Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Q&A: Behind Brewster, the Buzzy New Modern Address Book

Tying into the growing trend of mobile apps that add context and connection across users’ scattered lives, Brewster launched today a smarter iPhone address book.

The New York City-based company behind the app had previously been under the radar, while hiring 15 people and attracting funding from top NYC venture capitalist Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures.

It had a coming-out party today, with a story in the New York Times and a glowing write-up by Wilson.

The Brewster app merges various versions of contact info about each person in a user’s address book, from sources like Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare and the phone/address book. Brewster also delivers a feed of reasons to get in contact with people — birthdays, new jobs, and personal analytics that determine when people are falling out of touch.

And then the whole index is searchable, including not just names, but information drawn from Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, email and more.

I was intrigued, and spent some time chatting with founder Steve Greenwood today about how Brewster might break through to become a personal utility. Here’s an edited transcript:

Liz Gannes: What’s the big goal of your start-up?

Steve Greenwood: This is a service about understanding the relationships in your life. Relationships are complicated, and more so over time, and w’re aiming to make that complexity of relationship awesome for you. To me, relationship complexity is the number of people we know, the number of contexts we know people through, and the number of ways we communicate with them.

I just got my personal analysis back from Brewster, and apparently there are 7,000 people I know.

The average broadly is like a thousand, so you are a super connector. If you think about it, if there’s 7,000 people you know, that’s a ton of relationships, a ton of history, a ton of inflection points. It’s a ton of metadata now for each person.

Explain to me when in the course of my daily life I will feel the need to use Brewster.

What we’re aiming to do is focus on who you know. It’s entirely private; it’s just for you. We hope to be the best complement and partner to the social Web. We don’t do any of our own messaging; we don’t do any connecting. The idea is, let’s make your experience even better on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on Twitter.

So, if Brewster is complementing other services, help me understand why you are a separate app that I need to use, rather than part of those platforms.

There’s a few core uses around Brewster. The first thing is having quick access to initiate communication with people you’re the closest to. Sometimes I’ll text you, sometimes call, sometimes Facebook, sometimes Twitter — but the thing is, it’s you.

The second thing is around the feed. So you’ll see social discovery within your own relationships — who’s trending in your life, who you should get in touch with, who you should get to know better. It should be an emotional moment when you see in your feed you’re losing touch with Suzie. Or you and I start communicating a lot, and you see, “Wow, Steve Greenwood’s trending in my life.” Or someone new just moved to your city, or even simple things like birthdays. All the things that come through the feed are what I call “inflection points.”

Brewster founder Steve Greenwood

So then I go to Brewster, I see something interesting about someone in my feed, and then click to their profile, and then choose a way to contact them and get launched into that other app?

Yeah. In that sense you could think of it like Google. We’re not focused on time on site; we want to be a great service that helps others do what they do.

I remember you had written a post on why can’t search and social get along, and this is like people search you’ve never seen before. So, for instance, I’m a big fan of the Knicks, I have tickets, and I could ask Brewster which of my friends should I take.

Does this replace my existing phone contacts app?

Yes. There’d be no reason to open up that; we will be as fast as native contact search, and there’s so much more to it.

Will Brewster archive all of my conversations with a certain person, or no?

Not today, and the reason is privacy. I wanted to make sure that we did right around security and privacy controls, and storing all these messages felt like a lot. If it turns out there’s tremendous value in it, we’ll do it.

It seems like you guys took an unusual move in allowing the general public en masse today, rather than metering access, and that’s impacting your performance. It took more than an hour for you guys to build my account, and your recommendations about who my favorite people would be were pretty off. Can you help set people’s expectations?

We had done tremendous load testing and performance testing before this, and the demand is well beyond what we’re expecting. In a clean environment, when we’re back to optimal levels, your account should take six minutes, and the average user should be under three minutes. We have one of the best engineering teams in New York, and a very ambitious project.

There was a lot of attention recently around various social apps retaining users’ contacts without making that clear. Obviously, you guys have to retain contacts, store them and keep them updated. How do you do it respectfully?

We’re pretty far from not just mentioning this — we put a whole page about it in the sign-up. First, part of the whole spirit around this is we’re solving our own problem, what would we want. And the second thing is the whole service is for you; it’s private, we will not sell user data.

But it’s not just my data, it’s an address book — so it’s all my contacts’ data, as well.

You and I have a relationship, and I have an understanding of that relationship. The physical world version of the address book is my mom’s version, where she had all the information and notes about each person, including some stuff that just my mom knew, and that’s what we’re trying to reflect here.

How do you plan to make money, and how are you going to introduce monetization in a way that doesn’t piss off existing users who are using your service for free?

This is a free service. The only focus we have right now is providing this cool beautiful app. Over time, there’s a lot of ways you could imagine we could make money. We’re never going to share your personal information with other parties, but the thing is that marketing in its purest form is actually wonderful, because it delivers things that are interesting to you.

Other people have also tried to put context around contacts; for instance, some of the better ones have been Xobni and Rapportive and the new Cue from Greplin. How are you different?

I think it’s an amazing time to be thinking about and working on this type of technology. This phase is really about personalizing technology and making it relevant to people. There’s a lot of great companies, including the ones you named. We have a very particular view of what we’re focused on, which is this idea of who you know, and it’s about creating a service that’s powerful, and something that’s really personalized — something that gets you, that understands you.

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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google