What happens when one of your beta testers likes your product so much that they decide to clone it and become a competitor?Lawrence Lewitinn, a hedge fund manager turned entrepreneur, is finding out.
A few weeks ago we heard a rumour that there was a Facebook/ Winklevoss situation in TechStars, a New York startup accelerator.
Specifically, we were told one entrepreneur stole the idea for his company, applied to TechStars, and was accepted.
That startup was Jonathan Wegener’s Friendslist.
TechStars says it knew of the rumour but brushed it off as baseless.
“TechStars vets each company carefully before being accepted into the program,” says TechStars NYC Managing Director David Tisch. “TechStars was always aware that Friendslist had been inspired by Facebook groups, so when I heard a rumour that Jonathan had taken someone else’s idea, it was obvious that it was a baseless rumour.”
After speaking with both founders, here’s the real story.
Last summer, hedge fund manager Lawrence Lewitinn had an idea for a company. The company would be a lot like Craigslist except that all the listings would be created by friends of friends. The company would be an outgrowth of a private Facebook Group that Lewitinn had been running since 2008: Lawrence’s List.
Lewitinn started working on his startup, Socialisting, with designers at Hard Candy Shell.
Lawrence’s List now has more than 1,200 members who are friends of friends. Wall posts range from “Selling tv stand for $50 OBO!” to “My friend is looking for an office space private or shared with awesome people+good energy and quiet.”
To see if the idea could scale, Lewitinn encouraged friends to create their own lists. One of his friends, Janelle Gunther, created a list which now has more than 1,800 members. One of these members is Lewitinn. He is also the group’s administrator. Another member is Jonathan Wegener.
Inspired by Lewitinn and Gunther, Wegener created his own Facebook group, Weg’s List. He then reached out to Gunther about turning the concept into a company – the startup that’s now called Friendslist. Gunther encouraged him to speak with Lewitinn about Socialisting, which was already in the works.
“I actually emailed Jonathan first last August and said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re doing something similar and we should talk,” Lewitinn says. “I’d rather do something complimentary than competitive.'”
Wegener was cooperative and agreed to discuss the startups further.
But no talk ever happened.
Family issues arose for Lewitinn; worrying about possible competition fell by the wayside. “I tried emailing him again in November, then again in December and we sort of lost touch,” says Lewitinn. “That was probably right around the time Jonathan entered TechStars and honestly, he slipped my mind.”
Wegener recalls speaking with Lewitinn before his TechStars application. That’s when he first learned about Socialisting.
“[Learning about Socialisting] did accelerate my process,” Wegener says. “It made me feel like it was a race. There’s a fear that first mover advantage is everything and you wake up in the morning expecting [the competition] to take over the world.”
Wegener and Lewitinn did not speak again until last month, afer Lewitinn heard about Wegener’s TechStars DEMO Day presentation and became alarmed.
“I had heard he was doing something and then I didn’t hear anything again until I saw it in TechStars. Then I was like, ‘Woah, what’s going on here,” says Lewitinn. “Everyone was saying ‘That Friendslist guy stole your idea.'”
Lewitinn asked Wegener for a meeting. The two sat down on May 15 to hash out their startups and get to the bottom of the confusion.
The surprise ending is that the two came out of the meeting friends; Lewitinn even says he’d like Wegener to date his sister.
Lewitinn says his mentality before the meeting was: “Oh no. What’s happening to me?”
But then: “We sat down and talked; he’s very nice.”
“When we saw everything we thought there was enough of a difference between my company, Socialisting, and Friendslist that we could see people using both – like sometimes people post on Craigslist and on eBay.”
Wegener admits that he derived inspiration from Lewitinn’s Facebook group. “The idea came about from Lawrence’s List and Janelle’s List and thinking abstractly,” he says.
His company is set up precisely the way Lawrence’s List and Janelle’s List are. Every user is a “curator” and has his or her own list which friends of friends can join.
Socialisting is actually more different than the Facebook groups that inspired both companies. Instead of creating multiple lists, it is one large list that every user has different levels of visibility to based on social connections.
Wegener didn’t purposely steal Lewitinn’s idea, but “borrowed inspiration.”
“Borrowed inspiration,” by the way, is a common issue entrepreneurs face. One publicizes their idea to test it out, another sees it and gets inspired.
The whole story is also a testament to ideas being worthless and execution being everything.
Rather than becoming arch nemeses, Wegener and Lewitinn are trying to compliment each other. Wegener is a member of Socialisting, and the two founders exchange ideas and messages often.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” says Lewitinn. “He’s a very smart guy, he’s a go-getter and I can’t help but like him.”
“If there’s one lesson to be learned from all of this, [it’s that] if everyone sat down and said ‘Hey, what’s going on here,’ you’d find there’s common ground and give each other tips and help each other out.”
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