Bebo, the troubled social network that got re-acquired by its serial entrepreneur founders Michael and Xochi Birch last year, is today launching its first app in its bid to return to glory. Blab is a video-based “walkie-talkie” app for iOS that lets users send messages to others with the app, as well as those who don’t have it.
It’s the first of three apps that the company, working with the Birchs’ Monkey Inferno incubator, plans to release this year, in the hopes that it will draw more users back to its platform, once with 100 million users and attractive enough for (TechCrunch owner) AOL to buy it for $850 million before eventually selling it off, leading eventually to Bebo filing for bankruptcy.
Shaan Puri, CEO of Monkey Inferno, tells us that Blab has been in private beta for the last four weeks and managed to get 775,000 people to sign up for its waiting list in the meantime to try it out. It’s been a long time coming. Apparently Monkey Inferno experimented with three different apps before deciding to launch Blab.
I took the opportunity of the launch to ask, in a market absolutely full of messaging and video apps, why Blab?
The answer is fairly logical, if a little unspiring for its emphasis on making money. “Ev Williams said it best when asked what the formula is for building the next billion dollar company,” Puri told me in an email. “‘Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time…Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.'”
Away from the business aspect, Puri and his team think that the much-tried formula for video messaging apps has room for improvement. “Skype and Facetime were great innovations, that pushed communication past a basic phone call,” he says. “Millions of people around the world have used video chat communicate. The problem is, there is lots of friction. It requires long blocks of time, scheduling with another person (often in a different timezone), and it’s live, so it requires your undivided attention. [But] mobile is a different beast. Mobile is about being ‘on-demand’, about being lightweight, and on-the-go. We took those principles and built an app that 100M+ people will love to use.”
Puri believes that Blab, as a result, has a few key factors that differentiate it from competing apps. The first of these, he says, is ease of use. “We designed the app for the specific purpose of video messaging,” he explains. “For example, sending a Blab is dead simple. Hold-to-Record, Let Go to Send. That’s it. On Snapchat, an app known for being lightweight, the same task takes 5 separate steps (flip camera, press record, review the video/add a caption, choose the recipient, then hit the send button).”
He also points out that the fact that the app is designed to draw in users to create content, but not necessarily to consume it. “Blab[ing] people who don’t have the app is a key innovation,” he says. Even in this regard, users without the app can decide whether or not they would like to download the app to reply to messages.
“Most social products suffer from the chicken-and-egg problem, since you can’t use them until your friends are on the app,” Puri notes. “But you don’t want to invite them, because you don’t know if it’s any good or not!”
Indeed, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of app onboarding, in my own personal experience. I’ve even had friends (non-techie friends) suspect my email of getting infected with viruses when I invite them to start interacting with me on new products so that I can try them out on “normals.”
Puri also differentiates Blab from other social messaging products. “At first glance, it’s easy to lump Blab in with other popular services (Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, etc..) but there is a fundamental difference,” he says. “Those products were built to show something to your friends. Blab is built to communicate with your friends. This is obvious once you’ve used the app – so our challenge will be to get people to give it a try for the first time.”
Puri says the next two apps are currently being built and beta tested by a team of four. It’s still up in the air, it seems, whether what is being tested now is what we will see shipped. ” We kill products if they don’t show the right metrics in beta testing, and pass our internal gut check,” he says. “For example, we prototyped/tested three different apps before striking gold with Blab.”
For that reason, Puri would not talk about what’s coming next, except to say that they will all follow the “model” of Blab. By that he means “Apps that are fun, social, and do just one thing, really really well,” he says.
For a company that basis at least some of the logic of going for messaging apps on a “billion dollar” formula from a repeat entrepreneur, it’s interesting that for Blab there doesn’t seem to be a business model in place. Asked what Blab may do to monetise, Puri responds: “We quite literally have not had a conversation about this yet. We are lucky to be in a position where we can focus on just making things that people love to use. If we do that, we’ll be alright.”
I’ll be giving Blab a test drive shortly. Let us know what you think of the app, too.