Caterina Fake: Fast Growth for a New Social App Is a Very Bad Thing
Social Web entrepreneurs with successful careers just can’t seem to find their way to a happy and boring retirement. Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake just announced Pinwheel, joining Ev Williams and Biz Stone of Twitter and now Obvious, Joshua Schachter of Delicious and now Jig, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen of YouTube and now Delicious, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning of Napster and now Airtime, among others, back at the drawing board.
Sure, the new start-ups from these people have a long way to go before achieving the impact of their predecessors, and fresh new innovators like Pinterest and Voxer are popping up all the time. But the good thing is that the repeat entrepreneurs keep evolving their ideas about how people interact, share and express themselves online.
If you get her started, as I did yesterday, in a conversation at Pinwheel’s office in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, Caterina Fake sounds almost like a professor of social networking philosophy.
One particularly interesting theory of Fake’s is about how an online community should grow in its early days. She thinks the answer is very clear: Slowly.
That’s why Pinwheel, a tiny service that helps users create and find geotagged notes, already raised $9.5 million in funding from investors including Redpoint Ventures, True Ventures, Betaworks and others.
The funding is a way for Fake to beat back elevated expectations of how fast Pinwheel should grow, given her prior success, she said.
“My perspective is it takes a while to grow this stuff,” she said. “It takes time for the culture to grow. You need time to develop antibodies to spammers and trolls.”
The worst thing a social network can do is force growth, she said, pointing to Google’s work on Google+.
She pulled up a growth chart depicting the time it took for various services to reach 50 million users. Google+ took a stunning 88 days, versus 1,046 days for MySpace, for instance (shown here, chart credit goes to Leon Håland).
Adding user registrations at such a fast pace doesn’t leave enough time for a dedicated, engaged user community to organically create itself and establish norms, Fake argued.
“Being an incumbent, you can get seduced on this,” she said, pointing at the steep line for Google+. “It’s like getting high on your own supply.”
Fake added emphatically that the worst thing a start-up social network can do is to buy advertising to attract users. Growth should happen because users find value in a site, and then get their friends to join, she said.
And if users don’t come? Start-ups should try harder to make a better product.
That’s why Pinwheel plans to only slowly let in the tens of thousands of people on its email list, Fake said. And it’s why Pinwheel will ask users to write original notes, rather than filling the many empty places on its map with existing location-based content from around the Web. “We’re not going to suddenly metastasize by adding Wikipedia content,” Fake said.
Of course, 10 million dollars only gives Fake a window of time; there’s no guarantee that location-based storytelling will be a hit, or that Pinwheel will be the one to do it right.
If Pinwheel does end up working out, what it does may well change significantly, Fake admitted. Her advice to herself, and others: “You shouldn’t get attached to a feature set. You should get attached to a problem you’re solving.”