How would you define entrepreneur? Try this: someone who sees an opportunity so clearly — something that everyone else has missed — that it becomes an obsession.
Welcome to the world of Tomer Kagan, CEO and co-founder of Quixey, a tech startup that describes its business as “the search engine for apps.”
Sounds modest enough — until you realize what Kagan really has in mind, which is nothing less than going after Google, disrupting its business and breaking its near-monopolistic hold over Internet search.
“We’ve said it onstage,” says Kagan. “I was probably one of the first people ever to do that.”
Pretty gutsy, perhaps even a little crazy, for a company that raised a mere $74 million, occupies an old appliance store in downtown Mountain View, Calif., and employs just 130 people. Google, by comparison, is worth $373 billion and has nearly 50,000 employees.
And talk about biting the hand: One of Quixey’s first investors is Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, through his venture capital firm Innovation Endeavors.
The Web is growing beyond … your desktop, … into a world of software. A lot of the infrastructure around making sense of the software never really evolved.
— Tomer Kagan
Quixey’s deceptively simple mission sounds somewhere between improbable and impossible — until you listen to Kagan long enough, and then it begins to seem not only plausible, but also weirdly inevitable.
Kagan, 30, is heavyset and cordial, and has a serious, unsmiling demeanor. The Silicon Valley native talks fast, rolling out facts, ideas and anecdotes that are hard to keep pace with, but that bind together with a tightly stitched logic.
For a glimpse of Kagan’s vision, check out the talk he gave on the future of apps to the Application Developers Alliance. It’s geeky, but Kagan’s notion of the future, a world in which apps — little software programs — are everywhere, is flat-out astonishing for its clarity and persuasiveness.
And then there’s Kagan’s big idea: Google’s business is founded on decades-old technology of webpages and links — far removed from 2014, when information and utility are increasingly locked away in apps — like Orbitz or Open Table or Yelp — that Google’s Web crawlers can’t see.
“I don’t care if you call it a Web app, or an app for your phone, an app for your TV,” he told OZY. “The Web is growing beyond just being on your desktop, and it’s growing into a world of software.” Added to that, he says: “A lot of the infrastructure around making sense of the software never really evolved.”
And it ain’t just apps: “We kind of say apps and we kind of wink, because we don’t think the Web is anything but apps. By searching for apps, we also mean, over time, handling every single thing you could imagine searching for.”
I’d like to create the market where there is a place for developers, and the Internet doesn’t have to get strangled by a few large players.
— Tomer Kagan
Kagan believes that Quixey has got the solution — something he calls “deep search“ — and its first product debuts in a few months. Here’s a snapshot: Type in your favorite restaurant or food, and Quixey will provide not just links to a bunch of apps, like Google, but also the results inside of CityEats and Yelp and Open Table, including the reservation button. That, Kagan argues, will allow true competition among apps for the first time, by allowing a side-by-side comparison of results — assuming it works and consumers get to know it and like it.
Google is also creating its own apps that compete directly against Yelp or Kayak. Type in a flight route — or, say, Thai food — on Google, and it displays its own results on top (direct links to United Airlines, for example), relegating the competing apps to links further down the page. Kagan says that Quixey’s search technology will rob Google of its advantage.
“I’d like to create the market where there is a place for developers,” says Kagan, “and the Internet doesn’t have to get strangled by a few large players.”
Kagan is a serial entrepreneur — he paid his way though college by founding a custom-apparel printing business — but he’s never pulled off anything remotely this ambitious. He says that he enjoys mentoring younger employees and, after a few weeks of intense work, he spends time hiking or at the beach in Santa Cruz. But he also admits he might not be an easy guy to work for and, single with no kids, makes an unconvincing case that there’s much more to his life other than Quixey, 24/7.
Perhaps Kagan’s biggest challenge is turning products into a stream of revenue. That means capturing customers who now go elsewhere for search. Might Microsoft pay big to use his technology to boost its lagging Windows Phone system? Might Apple conclude that its iTunes search function “sucks” (as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs might have put it) and find something better at Quixey?
Too soon to say, but Kagan already has a major ace in the hole. One of Quixey’s largest investors is the Chinese Internet behemoth Alibaba, which may want to use the startup’s search technology against Internet rivals at home. Last year, some U.S.-based venture capital investors pulled back, unable to agree on how to value Quixey, before Alibaba stepped in.
“A lot of what Alibaba is doing is creating a marketplace where it doesn’t matter if you are a large corporation or a mom-and-pop,” says Kagan. “You should have the same capability to sell to the market. I think we really align on vision.”
Many have tried and failed to dismantle Google’s lock on Internet search. If Alibaba shares Kagan’s conviction and enthusiasm, it easily has the resources to keep him in the game for a long time. Long enough to “disrupt” Google? Kagan may have said just that on stage — but now it’s showtime.
Why you should care
Google’s dominance might seem like a fact of life, but not if fast-changing technologies make other search-engine options even more attractive.