Launched just two weeks ago, the Los Angeles-based social networking startup Pheed has already seen a fair amount of ink spilled over it, perhaps most notably in a Forbes piece which wondered if the hyped platform was “the new Twitter.” With an iPhone app released today, that buzz is bound to build. But O.D. Kobo, a longtime internet entrepreneur and Pheed’s cofounder, argues that these comparisons are moot, and that Pheed is in fact blazing a brave new trail in the social networking world.
“I read one journalist compare us to App.net,” he told Betabeat, sounding slightly mystified. “We’re original. I think that’s obvious.”
Pheed is a new social network that allows users to upload multimedia content to their profiles, including audio, video, photos and text updates. What differentiates it from other players in the space–aside from the fact that it seemingly streamlines the functionalities of companies like Kik and YouTube into a single service–is that it allows users to directly monetize their content. Users can opt to erect a paywall, charging anywhere from $1.99 to $34.99 monthly, or $1.99 to $34.99 per view of a specific piece of content.
But it’s not all about the monetization. “We’re by no means a premium website,” Mr. Kobo stressed. “We’re a website that simply offers the ability to monetize some things. If you want to share photos or do a live broadcast, monetization is simply a feature. We think it’s fair. We think it’s about time that content providers should own and monetize their content and not the platforms.”
The nine-person Pheed team operates from a mansion on LA’s famous Mulholland Drive. The company is staffed entirely by engineers, who have worked tirelessly to build out an infrastructure that’s as fast as it is lightweight. Mr. Kobo, an American born in Hong Kong who worked in the internet biz in China for the past 10 years, possesses a sort of humbleness that occasionally veers into bewilderment. He simply can’t believe, it seems, just how far Pheed has come since it beta launched in August.
“We’re all tech people,” Mr. Kobo told Betabeat by phone. “We’re developers, programmers and we’re also users of social media. We come from the space and because we’re also programmers, we like to take things apart and understand how they work. The team has been working together for almost 10 years and most of the career we spent out of China building social networks and software. We used to have 90 million uniques a month from Asia. We learned from the ground up what users like, and that gave us a roadmap to get to Pheed.”
Despite its star-studded user base–Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus, Ashley Tisdale and Chris Brown all have Pheed accounts–Mr. Kobo is quick to dismiss the idea that Pheed is just for celebrities looking to make money off of their social media content. “We have thousands more normal, not-famous people on Pheed than celebrities. We’re for everyone,” he said.
So how did an internet entrepreneur who spent the majority of his career in China convince big names like Ms. Cyrus to create Pheeds? “I think the reason we have a lot of tastemakers and influencers on the platform is that while we were in our beta stage, I went around and showed Pheed to a lot of tastemakers and influencers around L.A. I had been in China for a decade so it’s not like I have buddies at Universal, so it was really kind of me just going around and meeting people and those people were some of the first people who opened Pheed channels up.”
Despite its buzzy launch, Pheed has seen a few hiccoughs along the way. A few weeks ago, Twitter revoked its API access without warning or notification, leaving users who hoped to sign up for Pheed to use Facebook Connect instead. Twitter restored its connection within 48 hours.
“We contacted the support and we never really understood why, nor did we ever get any reason why it was taken down or even placed back up,” Mr. Kobo said.
Do you think that perhaps, given Twitter’s recent crackdown on third-party API clients, Twitter considers Pheed a competitor, we asked?
“I’m this little mosquito coming into this arena that Twitter helped create,” he replied. “I don’t really think we’re a competitor. I don’t think a motorcycle is a form of car–just because we both live on the internet doesn’t make us competitors.”
With today’s launch of an iPhone app–and an Android app hitting the Google Play store hopefully by end of year–Pheed is hoping to capitalize on users’ gradual transition to mobile. The app provides all of the functionality that the website does, including uploading and sharing of photos, videos and audio, as well as the ability to set up paywalls on that content. It’s also fast. The Pheed team rigged the video feature, for example, to encode video while the user records, so that it uploads almost immediately afterwards.
Even if Mr. Kobo doesn’t consider himself a competitor to the social networking giants out there, he does seem to have some prominent app makers unnerved. “Yesterday we had a CEO of a very popular app company open a Pheed channel,” Mr. Kobo said. “The guy was playing around with Pheed and accidentally clicked on the ‘Broadcast’ button and forgot to switch it off. So we were sitting there watching him talking live to their staff for like 45-50 minutes, saying ‘Can we copy this? How did they build this in a year? They must have bought another company.'”
Mr. Kobo laughed. “We’re just nine guys that have been in this game for a long time.”