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– When Joe Fernandez first thought of Klout.com, a growing website that measures how influential a person is on the Internet, he was in the midst of recovering from major jaw surgery. For three months Fernandez had his jaw wired shut. He was bed ridden, isolated, forced to eat only what could fit through a straw and could only communicate in 140 characters.
“Twitter was still kind of a joke,” Fernandez said. “This was in early 2008, it was before hashtags were even really being used.”
Unable to speak, the 34-year-old – whose father was a Cuban exile and moved to Las Vegas to work in the Casino industry – used Twitter as his outlet, and it was then that he quickly began realizing the power of the medium.
“It was amazing to me that I could tell my opinion to the people I trusted the most,” he said. “It was a realization that word of mouth was now scalable. It was even more exciting to think that it could be measurable.”
Today, Klout.com does exactly that for over 100 million users, measuring their social media influence by defining people by a single number: 1 represents the least influential, 100 the most influential. The website calculates your Klout score based on true reach, how many people you influence, amplification, how much you influence them, and network impact, the full influence of your network. Scientists then jam all that information in an algorithm to create your ever-changing, sometimes frustrating, Klout score.
Just as an SAT score is used to judge students and a credit score is used to judge financial standing, Fernandez hopes that the Klout score will become an “ingredient” in job interviews.
I got everything short of death threats. People are emotionally attached to their score. It is tied to their ego.
As a matter of fact, if you want to work at Klout – your score plays a role in the hiring process, Fernandez said. A concept he knows will involve some controversy.
“People are emotionally attached to their score. It is tied to their ego,” he told Fox News Latino.
It is that emotion that has the Twitterverse up in arms over recent changes to the algorithm that determines users Klout scores. A Twitter protest movement even started called #occupyklout.
“I got everything short of death threats,” the CEO said about the reaction to the changes.
The Birth of Klout
It was a January winter day in New York, while Fernandez was recovering from jaw surgery in his apartment, that he wrote the word Klout on a sheet of paper. A little stir crazy that day, Fernandez, says he was thinking about his favorite food – burritos. Everyone would ask him where the best place to get a burrito was, and he began to think that his recommendations should somehow be recognized or rewarded. After all, he was influencing his friends on where to eat.
“I don’t know if it was the drugs from pain relievers,” he joked. But at the very least, he thought, he should get a free burrito out of the deal.
The thought of burritos in combination with a grand vision of measuring how influential people are on social media, a la how broadcast television and radio are measured, stirred Fernandez into action. And Klout was born.
Fernandez became obsessed with making the idea a reality. He even left his job at a real estate data company in New York.Yet his own passion wasn’t enough to initially convince many people that Klout was a viable idea.
Unable to find support, he went to Singapore and put up his own money to hire a team to work on the first version of Klout. He camped out there for four months with a small team, and on Christmas Eve 2008, Klout was officially launched.
“The launch was pretty bad,” Fernandez recalled.
The website was so primitive that he was actually processing all of the Klout accounts himself. Everyday, Fernandez would manually calculate the Klout scores for the 2,000 people who initially signed up for the website.
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t go to my girlfriend’s birthday. I was always having Internet problems while working in my bedroom,” he said. “It was just really bad. Twenty hours of work everyday and it was terrible because I was spending all of my time processing accounts.”
The marketing campaign on the other hand wasn’t so complex. Just as the initial inspiration began, Fernandez sent out a tweet.
“I just tweeted out my Klout score and someone tweeted out my link,” he said. “At the time my Klout score was in the 30s.”
Today, Fernandez’ Klout score is 66. On a measuring scale between 1 and 100, the Klout CEO is surprisingly just somewhere in the above average range in the Klout universe - a fact he equates to his lack of consistent use of social media.
“I get busy with work and I don’t create content actively. I have the same Klout, I think, everyone else has,” Fernandez explained.
“I sometimes complain to the science team about my score and they don’t care. I don’t even have enough clout to affect that,” he added.
In an effort to vastly improve the site, Fernandez went back to Singapore in early 2009 for two months. It was his connection with a judge at a tech conference after that trip that landed him his first real investment, worth $25,000. It was that investment that spurred the move of the company from New York to San Francisco, where he is now in charge of 50 employees.
When the new changes to Klout's algorithm took effect last week, Fernandez was on a business trip in Europe and was taken aback by the reaction.
“The last week there have been so many rumors," he said. "There are just a lot of misconceptions about the new algorithm. We are addressing some concerns.”
“What annoys me the most is the rumor that it [the new algorithm] penalizes you for talking to people with low influence,” he said. “We are not about that kind of elitism. In reality, the way it works is that anyone who engages in your content helps you, the more influential they are the more helpful it is.”
The reality is 53 percent of peoples scores actually went up, he told Fox News Latino. The CEO admits he’s surprised by the reaction but believes the controversy over the new algorithm is partly because the people who dropped in score tended to be more at the top end, so they are louder about it.
In the meantime, the Klout creator does have some advice on what people should and shouldn’t do to raise their scores.
“I think people should care about their Klout score but changing the way you are on social media to benefit your Klout score is ultimately a losing strategy in the same way that trying to play the SEO game instead of creating quality content is ultimately a losing strategy [for websites],” Fernandez explained while comparing his algorithm with how Google uses their algorithm to rank websites.
“The hardest thing is consistency. The Internet has a short attention span," he said. "If you disappear for a couple of days or a week it can be a challenge. It’s about finding that balance between being present without being noisy. If you talk too much people will tune you out. It’s about finding that right tempo which is the biggest challenge.”
The Future of Klout
Fernandez believes Klout can really force companies to recognize individuals for the power of their word of mouth, a concept he thinks is “really exciting.”
“I think of NIKE paying millions of dollars for someone like Lebron James,” he said. “I imagine the power of having 1,000 mini Lebrons across the United States talking about NIKE.”
Fernandez expects a huge amount of growth from his company and now, more than ever, he understands the stakes.
After all, when it comes to Klout scores, it’s not just business – it’s personal.
Fernandez admits the road for Klout has been a roller coaster and he is still trying to grasp the success of the company thus far. But this is only the beginning.
“From a consumer standpoint I want it to be a VIP pass to the entire world," he said. "For the first time, I want Klout to have network value. I want people to have the ability to attract or push away customers.”