July 15th, 2009

Decloaking: Portland’s Blackbox Republic wants to foster the Burning Man vibe 52 weeks a year


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?

ReadWriteWeb: Can Blackbox Republic Breathe New Life Into the Online Love Market?

“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.”

The Oregonian: Portland tech exec starts fresh, seeking a niche

“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.”

TechFlash: Portland startup launches Web service for ‘sex positive’ people

“‘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.”

xconomy: Blackbox Republic, Led by Ex-Jive Exec, Gets Seed Funding for Sex-Positive Social Network

“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.”

ZDNet: Sex, geeks and Blackbox Republic

“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?”

VentureBeat: Blackbox Republic is creating a social network around sex (positivity)

“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.”

Cloud Ave: Blackbox Republic – A Marketing Coup but Baseless Perhaps?

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.

For more information, visit Blackbox Republic or read Sam’s post on Go Big Always.

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11 Responses to “Decloaking: Portland’s Blackbox Republic wants to foster the Burning Man vibe 52 weeks a year”

  1. Jeff says:

    (I’ll be the first to be a d!ck)

    Does ‘sex positive’ mean leaving your wife and kids at home while you go to Burning Man to have a romp with your younger girlfriend?

    Just curious, cause that sounds like ‘sex negative’ to me. Or at least father negative, husband negative, whatever.

  2. MCrites says:

    I have to admit thinking something along those lines as well Jeff. I’ve followed Sam for some time and find this next, uh, adventure more than distasteful.

    Transparency is strange phenomenon. Objections to the concept of “social swinger websites” aside, knowing the back-story with Sam’s life causes my brain to start filling in the gaps – I can’t help but think of Blackbox Republic (and the moral swiss cheese behind it) as a driver for some of the issues he detailed online.

    I’m certainly not leveling some kind of pejorative assertion here as much as noting the connections transparency can lead to.

  3. ER says:

    Is this related to that new swingers club in Portland that Ron Jeremy is sponsoring?

  4. Elvis says:

    (I’ll be the first to state the obvious)

    No, Jeff, that’s not what it means. What you described would be irresponsible and wouldn’t make you a lot of friends in a sex-positive community — unless of course your wife was in full agreement.

  5. Don Park says:

    I attended Burning Man for the first time last year. The association with Blackbox Republic is misplaced. Burning Man is primarily an art and (electronic)music festival. Its a space for “radical self-expression” where groups of people work all year to contribute amazing art installations and have a week-long party. If you enter burning man with a certain set of values, then you will have an experience that matches those values.

    Sex and touch in American society should be looked at directly. Its critically important for people to have safe, positive physical experiences in order to grow as a person. If Blackbox Republic creates a space for that, then great. My feeling is Sam and April will have to work hard to make something more than an adultfriendfinder.com or the casual encounters section on craigslist.

  6. Tsai says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for saying what a lot of those who know Sam personally as well as professionally were thinking. Too bad that angle – the not-so-cool side of “sex positive” – was left out of 100% of the coverage of this launch.

  7. Keith says:

    I attend sex-positive events in my hometown and have gone to Burning Man for several years.

    As a sex-positive person, I admire their willingness to serve this kind of group. For a definition of sex-positive beyond their site look at http://pleasuresalon.wordpress.com/
    “BDSM, swinger, alternative gender, LGBT, sex-activist, nudist, sex-magic, polyamory, Pagan, radical faerie, tantra, dark odyssey, sex-blogger, porn, pervert and sex-worker communities, and others whose passion is sex”

    Think nerve.com, except the matchmaking pool won’t be diluted by timeout, salon, et al.

    On the other hand, it is a Burning Man no-no to use the event for marketing or to even imply sponsorship and pushing that angle as hard as they have may get a backlash. Folks there use masking tape to alter the names on their rental trucks to naughty words, so it won’t seem like an ad. Camp Jiffy Lube had nothing to do with car care and was hated by the corporation of the same name, which you may understand when you learn it was later changed to Stiffy Lube.

    I doubt the rainbow folks want their name used that way either….

    And I wonder how soon the “gifting” process will be more abused than Amazon.com’s Wishlists http://boingboing.net/camgirls.html

    as a burner, I am annoyed that they are making Burning Man part of their marketing.

  8. Anonymous says:

    A lot of talk about Sam. I’d like to add something about April. She is a fraud, a cheat and a liar who floats from town to town slithering about for new prey. Portland dwellers…watch out.

  9. JK says:

    TSAI: You obviously don’t know Sam personally or you wouldn’t be asking the questions that Jeff is asking.

    JEFF: You obviously don’t get what “Sex Positive” means, because that isn’t it. That type of behavior is shunned by “sex positive” communities because, swinging or “the lifestyle” is based on openness, honesty, trust and respect for friends, partners and especially significant others.

    Sex positive is about taking ownership of sex and your sex life. It means respect for others that do as well. Something the people here, attempting to do hatchet jobs, obviously just don’t get.

    Good luck Sam, April, and Black Box! Keep staying positive.

  10. [...] may remember a bit of hoopla about Blackbox when they came out of stealth mode to release a private beta last summer. Since then, they’ve [...]

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