Interview with Noel Chandler of Mosio

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Note: This is the first of a few interview pieces I originally wrote for the now-defunct Nokia Workshop blog. That blog died before these could go up, so I’m going to post them here instead. Thanks go out to the folks who took the time to participate — and apologies that these couldn’t wind up somewhere slightly more prominent.

Say hello to Mosio, if you haven’t already met, another application exploring new ways to build social software on top of simple text messaging. Mosio do Q-n-A: Text out a question and if someone using the service knows the answer (or is at a computer), they’ll send you a response. They won a 2008 SXSW Web Award — that’s where I first heard about the project. Co-founder Noel Chandler was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

Josh: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for the blog.

Noel: My pleasure.

Josh: So the primary Mosio app is a crowd-sourced question-and-answer system that uses text messages. It’s like Yahoo! Answers or Ask Metafilter, maybe, but focussed on mobile.

Noel: Exactly, with more on-the-go focus, specifically tied to speed of results. People who are mobile want info asap.

Josh: To start, how did you arrive at this idea? Did you find that you were often in a situation where you needed such a service? Or did you begin by looking at the mobile space and dreaming up new modes of social interaction?

Noel: It was a little bit of both. My Co-Founder (Jay Sachdev) and I were working together on some cool projects for our regular jobs, found out we were both passionate about mobile over some drinks after work. From there we started talking about cool things you could do with your phone, built a few apps and then the “how cool would it be if you could text any question and have it answered by a real person?” idea came up, so we started building it. It sounds sort of cliche for a start-up to say “it all started out as an experiment,” but the truth is, it really did. In fact, the name Mosio is taken from “mociology” (mobile sociology), the study of how humans interact socially with mobile devices. We really just wanted to see what would happen.

Josh: Mosio seems like something that’s useless until you reach a critical mass of users. How did you go about building the Mosio community? Does receiving an award like the SXSW Web Award result in a boost of users?

Noel: Yeah, building a self-sustaining community is definitely not easy, but we were determined to make it work. Also, we were lucky enough to have a small group of friends and people who truly wanted to see it succeed, wanted to be able to have the service around when they needed information. Some of those same folks are still an active part of asking and answering, but in addition there’s a whole new group of people who we’re grateful to for continuing to make the service great. Without them it wouldn’t be helpful, informative, funny or addictive.

Winning at SXSW was such an amazing experience. Mosio started out as a “2 dudes in a garage” idea, our first office was literally in my garage, so being able to go to Austin, have a great time in a super fun city and bring home an award was great. The win has definitely helped increase the number of users and partners for us. I’m a marketing guy and Jay is the engineer, so while I’ve always wanted the party to be so big the house falls apart, he’s done a good job reminding me of the fact that if the house falls apart, everybody has to go home or find another place to party. Somewhere in between we have an incredible steady growth of amazing users sprinkled with growth spurts of new people who really like the service, so we’re both happy.

Josh: Are there any groups of Mosio users that you’re just totally surprised by? Or people using Mosio in ways you hadn’t thought of?

Noel: Definitely. I’m constantly surprised by people using the service, so helpful, yet there seems to be an irreverent and smart ass tone that they use when answering. People sometimes ask “why would I ask Mosio about the weather when I could just use Google SMS?” The reason is because Google SMS doesn’t respond back and tell you you’re lucky that your weather is warmer than where it is or that you should probably pack a jacket just in case. The human element keeps it really cool and the fact that people are volunteering to help each other makes it even better.

My favorite things are the “above and beyonds” with the site, true favors. They come in the form of making a phone call for that person, some people have asked for someone to make a dinner reservation and others have called a store to confirm something before they text back an answer (“I couldn’t find store hours on their site but I called for you and they’re open until 9pm.” or “They said they’d fix that kind of watch for $30 plus $5 for the battery.”) I never would have imagined that so much relationship advice would be given out or that people would be so nice and encouraging to those asking for it. It’s really cool.

Josh: It’s interesting to me that even in this age of sexy high-end phones like the Nokia Nseries and iPhones and such that the lowly text message still seems to have so much potential. Obviously Twitter, for example, has capitalized on this. Do you feel like this is just the fragmentation of the mobile communications space — similar to how we have instant messaging and e-mail and such co-existing on our computers — or will mobile applications eventually absorb the SMS function? Does Mosio have any plans for a mobile application?

Noel: Very true. I heard a quote the other night at a mobile event that was basically “targeting smart phones means 10% of the market. Targeting ‘dumb’ phones means 100% of the market.” While I agree and understand why it was said, at Mosio we believe in the near future almost all phones will be smart phones and we’re working under that premise. That said, I’m not sure if other mobile apps will completely absorb the SMS function, but I feel like there will always be a need for SMS, even if “short” means 500 characters instead of 160. We live in a burst culture where RSS feeds, headlines and status updates keep us informed. There’s always going to be a need for that quick, set-it-and-forget-it communication function on your mobile, kept separate from email. We love that SMS is ubiquitous, but we also have our SDKs open and studied. You’ll see a “beyond messaging” element to Mosio within the next 3 months.

Josh: How do you feel about the 160-character limit? I see you try to adhere to it, but there are some questions (and answers) which I suppose were asked via the web that go much longer. Do you consider it a limitation, the character limit, or a tool for keeping people a bit more concise and to-the-point?

Noel: I really think a lot can be done in 160 characters, but at times it can be limiting. This will show itself even more when a lot of free services begin to monetize and need the real estate to do so, cutting 160 characters to 120 or less. The way we extend that character limit is through a tool on our site that enables you to send a two message response, showing you what your response will look like before you send it. We did it so people could see all they had to do was truncate/abbreviate a word to save the asking person a text and I think people both utilize and enjoy the thinking behind it. I definitely like the by-product of keeping people short with their answers, because it prevents someone from just copying/pasting a whole page and blasting it, which is the exact opposite point. Mosio members now use the acronym WYGO (When You Get Online) to send a link where more information can be found later (or now if you’re really interested and have mobile web access). WYGO links are super helpful for that extra information, giving you the option to read it now or later.

Josh: I see you’ve integrated the Mosio Q-n-A service into the Twitter API. What led you in that direction? And how do you feel about the Twitter API? Are they offering an interesting sort of social platform for SMS-based apps a la the Facebook App platform (a stretch, maybe) where you plug into their social graph so people don’t have to go through the hassle of duplicating it on your site? Or is it just the popular hang-out of the day?

Noel: Our decision to develop it came down to two things:

1) We’re big Twitter fans and there’s an interesting thing going on with people seeing it used in certain ways and then immediately thinking of how they could use it or what they could create for it.

2) When we first built the Twitter Answers App, it was because we kept seeing all of these cool applications being built for Twitter, but mostly in the ways of either repackaging the tweets gleaned from the public timeline or new ways to post to Twitter. Through the same thinking I mentioned in #1 above, we created Twitter Answers.

Our thinking didn’t too much to do with plugging into the social graph or anything like that, we just thought it was a cool way to use Twitter. We haven’t created a Facebook App yet because we haven’t thought of anything yet that we feel would be a great way to use or contribute to Facebook for a long period of time. I think the social graph elements to all social networks is incredibly interesting, each has it’s own small nuances. For example, I found out a friend died from Facebook updates, I found out Tim Russert died from Twitter and I found out Heath Ledger died from Mosio when a handful of people all asked if it was true. Not to bring up such a sad topic, but each example is the distribution (and confirmation) of immediate information that is important to people.

Josh: Finally, where’s Mosio going in the future? I see you have a myriad other text messaging services at the site — everything from random humorous Chuck Norris “trivia” to automatic birthday reminders. Are you branching out to more services or are you keeping your focus on the Mosio Q-n-A application itself?

Noel: I can’t go into too much detail with specifics, but it’s a little bit of both. It all comes down to listening to what our users want. You can now post photos (video posting coming soon) which has turned out to be really well received in spite of the fact that we haven’t promoted it heavily on the site. The apps are helpful and let people use their phones in new ways, so we’ll be building out more of those with some more specific focus on Q&A + location.

Thanks so much for the interview!