July 15th, 2009
Decloaking: Portland’s Blackbox Republic wants to foster the Burning Man vibe 52 weeks a year
It’s always nice to see a Silicon Forest company coming out of stealth. Especially when they already have funding. But today a great deal of that launch story may be getting mired with one simple word: sex.
You see, Portland-based Blackbox Republic took the wraps off of their new “Community Exchange Platform” last night. It’s designed to be a mix of social media, compelling privacy controls, event management, retail, and real life meetups. Or as they’re calling it “social nicheworking.”
Where’s the sex there, you ask? Well, it’s in the target market they’re chasing: the sex-positive community.
What, exactly, is the “sex-positive” community? Well, according to the release:
The sex-positive creative culture is made up of tens of millions of people who don’t have issues with their own sexuality or that of others. They gather at mega events like Burning Man, Love Parade, Electric Picnic and Afrika Burns, as well as thousands of smaller regional and local meet-ups. Blackbox Republic will be a members-only experience that will unite the sex-positive community and give them a personal, private and secure way to connect online and in person.
Now I’ve never been to Burning Man. But I have friends who have. And to the best of my understanding, it’s kind of like SXSW but without the sessions. With more flamboyant costumes. And more intricate contraptions than anyone could build in the LEGO pit.
Blackbox Republic loves the Burning Man vibe. And they’d like to find a way to keep that vibe alive the other 51 weeks of the year. Outside of the Nevada dessert. As such, they’re building out a site to do just that and they’re looking for a bunch of “curious rabble-rousing instigator[s] willing to help us bring like-minded, love-oriented people together to connect and explore this incredible journey.”
Watching the uptake
Usually when I get information under embargo, I’m champing at the bit to get the news out the door when the embargo lifts. Hitting the publish button as soon as I possibly can.
But in reality, Silicon Florist isn’t really a breaking news blog—especially in cases where the bigs are going to be covering the same story.
So this time, I decided to wait. Because I was really curious to see what the uptake would be.
I mean, you may not know this, but there are more than a few sites on the Web that deal with sex in one way or another. I know, hunh? Who knew? And what’s almost as popular as sex? That’s right. Talking about social media in the Web 2.0 echo chamber.
So I was sure that this juxtaposition of a tech marketing executive with a pedigree that features Jive Software, McCann Erickson, Euro RSCG, CNET, and Dell—Sam Lawrence—and a fashion and interior designer who runs a site called Sex Will Happen—April Donato—was going to cause a little stir.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Even in the short time the site has been out of the gates, the commentary has been all across the board.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
“Lawrence and Donato have a messianic vision to disrupt the online dating industry and bring community to a large and unserved group of people. A portion of each month’s membership fee will be donated to a charity of each user’s choice, creating another layer of connection between groups of people on the site.
“Make no mistake, though, this is a business.”
“When Sam Lawrence quit a top job at one of Portland’s few big-time tech success stories last spring, he left to follow his passion. In Sam’s case, his passion is, um, passion.
“On Wednesday, Lawrence unveils Blackbox Republic, a startup that hopes to create a safe, secure online community for the ‘sex positive’ movement — an all-encompassing term that describes people who celebrate sexual diversity, if not the act itself.
“Blackbox hopes to find its own space in the increasingly crowded social media world, targeting a niche that Lawrence acknowledges many will find off-putting, or even offensive.”
“‘If you’re sex positive, you’re a right-brained, creative person who doesn’t live life by someone else’s checklist,’ he writes. Sounds like something that would have started at Burning Man.
“In fact, that’s where Lawrence and co-founder April Donato conceived the idea.”
“OK, that all sounds scurrilously vague. But here’s my understanding. Blackbox Republic, based in Portland, OR, is trying to create a new kind of social website—one that is more targeted and exclusive than Facebook, more personal and community-oriented than Match.com, and has e-commerce tools built into it like Amazon. The company is announcing today that it has raised $1 million in seed funding from angel investors, and it is gearing up for a full site launch in late summer or early fall. It is led by CEO Sam Lawrence, the former chief marketing officer at Portland-based Jive Software, and April Donato, vice president of community relations and a sex-positive blogger.”
“So-called enterprise and community pundits have been trying to crack the community building code for what seems like years but when you stand back for a moment, what have they really been trying to do: get each of us to transact something as the price of our entrance into this brave new collaborative world. It should be no wonder that many of these efforts fail. I sense that with Blackbox Republic, a number of those same pundits are going to be eating large gobs of humble pie. Why?”
“Sam Lawrence, the other co-founder and Blackbox Republic’s chief executive, says there are four key components: First, Blackbox Republic has to be a safe space, where people can feel confident that they won’t constantly run into creeps. To ensure that happens, the site will have strong privacy controls, and most of it will be locked off to new members until an existing member vouches for them. Second, there will be an e-commerce component, where people can buy each other gifts; Lawrence promises that gifts will be more valuable and incorporated much more organically than on other social networks. Third, the site will encourage users to ‘get out from behind your computer,’ allowing them to plan get-togethers and coordinate via Blackbox’s mobile site. Finally, it will incorporate event planning and event promotion.”
As I said to the Twitterverse this afternoon, “Would anyone (especially peeps like @jeffnolan and @rww) be even mentioning Blackbox Republic if Sam Lawrence wasn’t involved? I think not” – to his credit Marshall Kirkpatrick from ReadWriteWeb replied saying that; ‘Niche social network raises $1m, charges $25/mo & hits privacy hard? Yes I’d cover that!’ – an argument that despite my respect for both Marshall and ReadWriteWeb I’m not really buying seeing as how many well funded start-ups aren’t being covered by the mainstream blogs – need an example? How about youcalc that, despite nearly $4 million in funding, is yet to be covered in depth anywhere than on CloudAve.”
One area I’m not seeing yet: the Burning Man community they’re targeting
For all the bluster and hype from the tech crowd, I’ve yet to find one post from the sex-positive Burning Man crowd on this launch.
That’s not terribly disconcerting. It’s just an observation that—for now—Blackbox Republic is very much a tempest in the teapot of the Web 2.0 echo chamber. But everyone has to start somewhere. And this is a good start.
But being the slimy marketing guy I am, I’m really interested to see how the target market takes to this news.
So now that the sex, sex, sex is out of the way…
Yes, it’s a site dedicated to “sex positive” people—like those who attend the annual Burning Man celebration in the Nevada desert. Yes, some folks will immediately jump to the whole promiscuity angle.
But really, the most sexy parts of this to me have very little to do with its cultural focus or its more-shaking stance.
To me, this is what’s exciting:
First, I’m a big fan of going after the niche and Sam Lawrence is a force to be with which to be reckoned when it comes to marketing. Even the early returns on this announcement should prove that.
Second, Blackbox Republic has funding to the tune of $1 million—on concept and reputation alone. If they can make a go of it, something tells me there’s more funding to be found.
Third, they already have a revenue model: $25 a month for membership. That, according to April and Sam, is low enough to let the community participate but high enough to keep out the “lookie Lous” that could damage the community and its intent.
Fourth, they’ve assembled a diverse team of Portland talent—like Matthew Sweet, formerly with iovation and db clay‘s Benjamin Diggles, for example—that’s already created a compelling framework for the site. And that promises even more interesting development in the future.
Fifth—and probably most important to me—they’re planning to stay right here in Portland, Oregon. Both April and Sam were effusive about the whole Portland cultural vibe, the startup scene, and their desire to keep the company here in town.
Could Blackbox Republic be catching the next wave?
After more than 30 years of technology addiction and nearly 15 years of working in the startup tech industry, there’s one thing I can say for certain: the tech environment is cyclical. There’s a lot of ebb and flow to the whole thing.
And that makes me think that Blackbox Republic’s feature-rich private network could hold a great deal of promise if they can keep it running until the next wave swells.
Because while we’re in the throes of the “share everything everywhere” culture, currently, there are two things that are going to become incredibly valuable when that trend shifts. And that’s likely to happen in the not too distant future.
The first is obvious: people will begin to pay for privacy. The folks who never wanted to share everything are becoming increasingly tech savvy. And they’re going to need somewhere to share thoughts, images, and ideas with a trusted group while facilitating a more cohesive community. I think Blackbox is making a decided step forward in this regard.
Second—and maybe not as obvious—is that even with the share everything group, there is something that is very valuable: filtering. And if communities like Blackbox Republic can provide a way of effectively filtering the signal from the noise, there could be a whole glut of people beating a path to their door to pay for that mousetrap.
For now, we’ll just have to sit back, watch, and wait for Blackbox Republic to launch later, this year.