Mobile Evolution: The Importance of Standalone Apps

In the beginning, a developer created a web site, then she created a mobile app based on that web site. Today, she creates a portfolio of mobile apps without regard to the web site. The industry has learned the bigness of the small-screen opportunity and evolved to capture it.

The social app landscape on mobile is marked by single-use-case standalone apps – apps like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, and Tinder. Indeed, the largest social developers recognize that standalone app innovation must occur alongside improvements to the core product – Facebook with Instagram and Messenger; IAC with Tinder; and Twitter with Vine.

Mobile users are accustomed to applications that are simple – that do one thing extremely well on a small screen that is always available. Bloating the user experience with feature after feature rollout, no matter how innovative that feature may be, is not an option on mobile devices.

On mobile, novelty has replaced viral channel innovation as a path to growth. Rather than spending all the energy tweaking address book import tools and Facebook sharing funnels – energy that may have paid off dramatically in 2008 with Zynga and the Requests channels, or even in 2012 with Socialcam and Open Graph – today that energy is best spent on the mobile product itself, making the experience so good and with such a unique hook that it will spread over lunch tables and watercoolers around the world.

Snapchat, with its self-destructing photo hook, is the poster child for growth by novelty. You don’t need to appreciate the philosophy of ephemeral communication in a tech culture shifting from performance to spontaneity. No, all you need to know is that self-destructing messages are cool; they were cool for Mission Impossible and Maxwell Smart, and they’re cool today. And they happened to have changed the entire social messaging space. The product hook was viral.

Tinder is another. In this case, the hook was how well it works. It’s funny how the level of attractiveness is so high on Tinder despite its going mainstream among a population known for obesity – it’s almost as if it’s that way by design. The simplicity of a UI popularized for the web by Hotornot and a product that simply works well created a juggernaut that continues to roll today from one country to the next. Standalone apps, with their single-minded purity, have the viral edge over apps trying to do too much.

The ability to attract new audiences is yet another reason why a product innovation often works better as a standalone app than as a new feature of an existing app. Imagine an app for Meeting New People that has a messaging system. Imagine that in the course of improving on that app a concept arose for a unique Messenger different from popular offerings like Kik, Wechat, and Google Hangouts that would dramatically improve the messaging capability in the core app. It would be far too limiting to take a novel, differentiated messaging concept and apply it to just one set of users interested in just one use case: meeting new people. The innovation would demand it be given a chance to blossom as a standalone app, and also launch as an enhancement to the core app itself.

There are also tactical advantages to standalone app development. A legacy app may have a lot of users, but it also often has a huge codebase and dramatic risks involved in tearing something down to start anew versus building on top of the foundation. Standalone apps are unconstrained by legacy decisions and habituated users. They enable faster iteration, until they eventually themselves become legacy apps.

Take the example of social apps. While there is wide variety within the category, most have some combination of feed, messaging, commenting, profiles, photo, video, and virtual currency. Focusing on modular components and recyclability of features without having to reinvent the wheel for every app can save a significant amount of time and cost when building the next app. In addition, a shared monetization infrastructure across the apps makes monetization easy to plug in when the time comes.

But just how important are the standalone apps really? Are they just feeder apps to the core app, to the mothership? No, the mothership is just as likely the kindling for the standalones. Ultimately the pace of change in mobile is so dramatic that the concept of “core” is quaint. There is only growth or the lack of it. You must use your advantages – your team, your technology, your audience – to help you drive growth. If the standalones help leverage the “core” app, great. If the “core” is nothing but a platform for growth in the standalone, that works too.

But where do ideas for the next standalone come from? Of course, they come from everywhere. The noted children’s author Mo Willems put it as pithily as I’ve ever seen:

“A lot of people think of ideas as objects, or animals that you hunt. You go into the woods, you find an idea, you capture it and you bring it home. And ideas really are more like gardens. And every day, you’re planting lots and lots of ideas. Some of them get eaten by birds, and never go anywhere. Some of them grow up to be really horrible things. Some wither and die. Every now and then, over time, some idea grows up to be big and beautiful and filled with fruit. You can cut that down and burn it for profit.”

If generating an initial concept depends on a rich garden of ideas within your company, the exploitation of the idea depends on how well you execute the concept. Building a successful mobile company depends on embracing creativity and discipline, managing ambiguity and focus, accepting failures and recognizing success.

At my company, MeetMe (NYSE MKT: MEET), we divide our product pipeline in two and we are equally focused on both: launching new standalone applications to accelerate the growth of our overall user base – and enhancing our “core” app to drive engagement and viral growth.

That app happens to be MeetMe.  Along with our website, our MeetMe app has more than one million daily active users and more than $30 million in LTM revenues.  Our first two standalone apps are Charm and Unsaid, both of which we launched in the past few weeks. Charm has been called “where Tinder meets Vine.” It adds another dimension to apps like Tinder and realizes people are more than a profile photo.  Unsaid is an anonymous college feed that tells you what people really think on campus.

Creating standalone apps is more like a football game than a soccer game. You have a limited number of downs to get in the end zone. The ball isn’t always moving in one direction or another based on your competitor’s actions. You aren’t tweaking levers constantly but submitting discrete concepts to Apple for approval. You put together a few good builds, and move the ball forward, always looking for that shot at the end zone. If you fumble on the drive, you march out there again, and you take another shot, this time with a different look, but you’ve now given your competitor an opportunity, and you’ve wasted time.  Ultimately, you win if you field the best team that can efficiently ideate apps and execute growth, and take advantage of a lucky bounce.

Originally posted on InsideMobileApps as a guest post: http://www.insidemobileapps.com/2013/11/06/mobile-evolution-the-importance-of-standalone-apps/

How to Rebrand A Social Network And Live To Tell About It

Imagine the outcry if Facebook were to change its name. People would grab their pitchforks, join a posse, and burn the Internet down. That nightmarish vision led to many sleepless nights for our team after we decided to do the unthinkable: rebrand a social network used by more than a million people a day. We changed the name of myYearbook, a social network for meeting new people, to MeetMe.

When I started myYearbook in high school with my brothers, the name felt right. But our service and the way people used it quickly made the name obsolete, as we steadily narrowed our focus to just one thing: meeting new people. Our service had become the re-imagination of the bar, a digital coffeehouse, a social gathering place, but its name described a high school reunion. It was no surprise that we were often confused with Classmates.com by our most important audience – people who had not joined us yet.

After last year’s merger with the Quepasa Corporation, we knew we had the perfect opportunity to choose a name that really fit, and in the process create a single global brand for meeting new people. After a painstaking process of ideation, internal and external surveying in multiple languages, logo development, domain name acquisition of meetme.com and meet.me, Twitter-handle acquisition of @meetme to avoid a Pot-smoking Elmo incident, securing the ticker MEET on the NYSE AMEX, and careful click-through rate experimentation — not to mention one late night at the office with a Ouija board and a rabbit’s foot — we settled on MeetMe.

There was just one problem: we had no template for doing a rebrand right – just horror stories of doing it wrong. When NBCUniversal’s Sci-Fi Channel changed its name to a slang term for syphilis, it was ridiculed. When Netflix announced they were changing its DVD-by-mail service to Qwikster, public outcry and a plummeting stock price led to an abrupt change of plans. If giant billion-dollar companies consistently screw up rebrands so badly, how could we hope to get through ours unscathed – especially with a supposedly fickle social community.

Yet that’s precisely what we did. Almost a month after the rebrand, the key measuring sticks we use to gauge user acquisition and engagement have all stayed steady, if not increased. We went down this path half-expecting to lose as much as double-digit percentages of our user base; instead our audience grew.

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So, what made this process so seamless?

1. Don’t Pretend It’s Not Wildly Unpopular

From the beginning, we approached the rebrand under no delusion that our members would approve of the change. What we were doing was deeply unpopular, and we knew it. That understanding colored every decision we made. Though surveys indicated our members overwhelmingly came to myYearbook to meet new people, they still very much liked the name “myYearbook” –  after all, that’s the service they chose to join!

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We knew the stakes were high, but we were actually surprised that in other surveys only 17% said they would never log in again if we changed our name to MeetMe. Some might have looked at the same data and thought twice about rebranding at all, but we were ecstatic it wasn’t 80% making that claim. We presumed the vast majority of people who made such a claim would actually stick around, as their friends and community are here. We just needed to make sure we didn’t incite a riot or an outrage that would spark an exodus.

Our logo and slogan were a clear nod to the current myYearbook user. We used a smiley in our new MeetMe logo because the myYearbook logo had smileys since inception in 2005, and we wanted a visual connection to the previous identity. Moreover, we chose the slogan “Where new friends meet” to be crystal clear to our users that our mission was not changing, and to avoid the possibility of dating site connotations leading to increased churn. We wanted to underline for our users that MeetMe was about having fun and meeting new people, just like myYearbook. With its multi-colored logo smiling at you in an off-kilter way and its slogan proclaiming MeetMe is “where new friends meet,” we made clear this was an evolution, not a revolution … so please don’t revolt!

Our goal became not to win over the user base, but to control the damage and limit churn by clearly and consistently communicating the same message over and over again: “Nothing is changing but the name.”

We communicated to members early and often. My brother Dave and I even filmed this youtube video in which we used a prop — a giant poster-sized version of the web site  – where Dave rips off the myYearbook logo to reveal the MeetMe logo underneath it while saying “nothing changes but the name.” Internally, we called that video the “please don’t churn” video.

We announced the coming name change a full two weeks ahead of the actual transition. People need time to get accustomed to the idea of change, and we wanted to give them that time before hitting them with the change itself. By messaging in advance, we got the most vigorous complaints and criticism out-of-the-way before anything actually changed at all.

But, of course, we intended to change a lot more than the name, and we did – but we did most of it months before the rebrand, under the myYearbook name. Most significantly, we launched a soup-to-nuts redesign of the web and mobile apps and removed a dozen features that were once popular but had outlived their day and now bloated the product. We have always found it vital not to conflate multiple major changes, and that was a winning strategy this time as well. The last thing we wanted was negativity about a redesign or feature removals to confound and color perceptions about the new brand.

To be sure, the reaction to those feature removals was predictably negative, but also limited in scope to the small subset of users who still enjoyed those legacy products. Had we tied those removals to the rebrand in our users’ minds, I have no doubt that the outrage would have multiplied and led to increased churn as people “blamed” the new brand for the removals. Because of our tightly controlled rollout schedule, however, it was merely a blip in user feedback for a few days. With the new design and pared-down feature set in place, we were ready to move on to the next phase of the transition.

2. Build Familiarity

We knew it was important to familiarize members with the name “MeetMe,” even before we told them the name of the service was changing. To that end, we started with subliminal communication by launching theMeetMe Contest, which required members to submit videos in categories like Best Meeting, Meet Me, and Dying to Meet, with an iPad for the best video in each category. We messaged the MeetMe Contest all over the site in bulletins and on our home page. Over the course of the contest, our members submitted hundreds of videos, which received tens of thousands of views — and most importantly, the new name began to seep organically into the community.

When the contest drew to a close, we then announced the rebrand with the aforementioned “please don’t churn” video in which we could claim plainly and truthfully that “nothing is changing but the name.”

The now infamous Netflix video made a similar claim — that only the name on the red envelope was changing — but in reality an entirely separate login would be necessary for the DVD side of the service. That’s not keeping things the same! On the day of our rebrand, we figuratively ripped off our velcro “myYearbook” logos, and we were MeetMe. Nothing else changed because it already had.

3. React Quickly

Once the name was announced, the flood of feedback began. To every single person who complained in the first 7 days after the announcement, we gave $2.99 worth of our virtual currency, Credits, and a lengthy note thanking them for their feedback and encouraging them to give MeetMe a try, because after all: “nothing is changing but the name.”

To address the most frequently asked questions, we posted a bulletin that answered them all with animated meme GIFs — an attempt to lighten the mood a bit while also reinforcing that none of our users’ worst fears would come true.

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4. Make Them Love It

Because of our measured approach to the transition, there were no significant issues to correct once MeetMe went live, but we still wanted to do something to get members feeling great about the new brand, so we launched a Youtube channel, MeetMeVideos. In less than three months, it’s already recorded over 1 million views!

Our most successful video, with over 500,000 views, was this bar parody in which we imagine just how anti-social popular social sites might be if they went to hang out at the bar. It was a simple video starring and written entirely by our employees. The video reinforced again, in a light and hopefully humorous way, that MeetMe is fundamentally made of the same stuff as myYearbook always was.  We are still the re-imagination of the bar, that virtual coffeehouse, but we are now MeetMe.

We also produced other feel-good Youtube videos, including a MeetMe testimonials video which itself recorded over 150,000 views and consists of our users looking into their webcams and telling us the impact MeetMe has on their lives.  The video was so powerful that we are talking now about making it part of our new user experience.

5. Have a good team.

The coordination involved in launching a rebrand on a service with 1 million lines of code on web, mobile web, iPhone, and Android in the same week cannot be overstated. Everything could have been messaged exactly the same, but if Apple’s approval of our iPhone app took an extra two weeks, or if the web site experienced a 24-hour outage, the result could have been vastly different. At the end of the day, it came down to holding our breath, crossing our fingers, staring into the abyss, and jumping in with both feet. We relied on our talented team to execute yet again, and the team delivered.

This post first appeared on TechCrunch. Catherine Cook, Geoff Cook, and Jeremy Zorn collaborated on this post.

Why Dating Sites Are Broken

I met my current boyfriend four years ago in the elevator of our Georgetown dorm.  Our friendship slowly grew until we went on our first date, more than two years after we first met. I like becoming friends with a guy I’m interested in first – it’s the only way to know if you might enjoy spending time together or not, and you just can’t do that on a dating site. That’s why they’re broken.

recent study published last week found that online dating sites were deficient at determining whether people would have chemistry and make a match. The study, published in the journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, found that online dating sites encourage a shopping mindset, which is not compatible with two people finding a strong connection. The lead author of the study, Eli J. Finkel, Ph.D., even told CNN: “Not only is there no scientific evidence, despite the claims, [but] my team of co-authors have become pessimistic that there could ever be in principle an algorithm that could match people well based on the approaches these sites take.”

We found a very similar result in a recent survey of 4,000 myYearbook members. Overwhelmingly, people prefer to start out as friends before jumping into a romantic relationship. Friendship is the filter to finding a compatible match with 89 percent of men and 96 percent of women preferring to be friends before lovers. Sure, it may well be that girls are cultivating friendships and guys are cultivating future options, but it’s a critically important part of the courting process.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone. If you don’t enjoy someone’s company, if you don’t like their jokes, if you can’t stand their conversation, you shouldn’t be with them. Starting out as friends is obviously the better way to do relationships. I for one would trust a conversation over an algorithm any day, and that’s the existential problem facing the dating site.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that traditional dating sites become obsolete overnight—far from it. One out of five people, some studies suggest have dated someone that they met online. No one could possibly argue that dating sites aren’t an efficient and pervasive way to meet people, but what I would argue is that they are no better at determining chemistry than picking people out of a list, and they don’t encourage friendships. And I think that is the writing on the wall for the dating industry at large.

Dating sites may be making more money than ever before, but it was only in 1999 that the music business peaked – years after the medium that would kill it first emerged. The rise of social networks and the ubiquity of mobile devices have given way to a new crop of mobile social networks – the Meeting Networks – which threaten to eat the dating industry’s $4 billion lunch by making them a subset of a larger “meet new people” space. (Full disclosure: I am both biased and wildly optimistic as a founder of myYearbook – one such meeting network.)

hese Meeting Networks enable people to start out as friends through more casual interactions and relationships. They’re social networks not of your friends and family—like Facebook— but of people you might want to know, and they’re growing fast. It is with dramatic scale where Meeting Networks can realize their full promise: to engineer serendipity based on interests and hyperlocal connections. To the extent a free meeting network helps you discover the people around you on the subway platform, in the coffeehouse, or on the street, it would be difficult to see why people would pay to pick people out of a list on an algorithmic dating site. The question is only whether there will be a dominant winner in the Meeting Networks space, as there has been in the friends-based social networking space.

Large players in this space include Badoo and Tagged, but there are plenty of new competitors added to the mix seemingly every week, from Shaker to Banjo to Highlight. Unlike traditional dating companies like Match.com, eHarmony, and Spark Networks, which look to create intimate relationships and skip the friendship steps, these Meeting Networks emphasize casual relationships and let the users decide if and when they would like to turn it into something more. It’s a low-stress, entertaining way to meet new people.

In the graph below, the Meeting Network is the top-left quadrant, combining casual relationships with the people you want to know, and they’re already proven to be dramatically more engaging than traditional dating sites.

Graph of Social Landscape

If a Meeting Network is an online bar, a traditional dating site is more like a speed date event. You can go to a bar for a variety of reasons. You may want a new friend, a one-night stand, or just a good time. On the other end of the spectrum, speed dating makes you feel like you’re on display, judging the success of the night by if you met “The One” instead of by the company you kept and the fun times you had.

At Meeting Networks, members aren’t just looking for “The One.” It’s more casual than that. 70 percent of Badoo members are looking for friendship, which helps to solve the churn problem endemic to traditional dating sites. Since the goal of a traditional dating site is to find a significant other, it is common for their users to deactivate their profiles once they find someone; in other words, you join a dating site with the goal of leaving it. In contrast, members of Meeting Networks can keep making new friends even if they happen to pursue something deeper with someone. Similarly, I’m not going to stop going to bars just because I have a boyfriend, but I certainly won’t go speed dating.

There has always been a thin line between friendship and romance. A recent survey found that 60 percent of men would make out with a female friend if given a chance (which feels a little low). So maybe Billy Crystal is right—maybe men and women can’t be friends—but Meeting Networks let them start out that way.

This post first appeared on PaidContent.org.

Engineering Serendipity

When John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale reach for the same pair of black gloves in the movie Serendipity, they meet and fall in love.  The goal of social discovery applications is to engineer this kind of serendipity. By leveraging demographic and interest data, and by providing good reasons to interact with strangers, this emerging category seeks to make meeting people feel fun and natural.

And it’s not just about dating.  Most people I know I met through serendipitous encounters.  Whether it’s the friend I bumped into at the college bookstore as a confused freshman or the boyfriend I met at the coffee shop, most human relationships start the same way – in a serendipitous moment.

But not a random moment. I wasn’t waiting in a random line in a random store in a random city; I was waiting in my college bookstore, surrounded by people in close proximity with shared ambitions and life stages. Even at the coffee shop, it’s not a random cross-section of society that caffeinates there each day, but a group of people particular to the location and environment of Georgetown. Social discovery apps spend much of their time focused on this problem: how to infuse apparently “random” online interactions with the sort of affinity that leads to connection—not unlike a good mutual friend who enjoys playing matchmaker.

Yet there has traditionally been a distinction between meeting people online and doing so offline: intention. We tend not to wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to meet a friend today.” Sure, you need to be open to friendship to find it, and it helps to be in places where you might meet someone (malls, bars, casual sports, and so on), but you don’t start every conversation with “Do you want to be my friend?” The key for social discovery apps is to mirror those offline meeting places by providing an experience that’s still fun on the days when the serendipity part just isn’t happening.

Let’s face it: picking someone out of a list feels less than magical, yet that’s where online social discovery has traditionally been stuck. Whoever can make it feel as natural as grabbing a coffee, hanging out at the bar, or wasting time in the mall is going to win the race for leadership of what I believe will be a very big category. And there’s no shortage of contenders, from more established players like Badoo and Tagged to extremely interesting venture-backed services like Banjo and Shaker. My own company, myYearbook, is also competing for the same prize (so I am completely biased, but I am also a complete believer in these trends).

How big could this prize be? Everyone in the world has a desire for friendship, especially as teens and young adults when so many long-lasting relationships begin. It is inconceivable to me that there will not be the mobile equivalent of the mall or the coffeehouse, that there won’t be a dominant meeting place that will intelligently take into account location, interests, and every other available cue to make serendipity happen.

What is at stake is nothing less than the future of meeting new people—of how people discover one another and make relationships in a world where mobile devices behave like extensions of the human body. How do you create a social graph not of the people you know, but of the people you want to know? How do you make meeting people fun, at scale, for everyone? How do you make all that serendipity stuff just happen? These are the challenges we face, because as friendships themselves increasingly migrate online, we think it’s only natural that friendship-making will too.

 This post first appeared on TechCrunch.

Google+ Solves A Problem No One Has

Facebook won the social networking war for connecting with friends and family back in 2008 when it surpassed Myspace for worldwide unique visitors, according to comScore. Google+ didn’t seem to get the memo.

On a recent login to Google+, I noticed the top post in my stream has this comment: “25 responses on Facebook. 2 on Google+ (counting this one). This is a ghost town.” With a fairly large group of early adopters in my circle, the excitement for Google+ of just over 2 months ago has given way to indifference among everyone I know.

The reason is fairly obvious. Google+ is meant to connect you with people you know, just like Facebook. It’s an attempt to compete on features and UI in a business dominated by network effects and switching costs. There is no way to beat Facebook at its own game, even with all the resources in the world at your disposal. Facebook won three or four years ago. Building a better mousetrap gets you nowhere. The trick is a differentiated social graph.

Social networks are defined by the nature of their social graphs. The Facebook social graph is the people you know, which of course is convenient since everyone in the world knows someone. But as large an opportunity as that social graph is, it is also limiting. As with every other product, context matters. People on Facebook don’t accept friend requests from people they don’t know. The battlefront in social networking is not connecting you to people you already know, but in connecting you to people you want to know.

As Liz Gannes of AllThingsD recently pointed out in a review of social discovery, the ultimate question is just how many people want to meet new people. How big, exactly, could this “social discovery” space be?

Pretty big. These networks in the aggregate already make hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue per year. The space right now is dominated by services like Badoo with its tremendous virtual currency monetization around meeting new people, Yobongo with its popular proximity-based chat, Tagged with its established international user base, and myYearbook, my company, with its focus on facilitating interactions through mobile and social games.

A number of very smart people have realized meeting new people has the capacity to support an entirely new category of geo-social network that weds social-mobile-local and carries the potential to be deeply disruptive. Andreessen Horowitz, for example, recently invested $5+ million in Likealittle, and new mobile apps for meeting people come out at least weekly, from Blendr to Mingle to Snog to WhosHere.

Innovation and execution are going to separate the winners from the losers in this space, just as it separated Facebook from Bebo, Myspace, and Orkut. While only time will tell who wins and who loses, I would not be surprised to see “social discovery” become a multi-billion dollar industry out of essentially thin air while at the same time disrupting that other category of meet-new-people destinations: dating sites.

Social discovery isn’t online dating. The goal of joining a dating site is to be able to leave it. If you look at dating sites like Match, JDate, and eHarmony, they all have something in common: they are all transactional. Members are looking for someone to date or to marry — to the extent that they find someone, they churn out. Retention metrics on dating sites are generally poor, like page views per visitor and visits per visitor. The people you see on dating sites are other people like you relying on the contrivance of the dating site to meet people in an unnatural environment. It’s not fun.

Social discovery sites on the other hand are different. They make meeting people fun. “Meeting people” is broader and carries no stigma. These meeting services are media and entertainment properties, not burn-and-churn subscription businesses. While people can meet and date, social discovery goes beyond that single use case. “Meeting” is for anyone: new friends, people with similar interests, and people who share your interests in Magic, even. Social discovery is more natural than dating sites and ultimately, in my view, will prove the bigger concept and the bigger opportunity.

Meeting people through games is nothing new. Just about every one you know you likely met via a chance encounter that blossomed into something more, whether it was from a pickup game of basketball or bumping into someone at a coffee shop. We at myYearbook want to get the algorithm right for that encounter, as do a number of our competitors. One thing is for certain, this is where the action is, not Google+.

myYearbook co-founders Catherine Cook and Geoff Cook collaborated on writing this post. This post first appeared on Business Insider.

The Only Way To Close The Gender Gap

Back in November, I competed at the Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s Global Student Entrepreneur Awards. There were 30 of us in total, and five were chosen as finalists and announced at the dinner that night. As one of the finalists, I stood on stage in front of the guests to receive my award. Like the other four finalists, I received a plaque, a man’s watch, and a bottle of cologne. Until that moment, I didn’t realize just how rare female entrepreneurs are, and it shouldn’t be so.

I worked with my brothers Dave and Geoff to create myYearbook in 2005 to be the best place to meet new people. We added 400 members in the first week, and today we have 32.7 million members, $23.7 million revenue in 2010 — up 50 percent over the previous year — and we’re profitable. Not only that, we recently signed a definitive agreement to merge with Quepasa (NYSE Amex: QPSA) for $100 million in cash and stock.

myYearbook started in my high school in Skillman, New Jersey. As we are laser-focused on meeting new people, myYearbook was built not around the people you know, like Facebook, but the people you want to know. Dave, Geoff, and I would often stay up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, making spec sheets, drawing pen-on-paper wireframes and faxing and emailing them to our developers in Mumbai, only to wake up a few hours later to be on time for 7:30 a.m. homeroom. In April 2005, we were ready to launch the site into our high school and decided to get new members by wearing myYearbook themed T-shirts every single day for about two weeks.
We had made the T-shirts on CafePress and each had about 10 shirts with our myYearbook logo on the front and something catchy on the back like, “Answering the questions that matter most: Who are your friends’ friends, and are they hot?”

The T-shirts were a success, and our classmates were not only signing up for the site, but also inspired. They would come up to me at my table during lunch, spilling their ideas for the site and what they thought we should add to make it even better. As my friends and classmates informed us about the product, we implemented their ideas as quickly as possible and ramped up to launch the site to all schools in the United States. Though I almost lost credit for some of my classes, we were able to get 1 million members in the first year of launch and opened up an office in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which is where myYearbook’s headquarters are today.

Then I did something that, according to the movies, no one in my position should do: I went to college. Instead of dropping out, I asked our venture capitalist for a letter of recommendation to Georgetown. Huh?

I never seriously considered dropping out. As a 17-year-old girl on the East Coast, deciding not to go to college is not much of an option. My mom, my friends, and my teachers would have been disappointed in me had I decided to drop out or not attend. What’s more, the company had close to zero revenue when I was applying to colleges not so long ago, so the decision to skip school would seem insane by most accounts.

But most importantly, I didn’t think the business’s success required that I drop out. In my freshman year at Georgetown, I was scheduled to speak at a conference in South Korea that would force me to miss my first midterm. I talked to my professor about it, and he allowed me to make up the midterm when I returned — my professors were willing to help me out.

Additionally, I was on my laptop during class like all of the other students. None of us were really taking notes, but while they were on Facebook or checking Gilt, I was sourcing and leading the acquisition of four Android applications. Eighteen months ago, only 2 percent of our visits came from mobile. After developing our iPhone and Android apps and acquiring these applications, now more than 40 percent of visits are from mobile devices. I could work on myYearbook while at school without it affecting the business, and I also had a CEO who I trusted — my big brother!

Still, I do wonder if my gender also led to my graduation (good girls don’t drop out.) At school, I lived a double life of sorts. I didn’t want to talk about myYearbook because I wanted my classmates to like me and, as has been discussed by women far more successful than I, no one likes a successful, ambitious girl. Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out the ambition gap that keeps women from their share of the top spots in business and government. As a female entrepreneur, it’s something you generally just have to get past. You have to believe everyday that what you are working on is going to work, and you have to be willing to ignore everyone who says it won’t. You can’t be an entrepreneur otherwise.

My best friend tells her friends about me and myYearbook, and I tell my friends about her brilliant grades and her law school acceptances. We don’t ever talk about ourselves. But it’s time we step it up and own our own success because that’s the only way the gender gap will close — by believing we can create something big and great despite the overwhelming odds against it. Until then, we’ll get cologne, a man’s watch and a pat on the back.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post.

Why We Sold myYearbook

Last week, myYearbook signed a “definitive agreement” to merge with Quepasa, a publicly traded company. The combination effectively doubles each company’s registered users, monthly active users and daily active users, while giving the combined company a global footprint. Together we intend to combine our strengths in mobile, social games, advertising, and virtual currency to create the global leader in social discovery. Here’s what led us to this decision, and why we think it’s the right one for our users, our team, and our shareholders.

myYearbook and Quepasa are social networks for meeting new people with a social graph of the people users want to know, not the people they already know. Finding new friends is a search that extends over the course of one’s lifetime. It’s a search that may peak as a teen and young adult when so many enduring relationships are forged, but it carries over beyond those years to everyone young or old. Meeting new people is now – and has always been—one of the internet’s core activities, from the early days of AOL (NYSE: AOL) chat rooms to the glory days of MySpace to the unrealized promise of Chatroulette’s “Next” button.

It is also an activity in which Facebook, despite its 750 million users, has no natural advantage. Facebook’s core asset is the social graph of your real-life friends and family. It has no interest in polluting that social graph with people you only connect with through game play and shared interests. Moreover, the virality in the Facebook platform is today mostly limited to feed posting. Facebook apps that emphasize meeting new people have no natural advantage because publishing feed stories about meeting new people is awkward on Facebook, where your mother, ex-girlfriend, and boss may be your “friend.”  Context matters in social networks – just as it matters in everything else.

This “niche” for meeting new people happens to be massive. If the core activities of the Internet are, as Zynga believes, play, search, share and shop – then meeting new people is an activity that unites them all. Play is often how people meet each other. Search is best when it is algorithmic but feels serendipitous. Share is the means by which people discover each other, and Shop is what people do to stand out and get noticed.

At myYearbook, we use games and apps to facilitate interactions to make meeting people fun. Our daily active users are at an all-time high, and mobile growth has exploded from 2 percent of our daily logins 18 months ago to 40 percent of our daily logins today. Retention has remained strong, with 34 percent of our monthly users logging in each day, and monetization has grown to a $1 average revenue per user and a $30-plus million revenue run rate.

We are convinced the next few years will see the creation of a billion-dollar brand around meeting new people—and we are also convinced it will be a global brand. At myYearbook, we realized 90% of our visits were in North America, and we could not own the market for meeting new people without a global footprint. Historically, we’ve viewed our core demographic as teens and young adults – ages 13 to 24. Only 50 million people in this demographic live in North America versus the 1.1 billion people aged 13 to 24 worldwide. We saw the opportunity to dramatically accelerate our expansion.

Meanwhile, we are very aware of the enormous benefits to scale in social networking and social gaming. Once the costs of people and infrastructure are sunk, the margins improve rapidly with each new user on the platform. The incremental cost of a new user is virtually zero, but each new user has a material incremental benefit. Moreover, this benefit is dramatically accelerated through cross promotion and expanded scale.  Zynga is a master at maintaining its position atop social games with unmatched cross-promotional capability. The ability to turn social game users into web site users, then put those web users on a mobile app, and then put those mobile app users on different mobile games expands the lifetime value of each incremental user and helps achieve a competitive advantage.

By combining with Quepasa, we saw the opportunity to double the size of our user base while more than doubling our number of new users per day and tripling the size of our addressable market from the 50 million users aged 13-24 in North America to the 102 million such users in Latin America. Quepasa’s two biggest markets are Brazil and Mexico. Brazil is among the leaders in social media penetration and in mobile 3G-subscriber growth. We also saw the capacity to double the size of our development team and take advantage of scale.

In addition to the benefits of global reach and greater scale, we also saw the opportunity to improve monetization. Quepasa Games has proven with its launches on Orkut and Facebook that it can build high-quality, fast-growing cross-platform games. We look forward to distributing these games on our network. myYearbook has traditionally built its own apps and games, in addition to partnering with third-party developers. Now we will gain a 40-person gaming studio, as well as the associated margin expansion of vertical integration.

We look forward to localizing the service, expanding our virtual currency products, and enhancing the social plumbing behind our 10-plus million mobile game installs. Most of all, I look forward to preserving our culture and continuing to work with and be inspired by the people who got us where we are today.

This post first appeared on PaidContent.org.

How We Solved The Chatroulette Porn Problem

When we decided to build a Live Video gaming platform, the best example of Live Video at scale was Chatroulette, and it was full of porn. At the time, 1 out of every 10 video streams on Chatroulette was obscene.

Chatroulette was growing in part because it wasobscene—it was the accident victim and the public was the rubbernecker. Chatroulette’s traffic peaked in March 2010—the same month that Jon Stewart screamed into the camera “I hate Chatroulette!” to end a segment that would be the service’s high water mark.

While we were bothered by the content, the visceral social experience that Chatroulette represented was compelling. We loved the serendipity of the Next button, and set out to build a service that would allow the promise of the Next button to be realized. A lot of our effort went into matching users based on location, age, and gender in real time while building out a gaming-platform to give them something to do beyond chat. Since launching in January 2011, we’ve grown to 750,000 video chats a day with 100 times less nudity than Chatroulette a year ago.

The core of our abuse-prevention approach is a system that enables us to capture and analyze thousands of images a second from the hundreds of thousands of daily streams. We sample the video streams of users at random, frequent intervals and then conduct processing—both human and algorithmic—on the resulting images.

One early finding was that images with faces are 5 times less likely to contain nudity than images without faces. If you’ve ever used Chatroulette, this will make sense as the most common pornography encountered there contains a body part other than, ahem, the face. This is useful information because open-source facial recognition is relatively advanced while other-body-part detection is much less so. As a result, it is possible to use the presence of a face to limit some of the human review problem.

The mere presence of a face does not make an image clean. In fact, around 20% of nudity-containing streams also contain a face. However, with a lot of effort and additional processing logic including many factors like chat reputation, social graph, motion, etc., we’ve made the presence of a face helpful in determining “safe” images. Of course “safe” images may themselves be a false negative, and so we do human sampling of these images at a lower sample rate than images not marked “safe.”

The heart of our human-powered solution is a two-tiered image review organization that enables each individual reviewer to scan 400 images a minute looking for abusive content. Both groups are 24 x 7 x 365. Our goal is to be no more than 5 minutes delayed in reviewing streams.  We have a zero tolerance policy. If two reviewers deem your behavior inappropriate, your account is removed and you are banned from the site forever.  Based on our findings, we believe purely algorithmic approaches to moderation will never provide adequate safety.

As our product has grown, we’ve noticed Chatroulette make some progress in reducing their nudity problem as well.  On a recent night, a review of 1,500 Chatroulette video streams yielded a 1.9% abuse rate—or roughly a 1 in 50 chance of encountering nudity on any click of the Next button. This compares to a less than 1 in 1000 chance on myYearbook.

myYearbook requires a login. While much has been made of Facebook Connect as an identity-layer that will discourage abuse, we don’t believe the identity aspect plays much of a role per se. Someone who is interested in taking down their pants will do it even on their iPhone in the now-banned iChatr app, which was quickly overrun by abuse, despite the fact that every phone can easily identify you uniquely. The more salient aspect is that there be any login.

So long as there is any login, a user’s device can be blocked—and we’ve found people who take down their pants for strangers generally lack a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to circumventing security systems—unlike, say, spammers. We use a technology called Threatmetrix to fingerprint devices and ban both the user and their physical device when we detect abuse. Threatmetrix helps provide the teeth of our zero-tolerance policy.

Our system for reviewing live video has proven so successful that we are now actively engaged in bringing a similar system to bear on every photo uploaded to myYearbook. In a few months time, we will have perfect insight into every image being posted to the service, and we believe we can make incremental gains there as well by fundamentally turning a report-based system into a pro-active system. Eradicating abuse from user-generated content is a never-ending, human-and-machine-intensive problem that may well spell the difference between success and failure, especially when you are dealing with live video.

Facebook Has It All Wrong When It Comes To Social Games

Only five of the top 100 Facebook applications are synchronous games – enabling users to interact in real time – and, of these, only one is in the Top 25 – Zynga Poker. Every week, it seems, a new “social” game comes out with yet another take on the same asynchronous mechanics that we’ve seen a hundred times before: whether it’s plow land, choose seeds to plant, wait for seeds to grow, sell vegetables in Farmville or clean the stove, choose a dish, wait for the meal to cook, serve customers in Café World, there’s a reason so many Facebook games play like different versions of the same game.

Because it works. Or does it?

Just about every Top 100 game has multiple Top 100 clones. From Farmville, Farmtown, and My Farm to Zoo World, Zoo Paradise, and Zoo Kingdom, every developer is copying the same mechanics, and sometimes the same game, over and over again.  What’s more, these games all optimize for the same two things: virality and monetization.  Or put another way: get 2 percent of your users to pay you and convince the other 98 percent to spam their friends in search of more “whales” to pay you. And while it’s a great trick, it’s also on the way out.

Facebook has shown only one trend with respect to its viral channels: choking them off.  Traffic has fallen in half at Farmville in the last year, as Daily Active Users (DAU) dropped from 32 million to 16 million according to Appdata.com.  Those users aren’t on new Zynga games either; they are gone. Overall Zynga DAU, across all of its applications, peaked at 70 million in February of this year. Since then, activity on Zynga games has declined 39% to 43 millions users. The last nail in the coffin for virality may have been Facebook’s recent move to suppress game feed stories from appearing in the feeds of non-players – effectively removing the News Feed as a viral channel.

If that weren’t bad enough, the other pillar of the social games growth engine – paid marketing – shows a less-than-favorable long-term trend too. In certain maturing Facebook markets, like the U.S., Facebook will soon have signed up everyone who could possibly want a Facebook account. As this happens, page view growth must flatten out, eliminating the dramatic increases in the supply of new advertising impressions each month. At the same time, demand for Facebook ads will only grow as advertisers are just beginning to reach this gigantic, data-rich audience, pushing advertising rates up and putting marketing-dependent social gaming strategies under water.

But of course Facebook knows this too. It knows its most popular games are not optimized for things that must be important to them – like time on site and human interaction. And for as much money as these games make, who would doubt that Facebook could find another way of making billions of dollars with its audience instead of continuing to nurture these asynchronous, asocial games?

Which is why if I had to bet on any trend in social gaming for the next 12 – 24 months, I would bet on synchronous games. The space is wide open and has a lot of favorable dynamics.

One of the more enduring trends is that humans are social – and they like to play games together. Whether it’s around a pool table, a basketball court, a monopoly board, or a card table, people like to meet each other and often form deep relationships out of the serendipity of gaming: whether it’s a random pairing in a pool tournament or a person who happens to be on the basketball court at the same time. And while we may not explicitly think of eight-ball, basketball, monopoly, and cards as synchronous games, that’s what they are.

Many in the industry don’t appreciate just how much users enjoy playing games online with people they don’t know in real life. Recent research from the Information Solutions Group’s study of Popcap gamers found that the #2 and #3 most popular groups of people to play social games with are not people they know in “real life,” but instead “online friends” and “online strangers.” What’s more, 76 percent of people prefer to play with others of around the same age. Why? Because the point of playing with people you don’t know is to make new friends, and people generally make friends around their age. The study also found that more than 70% of people made new online friends by playing games together.

But at the moment, at least, Facebook has the wrong social graph for synchronous games. Facebook users simply do not have enough friends to always find someone ready and waiting to play a game with them right now, and Facebook has not shown an interest in helping people to connect beyond their real-life social graph. The average Facebook user has 130 friends, only 5-10 of which are online at any given time, and only 2-3 of which are likely to want to play a game right now. When you consider how many of your friends want to play the game you want to play right now, with you, the answer is roughly 0. So it’s no surprise that only 1 of the top 25 Facebook games is synchronous today. The right social graph for synchronous games isn’t the people you know but the people you want to know.

myyearbook

Image: Geoff Cook, myYearbook

The myYearbook social graph, on the other hand, is the people you want to know – people of a given age, gender, and location. With 25+ million members and 100,000+ online at a given time, our social graph is much wider, which means there are always people who want to play the same game as you at the same moment.

It was this difference in social graph that led us to the key insight behind our own gaming platform: that WHO you play is as important as WHAT you play. Our gaming platform, myYearbook Live, blends real-time video with social games. It’s a synchronous gaming platform to meet new people where the person you play against is as important — or more important — than the game itself, as you can see in the video below. Our goal is to create relationships through social game play. myYearbook Live is currently in a limited Beta and will be rolled out to a wider audience in January.

Of course, with 500 million users, no one can rule Facebook out of any market, but transforming a network founded on private sharing with friends and family into a place to meet new people through gaming would not be an easy task. The incumbent privacy questions and concerns would probably be the most significant Facebook has ever faced, not to mention that Facebook has shown it doesn’t want to clutter up its core asset, your social graph of real-life relationships, with people you happened to meet in the context of a game.

In the next 12-24 months, I expect to see dramatic innovation in synchronous games – both on and off Facebook. As social games stop being rewarded for exploiting viral channels and as CPI arbitrage evaporates in the face of increasing acquisition costs, games will become more interesting. They will be optimized for retention, for time spent, and for human interaction, and for the first time, the most popular social games will be the most social – not the most viral.

This post first appeared on Business Insider.

Outside the Echo Chamber: Growing A Startup In New Hope, PA

For as many companies that receive rounds of venture money and move to the Bay Area, you would think the land of microchips and tweets is the land of milk and honey. As an individual company navigating the competitive landscape of social media, we’ve found it helpful to buck conventional wisdom, while making monetization a part of our DNA. While I love the Valley and visit almost every month given the thriving ecosystem there, I’ll always come back to New Hope.

New Hope is a small town of 2200 people on the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennsylvania – about 30 minutes from Princeton, NJ and an hour’s train ride from New York. There is talent here – the chart below shows revenues up dramatically with 64% growth since the start of the year.  We employ 80+ people – most of them local to New Hope. In each of the last four months, we hit a new monthly revenue record for the company while growing uniques 22% and time spent 50% since the start of the year, and I believe New Hope has something to do with it.

From the beginning, our location has posed certain challenges, initially with fundraising. A few potential Series A investors based on the East Coast could not overcome the location, encouraging the company to move to San Francisco, New York, or Boston – anywhere but Pennsylvania. At the same time, we felt pressured to raise significantly more money than we’d asked for.  Certain people would have jumped at the opportunity to move to a big city and spend a pile of money, but we passed on the deal.

We passed because we felt our location had certain advantages and because we thought it best not to raise more money than we knew what to do with. Our guidance came partly from an early angel investor, Terry Herndon, an MIT Lincoln Labs engineer who invested in my first company as well. We generally agreed that our only goal was to build a good, viable, growing business.

Hoping that West Coast VCs would be less location concerned, we did the Sand Hill Road tour. Suddenly, our location was no longer a factor. Now we had VCs coming to New Hope and even offering to do board meetings out here. Our Series A round came together when I mentioned to Rick Lewis, of USVP, an established early-stage VC firm on Sand Hill Road, that I would be out of pocket for a week moving my brother into college in Boulder, Colorado. He flew to Boulder, put a term sheet on the table over lunch, and we had our lead investor for the amount we initially requested.

For a company outside the Valley, it has also helped to have a local venture capitalist involved in the company. We were fortunate that Chris Fralic, a partner at First Round Capital, happens to be one of the 2,200 people who live in New Hope. He walked in to our offices unannounced four years ago and started asking questions. Soon thereafter, First Round joined the Series A and went on to become among the most prolific investors of the last five years – with offices in West Conshohocken, PA, and now also in San Francisco and New York.  Having two well respected investors in the Series A made our Series B led by Sergio Monsalve of Norwest Venture Partners that much easier. The local Starbucks is treated to three venture capitalists now on a regular basis.

While we didn’t realize it at the time, our early decisions to stay put made us natural contrarians on topics we may have viewed differently had we been in the Valley.  We worried from the beginning about revenue exceeding costs and about spending money carefully – which seemed “backwards” at the time – before RIP Good Times made it momentarily trendy to be cost conscious. In particular, we deemed it reckless to press the pedal to the floor and head for a cliff, on the assumption that we’d have built a rocket ship before we went off the cliff.

The hesitation was not that we didn’t think we could build a rocket ship, but that we only had one set of astronauts.  To this day, we don’t see the outcome as binary, either 0 or $1 billion. Instead, we are always focused on the user – building the best place to meet new people on the web or mobile phone. To get there, we embrace scarcity as the lifeblood of innovation and consider living from round to round of venture money as an all-too-easy addiction for a company unable to find focus, weigh priorities, and make the difficult decisions required of survival. In short, being viable became part of our DNA.

When Facebook opened up its platform, it seemed as if every other social site followed. Meanwhile, we continued to focus on building proprietary applications and games to meet new people, bound together by an integrated virtual currency. We were never interested in having all the same games and applications as you could play elsewhere, and being outside the Valley, were less exposed to the pressures to follow the leader. Instead, we focus on product innovation and differentiation. We built the Chatter stream for meeting new people near you that now does over 1 million posts per day.  We also focus on monetization, with virtual goods now driving more than one-third of our revenues.

That being said, we do recognize the important role the ecosystem of the Valley plays and how important it is to participate in it. Through aggressive business development efforts in the Valley and a business development office in New York, we’ve established a number of partnerships with companies like MeeboIMVUWeeworld, and Arkadium, among others.

One concern we often hear is about hiring: how can you find quality people in Pennsylvania? I would argue that good people are hard to find anywhere, and that the talent pool here is strong, between the Princeton-area of NJ and Bucks County, PA. We recruited our engineering team mostly from nearby schools from Lafayette and Lehigh to Rutgers and Penn State, and we brought in talent from California, Texas, and Florida to supplement the local team. On the sales side, we have a 15-person sales and business development office near Penn Station in Manhattan that is rapidly expanding and easy to take day trips to from New Hope. We believe creating good jobs is one of the many roles of a strong startup, and that transplanting a promising company away from its birthplace is sensible for neither the startup nor its community.

But the best part of New Hope is the impact it has had on our culture. There is a small-town and family-feel to New Hope that fosters the sense that we are all in this together, working to make the best site we can for our users. Our people head downstairs to the brewery after work and take short walks for coffee along the river during the day, creating a nurturing environment for innovation and a good environment for sustaining the long hours required of growth. Our location has helped shape our product and our culture, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This post first appeared on TechCrunch.

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