Under The Covers At Katango: Kleiner Perkins' First sFund Investment

Last October, Kleiner Perkins launched the sFund, a $250 million initiative designed to make strategic investments in entrepreneurs building social services and apps. The partners contributing to the fund include Facebook, Amazon, Zynga, Comcast, and more. The first startup to receive investment from the sFund was Cafebots, which received $5 million in series A from Kleiner shortly thereafter.

At the time of the announcement, Cafebots was in stealth mode and was tight-lipped about just what kind of social service it was building. My colleague MG Siegler did, however, learn that the startup was hoping to expose users to a new, yet referential acronym: “FRM”, or “friend relationship management”. Of course, not everyone is familiar with CRM (customer relationship management) and some might miss this tongue-in-cheek reference.

Today, we’ve had the chance to learn a little more about the Kleiner-backed startup ahead of its impending launch in June, and how it’s moving past “FRM” to embrace a more accessible descriptor of its business: “personal crowd control”. The company has also changed its name from Cafebots to Katango. Why Katango? Your guess is as good as mine. But probably because it has “tango” in the title. Duh.

So what will “personal crowd control” mean for future Katango users? Katango wants to simplify your online social life. Tired of my equivocal description yet? During Katango’s development, the team embarked on a bit of market research, reaching out to over 9K people using Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social communication services to find out what was missing from the social experience. As you might expect, people love social services (the numbers don’t lie), but consistently identified two particular pain points in today’s social service experience: Firstly, users don’t want to share every part of their life with every single person they happen to be connected to, whether on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Second, sending particular information to a specific group of contacts or friends takes time and usually involves creating a group email, or group text, etc. In other words, it’s a hassle.

Kantango VP of Product Yee Lee (who is also a former early PayPal employee) used the example of a photo he snapped of his young son in an amusing pose; he wanted to send this photo to his immediate family and certain friends he knew would appreciate it on Facebook, but there aren’t any tools to parse contacts in order to share with just the right people.

Obviously, the examples of are many. I run across this problem every day. Today, social platforms are a fire hose of information, but we need them to be more laser-focused. Facebook has ramped up their privacy settings (after some cajoling) and allows you to share certain parts of your profile with everyone, or friends of friends, or just your friends. You can customize, too, but it’s still a blanket solution. I don’t want all of my wall posts to only be shared with certain friends, and I don’t want to customize my settings for each post.

Thus, the Katango team, which includes Co-founder and Professor of Computer Science at Stanford Yoav Shoham and two of his recently graduated PhD students Mike Munie and Thuc Vu, spent the better part of two years honing algorithms that would tackle this problem by allowing the user to view relevant subsets of a contact list within social sharing platforms, and then send selected content just to those relevant groups.

For example, a Katango user will be able to connect his or her Facebook profile to Katango, which will then organize Facebook friends into high school friends, college friends, former professional colleagues, and so on, allowing the user to share the information with specific groups. Shoham equated what the startup is building to “Plaxo 3.0”, and says that Katango plans to integrate with as many social platforms as possible — this won’t just be a Facebook tool.

I had a chance for a quick demo of Katango’s service, and so far, it looks great. The UX and UI are simple and easy to navigate, and the sorting algorithms were very accurate. I’ll wait until I see a final product before I drop the gavel of judgement, but I can tell you that from what I’m seeing, this could be a tool one might incorporate into the everyday social sharing experience.