Brett Marl is back in the startup game. The former chief technology officer at Pure Networks, which sold to Cisco back in 2008, is having a ball trying to help discover the world’s next Kelly Clarkson or Taylor Hicks. In fact, FameMe, as Marl describes it, FameMe is essentially American Idol for the Facebook generation.
In that regard, FameMe reminds us of another Seattle online entertainment property in King of the Web, which also hosts online contests in which individuals compete to earn the title of king.
Marl’s past includes work at Microsoft, ViAir and Cisco. And while FameMe is certainly lighthearted in fun in its overall concept, he’s entirely serious about creating a new Internet sensation.
Marl started the company just four months ago, and he shared his love of startups and tips for success in the latest installment of Startup Spotlight.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it “American Idol meets Facebook. Helping talented undiscovered people find fame.”
Inspiration hit us when: “Watching American Idol one night. It felt forced and over-produced. We thought that there had to be a more authentic way to watch and connect with real talented people.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrap, maybe with a little angel. I did my first raise back in 2000 when I left Microsoft. To build a scalable web-app, we needed lots of money. We started with $8 million — bought lots of server hardware, built out a datacenter, staffed a network operations team, hired a marketing team etc. The world has changed. Now I can sit in a teashop in Ballard with a MacBook and deploy a massively scalable service on Amazon’s back that I can rent by the minute and ramp up fast if I need to. In-Product social marketing is free and more effective. Who needs millions of dollars anymore? There may be a time when venture connections could help us, but we have a lot to prove out first.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Undoubtedly our team. There’s nothing clever about our idea. It’s obvious. I’m shocked there isn’t anyone doing it successfully. We have a stellar team that knows how to bootstrap a product and have done it time and time again. What you see right now is probably radically different to what we will be six months from now. We have good spider-sense for what will get traction and know how to pivot or zone-in on the answers.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “We launched our first contest, well before we thought the site was ready. It forced our hand to stop tweaking what we thought might work and start reacting to reality.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Not realizing that a significant portion of our traffic comes over mobile. We underestimated people’s desire to watch video on smart phones. We’ve optimized the web-experience to work as best we can, but a native app would certainly help.”
Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Zuckerberg or Bezos. Bill is too busy saving the world and wouldn’t find enough technical challenge in what we’re doing. Steve is too busy re-designing the pearly gates. Zuckerberg gets the magic that’s created when you bring friends together online, however Facebook friends tend to mirror real-world relationships. Connecting with strangers around a common interest allows people to make new friends. As Facebook saturates its market, apps that bring strangers together and deepen their networks will become an important growth strategy. Bezos because AWS kicks ass and getting it for free would be even better.”
Our world domination strategy starts when: “Simon Cowell asks if he can join us.”
Rivals should fear us because: “We’re turning over rocks and finding people who are amazingly talented but haven’t been discovered – they don’t know how to reach a big enough audience. Watching them bloom in a contest is addictive; it’s an authentic experience and one that you the viewer can directly contribute too and have a huge impact on by using your social influence. People you love see perform are no longer untouchables behind the glass of the TV – they are human, crave your feedback, and want to talk back to you.”
We are truly unique because: “No one else is trying to build a world-stage to allow talent to compete in a grassroots way that puts the talent first. Most half-done efforts out there are surreptitious attempts to sign a shady talent-agent relationship.”
The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “The biggest appeal to great talent is a large audience. The biggest appeal to an audience is great talent. Growing both at the same time is hard. Getting our talent recruitment model right was hard. We had several failed attempts and finally have a model that is bringing us some amazing talent. We have a long way to go – but our first few thousand FameMe fans are enjoying what they see so far.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Drop the whole “stealth-mode” crap. Don’t guard your idea like it’s the biggest thing since sliced bread – odds are others have already thought of something similar. On the contrary – talk to everyone you know and trust about the idea and get their feedback; your idea will only get better the more your share it. Turning it into reality is going to be a long road of grunt work, unflappable belief, passion and luck – no one can steal that from your idea.”