April 2012

Community Builder

Pascal Coppens, CEO of Letsface.com, a location-based social media platform, talks about using facial recognition technology and online interaction to boost brand and company loyalty

QUOTE: Building communities in itself is pretty difficult. In China it’s a nightmare to retain your employees. We are trying to find solutions for keeping people in companies.

I have been in China for a while. I started working here in 1991. I went back to China from the West because I saw the market and opportunities here. Since 2006, I’ve had my own venture.

Building communities in itself is pretty difficult. In China it’s a nightmare to retain your employees. We are trying to find solutions for keeping people in companies. There are a lot of HR companies that offer training that’s very much corporate-oriented but there is very little done from the social point of view. This is where I see Letsface’s opportunity.

Socializing at work

“The more meaningless things you do the more meaningful they become.” That is, the less corporate meaning and the less corporate goals you put in an activity you do, the more social it becomes. Facebook in itself has no agenda; the group you belong to has no agenda. What we are trying to do is add things to companies’ agendas so it engages people on different levels by offering these activities. Connections don’t require a lot of money or time. People start sharing, opening up and that’s exactly what you want your employees to do in order to get them to connect. My hope is that Letsface’s platform-model will work in many companies.

Something we are offering to companies now is what we call “quests.” This is an individual activity. It’s like a challenge, game, contest where you can get people to do things and when they achieve, they receive a reward, like a badge or credit which can somehow be exchanged for a real reward in the company.

Turning Olympic inspiration in to aspiration

My company grew from a one-person company to around 15 people, at one point mostly engineers. We were doing technology support in 2008 for the Olympic Games. I was working with one of the face-recognition suppliers and they were actually using face recognition for access and entrance of VIPs! I thought it was a really cool idea.

My idea was about how to use face recognition in the social world. Android uses it now, but at that time in 2008 it was quite revolutionary. My concept was pretty simple- people recognize you by face and now you can have machines that will help you with that and socialize. If I come to this area every week people will recognize me from my face but I won’t go and talk to them, especially in China where people are pretty shy. So my idea was how to use that technology to get people to connect. From there it became a whole social platform. The concept is that we want to help build communities.

You can make any company a community. I asked my employees why they came to work for me and I found out it’s [because of] my culture of being open and creative that actually attracted people to stay. Because I am open to sharing and collaborating, it has gotten people to feel that I care about them and other people care about them but that took quite long to build. Many companies don’t have [this culture] and that’s why I wonder, “How can I help with this?”

Scoping the market

We started off in a completely different market than we want to be in now. I wanted to build a community platform for any location that services people. The problem was I was too early for that market! We had three specific markets: education centers, like language schools, entertainment, and sports centers. Six months later we found out that the market was not ready to build communities- [companies] were just focused on the quantity of people they could get in the door. Consumption and quality was not there yet.

We wanted [to offer Letsface to] companies that were established but we found [these potential clients had] very aggressive proactive models and were not much about servicing and community building. After 10 years in China, I should have known this! It is one of the learning curves we went through. There are four products we built and right now we have a dozen companies we work with. We’re doing well now but it's just building- we spent one-and-a-half years building this product!

A more interactive Foursquare The good thing about [our first attempt at market entry in to] entertainment, sports centers and language school markets is we gained more understanding about the user. Users are very interested in entertainment and activities- it is all about the experience- and we started building our platform in that direction around activities. How to join an activity is a little similar to Linkedin but more personal and more engaging and more visible. Linkedin is only text but we have video pictures- you see when people register, you see who comes up in that location. It’s a lot more engaging and from that we went into the next step.

Communities like Facebook are built around friends. These are not really built around organizations and Linkedin is what comes closest to groups as organizations but it is not much fun- it’s very static and professional, not a tool for social use. So we’re trying to find solutions for building communities [within and outside of] organizations.