Marissa Mayer shoves her iPhone toward her MacBook’s webcam until it overwhelms the screen on the Google Meet video call we are sharing.
“I admire Apple,” she declares. “They are the best at what they do. But the fact that the biggest and most successful company on Earth by some measures—and certainly the best at design, bar none—thinks that when you meet someone new, that this is an ideal interface is mind-blowing. It’s like bad nerd humor.”
What Mayer is critiquing is the New Contact feature in iOS’s Contacts app—an exceedingly generic screen with fields for you to type first and last names, phone numbers, and other information. It’s not uniquely uninspired. Actually, it’s comparable to Google’s equivalent on an Android phone—and reminiscent of nearly every other piece of software for managing contacts we’ve seen throughout the history of smartphones and PCs.
Mayer has been part of that history herself—first at Google, which was a dinky startup when she joined it in 1999 as its first female engineer. She went on to shape many of the company’s most familiar product experiences before leaving in 2012 to become Yahoo’s CEO. That gig ended five years later when the storied internet pioneer was acquired by Verizon.
Now Mayer is back in the product business—and as you may have already guessed, she thinks she has a better way to wrangle contacts. That would be Sunshine Contacts, the new iPhone app (Android is in the works) from her latest company, Sunshine. If you’ve previously heard of the largely stealthy startup, it was under the name Lumi Labs, which Mayer, its CEO, says was a placeholder all along. The app is launching as an invite-only closed beta; you can download it from the App Store and sign up for an alert when it’s ready to let you in.
Joining Mayer as cofounder and president is Enrique Muñoz Torres, whose entire career has been intertwined with hers. An MIT senior when Mayer hired him as a Google associate product manager in 2004, he left that company in 2013 to join her at Yahoo, where he eventually led the advertising and search businesses. Though both Mayer and Muñoz Torres have copious experience creating and ramping up successful products, they are first-time founders. Their company currently has about 20 employees, making it the same size as Google was when Mayer joined it.
Contact management may not sound like an idea with the potential to become the next Google or Yahoo. That’s because Sunshine Contacts is just the first app in what Sunshine’s cofounders envision as a large portfolio of offerings. “From the get-go, we’re thinking about a strategy and a product line that, if executed correctly, we believe should lead to us scaling beyond a relatively trivial number of users,” says Muñoz Torres. “And over time, really having an impact at the scale that we’ve seen in previous places.”
So what is Sunshine’s bigger strategy? For now, Mayer and Muñoz Torres are sharing only so many details. Mayer describes the company’s mission as involving “group communication, event planning and organization, family sharing, and scheduling. Those are the types of everyday tasks that seem to get in the way of your relationships. Those are the types of things that we’re excited about.” It’s tough to manage your relationships if you don’t even have a well-organized means of reaching people, which is why they tackled contacts first.
“What really captured my imagination was speaking with Enrique and Marissa about using this as a foundation to build lots of services on top of the contacts and use it as a way to really better communicate with the people who matter in our lives,” says venture capitalist and Nextdoor cofounder Sarah Leary, who invested in Sunshine on behalf of Unusual Ventures. “That’s a really big idea. It’s a messy problem. It’s one that I think people have overlooked for decades.”
It’s not that nobody has ever tried to reimagine contacts as we know them. “In our journey, I feel like I’ve become a historian of contacts in Silicon Valley,” says Mayer, reminding me of some moments I’d forgotten about. Eighteen years ago, there was Plaxo, a contacts-based proto-social network started by Napster cofounder (and later Facebook president) Sean Parker. Bump, an early iPhone App Store hit, made it easy to share contact info with nearby people. Mayer also gives credit to Microsoft for work it did on contacts in this century’s first decade.
With all of those efforts having receded well into the past, there was plenty left for Sunshine to do. More than ever, in fact: Our still-accelerating reliance on an array of communications tools is only making us more dependent on contacts. But unless you’ve tended to yours far more attentively than most people, they’re probably a disaster zone—or, more likely, several of them.
“Typically, contacts are littered in a few different places,” says Rohit Chandra, Sunshine’s VP of engineering (and a former colleague of Mayer and Muñoz Torres at Yahoo). “They’ll be in your iPhone. They’ll be in your email, and maybe Google contacts. And with some of them, the information would just be sitting in an email that somebody may have sent to you. If I’m trying to reach out to somebody, it becomes my job to figure out where the latest information is and what’s accurate. It’s a headache that all of us have.”
If someone’s current, complete information is actually within easy reach, it can feel like a little miracle. Sunshine Contacts’ aim is to make it an everyday reality. And its approach follows the model set by Google’s search engine back when Mayer was one of the people figuring out how it should work. On the surface, there’s an approachable, streamlined interface. Beneath that, AI and other forms of computer science are working hard to find and organize vast amounts of information.
“A majority of the magic happens on the back end, and that’s because we curate a lot of information from a lot of different sources,” says software engineer Ankit Jain, who invited Mayer to talk about Lumi Labs at a meeting of former Google employees and was so swayed by her presentation that he ended up joining the company. Those sources start with your Apple contacts. Optionally, they can also include one or more Gmail accounts—not just the contacts therein, but also data that Sunshine can divine from content such as email signatures. Publicly available information such as LinkedIn profiles is also part of the mix, as are details that other Sunshine users enter about themselves.
Sunshine’s app aggregates all of the above, de-dupes it, and attempts to identify outdated info. It also writes it back to Apple’s contacts so that it’s available in the Phone app, Mail, and other products that hook into the default contact repository, such as WhatsApp. (Sunshine Contacts can’t dislodge Apple’s Contacts as an iPhone’s standard contacts experience, a fact that Mayer and Muñoz Torres understand and say they’re okay with.)
I gave Sunshine Contacts a try with my own contacts, which are splayed across my iPhone and two Gmail accounts, include some records so musty that I probably entered them on a PalmPilot, and even contain multiple outdated records for myself. The app ingested 23,148 entries in total and whittled that down to 13,473 by removing duplicates. It also informed me that it had been able to “enhance” 6,869 of my contacts with better information—a percentage that could theoretically balloon over time if Sunshine attracts a critical mass of users and they update their own entries.
The process is not perfect. For instance, Sunshine conflated an ex-Googler I know with a current Googler who happens to share his name. It also concluded that the correct mailing address it found for one of my colleagues was obsolete, perhaps because he lives in Cincinnati, nowhere near any Fast Company office. (In some cases, the app will seek your help—for instance, asking if two contacts are the same person or confirming that an email address it’s found is yours.)
The risk of Sunshine leaping to wrongheaded conclusions is an artifact of its own ambition. It’s applying machine learning and other technologies to challenges such as “understanding that Julia Sherman from a few years ago is the same person as Julia Hudson,” says software engineer Hemanth Sunkara. “That’s valuable information. Those kinds of insights are missing in the products out there today.”
Even if you end up undoing some of Sunshine’s would-be enhancements, your contacts should end up in much better shape than they started. And once the app has tidied them up, you can interact with them in ways that go beyond searching or skimming through an A-Z list. You can share your own contact info with someone in your database—personal details, professional ones, both, or just one item such as your cell number. You can select people and introduce them, sharing their contact information in the process. And you can use the app to ping people in your contacts and request that they update their info—one at a time, so that it doesn’t devolve into LinkedIn-like spam.
If you happen to be in close physical proximity to another Sunshine user, the app also lets the two of you quickly exchange info—a feature that Mayer acknowledges will be much handier once life returns to a semblance of normalcy.
We are not going to be targeting advertising, selling the data, doing anything of that nature.”
However, the app does share facts you’ve entered about yourself with other Sunshine users who have you in their contacts. “We view that as a feature and a benefit,” says Mayer. But she acknowledges that there are instances when you might want to hide your details from a certain individual, perhaps for reasons of personal safety. When you update your info, the app shows you a list of the users who will see it. It then lets you uncheck any of them and waits 24 hours before distributing it to everybody else.
Given Mayer and Muñoz Torres’s backgrounds at Google and Yahoo—two companies whose revenue derives mostly from putting advertising in front of eyeballs—you might also wonder if Sunshine’s long-term plan is to turn its users into the product. They say that’s not in the cards. “We are not going to be targeting advertising, selling the data, doing anything of that nature,” stresses Muñoz Torres. “Those are not business models that we believe are compatible with what we’re doing.”
For now, as Sunshine focuses on scaling up its user base, its contacts app is free. The company expects that it will eventually adopt a freemium business model in which some features carry a fee.
Back to basics
In some alternate universe, Sunshine Contacts may well be a Yahoo product. Its roots are in conversations that Mayer and Muñoz Torres had at that company in 2017, when they began tossing around concepts relating to helping people with groups and events. “At that point, the company had already been sold to Verizon,” explains Mayer. “And so we said, ‘Look, this isn’t the right time or the right place.'” So they put the matter aside.
After the pair left Yahoo and spent a few months decompressing, the ideas they’d contemplated still seemed promising, so they decided to turn them into a startup. That became the company initially known as Lumi Labs, which they self-funded. (They have since lined up $20 million in venture capital from Felicis Ventures, Unusual Ventures, WIN Ventures, and angel investors, among other sources.)
For Mayer, tackling a big ambition at a tiny company is a throwback to her earliest days at Google. She even leaned into the parallels by renting office space at 165 University Ave. in downtown Palo Alto, the same address that Google called home when she joined it. “It has these funny tiled steps you walk up, and for some reason, that’s always indelibly in my mind,” she says. “So when I walk up those steps, I have that feeling of returning to that moment in 1999 when we spent the summer in that office.” (For most of this year, of course, Mayer and her coworkers have worked from home.)
The name “Sunshine” also bridges the present with Mayer’s Google past. When Craig Silverstein, Google’s first employee, asked her to choose a name for her Linux workstation, she blurted out “Sunshine,” based on the fact that it happened to be a nice day. A couple of decades later, the same word gave off the upbeat, enlightening vibe that Mayer and Muñoz Torres wanted their brand to convey. They even managed to snag Sunshine.com for their web presence and @Sunshine on Twitter.
When Yahoo ended its run as an independent company, it had about 8,600 employees. Sunshine, née Lumi Labs, started with only its cofounders. As with all fledgling companies, Mayer and Muñoz Torres’s work has been inherently hands on, sometimes in the most literal sense. “You can go from a very high-level discussion on what your strategy and product line should be to building a desk and running a wire to get the internet to work,” says Muñoz Torres.
You also hire people—and, along the way, build a culture. According to Mayer, the atmosphere they’re trying to create is summed up by the sentiment stitched on a pillow given to her by Maureen Taylor, an executive coach she worked with at Yahoo: BE NICE OR LEAVE. “If we’re going to do this, we want to do something that we’re inspired by and excited about every day,” she says. “And we want to work with people that we’re really excited to work with.”
“Every day, we have a stand-up, and any given time, somebody will raise their hand and say, ‘You know, I’m stuck,'” says program manager Annie Luu, who worked with Mayer and Muñoz Torres at Yahoo and left Square last month to rejoin them at Sunshine. “And five people will raise their hands and be like, ‘After this call, let me help you. What can I do to help?’ Mind you, five people is 25% of the company. Marissa and Enrique have really made a concerted effort to hire really nice people so that it shines through in our product.”
It’s not hard to detect similarities between the app and products in Mayer’s past.
Mayer collaborates on Sunshine Contacts’ look and feel with designer Zaianne Sparrow, whose studies and career took her from her native Malaysia to Australia and then to New York and Chicago before she headed to Silicon Valley and Sunshine. “My personal style has always been very minimalistic,” says Sparrow. “And it’s great to work with Marissa, who is also very minimalistic. But the only difference is that she loves color.”
It’s not hard to detect similarities between the app and products in Mayer’s past. Its home screen features the Sunshine logo—which is, naturally, colorful—sitting atop a search field and looking a little like the Google home page that she once presided over. And the effort to impose simplicity on a potentially nebulous design challenge is tangible. Early prototypes stuffed functionality into a lengthy menu of options. Later, Mayer and Sparrow ditched the menu in favor of oversize buttons leading to key features, making the experience feel a little less like an app and a little more like a dashboard.
One thing Sunshine Contacts is not is over-tested. At Google, Mayer was famous—though not universally admired—for using A/B testing of users to inform product design. Today, she pushes back on that reputation (“everyone will have a different take on those stories”) and says that it began as a directive from above, intended to help the company avoid becoming mired in competing opinions.
Moreover, you can only let data guide the way once you already have a sizable contingent of users whose behavior you can study. To date, very few people have seen Sunshine’s app, let alone begun using it daily. “A lot of the rigorous, very experiment-driven work that I’ve done doesn’t translate here,” says Mayer.
Which is not to say that the company isn’t looking forward to throwing its app’s doors open, letting in the masses, and keeping tabs on their reactions. “We’ve done user studies, we’ve had conversations, we’ve had product brainstormings,” says Muñoz Torres. “We’ve done all the things that you do when you, when you start a new idea and you start building on it . . . but the real learning comes when you put something out there and you have more than a handful of users using it and giving you feedback, positive and negative.”
Even though Sunshine wants to stop being a one-product company as soon as possible—Mayer believes that many startups wait too long to branch out—everything to come will build on its first launch. “It’s both exhilarating and terrifying,” she says. “Because, obviously, I like a lot of the decisions that we’ve made on the product, but I’m also a seasoned enough product person to know that on the outside, no one’s going to like every decision. And there may be people who don’t even like most decisions.” If you give contacts in their current form any thought, it’s painfully clear that they’re broken. All that’s left is for the world to decide if Sunshine has fixed them.