EveryScape Founder Mok Oh Leaves Firm, Looks for New Ways to Map Online to the Real World
Want to peer into the mind of an entrepreneur who’s starting over after nearly nine years in the trenches? Or maybe you’d like a glimpse of the Next Big Thing through the eyes of a deep technologist?
Me too. That’s why I caught up with Mok Oh yesterday. The founder and former chief technology officer of Newton, MA-based EveryScape said over the weekend that he has left the company to pursue his “next journey.” That’s interesting news (and you can read more about it here), but I really wanted to know what that “next journey” might entail. After all, here’s a guy who’s been out of the job market for nine years, but who understands technology and business. I figured there would be plenty of common themes and lessons to pull out for the current generation of tech entrepreneurs.
First, a little more about his old company. Oh founded EveryScape (originally called Mok 3) in 2002 and served as chief technology officer. The company has raised more than $17 million in venture financing to date. Its investors include Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Dace Ventures, LaunchPad Venture Group, New Atlantic Ventures, and SK Telecom.
Xconomy first wrote about EveryScape in 2007, when the startup rolled out 360-degree, panoramic outdoor street views in four cities (Boston, New York, Miami, and Aspen). It also had created virtual-tour graphics of building interiors for real estate and advertising applications—which is where the company has put most of its efforts recently. Just last month, EveryScape ramped up its partnership with Microsoft’s Bing to provide interior images for restaurants and stores in local search results.
It’s not usually a great sign for a company when its founder departs—but in this case, Oh says he was ready to move on, and EveryScape, which has about 50 employees, “has gotten to the point where it can fly all by itself.” At the same time, he says, “It’s scary, it’s exciting. I feel sadness too, leaving something that’s my baby.” (For now, he remains on the company’s board.)
But he did what’s in his heart. “I think of myself as early-stage,” he says. “Being able to think about new problems and spin them in an innovative and constructive way. The best days of my life were in the early stage [of EveryScape] and thinking creatively about how to solve a customer’s problem.”
Prior to the company, Oh did his Ph.D. in computer graphics at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (before it became part of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). He had also studied art history as an undergrad. In 2002, literally the day he took off his graduation cap and gown, he started coding something that would combine his interests in art and computer science—and what would eventually become EveryScape’s core technology.
Over his nine-year run, the most memorable times were also the hardest times, he says. “When we had no funding, we bootstrapped for a few years [until 2004], going around begging for couple-thousand-dollar jobs for hotels,” Oh says. He remembers “coming back at night, implementing some functionality, and coding away. I was poor—it was very much an extension of grad school—staying up all night with fellow co-workers, getting stuff done. It was about doing what you really loved.”
Oh says he would love to start another company if the opportunity arises. “Certain things are bubbling up. I want to see if some of these ideas stick or not,” he says.
In talking about these possibilities, a couple of themes emerged. First, Oh learned at EveryScape that advanced technology does not necessarily solve problems. “The progression of our innovation, from grad school to now, is that the technology got simpler and more useful, and less 3-D,” he says. “I still believe 3-D is not ready for prime time. If you’re trying to scale up your user base, or crowdsource, it becomes important for things to be so simple to use so people will adopt it. That’s the direction I want to go.”
What he’s really saying is that computing technology will only take you so far in a business. When it comes to solving real-world problems—say, recognizing objects or text in photos with very high certainty (more on this below)—“you still need a human in the loop,” he says. So technology-wise, look for Oh to pursue a combination of automation and crowdsourcing of some kind.
The second big theme he’s exploring is the “mapping of online to offline.” From Google to Facebook to Groupon, there has been a progression of using social and location-based technologies to bridge the gap between the digital world and the real world. Of course, this theme is as old as the Internet itself—but now it’s happening on a very local scale, with very fast impact on stores and businesses.
To make all this more concrete, Oh says, think about what Google is doing. For instance, he says, Google’s Street View will soon use optical character recognition to read store signs in its images, so as to be able to link directly to information about pictured businesses (such as a Starbucks or McDonald’s on a street corner): how to get there, where to park, hours of operation, and so forth. The value to the store might be to improve its foot traffic by 1 percent, say.
So it sounds like Oh is interested in working on a new venture that combines a social or human layer with automated data (visual or otherwise) about local businesses. “It’s more about platforms and content than technology,” Oh says. “That’s the whole direction of where the Internet is going today.”
It’s also where his old company is going, so Oh has to mind his non-compete clause. We’ll see how that affects what he does next (and when). “I have to be very careful there,” he says.