How does a 25-year-old computer science major from the University of Minnesota wind up as a co-founder of one of Silicon Valley's most closely watched startups? For Leah Culver, the lead developer of Pownce -- the microblogging startup co-founded by Digg Inc. founder Kevin Rose -- it all started with a teddy bear.
While still in college, Culver developed Teddy Bear Remote Control, a cute and cuddly remote control for an iPod or computer. The project in 2006 won Culver a programming gig with Instructables, a San Francisco Bay Area hobbyist and "how-to" site.
Shortly thereafter, Culver met Rose and Digg designer Daniel Burka at a party in Silicon Valley. She later quit her job at Instructables to work on an idea of her own -- a social networking site that would put messaging at its heart. After she asked Burka to do the design work on the project, he realized that the concept was similar to an idea Rose had asked him to work on. The three decided to collaborate and eventually co-founded Pownce, using Culver's prototype providing the underlying code.
We asked Culver to outline her expectations for Pownce, which will make its commercial launch later this month after a six-month invite-only trial period. (Photo of Culver by Thomas Hawk.)
Tech Confidential: What's your vision for Pownce?
Culver: Our motto -- "send stuff to your friends" -- is so vague, yet I think it fits perfectly. Pownce is for sending all these different types of stuff to the people you know in a new and exciting way. Pownce is really a communication platform at its core. It has these concepts of types of messages -- links, events and files. We're working on new ways to interact with these specific types of messages, such as a new chronological view page for events. A more complete API is also in the works, and we're pretty excited about the mobile version, both of which focus on Pownce as a communication service, rather than a Web site.
TC: What features are you working on adding now?
Culver: This month we'll officially launch Pownce, which means that everyone can join. No more invites! We are also working on a better initial user experience and some cool ways to find your friends on Pownce ... featuring interesting Pownce users, displaying friends of friends and finding your friends via your connections on other social networks. We're also excited to release a new and improved version of the desktop application that notifies you of new messages and allows you to reply to messages from your desktop.
TC: What do you make of the debate going on this week in the blogosphere about the alleged inadequacy of Twitter's business model? In the debate, some have praised Pownce for having established a business model right out of the gate by charging for premium messaging.
Culver: Pownce started off with ads and pro accounts because we didn't want to upset our community by adding these in later versions. You can still use all the best parts of Pownce for free.
It's great that people like this business model, but I wouldn't exactly call our ad system "premium messages" since they rotate similar to advertisements, and new ones only appear after you receive a certain number of notes from your friends. We're still experimenting with this ad system and hope to improve it greatly in the next year. We're currently selling quite a few pro accounts, and we plan to add more bonus features for our pro accounts in the next year.