What I Learned From Friendster: Jonathan Abrams’ New Startup

Jonathan Abrams’ last startup, Friendster, was one of the first social-networking companies to attract an audience of users numbering in the millions. Launched in 2003, the site grew quickly through word of mouth, as people rushed to connect with their friends online. Abrams became one of the most visible faces of the Web 2.0 renaissance. But Friendster’s infrastructure couldn’t cope with the rapid growth, and as users increasingly encountered delays and outages throughout 2004, Friendster was eclipsed by upstarts like Facebook and MySpace.

After leaving Friendster, Abrams invested in a San Francisco bar, Slide, and disappeared off the Silicon Valley startup radar screen for awhile. He has now returned to the internet business with a small startup called Socializr, which is designed to help people share event and party information with their friends.

Wired News visited Socializr recently in the company’s San Francisco offices, adjacent to a freeway demolition project. As jackhammers reduced the remnants of the Central Freeway to rubble, we asked Abrams about his new company’s mission and what he’s doing differently this time around.

Wired News: So, can you give me your elevator pitch? What is Socializr?

Jonathan Abrams: It’s a site for sharing events with your friends.

WN: There are already sites that do that, like Evite, so what’s the differentiator?

Abrams: We don’t really think Evite does that, because Evite doesn’t allow you to see what your friends are doing. The central concept of Socializr is the idea of combining social networking and event functionality together.

Step one is providing a really cool alternative to Evite, which hasn’t improved in five years. There’s just so much stuff — integrating music and video and SMS and IM — there’s just so much stuff that Evite doesn’t do. And that’s certainly part of why Socializr is valuable.

The big vision goes beyond that. The big vision is integrating that with social networking, and creating something where you could share stuff with your friends, which is an area that Evite’s never even got into.

WN: It sounds like you’re saying Evite is more of a broadcast model.

Abrams: Well, Evite doesn’t allow you to say, this person is my friend. There’s no concept of friends on Evite. And there’s no concept of sharing. On Socializr you can say, (Socializr executive assistant) Toni (Graham) is my friend, and if I’m going to go to a book reading, or a concert, or a club, I put it on Socializr, and if I leave the “share this” checkbox checked, she’ll see it on her calendar, because we’ve decided we’re friends with each other and we want to see what each other is up to. It’s a very, very lightweight, easy way of sharing events with your friends.

Now, you can still invite people to things, but if you and I and 20 of our friends are going to a whole bunch of events this weekend, we don’t necessarily want to have to send an invitation email for every single one of those things. It could get a little spammy.

WN: One of the things that’s different about your approach from other social-networking sites is that you’re more open to integration with other kinds of social networks.

Abrams: Well, first of all, we’re not really a generic social-networking site, in the sense that Friendster and Friendster’s imitators like MySpace and Facebook are. We’re really trying to do events. But we think that a great events site in 2007 includes modern features like photos, videos and music. We think sharing should be part of it, and that includes social networking.

So it makes sense to integrate. Could we create Socializr blogs? Yeah, quite easily. But does anybody really need another blogging site? Why reinvent the wheel? There’s so many great services that already exist. So we integrate with Flickr, we integrate with YouTube, we integrate with Digg, we integrate with a ton of stuff.

WN: I noticed that there’s not a lot of flashy sort of Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) stuff in the Socializr site. Is that because it’s still early, or because you’re deliberately trying to not be flashy?

Abrams: It’s a few reasons. We think that Ajax is quite overused. And I don’t think a lot of people have thought through the scalability implications of increasing the number of concurrent server connections by an order of magnitude. In many cases it’s not really providing a real benefit.

There are some things on Socializr that look like Ajax, but actually are not. They’re using JavaScript, they’re providing a dynamic-feeling user interface, but they’re actually not asynchronously requesting data from the server. Most of the data is sent in the initial page request, and then there’s a more dynamic user experience, but we’re not making a lot of asynchronous calls. And that’s deliberate, to address scalability concerns, because of having gone through the Friendster experience.

WN: There were scalability issues at Friendster.

Abrams: Of course. Another thing is that I think some of the ways people are using Ajax now actually makes the user experience worse, rather than better. There are so many sites where you click on something and they use that thing where the background fades and then this window pops up in a sort of modal dialog, and it’s completely intrusive. It poses an unnecessary delay, because you have to wait for this animation to happen that really adds no real value. It’s just a trendy Ajax effect that everybody seems to be copying from each other. And, you know, that’s not what our style is.

I think the hundred million people out there who actually use the web aren’t impressed by those things, and they actually want something that loads quickly and is navigable and that works. So, our focus right now is more on substance over style.

When it comes to the event page itself, that’s where we’ve gone all out. You can put videos and music and stuff in the events (that you create), you can use this really cool graphics customization feature that your reviewer talked about. We actually allow you to use special fonts through Flash that are much cooler than the regular fonts you can normally use on a web page. That’s what’s important. I don’t think it’s important, while you’re navigating and using the site, creating an event, for it to be all flashy and Ajax-y. I don’t think that necessarily adds any real value.

WN: How has your experience at Friendster changed your approach to starting up Socializr?

Abrams: I wouldn’t even know where to begin. We’ve definitely learned a lot of lessons about the technology and scalability. A lot of it is just about focus. Not raising a huge amount of money, not hiring a ton of people, staying pretty lean and mean. Just being disciplined to focus on the product and the users.

WN: Can you expand on that a little bit? How does raising a lot of money change the game?

Abrams: I think when you have a lot of investors, when you have a lot of money raised, when you have big-name VCs and a large board, all of those things make it more difficult to focus.

At Friendster we had three big venture capital firms, we had a whole bunch of people on the board and we hired a whole bunch of executives who had great resumes. Yet we went years without fixing the core technology problems. Years. Which is pretty crazy. We didn’t add music, didn’t add events, which were the really obvious winning additional features that I was excited about. And we did do a lot of weird, poorly integrated partnerships throughout those years as well: with Eurekster for search, with Pandora and Grouper for media, with GloPhone for voice over IP and none of these things were even really well integrated.

Considering that the site still wasn’t very fast and still had bugs, and there was still so much opportunity to do more core things, more things really related to what people thought Friendster was about and what they used it for, (doing partnerships) was not good prioritization and focus.

WN: So are you ruling out venture capital this time?

Abrams: We have venture capital. A very small amount. We’ve raised less than a million dollars in only one round, a seed round, and there’s a whole bunch of people in it. Most of it is from individual angel investors, and a small amount is from my friend Richard Ling’s VC firm (Rembrandt Venture Partners). I’ve read that I’ve said that I won’t (take venture capital), but that’s not true, I didn’t say that.

WN: So it’s a question of taking less so that you can retain more control of the direction of the company.

Abrams: It’s not just about retaining control. It’s about focus. It’s easier to be smart when you have less money.

Of course that sounds crazy because most people think that the risk is reduced and that you can do better when you have more capital. But I’ve seen that it’s easier to make more right decisions when you have less money. When you have a lot of money sloshing around a company too soon, you can blow a lot of it on dumb marketing things, hiring too many people, or the wrong people, or people that the company’s not really ready for — consultants, headhunters, all sorts of stuff. I think when you’re being more frugal it’s harder to do things that make no sense.

It’s all consistent with saying look, we’re still developing the site, we’re still working on our product, that’s our focus. You don’t need 10 million dollars to do that.

WN: What’s been better for meeting people — Friendster or your club, Slide?

Abrams: Well, that’s a fascinating question. I actually have never had any success whatsoever in my life with internet dating. And I have met many girls at bars and parties. I actually have a fantastic girlfriend now, so we go to Slide together. But I’ve always met people through my friends or at bars or parties. I’ve never met anybody online, ever.

The idea about Friendster was to try to replicate the experience of meeting somebody through your friends. It was supposed to be more like that than (meeting) anonymous people on the internet.

To me, the stuff I do, whether it’s Friendster or Socializr, it’s the complete opposite of something like Second Life. I’ve never been interested in chatting with random anonymous people on the internet who are pretending to be someone else, who you’re never going to meet. For me it has always been about using the internet to meet people that you’d actually meet in real life. Or bringing those real-life connections with you online, and creating sort of an integrated experience.

But I do have a lot of friends who have met people on Friendster. And there have been times when I’m just standing somewhere at a party and someone comes up to me and told me that they met their boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband on Friendster and it’s kind of weird. One of Friendster’s original angel investors met his wife on Friendster.

WN: Well, that’s a nice return on investment.

Abrams: Yeah. So it’s definitely worked for many people, including some of my friends and investors. But for me, personally, my interest was more in bringing the relationships I already had onto the internet and integrating them into a good experience. So on Socializr, hopefully, you get to see what the coolest parties are going on, and then you go to the bar, and you go to Slide, and then you meet the person.

Link: What I Learned From Friendster: Jonathan Abrams’ New Startup

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What I Learned From Friendster: Jonathan Abrams’ New Startup