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 …


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.


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.