By most measures, Dom Leca is a successful entrepreneur. He’s started and sold two companies, including one to Google. And yet instead of feeling accomplished, several years ago Leca realised he felt an internal void.
Has anything he's built really improved people’s lives?
The journey he took to ponder this question led him to an improbable destination: designing a new browser called Beam. The Beam browser combines web browsing with note-taking functions to allow users to build their own knowledge databases.
Entering a field dominated by Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla might seem like a fool’s errand. Leca knows it’s risky. But his underlying logic was enough to convince a group of VCs who just handed him $9.5m to pursue his goals.
The investors include Pace Capital, a new emerging fund led by Chris Paik and Jordan Cooper in New York, plus notable angel investors such as Christan Reber (Pitch, Wunderlist), Harry Stebbings (20minVC), and Albert Wenger (USV). This follows a $3m round Leca raised last October from Spark Capital (Twitter, Tumblr) and Alven Capital.
To hear Leca describe it, the development of Beam is as much an effort to improve the web browsing experience as it is a spiritual quest for meaning. Beam’s debut later this year may help gauge how successful he is in reconciling those two impulses.
“The only reason I'm doing this is to be working for the greater good,” Leca said. “Is this something I can explain to my kid and be proud of the fact that it’s not just a stupid business to make money?”
Highs and lows
Back in 2008, Leca founded Visuamobile, a mobile app development startup that Insign had acquired. Leca eventually left to create Sparrow Mail which developed an email app for Mac and iOS that generated some strong buzz. Just two years later it was sold to Google. In a blog post at the time, Leca wrote: "Now we're joining the Gmail team to accomplish a bigger vision — one that we think we can better achieve with Google."
Leca stuck with Google until 2015 when he jumped ship to join Stuart, a last-mile delivery company that used a fleet of bicycle couriers to deliver products on-demand. It was at this point that something began gnawing at Leca.
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I felt the bulk of tech I was working on was detrimental to society.
“I felt the bulk of tech I was working on was detrimental to society,” he said. “I wasn't very happy about having 150 guys waiting in the staircase of the company to get a $15 an hour job. I felt myself going the wrong way. So I quit.” (La Poste later acquired Stuart in 2017.)
Leca immersed himself in design jobs while he tried to take a deeper look at the meaning of tech and society. He eventually came across a 1973 book by Ivan Illich, a priest and philosopher, called Tools for Convivality. The book laid out a vision for the relationship with tools and how they affect one’s perspective on the world. As Leca explains it, a tool is convivial if it fosters autonomy, improves efficiency within the bounds of human aptitudes and organic pace, is easy to master, and broadens your personal horizons.
At the same time, he became a fan of the note-taking app Roam. He loved the organising and collaborative functions — but he also felt limited. He was always going back and forth between his web browser and Roam: a fundamental flaw he believed he could fix.
“You're watching a video, you've got an idea, and then you’ve got to do the old dance,” he said. “I’ve got an idea and then I need to include it in my notes app. Then you navigate to it, you put it there, and then you come back to your content. You can do this two or three times a day. But if you do this 20 times, it's completely breaking your mental flow.”
Leca decided to focus on this problem.
“I think these note-taking apps fail because they actually live in the wrong place,” Leca said. “It should be in the browser and it shouldn't be outside, because they shouldn't be thought of as an abstraction outside of yourself.”
And so he started Beam.
This new web browser is still under development. But Leca gave a demo as he walked through the basic functions and described the underlying philosophy.
When it comes to browsing, Leca said he devotes all this time online doing searches and visiting websites and then forgetting most of the information he had gleaned. “What do I have for all these hours I spent on the internet?” he said. “Nothing. I've got three bookmarks and a few notes here and everything else is basically lost.”
Beam aims to classify the bits of knowledge you gain as you jump from website to website.
Beam aims to fix that by generating notes as one visits websites. These notes are stored in cards that would classify the bits of knowledge you gain as you jump from website to website and open 40 tabs on the browser.
The search box on Beam scans both the web as well as the user’s personal knowledge database of cards. It also tracks how long someone spends on a website as a measure of how useful the information is likely to be, and then can match that to an existing card to store relevant information, or create a new card to begin building information around a new topic.
“So if I type in James Dean, I would get the canonical stuff like the access to the Wikipedia page,” Leca said. “But in this case, because James Dean doesn't exist yet in my knowledge base, I can also just create the card. And so if in two years I’m searching on this again, I could navigate to my knowledge base.”
People will be able to share links to the cards with friends or on social media. But eventually, he hopes to enable people to put them online so they are searchable by others who may share the same interests and would benefit from a curated knowledge database.
“At some point, you can expect that not only are you going to have your own knowledge base results plus the web, but we're also going to feed you the relevant results from third parties,” he said.
It's basically a cultural search engine.
“So if I'm into guitar making and a Japanese guy has an 80% overlap of links on guitar making, it's highly probable that I'm going to enjoy looking at what he's done and enjoy navigating into his knowledge base. This is still very far away, but it's basically a cultural search engine.”
At the moment, Leca is hoping to have an internal alpha version by April and a closed beta opening in early September. The latest fundraising will allow him to continue hiring. He plans to grow his seven-person team to 15 over the next couple of months as he hunts for machine learning and front-end web specialists.
Leca is realistic about the prospects for Beam. He’s not expecting to dethrone Google Chrome or Mozilla’s Firefox. Instead, he’s betting that Beam can create a group of passionate users which he can then use to strike a deal with Google or another search company to be the default search engine for Beam’s browser. (Much like Google pays a hefty sum to be the default for Apple’s Safari.)
“I'm hopeful because Beam will be viral to some extent when you start sharing cards,” Leca said. “If we grab a few percentage points of the browser market, then maybe we can be paid by Google. That's a long shot, but that's the thing I'm hoping for.”