Alex Capecelatro describes himself as a "programmer, designer, builder, and thinker" on At The Pool, the new social network he founded. At The Pool blends elements from Meetup, Match.com and Facebook to connect you like-minded people who love what you love. In the vein of recent social media services like Google+ and Highlight, At The Pool is all about the interest graph, and it enables interest-based connections through "pools," proximity to others, and daily email recommendations.
In this interview, Alex talks about his startup and the unmet need that he wants to solve for, as well as his thoughts on social network growth tactics, Facebook as a platform, becoming an entrepreneur, and more.
"The Internet does a great job at connecting us with our friends and family, but a terrible job at introducing us to new people and getting us offline."
Social Nerdia: At The Pool is a social network described as a "private community for extraordinary people" and a "mashup between Meetup and Match." Where did the idea for the service from, and what's the story behind the name?
Alex Capecelatro: I’m a huge cyclist and runner, an entrepreneur, and a vegetarian. A few years ago I was living upstate New York working on a tech startup in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It was incredibly difficult meeting new people. It wasn’t until I was about to move that I serendipitously met someone at a diner who works in tech, likes to go cycling, and shared a number of my interests. Unfortunately, this was right before I moved to southern California and quickly was in the same situation. Later on I learned one of the Facebook founders lives in the same small town I was in. Why is it so tough to meet like-minded people nearby? I realized the Internet does a great job at connecting us with our friends and family, but a terrible job at introducing us to new people and getting us offline. That's exactly what At The Pool does.
In regard to the name - At The Pool - it works for a couple of reasons. First, it's very social and very fun; easily memorable and easy to brand. Further, we associate pools as public places to meet friends, hang out, and have a good time. Pools are also symbolic because we have pools for clubs and pools for private parties, pools for communities and pools for the public. With At The Pool, we launch specific pools for pre-existing communities. So if you join the Hiking Pool, you'll meet hikers. The foodies pool is to meet foodies. Etc.
Social Nerdia: As an At The Pool user, the first piece of information I was asked for was my zip code. Why is location such a key element for At The Pool? Is the focus on connecting with people in our local areas or also when we're out of town?
Alex Capecelatro: Our goal is to introduce you to the right people and help you get offline. Unlike traditional social networks, we're trying to improve your "real life" experience, and proximity is a huge factor when meeting with someone new. We use zip code to triangulate distance between you and other members, so we can provide nearby matches. That said, we just launched our mobile site, which asks for your current position. The accuracy of GPS enabled devices will enable more hyper-local matching as well as on-the-go and instant matching.
Social Nerdia: "Pools" such as the "TechCrunch Pool" and "The Next Web Pool" seem to set the tone for a personalized experience. Are "pools" the core element of the experience or just a way to get people to get started?
Alex Capecelatro: Intent is a very important element when meeting someone new. If you're both readers of TechCrunch, for example, you're likely to be into startups and will find it easy to build rapport. We're working on launching more local pools, for example with a group called Digital LA here in LA, or Shifting Gears, which respectively are communities of digital / entertainment professionals and cyclists. By joining pools, you explicitly state you want to meet those people, which makes the matching process much stronger.
Social Nerdia: In a social media world dominated by big players, smaller and niche social networks, even those that have received plenty attention from Silicon Valley often have difficulty growing beyond a certain point. What is your vision for the service and what are you doing to grow post-launch?
Alex Capecelatro: Traditionally, social networks provide very little value beyond entertainment. The value that we provide is in helping you meet real people, offline, in the real world. As such, we are working with organizations interested in getting their members to meet and congregate. We're talking about universities, affinity groups, non-profits, etc. By launching and partnering with these pre-existing communities, we have a very different marketing strategy when compared to the typical "hope for viral growth" strategy you often see. As such, our vision is to continue to partner with organizations both large and small, and to make it easy to meet the kind of people you want to meet.
Social Nerdia: What have you learned from some of the growth tactics used by pioneering social media sites like Digg (ie. Kevin Rose talking about Digg on The Screensavers), Twitter (ie. Celebrity craze) and Reddit (ie. fake users galore)?
Alex Capecelatro: When you really analyze these social platforms, you realize there's a huge "luck" component in making it big. Traditionally, consumer products need to release at the right time, in the right market, with the right user experience and the right perceived value proposition. You can't always orchestrate that and you can't always plan for that. That said, if you see a large need that is being unmet by the market and you make a product that people love, all the pieces come together, as we've seen with At The Pool.
Social Nerdia: At The Pool requires one to have a Facebook account. How are you leveraging Facebook as a platform?
Alex Capecelatro: The Facebook connection is important for a number of reasons. First, it allows us to validate a member's age (must be over 18 to use the site). Second, it allows us to explore and map around mutual friends, which is important when fostering new relationships. And third, it makes the profile creation process easier by pulling photos and information. That said, Facebook's interest graph is a very weak way to connect people together (we tend to "like" things that don't necessarily correlate to any real passion). Through interests, pools, and activities on our site, we're able to connect people in a very strong way, around the interests that actually matter.
Social Nerdia: The web is increasingly going mobile. What can we expect from At The Pool's mobile experience in the future?
Alex Capecelatro: Just this week we released a mobile version of At The Pool. For now it's a mobile optimized site, which makes it easy to be on all platforms right away. That said, we'll be deploying an iOS app and then Android in the near future. Mobile is important for connecting locally and fostering continued conversations throughout the day. That said, the web presence is still incredibly important when building relationships, fostering trust, and connecting on a more intimate level.
Social Nerdia: Unlike other services and apps that launch without much visual appeal, At The Pool seems to have a strong sense of design and creative direction. Why is this and how are you executing so well (in my opinion) from the very beginning?
Alex Capecelatro: Design has always been paramount to my thinking when it comes to delivering a great product with strong emotional appeal. Prior to launching At The Pool, I was in the design department at Fisker Automotive, and prior to that ran a small graphic design company. With At The Pool, it was incredibly important that we make a comfortable, social experience, that encourages messaging and openness. As such, we have almost as many designers involved as we have developers, and we prioritize product decisions around both engineering efficiency as well as visual aesthetic.
Social Nerdia: As a marketer, I simply have to ask you: What kind of partnership / advertising opportunities are you exploring and what are your thoughts on brands becoming part of At The Pool?
Alex Capecelatro: Our plan is to roll out brand specific pools for brands who want to connect with their fans and engage in a new way. Unlike Facebook pages which are essentially a one-way broadcasting mechanism to the consumers, our goal is to offer an easy and convenient method to connect the members. So for example, as we would launch a pool for UCLA to connect their students, we would launch a pool for Starbucks to connect their members (and encourage them to meet at a local Starbucks).
Social Nerdia: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Alex Capecelatro: Do it for the right reasons. I meet far too many entrepreneurs looking to get rich fast or become famous. Rarely do those entrepreneurs succeed. If you're doing something you genuinely believe in, and you work hard and you never sacrifice, success is merely a by-product. So follow your passion. If you love animals, do something with animals. If you love sports, do something with sports. But never sacrifice your passion.