Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Product Manager Entrepreneur Mark Geller

MGVisible networking is turning into a really great opportunity to get to know people better, get to meet new people, and have some interesting conversations.  This time I'm getting to know Mark Geller (LinkedIn, @markgeller).  He has a really interesting background as a product manager and now an entrepreneur. 

Tell me a bit about your background.

Like many product managers, my background is fairly eclectic. In junior high and high school, I did a bunch of programming, mostly self-taught. When I got to college, I did not see myself as a full-time coder, so I majored in biology, which was my favorite subject at the time. (Graduated with a BS/MS in bio from Stanford.) My first job out of school was at one of the early bioinformatics companies in Silicon Valley, working as the head of technical services. That's where I learned I enjoyed interacting with customers and working with development teams to build and launch products.

From there, I became the first non-founder employee at an e-commerce startup called BITSource, which was the first electronic software distributor delivering electronic volume software licenses to corporations. I was in charge of all product management and marketing for the first year-and-a-half, that was a great learning experience with a very talented team of folks. It was also beneficial because I got some good experience with both B2B and B2C business models. After BITSource was successfully acquired, I moved to L.A. to work on an entertainment-related technology project and have stayed ever since. In L.A. I then worked as a product manager at NetZero/United Online in the VOIP group, and then most recently at Google as a product manager on the Picasa/Photos team based in Santa Monica.

What are you working on now?  I know you are still in stealth, but what can you tell us.

Earlier this year I founded a new startup called KlickFu. We are creating a platform that enables users to play instant games and apps directly on the computer desktop. This is a novel user interaction that embeds casual entertainment directly into the operating system experience, based on some fairly interesting underlying technology.  (Details coming soon!) We have a working alpha version now and are planning to launch a beta in the next 6-8 weeks.

In addition, I do a few consulting projects on the side, in the areas of product strategy, search engine optimization, and intellectual property.

Fascinating that you are going against the trend of trying to make everything a web application.  I'll be interested to see what it turns into.

On the SEO side of things, I'll definitely want to get your feedback on Browse My Stuff.

And what do you think about the controversy about stealth vs. not for startups?

For me, it's a matter of degree. On the one hand, an entrepreneur should not be overly paranoid and should know the ropes that VCs and other professional investors generally will not sign NDAs to see the concept or a prototype--and even if they did, it would not provide much protection. However, on the other hand, some ideas are more sensitive than others especially in the development phase, and an entrepreneur should be careful to disclose the idea only to those in whom he/she has a reasonable level of trust and who are genuinely in a position to help the company. This is not so much because others are going to try to steal the idea, however, there is simply no upside in broadcasting your strategy to any would-be competitors. There is a reason that companies like Google and Apple are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to communicating their product strategy and roadmap.

What’s keeping you up at night?

Literally it is making the KlickFu user experience as cool and effortless as possible. The main point of KlickFu--i.e., the reason the team and I are passionate about building it--is to create a new user interaction that is more useful or fun that what is available now. So I obsess about ways to iterate and make it better. Also, I consider ways to find and recruit world class team members and strategies for talking with investors--although mainly I focus on the product because ultimately everything starts with that.

Tell me a bit about the Founder's Institute.  It sounds interesting.  How did it help you?

Founder Institute is the brain child of Adeo Ressi, a super passionate and successful serial entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley, probably best known for founding TheFunded.com. In some ways it is similar to early stage incubators such as Y Combinator, although FI is even earlier stage, focusing on developing the founders themselves as entrepreneurs as opposed to actual companies. Also, whereas some incubators are geared for usually younger entrepreneurs leaving their jobs to focus full-time on their startups, FI emphasizes founders keeping their day jobs and developing and even launching their products on nights and weekends. For me, FI was great for networking with Adeo and the other mentors, who are all world class successful entrepreneurs themselves, as well as the other founders in the program. FI and Adeo have already been helpful making introductions to several of the leading early-stage investors for casual gaming companies. Also, the sense of camaraderie and "leave no founder behind" mission of FI is excellent.

The idea of supporting people who have a day job is great!  Sounds like a great group.  I'll be curious about your view over time.  I'm also wondering about the LA vs. SV issue.

Your last two positions Google Photos and United Online were really big companies.  How did you transition to entrepreneur?

Actually, most of my earlier experience was with startups, so the transition was fairly simple. I specifically went to United Online, which was then 1,000 employees, and then Google, which was 15,000 when I joined, to get experience at bigger companies and see the dynamics of how they operate. Google is impressive in that in many ways they operate more like a startup than many smaller companies.

You mention social / viral aspects at both Google Photos and United Online.  What were those and how is that changing now given how things are changing in social media?

Many people have written on this subject more extensively and eloquently than I can here. However, the way I would put it is that many, if not most, experiences--both online and offline--are more engaging when they can be shared socially. Until recently, the technology had not progressed to the point where users could easily share these activities.

Now it is not only important to enable users to share your service socially, it is vital to enable the sharing to happen automatically, preferably in a way that leads to delight and positive surprises for users. For example, with photos, two years ago it was enough to enable users to actively share photos with friends online. Now, with manual friend-tagging, facial recognition and other computer-assisted tagging features, the sharing is automatic and user engagement is increasing exponentially.

Recently, the new trend has been integrating gaming dynamics into otherwise non-gaming social experiences, enabling friends to compete for status and bragging rights within the app. For example, Foursquare has added a points system to its location-tracking service, enabling friends to compete for who visits more and better locations, while at the same time alerting users when their friends are nearby... and also to local advertisements.

Great point about how social around photos has really moved forward over the past few years.  My guess is that will be the case with a lot of different kinds of content and applications.  Having helped create Fantasy World, I'm a big believer in the value of social and games.  What's been a really interesting learning experience though is how important existing relationships are in these situations.  I'm still trying to understand what this is going to mean in practice. 

I'm working quite a bit with startups who are leveraging social media, but I'm finding it hard to predict success and metrics.  I'm sure that you had to think about that at Google and United Online.  How did you do that?  And how can an early stage company think about social media relative to important startup metrics (see http://socalcto.blogspot.com/2009/10/startup.html)?

I am a product guy so my bias is always to focus on building a great product first. If you build a product that is truly engaging for users, they will take care of the social media for you. Of course, you should monitor social media such as Twitter, the social news sites, Facebook, etc. to see how your product is being perceived and respond to user issues. However, in my opinion, a startup should focus most of its resources on building a great product and track total users and user engagement as gauges of success. If users love your product, use it obsessively and tell their friends, you are going to be successful with social media--not necessarily vice versa.

That's a great point, but also one that I think a lot of founders overestimate.  They will tell you how they are going to build the greatest thing ever and so the audience will talk about it.  "Build it and they will come."  That's really hard to do. 

And what I'm talking about here is that it's often a bit disappointing what the real numbers are – often very small.

That said, I'm convinced that as we figure out how existing social relationships can be integrated into products, we are going to have really interesting opportunities.

I'm looking forward to exploring this a bit with you over time.

What networking events in Los Angeles or Southern California do you go to? What was the best one you’ve been to recently?

I often go to Startups Uncensored (hosted by Jason Nazar CEO of Docstoc) and MediaClub LA. I have also attended Thursday Lunch (thursdaylunch.com), Caltech/MIT Enterprise Forum, and Digital LA. The Startonomics conference at UCLA Anderson business school, hosted by DealMaker Media, was a great event for the talks as well as the networking.

Who are some of your go to people in Los Angeles?

In L.A., many of my go-to people are folks I worked with at Google, including both current and former product managers as well as technologists. On the development side, my top go-to person is my KlickFu co-founder and CTO, Rod Morison, as well as the other developers who are contributing to the project. On the entrepreneurial and fund-raising side, because the Founder Institute program I attended was based in Silicon Valley, many of my contacts are there. However, I am looking to expand my network here in L.A. because I would like KlickFu to remain primarily a SoCal company and success story!

For consulting work, I have done several projects with Lou Sokolovskiy of Genero Capital, a boutique private equity firm. Lou is a friend and colleague from UCLA Anderson.

Tell Rod about the LA CTO Forum.  He sounds like he'd be a good member.

Mark – good getting to know you better.  I look forward to future conversations.


Mark Geller said...

Tony, Thanks again for including me in your visible networking series, it is a great idea and I enjoyed the process.

Re your point about entrepreneurs feeling they can just "build it and users will come..." I agree this is a poor strategy. However, my point was most founders should obsess first about making their product truly engaging for users--and also ensuring the product includes viral sharing as an inherent part of the user experience first, then when they have this positive feedback cycle working they should ramp up on the social media side.

Tony Karrer said...

Mark - I think we agree on this. It needs to have both right.