Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hot Stacey Goes Global

No, it's not the name of some adult movie. Rather, it's the name my daughter gave to the female version of Flat Stanley. At pre-school, they're using the character Flat Stanley to take photos of their environment for class show and tell. The female version is called Flat Stacey, but as my daughter explains, she left Flat Stacey outside and she got hot, so now she's simply called Hot Stacey.

So, with that as a backdrop, I've been experiencing a lot of mixed emotions this week as we wade ever deeper into our beta test. From bugs affecting users signing up, to inevitable performance tuning issues, to banning users for being jerks (a story for another time), it's been a whirlwind the past few days.

However, just today I got a reply from a connection in the UK where I'd sent the following question:

What did I get back? Only a photo of Hot Stacey at the Olympic Park in London!

(Full disclosure - my Härnu connection that sent this is in fact a friend of mine. However, the kindness of friends is just as welcome as the kindness of strangers!)

As I write this, my daughter is taking an afternoon nap. When she wakes up though, I can't wait to show her this photo and field the many questions she's sure to ask about London and the Olympics.

As we get started with Härnu, I'm buoyed by the thought of all the cool use cases people will use our platform for, and it's gratifying to know we can count on our friends both near and far to to help jump-start the task of building a community that hopefully will bring about some empathy for each other and a bit of levity along the way!

Jerks need not apply.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

net makeing world one world

If you're vigilant, you'll have noticed the typo in the headline. Read on and you'll understand why...

I had what I can only describe as a bit of a watershed moment last night in Härnu land. We had our very first user from Egypt trying to sign up for the first time. He / she was having trouble and sent a message to our Facebook page (which I'm monitoring incessantly right now). The thread started innocuously enough with me on one end trying to troubleshoot and our user gamefully trying to communicate with me in English. Not able to get on to the site, we quickly got to a declaration that the site was not good:

We both stuck with it though, and once the user got onto Härnu, our Facebook message thread soon moved to this:

In a matter of minutes, we'd gone from "no good site" to "very good idea. i can making friends. net makeing world one world."

As we were messaging back and forth, I had goose pimples the entire time. After all, this was the scenario we had dreamed about - people in the Middle East talking with people in the West, learning and sharing with each other. I couldn't help but let my mind wander to how viruses spread and hoping that our mystery user was the Egyptian equivalent of Ashton Kutcher and from that would flow millions of Egyptians ready to connect and share with Americans and other people around the world.

Well, here we are the next day, and we still have only one user from Egypt, but one user we have, and that user likes what we've got. Enough to have logged in today and engaged.

If ever I had any doubts about what we're trying to achieve, they were erased in a haze of frantic back and forth with our Egyptian friend last night. We had a moment of panic when we wondered if it was too good to be true, but Google Analytics revealed that yes, in fact we had a session from Egypt.

Whether Egyptian Härnu User #1 turns out to be a Lonely Boy instead of Ashton Kutcher is immaterial. We made contact and we're convinced that from here it's all about execution.

I expect that most start-ups have many watershed moments along the way. In our brief prologue, we've met our first and it was awesome!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Week #1

So, we're at the end of the first week of launching Härnu into beta, and overall, it's been a decent one I think. On the plus side, we managed to get users from more than 20 countries, though when you hear about sites like Pinterest gaining 11M uniques inside of 2 months, it's hard not to wonder if you've got the right formula. 

Everything we discussed, imagined and hoped for has now fallen into the realm of idle conjecture, replaced by an unfeeling and unforgiving empirical truth. Of course, at this point, we’re still operating from a place of truthiness  because until we have a critical mass of users, it’s hard to infer much with such a small sample size and a longitude that spans not quite 7 days yet.

Do we have the right content? Is the UX intuitive enough? Why are my Facebook network effect forecasts woefully off-base? Are the limited re-tweets, likes, and shares a reflection of the site or payback for bad karma I somehow brought upon us? Why hasn’t the New York Times contacted us yet? The answer in all of this I think is that at this point in time, we’re simply one of thousands of ambitious start-ups with a good idea, a product approaching MVP, and enough goodwill from friends that we can start to grow a user base organically, albeit slowly in the early going. The fact that we’ve got to this point entirely boot-strapping it is something we feel really good about, though I’m sure having the right Angel / VC money would surely juice the user acquisition curve.

On user acquisition, I have to admit the week started out a bit shaky. For example, on the inaugural invitation email I sent to ~100 or so friends, the text to the site was correct ( but the underlying hyperlink was not, resulting in some errors and our CTO quickly coding a redirect from the wrong URL to our home page.

Then, I managed to get our @harnu account on Twitter temporarily suspended for replying to tweets on keywords I had set up searches for. Against the rules I’ve come to learn! #rookiemistake. Obviously I was mortified and it was a humbling introduction to the world of user acquisition via Twitter. My takeaway from that is that there’s no shortcut to building a legion of followers – just post good content smattered with an occasional plug for the core service itself and followers ought to gravitate to you. That’s what I plan to test this week anyway.

However, despite the missteps, we still found time to high five ourselves when people from places like Thailand, Peru, Anguilla, and Zimbabwe all joined this week – People that I don’t think were actually one of our friends!

So, as we enter week two, I’m encouraged by the fact that we’ve got interaction like this one below going on and we’re ever so slowly starting to rock the boulder back and forth towards what will hopefully someday soon be an avalanche of users. Then again, as a former boss often told me, “Hope is not a strategy.” Back to the salt mines we go!

p.s. As I write this, we just had our first user from the Bahamas join our community!