Ever Wish You Knew Your Twitter Friends’ Birthdays? Meet @SamBensalem: The Entrepreneur Who Heard Your Wish

13 Feb 2011 in Interviews

THE BACKGROUND

Around 2005, Sam Bensalem dropped out of college to pursue his dreams as an entrepreneur. After becoming frustrated looking for a developer, he took up the challenge of teaching himself how to code. Today, he is the Founder of VeVite – a startup that notifies its users when anyone that they are following on Twitter has a birthday coming up.

Last year, Sam started VeVite to make it easier to host events and invite people from your Twitter social graph to that event. However, he ran into a problem that he details below in my interview. Since he had built a fairly robust back end to deal with Twitter, Sam decided to use most of the same resources to start indexing Twitter users’ birthdays. The move was to make a Facebook-style birthday notification feature. Now, VeVite users get alerts to upcoming birthdays of the people that they are following on Twitter.

I met Sam at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference last year in NYC while we were both volunteering. At the time, he let me play around with his iPad; so the guy is clearly ‘the man’. You can read more about him here on his LinkedIn. As an aspiring entrepreneur who is currently ‘non-technical’ from the sense that I cannot code, I think there are some cool things to learn from his story.

Below is my interview with him.

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THE INTERVIEW

Who is Sam Bensalem? How did you get your start as entrepreneur?

Like most entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship is in my blood. I’ve been interested in business for as long as I can remember. Lemonade stands, washing cars, the whole bit. After dropping out of Rutgers, I decided to pursue some ideas. Early on I ran into a classic problem that a lot of business guys run into when pursing a web startup: I couldn’t find a developer. So after flailing around hopelessly for a while, I thought to myself ‘F#@K those guys, I will do it myself’. Eight books and several months later, I was a web entrepreneur.

What is your vision for VeVite, and can you tell me the story of what lead you to start it? Also, has the concept of VeVite changed since you first launched it, and if so, how?

My vision for VeVite is to become the de facto destination for birthday alerts. VeVite started off as a simple project – a way to create an event and invite your twitter friends to that event. However, while developing VeVite I ran into a fairly big problem [editor's note: a problem that TechCrunch explained here: "VeVite Taps Into Twitter For Event Invitations"].

Twitter limits the number of Direct Messages per user to 250 per day; which turned out to be a bigger problem than I anticipated. So like any good, lazy entrepreneur, I started looking for a way to utilize the back end I had already built and refocus the product. Birthdays seemed like a logical next step. Like events, it was another feature Facebook had that Twitter didn’t.

It only took me a couple days to add birthday alerts to VeVite. I could have launched the service back in March but I would have run into the chicken and egg problem. Who would use a service with no user birthdays? The service would have provided no value for early adopters. So back in March I started indexing birthdays from the Twitter stream. Ten months later, VeVite has already indexed nearly 2.5 million user birthdays.

(Long question) Last April, Twitter investor Fred Wilson advised developers that it was time to build “killer applications” since “much of the early work on the Twitter Platform has been filling holes in the Twitter product.” Then in December, Mark Suster said in a post he wrote on TechCrunch that “18 months ago, 25% of all pitches to me were ideas for how to build products around Twitter’s API. Now I don’t get any. Not one.” Do you see yourself similarly shifting focus to developing apps for a different platform (i.e. uh-hem, Facebook), or are you dedicated to building on top of Twitter?

I often ask myself the same thing. Why should I build on top of the Twitter platform just to have them pull the rug out from underneath me? The answer is to build the right things. Rather than building services dependent on Twitter or Facebook, developers should leverage their assets to work for you. So in the case of VeVite, I’m leveraging the Twitter social graph to save myself and my users the headache of having to reestablish their social graph on yet another site. This also drastically increases your chances of success by removing a lot of the user sign-up friction. A new user can get up and running in a few seconds.

That being said, once you have acquired a new user you should try and establish a direct connection with the user. For example, when a new user logs into VeVite they are prompted to enter their email address. By having direct link to my users I am no longer subservient to Twitter. I can contact my users directly and users can login to VeVite without Twitter if need be.

What advice would you give other developers out there who have an idea for a startup but are busy with school or a full-time job and don’t know how to make the leap of faith?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice to other entrepreneurs-to-be as I have yet to prove myself. However, I would say that if you want it bad enough, you will find a way. It’s easy to make excuses, but no one cares. No one is going to cut you a break if you have a full time job or you’re a poor student working your way through college. Sometimes you are your own biggest challenge. Be like Nike – Just Do It.

Most importantly, you have to enjoy the process. You have to love staying up till 6am hustling. You have to lust for seeing your name on TechCrunch. Because in all likelihood, you will not succeed. For every Larry Page, there are 1,000s that did not make it. You have to go in with the mindset that if you fail, it doesn’t matter. You’re doing this because you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.

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Many thanks to Sam for doing the interview! I’d love to hear what you think in the comments. If you could give Sam one piece of feedback about VeVite, what would it be?