Former Hulu CTO Aims to Reinvent the Photo Album

New startup Erly launches first social app

A team of former Hulu executives have created a new startup called Erly, built around the belief that people want a new way to connect online.

The company is launching its first product today, a photo-sharing service with the name Collections, but CEO Eric Feng says that's just the first of a number of planned apps. In fact, Feng (who is Hulu's former chief technology officer) and his co-founders (Eugene Wei, Hulu's former head of product, and Andrew Lin, former head of engineering) started Erly without a specific product in mind—they just saw an opportunity for a different kind of social networking experience.

Most existing social networks are designed and navigated around people, Feng points out, while the idea of experience-based social products has been relatively neglected. If that sounds a bit abstract, the difference becomes clearer when you compare Collections with photo-sharing on Facebook. Facebook albums are created by one person, and people usually browse them based on the users tagged in each image. (In fact, Facebook director of engineering Andrew Bosworth has said that has said user tagging was the key feature that turned Facebook Photos into a huge success.) Similarly, popular photo-sharing app Instagram shows you photos based on the users that you follow.

Erly's Collections, on the other hand, are built collaboratively, and users are expected to browse Collections of photos, rather than seeing every photo taken by or featuring a certain friend. So if you want to remember a party you threw, you could start a Collection and upload your own photos of the event (and other media like videos and website links), then invite friends who can all add their own pictures. You can also prompt your friends by posting requests to upload a images of, say, a specific event at the party or a person. It's all presented in what Erly calls a "magazine-style layout," which any of the participants in a Collection can edit. There's also a "week in review" feature that creates a Collection of media from your Facebook account to illustrate what's been happening among your Facebook friends for the past week.

Given the recent excitement around mobile photo-sharing, it's a bit surprising that Erly's first application is a website designed for regular browsers, not a smartphone app. Feng says that's because mobile phones are great for taking and uploading photos, but they don't offer the best media browsing experience.

Still, Erly will have mobile apps soon, Feng promises. He compares the Erly model to Digg founder Kevin Rose's new company Milk—rather than focusing on a single product, Feng plans to release a new app every 60 to 90 days. For starters, he says, Collections tackles the past, but eventually Erly's apps should encompass the future (for example creating an event scheduling and recommendation service) and the present. And behind the scenes, Erly can use the data from all its apps to create what Feng calls "an experience graph."

When Feng describes Collections, it sounds a bit like the infamous photo-sharing app Color. Like Color, Erly was founded by a team of well-known veterans, it's backed by a famous venture capital firm (in Erly's case it's Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where Feng was a partner) and it's offering an unusual photo-browsing experience as the first step in a larger social vision. But here's one key difference: Where Color's actual app was confusing and counter-intuitive, Collections is built around an easily-understood metaphor, the photo album. Once a user has created an account, it's possible to create a new album with just a few clicks, or they can even import albums from Facebook.