Going Against the Grain

By now you may have heard that App.net, the upstart social network/platform/data layer, is entering maintenance mode after the company laid off their team when renewals weren’t as high as they’d hoped.

I’ve been a founding member of the ADN movement since 2012 and have renewed each of my developer accounts without much hestitation. I’m abnormal however. I prefer paying for my products rather than being advertised to, want to pay higher air fares for better service, and prefer dot syntax to brackets when writing Objective-C.

Running a niche social platform such as App.net is harder than I think most people realize. I gained a whole new respect for ADN after taking on Glassboard, a service that shares many similarities beyond just being “social”.

Social services like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook succeed because they are designed to reach the highest amount of people with the least amount of friction. The easiest way to remove friction for users is to make the product free and then figure out monetization down the road when you’ve (hopefully) gained a ton of users. Instagram and Facebook seem to be excelling at this. I can’t remember if Twitter is succeeding or miserably failing this week. Anyway, the point is that gaining a high amount of users by making your product free is enticing if you can afford to.

Right there, App.net and Glassboard are at a disadvantage by being “freemium” rather than full-on free. Consumers have been trained by Facebook, Twitter and Pied Piper to not pay for the services they use. To combat this, we try to offer enough value for the free account to get people using the service, but not so much that they won’t pay.

With App.net, accounts were limited by the amount of people you could follow on your timeline as well as storage for any files or media you wanted to put on the service. Glassboard limits the amount of boards you can create or the amount of storage you can upload.

I’d argue that neither are successful. I don’t know App.net’s numbers, but I know Glassboard’s. Glassboard has been losing money its entire life. Last month it lost $1200. The month before it lost about $1500. The amount of premium subscriptions we convert is far too low to consider the product anywhere near a success. I knew this going into the acquisition, and have been working on changing that going forward, but pivoting a product used by tens of thousands of users daily is more like turning the Titanic than a speed boat.

I have one advantage where I have never had employees with Glassboard, my payroll is pretty affordable as a party of 1, but it still doesn’t take away the fact that losing money is not the goal of any business, especially a bootstrapped one.

Finding An Audience

Even with an amazing business model, it’s just paper without an audience however. When you’re running a paid social platform, you’re looking for niches. Sure, you dream of having Twitter or Facebook user numbers, but the reality is that when your goal is to be funded directly by your users, you’re only getting a fraction of those numbers.

My ADN stream was populated with iOS developers and Bronies. I’m sure Dalton or Bryan could list a few other groups that are popular on ADN. Glassboard has become fairly popular with gamers who organize their clans on the service in addition to small businesses and families who want a private way to communicate.

I call this finding a niche. Silicon Valley calls this product-market fit. Finding an audience of people interested in your platform is challenging. This isn’t Field of Dreams where if you build it people will magically appear. Once you find that niche of users, you’ve got to ensure they’re also the type of folks that are willing to pay to support your platform. If they aren’t, you keep looking for a niche that will sustain your product.

I have a few niches with Glassboard, but based on the numbers I shared above, they aren’t profitable niches. I’m hoping that can change as I change the product’s business model and pricing in the near future, but I won’t know for sure until I actually ship the code.

Stigma

The other thing going against ADN and Glassboard is stigma. So many people in my circle have said to me “oh, the conference app?” when I mention Glassboard. They see the product as something they install when they go to WWDC, 360iDev, or CocoaConf and not a part of their daily usage. Nevermind that people are using the product for a variety of different things outside of attending conferences, it will always be the conference app.

For ADN, I believe that stigma is the “Twitter service that isn’t Twitter”. Nevermind that ADN tried to build more than a Twitter platform with their backer program, messaging platform, and authentication layer. Most people saw ADN for Alpha, the Twitter clone they shipped as part of their original funding model.

Getting over a stigma is difficult, and I’m still trying to figure out how to do that with Glassboard, but I do believe that contributed to ADN’s lack of success. That stigma likely contributed to people questioning whether it was worth paying another $35 a year to “tweet” somewhere else.

What’s Next

I’m willing to guess that most of the folks reading this post are the types that are willing to pay for the products they use. Unfortunately, you and I are a minority compared to the rest of the Internet using public. ADN’s fight may be in maintenance mode, but I’m still pushing forward with my moonshot of turning Glassboard into a profitable endeavour.

People may write off ADN as a failed experiment and maybe it technically is, but it was always a risky proposition. They always were going against the grain and seemed like a longshot to succeed. We need more people to take risks like that.

It’s still too early to tell if Glassboard is going to be a financial success or failure. There’s nights that I go to bed questioning everything I’ve done this year. This is the life you choose if you go against the grain and building a platform that isn’t just another ad-based clone funded by venture capitalists.

Back to work.