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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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A Confusing Social Media Birthday

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I turned 48 on December 1st. I took a week off the grid (from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving until the Wednesday after my birthday) – part of my quarterly off the grid routine with Amy. We had a very mellow birthday this year, spent it with a few friends who came to visit us in San Diego at the tennis place we love to hide at, and basically just slept late, played tennis, read a lot, got massages, ate nice food, and had adult activities.

I returned to an onslaught of email (no surprise) which included a long list of happy birthday wishes. I had 129 happy birthday wall posts and about 50 LinkedIn happy birthday messages.

As I read through them, I was intrigued and confused.

  • The Facebook wall posts were nice – almost all said either “happy birthday” or “happy birthday + some nice words.” I received one gift via Facebook (a charitable donation – thanks Tisch, you’ve got class!) Ok – that felt pretty good.
  • The emails were mixed. Many of them were like the Facebook wall posts. A few of them were online cards. But about 10% of them asked me for something, using the happy birthday message as an excuse to “reconnect.”
  • About 50% of the LinkedIn messages were requests for something. The subject line was “Happy Birthday” but the message then asked for something.

I decided not to respond to any of them. There were a few emails with specific stuff that I wanted to say, but the vast majority I just read and archived.

I found myself noticeably bummed out after going through the LinkedIn ones. I woke up thinking about it again today, especially against the backdrop of reading Dave Eggers awesome book The Circle (more on that coming soon.)

I’m an enormous believer in the idea of “give before you get.” It’s at the core of my Boulder Thesis in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City  and how I try to live my personal and business live. Fortunately, many of the people I am close to also believe in this and incorporate it into the way they live.

When processing my birthday wishes, especially the LinkedIn ones, there was very little “give before you get.” That’s fine – I don’t expect that from anyone – it’s not part of my view of an interaction model that I have to impose it on others. But I was really surprised by the number of people that used my birthday as a way to “get something” without “giving something” other than a few words in a social media message.

This confused me. The more I thought about it, the more I was confused, especially by the difference between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. When I tried to organize my thinking, the only thing I could come up with was that email was “variable”, Facebook was “generic”, and LinkedIn was “selfish.” I didn’t love these characterizations, but this prompted me to write this post in an effort to understand it better.

Oh – and the best thing I got electronically for my birthday was from Andrei Soroker via a different channel – Kato.

I’m going to ponder the “culture of different communication channels” more, but I’m especially curious if anyone out there has a clear point of view on the different cultures between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Feel free to toss Twitter in the mix if you want.

One Real-Time Communication System to Rule Them All

Comments (36)

We just led an investment in Kato and I’ll be joining the board.

If the headline sounds familiar, it’s because it’s similar to the one I wrote a year ago when we led an investment in FullContact. The headline then was One Address Book To Rule Them All.

Like the contact management problem, the real-time communication problem is a total mess. In the last decade, there has been a proliferation of efforts to address real-time communications in the enterprise. New collaboration systems, such as Microsoft SharePoint and Lotus Connections emerged. This evolved into enterprise social computing systems, such as NewsGator (which I’m on the board of) and Jive. Lightweight approaches that tried to emulate Facebook, such as Yammer (now owned by Microsoft) became visible, chat got integrated in broader messaging systems like Skype and Google Hangouts, which in turn were subsumed by larger messaging systems at Microsoft and Google, and the result is that the default continues to be the soul-crushing and mind-numbing least common denominator known as email.

The problem has accelerated in the past two years. We now use multiple communication products across our portfolio of over 60 companies. Some use Jive. Some use Yammer. Some use HipChat. Some use Flowdock. Some use Campfire. Some try to use Google+. Some still use IRC. And some have simply given up and just use email.

When I try to get in the real-time communication streams, I have to use the specific system that each company uses. With many of them, I have to have a unique login for each company. I log in with one account (usually with an email address that company #1 gave me), check it and respond, log out, log in to the next account (with a different email address specific to company #2), check it and respond, and repeat. This is fun for about three minutes, at which time I just start getting the daily email notices of activity and periodically click on a link, login, and try to respond to something, assuming my login works correctly and I can remember the login / password for that particular company.

While the individual systems work – with different levels of happiness – they just suck across organizations. My world is a network, not a hierarchy, and I want to, and need to, communicate across many different organizations. Ultimately, I want ONE place to centralize all of this. Unfortunately, the only answer today is email. And that just sucks.

My email habits changed significantly when I started using Gmail. Search, across my entire email corpus, eliminated the need for me to use folders and store anything. I didn’t have to remember stuff. Conversations threaded everything.

Kato has similar powerful features that change the way I use real-time messaging. Each “room” (which can include people from Foundry Group, other organizations, or anyone I invite to that specific room) are searchable across the entire corpus. Search works everywhere – I don’t really have to remember anything other than a hint to I’m looking for. I can skim when I want, the same way I use Twitter. Or I can read every message in a room. I can integrate any third-party service I want into a room (currently 25 – adding about one a week). Soon I’ll be able to synchronize data with other real-time systems.

Oh – and there’s an API so you can do whatever you want with it. For example, during a hack day, the gang at FullContact did a bi-directional sync with Campfire. So now I can see everything but don’t have to deal with Campfire. And I get my Asana stream in a room – consolidated across the four different Asana organizations that I’m a part of.

Andrei and Peter have had Kato available for early adopters six weeks after they wrote the first line of code. They have a Support room for every customer that they participate in (in real-time) and drive their product based on real-time customer feedback. It’s amazing to watch and participate in.

While we are still very early in the process, I’m absolutely blown away by what these two guys did over the summer at Techstars. And I’m looking forward to working closely with them to attack a problem that has vexed me every day for the past 20 years.

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