If you happened to be off the grid last week, a new video chat startup called Airtime launched, courtesy of two of my favorite “Sean/Shawns” – Parker and Fanning. I decided to leave an Airtime video message for Parker instead of shooting over the usually obligatory “congrats on the launch” email. Before I left him a message (see screenshot), I jotted down a few thoughts…
I have no stake in Airtime at all, but in stock trader parlance, I’m taking the “long” position, even if Daily Active Users have taken a plunge back to ~10,000 with 150,000 MAUs. Here are a few reasons why I’m long Airtime.
Starting with the semi-obvious, the macro sector of companies that are focused on “social discovery with viral gaming mechanics, built on top of Facebook Connect / Open Graph” is hot, and it’s only getting hotter. (Okay, maybe that’s not a market segment in Mary Meeker’s slides, but I’d argue the “hottest” companies trending on AngelList or Nasdaq are using the pre-built social graph and viral loop that comes from using Facebook Connect to grow faster, bigger, and better than ever before.)
Not convinced yet? Just take a look at Pinterest, Path, Zynga, Instagram, etc. This is Web 3.0 – easily discovering new things from people you know or that you believe you can trust. There are three key components behind all the companies executing this successfully: 1) Have a log-in with your Facebook identity, 2) focus on the mechanics of the viral loop, and 3) Use the graph data to create meaningful experiences.
First, while Airtime may seem to be a fairly simple tool, it isn’t, and certainly not if you think of all the real time peer-to-peer video connectivity required without caching. However, the login and setup process is very simple, yet another example of our Facebook identity and the social graph creeping out of the Facebook world.
As Facebook Connect credentialization is now used broadly throughout the Internet these days, it becomes clear that our Facebook identity is starting to bleed into our real-world lives. The trend may be unsettling to the minority who refuse to acquire or have deleted a FB identity, but for the rest of us, Facebook identity-creep will result in a continued, increased level of convenience in our day to day lives. The ease of on-boarding and use should help convert some Skype laggards to the video chat space. It’s different from the many-to-many video platforms out there doing well with record and post functionality, like Spreecast, Justin.tv, and others. Airtime is closest in scope to Google Hangouts, but who uses Google+?
Second, Chatroulette, the original video “discovery” website, never went viral because content was often crude and risqué, due to the fact that there was no anchor linking one’s Chatroulette actions to their real-world identity.
While on the surface Airtime is similar to Chatroulette, the two services differ greatly in the fact that your Airtime identity is linked to your Facebook profile. That profile started in the early days with a .edu address on college campuses, ensuring that if you wanted Facebook to be useful back then, to had to look up people in the same class as you, it had to be the real you. The identity link to each person’s Facebook profile, interests, mutual friends, and the reporting features should limit the amount of Chatroulette-like risqué content being pumped through Airtime.
Also, Airtime takes advantage of the Facebook permissions it requests at registration to create a game-like atmosphere. There is a ubiquitous score, applause button, achievement badges that add a game like look and feel – it’s gamification waiting to happen. The only question is what do you get to do with this score or badges besides brag about it? I’m sure there are some interesting options coming.
Most important to the viral loop is the scary good integration of Facebook chat and messaging from Airtime. When I send an Airtime message or invite someone to the service it looks like the FB chat or message is coming directly from me. Also, now that Facebook allows an app to pull email, I’m getting notifications directly to my inbox. Anyone remember the “Hotmail” footer at the bottom of every email, or Plaxo asking you to update your contact card for a friend? This is on that viral level, and some previous apps have been banned by Facebook for very similar implementations. It’s effective, but as Parker well knows from Plaxo, there could be a big backlash to this kind of stuff.
Third, the Facebook APIs and Open Graph finally create a meaningful experience for people to interact via video chat on the Internet: Connecting users with one another based on characteristics in their FB profile, such as geographical location, similar interests (you’ll see similar interests highlighted when chatting), leaving video messages via chat, and finding “Friends of Friends” or people who are one degree of separation away from your FB friends.
This wasn’t possible when Chatroulettte first started and is yet another example of how “social discovery” is changing as Facebook expands its reach. As Airtime adds mobile with real-time location (not easy, by the way) and other features this will only increase its usability with your friends or people you wish to discover.
Finally, as long-time entrepreneur/investor, I’ve learned that the biggest single point of success or failure for any startup is its team and their ability to execute on a common vision. A great team can make an okay idea great. An okay team will usually screw up a great idea.
If you start with Parker and Fanning (hard to argue with the combination of Napster, Plaxo, Facebook, Spotify, etc.), then mix in the team they’ve built around them, that’s a pretty damn great team. And Airtime is a pretty damn good execution of a good idea. That equals “great” at a minimum. I’m not worried about the lack of business model or revenue at launch. That will come with any great consumer product over time, and Airtime is lucky enough to have the money and resources to focus on building a great user experience before adding advertising or premium products.
So, in my unqualified opinion, Airtime will be a success. Does that mean I will use Airtime regularly for meeting friends of friends or people with similar interests? Honestly, the answer is no. I don’t currently have the time outside of the curiosity factor from the launch.
But, if there are over one billion views a month of “haulers” finding you cool clothes on YouTube channels, and even more Retweets and Repins per month, then it’s hard to deny that “social discovery” hasn’t truly arrived. Timing is everything in this game and Airtime is just in time.