If you've gone to a birthday party in the past 15 years, you probably have Al Lieb to thank.
Lieb was fresh out of Stanford in 1998 when he cofounded Evite, which forever changed the way people invite others to parties by putting the process online. Lieb also had a hand in launching Expedia (as a Microsoft intern) and OpenTable (as an adviser to founder Chuck Templeton), but his latest startup is squarely in the enterprise space.
San Francisco-based ClearSlide combines presentation software (think PowerPoint) with videoconferencing and other online tools to help salespeople communicate with clients and prospects. Lieb recently sat for an interview with this newspaper; here's an edited transcript.
Q: You originally conceived of Evite as a product for business people to manage their calendars and meetings -- which makes ClearSlide something of a return to your roots. How and why did you pivot Evite into a consumer company?
A: As an undergraduate at Stanford, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I'd started some businesses when I was a teenager (like a T-shirt design company and a shareware product), and I had the startup bug. Stanford offered some interesting programs to foster entrepreneurship, and I was excited to get cranking.
When I graduated in 1997, the Internet had just reached the collective mainstream. (Evite co-founder) Selina Tobaccowala and I started rapidly iterating on ideas. At one point we had five different products between the two of us, all in different spaces. When we launched, online calendars were momentarily popular. We thought the Web was better geared to communication, and so we launched Evite after a few days of initial development.
We started small; the site was initially running on my desktop, so when I rebooted, the whole site would go down for a few minutes. We started by inviting one friend for a soccer game, and it really spread virally -- before viral marketing was a common (term). What started off among a few friends quickly grew to a few hundred users, then a few thousand, then millions. We saw what was happening, understood the dynamics, and it skyrocketed from there.
Q: Evite, like a lot of companies launched in the late '90s, struggled to stay aloft when the dot-com bubble burst. You went through layoffs, and you ultimately had to sell the company. Was that difficult?
A: That was a tough time for most Internet companies, Evite included. The market dynamics changed quickly, and we ultimately decided to sell to (Ticketmaster parent) IAC in 2001.
It was a challenging phase, and we were making hard decisions to balance the needs of our users, customers, employees and investors.
Q: Unlike a lot of companies launched in the late '90s, Evite is still around. How does that make you feel?
A: It does feel rewarding -- and even a bit baffling -- that Evite is still trucking along, even without having changed much, when so few sites from that era are still alive. It speaks to how quickly everything can change in technology.
Q: You then started a Web development company called Innovive that's developed consumer sites like Gifts.com. After a decade-plus of consumer apps, why finally launch an enterprise startup?
A: We founded ClearSlide somewhat by accident. I was working with my co-founder Jim Benton on a different startup idea in the media space. We were pitching a bunch of ad agencies, and we were frustrated that no existing solution let us pitch the way we wanted to. We needed something that would present more dynamically and give us insight into how our potential clients were using the content we sent to them.
So we coded up the first version of what would eventually become ClearSlide and started using that instead. It became clear very quickly that people were much more interested in how we were pitching than in what we were actually trying to sell. And when we looked at the sales space, we found that there's been much more investment in the back-office side of sales (CRM, etc.) than on what salespeople use to communicate.
Q: You're sort of a mashup of PowerPoint, GoToMeeting and Salesforce, right?
A: Well, not exactly. Sometimes we get compared to existing products, because people aren't yet used to thinking of this separate space that's focused on sales communication.
ClearSlide is a sales platform that gives professionals and sales leaders an end-to-end experience in all of their interactions with clients and potential customers -- whether they're on the phone, in person or sending email. It's a Web application designed to help our clients enhance their communication.
One of the most important areas of our platform is the deep, real-time analytics that we offer sales managers. By giving them insight into their teams' activities and a look into how their top performers are closing more business, we empower them to coach their teams to greater success.
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
Current job: CEO, ClearSlide
Previous jobs: Co-founder and chief technology officer, Evite; founder, Innovive Technologies
Education: Bachelor's degree in computer science, Stanford University
Residence: Mill Valley
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT AL LIEB
1. He started coding at age 12, when he wanted to make 7th grade prime-number factoring homework faster.
2. He surfs once a week, mostly at Ocean Beach and Pacifica.
3. He once swam 12 miles in four hours (in a pool -- no current).
4. He's still the proud owner of a vintage, 2001 Isuzu Rodeo Sport.
5. His wife is from Ghana, and he knows at least a little bit of the Twi language.