Trending: Seattle writer who wrote viral cinnamon roll post is ‘tired and paranoid’ after being hacked on Twitter

Looking to kill a few hours — and perhaps a few brain cells? Pop Salad might be right for you.

Created by Seattle startup Salad Labs, Pop Salad is an online game in which players buy and sell celebrities whose values rise or fall based on the buzz the stars are generating on Twitter and other news sites. Think about it like a stock market … for celebrity gossip.

A-list actor George Clooney — just arrested for his protests over the situation in Sudan — is now valued at $75,253 on Pop Salad. That’s just behind Academy Award winner Charlize Theron — the star of the upcoming film Snow White and the Huntsman — who holds a value of $80,545.

In this celebrity-fueled culture where Americans tend to know names such as Oprah and Lindsay and Leonardo more so than world leaders, Pop Salad might be on to something. And the startup, led by Brad Coulter, Sasha Pasulka and Chris Maskill, is expanding to take advantage of the opportunity. Today, the company is announcing the asset purchase of Fafarazzi, a similar fantasy “celebrity league” which shut down late last year.

As part  of the deal, PopSalad gets the Fafarazzi domain as well as access to its 250,000 users. Salad Labs CEO Coulter called the deal a “big jump start for us.” Of course, celebrity-oriented games are not entirely new. (I remember covering the launch of Fantasy Moguls, a similar idea that was launched from Seattle more than five years ago).

To get a closer look at Pop Salad, we chatted with 37-year-old co-founder and CEO Coulter for the latest installment of Startup Spotlight. And just so you know, yes they are moving beyond celebrity news too. Next up, politics. That should be fun. After all, Coulter and crew believe their new brand of news-driven games will actually help inform people, rather than kill off those brain cells.

“It sounds funny to say that we’re changing the world, being that our first product is driven by celebrity news, but we believe we can change it,” says Coulter who previously co-founded Wimmer Solutions. “(Our) platform makes it important to be informed and we believe informed people are more useful.”

Brad Coulter

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We make games out of reading the news, and this makes reading the news important.”

Inspiration hit when: “My cousin, Rhet Behler, and I were talking about Fantasy Football and Farmville. I think Farmville had just hit 60 million users. We were fascinated by the behaviors the two were driving. Fantasy Football made NFL fluency valuable and relevant to people who otherwise wouldn’t care, and Farmville made buying virtual goods feel normal. All of a sudden, mainstream users were like “A f’ing virtual tractor? Really? That’s awesome!” We asked: What if we could build a platform that drove those same behaviors in other verticals? That’s the question we asked about two years ago that started us down this path.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We initially bootstrapped and are transitioning to angel. Bootstrapping was the natural choice, as this is what we knew best. It was also our only real option. We had an idea that wasn’t totally formed and no real experience raising money. Who was going to invest in an idea and a couple unknown — to professional money – entities? We launched an alpha version of our first product, Pop Salad, in mid-October and through early successes quickly realized we had something that warranted a larger investment.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Kill the ego and network the brain power. We believe old-school hierarchal structures allow for more blind spots and egos kill effective collaboration. Flatter, more networked, and connected structures naturally leverage more brain power and allow for greater visibility across an organization.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Before we wrote a single line of code we sat down and designed our company culture. We knew we didn’t want culture by default. That’s a craps shoot, and once you have a ‘bad’ culture it’s a huge undertaking to change it. Every single member of the team could go land a ‘real job’ with much higher pay. The people we have are here because they want to be, they believe in what we’re doing. We believe that information and connectivity trumps ignorance. We believe in having fun, appreciating each other as individuals, balance, impact, passion and innovation.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Khan, our VP of Tech, and I decided to install some discarded/free carpet in our office. How hard could it be, right? Let’s just say we learned a lot about how not to install carpet. On the serious side, I hugely underestimated the time and effort it would take to raise money. Everybody told me how hard it would be, but I think it’s one of those things you don’t really understand until you actually do it. I’m a pretty even-keeled guy, and raising money has extreme highs and lows. It was a tough adjustment. I’ve also found that the first dollars are the hardest and each subsequent attempt gets easier. The challenge is getting someone to see at least a glimpse of what I see in as short amount of time as possible.”

Jeff Bezos in October 2010. (Flickr photo by Steve Jurvetson)

Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Gates is doing incredible work with the Foundation, so I’d leave him be. Jobs was an incredible device visionary, and we’re building gamified niche social networks, so not a good match. Zuckerberg isn’t far from a billion users and is super focused on Facebook. While it would be incredible to have any one of them in our corner, I feel like Bezos is the guy for us.  While I wouldn’t call Amazon a social player by any means, I really appreciate Bezos’ philosophy. I can picture him saying to his executive team something like “See that mountain over the horizon? Oh, you don’t? Neither do our competitors. That’s where we’re going. I’m not particular about how we get there as long as we get there. He’s making investments based on a seven-year horizon, and he isn’t scared to be viewed as wrong in the meantime. I love his quote “We say we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details.” I believe that if we asked what the world is going to look like in seven years, Bezos would have the most accurate description, not necessarily because he’s clairvoyant, but because he’s planting the seeds for the future today.

Our world domination strategy starts when: “We push into multiple verticals. With Pop Salad we’ve already seen people who had no real interest in celebrity gossip becoming regulars. They now know that Jennifer Garner and Jessica Simpson are pregnant, that Beyonce had a Blue Ivy, that LiLo allegedly has an affinity for coke, etc. Imagine when we start driving the same type of behaviors in politics, business, sports, etc. We’ve made being informed fun and useful.”

Life inside the Georgetown offices of Salad Labs

Rivals should fear us because: “Get ready for the cliche… – we have the right team. Seriously though, we’re having a ton of fun doing this and people see that and want to be part of it. We’ve had multiple offers for people to come work for free. We’re doing crazy amounts of work, having a blast and look forward to coming to work every day because of the people. In short, rivals should fear us because we will inevitably attract their best talent.”

We are truly unique because: “The core of our development team was born out of a niche social network, exactly what Salad Labs is building. Three members of our development team met in the mid ‘90s via an e-mail list called “Tha Jungle.” It is a network of roughly 30 technologists from around the country. The three finally met in person through the formation of Salad Labs.”

The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: My cousin Rhet, a founder, originally headed up technology — and we hired him a boss. This could have been a huge blow-up, and it often is for lots of startups. I’m not saying we didn’t have tough and uncomfortable conversations; we did.  Because we believe in what we’re building, because we have a cause or purpose greater than our individual selves, Rhet fell on the sword and made the sacrifice in the interest of Salad Labs. He actually identified the person we hired to be his boss. Turns out they’ve known each other online for ten years. I feel Rhet gained a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for what he did.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Figure out what your core beliefs and or values are and be very vocal about them. By being extremely clear about your beliefs, you tend to attract people who believe the same things. This helps to build an extremely aligned and dedicated team, the type of team who will make huge sacrifices for the cause.”

[Editor’s note: Pop Salad is a sponsor of the Seattle 2.0 Awards, presented by GeekWire].

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