In the nine months after its public beta in March 2011, RockMelt, a cloud-based web browser, picked up more than 1 million users and made two reassuring discoveries: Some two-thirds of users were younger than 25, and people were using the personalized browser on multiple computers, iPads and iPhones. "This tells us we've made the first browser for the mobile, social media generation," says CEO Eric Vishria.
It's sweet vindication for Vishria and CTO and chairman Tim Howes. In 2007, they were searching for the next big thing to pursue after leaving Hewlett-Packard. They knew they wanted to exploit the potential of social media, but how? Their epiphany: the overlooked web browser, then dominated by Internet Explorer and Firefox.
"Ninety percent of what we do online is through a browser," Vishria says. "Yet we're stuck with browsers that were designed before social media existed. And with the cloud, going online is now a multidevice operation between your laptop, iPad and smartphone. It didn't make any sense to us that you needed to set up your bookmarks and passwords for each device."
Vishria and Howes set up shop in Mountain View, Calif., and secured nearly $10 million in funding from investors like VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. With an additional $30 million infusion last summer from Andreessen, Accel Partners and Khosla Ventures, the co-founders were ready.
RockMelt users sign in through Facebook and set up a vertical left-side toolbar with access to any social media or news app. A right-hand toolbar populates with Facebook's chat app. The result is that a user's social network is always available and never hidden. And since it sits in the cloud, RockMelt can be accessed on any computer or device.
"If we had thought of this idea in 2006, we wouldn't have been able to do it," Howes says. The idea solidified with the availability of Google Chrome (RockMelt's browser is built on the same open-source platform as Chrome) and affordable cloud storage from Amazon.
Revenue comes through a partnership with Google, which is RockMelt's default search engine. Vishria says the deal is worth "a couple dollars per user per year."
The onslaught of social media startups looks amusingly familiar to RockMelt investor Marc Andreessen, father of the Netscape browser.
"This reminds me of the search engine wars during the last dot-com boom--all these different companies fighting it out well before Google arrived," he says. So what did he see in RockMelt? "They were building the browser I would've made if social media existed in the '90s."
More Social Media Brilliance
GetHired: Your next job search will take the form of a video résumé. Companies can post jobs and questions to be answered by candidates via video.
turntable.fm: Users play DJ on this music platform by discovering songs and creating playlists to be judged by Facebook friends.
GiftSimple: Lets users register for gifts they want, then pools contributions from friends on social networks.
Mingly: A "social interaction mapping" engine that sends alerts so users don't fall out of touch with anyone in their networks.
Dwolla: This cash-inspired payments network gives users the ability to bypass credit cards by linking directly to each others' bank accounts for cheap (fees are 25 cents or less) mobile or online transactions.
Forecast: Rather than telling friends where you are with a check-in, this smartphone app from Hurricane Party allows you to share where you'll be later.
BenchPrep: This test-prep app is packed with educational materials and a social feature allowing for real-time virtual study groups.
Coffee & Power: An online marketplace where people can buy and sell small jobs--everything from crocheting octopi to developing software.
BlogFrog: Helps big brands connect with consumers by tapping into a network of bloggers and influencers who lead "sponsored" conversations and communities.