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Scott McNealy's startup: Hash tags, polls on steroids

The former Sun CEO is behind Wayin, which is presenting "games of life," or real-time polls on an infinite number of topics. Company says it has the most powerful popular sentiment-gathering engine ever.

PORTOLA VALLEY, Calif.--Everyone wants to know what groups of people--large and small--are thinking in real time. But there has never really been a good way to figure it out.

That's the proposition behind the new startup from former Sun CEO Scott McNealy, called Wayin, which thinks it has the answer.

Wayin presents users with polls on a wide variety of topics--most of which are user-generated. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Wayin, which launched last night, is a system that aims to give people a way to share their thoughts about things--be it a question related to a live baseball game, a political debate, or the passing of a tech titan--in real time. Essentially, said McNealy at a small launch event at his home here in the ritzy residential heart of Silicon Valley, Wayin is a game system that can aggregate broad public sentiment on a wide variety of topics.

The idea, said McNealy, Wayin's chairman, came from a friend who brought him an idea for a Web game show that would pit people with opposing views on issues against each other: men versus women, Republicans versus Democrats, North versus South, and so on. The friend wanted McNealy's help in pitching the concept in Hollywood. But, McNealy recalled, "I said, 'We'll go pitch it, but you don't have a game show idea, you have a new Internet idea.'"

In its simplest form, Wayin (see video below with an explanation by McNealy) gives users both the ability to create a poll or a vote on any topic of their choosing--represented by a single image--and to vote on questions posed by others. McNealy contended that both parts of the equation are addictive, particularly because both take just seconds.

On the surface, Wayin's polls are little more than extremely simple games that might ask a user, for example, to say whether they would rather see George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan return as president of the United States. And it's tempting to dismiss the service because of the lack of meaning behind any single game.

But Wayin is built around the idea that people who have strong feelings about things like sports teams will clamor to weigh in on questions about them. "If you're an Oprah fan, or a Cubs fan, you're a fan for life," McNealy said. And Wayin provides a way for people not just to follow someone or something, but to say how they feel about it.

That's what sets it apart from what's possible with a service like Twitter, McNealy argued. "The problem with Twitter," he said, "is that, [for example], there are 13 million people following [President] Obama, but how many people hate him and how many people love him. There's no way to know. We said, put a picture of him on your phone and give him a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. We'll ask [questions] explicitly."

But Wayin offers nods to other conventions borne of Twitter. The hash tag, for example, has become a common way for someone to reference a topic on the hit microblogging service. Wayin's games, McNealy suggested, are like hash tags in that they reference a topic. But Wayin's approach is more like a hash tag on steroids.

An advertising agency
Because users can create questions on any topic, including any live event or topical issue, Wayin thinks that it has created an almost magic way for businesses to get valuable insight into what their users or customers are thinking about things. Right now.

Questions can have a yes or no answer, or can be multiple choice. Users can also choose between thumbs-up and thumbs-down. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

That's especially true if a question is posed to the site's broad user base--when it has one. Wayin has been in stealth mode for some time, so it doesn't have many users yet. But Wayin hopes that users will flock to the service, which is available on iOS and Android devices, the Web, Facebook, and Twitter, and spend large amounts of time answering questions and creating their own.

And McNealy, CEO Tom Jessiman, and its other executives and advisors clearly feel that the company is sitting on a service that will appeal to companies of all kinds that want to get their name in front of a large group of people.

Users will get points for each vote they cast, and the service has leaderboards where the top participants will be recognized. But this presents Wayin with what it sees as one of its most valuable assets: the ability to get paying sponsors--large companies, sports teams, TV networks, music labels, and the like--which will pose their own questions. Users will get additional points for voting on sponsored games.

That means, said McNealy, that at its core, Wayin is really "an ad agency." That's because, he explained, "we know who [users] are, and what they like."

Wayin users will see questions in several main sections: friends, popular, cool, and live. Sponsored questions can appear in any of these sections, McNealy said. "We reserve the right to put every now and then" a sponsored question into the stream. However, he added, only a tiny fraction will be tied to advertisers, perhaps just one in 30.

Still, the company clearly sees the money it can bring in from such sponsorships--and from having the Wayin service tightly integrated into the Web and mobile presences of sports teams, music acts, food or drink brands, and others--as a potential cash cow. Already, the company says, it has partnerships with the NFL's New England Patriots and Washington Redskins, the National Hockey League and the Los Angeles Kings hockey team.

And indeed, the company acknowledges that there are other players in the online social sentiment space. But it is banking on major partnership deals as its revenue model and thinks having someone like McNealy--and his Rolodex--sets it apart. In other words, McNealy is betting that he will be able to quickly get meetings for lucrative partnerships.

Based on that idea, the 35-person company, which is headquartered in Denver, has raised $6 million--without venture capital--and expects to raise its B round of funding soon.