Most of you know me as the founder of New Energy Finance, which I founded in 2004 and sold to Bloomberg in 2009. I still spend most of my professional time working on issues relating to clean energy and climate, when I’m not doing pro bono work or attending Transport for London board meetings.
Yet for the last 18 months I have been spending up to a day a week incubating a business called Pearlshare – recruiting a very talented team, raising finance and working with them to create what we believe will be a major new mobile utility. This week sees the friends and family launch of our iPhone app. We tested an alpha version extensively last year, and this version embodies a huge amount of learning and work.
So what is Pearlshare and why did I feel the need to create it?
Whether we are booking a holiday or selecting a book, what we want most is a recommendation from a friend. Someone we see as a trusted, independent source. It’s not just that our friends know our tastes – it’s also fun: a big part of our social interaction is around recommending stuff to our friends, listening to their recommendations in return, and discussing our shared experiences. It is what makes us human.
The paradox is that when it actually comes to booking a trip or buying something online, we all end up relying on reviews by complete strangers on sites such as Tripadvisor, Yelp or Amazon. Why? Because they are convenient.
The strangers who leave reviews don’t know us. They don’t know what we are looking for. They are motivated by their need to be heard, not your need for information. They may be friends of the owner. They may be getting even. Worse than that, they may not even exist: it is the travel industry’s dirty secret that there is a whole industry selling fake reviews. The review sites say they try to block the Mechanical Turks and sock puppets, but the sock puppets become ever more sophisticated. It’s an arms race in which the only loser is the reader who relies on public reviews.
What is needed is a simple way of sharing recommendations with friends. It needs to help you find recommendations when you need them; it needs to help you store recommendations if you receive them when you aren’t looking; it needs to be available on all platforms; it needs to allow you to discuss stuff, so you can get back to the recommender with questions; and it needs to be fun, because no one wants to waste their time maintaining databases.
Above all, the perfect app must really help you to get more out of life – to visit cooler places, find better bars, drink better wine, read better books and so on – and to sharing these great experiences with your friends.
So why did I decide to go out there and build Pearlshare myself? In part because I love technology and I love start-ups. In part it’s an itch I have to scratch: before I founded New Energy Finance I was deeply implicated in the dot-com boom-bust; although I worked on some great companies, many of which ended up successful, I myself was notably unsuccessful. Mainly, however, it is because Pearlshare is the app I want to use, but could never find!
I spend more time than most travelling. Time and again I have come across really delightful places, magical places, places I want my friends to visit and enjoy. I want to remember them and pass them on to those who are going to visit them. I want to create quick guides to London so I am not repeatedly having to put together to do lists for out-of-town visitors.
And in turn I want a quick and easy way of saving recommendations from friends for stuff I want to do. When I go to a conference, I want to know what else I should do nearby. I am sick of getting back from a trip and only then being told about the secret beach, or the best hotel, or the magical museum.
I don’t believe I am that unusual in wanting a platform to share recommendations with friends. I am sure there are millions of people with the same problem – for all I know there may be hundreds of millions.
I have tried old school technologies like spreadsheets, maintaining draft emails and phone notes, and new school services like Evernote, Google Places, Foursquare and Yelp. None of them cut it. Text notes have limited functionality and are clunky to maintain. Review sites don’t help you get recommendations from friends. Facebook connects you with friends, but sprays around “likes” with no real way of managing them. Over the past few years there have been literally scores of start-ups targeting the space, but none of them seem to have thought deeply about the problem, or their execution has been desperately poor.
Creating the definitive platform for social recommendations may be one of the last big mobile opportunities. If Pearlshare succeeds, we will be wealthy beyond imagination. More importantly, however, we will have helped a lot of people to get a lot more out of life, and to share more experiences with their friends.
Perhaps not as public-spirited as driving the uptake of clean energy and saving the world from the ravages of climate change, but a goal worth aspiring to nevertheless.
We are very keen to get feedback on Pearlshare. iPhone and iPad users can download Pearlshare right now from the iTunes app store: https://itunes.apple.com/app/pearlshare/id865206926