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 Three 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. You can find Part Two here.
Wesley and I are staring in shock at our computer screens. The site was down. Visitors had poured in after the Mashable mention and the servers experienced insta-death. What had started as joyful elation quickly turned into stunned malignant silence. Neither of us had faced a situation like this before. It was still a good problem to have.
After the failure of FavoriteThing to go viral Wesley, Ajay and I decided to press on undeterred. Wesley came up with the idea of creating a website that would help you see your friends on a map, and Ajay came up with naming it WhereMyFriends.Be. After Wesley and I created a simple mockup to dynamically create new points on a map we knew we were in business. After a coding session that started Sunday afternoon and finished on Monday at 6 AM we had our final product – WhereMyFriends.Be was ready to go live.
We started out (of course) by posting it to Hacker News to get some feedback. People seemed to generally like the concept, the design and the functionality and many pointed out bugs and offered their advice – shout out to sagacity and Mark Ture (who helped both before and after we blew up). Then we posted a few things to Facebook and went to class.
By the time we got back, our traffic was spiking pretty nicely and it didn’t require the mass goading of friends to use it that FavoriteThing.Me had. We spent that night fixing bugs here and there and generally promoting the site to our friends. By the second day in, it became clear that while many people were using the app it wasn’t really spreading beyond our immediate friend group. That’s when we decided to promote it more heavily outside our general networks.
Ajay drafted up some pitch emails and started sending them out left and right. Not marketing enough is something that I have identfied as the single greatest detriment to the success of what I create. I’ve done a lot of projects where I will ship the product, show it to a few friends and then when it doesn’t immediately catch fire I just move on to something else. That is an inadequate strategy that held me back and it will hold you back too. Pitch your app to everyone who will listen. What do you have to lose right? And don’t just tell them what your app does in your pitch. Also make sure you pitch a story – every great product and company has a story behind it.
That said, back to this story.
After we sent the emails we settled in and kept coding, not really expecting a response. And then the Senior Editor of Mashable emailed us. He was looking at the app he said, and wanted to write an article. We were giddy with excitement. Then another email. He said he had found a few bugs. We quickly diagnosed his issue and dashed off an email saying that they had been fixed. Then he said he had found another bug and would put the article on hold. He asked us to email him later in the week.
That feeling was almost unbearable. We felt like we had really been on the brink of break out success and had lost out on that chance because of a few pieces of PHP code written at 4 AM on Monday morning.
But as bleak as it seemed we were eventually featured on Mashable. The first few minutes after I read the article were some of the most awesome ones I have experienced on this planet. Wesley and I were dancing around yelling our heads off for a while. That’s when we realized that the server was basically dead.
We had been on a GoDaddy VPS. It barely lasted 5 minutes after the Mashable piece went up. I immediately got on the phone with Rackspace, set up an account and transferred all of our files over. The site was back up for now – but it was running unbearably slow. Ajay was putting out fires left and right on Mashable trying to deal with angry commentors who didn’t like how slow it was. Wesley and I spent the entire night looking through the code fixing as much as we could, and trying to make it as fast as possible. At around 7 AM however, it became clear that nothing we were doing was going to get the site up. We had two options: leave an extremely slow, intermittently functional product up or admit defeat, throw up a letter explaining the situation and let people sign up to be notified when the site was back up.
This was honestly one of the toughest decisions we’ve ever made. When you’re in a situation like that, a situation that you’ve worked for a long time to put yourself in, it’s almost unbearable to think about throwing up the white flag. Every molecule in your body wants to get this fixed, and wants to get this fixed now. Admitting defeat was unbelievably difficult. But Wesley convinced both Ajay and I that it was the correct thing to do.
So Ajay drafted up an apology letter and I reluctantly threw it up on our homepage. You can still read the letter here. It’s funny because of how positive the reaction was. People loved the letter! We got multiple blog posts and tweets telling us how cool they thought it was that we had decided to apologize and retool instead of sticking with a sucky a product. And the best part was that over 2,400 people signed up for our mailing list to be notified when the site was rereleased.
Wesley and I worked for the rest of the weekend to get the site back up and after two days or so with the help of the awesome team at Rackspace we had conquered all of its issues. We rereleased it, sent an email to all of our subscribers and watched the server gracefully handle the traffic bump. Signups spread like crazy, and soon we were passing milestones. As of this writing 24,432 people have registered and we have mapped over 2.6 million friends.
So what should you take away from this series? Someone on HN said that all we did was “get on Mashable.” I think it’s easy to see how it might look that way. But really, as I told him, so much more went into it. We could have built a product that lacked viral potential because users were uncomfortable to spread it, but we didn’t. We could have been too shy to pitch it to absolutely anywhere that had an email address and never have even gotten the Mashable opportunity, but we weren’t. We could have refused to throw up the white flag, forced our users to use a slow and barely functional site, and watched our visitor numbers slow to zero very quickly, but we didn’t. It is all of those types of things that go into the success of a site, and for us, this time, the pieces came together. Learn from our experience if you can.