Yobongo – Caleb Elston – 1 of 2

"The goal is to build products that consistently provide value to users." Yobongo is a mobile app that lets you chat with people nearby in real-time.

Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies. I am very excited today because I’m here with Caleb Elston who’s the founder and CEO of Yobongo.

The Yobongo is a mobile app that enables people to make new connections and communicate more efficiently. With that said, Caleb, we’d love for you to give our audience a brief bio.

Caleb: Sure. My name’s Caleb. I used to work at a company called Justin.tv, which was the largest live video streaming service. I was the VP of Products there, so I oversaw some of the design and engineering for our web and mobile teams. So my background is mostly in design, and so that’s the worldview I come from, is how do you build really simple solutions that work for people, rather than necessarily focusing on the most hardcore technology. I want to build things that help people communicate.

Matthew: What makes the Yobongo unique? Who’s it for, and why are you so passionate about it?

Caleb: Yeah, so I think what’s interesting about Yobongo is that it challenges some of the core assumptions that a lot of people have around making new connections and meeting people, that for a lot of people we’ve been told meeting strangers is a bad thing, and we think that that’s not necessarily the case, that the number of people in the world who are “bad” is actually very, very small, and that what actually happens is you interact with people all day who you’re not friends with, but you could be.

So, what we really want to do is reduce the amount of time between meeting someone and becoming friends with them. So we really focus on what are those dynamics that cause making new connections to be awkward or weird and eliminate them, so that in Yobongo, you can open the app and start meeting new people, talking about things that you’re interested in, and then actually start sending that person messages and keeping in touch with them and have it be a very simple and seamless experience.

Matthew: What are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist in your space, and where do you see things developing in the future?

Caleb: Sure. I think that we’ve spent a lot of time in our industry on connecting with people you already know, that for the past decade or so on the Web, we ‘ve spent time allowing you to connect around photos and sharing those with people you know, sharing videos, sharing texts, your thoughts, and that’s now been moving to mobile. We see very cool startups like Instagram doing various similar things around photos, but now mobile-centric.

What we think is that people moving forward will need better solutions to making new connections and meeting people, that you are now already connected with your friends, and so what’s really interesting is that there are many more people in the world who are not your friends than who are, and we also all believe that we will make new friends over time. We just don’t know how we’re going to do that.

We think that technology is now at the point, with having mobile devices that are aware of where you are and are much more personal, it allows you to start to make it okay to make these new connections, and so using a lot of real-time technologies like Node and Mongo help us do that efficiently, but most people don’t care about that.

It’s useful for us, but what people really care about is that when they open their phone, they can start communicating with people, and that’s what we want to enable for everyone, everywhere in the world.

Matthew: We’ve covered your background and overview of the market. We’d love to get into the details of the Yobongo story. How did you come up with the idea?

Caleb: Sure. So, Dave and I really were sort of entrenched in this idea that making new connections is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, and that on the Web, we’ve spent a lot of time being anonymous. When you’re anonymous, it’s much harder to make any sort of real connection, because the person could be lying, could be faking. So while they might be fun to talk to, it’s very unlikely you would ever meet that person or have coffee with them or really get invested in caring about them, the same way you do with your friends.

At Justin.tv, we saw a lot of people come together, who didn’t know each other, around live video, make these connections and chat on Justin.tv. But chat was not the core competency at Justin.tv. It was a side product of that company, the live video, and yet lots and lots of people loved using chat. So we really saw that as, you know, there are lots of people doing this, but it’s not focused on that. It’s not focused on making these new connections.

We also saw that, when we started building mobile apps at Justin.tv, that we couldn’t just take what already existed on the Web and make a smaller, mini version. We really had to go back and rethink from the ground up what the experience should be like. So we really sort of thought back to chat rooms of the late ’90s and how those were one of the most popular Web activities, and yet, if you told someone today you’re on a chat room, they might look at you a little weird, because they got bad. Bad people came into them, and it became awkward and weird to be in a chat room. We think that we could reinvent the way that that happens by moving to mobile first, and also putting a very high level of importance on people being authentic, using real names, using real photos. So we really felt that there was no good way to make these connections, and that also just communicating on your phone is still very techie, like it’s still just regular email, just made smaller, and SMS is this terrible system.

So there are all these things about communicating on your mobile phone that are still quite antiquated, and so when you combine making these new connections and then keeping in touch with them, we felt like that needs to be solved. We think it’s more of a design problem than necessarily just a tech problem, because interacting with this mobile device that you have all the time is much more personal than interacting with your work computer, for instance.

Matthew: Who’s your co-founder? How’d you meet, and what qualities or skills are you looking for, and how did you know he’d be a good fit?

Caleb: Yeah, so my co-founder is David Kasper. I’ve known Dave for a few years now, and we actually worked together at Justin.tv. We joined within a week of each other there. We actually sat shoulder-to-shoulder for a long time while we were there, and one of things that I really love about working with Dave is that he’s an engineer who cares about design and experiences. So I would hand him a design for something, and he would go above and beyond to make it work really well, or see edge cases that I wouldn’t necessarily design out, and he would just fix them and make them better.

So, from that perspective, we’re building apps and software for real people and not just for other machines or for other developers. We’re building it for people who are just sort of a regular iPhone user. So it’s really important that the app speak to them, rather than to a developer-centric type of person. So Dave gets that and he cares about it.

I would say the other big thing is that Dave will just make it work. We started by using some different chat protocols, and it was just too slow. Rather than say, like, well, that’s the way it is, he’s like, “I can build this better,” and we built our own chat protocol to do real-time messaging between the phone and our server. It had very different characteristics than IRC or SMPP, and as a result, like our interface and our chat is very, very fast, and that’s big kudos to Dave, to realize that he could do it, and he just powered through it. He’s a massive workhorse.

I focus more on the design and the product areas, and Dave focuses all of his energies on engineering and making sure that it can actually work. So we have very different skills, but we speak the same language of what are people going to want to use, and that’s a big part of why he and I work so well together, I think.

Matthew: From idea to product launch, how long did it take, and when did you officially launch?

Caleb: Yeah, there are a couple stages in the history of Yobongo. We started working on it nights and weekends while we were at Justin.tv actually, and we were just building some prototype of, like, could this work and we were pecking around on the iPhone and showed it to a couple of the guys at Justin.tv, got them playing with it. We actually launched a test of it outside the U.S., on the App Store, and that went really well. So we decided to leave Justin.tv, and that was in October, I believe, of 2010.

Then we spent a few months getting it ready for live users here in the U.S., taking that prototype code, making it more stable and ready for the long term, and we actually launched at South by Southwest, which was in March, and that went gangbusters went for us. Austin, it was our first time there. It was really, really fun, and it was perfect for Yobongo, because people would go in and they’re at this conference, and they want to meet other developers, other designers, other tech people, but they didn’t necessarily know everyone there. So, they would hop on the Yobongo.They would say, like, “Oh, where are you going for breakfast?” People would meet up for coffees. They’d figure out which parties were cool. So it was this actual, real-time conversation that was happening at the conference, and you just have to open Yobongo to be a part of it.

Since then, we’ve also raised some, some capital from a great group of angel investors, Kevin Rose, Dave Moore, and True Ventures, Shervin Pishevar, and as a result, that’s enabled us to grow the team and spend even more energies on making Yobongo work worldwide, and serve even more people’s needs. Instead of just focusing on people in San Francisco, how do you bring it someone in Topeka, Kansas? That’s sort of what our big goals are now, is how do you make Yobongo work everywhere?

Matthew: Are there any unique metrics or social proof about Yobongo that you’d like to share with the audience?

Caleb: Yeah, I mean, I think the biggest thing that we’ve seen is that people love to talk with others, and it seems quite obvious, but we’ve seen people, active users signing in three, four, five times per day. We see 50% of active users signing in every single day. So once people start connecting on Yobongo, they use it a lot, and as a result of that, it’s very, very rewarding to see these people who, a few weeks ago, didn’t know each other, now enjoying talking about what they’re doing for their day, what they’re doing on the weekend, planning to get together for things like outside lands, or other concerts or events, and using Yobongo as this way to, at any time during their day, get instantaneous, human connection, is very, very valuable. So I think we’re really excited to be able to build a system that people power, rather than us adding content or creating more games or whatnot.

We build the system, and people inside of it make it work, and they make it work by talking with each other, and that’s just a wildly satisfying thing to do.


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