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Michael Yang, CEO, Founder, Become.com

Michael YangThe first Web boom was a period in which many entrepreneurs got rich very quick. One such entrepreneur is Michael Yang who sold his MySimon shopping site to CNET for $700 million in the year 2000.

Yang is back in the startup game again, and again with a shopping site. This time out, the enterprise is called Become.com. The effort got going in earnest during a beta period in early 2005 and has since been fully launched as a publicly accessible Web site.

Become.com aims to differentiate its shopping search engine with its Affinity Index Ranking (AIR) technology. The promise is that AIR delivers greater contextual connectivity and vertical relevance.

Yang recently chatted with internetnews.com about the progress he's made so far with Become.com and the difference between a Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 startup.

Q: Since first launching one and half years ago, what has been the biggest surprise you've had with Become.com? What has happened that you didn't expect to happen?

There is more of an importance on revenue and profit in terms of our financing activity. Another is just how much need there was on the research part of the shopping process.

We were the first company to provide the research service to help people to decide not just what to buy but where to buy.

We now have the research as well as the shopping part. The surprises have been the combination of the importance of revenue and having a real business model in terms of our financing standpoint, as well as the realization that there is a need for a good objective shopping focused search engine.

Q: What do you see as the biggest myths around what Become.com is and isn't?

I don't know that there are any myths about Become.com that I would characterize as things we'd want to change. The challenge for us is to continue to get the word out. That continues to be our challenge.

We've made a lot of progress since we first launched; we've launched local shopping for example. If you look for an iPod on Become, you not only find it from the online store but from stores that offer it locally, as well.

Another thing is the search zoom where users can narrow down their search based on particular parameters.

We've formed a Japanese joint venture in Japan, where we've localized the search technology to fit the local market and language. The former president of Overture Japan runs the venture there.

We want to be the largest shopping search engine and we're definitely on our way to achieving that goal.

We have made a lot of progress but we can certainly do more.

Q: Is Affinity Index Ranking (AIR) living up to your expectations?

We continue to prove the AIR ranking technology and it's substantially better now than it was during the beta phase of our launch. We're getting quite a bit of good traction in terms of organic growth of traffic.

We filed some additional patents around it to provide some intellectual property protection around our ranking algorithm. AIR really has been a core technology and a differentiator in comparison to some of the other search engines.

I think people recognize that a specialized search engine that has a completely different index of information, with a different ranking algorithm and with search zoom capability, that they'll get the information that they want much quicker.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face with Become.com now?

I think that we have a very good strategy and an excellent team. The thing that keeps me on my toes is making sure that we're very focused and that we're executing on our goals.

We still have a lot of opportunities and room for growth how do we continue to expand our offering to make sure that we provide the most comprehensive shopping service. How do we have the largest number of users to find out about it and use it.

The challenge is about marketing and execution. We have made progress, during the beta period we had 10,000 users per month but now we're over 1.5 million users per month and still growing at a rapid rate.

We're experiencing over 500 percent growth right now on an annual basis.

Q: How is this different from your MySimon experience? What makes Web 2.0 different than Web 1.0?

I think that some things are similar and other things are very different. One area that is very different is that back in the late 90s during the first web boom there was a land grab mentality. Get big fast and don't worry about making money and profits.

Now it's not so much about sheer volume, it's about making sure you have a strong business model that you can monetize so you can build a profitable business. It's more of a substance-oriented environment rather than just sheer size or volume.

Another difference is in a lot of ways it's much easier to do a startup now because of the availability of cheap servers and open source software.

For example back in 1998 we had to buy a lot of Sun servers and Oracle database. Now we use cheap Dell servers running Linux and MySQL. In terms of costs to develop it's a lot cheaper now than it was back then.

The broad penetration of broadband also makes the quality of our service better since people can download pages that are heavy with product info much quicker. Whereas in 1998 we couldn't put as much info on a page cause modem speeds were too slow.

Q: Do you consider Become.com to be a "success"? And if not what do you still need to do/achieve in order to it to be a success?

I think we're very successful so far but we could be a lot more successful. For example we successfully raised $11.7 million in venture capital so far. We have put together a great team of people in the company.

In terms of having a world class organization and having the financing to do the work I think we're successful.

Having said that, I think we're just beginning. We still have a lot more opportunity that we can go after in terms of developing new technologies, new innovation and making the user experience more compelling and then growing our revenue in the process.