MocoSpace’s Winning Formula for Feature-Phone Social Networking

MocoSpace is one of Boston’s hidden technology success stories. The four-year-old startup, located on the second floor of a classic old office building near Boston’s South Station, has built what is probably the world’s largest standalone social network for mobile phone owners (that is, one that isn’t merely the mobile counterpart of a primarily Web-based community like MySpace or Facebook). The MocoSpace community passed the 6-million-member mark in March—making it more than three times the size it was when I first wrote about the venture-funded startup in January 2008. And it’s accomplished all this by focusing on services for owners of plain-vanilla “feature phones,” at a time when expensive, big-screened smartphones like the Apple iPhone, Android phones like T-Mobile’s G1, and Blackberry devices have been getting all of the technology press’s attention.

I visited MocoSpace in April to connect in person with its co-founders, Jamie Hall and Justin Siegel, and to find out how the company keeps growing so quickly. Its refusal to bow to technological fashion, sticking instead to its core audience of young feature phone owners, is probably part of the answer. About 80 percent of MocoSpace members are younger than 30, according to vice president of marketing Jim Gregoire; 50 percent are under 24, and a quarter are teens.

It’s a group of mobile users who can’t necessarily afford the latest, greatest smartphones—and who may not even own computers—but who are nonetheless highly social, and who want to interact with peers around the corner or across the globe. MocoSpace serves them through a combination of, on the one hand, classic social-networking features like profiles, comments, friend lists, and chat, and on the other, digital content like photos, music, and videos, both user-generated and professional. (In fact, the company recently launched a mobile music store, with special promotions by artists like rapper Rick Ross and labels like Def Jam.)

Jamie Hall (left), CTO of MocoSpace, and Justin Siegel, CEOAnd the free, ad-supported service is delivered entirely through the Web browsers now found on every mobile phone. Hall (the company’s chief technology officer) and Siegel (its CEO) have deliberately avoided creating specialized mobile applications or building the direct relationships with wireless carriers that could get those apps onto the carriers’ top-level menus or “decks,” relying instead on basic mobile Web technologies and on word-of-mouth to bring mobile users to its site.

As big as it is, MocoSpace still has plenty of room to grow: the company estimates that as many as 30 to 40 million feature-phone owners are under age 30 and have access to data plans. In my conversation with Hall and Siegel, an edited version of which appears below, I asked about how the company optimizes social-networking services for feature phones, how the mobile advertising scene is evolving, and what sorts of new features might be coming down the road. (Don’t be too surprised if MocoSpace eventually gives in to fashion and builds a dedicated iPhone app—as the Apple device becomes more ubiquitous, Hall and Siegel say they want to keep serving the core audience of mobile-addicted young people.)

Xconomy: What metrics do you guys use to measure your growth—and how are you doing?

Justin Siegel: The 6 million users; the page views we’re generating; the fact that when you look at the data guys like AOL or Opera or OpenWave have put out, we’re one of the top destinations on mobile phones in North America. That’s been awesome to see. We’re mentioned in the same breath, consistently, with MySpace and Facebook in the mobile world. It’s validating our hypothesis, which is that there is a market and an opportunity for focusing on feature phones.

X: What type of marketing have you done? I’ve never seen an ad for MocoSpace.

JS: It’s pretty much all word of mouth. In the past we’ve done some marketing and advertising, but nothing in the past year or so. Ultimately, the business model relies on viral growth and word of mouth. That’s certainly been sufficient to get us to where we are.

X: Feature phones come in so many different forms, from so many carriers. How do you overcome that fragmentation to do things like streaming video?

JS: About a third of [feature phone] handsets can stream video, and about two thirds can download video. For some carriers, like Verizon, you have to be an on-deck video partner and anything that’s off-deck, they block. Sprint is the same. AT&T and T-Mobile are … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2 3

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

Trending on Xconomy