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The History of FanBox.com
Many people have asked how FanBox was started; by whom; and what are the motivations of the FanBox team.
Using this blog, I will do my best to bring you the FanBox story - by interviewing FanBox employees - both current and past employees.
If you work (or previously worked) at FanBox, please
send me your stories, photos or videos -- and I will do
my best to assemble them into their correct chapter.
As I progress, I will continually add more chapters over the coming weeks and months -- and go back to edit previous chapters -- until we have the full story of the Good, the Bad, and Everything In-Between.
FanBox was started here in a 3-bedroom condo (apartment #402) in San Diego, California:
It was started in a residential condo (instead of an office building) because the company had no money and wanted to keep the costs very, very low.
Everyone knew that if they wanted to eventually be able to give money back to the community users and their chosen charitable causes, they would need to keep the company private and out of the control of profit-seeking investors.
This condo was owned by one of the employees, so they didn't have to pay rent.
The company had no money, and could pay no salaries or give employees any benefits -- for years.
Here's Greg, who departed a company called mp3.com to take on the company's marketing responsibilities:
Amanda was one of the very first engineers, and quickly got a reputation as someone who could do technical magic:
Amanda, like the other FanBox engineers, was amazingly talented and intelligent.
FanBox was an extremely difficult place to work if you were not simply the best at what you did, because -- due to the lack of resources -- you had to figure out how to get a lot done each day -- usually as much as what 5 or even 10 "normal" engineers could accomplish in a day.
Every single person that lasted more than a short period of time at FanBox, had at least the following three (3) things in common:
1) They were extremely intelligent, and world-class excellent at their craft.
For example, Amanda had previously achieved a perfect SAT Score (ZERO wrong answers) -- it was discovered years into her employment at FanBox -- a fact that she had not volunteered up herself.
In another chapter, I will detail some of the technologies that these same people invented -- some of which are things that you are using today -- each and every day -- not just on FanBox but virtually everywhere on the Web.
When I get to writing that chapter, you will be amazed that you didn't already know that many of the things that you use every day (on Facebook, Yahoo, Google and other web sites) were actually invented by FanBox employees -- and to prove it, the United States Patent Office recently awarded a series of official patents to FanBox for these inventions.
I promise to add another chapter (post), titled "FanBox Inventions", soon.
2) They were extremely confident in their capabilities, and believed that they not only could but had a responsibility to do something really big with their lives.
To survive under those difficult conditions (for more than a short period of time) they simply had to be driven by a higher purpose. FanBox's mission provided them that exact purpose. I will detail that purpose for you in the next chapter (post) of this blog.
When you're going after a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal), you are put to the test daily and you are constantly working under severe stress and pressure.
To add to that, your friends, family and loved ones are constantly and openly questioning your judgment -- for working double-long days -- for zero pay -- when you could easily be bringing home $100,000 or more per year.
So, one big part of the challenge was silencing "the noise from the naysayers", many of which went out of their way on a daily basis to remind you that this mission has never been accomplished before; that you were crazy for attempting it; and that the sooner you stopped wasting your life chasing this mission, the better off you would be.
To be able to stay focused and achieve the near-miracles that you needed to accomplish almost daily -- often needing to literally invent groundbreaking technologies seemingly out of thin-air to accomplish a task -- despite all the difficulties, mental obstacles, and challenges you faced -- you simply needed to be operating at a higher level of purpose than most people.
3) They were down-to-earth and humble.
At FanBox, there's simply no room for arrogance or self-promoting.
When your brain is focused fully on a big purpose and you see a path towards that purpose, you simply don't care about short-term gratification, flashiness, big talkers, showing off or being full of yourself.
Under those difficult conditions, they were simply trying to keep their minds focused on the positive and make it through to the next day -- without breaking an important piece of software or having a nervous breakdown themselves -- knowing that the other amazing people -- that were also making huge sacrifices like they were -- were counting on them to come through with their piece of the complex puzzle.
Arrogant people were humbled very quickly by the sheer weight of the challenges they faced starting on Day 1 of their employment, and after just a week or two at FanBox either became quite down-to-earth under the weight of their challenges --- or rapidly quit and/or disappeared.
The survivors - the ones that were still around for a year or more after they started -- all shared the same characteristics of being amongst the best in the industry at their profession and skills; were noticeably similar in their deep humility; and shared the same sense of purpose and belief that they were going to succeed in helping make the world a better place.
Little by little, word got out to the local community about FanBox and its mission.
Many people applied to work at the company -- ALL FOR NO PAY -- but for a chance to make a difference.
Here's one of the bedrooms at the condo:
The kitchen was in bad shape:
The bathroom was in bad shape too:
But somehow, people didn't seem to care.
People left Yahoo to work at FanBox. They left Microsoft, Qualcomm, Price Waterhouse, and Genentech. They left Creative Labs, College Club and Google.
People came from all over the state of California to work at "The Condo" -- leaving their $100,000 to $300,000 per year annual salaries -- knowing full well that there was no paycheck; the working space was cramped and tight; and that work days were very long:
The typical day started before 8am and didn't end until after Midnight -- six (6) and sometimes seven (7) days a week.
Every night, the engineers took turns making sure the web site stayed up during the night, so people often took a nap under their desks during the night:
Monitors on the kitchen shelf showed important stats and numbers; flashing when a computer or server went down or was having an issue:
Due to the lack of space, interviews only happened in the fire escape stairwell, so everyone hoped it didn't rain (but sometimes it rained and interviewees got wet):
Company meetings had to happen outside. When the weather was good, the beach made for a soft place to sit and a fun place to meet:
There was only enough room in the condo for 35 employees, so to bring on a new employee (with a desparetely-needed skill) someone had to be asked to leave.
This was particularly hard because everyone worked very hard, for long hours and no pay, so asking someone to leave the company was one of the most difficult things to do.
The 35th person had to put a piece of glass on the sink in the bathroom, and get his/her work done from there:
Eventually, the product began to come together, and the company started to generate revenues.
An important day:
Here's everyone showing off their very first "Paycheck" -- $100 for each employee. By now, many of the employees had been working for no pay and under these conditions for 2 or 3 years:
Those paychecks grew by $100 a month, until eventually everyone had a normal -- but small -- monthly paycheck.
One day, the city of San Diego discovered that the company was operating a business in this residential area, and put a "Cease and Desist" (order to vacate the premises) on the condo door -- ordering the business to leave in 24 hours.
The company would be forced to shut down, as it had no money to secure an office.
Coincidentally, that very same day -- only 3 hours after the notice from the city, the company received, in the mail, an unexpected check (for $20,000) from Sony Corporation -- paid in advance for advertising -- making it possible for the company to pay the deposit for an office ($19,975).
This coincidence continues to puzzle everyone, as the company had never made a penny from advertising before this, and had not served even one advertisement for Sony (or any other company, for that matter) and had only asked Sony (and been rejected) for an ad sale many months before.
The very next day, everyone stopped what they were doing and helped move desks, computers and everything else to the new office:
Notice the "SMS.ac" stickers and logo on the office door. SMS.ac is the official (corporate) name for FanBox. The company now had the office space it needed to grow beyond 35 employees:
And it grew quickly - even though paychecks were still at only a few hundred dollars per month per employee -- about 10% of their "market rates".
Here, the company is celebrating an important product launch:
In this photo, Pradeep Menon, the company's first head of product, is standing in the front with a white shirt and his hand crossing his chest.
Earlier this year (2011) "dEEp" -- as they all called him -- slipped and fell, banged his head, and passed away within a few hours -- at the young age of 31.
His funeral was a chance for everyone to get together to honor him and his accomplishments; and also remind each other of how short life is and how quickly it can be taken away; and how important relationships become between people that set out to do something challenging and difficult together.
As the company grew, it stayed focused on its mission, and although typical work hours still averaged around 16 hours a day, everyone often took the opportunity to have a laugh with their comrades.
Most people that have worked at FanBox can claim that some of their very best friends, to this day, are people that they met at FanBox and shared the same "brain-expanding, learning, goal-chasing, hard-working, fun, challenging, tiring, purpose-driven, emotional, difficult, exhilarating, scary, high-acheiving, growth-filled, sleep-deprived" experience.
Here's some of the FanBox staff taking a moment to have some fun at the holiday gift exchange party:
In the next chapter, let's explore what it was that motivated the employees of FanBox to take on those challenges -- and sacrifice as much as they did: The purpose and reason behind FanBox.
Understanding FanBox's Purpose, part 1:
The Knowledge Revolution
Around 100 years ago, 90% of people earned their living by getting things out of the ground or out of machines -- or, transporting those things from one place to another.
In other words, almost everyone performed one of these three (3) activities:
Growing things (agriculture):
Making things (manufacturing):
Or moving things (transportation):
The others -- less than10% of people -- made their living as “Knowledge Workers”.
Knowledge Workers were people like doctors…
– and they earned their pay by selling their knowledge to their customers (their clients or employers).
Throughout the last century and a half, technologies were invented that made farmers and factory workers more efficient.
Those technologies included electricity…
and the electric motor…
the internal combustion engine….
and new materials, chemicals and fertilizers….
Thanks to these technological inventions, less workers were needed to grow, make and move things, because:
-- Each farmer could grow many times more crops
-- Machines got better and better, so that only one or two workers were needed to operate them
-- Few or even only one worker (a driver) was required to move massive amounts of things using trucks, trains and boats
In other words, technology enabled massive productivity gains for farmers and industrial workers.
Today less than 10% of people grow, make or move things.
The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions were indeed REVOLUTIONS.
As a result, today over 90% of us are Knowledge Workers.
And the Knowledge Revolution has begun.
In the next chapter, we'll look at what enables the Knowledge Revolution: The Knowledge Economy
Understanding FanBox's Purpose, part 2:
The Knowledge Economy
The Knowledge Revolution has started, and now we’re living in the Knowledge Economy.
The Knowledge Economy has two main participants:
1) The Knowledge Worker: The producer of the knowledge; the person that is selling his or her knowledge, and
2) The Knowledge Consumer: the person that is receiving (benefitting from) the knowledge.
Person wanting to get fit
Real Estate Agent
Stand up comedian
Person that likes to laugh
While 90% of us are now Knowledge Workers, virtually all of us are Knowledge Consumers -- consuming many different types of knowledge on a regular basis.
As Knowledge Consumers, we have many choices -- so we're picky and generally only want to consume the very best knowledge.
Therefore, in order to compete for Knowledge Consumers, Knowledge Workers must focus on one type of knowledge work… usually the work:
1) That’s in the most demand
2) Or, that we’re the best at
3) Or, that we enjoy the most
With the way the economy is these days, many people don’t have a job at all.
Therefore, many of us are lucky to simply have a job – any job.
Some of us are even luckier, and get paid to do a job that fits into one of the above categories.
And then some of us are even luckier; we fall into two of the above categories.
Then there’s the lucky few – a tiny percentage of us – that can say that we get paid to do work that fits into all three categories.
As human beings, we spend more of our life focused on our work – more than any other thing we do -- including sleeping.
Therefore, it is a tragedy that most of us don’t get to do the work that we love most.
At FanBox, we are convinced that technology will enable virtually all of us to do the work that we love to do, and be compensated fairly for that work.
In other words, just like new technology enabled most of us to stop working in the soil in order to eat, new technology will also enable us to do the knowledge work that we love to do.
FanBox’s mission is to bring you the building blocks that you need to profit from your passions.
We believe that if we are successful at doing our part in helping make that opportunity a reality for most people, the world will be a much better place.
Our reasoning is that happy, focused people -- that are fairly compensated for what they love to do – are operating at a higher level of existence.
At that level of consciousness, love, compassion and understanding are most easily accessed.
We believe that when the planet hits a certain inflection point -- or percentage of the population that operates at that level – we will have our best chance for survival and continued evolution as a species.
On the flipside, the continued advent of weapons of mass destruction, combined with poverty and religious fanaticism on a global scale, are taking mankind to a place of almost certain destruction.
Thus, the race is on – the clock is ticking and time is of the essence.
Before we can fully understand the solutions that FanBox is working to bring you, let's drill down to identify the specific obstacles that are limiting Knowledge Workers.
We'll do that in the next chapter.
In the meantime, please enjoy some quotes that remind us how getting lost in work we enjoy, can uplift us to a place of higher consciousness.
Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.
James M. Barrie (1860 - 1937)
Real success is finding your lifework in the work that you love.
David McCullough (1933 - )
Get happiness out of your work or you may never know what happiness is.
Elbert Hubbard (1856 - 1915)
You can't rest on your laurels. Your own body of work is yet to come.
Barack Obama (1961 - ), Arizona State Commencement Speech, 2009
My work is a game, a very serious game.
M. C. Escher (1898 - 1972)
When you choose the paradigm of service, it turns everything you do from a job into a gift.
Oprah Winfrey (1954 - ), Stanford Commencement Address, 2008
When you're doing the work you're meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you're getting paid.
Oprah Winfrey (1954 - ), Stanford Commencement Address, 2008
You don't become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.
Randall Munroe, xkcd, Marie Curie, 2011
The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work.
Live neither in the past nor in the future, but let each day's work absorb your entire energies, and satisfy your widest ambition.
Sir William Osler (1849 - 1919), to his students
Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 - 1919), Speech in New York, September 7, 1903
Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.
Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881), Past and Present, 1843
I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826)
Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.
Voltaire (1694 - 1778), Candide, 1759
The secret of greatness is simple: do better work than any other man in your field - and keep on doing it.
Wilfred A. Peterson
Whenever it is in any way possible, every boy and girl should choose as his life work some occupation, which he should like to do anyhow, even if he did not need the money.
William Lyon Phelps
You've got to find what you love and that is as true for work as it is for lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking and don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you've found it.
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc. (1955 - ), Stanford Commencement Address, 2005
In the next chapter, let's take a look the specific obstacle that is most limiting Knowledge Workers.
The First Challenge (part 1)
The challenge with transferring money -- compensation -- from Knowledge Consumer to Knowledge Worker -- is easy to understand:
The vast majority of users of the World Wide Web do not have an electronic way to pay for something.
Most Web users do not have a credit card or bank account number that can be used to pay for something on the Web.
There is simply no way to stuff cash into your PC's floppy or CD drive, to send money electronically via the Web.
And so the Knowledge Revolution is virtually on hold.
With over 5 billion mobile phones in use globally, however, today most Web users do have a mobile phone.
What if FanBox could get electronically connect to the billing systems of the world's mobile phone companies?
Then, simply by entering their mobile phone numbers into the FanBox web site, users could pay for content (knowledge, media, blogs, music, video and film, etc).
The charge would then appear on their phone bill or get deducted from their phone's pre-paid balance -- and FanBox could then route the money to the owner of the content (the Knowledge Worker).
Accomplishing mobile billing connectivity turned out to be the mother of all challenges.
But FanBox employees have always been up to taking on huge challenges.
This seems to stem from a belief that the employees share, a “Core Value” as they call it.
FanBox employees have four (4) core values -- and one of them is WTAWTAW (pronounced W - Tah - Tah) -- and it stands for “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way”.
We'll discuss all four Core Values in another chapter, but for now, what WTAWTAW suggests is that "there is ALWAYS a real solution for accomplishing absolutely ANYTHING you can imagine".
WTAWTAW suggests that the solution is not always immediately apparent, but the more you believe in your idea, the more likely "people, events, situations or circumstances will mysteriously arise to your rescue".
There are many examples of breakthroughs and coincidences that allowed FanBox to move forward when it hit an obstacle -- simply out of everyone's belief in WTAWTAW as a Core Value.
In order to achieve mobile phone billing system connectivity, FanBox employees met with mobile phone companies all over the world.
Overall, the idea was interesting to phone companies, but they all asked the same question:
"What other mobile phone company have you done this with"?
And FanBox's answer was always "None… You have the opportunity to be the first!"
This was not an answer they wanted to hear.
Opening up their billing system to an outside company seemed completely out of the realm of possibility and reality for these multi-billion dollars companies.
Over a three-year period, the FanBox team met in-person with mobile phone companies from over 100 countries – asking for mobile billing connectivity.
Each and every time, FanBox employees were rejected.
Given the company's lack of financial resources, all that travel was paid for by employees using their personal credit cards, family members, and even by taking out mortgages (loans) on their homes.
As the months passed, the dream of igniting the knowledge revolution sometimes seemed further and further from reality.
All of the employees eventually ran out of money as they rushed around the world to speak to mobile phone companies.
The level of sacrifice on their families and personal lives was severe, as they often went weeks at a time without a solid 8 hours away from work.
Even when they weren’t working, they couldn’t stop thinking about the challenge… surely if they could just think harder, they could find a way to solve the issue.
They knew that time was not on their side. With each passing week and month, they were more likely to run out of sources of money to pay their rents.
They knew that most of the other employees were running out of time too, so they felt guilty with every moment that they weren’t at least mentally wrestling with the challenge that, as the core value WTAWTAW suggested, surely had a solution.
This inability to “turn off their brain” for even a little while, over a long period of time, for many people created “mental burnout”.
FanBox employees were often mentally exhausted – and the more exhausted they were, the harder they wanted to push their brains to get solutions.
In those days, “burnout” – a condition where the employee basically breaks down mentally and emotionally, was the number one reason that employees were forced to leave the company. It was often a matter of survival from a health perspective.
In other words, mental burnout was a much bigger issue for employees than running out of money – which is surprising because there was absolutely no compensation for years.
The idea that motivated FanBox employees was so powerful that once they understood the implications of solving the challenges, they would always “find a way” to make ends meet – even if that meant giving up their apartments to live with a friend or stranger, going without any money whatsoever for entertainment, health care or, sometimes even food.
Indeed, malnutrition (caused by employees not eating) become such a big issue that a group of employees started providing other employees with lunch and dinner, to make sure they could and would eat on a regular basis.
Today, lunch and dinner are provided to FanBox employees, who still often simply “forget to eat” for many hours.
There is ample proof at FanBox that an idea has the ability to inspire and lift people to levels of existence where their bodies will simply not crave energy from food for long periods of time.
It was a tough time indeed, and many questioned the wisdom of not raising money from investors, to buy time for the company to figure out how to convince the mobile phone companies to take a chance and open up their billing systems to FanBox.
But each time the employees discussed the merits of raising money, they ended up reminding themselves that if they did take money from investors, they might sacrifice their ultimate objective of giving most of their revenues back to the community and to the local charities – something that will be discussed in a later chapter.
They also knew that there still existed a large amount of other challenges still ahead of them to bring the entire vision to life… so if they started taking money from investors, they would need to continue to do that for years, until all those challenges were solved.
That would mean that eventually they would lose control of the company to investors, who rightfully would be looking to maximize profits to themselves and their funds – hence the company’s mission would ultimately not be realizable as those investors would, of course, refocus the company on maximizing profit to its shareholders.
Having had prior experiences, they also realized that the largest likelihood for success would arise out of whatever path created the most team motivation – and motivation was clearly maximized by the simple fact that time was not on their side.
In other words, they believed that not having millions of dollars in the company's bank account created a sense of urgency that would force the breakthroughs and creativity needed to solve the many challenges ahead of them.
On the flip-side, they feared that being well-capitalized might make everyone a bit more “fat, dumb and happy” – meaning it would rob them of some of their motivation -- which would have a detrimental effect on their ultimate success – even though in the short term having money would make them both look and feel more successful.
Later, when we take a look at some of the inventions that arose out of the team’s struggles, it becomes easy to understand and even quantify that line of thinking….
When we do, it will become more apparent that perhaps most, if not all of FanBox’s breakthroughs and inventions resulted from the high levels of pressure that the team operated under.
It was a very tough time, and this period lasted for over three years.
The team simply did not give up hope or quit.
Some people were forced to quit -- usually because of mental and emotional burnout -- but when they did, they made sure to train a replacement, who took on their challenges with new energy and excitement, amidst the heroic examples that the past and current employees had left.
Surely if just one mobile phone company could give FanBox access to its billing system, the concept could be flushed out with live customers, and that would make it easier for other companies to jump on-board.
WTAWTAW suggests that there is always a way… and to find that way, you need to keep at it ... not give up... and keep trying different approaches.
If an approach fails, learn why it did and add that to the list of successful “knowledge nuggets”.
No idea or approach is “too dumb or not worth trying”.
One of the employees, Brandie Smith, had such an idea – which we’ll explore in the next chapter.
The First Challenge (part 2)
Brandie noticed a small technicality in the way mobile phone companies handled text messaging between two people that used different phone companies.
Specifically, she learned that phone companies did not yet have the capability to accurately count, reconcile and charge the other phone companies for the monthly difference in text messages sent to and from each other.
What this meant was that if FanBox could somehow get access to the text messaging gateway of only one mobile phone company anywhere, it could possibly enable users to send free text messages to any mobile phone in the world (from the FanBox website).
In turn, that accomplishment might give FanBox some leverage with the mobile phone companies – in ways that were not yet fully understood but seemed worth trying.
So, Brandie started calling mobile phone companies around the world, one after another, asking to speak to their President.
She wanted to speak to their presidents to ensure that if she was able to convince someone, that they would be the “decision-maker”.
Of course her requests to speak with their Presidents were rejected -- each and every time.
After trying to speak to the Presidents of over 500 different phone companies around the world, she was actually able to connect with the President of a mobile phone company based in South Africa -- Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN).
On that call, she was able to intrigue their President enough about FanBox's mission to convince him to travel to San Diego, California, to meet. He agreed.
On his visit, the President was very intrigued by FanBox's mission and approach to jump-start the knowledge revolution.
On his way back to the airport, he gave Brandie a firm handshake and said "We've got a deal", and the deal was inked and finalized in a contract within 3 weeks.
That deal gave FanBox users the ability to send FREE text messages to virtually any mobile phone in the world.
Users loved the ability to send free text messages from the Web to mobile phones, and word-of-mouth about FanBox exploded.
In the first 6 months, over six million people registered to use FanBox (still using the SMS.ac name) -- shattering the world records set by Hotmail and Napster -- who both had about 1 million users in their first 6 months.
FanBox (SMS.ac) now held the world record for the fastest product launch in history. (Source: USA Today, and Fast Company)
More importantly, FanBox now had daily communication with millions of the customers of the world’s mobile phone companies.
In the next chapter, we'll discuss how this gave FanBox new leverage with the world's mobile phone companies.
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