Web site helps people profit from information collected about them

Thomas Heath
Reporter June 26, 2011

The thing that drew me to Personal wasn’t the start-up’s over-the-top ambition to disrupt the online business model.

Nor was it the fact that Personal’s offices are split between Georgetown — and Bosnia, of all places.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Personal’s impressive lineup of investors is what got my attention.

Former AOL chairman Steve Case’s Revolution LLC. Local sports mogul Ted Leonsis. Carlyle managing director Ed Mathias. Former ambassador Morton Abramowitz. Virginia venture capitalist Don Rainey. Former AOL chief executive Jonathan Miller. Even New York-based investment house Allen & Co. has money in the start-up.

Who put together this collection of heavy hitters?

The answer is a 1992 University of Michigan political science graduate and foreign policy wonk named Shane Green. He was looking for “patient” investor money after selling a previous start-up prematurely because of impatient investors.

His deep-pocketed group has put up $7.6 million, ensuring that he can nurture Personal (personal.com) well beyond its launch, planned for this summer. (Green and his team maintain majority control.)

Personal has about 30 employees split between Georgetown and Sarajevo, home to two of its co-founders.

Green, 40, said Personal enables individuals to own, control access to and benefit from their personal information now bouncing around the digital world.

Personal will do this through online vaults called “gems,” where you can store and share information such as how to work your television or contact the local emergency room — both of which would be useful for your babysitter. Other gems have more commercial value to the owner, such as what clothes you buy, what wines you drink and what kinds of electronics you purchase.

“The real magic on the commercial side is information on what you plan to do or purchase, which is the altar at which all things digital worships,” Green said.

Personal has contracts — developed with the help of the former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office — to prevent companies or anyone else from sharing your gems with others. Even if Personal were acquired, the new owners would be prohibited from exploiting the data.

There are more than 100 gems with more than 3,000 fields of data. The car gem contains your vehicle identification number, your tire pressure and the date when your next oil change is due. The food preferences gem includes allergies, religious and dietary restrictions, and whether you like spicy — or not. Imagine choreographing your dinner party with that kind of precision.

You can share gems with family, friends, employees or colleagues. Where Personal hopes to make its money is if you mon­etize your data (Personal doesn’t like the word “sell”) through commercial activities with companies that want to buy it. Personal wants to be your “agent,” collecting a 10 percent fee on the compensation you receive each time you monetize your data.

So if I were a user of Personal, I could fill in the data fields in my gem on travel preferences for my trip to Stockholm this summer. I would release the information to Stockholm hotels, which could compete for my business based on my preferences for a clubby hotel bar, delicious breakfasts, a king-size bed and access to running trails. If a hotel gave me a discount or cash payment, Personal would collect a 10 percent fee.

Personal can’t stop companies and others from scavenging data by tracking your online activities. It does, however, “give you the tools to monetize your data, but only if you want to,” Green said.

Green’s wonkish background hardly screams “entrepreneur.” After graduating from Michigan, he spent three years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he worked for then-President Abramowitz. The former diplomat became a mentor and an investor in Green’s enterprises.

While at the Carnegie Endowment, where he helped Abramowitz launch a start-up called the International Crisis Group, Green learned how to write a business plan, raise money and organize board meetings, as well as the ins and outs of administration.

After leaving the Carnegie, Green pursued a newfound passion for start-ups, helping launch Witten Technologies with a former Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist, Alan Witten.

Witten, focusing on underground mapping and imaging, was a technical success but a business failure. Green took a low-six-figure buyout from a Witten investor and launched the Map Network in late 1999, funding the start-up with his buyout cash and some student loan money left over from a year at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He recruited a software team from Sarajevo, where he had made contacts from his days at Carnegie.

Green’s experience at Witten Technologies got him thinking about the commercial possibilities that hyperlocal digital mapping presented, especially on mobile devices.

The Map Network took off, becoming the official mapper for the 2004 Republican and Democratic national conventions and for several Super Bowls. Green raised $5.5 million over six years, but rather than raise more money and see his ownership stake diluted further, he sold the Map Network to digital navigation giant NAVTEQ in December 2006 for $37.5 million. Investors earned five times their money; Green’s 15 percent earned him $5 million. NAVTEQ was later acquired by Nokia, the Finnish mobile device giant, for $8 billion.

Green and his executive team from the Map Network stayed through its acquisition by Nokia, which is when they had the “aha moment” that led to Personal.

A Nokia executive asked them how to make money from data collected from 1.2 billion customers, and “it hit us,” Green said. “Individuals should be in control of the data and decide who gets to use it, not companies. It’s a historical moment.”

It could be.

Follow me on Twitter at addedvalueth.

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