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Day 1 to 365: What does it look like to launch a (successful) social network?

Over the past year, I’ve been exploring the world of social networks. Much of this has been focused on looking forward by finding and meeting with new ventures and their founders.

Some of this work, however, has been about looking backwards and studying the giants of today when they were only diminutives starting out. What can we learn from the past to better understand how to build the social networks of tomorrow? Everyone wants to launch the next Facebook, LinkedIn, or Pinterest — but what did these actually look like in their first few months?

I’ve been digging into this exact question and below is both what I’ve pieced together and what I’ve extrapolated from these stories.

Enjoy.

Facebook

Facebook, the mother-ship of social networks, was founded and launched in February 2004. Famously, Mark Zuckerberg was at Harvard University when this took place. Much of this story has already been enshrined in legend, PR, or film, so I won’t go into that here. For me, what’s interesting for Facebook is their early growth and engagement.

Explosive growth

Facebook was launched on 9th February 2004. In less than a week, it had around 650 registered users, growing to about 10,000 within the month. Bear in mind that at this point Facebook was only available to Harvard students.

To put it in perspective, that 10,000 represents 50% of the university’s entire student population.

By March 2004, it had opened to Columbia, Stanford, and Yale and they had 70,000 total users. Soon after, it opened to most universities in the US and Canada. Even in the confines of (and partly because of) this limited audience, Facebook hit 1 million by the end of 2004.

In June 2004, Facebook received its first investment from Peter Thiel.

High engagement

In addition to its explosive user numbers, Facebook also had incredibly high engagement from the beginning, with a DAU/MAU ratio of 65% from March 2004 (see below).

Source: Andrew Chen (https://andrewchen.co/quora-has-facebooks-daumau-always-been-50/)

It wasn’t just in the early days either. Despite what you might think — given its press in recent years — the Q4 2019 earnings reported that this ratio was still strong at 66%.

So what can we take out of this? Well, Facebook sets a high bar, and given its success today, rightly so. The growth, for me, demonstrates the clear product/market fit it had from the outset.

I believe that the high engagement at such an early stage is in part due to the incredibly focused group of users. Social networks are by design, social. Social activities are reliant on groups coming together — whether they’re online or IRL, those groups are stickier when they’re made up of people who really want to be there

LinkedIn

Although we often use Facebook as the byword for social, two years before it found its feet in Harvard, LinkedIn was already dominating San Francisco.

LinkedIn was started in late 2002, by Reid Hoffman and founding team members from PayPal and Socialnet.com. It was not their first rodeo. They launched the site in May 2003, following an invite-only beta.

The first few months

LinkedIn launched. One week in, the member count was 2,708.

A *fun* fact here is that there is some misinformation online from real members of the founding team (on Quora) saying they reached 12,000 in their first week. Helpfully another team member, Chris Saccheri, both keeps old emails and posts on Quora.

(The bet he mentions is one the whole team took part in to guess the numbers they would reach. In general, they were bullish on the numbers).

After one month, they reached 4,500 sign-ups. Sequoia invested ~$3.8m that November. One year after their launch, they hit 500,000 users.

The first week was remarkable (and bear in mind that LinkedIn launched by sending out invitations to join) but as this graph above illustrates, the rate of growth only accelerated onwards.

How did they drive early growth?

The team come across as highly intentional in how they launched the platform. Specifically, I think, in two regards: the density of users and the quality of users.

Regarding the former, they recognised that a social network needs to provide value to its very early users. To achieve this, they focused the launch on San Francisco and its technology scene, as even with a few users the platform would be likely to be able to connect you to someone you knew as well as facilitate new connections of value.

Regarding the latter, they recognised that early LinkedIn needed to be aspirational. Reportedly, they seeded the platform with their most successful friends and connections, appreciating that users would judge the quality and attractiveness of such a network by the ‘company they keep’. If users felt that they were joining an elite group then the value would be undoubtedly greater.

Some tricks and tips

The story of LinkedIn is also peppered with how they built a range of features that have had a significant impact on growth. I’ve picked out a couple I particularly like below:

  • Upload your contacts: In the early days, a lot of peoples’ contacts were stored on Outlook. LinkedIn wanted these contacts and so needed a way to get them: the team created an Outlook contact uploader. This sounds a simple thing to do but reportedly it was both difficult to build and support in the long run, although easy for users. However, it (reportedly) resulted in 5 -10x distribution per inviter compared to when only a user’s webmail was connected.
  • Invitation reminders: Another detail was that the invitations expired after two weeks. The time limit created a scarcity that apparently increased sign-ups and connections.

Pinterest

Pinterest came a little later than the other social behemoths and has a slightly different story. Founded in late 2009, the invite-only beta was first launched in March 2010.

Unlike our the other examples here, Pinterest is not notable for its first year of explosive growth, which is why I’ve included it. Rather, it was notable for how its founders worked to kickstart the growth later in the year.

Fueling their early growth

There are some differing narratives online but a few things are generally agreed. Pinterest was launched by Ben Silbermann, Paul Sciarra, and Evan Sharp in 2010 and initially, they saw some early growth. However, around three months in it became clear that they had hit a ceiling of about 3,000 users. It was not the easily explosive growth of the other platforms.

The founders realised that while the initial users showed that the product had promise, they still needed to find their product/market fit. They kicked started a variety of activities to zero in on the right market and grow their base from there.

Offline, they organised meetups at local shops and boutiques with power users. This allowed the team to get feedback on the product, understand who how were already using and loving it while leveraging the same group to help spread the word. They were creating a community around their product.

Online, Pinterest created their ‘Pin-It-Foward’ campaign. Bloggers, a key online community, would create boards based on a theme that accompanied by a blog post. Their blog posts were linked to posts from other bloggers, therefore ‘pinning-it-forward’. The same bloggers also had the cachet of being able to release invites to Pinterest, while the site was invite-only.

(We can assume that this campaign worked well as when Pinterest targeted the UK in 2013, it used the same campaign and hashtag).

These activities help drive Pinterest to growth and by January 2011, the impact was showing. Although it only had around 40,000 users, it was driving millions and millions of page views. Even better, the metrics were reportedly doubling each month by then. Later on, Pinterest broke the record for the time taken to reach 10 million users.

The growth market

Facebook had college students, LinkedIn had tech professionals and Pinterest had handicraft hobbyists. Although it's an easy community to dismiss, it worked in Pinterest’s favour.

This market was naturally comprised of tight-knit groups that had been brought together by their common interests. These are social hobbies with strong, interconnected communities. Such was their structure that a recommendation from a single member could set off a domino effect to bring in a much larger group.

So what did I extrapolate from all of this?

First, there is no escaping the fact that fast user growth — once you have found product/market fit — is always going to be a measure of success. The nuance here is that sheer scale without engagement is not worth much either. The two must go hand-in-hand.

Second, all of these companies focused on a niche market with which they grew and developed their product. I believe that focusing on a specific audience is a must-have for any growing business. For a social network, this requirement is only amplified as small-connected groups allow platforms to deliver social value to early users, without requiring scale.

Third, early growth doesn’t happen by magic. Online, offline, simple, complex — all are valid ways of driving growth via features and mechanisms. The best firms build these in as early as possible.

Digging into these companies brought sharply into relief both the differences and similarities of then versus today (that and the surprising lack of data online about these periods). Sure, we live in a different time: people’s use, attitudes, and needs regarding social networks have evolved, as have the companies themselves. Yet some elements stay the same. So, while the next great social networks will look very different from the ones here, I firmly believe that it will be the same set of characteristics and activities that drive their long-term success.

If you’re building the next big social network, then tell me all about it at phoebe@supernodeglobal.com.

Sources: Brandwatch, The Next Web, Harvard University Fact Book, Andrew Chen, Quora, The Harvard Crimson, Slideshare, Seedough, Business of Apps, ReferralCandy, TechCrunch, Start-up Grind

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