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San Francisco start-up Seesmic goes to the critters

June 26, 2008 |  7:00 am

This is a story about critters. One is a raccoon, the other a programmer.

What they have in common: French tech entrepreneur and popular blogger Loic Le Meur. With backing from high-profile investors, not to mention the friendship of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Le Meur is building a new form of communication that is taking off.

Programmer Critter Gewlas tattooed the Seesmic logo on his legSeesmic, his video social networking site, is sort of a cross between Facebook and YouTube. Users post videos of themselves talking, then other users respond -- a video conversation, if you will.

The San Francisco start-up just raised another $6 million. The funding round was led, in part, by EBay founder Pierre Omidyar, one of the site’s dedicated users who now joins the board (he of course announced the news in a video on Seesmic). That adds to the initial $6 million Seesmic raised from the likes of AOL founder Steve Case, Skype founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and other leading Internet investors Mike Arrington, Jeff Clavier and Ron Conway.

Seesmic launched privately last October, adding 21,000 users in more than 20 countries who collectively post about 2,500 videos a day. Now that it has opened up to the public, the service is drawing more attention and growing quickly. It also powers video comments on 1,500 sites.

The man behind Seesmic is something of a French celebrity. Le Meur, a 35-year-old Internet entrepreneur who successfully sold four start-ups, became known in France for his blogging prowess and for an annual blogging conference that he started in 2003, LeWeb3. He became really well known for filming the only podcast with Sarkozy, then joining the presidential candidate's campaign full-time as an advisor on Internet strategy.

Seesmic founder Loic Le MeurLe Meur (pictured at left) relocated to San Francisco with his wife, Geraldine, and three sons to take part in the nouvelle vague of Internet companies.

Visit Le Meur’s office and he will tell you story after story about how Seesmic helps people. A British cinematographer named Will got help quitting smoking (Le Meur sends Will a video describing how he stopped smoking 2 1/2 years ago by jogging every day for an hour. He notes: You can’t do that and smoke). People form weight loss clubs, filming their scales for their Seesmic friends to monitor their progress (Le Meur says he does the same when he’s eaten something he knows he shouldn’t.) They get support when they lose their jobs and even get help finding new ones (More on that later). They also form friendships, even date (Read on).

"You meet people from all over the world," from Deepak Chopra to a U.S. soldier in Iraq, Le Meur said. "It’s amazing: You bring the world together. If you talk and don’t listen on Seesmic, people don’t respond. You have to listen on Seesmic."

And that’s what Le Meur does. He uses Seesmic for ...

... just about everything, including conducting job interviews. He broadcasts a daily show. And he gets feedback from the Seesmic community to make important decisions such as adding new features.

Seesmic logo So, when Seesmic needed a logo, Le Meur asked for help. Seesmic members organized an online contest that generated 450 entries from around the world.

The winner was a raccoon, which sparked a lively debate: Did the new mascot send the right message? (A rabies-carrying, carnivorous garbage eater? Or family-oriented, highly social and smart, up-all-night mammal? Discuss.) Making matters more complicated, Le Meur also didn't care for the winning entry: The original raccoon, he decided, looked a little sickly.

So he bought the rights to a cuter raccoon that he spotted on a 3-D animation site. The company’s new official logo was a big hit. Demand for Seesmic logo T-shirts skyrocketed. One French user created a site with more than 100 raccoon avatars, many of which are based on Seesmic’s most popular users, including a gadget-laden Le Meur.

But one die-hard Seesmic user made a lifetime commitment. Critter Gewlas had the Seesmic raccoon tattooed on his left leg (photo above, video of the tattooing here). On a trip to San Francisco, he dropped by the Seesmic headquarters to show off his new ink.

It was no croc for Gewlas, 35, a father of two who grew up in Fort Myers, Fla. He got his childhood nickname, which he legally adopted in 2000, because of his love of reptiles (he’s the proud owner of 13 snakes). That love is reflected on his body. His left arm is sleeved in a colorful desert scene complete with a gila monster, horned lizards, snakes and cactuses. His right arm is covered in rain forest: a chameleon, lizards, poisonous frogs, an iguana and a large snake.

A software developer in Cary, N.C., (a previous version of this post incorrectly called it Gary, N.C.) he is currently working on his "technology leg," which features technologies or companies he likes: Seesmic’s raccoon, the Adobe AIR logo, the ColdFusion logo, and the logo of TerraVerge, a start-up he worked for that was sold to the mortgage company. He worked there until being laid off in late February.

Gewlas is what they call an early adopter. So he got hooked on Seesmic many months ago, sitting on the site for several hours at a time, chatting with people he connected or reconnected with all over the world. That’s how he met his girlfriend, Eve Park, a Denver podcaster on Geek Girl TV. And that’s how he landed his new job.

Gewlas says it wasn't a big surprise when he lost his job with First American Title. The mortgage industry had been in big trouble for a long time and he had very little to do. That night he posted a video on Seesmic to let everyone know. Le Meur was just one of hundreds of users who reached out to Gewlas to offer their support.

Le Meur was impressed with Gewlas’ programming skills. In his spare time, Gewlas developed software that enabled people to use Seesmic from their desktop rather than their browser, and he started an online project to encourage users to post videos that described where they lived using a Google map interface.

Within a few days, Gewlas landed a job interview with Le Meur over Skype. Twenty-two minutes later, he was a full-time Seesmic employee.

"I got lucky," Gewlas said. "I got the job, the girl, the friends. I made out like a bandit."

"Everyone always makes the joke that I should have gotten a Google tattoo," he added. "I’m good with my Seesmic raccoon."

Le Meur says he feels an even greater responsibility to succeed now. "Critter has our company logo tattooed on his leg," he said. "I had better make the company work."

-- Jessica Guynn

Photo of Loic Le Meur courtesy of Joi Ito. Photo of Critter Gewlas by John Rees via Flickr.

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