Farhad Mohit is the founder and CEO of Cheerful, inc. In 1999, he created and led Shopzilla, one of the world’s largest comparison shopping sites, from inception through a $569 million sale to E.W. Scripps in 2005. And, even earlier, in 1996 he created BizRate.com, which was one of the first and largest consumer feedback networks in the world, surveying tens of millions of people each year. Mohit’s accolades continue on: a TED Patron; a board member of Soliya.net; and a founding trustee of The Farhang Foundation to boot.
When he called me, I expected my voice to quiver. After all, it is not every day that I receive phone calls from people who have sold their companies for hundreds of millions of dollars. But, he was so calm and casual that I felt like an old friend was calling. We chatted about an Iranian movie I’d just seen, A Separation, and Mohit waxed poetically about film, his birth country of Iran, and Iranian mythology. We seemed so lost in our conversation, that I had forgotten the purpose of our call. I spoke with him to chat about his newest endeavor, Cheers, the like button for the world around you.
But a bit about Cheers from their website before we start:
Cheers is the “like button” for the world around you — a fun social way of expressing love and appreciation for anyone, anything, anywhere.
With Cheers you can quickly and easily:
Cheers just went live last Thursday, so congratulations are definitely in order. Talk to us about that experience and how it was different than taking some of your other projects, like Bizrate and Shopzilla, live.
They were vastly different experiences. Bizrate was at a different time in the web. It started as a business rating service; our launch was focused on signing up businesses who ran the ecommerce sites. Zero people knew about it; so the launch was nothing to speak of.
Shopzilla was born out of Bizrate. That was the other end of the extreme where everyone covered it—CNN, New York Times, etc. Bizrate was the 30th biggest site in the world when Shopzilla was launching, so we had a ton of buzz, muscle and power behind our launch.
Cheers is something completely different. We started with a private beta with about 150 people, and not much fan-fare. The people were so excited about Cheers though that they were clamoring for the ability to invite their friends and tell others about it. And, when we opened to the public, it was like a cheerful explosion right out of the gate. People seem to be immediately catching on to the idea of a service that gives them an easy way to express love and appreciation and share it with the world.
Also, Apple featured us this week—and that’s not something you can muscle your way into. They told us that 160 lifestyle apps just came out this week alone, so just to be featured is quite an honor. It’s exploding; I don’t know how to explain it better, maybe bursting with joy is better. Organically and amazingly, people are telling each other. And it’s kind of picking up. It’s a joy to see it happen. As people express the love in their hearts, they give license for others to do the same.
Talk to us about the nuts and bolts of how Cheers actually work.
It’s quite simple. It’s cheers to a person, place, or thing; you can take a picture with your camera and add an unlimited amount of text. It’s really all about your angle. And that’s a very important distinction. Cheers is self-expression; it’s about giving appreciation and revealing a little bit about yourself. That’s the secret sauce. You can share it on Facebook and Twitter and send it out in all different directions on social media. It shows you in a good light and shines a spotlight on your corner of the universe. If you’re showing cheers and appreciating the things around you, that’s sort of a key to happiness. If I’m happy and grateful about the things I have, it just sort of lifts my spirits. Those moments accumulate and become your life. You only have the moments.
You and your wife just welcomed a new addition to the family. It’s a bit of a leading question, but how did having a child influence your decision to make Cheers?
It’s a phase of life thing. If you look at Bizrate, it’s a sort of hunt and gatherer type of app. All of us have to do that; you have to eat something to keep you going. There is a material need. But then, the reason you’re doing all of that stuff and living is for something bigger. And to be cheesy, it’s love. And I think on that front, certainly a child is the top of the ladder. It’s such an amazing thing to have an innocent, helpless, and dependent thing that literally lives because it’s cute and loveable. That’s the phase that I’m in. It’s our first child and I couldn’t tell you how happy I am that Cheers is aligned with that. In my personal development, it has to be something like Cheers that I had to be working on right now. The fact that it’s getting a good reception right now, maybe means that it’s a good time for the world as well to be meditating on things beyond the material. And nothing does that, in my view, like focusing on expressing love and connecting through appreciation.
Can you give us an example of how Cheers is about connecting through appreciation ?
I cheered our home birth. It was a big thing for our family; my father’s an obstetrician, and it was a huge step for us to forsake the hospital and have natural birth at home. I wanted to really cheer on our midwife. At the time of the birth, there were only 150 people participating in Cheers. One of them was an ex-Shopzilla guy and he commented saying that he had had two home births with the same midwife. Then, our designer cheered it on, saying she had taken birthing classes from our midwife. So because of a simple cheer, I now have a much bigger connection with two professional acquaintances. We share a passion for something much more important, that we’d never have known otherwise!
Normally we ask our interviewees about collaboration efforts between their organization and similar initiatives going on in their field, but I’m not sure if that question is applicable to Cheers since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of other positivity apps out there. Can you talk about how it feels to be the lone stallion of the pack?
We went out with some trepidation. There are 500,000 apps and none of them are focused on positivity. That’s a little risky claim to make, but so far it’s true. No one has come to us and said are you crazy? This is exactly like that?
What’s funny about the world today is how interconnected we are. Various organizations are now starting to reach out to us and look for collaboration possibilities. While we may have the sole app, there are a lot of folks who are excited about collaboration and will hopefully jump on the bandwagon. I hope many people will start to catch the bug and those with large networks will start cheering. It’s so simple to help—cheers to what you love.
We tend to be skeptical of things that cannot be measured in numbers. How will you measure the impact of Cheers beyond just metrics?
Our app is all about connections. The push notifications are a great proxy to measure that. A push notification means that I sent a blip of positivity to a phone. You can also turn those off in the app. So, what we’re looking at is are these connections meaningful enough to keep them coming?
We just launched, but in the last week, we had something on order of 2.2 million push notifications. And it’s a perfect exponential curve. We’re interested in how people’s activity changes over time. Some times people become multiple cheers person instantly, and some times it takes a while. It’s not scientific data, but we are measuring our app and trying to make it as effective as it can be.
For a man who’s driven by positivity, I hate to ask the negative question. Can you talk to us a little bit about challenges you’ve faced both in developing Cheers and in your work in the tech industry?
It’s a bit strange, but Cheers was actually born out of an app called Gripe. Gripe is a way for people to complain constructively using their social network—kind of like a much better business bureau. With Gripe, you register on facebook, press the gripe, and then detail what happened. For example, AT&T contacted a friend of mine saying he was using too much data on his unlimited plan. So he wrote a gripe and explained how AT&T could right their wrong.
I think people need to be more powerful than institutions. I wish people ran the world. My idea behind Gripe was that people are powerful and people can use their networks to hold institutions accountable for their actions. The thing that we weren’t expecting was that very few people used Gripe. People were nervous about using their real names, but you can’t anonymously gripe. So it takes something really big before you write a gripe.
So we put a little cheer button. And noticed that anyone who used Gripe more than once, ended up cheering more than griping. It signaled that there was something special there.
So Cheerful, inc. has Gripe and Cheers, which is a complicated story to tell to investors. Gripe is your first amendment right to petition your grievances and hold institutions accountable. Cheers is the desire in your heart to express love and appreciation and to connect with others. The big challenge hasn’t been a technical one; it’s been a social one. It’s difficult to let investors know that these things coexist.
Shifting gears a little bit, what do you see as the role of technology in building peace?
Technology brings transparency and accountability to peace building. A lot of times conflicts are the result of deliberate or created misunderstandings. The best way to avoid that is bring transparency and allow people to connect. Institutions, and it’s a little bit of my bias, are all corrupt and need to be carefully monitored, whereas people are on the whole innately good, and able to directly represent their own needs.
The number one thing we have for civil society in the US is the first amendment. It gives us five fundamental freedoms: freedom of religion—this is nothing more than the ability to have your own ideas; freedom of speech—the right to say those ideas; freedom of press—to publish those ideas, and this really wasn’t a freedom until technology came along to make press (blogging) available to all; freedom of assembly— again, not a right enjoyed by all until twitter came along and allowed any man with great ideas he’d published to get a large following; the last of these rights is the right to petition these grievances—it used to be very expensive to gather signed petitions and now, guess what? This is what a gripe is.
Technology’s role in building peace is very simple: it’s about letting us enjoy our fundamental rights, like those of the first amendment, so we can see things transparently and allowing us to connect with one another to let each other know. All the hidden agendas come to the forefront thanks to technology and that will lead to a more peaceful world, because, people don’t want to be in conflict with people.
Your portfolio is pretty incredible, and that probably translates to a lot of hours in the office. How do you maintain a balance between work and personal life?
I’m kind of wondering that myself. I think that it’s a difficult thing and I don’t want to pretend that I’ve mastered it at all. We’re in launch phase right now and I’m 24/7 connected to the network. If I’m not working on the product itself, I’m looking at how people use it.
The number one thing is to be doing what you love, but your family also has to be into it. That’s one of the fortunate things; my wife is very supportive of Cheers and she believes in what we’re working on. So when I bring the work home, she’s into it. I don’t know if it’s possible for everyone. But honestly, sometimes you just need to take some time off. The company won’t fall apart. Fortunately, you’re not that important – nobody is. Take a week off. Peace and conflict will still be there when you get back. You can’t let it be too consuming, because you’ll just become unhappy on the job, or worse, fall ill and become totally unproductive. The good news is that when you do take some time to breathe, you’ll realize, hey, life is pretty good and return with more gusto and energy. In the end, we should all embrace how infinitesimally irrelevant we are in the big picture. It helps keep the ego in check and us happier in general.
I want to leave our network with the youtube video that you all created. Any comments on that video?
My mom had a magnet on that fridge growing up that said, “If you don’t appreciate what you have, how can you be happy with more?” We live in a capitalistic society where institutions are all geared around telling us more, more, more. If you actually believe that, then you’ll never be satisfied. The paradox there is that you can never actually do better now. All you can do is appreciate it. I love that quote; those nows make up your life. Start appreciating them, and next thing you know, you become a happy person.
Any last words for our network?
I hope you all jump on cheers and try the thing out. The app is a little deceptive in that the like button for the world around you may not seem like much at first blush. I never really used the products that I developed; so, I thought cheers would be just one of those things I’m making for others. But then I used it, and I was like, wait a minute, this is pretty cool, like each cheer was revealing a little part of what’s inside my heart. I don’t really post things to facebook or if I do, it’s something informational, but I found myself on cheers just cheering the little stuff that means so much, and I got so much positive feedback that it’s sort of unlocked my public persona. And now I do it regularly. I’m sharing and connecting and it’s subtle. If you just try it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. There’s more to Cheers than meets the eye!
Please also see this wonderful video about Chee.rs