"I've always had an interest in the way people share links with each other. The idea for people to share links with each other is obviously very valid."
- Jonathan Abrams
The world has seen the web, and the web has seen many things. One of which is social media. There are probably none others more popular in its early days that Friendster, the social media that was seen as the "father" of all social media, preceding the rise of many others, including Facebook.
Jonathan Abrams, the founder of Friendster, could have been one of the world's most successful tech founders. But instead, his life has chosen him to do otherwise. The disappointment of Friendster in going down as one of the worst blunder in the internet history, has dragged his name down with it.
Abrams is known as a serial entrepreneur, but later known as a serial failure. As he chooses to spend his time reading and sharing dozens of news stories about tech companies more successful than his own, he is a visionary that won't allow his brain to be taken out of him.
Early Life and Career
Before founding Friendster, Jonathan Abrams was a Senior Software Engineering at Netscape. After he left Netscape in 1998, he started HotLinks about nine months later. HotLinks was seen as an early foray into what will be called "social search". According to Abrams, the idea was to organize web pages based on users' favorite websites. This was then seen on websites such as Digg and Del.icio.us.
About a year and a half, HotLinks attracted more than 500,000 registered users. But the success didn't last long when it began running out of money. HotLinks then merged with a British software company, and Abrams was left to create another startup.
When the dot-com bubble burst, many tech companies suffered. At the time, Abrams began creating an new idea: a software that would integrate people's online and offline identities.
"The way people interacted online was either anonymous or through aliases or handles," said Abrams. "I wanted to bring that real-life context that you had offline online - so instead of Cyberdude307, I would be Jonathan."
Here Abrams was inspired by Match.com which is a dating site.
"All of a sudden, people who I would not think of as strange and desperate - normal people - were talking about using Match.com," he said.
Friendster: The Rise
When Jonathan Abrams left his position as Senior Director of Engineering for Bitfone, he created Friendster in 2002.
While he was with a friend in Santa Clara, the two were talking about online-offline problems. This gave Abrams an idea: what if each person has a standardized homepage. Just like Match.com. But instead of advertising their interests and physical appearance, users could link their profiles to their friends - creating a network of connections that would be similar to the real world.
Abrams's friend loved the idea. Abrams started working on the idea immediately.
Three months later, he finished a prototype, which he posted on his friend's server. He sent the invitation to about 20 of his closest friends, unable to predict what will be their response or reaction.
"The least likely thing in my mind was starting another company," Abrams said. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do."
With the prototype up and ready, Abrams also started seeking for seed funding. He delivered his first pitch on Thanksgiving Day in 2002 to a former HotLinks VP, Melissa Lloyd. Abrams pitched his idea for Friendster over Lloyd who had no idea what he meant, but agreed to invest a few thousand dollars.
First pitch a success followed by another and another. Over a few months course, Abrams rounded up $400,000 from dozens of investors. With enough funds and ready to venture, he launched Friendster to the public.
The name was chosen from a portmanteau of "friend" and Napster. At that time, Napster was still the popular but controversial peer-to-peer file sharing. Abrams borrowed that name.
Founded in his apartment in San Francisco. With the aim to give something truly exciting, Friendster wanted to change the way people communicate with one another.
During this time, Abrams may have been the only person in the world who could really define the term "social media". Using his computer, a borrowed server and a list of email addresses, he started promoting Friendster to potential users and journalists. Social media was at the time, a weird term. It was unknown, but only for a brief of time.
The the wave started. Friendster started the trend, and became a common word on many news media. Friendster became the the first that, as Fortune put it, "the new kind of internet emerging - one more about connecting people to people than people to websites."
In just a few months, Friendster quickly garnered its first million of users with more millions to follow. By the end of 2003, a year after it was founded, Friendster successfully raised $13 million from investors that previously invested on Yahoo!, Amazon and eBay. Investor Peter Thiel was also one of them.
Friendster became the company the world would understand, participate in and dream.
Its rapid success inspired a lot of social media networking to bloom out of no where. From competitors that came out all of a sudden, Friendster also caught the attention of Google that offered $30 million to buy out the company, in which it refused.
Friendster was seen as the father of social media. It was seen as the next big thing, it had the potential to earn hundreds of millions of dollars per month. In short, Friendster was just just plain success.
Then the inevitable happened.
Friendster: The Fall
The competition wasn't as how Friendster has predicted. The rise of user-generated contents, the Web 2.0, and the likes of Myspace to then Twitter and also Facebook, the soon-to-be the juggernaut of social media.
One of the very first reasons for Facebook to fall were its servers. Friendster's servers were often overwhelmed; frequently started locking up and crashing. With millions of users generating more millions of page views every single day, the growth had given its engineers massive headaches. Friendster had to invest on more and more RAM to fix low memory issues, to meet another bottleneck problem a few moments later. For Friendster at the time, buying more resources to keep up was a major challenge.
The company may have solved the problem if someone had restructured or reworked the software. But the engineers were so preoccupied with day-to-day Friendster reliability issues that they neglected the steps to solve what caused them to happen.
Abrams on the other hand, as the CEO of the company, he also became too busy to manage the troubles. He has been distracted to business needs such as hiring and recruiting investors, as well as looking for partnership and strengthening Friendster's business model. When Friendster was all over the media, Abrams's time were consumed for public relations.
His occupied timetable had monopolized his attention, preventing him from making even small fixes that would have dramatically improved the site's performance and reliability. What's more, with Friendster's growing success, Abrams assumed that with money and the right people, the problems could be solved.
But that didn't ever happen.
With Friendster becoming less reliable, users everywhere started drifting away to Myspace and Facebook.
Friendster's decision to stay private started affecting its performance. In April 2004, only two years after the company was founded, Abrams was removed from its CEO position and Tim Koogle replaced him as interim CEO. After that, a series of changes happened during its transitions.
The next issue came from the people. The company's top executives had their own agenda. And what was meant to be a great plans to make Friendster great again turned out to be a new rising problem. In short, there was a leadership battle inside Friendster. As a result, rather than improving the software, Friendster started having poorly integrated features.
Abrams that was the Board's Chairman, hardly considered himself inexperienced. But he felt ignored by his colleagues and increasingly became isolated.
CEO Scott Sass opted to make massive investments in hardware and software in 2004. And moments later, a team of engineers completely rewrote Friendster's code into a different programming language and spent more than $1 million on a Hitachi storage area network. While the process stopped Friendster's business process for about six months, the rewrite was successful. However, the website's performance was still an issue.
Based in the U.S., most of Friendster's traffic came from Asia, and mostly from the Philippines. The spike was about on 2 a.m in the U.S.
From a standpoint, Abram said that Friendster need to make a rough decision. Rather than spending millions of dollars to get more users that were worthless to advertisers, Abrams wanted to spin off Friendster to be an Asian business, or to be the number one social media in the Philippines. There weren't any easy answers back then.
With competitions growing up and strong, in 2005, Friendster that was having 115 million users mainly from Asia, was valued less than 5 percent of its 2003 valuation.
Friendster was, and still is among the few startups that changed the world, but not as its founder had hoped. In March 2007, one out of every five Americans visited Myspace which was seen as a Friendster copycat website. Friendster fell to 13th place among social networks in the U.S. and saw its market share decline to 0.3 percent.
As the company failed to struggle, and as competitors shine where it failed, people at Friendster had their morale plummeted.
"Week after week nobody was getting anything done," recalled Abrams. "You just felt like, what are we all doing?"
On December 9, 2009, Friendster was acquired for $26.4 million by MOL Global, one of Asia's largest Internet companies. Friendster then restructured to become a social gaming website, instead of being a social media where it had no chance in competing with the already popular Facebook. But the effort was not worth it, Friendster and all of its services were shut down in June 14th, 2015.
When Jonathan Abrams saw Friendster's doom coming, he founded Socializr, Inc. and became its CEO. With Socializr, Abrams was doing what he would have done at Friendster if he'd stayed in control. "Friendster was never finished - it was a prototype that I stopped having the ability to develop," he said.
Abrams have taken lessons from Friendster's failure. But the most important lessons from Friendster have less to do with what Socializr does than with how Abrams plans to run it. At Friendster, Abrams was willing to trust everything to his team, assuming that the talented people would come up with the right solution. With money, he thought that Friendster could buy the resources it ever needed. But on Socializr, Abrams goes down dirty: he became the person that do all the work. With the help of his small team, he favors quick engineering over the elegant. The idea for Socialize is to grow slowly and fun. And most of all, avoid venture capitalists.
"I'm hoping it'll be like 2002 and 2003, when I didn't have a lot of money and I got a lot done," said Abrams.
A few years later, he became the co-founder and a managing partner of Founders Den. In 2012, Abrams founded Nuzzel, and in 2015 he became a board member for Girls in Technology.
Abrams is a mentor in Steve Blank's entrepreneurship classes at Stanford and Berkeley, an advisor to AngelList and CodeNow, and has been extensively involved in the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial community for more than ten years.
Abrams also co-own Slide Nightclub in San Francisco. Slide is located in an basement near to one of city's largest nightclubs. The name refers to its entrance that showcases a spiral playground slide that patrons ride down into the bar.
Personal Life and Awards
Jonathan Abrams's career in startups is more than plenty for a man of his age. But the overall experience was more like rollercoaster for him.
He came up with a bright idea where eventually became a term to describe "social media". Friendster became so popular that it inspired many more to follow. Facebook was still a dorm room creation by Mark Zuckerberg when Friendster skyrocketed. But later, Facebook and even Myspace left Friendster eating their business dust.
Despite the ups and downs, Abrams doesn't know exactly what compelled him to move forward.
With Friendster, Abrams received numerous awards. Those include "Breakout Star of 2003 by the Entertainment Weekly. The title was received on the same year when Friendster was bestowed the totle "Coolest Inventions in 2003" by Time.
Friendster was awarded the "Key Social Networking Technology Patent", selected as "Top 100 Private Company Award Winner", the "Webware 100 winner" and others.
And as for Abrams, he was also named "the Entertainment Marketers of the Year 2004".
But as Friendster then failed to compete, the what was once the mighty social media, went down to the cultural memory as one of the worst internet failure of all time. Abrams, its founder and creator, became the personification for the cause. Friendster's failure has been widely portrayed as an isolated management failure, and Abrams was shouldering most of the blame.
Not without reasons, he was then also judged as a failure.
Abrams might have been the Zuckerberg: he may even keep Facebook out from getting popular, making "Zuckerberg" just like any common name. But the world has chosen its path, and that path is Friendster without Abrams, and the internet without Friendster.