It's not often that a senior executive at Google steps down from his post to head a new startup but that's exactly what Christopher Nguyen, former engineering director of Google, did when he joined social messaging firm Bluepulse as its CTO and vice president of engineering. FierceWireless editor-in-chief Sue Marek recently talked with Nguyen about this 2008 Fierce 15 award winning venture and why it's different from all the other mobile messaging companies.
FierceWireless: Why did you leave Google to join Bluepulse? What was the appeal?
Nguyen: From my personal perspective if you look at my profile, my background has been about building things. I started my career by building a university [Nguyen was a professor at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology] and I've built and sold three companies so far. That has a certain rush of adrenaline every time you do it and I look forward to doing it over and over again. The only thing I haven't done is build a company that is worth more than $1 billion from scratch. I see Bluepulse as having that potential.
If you look at the mobile industry and its convergence with the Web, I think the potential is enormous.
FierceWireless: What specifically about this company was so appealing?
Nguyen: Mobile as an industry is about to explode. There is a shift of users from the Web to the mobile device. Mobile is a logical place, the device is always with you. The only thing limiting you is the capabilities. I grew up in the Bay area but after I finished my Ph.D., I went to Asia and lived there for 10 years. The people there live and breathe mobile technology. It weaves into people's lives. For five years, we didn't have a landline phone. We always had mobiles. Everyone in the company communicated with each other using SMS. I think over the next six to 12 months it will take off. The only question is whether it will be Bluepulse or another player.
FierceWireless: What is the value proposition for Bluepulse? There are other similar companies, what makes Bluepulse special?
Nguyen: The passion of CEO Ben Keighran matches mine. When they were pursuing me for this job, I asked them what is your end-game? If you are planning to sell this company for $50 to $60 million, I'm not interested. If you want to build a global platform, something worth $1 billion, sign me up.
Also Bluepulse is very focused in one area. Mobile is a very loose way to group this. There are a lot of different players in mobile, especially in the transition from Web to mobile. But no one is focused on mobile messaging as a hill to be conquered. There are instant messaging technologies, voicemail technologies, SMS and VOIP calls. Each player has its own area it's trying to build out. We are the only ones that I see focused on mobile messaging as the killer app. If you ask 100 people what is one activity that you would want to do--if I gave you an application that would allow you to update your status and let friends know what you are doing, about 10 people may want to do that. But if you ask 100 people if they want to communicate and send messages to families and friends, I think the answer will be 98 saying yes. We are very focused on an unexciting but mass market vertical application with Bluepulse.
FierceWireless: So you are focusing on unified communications? Is that the right term for this?
Nguyen: I have a philosophy that when you change something, you only change one variable at a time. You don't force the user to change too many variables at one time. In the desktop platform, everybody emails. As you change the technology platform to mobile they will want to do some type of messaging. Bluepulse is focused on that. Other people are doing excellent things on the mobile platform that are different from what we are doing.
FierceWireless: You say you deliver more than 150 million messages per month to users in more than 190 countries around the globe. How did you get that reach so quickly?
Nguyen: Bluepulse started as a client application but the key differentiating factor was that it worked on all phones in the world. It delivered a lot of widgets, which could do anything from IM chat to horoscope. Ben [Keighran, CEO of Bluepulse] noticed that what attracted the traffic and what retained users was the communication application more than other applications. In June of last year, the team decided to focus on delivering that. They changed from a client-based application to a Web-based application so it is more accessible to people.
FierceWireless: How do you make money?
Nguyen: Today, we don't. We are strategically focused on getting reach. I have a lot of theories on building companies. You always have to make difficult choices about where to invest your limited resources. No matter how large you are, your resources are limited. Bluepulse is facing the decision today about whether you focus on growing the user base or do you try to monetize this? You have to choose one. The observation I have made is that if you grow the user base, it is much more defensible in a competitive position. If you launch a revenue model, within seven days everyone can copy it. So as long as we believe there are ways to make money with a mobile platform, the right thing to do at the moment is grow the user base.
This isn't a theory. I've done this before.
FierceWireless: Will there be a role for the wireless carrier in your business?
Nguyen: This sounds like a politically correct answer but I believe it. There is a huge value in terms of the data connectivity that carriers can provide. AT&T is realizing this with the iPhone. I think the carriers have a huge role to play in that. But as the industry matures, the platform becomes open and you have more innovation. It will draw more data usage for the infrastructure and infrastructure players should be very happy.