A Week in the Valley: Meebo

I spent the week before Where 2.0 driving between Berkeley, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale. One of the companies I met with was Meebo, an instant messaging startup in Palo Alto. Elaine, one of the three founders, is co-chair of the Javascript track at OSCON this year. Read on to learn how persistence pays off, why they make me feel old, and how their users helped them internationalize the site …


Who

The company was started by three friends: Sandy Jen, Elaine Wherry, and Seth Sternberg. They’re Stanford alumni, but all had jobs and worked on Meebo in their spare time. Meebo’s actually the third incarnation of the company: they tried backup software, then p2p file sharing, and finally IM. They’d get to a point where they realized “this just isn’t going to work” and moved on to something else. They had a system where they’d get together Sundays and Wednesdays and hack on whatever Meebo was that week.

Elaine worked for Synaptics, Sandy at Xilinx, and Seth at IBM doing M&A work. He appears older than the others but that could be because he worked closely with lawyers for a while. Elaine and Sandy are the tech people, Elaine more on front-end and Sandy on the tight back-end (see below). Seth is the business guy. They said this really came in handy when they were shopping for investment: Seth did all the meetings and the tech momentum didn’t come crashing to a halt.

Press

They’re extremely photogenic in the same way that Flickr and SixApart are photogenic: they’re young, they’re good-looking, and there are women to balance out the nerdy angle. I predict they’ll make the cover of something sexy in the next year or two. They’re bound to be named to that MIT “best innovators under 25″ list. They have a really heartwarming story about kids full of passion just working in their spare time for three years (THREE YEARS!) and it just cries out to be told again and again.

They’re young. They make me feel very old. I estimate they’re all about 22 or 25. There’s a story about IM as a young person’s lifestyle that also plays well into the articles that will inevitably be written about them.

Show Me The Money

Users are on the site for an average of 60m at a time. They get 635,000 logins/day, sending 36,000,000 IMs per day (about 56 messages per user per day). They look to two areas for revenue: embedded search and SMS (a lot of European users want to talk to their SMS friends as easily as their IM friends). They’re starting discussions with search engines, etc. about how to do this. I suspect they may end up reverting to the revenue model they don’t want (ads) because I don’t see the search engine revenue in embedded search and it’s very hard to make cellphone companies pay you.

For a Future Marc Post

They’re on roughly 2-3 week cycles for releasing new versions with features, etc. This cycle will be closer to 4 weeks because it has a LOT of features. They post to the blog when they release a new version, and they identify the users who made suggestions or reported bugs. They say the users love it.

They discover different slices of their audience by the responses to their blog posts. They asked for help with an image and discovered they had hundreds of web designers. When they ask for wishlist features, the highschool teenagers come out of the woodwork. Every wishlist and bug report is prefaced with “we love Meebo” so they’re getting the user love.

Seth answers every email request personally. Now they’re so big there’s an employee whose job it is to answer the requests, but Seth handles the press and bizdev mail.

For a Future Tim Post

They do user-generated translations. They don’t have localized versions of their site (e.g., no Meebo with Spanish error messages and instructions). But they do have a lot of users. They used their blog, wiki, and forum to coordinate the translations. (Talk about user-generated content, the user generated the wiki–emailed Sandy the code and she installed it and now they have a wiki. Sandy: “I suppose that was rather trusting of us!”). So they had 13 translations within 48 hours of launching.

I see this user-generated localization a lot now, particularly with Linux. GNOME and other Linux projects really kicked it off.

For Nerd Pornstars

They do everything on the really damn cheap. They run CentOS, which is an outside-RedHat distro of RedHat (it takes all the RedHat patches and incorporates them into a free distro). They don’t run Apache, instead using lighthttpd. Their code is in C (very old school!). They have a home-grown loadbalancer, which isn’t much more than round robin DNS at this point–they scaled perfectly well without something more fancy. They do have one mysql box, but because it’s not a data-driven app (all the data comes from the users at the other end of the IM connection!) they don’t have much store–just usernames.

What’s Their Problem?

They’re being boned by the H1B issue: they have engineers they want but can’t get until October 2007. They’re also copping some heat for it on their forums in the form of resentment about underpaid foreign workers. There was a conspiracy theory about how companies hiring through H1Bs misstate information on the H1B forms, but I didn’t follow it. If they’d just been able to weave in the Catholic Church and some old art, it’d have been perfect for a Dan Brown novel.

  • http://www.hiphop-blogs.com Hashim

    for revenue, perhaps they should go the freemium route and charge for eaxtra features.

    Also, I would love to see them connect Meebo with other services. For instance, I use IM to share links all the time. It woould be great if I could access my Del.icio.us account through Meebo to share links, and record links while staying in the service.

  • http://www.collaborationconsultant.com Mike Jones

    I don’t understand why Meebo is not illegal… If Trillian/Gain/et al. are all apparently abusing the Public IM networks then why is Meebo not? After all the infrastructure to run a public IM network is *huge* and the only way they re-coup that money is via ads built into the client.

    Are they paying a licence fee to MSN/Yahoo!/AOL/etc?

  • http://blog.arabx.com.au Ronald Bradford

    H1B, hmmm. Being Australian, we have a new E3 visa.

    You still need the letter of offer from a US employer, but now, only a Labour form to be completed, then the new employee can get the visa directly from Australia (~ 20 days, ~ $200). Goodbye H1B hassles. Probable is a lot of US employers always say “No sponsorship” in job ads. Makes it harder to apply, given now it’s so much easier.

  • Tom Finn

    The best part about meebo is that most companies that block their employees from instant messenger services don’t know about it, so you can access your IM client of choice around the firewall. Today however, I got the message that it is now blocked, so I’m looking for another way around the firewall. Sorry meebo, I can’t use you anymore!

  • Mark

    they have to much competition now,

    ebuddy.com

    koolim.com

    messengerfx.com

    iloveim.com

    radiusim.com

    imhaha.com

    there are even a few more smaller guys.

  • http://web2.ajaxprojects.com/web2/projects/Chat/Meebo.php Meebo

    there are many web messengers but meebo is the most welling one. (I think)

  • http://www.kermitrose.com/econ.html jgo

    I can see how you could be clueless and confused by H-1B issues; it touches on a lot of different things.

    Just explaining the fine points of why “prevailing wage” as defined in the statutes has little relation to the local market compensation for a person with specific skills and experience doing a particular kind of work, why the 65K “annual cap” doesn’t stop over 100K H-1B visas from being approved and issued each year, why they’re alleged to be only for “the best and brightest” but hundreds, according to USCIS, go to people without the equivalent of a US high school diploma, LCAs vs. visa applications, change of status processes and tricks for declaring all US applicants to be “disqualified”, “H-1b dependent firms”… can take some major issues navigation skills.

    It’s almost as bad as wading through the docs for some of the latest frameworks.

  • kathy

    If they NEED engineers so bad, why not hire an AMERICAN engineer who is looking for a job, instead of crying about how difficult it is to get someone from India? Or are they racists and hate Americans?