Widget Master

November 2, 2007

By Victoria Murphy Barret

RockYou is Silicon Valley’s latest Web sensation. It exists solely thanks to the recent rise in social networking sites. RockYou creates frivolous, mini Web applications that exist on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. RockYou’s popular Superwall, for instance, lets Facebook folks put graffiti–words, photos, videos–on their “walls,” which are public sites where members post messages. Another, called Zombies, encourages people to “bite” friends. Virtually, of course. No joke.

Since RockYou’s founding two years ago, 90 million social networkers have downloaded its applications. For this, RockYou is making more than $100,000 a month in revenues showing ads alongside its mini-applications for brands like AT&T and Sony, as well as by plugging other developers’ mini-apps (for a fee). The pitch to advertisers: We are where the kids hang out. Yet RockYou doesn’t know much else about its customers. Facebook doesn’t share data about members’ ages, locations, education or anything else it might know.

Jia Shen, the 27-year-old co-founder of RockYou, sat down with Forbes.com recently to talk about how to make money selling snack-size software and what Google’s new open platform means for Facebook and MySpace.

Forbes.com: How did RockYou begin?

Jia Shen: We started two years ago noticing that everyone on MySpace was trying to “bling out” their pages. But there was no easy way to do it. We decided to put together a slide show tool. It took one week to build. I worked while I was on vacation in Japan. In one month, we had 100,000 people using it. Then in three months there were one million.

Impressive growth. But were you making any money?

None. You can’t advertise on MySpace. Facebook changed that. So now we’re like any other Web site: We make money on page views. Sony Pictures wanted to promote the film Resident Evil and used our Zombies application for a sweepstakes event.

We also advertise other applications and take a cut. Yahoo! created an application that lets you post music videos on your Facebook profile page. Yahoo! had 8,000 downloads after one month, which is pretty slow. We started promoting the application in banners above our own applications. In a single day on our network of applications, Yahoo! got 120,000 downloads.

What is your initial reaction to Google’s new open platform for social networks?

We’ve been helping Google for a while on this. In theory, it should be very cool. We tested it out with an application called Emote (This is a collection of happy, sad, flirty smiley faces). Before all these networks required different code, and it took us three days to re-write the same application for Facebook to get it to work on Orkut. With the new standards, it took us just 30 minutes to make the same application work on Plaxo. The real test comes two months from now. How many companies will really give us real estate on their Web sites?

Will Google’s open platform give a boost to less popular social networks like Orkut, Friendster and the Hi5?

Sure, if it yields them more applications, it gives people more reasons to flock to their sites. Web traffic isn’t yet a zero-sum game

Is this bad news for Facebook? Will developers spend less time on Facebook apps?

People are making real money on Facebook. So there’s risk in going elsewhere. Am I really going to spend time going after Orkut’s Brazilian audience? I’m more likely to focus on the U.S. market. Facebook is still growing nicely.

Do you worry that the social networking sites, particularly Facebook, will start launching their own applications and compete with outside developers?

It is always a worry, but something that we’ve lived with since day one. MySpace eventually built a competing slideshow, but we already had big penetration, with a diverse set of widgets. Facebook does do little feature creeps here and there. But everything they’ve done so far has been non-competitive.

What will Microsoft get from its deal with Facebook? (Microsoft announced in October a $240 million investment for a 1.6% stake in Facebook, and is serving ads on the site.)

This isn’t traditional brand advertising. But my belief is that Microsoft didn’t want only access to the ad network. Microsoft wanted to make sure no one else got Facebook. (Google was reportedly bidding.)

What were you doing before RockYou?

I came to Silicon Valley in 2000 after majoring in computer science and electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins. The first start-up I landed at failed in three months, so did the second. I thought I was the kiss of death.

But I have a short attention span, so it was fine by me. This company is changing so much I may as well be working at a different place every three months.

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