I had the opportunity to speak with Netvibes’ CEO, Freddy Mini, as a follow-up to our original article on the company’s RSS reader. In our interview, we mainly discussed the strategy and vision for the product—who are the customer segments, how Netvibes meets their needs, where the product has been and where it is going. We also discuss the product development and design process at Netvibes. We get a fascinating look into how Mr. Mini plans to stay ahead of the competition, which includes iGoogle among others, by turning Netvibes from an aggregator to an automated publishing platform while continuing to add to its already vast assortment of content.
In a sentence or two, how would you describe Netvibes (the elevator pitch)?
I have [an elevator pitch] because last week I had to present at a thirty-second pitch, and then I entered the twitter pitch contest. Netvibes is the best online publishing platform that empowers everybody to take control of their digital life, should it be an individual or a business.
Who is your target audience? What kind of segments or personas do you think of?
We try to empower every expert. The same way that Lotus 1-2-3 (a company where I worked for five years and one that I admired a lot) empowered the numbers expert back in the nineties, Netvibes wants to empower every expert in the way that they can express themselves and spread expertise to other people. So, the expert can be you, and it can be just building a place for yourself, and that’s Netvibes.com. It can be you, and you want to share your expertise in a non-professional way with people around you, and that’s the web-wide open publishing that Netvibes offers, and it’s free. It can also be you as an expert, and you want to make a business out of [your expertise], and that’s the professional publishing web tool, and we charge for that. And it can be you as a company, and in fact for the past nine months now, we do install Netvibes within your enterprise, and Netvibes can power your intranet.
So, in a nutshell we want to empower everybody to build pages, using the widgets, and the drag and drop, and take advantage of all the widget creation and the 185,000 widgets that are available, to build a page that is the way they see their subject and the way they would like people to engage with them on that page.
So basically your target audience is anyone from an everyday individual to professionals, and all the way up to whole companies.
Exactly. Netvibes, compared to our competitors such as iGoogle, is the only product that is independent. It’s the only one where the search engine is not compulsory. And its the only one where you can publish your own, branded page. And we are also the only one that doesn’t come with [some browser] or any other machines.
At the other end of the spectrum, we are for the enterprise level as well. We are fighting with IBM and Oracle, and those guys don’t have all the widgets and features that we offer.
So how are you competing with IBM and Oracle?
The enterprise intranet market is a market that we evaluate at $2.5 billion dollars today. IBM is the gorilla, according to Gartner. And according to IBM, they say that they own a good $500 million of that market. The thing is they are basically a task force company for the system that they provide—they provide a task flow to control the system they provide.
So Netvibes is an alternative to that system. We provide personalized pages and save extra internal workflow. And that’s the only thing we do, and we specialize in that. The point is that we are open, as we should be, and we are open to external content that we provide with these 187,000 widgets. We are open with all the technologies that we use. There is no monetary, paid, or licensed technologies inside Netvibes. We only use standard and open-source technology. Being that our users have used Netvibes because of the external content, because you can do more than just managing ERP or CRM that your company has. We help all the employees not only to have content focused inside the company, but also to open it up to the [the public].
How do you see combining the two paradigms (personalized aggregator tool and publishing tool) into a coherent experience?
I think the combined paradigm is already happening as users can publish their own pages and create their personalized pages. The reader is the publisher.
How are the different segments that you spoke about distributed or related to your current customer base?
What Netvibes does is help people take control of their digital lives. What this means is that you can create your page from scratch on Netvibes.com, but you can also take someone else’s page built with Netvibes and say on that page: “I like this. I don’t like that. I prefer it in blue.” We think 2 or 3% of our users personalize their page, and 97% of people just read. It’s kind of the same 90-10 rule like you have on Twitter, or any blog or authoring tool. You want to have the power of these 2-3% of personalization. Rather than reading a regular page, we want our clients to build and publish their page, using our platform so that their audience will engage with their page a lot more.
What would be the value proposition for those people that create their own page?
Firstly, personalization is the ultimate form of engagement. Every company and advertiser wants its customers to engage. As a reader, the only thing you can do is read, print or save something someone else created. With Netvibes we have a fourth empowerment: to set priorities of what you see. It’s a democracy where people can say: “Yeah, I like it, but I like it this way.”
How has Netvibes evolved since its inception in 2005?
Netvibes has evolved a lot from its personalized content stage into a personalization publishing platform. It has been morphing to not only allow you publish what matters to you, but to also allow you to publish to others. That’s what we’ve done in the past 18 months. We continue to add into this element of Netvibes.
You can create custom widgets yourself as well. For instance, we released a simple HTML widget, which simulates publishing to a Blog. It allows you to add your own content to your personalized page. You can also use the wizard to create your own widget from your own or someone else’s RSS. Finally, you can use the UWA (universal widget API) which is open source to develop your own widgets. Today, we have the biggest gallery of widgets of which we have developed only 41.
We also allow you to have multiple pages. We were one of the first to introduce tabs into the UI to put some hierarchy in the widgets that are on your page. The additional pages allows users to add a third dimension to their content. People have so many dimensions, from professional life to personal life and the many roles within them, so why wouldn’t you add a page with all the content for those various matters. This third dimension was a necessary evolution from an end-user perspective, and it was extremely useful for us as a business. It is the only enterprise solution that supports this.
What classes of widgets are most popular?
It varies. 60% of the widgets used by our customers are RSS. This shows that there is much more than RSS in people’s digital lives. The most popular are Twitter, Facebook, the weather, and then it depends on the product and region. For instance, in Paris, an extremely popular widget is one that locates, in real-time, the bicycle rental stalls by neighborhood.
From the end-user perspective, are you concerned with the performance impacts of using more rich interaction-based widgets?
We employ cached pages, and performance optimizations to enhance the interaction. We also save time for the user by leveraging the fact that other readers are using the same widgets. Whenever we ping the server of one of the RSS feeds and receive new posts, we cache these so that when another user accesses a page with this feed, the new posts are immediately available.
We also take advantage of web RSS clouds that have a similar impact from the publisher standpoint. We are currently working on this completely revolutionary infrastructure to remove the burden of going through peer servers. Every month we serve 4 billion diferent RSS feeds, and we are constantly working on getting and updating these widgets onto our servers so that things are refreshed quickly and in real-time, as you see on Twitter.
You offer a vast array of different kind of widgets. Do you have any concerns that there are too many types and this might be a double-edged sword (barrier to action)?
Firstly, we do offer a program for those publishers that want to push their widgets to our users, and this is a revenue generation model for us. Secondly, in early July we introduced a recommendation system for widgets. Every week, we re-compute all the widgets that you have on your page and we build for every account a spectrum of interests across the nine categories of widgets. We match your spectrum with people the have the same interests to propose eight new widgets per week that you may not have discovered.
Where do you see Netvibes going in the near future (1-2 years) and the longer future (3-5 years)?
The way we see the future is just as readers can print pages, the user should be able to personalize pages. That has two consequences. One is that the guiding star for our future is the personalization of the internet. We believe that every page on the internet should be personalizable. It shouldn’t be 100% of every page necessarily, but at least a fraction. The second is if you start to have a personalized internet, it means that you as the user have to learn it yourself and own your digital experience all around.
As a company, our main focus is in three areas:
- Distribution of widgets (We want to be the widget resource center.)
- Software solution for publishing pages
- Enterprise intranet solution
How do you migrate users that are mainly creating their private, personal pages into publishers?
We send a newsletter to explain how to start publishing and use all Netvibes’ tools. We hope to inspire people to share their pages. Other publishers create and share the content, and by consuming this content, they are exposed to the benefits of sharing your content.
Let’s shift focus from strategy to the user experience design process at Netvibes. Do you have a distinct user experience design/usability department?
We have one head of the user experience, and two designers.
How does the user experience design team work with your product marketing and engineering teams?
It’s very simple. We have five directors, and they colloborate on everything from A to Z. They have to all agree. These five directors include the lead designer, user experience logic head, chief architect, strategy director and the QA and support director.
So, is the executive level involved in reviewing the product designs and providing input?
Yes. Since we spend three weeks per month in the US and one week in Paris, where the product is developed, we are very disciplined about reviews. We spend three half-days every month reviewing:
- The situation of the current project and where we are
- What is going to be released in the next two months
- Brainstorming where to put our resources: where de we want Netvibes to be?
We are also open and have a lot of shared documents across the company to keep us informed.
And is this typically how you come up with new features, in these half-day brainstorming sessions?
Yes. We want people at all levels to know where we are and be part of the product development. You have to have the two components involved in everything you do to be successful: business and design.
How do you gather user needs and issues?
We do some user testing. We also employ a wishlist feature so that users can say what they are looking for. We want the community to be fully involved in everything—the widgets, language (we have 95 languages), and the design (themes).
How do you measure the success of new features at Netvibes?
That’s a very tricky question. It depends on the goal that we set ourselves, and its not always about traffic. The popularity does give a good sense, but we also know that somethings won’t be immediately popular. For instance, the multiple pages. We knew it would take time to be understood. It was more aimed at the very end-users and the business users; so the feedback from these groups indicated the success.
The interview took place this past September. Many thanks to Mr. Mini for sharing his thoughts and experiences with the product strategy and design community.