The People Graph

Social networks have been all the rage for over a decade now. In the past years, Facebook has consolidated their leadership in personal networking and Linkedin has become the undisputed leader of business networking.

A side effect of this consolidation is that business models have also consolidated, leaving out a lot of potential applications and use-cases that do not fit the current models.

Both Facebook and Linkedin have business models that focus on monetizing their respective social graphs through advertising. LinkedIn also monetizes search, analytics, and recruiting.

To protect their data and business, they have largely cut off API access for third parties. Consequently, building third party applications that use these networks has become very hard, if not impossible.

At the same time, building a new social network has become harder due to the fact that most people already have their social networking needs covered by the existing offerings. Most wannabe new social networks face the ’empty room problem’, where they don’t become interesting until enough users are using it.

Inbot was founded on the idea that sales is fundamentally a social process where building relationships and trust between people is the key to success. Yet, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems used today by most salespeople are anything but social.

CRM is mostly used to manually keep track of conversations with customers. Relationship data is shared only within the sales team, and when sales people change jobs, all aggregated data in the CRM is left behind and they take their social network with them.

Marketing automation has emerged as a software-based mechanism to help companies to generate leads in a more automated fashion. The problem with it today is that the spam and noise generated by these applications is deafening, and making everyone harder to reach.

Initially, Inbot started out as a disruptive play to make CRMs find and provide links to new business opportunities. Over time, we realized that we should focus solely on social lead generation, and decouple it from teams and companies that CRM vendors target.

Since last August, we have rolled out a community that we hope will one day rival that of Linkedin but yet works very differently.

Continue reading “The People Graph”

Localstream and Linko

A few weeks ago Linko issued a press release that basically stated that they acquired Localstream (i.e. the company me and my friend Mark founded last year), had gotten some funding (2.6M $), and were now accepting customers. The Localstream acquisition means that Localstream ceases to exist and that its technology and people (i.e. me and Mark) are now part of Linko. We have big plans with Linko and of course part of that will be some level of reuse of the Localstream assets.

That should have ended about nearly three months of radio silence and I should have celebrated with a blog post here on this topic. The reason I didn’t is basically that I’ve been working my ass off for Linko in the past few weeks. Working there is great fun and there is a lot to work on. So, that leaves very little time for updating my blog.

But lets rewind a little. Basically, the story is that me and Mark left Nokia in the summer of 2012 to start our own company. Localstream was our shot at fixing the location based web, which remains somewhat broken, as I outlined a few months ago. Localstream’s solution is very simple: the web is made of links and the location based web should not be different. Instead of coordinates, we use links to locations and instead of radius search we use an algorithm inspired by Google’s page-rank that sorts by relevance to a location based on how it is linked to the location and how the locations are linked to each other, rather than merely by proximity measured in meters. Rather than geocoding content, we instead location tag it using Flickr style rel=tag links in the content. The link decouples the content from the coordinate. Therefore, the location meta data behind the link can evolve separately from the content.

The mediahackday demo we did in October showcased this approach and combined it with entity recognition to automatically extract textual references to locations from content and then disambiguate those to links to actual locations in our location graph. The result was a searchable archive of news that could produce lists of article for streets, neighborhoods, cities, restaurants, etc. sorted by their relevance to that location.

The reason we did this demo was not because we were planning to become a news company. This use case is potentially very interesting both from a business angle and a content angle. However, for us it was merely a technology show case. Localstream was always a technology company and never about the use cases enabled by our technology. There are a ton of startups that do this the other way around and focus on the UX first and technology second. We figured that with our technology we could help some of those companies out and maybe stumble on a way to monetize. We had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to build technically and for that reason we sidestepped the issue who was actually going to use it.

My experience is that if you focus on your strengths, good things can happen. Our strength in Localstream was always the technology. By summer 2013 we had the platform in private beta and by October we were looking for partners and investors and had generated several leads that would have allowed us to engage in some interesting projects, consulting, and possibly funding. We had given ourselves to the end of the year, which was when things would start to get more awkward financially for the both of us.

Then a good thing happened and we met Mikko Alasaarela, the CEO of Linko, at Bubble over Berlin, a satellite event of Techcrunch Disrupt. Mikko is a great guy and I admire him for being brutally honest and opinionated. He doesn’t hold back and he told us something along the lines of “I love your technology but your business model sucks”, which is exactly what we needed to hear. Then we started chatting about what Linko does and how Localstream could add value to that. We continued that dialog over the next few days. We were invited to Linko’s shiny new office penthouse on Torstrasse, and showcased Localstream to the Linko team. We discovered that we had a huge amount in common in terms of technical vision, technology stack, and most importantly about being ambitious and thinking big. In short, we liked each other.

Linko’s CRM product works very differently from current products in the market. Instead of filling in reports and “submitting” those using some tedious enterprise application, Linko taps into what sales people do on their mobile phone and in the cloud when they are doing their job. It’s a free consumer app that happens to be highly valuable for business use. Linko’s Android, IOS, and Windows Phone apps provide deep integration with a wide range of other applications and cloud services used by sales people such as email, calendar, document sharing, social networks, as well as native phone and text functionality. The activity in all those tools is gathered by the application and used to provide real-time and highly accurate and valuable insight for sales teams. All the user needs to do is do what they would do anyway: use their phone to sell whatever it is they are selling using whatever tools they prefer to use. Linko does the rest. It connects the dots and reports on sales activity, funnel status, and loads of other things. It’s a very bold vision and doing this at a global scale is exactly the kind of thing that gets a technology minded person like me excited. It involves massive amounts of data and requires a lot of the same technology that we were using or planning to use at Localstream as well.

Location and location references are of course increasingly important on mobile given the mass distribution of smart phones with GPS that know where their users are most of the time and given the huge amount of services that make use of this. Additionally there is a lot of location data embedded in many of the tools that Linko connects with (e.g. addresses, company locations, calendar event locations, gps coordinates etc.). So, the Localstream technology is ideally suited for disambiguating and utilizing that information to e.g. allow CRM reports to be sliced and diced by location and act on information related to proximity to potential leads, customers, sales points, etc. In short, Localstream can add a ton of value to CRM (and other enterprise applications) and help create something that doesn’t exist today: location based business applications.

So, we parted ways with Mikko after having had a pretty interesting meeting and we thought we had another potential lead for showcasing our technology and possibly some minor revenue. Then Mikko completely surprised us by basically thinking big instead of small. He saw a great fit between our team and theirs and figured that a location based CRM would never happen unless he acquired us. So, he did that. Adding location to CRM adds a killer feature to what is otherwise already a pretty compelling proposition and therefore it makes a lot of sense. So, instead of half committing to doing some project together, he proposed to acquire Localstream.

Linko has already proven to be a great place to work for us in the past few months. It’s a dream job for a guy like me. It’s a complete greenfield approach to building a global company that is going to have to scale very rapidly. You don’t get such opportunities very often and I love doing this stuff. The people in Linko have a very diverse set of skills and it’s a fantastic team to work in. It’s also a remarkably complete and experienced team. We have great app developers, a very solid machine learning and AI developer, a sales team that is delivering customers faster than we can handle, and an absolutely rock solid business case. And it turns out that me and Mark fit right in complementing those skills with our own skills related to automating deployments, elastic search, big data, leading development teams, front end development, etc.