Mountain View, CA-based Meebo, the popular web-based IM service, is out raising a $25-$30 million round at a $200-$250 million valuation, reports VentureBeat. That’s up from a previous valuation of $60-$70 million, when it raised $9 million from DFJ last year. As for the current round, the word out of the company is an unsurprising ‘no comment.’ If true, the raise is a bellwether for big, later-stage rounds in the current market environment. Not only is the valuation seen as high, but the service is still seen as service or a product, rather than a solid business. Down at SxSW, I had a chat with co-founder Sandy Jen, and business development director Daniel Bernstein, during which they made the case that Meebo is a real business with real potential for revenue. At the conference, Meebo chat served as the backchannel for all the panels, a demonstration of the company’s strategy to power live interaction and chat in any context:
— Ads Not surprising: the core revenue idea at this point is based around ads. Jen: “The biggest revenue piece right now would be advertising… we have this thing called bubble ads on Meeb.com”. It claims that for every 100 people that log into Meebo, three of them click on an ad. As for ads that are relevant to the actual conversation, Bernstein promised that the company is not about to pull a Beacon: “We’re a lot less grandiose in that regard.” In terms of numbers, the company claims 7.5 million uniques at Meebo.com and another 22 million across the network.
— Premium services: Another avenue that the company is exploring is digital goods, a la QQ, the Chinese IM based virtual currency. Users, for example, might pay for advanced features: stuff like skins and avatars are the most obvious. Besides paid premium services, there’s also opportunity for sponsorship, according Jen: “You could have sponsorships… like the Coke skin of the day.” But for now, the large bulk will still be advertising.
— B2B: In addition to the core consumer-facing business, the company is helping third parties establish their own chat services. Bernstein: “We basically power consumer facing chat for entertainment media companies…” Currently it has partnerships with VH1, MTV, CBS (NYSE: CBS), Showtime, RockYou, New York Post, GSN and others. Jen: “We’re very narrowly focused… we want to do live interaction well.” That is the real core of the business. Meebo isn’t trying to be a social net or an ad network or anything but a service that can facilitate live chat on its own site and for third parties.
— Endgame: Ultimately, Meebo will argue that it’s not just a product or a feature, but a viable ad-driven business. At least for now, it doesn’t see a sale in its future — or so it will admit publicly.
— iPhone: Unfortunately for Meebo, the iPhone SDK doesn’t allow apps to run in the background, which pretty much kills any chance for a third-party based IM service. Unless the company changes that at some point, iPhone users will still have to go to Meebo.com to user the service.