Facebook’s (now rebranded as Meta) experimental app division, known as the New Product Experimentation (NPE) team, is getting set to change the game. The NPE team was first introduced in 2019 with the ultimate focus to develop consumer-facing apps that allow the company to try out new social features and gauge people’s reactions.
Over the years, the NPE team has launched and retrieved a number of social apps undergoing experimental testing. These apps have catered for rang various social needs like meme-makers, dating and calling apps, apps for couples, TikTok, Twitter, and Clubhouse rivals, and more. Now, NPE will commence testing new big app ideas that may come from outside the U.S market.
To take advantage of the potential to spot the next big idea, the organization recently set up an office in Lagos, Nigeria, with plans to set up another in Asia. The organization is also making effort to make several adjustments to its strategy, this would mean making seed-stage investments available to small, entrepreneurial teams. One of such seed-stage investments is Meta’s recent investment in an A.I.-powered developer platform Inworld AI, with the responsibility of building virtual characters. But future checks reveal these investments may go to non-metaverse companies to include those with more near-term potential — like startups developing apps and innovations that explore new ways of using the mobile internet.
One reason why Meta is driving this initiative is that Meta has understood that in today’s world, many innovations that have gone ahead to present universal experiences first break out from niche communities. WhatsApp is a typical example, the innovation first grew in popularity in regions where SMS text messaging wasn’t free before it exploded globally. Also, some mobile money innovations have come to light today after taking advantage of the lack of legacy payment systems in East Africa. In order to ensure no stone is left unturned or future opportunities lost, Meta’s NPE team has decided to look outside the Silicon Valley.
This captain stirring the ship in the new direction is Ime Archibong, head of Meta’s NPE team, an 11-year Meta employee, whose experience prior to NPE included working on Facebook’s developer platform. That role gave him the opportunity to go around the world to connect with entrepreneurs of both smaller startups and larger companies. After joining NPE about two years ago, Archibong is taking the group in a similar direction.
According to Archibong, he explained that his work at NPE “Is a bit like what I was doing for the prior 10 years, which is going and attracting a bunch of entrepreneurial talent and small teams, and getting them access to the resources — which is talent, time and technology to build out their ideas,” he explained. “And of course, the objective is that some of the seeds of the ideas that we’re able to build, at some point, could be very big.”
The team has decided its focus will include regions like Asia, Africa, and Latin America as it stirs its ship in the course of this new direction, though it isn’t entirely giving up on the U.S.-based market. However, the new direction may look different to some of those they have had in the past. Instead of launching and quickly shuttering new social apps that don’t gain traction or do justice to the subject, NPE’s current set of experiments include a project that’s helping citizens in the U.S. re-enter society after being incarcerated and another aimed at helping LGBTQ families on the journey to becoming parents. These are obviously innovations that strike a chord rather than just another clone of TikTok. But the expanded focus for NPE remains to search for ideas that may start off small perhaps even addressing underserved markets but have the potential to ultimately scale to the global stage.
“I think that the future is going to be built in some of these regions around the world that have been historically overlooked and undervalued,” Archibong noted. “I have a firm belief that the problems, solutions, the opportunities and the new experiences that are going to be built by people who are most proximate to the communities that they’re trying to serve.” And these solutions will be “more durable, more sustainable, and more viable” in the long run, he said.
This initiative sounds solid enough and capable of thriving — after all, history has seen innovations access the global stage under Meta’s watch. However, the very big question remains as to whether the global entrepreneurship community is willing to welcome checks written by Meta, given its history of borrowing or revamping ideas from smaller companies. Meta is widely known to have copied Snapchat’s Stories idea and have grown it into a much larger product of its own. It launched its own version of Snap’s Bitmoji. Reports say Meta is currently expanding its Clubhouse, TikTok, Nextdoor, and Substack lookalikes. According to Techcrunch startup called Phhhoto is even suing Meta for first promising it a partnership opportunity, then ultimately deciding to just build its own version of Phhhoto’s technology (which became Boomerang from Instagram). What Meta didn’t copy, it acquired — whether that was a future rival like Instagram, WhatsApp, or Giphy, or an up-and-comer like tbh or Moves.
While developer Inworld AI may feel comfortable having a partnership with Meta, given how their missions in VR closely align, doesn’t mean other seed-stage startups necessarily feel the same way. But Archibong is quite confident that there are quite a number of startups out there willing to take the shot of a chance on the global stage. “I think that there are going to be more opportunities like that [with Inworld AI]. People who see working with us, a mission-aligned organization with what they’re trying to do — an organization that’s probably pretty excited about similar technology trends, or emergent platforms or user behavior,” says Archibong. Although Meta hasn’t disclosed how much capital it’s willing to deploy and over what period of time however the checks just like the teams themselves will be “really, really small,” Archibong said.