Lessons learned building an anonymous social network

[Originally posted on Medium]

I built Formspring. For a while it was the fastest growing social network in history, but ultimately ended in failure. One of the defining characteristics of Formspring was that users could send questions to each other anonymously. There are a lot of reasons why we grew quickly and why we failed as a company, but it’s clear that anonymity was a significant contributor on both fronts.

As apps like Whisper and Secret have launched with early success, it’s likely that we’ll see more entrepreneurs experiment with products that incorporate anonymity. I think it’s worth sharing what I’ve learned in the hopes that it’ll help other entrepreneurs avoid some of the problems Formspring ran into.

Anonymity can be a good thing

I should lead by saying that I think anonymity can be a good thing. At Formspring, we spent a lot of time thinking and talking about ways to encourage expression. One of the reasons why I built Formspring in the first place was that I felt like the standard model for social interaction (aka Facebook) felt too rigid, too forced, too unnatural — it forces constraints on communication that don’t have any parallel in the offline world. Do I walk around with a name tag that shows you my birthday, my interests, and pictures of my mom?

Anonymity (and pseudonymity) is important because it’s part of how we naturally interact with others. We don’t have one “real” identity—we hide and reveal different dimensions of ourselves depending on the context of who we’re with and what we’re doing. Even more to the point, many of our interactions start off anonymously before growing into a relationship that’s structured by identity. I can strike up a conversation with a stranger between BART stops, stand up and ask a question during a conference Q&A session, or jump into a pick-up basketball game—and find those interactions rewarding without establishing my “real” identity ahead of time. It’s good to have equivalents to this online.

Of course, the problem we struggled with at Formspring was finding the right balance between all the ways that anonymity can be used in constructive ways without devolving into a product where anonymity is only used to say hurtful things about others. It’s tough, but I don’t think it’s impossible. With the right product and community mix, I think anonymity can be a very powerful tool for encouraging dialogue and sparking relationships. We saw incredible things happen on Formspring that wouldn’t have happened without anonymity—from the countless new friendships created around common interests, to support groups that formed to deal with difficult issues.

Fight perception early

One of the problems we faced is that it’s easy for people to instantly equate anonymity with abusive behavior. While anonymity can certainly breed abuse, it’s not necessarily the case. And it completely ignores the fact that abuse is rampant on apps that discourage anonymity.

In cases where we saw someone being abusive or being abused on Formspring, it was almost a given that we could find similar behavior on Facebook or other apps where that user spent their time. And sadly, we would frequently hear heartbreaking stories of abuse that was happening offline as well. The problem with bullying is bigger than any particular technology, and the solutions are much more complicated than might seem on the surface.

Given this, it’s not only important to find the right ways to discourage abuse, but to fight public perception early. Because people equate anonymity with abuse, it’s so much more important to get ahead of the conversation by being explicit about your vision for how anonymity should be used in the product in positive ways. I wish I would’ve tackled this much earlier at Formspring.

Perception is important for a lot of different audiences—employees you’re trying to recruit, partners you’re trying to work with, law enforcement, policy makers—but it’s most important with users. If users can’t see your vision beyond being a utility for posting abusive content, then it’ll be hard for the service to become more than that. That vision will need to be obvious as they explore the product, and in how they hear about the service from others.

Perception is probably most difficult in the press. Unfortunately, sensationalist headlines and soundbites work better than a nuanced discussion of complex issues. So it goes. This makes it even more important that your vision be clear to the public early.

The first mainstream media stories written about Formspring were about bullying. We hadn’t told our story well before that, so even as we worked on incredible things afterwards, it was was hard to overcome the initial perception about the company. When people read about abuse happening on Facebook, they already knew it as a place to see pictures of their grandkids. Without any context, a story about abuse happening on a new anonymous social network only cemented the impression that the purpose of the product was to encourage abuse.

Solve for long-term engagement

It’s hard enough for anyone to build a social app with long-term engagement, but anonymity introduces some unique problems.

Where anonymity was being used for abuse, we found that engagement had high amplitude but short wavelength. Like with any service, salacious content resulted in more activity in the short term, as users jumped into conversations to attack or defend each other. But most people don’t enjoy spending their time that way long-term. It’s easy to get burnt out and abandon the service forever. So combating abuse is not only the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense towards ensuring users stay engaged long-term.

Another problem anonymity poses for engagement is that it might create an unnatural barrier for continuing conversation. It’s easy enough for me to exchange phone numbers with the stranger I met on BART, but hard to reach out to the anonymous poster that seemed particularly interesting to me. That ability to shift modes of conversation can be helpful in keeping people engaged on the service long-term. It really depends on the core problem you’re solving, but most users aren’t looking for an anonymous utility—they’re looking for ways to express themselves and interact with others.

Work with the right people

The best advice I can give is that as you work on the policies and products to help shape the community, work with people who’ve dealt with these issues before. Even though I’d had a decent amount of experience working on sites with user-generated content, users used Formspring in ways that surprised me.

It’s easy to find people with strong opinions on product and community, but so often the things that sounded right at first weren’t really effective or had unintended consequences. Though we tried a lot of things early on, we didn’t get much traction addressing abuse until we started working with people that had direct experience working on these issues. Most often, they were people that spent their day thinking and learning about the type of problems online communities face.

It’s incredibly challenging to build a healthy community at scale. As challenging as it is, it’s harder still when anonymity is part of the product. Because of this, most people will tell you to rip it out. Investors will pass on your company, peers will criticize you, parents will yell at you. Maybe they’re right. And maybe not.

The best policy people I worked with understood the vision I had for Formspring, and why anonymity was part of that. They didn’t try to strip out everything in the product that made it unique, but worked with us to figure out how to fulfill that vision while building a healthy community.


Thanks to @sacchetti for encouraging me to write this, and reading an early draft.

Finding the "Right" Idea

It's hard to figure out whether your idea for a startup is the "right" one. If you're on the verge of starting a business, chances are you're starting with a few (or dozens of) viable ideas, and weeding the list down to one is a daunting task.

Of course, I don't have a magic formula for figuring out the answer, but there a few things I've observed that I think one can do to help increase the odds for success:

Ask Yourself

I think the best idea is one where you can answer honestly that you'll use the product yourself (and if you'll charge for your product, that you'd pay for it). Don't answer this as a hypothetical "you" in an alternate universe — ask whether you would buy this product today to solve specific problems you currently have.

Similarly, if you're in a role where you're frequently asked to make product recommendations or buying decisions for other parties — ask yourself whether this is what you would select for your client.

This certainly isn't the only criteria to test whether or not an idea has a chance for success, but it leads to a well-established pattern: 37signals created Basecamp so they could manage their projects, FreshBooks was created so they could invoice their clients, MailChimp was created so they could send email campaigns for their clients, and I created Formstack because I had to build online forms for my clients.

Ask Others

Neil Patel's advice is to quit asking people what they think and just start implementing. He's right — most people won't really know whether your idea will work or not. And those close to you are apt to try to make you feel good by saying your idea is the best thing they've ever heard, even if it sucks.

However, I still think you can get a lot of value by talking to people you know that fit your target market to get a sense for whether or not the problem you're trying to solve actually exists. Focus your discussion on the problem you're solving, rather than your idea itself. Most people will open up truthfully about how painful a particular problem is for them, and you might get a sense for why existing companies aren't already solving that problem.

Ask Your Market

Finally, before you spend time and money building out your idea, test it out to see whether a market for your product really exists, and gauge how hard it will be to generate leads and sales. Launch a fake AdWords campaign, as Eric Ries describes here — something that you can do quickly for less than $50. Unless you're launching rockets, it's probably going to be much harder to get enough customers to spend money on your product than it will be for someone to actually build it.

[Updated references to Formstack to prevent confusion about the name change]

You're not 37signals

Last week 37signals launched Haystack, a directory for finding web designers. I don't have a strong opinion about the site itself one way or the other, but upon it's launch I couldn't get this thought out of my mind: 37signals could start selling boxes of sh!t and people would buy them.

(By the way, if you're in the market for that kind of thing, a service for you already exists).

I'm not saying that 37signals products aren't great in their own right — I've used, purchased and recommended many of their products and services — I'm saying that they've built up an incredible platform that increases their odds for success hundredfold, almost regardless of the product. And that's what I admire the most about them.

Basecamp was making $5k/mo just six weeks after it's launch, something few startups will come anywhere close to replicating (considering it was their first product and probably had an average customer spend of about $30/mo). Subsequent product launches did even better, and they appear to see similar success with their book and job board.

Hundreds of companies launch better products and do "all the right things", yet hardly get off the ground, much less thrive. There's just an incredible advantage when you launch products targeted at the very people that are already listening to you, especially when there are hundreds of thousands of thousands of said people.

I believe they've had to work incredibly hard to build that audience — nobody's just given that kind of attention and respect. And they've also done a tremendous job of not disappointing their audience (as some have done).

So what does this mean for us mere mortals — those of us who measure our FeedBurner stats in units of tens or hundreds?  Once you realize that you're not 37signals, it's important to emulate the right things. Recognizing what makes companies like 37signals successful means that you don't emulate things they do that might be  wrong for you. You might need to offer phone support for your customers, accept checks, or focus on just one project instead of 7.

The corollary of this is that you shouldn't believe what 37signals tells you to do. Listen to them frequently, but put what they say into context. Much of what they say is probably good advice, but there's no good way to differentiate what works to make them successful from what works because they're successful.

Of course, this certainly holds true for anyone you're listening to. Listen to me least of all.


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Go Shake Some Hands

When I started my first business in 2000, we didn't have new-fangled tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to make connections with potential clients and partners. We had to go to Chamber of Commerce networking events and shake hands with insurance salespeople and office supply reps. I hated going to those things.

By 2006, when I started Recursive Function, the landscape had changed and I revolted against traditional networking. It even took me several months before I bothered to get business cards made.

It's is in the blood for many entrepreneurs, but there are a great deal of us who cringe when thinking about going to networking events. We enthusiastically welcomed the advent of social networking because that meant we didn't have to go to boring events, eat stale hors d'oeuvres and shake hands with a bunch of strangers. And we welcomed it so much that it started to seem like an investment in Twitter and other online networking tools should be enough.

The beauty of the web is that you can be connected to people all over the world, but if you're starting a company and not well-connected to people in your city, it's going to be hard to be successful. You need good relationships with vendors in order to get things done — lawyers, accountants, web designers, IT consultants, and yes, even good insurance salespeople and office supply reps. You need to make connections with talent in the area when you start to hire employees (it's so much easier to convince someone to work for your startup when they know you or know of you). You also benefit from the advice of peers, and while you learn a lot from blogs and conference speakers, there's no substitute for listening to stories or getting advice over coffee.

And if you've worked Twitter to death but don't have good relationships with potential vendors, have someone that you'd hire in a second if the right position opened up, and have a credible peer or mentor who'll help you with a challenging problem in exchange for a Guinness or two ... well, then your networking strategy has fallen short. And no, "there's nobody doing anything interesting in this town" is not a valid excuse.

It took me a while to fully appreciate the importance of these business relationships, and the key ingredient for building these relationships: I have to get out there and shake hands. This is a no-brainer for some, but I don't think it's so clear for those of us who are more comfortable behind a computer screen than in a crowd of strangers. In theory, it seems like you can build your network through social media tools alone.

Despite a full list of online followers, friends and contacts, I have a hard time thinking of someone who's had a strong, positive impact on my business that I haven't yet met in person. I can also think of a handful of people that I met "cold" at a networking event and probably wouldn't have met otherwise.

Social networking sites are good tools for keeping connected and up-to-date with contacts, but not a great way to establish lasting relationships. It's not often that I'll friend or follow someone I haven't met or don't know of, and very rare that I'll actually be engaged enough to read their blog or tweets. Even though I can be a bit of a Twitter curmudgeon, I'm pretty sure this is the same for power users too — people won't pay attention to you on Twitter unless they're already familiar with your work or have met you in person.

You won't get the most out of your online networking if you don't occasionally attend the Tweetups, join a user group, or attend local conferences like Master of Business Online and TechPoint Innovation Summit. You don't have to turn into a power networker or even go to any of those dreaded Chamber of Commerce events. But you do need to force yourself every month or two to get out there, shake hands with old and new contacts, and buy a round of beers.