I had the absolute pleasure of being one of the first people to interview Erik Wachtmeister founder of the social networking site A Small World and creator of the new site Bestofallworlds.com. Since this was an audio interview I had the interview transcribed for you below.
INTERVIEW: Erik Wachtmeister (Best of All Worlds)
Rob: Hey everybody! Welcome to a very special edition of Jetsetlife. Today I have the absolute pleasure of having Erik Wachtmeister on the line. Now Erik is one of the few pioneers of social media, having been the founder of the social networking site asmallworld.net 7 years ago in March 2004 but for those of you who don’t know what A Small World is, I’m going to have Erik give us sort of a quick explanation about it. So Erik, are you there?
Erik: Yes Rob. Thanks for having me this morning in the U.S. and this afternoon in Stockholm.
Rob: Yes, okay that’s right, big time change. So tell me a bit, maybe a quick explanation of what ASW (A Small World) is and I’m just going to refer to it as ASW…it’s asmallworld.net.
Erik: Yes. It’s asmallworld.net or asw.com actually. So, anyway, my background is an investment banker but I’ve had an early passion for the internet when the internet began I guess 15 years ago. I started ASW in 2004, basically 2 years before Facebook went outside the student dorms in the United States. And I started A Small World because I realized there is a strong need from a really, heavily inter-connected group people to further connect with each other and to share trusted information and I sort of lived in the middle of this group because I had a great privilege of very early on being connected to a lot of people, my dad was an ambassador in the United States and so on. It’s a long story but anyway at the same time the worldwide web had become very chaotic, too chaotic and with too much commercial bias, I realized there is a need to create an intimate corner of the worldwide web. I’ve lived around the world all my life which is you know, for over 50 years and I felt a part of this community that was not online, it was offline and I realized how incredibly strong the need was for an interactive platform for these people. Although you’ve got to admit that most people in the internet world have developed an extremely sophisticated front leaders at the time had no clue what I was talking about when I was talking about networking back in 1999 to 2001 and 2002. And so today it’s been 7 years since I launched A Small World, my co-founder and wife Louise and I are about to launch our next venture which is called Bestofallworlds.com.
Rob: Okay….which I want to get into. I want to talk a little briefly about how A Small World got started and what A Small World really is and I understand that you have a very particular background that is different from a lot of people. You sort of eluded the fact that you are born into a diplomatic family, actually are a living and breathing count, which for the States we find fascinating. You have lived in 10 countries. Can you explain sort of how that upbringing helped form your vision and becoming an online social network pioneer? Maybe you can explain that a little bit.
Erik: Sure. I guess to start off I was an offline social networker, not a pioneer but I was a strong offline social networker. I’ve been in global network all my life, both professionally as an international banker working in London, New York, Los Angeles and other places; also as I’ve said earlier my father was an ambassador of the United States and he actually became the dean of the diplomatic court of Washington and was close to President Bush Sr. and it gave me the privilege of meeting a lot of fascinating people at a very early age. And also, I have always been a highly socially connected person and then there’s a need to be professionally connected. So I guess I have strong contacts with many diverse groups of people globally and also strong contacts among people who in turn are huge global connectors and also local mavens or experts. So basically the passion that grew from realizing way before anyone else, that there was this incredible potential to recreate and develop a social breath for millions of people online; and also from being so early, it was exciting but lonely at the same time before we launched because people didn’t understand what I was talking about. But once we launched it, it was incredibly satisfying, just the speed of which the interest in a small group and I was literally doing a major interview a week for a leading a global publication for several years.
Rob: So you know…2001, in internet years, it might as well have been the 1800’s. If we go back in 2001, nobody really understood the concept of what is now known as social media. What do you think it was that gave you an idea to be such a pioneer in this area?
Erik: First of all I started working with the concept already in 1998, full time actually for 2 years but I realized it was a bit early but I realized that my own and other people’s needs to handle large networks was a challenge and I constantly was bombarded with questions of what hotels to stay at, where to eat, somebody needs an architect or they need a babysitter that’s trustworthy so I felt like I’m both a connector and a maven and I wanted to sort of create and optimize the process of these needs and I realize that with the internet there was a huge opportunity to do this.
Rob: So the famous author now, the writer from New York Magazine Malcolm Gladwell talks about these 3 million people separated by 3 degrees of separation or maybe he said 6 million by 6 degrees and I know that was a critical part in your thinking in putting this together. Can you explain a little bit about why you factored that philosophy into this?
Erik: Yes. I lived in this network and Malcolm Gladwell probably referred to the 6 billion people connected by 6 degrees of separation; the Pope and you know a cannibal in Papua New Guinea would be connected by 6 degrees. I always thought that being a little bit of a banker and being a little bit of a math whiz, I like to enjoy numerical metaphors and I thought that what’s more interesting really is that there are 3 million people, give or take a million or two, that are connected by 3 degrees of separation and very few people realize that even today and I think it’s a very powerful notion when you realize that there is a very interesting group of people that has this dense network that makes them extremely relevant to each other.
Rob: I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times before but I’m a member of A Small World and I was on the beach a couple of weeks ago in Cartagena and you know, sitting at the beach watching the sunset with a cocktail in my hands, the three of us that were sitting next to each other were all independent A Small World members who had no idea that we are all even there. We didn’t put it in our global, geo-locator part of the site. So you’re right. It really is a small world. I bet you hear things like that all the time.
Erik: Yeah, for sure.
Rob: So why do you think there is such a strong need for members of ASW to share information? It seems that there is a rather irrational passion when it comes to travel? For example, there could be a thread on A Small World that goes on with 500 responses to, “Tell me what’s hot in St. Tropez this summer.” Why do you think that is?
Erik: First of all, I think the thread tends to be a little more interesting than just focusing on St. Tropez. But I think people like to share inside…you know in inside, intimate groups, people like to share with each other. They enjoy being recognized as experts, mavens and in-the-know and I think this particularly holds true if you’re within an intimate network of people where everybody kind of likes to get to know each other better. So it’s a way of communicating and getting to know each other better and is a form of interaction really; it’s a form of chatting but also getting useful information from each other, and really sharing and giving information. And I think that it’s much more prevalent when you have a network that’s intimate. Just like in a wedding party, people are much more open to each other; you know if you meet Madonna in a wedding, that has rather not too many people, you can probably go up and talk to her but if you go up to her in the street or in an airport, she’d probably be offended.
Rob: So let’s sort of go back to the time when you were involved much more aggressively with A Small World. From the outside looking in, people sometimes view that A Small World demographic has perhaps an elitist group. What are your thoughts on how that demographic is viewed?
Erik: I think it is an elitist group. It was when it started. I mean it started with 500 super connectors that I triggered, where it all evolved, you know invited their friends and so on. And I guess you could call it elitist. It was elitist in the initial year or two. I haven’t really been involved in A Small World since 2008 so I can’t comment on the quality of the members today.
Rob: Okay, if there was a fee for people to be a member of A Small World, which you set up to be free, it was invitation only; do you think that if you have done things differently and charge for it that it would change anything?
Erik: It could have been a good idea. I think it’s a better company move because you risk only keeping a small percentage of the members if everybody has to pay. And I think also it’s important to realize that the willingness to pay doesn’t necessarily correlate for the quality of the members; so you may have a lot of cool people who just don’t want to pay and then you may have some aggressive networkers that are paying to be able to network more effectively. And you know, it may be a bad idea and that’s why I’m a big believer in the freemium model where you have a basic, free access but then you convert hopefully the 10% or 15% of your members that is willing to pay for the various features.
Rob: Alright, so we move forward a little bit. Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein group comes in; he makes a large investment in ASW and becomes a major shareholder. How did things change when that happened?
Erik: Well, looking back, it was definitely not ideal for the company. I found myself suddenly with a partner who I realized did not share or actually understand my vision. Harvey Weinstein is an absolutely brilliant filmmaker but his company and its staff has no experience or skills on online social media which was a great shame. We were a European company with a European soul and suddenly…I love America, I spent half my life in America but we had a hundred American management team, many who did not understand the product, the members or the market and then I also lost control of the company so it wasn’t an ideal situation.
Rob: So when I run into people around the world that are members of A Small World, there is sort of this lament that I hear in their voice, that it’s, “You know it’s not the way it used to be.” And I often wonder what your thoughts having been one of the pioneers in this company, the founder of the company; you know, how do you view that when you hear that? What are your thoughts on that?
Erik:I mean it’s probably true; I mean I was living, breathing, dreaming A Small World between 2003 and 2007 and less of maybe 2008; I haven’t really been involved since then so it’s probably very true and I actually hear the same thing everywhere I go. And as a consequence…it’s a consequence when a company is not adequately focusing on the users and the product and rather kind of promoting itself to the outside and pleasing commercial interest.
Rob: So there were obviously some conflicting views regarding the vision of the company after Weinstein took over which caused you to take on a much lesser role, which I’m assuming is what led you to create something different. Is that right?
Erik: Absolutely. I mean Best of All Worlds, my new company represents a much bigger vision that A Small World ever was. It has a much broader scope, much more relevant, much more interesting technology because we are 2011 today and not 2004.
Rob: Alright, so this is really why I wanted to do this interview with you. I understand that you are now dedicating all of your passion for this new company Bestofallworlds.com. Could you explain how this new company came to be and maybe just tell me a little bit about the company?
Erik: Sure. The best way so people can understand and remember what it is, is I would say it’s really 5 bullet points:
- It’s a discovery platform for new people, places and things. Facebook is aggregating the social breath and kind of finding everybody what you’ve ever met or you know, it’s kind of your old network. We’re focusing on your future network.
- A global melting pot that aggregates people 3 degree networks and people who share similar interests. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that it aggregates people who already know each other but it aggregates people who know each other by 3 degrees or are not connected by 3 degrees but who have the same passions.
- We’re an aggregator of online activities including your activities on Facebook, your activities on Twitter, on Flicke, LinkedIn, Zing, etc. so we will be at hub where you will be able to get all your feats if you want them; 2 ways where you can get your information, your messages from Twitter and Facebook for instance and where you can post and it will post on to those networks.
- We are a social operating system with very wide ranging search and matching tools. So if you’re in Geneva on business and you don’t know anybody in Geneva and you’re there for two days, you can actually look in your iPhone and look say within 500 meters, who in my friends of friends’ network who plays tennis is here right now? And you will be able to find out immediately in real time.
- We’re developing and we will be a platform for diverse global interest groups. So everybody talks about niche groups; so rather than people joining 50 different niche communities and with different log-ins and passwords, they can join Best of All Worlds and they can be part of the hunting group or the new mothers group or fashion mavens or golf players travelling around the world or entrepreneurs; so we will be creating global groups that actually don’t exist today on any other platform. So our mission is really to aggregate the best that’s out there and available online and bringing relevant information such as the best iPad apps, the best iPhone apps; you know there are hundreds and thousands of apps and who knows what apps you want to download but if you can get good ideas from people you trust, I think it’s very helpful. Also movies, music, hotels, house rentals, etc.
Rob: Will travel be the thrust?
Erik: I believe so. It will be one of the cores for sure.
Rob: Because that’s the passion that you have?
Erik: Yeah, definitely.
Rob: Will it be invitation only?
Erik: It will be both exclusive and inclusive. People will be able to join a general area but then we will have private groups and then we will have open groups. So it will actually be inclusive so anybody can register on the site but just like in real life, we will have areas that will be limited where the areas will be governed by the members of those ‘inside groups’ so to speak. So we’re really accommodating everyone in that respect.
Rob: So it’s not like it’s going to replace Facebook or Twitter. It’s going to aggregate it all together.
Erik: Yes, exactly.
Rob: Okay. So let’s talk a little bit on how this company will be built in terms of monetizing. Will it be advertising or will it be PPC ads that people can buy like Google does? How will that work?
Erik: If you look at A Small World, it’s a hundred percent banner ads and email shots. And I find that a bit intrusive to just focus on that because they have too many banner ads and that’s where they get all the revenues from and it may be a bit intrusive especially if you send out emails where you get paid and if there’s a conflict of interest because the email may not be welcomed to the recipient. So we will have traditional banner ads for sure and we will do some email campaigns but we will limit it to maybe a quarter of our revenue model. And the other 3 revenue models will be micro campaigns and local listings; you know where are goal is to get thousands of listings and micro campaigns going for hotels, restaurants, lawyers and other professionals, real estate brokers and other services. The 3rd leg will be a freemium model that we talked about before where we hope to convert let’s say 10% or 15% of the most active users who want to subscribe to additional profile matching, etc. and the 4th leg which could be the largest is really e-commerce and lead generation where we’ll be able to partner up with really great services where we will enable them and make them available to our members either on a white label basis or on a direct basis.
Rob: So when do you expect that invitations will be going out and/or when do you expect that you’ll be going live?
Erik: My best guess will be some time around probably early April.
Rob: Okay, and if people want to get an invitation, is that the kind of thing where they’re just going to have to wait and you’re only going to pick certain people? How does that work?
Erik: Well, it will be both but people can actually log in for early access and you can actually go on today at www.bestofallworlds.com and put your basic information and also you can follow me on Twitter. My Twitter address is Erikww.
Rob: Erik, I cannot tell you number 1, how privileged I consider myself to be to do this interview with you and I just want to thank you honestly and sincerely for taking the time to do this. I am so excited about Bestofallworlds.com and if anybody wants to follow Erik like he just said, I’ll mention it again, his Twitter Erikww, the website is www.bestofallworlds.com. Erik thanks again!
Erik: Thank you Rob, my pleasure.