Post-mortem

RiotVine is closing. I genuinely want to thank everyone that ever signed up, posted an event, or used RiotVine to discover what was happening around town. Unfortunately, we never generated the traction needed to continue. I’m a big believer in learning from your failures, so I wanted to share my thoughts on building consumer web products. Think of this as a business plan for consumer web companies:

Ask yourself how people are going to find out about your product

  • Write down an honest answer. If you answer word of mouth, social media, or press, you need to dig deeper. Press is a small bump in traffic that lasts about 3 hours. Social media is a full time job and that’s time you’re not spending building your product. If it’s word of mouth, what are they saying? “Check out this cool website I found”? Lame. This brings me to my next point..

It’s not about good ideas or bad ideas: it’s about ideas that make people talk.

  • And this worked really well for foursquare thanks to the mayorship. If I tell someone I’m the mayor of a spot, I’m in an instant conversation: “What makes you the mayor?” “That’s lame, I’m there way more than you” “What do you get for being mayor?”. Compare that to talking about Gowalla: “I just swapped this sticker of a bike for a sticker of a six pack of beer! What? Yes, I am still a virgin”. See the difference? Make some aspect of your product easy and fun to talk about, and make it unique.

Figure out the difference between a website, a service, a product, an application and a platform.

  • You need to figure out which one you’re building because what users do with each one and how you make money is very different. If you answer all of the above, you’ve got a problem because the answer determines why people use what you’re offering, and it says that your focus is scattershot. The difference between these is another post entirely, and one I’m probably not qualified to write yet.

Your first public product had better have a viral loop.

  • Having a viral loop will stretch the traffic you get into more traffic, and ideally, more users. The only other option is to have a consistent and cheap social media strategy that drives traffic and this will easily suck up one person’s entire day, not ideal for a startup comprised of two people. If you don’t know what your viral loop is, STOP. Figure this out first. If there isn’t one, START OVER.

The best viral loops have two factors: they evoke an emotional response, and involve an element of surprise.

  • These factors make people share content online. Why do you think youtube is so massive? First you find a clip of two kids, and then “Charlie bit me!” happens and you’re laughing or going “Awww!” Video is the best medium to accomplish this. If you’re assuming people will share your content, think about how surprising or emotionally engaging that content is. If it’s neither, you’ll need to share it for them.

The best metric you should measure yourself against is whether you can make people feel something when using your product.

  • At the end of the consumer web rainbow, it’s not about the features, it’s not about the design, it’s not about the usability, it’s not even about the real world pain you solve. All of these things matter, but think about the largest sites in the world that you waste time on—
    • Facebook: People love seeing faces; this is a simple biological response that facebook excels at. If you spent one second looking at every facebook profile pic, you’d be at it for 158 years.
    • Craigslist: The design is completely underwhelming, which lowers your expectations.. but then you read something scary, weird or hilarious and you’re hooked. You keep reading hoping to find that next fix.
    • Ebay: If you’ve ever bought or sold anything on ebay, you know the thrill of hitting f5 until the auction ends. Even the aftermath where the person who bought from you is a nigerian scammer and paypal is a nightmare all involves an emotional response.
    • foursquare: Ever win a mayorship? Or had one stolen from you. Yeah.

Bottom Line: Build for an emotional response.

So why’d RiotVine fail?

How often are you just searching for something to do? Once a month? That’s not nearly enough to generate the traffic you’d need. Then there’s the competition: Eventful, Going, Upcoming, and Facebook. All have had millions poured into them. The lucky ones were acquired.

I’d argue that they are all pretty bad, but I blame that on the content; events are terrible content. If you already know about an event, you don’t need an event site. If you don’t know about it, you’re probably searching for something to do and the majority of events will not interest you. Even SEO is an issue; events expire and are pretty worthless after that.

To be fair, I think it’s very possible to create a compelling product that addresses this. We mapped out our vision of it, but we would’ve spent another three months head down developing it, without a business model or any way to keep paying the rent.. and Facebook would just end up ripping it off.

It’s hard to learn these lessons without first hand experience though so keep building your consumer web projects! I’d do it all over again, and in fact I am. Building RiotVine helped color my current design philosophy, and we’re taking all these lessons learned with us to spotly. Stay tuned for more :)

Got questions about how these principles apply to major websites, or why some websites, products or apps made it and others didn’t? Feel free to ask in the comments; I’d be happy to share my thoughts.

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17 Responses to “Post-mortem”

  1. Michael Sprague Says:

    Stand up article. Well done. Looking fwd to Spotly.

  2. Josh Bob Says:

    Great thoughts, Kabir. Definitely looking forward to Spotly – I just hope you capitalize the lead “S” before you get out of beta! :)

    • Kyle Psaty Says:

      Great post, Kabir. And thanks for taking the time to talk with BostInnovation about the downfalls of RiotVine, as well. We were pleased to cover every major step for that company, and look forward to doing the same with Spotly. Keep on truckin’ as they say…

      Kyle

      PS) I must agree with Josh… lowercase letters at the beginning of a website’s name may be trendy, but they make for aweful looking copy. Think about your marketing team five years from now — they’ll thank you later.

  3. Michael Kowalchik Says:

    Nice post Kabir, sorry to see RiotVine go. I think having a list of startup-soul-searching questions like this is really valuable for building a company. It’s important to identify them as early as possibly so that you reality check yourself as you move through the process.

    I’d add one category to the “know what your building” point: know if you’re just building technology. It’s easy, especially for engineers, to lose site of the fact that technology != business. One danger sign: when asked why you’re building something, if the answer is “cause it’s cool” a red flag should go up. :) Seems obvious but it took me a while to learn that lesson (the hard way).

    Looking forward to checking out spotly.

  4. Drew Volpe Says:

    Sorry to hear RiotVine is closing. Much respect to you, Kabir, for giving it a go and then being honest with yourself that it wasn’t working and was time for the next one. That’s a hard thing for an entrepreneur to do.

    Good luck with Spotly!

  5. Kabir Says:

    Thanks for the support guys, will definitely pass along spotly invites fairly soon.

    And that’s a great point, Mike. @Yegg addressed it in this great post: http://www.gabrielweinberg.com/blog/2010/07/wannabe-entrepreneurs-symptoms-and-cures.html

  6. Sarah Merion Says:

    Great post Kabir. Talk about getting back on the horse – looking forward to what Spotly does.

  7. ace bhattacharjya Says:

    Kabir,

    Thoughtful post and it’s clear that you did a lot of great thinking and work on Riotvine. But personally- I’m already excited about spotly.

    Can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

    ace

  8. Tamara Gruber Says:

    Good luck Kabir! Glad to see the lessons learned and looking forward to watching Spotly.

  9. @JoselinMane Says:

    Kabeard,

    Hey bro! It’s not a failure if you learned from it.

    I think it part of a growing process. When Edison was asked if he failed when it took over 1,000 tries to invent the light bulb, he said no I just found 1,000 that don’t work.

    I look forward to your next venture until you light that bulb!

    As you beard partner in crime (before you shaved ;-) ), Kenny Rogers would say “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
    Know when to walk away, know when to run”

  10. James Coletti Says:

    Great read and really valuable information, Kabir. Even though we already chatted about some of these points when I pestered you while you were trying to write it, it’s nice to revisit some of these points in a clear, concise blog post. It almost serves as a blueprint for starting something new. Thanks for posting this! Go Spotly!

  11. Mark Watkins Says:

    Hi Kabir,

    Sorry to hear that Riotvine is gone, but looking forward to seeing what you do with Spotly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, that’s a tough thing to do, but the community will benefit from them.

  12. Adam Webbee Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful post.
    1. I was wondering if you could go further into your first point: “how will people discover your business ?” other than word of mouth, social networking & viral loops, press release, networking with bloggers, what else do you suggest and wish you did more of and more efficientlly?

    And

    2. What did you learn about beta testing and getting users during your early testing period?

    Thanks in advance if you have time to address these questions. Best of luck with the new startup.

  13. Chris Requena Says:

    Kabir, Thanks for taking the time to put together a very informative post on your experiences with Riotvine. I’m sorry to see it go, but look forward to checking out spotly. Best of luck with your new venture!

  14. Ehsan Says:

    Thanks for the advice Kabir.

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