Publisher & Editor, New Jersey Tech Weekly
NJTechWeekly.com recently interviewed Dr. Jared Scherz, founder of ufeud.com, a new social networking website that promotes constructive debate using some innovative technology. What separates ufeud.com from other social networking sites is its ability to obtain measured feedback. The company says it takes social networking to the next level by offering formulated analysis and interpretation of social -interaction behaviors.
UFeud LLC came to our attention last month, at the Posters, Pitches and Prizes event sponsored by the New Jersey Entrepreneurial Network (NJEN) at Princeton University, where the Mount Laurel-based company exhibited for the first time. Until recently, the 4-year-old company was funded by founder Scherz, a clinical psychologist who operates a South Jersey wellness clinic, with additional funds provided by colleagues and friends. Now, however, the company is in negotiations with an angel investor for $100,000 to take UFeud to the next level.
That next level includes a patent for which the company has applied, on commenting, scoring and extrapolating technology for use with videos. UFeud’s ultimate business goal: social media television. The company would like to make the television- and video-viewing experience simultaneous with social networking.
Scherz admits that as a clinical psychologist with no previous technology background, he is an unlikely tech company CEO. His interest in resolving conflict resolution is what drove him to seek out technology that would help people deal with differences, and once the idea took root, the company evolved. Scherz is the author of several books, including one on school violence.
How did the idea for your startup come about?
I was growing increasingly concerned about the way we deal with conflict, both interpersonally and globally. As part of my experience as a psychologist, I continually envisioned ways of facilitating deeper and more sustainable world peace. I stayed up at night envisioning how to have an impact on the way people deal with differences—how to make it more constructive and unifying. My urgency in wanting younger generations to learn conflict resolution and constructive differencing led me to the idea of creating a website based on the theme of exploring differences. I believed I could bring people together by creating a fun, interesting medium familiar to the younger generation while simultaneously offering something substantial for the established older generation.
Who else was involved in the beginning?
I partnered with several people along the way, including my closest friend, Ron Budhi, who helped bring the idea into focus, and John Roskoph, who helped bring it to fruition. Ryan Speakman was one of the most exciting additions to the team. He had been building websites for others for years and turned down many offers to work for sweat equity. His exuberance and willingness to join our project brought a renewed energy that has carried us to where we are today.
Once the idea was set, what came next?
While we were working on completing our first version to launch for beta testing, we came up with an idea. Instead of trying to bring the masses to our site, we thought of a way to bring our site to them. The invention of the uframe allowed our site to be the first social media debate platform that can be integrated into other sites with the push of a button.
Uframes are portals that can be placed on any blog or website in a matter of minutes. They transform blogs and websites into mini social media platforms. With video embedding, email notification, Facebook and Twitter integration and many other features, site owners can select or create any debate topic they want for their site. It’s free, and the same uframe can be placed on an unlimited number of sites, allowing for data syndication and grassroots polling. Being able to self-publish uframes to your own blog or website is very new to the Internet.
With creative energy flowing, our next discovery came quickly: a way for social media to center on video. While YouTube is a rather static site for viewing videos, our uscore tool now makes streaming media the focus of networking. We are currently undergoing patent protection, so I’m limited in what I can share at this point. In short, it will be a first in the technology world, valued by everybody from the entertainment industry to politicians. It’s this technology that has brought investors to us instead of the other way around.
What technology challenges did you face in the past and now?
One of our challenges was integrating different programming languages into all our tools, allowing them to be standalones but also to function in unison. With programming occurring in different states in the U.S. and even in China, we had to overcome some problems including the firewall protection that keeps Chinese citizens insulated.
The greatest challenge was thinking through the application flow and how all the pieces connect with one another. It was also difficult to try to anticipate what the user experience should be and how users would want to interact with the application. You really just have to build an application you hope the majority of users can benefit from. There were also issues related to scaling the application. I think we are there and have solved these issues, all while providing users a unique, interactive experience they would have a difficult time finding anywhere else.
Bootstrapping isn’t easy. How did you initially finance the startup?
Early on the funding came from my personal investment. Feeding money into the project during that first year was a strain, but it was too early to consider revenue streams or investing. Once the project took shape, we approached people in our professional circle to see who was in a position to help out, and we found our first investor. A cardiologist and his physician wife were looking for a project to get involved with, and we quickly got funded. From that point we continued to infuse the company with personal investment until we located our next investor, who was also part of our circle. We’ve taken on a good bit of investment and we are potentially going to cap it soon, because we have more than enough money to last us a while. However, we are in negotiations with an angel investor who is talking about giving us another $100,000.
Did you pitch for money?
We have yet to make any formal pitches to professional investors. In fact, we haven’t finalized any of our marketing material because our technology seems to be advancing so quickly. We have talked with people at some of the major conferences, such as Streaming Media and BlogWorld, about presenting, but we haven’t yet put anything in final form. We have looked at a high-tech small-business incubator and recently met people through the Princeton poster event, but we have grown rather organically up to this point.
How will UFeud make money?
We have quite a few revenue streams. I think the mistake many websites make these days is they rely on too few sources, including advertising, which has really dried up over the past couple of years. One thing we are doing is producing statistics through the complex algorithms we’ve generated, so individuals, organizations and companies can find data. For instance, if politicians want to know how their constituencies are polling on a particular issue, we can provide advanced statistics. If a company is putting out a new product, a film’s pilot is debuting or there is a new TV show, we can give people some pretty interesting numbers on how that item is polling, and that will be a revenue stream.
Data mining is pretty common these days. We are amassing data, which is always a bit of a gray area because you want to protect people’s privacy. At the same time, though, you are gathering information that has value out there, especially using some hybrid technology we are creating around profiling people.
We will be selling the uscore technology and licensing it to the film industry and politicians. We’d also like to do some data syndication, so if people produce really interesting debates, and those debates become popular with uframes, we can provide financial incentives to those people to distribute them. Let’s say someone well known—for example, a local talk show host—puts a uframe on his site with a debate he created, and now 50 other people want that uframe. He’ll be able to sublease that and generate revenue for himself as well as income for the company.
What is happening with UFeud LLC right now?
We are just coming out of beta testing for both our social networking website and uframe technology. The majority of the bugs have been worked out, and we are planning a full-scale launch this year. We plan to provide our uframe technology for free to everyday users for the next year while we build our brand.
A second version of uframe is being developed—adding more features, greater customization for users and a sleeker design—which we will make available for a nominal cost. We are working with other countries right now to incorporate uframe technology into their entertainment industries.
Scalability is the key to our success. We are readying ourselves to grow rapidly. We have been invited to present to members of the film industry and are having initial conversations with media conglomerates about our ability to integrate into cable television. We also have affiliates in five different countries planning launches of our technology.
Every startup has trusted advisors who helped it along the way. Who are yours?
One of our team members, Jura Zibas, is an intellectual-property attorney in New York. We pitched to her four years ago, when we first came up with the idea. She was willing to help us out for a minimum investment. However, we used the Philadelphia law offices of Blank Rome to draw up the actual patent application. Our accountant is the Moorestown firm Boscarelli & Zaiss. Richard Zaiss helped us at the beginning and never charged us a cent.
What’s next for the company?
What we’d like to do is focus our energies on the uscore technology. Because it’s so novel and the Internet is changing so quickly, it will only be a matter of time before someone else comes up with this idea. Uframe technology is going to be self-supporting and doesn’t require a lot of work at this point, and we’d like to popularize it by giving it away for free. We can let that go on its own while we put our time into sales and marketing. Our next meetings will be with the film industry, the auto industry and a television station. All three have expressed some interest in our products.
We are also ready to introduce uframes to education here in the States, believing that high schools and colleges can easily integrate this technology into their curricula. For example, high schools could put up a uframe with a live feed of a presidential debate, allowing students from all over the country to debate right alongside the candidates.
Schools could insert uframes into their social studies lessons to watch a historic speech by Martin Luther King Jr. This tool will help students learn how to make powerful arguments and support their ideas with convincing data.
The potential exists for reducing stereotyping and prejudice through global debates among kids from classrooms in different countries. Students could gain confidence through public speaking using the uframe video option. They could develop an understanding of the polling and election process, and learn conflict resolution through positive peer influence.
Our “smart” technology is also being readied for our social networking site, to be released later this year. This allows for real-time feedback to users about their debate profile, which is completely automated. While other large websites use profiling to become better platforms for advertisers, we are using this advanced technology to help people learn.
Social media television is our ultimate business goal. We would like to make the television- and video-viewing experience simultaneous with social networking, so users can combine the experiences of watching TV and interacting with friends. While I can’t give away too much just yet, we are very excited about the possibilities.
Esther Surden is Publisher and Editor of New Jersey Tech Weekly , and a contributor to Philly Tech News. This article originally appeared in New Jersey Tech Weekly in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2.