People haven’t always been so nice to Marissa Mayer, the early Google employee who rose to a vice president in that company, then took over as CEO of a struggling Yahoo only to be removed when the company was acquired by Verizon five years later in 2017. They criticized her for being a fashionista and an ice queen, for micromanaging, for taking too short a maternity leave and for bringing her infant to the office, for failing at a turnaround that might have been an impossible task, and simply for being “no Steve Jobs.”
But Mayer seemed to never lose her sense of fun—her bright clothes make her stand out at any tech event, and her Halloween and Christmas decorations have become a local legend.
Two years ago, Mayer answered the “what comes after Yahoo” question by announcing a startup, Lumi Labs, cofounded with long-time colleague Enrique Munoz Torres. At the time, the two gave little indication about exactly what this tiny Palo Alto company would do beyond developing some projects and prototypes.
This week, Lumi Labs changed its name to Sunshine and released its first official product, Sunshine Contacts, an app that uses AI to organize, autocomplete, and update a user’s contacts. Previously the company did an experimental release of an app designed to manage holiday mailing lists.
OK, maybe a contact manager doesn’t sound like a change-the-world product, or one that needed to be backed by $20 million in seed capital. But don’t write it off just yet. Sunshine’s goal, according to the company’s web site, is to “make the mundane magical.”
“Imagine if your contacts magically stayed up-to-date with no effort on your part,” the company states. “Or if the great photos you have of your friends got sent to them automatically. What if you never forgot another birthday?
“Smartphones have connected the world and put the entire internet into our pockets. We can get whatever we want delivered to our home whenever we want, sometimes by flying drone. With the rise of artificial intelligence, dreams of virtual assistants, self-driving cars and global facial recognition are no longer that far-fetched. However, despite transformational advances in technology, there are still tons of mundane, time-consuming tasks that we all do (or just don’t do) daily.”
Sunshine plans Contacts to be the first of many products aimed at these everyday problems. The app pulls in data from Apple and Google contacts, removes duplicates while using AI to distinguish between contacts with the same name, and automatically digs through LinkedIn profiles and other publicly available information to fill missing details, including addresses, profile pictures, and additional phone numbers. Going forward, it promises to automatically update contact information when necessary.
I have to admit I was smiling and nodding my head while reading Sunshine’s announcement. Having covered Mayer on and off for about a decade, I could see her fingerprints all over the company. In the various interactions I’ve had with her, she does seem like someone who wouldn’t want to forget a birthday or just about any occasion: for some time she set the agenda of holidays, milestones, and artists for Google Doodles and her holiday decorations are stuff of Silicon Valley legend. She may indeed be a micromanager—she personally passes out Halloween candy to the more than a thousand trick or treaters that line up in front of her house (in non-COVID years)—but all the more reason she needs tools to help stay on top of everything.
And she does have a history of sweating the details around a user’s experience. In a lengthy interview I did with her in 2011, she talked about how she argued to make Gmail display “unfurled threaded” messages—not just group messages, but display the whole conversation at once. She made a successful case for what she called “infinite scroll” through the first thousand images that came up on Google image search. “I think it is important to not ask people to click too much and to basically go with the flow.” And she famously tested some 40 shades of blue to find a uniform color for Google’s offerings.
Put all that together in the hands of a busy entrepreneur, parent of three, and computer scientist, and of course she’s aiming at using AI to fix our address books. Sunshine promises that tools for scheduling and event organization will come next.
Here’s where the “nice” part comes in. First, the name. Who wouldn’t appreciate a little sunshine on these dark days? (Though I do wonder how much it cost to pick up the URL sunshine.com.)
Mayer certainly will try to make Sunshine a fun place to work. When Google’s first offices were just down the street from Sunshine’s digs, she organized regular Friday movie nights, and kept them going for some time after the company expanded. That will have to wait until after the pandemic, but in the meantime, there’s ice cream. Sunshine’s website reports “We like ice cream. We have it every Friday.” And while I rarely talk about fashion when covering tech, you can’t tell me that the peacock-print dress Mayer wears in some of the publicity photos isn’t intended to make a statement about company culture.
As for hiring, the company is currently looking for software engineers with expertise in Android apps, iOS apps, machine learning, systems, and security, to work via Google Hangouts and Zoom for now and in the company’s Palo Alto offices post-pandemic. Sunshine’s careers page states: “Above all, everyone on our team is smart, loves to learn, and is NICE. Because life is too short to spend time working with people who aren’t nice.”
And two photos on the website display a throw pillow with appliqued letters spelling out “Be nice or leave,” perhaps a warning to Mayer’s critics as well as future employees.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.