The Deal
Saturday, October 25, 
6:01 pm

[Posted on January 3, 2008 - 5:31 PM]


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. 

TC: Kevin Rose has raised $20 million for his previous startups Digg and Revision3 Corp., and the word is that VCs are lining up to invest in Pownce. Any update on financing?
Culver: To date, Pownce is self-funded (and bootstrapped), but that may change very soon. We're at a transition point right now, and Pownce will certainly grow a lot in the next year. - Mary Kathleen Flynn

For more on Leah Culver, see her blog
For more on the debate over Twitter see TechMeme, CenterNetworks, and Fred Wilson's blog
For more on Kevin Rose see Sept. 13, 2007, special report from Tech Confidential




From: Dan Bariault,

I get worried when I read about a service which has no barrier to entry, nothing new, and a founder using the word "cool". I wish them luck, they will only have a few hundred competitors ahead of them.

From: Andy DeSoto,

Hardly. Pownce has had a lot of steam since Day 1 and has features I can't find anywhere else-- and the folks working on it have a lot more in mind. A hundred competitors above it? Try one or two.

Plus-- I like it when a founder uses the word "cool." It's something I can understand, and I wouldn't be interested if it wasn't.

From: Colin,

The following two words, if implemented into Pownce, would complete its perfection: edit button.
That is all.

From: omgfemaleprogrammer!,


I guess new blog design means "delete the old posts which show that you don't really know what you are doing". You go girl!

From: d2,

numerical rounding via strings, enough said.

From: jon,

wow she's cute. think she's single?

From: Dish,

But what if you don't have friends to send stuff to?

can you communicate with random strangers?

From: Kenneth,

A plus for Pownce for having a hot programmer!

From: MaryKathleenFlynn,

Apologies to Thomas Hawk for not crediting him earlier on the photo. I've added the photo credit now. :)

Mary Kathleen Flynn
Senior Editor
The Deal & Tech Confidential

From: rico,

Pretty boring stuff this pownce. The problem with kids making apps these days is that they weren't around the first time this stuff was done in the 90's (hotline, caracho, FC, etc). But now it's all via browser making it dog slow and surely the data resides on a central server. Lame.

From: Kevin Burton,

Hey Leah.

Any chance you guys could send us pings on your new posts?

I'd love to index them on Spinn3r.

We're also in the process of setting up a public ping service but we prefer to work with companies individually.

From: Scott,

Dear Pownce,

Got Linux?

A Linux client would be nice.

Better yet, give me GoogleTalk/Jabber access like Twitter and Jaiku. That's much better than using your own app anyway (even a Linux one).

Being web-only for Linux users is a huge barrier for me (and many others I'm sure).

BTW, don't you RUN on Linux?

From: Jon Marcus,

"...messaging at its heart." - not new, sorry!
"send stuff to your friends" - not new, sorry!

Humans have eyes and ears for a reason. Anyone who knows anything about psychology or people management would know that reading text/email/blogs is the worst form of social communication. It's good for pure information dissemination but robs us of the subtleties of human interaction.

When I visit most of these networking sites I always end up with the same comment, "What's the point?" I used to be a blog junky and most of the time it is just useless entertainment and provides no real value.

All hail Digg!

From: Spuds,

I think Leah has done a pretty good job with Pownce.

From: Alain,

Jon--"Worst form of social communication" by what standard? How about Hamlet or Madame Bovary? Would you say that reading those texts constitute a worse form of communication than, say, trying to speak to someone at a bar with, oh, Night Ranger screaming over the speakers?

Besides, no one ever said using technology to communicate with other folks is either better or worse than doing it in person. They're qualitatively different experiences.

Alain Sherter
Tech Confidential

From: alum,

I went to school with this chick and she is only 65% as hot as she looks in this picture in real life.

From: omgfemaleprogrammer!,
It wasn't deleted after all! Programming 101 called, he wants you back 'cause you're hawt!

From: psychic readings,

thanks for the information!

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