My brain hurts. Rereading the transcript from my interview with the founders of Exgage, a “new open social community platform,” I’m riddled with indecision. Are open communities really the future of social networking as the Exgage team suggests or simply another spear tossed ineffectually at fortress Facebook? Are marketers really looking for a new means of tapping into the wisdom of crowds while remaining safely anonymous or are these just the soon to be dashed dreams of yet another over-optimistic entrepreneur?
“Not all those who wander are lost.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Unprepared, if not unqualified, to answer these questions I decided to take a walk with my petite yet intrepid French bulldog. Along the way we encountered a Great Dane puppy already approaching the size of Facebook. With entrepreneurial fearlessness and the customary sniffs completed, my dog gamely attempted to play with his new “friend,” a decision that bordered on quixotic tragedy. Needless to say, all it took was one gangly paw swat and my dog went down like the proverbial house of cards. Reflecting on this mismatch, I raced back to my computer.
“Be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.” -Stephen A. Kallis, Jr.
Entrepreneurs by nature must be open-minded, believing, like my dog, that they can overcome any obstacle however large. That, of course, doesn’t mean they are always right. In fact, more often than not, their optimism is misplaced and their dreams are crushed with painful regularity. At issue here is the ability to discern the winners from the losers, the Facebook’s from the footnotes. Unsure if Exgage is either, I’m left wondering if you or I would actually recognize the next Facebook on launch day, even if it hit us in head. So with cautiously open minds, let’s explore this further, especially as Exgage is actually launching this very day.
“Most people are more comfortable with old problems than with new solutions.” -Author Unknown
At this point, it would probably help to provide a little more background on Exgage so you can join in me in this assessment. Launching March 3, Exgage was founded by Michael Winner, perhaps the most appropriately named entrepreneur of our time. Winner, the former CTO of Passenger and Blinklogic, describes Exgage as the first truly “open social network platform.” Offering both an open API and open topics of conversation, Winner hopes that marketers will see Exgage as a source of real-time research with the welcome advantages of anonymity.
“Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” -Author Unknown
We can accept as truth that brands, big and small, have been seeking to build user communities for several years now. But according to Winner, these are mainly closed communities, controlled by the brand and limited to 200-800 users. Explains Winner, “there are really no open communities, especially topically based, where a user or a brand can go in anonymously and lead a social network.” Hoping to “engage 100,000 users on a certain topic,” Winner believes this kind of scale will yield unrivaled insights and data they can then monetize.
“The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.” -J.K. Galbraith
Getting to a 100,000 person community might seem like a fish story to most, but Exgage has a hook that just might bring in users by the boatload. Initially targeting activists within non-profit organizations, Exgage offers its entire platform free to NPOs. Explains Winner, “so people are engaged in socially conscious topics [on Exgage] and eventually they’re going to weigh in on other industry and commercial things we’re talking about.” Hmm, possible red flag here. Seems like a bit of a bait and switch to me but then again, who would have thought a brand on Facebook could end up with millions of fans?
“One who walks in another’s tracks leaves no footprints.” -Proverb
Among the more intriguing aspects of Exgage is that it doesn’t see Facebook as competition. “We’re not trying to be our own social network,” notes Winner. “I think it is more about the topical social relevance,” he adds. Interestingly, Facebook sets up both the problem Exgage solves and could provide the source of its users. Explains Winner, “When you see trends or a status update on Facebook it ends up being lost,” a problem Exgage readily solves. And in terms of sourcing users, “We know right now that 1200 causes inside of Facebook want to use our platform,” adds the steadfastly optimistic Winner.
“Never accept the proposition that just because a solution satisfies a problem, that it must be the only solution.” -Raymond E. Feist
To help in your evaluation let’s turn to the analysts who should have some clue if there’s a market here or not. According to Winner, both Gardner and Forrester claim Exgage is entering a $500 million industry that could eventually be a multi-billion dollar one. With these numbers in mind, Winner reports that, “Exgage can have a $100 million cap over a couple of years by only selling 500 to 1000 communities.” He is also quick to add that, “we didn’t start this for commerce; its more about social consciousness like Wikiplace or Wikipedia.”
“If you keep doing things like you’ve always done them, what you’ll get is what you’ve already got.” -Author Unknown
All of which begs the question, will Exgage be amongst the few start-ups that make it big? Reports Winner, “we’re not under any type of delusion that we’re the place to go and talk about things but we do provide a place for people’s voices to be heard.” Upping the ante, Winner notes that, “you’re not going to be scrubbed or modeled or edited out,” which is why he believes they are in a unique spot. So what say you dear reader, would you recognize the next Facebook if it was described to you in the earliest stages of its evolution?
Final Note: If you think Exgage might be on to something and are willing to back up your beliefs with capital, let Winner know (@michaelwinner). Exgage is currently in talks with both angel and seed investors.