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Start-up whiz takes on new challenge

Times Staff Writer

Six months ago, new father Joe Kraus returned to Google Inc. from a three-week paternity leave to take charge of another fledgling.

His assignment: Help run a team that would figure out how to match the runaway popularity of Facebook Inc., which has been stealing Google’s spotlight.

The company tapped the bespectacled veteran of two start-ups because it figured he could harness the experience and energy needed for a showdown that could determine the course of the Internet’s social networking revolution.

Along with fellow project leaders Graham Spencer and David Glazer, Kraus assembled several dozen engineers, many of them former entrepreneurs, and housed them within shouting distance of one another to simulate the hothouse environment of a high-tech start-up.

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The engineers came up with OpenSocial, an alliance of social networks and software developers designed to help people connect no matter where they go on the Web, whether to Craigslist.org to see what friends are buying and selling or to Ticketmaster.com to see what concerts they’re attending.

“If the Web is more social, and therefore more engaging, that means everyone will spend more time there and have more things to do, which benefits Google,” Kraus says. “Google makes money when people spend time on the Web.”

Members of OpenSocial -- which include MySpace, Bebo and LinkedIn -- pledged when they signed up last month to make it easier for developers to create software features across an array of social networks. The alliance is more concept than reality right now, but already it’s given a boost to the vision of an open social web, where users can take their friends with them rather than having to build and maintain contact lists on different sites, says Joseph Smarr, chief platform architect of social networking site Plaxo, one of Google’s partners in OpenSocial.

“Google showed that open is possible, desirable, tangible and good for business,” Smarr says.

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The company has plenty of self-interest at stake. Tens of billions of dollars in online advertising are expected to shift to social networks in coming years. Although the effectiveness of reaching consumers on these networks is not proven, marketers are intrigued by the prospect of feasting on the wealth of personal information that users volunteer.

Despite the success of its search engine and advertising business, Google has stumbled in social networking. Its own social network, Orkut, is popular in Brazil but hasn’t developed a following in the United States. And Google recently lost out to Microsoft Corp. in bidding for a small investment in Facebook.

OpenSocial is its first aggressive move to challenge Facebook.

The alliance pulls strength from numbers. The combined population of social networks in the alliance is about 200 million, nearly four times the size of Facebook. Now Google must surmount the technological challenges to follow through on its strategy to make the Web, and itself, more social.

Kraus has a long track record as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who comes up with smart strategies that benefit consumers and companies, says Megan Smith, Google’s vice president of new business development, who helped recruit Kraus. With each new venture, “Joe just continues to innovate.”

Now 36, Kraus graduated from Stanford University in 1993 with a degree in political science. He had to drop his longtime aspiration to major in computer science when he got a D in a math class. But nothing could induce him to accept what he calls a “soul-sucking job” after college.

So he teamed with Spencer and four other dorm-mates he met freshman year. The summer after graduation, they bunkered in a drafty garage, subsisting on beans and rice while they built the technology that would power fabled Internet portal Excite, one of the dot-com boom’s highfliers.

Excite went public in 1996 and was acquired by AtHome in 1999 for $6.7 billion. Kraus left the company in 2000. It crashed into bankruptcy in 2001.

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Kraus took a high-tech hiatus. He traveled the world, started a consumer advocacy group to promote liberal digital copyright laws, married Melissa Walia, a former Excite public relations executive, and started a family. Then in 2004, he and Spencer dived back into the deep end.

They built JotSpot Inc. on the idea of teams using the Web to collaborate. They bet $100,000 of their own money, raised millions in venture funding and attracted thousands of customers to JotSpot’s wikis, Web pages that anyone can write and edit, the most famous of which is Wikipedia, the free Web encyclopedia. The fun, fast-moving start-up in Palo Alto attracted something else: Google’s attention.

About a year ago, when Kraus and Spencer decided to sell JotSpot to Google, they handed out gag Evel Knievel helmets, money and plane tickets to all 26 employees for a last hurrah in Las Vegas. These days, Kraus still takes the JotSpot team to Vegas, where he enjoys playing poker 24 hours straight, his concentration effortless, just as when he’s working on a project. He draws inspiration from Spencer, a talented technologist who Kraus says has become like half of his brain.

Only Google could tempt him to leave the start-up world, Kraus says, because the company has incubated a culture of freewheeling creativity similar to the one in which founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin first began experimenting with search technology.

Kraus met the Google founders at Stanford, where Page and Brin themselves met as students. In fact, long ago, Excite entered into talks with the Google duo about acquiring their nascent technology. Excite ultimately decided against making the buy.

Says Kraus: “It was probably the best thing never to happen to Google.”

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jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Innovator

Who: Joe Kraus

Age: 36

Title: Product management director

Company: Google Inc.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Stanford University

Career: Co-founded Internet portal Excite, JotSpot Inc. and nonprofit DigitalConsumer.org (now defunct)

Investor in: Social networking site LinkedIn, social gaming site Kongregate and Renkoo, which builds features for social networks

Family: Married and has two children

Claim to fame: Played drums in a funk band called Where’s Julio? with two fellow Excite founders

Cool ride: Drives his son to school in a 1977 Chevy sports van that is a replica of the Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine


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