Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

Means to an End

Startups come and go. They shut down (we used to say “go out of business”), get acquired, or sometimes both. They grow and buy other companies and “join forces” and go public. Sometimes, they just go quiet. The startup you love today will be different in a year, one way or another, and we shouldn’t expect anything different.

But what about the startups that are built by us? Services like Tumblr, Instagram, Gowalla [1], Twitter, Path, and Foursquare whose product is the sum of what people contribute to it? Should our expectations be any different? And is the company’s responsibility any different?

The relationship between startups and their users is changing.

The negative reaction to Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram [2] was telling. For some, it was like their mom had just shown up at a party. “Don’t you understand, the point was to have fun without you!” Others simply don’t like Facebook or expect that the app they love will change substantially or be shut down. [3]

At the core of it is a sense of ownership. All startups need users desperately (in special cases, the word is customers) . When the product is what people create with it, though, whether through photos, reviews, comments, locations, written content, or checkins, users aren’t enough. You need passionate fans and evangelists, people who won’t stop talking about your app until their friends love it as much as they do.

You need a community that believes in what you’re building.

To be successful, you have to have a worthy product, no doubt, but you also have to foster a sense that everyone is working toward a common goal. You say things like “We love you!” and use words like community, family, and team endlessly. You invite people to be volunteers, super users, or part of the street team. In some ways, you turn your product into a cause.

I don’t personally know any companies that aren’t 100% genuine about this, because for nearly everyone at a startup, it is a cause. They believe in it, put everything they have into it, and think it will make the world better in measurable, though sometimes convoluted, ways.

At the end of the day, however, the two causes are not the same. There is a lot of overlap between them, which adds to the confusion, but the people who make the product are pursuing a different goal than the people using it. And the people using it are a means to that end.

The sense of community and a common cause, the very things that makes the best products successful, is what makes that a hard thing to accept when your favorite startup is acquired or shut down. For the people who invested so much in the product, people who felt like they were part of a family, it’s disconcerting.

This isn’t exclusive to startups. Jon Huntsman ran for president and built a small, loyal following that included myself. The campaign was active on social media and like any campaign, worked hard to turn his candidacy into a cause and develop a relationship with supporters. Yet, the campaign ended with a short press conference, which was followed by… nothing. It simply went silent: no final email and thank you, no tweets from the official campaign account or more importantly, the candidate’s himself, who had over 80K followers. Both accounts sit frozen in time.

Voters, of course, are also just a means to an end. What I find perplexing about this is that at some point in the future, Huntsman will want attention and support again. There will be a new cause, a new election, but the campaign made the mistake of ruining the illusion. We were only “in this together” until we no longer served a purpose. Do they think that no one will remember the last time?

It’s a question startups and founders should ask themselves as well.

The result of more high-profile services going this route is a growing mistrust of new, free apps that require substantial time investment by users to be successful. I would attribute the lack of traction for Oink and Stamped, apps for rating things, partly to this. Skepticism regarding Oink, whose website is already gone five months after it launched, was prescient.

What can users and startups do differently?

For users:

  • Support companies that charge for their products by paying for them. The best post on this is Don’t Be A Free User by Pinboard’s Maciej Ceglowski. If you haven’t read it, please do.

  • Before you invest your time in a new service, make sure that you can retrieve your content at any time.

  • Remind yourself and your friends that 95% of the apps and services out there are not causes and shouldn’t be treated that way. They may be great products built by awesome women and men, and if so, use and enjoy them, and give their creators some of your money, but find true causes and invest your heart and soul into those.

For startups:

  • Be as up front with your users as you possibly can. If this is an experiment to gauge interest, say so. Define what success is for you and your team. Your most passionate users are more than willing to help you get there. Just don’t say your goal is one thing when it’s really another.

  • Appreciate everyone who uses your app, but resist the temptation to oversell the level of emotional connection. “Love” and “family” are words with a lot of meaning wrapped up in them. If you insist on going there, don’t act surprised when the family you love is upset that you’ve closed down your service and moved on.

  • Stop using the excuse that because you don’t charge your users, they have no right to care what you do with the product.

[1] I had the privilege of working at Gowalla for four years. We did many things right and we made mistakes. I’m proud of what we accomplished.

[2] Garrett Murray shared his interesting perspective on Instagram + Facebook. You should read it.

[3] I have friends at Instagram. To the extent my opinion matters, I thought the sale made complete sense and I would’ve done the same thing. The reaction to it inspired some of these thoughts, but this is about startups and their communities in general.