Findera Tries a Pivot Amid a Whirlwind Over Data Privacy Rules

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Early last year, the San Francisco startup Yozio decided it would have to scuttle its core mission, despite having attracted marquee customers including Pinterest and Airbnb within only a few years.

The problem was, there turned out to be too few such websites with the size and sophistication to use Yozio’s app-optimization tools to advantage, and to create a viable market for the startup, says Christophe Daligault, who was an early Yozio investor. What’s more, tech giants Google and Apple had stepped into the space by offering similar features, he says.

Rather than shutting down the company, its leaders and investors agreed to roll Yozio’s capital into a new venture based on an idea from the startup’s engineers, Daligault says. The company, under the new name Findera, would turn the tables on big tech by becoming an inventive little competitor to an entrenched leader in its field, LinkedIn. (Yozio’s investors included Foundation Capital, Illuminate Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, WIN Network, and Morado Ventures.)

Daligault joined with other co-founders of Findera who saw an opening for a faster, free alternative to LinkedIn for individuals and small businesses that want to find new professional contacts or potential hires. Rather than basing its service on a social media model, as LinkedIn does, Findera built a search engine that taps into professional profiles it compiles from public and private sources.

The Findera service, which has been operating in a private alpha mode, launched for public use this week. Anyone can query the database that, thus far, covers 130 million people who work at about five million companies. Users can search based on multiple variables—for example, someone could seek the names of marketing directors for high-revenue enterprises within a specified industry. Users can also sort the profiles they find into an unlimited number of lists for different purposes, export the lists to spreadsheets, and share them with colleagues. Creating an account and a user profile is optional, but more features, such as exporting lists, are available to account holders.

Daligault, now Findera’s COO, says a series of other new features are in development, such as allowing users to post an “I’m hiring” sign on their profiles, and add a free job listings page detailing their open positions. This mechanism could be broadened to serve the goals of other professionals, such as journalists reaching out to potential sources, he says.

Eventually, Findera plans to offer search features based on its analysis of the associations among its users, gleaned through its graph search technology.

“This will take time,” Daligault says. “It will take a lot of adoption to make it useful.”

Findera’s progress may be heavily influenced by the evolving global regulatory environment around individual data privacy, and a growing public awareness of the issue.

When Yozio’s founders fixed on their new vision for Findera in February of 2017, Facebook had already been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly deceptive practices that the agency said made it unclear to users how data from their personal profiles could be shared with outsiders. But that probe was a minor blip on the radar compared to the uproar early this year when Facebook revealed that about 87 million of its personal profiles had been extracted by other companies including Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly used them to target political ads to voters during the contentious 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Since then, Congress has widened its scrutiny of online privacy practices to include other tech giants. On the eve of Findera’s public launch this week, a Senate committee held another hearing on consumer data privacy, where executives from Google, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and AT&T were called to appear. While Congress has been holding hearings and mulling possible federal privacy regulations, individual states, including California, have already passed their own data privacy statutes.

On top of all that, enforcement began in May for the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a stringent regulatory framework that imposes severe penalties on companies that violate the privacy of individuals whose data comes under the E.U.’s jurisdiction.

Findera’s roadmap for attracting users already demonstrates the impact of the GDPR on U.S. tech companies that would otherwise aspire to a create a global user network. In the startup’s terms of service, Findera advises: “If you are a resident of the E.U., Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, or Switzerland, you will not be able to create a Findera account at this time.” Other companies have also roped off the E.U. and other jurisdictions for the time being, while they figure out whether operating there would be worth the expense of complying with the GDPR and other national privacy regulations.

Findera freely shared its terms of service, and Daligault welcomed a discussion with Xconomy about the way the company might have to tailor its offerings and craft its user settings to keep pace with the regulatory environment regarding data privacy. In a way, Findera enjoys the luxury of being informed about the controversies that have already arisen over data privacy while its search engine is still very new and its policies can be quickly adjusted. Daligault says he’s wary that Findera could be seen as “the next Cambridge Analytica.”

Daligault says Findera can offer something valuable to self-employed people and small companies that lack access to the kinds of databases and technical resources available to big, moneyed businesses looking for professional contacts.

“People who can pay get all that information,” Daligault says.

Findera buys access to some of these private databases of people and their work roles. It also continually crawls the Web to find current facts about workforce members, and structures that scattered data to bring it together and make it searchable. For example, it might find someone’s e-mail address on their blog site, even though it isn’t displayed on their public LinkedIn profile, Daligault says.

Findera is trying to address a major pain point in forming new professional relationships—actually being able to get through to someone once you’ve found them. People often withhold their e-mail addresses on their public LinkedIn profiles. LinkedIn users can send each other messages through the website if they’ve already accepted each other as professional connections. But users trying to reach out to a new contact might need to pay for a LinkedIn Premium account in order to send a message through the company’s InMail feature, or hunt among their own connections for a colleague who could introduce them.

Findera is contemplating several ways to facilitate more direct contact with new work associates. When users set up their Findera accounts, using a Google or Microsoft account, the company’s terms and conditions allow it to scan the metadata of their e-mails and calendars. Users can cancel this permission at sign-up or any time later, the company says.

Daligault says collecting data about a user’s connections through their e-mail headings and calendars helps Findera build a map of associations that is more representative of the user’s “true connections” than those on LinkedIn, which, he says, encourages people to invite a broader array of more distant associates into their networks. In the future, Findera’s social map could help its users find one of their current colleagues who actually knows a prospective new contact well enough to effect an introduction, he says.

But as Findera scans a user’s e-mail and calendar metadata, does it also extract the e-mail addresses of the account holder’s contacts, and use those addresses to build out its own profiles of those co-workers and friends, who may not be Findera account holders? Yes, Daligault says.

Whether Findera could someday be vulnerable to regulatory action or public resistance to this kind of data-mining remains to be seen. But Facebook’s recent travails do provide a cautionary tale. Under one of Facebook’s most-criticized past policies, it allowed third parties not only to collect the profiles of users, but also to reach through and extract profiles of their friends, families, and other associates who had not given their own permission.

As a search engine rather than a social media network, Findera is offering access to information that many of its profile subjects may not themselves have volunteered to be displayed on its platform—or may not even be aware of the company’s existence. On LinkedIn and Facebook, users can decide whether to build a profile there, and have some measure of control over how they want to be contacted.

Could Findera face a backlash if the friends of account holders start receiving unexpected, and perhaps unwelcome messages on their private e-mail accounts from people outside their personal circles, and find out that a Findera user has opened the door to that?

“Anything’s possible,” Daligault says. “We haven’t heard this kind of concern.” If that happened, Findera would quickly respond to any request to delete or modify a person’s profile, he says.

Daligault points out that LinkedIn also invites users to share their address books with the company. According to LinkedIn’s privacy policy, it receives personal data, including contact information, about users when others import or sync their contacts or calendar with its services.

If Findera succeeds in making a map of the “true connections” among its account holders by identifying the people its users message most frequently over e-mail, might that end up revealing something intensely private to one of their work colleagues? For example, if a user asks Findera to find someone in her own network who could introduce her to an expert in medicine, could the search return the name of her colleague’s treating oncologist? Could another search reveal that a friend has been e-mailing frequently with a divorce lawyer?

Daligault says the discussion led him to talk over such scenarios with his team, and consider what kinds of controls to add to the Findera account settings.

“The best thing we can do is just be transparent,” he says.

Findera might need to enable people with accounts to see whom the company had identified as their close connections, Daligault says, and give them the option to remove some or all of those contacts from the search results.

“If we don’t build trust, we’re not going to go anywhere,” Daligault says.

Photo credit: Depositphotos