Tony Conrad on how to build something different

One of the most interesting interviews I did at last year's LeWeb was with Tony Conrad, the founder and CEO of about.me. It's always …

One of the most interesting interviews I did at last year’s LeWeb was with Tony Conrad, the founder and CEO of about.me. It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who changed my life with something he invented (it sounds like a cliché that about.me is the reason I got my first business cards) but it’s more thrilling to talk with them about what matters. Tony Conrad talked with me about how he wants to innovate business cards, how one’s identity matters on the internet and how he wants to open up to just everyone:

Tobias Schwarz: I would like to start the interview with an anecdote. Last May I interviewed the German-American columnist Tim Cole. At the end of the interview I gave him my business card. The day after he wrote on his blog about my business card and how he wondered why I didn’t write my telephone number on them. Then he remembered an advice from the former Deutsche Bank chairman Joseph-Hermann Abs, who had just his name on his business cards. Abs told Cole if he wants to speak to him, he will find a way to do so. My question: This autumn you launched the iOS app „Intro“ that wants to modernize the concept of business cards. While I prepared this interview I asked myself if business cards are still relevant today. How would you answer that question?

Tony Conrad: I think, business cards are increasingly relevant. To me it is very interesting that nobody has really innovated on the business card for almost a century – except for maybe nicer fonts or nicer paperstocks. The business card as it has been is relatively the same thing as it has been for most of a hundred years (A/N: with only some exceptions, like Lego’s business cards).

What struck me all about that is if I will leave a conference like this, let’s imagine: I have 50 to 100 business cards in my pocket and I get back to the States, I have no idea who any of these people are. Especially I had a very short interaction with them. So I started thinking why couldn’t you take your dummy page and turn it into a physical or digital business card. So we have done both. We have 53 physical business cards and what it does is that it takes the picture from the user under their dummy page, which is typically them and then it puts a link to their dummy profile and then they can add any information they want: maybe their phone number, their address. I think, it is just a simple and smart innovation, because as a recipient of business cards when I pull out on the end of the trip and I can see the photo and then: ‚Oh, that is Tobias, I remember him.‘ That helps to jog my memory a little bit.

So I think, that is a really smart, simple, easy thing to do. Digital business cards offer even some additional benefits. One is, that I always have my phone with me. I often don’t have my business cards with me. If you really think about your day: you might do some sports, running, working out, you might go to the grocery store, you might go to a movie at night. But you are constantly under people, I am at least. You might say: ‚Hey, what is your contact information?‘ And the one thing I always have with me is my phone. Always. So it makes sense to turn it into a digital business card. So that is access. Second is the layer of information I give you. I can adapt it. On the fly, right? I give you all of my information, or I can turn off certain buttons. So maybe I don’t wanna give my cell phone now or I don’t wanna give my e-mail address now. Or my home address. You can customize the card on the fly. It makes total sense in this day and age where we will do that.

Tobias Schwarz: The fact that everyone has a smartphone, while at the same time business cards can be misplaced and forgotten, is really interesting. I read that getting from the idea to the product has been rocky. What were the challenges and how long did it take you to develop the application?

Tony Conrad: For us it’s getting to this product. Want to be committed to make a digital business card. Creating the product was really simple and really fast. The challenge was thinking about what was our mobile strategy. And where we started in terms of our first app, which has hundreds of thousands of downloads. It’s not a particularly good app. It’s not a bad app, but it doesn’t have a lot utility to it and that is just a little bit the rocky. But we learned a lot that there was maybe the opportunity to take out specific characteristics of what we tried to do in that app and make a single purpose, which is what we did with intro is what Facebook does with messaging now. If you think about what Instagram did is it was part of Burbank, it was a communication app and he took out the photo aspect and made a very focus. So we are doing the same thing.

Tobias Schwarz: You know, you did something extraordinary when you bought back majority control of about.me from AOL in February 2013. Not many people who sold their firms did this. What were the reasons for this decision?

Tony Conrad: The reasons for me were that I felt that about.me has massive crossover potential. That is the type of product that everyone should have. Everybody should have a product, that allows them to introduce themselves and make a first impression of who they are from their perspective, and also where they are active on the web. So I felt it could be enormous. I think within AOL it was hard for me to imagine that this could become a priority. AOL were wonderful people for us to work with, they were great partners throughout the negotiation of spinning the company back out, despite that it felt like they had other things that had higher priority for them and they were focused on. The management team was dealing with a lot of issues on their media and ad business. To me it just felt like I could spin it out. We bear with higher people faster, we take on more risks and it worked. And by the way AOL is still a minority shareholder of our company, so they should be happy.

Tobias Schwarz: Thanks to your partnership with Moo cards I made my first business cards when I became an about.me user, but all this is gone for me now. Some people would call me a well-connected social media poweruser. Am I the target audience of about.me or are people without blogs and profiles on Twitter or LinkedIn more interesting for you? Did I miss an important use case of about.me?

Tony Conrad: So yeah, take Kevin Rose. Kevin Rose is pretty well known in social circles, he has millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram and all these things. But Kevin Rose still uses his about.me page in his e-mail signature; he links to it from his Twitter page, from his Instagram page. He does that because he wants to create a starting point for people to learn about him from his perspective. Instead of googling Kevin Rose and what comes up: random results, right? He wants to control that first impression. And he also wants to make it easy for people on Twitter and Instagram to find him. So I think that is a big part of the integration of social media. Links are a big deal for us.

Tobias Schwarz: Sure, I have links on my blog, too. But as a blogger I always thought that my blog is my first landing page.

Tony Conrad: Yes, because you are an active writer and so I have a great respect for people who blog and write. But a lot of bloggers are not doing it daily or monthly or even yearly and sometimes their blogs become stale. And secondly if they are active: how often do you go into your about section and update it? When was the last time you updated it is the question. Honestly? When was the last time you updated your about section on your blog?

Tobias Schwarz: Last month, but I only translated it. I didn’t change the information.

Tony Conrad: I think, a lot of people don’t update. They continue to write, but they forget about that part.

Image: LeWeb (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr
Image: LeWeb (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr

Tobias Schwarz: In June you announced that your company has raised $11 million in the second round of funding. San Diego-based tech writer Will Schmidt wrote that you want to build up about.me to a new online identity site that can tackle Facebook.

Tony Conrad: No, we are not tackling Facebook. No, we don’t need another Facebook, Facebook is great. We don’t need another LinkedIn, LinkedIn is great. We are building something different. We are building a public profile.

Tobias Schwarz: These are all private platforms. However many people think that they are public. But they are not.

Tony Conrad: Do you have a link to my Facebook page?

Tobias Schwarz: I haven’t.

Tony Conrad: Even my LinkedIn page? No. This comes with more connection request, more things to do. More of these personal things. I have my photographs on there, of my kids for examples. I want to open up to just everyone. about.me is that place, where I get to share what is important to me. But also what is important to me in the public. Kind of domain. And I think it is a really distinct difference from wire part of what is needed.

Tobias Schwarz: Vanity Fair called you ‚a world traveler, who made Jakarta, New Delhi, and Paris home before settling in San Francisco‘. When you’re on the run which app or gadget have proved to be very useful?

Tony Conrad: I mean, it is pretty easy. If I look at my home screen it is Slack (A/N: Tony Conrad is an angel investor of it); it is Uber, Instagram, about.me, Intro, Twitter, my Fitbit activity and that is kind of it. I don’t have Facebook on here, I don’t have LinkedIn on here. That are my second screens.

Tobias Schwarz: Last but not least: I did some research for the interview to ask you some questions about your company, which you know better than me. What did I forget to ask you? Anything else you would like to add to the interview?

Tony Conrad: (laughing) Yes, that I am a fan of Kevin Rose. (A/N: Kevin Rose was standing next to us while Tony Conrad said this.)

Tobias Schwarz: Thank you for the interview.


Image by Christopher Michel (CC BY 2.0)