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AO Client Spotlight: Chris Priebe of Community Sift

AO Client Spotlight highlights program client successes, challenges and entrepreneurial insights.

Community Sift is a chat filter and moderation tool that eliminates online bullying from the social web. It can automatically check banter between video game players, chat room conversations, and comments on websites and messages.

Meet Chris Priebe, Founder and CEO of Community Sift. Here's what he had to say about becoming an entrepreneur, the value of being involved in the tech community, and what advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurs.

What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I need to thank my dad for that inspiration. When I was in grade 5, I lived in a small town of Invermere. I noticed that many of the businesses were not shoveling their sidewalks soon enough to prevent ice buildup. So I went around with a contract book and signed up half the downtown core to clear their sidewalks for them. I suspect my dad somehow planted the idea in my head. My father, my brother, and I shoveled those walks every winter. I had $500 in my bank account and could see the difference we made in the neighbourhood.

How did the idea for your business come about?

Back in the early 2000s, my brother was working on a game called Penguin Chat. I remember working with him on the backend to make everything incredibly safe. Later I came back to his project once it had become Club Penguin. After the acquisition, I was one of Disney's senior security specialists, with a role to test and hack all their internet-connected products. Later I realized that, just like in security, only a tiny percentage of users were causing all the problems. If I could find those users, they would teach me everything I needed to know. If I changed the security game with them in real-time, I could solve the nearly impossible problem of bullying and protect people around the world. I like challenges, and this one would change the world, so I went for it.

Tell us about your product:

Community Sift is a user-generated content management system. It deals with both text and images to filter out destructive content and safeguard against common issues of online safety. Instead of being labeled as good or bad, words and phrases are classified on a sliding scale of risk and categorized based on topic. To address the issue of alternate spelling or numbers for letters, we leverage machine learning and human pattern recognition methodologies. Community Sift is a robust and flexible solution that adapts as trends emerge.

What problem do you solve for your customer?

Riot Games has said that toxicity is one of their largest issues and that a user who experiences toxicity is 320% more likely to quit. So the problem is not just with kid's apps, it is with the entire social Internet. The interconnected web is becoming more and more social. Soon even my refrigerator will tell me what my friends think of my milk. However, what happens when the new screen on my fridge shows a sexually-explicit picture that forces me to explain the birds and bees to my young children? It's not about freedom of speech; it's about the 1% of users whose goal is to ruin the experience for everyone. Our customers want to innovate and create; we provide the social intelligence and common sense tools to unlock their dream.

How has AO helped accelerate your growth?

I left Disney in April 2012, and I started this out of my basement. It was just me at the time. When I met AO, they got me out of the basement. They rented us space by the desk to make it affordable, connected us with grants, mentored us on how to succeed, and referred us to their legal and accounting partners, who gave us an amazing deal. Without AO, I think I might still be in the basement. Now we have 25 staff in 3 office spaces, and we are under contract to process over 4 billion messages a day for our clients.

As an entrepreneur, what keeps you up at night?

My wife is eight months pregnant with our 4th... :)

Oh, you mean the company! Well, I love challenges. When we were starting this, my wife suggested that I could do one of two hard things: 1) "remove bullying from the internet," or; 2) "invent a time the machine." For the time machine, you just commit to spending unlimited resources to solve it, then come back to a coffee shop tomorrow and give yourself the plans. As for online bullying, it is pretty hard, but I am quite glad I chose that challenge instead.

What's the value of being involved in the tech community?

The tech community is quite strong in Kelowna. We recently got together with the other CEOs from our AO cohort, and many of are in the same position – 25 staff, raising Series A, working in a global industry from a small yet booming city. It is amazing how much global change we have had out of one growing town. Perhaps that is due to all the coffee we had together and how we have a network of helping.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

Know why you are doing what you are doing. It will likely take at least four years to see your idea take off, and there will be hard times on that path where you will want to give up. I do not believe when people say that they're doing it so they can make lots of money. Money is only a means to an end, so the real question is, "what is the end you have in mind?" It is all about the end goal.

How has being an entrepreneur impacted your family, social life, or relationships?

I have seen people make the mistake of pursuing money so they can spend time with their kids later, only to end up getting there and their children do not want to spend time with them anymore. One of the best things I did was to block off 5:00-8:00 pm every day for my kids, and all Sunday for my family and faith. What's the point of being an entrepreneur if you get to the end, and you are all alone?

What have been some of your challenges and what have you learned from them?

As a founder, the hardest part is when the company starts staffing up. Before, you could do everything yourself (and in fact, you had to.) Finally, someone else is here who can handle the parts you dread, but there are also things you have to give up. You become your own bottleneck, as you are spread too thin. You have to find a way to hire people better than you and shift from being a 'doer' to a coach as others run the ball to the end zone. I still miss getting into code and doing something crazy-hard or what everyone else says is impossible, but the most important thing I can do now is to train and empower others so we can do the impossible together.

What are 3 attributes needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

Tenacity. Some people call this stubbornness, but I see it as an unwillingness to quit. There are many obstacles and walls put in the way, and you have to keep trying new ways to break through – even if you've already had 20 "no" answers that day.

Pivotability. Your first idea will usually be wrong. Make sure your tenacity is not driving you to knock down the wrong wall when your journey was to get you to this intersection. By being adaptable, you can reach much higher heights.

Faith. You are just a human. However, little boys with a sling and a rock can take down a giant when someone greater than the universe stands behind them. I can clearly see how God had been working ahead and kept me from terrible mistakes by preparing the soil before I even got there.

What roles are you looking to add to your growing team?

Business Development. We are looking for people who recognize that potential clients do not want to be sold to – these intelligent people want to make up their own minds. We need driven business development leaders who deliver value to clients and arm our champions to convince their bosses that they need Community Sift.

Data Scientists. We are under contract to process 4 billion social media messages a day. We need new ways to help companies pull out business decisions from their own data.

Language Speakers. We support 68 languages and need mother tongue language speakers who are great at patterns and problem-solving.

How would you describe the work culture and environment at Community Sift?

We are one team with one mission: to stop bullying on the web. I am proud of the team and everything we have achieved so far, and I am excited about continuing to make a difference in millions of people's lives online. This is not just a job for us – it is a world-changer.

Who do you look to for mentorship/advice and why?

When we did our first funding round, we had so many people that wanted to invest that we had to turn most away. We chose investors who would be our strongest coaches: investors who have gone down this path before, and can help us reach the goal faster. All of our investors are experts, such as the founder of Club Penguin, the president of Tumblr, one of the grandfathers of product management, a director of sales for Facebook, and a VC who flies his helicopter into Kelowna to mentor our local companies.

What's next for your company?

In the end, everything that comes from a keyboard or cell phone camera and can cause disruption in other people's experience is in our prevue. Sometimes we filter, sometimes we educate, alert, or redirect. We will continue to expand in ways that protect people's privacy and enhance their social experience. Much like the rise of anti-virus protection many years ago – a time is coming when social virus protection will be the expected norm. We will all be a lot happier when we can dive into a deep debate without random trolls destroying our fun.

In one word, characterize your life as an entrepreneur.

Journey

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Community Sift is an alumni of the Venture Acceleration Program and current client of the RevUP Program. For more information about Accelerate Okanagan Programs, please click here.