Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Trouble With Social

When Seattle hip-hop duo, Common Market, penned Trouble Is, they defiantly asked "...this is hustle biz, what the trouble is?" While for them, the "...trouble is love don't want you," in social, the trouble is the hustle has been focused on all the wrong things. Paul Kedrosky said it best in a recent tweet and judging by the number of favorites and retweets, it obviously struck a chord.

Whether the payload is news, apps, games, or search results, the prevailing approach today is to mine someone's friends, apply some simplistic model that presupposes that we are like our friends, and call it good. While it's well established that similarity breeds connection, it's worth remembering that our homophily merely occurs at a higher rate than between dissimilar people. In other words, while our friends are similar to us in many ways, we all have outliers, and it's these outliers that social search has done a really poor job of addressing so far. This is true of not just friends but also interests.

The question though is how hard someone like Paul is willing to work for his content? Most techies believe that curation is the answer and the frustration expressed by Paul is solvable with more data and better algorithms. However, what they tend to discount is that curation is always going to be imperfect because no algorithm can anticipate my need without fail. Hypothetically, if such an algorithm were possible, would a tech company even implement it? If we found what we wanted 100% of the time on Google's first page of results, what would happen to their revenue? Could any increased CPC compensate for the loss of impressions on subsequent results pages? I doubt it. I believe Google's in the business of optimizing, but not too much. Speculation aside, the problem is that we're complex and sometimes unpredictable. Our needs are fluid and we push ourselves to discover the unknown. 

So, if curation nor search are the silver bullets, might social search be? Facebook would have the world believe that we are like our friends because that's the sandbox they currently have to play with and they need brands to believe that. Almost everyone else in the space is following them with their friend based recommendation engines. Bing, anyone? At Harnu, we're taking a different approach by trying to encourage new connections. Want to know what's going on in Syria right now? Talk to a Syrian. Get a local's perspective. I don't know about you, but my friends are not useful for this class of discovery. That's why we built Harnu. 

For us, while we may be taking a novel approach to social discovery, our uphill battle is going to be achieving scale for the foreseeable future. Facebook obviously has the scale. The question is whether they'll take a novel approach to social search or serve up the same old friend recommendations as everyone else. If they expand results to consider people that are not friends and let people connect with these strangers, then folks like Paul Kedrosky may get their wish as a massively long tail of people and content starts to come into play with the trade-off that Paul would have to do a some content sifting himself.

Most likely though, this would have the potential to alienate a lot of Facebook users unless they specifically opted in to that sort of feature. However, it'd also have the potential to dramatically expand Facebook's social graph. In my case, instead of the 460-something friends I have today, I'd set out to add at least one friend from every country in the world - something I'm able to do today on Harnu in the quest for perspective and knowledge that none of my friends is talking about.

As an example, on Harnu, I learned from someone in Belarus last week that it's now illegal there for anyone to gather information without accreditation. Crazy but true...

В последнее время дошло до того, что в стране запрещено незаконно собирать информацию. Только при аккредитации. Вам будет смешно, но это так.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Ask The Hard Questions Before Integrating

I love Etsy. That might sound strange coming from a guy who cringes every time he steps into a store, but I do. I love the site's aesthetic, I love the community they've empowered, and I love the brand they've created for themselves. What I don't love, however, was Harnu's integration with Etsy.

This statement has nothing to do with Etsy's technology or any other short-coming, and instead has everything to do with our not fully thinking through the implications of that integration.

When we launched Harnu in August, we had built a web app that showed Etsy products from around the world on the map. Anyone could then find products from around the world and start a discussion with people in the country of the product's origin. This followed the same format that we have done with news that enables you to seek a local's opinion, or with music that enables you to get a local's recommendations.

Upon completing the integration, our app was listed in the Etsy gallery - on the front page, actually.

What happened next should not have been a surprise, but we were pushing hard to just get Harnu launched, and although we were not crazy about the Etsy integration, we thought it was kind of cool, and would give our users another way to learn about the world. However, instead of our users discovering Etsy products, the opposite happened - the sellers on Etsy discovered our users. Upon launching the app, we were seeing quite a number of new user signups that were obviously Etsy shop names. Initially, we thought that'd be good so they could participate in the conversations around their products. Our opinion quickly soured though when the Etsy shop owners started creating posts that basically said, "Visit my shop!" with a link to their shop.

For any new service that's building a community and relies on user-generated content, it was a nightmare. We tried at first to just coach them that our users would find their products and to instead participate in the conversations about their country. The coaching didn't work though, and we continued to see these random posts advertising Etsy shops. Eventually, we shut the whole integration down, and de-listed our app from the Etsy gallery.

Contrast that experience with this week, where Harnu is now chock full of students and educators posting content, finding collaboration partners, sharing music, and discussing the world, and it's fair to say we've learned a lot in recent weeks.

I don't fault Etsy sellers at all. They have their own motivations which is to sell their products, and that I think is the key point when you're seeding a community.

Take a moment to ask yourself the right questions:

  • Who are you targeting and why? 
  • What are the use cases?
  • What are the actors' motivations? 

Not exhaustively examining these questions will almost certainly result in unintended consequences that could set your startup back. The list above is just an example. You of course need to ask a whole host of other things not least of which is acquisition strategy for that channel and monetization opportunities

As for us? We quickly recovered, and we're having a blast seeing people share their favorite sounds and genuinely expressing a sincere curiosity to learn more about each other's culture.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Press

Last week, Härnu received its first press exposure, and I'm happy to say that it was really favorable. In fact, the headline was:

Now, I should point out that the publication wasn't a giant like TechCrunch or one of the other respected blogs like PandoDaily, KernelMag, or even a traditional media source such as BBC's Click program. Instead, this article appeared in a tech blog called Ventureburn. Never heard of it? Well, if you were an entrepreneur in South Africa or any other emerging market in Africa, perhaps you would have!

So, how did we end up in a South African tech blog? Well, while favorable coverage in TechCrunch is probably every startup's dream, for us, at this moment, we're probably not ready for it yet for three main reasons:

  • MVP has yet to be attained - While we have a product out there that's gaining users, our key metrics indicate that we have yet to reach minimum viable product status - one that can sustain the community we're working so hard to build. We also simply know that there are obvious things we've yet to "hook up" to the core product. This has two potentially negative consequences if we approached a large media outlet and they actually decided to write about us; 1) A negative review - we're new, we're bootstrapped, and we're an unknown quantity. All of this points to us needing a really killer product to get anyone's attention and earn a positive review and 2) Churn - it does us little good to see a big spike in traffic from a big press piece only for that traffic to leave as quickly as it came because the product hasn't been dialed in yet.
  • Geographical imbalances - Being based in the U.S., most of our users are also from the U.S. right now. For Harnu to live up to its potential as a global conversation platform, we need people from all over the world participating and that needs to be true from Day 1. Unlike most other startups, we're not rolling out one micro-market at a time such as Seattle, San Francisco, New York, etc. So, for us a great piece in TechCrunch and a bunch of traffic concentrated in the U.S. may not be ideal until we have a critical mass of people around the world using Harnu.
  • We're not sexy - This is completely subjective, but our goal is cross-cultural discovery & communication. Most other startups in the space of connecting you with people you don't know are usually iPhone apps that want to tell you about interesting people around you for casual hookups or professional networking. Some call it elastic networking, ambient networking, or even contextual indicators. Either way, we're far off to the other end of the spectrum focusing on distal networking. Who's talking about that? So far, only us it seems :-)

Given that, our bias is to spend time developing relationships with great tech blogs from around the world, work hard to help produce content that's relevant to their publication (more on that in a moment), and revisit the big U.S. blogs / publications in the future when we're a bit further along.

So, if your strategy is to find global tech blogs, here's what I think I've learned:

  1. Research your target list - There are a number of posts about Middle East, Africa, Asia and other emerging market blogs and Quora is a good resource e.g.
  2. Don't send a form letter - these blogs are like you. They're scrappy, they have their own ambitions and motivations, and they're out to change the world in their own way. Take the time to read their content, know who writes for them, and understand their submission process. e.g.
  3. Know your goal - For us, we knew that Ventureburn wouldn't deliver thousands of users, but that wasn't our goal. Instead, it was simply to understand the process, and float a trial balloon as it were. We of course got lucky in that the reporter actually liked Harnu and decided to publish something favorable. We've since been able to use that article as a reference point when contacting potential partners which has been very valuable to us - something about Harnu that was written by an objective 3rd party.
Since then, we've seen an edited version of the original blog piece pop up on another site with the headline, "Is this the new Facebook?" I'm not sure there'll ever be another Facebook and that's not our goal anyway, but what's giving us cause for optimism is that real people are starting to use the service and talk about it in a mostly favorable way. We've got a long road ahead of us to deliver a product that repays the faith these early adopters have shown, but with a bit of luck we'll get there.