The thing I love about the CEO Interview series is getting inside the heads of people like voyurl founder Adam Leibsohn. Reading his responses really highlights the passion and dedication he has, and clearly demonstrates the crazy smarts the dude is bringing to the table. Voyurl, in a very short time, has found itself a leader in the data / information privacy issues debate, being featured in publications such as The New York Times, Wired and Germany’s Spiegel. If you care about this stuff, and if you spend anytime online you should, then read on to find out more about voyurl.
Rick Liebling: Tell me about Voyurl. What was the inspiration, how did you get it off the ground?
Adam Leibsohn: So the the inspiration for voyurl came from working in digital strategy at a boutique agency in New York. After a few years spent helping build out strategic capabilities on the digital side of things, I was fortunate enough to get exposed to some interesting technologies. But a lot of what I saw were companies and platforms taking liberties with behavioral data, data that people weren’t aware was being collected about them. Nonetheless, these different vendors and tech platforms were exploiting this data to create services and products that generated a lot of revenue for themselves and their clients… but never created any benefit–let alone revenue–for the people who were responsible for generating all of this information.
Around the time that this epiphany was hitting me, Mark Zuckerberg kindly poured kerosene all over the embers of this situation by revamping the privacy policies/practices for all Facebook members. Then everyone sorta “lost it.” Lots of privacy advocates bubbled up, user-advocates started speaking up, users themselves were beginning to get more vocal about their rights and their data… and then The Wall Street Journal literally made personal data practices an entire, dedicated editorial section of their website. Not so quietly and not so slowly, everyone had something to say about data, what it meant, what should be done with it, and what people should do with themselves.
And while I respected the responses I witnessed, I had a slightly different view about things. I wasn’t really shocked about privacy violations because I didn’t see what was happening as a privacy violation but rather I considered it an absence of control. I’ve always viewed online privacy as the subsequent outcome of the presence or lack of two things: control and agency. Danah Boyd is significantly better spoken on this than me. And insanely smarter. So rather than break this whole dynamic down, I recommend reading up on her thoughts here. The short of it is that if users don’t have any agency and control within the platforms they use, then the subsequent outcome is a loss of privacy.
So that’s when I decided to start synthesizing my thoughts around what I continue to believe to be the solution: creating a space for a transparent, honest relationship around data… driven by a user’s perspective rather than a business’ or a platform’s. I believe that there is room for a platform that brings data out into the open in a way that doesn’t threaten a user’s agency or control. In fact, the intention is for this platform to actually empower users with agency and control specifically in relation to their data. Finally, when I thought I had the basics sorted out about how all the pieces would hang together, I started to beat the pavement–both physical and virtual. I did the basic rounds that probably every first-time entrepreneur has to do: I emailed anyone I knew who was even distantly connected to some kind of development. I visited everyone I knew within commuting distance to discuss the idea and explore their capabilities to help make it happen. It literally took years of this kind of effort–talking, meeting, emailing, calling, wishing–to find the right folks who were committed to the idea–not just the job–and who had the chops to get it done. There were many mini-failures along the way… lots of “not so perfect” folks I met who began work and never finished it, or just effed it all up. But… shit happens. You keep going.
When I had our current, completely awesomesauce team assembled, I tried some things to get attention within investment circles to begin introductions. I wasn’t attempting to fund raise, but I didn’t know anyone in the NYC tech scene; I thought this would be a good way to get my foot in the door and say, “Hello.” So, I took out Google search ads for prominent angel and seed fund decision makers so that when they Googled themselves, they got an ad from voyurl. It worked wonderfully. I got a few good meetings and a few weird ones. One thing became ridiculously clear: without a tech pedigree, someone who could vouch for me, or a prototype I wasn’t going to get anywhere with these folks. Fair enough.
That’s when I decided to go homeless. I gave my apartment up for 1 year and couch-surfed (among other things) in order to put my rent money in a savings account. That’s how I built the initial “go-to-market” fund for voyurl. And that’s all the money we’ve used to get voyurl to the point it is today. If it’s one thing you must have to do something like this, it is passion. If you’re not willing
to do anything and everything it takes to bring your vision to life, it’s the wrong vision.
Rick Liebling: So, what exactly does voyurl do?
Adam Leibsohn: voyurl recycles your data exhaust and browsing history to help you quantify your browsing behavior; and, we use that same data to start helping you discover cool, new content online about the stuff you love. So, you basically get your own analytics dashboard that’s made just for you and is only about you. It’s 100% private and secure and helps you understand what you’re doing online. Then we also use those same analytics to help you find new stuff online. In that sense we’re sort of like the mint.com for your digital data because we gather it up for you, trend it with analytics, and make recommendations to you.
The difference between what we’re doing and every other recommendation engine out there is twofold: 1) We literally require zero feedback. Just browse the web. voyurl will do the rest. We don’t ask you to like, thumbs up, plus, star, vote for anything because we use an awesome combination of bioinformatics and cluster analysis to make your data work really hard and work for you… without requiring any work from you. 2) We don’t need or want access to you social graph. That’s because we think people are getting sick of handing over the keys to their entire personal lives for a digital perk. And, to be honest, your social graph is more of a red herring than not when it comes to content recommendation. Are you so close with every person you’re connected to on Facebook that you want to get content recommendations from them? Do you all have that much in common? The answer to these questions and others like them is almost always, “Nope.”
Rick Liebling: Online privacy and online identity are especially hot topics right now. What do you think of the current debate regarding Google+ (and other sites) demanding ‘real names’ for accounts?
Adam Leibsohn: Frankly I think it’s a really weird debate because I don’t think it’s the right one. The way it’s framed makes it an inherently pro-platform debate not a pro-user one. And I think that immediately grounds the context of the debate in favor of the wrong side regardless of the outcome. Think about it: the only entity that really benefits from *forcing* people to accurately identify themselves are the platforms that demand it. That’s because, if they can guarantee you are who you say you are, suddenly the data you’re generating under that identity becomes a lot more valuable; it is undoubtedly coming from a real, live human who lives in city X and does job Y. It’s the same reason a lot of social platforms force you to claim your age and gender before allowing you to sign up. They engineer roadblocks to get more accurate (re: more valuable) data about you. Any time a platform asks for stuff like that on sign up, it sends up a giant rend flag in my head. In most cases, I bail at that point.
So, I think this entire debate misses the point. In my opinion, the debate ought to focus on why platforms aren’t giving *users* the choice (shameless plug). And that’s exactly what voyurl does. Sure, pick a username… it can be whatever you want. If you *choose* to put your real info in there (first name, last name, etc) you’re more than welcome to do it. But that’s your choice, not ours. All of the sudden, there’s something really interesting and potentially extremely beneficial for the end user in a dynamic like the one I just proposed. For confidential and business reasons, I can’t divulge what or why… but I know some serious smarties read your blog (and another one writes it: you!). I bet you’ll all be able to get a vague idea of where the value could be and why it’s there. At any rate, I personally think that if you’re engaging in a deep debate about anonymity vs identity you’re one level too deep in the discussion because that particular debate is one that eliminates choice… not one that empowers it. So, next time someone tries to get clever with you on a debate like this, ask them what the advantage is for the user when the platform eliminates the ability to choose who you are.
Rick Liebling: This is a really terrific infographic based on voyurl data, what did you find most interesting?
Adam Leibsohn: I’m personally in love with the height comparison. I think it’s just incredible to understand and see that in one month, a private beta group can tear through enough pages to tower over the Burj Dubai (now the Burj Khalifa). That’s bigger than the tallest building in the world! And we did it in a month just by clicking. Think about the potential energy in a structure that big: how much it weighs, how much volume it consumes, how much it sways when it’s windy. That’s how much power is sitting in that information, that data exhaust. That’s what voyurl is working to harness. The best part is that we’re not trying to harness it for the platform; we’re working to harness that power for you. Makes me smile because there’s so much we can do for you with something so powerful. We can empower you through your own data. I think that’s the best form of ‘digital environmentalism’ out there. We’re recycling your data… and giving you all the potential energy locked up in it.
Rick Liebling: What’s next for Voyurl?
Adam Leibsohn: I’m usually long-winded, if you couldn’t tell, but I’ll have to apologize because I’m not able to disclose everything that we’re working on right now. Some things are going to be obvious from a front end stand point. We’ve been getting hammered with volume and traffic. So we’re dealing with some growing pains when it comes to keeping pace with all that. I’m sure people have noticed that we’ve had some downtime and speed issues. And we’re working furiously to sort all of that out. It’s a gift and a curse really; one of those ‘fun’ startup issues where we’re doing our job so well and people are really pushing our tech that things are moving a little faster than just the three of us can manage. I would just ask that if you’re a voyurl member please know that we’re doing everything we can to get voyurl crazy fast and awesome smooth for you. We’re working nonstop to do it. Just bear with us for a little while longer. Now on the more secretive stuff… we’re about to unleash some great new stuff that delivers on some things our members have been asking for… and then some other great things that will start us on our path to disrupt current behavioral data markets and that will start to put our members in control of their own data. It’s going to be exciting and a lot of fun. Can’t wait to let this stuff loose!