Web Masters Episode #39: Andrew Weinreich


Six Degrees - Landing Page

Andrew Weinreich:

Since the beginning of time, or since the beginning of community interactions, people will say, who do I know that knows, hey blank. That’s essentially how you would find a doctor or a lawyer or that’s what a blind date was. A blind date is not someone who is in your first degree, it’s somebody in your second degree. It’s not someone I know, it’s one that knows someone I know, and that behavior is not something that was brought on by the internet, it was just something that was made easier by the internet. And the way that that is facilitated is by taking people’s Rolodex’s and essentially uploading your Rolodex or index in your Rolodex, and then cross-referencing that with everyone else’s Rolodex, that’s the core of a social network.

Aaron Dinin:

That was Andrew Weinreich, he’s what you might call an expert on social networking. And by that, I mean, he literally owns the patent on it.

Andrew Weinreich:

I was an attorney, we wrote the original patent on social network, the original patent on social networking, the definitive path of the space was defined by this notion of how you would index relationships, how you would define them and how you would index, not yours but others in a single repository, if you will. So that was the essence of the idea.

Aaron Dinin:

That idea was a website called SixDegrees named after the six degrees of separation concept popularized by controversial American social psychologist, Stanley Milgram. Sixdegrees.com launched in 1997, as a way for people to connect with and expand their offline networks by getting connected digitally. As a result, many people consider SixDegrees to be the first social networking website. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to Web Masters the podcast that explores entrepreneurship by talking with some of the Internet’s earliest and most impactful innovators. My name is Aaron Dinin, I’m a serial entrepreneur. I teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University, and I’m about to share a conversation I got to have with a lawyer who patented social networking because yeah, apparently that’s something you can patent. Seriously, Google it, it’s US patent number 6175831B1. Here, I’ll read you the abstract to get you excited about it.

The abstract says, “A networking database containing a plurality of records for different individuals in which each individuals are connected to one another in the database by defined relationships. Each individual has the opportunity to define the relationship which may be confirmed or denied. Email messaging and interactive communication between individuals and a database service provider provide a method of constructing the database. The method includes having a registered individual identify further individuals and define there with a relationship, the further individuals then in turn establish their own defined relationships with still other individuals. The defined relationships are mutually defined.” All right, I’m not really sure I know what any of that meant, but we’re going to talk with the entrepreneur who wrote it and get the non-legal jargon version. But first, let me take a minute to thank our sponsor.

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So yes, before founding SixDegrees, this episodes guest Andrew Weinreich, was a lawyer, but I’m being a bit unfair describing in that way, because once you hear him speak, there’s no question he’s actually an entrepreneur who just happens to have a law degree. Still, I think his legal background is interesting and worth understanding as we begin to explore Andrew’s entrepreneurial career and insights.

Andrew Weinreich:

I went to law school, I was trying to start a business and the business didn’t get any traction. I took a job working at Pfizer as an attorney on a large anti-trust matter, all the while, thinking about how do I get going on my own startup? And then from there I joined a PC clone manufacturers, their general counsel, largely because I think they had difficulty finding anyone that would want that job as general counsel of a PC clone manufacturer that wasn’t paying a lot of money, but then I had a sense was about to go public.

Aaron Dinin:

You definitely don’t sound like someone who was particularly excited about being a lawyer. So why did you go to law school?

Andrew Weinreich:

I come from a long family of lawyers. My grandfather was a lawyer, father was a lawyer. I did not ever really think about practicing law. My first job out of college was in investment banking and I was progressing through these jobs that are fundamentally about advising others. And along the way I was dabbling with, well, what would it mean to instead of being an advisor, what would it mean to be someone who is advised, to actually be someone who thinks about being the principal in business? That was the transition process. I went to law school because I couldn’t figure out what else to do, which I think by the way, law school is a great education, but it comes at a cost, comes at a cost of three years, should we be doing something else. If I could do it again, I would not go to law school.

Aaron Dinin:

Andrew says, if he could do things all over again, he wouldn’t go to law school, but I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve met lots of non-practicing lawyers in the entrepreneurial world over the years. And when I asked them why they went to law school, they all make some version of the point that law school teaches a unique way of thinking. During my conversation with Andrew, I found myself wondering about that claim because what stuck out most, wasn’t so much the story of SixDegrees, a website, which doesn’t even exist anymore and most people never heard of, what sticks out is Andrew’s methodical approach to entrepreneurship. By that I mean, I’ve spoken with lots of entrepreneurs here on Web Masters who seem to have stumbled into the idea that would go on to become their venture. That definitely wasn’t the case for Andrew. Andrew was on a mission to develop a perfect idea. And he had an unusually explicit process in place for finding one.

Andrew Weinreich:

While I was at this PC clone manufacturer, the internet was really beginning to take off. The internet had been around for some time, what was really happening was this visualization component, this visualization of the internet, which was essentially what the worldwide web was. And I had put together a group in the evenings for the purpose of conceiving of internet ideas. We formed this group that consisted of myself, a couple of folks with software experience, of someone with a marketing background. And we began to create the framework for coming up with ideas and we set out rules for what would happen if someone conceived of an idea. So the rules, for example, if you can see that idea was is that we would all own the idea subject to us all quitting our jobs and working full time on the idea. If everyone was to quit their job and work full time on the idea that it was the originators’ idea. And so people started generating ideas.

Aaron Dinin:

How did this group approach generating ideas? Was there a specific methodology in place or did you just toss out a bunch of ideas and tell something sounded good?

Andrew Weinreich:

We began to think whether or not it was just a matter of time before someone with a entrenched brand or infrastructure would drown out the idea. So for example, someone said, “We can build the first sport’s website,” but there was ESPN or Sports Illustrated that pre-existed this conversation, this ideation. And so we began to focus on ideas that required user generated content that could only be done because the web was becoming broadly accessible.

Aaron Dinin:

And how did the idea for SixDegrees first get tossed around?

Andrew Weinreich:

I came up with this idea, which was fundamentally about this notion that if everyone index their relationships in a single place, you could see the people you don’t know, the people you do. That today, by the way, is essentially the critical component of every social network. We don’t talk about it in terms of indexing relationships, people don’t even use the word Rolodex anymore, but the high level construct, which it’s not that it preexisted our instantiation of social network, it’s that, it preexisted the internet broadly speaking.

Aaron Dinin:

So it sounds like the idea was basically to take an offline concept of networking and put it online. Is that a good way of describing your core thesis?

Andrew Weinreich:

Initial functionality consisted of these two pieces, one called connect me and the other one was network me, and they were designed to replicate behavior. So how do I know Aaron Dinin? So that’s a connect me and a network me would be who do I know that knows a professor at Duke? So one would be describe the attributes of someone and map my path. And the other is I’m looking for a destination, show me the path. But in both instances, it requires that core piece. And that notion, everyone loved the idea and no one was going to quit their job. So I quit my job and I started SixDegrees. And quickly brought on a founding team of people and we became the largest community site by 1999. And we sold that business.

Aaron Dinin:

But you were the only person in this group who was willing to actually take the plunge? Why were you so sure it was going to work? Why were you willing to quit your job for it?

Andrew Weinreich:

So it might be helpful to start from now and then go back in time. My view about entrepreneurship is there’s no notion that but for an entrepreneur, an idea wouldn’t happen. So let me be very specific about what I mean by that. If there was no Bill Gates, we would still have a computer on every desktop. If there was no Steve Jobs, we’d still all be using smartphones. And if there was no Elon Musk, we’d still all eventually be using electric cars. The interesting thing that electric vehicles, it’s something like 25% of cars, I think in the 1920s were electric. And then we moved away from electric vehicles. But the point is why does change happen? Change happens because there’s a confluence of factors that create inevitabilities. What does that mean from an entrepreneur’s perspective? First off, the idea that any entrepreneur is going to come up with an idea that dozens of other people around the world aren’t going to come up with as well, it’s highly unlikely. How many billion people on the planet now? Eight plus billion, 9 billion people.

There are a lot of people on the planet. Lots of them are thinking about where’s there an opportunity to do something interesting. So the idea that you’re the only one that came up with an idea, well, that’s incredibly unlikely, but which idea should you focus on? And if you think about ideas that are worthy of focusing on, it’s helpful to have the right combination of arrogance and humility, the humility comes in many forms, but one of the best places to have it is to say, what are the broad stroke inevitabilities that I can step into, so that I’m an agent in this broader sea of change. And if there’s not a broader sea of change occurring or likely to occur, it’s probably the wrong place to play. So everything that I do, I think in the context of, is it an inevitability? And that brings it back to SixDegrees. So in SixDegrees, I’m not sure at what point we started using the term inevitability, but I always thought it was inevitable, as soon as we had formed this group, that user generated content would be disruptive.

Aaron Dinin:

So it sounds like you basically saw social networking as inevitable and then threw yourself into it. Is that the strategy you would recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs looking for their big opportunity?

Andrew Weinreich:

I mean, the way I think about it is in every vertical, and by vertical, I mean category, whether you’re thinking about big data or aerospace or the automotive space or social networking, in every category, there’s going to be change. And if you have the ability to speak to enough people to form a perspective about what is going to happen with, or without you, then you can begin to think about, well, what can I do to build something meaningful in the context of this inevitability that might accelerate this inevitability, but that creates value in the sandbox of this inevitability. That’s how I think about entrepreneurship.

Aaron Dinin:

Andrew’s ideas about inevitabilities reminds me of a concept I usually refer to as the why now, the gist is that fundamentally consumers don’t tend to actively pursue change. It’s much easier for them to keep operating along the status quo, but change happens when there’s some sort of forcing mechanism that compels consumers to alter their behaviors. For example, a new law makes a previous way of doing something illegal or a new technology makes the old way of doing something significantly more expensive than modern alternatives. The question of why now explains why consumer behavior is going to shift. And as Andrew points out, the shift is going to happen, regardless of whether or not you as an individual entrepreneur decide to take action.

Andrew Weinreich:

If I give you a good answer of why now, it means it’s going to happen with, or without me, that’s the key piece is, this will happen with, or without me, it’s just what role can I play in it? The world is waiting for me to do something and if I don’t do it, it’ll never happen, that’s just not likely. It’s just not likely that there’s a great idea and that, but for you, it wouldn’t happen.

Aaron Dinin:

This idea that change is going to happen regardless of whether or not you as an individual entrepreneur decide to take action is the humility Andrew was referring to earlier. The world’s most prominent entrepreneurs tend to get glorified as visionaries, but, at least according to Andrew’s worldview, they’re not driving change so much as they’re identifying it early and then riding that change to their own eventual success. And that’s not to say they don’t play an important role in influencing how the impactful changes ultimately shape the world, it just means the change would have happened with, or without them as individuals. So rather than spouting off names like Jobs, Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg, or even older names like Edison and Wright, we’d be glorifying other innovators and entrepreneurs who would have accomplished functionally the same basic things.

Now, whether or not that’s true, I have no idea. And also none of us have a way to prove it. But I do know this was Andrew’s perspective as he started SixDegrees, he believed in the inevitability of people cultivating their networks online. He saw there weren’t a lot of other people operating that space and so that’s where he began focusing his attention.

Andrew Weinreich:

I quit that group and then there was a founding team that joined right away. In fact, I think the founding team got paid at all. Sean Zuberbier, Nicole Berlin, Cliff Rosen, Adam Cipher, Mark Solomon. Those were the initial full-time people.

Aaron Dinin:

And how did you fund the venture? Did you bootstrap it or were you able to raise venture capital?

Andrew Weinreich:

No, originally it was my credit cards and then angel funding. We eventually raised meaningful capital but the first couple of rounds were high net worth individuals.

Aaron Dinin:

And what was the business model?

Andrew Weinreich:

We were selling advertising, no different than Facebook.

Aaron Dinin:

So you set the precedent for ad supported social networks, which for better and for worse have had their fair share of issues. Out of curiosity, did you ever consider a different business model?

Andrew Weinreich:

What are the other types of monetization for a social network? You’re either charging on a subscription basis. There’s some type of transaction you’re envisioning or you’re selling eyeballs, and we’re at the most nascent stages of building a community and monetizing a community. If you believe that the value of that community grows exponentially, as you add more people to it, you don’t particularly want to add friction in the form of subscription, not obvious what the transactional revenue would be. So that leaves you with advertising. Now, advertising at a high level could take the form of sponsorships. It could take the form of CPMs, CBCs, CPL, there are many forms advertising could take. But at a high level, you are selling advertisements, whatever the actual mechanism you use to solve.

Aaron Dinin:

Oh, that makes sense. You’d obviously want to minimize barriers to entry. How else were you thinking about growing this new social network? For example, I was talking with Jonathan Abrams who founded Friendster and he was saying there was a lot of resistance from people who were hesitant to share their real identities online. And that was in 2003. So how did you convince people to do it in 1997, which was of course, significantly earlier, particularly in terms of the history of the web.

Andrew Weinreich:

It didn’t require any convincing, the promise of connectivity, seeing people you don’t know, the people you do, inherent in that was a requirement that you use your real identity. And so simply explaining what it was that you were trying to accomplish was sufficient to get people to provide their real identity. We did not view that as a challenge. LinkedIn today, when you get a request for someone to connect to someone on LinkedIn, it’s not under a pseudonym, it’s not with a handle, it’s this person and the real name and identity of that person is there. And the benefit to you is clear. And so we launched this product at a relatively well-known building in New York, called the punk building, we had an event, we put up on the screen before an audience. There’s actually a video of this online and a little talk I gave at the time.

And I said, “We’re about to change the world. You’ll be able to connect to everyone in the world if you participate in this,” that wasn’t actually possible, the majority of people at that point didn’t even have an email address, but the construct was I would send out an email, it would define my relationship between myself and the people that went out to, they would confirm the relationship and then they in turn would send it out to others. And because people were not receiving a huge amount of email, we were able to pierce through all the email clutter that you receive today and go viral. And that was the basis of the original software patent. And that was the piece that we were looking for to validate as the original milestone.

I mean, it was years in the making. There is a lot of ups and downs along the way, and needing to raise capital and hire people and build out functionality. But that was the crux of it, which was take time and try to validate this fundamental proposition that people would be willing to define their relationships in a single place if the benefit you offered them was this opportunity to connect to the rest of the world and see people you don’t know and the people you do.

Aaron Dinin:

And so would you say grew through a lot of hard work, time and creating virality, or would you say grew more through word of mouth?

Andrew Weinreich:

I mean, I will say a lot of people have asked me, what’s the difference between virality and word of mouth. And the definition that I use for virality is very different than word of mouth. So let me describe to you what I consider word of mouth marketing. If I use Tide and I absolutely love the product, it clean my clothes better than I ever could have envisioned. And I call you up and I tell you about it, to me, that’s word of mouth. And the reason that’s word of mouth is there’s no benefit I get from sharing with you that you should use Tide. My clothes don’t get cleaner if you use Tide. One way to think about viral functionality is people share a product that is viral for selfish reasons, as opposed to what you might almost call altruistic reasons for word of mouth.

So if I was the first person to buy a phone and I said to you, “Aaron, you really should buy a phone.” I’m telling you about that not because I think altruistically you’ll really enjoy the phone. I have no one to call. And so if you don’t buy the phone, my phone has less value. When people list people on LinkedIn, no one does that out of altruism. No one says for your benefit, I thought you might like to be connected to me. It’s fundamentally a selfish act. I want to expand my network so I’m linking to you. And by the way, selfish doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. It’s just whether it’s for your benefit or for mine.

And if you think about all social networking, all of these products that go viral, if you accept my very limited definition of virality, which is it’s predicated on the benefit being for me, not for you. Not withstanding the fact that you may enjoy a benefit from it as well, then that definition of virality requires something inherent in the functionality where the benefit to the propagator is the fundamental reason behind sharing that piece of functionality. So if you can tap into that selfishness, I would tell you, that’s my product, like WhatsApp goes viral, but it doesn’t work if I’m the only one that’s using it. Same thing with Facebook’s, same thing with LinkedIn, same thing with Instagram, you might say that there is a point where people want to be voyeurs, where they enjoy listening to other people’s stories and that’s the reason they participate. But the publishers, their motivation in networking is so they’re able to publish to a larger audience.

Aaron Dinin:

So how would you tie that conception of virality into something like viral content, like a viral TikTok dance video? I mean, I feel like I know how I’d answer this question, but how do you see something like a viral video as a fundamentally selfish act?

Andrew Weinreich:

So I wouldn’t apply that to this definition of viral, there are pieces of content that are just incredibly amusing or educational. And so they take off like wildfire, you might stretch this definition to say, I’m enhancing my credibility by extending the reach of a piece of content. But I don’t think of it that way. I don’t think of the content you’re talking about, it goes viral. I think about this more from the perspective of building functionality and I wouldn’t call that functionality inherently viral. I would call the underlying threads, the underlying tissue by which people are connected. That’s the viral component that applies for this definition.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, turns out I would’ve answered my own question by saying the thing Andrew specifically said wasn’t the case, you see, I would say sharing a TikTok video with your friends, or even sharing this podcast with friends, hint, hint, that kind of sharing does provide what Andrew describes as selfish value. It says, look at this cool thing I’ve found, and now I’m sharing the cool thing with you. And that makes me somehow a better person. Regardless, I love Andrew’s distinctions about virality versus word of mouth. And anyone creating a business that relies on virality would probably do well to re-listen to his explanation and keep it in mind as you build specifically, how can you create by reality by making it in your user’s best interest to share your product? It’s a notoriously difficult hill to climb, particularly in network effects types of businesses like SixDegrees. But Andrew and his team were some of the first to successfully claim it, which is all the more impressive considering one huge limitation they’ve faced compared with later social networks, specifically getting photos online was not nearly as easy in 1997, as it is now.

Andrew Weinreich:

People ask me what was SixDegrees like? And when I tell them there were no pictures or illustrations, there were no pictures. People are astounded. Like, how is it possible you had a social network with no pictures? And what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that most people didn’t have digital pictures of themselves or other people in the late 90s. And the reason for that was because phones did not have digital cameras. You sit in a sandbox that’s so much bigger than you. And a lot of times you’re waiting around for technological changes that may seem extraneous to you, but that will ultimately influence the path you take. So for example, I invested in a company that built video content when most people were on dialects. Now, that company ultimately did not succeed, but what that would require is the foresight and the patients to recognize that at some point we’re all going to have high-speed internet conductivity, and that video will become easier, not something that is impossible to consume because of technology limitations.

And the same can be said of what was going on in the late 90s in social networking. There was a sense that we were all waiting for digital photography to show up, then what would the role of the people have a much more robust library of images that they collected both of themselves and how they would interact and what role would video play and what role would voice play? We were just at the earliest inception of that. In the 90s, I think people were thinking much more in terms of what can I do with the written word, user generated content, but much more with the written word?

And then all of a sudden we had this massive explosion that was based on infrastructure changes. By infrastructure, I do mean fiber optic, but I also mean something as simple as the phone, and the fact that the phone, all of a sudden, we wake up one day and there are more phones with cameras than freestanding cameras. It’s like an astonishing sea change development that required great foresight maybe didn’t. But that’s what I’m talking about, what’s critical for entrepreneurship is at any given moment contextualize in yourself,

Aaron Dinin:

But you sold before that sea change in 1999, so if that change was coming, why did you decide to sell?

Andrew Weinreich:

We thought it was the right offer at the right time. And I don’t know what would have happened if we had a better perspective that this infrastructure that was right around the corner, but we evaluated what our opportunities were at the time and we thought that was the best opportunity.

Aaron Dinin:

Do you regret selling? Do you have any sense of what SixDegrees could have become had you held on?

Andrew Weinreich:

Well, you know what SixDegrees could have become because you can see what’s happened in the space. The question is whether we would have been the company to make that leap. I don’t know. I think broadly speaking, most verticals experience ebbs and flows, and what you’re waiting for is a wave to come in on a vertical, one often you can’t see. Which is why companies that have been around for a long time, usually find a moment to create immense enterprise value and companies that are around for short periods of time, usually don’t. And that’s just because it takes a long time to do things one, but two, you’re you’re waiting for opportunities and for changes that may be extraneous to you.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s fair. And I guess it still did take a long time for social media to come into its own so to speak. Out of curiosity, what’s your perspective of current social networking and social media and the way the industry you pioneered has matured since the late 90s?

Andrew Weinreich:

I gave a talk years ago at Singularity about how you could track the progression of social networking based on broader technology changes. So for example, Twitter originally had a character limit based on what the character limit was of a text message before we truncated. And as people got more accustomed to texting, was it inevitable that we even have a microblogging social network, if you will. And was it inevitable that once we had smartphones as a platform, that we would have Instagram, and was it inevitable that as soon as we had higher bandwidth through mobile phones and the infrastructure were built out, that we would have these other social networks? The WhatsApp of the world, could you track the advent of social networks based on the broader adoption of different infrastructure? And again, I broadly use that term infrastructure. So that’s one thought.

Aaron Dinin:

And what about from a perspective of impact? I mean, we all know social media has a bit of a reputation for being problematic. Do you agree with that? Disagree? Something else?

Andrew Weinreich:

Social networking has done a lot of good in the world, and there are lots of instances of people that would otherwise feel isolated that had been brought together, and they were able to use social networking as a platform for good. But there’s an awful lot of junk, and there’s an awful lot of human behavior where you define yourself by what your interaction is with the social network. And broadly speaking, that’s not obvious that that’s a social good or that that’s for the betterment of people’s lives. And so I do think it’s interesting that there’s lots of instances where social networks have been used for good and there’s lots of instances where they’re just colossal waste of time. So how does the world emerge from here with respect to the social networks? Not from an entrepreneurial perspective, how do you monetize it? Just what does the future look like?

Andrew Weinreich:

It’s an interesting question that not a lot of people talk about, but how do you balance the good with the bad? I think it’s obvious, the people sitting on the technology side are like, we’re probably getting more and more social networks for more and more good, it’s a way for you to express yourself. And sure, there’s lots of good, but there’s been lots of bad. And so how that balances out, how that’s viewed over time, I don’t know

Aaron Dinin:

When the person who literally patented social networking doesn’t know what the future of social networks looks like, how can anyone? Which underscores Andrew’s core point that no entrepreneur can control the forward progression of innovation. Instead, all we can do is what Andrew suggests, identify the inevitabilities, lean into them and try to build something meaningful, which in my own little way is what I’m trying to do with this podcast. So I hope you found it meaningful too. If you did, please take a moment to share it with a friend. I don’t know if Andrew would call that word of mouth or virality or something else, whatever we call it, I know I will be grateful. I’m also grateful to Andrew Weinreich, for taking the time to share his story. To see what he’s up to these days, you can find him on Twitter, he’s @aweinreich.

This podcast is on Twitter too, we’re @WebMastersPod and I’m on Twitter @AaronDinin, That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. You can also find me on Medium just by searching my name, you’ll see I write lots of articles about entrepreneurship, startups, and business. Thank you to our engineer, Ryan Higgs for pulling together this episode and thank you to our sponsor Latona’s for all their help and support. Remember if you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business, head on over to latonas.com. That about wraps things up for this episode, be sure you’re subscribed so that you get the next episode as soon as it’s released. It is coming soon. For now though, time for me to sign off. Goodbye.