Why the Fam App? The path that led us to 1 million users in 10 days

Fam took 8 days to build, but it took over 2 years and 4 other product launches to create.

The story starts when I teamed up with my cofounders Frank and Giuseppe. They had already created a powerful high school brand called SmackHigh — a collection of regionalized Twitter accounts that enabled over half a million high school students to share and read high school student news. It was kind of like YikYak, but polished. We worked on a few side projects and immediately hit it off; we complemented one another in different ways, but shared one common trait: obsession with the grind.

When we raised $1.65 million in the middle of 2015, we thought we had it all figured out: Simply build an app that replicates the experience we had hacked on Twitter, and we’d convert nearly all of our users to the app. In other words, if you build it, they will come, right?

Wrong. They didn’t come.

I forgot to leverage one of our biggest advantages: Frank and Giuseppe understand how to engage and communicate with teens better than anybody (we had over 21,000 brand ambassadors and half a billion monthly Twitter impressions).

Lesson learned. Our next app, SmackChat was the result of talking to countless users in group chats that we had organized, focus groups and user surveys. What they wanted most was a place to chat about the topics and social news that was coming out on SmackHigh. We listened and SmackChat was the result. We saw some pretty good engagement with SmackChat, but we weren’t seeing any indicators that it could be a product that millions would use.

As a marketing initiative for SmackChat, Frank and Giuseppe had started a new campaign: Snapchat takeovers of the SmackHigh Snapchat account. Almost immediately, our Snapchat takeover metrics were through the roof! We had tons of teens applying to take over the account and were instantly seeing tens of thousands of unique views per Snap. Remember when I said Frank and Giuseppe understand teens? The lessons from this campaign is what led us to our next product, SmackLive.

The Snapchat takeover experience resembled a Q&A focused, asynchronous talk show for teens, by teens. After some late night/early morning brainstorming sessions, we concluded all of the indicators revolved around video content.

SmackLive launched in October of 2016 as an extension of what we had learned on SmackChat and the Snapchat takeovers: merge video and group conversation. Imagine this: a talk show hosted by a teen, live broadcasting with up to 3 other guests to an audience of hundreds or even thousands who can chat directly with the broadcasters. It was pretty darn dramatic and entertaining.

After about a month of user feedback and observations, Giuseppe told me he had been observing something that I thought was pretty interesting: a pattern of super users were using SmackLive as a way to do group video hangouts with their closest friends, exclusively. They didn’t want to broadcast to an audience like SmackLive was designed to do, they just wanted to privately hang out in a live, virtual space with 2 or 3 of their best friends. Think of Facetime, but with a group of your friends. We searched Twitter and learned that there was some pretty serious pent-up demand for this sort of product. Sure, Oovoo and a few other apps existed, but for some reason they just weren’t resonating much with teens. We saw a conflicting use case with SmackLive and we needed a resolution. Fast.

The three of us tend to stay pretty late at the office. Chatting, brainstorming, checking out new apps, playing games. During the course of that particular week in November, we had discovered the iMessage app “GamePigeon”. The iMessage app store had quietly launched in September as a way to build apps that live directly within iMessage (vs. your home screen). I was watching Frank and Giuseppe play a game of pool in our own group chat and I was struck by the intimacy of the experience. A virtual world that could only be accessed from within the group chat. That’s when it hit me! Live group video as an iMessage app!

It all seemed to mesh perfectly: Our users were begging us for a way to do live group video hangouts with their friends, iMessage is the platform of choice for teens when it comes to group chats, and the network and social circles are already built. All of our learnings were coming to fruition.

Immediately, I did a search in the iMessage app store to see what the playing field was like. It was all sticker and game apps. I assumed that must mean live group video just isn’t possible from within iMessage apps. I engaged one of our super-talented engineers, and asked him to do some quick hacking with me to see if we could take what we had built on SmackLive and make it run as an iMessage app as a proof of concept.

It worked! I couldn’t believe it. I showed the rest of the team. Excitement hit a boiling point; we were on to something.

So 8 days later, we had our Fam MVP and we submitted to the App Store on November 22, 2016. After 13 of what seemed like the longest days, we were approved and ready for launch. 10 days after that, we had over a million users and over the course of the next month, none of us would sleep for more than 2 hours on any given night. While lots of work remains to be done on Fam, it took over two years to acquire the knowledge and learnings that led to that major inflection point for us as a team.

In reflecting back on the last 2+ years, we got some things right and we got some things wrong. Above all, one lesson stands out: listen to and understand our users! While they’re not going to innovate for us, they’re going to be pretty darn good at identifying the problems they need solved.

For more insight into the launch strategy that led to our first million downloads in less than 10 days, check out my cofounder, Frank’s post.

Want to join the Fam team? Email us at hello@fam.live.