Some thoughts on Brewster

Three days in, Brewster, the new personalized address book, has become an instant classic for me.  Perhaps I lucked out, but I didn’t experience much of the delay in processing my contacts that many others reported – I had to wait about 90 minutes which, while not ideal, was fine.  Everything since then seems to have been working like a charm  – the de-duplication and reconciliation of contacts across social networks, in particular, was beautifully done, and that’s not a trivial data problem.

I have always liked the concept of a personalized, always current address book.  In a way, it is sort of like the old Plaxo idea, which was probably before its time.  There were various startups that tried to fix the address book, including Sensobi (that eventually was acquired by GroupMe).  The next iteration of the social concept that I’m aware of is Everyme – at least in the initial vision the founders had for it when they were at Y Combinator in the Summer of 2011.  I was a bit bummed when it pivoted (or evolved) to become a private social network.

I really like that Brewster came out of the gate very “feature-rich”.  While I’m all for MVPs and generally agree that “if you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”, for something like this, I think the founder(s) made the right call to wait until the product was ready before launching.  At this stage of the game, anything that sounds like yet another hyped up app, and asks me to connect all my social networks when I first log in, etc. had better deliver some real value quickly for me to give it a real chance, and that was the case here.  As the founder Steve Greenwood  has apparently been mulling over this concept for many years, the temptation to release early must have been strong, particularly as it sounds like several startups are working on related concepts, including for example FullContact, but from my user’s standpoint, it was well worth it.

A few other aspects of the product (and its launch) that I like:

– I like that Brewster was clearly thought through as a data product – while the “Favorites” tab has an emotional and aesthetically pleasing aspect to it (depending on how attractive one’s friends are, at least…), the rest of the app is very data-centric: the “Lists” tabs has some interesting automatic categorization (I have 171 friends who are ‘Managing Director”, apparently, does that mean I’m old?), while the “Search” tab is awesome, with good suggested searches and the ability to uncover all sorts of interesting common interests across my contact list.

– While everything is automated, I like the fact that the product made me work manually to create my list of “favorites”.  That actually increased my personal investment into the product, and makes me less likely to discard it.

–  I really like that Brewster did not use any of the tired “virality” tricks that have become so common place.  No automatic posting on my Facebook newsfeed; no “Sent using my Brewster address book” tag line in emails, etc.

– I was impressed with the email I got to announce that my account was ready, personalized with pictures of some of my key contacts – great way of delivering a unique experience before I even started using the product in earnest.

The data privacy issue (and the fairly dramatic reactions to it) are of course a concern. I’m actually surprised that I don’t care more about it, personally — I guess I have gone pretty far down the path of accepting some privacy risk (as long as it’s not banking information), in return for getting a lot of value from the product, which I feel is the case here.  But obviously many people will feel differently, and this could sink the company entirely, if not properly addressed.

One functionality that I don’t find as impressive, at least as of now, is the “Updates” section — what it has surfaced so far (birthdays essentially) is not particularly interesting.  What would be really cool, eventually, would be an integration with Newsle, to get news about your friends.  Oh wait, add to this an integration with Cue, as well.  All built in natively into my iPhone address book and calendar.  Ok, so, maybe that’s a bit much to ask.  In the meantime, Brewster is already one of the most interesting apps I have seen in a long time.

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Brewster”

  1. Matt – great thoughts. Co-sign the lack of “virality gimmick” among my favorite initial impressions. It’s an elegant product that stands on its own, and it respects its user base enough not to resort to that.

    Second, I think the most interesting thing here is what you brought up about MVP. Like you’re saying, exceptions to every rule, and I think trying to subsume the default “contacts app” in the iPhone / Android homescreen is a clear case to apply the exception. IOW, you better get it right-ish the first time. Getting people to change their “Contact X Person” behavior is a monumental task. You get one shot to intrigue people enough to come back. So I’m on board with what they did here – make it 99% perfect, because any half baked alternative would risk a one and done from most users. And from all I’ve seen, people’s first impressions of Brewster have been almost unanimously positive.

    Lastly – Newsle – I love their product / idea so much, and others have mentioned they do too. And yet it’s clear to me that Newsle is destined to live inside some other platform. I always thought it would be LinkedIn, where “professional news updates” would probably be most appropriate. But Newsle within Brewster is a very interesting idea. Seems to fit the theme, and would deliver value to Brewster’s users while giving people even more of a reason to spend time within the app. I dig it.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jason. So much is written about the art of building great products, but so many efforts fail, that it feels a bit magical when people hit the mark, which I think is the case for both Brewster and Newsle. Having said that, for both products, one big question is whether they would still deliver value beyond the “Techcrunch crowd” – if you don’t have thousands (or at least hundreds) of contacts across social networks, and/or if none of your friends/contacts are ever mentioned in the news, do Brewster and Newsle still offer value?

      1. Thanks Matt. My intuition is that the answer is *yes* for Brewster and *no* for Newsle. I think Brewster will transend the “TechCrunch Crowd” because it is aiming to provide a really deep and useful layer of day to day functionality, underneath or separate from the “social” layer. Even though its just a week old, Brewster is arguably a better Contacts Application than the default that comes on the iPhone. And we saw with Instagram and other camera apps – when you can replace a core utility app on an iPhone home screen, the value / potential is tremendous. Brewster has a ways to go to get to that point, but I think it’s fundamentally useful in the way it pulls and stores pictures, Twitter handles, LinkedIn profiles, etc. It’s like adding Rapportive on top of Gmail. Serious day to day utility that provides more information better and in an easily consumable way. And then add the social / interactive layer, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Brewster can be a mainstream success.

        Newsle, on the otherhand, I think is exposed to the “TechCrunch problem” IOW, unless you’re in the 1% of people with tons of noteworthy / famous friends, you’re probably not going to need to interact with Newsle’s platform all that often. And because “Tech Famous” people get mentioned more often on the various social sites than non-techs, it’s a self selecting problem to have. For me, I can check it 1x per month and get all the updates I need. So they may have a user retention issue, where even people who like the service just forget to check it regularly. And that’s why I think it’d be better off either as (a) an email service or (b) integrated with an existing platform that would let it become a feature, rather than a standalone application. Facebook and LinkedIn make the most sense, although I do like your idea of integration with Brewster.

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