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Q&A: Jeremy Verba, CEO, Piczo

Keeping 10 million teens entertained...
Written by Dan Ilett, Contributor

Keeping 10 million teens entertained...

Three months ago, Harvard MBA graduate Jeremy Verba was running the voice services division at AOL. Today as CEO of Piczo, a social networking site for teens, he faces the tough task of holding the attention of millions of young people.

Piczo allows youngsters - mostly 13- to 16-year-olds - to create websites about themselves and their lives and then invite people to visit their site and be their 'friends'.

It was started by sending out 100 emails to individuals in Canada and has grown virally to the current user base of 10 million - four million of whom are in the UK.

Verba sat down with silicon.com to talk about Piczo's appeal, guaranteeing safety online and how enterprises can get in on social networking.

silicon.com: Why are so many teenagers writing about their lives?
Verba: Piczo satisfies a need to express. Maybe they have a first job or are playing in a football team, say. Whatever it is they are turning into group-orientated human beings. They view [self-expression] as important but it's not as core to [older people].

They also have a lot of disposable time and they are willing to put time in to be creative. This generation is really claiming the web as its own. They are going to drive innovation.

Can enterprises take advantage of social networking?
They can - you see that with LinkedIn - that's had a lot of success. But it's probably less interesting to the enterprise than it is to the consumer market. But with the rise of wikis, say, if that's in consumer then it'll be big for enterprises soon.

Where's the money in this?
It's a fundamental truth that in the media, where the audience is, that's where [companies] will go. The markets want to reach these people so they're shifting their approach and that's where the money comes.

We have 10 million worldwide users - when you have that kind of reach you can give a lot of things to a lot of people.

The UK is obviously much more robust because it's leading in terms of mobile.

Will you focus more on mobile devices for the future?
It depends on which country you are in. It won't matter which device you use... It will be split very carefully between mobile and web.

To what extent do you monitor what goes on to keep teenagers safe?
'Safety' is not a word I would use with the constituents - they prefer to use 'control'. What is so important is that you design [the site] with that built-in.

There are ways to report abuse - report and detect.

You have to be quick to respond. You have to have staff. We have to monitor what we can. We look at five to 10 per cent [of content] but there is no way we can monitor everything. There are certain key sites but we can't monitor everything. We had 2.5 billion page impressions last month.

In all this you can't just appeal to the constituents but the people who are caretaking of them - the parents. If we get an email from a parent we are straight on it. Whatever we do we have to do it very quickly.

Everyone here feels that responsibility - it comes down to being proactive and reactive about this. And if you do that properly you attract sponsors and advertisers.

Say what?

Still trying to get your head round the rise of wikis, social networking and user-generated content? Read silicon.com's web 2.0 Cheat Sheet for more on the online services revolution.

Are traditional media companies taking advantage of social networking?
Rupert Murdoch has. Traditional media companies are very smart - they know that their client base will go where their audience is - News Corp is doing a great job of that.

What's next for you?
From 100 emails to 10 million unique users - it's been pure viral growth. We have to stay ahead of the curve. These groups of people are very quick to tell us what they want.

I was brought in to build up a top-notch senior management team. If you think about this in pure business model terms the costs are based around three things - creating content, marketing and producing the site.

Our content is all produced. The marketing is all done. All we have to do is make sure that these platforms are robust.

To create a business you have to think about how you can unobtrusively introduce sponsors into that group. The advertisers can't get close enough to these [demographics].

But let's face it, there are a lot of these kind of sites. What is going to help companies break out of that like MySpace? It comes down to whether you have viral growth. Companies will come and go but social networking is here to stay.

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