Spock.com -A Start-Up Story
Spock.com will always be my first. It was my first start-up. I co-founded it in 2006 and over the next three years, we raised over $12 million in venture capital, hired some of the best data scientists, engineers, and marketing people in Silicon Valley. We sold the company in 2009, almost 3 years after founding it. Below is our story.
We tried to keep our start-up in Stealth mode for as long as possible, that was until GigaOM found out and shared a bit of news with Silicon Valley
We also got profiled on venturebeat.com on November 1, 2006.
We finallydecided to share our beta with TechCrunch and got a feature story out of it
Screenshots (click for larger view):
We got so popular that we were asked to demo at Web 2.0 Expo in 2007 and won first place. I got to get on the same stage that Jeff Bezos was on 10 minutes earlier and in front of over 3000 people, demo our vision.
CNET voted us as the most promising startup in 2007.
Soon after, I was asked to be on Reuters talking about Spock
Originally published at www.reuters.com on April 18, 2008.
Not to mention that I was profiled in Business Week
And popular publications started asking me for my opinion on all things tech and silicon valley
We got so popular that we appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine
Some entrepreneurs may look at an online search market dominated by Google and Yahoo and then look elsewhere on the internet for a startup idea. But other entrepreneurs see opportunity. Spock.com co-founders Jaideep Singh, 40, and Jay Bhatti, 35, are taking on search by intentionally not taking on Google. Their Redwood City, California, startup focuses solely on people search and capturing a share of what eMarketer estimates is an $11 billion market for search advertising in 2008. “The opportunity to develop a compelling experience is there if you focus on the right verticals and create a differentiated enough experience from Google,” says Bhatti.
The first hurdle a search startup needs to clear is finding the right niche. The general search market may be cornered by some big players, but there’s still room for innovative ideas. “We’re not trying to build a fad,” says Bhatti. “We’re trying to build a real technology with a business model behind it. This has the potential to change the way users look for content on the web.” He points to search engines Kayak.com (travel search) and TheFind.com(product search) as examples of other search businesses finding success in specific niches.
Despite being located near Silicon Valley and its savvy Web 2.0 techies, Bhatti never loses sight of Spock.com’s target customers. “You have to make sure you build it for the right audience — and that’s the mass consumer audience — and not for the tech crowd,” he says. That effort shows in Spock.com’s simple user interface and cleanly laid out search results. New search entrepreneurs will have to spend a considerable amount of time and effort on the framework of their search technology, at the same time figuring out the best way to present it to potential users.
Spock.com has invested a lot more of its $7 million in round A funding into engineers, search technology and user interface than it has into marketing. Currently working on round B funding, the company hopes to scale the business up and eventually crack the top five of search engines. “One of the biggest things that you have to understand as an entrepreneur is that anything is possible,” says Bhatti. “Market conditions can change very quickly, [as can] market leaders.” That need for nimbleness in the search market is a good sign for small startups in this space.
Originally published at www.entrepreneur.com on September 18, 2008.
I even got to be on primetime ABC News to talk about Spock
At our peak, we powered the search on 9 of the top 10 social networks in the world and were driving over 100 million searches a month. Making us a top five global search engine.
Which is why we grew so fast and became the #1 mover on Alexa
We sold the company in 2009 to Intelius and I found myself once again on ABC talking about Spock!
Jay Bhatti discusses Spock.com Acquisition on ABC News
If you want to understand how Spock worked, read below from a third-party review:
Last week, I wrote about the overall people search landscape, which, while not new, has been recently expanding and making full use of all that is shiny Web 2.0. Spock is the latest of these services to leverage social networks, intelligent web crawling, and community involvement. Spock launched in private beta in April, then in public beta in August.
With Spock, you can search on a person’s name or a keyword that may be associated with a person, and are returned a list of people with associated tags, photos, and web sites. From there, you can drill into more information about any of those aspects, add information of your own, or browse to people who are related in various ways.
Spock CEO Jaideep Singh says that their crawling and indexing infrastructure has the unique ability to identify people-specific data on web pages and extract only this information. Their algorithms combine natural language processing with machine learning and they augment this with human involvement — both community input and editorial oversight.
Tagging provides a unique twist on the search for people. As Singh points out, your search can turn into a discovery. You may initially search for information on Kristen Dunst, but then might follow the tags to see others associated with Bring It On and notice that several of those listed are also tagged with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, including Christophe Beck, who choreographed the music for both the awesome cheerleading movie and the kick ass TV show about the blonde girl with the pointy stick. Click “related people” for a list from another perspective.
In the case of Kristen Dunst, this gives you mostly a list of ex-boyfriends rather than costars. You view people in a larger context and can gain more insight with this type of system. You can also search directly over tags. For instance, a search for “Buffy fan” returns, well among other people, me. Singh says that only half of people-related searches are for names and the rest are topical, so having a way to categorize people into a variety of topics can be very useful.
Anyone can add a tag to anyone else. Spock is confident that the ability of the community to vote on tags will bring a Digg-like democracy to the results and will present an accurate picture of not only how people view themselves, but how the web views them as well. Singh notes, for instance, that while Google created an algorithm to keep George Bush from being returned as a top result for “miserable failure”, that’s a relevant result for Spock because it reflects the views of the community. (It’s currently the second tag listed for Bush.)
But tagging has not been without criticism. A Digg-like democracy can give power to the collective people or it can be a ripe environment for gaming, and in typical web fashion, that has already begun. Singh claims the malicious use of tagging has been extremely low and notes that anyone can request removal of a tag once they’ve claimed their profile. And then there’s Spock Power, which gives more or less weight to votes based on a person’s history (how often contributions have been voted up or down). They also point to their transparency. Since everyone can see how everyone else tags and votes, I know exactly who’s tagging me as a Buffy fan.
Spock is incorporating other community aspects as well. Once you’ve created an account and claimed your profile, you can add friends and mark people as favorites. It seems that Spock marks favorites for you as well based on matches it finds from your connections on social networks such as LinkedIn. You can also import your address books and start building up a full network of contacts. You can add information to each profile that only you can see, such as phone numbers and notes. With features like this, you can see a bit of Spock’s roots as the ultimate contact management system (after the founders become frustrated with the limitations of Outlook). Since Spock can be a combination of contact information you add about people and the information that Spock finds about them from the web, you can potentially do more useful searches over those contacts. Rather than just search by name, you can look for all your contacts who like to play golf or are experts in link building.
Creating an account and registering your profile not only enables you to take part in the community aspects of the site, but it allows you to engage in a bit of reputation management as well. Information that you add about yourself is weighted more heavily than information others add about you. Also, you can sign up for alerts about when others add information to your profile.
How relevant are the results? Spock is going after quality over comprehensiveness and are slowly expanding. They don’t include offline data, but are ambitiously aiming to crawl the entire web and extract all useful people-related information. They’re not there yet. Flickr photos are visibly missing, for instance, but they’re working on adding more data sources over time.
Singh acknowledges that extraction and aggregation are hard problems. They feel they have an advantage over Google regarding extraction because while Google is agnostic to the page type, Spock tries to identify pages and information specifically about people and then processes over that. Aggregation requires that you not only can classify the data as people-related, but can identify when data from disparate locations is about the same person. So far, Spock seems to be primarily concentrating on grouping profiles from social networks and adding links from blogs, news stories, and sites like Wikipedia.
They feel their “man plus machine” philosophy is a scalable and effective way to combine smart approaches to algorithmic classifications with crowdsourcing. While this multi-faced approach seems promising, they certainly have an uphill battle. Can they engage the community to add valuable information? Can they become comprehensive — both in the total number of people they profile and in the information about each person? Can they introduce a paradigm shift around where people search and how people manage their contacts that will trigger a move away from Google and Outlook for people-related data? And maybe most importantly, will all of these plays give them an edge over the other people search services in the space?
All of that remains to be seen, but certainly they’ll be expanding in these areas over time, so they’re well worth watching. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the rundown on some of the other services and their approaches to winning the battle of the people search vertical.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
Originally published at searchengineland.com on September 19, 2007.