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August 29, 2016

PlanetAll: The Story Behind the World’s First Social Networking Site

The first social networking site on the internet came out of Boston—and it wasn’t Facebook.

PlanetAll was founded in 1996 by Warren Adams and Brian Robertson. Before the term “social networking” existed, the duo out of Harvard Business School and MIT wanted to create a way for users to connect and stay in touch with different groups after college. Sound familiar?

Once touted as, “The only address book you’ll ever need,” PlanetAll had many features similar to Facebook—and let users set up web address books, calendars, and reminders to stay in contact with others. The site had over 100K different interest groups on its platform, and offered an innovative feature that would notify users when they would cross paths with their contacts.

At the time, PlanetAll was one of the largest and fastest growing databases on the web—adding nearly 20K users a day. The site had 1.5M members when it was sold to Amazon for $100M in 1998, and it secured a patent two years later for a “Social Networking System.”

“In two short years, we built the first social networking company,” Adams said. “In the internet business, we didn’t know if we would be dead one day or hit a homerun. And we felt like we had made it.”

We wanted to take a look back 20 years ago, and uncover the story of how the first social networking site was built right here in our backyard.

I recently spoke with Adams about his idea for PlanetAll, how he raised millions from local investors in the late ’90s, and how he dreamed of creating an online database that connected everyone in the world.

He was just eight years too early.

A WAY FOR COLLEGE FRIENDS TO STAY IN TOUCH

Before graduating from Colgate University in 1988, Adams wanted to create a database to keep in contact with his college friends during the summer. He essentially wanted an address book that detailed where his friends were going to be, and if they’d cross paths at any point in the future.

With the growth of the internet in the mid-’90s, Adams had the perfect chance to turn his idea into reality.

After graduating from HBS in 1995, Adams passed up a career in consulting to start PlanetAll. He didn’t have a technology background, so he teamed up with Robertson, a 22-year-old tech whiz out of MIT and former Canadian national barefoot water-skiing champion.

“Our idea was pretty simple,” Adams said. “You just needed to have the marketing and technology to get more and more users on the database.”

The duo started developing the site based out of a windowless office in Kendall Square. Robertson recruited 12 of his tech-savvy fraternity brothers to do programming to launch the site. Similarly, Adams also reached out to some of his HBS classmates to help with the initial business plan.

The company survived on money from its founders and a number of angel investors. Adams and Robertson quickly raised $1M within within six months of launching the site. In June 1997, PlanetAll raised a $4M round led by CMGI @Ventures, a local VC firm that invested in internet companies.   

The team’s objective was simple: Get big fast. They launched planetall.com in the fall of ’96, convinced that being the first of its kind on the web would ensure success.

THE FIRST ‘WAVE’ OF SOCIAL NETWORKING

PlanetAll was not the only company experimenting with this technology at the time.

SixDegrees launched in 1997 out of New York City, and was based on a “social-circles network model.” It allowed users to list friends, family members, and other acquaintances both on the site and externally. SixDegrees had nearly 3.5M members, and was eventually purchased by YouthStream Media Networks for $125M in 1999.

“We were really part of this first wave of social networking,” Adams said. “For a while, we were the only two players. We both got acquired at the same time.”

Social networking started to hit its stride with Friendster in 2002. Friendster, MySpace, Plaxo, and nearly 10 other sites enjoyed brief success in this second wave of sites, but they ultimately failed to generate enough users. Adams explained that the third wave won the web when Facebook and LinkedIn entered the scene in 2003 and 2004.

“That was our dream,” he said. “It certainly didn’t have to do with the idea, since the idea was out there over a decade before. It had to do with the technology available, bandwidth, and getting everyone on the same database.”

A SHIFT TO ECOMMERCE

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was so intrigued by the concept of PlanetAll that he bought the company for $100M in 1998.

"PlanetAll is the most innovative use of the Internet I've seen," Bezos said at the time of the buyout. “I believe PlanetAll will prove to be one of the most important online applications."

After initially saying the company would remain in Boston, Bezos decided to ship PlanetAll out west. Adams and Robertson moved to Seattle, and both became executives at the online giant.

At the time, PlanetAll had 1.5 million users and was growing faster than the internet. But for whatever reason, Bezos decided not to pursue social networking.

Within two years, Amazon had shut down the PlanetAll site, and many users were upset. One journalist even said she was “in mourning” for the service.

“Amazon took us into using social networking for e-commerce,” Adams said. “Bezos and his team had this brilliant vision for an online bookstore. He asked, ‘Would you buy more of a book if X person read it and loved it?’”

Amazon converted many of PlanetAll’s features into eCommerce, which became very lucrative for the company. Amazon’s “Purchase Circles” tool was based on PlanetAll, and some of its code was used to improve Amazon’s Friends and Favorites technology. Adams also pioneered “Amazon Anywhere,” which allowed users to shop anytime on their mobile devices. Robertson went on to create Amazon’s toy store. To this day, Amazon holds a U.S. patent on social networking based on PlanetAll.

LEAVING A LEGACY

After two years at Amazon, Adams left the company in 2000. He moved back east to start a family and fulfill a lifelong dream of living full-time on Martha’s Vineyard. Adams turned his professional attention to advising and investing in early-stage companies through his find, Vineyard Ventures.

After traveling in Patagonia, Adams was motivated by the region’s beauty to create one of the first for-profit conservation funds. He established Patagonia Sur in 2007, which acquires, conserves, and preserves large tracts of land in the region. The $25M fund has a number of Chilean and American investors, and has accumulated 700K acres of land over the past decade.

Robertson also left Amazon in 1999 and went on to have a remarkable career as a pioneer in the solar field. He was an ambitious entrepreneur—always ready to take on the next challenge. Robertson created Visible Markets, the first electronic trading platform for the U.S. bond market. He also graduated from HBS and co-founded Sun Edison LLC, North America's largest solar energy services provider, which was acquired by MEMC Electronic Materials for $200M. Robertson also served as CEO of Amonix, which became the largest manufacturer of concentrated photovoltaic commercial solar power systems during his tenure.

Robertson tragically passed away in an airplane crash in 2011. He was just 38 years old, and left behind a wife and three children.

“Brian was remarkably influential in solar financing, solar energy, and social networking,” Adams said. “He got things moving that changed the world, and he’s incredibly missed by so many.”

Adams is currently a fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative. He’s learning to combat climate change, tackling the issue from a for-profit perspective. Looking forward, he wants to help create ventures that make a difference in the world.

It’s been 20 years since Adams and Robertson started PlanetAll. Their idea may have been a bit before its time, but the impact they’ve had on social networking, as well as for-profit conservation and solar energy, will endure for years to come.

“We built one of the largest and fastest growing databases on the internet,” Adams said. “We didn’t just want to dream about the future—we wanted to create something that would change the world.”

 


Bennet Johnson is the Digital Marketing Intern for VentureFizz. Follow him on Twitter: @bennet_15