The Fridge: Private Mini-Facebooks that Put Social Networking in Context
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figure out the new pattern that mimics what people do in real life. That’s how The Fridge was born.”
Well, almost; Chang’s co-founder Alex Chung has a parallel story. He’d worked with Seattle billionaire Paul Allen in the R&D arm of Vulcan Ventures; the two first met when Chung was leading product development for MTVmusic.com. Chung later went on to work on a General Electric joint venture developing TV-over-Internet technology. But since 2000, he’d also been tinkering on the side with early iterations of The Fridge, using it to communicate with his expanding group of friends. That interest in social networking, together with Chung’s engineering skills, came in handy when he and Chang decided to further develop The Fridge and apply to Y Combinator together this spring.
Y Combinator was “the perfect partner” for a social networking project, Chang says. “Not only do Paul Graham and his team have experience on the funding side and the product side and the customer-acquisition side, but there are all the other YC companies, all the fresh faces, the 22- or 25-year-old, super brilliant people,” he says. “Being able to pick their brains about how people would use something like this has been a perfect first experience.”
The Fridge will be bi-coastal from here on out, with Chung based in New York and Chang spending much of his time in San Francisco. He says a lot of the work over the past few months has gone into streamlining and removing features from The Fridge rather than adding them. “We had Facebook Connect in there [the interface that lets users register for a site using their Facebook identity and credentials] but we took that out, because only 1 percent of people were ever clicking on that. They were worried that if they used it, it would mean that everything was all of a sudden shared.” (It didn’t mean that, but there was no need to confuse people, Chang says.) “And we used to have a dashboard showing users all their groups, but most people will only have one or two ongoing groups,” he says. “We just want it to be super simple, and easier to use than Facebook.”
Like many other Y Combinator startups—even those, like mobile communications startup Bump, that have been out of the program far longer—Chang says The Fridge is focused on bringing in users rather than revenues. “The initial niche market is early adopters,” he says. “We’re starting to test some strategies in the gaming market, for gamers who want to plan raids and guilds. Then there are fraternities and sororities doing rush, social committees, fundraisers, charities, the music scene—people love following the latest indie rock bands. Anything that’s cyclical, recurring, and either event-based or interest-based are the things we’re tapping.”
Eventually, as the startup gains more users and learns more about their behavior, it could offer what Chang called “relevant and contextual experiences”—i.e., targeted advertisements. “If it’s a gaming audience, maybe you offer them early invites to your closed beta. For travel groups, maybe it’s discount offers for trips to Greece. For sites that are all about photos of parties, maybe it’s printing.” The site might even sell virtual goods—Chang thinks users might buy each other “Fridge Magnets” as gifts.
Overall, he says he’s reacting against his experience at MTV, where “everything is based on traditional advertising.” He says he wants to make sure that on The Fridge, “the ads don’t feel like ads, and the direct monetization opportunities don’t feel out of context.”
So, how much room is there, in the Facebook Age, for a social networking site that’s heavier on privacy than on sharing? And that’s more about context than about connecting for connecting’s sake? Chang acknowledges that in some ways, The Fridge is going against the grain. Groups that are private and invitation-only, after all, don’t grow at viral rates.
“Private stuff grows like this,” says Chang, placing his hand at a shallow upward angle, “and public stuff grows like this,” angling his hand straight up. “We think we are going to be in between. Facebook has already taught you how to socialize online. This is a way you can do it that mimics real life.”
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