NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
Glenn Kaino has always juggled art and technology. While running a successful Web design company throughout the dot-com years, he also cultivated a fine art career showing at galleries—including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 2006 he combined his careers through Uber.com, a publishing Web site for visual artists, photographers, writers and musicians. It’s grown to over 500,000 unique visits a month, according to Nielson Online, and it hosts notable musicians like Gnarls Barkley and the Jonas Brothers. Writer Dennis Nishi spoke with Mr. Kaino about his career and what it’s like to compete in the social-networking space.
Full name: Glenn Kaino
Hometown: Cerritos, Calif.
Current position: Co-Founder and president of Uber.com
First job: Graphics for Image Comics
Favorite job: Always the current one
Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts, University of California at Irvine; Master of Fine Arts University of California at San Diego
Years in the industry: 15
How I got to here in 10 words or less: Making things that people enjoy, think about and interact with
Q: Where did the idea for Uber come from?
A: It started in 1993. The first Web site I made out of college was called Favela.com and it was a seven person group done out of my downtown studio. It was one of the first contemporary art Web sites and the formative germ of what, ultimately, via a circuitous route, would become Uber.
Q: What was premise of Favela?
A: We wanted to work with artists that didn’t have any access to the Web. We didn’t have the technology we have now with Uber. Instead, we did everything manually. We contacted thousands of artists like Masami Teraoka and Edgar Heap of Birds and put up Web sites for them, documenting their projects. Universities began linking to our site since it was an early reference point for original material and Yahoo asked us to create some artist categories for them. Back in the day there wasn’t a lot of original material on the Web.
Q: It sounds ahead of its time. What happened?
A: After three years, it just went away. The teams got broken up. Everybody moved on to other projects. Some people lost interest.
Q: That’s when you started building corporate Web sites?
A: Yes, we worked for many companies like Fox.com, for the Fox Network, the Disney Channel and Uncle Ben’s Rice. In many cases, we were the primary contractor. We launched a lot of Web sites.
Q: You even worked at Napster for a while—how did you end up there?
A: By 1999, my studio had grown to 35 people. That’s when I met Jimmy Iovine, who runs Interscope Records. His wife was one of my clients. He was looking for somebody to build a new project called Farm Club, which was a Web site, television show and record label. He ended up just buying our company. That’s when I went to work on an interactive project for a few years as a part of Universal Music Group. Subsequently Universal got bought out by Vivendi, and after some reorganization, I ended up helping to build the subscription music site called Pressplay, which eventually got bought out by Napster. I found myself as the chief creative officer.
Q: When did you decide to start Uber?
A: I left Napster in 2006 to head in a different direction. At the same time, my cousin had just stepped down as CEO at Friendster. We got together at a family Christmas party and were just talking about what we were doing. Uber was floating in my head so I mentioned that idea. The next thing you know, we were fundraising and putting together a team.
Q: What was the goal of Uber and how did it differ from Favela?
A: The idea is to be a publisher of world ideas online to use our knowledge of technology to facilitate an audience by allowing people to use our tools to express themselves. This technology didn’t exist back when we did Favela. We also wanted to move from mass media being a validating tool into the idea of the audience validating themselves and creating a much more plural environment.
Q: Who’s the typical user?
A: Photographers, bloggers, artistically and culturally curious people. There are several comedy blogs, a contingent of video gamers. We ideally want everyone from individuals, entrepreneurs, small businesses and perhaps even large businesses to utilize our platform for authorship.
Q: How does Uber differ from other social networking sites like Facebook?
A: We have different core missions. Uber was never meant to be just a social network. What we wanted to bring to the table that was different from Facebook and MySpace was the ability for people to author better-looking environments for themselves and provide context.
Q: How’s the site doing?
A: We’ve had a very steady and very continuous growth over the past year. Discovery is one of our new strategic investors and with them, we’re doing a bunch of different projects. We’re doing stuff with the (television show) Miami Ink and the LA Ink tattoo community. We have a few more projects in the works that we’ll be launching shortly.
Q: What are some ways the site generates income?
A: Right now we’re advertiser and partnership based but we’re implementing some premium services. Different value benefits for people. The ability to sell photos and other work.
Q: I hear you’re a workaholic. How do you make time for your personal artwork?
A: I’m always multi-tasking. For me everything just flows naturally together and the difference between fine art and pop culture is timing, rhythm and expectation. And I’ve found that they inform each other very nicely. And when it comes to the physical manifestation, I work with a large team. So I’m always working on stuff simultaneously. People interpret the activity of what we’re doing as one of my art projects. In turn, my investors and my partner know I take it very seriously as a business.
Write to Dennis Nishi at email@example.com