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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 March 2007, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
Web 2.0 wonders: Meebo
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

Meebo founder
Seth Sternberg is one of three founders of Meebo
The web has evolved into an indispensable tool for our daily lives. But who are the people driving this growth? All this week the BBC News website is speaking to young, talented web pioneers working in Silicon Valley and beyond.

"When we put it out we did not know if anyone would like it; we just knew that it solved our problem," explains Seth Sternberg, 28, chief executive and co-founder of Meebo.com.

The "it" in question is Meebo, a web-based instant messaging (IM) system which lets users send and receive messages from a number of different IM services, such as AOL, MSN, Yahoo and Jabber.

It is an elegant solution to the problem of having multiple accounts - many of which are not interoperable - and requiring different software downloads.

Browser window

Everything happens inside a browser window and you can also embed Meebo onto a web page, such as a blog or onto MySpace, so you can always see which of your friends is online, offline or chatting.

The best strategy is to build something, get a couple of blogs to write about it and see what happens
Seth Sternberg

"We threw it out there and it turned out a lot of people liked it. But that was lucky," he says.

"Most people access Meebo to get IM anywhere - to have the same chat log-ins every where."

More than 90m messages a day are sent via Meebo and there are more than 5.5m people using the service each month.

Meebo is based in Mountain View, California, better known as the home of Google.

The office is typical of a start-up firm - there is more space than people need, developers are hunched over PCs in one corner, there are plenty of sofas, and scrawled on giant whiteboards are all the tasks that need completing.

Stuck on the window facing the street is an enormous poster, declaring: "We're hiring!".

'Enhance lives'

Meebo was set up by Mr Sternberg, Elaine Wherry and Sandy Jen.

"The number one thing that drives all three of us is putting a product out to users that will really enhance their lives," says Mr Sternberg.

"We thought it would be a lot of fun."

The name had been cooked up in a California Pizza Kitchen restaurant as the trio sought something that was memorable, easy to pronounce and, most importantly, had not already been used on the web.

All three had experience working in large corporations. Mr Sternberg worked for IBM - "I learned a tonne" - while Sandy Jen realised she wanted to go it alone after joining a big firm and being shown her cubicle on day one.

Mr Sternberg says: "I didn't feel I had a central impact on what IBM was doing and where it was going. Starting something and building a team was something I was interested in pursuing.

"We loved the idea of Meebo - we were really passionate about it and worked really hard to get it out as fast as we could."

'Massive advantage'

Meebo was launched 18 months ago and was the third plan the trio hatched - pulling the plug on the first two.

All three are still in their 20s but age has never been an issue with investors, he says.

"People see youth as a massive advantage. We remember what it was like to be a teenager or in our early 20s - these are key markets.

"We are not set in our ways of how to think."

People understand when you try something and it fails. You can start again, join another team, or go and work for Yahoo or Google
Seth Sternberg

It helps that the firm is based in Silicon Valley, he says, because innovation is fostered and failure is accepted when there is so much risk.

"People understand when you try something and it fails. You can start again, join another team, or go and work for Yahoo or Google."

Mr Sternberg says the challenge for the company is to grow and refine the product, balancing the demands of the audience with the resources they have available.

'Unique feature'

"The unique feature of a start-up is very, very limited resources. Microsoft and Google have thousands of engineers - we have eight.

"It forces you to be extremely laser-focused on one particular area in which to innovate. For me, Meebo will always be about communication and the web."

He adds: "Sometimes programs have too many features. You end up with heavy product that confuses people."

Rather than seek finance and then develop the product, the company decided to launch Meebo as soon as it was able.

"The best strategy is to build something, get a couple of blogs to write about it and see," says Mr Sternberg.

"All the VCs (venture capitalists) and angel investors will find you."

Meebo is funded through investors, but the company is looking towards advertising and paid-for personalisation as revenue streams.

"The digital goods market - buying cute things for your avatar, or your virtual space - this is a really big area."

Community built

Mr Sternberg is not concerned that Meebo could be rendered obsolete if the big IM firms decided to work together and end interoperability issues.

"Yahoo and Microsoft have already made their IM network interoperable - we saw no impact.

"Meebo is a service but it has a community built around it. It is available in 59 different languages and our users did all that translating. The users felt so passionately about the product."

While he jokes about one day setting up a Meebo airline, Mr Sternberg says the priority remains to roll out essential features and to take advantage of the growing power and flexibility of the web to deliver new services.

"There are very, very few limitations to the types of software that can be run as web applications.

"Microsoft and Adobe are working on technology that will completely blur the line between whether an application comes over the web or is on the desktop."

But does he ever wish he was sitting in a cubicle at IBM, worrying about other people's budgets?

"Definitely not. When it's your own project, you are passionate about it all the time."




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