Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise with FounderLY.com. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn more about building products and starting companies.
I’m very excited today because we’re here with Matt Brezina, founder of Xobni. Xobni integrates with Microsoft Outlook email client and other email clients, instant messaging applications and social networks, creating an information profile for each person you interact with relevant to what you’re doing or what you’re working on.
Matt, could you give our audience a brief bio?
Matt: I started Xobni about five years ago upon dropping out of grad school. My undergrad degree was in electrical engineering at Penn State University and then went on to grad school at the University of Maryland. I was doing space robotics research and I was kind of bored with spending all this time in a lab with no windows and not interacting with people.
I met an awesome guy that was interested in starting a company around email. That’s my co-founder, Adam Smith. So we went for it. We both dropped out of grad school and moved into an apartment in Cambridge and started hacking on Xobni.
Matthew: What is Xobni and what makes it unique? Who is it for and why are you so passionate about it?
Matt: Email is the most used application on computers and a lot of people complain about it. Information Worker and Fortune 500 spend about 35% of their day with Microsoft Outlook open. They can’t find what they need. Outlook has never done anything but show you a list of messages.
We say the most interesting thing inside your email is people. What Xobni does, and what we went out to empower people to do, is leverage their relationships inside their email. Whenever they get a phone call from a client who says, “Hey, Matt. This is Jack Abrams,” and I’m like, “Crap, who’s Jack Abrams,” I can go to the Xobni sidebar and search for that name, and instantly I have a profile of information of all of our previous interactions as well as information about Jack from the web, such as his Twitter account, his Facebook profile, his picture from Facebook, etc. We empower people whose job is to manage relationships to do that better in their jobs.
Matthew: What are some of the technology and market trends that exist in your space and where do you see things developing in the future?
Matt: When we started this company about five years ago there were a lot of interesting things happening. First, Microsoft had built this huge user base, 500 to 600 million Outlook users, and Microsoft was kind of sitting on their heels and saying, “Hey, we’re happy. These people are making money for us.” And the users are out there screaming, “I can’t find an email. I can’t find a person’s contact information. Why can’t email be more like all these web applications that are coming out of Web 2.0? Easy to use. I don’t need instructions.”
We said, “Well, we can go and solve these problems.” Additionally, my co-founder and I are both part of the Facebook generation. Not at the beginning of it; I was in grad school when Facebook really started taking off, but it was something we were passionate about and we cared about. We felt that a lot of that social information that’s happening on Facebook and other social applications is very relevant to the relationships that exist inside email. It would be amazing if, when I get an email from somebody, I could see their picture so whenever I run into them at a party, I know what they look like.
So it was the confluence of this big existing user base that was in pain, plus an innovation happening around Web 2.0, social applications and the social web that we put together and created the first socially aware email experience.
Matthew: We’ve covered your background and an overview of the market and Xobni. Can you tell us what inspired you to start Xobni? Was it a culmination of events that lead you to it? Was there an ‘a-ha’ moment? Was it a bunch of marketing and research? What’s the story behind it?
Matt: What I’ll say is I’ve wanted to start a company since I was probably about 10 years old. My first company was a lawn mowing business at age 11 and I scaled that up to have about 20 clients by the time I was entering high school. I’ve always wanted to start companies. Originally, I was hoping that I could start a car company and I still have the ambitions to do that. Those take a lot more capital.
This Internet thing that I was watching from my dorm room and investing in startups in ’99, I was watching this and saying, “There are huge opportunities here.” It actually made me switch my major from mechanical engineering to electrical because that’s higher up on the stack. You can move faster. It just really inspired me. I’ve always wanted to start businesses and this looks like an amazing place to build businesses. Then it was a gold rush; it’s even more of a gold rush now. Amazing opportunities exist online.
That was my inspiration. It was just that I wanted to start a company, and I actually didn’t care too much about what kind of company it was. Luckily, I met this guy, Adam Smith, on Craigslist when he was looking for a roommate, and we ended up rooming together when we were both interning in D.C. at different companies.
We’d come home at night and we were working on our own side projects. He had about five servers in our living room trying to beat online poker. I was doing some robotics research. We’d meet in the living room and over dinner and just talk about business ideas. We had a couple ideas that summer while we were living together, but nothing that we really wanted to kick-off.
We stayed in touch and about five months later he called me up and says, “There’s this thing called Y Combinator. I’m applying to it. I think there’s a good opportunity in email.” He didn’t know what the product would be. “And I think you’d be a good co-founder for this.” Originally, I introduced him to a bunch of other people and he came back and said, “No, no, no. I want you to do this with me.” I wasn’t happy with grad school so I dropped out and moved up there and we started working on Xobni.
Originally I wasn’t seeking out an opportunity in email, but I felt this would be a good experience. We’ll get to go through Y Combinator, and if it fails at the end, it was the best business school experience of my life.
Then as we started to dig into it and look at user problems, I got really excited about how big this opportunity is. It was during the first six months of developing the product and interacting with people as we would kind of pitch and tell our story, that we really honed in on something really interesting that was really the pivot for the company. We started doing analytic stuff.
The real pivot that lead to the successful product that we’ve created was our realization that at that time, email clients were just a big list of messages with the most recent one at the top and the oldest one on the bottom. We said, “Email is about people.” No current email clients had ever twisted email on that axis and said, “Email is about relationships, it’s not about messages.” When we did that, it set the vision for the company and everything we’ve done since then. So that’s how we got into email.
Matthew: From idea to product launch, how long did it take and when did you actually launch?
Matt: That’s a good question. We started out in Outlook, and now Xobni has applications for Gmail. iPhone and Android are coming. We also have a Blackberry application. We started out in Outlook, which is a beast. We’re writing desktop software, we’re interacting with a program that’s reverse compatible back 15 years. It’s a big piece of bloated software with 11 different APIs that are supported by Microsoft, each of which is better for different things. So we had a lot of work to do. It took a long time. Luckily, my co-founder is a programming genius and built a really great base for the company to build on top of.
So from, “Let’s do email,” to a product that we were actually excited about users wanting, it took six months. From that time period, when we figured out what we were actually going to build through shipping and launching it to people in a beta, was another year. It took us another six months after that to come out of beta. It’s a long process.