Some quick thoughts on Shaker

by Eric Marcoullier

If you don't like it, perhaps you should create something better?

Shaker won TechCrunch Disrupt a few hours ago and the tech community seems to be getting a fair bit of hate on for them.  I’ll be the first to admit that Shaker is not, in any conceivable way, earth shaking. But after playing with Shaker for just a few minutes, I think it was a solid choice for a few reasons:

1) Any product that seems obvious in retrospect is positioned for success

In general, I have three reactions to new startups:

  • This is awful!
  • What am I supposed to do with this?
  • This should have been obvious.

Color is a pretty good example of “this is awful” — most people tried it and walked away thinking “man, this sucks”. They weren’t confused by why it was useful — most people I talked to were pretty bullish on the general idea. Ad-hoc aggregation of location-based media is a brilliant idea. But the interface seemed to have been designed by Amish people.  Companies in this camp tend to die quickly in the marketplace.

Twitter is a great example of “what am I supposed to do with this” — most people initially tried it and didn’t understand why it might be useful to them. But over time, Twitter has shown that it fills an important roll in peoples’ lives, both in terms of one-to-many broadcasting with a low cognitive load and as a signal for important information.  Companies in this camp are often victims of being too early in the marketplace, but when a company succeeds, they tend to succeed BIG.

I put Shaker in the third category of “this should have been obvious” — where people look at it and go “well, duh!” What it means to me is that the product fills an obvious existing need and it does so in an extremely intuitive and polished manner. Shaker is not the first attempt at 3D Facebook chat, but it’s the only one that anyone in my peer group remembers because it’s the only one that is any good.  Companies in this last category don’t typically go huge, but they almost always have a fantastic exit.  So on this factor alone I think they were a great choice for winning TC Disrupt.

2) Identifying FOAFs and shared interests is fantastic

One of the hardest things for most people in both real world and virtual world situations is coming up with something to talk about.  Shaker does a great job letting the user know what they have in common with other people in the chat room. There were multiple occasions where I started a chat with someone with “How do you know Brenda Brathwaite?” or “Hey, I like Adam Ant too!”

The bigger Shaker gets, the less likely it is that you will know people in a random room.  They’ve done a great job in providing easy avenues to starting conversations with strangers and that could be a fundamental factor for sustaining long-term growth.

3) It does a great job of delivering presence

I chatted with three friends during my time on Shaker. In each case, when I left the conversation, the obvious thing to say was “nice seeing you”. This is incredibly powerful.

We were all using generic avatars in a virtual space. Texting one another. I chat with folks on Skype and AIM all the time and I have never been compelled to say “great seeing you”.  This implies that Shaker provides a much greater sense of tangible presence than other online chat mediums I’ve used. And it’s not just the fact that it’s in 3D — I never said “nice to see you” to anyone during those dark, early days of Second Life.

Now, some of this may be due to the fact that I don’t normally stumble upon people at random on Skype or AIM.  We seek each other out, typically with a specific need.  But so what, the feeling remains the same, regardless of the source.

So, yeah, Shaker isn’t going to turn your world upside down.  It’s not going to cause you to re-evaluate your life.  It won’t solve the jobs crisis, help educate the kids or fix global warming.  And the more time I spend online, the more I yearn to be a part of something meaningful.  But that doesn’t mean that Shaker isn’t objectively a winner.  Great job, guys.  You’ve earned the award.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Marshall Kirkpatrick September 15, 2011 at 5:31 am

Well argued! Opened my eyes to some new thinking. I guess the Valley is so accustomed to high-minded social good apps (“educate the kids” etc.) being the ones that get the cash and glory that maybe this relatively frivolous service just seemed an anomaly. ;) Seriously though, several things in this post make me re-evaluate my dismissal of the service. Particularly regarding presence.

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Eric Marcoullier September 15, 2011 at 5:37 am

Thanks, Marshall. I really appreciate the praise.

Did you have a preferred winner for Disrupt?

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Adam Loving September 15, 2011 at 6:05 am

It’s funny, my immediate reaction was fear. I didn’t know anyone and it looked like a room full of dudes. I hang out online to avoid real world crowds of people I don’t know. However, if there had been a few of my friends in the room, my experience would’ve been much more positive. Much like a real-life event, it would be fun to meet friends-of-friends this way.

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Eric Marcoullier September 15, 2011 at 6:16 am

Adam, I hear you on the crowds front. I was at an SF tech party last night and it was crowded with loads of people (mainly dudes) that I didn’t know and it was not inviting at all.

I may have had the same reaction to Shaker that you did if there weren’t a few people in the room that I knew. I can’t imagine I’ll be a frequent user, but I might check in over the next couple of weeks and see how it evolves.

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Chris Petroff September 15, 2011 at 6:45 am

Eric, I too had similar initial thoughts about Shaker. I really like TalkTo and Bitcasa. What I would like to see them do is partner with bars/lounges/places to create custom virtual hangouts for their respected brands… So you can meet up at the Virtual W bar… Etc. Could compound the monetization.

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michael arrington September 15, 2011 at 6:28 am

The first time I looked at the company I thought, meh, another virtual world. The second time, when I actually tried it out, I thought it was definitely TC Disrupt material. The third time I knew I wanted to invest. There’s a massive network effect thing going on with it, which is what I like to invest in. It also has a big chance of being cloned out of existence if they don’t move fast though. Because, like you say, it’s so obvious in retrospect.

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Eric Marcoullier September 15, 2011 at 6:35 am

Yeah, I definitely look at these guys as “awesome exit in 18 months” as opposed to a “go big over the next five years”. They’d be a fantastic acqui-hire for any number of companies in the social and mobile games space. As an investor, you must see a longer-term opportunity?

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Sam September 15, 2011 at 6:36 am

For these types of services, like Google Lively, Doppleganger’s Lounge, etc. They all have some initial compelling reason to hangout but don’t have the long term engagement like Minecraft, Second Life or IMVU because there is no day-to-day engagement when your friends aren’t there. Show me something that people visit and skim all the time to catch up over something deep every so often when everyone shows up.

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Matt Auckland September 16, 2011 at 12:52 am

I wasn’t impressed by Shaker myself, but I really love Chill, to the point that I used Chill to watch Disrupt for the last 2 days.

The group of startup founders, and the odd famous tech name like Michael Robertson of mp3.com, where great people to hang out with during the live feed. And thanks to Chill I’ve formed a few new friendships from the experince.

I hope they have similar sucess in the future with other conferences.

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Eric Marcoullier September 16, 2011 at 8:09 pm

I haven’t tried Chill yet. Looking forward to it though. Conferences have so much room for improvement.

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