Social networks commonly charge companies and marketers a premium to deliver targeted messages and ads — a classic example of the modern online economy, in which tech companies make money by selling the time and attention of their users.
But what if the recipients of those messages could receive that value instead? That’s one of the ideas being pursued by a new startup, co-founded by Anoop Gupta, former Microsoft executive and distinguished scientist, with Aravind Bala, a former Microsoft partner engineering manager who worked with Gupta on the Office Mix online presentation service.
Their startup is developing a new service called Telo that aims to empower recipients of messages, rather than senders or social networks.
“It’s a different way to think about the messaging space,” said Gupta, the startup’s CEO, who left Microsoft in November after nearly 20 years, including two years as technical assistant to Bill Gates, and four years leading Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group.
Telo is still in the early stages of development, and hasn’t yet been launched publicly. Gupta and Bala are keeping many of the specifics under wraps. But they talked about their direction in broad terms in a recent interview with GeekWire outside the cabana at Gupta’s home in Bellevue, Wash., where they’re working with a small team.
Gupta cited the work of virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, who works with Microsoft Research, as one source of inspiration. In his book, Who Owns the Future, Lanier warns about the downsides of platforms that sell access to users. LinkedIn, which Microsoft is acquiring for more than $26 billion, is a high-profile example of premium messaging. Facebook, which made nearly $18 billion in revenue last year, charges brands to elevate their posts to reach more users.
But Telo is tackling a broader set of challenges, which Gupta explained in a series of “what if” questions: What if users had a public address that they could share confidently, where they could receive relevant messages in a system that enabled meaningful interactions and conversations, discouraged misuse and spam, and provided value to recipients?
“We believe if there’s money being exchanged, the person who’s providing the attention should be compensated,” Bala said. “Currently the model is, ‘I’ve accumulated a whole bunch of users, I’m going to sell your attention to advertisers.'”
The value could come in a variety of forms, including reputation and trust, Gupta said. He compared the effect to Airbnb, creating economic and social value by helping people feel comfortable sharing their homes, rather than wary about letting strangers stay in the spare room.
As founders, Gupta and Bala encountered the challenges of messaging while conducting market research, as they were exploring and testing different startup ideas. It was difficult and costly to reach business owners and others who could give input, in part because those recipients weren’t receiving enough value to make it worthwhile to take a survey or provide other forms of feedback.
The startup, founded under the name Zipstorm, is self-funded so far, but is currently in discussions with potential investors.
Gupta was an associate computer science professor at Stanford University from 1987 to 1997, also serving as co-founder and chief scientist at the startup VXtreme in Sunnyvale, Calif., based on early virtual classroom technologies developed at Stanford. He joined Microsoft when VXtreme was acquired by the Redmond company. Now 57, he decided the time was right to try something new.
Gupta likened the shift from a big company to a startup to getting out of an SUV and jumping onto a mountain bike. You have to pedal uphill, and go through the mud, with bumps and scrapes along the way, but you can go places and do things that weren’t possible before.
Plus, there’s no beating his commute, which consists of walking across his yard to the cabana. A fan of raw vegetables, he spends his breaks tending to his garden.
Bala pointed to another big upside of the startup experience: “One key difference from our lives at Microsoft is that, in a startup, you just need one person to say, yes. You just need one venture capitalist to believe in your idea and say, yes. In a large company, it’s just the opposite — if one person says no, you’re hosed.”