Rob Simmelkjaer is no stranger to interviews. As a former senior executive and journalist at ESPN, ABC News and NBC Sports, he was comfortable guiding the Q&A format.
In his new role as co-founder and CEO of the Norwalk-based startup Persona, Simmelkjaer is helping ordinary people tap into their inner Oprah and become interviewers in a new digital environment. Business Journal Senior Enterprise Editor Phil Hall spoke with Simmelkjaer about his new endeavor.
What is Persona seeking to achieve?
“The best way to summarize Persona is: Instagram for interviews. Essentially, we’re creating a social platform that is being optimized for the creation and discovery of conversations and interviews. And I use ‘interviews’ not in the sense of job interviews, but in the sense of interviews about people and topics that are interesting to anyone.
“The origin of Persona came from my history. I’m a journalist and a media executive, and I’ve interviewed people from politicians to celebrities to other journalists. Two years ago, I got an old photo sent to me of my grandfather. It was from 1930 when he was 24 years old and he was standing on the rooftop of a building in Harlem. And when I got this photo, it was either 2017 or 2018 and he’d been deceased since the year 2000. But I stared at this photo and I thought, ‘Gosh, I wish that I could know more about this situation, the story of who he was with, who was taking the photo.’ And I just really wish I could hear his voice and ask him some questions.
“I never interviewed my grandmother, my grandfather, my own kids. It gave me the idea to create an app to really encourage people to use these phones that we’re all carrying around all the time to actually record conversations.
“What I’m trying to create with Persona is a platform that encourages people to use social media to ask questions and get answers and have conversations. We’re trying to create a space for the interviewer to become another kind of influencer.”
What happens once the interview is online?
“We’re moving toward the ability for you to send someone a question if you’re not with them. I can send you a question, you would get that question either through email or a push notification, and it would take you to a screen where you could record your answer using the selfie camera. And then that would be posted as an interview on the platform.”
I could see a great deal of academic interest in this if you’re interviewing people who survived The Holocaust, people who were part of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, other political movements of the late 20th century. Are you teaming with colleges and universities on this project?
“Yes. We are working with journalism students at a half-dozen colleges, including UCLA, Syracuse, St. John’s and American University in Washington, D.C. We are very much focused on students.
Would you agree that this also changes the dynamic of online media?
“If you go on Instagram or you go on YouTube, most of it is, ‘just look at me, look at me, look at me,’ and not much of it is ‘let me ask you a question.’
Have you been in touch with professional media organizations about this?
“I’ve met with NBC, CBS, ESPN, ABC, all my old employers. They’re all interested in what we’re doing.
“Once we get out there and start getting the kinds of usage that I expect from regular people, the media companies tend to follow the regulars into this space, as opposed to being the earliest people there.”
Have you heard from political groups about using this platform?
“I’ve had a lot of activists reach out to me about using it. We’ve got a couple of local ones. There’s one called The Resistors based in Westport that is going to be using it.
“And we’re doing a live interview series that I just launched a few weeks ago in Westport. I’m doing the interviews myself to create some content on the platform. And our first guest was former Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
“We are also going to set up an ability for people running for office to request donations through this. You send someone running for office a question, you get an answer that you like, and they can immediately prompt you to, ‘If you like this answer, please donate to my campaign.’ ”
Where is Persona today?
“We are in beta and we expect to be launching. It will be sort of a soft launch at the Apple App Store. In maybe a couple weeks, we will be on Android.”
How will you be able to monetize Persona?
“There are two primary ways that we’re thinking about monetization. One is a social media platform — advertising and sponsorship is definitely part of the game plan. We see sponsored interviews living inside the feed and other potential advertising living in front of videos.
“The other side is a paid interview marketplace of the sort that I sort of referred to a bit when I was talking about politicians maybe using it as a fundraising device. But we’re thinking about a scenario where a celebrity or a public figure of some kind or expert on some issue makes themselves available on the platform to be interviewed. It would be like an app called Cameo where you can pay C- and D-list celebrities to give you a shout out for your birthday. I’m looking at it.”
Will Persona be available worldwide or just in this country?
“We’re focused on the U.S. now for many reasons. One of which is privacy laws. We haven’t done the deep dive on the new European laws, so we need to steer clear of that until we’re ready.”