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Privacy: From Rapleaf to China and the rest of the world

In the next couple weeks, I’ll be off to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, where I will research data privacy in new forms of communication among young Chinese.  In particular, I will be following intranet forums in Beijing to look at how information is shared securely, and potentially look into the repercussions when such security is breached.

As an East Asian Studies major at Yale, this type of research comprises a lot of my work.  Sometimes I even write papers about the significance of sports in Chinese society.  So I’ve naturally received a lot of questions this summer about how my research is relevant to what we’re doing at Rapleaf.  I hope the following points shed light upon the relationship between the two.

First, the concerns surrounding privacy and transparency at Rapleaf are surprisingly similar to things I’ve studied in China.  Often the challenges and solutions we’ve encountered here at Rapleaf parallel issues faced by Internet companies in China.  However, while those sites often have to deal with government influence, our single goal is to maximize the privacy and security of our users.  Sometimes this even means applying more stringent privacy policies than American law requires.

Second, Rapleaf has a clear hope for the future.  We at Rapleaf believe that our new approach to information collection, management, ownership, and privacy will have a ripple effect throughout the global Internet ecoystem.  We believe that if we are open about our people search and information aggregation, and allow people control over their information, others will follow suit.  Having data on people has historically been Black Hat; we believe we can change that - and not only in the States.

In my study of China, I’ve found that the most profound and sweeping social movements often begin in places you would least expect.  The tagline of a recent film on contemporary Chinese art captures this: “Sometimes the biggest events are telegraphed by the merest of harbingers.”  At Rapleaf we’re beginning to realize our vision of increased user privacy and control, and hopefully our vision will contribute to increased transparency in user information collection both locally and abroad.

Going the Extra Mile

During my time here, I’ve been involved with and contributed to Rapleaf’s attention to detail, strong work ethic, and the desire to always improve on the status quo.

Going in-depth with recruiting

As a college student, I had no idea the lengths that companies would go to find talented college grads. Here at Rapleaf, the process is second to none. We spend hours and hours a day posting jobs, sourcing and emailing candidates, collecting and processing resumes from candidates, recruiters, and referrals, and interviewing/screening. We go through, in a typical month, 5 to 10 times the number of candidates as a typical start-up our size. Not only do we go through more candidates, we put them through more hurdles. Through our unique process of both traditional and alternative methods of screening, we here at Rapleaf do everything we can to ensure that employees are the most dedicated and dynamite engineers. This process is labor intensive and time consuming, but is critical to the success of any business. People need not only the right skills but the right attitude to make a company successful. It is this aspect of the recruiting process that Rapleaf takes extra care, bringing candidates in for in-house interviews to meet the entire team, preceded by multiple phone interviews with various other individuals. By the time a candidate is given an offer, they have been through a very comprehensive interviewing process.

Taking full advantage of Google Adwords

Startups need to take the time and effort to learn about the complexities and nuances of using Google AdWords and implement them into their marketing plans, recruiting, business development – any area of the business requiring publicity. Google AdWords is the most robust keyword and content advertisement engine on the planet. Blogs and literature quickly digress into talk of quality scores, phrase matching and conversion tracking. I’ve found that the most critical aspect is your click through rate (CTR). This is the lynchpin for the internet marketer – it affects your costs, your placement and effectiveness of your online presence. Without it, your ads will suffer in the dregs of Google search pages and your costs will skyrocket. Worst of all, you won’t get your message across to your audience. For an excellent beginners guide to using AdWords, check out Google AdWords Made Easy.

Recognizing and boosting email deliverability

It’s a no-brainer for companies that send mass mailings or newsletters to check the deliverability of the emails they send out.  Not enough startups run these checks themselves. Many companies pay a great deal for others to do it for them; here at Rapleaf we do it ourselves using Deliverymonitor.com, while saving a lot of money at the same time.  This inexpensive service allows you to see what’s being delivered into what ISP’s inboxes and manage the whitelisting process at these ISPs in just a few minutes. Before Rapleaf, I’d never heard of it. After performing the checks and working with it, it is hard to imagine companies not using a service like this. Seemingly trivial, this can mean the difference when trying to reach the right people for your business. Go here to check out what else we do when it comes to boosting email deliverability.

Working at Rapleaf has made me realize just how much is involved in a start-up. The number of projects and changes sitting on everyone’s plate at a given time is enormous. Having heard at the outset that I would have my hands in many pots, I knew there would be a lot on my plate. The depth and variety of these tasks is incredible, and is what keeps Rapleaf on its successful trajectory.

Changes to Rapleaf Services

Rapleaf started as a portable reputation platform and a tool to find information about one’s self and others on the social web.  Like many great companies, we’ve evolved over the last two years.   Now we’re embarking on the next evolution that will benefit the greater community while guarding people’s privacy.

Starting today, only you will be able to search your information on Rapleaf.com.  Also, information about consumers will be more secure and only authorized developers/companies will be able to access information about consumers.   We are making these changes in order to better protect consumers.   We strive to: (i) help companies better understand their users in order to provide a better consumer experience, (ii) help consumers find and manage publicly available information about themselves.

Our mission is to enable new services and applications by supplying trusted vendors and businesses with access to data about their consumers that they already have a relationship and interact with.  And we empower consumers by providing them a view into their public online identity, enabling them to manage access to their information.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.

The Startup Bibles

In my first meeting with my supervisor Vivek, he told me to get ready for a crash course in entrepreneurship.  I figured he was referring to the steep on-the-job learning curve - which he was - but he was also referencing the approximately 5,000 pages of reading thrown my way over the last month.  Readings range from academic textbooks to sales essays, recruiting tips to popular science.  Each book and article provides insight into the skills needed to successfully run a startup.  For this reason, I thought I would share some of my favorites and my takeaway with relation to Rapleaf and startups more generally:

Recruit or Die (Chris Resto, Ian Ybarra, & Ramit Sethi):  I figured this book was an appropriate place to start: recruiting.  Three young authors provide an insightful look into how to compete with established brands in recruiting, and keeping, the best talent.

Takeaway:  Always recruit.  This is a mindset, and something we’ve certainly adopted here at Rapleaf.  When you’re a startup you can’t afford to recruit seasonally (i.e. when college recruiting fairs occur) or when you’re in need of a specific position.  Instead, you need to constantly seek the best talent in the form of both active recruits (those looking for jobs) and passive recruits (those who think they’re happy…until they hear about an exciting new opportunity).  Also adhere to the concrete recommendations such as taking recruits to a basketball game or sending a personalized card welcoming each employee.  These small touches show employees their value.

The Entrepreneurial Venture (Ed. William A. Sahlman, Howard H. Stevenson, Michal J. Roberts, Amar Bhidé):  The meatiest of our readings so far.  Essentially an academic textbook, the essays in this collection are intended to guide you from concept to product.

Takeaway:  For me, the most valuable lesson from this text was purely psychological: the notion of risk.  At Rapleaf we’re truly blazing new trails and this comes with a requisite level of danger.  The essays in this text stress that entrepreneurs take on an inordinate amount of risk in the economy, and are rewarded (or punished) accordingly.  There’s also valuable advice on writing business models and plans, but as I recently discovered, such documents are becomingly increasingly outdated in the tech world.

Don’t Make Me Think (Steve Krug):  Now we’re getting to the interesting stuff.  How to have visitors use, and actually enjoy, your website.  Krug, an expert in website usability, provides concise tips on how to increase users’ time on your site through maximal clarity and minimal clutter.

Takeaway:  Too many useful tips to include in a short takeaway!  He boasts that the book can be read in one plane ride, and with that brevity, it would be a mistake for any web startup or brand looking to improve its site not to read Krug in its entirety.  But the most important point is to think like a user.  We don’t read websites like we read books…our eyes jump around the page and look for specific keywords or images.  Websites should optimize for this type of audience, focusing upon ease of use and navigation.

The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell):  This book became a huge hit due to Gladwell’s unique ability to synthesize dry academic articles into exceedingly interesting vignettes.  He explores how products and ideas spread between people. If you like this, you should also read its predecessor, Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations.

Takeaway:  This book is really instructive in terms of marketing and sales.  At Rapleaf, we always discuss the idea that every connection is a potential company evangelist.  This is particularly important in customer service.  Even the customers that seem most upset with your brand or product can become your biggest allies when treated honestly and with respect.  Gladwell’s example of Lois Weisburg, the nondescript woman who seemingly knows everyone, is instructive in this case.  Sometimes the biggest influencers are not marketing managers—they’re everyday people like Mrs. Weisburg.

Bit Literacy (Mark Hurst):  This book provides an interesting, and often surprising, look at the inefficiencies brought on by our age of information. As Hurst points out, tools like RSS feeds and even email can be useful, but also paralyzing.  Hurst outlines various methods to make information a tool rather than an obstacle to increased productivity.

Takeaway:  Startups have to optimize!  Rapleaf has adopted a lot of Hurst’s tips both company-wide and individually. I agree with his recommendations that you check your email on set occasions, never treat your inbox as your task list, and prioritize digital tasks according to weight.  Some things are over the top– Hurst’s even adopted the DVORAK keyboard in lieu of the inefficient QWERTY–but generally the advice is to optimize your information flow, and never mistake activity for efficiency.


The Four Hour Workweek
(Tim Ferriss):  Ferriss has become something of a counter-corporate icon in the past year, sparking interest among employees, entrepreneurs, and the unemployed alike.  The appeal stems from Ferriss’ conception of the “New Rich,” essentially referring to those who refuse to slave 9-5 and defer enjoyment to retirement.

Takeaway:  Ferris provides some interesting tips on maximizing efficiency and profit for any company, but I’ve learned more by exploring his marketing strategies.  Before the release of his book, he brilliantly befriended prominent bloggers who then posted about his work upon release.  It was this use of UGC that propelled his book to best-selling status.  At Rapleaf, we’re constantly seeking new methods to increase brand awareness without spending advertising dollars.  Ferris’ strategic networking provides an interesting example of how to increase publicity with a minimal budget. [His marketing of the book is not the focus of the book.  Independently of the book, you make a good point, but make sure you stay on point and highlight some of the things the book stresses – being more efficient, think in terms of opportunity costs and set a value for your time and find someone to do it cheaper, etc.]


The Starfish and The Spider
(Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom):  Their one sentence summary perfectly captures the driving force behind this book: “If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.”  Now apply this comparison to companies and you’ll see the future of companies, and not only in the high-tech space.

Takeaway:  This book is primarily interesting on a theoretical level, as it reveals the inherent advantages of decentralized communities versus traditional, top-down corporations.  However, there are concrete examples here as well.  At Rapleaf we use a community-edited internal wiki system to track changes in the company.  We also have an open team structure, and as I blogged about before, we manage up.  It’s these tools, according to Brafman and Beckstorm, which insure that names like Wikipedia and Digg will define the next incarnation of corporate America.

These books provide insight into the way we do things at Rapleaf, and I hope the brief descriptions above are helpful for any startup.  If there’s one theme throughout all these books, it’s that entrepreneurship is primarily about risk and release.  Risk is self-explanatory.  And by release, I mean the entrepreneur’s ability to release attachment to habits and notions that decrease efficiency.  In some cases, this means a willingness to let go of the founding vision or business model of a company.  In others, such as the examples in Four Hour Workweek and The Starfish and the Spider, it simply means relinquishing control to the community.  Sometimes the best companies, these books reveal, are able to eventually run themselves.  From what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, for entrepreneurs, particularly those who initially took on so much risk, this release can be the most difficult part.

Living the Dream: Silicon Valley

Ever since arriving here, Ben and I have been amazed by the type of things we see and learn from day to day. Having worked in several large cities before- Philadelphia, London, and Boston - San Francisco is like nowhere else I’ve ever experienced. The difference is in the thinking, foreign to these former centers of ‘innovation’, where big business and static products stamp out the new; radical ideas are fostered and encouraged here in Silicon Valley. The foresight of the people in this area has been driving the evolution of the internet for years now, and I am getting to see for the first time just how incredible it really is.

Having worked for a tech consultant firm in Boston, I was exposed to several different areas of tech – but this exposure was next to nothing like the inundation of technologies and startup ideas I have heard about in my month in San Francisco.  Outside of Philadelphia, working for a pharmaceutical marketing company was an entirely different experience, with barely a trip outside of my cubicle. No social events were on my agenda, no launch parties for new pharmaceutical companies or drug lines. The tech industry is filled with an energy that is simply not a part of any other industry. London was perhaps the most difficult, watching person after person walk by with their head down, uninspired and void of any gusto, almost like an army of clones marching around up and down Victoria Street.

The subway systems are also a good representation of their respective cities. Boston, clinging to an outdated and rickety system, is unreliable at best. On the Tube in London, perpetually late and over-crowded trains are bursting with people covered in blank stares, lacking any form of inspiration or zeal. The BART of San Francisco is the exact opposite – filled with all kinds of new and different energies no big city in the world can offer. The newest of gadgets, brainstorming of new ideas, eclectic mixes of people – all aboard each and every train. Efficient and on time, the BART is home to more than a few ideas that have changed the face of technology.

For over five years, I’ve read and used CNet forums. They are the most comprehensive site on the internet when it comes to product reviews and downloadable software, one of the first reliable user-generated content sites I can remember. Their office? A block away. Never in a million years did I think I would be working down the street from their office, just a few hundred feet away from people who existed to me only in cyberspace before. For the first time, it dawned on me how rooted the tech ‘movement’ is here, and how that affects the mindset of the people. Here, ideas are supported and followed through with until they are perfected. And then – the launch. An unpredictable, exciting and learning experience for everyone (speaking of which, I’m attended the Firefox 3 launch party last Friday).

The environment at Rapleaf, which seems more and more like a microcosm of the tech industry here, is drastically more diverse than the traditional places I mentioned. Everyone here has come from such a unique path that it’s hard to think that we’re all working towards the same goal. It only adds to the dynamic atmosphere that is San Francisco. Both the pace and the workload of Rapleaf far outstrip anything mature companies have to offer. I used to sit around on Friday afternoons and wait for 4:30PM to roll around. Now, working till 8PM on a Friday seems early. Long weeks are followed religiously by ‘networking’ events that can last well past 3AM. How entrepreneurial.

It is an exciting time to be working here in San Francisco – feelings of innovation seem to permeate every aspect of the city. And definitely inspirational to be around.

An Addendum to ‘When Good Isn’t Good Enough’

During my internship here at Rapleaf, I’ve discovered that it is crucial to have very high standards when recruiting.  Not only are you finding the best, but this is also a great way to retain employees from the start.  Our CEO Auren has written about our desire to hire only great candidates, not just good ones.  And recently he’s been stressing the value of actually underselling an offer to insure incoming employees are completely committed to the culture and direction of a company.

A Wall Street Journal article found that companies large and small are increasingly looking at employee retention as a measure of success.  They’re being reactive, in a sense, by linking executive bonuses to employee retention.  I don’t think startups can afford to do this.  One of my takeaways is that it’s important that any company, regardless of size or industry, be proactive and set expectations from the beginning and maintain expectations (see Auren’s advice in the links above).  By ensuring that your employees are committed to the culture and direction of a company, you don’t have to worry about retention quarter after quarter.

Despite being in a ‘revolving door’ industry for talent, as the tech industry can be, I’ve seen that we’ve been pretty fortunate to retain the best people, and I can vouch that a lot of it has to do with setting expectations from the start.

Lessons Learned from Working at Rapleaf

It’s hard to believe that my internship here at Rapleaf is almost half complete - it somehow feels like I started yesterday…and I’ve been here forever.  This feeling can probably be attributed to the steep learning curve here.  On that note, I wanted to share some of the many lessons I’ve learned here from my Rapleaf colleagues.

Rallying the Troops

When I decided to write this post, I knew it had to start with our CEO Auren.  Auren is one of those rare individuals who have the ability to make everyone feel important.  Whether he’s talking to investors or ordering a sandwich, Auren knows how to engage others.  This ability to connect people, as well as Auren’s well-known generosity, has made him one of the most well respected entrepreneurs in the Valley.

Internally, Auren’s ability to motivate is unparalleled.  In my first meeting with Auren, I asked him his target number of employees as we grow from the current team of 15.  He immediately responded: “40,000.  Isn’t that what Google’s heading toward?”  Auren always sets the bar high, but that’s because he truly expects Rapleaf to do incredible things.

Managing Up (And What That Really Means)

One of the many things that stuck with me from my interview with Rapleaf co-founder Vivek was the chance and ability to manage up.  To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about.  I told Vivek that I’m not shy and will tell others, superiors or not, what I think.  This is sort of what managing up is about, but there’s more.  Managing up is feeling responsible for not only your work but for the entire direction of the company.  Rather than waiting for your supervisor to give you another task, managing up entails predicting the next task, and then doing it without even being asked.

On a day-to-day basis, this manifests itself when Max and I schedule meetings with Vivek rather than the other way around.  It also arises in being honest with Vivek, and anyone else, about setting expectations and meeting them.  If Max or I are unable to get something done, we’re encouraged to be let our superiors know in advance.  This creates an open and dynamic work environment, and it’s an exciting part of working at Rapleaf.

Recruiting (When You’re Still in College Yourself)

It’s been a really cool experience to see recruiting from the other side.  At Yale we’re lucky enough to be exposed to companies of all sizes and all industries through our career services, but I had never thought about how those companies reached us until arriving at Rapleaf.  Then I immediately discovered that the process is a lot more complicated (and difficult) than it appears to students.  Small companies like Rapleaf employ a variety of methods to get the word out, from job sites and college career centers to more creative modes (but we’ll leave those out as trade secrets.).  The point I’ve learned is that small companies need to employ every tool possible to get the word out.

Changing business models

Finally, and I think most importantly for entrepreneurial students like Max and myself, I’ve learned that the days of a single business model are done.  Rapleaf, only two years old, has already undergone several incarnations – adaptation in order to survive.  It seems like every young company here is focused on developing a great product first and finding a revenue stream second.  This attitude is reflected in the investment environment, as venture capitalists are generally looking to invest in people and ideas rather than strict business plans.  In fact, several tech lawyers recently told me that they haven’t seen a traditional business plan in a decade.  The lesson here to young entrepreneurs is simple: stop writing and start building.

Putting Entrepreneurship into Action

(Editor’s Note: Along the lines of Ben’s perspective and commentary on startups and startup culture, Rapleaf intern Max Owen gives us his perspective on entrepreneurship here at Rapleaf.)

After being at Rapleaf for just a few days, the difference and benefits of being at Rapleaf and its culture has over traditional companies, have become quite evident. Everything here moves at a pace that simply cannot be duplicated in big corporations. Having worked at some of the world’s largest multi-national corporations, I can’t imagine going back. Culture elsewhere has always translated into dry, boring meetings with someone you’ve never met or interacted with telling you what your role will be “for the duration of your time here.” Gee, thanks. Can I have that contract back that I just signed?

Everything here at Rapleaf is fresh, new, and done the smart way. For instance, we don’t have ‘HR’. We have Christina, who is more efficient than any company’s heavily resourced and personnel-heavy department I’ve ever dealt with. Direct deposit? Sure, at a corp., it will get done in 3 weeks. Here – 15 minutes. Done, anything else I can do for you? Awesome.

Ahh the ‘corporate’ culture of a start-up – a misnomer really. Nothing too corporate about it; it has more the feeling of a group of college students pouring all their brainpower and efforts into an excellent idea than a workplace. With engineers’ ideas and drawings littered all over the office, making your way around as a business intern can sometimes get you lost in the maze of code, not that unlike the Matrix. Maybe that’s why Vivek mentioned the red and blue pill on the first day…

My fellow business intern Ben and I have been exposed to some pretty awesome moments so far, such as schmoozing at the 5 Year Wordpress Anniversary Party, being thrown at the frontlines of customer service right away and getting to the root of the action, and meeting explicitly with the VP of Business Development and CEO here at Rapleaf to discuss the vision of the company and ideas around this vision (over the course of the summer, I’ll cover some other events that have occurred). Out of the office, we have been exposed to a smorgasbord of events San Francisco has to offer – Union Street Fair, Carnaval, Haight Street Fair, etc. And that’s just the start. In speaking for both Ben and I, from the minute we stepped off the airplane, we knew this was going to be a summer unlike any we had experienced before.

Max will be a senior at Babson College in which he is studying in their prestigious Entrepreneurship program. He is also a captain of the Varsity Lacrosse team as well as a Peer Mentor. Hailing from New Jersey, Max is often known to CWalk or Harlem Shake on request. Feel free to email Max: max[at]rapleaf[dot]com.

San Francisco and the Startup ‘Lifestyle’

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of many postings from Rapleaf interns, who will be providing their perspective and regular commentary on startup life and culture here at Rapleaf.)

When our supervisor and Rapleaf co-founder Vivek Sodera asked fellow intern Max and myself to blog about our experiences working at Rapleaf, it seemed like a daunting task. Write a press release? No problem. Run some analytics? Easy. Meet with our CEO to discuss ideas? Sure. But try to explain everything that happens in working for a San Francisco tech startup in the form of a blog? Where to begin?

It’s difficult for me to digest all of the action and excitement that we go through on a daily basis. Working for a startup - especially one with Rapleaf’s trailblazing technology—requires one to iterate and adapt every day. No two days, in fact no two hours, are the same.

And you know you’re working at a startup when…

(Seven Telltale Signs You’re Working at a San Francisco Startup)
1) Your supervisor - barely your senior - picks you up at the airport and immediately suggests that we check out the San Francisco nightlife.
2) Your roommate, a foreign exchange student from India, makes Indian food for all of the interns one night after being out until 3 am.
3) You attend (and survive) not one nor two but three of San Francisco’s largest outdoor festivals -Carnaval, Union Street Fair, and Haight Street Fair - your first two weeks on the job.
4) Trash talk is heating up around a potential intraoffice basketball game.
5) Your supervisor refers to working at a startup as a ’lifestyle’ rather than work.
6) Part of your job is attending networking events with some of the most exciting entrepreneurs in the Bay Area.
7) There is beer in the fridge in the office kitchen.

While some of these things may come off as fun and games, I can vouch that we’re working exceptionally hard here in helping to solve difficult problems. And that’s what’s amazing: It’s work that doesn’t feel like work. With such an incredible team, you really want to hang out together, both inside and outside the office.

As the summer progresses, I will try and keep you apprised of Rapleaf’s happenings and my thoughts. In the meantime, feel free to comment!

Ben will be a senior at Yale, where he is simultaneously pursuing Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in East Asian Studies (China). His research focuses upon information flow and data privacy in new forms of communication, with interest in data privacy and data portability. When he’s not in the classroom or in the office, Ben likes to surf, play volleyball and basketball, and religiously follow the Lakers. You can email Ben at: ben [at] rapleaf [dot] com

Rapleaf’s newest engineer - Nathan Marz

It’s official! Nathan Marz has graduated from Stanford and will be joining the Rapleaf team fulltime. This is something all of us here have been anxiously waiting for and we’re beyond excited.

See, Nathan isn’t just a smart cookie (graduated with a Computer Science BS/MS simultaneously from Stanford). Nathan is also a fierce contender on the b-ball courts. So it’s only fitting to say that getting Nathan onboard here at Rapleaf is equivalent to securing the #1 draft pick. Now I’ll admit, Nathan can school anyone when it comes to all things computer science or engineering related, but when it comes to basketball, he still has alot to learn (especially from yours truly).

And when we picked Nathan from Stanford, we weren’t aware that he was a triple threat - he has hidden musical talents. Not only can he play the piano (since the age of 12), but he can also sing pretty well. If you’re not careful, he’ll rick-roll you into submission with his rendition of “Never Gonna Give You Up” during a karaoke session.

All in all, we’re excited to have Nathan on board. We’ll just have to contend with the intraoffice trash talking that will ensue (that is before the big ‘Vivek vs. Entire Rapleaf Team’ basketball game).

Introducing the 2008 Rapleaf Intern Class - The Dream Team

With the NBA Playoff season winding down and the 2008 Olympics right around the corner, it’s only appropriate we introduce not the US Dream Team, but our very own Dream Team.

Coming in from all four corners of the US, we’re proud to introduce our summer intern class of 2008. Comprised of all-stars in the fields of business development, marketing, privacy, entrepreneurship, web design, software engineering, Ruby, and just overall kicking butt, these guys are here on a mission to take Rapleaf to the next level (while having a great time this summer in San Francisco).

From left to right we have Ben Jacobs, Max Owen, Ashutosh Pande, Zack Coburn, Abhishek Jain, Piotr Kozikowski, and Kevin Ballard.

Some tidbits of information on each:

Ben Jacobs - Coming in from Yale where he’s focused on Privacy and Marketing here at Rapleaf. Will actually be heading to China later this summer to study privacy during the 2008 Olympic games (don’t worry, he speaks impeccable Mandarin). Also his favorite animal is the cougar.

Max Owen - Hails from Babson College, studying Entrepreneurship. Could be a backup dancer for Justin Timberlake but decided to dance circles around the competition and is pursuing an interest in business development. Carries around an SF tourist map at all times for safe measure.

Ashutosh Pande - From India to Georgia Tech and now here at Rapleaf. Worked on interesting projects in the past, including an XML Search Engine and Scalability in P2P Networks. This summer he’s working on improving his morning grooming time. Also claims to have no musical talents, but we know that is a bold-faced lie.

Zack Coburn - A hacker and entrepreneur from Olin. Is business partner’s with Rapleaf’s very own Dan Scudder on DormItem (which was acquired by Universal Advertising Inc.). When he’s not coding in Ruby, he likes to point out inefficiencies in Ruby apps.

Abhishek Jain - Worked on some cool projects at Georgia Tech such as Natural Language Understanding in Interactive Games. Has seen most of the fairs and festivals here in San Francisco (Bay-to-Breakers, Union Street Fair, Carnavale), and is loving every minute of it. Also known to cook late night Indian meals for his roommates.

Piotr Kozikowski - A coder in his own right. Worked on some interesting computer science topics at Georgia Tech, including Knowledge-based AI and Computer/Network Security. Speaks fluent Polish and Spanish. And aspires to be a rapping leaf for Halloween.

Kevin Ballard - An Apple fanatic that is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Apple 3G iPhone. Studying Computer Science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and is involved in such projects as MacPorts, TextMate, Typo, Colloquy, Growl, etc. Can crush anyone in any game for any console and has a SecondLife avatar he calls “Fake Kevin Ballard.”

Watch, wait, and see. You’ve been warned…be on the lookout for these assassins!

DataPortability Workgroup meetup kicks off with a bang!

Rapleaf hosted the first Bay Area Meetup for the DataPortability Workgroup at our offices yesterday. As the kickoff meeting, representatives of companies and organizations involved in the DataPortability movement not only laid the foundation and framework for future discussions, but they also were able to discuss technical, policy, evangelistic, and implementation efforts and implications of dataportability. Full detail eddescription and feedback on the event will be provided by our very own Manish Shah. Pictures of the event below.

We were glad to host such an exciting and fruitful event and we look forward to hosting future Dataportability discussions. And special thanks to Manish for representing Rapleaf, the ever-entertaining Marc Canter for scribing, Trent Adams for taking meticulous notes, and to Daniela Barbosa and Chris Saad for streaming and setting up the event!

women and men on social networks

From looking at the data provided by Rapleaf, women are much bigger users of social networks then men. Much bigger.

The fastest growing demographic on social networks are moms between 35 and 45 years old. These women are putting up pictures of their kids (Johnny at baseball practice, Susie at soccer, the family in Disney World, etc.) and using these social networks (especially MySpace) to essentially make family home pages and share them with friends and relatives. They are decorating their pages, making RockYou slide shows, and using lots of widgets.

Men over 35 are just not that into social networks (yet) except on some rare examples like LinkedIn.

While both younger women and younger men have both joined social networks in drives, the younger women are much more active than the younger men. My hypothesis is that a lot of the younger men are spending their spare computer time playing video games. Women tend to enjoy casual games more and most social networks are essentially a huge casual games network.

Statistics on Google’s OpenSocial platform end users and Facebook users

We recently gathered data and released stats on users of MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Plaxo, and Hi5 – five social networks on the OpenSocial platform. We also gathered data on Facebook users. For instance, did you know:

- The greatest overlap between OpenSocial container sites exists between MySpace and Hi5, in which 43% of Hi5 users also use MySpace.
- Facebook users are 63% female and 36% male whereas the sites integrated with the OpenSocial platform are 61% female and 38% male
- 52% of Facebook users are 18-25, whereas 40% of the users are 18-25 for the five container sites on the OpenSocial platform
- Facebook users tend to use 2.9 major social networking sites on average whereas users of OpenSocial container sites tend to use 2.7 major social networking sites

Full in-depth data below:

Facebook Users
- 2.6 million users identified in Rapleaf
- 63% female, 36% male
- 17% <18 yrs, 52% 18-25 yrs, 21% 26-35 yrs, 5% 36-45 yrs, 5% >45 yrs
- 2.9 major social networking sites used on average
- 62% are on MySpace, 5% are on LinkedIn, 9% are on Friendster, 10% are on Plaxo, 22% are on Hi5

MySpace Users
- 11.3 million users identified in Rapleaf
- 63% female, 36% male
- 20% <18 yrs, 40% 18-25 yrs, 27% 26-35 yrs, 7% 36-45 yrs, 6% >45 yrs
- 2.4 major social networking sites used on average
- 15% are on Facebook, 2% are on LinkedIn, 9% are on Friendster, 6% are on Plaxo, 17% are on Hi5

LinkedIn Users
- 0.8 million users identified in Rapleaf
- 38% female, 61% male
- 2% <18 yrs, 9% 18-25 yrs, 49% 26-35 yrs, 24% 36-45 yrs, 16% >45 yrs
- 3.2 major social networking sites used on average
- 16% are on Facebook, 25% are on MySpace, 12% are on Friendster, 16% are on Plaxo, 8% are on Hi5

Friendster Users
- 2.3 million users identified in Rapleaf
- 58% female, 41% male
- 12% <18 yrs, 39% 18-25 yrs, 36% 26-35 yrs, 7% 36-45 yrs, 5% >45 yrs
- 3.0 major social networking sites used on average
- 10% are on Facebook, 44% are on MySpace, 5% are on LinkedIn, 5% are on Plaxo, 26% are on Hi5

Plaxo Users
- 1.3 million users identified in Rapleaf
- 62% female, 37% male
- 16% <18 yrs, 39% 18-25 yrs, 24% 26-35 yrs, 10% 36-45 yrs, 11% >45 yrs
- 3.6 major social networking sites used on average
- 20% are on Facebook, 53% are on MySpace, 11% are on LinkedIn, 9% are on Friendster, 15% are on Hi5

Hi5 Users
- 4.5 million users identified in Rapleaf
- 60% female, 39% male
- 21% <18 yrs, 44% 18-25 yrs, 23% 26-35 yrs, 6% 36-45 yrs, 6% >45 yrs
- 2.8 major social networking sites used on average
- 13% are on Facebook, 43% are on MySpace, 2% are on LinkedIn, 13% are on Friendster, 2% are on Plaxo

We currently have 60 million people in our databases and we searched those people across publicly accessible social networks, in which much of the data was obtained.

If there or any further inquiries on this data or other data we may have, please contact press@rapleaf.com

Also, developers may check out Rapleaf’s API v2 (for integrating people data into your site): http://www.rapleaf.com/developer

Social networks and political process

Rapleaf has a bunch of groups, organizations, causes, and candidates that are using our data to better democracy. But we still find that most actors in the political process really underestimate social networks.

So we put together a “social networks for dummies” PDF with some up-to-date stats on who is on these social networks and why someone involved in affecting change should care:

social networks and politics

Rapleaf in the Wall Street Journal!

The Wall Street Journal ran an article a few days ago about firms that manage online reputations and the emerging importance of building, harvesting, and monitoring your name on the web. As more user generated content floods the web, its becomes crucial to watch your own name and reputation in search results, social news sites, and blogs.

Of course, what would an article about reputation be without a Rapleaf mention? Check out towards the end of the story, Rapleaf gets the nod for being a great way to build an online reputation through commerce.

If you haven’t already started to grow your reputation with Rapleaf and want to start, an easy way to begin is by rating your friends. Sign up here.

And you can read the full Wall Street Journal Article here

Ethical people of the world unite!

We just created a Rapleaf group on Facebook that you can join to meet other Rapleaf users! It’s just one more step to making the world a bit more ethical.
Click here to join!

Rapleaf looking for an amazing software engineer (employee #8)

We’re looking for another amazing software engineer. Right now we’re a team of seven…that would make him/her employee #8. And that equates to high cash compensation, high equity, and mucho responsibilities. Testimonials from some of our other engineers:

“I love Rapleaf” - Manish
“Working at Rapleaf changed my life” - Dayo
“My quality of life has increased 1000%” - Jeremy

Enough said…check out the job spec:

Rapleaf recently raised a $1 MM angel round from the top angels in Silicon Valley led by Peter Thiel (former founder and CEO of PayPal), Eric Di Benedetto, Jeff Clavier, Aydin Senkut, and Ron Conway. We’ll be raising a venture round this spring … so this is an opportunity to join pre-VC. You will be one of the key hires.

The goal: To make it more profitable to be ethical

The criteria:
- You’re a kick-butt coder. You take no prisoners. You’re a master of all things Internet. You’re one of the best coders you know.
- You can learn new languages fast (we use Ruby on Rails but if you don’t know this, you can learn it fast)
- You should have a strong desire to build a more ethical society
- You want to be an early employee and want to be a real owner in Rapleaf’s future
- Intensely driven and proactive person
- Extremely hard working. This is a start-up. We work 70-80 hour weeks you should too.
- Quick learner and real doer (and you err on execution over strategy)
- You thrive on working with A-players and you’re too good to spend 70+ hrs/wk with B-players
- People like you and like working with you
- You thrive on chaos, risk, and uncertainty
- Should be easy to get along with, nice, fun, smart, ethical, and low-maintenance
- All levels of experiences should apply (0-25+ years experience)

The role:
- Building out Rapleaf’s next set of ground-breaking features
- Building algorithms to detect and attack fraud
- Changing the world and making it more profitable to be ethical

The location:
- Downtown San Francisco, at New Montgomery and Mission (near BART, MUNI, every conceivable restaurant, etc.)
- You should want to live in or near San Francisco (we’ll move you if you’re not already here)

The compensation:
- High cash comp | high equity — we are willing to pay for the best talent.
- We’re happy to pay you significantly more than your current job. Our philosophy: A players rock. So have fewer people and pay them more.

The additional perks:
- Your own MacBook Pro or Windows based machine.
- Kitchen stocked with food
We’re only looking for people that really want to change the world.

Interested? Please email your resume to jobs@rapleaf.com
(and be sure to sign up for Rapleaf if you are not already a member)

p.s. - If you are not interested, we pay $10,007 referral bonus if you refer us to the person we hire. We’re happy to pay you directly or to send the money to your favorite approved charity (NOTE: Human Fund does not count).

Use PrivatePhone when transacting online or via craigslist

We recently came across a service that would be valuable for anyone selling online or through craigslist. This service is called PrivatePhone and its actually really cool. Essentially you can get a free, anonymous phone number, which would go well with transacting online or via auction/classified sites (especially if you’re worried about giving out your personal number). I even went ahead, signed up, and created an anonymous phone number - you can go ahead and give me a call at 949-468-5624 (it’ll go straight to a voicemail, so leave a message).

As a result, we went ahead and set up a partnership with PrivatePhone. Once our phone number search is active again, the PrivatePhone number could be used to search for a corresponding Rapleaf profile (where you would then, rate that person on that transaction). Check out PrivatePhone!

New Looks

You may notice some changes we’ve made to the site. We’ve upgraded the aesthetics a bit and made a few things more simple. For one, we’ve made the search much less complicated. Enter an email address and press Lookup, that’s it.

All changes were made with you in mind. Check it out, we hope you find it to your liking. Please leave comments or email us to say what you like, don’t like, anything…we want to hear it all!

Domain verity on Rapleaf

You may have noticed, when using Rapleaf, you can now see someone’s domain verity. When you search for domain, we now tell you how hard it is to get an email at that domain. trustable4.pngWe also show you how easily an email may be traced back to the individual. For instance, a “ge.com” email address is really hard to get. You basically have to work at GE to get it and the email is usually revoked immediately upon leaving the company. A “comcast.com” is easier to get because anyone that has Comcast as their ISP can get one. But a “hotmail.com” email is even easier to get and you can sign up for a thousand hotmail addresses tomorrow with the right hack.

We categorized over almost a hundred thousand domain names and our goal is to hit over a million. So try searching for an email addresses in Rapleaf and see what type of domain related information you get.

How to unethically raise your eBay ratings in 100 seconds

I’ve always thought eBay’s marketplace did not have any flaws. Its system is designed to help facilitate commerce transactions and in return they are able to monitor the transactions and effectively control the feedback system…further encouraging more transactions.

And it’s pretty apparent that having a high eBay reputation can illicit a higher premium on products. And not only that, you gain more trust in the buyer/seller.

Now what if I told you there was a way to raise your eBay ratings 10+ points within a matter of 200 seconds? What about 150 seconds? What about 100 seconds? And for only $0.10…would you be up for it?

I would hope you would say “no”! This system called “feedback farming” or “ballot stuffing” (depending on how you look at it) is highly unethical and not at all accurate of one’s reputation in buying or selling. By allowing sellers to sell eBooks for less than nothing, eBay has opened up a way for fraudsters to cheat the system.

I, by all means, do not encourage this behavior (that’s the risk you take in exposing issues like this - people are now aware and they commit the same acts). I am however encouraging you to carefully examine the buyers and sellers on eBay and fully look into their ratings, comments, and feedback. Do not accept their ratings at face value.

When it comes down to it, what does it mean for you? As I mentioned before, sellers with higher ratings garner more trust as well as more business. If these “feedback farmers” raised their reputation value unethically you could get screwed by:

1.) being frauded

2.) paying more for someone with a “higher” reputation

3.) having your trust taken advantage of

Fully utilize a rating system (especially ours) and be on the look out for this type of activity!

Change the world, one rating at a time…

What’s the mantra of any startup?

Work hard. Have fun. Make an impact and change the world.

Work hard.

Have fun.

Change the world??? Come again?

The first two are really easy. It’s the “changing the world” that boggles the mind. Compared to other companies, we have it easy since it’s inherent in what we’re trying to do. Our team envisions a society where your reputation is completely ubiquitous…where you can ping someone’s Rapleaf score, while away from the computer, and consider if you should buy or sell to the individual. That’s just an example but that’s very plausible, no?

To answer my own question, it is possible of course, but the process of getting to that point personally frustrates me. I, the author, can’t speak for the entire team when I say this but, it really infuriates me when I hear about these new cases of people getting ripped off, scammed, etc.

Phony Katrina story scam

Auren blogged about a previous Katrina scam. This one occurred recently. Basically a women scammed a church, nonprofits, and others into giving her alot of money by making up a story about her children dying during Hurricane Katrina.

Check from a scammer bounces victim in Jail

This guy was the victim of a Nigerian 419 scam that occurred while trying to sell his bike through craigslist. The result? He was apprehended by the police while trying to cash the check at BofA. He was then thrown in jail, had to pay bail, all while going through hell (obviously trying to rhyme).

Arrrrgh!!! Seriously, who are these people that commit these acts? Just adds fuel to the fire for sure. It makes me think if only this victim knew about Rapleaf, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Who knows.

Sorry I had to unleash the beast. And thanks for listening to me vent. Now I need to get back to changing the world with my team members (just gotta keep on trucking…).

The Unofficial Craigslist Book

After speaking to a former senior executive at eBay, I found that eBay merchants are getting more and more saavy. They’re no longer focusing their energies on selling through eBay and are actually leaving eBay in some cases. But where are they going? What marketplace is compelling enough to escape the totalitarian leash that’s been in place since ‘95?

How about somewhere without the oppressive walls in place? How about no fees, no restrictions, and the ability to use a portable reputation system? How about some place “worth” more than eBay? How about craigslist?

Yeah, eBay is scared…and they should be. Have you heard of The Unofficial Craigslist Book? Yeah neither did I, until today. But I’m thinking about purchasing a copy. In fact I probably will. For only the price of eight Subway $2.49 specials, honestly, that’s not a bad deal (In case you couldn’t tell, we pretty much eat Subway for lunch everyday).

Just checking out the author’s blog, I found extremeley useful advice such as:

“Upon the first exchange of e-mails never use your real name. There have been instances in which a person’s identity was assumed once they got detailed info about the seller.

Oops. Good thing I know that now. Is this book going to single-handedly take down Meg Whitman’s empire? Probably not. But this book does look interesting and I’m guaranteeing that it can save you not only a ton of money, but save you alot of grief as well.

Now for all you eBay-turned-craigslist merchants (and everyone else out there), couple these craigslist tactics with online flyers from vFlyer and your Rapleaf reputation and you’re ready to rock ‘n’ rock. In a few years, you’ll forget what it was like to be harnessed to the ground with exorbitant listing fees.

Anyways, buy this book and let us know of any success stories. And be sure to rate your successes with a positive Rapleaf rating :)

Contractor charged with defrauding Katrina victims

Some guy is accused of defrauding victims of Katrina to the tune of $500,000

See: Contractor charged with fraud

A local contractor remained jailed Monday after deputies chased him down, tackled him, then charged him with bilking Baldwin County residents out of about $500,000 in a series of construction-related scams targeting the elderly, Hurricane Katrina victims and others.

“He would come in and get some money up front to do some things. Then, when it came time to do it, he would never complete the job or do what he was supposed to do,” Murphy said. “He was very smooth. He was very convincing. He pretty much knew what to say. He would say things like, ‘We’ve got to act fast. I won’t be able to get materials at the prices for much longer.’”

This article was sent to us by Rapleaf member Ben Smith. Ben mentions that while most contractors are very ethical, there are a few bad birds in the pile. To separate the good from the crooks, Ben checks the Rapleaf scores of anyone proposing to do work on his house. Ben has a great Alabama summer vacation home that he rents out and often uses local contractors. Thanks Ben!!

eBay gives sellers the run-around

There was a very interesting story in today’s Mercury news about feedback and a lawsuit against eBay.

eBay seems to be in the right legally on this. and eBay eventually won the case. but eBay once again demonstrates poor customer service and it pushed away another seller who will be selling through other channels.

overall, this is less a cautionary tale about feedback and much more a tale about having good and responsive customer service.

How to Take Advantage of Your RapLeaf Score and Ratings

You received an email indicating that you were rated on RapLeaf. You open the email. You go over the positive comment left for you. You think to yourself “Aww, that’s nice of [insert name].” You’re also thinking “Okay, now what?”

So what is the point of RapLeaf? Why did we start this company and why are we working so hard to provide this service for our users?

RapLeaf is a portable ratings system for commerce. Buyers and sellers can rate each other. If you’re a reputable seller, you’ll be able to generate more business for yourself. More business = more money in your pocket. Just ask this merchant to see if RapLeaf helped out his business.

If you’re a buyer and you’re competing against other buyers to purchase something on Craigslist for example, displaying your RapLeaf badge will give you a competitive edge. If your profile is full of positive comments, that seller will see that you’re a genuinely nice person, you’re not a flake, and you won’t screw them over - you’ll then get that rare Tickle Me Elmo doll. Simple.

So what if you don’t engage in online or offline commerce? Are you looking for a new job? You can post your RapLeaf badge on your résumé. Comments and feedback left for you will vouch that you’re a good person. It’s an easier way to get the job without having to wear a monkey suit. No Myers-Briggs test needed.

As you can see, there’s a whole slew of ways you can use your RapLeaf badge. Your reputation is helpful for commerce, yes. But your reputation affects not only buying or selling, it also affects your life and where you want to go in life.

With that being said, if you haven’t already signed up on RapLeaf, sign up here. It takes less than 30 seconds to start building your reputation.

more craigslist incidents

I found this article in sfgate recently that talks about more incidents where people have been lured into bad transactions. Apparently, the article says that this is becoming more and more common (as of 2005).

Check out the full story here

I blogged about 1 such incident here.

Theres always a chance that something can wrong with any transaction, be it on craigslist or anywhere else. There are some bad seeds out there. However, their effectiveness as bad seeds can be minimized.

Promote the people you transact with that are good seeds and increase THEIR effectiveness. You can have a hand in making it safer for you and everyone else by simple choosing to interact with good people and telling other people that this person is good.

Soon enough, it will be a lost cause to screw people over because they know that once they do, they will be burned forever. Instead, the path to more profitability will be through ethical behavior.

thanks to the diggers for getting this on the home page.

Full details in Survey Findings: Transactional Trust in Social Commerce

Today, Scott Allen released the full details on the survey on trust in online transactions:

Transactional Trust in Social Commerce
(PDF, 13 pages, 113K - Right-click and Save Link As or Save Target As to download)

it is a great survey (sponsored by Rapleaf) and gives a real insight into the impedements and catalyzers of buying and selling.

Key survey point is that ratings are the more important criteria for buyers and the seconf most for sellers:

Factors in determining trust
compared between buyers and sellers
Factor Buyer rank Seller rank
Posted ratings of the buyer 1 2
Reputation of the site or publication 2 3
Payment method you are using 3 1
Endorsements/testimonials 4 6
Intuition/gut-level reaction/prayer 5 4
E-mail or phone call with the buyer 6 5
Outside research of the buyer 7 8
Prior knowledge of the buyer 8 7
Personal appearance of the buyer 9 9

thanks Scott for putting this together.

eBay tells its users: “take a hike!”

In an announcement today, eBay essentially told its users to take a hike.

eBay is raising fees, in some cases over 6%, because it wants to improve its stock price on Wall Street. at the same time, of course, eBay is raising taxes on thousands of eBay customers. no taxation without representation??? exactly.

eBay to its members: “we’re begging you to NOT sell on eBay. sell somewhere else. Sell on craigslist (free). Sell on Edgeio (free). Sell on Google (not free but has a market-based system).”

while most internet services are lowering their prices, eBay continues to raise its price without adding a lot of additional benefits to its users.

eBay, the CompuServe of 2006, continues to close itself off and tell its users to take a hike. eBay used to be a walled-garden but thriving economy (like Singapore). Today eBay is more like North Korea … insular, erratic, and makes decisions not based on the best interest of its citizens.

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