Pulse, a popular news-reading app for Apple's iOS and Google's Android, could end up being the Netflix of the news business if Akshay Kothari can have his way.
Kothari is one of two 24-year-old co-founders -- along with fellow Stanford Institute of Design grad Ankit Gupta -- of Alphonso Labs, the Palo Alto start-up that makes Pulse, which is on a bit of a hit streak lately.
Alphonso Labs announced Thursday that it had closed a $9-million round of funding to help Pulse make its way to other mobile platforms. Pulse won an Apple Design Award at the tech giant's annual Worldwide Developer Conference this month. Alphonso Labs also rolled out a new website, Pulse.me, which enables its users to save stories they find on the Web to read in the Pulse app later on.
This month Alphonso Labs surpassed 4 million downloads of Pulse across Apple's iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, as well as phones and tablets running Android.
"We really want to create something that stays with you wherever you are, that stays consistent across platforms and devices," Kothari said in an interview Friday. "I really like how Netflix works in wherever you stop watching something, it picks up right where you left off. No matter what app or platform you're using Netflix on, you can pick up at the same spot if you want next time you use Netflix. You don't have to start over.
"I'd like to bring that sort of thing to news reading, so we might explore that a bit."
Pulling off such a lofty goal, and being as disruptive to publishing and journalism as Netflix has been to movies and TV, will take some resources -- probably far more than the $9 million that Alphonso Labs has just raised.
It will also take having the right people guiding the company's growth, Kothari said, who noted that he believes the company has the right people in place.
Those people include Alan Patricof and Ken Lerer, who were part of the team that first financed the Huffington Post website, which has provided a bit of disruption to the paradigm of news websites and blogs.
Patricof is managing director at Greycroft Partners and Lerer manages Lerer Ventures, two venture capital firms which, along with New Enterprise Associates, make up the funders of Alphonso's $9-million round of Series A investments.
Lerer will serve as an advisor to the app maker, which was founded just 13 months ago. Patricof, along with New Enterprise's co-head of consumer investing, Patrick Chung, will join Alphonso Labs' board of directors.
Kothari said the new leadership and advice should help Pulse, a 10-employee company, continue to grow by bringing in some news-industry savvy that wasn't around before.
"I think not having the background allows us to in some ways think from a very clean-state perspective," he said. "We're basically technology people. We're product people. We don't have a deep understanding of journalism or publishing. But we do have a deep understanding of user interface and we just wanted to make news reading fun again."
As graduate students at Stanford when Alphonso was founded, Kothari said he and Gupta were hoping to make Pulse something people would want to go back to multiple times a day, in the way millions of people do with other popular mobile apps.
"If you have five minutes in a coffee shop and you look at your phone, you're looking at Twitter or Facebook," Kothari said. "So we wanted to try and make that five minutes worth spending in our app becoming more informed, reading the news. And what we're seeing is the same person coming back four or five times a day to get some small news and then coming back again. We don't have a lot of people just sitting reading in the app for an hour."
While that type of user behavior is what Alphonso Labs had hoped for, other user reactions have been a bit unexpected, he said.
"I wouldn't have thought it would have ended up here when we started as really a class project," Kothari said. "We didn't do any marketing for the app, but when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 4, he mentioned some iPad apps they liked and we were one of the apps mentioned. That really helped. And from there, we've just seen more and more growth."
By the end of November, Pulse was downloaded 200,000 times, "and in just six months from that, we've passed 4 million," he said. "It really feels like a dream sometimes."
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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Image: A screenshot of Alphonso Labs' Pulse news-reading app on an Apple iPad. Credit: Alphonso Labs /Apple