Eric Alterman is founder and CEO of Flow Corp, a start-up aiming to capitalize on the burgeoning needed for content curation, the topic of my upcoming post on FastCompany.com. Eric is serial entrepreneur, having created companies such as MeshNetworks (acquired by Motorola for $230 million), SkyCross, TeraNex and most recently KickApps, the first “drag and drop widget builder.”
DN: As an serial entrepreneur, how do know when you’re on to something?
When I can’t stop thinking about a new concept for months on end and every morning brings new scribbles in my bedside notebook. Weaker ideas tend to come and go over the course of a few days or weeks. For better or worse, the ideas that evolve into actual ventures tend to have richer theoretical implications that imply a broad vision with many possibilities. Ideas loaded with many possibilities can actually be a liability (where do you focus first?), but it’s what holds my interest long enough to begin the heavy lifting required to launch a venture. I think entrepreneurs need to be intentionally naïve during the conception stages of a venture. Down the road the skill of listening is essential—at the beginning the skill of not listening matters more.
DN: Do you see any problems with the way content is currently curated via social media?
Social curation represents an undeniable paradigm shift in the realm of content discovery, but it has important limitations. While the people I subscribe to on Twitter and Facebook fill my stream with content that’s often of general interest, social streams lack contextual relevance to my real-time interests—i.e. the information I need right now. There’s lots of talk about the real-time nature of Twitter, but outside of breaking news social streams are not capable of delivering what I’m uniquely interested in at a given moment. Social streams are great for browsing, but only contextual streams can serve my immediate needs. My belief is that a platform that enables efficient curation into highly contextual, aggregate (i.e. from multiple sources) streams is one of the next great opportunities, and it includes all content types (from blog articles and videos, to cancer research and cars for sale).
It might be said that traditional search is the solution to discovery of content matching my real-time interests (i.e. what I need to know right now). But traditional search suffers from a number of different problems. First, despite recent efforts by Google and others, search is not inherently a real-time solution. It’s unlikely that a search for theater tickets will provide you a result that includes tickets that became available five minutes earlier, let alone 5 seconds earlier. Beyond that, search is best at providing links to websites containing content deemed relevant to the three or four words typed into a search box. Search engines don’t routinely provide content directly, they provide links to other web pages. Even if a search engine properly disambiguates the pages it crawled days or weeks earlier, it may not have properly disambiguated the search request, itself. By my own definition, the term curation suggests an explicit, largely human process with a result that is real-time and unambiguous.
DN: Can you give me a preview of your latest venture, Flow.com?
The Flow’s consumer experience (available soon at iFlow.com) is all about providing a simple but powerful application that invites media and commerce publishers to directly connect with consumers looking for specific content—real-time streams of precisely what they are looking for. We call those streams “flows” and every piece of content moving through a flow is called a “drop”. Flows and drops can be highly structured (multiple required or optional fields—e.g. year, make and model fields of a car being sold) or minimally structured.
Publishers can reach audiences very directly, without the inefficiencies of SEO and social strategies. Consumers get the benefit of a new, highly contextual content discovery experience that is both radically new and yet very familiar for those already using social media applications. It brings content out of stovepiped data stores and unstructured social streams, into a common data exchange organized by the intention of both publisher and consumer.
One of the most exciting aspects of the iFlow experience is the way consumers easily “remix” real-time content from many sources into their own highly contextual “flows”. Those flows can then be shared by their curators (and audience) both privately and publicly with minimal effort. iFlow will provide automated ways for pro-sumer curators to populate flows, but manual, drag-and-drop curation will be the norm for everyday consumers. My grandmother’s favorite aphorism is very true for curation: “many hands make light work”. In the end we expect to bring the art of content curation to the widest possible audience.
The same Flow platform that powers iFlow.com will also be available to application developers in a platform-as-a-service model (PaaS). Our intention is to provide mobile and web application developers access to a modern “data exchange” that allows highly scalable data sharing between many applications. Our belief is that next generation applications will be curating content from many other applications to provide broader, more data-rich consumer experiences. Imagine an apartment rental iphone app providing its users lunch coupons in the neighborhood they are exploring, information about local schools and perhaps a free cocktail during happy hour—seamless access to a diversity of real-time data is the enabler. Consider what Multiple Listing Services (MLS) did to revolutionize the real estate industry with a relatively archaic technology stack—now extend those sharing and interoperability benefits to every industry and every data type using a modern, highly scalable real-time architecture.
DN: Why do you think curation is so important right now? Talk to me about the benefits of human curation versus algorithmic curation (i.e. Google).
DN: Where do you think the time for Flow will come from? Out of existing social? Out of other online activities? Out of offline activities?
Unlike the voyeurism and serendipitous browsing of social media, Flow discovery is a relatively deliberate and intentional process—discovering real-time content that consumers are explicitly seeking. That kind of activity disrupts a variety of less efficient modes of explicit discovery, from classified and message boards to websites and disaggregated mobile apps. I believe people will always make time for social discovery which serves an entirely different sort of emotional need.
Where do you think the revenue opportunities are with better forms of content curation like Flow?
We have a number of models in mind, from “freemium” upgrades to both our consumer and developer applications, to App and data marketplaces. In the long term it will be hard to avoid “promotional drops” (i.e. advertising) given the very specific contexts the Flow provides relative to social media and even search.