The comeback begins: Q&A with BroadVision's Pehong Chen


by Steve Evans| 13 March 2012

CBR talks to Silicon Valley veteran Pehong Chen, founder and CEO of BroadVision, one of the bigger victims of the dotcom crash, as the company begins its comeback with an enterprise social networking platform

BroadVision CEO

BroadVision was an eCommerce pioneer, and a Silicon Valley giant in the days before the dotcom bubble burst. By its own admission the company has been 'under the radar' for a long time, but it's now looking to recapture its glory days through its cloud-based enterprise social network platform, Clearvale. Steve Evans speaks to founder and CEO Pehong Chen.

It's been quiet on the BroadVision front for a while now, what's been happening?
We've deliberately been under the radar for a while while we were developing the new platform [Clearvale]. It was released in 2009 and since then we've been turning up the heat and as we get more and more momentum we're increasing our market awareness and we feel the whole IT world has recognised the enterprise social network as the next mega-trend.

With BroadVision's long history you must have seen lots of mega-trends come and go. What makes you think this one in here to stay?
It hits on some very fundamental areas: the virtualisation of our resources, largely regarded as cloud; the second is mobile; and what ties all this together is the whole social phenomenon, which I think fundamentally changes the way we work.

When you have virtual, mobile and social you find a very dramatic shift in how things can get done and you can get people to work across continents and at home and so on. It's no longer a fantasy; you can have people very virtual but still maintain a strong corporate culture and get things done.

Since Clearvale's development and release the social scene has changed dramatically, with the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and others. How have you had to adapt to new ways of working while this product has been in development?
Since day one we have had a very sharp focus on this being a social solution and not a consumer solution. Our heritage is from helping enterprises address their needs in e-business.

But when you talk about new ways of working that now means things coming from the consumer space such as mobility and social networking...
Correct. Originally it was the business innovation that was spilling over into the consumer space; the best example of that is the PC. But in the last 10 years the trend has reversed. So with both mobile and social a lot of the fundamentals originate from the consumer space.

However you cannot bring all these things from the consumer space verbatim. For example, although we advocate the notion of sharing it is as important to not be sharing. Before, the 80-20 rule would be mostly not sharing, but we advocate the reverse; maybe 80% should be shared but you need to protect the 20%.

Whatever you decide not to share you have to have a comprehensive model of allowing people to control the sharing.

Suffice it to say whatever you do in consumer has a totally different design centre when it comes to the enterprise. And that's where we believe our experience, having dealt with governments, military and banks, has taught us how to address these issues.

And that's done with security features built in?
There is a tremendous amount built in. Security is complex; it's not just about encryption and things like that. Probably the most core issue in this stack of security/privacy is Access Control; who can see what. We want to provide people with convenience. So if I follow someone that is working on a project that I shouldn't have access to, I won't see it, the information will be screened out.

But what about the Facebook generation, where sharing information is second nature?
Like anything there is always a learning experience. There are two extremes: the traditional gang where anything shared is a breach of their confidence, and the younger generation where there is no privacy. Obviously there has to be a happy medium so both sides will have to learn how to do it right. You have to look at it as a process; it's not an overnight thing.

This space has become very hot recently with, Tibco's tibbr, Yammer and so on. What separates you from them?
We call it NBC - newer, better, cheaper.

Newer because in relative terms we started this project later than the likes of Yammer and Jive. We give them credit for seeing this and understanding this but all their platforms started way over 10 years ago now, long before cloud became the dominant trend. Their own success has become an impediment because they are stuck on an architecture that is not where the future is pointed.

Better because we have great experience in having dealt with thousands of customers so we can use that expertise in this new platform.

And cheaper because we deliberately set our prices to be a long-tail type of approach. We used to charge customers millions of dollars; not anymore. We are happy for each customer to pay us $10,000 or $20,000 as we believe that is a lot more sustainable. Even though each is paying a lot less we make it back with much wider distribution than before.

So is this the one that gets you back to where you used to be?
I don't look at things that way any more; maybe when I was young. As you get older you see things differently. To get to the top of the tree is one thing, staying there is another. We got to the top very quickly and were not able to sustain it. My number one focus is sustainability.

If I was smarter we would not have allowed the company to grow that fast during our first chapter. That was really the cause of a lot of our downfall; it was hard to sustain a company growing that fast from so small so quickly. If I had controlled that growth into several more years we would have been fine.

Do you think your story is a warning to the likes of Facebook - a young company that has seen a huge amount of growth?
Yes and no. I'm very confident that they would do things right. Their business is very broad-based; they have a huge number of customers in terms of users and advertisers and as such I believe they will continue to innovate.

That is one thing that can kill a high tech company - you forget that your true success comes from continuous innovation. The founder is still very young, and for a lot of these young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs innovation is in their DNA. Plus they've now got the market cap to do the M&A to make up for anything they can't do themselves.

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