If you’re running a tech startup, you’ve probably tried to (or would love to, if you could) do at least one of the following:
- Get TechCrunch to cover you
- Launch at SXSW
Unfortunately, as launch channels go, the more unimaginative the channel, the less successful it is at getting you traction. This is because everyone else is trying to do the same thing as well and the audience has had too much of the same thing.
But more importantly, these launch strategies are bumps, they’re not engines. As Paul Graham points out in his startup growth curve, the TechCrunch of Initiation (or the SXSW of initiation, if you will) may help bring in a lot of users, but those users rarely stay on. Users are distracted and if you cannot instantly demonstrate the value of your offering, they’ll hop-click-jump to the next shiny thing.
There are exceptions, of course. Tech events are a great place to launch if your pitch can succinctly demonstrate the value that your offering provides (especially if you have a SAAS offering), if your key user base will actually be other startups or if your goal with launching is looking for investors rather than looking for users.
But especially if you’re building something that relies on network effects, launching at a tech event isn’t going to be helpful at all.
So how do you make it work?
Does that mean platforms: social startups, marketplaces, etc. should never launch at events? How does one make it work?
Twitter’s breakout moment was the 2007 SXSW conference. While Twitter had been live for more than nine months, prior to the conference, it wasn’t getting much adoption. Twitter’s feed, rank-ordered by recency, would work best for a small number of users when most of them were using it synchronously. The founders needed to build a concentration in time, similar to how Facebook built concentration in space by targeting Harvard. They chose SXSW since an event affords massive concentrations in both time and space. The founders got cracking and created a Twitter visualizer. They set up flat panel screens in the conference hallways. A user at the conference could text ‘join SXSW’ to 40404, which would then show up on the screens and have the user automatically follow other active Twitter users at SXSW. With enough users tweeting and following each other, and the screens providing massive feedback to the tweeters in real time, Twitter gained the critical mass and activity required to get the platform going.
This case study lays out a key element of gaining adoption for platforms. You can’t just create awareness when your value proposition relies on network effects. You need to demonstrate the value of using the platform. Value on the platform is experienced by participating in the core interaction of the platform. Hence:
The best way to launch a platform business at a conference is to ensure that the core interaction on the platform is organically embedded in the conference experience.
Twitter did this with its launch. Attendees got more from the conference by participating on the core interaction on Twitter. Just like PayPal and other platforms piggybacked on underlying networks, platforms can piggyback on events by ensuring that their core interaction is embedded into the interactions at the event.
The following year, Foursquare recreated the magic. While Twitter was huge at SXSW one year down, it didn’t help attendees discover the best bar around the area. Foursquare was laser-focused on getting check-ins right and was the only platform to leverage real-time location at that point in time. Again, the core interaction on Foursquare was successfully embedded at the conference.
At SXSW 2013, BangWithFriends tried the same strategy, but the conference clearly didn’t approve of the core interaction they were trying to promote.
From boring conferences to frat parties
Tinder, a location-based dating application that gained massive adoption a little more than a year back, launched at a frat party at the University of Southern California. We don’t know how well BangWithFriends worked at SXSW but Tinder sure wielded its magic at frat parties. By taking the awkwardness out of the whole act of hooking up, Tinder’s core interaction actually removed the friction in the core interaction of these frat parties. Users could swipe each other, get matched and, being in the same area at the same time, hook up.
Location-based, real-time applications have a unique challenge while getting traction. You need a lot of people to be present at the same place at the same time. You can’t gain traction by traditional marketing; the network effect simply wouldn’t develop. The best way to develop the network effect, then, is to launch at an event and ensure the core interaction of the platform fits in at the event.
…And back to boring conferences
Finally, Airbnb figured its own way to make conferences work. While an alternative to the traditional hotel industry today, Airbnb gained initial traction by launching in cities around conferences and aggregating a lot of transactions in a limited space and time. Conference attendees needed a place to stay; hosts needed to see the platform bring them some business. By launching during a highly liquid event, Airbnb ensures there was enough value created for both sides to keep them engaged and have them use Airbnb beyond the conference.
We repeatedly see this model work out. Concentrating in space and time helps create highly liquid situations. Facebook’s launch in Harvard created a concentration in space while Twitter’s launch at SXSW created a concentration in time. Further, such concentrations lead to adoption only when the core interaction on the platform complements, enhances or removes friction from the core interaction at the real world event.
Twitter and Tinder followed the same strategy to gain traction by piggybacking real-world events. Tweet
When launching at a conference, ensure you develop network effects with the attendees. Tweet
The secret to launching location-based real-time social applications is leveraging highly liquid real-world events. Tweet
I will be co-chairing the MIT Platform Strategy Summit at the MIT Media Labs on July 25 in Boston. Speakers include founders of Android, Duolingo, Blurb etc. and senior leaders of Alibaba, Salesforce, Jawbone, oDesk etc.
Use the discount code PLATFORMECON14 for a 50% discount.