Microsoft Roots, Social Media Chops: Spindle’s Take on Local Search

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was going to happen over the weekend, Spindle’s algorithm would store that bit of information for a few days until it became ripe.

To select for “interestingness,” as Kinsel puts it, Spindle tries to apply several different kinds of filters. “So we say things like, we think coffee shops are interesting in the morning and not in the afternoon unless they actually use the word ‘afternoon,’” he says. “We think that bars are particularly interesting when they talk about live music.”

That all gets computed when someone pops open the app and starts looking for things around them. Stuff that isn’t timely or seems uninteresting to a Spindle user gets suppressed by the algorithm, and messages that would more likely apply to a person walking around with their phone open at lunchtime, for instance, move to the surface. Users can also give feedback that helps tune the system even further (the app is currently live in Boston, San Francisco, and New York).

It’s the same kind of scoring exercise that search engines do all the time. And it’s no mistake that the Spindle crew spent time building an algorithm like this.

Before starting the company, members of Spindle’s founding team worked at Microsoft, both in the Boston area and back at the company’s home base near Seattle. They met as part of Microsoft’s internal innovation labs projects, which went under a few names, including Startup Labs (headed by current TechStars Boston director Reed Sturtevant) and FUSE Labs (under former Microsoft software chief Ray Ozzie).

One of those projects was a version of “social search” for Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Bing, as you may recall, has long had a special relationship with Facebook, getting access to a level of data from the social networking leader that others (especially the common enemy, Google) can’t get its hands on. Microsoft, of course, also has invested in Facebook. The Spindle crew also worked on, a project that sought to make Microsoft’s Office software more easily usable and sharable online.

During that work with Facebook, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a big impression with his exhortation about “reimagining something from the ground up to be social,” Kinsel says. But that had mixed results when it came to reinventing Web search—no matter how much you littered a sidebar on the page with social-media results, or blended “likes” and shared posts into the main feed of search results.

“A lot of people, you’d put it in front of them, and their response would be: ‘OK, great. This is search,’” Kinsel says. “And we’d say, ‘No, no, no, but it’s different!’ And they’d go, ‘OK, but it’s search.’”

“So when we left, we said we really wanted to come up with a fundamentally different way of ranking the content, and also a fundamentally different experience. So it’s really, for us, this combination of: What are all of the signals that your phone provides, and how do we translate that into a meaningful query?” Kinsel says. “We know where you are, we know the time of day, we learn more about your behavior over time. How do we turn that into an interesting query?”

Answering that question well takes time. So, in contrast to a lot of the “lean startup” approaches championed by many technical entrepreneurs these days—build a minimum product, get it out asap, and start experimenting and tweaking in the real world—Spindle took a decidedly deliberative approach to building the core technology that helps it ingest and re-order social data.

“We didn’t ship anything for almost a year and a half after starting the company. And we built a couple of things and said, ‘You know, not interesting enough,’ and kept going. And that’s also where we really made the investment in these tools,” Kinsel says.

As a result, if Spindle finds enough interest to keep adding feeds or new applications (like sports, for instance) that show off what’s happening in a location, the startup thinks it has the core technology to make building the new application much easier.

“That’s why we say we’re trying to build the discovery engine for the social Web. Yes, we really believe strongly in this app. But on the technology side, we’re trying to do much more,” Kinsel says.

Spindle announced in November that it had raised $2.3 million in total financing, from Polaris Ventures, Greylock Partners, Lerer Ventures, SV Angel, Atlas Venture, and Broad Beach Ventures. Also listed as investors are some connections from Microsoft: Ray Ozzie, Raman Narayanan, and Project 11, the fund founded by ex-Microsofties and current Boston TechStars honchos Reed Sturtevant and Katie Rae.

The startup released an early version of its app last August, and a more ready-for-primetime update in November. Kinsel wouldn’t say how many users the app has today, but he did allow that so far, “User growth is not that impressive. What we’ve been focusing on is repeat usage of our user base,” which Kinsel says shows people are coming back three or more times a day to check out what’s new.

Look for Spindle to add more investment cash as it tries to build out its user base in new cities, adding to the current markets of Boston, San Francisco, and New York. With the big dogs of technology and a horde of other upstarts all lining up to find an opening in this market, the race is starting to get interesting.

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