How We Went From Being Virtually Unknown to 3k Signups a Day in 5 Weeks Part 2 of 3

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Student entrepreneur Dan Shipper wrote a three-part blog series about his startup, WhereMyFriends.Be, and how it went from zero to thousands of daily signups in a few short weeks. In part three he discusses why the site went viral, and how the site went down when the press took notice.This is Part Two of a three part series of my experience starting a website called WhereMyFriends.Be with two of my friends. If you haven’t read Part One you can find it here.

I’m sitting at my computer screen looking dejectedly at my chartbeat account. FavoriteThing.Me had zero current visitors. The last time someone had been on the site was almost a day ago. It was a weird feeling looking at how the project had failed to attract a regular user base. I knew we hadn’t put that much time into it (maybe 40 hours of coding) but my stomach had that queasy feeling you get when you feel like you’ve let someone down. It was hard to understand why it failed. What had gone wrong?

After I met Wesley and Ajay and we started discussing ideas for projects to work on the subject immediately turned Hacker News. It turned out the both Wesley and I were pretty avid readers, and had recently been following the story of another young entrepeneur named Mark Bao. Mark had created a website called ThreeWords.Me which went very viral and he had posted to Hacker News asking for advice about how to keep his server up.

Now that was the kind of problem we wanted to have.

The question then became: how do we make this happen for us? That’s when we decided that instead of working on a giant web project that could take several months to build and had a high chance of failing, we, as relative newcomers to the scene, would try to build a lot of little web apps in as short a period of time as possible. We had already been implementing this strategy on our own to some degree, but once we came together and resolved to do so collectively our success really picked up.

Noting the huge success of ThreeWords.Me and knowing that we wanted to build a small site we decided to take a page out of Mark’s book and build a site called FavoriteThing.Me. Basically the app would allow your friends to tell you what their favorite thing about you is. It seemed simple, cool, and a relatively safe bet to be marginally successful given how ThreeWords.Me spread so quickly.

Every time I finish a new project I like to go back and write down exactly what I think didn’t work about it. I’m actually planning on breaking down some of my failures in future blog posts, but for now I’m just going to talk about FavoriteThing. Aside from technical details like always stripping HTML/Javascript out of all user input, and hiding your directory listings etc. the most interesting question is why something failed to be viral.

FavoriteThing had a lot of viral components:

Most, if not all, people want to know interesting things about themselves.
Most, if not all, people want other people to know interesting things about themselves.
By this logic we felt that FavoriteThing would spread rather quickly past our personal friend networks and out into the wild. That didn’t end up happening for a reason that we missed in our planning stage:

Most people don’t want to seem like they are digging for compliments.

If you give them an excuse to get compliments they will love it. If you obfuscate the fact that they are asking for compliments they will love it. If you ask them to ask for compliments however, they won’t use it.

It’s funny because as I was in the process of promoting the app to my friends I kept having the same conversation:

Me: You should use FavoriteThing.Me.

Them: It looks cool but I’m afraid people will say mean things. / Haha maybe.

Me: I made it.

Them: WOW! That’s the coolest thing since sliced bread I’m going to sign up right now!

And invariably they would sign up immediately and post to their Facebook but almost always with the disclaimer “My friend made this app you should check it out…” Interesting stuff.

So lesson learned: if you are relying on people to spread your app, tell them something interesting about themselves but don’t make them dig for comments themselves.

If a by product of your app is that your users get compliments they will love it and use it every day. However, if that is the primary function of your app then no one will use it.

The primary function of Facebook is to “connect” with your friends. The byproduct of Facebook is basically gossip: you get to see what your friends are up to, what parties they have been to, whose wall they have written on recently etc. If Facebook had branded itself as a site whose primary function was to let you keep tabs on your friends, or gossip about your friends (even though this is what people use it for every day) it would never have made it past Harvard’s gate. Because gossip is only a byproduct, people don’t feel weird signing up, but LOVE it because that’s what they get when they do.

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