Dave Morin Says Path Photo App is About “Making the World a Happier Place”

On Sunday, San Francisco startup Path launched its photo-sharing app for the iPhone, and by Tuesday night it had already climbed to the number 5 spot in the Lifestyle section of the iTunes App Store. iPhone users seem to appreciate the new app, which is designed to let users share candid photos and a few bits of context (“Lunch at the office,” “Sunset at the Golden Gate Bridge”) with a small network of friends—no more than 50, in fact.

“I don’t want to share my life with the public or all the ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ I have on Facebook or Twitter,'” one user commented in the review section of the store. “Those services are good for other things. For sharing personal memories, this app is perfect.”

That’s exactly the kind of reaction the creators of Path must have been hoping for. Dave Morin, formerly Facebook’s senior platform manager, co-founded the company earlier this year with Napster creator Shawn Fanning and programmer Dustin Mierau, with investment support from early-stage venture groups like First Round Capital and well-known individual investors such as Ron Conway and actor Ashton Kutcher. Morin told me in a conversation Monday that Path’s mission is simple—“making the world a happier place”—and that one of the easiest ways to spread happiness, nowadays, is to share personal moments with friends via camera-phone pics. But not just with any friends.

Path’s premise is that the moments you’ll share will be more meaningful if you know they’re only going out to a small circle of actual friends—your “personal network,” to use the startup’s lingo, rather than your Facebook-sized “social network.” Path is far from the only photo-sharing app available to iPhone users (alternatives like Instagram and PicPlz have also been getting a lot of ink in the tech blogs lately) but it’s definitely the one with most highfalutin theoretical grounding. In an essay for the Huffington Post on Monday, Morin argued that personal connections lose their joy and authenticity in groups that exceed Dunbar’s Number (150), and that for this reason, neither Facebook nor Twitter are great places to cultivate a trusted circle of close friends. “The personal network isn’t vast (we actually limit it to a subset of Dunbar’s number)—but it is powerful,” Morin writes.

Of course, whether it’s feasible to build a successful venture-funded mobile startup 50 people at a time has yet to be seen. Xconomy was the first company on Path’s list of media calls Monday morning, and I got a chance to put a few of my own questions about the company to Morin and Path’s vice president of business development, Matt Van Horn, who previously ran business development at Digg. I’ve transcribed our conversation below; Morin joined the interview near the end.

It was clear from the talk that Path is about more than just the iPhone, and more than just photos. Morin and Van Horn seem to see big possibilities in helping people share experiences within small communities. Expect Path, over time, to broaden its definition of “experiences” and the ways they’re captured and shared.

Xconomy: There are plenty of social photo sharing apps in the iTunes app store and plenty more on other platforms. What made you guys feel there was room for another photo sharing app, and what is the unique vision that makes Path stand apart from all those other apps?

Matt Van HornMatt Van Horn: I think one of the key things we’re going for is we’re not trying to be another photo blogging site, but we’re interested in building what we call the personal network. Our first stab at that is photos, and that’s the mechanism that we’re using to share and capture moments right now, and adding context around that. But our ambitions are still to build a more personal network.

X: So would it be a mistake to say that Path is mainly about photo sharing?

MVH: Obviously it’s about photo sharing right now. You share photos on Path right now with the closest friends in your life. We see our service as very complementary to the other services in the space. I don’t think we’re directly competing with anyone else doing similar things in the space.

X: But I think you’re implying that the idea of a moment is something you could capture in any number of ways—and right now it’s in the form of photos, but there are any number of ways you could create a documentable moment and share that. Is that a fair characterization of what you said?

MVH: We’ll explore any opportunity or any idea that comes our way. Right now, it’s just photos. But long-term, who knows what spaces we could enter and explore. Right now we’re into close personal photo sharing with your connections and contacts.

X: One of the neat features is “Seen it”—the notification that a photo you uploaded to Path has been seen by someone else. How central was that to the concept? Was it part of the design from the beginning?

MVH: We always knew it was going to be part of the launch version of the app. We think that because of the more personal network that we’ve created on Path, that people hopefully will feel comfortable showing who has seen their photos. We took that lead from some of the more intimate chat networks—BBM for example or Kick will show you if someone has read your text message or SMS. In regular e-mail clients and on Facebook I don’t know if that would be effective, but we feel that among a closer group of friends it’s something the world is going to be comfortable with.

X: What is the important thing to you about that feature? Why were you guys attracted to it?

MVH: We just thought it was a great mechanism for feedback. We were finding ourselves in situations where we would be talking to someone, and they’d say, ‘Oh did you see that album I posted of Facebook?’ I don’t know what percentage of people who look at photos on Facebook actually like or comment on a photo, so there is that unknown of who is actually looking at your content. We wanted to create a close-knit network where people are comfortable doing that.

X: I’ve got to ask you a question about the 50-friend limit. Your blog post Sunday seemed deliberately worded to draw a contrast with Facebook, where you can have 5,000 friends. What are the advantages of a smaller network, and did you see the 50-friend limit as a direct comment on Facebook and the lack of intimacy there?

MVH: It’s a great question. We are very fond of, and love, and need every day, our Facebook fix. And we think that while there are differentiators, we are carving out our niche in the area by limiting our network to 50 people. We actually see our network as very complementary to Facebook and there are ways we’ll be hooking in with Facebook in the future. And I believe there is a lot of value in posting certain photos and sharing certain items on Facebook. But there is this concept of, once you’re sharing with even one person you don’t completely trust, that changes your sharing behavior. That is the niche we’re carving out. That doesn’t mean that when someone gets engaged they don’t want to tell everyone immediately. And Facebook and Twitter are incredible platforms for that. But we think there is a more discrete set of photos that people want to share on a more intimate network.

X: You launched on iPhone. I have a lot of friends who have smartphones but they don’t all have iPhones. Do you see this as a multiplatform play? Is the iPhone just the first of many platforms where we can expect to see you guys?

MVH: If you were to judge us by our jobs page, you’d see we are actually hiring Android developers and BlackBerry developers. We also launched a full viewing experience on the Web. But we are a mobile-first platform. We want to launch everything first on mobile, with the Web second. And we absolutely want to be cross-platform on mobile.

X: What was the hardest thing about getting Path launched? Have you had any stumbles or pivots or things you had to go back and redo?

MVH: I think that’s part of the fun of being a startup, is doing that. Absolutely. But we’ve had a pretty clear vision from the beginning of the problem we’re trying to solve. We think we’ve done a decent job at launch, and we’re hoping to build something for the long-term here.

X: Yeah, I saw a quote from Dave Morin saying that you guys are building a 30-year brand. I kind of chuckled, because that’s such an eternity—software and Internet companies are lucky to be around after three years, let alone 30 years. He said in the same breath you guys are content to grow slowly and organically, which is at odds with the dominant startup philosophy these days of iterating fast. How do you build a startup slowly these days?

MVH: We have said that we’re really interested in slow, quality growth. We think that with a lot of networks these days, you see hockey-stick growth and then it either flatlines or goes down. We believe in personal sharing with one another, and we think the best type of viral growth is one to one, not one and then tweet to a thousand and then tweet it to 10,000 and then no on ever uses it again. We are interested in pockets of 50, to be honest, of people sharing with their friends and seeing enough value in the product that they want to share with the people who are close in their lives, and have them persuade their friends that ‘You should get on there, and I want to share my Path with you.’ That’s the type of slow growth we want—high quality, and people who are actually excited about the product just versus insane viral tactics.

X: You’ve got an amazing group of investors behind you. Have they all bought into that idea that there isn’t going to be a hockey-stick pattern?

MVH: We’ve said from the start that we are interested in this slow growth philosophy and they support that.

[At this point, Dave Morin joined the conversation.]

X: Dave, I wanted to bounce one question off you that I already asked Matt. It’s about this whole photo-sharing marketplace. There are plenty of other apps for the iPhone and other platforms that allow you to share photos within a group. What’s your basic explanation for why you would want to build yet another social photo sharing app, and how you guys see Path as different from all the others?

Dave MorinDave Morin: You know, when we set out to create Path we were focused deeply on making the world a happier place, and we thought that today the best possible proxy for a human experience is the photo. Ninety-five percent of all mobile phones in the world today have a camera on them, and that’s enabling people to share experiences with each other and really to share moments, to share these everyday moments which matter to them most.

For example, this morning my best friend from college was taking a photo of his commute to work on Bus 141 in Chicago, and he called me and said, “You know, I’ve never had a way to share this moment before, but it’s my every day, it’s my every morning.” I think enabling people to share those kinds of moments with the people who matter most is what is deeply meaningful to us here at Path.

X: Are you finding any incomprehension or lack of understanding about that mission from the bloggers and other early adopters who are writing the first pieces about Path?

DM: No, I think that we’re seeing a lot of amazing customer feedback, from people who seem to really enjoy the idea and are excited for things to come. I think the most important thing is that this is just our first version, and we’re just getting started, and we’re really going to build out a lot more cool stuff for people in the future.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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