Trading the future for the past. That’s what it must have seemed like when Caleb Elston left his job as VP Products for video streaming pioneer Justin.tv to co-found group messaging startup Yobongo last October. The decision wasn’t easy but the lure of starting his own groundbreaking company focused on re-imagining the way people communicate around them was too strong.
Group messaging is not new but it has re-entered our lives because of the sheer number of connected devices and has had a massive resurgence brought about by the incredible global growth of text messaging. At one point, group chatting was a web phenomenon but eventually disengaged users fled as these services became a pariah full of lurking pedophiles and spam artists. This new breed of mobile messaging is anything but that now and Yobongo, says Elston, is building from the ground up – forgetting what was done in other mediums for the simple reason that mobile is not like those other mediums.
There are a few offerings out there – one less now that Facebook picked up Beluga in a very strong strategic move for the social behemoth – but this nascent mobile industry is set to explode as more and more companies start following the early pioneers into this space. It won’t be long until group messaging is as splintered as checkin software is today. That’s what makes the approach that Yobongo is taking all the more important to their success.
Starting from the ground up, this two-man team (with co-founder David Kasper) set out to make the experience different from the standard applications out there. The focus was on how to make conversations work not how to make the technology work – people first says Elston. We seem to have gotten away from the idea that discussions happen between people, not machines, and that was the guiding principle during product development.
This guiding principle – people first – comes across quite clearly in the way the product was designed. This isn’t an application where you have to find or set up a chat room to interact with people, all you have to do is sign in and, based on your location (city now, area or neighborhood or event soon) people will be there – in discussion or awaiting discussion. Conversation flows and this type of set up emulates real world networking without the human concern of being rejected in person – it hurts less to be ignored digitally. The only slight modification to their original vision was bringing in a one on one messaging piece if the participants wanted to connect to continue a private conversation.
Development of the product was also guided by a simple tenet – taking an offering available today and adding features to it wasn’t going to cut it. Fresh thinking like this has led to innovative companies like Twitter and even photo sharing service Instagram. What was also obvious to Caleb was the need to focus on making the experience one that hooked the participant from the moment the user launched the application – that meant limiting the number of features to the bare essentials. Without that first step, he says, it doesn’t matter what you do after that. If you don’t draw people in with the killer feature, adding a second or third won’t matter.
Drawing people in is also the key to sustainable revenue. Elston says that, while revenue is on their mind and has been from the start, the way to revenue for Yobongo is clearly through an engaged, thoughtful and loyal user base. “Revenue is about extraction and Yobongo is about adding value right now.” He says. And when it comes to measuring success, Elston is not focusing on the aggregate number of messages sent, he’s instead watching over the quality of the messages from whom and to whom they are being sent. The quality of the participants and the conversation is what will make this product stick.
Following in the innovative footsteps of the companies that have developed new businesses from simple ideas like Facebook and Twitter is no small task. Part of the challenge is to bet on the right features and be putting your money down at the right time. The bottom line for Yobongo – their reason for being – is to facilitate conversations and create value in these conversations and if they can do this in a seamless, frictionless way, Elston and his users will be happy.
For my full interview with Caleb, visit here.