slowing down, it's actually expanding," Klein said. The conversation on IM5 runs in user-created channels dedicated to a particular objective. "People's opinions just become so noisy," Klein said, citing Internet message boards or news website comment sections. "The core of IM5 only allows you to put your best advice and ideas forward."

He compared IM5's core to the 120-character limit in text messages, the 140-character limit on Twitter messages, or the stripped-down, mostly blank-screen Google search. "Those types of simple solutions are things that actually dramatically impact how we communicate."

Secret sauce
How IM5 accepts and manages the user advice is what Klein claims is IM5's secret sauce, and he's hesitant to speak publicly about it yet. He knows how little distinctions can be the difference between blockbuster and also-ran and how easily his model could be copied or tweaked before IM5 launches. Simplicity can be both beautiful but also inherently easy to replicate.

"If it's not us, it's going to be somebody else," he said. Klein said IM5 will also feature rigorous data collection –- such as how many people successfully completed step one of a bid to stop smoking or run a marathon –- which will translate into analytics for users. Connecting to user profiles from other social networks to create IM5 profiles will enrich the data.

"Right now we're measuring how many retweets there were and how many likes there were," he said. "IM5 will be able to measure, quantify and then report on individual actions." The company's projected revenues will come from a combination of advertising and more unproven possibilities like selling business-specific versions of IM5 or banking contributions to a group effort and taking a cut.

For now, the company is just Klein, Andre Refay, who is based in Sarasota, Fla., and one other unidentified person. They've hired a Manhattan web application design and development firm, Arc90, to build the IM5 platform. By November, Klein hopes to have a viable product to test internally, and by the end of the year, he hopes to have both iOS and Android mobile applications ready.

Beta testing will begin in January with some 50,000 readers of PhoneDog's mobile news and reviews. Klein said the 12-year-old mobile review site, which Klein said has been profitable for nine years and has annual revenues of "a couple million dollars," gets 2.5 million monthly unique visitors, some 85 percent of whom are ages 13 to 25.

"Typically, they're technology-oriented early adopters," he said. If all goes according to plan, the service will make its official debut in March at the "South by Southwest" conference in Austin, Texas. Klein estimates getting to that point will cost about $700,000, a sum that will come from him and a small group of angel investors. Plans for fall include streaming video news drawn from user-generated content, like people accomplishing a task.

Klein, who will be IM5's CEO, is searching for a chief technology officer now. He hopes to start hiring his own developers in October and then hire a chief operating officer around the March launch. He'd like to keep the company here. "There's no reason why we can't create a technical company here in Charleston," he said. "It doesn't have to be done in Silicon Valley."