Creating Buzz (Without Hate Mail)

Kai Tietjen ran an ad agency for nearly a decade, and then got the idea to take on Google. In 2006, he used his own money to start Mister Wong, a German site that allows users to bookmark their favorite sites, and then uses those bookmarks as the basic data for its search engine. To find a popular site, any user can search all other bookmarks on Mister Wong, with the best-regarded ones getting the highest ratings. (The site's slogan: "Master of All Bookmarks.") "Google does a very good job in deep search—when you look up your own name, you might find a list from a course where you participated or something like that," Tietjen says. "But if you want to know what Web sites on a specific topic other people find good, or what Web sites are hot at the moment, then Google has a weakness."

Search is only part of what Mister Wong offers; it's also a social network. Users can create and join groups to share site links, or they can be "buddies" with each other. Like Facebook users, they can also add images to their accounts and send each other messages.

Tietjen has managed to broker deals to link with major sites like Deutsche Telekom, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit. As a result, it now has about 2.5 million users in Germany. Tietjen has opened Mister Wong sites in Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French and English, and plans for a Japanese version are in the works. The use of local-language sites is important, says Tietjen, because it allows people to bookmark their specific cultural preferences in things like news, blogs, videos, music and cities. When entering a new market, the firm woos bloggers in the target country in the hope of creating buzz.

The road to becoming both a global and local brand at the same time has not been smooth. Mister Wong's original logo—a cartoonish nerdy East Asian man—outraged some Asian-Americans just as the company was trying to enter the United States market last spring. "Mister Wong had better be based on a real person [who] saved twenty burning German orphanages, because otherwise, I'm calling foul," wrote a poster on the blog 8asians. Some German users responded that offended parties should calm down and stop spreading political correctness "all over the world." Tietjen removed the controversial logo, apologized on a Mister Wong blog and announced a contest to design a new logo. (The winner will be announced within the next month.) The Mister Wong brand hasn't yet caught fire outside Germany, which accounts for four fifths of its 3 million users. Tietjen is hoping that a successful site can grow with slow steps rather than a big bang.