During an interview with Kara Swisher in April, Troy Carter, Lady Gaga’s manager and a prolific seed investor, said something that struck such a significant chord with me that I Tweeted about it then, and I’m still thinking about it nearly 5 months later. His statement was as self-evident as it was powerful: “You always start off with 50 fans.”
Troy, of course, is discussing the importance of knowing your earliest fans and subsequently empowering them in various ways because they are the ones who evangelize the artist. But why can’t this very notion be applied to startups, especially those of the consumer internet variety whose relevance oftentimes has the same lifespan as a one-hit wonder artist? In this vein, I’ve been particularly intrigued by how certain startups attract a stereotypical early adopter / tech-oriented / “nerdy” user initially while others attract a more “mainstream” user at first. For the sake of this discussion, while there are certainly various types of users within these two groups, I’ll just be focusing on early adopters vs. mainstream users broadly. Beyond the concept of simply crossing the chasm, I’m especially concerned with understanding how the makeup of a startup’s first “50 fans” has implications for that startup’s ability to go from that core group to tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or even a billion highly diverse users and which product and business development decisions drive massive growth.
In one corner, you have the startups that clearly gained an initial foothold with the standard tech early adopters. Think Twitter, Path, Foursquare, Quora. In the other corner, you have the startups that attracted a definitively more mainstream user base first. Think Pinterest, Wanelo, Snapchat, Tinder.
In the first group, Twitter is a noticeable outlier. Granted, it’s the oldest of the group, but the company managed to escape the initial perception that it was a bastion of tech nerd-dom. Partly, Twitter was able to do so because the service is undeniably useful; it has utility for virtually anyone. But it appears that a significant portion of Twitter’s strategy to acquire mainstream users was through product enhancements and biz dev / partnership efforts. Twitter has effectively on-boarded “influencers” and worked with sports / media / entertainment properties better than any other technology company, building up a team in-house that cut its collective teeth at talent agencies, record labels, and media companies and opening up offices in LA and NYC. Celebrities’ using your product or investing in your company doesn’t guarantee its success but when there’s authenticity behind their usage and the service actually provides them value (tangible or intangible), it can be a major boon for attracting mainstream users. A litany of product enhancements and decisions also contributed to Twitter’s expansion beyond early adopters, such as making public Twitter feeds available to people without signing up, constantly improving the on-boarding process to get over the “cold-start” problem, sending relevant email digests, enhancing user profiles with cover images, building content-rich Twitter Cards, and even adding the “controversial” blue lines to connect in-stream conversations.
Path, Foursquare, and Quora all resonated with stereotypical early adopters to start, but all have been and are struggling to appeal to the mainstream internet user. For Path and Foursquare (as well as a slew of other location-based services), it may be an issue of users’ reluctance to adopt a new type of behavior, be it more intimate sharing or broadcasting one’s location. To combat these obstacles, Path has made some feature adjustments. Introducing Stickers is not only a monetization mechanism, but the recognition of a trend in other messaging apps that have attracted and subsequently engaged larger user bases. Adding and immediately emphasizing private messaging in Path was a strategic re-positioning / re-framing of the company in the minds of new users. Meanwhile, Foursquare has made significant changes to the app and desktop site to make the product useful to users who don’t want to check in. While you could contend that the company waited too long to de-emphasize the check-in, adding Explore, Lists, partnering with American Express, and enabling desktop search have all been helpful in acquiring a new type of user. Lastly, Quora has a treasure trove of compelling content, including lots of great stuff that isn’t just tech-oriented, but it doesn’t seem that there have been enough product or biz dev changes to drive mainstream adoption. Putting content behind a registration wall doesn’t make sense to me, particularly given how useful making content public was for Twitter. The credits system that the site implemented seemed counter-productive as well. The best thing Quora has going for it, in my opinion, is the email digest of suggested content. The only problem is you need to be a user to get these awesome compilations of answers.
In contrast to the above four companies, Pinterest, Wanelo, Snapchat, and Tinder, among others, have bulked up on mainstream users. Perhaps it’s because these sites don’t require distinct changes in user behavior / consumer psychology like some of the other products early adopters gravitated towards. Maybe it’s because consumer internet and tech in and of itself is more mainstream than ever before, so internet users are now more inclined to try new services.
Regardless, when your company’s “50 fans” aren’t stereotypical early adopters, it fundamentally affects your capacity for growth and alters the way you think about product and biz dev efforts. I believe that a company’s user growth trajectory will be smoother, and potentially greater, when starting with a more mainstream user base since there is less of a need to re-position the company in the minds of potential new users as the company grows. When starting out with an initial base of mainstream users, product and biz teams don’t need to focus on building out features or executing partnerships to appeal to an entirely new type of user, work which could lead to feature creep or misguided biz dev strategy along with a whole lot of wasted time and energy.
Early adopters are wont to test out apps and products merely for the sake of trying them out; it’s simply their nature. My sense is mainstream users are less prone to dabbling in various services. When they choose to spend time on your site or in your app, it’s a much more conscious choice, an investment of their limited time. Consequently, when your “50 fans” are these types of users, it’s more critical than ever to empower them via product and biz dev decisions, building in functionality that increases their engagement and compels them to become your company’s most valuable evangelists. For Pinterest, it could be their Secret Boards. For Wanelo, it could be the new Stories feature, which lets users express themselves more creatively. For Snapchat, perhaps it’s SnapKidz, while for Tinder, maybe it’s the Matchmaker feature. These feature additions seem to be less about acquiring a new type of user and more about understanding what your initial fans want out of the product and how you can improve the core users’ experience.
It’s still a little too early to tell with which type of user base it’s easier to start (albeit this may be out of your control), but given what I’m seeing from the aforementioned startups, it seems that having mainstream users as your first “50 fans” allows for more focused product and biz dev decisions and a potentially smoother path towards massive growth.