Every other morning, I get an email from an error handling service I use, which tells me that someone has tried to log into Fiftytwo via Twitter, and they’ve seen an error message. That particular feature has been broken for probably two years, and is frequent reminder that I should probably close down the service when I had a spare moment.
Fiftytwo was an experiment in creating a professional network for creatives whose constraint was the ability to post just one piece of work (new, or work-in-progress) every week. It was my take on the “slow web” movement; a response to the deluge of Twitter posts where meaningful work updates got lost in the noise. It was an experiment in creating a space that was closed and private, allowing people to feel comfortable sharing work in private without it being open to banal public commentary.
It was moderately successful for a side-project: a quick count shows that 7,975 users had registered, some superb design work was posted (a selection of which can be seen below), and connections were made between people that lead to some interesting collaborations. However, I have decided to close it down for good, but in its place I wanted to post a few things I learnt about building the service, and some advice mined from what I think worked and what didn’t.
If you’re building a social/professional network, you need to dedicate 100% of your time to it
Fiftytwo was never an attempt to create a viable start-up as a money-making endeavour, and as such I could only dedicated a limited amount of time to it amongst my usual freelance work. I soon discovered that designing and developing a network product is hard work (especially since I was teaching myself Rails while doing it). The complexity is far more involved than you’d think (more on that later) and eventually can take over and overwhelm.
I found myself focussing too much on maintaining Fiftytwo without any income, such that my regular work and my other project, siteInspire, was sidelined. I had to make a call on what to do. Taking investment wasn’t an option, so I scaled back the server to a single dyno on Heroku and stopped notifications (such that people slowly stopped having a reason to visit).
This advice could apply to any product you want to exist, but just make sure that before you do, have the time needed to dedicate to your audience.
Whatever you choose to build, be selfish, and make sure it serves your interests first
The idea behind Fiftytwo was sound, and plenty of people enjoyed using it and derived plenty of utility from it. However, I found that it began to service less and less utility for myself. I found that since I wasn’t working on many projects, I was posting less and less often. While this sounds selfish (well, it is), Fiftytwo started to serve less utility for me, and so I became less motivated to give it the attention it deserved.
If you’re building a product, it’s imperative is that it serves you first: be relentlessly selfish, at least at the beginning. If you don’t get utility from it, consider something else.
You can never predict how your audience will ultimately use your product
A key tenet of Fiftytwo was that any work you shared would only be shared with your private network (unless you wanted it to be public, or featured in the “Editor’s Pick” section). For that feature to work, you have to be careful about choosing who to follow, and who follows you (it was a Facebook-like bilateral friendship, rather than a Twitter-like follower model).
In practice, I found immediately that people wanted to make connections with, and accept invitations from, everyone else on the network, regardless of how close they were. Then, a lot of users felt uneasy about sharing private or personal work to their circle of connections. This was frustrating since it didn’t follow my assumptions about how people would use the product, yet I couldn’t complain: it’s a natural tendency for people not to seem rude if they are invited to connect (or maybe that’s a very British thing!).
I soon felt that I had to let go of my own assumptions: it’s your users that will define and shape a product and its direction. I thought the answer would be to add more features to handle this dissonance between expected vs actual behaviour, which leads to my next point…
You can easily paralyse your product through complexity
Complexity kills any product. I’ve found myself stifled by adding outlandish complexity to a product, by adding features that only 1% of a user base would ever need. With Fiftytwo, I added a ‘trusted connections’ feature to solve the problem I outlined earlier. This allowed people to connect with someone, but flag them trusted without them being notified. This group of people could see work that was sensitive, for instance work that was done for an agency that didn’t particularly like having individual names attached.
That ‘simple’ feature immediately doubled the complexity in the connections model. Difficult edge-cases occurred that I had trouble fixing, and some users were confused by the two layers of connectivity.
If you find yourself painted into a complex corner, rethink what you’re trying to do and strip away unnecessary functionality. It’s hard to do (it’s why ultimately I didn’t do anything about it), but realise it’s vital for your product to thrive.
Make sure you budget for even your smallest costs; they add up quickly, over time
Hosting on Heroku is the equivalent of taking baths in Evian. It’s an incredibly expensive, but very brilliant service for non-technical people like me to host complex apps. It comes at a price however: an app can start on just one dyno, but as traffic increased I found this crept up slowly by surely. Then came using other services like Mandrill for transactional emails. At thousdands of individual emails sent every week, the costs started to mount.
I hadn’t planned for this, but you should. I admire Jonnie Hallman for being open and transparent about the costs he’s incurring for Cushion: you can see they can escalate very quickly, however complex your product. So make sure you have your costs planned, and budget for them. Fiftytwo started costing me c. $500 per month, which wouldn’t have necessarily broken the bank but was a cost I’d have had to swallow for at least a year before I had any chance of making revenue.
The demand for niche professional networks that unbundle LinkedIn still seems to be strong
Fiftytwo was an attempt at creating a ‘sort-of’ LinkedIn for people like myself. I, along with many others despise LinkedIn yet it seems to thrive like a terrible weed. People want something else but it’s difficult to know what that something else might be, so we’ll only ever know what to build by doing it and see if it resonates with people.
If you’re working on something in this area, don’t let any negativity here put you off: test out your assumptions and let’s see if they work.
If a feature seems to resonate more than any other, consider focussing entirely on that even if it goes against the grain of your original vision
One feature of Fiftytwo was somewhat of an afterthought. It asked people what they were reading/watching/listening to/visiting that week. Users loved it, and shared interesting links to things I had missed on Twitter. It felt secondary to the main professional aspect of the product, so I took the decision to remove it.
In retrospect, it would have been a nice feature in itself: if the work sharing had become too complex, I could have stripped the app back completed and just made sharing interesting stuff the focus. So don’t be afraid to kill your darlings and focus on the features that people love and have them take precedence over your original goal: this is how Foursquare came into being, after all.
Email digests are a very good way to remind people why they’re a member of your network
A lot of users who didn’t feel they had a lot of work to contribute to the network (many designers simply can’t share legally protected, NDA’d work) loved the weekly email digest. It was sent to everyone on Monday as a look back on the preceding week. It encouraged people to revisit the site regularly, and was a major driver of traffic. As soon as I turned off the email digest, many users noticed and were upset it disappeared, and it was turning this off that reduced the traffic to a trickle, even while I continue to post updates to Twitter.
It’s a simple thing to think about, but pay attention to how you can summarise activity on your product into a neat, digestible format.
The non-monetary value of side-projects will often far outweigh the monetary: don't start a side-project for the money
This isn’t one of those dreadful “why I failed” posts. I don’t feel I failed in the slightest: I thoroughly enjoyed building the product and I learned an entirely new skill (Rails). I got a whole host of new work enquiries from interested clients who could see I could design and build social networks, and made new friends and connections. The value I derived from the project was enormous, and far outweighed any potential money-making opportunities. I’d advise anyone to start a side-project without thinking of the money since it almost certainly won’t be there at the beginning, just enjoy the process.
With thanks to…
I should take this opportunity to thank Ben Stott for the lovely branding he did, and to Rik Lomas who endured endless questions about Rails (you should follow his new startup SuperHi if you’re keen to learn programming). And of course thanks to you if you were an early member.
I have a few things in the pipeline: none are likely to take the form of a network at first, but there is so much opportunity the in spaces between Dribbble, Behance, and LinkedIn. I started a new project called Wove, but the objectives have shifted over the past few months; and I’m due to start a project around sharing (somewhere between Twitter and Medium), mainly to learn a new framework such as React or Ember. I’m also due to redevelop siteInspire and bolster its functionality. Contact me if you’d like to chat about any projects you have in mind.
Some favourite pieces of work
Here’s a very small selection of some of the work that was posted by members to the site (they were public, so hopefully the credited won’t mind me sharing here). I’m hugely proud of the calibre of the people who joined and shared their incredible work.