Duncan MacRae catches up with Shaan Puri, CEO of Monkey Inferno – the think lab tasked with re-launching Bebo – to talk yachts, beer, ping pong and social networking.
Why was Monkey Inferno founded?
I’ll answer this with an anecdote. During my job interview with Michael & Xochi (the company’s owners and Bebo founders), they allowed me to ask them a few questions. I had only one: "You guys could be sitting on a yacht, drinking a margarita, sailing around an island you own…so why are you here? Why did you create the Monkey Inferno, and give yourself a job?"
Michael sat for a moment, thinking, then answered calmly: "Boats get boring after about a week." We laughed, and then he told me the truth – that he simply couldn’t imagine not building new things.
Whether it’s start-ups at The Monkey Inferno, or a 60,000ft2 private members club in San Francisco, Michael wanted to work with people he liked, while building cool things.
At its heart, that’s why the Monkey Inferno exists. A place for talented and motivated people to come together to work on new ideas.
After Bebo got off to such a great start, why do you think users turned their back o it?
I don’t think Bebo users necessarily turned their back to the site. I think growth slowed, as new people who had several options, such as Facebook and Myspace, began choosing alternatives. Once growth slows down in a social network, the site is in trouble if it doesn’t transition properly to its next stage of life.
Having revealed its intention to re-launch Bebo, how does Monkey Inferno plan to breathe life back into it?
At the moment, we are not announcing our plans to re-invent Bebo. Stay tuned!
One of your creations is the BeerHunt iOS app. How does it fit in with the company’s portfolio of offerings?
Beer Hunt is an app centred around one of the world’s most social and timeless products, Beer. Initially, the idea for Beer Hunt came out of a week-long hackathon, and got a great reception. We choose our projects based on Passion, Potential and Progress, and Beer Hunt has all three so far.
You also developed the Jolitics website. How successful has it been?
Jolitics is a political social networking site, with the vision of giving people a platform to voice their opinion on policy. Unfortunately, it hasn’t picked up the traction we hoped. We try ideas that we find challenging and interesting, but we know they won’t all succeed. If all of our projects succeed, we aren’t trying enough innovative ideas!
What other apps and start-ups are you nurturing at the moment?
We are currently working on five products. First of all, we’re working on the Birthday Alarm. This was Michael and Xochi’s first successful start-up, which actually was the initial funding source for Bebo. It’s still very successful 10-plus years later!
Of course, we’re also working on Bebo, our newest addition to the portfolio, and the Beer Hunt, which is available for iPhone.
We’re also busy with the WaterForward.org, which is a non-profit venture we worked on in partnership with charity:water. We asked the question: "can charity go viral?" In the past two months, it has gone viral, reaching more than 4million people thus far. Unfortunately, in the markets where it is biggest, like India, it is very hard for us to process payments, so it hasn’t raised as much money as we expected with such rapid growth.
Finally, there’s the LoftRock. This is just a small prototype at the moment, which is a Q&A platform where interesting people can answer questions from anyone, live on video cam. I’m a big fan of Reddit’s "Ask Me Anything" concept, and wanted to try and build a new site dedicated to making an awesome Q&A experience.
Your workplace boasts a massage room, ping-pong table, an iPad controlled entertainment system, a private chef and bar with happy hours. How do these and a ‘low stress approach’ benefit your business and help projects become a success?
The people building a start-up have to pour their heart and soul into the venture. We treat our team as well as we can, because they work hard and deserve it. Happy, healthy, and motivated employees are capable of achieving much more than their stressed counterparts.
How is the industry you work in changing and how can Monkey Inferno evolve to stay ahead of the curve?
This is a great question and not one that most people are talking about yet. There are three key advantages to our system.
The portfolio – we work on multiple ideas at once, in parallel, rather than going ‘all-in’ on one idea for multiple years.
The speed – we take the lean start-up philosophy to heart, and work in quick six week sprints going from idea to market. At any point in time during the process, if one of our key assumptions proves to be incorrect, we can pivot the idea, or scrap it all together.
Then there’s the team. What we did was quite rare. We have gone ‘all-in’ on the team first, and let ideas flow through the incubator. We hire the team first, and then give them the freedom to work on whatever ideas they can come up with. Even as ideas fail, the learnings are retained, making the team stronger for the next idea.
Most people in the industry agree that a great team is critical to success. Investors will quickly point out that ‘team’ is one of the key make or break components of their investment decision. Even Ycombinator, one of the leaders in the space, this year began to accept teams based solely off their founders, even if they didn’t have an idea to work on yet.
Where do you think social network is going in the future?
The cloud. Isn’t everything going to the cloud these days? That’s what the commercials tell me at least.
Jokes aside, the world is getting more social. We’re just beginning to see how connectivity between people, places and things will add value to us all. Hopefully we can be a positive part of that movement.