J-Squared's twentysomething founders have turned down some heady numbers. But the widget makers face some tough investment-funding choices
Unlike most recent college grads, Joe Aigboboh does not have a Facebook account. But Aigboboh, 22, and his business partner, Jesse Tevelow, 24, are now among the world's reigning experts on the Facebook platform—thanks to the popularity of one Facebook application, called Sticky Notes, that took Aigboboh less than a week to write.
They set up shop here, in the freshly painted basement of a dilapidated West Philly row house, a few weeks ago. Almost daily they get calls from Facebook-frenzied companies scrambling to stake their claim on the platform, offering them paid consulting gigs, development projects, full-time jobs. But now that their four-month-old company, J-Squared Media, is pulling in $45,000 a month in advertising revenues from Facebook, they've decided to focus on building their own applications instead.
Facebook Feeding Frenzy
Last month a privately held media company made a formal acquisition offer worth more than $3 million; following in the footsteps of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, J-Squared turned it down. One reason? As with the deal (BusinessWeek.com, 9/26/07) that Condé Nast made for the social-news site Reddit last year, working for the acquiring company would have been a term of the proposed agreement. And for the J-Squared founders, becoming two more anonymous product managers didn't hold much appeal—not if they could do something bigger.
Tevelow and Aigboboh know how this sounds. "My mom thinks I'm crazy," Tevelow says. "She can't believe there are million-dollar deals coming in and we're saying no." Their friends, when they talk to them, are similarly bewildered. But mostly, they haven't had time to talk.
Since Facebook opened its service to outside developers in May, some 70,000 people have requested the tools to develop Facebook applications. So far, most of these "apps" are simple ones like Sticky Notes, which allow Facebookers to write messages to their friends on what looks like a Post-it note. But of the 5,000 different widgets (BusinessWeek.com, 7/23/07) now available for Facebook users to add to their personal pages, only about 100 have been installed half a million times or more.
Since its debut in June, Sticky Notes has been installed more than 3.5 million times, with 211,000 Facebookers actively using the widget each day. The large user base Sticky Notes amassed in the early days has helped propel J-Squared's new application, Glitterbox—which "lets you send sparkly messages and graphics to your friends"—to more than 500,000 installs in a matter of weeks.
Over a late lunch (sandwiches), Aigboboh and his partner admit their success thus far is partly a virtue of luck and timing. But the popularity of Sticky Notes, which remains within the top 1% of applications on Facebook, also shows that they understand what Facebook users want—something that so far, companies many times their size so far have struggled to do. And unlike many other independent Facebook developers, they have figured out how to profit from their endeavors.
J-Squared's costs, so far, have been minimal—mostly servers, data storage, and copious amounts of Red Bull. A $10,000 investment in June from the TechStars program covered their expenses through mid-summer, when they started placing banner advertising on the "canvas page" of their application. Since then revenues from advertising have quickly started to add up—especially the rich-media ads VideoEgg (BusinessWeek.com, 8/14/07) serves up for brands like Burger King (BKC), which Aigboboh says pay out at a rate of $8 to $12 per thousand impressions.
Flirting with Investors
Today the J-Squared partners are still twitching with energy after this morning's big meeting with First Round Capital, an early-stage venture fund that has invested in several other Facebook-related companies, including VideoEgg and the widget maker RockYou (BusinessWeek.com, 5/22/07), which recently launched a Facebook advertising network of its own.
Back at the office, they use their new speakerphone to dial one of their TechStars mentors, Brad Feld, an early-stage venture capitalist in Boulder who is well acquainted with First Round. Tevelow gives Feld a quick rundown of the meeting, which he says went well. "Joe and I are thinking we want to go for it and take some serious investment," he says.
Now that venture capitalists (BusinessWeek.com, 4/2/07) are paying attention to startups like J-Squared—for whom a "serious investment" means a lot less than it used to—that is not an unreasonable goal. Two venture firms—Menlo Park (Calif.)-based Bay Partners and Monterey (Calif.)-based Altura Ventures —have set up early-stage investment funds focused solely on the Facebook platform. First Round founder Josh Kopelman also sits on the board of the new, $10 million fund Facebook's Zuckerberg announced in August, that will disburse grants of up to $250,000 to individuals or companies developing Facebook applications.
What's It Really Worth?
But Feld cautions that negotiating series-A financing is a trickier gambit than acquisition talks were: The time for simply saying yes or no to vague ballpark figures has passed. Tevelow and Aigboboh know why they want the money—so they can hire people. But Feld makes it clear that isn't going to cut it with VCs. "What are you guys going to do with half a million or a million?" Feld asks. "And is it half a million, or is it a million? There's a big difference between the two." Feld says there's another number they need to start thinking about, too: valuation.
When the call ends, there are a few moments of silence in the white-walled basement. Despite the hurricane of hype that surrounds Facebook (BusinessWeek.com, 9/25/07), Aigboboh and Tevelow are both well aware of the cynicism that exists among investors who question the utility and the long-term revenue potential of apps like Glitterbox. With the path to monetization on Facebook still unclear, they know those doubts will be reflected in valuations.
Still, Tevelow is optimistic. "I don't think it's that complicated," he pipes up—they just need to get everything down on paper: how many employees, how long the money will last. Aigboboh chews on his pen cap, thinking. He suggests they take a look at the valuation spreadsheet. "We're not going to raise half a million dollars and be done," he says. "I want to figure out how much we're going to raise now and how much we're going to raise a year from now."
Time to Make the Widgets
Meanwhile, there is still code to be written, bugs fixed, features added. "Do we have any stamps?" Tevelow wonders aloud.
On the corner of his desk is the first paycheck for J-Squared's one "employee,"a Flash developer in Ukraine named Sasha. At $3,300 a month, Sasha is a steal. Today, however, he's called in sick. When Tevelow phones the agency to find out when he'll be back, their contact, Natalia, reminds him that she could have two more developers ready to start within days. "Very talented, great communication skills!" she says, as Aigboboh, listening on speaker phone, vigorously shakes his head no.
They've already talked about this: Tevelow and Aigboboh agree that they want to hire someone local, even though they expect they'll have to offer to a starting salary more than double or triple what they'd pay an offshore worker. Technical skills, Teverow explains, are only part of the equation. They also need someone who can handle the nuances of tasks like the one he turns to now: surfing the Web for new images to turn into "glitter."
Aigboboh is working on an uploader that will enable Glitterbox users to do this themselves, but for now they try their best to keep up with the deluge of (sometimes baffling) requests from users, who seem to be split between middle-age women and middle-school-age girls.
Just Add Bubbles
Doing this, Teverow says wryly, has been an education in pop culture. "Yeah, 12-year-old pop culture," says his partner.
Today, those requests include: "Can u please design a Canadian 'Proud to be an Army Wife'…u have one for the Americans, but not Canadian." Writes another: "Hii! Awsome app!! Just one thing You have the PowerPuffs except for one, Bubbles!! Can she be added, plz?"
"This is my life right now," Tevelow says, shaking his head.
Tomorrow, the J-Squared team will head to New York to meet with another venture capital firm, where their thoughts will return to projections and term sheets and multimillion-dollar valuations. But for now, the missing PowerPuff Girl awaits.