Will Silicon Valley embrace the coming entertainment wave?

When your startup fails to solve a problem but users find it fun

Biz Stone’s Jelly launched last week and has been called many things, from a mobile search engine to a social Q&A app but I think they all have it wrong — it’s an entertainment app. The confusion doesn’t surprise me as it’s so ingrained in Silicon Valley that products are about a problem and a solution. All the methodologies for building products in the Valley start with a problem — Agile, Customer Development, Lean Startup, Lean Software Development (yes I’ve studied a lot). VC’s ask, “is the problem your trying to solve is big enough?” But what if your product doesn’t solve a problem?

Fun = Entertainment

Biz Stone certainly believes Jelly solves a problem, but as Selena Larson points out - it doesn’t do a very good job against the competition.

If I really wanted to know what this red panda was, I would have Googled it.

Larson does highlight that it can still be fun.

I’ll admit, while Jelly isn’t that useful, it can be fun. The first question I posed was asking my network “What is this?” with a picture of a red panda attached. Naturally, the Internet did its Internet thing and responded with sarcasm.
@joywang asks “Why are you on Jelly”

I’ve watched the questions and answers degrade into sarcasm since launch. Some funny, some not so funny. Perhaps this is human nature or it’s your fate if you don’t beat the competition as solving the problem.

Biz Stone may have some experience with fun working on Twitter but I doubt he’s that familiar with building entertainment products. I’ve worked at a handful of entertainment companies, from IMVU to Disney Interactive and am surprised how different it is than building products that solve a problem. You can never underestimate how helpful it is to calibrate your efforts by asking, does this new version solve the problem better than the previous version?

My guess is Biz Stone overestimated the average person’s propensity to help others, or at least overestimated the format. Jelly seems to beg for sarcasm, especially being mobile — what else would you expect when I’m in line at the DMV. Maybe Aardvark discovered a similar propensity for sarcasm when they tried to construct a similar product using Google Talk. Eventually bought by Google they shut it down shortly after.

Anyhow if I’m right, Jelly is left at a crossroads. Try and curate more legitimate use cases or embrace the entertainment and try to curate the funny? Of course the prospect of building an entertainment app is uncharted territory in Silicon Valley and generally avoided as it suggests a hits driven business.

Entertainment is creeping into more business models

@joywang asks “Why are you on Jelly?”

Even if Biz Stone sticks to his guns and targets Jelly as a Q&A app, entertainment is creeping into more business models. Which shouldn’t be too shocking. The web was created to help distribute scientific thought, though how much science is going back and forth on Tumblr? IMVU, home of The Lean Startup, began as a messaging companion but is now a social entertainment destination. How much useful communication is happening on SnapChat?

As products gain wide appeal they tend to take on some aspect of entertainment— even Google search. However talking with friends and startup founders I’m noticing a greater propensity to find entertainment in mobile apps. Where as you might have found Aardvark useless and uninstalled it, you may keep Jelly around longer just for it’s entertainment value.

Will Silicon Valley embrace the fun?

The question is if founders like Biz Stone and the Valley will embrace it? Entertainment certainly isn’t the Valley’s strong suit. It dabbled in social games for a bit but that was on the promise that it was bucking the “hits driven business”. We all know how true that turned out to be.

Entertainment is uncharted territory with few signposts. As I mentioned, all the methodologies for building products revolve around a problem and a solution. Some areas outside of the Valley have a little more experience however. Look at how Japan’s Line has been embracing entertainment in stickers and games while it’s Silicon Valley competitor, WhatsApp has stuck to it’s guns and focused on messaging.

WhatsApp Chief Executive Jan Koum attributes the steady growth to his company’s “focus on messaging.” Unlike competing messaging apps that make money with advertising or games, “we want to get out of the way. We want to let people have a conversation.”

Sounds like WhatsApp was at the same crossroads as Biz Stone, but had great usage numbers to support their decision. With mobile’s propensity for entertainment I’m sure many more founders will run into the crossroads. We’ll have to wait and see which path Biz Stone takes.

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