The Quietly Persistent Entrepreneur

Alain Mayer doesn’t look like your typical Valley entrepreneur in today’s celebrity parlance. He’s a not a college dropout. He’s from Europe! Switzerland, to be exact. He came to the United States, grabbed a Masters in Computer Science from Brown and then his PhD in Computer Science from Columbia University.

Since then, he’s been a quiet but persistent startup junkie working in highly technical capacities. He started at SMArts, which was acquired by EMC, Bell Labs, became the CTO at CenterRun (now part of Sun/Oracle) and CTO of Red Seal Systems. After Red Seal, he wanted to do his own thing, and he’s long been fascinated with technologies that can help discover and summarize news — not unlike what Google News tries to do. He went back to Columbia and found some old professors who were working on NLP technology, and licensed it from them.

And, thus, his startup — Dygest — was born. Mayer teamed with Alan Caudill, a former colleague from his startup days. Dygest started very small with precise entry points. They used the NLP technology to create four native iPhone applications focused on specific news verticals: Apple, Technology, Celebrity, and Gaming. All did quite well, and as you may imagine, the Apple one did quite well. My wife used the Celebrity Dygest app to keep up to date on all the Hollywood gossip.

The cool thing about their technology is that they could pick a topic, seed it with 50-100 hand-picked blogs around the topic, and then the system would surface the Top 10 or Most Popular articles at any given time, synthesizing different blogs on the same topic and distilling a news story out of existing news stories. We all know this problem in tech blog circles. There are 25+ blogs that announce the same bit of news; here, Dygest went to all those and created one article about the event. The unfortunate thing about this is that the apps were federated, and while communities of users were being built. Dygest didn’t know much about them and couldn’t find the right engagement layer.

And herein lies the rub for Dygest. They did everything right, but hit a wall. Over the course of half a year, they made some key decisions. They began to create one unified app with roughly 10 news channels, which included Apple, Technology, and the other legacy apps. They decided to use a right-hand menu bar, which visually offended me but Alain pretty much ignored my advice! They added politics, too — so he was listening, sometimes. And, they had to get more social. So they rebuilt the system to have more identity around users.

Ultimately, the key decision in the new build was to figure out what to have the readers do once they’ve read a news story. The answer is to “play the news.” Just like we may want to bet on March Madness games or trade stock in Hollywood celebrities or Intrade political futures markets, Dygest decided to let its users to interact with the news around polling questions that could hopefully provide insights into sentiment, forecasts, and opinion. Yes, you can call it a game mechanic, but in this case, it really is, and the crowd so far loves it. Read a summarized article to catch up on a topic, get prompted with a short question, the option to say “yes” or “no,” and then see how the crowd reacts around that yes/no question.

With Dygest powering the underlying technology in the app, the company needed to turn toward consumers. This led to a series of quick changes that Alain and Alan executed quite precisely and quickly:

  • The unified app became “Scoople,” a play on news “scoops.”
  • I was able to convince Sahil Lavingia to help Dygest redo its iOS logo, and of course, he delivered [see here]
  • Then, the guys closed a seed round of $750,000, which they really had to grind out.
  • Without much effort (and some kinks need to be ironed out), Scoople quickly amassed a footprint of 100,000+ iPhone users, and I’m working with the guys to pour gasoline on that.
  • Then, Scoople was covered by TechCrunch.
  • You can follow a Twitter feed of their mobile poll results here.
  • And, now, they have a shot to build a bit more viral loops into the product, clarify their brand and messaging, and hopefully step on the gas to get more users.

So, let’s see what happens with Scoople. I don’t know if Alain is sitting on a gold mine, but I do believe he’s on to something. Scoople is able to capture statistics of a certain set of mobile phone users, and the amounts he’s collecting are very close to meeting tests of statistical significance. He talks about it as a “Nielsen for mobile.” News is obviously shared with lightening speed on social networks, so Scoople’s challenge is to harness a small slice of that massive sharing traffic and pull some opinion data out of the users. And, I think they can do it.

I’m really rooting for Alain more than the technology or the app. He’s really been grinding it out for a long time. He’s put a ton of thought and elbow grease into the work, like many of you. It’s really hard to have a breakout app. There’s Instagram, there are apps that have large web audiences, and then there’s everyone else. But the initial signs are promising. You should give it a whirl. You can download the iOS app here.

About Semil Shah

Official contributor to @TechCrunch (since Jan 2011); from July 1, will begin EIR with @JavelinVP

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