March 05, 2007 |
A little over a month ago we published an article about Ubiplanet, a really innovative social network, something we have been waiting for quite a while now – a place to feel comfortable and communicate with the same level of trust as when talking to your real-world friends offline. The project was only launched in late January and it was very interesting for me to have a chat with Ubiplanet CEO Francois Barraud and discuss the results of this first month of public operation. And you know, last time I was only testing the new application and reporting it, but this time I am pretty enthusiastic about it all. After a close discussion of the project I actually admire the idea behind it and I am positive that now I know where the future of Internet is.
Really, I am totally sure anonymity of online communications is not the best foundation for web experience of any user. We are not ashamed of what we say in the real world and we are not afraid to use our real names for that – why don't we do the same online? Really, I am pretty tired of all the nicknames and avatars instead of real names and real faces and I do believe this is where Web 2.0 will finally bring us to – trust in our online communications. And if I had a capital to invest, I would really choose Ubiplanet to be the first to benefit from this emerging trend – and I am sure it will be a trend soon and I'm glad Ubiplanet is already here – ahead of the trend itself.
So this project was founded in France by two people: François Barraud who in the past worked for 3 years for Microsoft as the Services Division Director for France and was also founder and CEO of Ooshop, the Carrefour Group's groceries eCommerce site, and Laurent Gauthier, who has worked 3 years for Business Interactif as CTO after this company acquired FRA, a leading company in internet technology that he co-founded in 1993. And looking at Ubiplanet I can say that the founders thought of user experience first – and feature set only took the second place. And this is why I am so glad to share with you the progress of the project. Besides, late last week Ubiplanet also launched a new tool – ubiDesktop. It is downloadable software intended to receive alerts when friends come online or messages arrive even without opening your browser. It also facilitates uploading of your photos to your account. So here is the story of what a startup does a month after release – directly from Ubiplanet CEO – so read on if you really want to know where the future of online communications is.
Francois, I am happy to have you with us here on Profy. So prior to founding Ubiplanet you worked with Microsoft for 3 years. How did this experience influence your career and was it related to your decision to found a web 2.0 startup?
I have worked for Carrefour and then Microsoft. For Carrefour I have launched their Internet businesses from scratch (especially Ooshop.com, online retailer, close to what Webvan was in the US, but still alive). Carrefour is the mass market part of Ubiplanet. Then Micrososft which is perhaps the tech part of Ubiplanet. BUT Ubiplanet is definitely not about tech but about people and communication, using Internet as a means.
How have you come up with the idea of Ubiplanet?
Everything starts from the user and his Experience online. Communication is #1 in Internet adoption and usage. But to me suffering from major issues:
- Too diverse and relatively too complex for real mass market (to give everyday value to "normal people"). Features centric vs. user centric. Contacts spread everywhere.
- Faked identities spread all over the web resulting in undesired messages. And therefore it is almost impossible to carry over a level of trust from the real world to the Internet world.
- Low or no privacy. Not suitable to handle my "private life".
I felt a need for a real network centric experience, with all the tools accessible from the same interface to give a comprehensive view on all communications with friends / family.
All that led us to building an online communication and exchange service designed for adults who really care about their online privacy and control, and want to take advantage of qualitative relationships with friends, rather than quantitative ones with people they don't even know.
Ubiplanet has a great user interface I really enjoyed. How long did the development of the whole solution take and do you think arranging the development process would be easier if you were located in the Silicon Valley?
Development is still in progress (new features are added every week). But to date we can say almost 1 year and a half from the blank sheet of paper to where we are today – with 6 people working on it.
And as for Silicon Valley yes, I think it would be definitely easier. Not that much on the site development side – we have great engineers here. But on the company development, easiness to find great VCs with clear vision, able to see new opportunities (not just "me too"s). London would also be a great place to find those VCs.
I definitely think France is not the right place. No real vision from VCs, no real big bets. They are mainly copying or importing concepts coming from other countries, especially the US. They would definitely not have invested in a company like MySpace in the early days I think.
For all those reasons I think that Silicon Valley could be the right place, and if our vision may be of interest for some of them, I would be more than happy to move the team to Bay Area.
But anyway this rather long development process must have taken substantial financing.
Yes, the founders and a business angel. A lot of Internet companies have financing in the US, even in the early stage. Here it is much harder. That's the reason why I focused on VCs: I definitely think we should search venture capital outside France. Moreover we have to speed now. And to speed, money is a key asset (hire people, for example).
To speed where – in development or in promotion?
We have to fulfill all the must have features, e.g. calendar, public forum, and music and videos. Plus translations into German, Spanish, Japanese and Russian. As for promotion, we are a network of friends and they virally invite easily other friends.
So you believe translation plays an important role in bringing new users?
US sites are mainly in English and mainly do not care about other languages. But for example my parents do not speak English; they will use something in French rather. We have an interface that is ready for translations (and easy), even Cyrillic, or Chinese. And remember that our market is worldwide – friendship has no borders. So an interface in various languages is an advantage for expansion and usage.
Every social network launching these days declares some kind of uniqueness about it. You seem to show that uniqueness of Ubiplanet will be based on privacy. Why have you chosen it?
Our uniqueness is not just privacy. It is advanced privacy (you can share the same picture with several groups of people and the comments made by one group will not be visible to the other group – it is rather unique), plus a real network centric experience (made possible because we embed the different tools, discussions, photos, IM… etc) and quality vs quantity (friends vs people I don't know, discussions around photos and not just giving access to a share disk with those photos, no spam, real identities and relationship distance between members, etc). All those features make us unique. The fact is that if people were talking with their real names, then you wouldn't have spam. If the articles were all of good quality, you would perhaps not need ranking by the users (Digg, Netscape…).
Anonymity is not good for everything. Everybody can say everything as far as we know WHO is talking. We have chosen this approach because we think people value that. And it seems to be good sense, too. The Internet, or part of it, will have to go there, and Ubiplanet does that (or has the aim to do that). Within your own friends / family, you can commit. To tell meaningful things, you can commit. To share personal pictures, you can commit. It is my belief. And there will always remain sites with anonymity for specific usages (dating sites, for instance).
You clearly state the target group for UbiPlanet – people from 25 to 50 conscious about their privacy. How do you target them in your promotional activities?
It is mainly invitations / viral. I invite my friends and my family because it matters to me. We don't spend money in promotions.
Do you think that some people who already feel at home on MySpace, for example, would switch to Ubiplanet or you will only target those Internet users who have not joined any social network yet?
I don't know people using MySpace to be honest. I have a MySpace account, but it is definitely not for me. I think that MySpace is mainly for younger people. We are perhaps the MySpace of the adults, the MySpace of people who really care about their online privacy and control, and want to take advantage of qualitative relationships with friends, rather than quantitative ones with people they don't even know.
I need a service to exchange private photos with my friends and my family, without having those pictures exposed worldwide, to discuss privately with those friends and their own friends, to share events through a shared calendar – all that with total privacy and control.
You only launched Ubiplanet a little over than a month ago. Are you satisfied with the first results (media coverage, initial growth of user base)?
To date yes, we are satisfied. But we need to accelerate our development by adding new languages, new features, and get even more buzz. Partners to ensure our development: VCs of course and industrial partnerships with for example photo print sites. Besides, integration of third-party solutions: games, social commerce, meaningful reviews (because made by friends and friends of friends), etc. It is why we, small French company with a very good concept try to be visible to overseas funds – to ensure the best development.
Well, great, I really hope you will reach your goal, I'm totally sure your great network will attract lots and lots of users and it will eventually change the way we communicate online. To tell you the truth, it is not that I merely like your ideas – I share them and I promise to bring at least my friends and family as soon as the Russian version takes off.