Serial entrepreneur Jason Goldberg has famously had his ups and downs, most notably with the e-commerce company Fab.com. He hasn’t stopped moving forward, however.
In October, he launched a new messaging app called Pepo that enables anyone to create and join live messaging communities. In December, Pepo announced $2.35 million in seed funding led by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent. And today, Pepo is announcing $400,000 in additional seed funding from its backers, along with two new features — “questions and stories,” and live Q&As — that Goldberg expects will continue to fuel what he describes as steady growth so far.
He shared the latest in a call earlier today from Pune, India. Our chat has been edited for length.
TC: You’re calling from India. Is that where Pepo is based?
JG: We have three people in Berlin, where I live, and 20 people in Pune. It’s the same team that helped me build Fab and [a later iteration of the company] Hem. Officially, though, Pepo is based in Palo Alto.
TC: For those who’ve missed it, what’s the big idea behind Pepo?
JG: What we think is very interesting and compelling is a two-sided marketplace concept. It’s people, plus expertise, and the overall plan for that will emerge over the next couple of years.
We decided to go out early and iterate with our users, rather than trying to guess in getting in right. We feel like because we’ve taken that approach, our users have given us a lot of leeway.
TC: So it’s early days, but right now users are creating messaging “channels” around any number of topics that interest them, then you match people to the channels they find interesting, and these feature influencers or experts sort of lead the conversation. Is that correct? What’s in it for the influencers or experts if so?
JG: We’ve told them they can create their own channel, have a live conversation with their followers and new followers, and build an audience.
For a lot of folks who have a following on Twitter or Instagram, what Pepo gives them is a higher level of engagement. Think of it this way: What if you could have a Slack channel with everyone who follows you on Twitter or Instagram? Twitter is good for a thought here and there, and Instagram is a great place to post your best two or three pictures of the day or post a story that will disappear. With Pepo, we’re connecting one to many.
TC: And these influencers are finding followers?
JB: We’ve concentrated a large part of our efforts on the supply — the influencers and experts who have the content. If they host it on Pepo [the thinking goes], it will bring the demand. So we’ve invested early on in the ability for these [experts] to host conversations with people who can read and reply but not post their own messages. It’s been like a form of microblogging.
Now, [with the new features we’re rolling out] if the channel host allows it, every member in that channel can post into the channel; they can submit a question or a story that the host can address. The channel host can also do a live Q&A and host it like a Reddit AMA.
TC: You’ve said from the start that Pepo is going to focus more on engagement than size. What can you tell us about how many people are using the app, and what percentage of them return regularly?
JG: I can tell you that our return usage is very strong on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis. About half of our users are using the app each month, and we’ve seen 100 percent month-over-month growth since launching.
TC: What’s the business model?
JG: We have several concepts that are in the works already, so we’ll be adding monetization elements sooner rather than later. But basically, if our channel hosts do well, we’ll do well, so we’re really focused on how does someone — say a top influencer when it comes to solo female travel — make money through the platform.
The general Silicon Valley philosophy is to get several million users, then monetize, but we’re more akin to Airbnb’s philosophy that monetization can help drive the platform. Many people would be interested in bringing their expertise to the platform if they felt confident that they could monetize that expertise.
JG: No advertising is in our plans right now. We’re thinking more of paid channels where people pay to ask questions or for services or to contact people directly. For example, a top Berlin foodie has said that several people have contacted him for either an itinerary or a walking guide of food stops in Berlin [which are services for which he could charge].
TC: How do you protect these hosts from abuse, from being trolled?
JG: We want everyone to be a real person, so we’ve had a verified user process from day one. We use the information they give us, and their Facebook connections, to determine whether a person is who they say they are. If you want to sign up under a fake name, you can, but the features you can access are limited.
We also give a lot of controls to channel hosts. It’s easy for them to decide whether a channel is public or private or secret, and they can block or report or ban someone.
We’re also coming up with a ranking system because the internet definitely brings out all types.
TC: You mentioned Slack. Are these channel conversations searchable as with Slack, and are there threaded comments?
JG: Everything is being indexed, so right now, you can search for people, locations and channels, and we’re adding search across the entire platform in coming weeks.
What a lot of our users have told us is that information they’re getting on Pepo is happening elsewhere in secret conversations on WhatsApp, and Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger, but they’re not indexable or searchable or findable again, and others can’t leverage that information. Hosting these more open forums is a way to leverage that knowledge base.
And yes, there are threaded replies and also the Q&As have threaded video replies.
TC: What if the host sets the channel to private?
JG: Any number of members have access to that information forever. There are 6,500 people in a global gay travelers group, and the information that users are provided there is proving super helpful for people who are members.
TC: You’ve just raised $400,000 after announcing $2.35 million in December. Is there a particular logic to raising funding in a piecemeal fashion?
JG: A number of number of existing investors, including Greycroft, said: “If there’s an opportunity to invest, we’d like to do that before you raise a Series A round.”