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What hump? Personal's private database faces challenges

A nice product for storing personal data could be undone by two big hurdles it has to overcome.

You can pretend it's not there, but that won't make it go away. Twentieth Century Fox

We're all drowning in our own data. There are countless things we need to remember or have easy access to, and these little factlets are never where we want them. That's why we have list managers, grocery list apps, and general-purpose synchronized notebooks.

And now there's Personal, which has a new Android app (iPhone version to follow). Personal is an online data storage system for the little dregs of data that you accumulate: Your spouse's shoe size. The alarm code for your house. You kid's best friend's food allergies. Your passport number.

The idea with Personal is that you file these items into "gems" like, "beverage preferences," for example. Then you can recall them when needed, and more importantly, share with others when they need them. For example: You can quickly give the babysitter access to the alarm code gem.

A mobile version of Personal gives you access to all your data, everywhere you are (assuming your phone is with you). Personal

There are a lot of access-control features built in to Personal, so you only share what you want, and with whom.

You can also request gems from people you know to get data you might need. For example, you could request the food allergies gem from everyone who's attending a dinner you're hosting, to figure out what to make. Personal will even make a nice chart to quickly show you things like everyone who's gluten-free.

For what it does, Personal is easy to use, and the new mobile app for the site makes the data truly portable.

But there's a big problem with Personal: Data entry. It is a total drag to collate all this data. And I think the response rate when people request gems from other people (as in the dinner party scenario above) will be too low to make the system truly useful.

This onboarding hump could doom the company.

If I am wrong (it happens), there is an interesting business to be had here. CEO Shane Green wants Personal to give users back control of their personal data. "There's no way my kids are growing up in a world where all their data is up for auction," he said to me, referring, of course, to Facebook.

Green hopes people will use Personal to control marketers' access to their information, doling it out as needed and desired to approved companies. But there's another hump: Facebook, Google, and the entire advertising industry show the power and inertia of the old model. It's inefficient, but it's an industry. Building a competing system that puts users in control of their "data exhaust," as it's been called, will be a slog, not just because Personal will have to wedge its way into the advertising world, but because it requires users take an active role in doing something they've been doing passively: Sharing their data. While it looks like a noble and righteous path, it's not an easy one. (See also: Klout, another take on changing the dynamic between individuals and marketers.)

Green also thinks he can solve the onboarding problem by partnering with other companies that collect data on behalf of users: Tripit, Driverside, Amazon (for product serial numbers), and so on.

There's a lot that's right about Personal, but it's going to be a real challenge to grow it. You just can't ignore these humps.

Rafe's rating: Personal

  • Product quality: Three out of five stars. A useful database for collecting all that personal data you'd otherwise misplace. But setting it up is a slog and an exercise is delayed gratification.
  • Business quality: Two out of five. A noble concept, but there too many humps for this business to get over.
Note on the Rafe's Rating scores: These are solely my opinions, informed by my experience reviewing consumer technology products and covering startup companies over the last 20+ years.