Convore, Rebooting IRC, Brings Group Chat Into the Social Media Era
Eighth in a series of profiles of Y Combinator Winter 2011 startups.
In an article last year called “10 Old Tech Ideas That Are New Again,” my colleague Greg Huang listed concepts such as group-buying sites and e-book readers that had their first tentative flowering back in the dot-com era or earlier and are now making a comeback, often with a new technological twist. Well, it may be time to add IRC to that list, thanks to Convore.
IRC or Internet Relay Chat is a real-time group discussion protocol that dates all the way back to 1988. It remains popular today in certain corners of computer culture—it’s estimated that about half a million around the world still visit IRC discussions or “channels.” But while IRC is simple in its presentation—just text in a window—it takes some technical skill to set up an IRC server, download an IRC client, or find an IRC channel that suits you, meaning that for the most part, only dedicated hackers go to the trouble.
And that’s what has created room for Convore. The San Francisco startup, one of 43 companies that participated in the Winter 2011 term at the Y Combinator venture incubator, offers a real-time, Web- and mobile-based group messaging tool that’s meant to combine the latest social media technologies with the best features of IRC. Anyone can sign up for Convore in a couple of steps, then either join or create a discussion group. Public discussions are organized around topics, but companies and organizations are also using Convore to set up private groups that function as free, always-on spaces for sharing updates or getting questions answered quickly.
One of the largest private groups is the Y Combinator group, where founders of YC-backed companies exchange advice about the thousands of decisions that go into starting a company, from picking investors to designing a logo. Several “YC W11″ founders have told me they started out using Convore as a courtesy—it’s customary for companies in the incubator to “dogfood” each others’ technologies—but kept using it out of need. Indeed, Convore got an unexpected boost in March when YC founder Paul Graham tweeted, “We’re trying to figure out why this YC batch did so well. One theory: they all used Convore.”
If Convore’s ancestor, IRC, is so primitive and difficult to use, why has it survived so long? It may simply be the lack of an up-to-date alternative, says Leah Culver, Convore’s co-founder. “I think chat products have lagged behind,” she says. “They haven’t been updated for many, many years, especially around communities, topics, and groups. Pretty much everybody knows about one-to-one chat and how to use it, but the tools aren’t tailored for discussing things in groups.”
IRC has certain attractions, though, that Culver wanted to keep for Convore. For one thing, it provides a single, persistent place for users to gather, making it feel like a sort of high-tech clubhouse—in contrast to Twitter or Facebook, where conversations get scattered across many different software clients and online locations. “There aren’t that many places online where you can hang out and everyone has the same experience,” says Culver. “My experience on Facebook or Twitter is totally different from your experience. But if we are in an IRC room together, we can share that experience. I wanted to recreate that, and make it a little more free-form—you can say anything and ask anybody anything and you don’t need to have a directed purpose.”
If Culver’s name is familiar to you it may be because she previously co-founded Pownce, a 2007-era microblogging service that was frequently portrayed in the media as a Twitter rival. In reality, the two weren’t very similar—Pownce was built for sharing links, photos, songs, and other media with small networks of friends, not for broadcasting short messages to hundreds or thousands of followers. But the confusion, plus the recession, made it hard for Pownce to raise money when the time came for a Series A round in 2009, Culver says. The startup was instead acquired by blogging company Six Apart, which immediately shut it down.
Inside Six Apart, Culver went on to help with a product called TypePad Motion, a Pownce-like system used by celebrities to communicate with their fans. For fun, she also wrote a Web-based IRC client that made it easier for people to find and join IRC channels. “It actually did fairly well, and people really liked it—so much so that we got banned from the IRC server that we were connected to and ended up having to shut it off,” Culver says. She says that experience, and the positive reception for the tool even among people who had never used IRC before, was enough to convince her that the concept had legs.
Culver soon left Six Apart (before its acquisition by Say Media) and did some contract software development work such as building an iPhone app for Plancast, the San Francisco-based social calendaring startup. Last fall, just a few weeks before applications were due for the winter term at Y Combinator, she joined with Eric Florenzano and Eric Maguire, who’d worked together at San Francisco-based game developer Mochi Media, to build an IRC-like system that the trio called Convore. (The name is a cross between “conversation” and “carnivore”; the company logo is a stylized Tyrannosaurus rex in profile.)
The first version of Convore offered only private groups. “We wanted a place where you could say anything and it wouldn’t be held against you publicly,” says Culver. “You wouldn’t have to censor yourself, like you do on your blog or on Twitter.” (Or on IRC, for that matter.) Privacy still one of the service’s main selling points; Culver says the vast majority of message traffic on Convore takes place in the private groups.
Another difference between Convore and IRC: Convore has a sense of history. Conversations are archived for permanent access by all group members. “We wanted to make sure that if you didn’t happen to be connected, when you came back, you could see what you were missing out on,” says Florenzano. “On IRC, people install workarounds to be somewhat present when they are not actually there, but we wanted that to be built in.”
One final difference: Convore users have persistent identities; if they want, they can log in using their Facebook or Twitter credentials. “On IRC or AIM, I have barely any way to find out who you are or what your deal is,” says Culver. “We wanted a way to have a consistent identity and all these things that social sites provide.”
To a first-time user visiting Convore’s public groups, the service may seem a lot like the group Q&A site Quora, if only because a lot of the public posts seem to be pleas for advice or information. But Convore users—whom I surveyed by posting a question there—say the difference is that the stakes on Convore are intentionally lower. “Every single post on Quora might have an impact on my career,” writes Martin Wawrusch, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur who is the co-founder of a stealth-mode startup called Freshfugu. “I see Convore as a replacement for IRC, fire and forget style, quick on the fly topic conversation, not as messy as Twitter but real communication.”
And the longer people hang around Convore, the more they see how it’s different, and the more uses they can imagine for it, according to Culver. “I think the standard use case is that someone comes in through a public group, and they see the topics, which are often questions, like ‘What is the best burrito in San Francisco?'” says Culver. “Maybe they have an opinion on that and they create an account and they say what they think the best burrito is. Then they think, ‘This is cool, how it updates live.'” Indeed, both the Web version of Convore and the iPhone app append new posts to a conversation in real time—no page refreshes required. “Then they think ‘Hey, this would be great to use with my group of friends or my work,’ so they make a private group or start a public group,” Culver says.
Currently, Convore is free to all users. (When I visited the startup in April, it had roughly 30,000 users, who had exchanged more than 650,000 messages since the service launched in early February.) Culver, Florenzano, and Maguire say they could add specialized features for business users to bring in subscription or licensing fees, or build a white-label version that would fit inside other organizations’ websites, but for now, they’re holding back on customizing the tool too much while they look for the right audiences for the software.
“Sometimes we are surprised,” says Florenzano. “We’ll go into something thinking that Convore is going to do well, and it doesn’t.” The South by Southwest Interactive Festival in March was a case in point—Culver went to Austin expecting to sign up thousands of new users, but “it was horrible,” she says. “It just didn’t do anything for us.” The same weekend, though, Florenzano went to a Python developer’s conference in Atlanta called PyCon, where “people just ate it up” and Convore became the unofficial conference backchannel, he says. “The things we don’t expect will be big wins for us end up being huge.”
Whether Convore itself ends up being huge will depend on a lot of factors, like whether the tool’s appeal extends outside the techie audiences who currently use it, whether companies think it has advantages over competing messaging systems like Yammer, and whether the startup is able to raise the money it will need to hire more developers, add premium features, and build a sales operation. The endurance of Convore’s spiritual predecessor, IRC, may be a good sign: the tool build up a solid user base despite its complexity, which may mean that a simplified, Web-based reboot of the group-chat concept has a much greater chance of catching on.
On the other hand, IRC never grew much beyond the geek crowd, which may mean the biggest natural audience for real-time group chat tools is people who are chained to their computers, such as coders and Internet startup founders. So group chat is definitely an old idea—but whether it’s also new again isn’t clear yet.