Entrepreneur of the Week: Brett Martin at Sonar.Me
This post originally appeared on NearSay, a New York City neighborhood news site. The author, Trevor Sumner, is NearSay’s Head of Products and Marketing and has over a decade of experience working with startups in digital and social media and mobile technology.
I had a chance to sit down with Brett Martin, founder of Sonar.me, hot off of a win at the Ultralight Startup pitch contest. We met up to chat entrepreneurship, his company and a bit about the life of a startup and the people who found them. It's more of a conversation between two entrepreneurs than a formal intereview, but I think you get to know the people a lot better. Brett is certainly an interesting cat.
His company Sonar.me helps you recognize people near you who you are connected to on social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare and more. It's in private beta and as we found out, launching this Spring. Here's the sit down from Grey Dog coffee on Carmine.
The Pitch (Go to 32:30)
Trevor Sumner: I saw your Ultralight Startups presentation. You spoke for 30 seconds and said, look how cool this is. And that was about it. But it seemed to work for you.
Brett Martin: The best products are the simplest to explain. If you can’t explain it in a line, your probably screwed. If you can’t get it under 30 seconds, you are headed for tough times.
The Importance of Simplicity
T: Yeah, I think mine went long. Maybe I should work on that. Obviously, Sonar.Me is in private beta right now. Seen a couple demos of it. Where do you see the killer use case. Seems like you need big groups of people that you know or think you know. Is it conferences, crowded bars?
B: I think it’s any communal place. Any place that people congregate to be near strangers. There is a reason we choose to have coffee in a coffee shop, instead of in our house. The work applications are obvious. I went to a Startup career fair on Friday at AOL. There were literally 1,000 people.
T: I wish I had known about that.
B: I don’t know if you are hiring for developers.
T: Aren’t we all?
B: There were 30 companies pitching and 1,000 people and literally a 45 minute wait to get in. So got there early, because I was like &*$ yeah, I wan to hire people. And I spoke to like 20 people. And I am an outgoing and aggressive guy. Any time I saw a guy with glasses standing there, I would go up and say hey. Out of 2,000 people I talked to 20. It’s so inefficient. There are so many more people I should have met. And employers that job seekers should have met. Part of what we are trying to do is to make those interactions more efficient.
Bridging the Internet and Human Touch
T: Part of what really resonated with me about your Ultralight speech was taking those online relationships to in person relationships. There’s this overall problem of bridging the gap between cyberspace and meatspace. I’ve got all these Twitter followers and I wouldn’t necessarily recognize them if they are in the room, but if I could solidify that relationship with a handshake and a conversation… I’ve done this a couple times at these career fairs, but if I knew to look for them, I would be a lot better prepared.
B: Your product has to get people laid or get people paid. I think there are lots of obvious applications, at work, at bars, dating implications are implicit use cases. It’s like Facebook. Facebook doesn’t need a dating product, but people meet all the time on Facebook.
I think what you said is right. People are spending more time on computers, hunched over filling out their preferences and data silos and taking their online identity offline.
I am from a small, mid-Atlantic, white trash beach town called Ocean City in Maryland. My house is literally Dorothy’s house wedged between two gigantic condos. What we do is sit on my porch and people watch. When I lived there during the summer working at the surf shop on the boardwalk, I would just talk to people I didn’t know all day every day. You learn how to go deep fast.
And that’s kind of how I view Sonar, an extension of me. I want to bridge the gap between people and the people near them. If you introduce context, your reduce the friction.
T: I think we are all on Twitter and FB and there’s a little part of us asking, “Why are we doing this. Or why are we doing this so much. And when we get the ‘in-person,’ and they so “Oh your Brett Martin” you get that positive feedback, non-virtual recognition.
T: Touch. And that’s what’s lost in social media. Bridging cyberspace to meatspace is so crucial to people.
B: I hope we can make it happen. It’s really hard. It’s crazy to say “Oh yeah, I’m going to build the app to get guys to talk to girls at bars. You know what I mean? Holy &*$. I don’t know if I can pull it off, but …
The Spirit of an Entrepreneur
T: Hey why not. So before this you were working at AppFund. You were looking at a bunch of apps, what made you pull the trigger and say, “This is mine. This is what I am going to do.”
B: I wanted to do it for a long time. I actually pitched AppFund more than a year ago. And they didn’t bite. I probably wasn’t selling it very well. So we built a couple other things and this winter, I decided I wanted to do it again and they said, “Ok, do it here.” I took my seed funding from AppFund to get it off the ground.
T: So you had that network and insight.
B: It was a bird in the hand vs. two in the bush.
T: And it’s people you know, people you have worked with, people you trust. That’s great. And you started development in Winter? How did you find developers?
B: I pulled my buddy Brent Hardgrave from SuperKicks, a high def company. I always used him to bounce ideas off of. SO when I decided to go do this, he was the crucial first technical hire. That was pretty easy. I got my mobile guy, Jay, from posting on Quora. Something about iPhone development. He said he thought it was cool and to let him come in. That worked out serendipitously.
T: What did you post? Maybe I should post for Drupal developers for NearSay?
B: I actually found Quora is a good social networking tool. You know how whenever there is a new social networking tool that comes out there is no one on it. Every one on it is a tight knit community.
T: It’s very tech focused.
B: Yeah, and you can message people on Quora and since it hasn’t been spammed yet, they will actually respond to you. You have better access to brand name people as it just starts.
T: So you had this bug. And you are a fearless guy. What were the five things you read in the NY Times that were important as a CEO?
B: It’s passionate curiosity. Battle hardened confidence. Team smarts. Fearlessness. And I would add love, but that wasn’t in there. I don’t know about fearlessness. I am constantly trying to become less of a coward.
T: I think we all are. It’s part of our existential path. Right? I don’t know what you know of my adventurous background. I’ve hand-glided. I have scuba dived in Antarctica. This weekend I was in Nevada doing military handgun training because I am afraid of guns. And now I am not. I feel like scuba diving in Antarctica … it’s almost about my mom. I love telling her about it just to see her face. But it’s also like “Holy shit. Only 500 people in the history of the world have done it. It’s not easy. People do it. I can be one of those people. I just have to go through the path.
B: And face your fears. What led up to that?
T: My friend Matt Philips, employee #2 at Right Media (retired), took his money and went to Portland and decided to drive from Portland to Tierra Del Fuego. I said why stop there? I hear Antarctica is great. He called me back 2 weeks later and said that we could go scuba diving off a Russian research vessel. Would you like to go. And I am one of these guys who always says yes. We are going to need some dry suit gear and have to train...
B: Yeah, let’s do it…
T: Yeah. That sounds awesome. You are telling me I get to dive in the cold waters in kelp forests off of Catalina in great white shark waters? Let’s do that. We got trained and we did it. And it was a great experience. But that process of taking the impossible and just going to do it … a lot of people are afraid to start a business, but it’s just a series of steps. Before Weplay, incorporating a business seemed like a huge hurdle but it’s just some paperwork.
B: Yeah, long terrible paperwork.
T: Yeah it sucks, but it is just a series of steps.
B: That’s the hardest part. And people always ask you, how can I start my own company and advice. You sound so trite to just say “Just take your first step. Put one foot in front of the other.” I’m thinking about how I sound when I say it, and I think I just sound like a total retard. It’s not complicated.
T: What do you do? Do you say, “Look. This is something you want to do. You won’t be happy until you go do it. So stop being a pussy?” Just goad them into it? It’s really tough. If someone said that to me a couple years ago, I would have rejected it. One thing I always suggest is finding a mentor. I always suggest to anyone going to a new company, find a mentor.
B: Do you feel you have that?
T: I had a mentor at Weplay, a guy named TJ Marchetti. He’s now heading up social media at MTV. I’ve had that at certain points in my career. But not in the way I would have always liked. That’s always my #1 piece of advice. Find someone you love. Build a relationship and formally ask them to mentor you. Get that connection set. If someone came up to me and asked me, “Will you mentor me?” I would say yes.
B: I wish I had that. I never wanted it when I was younger. I was like %$* it, I’ll do it all myself. Now that I am older, I wish I had it. I never had that uncle who was the old, wise business-person. I had a guy like that, but he died when I was really young. I’m jealous of people like that.
The Entrepreneurial Voyage
T: Yeah they will give advice and make introductions to the people you can’t get to on your own. And you have an adventurous, just do it attitude. It doesn’t surprise me you went and started your own company. Tell me more about your 6 month sailing trip.
B: It’s like you said. You shot guns because you are afraid of guns. I went sailing because it was the farthest from investment banking. The plan was to graduate school, make good money and then travel the world. So after two and a half years, I was like great. I paid off my loans. I have some money. Let’s do this. And it was 2006 and all my buddies were like “Yo, dude. I am 23 years old and making a quarter million. &*%& you.”
I had one buddy in Biloxi helping after Katrina and his family had a 40 year old, 30 ft sailboat and he said let’s go sailing. I grew up surfing and the concept of being so far from shore you couldn’t see it was scary. I had never been on a sailboat when I got on in Maine and it was 7 months when I got off at Ft. Lauderdale after Dominica and sailing around.
I was terrified of boats but it was forced immersion. For me, sailing long distances is real boring. You set a tack and you go for 8 days. I spent most of my time fixing stuff. 99% sheer boredom, 1% sheer terror. We nearly died a couple times.
B: 4th day into the trip, we were coming around Long Island. I don’t want to be self-promotional. We got caught. Our goal was a 36-hour sail around Montauk. The coast of Jersey is treacherous because there’s nowhere to harbor during a storm. Needless to say, it turned into a four-day sail that ended us 300 miles south of where we wanted in Norfolk, VA. It’s 5th day on the boat. Luckily I didn’t know anything. There were literally 18 ft waves. The guy I was with … his eyes. I remember coming up and seeing his eyes looking like saucer plates. I come up and there are literal 18 ft waves and he is like “BUCKLE DOWN!” Literally locking into a carabineer. And I was just like, oh, this is what sailing must be like.
To a certain extent, I think that’s what startups are like. Ignorance is bliss. You are so used to being on the edge of bankruptcy that it is less scary, than if you were at a big startup going through tough times. You don’t know any different. If we got in that same storm 7 months later, we would have been scared for our lives.
T: Sometimes you sail through those rough spots not knowing the predicament you really are in. And it’s always that type of ride. Crazy ups and downs. I’ve had days where I was like “God damn it, it’s over.” And then literally the next day, something big happens and you shout “We rule!” Things turn on a dime.
B: What do you do to keep that emotional dampener on? How do you keep the fluctuations in check?
T: I have a girlfriend. She helps. I have had days where I’ve come home and she took one look at me and said “Grab your coat. We are going out and we are getting drunk. Let’s go to Cienfuegos and drink a bowl of rum.” And she distracts me.
I also started this with my co-founder David Pachter. He’s talked me off the ledge, without really talking me off the ledge. He’s an anchor. We could not be where we are without him. It’s really hard to do on your own. That’s why the network and the mentor is so important. I do better with bouncing ideas than pure ideation. I’m better at listening to ideas and combining the best of them all.
B: But not the blank slate? You are better at taking a disorganized plate and organizing it.
T: Yeah. Kind of like what we are doing with NearSay. David came to me with this idea that local news is a huge problem. And I came back with how I would approach it with a HuffPo like model with FourSquare like social gaming dynamics. Because many people with this free crowdsourced model have failed because people drop off. People really fight to be recognized as influential.
B: So that’s worked for you. So many people have done that badly with a weak leaderboard.
T: It’s especially important in the growth phases as you are building an audience. Now we have 10% of Manhattan reading NearSay. That’s significant now in and of itself.
B: Is that all from contribs?
T: It’s a mix. It’s great SEO, it’s 250 contributors who are all promoting their writing. It’s the amount of content we produce. We produce a ton of great content. But let’s get back to you.
Is there anything from a government perspective you would change? Regulations?
Naivete is Ok
B: What would I ask from the government? My buddy Yanos is actively involved in city politics and is creating campaigns to create more vocational programs to teach development. Development is a beautiful trade and there are some people who are really good at it. But you can do solid work. Not everyone has to be MIT to build a website.
I would love to see them leverage some of the tech. As you know, everyone is looking for developers. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could pick the diamond in the rough, someone to help you do web development for you. I would like to see more targeted, effective, local work programs to get us what we need.
T: There’s a guy I see on the scene with a program called Ruby Nuby.
B: Yeah, Malcom.
T: Pitching it hard. I don’t where he’s at. I see him all the time on the circuit.
B: I have a buddy at a hedge fund doing Ruby Nuby and he has really enjoyed the classes.
Other than that, I just want the government to stay out of the way. As a first time entrepreneuer, I am paying payroll taxes. Did you know about this? It’s absurd. Maybe I was just ignorant, but I didn’t know about the 20-30% the government takes on every employee.
T: I never knew that! I was like, what’s this line item in our budget? Payroll taxes? We should only pay if we make a profit.
B: No… healthcare all of that. To the extent the government cannot take another 30 cents on every dollar that would be great.
New York City as the New, Hot Tech Center
T: You based Sonar.Me in NYC.
B: In Nomad. North of Madison Square Park.
T: Nomad? The newest branded neighborhood. What made you move there.
B: Great lunch opportunities. Park to eat lunch in every day. And cheap office space. And it’s close to Ace Hotel. And it’s close ot Union Square. You can hang out at General Assembly or meet some VCs. Really easy to buy designer bags on the street. I come home with some fake Louis’ every day for my girlfriend. [chuckling]. No, it’s big office with lots of light.
T: And NYC? Why? It’s expensive for an entrepreneurship.
B: I was in Austin before this. I moved down there building a social media monitoring solution for small businesses, teaching ourselves to code. I don’t Austin at all, because I was teaching myself to code 16 hours a day in our apartment, learning Rails. Austin is great, people are so nice and there is a tech scene. But the energy in NY right now is unreal… the momentum in NY … you can meet anyone. A year ago, I knew no one and I just walked up to people and interjecting myself. Now I know half the people in a room and they are all really trying to help.
T: Yeah, it’s really nurturing and a lot of wonderful people.
B: I don’t think there’s any other place to be. Not to sound like every other entrepreneur. But hey, if you are an engineer listening to this, please come to New York. We’ll treat you nice.
T: So when do you launch? What’s preventing you from launching?
B: I’ll say imminently. We have some things in the hopper coming real soon.
B: Umm, yeah.
T: Look at you, getting all cagey.
B: Yeah we have some good news in the pipeline. We want to launch with that. But definitely this Spring.
T: Nice. That’s exciting. What’s the team look like now?
B: Me, my buddy Brent from Super Kicks, my buddy Jay the mobile designer, this awesome designer named Winnie, she was at Limewire.
T: So 2 devs, a designer and one business guy …
B: One coffee getter, office sweeper. That’s me.
T: I do like your titles on your LinkedIn profile. “Finder of Great Things” at AppFund and …
B: “Whatever it takes” at Sonar. You know what it is. It’s handing out brochures on the subway. I am totally pinching that.
T: Yeah go to GotPrint.com. You can get 5,000 4”x6” cards for $100. It’s amazing. Now you just have to hustle and get out there.