A Series of Forbes Insights Profiles of Thought Leaders Changing the Business Landscape: Evan Reas, Founder and CEO, Circle…
If “all politics is local” as the saying goes, certainly the same will holds true for social media. The central notion that human interaction is all about your present locality is the key insight behind the fast-growing social media platform, Circle. Co-founder and CEO Evan Reas developed Circle as a mobile app that shows you what’s happening nearby right now and adapts to your location to provide useful information anywhere you go. The company has been quietly amassing an impressive user base across more than 1,700 U.S. cities, already surpassing 12 million users with over 1 million users joining every month. The Palo Alto, California-based Circle is a privately held company funded by Andreessen Horowitz, Ashton Kutcher, Ron Conway, David Sacks and other top investors who have invested over $6 million into what they hope will be the next Facebook.
Perhaps for Evan Reas, Circle is more about the insight that everyone at some point and somewhere is an outsider looking to fit-in and form connections with the locals. “I went to business school at Stanford but previous to that, I come from a very small farming community. Right after business school in 2009, I was sitting in a cafe in a suburb of San Francisco thinking about the different people that I’ve met and interesting people that are coming into the cafe and I just thought to myself –‘how powerful it could be to be able to connect with the people that we just walk by all the time or people that were on the bus with you, people that work nearby or people that live nearby?’ It’s almost become a rare occurrence for us to be able to interact or connect with people that we don’t already know–specifically people that we’re just near on the street,” says Reas reflecting on his moment of insight for Circle as also as a way to bring the small-town friendliness he experienced growing up in Wisconsin. “I really wished that there was a way where we can just easily interact and communicate with the people that are just near us and the people that we see,” continues Reas.
He decided he would test the idea while he was sitting at the cafe and wrote a sentence on the cafe white board that said, “Hey, I’m Evan. I’m from a town in Wisconsin and just came to the Bay Area and would love to connect with anybody.” And within a couple of minutes, a middle aged gentleman came up to him and said, “Hey, I’m from Wisconsin, too.” You just got a very quick interaction,” says Reas. He didn’t have to do any instigation. “That guy came up to me. And so it felt really nice and I kind of gave him a handshake and he said, ‘if you ever need help with moving or anything like that, let me know.’ And I said, ‘Okay, cool. That’s great.’ Then two minutes later, the same exact thing happened. “Somebody came up to me and it was an older gentleman and we ended up discussing about the fact that he was a missionary in Kenya, which I had been to Kenya as a missionary as well and it was this really fascinating conversation where he was recounting everything about his life as a missionary. So there was just amazing things that were happening simply from the little white board that I was holding and just putting that little context and showing that I was open to connecting to people that were nearby. I thought–‘This is amazing. This is really powerful’,” continues Reas.
“Not only is it exciting for me, but I think there’s just some amazing ways to just change how the world works. From that point on, all I kept thinking about was how do you connect people that are near each other? And that’s been the main thing that we’ve been working on since the beginning and what I think Circle is all about. We are simply a communication mechanism between different groups of people. Facebook is a mechanism to communicate between you and your friends. Twitter is way to communicate between you and people of similar interest. Circle is a communication mechanism for people near your location, wherever you are and connecting with the people near your location and what’s important in that exact area you’re in right now,” says Reas.
Developing a new social media platform in the face of behemoths of unprecedented size and success can be a daunting concept. “I think that it’s probably a symbol of my naivety and just optimism at that point more than anything else,” says Reas. The process of building a technology and starting a business from scratch came from what he had learned at Stanford and even before that. After all, Reas had earned his MBA from Stanford Business School, where he was one of the youngest graduates in the school’s history. During his time at Stanford, Reas worked with a venture capital company in South Africa and contributed to a team that invented a corn husker device, eventually selling it to thousands of Ethiopian farmers. Reas graduated valedictorian of his class from Ohio Wesleyan University and studied abroad in rural Kenya doing HIV research and wildlife conservation. While there, immersion in the local community led him to earning the title of honorary samburu warrior. Born and raised in the small farm town of Ashton, Wisconsin, Reas began his working career at the local church fish fry and started investing in the stock market at 12 years old.
“ I just did lots of different entrepreneurial things where I’d have to go from nothing to creating something. I want to build something, show it and see if it works. If it didn’t work, figure out why it didn’t work and then figure out how you can make a second integration, third integration, fourth. it takes lots of iterations but I feel like as long as you can move quickly, get the right feedback, you can get to that right thing just through those constant iterations. So, to me it was less about building a prototype–that first prototype was me with the white board,” says Reas.
Sometimes being in the right place at the right place makes all the difference. “I had just graduated from Stanford and was staying in my apartment for the next month and a friend of mine staying on my floor connected me with two guys who had just left Microsoft about a month before that because they wanted to start a company. They wanted to do the whole Silicon Valley Dream thing,” says Reas. That’s how Reas met Shubham Mittal and Prasanna Sankaranarayanan who are the engineers that built the technology behind the Circle App. They moved to India to begin working on the app because Mittal had to return and just seemed easier to move their then to work remotely. “The first three and a half months of the company was in India in the dead summer. It was 120 degrees. There was no air conditioning. I got Dengue fever and couldn’t move for two weeks. It was brutal, but it was a good bonding experience for us,” continues Reas.
“We were showing people things on paper all the time and it probably took about three months to come up with our first version. The first design was horrendous and it was just this ugly, awful thing, now that I look back. But we got it out there and the most important thing, I think, was just seeing how people interacted with others. With each iteration we kept the mission in mind to connect people who are near each other. And if they’re not connecting, then we’re not succeeding with what we’re trying build yet. It probably took us another six or seven months of that iteration before we really, firmly saw that like, “Okay, we need more than just a people thing. Let’s go more towards content, which was the next huge iteration,” says Reas.
Now the Circle design and user experience is recognized for its simplicity and elegance. “I love recruiting people from all over the world. Our current designer, Michal Simkovic, is from Slovakia. He had the top design campaign a couple of years ago in Russia and he just created beautiful stuff. I saw his work online and I emailed him and I said, “Hey, Musho –he goes by Musho -would you be interested in coming to the valley and having a valley experience for a week, and we’ll see what happens. I’ll pay for you to come. Three years later, he’s still our lead designer,” says Reas.
What’s the Circle business model? “Right now, we aren’t focused on revenue at all. We are just focusing on creating a great experience and great content and getting the word out there. The business model will come from watching people use the app. I think connecting people that are just near each other is going to also change how human’s behave in a really, really powerful, positive way. The only thing that I know is that when you can connect people, amazing things result from that,” concludes Reas.
Whether or not Circle succeeds in becoming the next large social media platform like Instagram or Snapchat remains to be seen. But their present growth trajectory make them worth watching.
Bruce H. Rogers is the co-author of the recently published book Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Service Firms Become Thought Leaders now available on Amazon http://amzn.to/OETmMz