Curly red hair, three-day beard, glasses with round lenses in narrow, round horn frames. And always smiling. The nerd version of Ed Sheeran was once dubbed Richard Socher, and you can see where the idea came from. Born in Dresden, he is definitely a star: Socher is one of the most important international experts in artificial intelligence. More precisely: for Large Language Models – i.e. AI based on huge language data sets. Who now thinks of the hype topic ChatGPT, is exactly right.
Socher studied computer science in Leipzig and Saarbrücken, did research at Princeton University, and then did his doctorate at Stanford. In 2014 he founded the AI startup Metamind, only two years later he sold it to the US tech group Salesforce for 33 million US dollars. Socher worked there as chief scientist until 2020. Socher has big plans for his latest project You.com: The search engine should set new standards, trump Google and be the basis for many new offers. All based on artificial intelligence, of course.
Above all, this should enable users to ask more complex questions and receive more detailed answers. You.com is supposed to be an anti-Google: For example, you can select the sources from which the search results should come. And above all: how much of their privacy users want to reveal. Socher likes to talk about the possibilities of AI and the importance of privacy. When it comes to his own company, however, he keeps a low profile. For example, he does not want to reveal how many employees You.com have in terms of its size. Just this much: The startup is “still relatively small”. After all, so much is known: 45 million dollars flowed into You.com, the sum also confirms Socher to the start-up scene.
At the DLD tech conference in Munich, we met Richard Socher and talked to him about his latest start-up You.com, the hype surrounding ChatGPT and whether he already has the next exit in mind.
Richard, two and a half years ago you founded You.com – how is the current chat hype affecting the company?
We had already seen good growth in the search engine over the past six months. But above all, the use of our chat service YouChat has really exploded with the GPT hype.
What are your plans for You.com? You sold your first company to Salesforce after just two years – will You.com’s technology soon be part of a software company?
I don’t want to sell the company. My goal is truly to build a great, defining internet company for our generation. I also never intended to sell the first company. But sometimes you have to be pragmatic.
Why a search engine?
A lot has changed on the internet in the past 20 years. Therefore, the search must also adapt. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen that a whole new kind of search can be developed using AI, chat, and large language models.
But it shouldn’t stop there, should it? There are definitely easier ways to make money.
You.com should become a platform on which even a billion-dollar company like TikTok can be based. We hope to use the platform to enable us and others to create new business models. If that doesn’t work, we have to place advertising, like DuckDuckGo does, for example. However, we will not encroach on privacy. You get about 80 percent of the information for a personalized ad from the search queries alone, and the invasion of privacy for the remaining 20 percent is just used to squeeze even more money out of it.
Which apps will soon be on You.com?
There are actually few limits. At the moment, the most interesting applications are in AI, also because there are already built-in applications that can generate images, write texts or program.
What are the next steps?
The next milestone will come in a few weeks, when we will significantly improve the chat function and integrate it into our apps. What comes after that, I can’t say yet. In three to six months, others will have the features we currently offer. The search engine industry is so competitive right now that it’s best to keep your ideas to yourself.
Can’t you protect that with patents?
Yes, and we will too. To be honest, I find that quite annoying. You can’t do without it so that you can defend your invention. But it slows us down in development, it costs money and time.
Is You.com making money already?
We’re already making some revenue from YouWrite, which is the first app on our platform that requires payment after the free period. This allows texts to be generated on different topics. We see good growth there. For the search engine, we initially decided against advertising because that would tie up capacity and prevent us from developing.
So the turnover is still manageable.
Like most other consumer Internet providers such as Facebook, Google, Youtube or Instagram, we want to concentrate on growth first. Once you get enough users, you’ll find a way to make money. When you grow like we are doing right now, a business plan changes completely anyway.
You.com had strong growth – but the direct competitor is much larger. How do you compete with Google?
It’s very difficult, which is why many investors we spoke to canceled at first. This only works through partnerships, with the browser alternative Vivaldi, for example, You.com can already be selected as a search engine. But most people never change the basic configuration of their cell phone or laptop. That’s why Google pays tens of billions of dollars every year to be the default search engine. Of course we can’t afford that.
Then how are you going to make it?
Luckily, things are very different in the chat area. A lot is happening here right now, new offers are coming onto the market, there are no top dogs. At the same time, ChatGPT caused a lot of hype, which is why You.com was able to attract many new users. Of course, as a founder in the consumer sector, you always hope to achieve such viral growth. Now let’s surf the wave and see how long it lasts.
You like to refer to You.com as a consumer company. Wouldn’t it be easier to earn money with corporate customers?
Never say Never. (laughs) But it’s not our focus at the moment. Ultimately, it is an open platform. And if someone develops an integration with Notion or Slack, for example, it can of course also be used in companies.
Speech-based AI is currently experiencing a real hype. So is there a lot of competition in the market?
Yes, the competition is incredible. There are very, very many small search engine offerings that are being developed right now. With the new possibilities of AI and language models, completely new offers can be developed. And the fight is hard. Every day someone tries to break into our systems and steal our ideas. That’s why I don’t like to reveal exactly what we plan to do next.
You speak of many small offers. Do the big ones – Google or Microsoft – no longer play a role?
In three to six months they will certainly follow suit with their own AI-based offers. But currently, innovation tends to come from small teams. The big advantage, also from You.com, is that we all start from scratch. This opens up the possibility of developing something fundamentally new.