We live in a very interconnected world, such that we are simultaneous on several social networks and can reach each other through multiple channels. We connect with our friends on Facebook, our colleagues on LinkedIn, follow celebrities on Twitter, and contact our family and close friends via text messages and phone calls. Facebook and LinkedIn were originally created as a virtual rolodex of our key contacts. Overtime, because we have so many “friends” and “connections,” it became harder and harder to keep track of events in our friends’ and colleagues’ lives, especially those we see only occasionally.

As business students and future business leaders, we often have face-to-face meetings to catch up on our lives, to network, or jumpstart an important business relationship. Unless we prepared in advance, we usually spend the first 10 minutes in small talks, catching up on recent events and changes, or get to know each other better. Even though such information is readily available from our social networks, we don’t actively seek them out before meetings. A new mobile app aims to make us smarter conversationalists, more charismatic business partners and better friends by leveraging our existing social networks, as well as public information.

Refresh.io is a mobile app that aggregates useful information from our various social networks, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Foursquare, and prepares a personalized dossier with conversation topics before each of our meetings marked in our calendars. This works for existing connections as well as people we are meeting for the first time, given there are public information available either in news or his or her public LinkedIn profile. There are definitely apps that act like social network aggregators, but the brilliance of Refresh is its execution and implementation.

Besides pooling all the relevant professional and personal information in one place, Refresh’s key value proposition is its ability to find commonalities to generate useful, insightful and interesting conversation topics. For example, for each person in the meeting, Refresh compiles a quick summary showing whether we have mutual friends, similar interests, or have overlapped either in cities we live(d) in, schools we attended, or places we visited. It also showcases unique interests or any public news the person has, such as authoring a book, being featured in TechCrunch etc. The app also keeps track of any previous meetings and interactions, again pulling data from our calendars, and prompts the user to enter insights, notes and follow-up items after each meeting. See illustrations below. Refresh’s interface is straightforward, simplistically beautiful, and easy to adopt.

Refreshs creenshots

Refresh launched this April, gained much publicity during the launch, ranked high in the Apple’s App Store, and then seemed to have trouble with growing its user base. Like most mobile apps, Refresh’s initial mobilization strategy is to offer this app to consumers for free. There is no network effect, and the app offers much standalone value by pulling data from our existing social networks. To gain traction, Refresh relied on words-of-mouth marketing and endorsement by online key opinion leaders. Apple featured Refresh as one of its “Best New App” in Productivity, Business and Social Networking! News articles and bloggers’ reviews online are also overwhelming positive. Refresh has been featured in reputable publications such as Forbes, Venture Beat, Wired and TechCrunch, has 4.5+ stars in the App Store, and deemed “one of the most useful apps” by several internet authorities, including the Business Insider. Refresh reached peak rank of #16 in the App Store right after its initial launch in April, but has since then dwindled and plateaued around #300 only six months after its launch. Although there is no public data on Refresh’s active user base, since Apple ranks its apps based on download volume and speed, we can conjecture that Refresh has not garnered a significant user volume, despite its free offerings and many endorsements. If anything, it seems that its user growth has significantly slowed and its user base seems to have plateaued or even decreased over time. Refresh is a great example that simply having a free and high-quality product with a clear and strong customer value proposition is not enough to generate significant user growth.

In the context of slowed user growth, Refresh’s recent pivot to partner with Salesforce makes a lot of sense. Just a couple weeks ago, Refresh announced a new product specifically designed for sales professionals using Saleforce’s AppExchange. Immediately, Refresh multiplied its user base by plugging this new product into Salesforce AppExchange dashboard, thus effectively acquiring Salesforce’s immense user base. More importantly, this partnership established Refresh’s first monetization strategy: Salesforce customers will pay $20 per user per month to access its data. While many consumers like you and me will not pay $20 for a personalized meeting dossier, the value provided to sales and marketing professionals easily justifies this cost for good relationship and conversation can lead to significant revenues. At the same time, Refresh’s mobile app is still available to casual users for free.

The questions facing Refresh now are two fold: should they pivot and focus on a B2B business model, selling to sales and marketing professionals, or should they pursue a dual B2B and B2C business? If they keep their consumer segment, what’s the best way to scale its user base? Should they start advertising, introduce new features with network effects to lock-in users and accelerate growth, or stay with its current organic, word-of-mouth growth strategy with a standalone product? On the B2B side, is $20 per user per month the right price? Would that hinder Refresh’s much needed growth? What other partnerships should Refresh seek beyond Salesforce? Having an excellent product is not enough to become a sustainable business.







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LINE may not be well-known in the US, but it has been exploding in Asia, Middle East and Europe since its launch in 2011. LINE is a messenger app with 300 million users worldwide and its growth is accelerating. The last 100 million users were added in mere 4 months. Some argue that LINE may replace Facebook or Twitter as the most popular social platform. LINE is expected to go public next year with an estimated valuation of over $10bn.

What is LINE?

LINE is somewhat similar to other messaging applications, including WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, or Facebook messenger. LINE allows users to send text, share photos/videos, and make phone calls/video calls to another LINE account(s) for absolutely free.

What’s different is that LINE also has a huge library of “stamps” – a small picture of a character that describes emotion, thoughts, actions, and objects. Stamps act as a way to mimic real human interaction by communicating very subtle points. Some of these stamps are sold for a price (usually $1 for a set of 30 stamps) and LINE shares revenue with its media partners. This has been the major source of revenue ($132M for 2013 Q2) since its launch.

Another difference is that LINE is quickly moving towards platform strategy. The initial version of LINE was only able to handle messaging, but now that LINE is installed in virtually everybody’s smartphone, LINE started to expand its offerings. LINE Mall offers online shopping, LINE Game is consistently topping ITunes rankings, LINE Camera competes against Instagram, and LINE Card is a dominant e-card service in Japan. All these services that be accessed thru LINE application and more and more people are using them.

Birth of LINE and its mobilization strategy

The birth of LINE is somewhat interesting. NAVER Japan, a subsidiary of Korean internet company, was in the midst of developing a photo sharing application when a big earthquake hit Japan in March 11th, 2011. As mobile network was disrupted, people formed lines in front of public phone booth (public phone act as emergency line in Japan and never gets interrupted).  Realizing there is a strong need for efficient and easy communication; the development team switched their focus and started developing messaging application. LINE was launched 3 months after the earthquake.

LINE faced a classic chicken-and-egg problem and tackled to solve the problem in two ways; technical and marketing. LINE has an auto-sync function that allows user’s existing phone book to automatically sync to LINE contact list. Even if I was the only one using LINE, I could still text my friends using LINE (my text would appear as a regular text on their screen). As I don’t have to bother importing phone book to my LINE account, once I started using LINE I had no reason to switch back. Because LINE texting was absolutely free, people quickly switched.

On the marketing front, LINE initially focused on high school girls because they are the ones who often start new trends in Japan. LINE created cute “stamps” that high school girls would love and solicit user feedback very frequently. Once high school girls adopted LINE, it spread to college girls, junior high school girls, boys, 20s, and the rest of the population.  LINE dominated Japanese market in less than a year.

 LINE’s future and competition

 LINE deliberately focused on expansion of its user base and not on monetization strategy. LINE is believed to be already making profit with its stamp and game sales, but the real monetization is expected to come after its IPO. LINE may start selling advertising space like Facebook or open its platform and charge a fee to whoever wants to access its user base.

LINE’s biggest competitors are WeChat (over 1 billion users, mostly in China) and WhatsApp (mostly in the US and Europe). As there is a strong network effect, messaging app is likely to follow the same path of SNS and one or two players will take the dominant positions. Demographic and social trends are in favor of LINE because LINE has a dominant share in Asian markets, where smartphone penetration is expected to skyrocket in the next few years. Whoever comes out as winner will enjoy the similar power as Facebook today.






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As many of you know, I co-founded ActivePepper, a location-based mobile application that helps you find sports partners and sports activities. With ActivePepper, you can find tennis partners, local pick-up basketball games, running or cycling groups, and easily schedule these group activities. ActivePepper is currently available in the App Store. You can go to the ActivePepper platform to search for and join the events that are organized by others. Alternatively, you can create your own sports events and invite your friends or post it as a public event for more exposure.

 The process of ideation, product design and development, building a company and branding has been so thrilling and rewarding. On the other hand, the day-to-day challenges of building a business and the emotional turbulence that everyone talks about might not be so appealing to everyone. I personally love to be challenged, and if things are consistent and easy I can become bored. However, sometimes the scope of decisions and uncertainties in the startup world can become cumbersome.

 If I learned one thing during these past few months is that the “network effect” and the chicken and egg problem that we talked about extensively in the HBS classes are for real….And indeed, it’s a tough problem to solve. In ActivePepper, we actually have that problem to the power of two. Because we not only have to build a network, but also we need to have enough people for each sports, for each skill level, and at each location. Yes, welcome to my world! 😉

 It will probably take time to build such a network, but one thing that excites me is that once we do, we have a significant competitive advantage and high barrier to entry.

 Similar to Safe-Taxi, we are using different mobilization strategies and in the process of exploring various distribution channels. We are utilizing inbound marketing (blogging, social media, infographics), partnerships with sports facilities, collaboration with established local workout groups (e.g. Nike Running Group), and partnership with the colleges’ student organizations (e.g. HBS Running & Triathlon Club). On one hand, considering our limited resources, we are worried about stretching ourselves too thin with tackling all these approaches at the same time. On the other hand, we suspect it would be naive not to take advantage of different strategies and to evaluate which ones will be the most promising.

 As we make strategic decisions, our goal is serving you – our users and supporters!  We would love to hear your thoughts about ActivePepper’s mobilization strategy and see where “you” think we should spend our time and effort. Feel free to comment here with your suggestions.



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