I met Liron Shapira at last month’s C2SV conference where he sat on a panel discussing apps and the future of search. Liron is cofounder and CTO of Mountain View’s own Quixey, who are well on their way to becoming THE search engine for apps. Earlier this month, Quixey had a $50 million financing round led by China’s Alibaba Group. Just last week, they announced the release of their first user-facing app, allowing users to search for apps by descriptions rather than app title.
Quixey’s rise as a startup is on the international radar, but WE sat down with Liron to learn more about his love of improv, giving to charity in Mountain View, and to discuss the audacity of search.
What brings you to Mountain View?
Quixey technically, before this I was in Palo Alto, before that Sunnyvale, and San Francisco. I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life, so, Mountain View specifically because we got a great space, right across the street from you (Teleki Design).
Tell me about important moments in your life that led you to where you are now.
Well, my whole life has followed the path of a Silicon Valley archetype. I was born in Israel and moved to the Bay Area when I was 4. I was programming since I was 9 years old. I had a computer in my room and I discovered that it had HyperCard, which is like an old-school version of PowerPoint… a cross between PowerPoint and programming on the web, I guess. It’s pretty cool. I was running scripts on that. I loved using my computer, I was kind of addicted to it. Then, I learned about programming in BASIC from a library book. I started writing a bunch of BASIC programs just for fun.
In college, I studied computer science at UC Berkeley (Go Bears). I got my first job at Slide before I even graduated college. They offered me an internship my 3rd year working on social games. I worked on SuperPoke! and SuperPoke! Pets.
Then, THE big moment was when my good friend Tomer Kagan, co-founder and CEO of Quixey contacted me. At that time, he had been my good friend for 10 years. In fact, I’d worked for him at his other company. He’s a serial entrepreneur. He called me up and told me he was doing a new startup. We didn’t have a name at the time. He just told me he wanted to create a way for people to find apps because there are so many apps out there. As soon as he told me that, I thought right off the bat, “If you are serious about this, then I want to go join you.” I had been interested in startups for a while, but before this I wasn’t ready for it because I didn’t have the business skills. Over time, I became more and more serious about this, so I quit my job and joined Tomer. That was 4 years ago.
And here we are today right across the street in downtown Mountain View. We were in the New York Times a few weeks ago for a round of funding led by Alibaba for $50 million.
Yeah, thank you. That’s probably the biggest news in the history of the company so far.
How do you, as the Chief Technology Officer of Quixey, stay in the headspace of CTO vs. programmer hunched over at a computer?
It’s a tricky balance. CTO is an underspecified job and there are a lot of ways to do it well and there are a lot of legitimate ways to strike a balance. My own balance is, I’m very big on the technical vision side. I think it’s REALLY important to look at the big picture, and by big picture I mean, not is iOS or Android going to win, but even bigger. More like, are apps in general going to continue to be a big deal? Yes. Are things going to be more like an open web, or more like a walled garden? We’re betting on an open web. I think it’s really important to stay on the technical vision side and to be able to communicate this vision to the outside. Of course, it’s still important to create a roadmap for our engineers, and even occasionally, write a bunch of code. BUT the only way I’ve ever been able to balance writing a bunch of code is to, say, set aside a whole week at a time to do it. The truth is, when you write code, you get sucked into these rabbit holes. “Oh, here’s an unexpected bug and it took 4 hours to fix. I didn’t expect that.” So, if I’ve got a calendar full of meetings, there is no way to mesh those two together. You can’t just go code for 20 minutes and then get interrupted.
When I saw you at C2SV you spoke about “search for apps” and having been involved personally with search on dozens of projects. It’s as if you are redefining what “search” is. Please, explain.
So, redefining is a bit extreme because there are a lot of things in the original definition of “search” that we think are valuable to keep. In particular, if you look at how search worked in what I call the Golden Age of Search, maybe 1997 – 2007, there’s this model where you go to your search engine, probably Google, and you type some query and they’d show you some links and take you to ANOTHER site that wasn’t owned by Google. In this Golden Age of Search there was this humility to it, where the job of the search engine was to, as quickly as possible, get out of the way and connect you to a 3rd party. In an age where everyone was going after page views and trying to get as many eyeballs on their own site as possible, Google had this humility where they would try to send you off and get out of the way. We at Quixey think that the Golden Age of Search in a number of ways hasn’t even arrived yet. For example, there is no search bar on your phone that takes you to all the different destinations on your phone. Right now it’s a painstaking process where you have to manually locate the app, find it on your home screen, maybe you can’t remember what it’s called, so you go to Google Play store or iTunes App Store or the Apps for Windows store then download the app and start using it there. The whole process of launching an app today, it’s almost like the web before the very first search engine, when you had to depend on your bookmarks, when you had to guess at the name of a dot com in your location bar. We are so far backwards with apps, we don’t need a redefinition of search. We need the Golden Age of Search for apps. This we are creating at Quixey.
In the future, 6 months from now, 1 year from now, etc., do you see Quixey living along side Google? It seems like you are taking on Google by creating your own search engine.
Well, Google has taken the company in a different direction. What they were during the Golden Age is not what they are now. Not on the web, and especially not on mobile. For example, the Google Play store features the operating system they are pushing. Google is not happy if you are using an iPhone, or a Windows phone or a Blackberry, they want you to use Android. They want you to use their store, they don’t force you, but they “encourage” you to use their store where they have curated all the apps and categorized them for you. Google is becoming more of a portal. They are building their own ecosystem. They are becoming what Yahoo was in the 90s.
Another example is the Google Now search bar. Once again, it’s becoming like a portal. If you do a search for travel, say, SFO to JFK, it’s not like the old days where, here’s JetBlue, here’s Kayak. Instead, the results you get are powered by Google Flights, and you should book and Google will take a cut. They are leaving an obvious gap for a company like Quixey to treat the world of apps like the Open Web. Not a walled garden, not a portal where we want Quixey to power your flight, your movies, or your local restaurant findings. We don’t want Quixey to power anything except your entry into these 3rd party apps.
If you do a search on Google and then Google shows you options on Google-owned web properties, does this seem like a monopoly or raise any antitrust concerns?
That’s very interesting. Now that you mention it, there is almost no discussion of Google having a potential monopoly. I hear no discussion of any antitrust against Google. On the legal side, I don’t have a particularly knowledgeable opinion about whether Google is breaking any antitrust laws or not.
For me, it’s enough to think of it this way. Why should one company try to become a portal to everything, instead of letting the open web expand in the background? We’ve already seen this with Yahoo. Yahoo used to be a directory where you’d go to find a 3rd party site, but then it became “Oh, stay on Yahoo, go to Yahoo Movies, go to Yahoo Local.” By doing this, they left a huge gap for Google to come in and take over. So, maybe what Google is doing is antitrust, maybe not, but either way they are hurting the user by showing all their products first above, say Yelp’s product, above Kayak’s product, above every 3rd party product. Even if it’s not antitrust, it hurts the user.
What difficulties do you encounter selling the Quixey product to your customers?
Well, we’ve done very well, so it hasn’t been as difficult as we had feared. When we ask people if they are happy with their level of exposure to the 30,000 apps a month being published in the app store, most people admit they are not harnessing the potential of their phone. So then I’ll ask, “If you were aware of all this amazing functionality that’s being pumped into the app stores, if you took the time to study it, wouldn’t you find yourself using it more?” They say yes, but don’t want to take the time to study it. That’s where Quixey can help.
To clarify, app developers are our customers, and people searching for apps are our users. From a users’ perspective, they say, “I can’t find the app I need.” From the customer’s perspective, developers say, “I can’t find my users. I know there are people out there who would benefit from using my app, but there is no good search channel out there to find it.” That’s where Quixey comes in. The Quixey network is becoming the best way to connect developers and users of apps.
Is Quixey an app to find other apps or is it a search engine? Tell me how should I think about Quixey.
Quixey is fundamentally a search engine that provides an app search experience. As of right now,* we do many partner integrations with Ask.com, Sprint, and others. For example, if you buy a phone at a Sprint dealer the phone comes with a Quixey search bar. But, you don’t have to change your behavior as a user to use Quixey because it operates behind the scenes. Now, that being said, we are always developing new functionality that we test on our own destination site first. And we have some other big projects that are in development right now too. A big part of that is rigorous user experience testing and we advise other partners on our findings.
Liron, in your company bio, you talk about improvisational theater. Tell me how improv fits in with what you do at Quixey.
I really like improv as a hobby. We’ve done a bunch of improv at the Quixey office for fun. Just last Sunday night, there was an improv session. I think improv is great as a way of life, if you get used to doing it a bunch, there is a mindset where awesome, hilarious stuff can randomly happen, you know, like in any conversation. I actually find that a good conversation feels like an improv scene where you are going off of what the other person says. Also, the book Impro by Keith Johnstone really opened my eyes. Reading that book made me feel like I was handed the owner’s manual to my imagination.
Mountain View is exploding with growth faster than it can keep up. Do you, Liron, have any thoughts on the evolving personality of the downtown? What do you want to see more of? Tell me your thoughts.
I personally think downtown Mountain View is really unique. It’s one of those places where you can go to any restaurant or coffee shop and overhear the conversation at the next table. It’s all about start-ups or raising money or getting your product out or getting the design right. And you are talking about the same thing, so you join in. This is all over downtown these days. It’s amazing.
We really like being on Castro Street. I think we are the only street level startup right now. We are where the Kitchens by Meyer store used to be. There is still an escalator and our company kitchen is the old Meyer display kitchen. It’s really cool. We at Quixey feel it’s really important for us to be good citizens of Mountain View. For example, we are doing a charity drive where we are partnering with Ava’s Downtown Market to help the needy on Thanksgiving. We also have a really big project in the works to help Castro Street. Unfortunately it’s too early for me to go into any detail about that. If you wait a couple of months, you’ll see we are really doing something nice for this community.
*since this interview, Quixey released it’s first consumer-facing app, available for Android.