FireChat creator on the Occupy Central effect, building trust in an open platform, and the opportunity for brands

Micha BenolielMicha Benoliel is co-founder and CEO of Open Garden, the company behind FireChat, the off-the-grid messaging app that went viral in Hong Kong as pro-democracy protesters scrambled for a way to stay in touch without relying on the internet.

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks just before a Web Wednesday session in Lan Kwai Fong, Benoliel talked about his hectic week, whether an app like this has a future in China and how brands can make use of FireChat.

You seem tired, Micha. How many interviews have you done this week?

About 50 so far. But it’s part of the job.

What’s been the toughest?

A segment on a Russian TV show was difficult. And I was given a hard time in a Skype interview with a university in the US. The interviewer didn’t tell me the interview was being recorded.

A new version of the FireChat logo created after Occupy Central began

The new Occupy Central-inspired FireChat logo

What are the latest figures for the uptake of FireChat in Hong Kong?

There have been almost exactly 460,000 new account creations for the city of Hong Kong [since Occupy Central began]. We reached a peak of about 37,000 concurrent users of the app, either posting or reading. In terms of usage, we’ve seen around eight-10 sessions a day per user.

Watch a video of an Occupy Central protester explaining how FireChat is used:

I hear that there are plans to monetize FireChat by selling location-based ads and promotions to brand owners. How could FireChat benefit brands?

We are starting to introduce verified accounts. Once we’ve done that brands will be able to share trusted information with their customers.

So have you been approached by advertisers yet?

It’s a pretty new avenue for us. We’ve been talking more about the partnerships we can create from sharing the technology, and those conversations have been mostly with music artists and celebrity agents.

What sort of advertisers do you feel will be best suited to use FireChat?

Global brands with a strong local presence. They will be able to detect their customers in the vicinity and push information to them. And they can work out quickly where the most responsive people are.

FireChat face

What FireChat looks like

In a bit more detail, can you explain how advertisers might integrate FireChat with their communications?

In practice, it would work like the verified accounts we’re now building for reporters and opinion leaders. They will have a verified profile and people who wish to know about their products and services will follow them and get notified when the brand pushes out information. It’s a direct, immediate channel to their audience, which in this sense is more powerful than Facebook, Weibo or Twitter.

You’ve built an audience quickly in Hong Kong. What are the prospects for FireChat taking off in China?

FireChat is used in China, but not as much as it could be, for obvious reasons. We are blocked in China from time to time, but people do use a VPN to subscribe. We’re looking to partner with companies who want to adopt the technology there.

A critic at IT analyst firm IDC has suggested that it will be tough for FireChat to scale, especially now that it has entered the limelight following the Hong Kong protests. What do you make of that comment?

IDC clearly has no idea about our usage levels, what our users are requesting from us and how they’re using FireChat, and how social networks are paving the way for the new internet.

There was some concern in the media over the last week in Hong Kong that because FireChat is an open platform, posts are completely public for anyone to read. Should users be concerned?

But what people write on Twitter and Facebook is also very public. FireChat was designed for entertainment purposes. It’s an open platform, but you’re not obliged to use your real identity. When we introduce private messaging, we will introduce encryption to protect content people want kept private.

What do you make of the speculation, reported last week, that the ‘mesh-networking’ concept underlying FireChat will either be copied by the social media big guns, or FireChat will become an acquisition target?

It’s pretty hot technology. We’ve been working on it for three years. The reason why we haven’t moved too quickly on improvements and new features is because, unlike regular social networks or messaging apps, the service has to work on- and offline. That means a lot of work and knowhow. Yes, we could be a target for larger web firms. We’ve already been contacted by most of them. But for now we’re focused on delighting users and building a new social medium.


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