A Q&A with City Chatter founder and CEO Phil Sphillberg. The San Rafael, California–based company was founded in 2011 and launched its app to the public today. Investors include Michael Gluck, founder and president of VG Market, and other Angels.
SUB: Please describe what City Chatter is, and the value proposition you are offering to mobile consumers.
Sphillberg: Our value proposition is to change the nature of communication in the real world. We aim to connect people to those around them and help them meet in the real world. City Chatter turns real-world locations like venues, neighborhoods and even cities into virtual communities. City Chatter exists because we strongly believe people don’t want to meet and communicate by proximity, algorithm or even common friends but by being in the same neighborhood or venue and sharing an experience. City Chatter offers people the chance to communicate in a very natural way by introducing the first app that combines social discovery with group and private chat on mobile devices.
SUB: Who are your target users?
Sphillberg: Our early target market is early adopters of new technologies, who own iOS or Android based devices. I know from extensively testing the app that we generally appeal to people under 30, as well as older people who accept the evolution of communications. It’s almost like if you draw a line at 30 right now, most under it will consider this a social network while most over it will consider it an anti-social network. For full disclosure the two people most responsible for City Chatter, Sean Schertell, my Technology Director, and me, fall out on the anti-social network part of that demographic, yet this is something we really want to use. Our goal is nothing short of changing how people communicate and as services like ours mature and become mainstream, I think everyone will use our network the way many people that thought they would never use Facebook now use it every day.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition?
Sphillberg: What we are really competing for is people’s time both on their mobile devices and online. We compete with anything that people currently use for a significant amount of time on their mobile phone, which includes games, the major social networks, professional networks and search. When you see a person on their phone in a restaurant, at a bus stop, in a bar, at a business conference and ask them what they are doing on their phone—we compete with that.
SUB: What differentiates City Chatter from the competition?
Sphillberg: City Chatter is both forward-looking and retro. Right now we are basically IRC, which has been around for a long time, on your mobile device. IRC let people group chat based on common interest and it changed my life. Location is the new common interest and the next set of innovative technologies, like Google Glass, weave technology into the fabric of everyday activities. Right now people often don’t know the people around them. The reason they accept this is because the technology to get to know them didn’t exist before. We are looking to change that. Social networking with your friends is great, but your old high school friends might be a continent away. How many times do we go places and see people not being present in the moment because they are on Facebook or texting with people who aren’t there. City Chatter offers a way to connect, not disconnect.
SUB: When was the company founded and what were the first steps you took in establishing it?
Sphillberg: While the LLC behind City Chatter has existed for several years, City Chatter became my full time focus in January 2012. The initial idea, which I will come back to, happened in August 2011 and I started on the first prototype in September 2011 by wire framing an idea that was actually far less ambitious than what City Chatter is now. Development started in December 2011 and I have made and remade it about four times since then.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for City Chatter? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Sphillberg: The seed for what later became City Chatter was planted when I was having lunch with my friend Jen Genz. We had recently been introduced because we were both executives in the mobile space and had common connections. Sometime during lunch we started people watching and trying to guess what people were doing at the café. We both really wanted learn something about the people around us. We naturally looked in the app store and were surprised there was little there to help us, and what existed was really bad. Jen was way out there and wanted to see an augmented reality application, which we will totally do when the technology allows it. The idea to connect with the people around us lingered. A few months later we started on the prototype called MayFly—named because it was meant to be a short-lived network.
SUB: What have the most significant obstacles been so far to building the company?
Sphillberg: Absolutely it’s been feature creep. The initial idea was simply to let people talk to others in the same venue based on check-in—I put a provisional patent on that at the start of 2011. But after we made that in March we weren’t happy, we wanted a service that did a lot more. We thought that it was very unlikely that we could become ubiquitous with people having to be in the same location. So we added technology for discovering people that are further away. And we went on like that adding and adding. At some point I had to say, enough, we are never going to launch if we keep this up. The hardest thing to do is to be happy with what you have and say “This is a product, we are shipping this.” We are perfectionists. We ripped out the whole interface a few weeks before launch because it wasn’t perfect. We will continue to refine and tinker—but it’s time to let people in and see if our baby is pretty and smart enough for the real world. I understand the MVP approach, but it just didn’t feel right for this product.
SUB: Why is this a particularly good time to launch?
Sphillberg: There is a convergence of several big trends that make this a perfect time to launch City Chatter. We now have the critical mass of smart phones, with GPS chips and Internet connectivity to ensure most of the people you want to talk can talk back. Facebook has pioneered real online identity, made the social graph available to others to further innovate, and cleaned up a lot of the ugliness that happened online before it. People are used to communicating digitally via instant message, text and social networks. I believe we are entering the age where the word ‘stranger’ will no longer apply. Our tagline is “You ‘ve got friends everywhere. You just haven’t met them yet” and we fully believe that.
SUB: Do you plan to raise outside funding?
Sphillberg: I am lucky to have amazing Angel investors who not only share my vision but who are real partners in building City Chatter. One of them is Michael Gluck, founder and president of VG Market, a company he bootstrapped and made into a significant player in the video game space. Another investor, who asked to stay anonymous for now, is an early employee and executive at a major video game company. He is a visionary in social networking and connecting people. We talk every night. They challenge me and fight with me and make me rethink everything until it’s much better than I could have made it.
If we get to a point where we can make something better than we could by ourselves, with outside expertise and funding, we will do it. If somebody that shares our vision and passion for connecting the world comes along then it will be worth considering. Right now we need to get our product to market. Launch looms so large, it overshadows everything else right now.
SUB: What are your goals for City Chatter over the next year or so?
Sphillberg: Over the next year I would like to see people meet, and become more symbiotic, with the people around them. If in a year we go out for a drink, lunch, to an office, a university or a business conference and we see people using City Chatter to connect to those around them and then connect in the real world, we will have met our goals.
City Chatter – www.citychatter.com