Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Interview with Rob Farrow, Chi.mp
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Rob Farrow is one of the co-founders of Chi.mp, a new startup which is getting set to launch a service to allow users to manage their profiles across the many sites on the Internet. The firm recently relocated much of its team to San Diego from Hawaii, and we talked with Rob about why someone might need the service, how it's different from the scores of social networking sites on the web, and what problem it's trying to solve. The firm is based in both San Diego and Honolulu.
Why did you start Chi.mp, and what does it provide?
Rob Farrow: The reason behind Chi.mp is varied. There was a collective process in its making, and where it came from. In late 2007, we had a group of guys were creating concepts about social identity. What came to mind in the conversation was that there were a handful of pain points which were resonating with the community, running in parallel to a big movement around the open web. We had a concept around creating a platform, using open standards, to resolve lots of the issues surrounding social networking and the issues of identity. Identity is a big, broad term, with multiple meanings to different people, but what we tried to do is take a look at what the core of identity is online, and create a product that can capture that in a positive way, and allow you to take ownership of your identity in a positive way. I'd like to emphasize positive, because terms like ownership and control have negative connotations. This is really about liberating your identity and making it yours, rather than having it be a subset of a company or sit inside another company. In late 2007, Chi.mp was born.
With so many social networks, and dominant sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace, how do you fit in, and why is there need for another social networking tool?
Rob Farrow: You're spot on. There are so many social networking sites, how do you define what's relevant? What's relevant in Facebook is how to connect with friends, who you may have, or may not have been in touch with for many years. LinkedIn is the rock star space for business. MySpace--even though I'm a little old for the MySpace genre--is incredibly powerful. Meebo is another powerful site. The list goes on and on. At some point, you've got to figure out where you draw the line, due to social network fatigue when you're at the point where you are checking 8, 9, or ten different sites every day. There's all great places to be, and they all provide great services. The question is, how do you manage all that. There is a trend in the industry around aggregation. FriendFeed is a great example of a successful aggregator. But, with FriendFeed, it's like trying to take a sip from a fire hose. It takes all those sites, and channels them into one place. It's a flood, with robust amount of information. What Chi.mp helps with, is it provides a little more thorough method of personal communications. We like to talk about Chi.mp as a social identity platform, which you think of as a social hub, rather than a filter or aggregator. It's your place on the web, a home, where ownership starts by owning your own identity. All of those other sites are great, but who you are is always a subset of their site. You can own your own domain, but what you have to remember, is it's an exception, and not the norm. It previously cost you $40, $50, or $60 dollars a year to build a site, have a DNS to point to the server, and there are very daunting and complex barriers to having an online presence. What Chi.mp has done is give you easy access to a domain, for free, and given you enormously valuable software that you can use for free, and which allow you to use the services you've been part of, invested in developing identities on, and allows you to create and promote that identity in a .mp site. There's a huge movement within the industry, and we're in a race with other companies trying to do what we do. The advantage we have, is we own our own registrar and domain, which creates a huge advantage in creating an identity online.
Can you talk about the .mp domain?
Rob Farrow: We're very fortunate in that we have a long term relationship with the Commonwealth of the Marianas Islands. That's where the .mp comes from, it's a top level domain for the country. We have a long term arrangement with the government, which is a U.S. territory, governed under U.S. law. It's a very stable domain, and sort of an unknown domain. I grew up on an island state, and knew about them, but I can understand if people don't know about them. We have a performance-based relationship with the government.
You recently moved here from Hawaii, can you talk about the decision to move to San Diego?
Rob Farrow: Lots of what goes on in technology happens on the West Coast. California is the biggest part of the U.S. in creation and development of new technologies, trends, fashion, style, and communications. For me, I was born and raised in Hawaii, but have lived in San Diego in the past. What I was finding out, was I was traveling to the West Coast two or three times a month, a week at a time. I was only seeing my family for 7 days a month, and seeing strangers for the other 21. I wanted to reverse that ratio. Plus, there is an incredible talent base. Hawaii has talented individuals, but there's a broader base here. So, we opened up a second office out here, as a natural extension of the company, because we needed to reach out to other talented individuals to help grow and create our product. San Diego was a selfish decision, because the North County can't be matched in terms of quality of life. It has a neat little niche, as every major metropolitan area has a niche--Los angeles has Malibu, Topanga, and Santa Monica; San Francisco has Sausalito, and San Diego has North County. All these are hotbeds for people who put their lifestyle ahead of earnings potential.
Finally, what are the most important reason an average user should sign up for your service?
Rob Farrow: The average user is a great case study for us. They're the middle of the bell curve. So often in technology, companies cater to early adopters that work in the industry, and lose sight of what the average user is looking for online. For us, we are trying to create a value proposition that really resonates with the average user online. The motivating factors are two fold. One, you own your own domain, and can create a domain-centric identifier and single point for you online. That's a really, really powerful statement. For example, if you go to farrow.mp, you can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Dopplr, Yelp, and Flickr. You can click on any of those icons, or you can go click on Skype or the blog icons and you are immediately connected directly with me. It's a powerful tool when you're talking about communications, and as a social hub. We also have a robust profile tool, depending on how you want to use it.
We've got an interesting and different approach to accessibility, through a system which we call a persona. What a persona is, is a robust privacy tool, an issue which you might be familiar with from Facebook. In Facebook, public and private is very binary. What we've create, is at a very granular level you can control on your site what you want to share, with your family, publicly, privately, or with groups.
We've also got a robust contact management system. We're still paying around with this, and it's not available yet to the public, but it allow you to import contacts from any number of services, merge, management, and export them back to your services, or keep it inside or create an online, living database. That's been very, very well received and a popular feature that we're still building out.
The feature set is enormous. We've got a huge undertaking and a long way to go to refine what will eventually be an amazing product. We're listening to our owners--we don't have users or customer, we have owners --and anyone who comments gets a response from us at the personal level. We are trying to figure out how we make a socially relevant domain, to speak to the social side of the web through a domain centric platform.