Less than a year ago Alex Le and Siqi Chen were working at one of the web’s most ambitious startups, semantic search engine PowerSet (Due out soon). But last December they made the tough choice to quit it all and go full time for their own side project, a quickly growing little Facebook application called “Friends For Sale”. That project has grown into a full blown venture backed startup ironically named “Serious Business“, which just raised $4 million from Lightspeed Venture Partners (double digit pre) and currently draws over 600,000 daily active users on Facebook. Steve Newcomb, formerly of PowerSet, will be taking a seat on their board.
True to its name, “Friends for Sale” is an application that lets you virtually buy and sell your friends. The game is an ego driven form of “poking” (virtual nudges) that makes it abundantly clear who the most desirable players are, by listing a leader board of your most expensive friends. Every one of your friends, whether they have the app or not, can be purchased as a “pet”. Everyone starts at a base price that rises with every resale. You get more cash when you log in, are sold, or have one of your pets bought away from you. Users can spend that cash on kicking their pets, give them funny tag lines, or even virtual gifts.
That one game has also been supporting the growing company’s resources (20 Ruby on Rails servers and growing) through a mix of banner advertisements and sponsorships. While the company declined to state their earnings, they estimated the company could grow to 12 engineers without raising any financing. The financing allows the company to significantly ramp up their expansion plans.
But Lightspeed didn’t invest in Serious Business just for a single game. Founder Alex Le cites “Friends for Sale” as the first in a series of of games built directly around your relationships with friends. The idea is to create games for all social networks (Facebook, OpenSocial) that rely on leveraging social skills to win, instead of your twitch reflex or poker proficiency. While they’ll have some games to announce in the next 30 days, the founders briefly threw out the example of a battle game where your friends are the soldiers and success depended on your social skills.
Serious Business is not without competition. Zynga and SGN are well funded social gaming startups. However, Serious Business has a much larger hit than either, so far. “Friends for Sale” has also already been cloned as “Owned”, which draws about the same level of traffic some days. “Friends for Sale” itself is a variation on an earlier game “Human Gifts”. These startups are also in competition with the cycle that most applications follow on Facebook, amongst other potential difficulties. Applications tend to explode for a brief period (if at all) before settling at a lower activity level or completely dying.
Serious business indeed.