Fritz Lanman was doing just fine as Microsoft’s senior director of corporate strategy and acquisitions and also had a nice budding angel investing career with investments in Square and Pinterest. But 18 months ago, he quit Microsoft to tackle a big problem that he felt had yet to be fixed in a satisfying way. Lanman was frustrated by the state of recommendations, which relied too heavily on stranger reviews or complicated algorithms and wasn’t well served on mobile.
The result of Lanman’s work is Livestar, a new iPhone app (Android coming soon) that makes it easy to find the two kinds of recommendations that matter most to many users: friend suggestions and professional reviews. The app serves as a sort of search engine, Q&A platform and review aggregator, combining elements of Yelp, Google, Quora, Metacritic and Facebook. But while many of those services started on the desktop web, Livestar is built from the ground up to be mobile only.
How it works:
At launch, users can search across three categories: movies, music and restaurants. With a slider function, they can call up reviews on various subjects from critics, aggregators like Yelp, Trip Advisor and Urban Spoon, friends and taste makers. The critics function is helpful in pulling up all kinds of professional reviews from trusted sources, such as local newspapers, magazines and online publications.
That alone is a big plus, giving people a way to receive via mobile a broad selection of professional commentary on the things they like. Metacritic doesn’t have a mobile app and Rottentomatoes’ app just covers movies. Users can set their radius on reviews, so searches for local items, such as restaurants, can be filtered by location. Lanman believes that browsing for professional content will probably be the primary use case for users at first.
But the promise of Livestar is also in getting reviews and suggestions from friends. Livestar does this by allowing users to ask specific questions of their Facebook friends, their mobile contacts list or other users on Livestar. I can ask for specific recommendations for things like “best Italian restaurant downtown.” Livestar is smart in that it pre-formats the question, so that a recipient gets a list of popular restaurants that they can touch to give a 1- to 5-star rating. If they don’t see a restaurant on the list, they can easily add one and give a rating or a longer review.
The key, Lanman said, is that Livestar makes it easy for someone to respond because they don’t have to do much typing to provide valuable input. The original user will get their responses and can store them for future reference.
Users can curate a list of trusted friends on various topics and they can follow other Livestar users. Search results can be narrowed down to specific professional and personal sources. Users can also follow taste makers, who are scored according to their reviews, likes and followers and are suggested based on similar tastes. They system will eventually add other categories such as books, wine and apparel, and eventually hotels and bars.
Lanman said the power of Livestar is in removing the friction it takes to obtain this type of information. He said a lot of care went into making searching extremely simple and particular attention was paid to making it easy for friends to respond to recommendation requests. Between the simplicity and the social obligation of friends asking for a favor, he believes Livestar should have a solid response rate. He said friend suggestions trump algorithmic solutions, which require a lot of input from users to sort out their tastes. And he said those machine-learning systems are held to a higher standard and often get abandoned if people see questionable recommendations.
The other key was making the service mobile-first. While Yelp has flourished as a resource for restaurant hunters, Lanman said it has struggled because it was built before mobile and social came of age.
“If Yelp was built today it would be Livestar,” Lanman said. “It was great for keyboard and mouse but with touch and location enhancements, people can do so much with a few taps. By lowering the work it takes to participate, it fundamentally increases the number of people who participate.”
Livestar, which has received $2 million from SV Angel, Ray Ozzie, Peter Chernin, Paul Bucheit and others, doesn’t have a revenue model just yet. But Lanman is quick to imagine the possibilities. He said that Livestar could become a great place for advertisers to offer coupons and discounts because like Google and its AdWords ads, Livestar will be positioned to capture a lot of consumer intent. For example, when Livestar begins offering wine recommendations, a user will be able to look up the wine list at the restaurant they’re at on Livestar and see what the different scores are for the available wine. A winery that is featured at that restaurant could bid on that opportunity and could offer a coupon for their wine. Lanman said Livestar could also integrate with services like OpenTable, Seamless and Fandango and make some money with affiliate fees.
Threat to Google?
I like what Livestar is trying to do and I think it serves a need in the market. Increasingly, my searches for movies and restaurants and other categories are moving to mobile and being conducted when I’m out and about. I like the idea of being able to have one resource to find the best trusted recommendations I can get. Just being able to see professional content in one place is a big plus and if they can get friends reviews to work, which is no small feat, that’s even better.
Focusing on mobile also seems a no-brainer but it’s an important distinction. Many services are getting ported over from the desktop web but they’re still not well optimized for the way mobile and touch work. But mobile services that do a lot of the work ahead of time and make it easy for people to interact using some swipes or touches actually get a lot of engagement. I’m thinking of mobile Q&A service Thumb, formerly Opinionaided, which gets a lot of responses to queries because of its simple response mechanism.
I’m also reminded of Steve Jobs’ prediction that apps will be able to take the place of search engines in many cases and this is a great example of that — which should worry Google. Google has obviously been aware of aggregators being able to siphon off some search traffic, but if more mobile-first commercial search engines emerge like Livestar, which will look across a number of verticals, it puts even more pressure on Google. And it again shows that while an algorithm works for a lot of things, smart curation and social discovery is increasingly a threat that needs to be addressed.