I took this piece of copy directly from the 37 Signals blog. When it comes to websites, it’s what often the one thing we really need to break through. I also think it is why ‘free’ on the web just wont go away. It’s something web startups just can’t ignore.
The Network Effect: The network effect occurs when the value of a particular good or service increases for both new and existing users as more people use that good or service. It can also occur when other firms design products that compliment an existing product, thereby enhancing that product’s value. For example, the fact that there are literally millions of people using eBay is the thing that both makes eBay’s service incredibly valuable and makes it all but impossible for another company to duplicate its service.
It’s easy to get caught up in the brilliant stories of startups going viral to gain awareness, and the simplicity and usability of certain websites turning into large revenue streams. How cool the actual product is, the fact that the founders just built it and the rest just happened. This is the veritable entrepreneurial myth.
Here’s a few things to think about:
How many sales and business development people do you think Google has? Answer = around 5000. And we all thought their non human automated adwords system did it all.
What investment has Twitter made in Public Relations? You think Oprah and Obama just happened upon it? No they were pitched to heavily with a large investment in leading PR firms.
How many Youtube videos were posted by company created accounts? Answer = Hundreds of thousands.
Who seeds the quirky auction items on ebay? Answer = ebay started the game very early on and let the media know.
Everything is not as it seems. Push marketing is alive wand well, just the tactics have changed. It feels very organic and community driven, but the often the community is created by it’s founders and leaders. Nothing wrong with that, it is the job of entrepreneurs to invent said communities. But it makes for better business articles to talk of such things occurring naturally, so the real story is rarely told.
The question for startups is – what tactics can we employ to garner the same momentum?
Reading about Craigs list the other day I started thinking about business history and strategy. As entrepreneurs we often get fooled by the deception of history. And it’s easy to see why. All the business books and articles we read on success are based on what someone or some company we respect did. The problem with this is that the world lives in a state of flux, and what worked then, most certainly wont work now. This is where the Craig’s list example comes to the fore.
Would a 3 color page of hyperlinks which looks like the internet did in 1994 work today? Highly unlikely. Craigslist works now, because it worked well then. It had things working in it’s favour like the ‘in crowd’ in the Bay area spreading the word. That it was first to market with an on-line classified. Now these legacy issues become a strategic proposition which is worth maintaining. What it doesn’t mean is that it’s a strategic template worth copying for Startup X. It’s also less likely we’ll get the support needed from the web community or the investors needed.
The same can be said for pretty much any startup with an interesting history.
A social networking site which is set up for alumni of an Ivy League University probably wouldn’t work.
A trading website where auctions are used to develop the perfect market place probably wouldn’t work.
An on-line retailer which aims to sell every book available in the world probably wouldn’t work.
As entrepreneurs, what we are better off understanding is the insights into why things worked, and try and leverage human behavior in developing a strategic direction to launch our business.
It’s no secret I own and run www.rentoid.com – but here’s a story you don’t know. The story of how I got it off the ground and got people to use the website.
Rentoid had a classic chicken and egg problem when it first got launched. People wont list items until we have willing customers waiting to rent their stuff. Conversely, people couldn’t rent things until people willing to rent their items put them up for rent. It’s a bit like asking two people who don’t know each other to fall in love. To solve this problem I decided to ‘Invent Demand’. This is how I did it.
I went out and got myself a copy of the Harvey Norman and all the major department store catalogs. Scan through and them and picked off what items I thought would be suitable to rent. For the purposes of rentoid that meant items that were ‘hot‘ in market (their placement in the catalogue was proof enough of that), items which had a purchase value of over at least $200, and had a low likelyhood of damage. I then proceeded to gather photos of the specific items off Google images and listed each of them on rentoid. The rental prices I placed at 5% of item value for a week, and 10% of item value for a month. The bond I made 50% of the cost. I made sure I listed items from varying categories. I did it in 3 suburbs across Melbourne (North, West & East). The listings also said ‘as new, never used’ – how true. It also assisted with our SEO because people do ‘item & location’ specific searches.
When people rented the items, I went out and bought them, first hunting for the lowest price on line. Then rented it to the new rentoid member in good faith and gave them an exceptional user experience. After the rental I sold the item on ebay for around about 80% of the retail price. I pretty much re-couped my costs doing this. Some items kept renting out often enough for me to keep them including my Nintendo Wii and Guitar Hero which have paid themselves off more than 3 times over. The cool thing is the experience I gave people and the live demonstration it gave me to the system I built. It really helped me iron out many of the bugs in the system when it comes to usability and transacting on-line.
You may think this is slightly deceptive, but it isn’t, simply because the rentoid member got what they wanted from the site and the process was completely transparent. When they’d come over the pick up the item up for rent I’d tell them I own www.rentoid.com. I’d ask questions like how they found the site and what they think. In fact, they loved the idea and were stoked to transact with the founding entrepreneur.
It was a great process to not only to invent demand, but also gain some brand evangalists and supporters. And yes, I still list a lot of items on rentoid – espeically if it’s new and cool and we don’t have it on the site yet.
As entrepreneurs, we need not be afraid of how we can build demand and momentum with our start up. We must do this because action creates reaction and often people simply liking our idea isn’t enough. Instead we must show leadership and belief in our own product and embrace it and use it as our own ‘in house evangelist’. If we don’t believe, how can we expect them to?
No doubt all my savvy readers remember the Wicked Sick BMX as was sold on Ebay. Turns out it was a project designed by a couple of creatives at the Advertising Agency George Patterson Y&R. And all I can say is kudos.
Sure creativity takes courage,takes clients and businesses that ‘get it’ and when well executed, creativity wins. The added bonus of creativity is that usually comes at no extra cost.