Building A New Social App Today is Insane
Why we’re trying anyway with Beme
When friends who are not in tech (luckily that’s many of mine) ask what it’s like building a startup like Beme, here’s how I explain it:
“We’re playing a game. In order to make it beyond the first level, we need to build a product that holds the focused attention of at minimum 100 million people. We have 3–4 years to do it, maybe. If we do not stay on a trajectory toward that goal, we will quickly cease to exist.”
“That’s insane!” is the usual reply.
(In fact, Casey was very clear-eyed about this harsh reality when he first told me about the idea that would become Beme. I didn’t hesitate to join up with him in part because he is one of a handful of people in the world with a stomach for those odds.)
Whether they admit it or not, most of the startups whose products you use every day are playing a version of this game. The best (among which I hope we count) do it because they believe it’s their shot at materially changing reality for the better on a global scale. This is not the only way to build a company. Less than 10% percent of all companies are VC-backed startups, playing this exponential-growth-or-bust game. But if your fundamental goal is rapidly connecting millions, there are few better ways.
A social product requires a critical mass of humans to be useful. The early days of the mobile app stores, like the early oughts on the web, were an all-you-can-eat buffet of excitement for new apps from the few companies who were talented enough to make them well.
We learned the hard way that in 2016, a rich, polished, nearly complete app on two platforms, and the ability to instantly garner the attention of millions of people are table stakes for any new product. Gone are the days of slowly iterating on ideas in public. The door for products like ours is in the process of closing with a resounding slam. We may not make it through, but with this team and purpose, we have a chance.
On the attention front, there are few tools: Significant cash for Facebook ads is one option, growth hacks like invite-all-my-friends-with-one-accidental-tap anti-patterns are another. More aboveboard, you can ride on the shoulders of a giant like Periscope smartly did with Twitter.
For us, that not-so-secret attention rocket is Casey, fueled by his honest belief that the highest calling for a creative person is to build something that enables creativity in others.
Late last summer, Beme launched out of a cannon. We knew it was a rough, early version of the product. Yet its purpose resonated: 400,000 people had the app within a week, even though its doors were not yet open. People genuinely wanted to see a world where social media lived up to its potential of promoting empathy and candor.
Two months after launch, we found that only a tiny fraction of this initial flood were able to use the product in a meaningful way. They might check back once a week or once a month, but they weren’t really getting much out of it and neither were their friends. (To the tens of thousands who did fall in love: We owe you a lot—it was talking to you that told us how to make Beme better, and your enthusiasm that kept us working late into the night.)
For most people who have tried it so far, Beme failed. This is a shitty thing to be faced with when you and your team have poured your hearts into something for many months.
We tweaked, we simplified, we polished. It took us a few months more to fully realize how much needed to be changed.
Come January of this year, we confronted ourselves. Minor tweaks weren’t going to cut it. We sat the team down and shared a scary but urgent new mandate: rebuild Beme in a way that actually fulfilled the promise that garnered so much excitement about its launch.
I’m humbled by the team’s ridiculously impressive, unhesitating work toward that goal over the past four months. Our core principles remained the same; rethinking the product only solidified them. But things just work so much better: watching others’ videos is light and quick, finding interesting strangers to follow is a delight not a chore, reacting is fun and social as it was always meant to be, and recording is faster and more intuitive.
This new version doesn’t get us out of the game of creating a network-scale product, it just puts us back in it.
Why would anyone in their right mind want to play this game? We are doing it because we genuinely believe there is a gap between the promise and the reality of social media today.
30% of the world is now carrying a camera (in the form of a smartphone) and by 2020 it will be 80%. Yet the number of perspectives we see, and the number of people who feel comfortable creating in video, is a fraction of a fraction of the number carrying a networked camera with them at all times.
We want to turn this always-there camera into a distributed, global machine for empathy not vanity, understanding not envying, seeing not ogling. We want to enable anyone to share their experience in the visceral, immediate, universal language of video without needing to literally or metaphorically edit.
We believe no product out there today does this like Beme.
Casey explains our purpose even better, in video form of course:
We’re playing this game because we believe the world would be better with something like Beme. Soon the world will tell us if we’re right.
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