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Getting the Right Features Right Early on

In the previous episode “Going From Good To Great – Ideas That Your Investors Will Love” we’ve talked about the risk of focusing on the wrong features after the prototype is successfully tested.  It is now time to learn to get the right features right early on.

One of the most instructive examples on how easy is to get them wrong and be blinded by the initial success is the story how MySpace lost to Facebook.  What’s scarry is MySpace lost almost “overnight”, in spite of being the dominant social network for 4 years in a row prior to that.

A bit of history helps seeing how things unfolded:

  • MySpace had been launched in August 2003 and Facebook 6 months later, in February 2004;
  • In October 2007 Facebook was still behind by a large margin, with 20 million accounts, 27.9 million unique visitors and 14.8 billion page views, vs My Space’s 200 million accounts, 71.9 million unique visitors and 46.4 billion page views;
  • In May 2008 Facebook overtook MySpace internationally, with 123.9 million unique visitors and 50.6 billion page views versus 114.6 million unique visitors and 45.4 billion page views.  From then on things went downhill for MySpace pretty fast.

While it is good to know what happened, the reasons why that happen are the ones relevant for any startup.

It all started with a bug.  Back in 2003 MySpace site had been developed in a matter of weeks, in a very agile way, as a clone of another successful social network at that time, called Friendster.

That rushed development resulted in a bug.  Due to it, the users could change how their pages looked like, by inserting HTML code in places where they were supposed to only write plain text.  It goes without saying that was a very dangerous cybersecurity flaw.  Fortunately, instead of doing bad things, the overwhelming majority of the users simply exploited the bug to make their pages look unique.

Seeing that, MySpace “listened to the customers” and turned the bug into a feature.

Soon almost everybody took advantage of the possibilities to personalize their pages.  That led the MySpace management team to conclude the ability to customize one’s page was indeed one of the most important features for the users.

On short term the decision seemed to pay off: musicians and other creative professionals took advantage of the possibility to embed sound and video into the pages and started to showcase their work directly to the public.  2.2 million bands, 8,000 comedians, thousands of filmmakers had their MySpace pages.  As a result, MySpace became even more attractive and membership went through the roof.

But then Facebook happened.

While anybody could register on MySpace, until September 2006 Facebook membership had been restricted only to college students.  In addition to that, all the Facebook pages had the same look because the only two things users could do were posting text and pictures.  Video would only be added in 2007.  Audio files have yet to be allowed, 17 years after the launch.

Yet in spite of all the restrictions on members’ creative ways of expression, once Facebook opened membership to everybody, MySpace lost most of its members to Facebook within the next 2 years.

Three questions come to mind:

  1. Why did the MySpace users leave in such large numbers?
  2. Could this have been predicted?
  3. Could we learn anything useful for any startup?

Why did they leave?

The most frequent complaint of those who left was MySpace had a “ghetto vibe”.  All the “bling” and photos occasionally revealing a bit too much skin was quoted as the main reasons for labelling it “ghettoish”.

However, independent studies done at the time showed the majority of the pages, while very colorful, actually had very decent content.  But, as the saying goes, “perception is reality”.  Once the users felt “the ghetto vibe”, they came to the conclusion the “aseptic” or “boring” Facebook look and feel was preferable.  After they left in large enough numbers, even their “ghetto-tolerant” friends had to follow them.  A social network’s main appeal is our friends are also on that network.  When our friends leave, there’s little for us left to do but follow them.

What made the matters worse and enhanced the unflattering perception was MySpace had a cavalier attitude to spammers and advertisers of dubious products.  As long as those spammers and snake-oil peddlers paid the fees, they were allowed to bombard the users with their unwelcomed messages.

This tolerance might be explained by the pressure News Corp, the parent company, put on MySpace’s management. For instance, in early 2008 News Corp boss, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, announced that by the end of the fiscal year MySpace would make $ 1 billion from advertising.  At the time of the announcement, the platform was generating less than 10% of that target.  Once can easily understand the pressure put on the MySpace management by such statements.  They had to monetize the social network by any possible means by the end of the year.  And even then, they didn’t succeed to come close to the target.

All in all, the combination of “ghetto vibes” and aggressively spamming users with ads for shady products resulted in antagonizing enough members and pushing them to Facebook. And that opened the floodgates.

Could this have been predicted?

Let’s start by looking at the fundamentals:

  • MySpace was a social network.
  • Its founders knew it was a social network.
  • Its founders wanted it to be a social network.

In such case one would have expected all the 70+ years of scientific knowledge about social networks would have been used to design the features of MySpace.  That didn’t happen!

Sociology and psychology started to study in the 1930s how people network with each other and form groups.  By the time MySpace was launched it was well known social class, ethnic culture, race and religion are 4 very powerful factors in shaping the connections people form.

People live in certain neighborhoods, go to certain pubs and clubs, take part in certain public events, go to certain places of worship according to their social class, ethnicity, race and religion.  Those are places where people from the other groups don’t go.  We may like or dislike such self-segregation happens, but that is how things actually are in any society.

MySpace allowed people unlimited freedom of expression and, in the same time, failed to provide an equivalent of the separation existing in the real world.  That unfettered freedom of expression made very visible the class, cultural, racial and religious divisions while “forcing” everybody to “live” in the same “place”.  Which meant most of the MySpace users would leave for a platform providing a better “separation”, as soon as such platform would become available.

Facebook, with its very limited freedom of expression, offered that equivalent to physical separation.  Inside Facebook people would still group themselves mainly according to class, ethnicity, race and religion, because they would be connected to the same people they know in their real lives.  As it’s often quipped, people on Facebook live in their own bubbles.

Nevertheless, their social class, race, ethnicity and religion would be less “in your face” thanks to the uniform design of the Facebook pages.

The phenomenon of physical separation along social class and racial lines even had a consecrated name in sociology: “the flight to the suburbs”.  It started in the 1950s when the upper- and middle-class left the downtowns of the American cities.

The advertisers covet most the upper and middle class, and social networks make their money from advertising.  So, when MySpace took the decision to allow users do anything they wanted to their pages, they were setting themselves up for a “flight to the suburbs” and for the loss of advertising revenue resulting from it.

What are the useful lessons for any startup?

  1.  Users might love our prototype simply because that’s the best available solution at that moment in time.  Iteration, by itself, can only confirm a prototype is acceptable.  Meanwhile we and the investors need to know if the prototype it’s actually good.
  2. A good product could hold its own against the competition, buying us time to redress the situation.  An acceptable one would be replaced quickly, before we have time to react;
  3. The iterative process of improving prototypes needs to be combined with other methods.  Like checking our prototype against the relevant body of scientific knowledge.  If we discover discrepancies, we make the corrections and then iterate with the users to see how they like the new prototype.  This is the privilege of starting anything: corrections are cheaper to make than later on.

If we join the right accelerator, we will benefit from a whole set of methods to sort out the good from the acceptable.  But checking the scientific state of the art should be done first.  Scientific knowledge is public and mostly free.

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