A new startup cooked up by one of Bill Gates’ top executives, hatched in his office and funded by the Microsoft co-founder himself, is coming out of hiding today after more than a year of development under the radar.
Likewise is the brainchild of Larry Cohen, the former Microsoft communications chief, who is now CEO of Gates’ private office. It’s a way of remembering and finding recommendations for restaurants, TV shows, movies, books and more, primarily from friends but also from in-house experts, with the ability to follow other users and their lists of favorites.
“It’s about helping people quickly discover great recommendations, share them with their friends and keep them in one place,” said Likewise CEO Ian Morris, the veteran technology executive who is leading the new Seattle-area startup, in an interview with GeekWire.
Likewise is not under the umbrella of any of Gates’ existing organizations, though the idea for it was born in his private office. For now, Gates is the sole investor, but Likewise isn’t saying how much he has put in so far. Gates is not an executive with the company, but he is actively engaged, getting regular reports from the team, taking part in product reviews and asking in-depth questions. Plus, he is one of the beta testers.
Though Gates co-founded one of the most influential tech companies in the world in Microsoft, in recent years he has focused primarily on philanthropy through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Through his private office in Kirkland, Wash., originally known as bgC3 and recently renamed Gates Ventures, Gates is involved in a wide range of personal projects and investments. However, his role in hatching a new consumer-facing startup is an unusual turn for the second-richest person on earth.
Cohen, a veteran of companies including Claris, Apple and Collabra Software, came up with the idea for Likewise after noticing how often conversations with his friends turned to recommendations for shows, restaurants or movies. But he wasn’t satisfied with any existing apps or mechanisms to collect and share those ideas.
Even high-level interactions demonstrated the need for such an app. Cohen recalled former President Barack Obama pulling Gates aside to recommend a favorite TV show, The Knick. In addition to his well-known love of books, Gates is a big TV fan, with recent favorites including the Netflix series Narcos.
Cohen brought the idea for the app to Gates, who was hooked.
“He jumps up from his chair, and he starts talking, and he really gets into it,” Cohen recalled, describing a classic scene for anyone who has worked closely with the Microsoft co-founder.
Gates agreed with Cohen that there needed to be a better way of storing and finding recommendations from friends, and he expressed a willingness to help bring the idea to life. Cohen wanted to explore the idea as a side project, without leaving his day job, and he knew it would take a dedicated team to make the vision happen.
Morris, who spent seven years at Microsoft before becoming CEO of real estate services company Market Leader, taking it through an IPO and acquisition, was a mentor early on for Likewise but liked the concept so much he wanted to get further involved. Today, Likewise has just shy of 20 people, working out of the WeWork location in Bellevue, Wash.
Michael Dix, managing partner of consulting company Intentional Futures, is a co-founder of the company along with Cohen and Morris. Other prominent members of the team include CTO Salim Hemdani, who held the same position at Avalara and Mixpo; Vice President of Product Cam Nguyen, a former senior product manager for Amazon Education; and Vice President of Marketing Maria Hess, who worked at Expedia and Google and spent five years at PicMonkey before joining Likewise a year ago.
The app uses a follower structure like Twitter, and allows users to create lists of recommended movies, shows, restaurants and more, somewhat similar to Pinterest boards. Likewise focuses purely on recommendations, rather than star ratings like Yelp.
With all the attention on fake reviews, as well as the often toxic nature of rating systems, the Likewise team purposefully set out to create a positive environment with their app, Cohen and Morris said. In addition to recommending places to others, users can save recommendations to remember later. There is also a function for asking followers and people with similar profiles for recommendations.
“In real life we reach out to people we know and we trust,” Morris said. “And in the digital world we’ve come to accept something far less than that: the opinion of the crowd and an average score. And that’s just become the normal thing, but it’s not really what most people want.”
Gates won’t always be the company’s sole investor; Likewise executives said they plan raise additional money from others in the future. One thing the company is not worried about right now is making money, although Cohen and Morris said there are several possible ways to generate revenue long-term, potentially leveraging the data the app will naturally generate from user recommendations.
The company has started with a pretty ambitious vision of compiling and sharing recommendations for a variety of activities, both in the form of social feeds and maps. Eventually, the goal is to be a “cross-platform companion for any type of decision that involves a recommendation,” Morris said. The executives imagine potential integrations with cars, digital assistants and more.
But before it can get there, Likewise just has to worry about today, when it unveils itself to the world.
“Betas are helpful,” Morris said, “but going live, we’re going to find out some things, and I don’t know what they are today, but we’ll find out some things where you go, ‘wow, we didn’t anticipate that.’ And then we decide how fast can we go.”