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Slide's Levchin: Measuring success in virtual pregnancy tests

Levchin made his name by co-founding something very utilitarian--PayPal. Now he's achieving success with something that's consciously silly.

Max Levchin onstage
Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li interviews Max Levchin at the Web 2.0 Expo. Corinne Schulze/CNET Networks

SAN FRANCISCO--In his keynote address Wednesday at the Web 2.0 Expo here, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin said his current company, social-network application developer Slide, will prevent social sites from becoming fads.

Pretty ambitious for a start-up that made a name for itself by letting you throw virtual sheep at your friends on Facebook. (That'd be SuperPoke, a delightfully pointless Slide application.)

Levchin, interviewed onstage by Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, was recently crowned Web 2.0's poster boy--as bestowed upon him by Portfolio magazine, which put him on the cover with the caption "Brilliant!" and a giant lightbulb seemingly balanced on his forehead.

"It's incredibly embarrassing and also 'pressure-full' and all sorts of other emotional things which I'm not all that good at expressing," Levchin said of the experience. "One, to be on a cover, and two, to be a 'poster boy.'" Plus, a $50 million funding round in January valued Slide at half a billion dollars.

Those are some pretty valuable sheep.

Early on, Li asked Levchin how exactly Slide makes money. Like so many other Web 2.0 execs, Levchin answered that he believes in advertising. He has it easier than most of his dot-com brethren: Slide has the good fortune of having enough active users and advertising connections, not to mention Levchin's star power, to score top-shelf advertisers. Neither Levchin nor Li touched upon anything involving the shaky economy and a potential downturn in online ads.

Li did ask whether Levchin is concerned about running a company that's wholly dependent upon the existence and popularity of other platforms--Facebook, MySpace, and the like. A big social network is perfectly capable of creating SuperPoke equivalents in-house, throwing a potentially fatal sheep at the company.

Levchin drew an analogy to Adobe's software, which is wholly reliant upon operating systems like Microsoft Windows. There were plenty of opportunities for Microsoft to put Adobe out of business in the past, he said, and Microsoft ultimately realized that it was in its best interest to keep Photoshop and Acrobat around. "I sleep relatively well at night about my competition, or the lack thereof," Levchin said.

The sheep, according to Levchin, can weather the storm.

The interview didn't raise any points that Valley junkies didn't know already. Application spam, he said, is an "intellectually challenging" issue that he hopes to solve "the same way (e-mail) spam gets dealt with today." And lightbulbs aside, Levchin maintained an air of humility, reminding the audience that his first four companies failed but that his fifth was "pretty successful." He was, of course, referring to PayPal, which sold to eBay for $1.5 billion.

He added that one of the ways he measures success is "the number of people that make a million dollars or more in your employee roster when your company has an exit."

So what makes Slide so special? It's that people actually use it, Levchin said. SuperPoke might be silly, but user engagement rates are through the roof. Procrastination-happy users of Facebook, MySpace, and other social networks for which Slide has created applications still haven't gotten sick of them. For a promotional tie-in sponsored by last year's hit movie Juno, a "pregnancy test" option was added to the SuperPoke roster--370,000 virtual pregnancy tests were administered in the first day of the campaign.

So what keeps him going? Levchin said he isn't really sure. "People are driven to do stuff. Jackson Pollack was driven to splash paint on canvases," he said.

Max Levchin, it seems, is currently driven to enable the world to hurl virtual sheep, Easter eggs, groundhogs, and meat pies (that was a Sweeney Todd tie-in) at their social-networking contacts. And thus far, he's been quite the success.

Enough for a magazine cover with a lightbulb above his head, even.