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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Marissa Mayer’s Next Act Is Here

When Marissa Mayer decided to start her own company, after nearly five years as Yahoo’s CEO and 13 years at Google, she turned to her rolodex of contacts. For a startup in its early stages, success often has less to do with what you’re building than who is building it. And Mayer, one of Silicon Valley’s marquee names, had a lot of numbers she could call. There are over 14,000 people stored in her iPhone.

So it’s not surprising that Mayer assembled a fine team at Lumi Labs. Enrique Muñoz Torres, her cofounder, has more than a decade of experience in advertising and search products; Rohit Chandra, the head of engineering, has a PhD from Stanford. Like many of the other recruits, they worked with Mayer at Yahoo and Google, and no doubt jumped at the chance to work with her again, in the old Google office that she’d rented for the “good juju.”

Mayer, who was the 20th employee of Google, has spent her career on some of the most iconic products in consumer software. She designed the interface for Google Search, organizing the world’s information, and helped to launch Google Maps, an ambitious project in mapping the entire planet. She was also on the small team that developed Google AdWords, the platform responsible for most of Google’s revenue. At Yahoo, where she became CEO in 2012, she oversaw the acquisition of Tumblr; when she left, in 2017, she reportedly received a $186 million exit package. That, along with her deep connections and star power in Silicon Valley, put Mayer in a position to do whatever she wanted next. She has chosen to make a better address book: an iPhone app for organizing your contacts, using AI.

“It's crazy that we can have self-driving cars and global facial recognition, but still can't do simple things like remove duplicates in your contacts,” Mayer said, in an interview this week with WIRED.

Word that Lumi Labs’ first product would focus on contacts was initially reported by The Information last July. After two years and $20 million in capital investments, not to mention Mayer’s own money, that app, Sunshine Contacts, is finally here. Lumi Labs is also rebranding as Sunshine for the launch.

For now, Sunshine Contacts is available by invitation only. After downloading the app, users can grant it access to their Apple Contacts and Gmail. Sunshine Contacts scrapes information from those contact lists and messages to build a database of people you know. (The company has pledged to “protect your data, keep it safe, and never sell it.”) It automatically deletes double entries, syncs scattered information, and fills in gaps like a missing last name. It can also update out-of-date information, like deleting someone’s old corporate email, and has features to easily swap contact information with people nearby. The app is free to use, with plans to introduce paid features later on.

In a demonstration, Mayer showed how Sunshine Contacts can automatically enrich contact information—for example, merging a phone number stored in Apple’s Contacts with an address pulled from someone’s email signature. It also allows people to share their own contact information by updating a contact card within the app, similar to updating the contact card within Apple’s native contacts app. On Sunshine, though, people can share this information in varying tiers: a “personal” card contains information like cell phone and Gmail, and a “professional” card contains workplace information. When updating their information, Sunshine Contact users can choose who gets to see it. They can also opt to share “just one thing”—like a work email—when exchanging contact information with someone nearby, useful for awkward moments like meeting a stranger at a conference.

“It might appear to be a trivial thing at first sight,” says Muñoz Torres, Sunshine's confounder, “but if you have complete information about where people are working, how you can reach out to them, when their birthday is, that enables you to be much more thoughtful.” Mayer’s own networking skills are the stuff of Silicon Valley legend, and the idea that deeper relationships is just an organizational app away has some appeal.

Convincing people that all of this is important enough to download a new app—let alone granting it access to all your contacts and entire Gmail inbox—may take some work. I was granted access to Sunshine Contacts and found that it works well, but is about as interesting as flipping through the White Pages. I downloaded it, spent some time familiarizing myself, and then never opened it again.

Other productivity apps have become Silicon Valley status symbols. Superhuman, an invite-only email app, had 180,000 people on its waiting list at one point last year. Slack had similar buzz: More than 8,000 people requested invitations to the app when its beta became available in 2013. But those apps promised to improve email, which can suck up hours of the day. It’s hard to imagine making the same sell for phone contacts

Chandra, who runs Sunshine’s engineering, acknowledged that the pain of disorganized contacts has not yet risen to the level for most people to pay attention. “It hasn't become huge enough for the first-class companies to focus on it,” he says, “but I think that it’s something that has an opportunity to bring significant consumer value.”

Sunshine Contacts is the startup’s first app, but Mayer says the goal is to build a suite of products, each aimed at addressing “smart, small-scale sharing” in areas like photo sharing or event scheduling. “We're interested in taking some of the latest technologies, including artificial intelligence, as well as other sophisticated algorithms and applying them to some of the overlooked everyday problems,” she says.

Unlike the founders of Superhuman and Slack, who have described their products in grand scale, Mayer referred to Sunshine’s turf as “simple” and “mundane.” At a time when technology’s disruption can so easily become destruction, there’s something refreshing about a startup whose ambitions are decidedly more banal. Sunshine Contacts isn’t trying to change the world. But in playing it so safe, Mayer might not change much of anything.

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