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TimeBridge rises again

A friend of mine sent me this blog post by Rafe Needleman about TimeBridge, an Israeli start-up backed by Mayfield and Norwest Venture Partners.

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TimeBridge offers a solution for meeting scheduling that integrates nicely with Outlook and Google Calendar. It allows users to share calendar information with each other and easily schedule meetings. I’ve downloaded, installed, and uninstalled the service at least twice as I waited for them to iron out the kinks, improve the UI, and reduce the CPU burden. Prompted by Rafe’s post, I downloaded it again, and sent out an invite for meeting. So far, great UI and no performance issues. If TimeBridge can really help me with the nightmare of meeting scheduling, it will probably be a keeper.

But this post isn’t really about TimeBridge. It’s about the business model issues facing companies like TimeBridge.

At first glance, the TimeBridge business model might seem problematic for a few reasons:

  1. Their core offering is free and its nearly impossible to charge for it.
  2. They require users to download a client for Outlook integration – a high bar to pass
  3. There are very limited advertising opportunities here (no one wants banners in their Outlook…)
  4. TimeBridge is to some extent dependent on Outlook and Google and other large calendar players

In his post, however, Rafe explains that TimeBridge may have found a business model that circumvents these challenges. The company does, indeed, require a download for Outlook integration and its probably never going to be able to show lots of ads or charge for premium services. As such, even Fred Wilson’s now-famous Fremium business model may be out of reach. But TimeBridge, to the credit of CEO Yori Nelken, has figured out that if it can integrate itself into a key business activity (meeting scheduling) with enough users (knowledge workers like you and me), it can be in a position to helpfully offer some premium services provided by other players (in this case, meeting services such as conference calling, screen sharing, shared space, and more). As Rafe points out, these are not TimeBridge’s services, but services offered by others. In Internet terminology, TimeBridge has turned itself into a kind of affiliate marketing platform for meeting services. As long as their acquisition cost is low enough, its a model that makes lots of sense. Whether or not it’s a model that will be large enough to drive meaningful VC returns is another story…but time will tell.

The TimeBridge story cuts to the heart of Internet business models and reminds us of a key truism, that VCs and others too often forget. If you can keep your acquisition costs truly low (in this case through some nice viral effects), and if you can create a sticky user experience where they keep coming back (in this case to schedule meetings), it doesn’t really matter if you can charge for your service or not – as long as you can find a way to convert that persistent engagement into revenue by driving some small percentage of your users to do something that is valuable to someone else. TimeBridge might look like “enterprise 2.0” or productivity software, but that is just a clever disguise. TimeBridge is a media company.