The bowling pin strategy

A huge challenge for user-generated websites is overcoming the chicken-and-egg problem: attracting users and contributors when you are starting with zero content. One way to approach this challenge is to use what Geoffrey Moore calls the bowling pin strategy: find a niche where the chicken-and-egg problem is more easily overcome and then find ways to hop from that niche to other niches and eventually to the broader market.

Facebook executed the bowling pin strategy brilliantly by starting at Harvard and then spreading out to other colleges and eventually the general public.  If Facebook started out with, say, 1000 users spread randomly across the world, it wouldn’t have been very useful to anyone.  But having the first 1000 users at Harvard made it extremely useful to Harvard students.  Those students in turn had friends at other colleges, allowing Facebook to hop from one school to another.

Yelp also used a bowling pin strategy by focusing first on getting critical mass in one location – San Francisco – and then expanding out from there.  They also focused on activities that (at the time) social networking users favored: dining out, clubbing and shopping. Contrast this to their direct competitors that were started around the same time, were equally well funded, yet have been far less successful.

How do you identify a good initial niche?  First, it has to be a true community – people who have shared interests and frequently interact with one another.  They should also have a particularly strong need for your product to be willing to put up with an initial lack of content. Stack Overflow chose programmers as their first niche, presumably because that’s a community where the Stack Overflow founders were influential and where the competing websites weren’t satisfying demand. Quora chose technology investors and entrepreneurs, presumably also because that’s where the founders were influential and well connected. Both of these niches tend to be very active online and are likely to have have many other interests, hence the spillover potential into other niches is high. (Stack Overflow’s cooking site is growing nicely – many of the initial users are programmers who crossed over).

Location based services like Foursquare started out focused primarily on dense cities like New York City where users are more likely to serendipitously bump into friends or use tips to discover new things. Facebook has such massive scale that it is able to roll out its LBS product (Places) to 500M users at once and not bother with a niche strategy.  Presumably certain groups are more likely to use Facebook check-ins than others, but with Facebook’s scale they can let the users figure this out instead of having to plan it deliberately. That said, history suggests that big companies who rely on this “carpet bombing strategy” are often upended by focused startups who take over one niche at a time.

Pivoting

My Hunch cofounders and I frequently ask ourselves: “If we were to start over today, would we build our product the same way we had so far?” This exercise is meant to counter a number of common cognitive biases, such as:

1. The sunk costs trap.  People tend to overvalue past investments when making forward-looking investment decisions. From the rumors I’ve heard, Joost was a company that fell into the sunk costs trap. In the beginning, their p2p architecture was their main differentiator. Thus they invested a lot in building p2p infrastructure and required users to download a software client. When browser-based web video companies like Hulu and YouTube surpassed them, Joost switched to a browser-based client but still required a special plugin so they could maintain their p2p architecture. In fact, the problem the p2p architecture was solving – reducing bandwidth costs – had, in the meantime, become a secondary basis of competition.  By the time Joost finally discarded the p2p model, it was too late.

2. The Bridge on the River Kwai syndrome.  This is when entrepreneurs fall so in love with their engineering project qua engineering project that they lose site of the larger mission.  Former engineers (like me) are particularly susceptible to this as we often get excited about technology for its own sake. Many products can be built much more quickly and cheaply by settling for good technology plus a bunch of hacks – human editing, partnerships, using 3rd party software – versus creating a perfect technology from scratch. At my last company, SiteAdvisor, we made the decision up front to build a non-perfect system that did 99% of what a much more expensive, “perfect” technological solution would have done.  The software wasn’t always pretty – to the annoyance of some of our engineers – but it worked.

3. Solving the wrong problem. Location-based social networks have been around for years. Foursquare came along just a year ago and has seemingly surpassed its predecessors. The other companies built elaborate infrastructures: e.g they partnered with wireless carriers so that users’ locations could be tracked in the background without having to “check-in”.  Foursquare built a relatively simple app that added some entertaining features like badges and mayorships. It turned out that requiring users to manually check in was not only easier to build but also appealing as users got more control over their privacy. Foursquare’s competitors were solving the wrong problem.

Ask yourself: if you started over today, would you build the same product?  If not, consider significant changes to what you are building. The popular word for this today is “pivoting” and I think it is apropos. You aren’t throwing away what you’ve learned or the good things you’ve built. You are keeping your strong leg grounded and adjusting your weak leg to move in a new direction.

Designing products for single and multiplayer modes

The first million people who bought VCRs bought them before there were any movies available to watch on them. They just wanted to “time shift” TV shows – what we use DVRs for today. Once there were millions of VCR owners it became worthwhile for Hollywood to start selling and renting movies to watch on them. Eventually watching rented movies became the dominant use of VCRs, and time shifting a relatively niche use. Thus, a product that eventually had very strong network effects* got its initial traction from a “standalone use” – where no other VCR owners or complementary products needed to exist.

I was talking to my friend Zach Klein recently who referred to products as having single player and multiplayer modes. I like Zach’s terminology because: 1) it is borrowed from video games where a lot of thought has gone into making these modes compelling in distinct ways, 2) the word “mode” reminds us that people can switch from moment to moment – that even when a product is primarily social or networked and has reached critical mass it might still be useful to offer a single player mode.

Many products that we think of as strictly multiplayer also have single player modes. In many cases this single player mode helped adoption in the early stages when the network effects were not yet strong. For example, you could use Flickr just to store photos privately if you wanted to. I thought of Foursquare as strictly multiplayer until my Hunch cofounder Tom Pinckney told me he uses it solely to keep track of restaurants he’s gone to so he’ll remember which ones to go back to. For some products it’s really hard to imagine single player modes. This is true of pure communication products like Skype and perhaps also social networks like Facebook (although apps like games seem to have provided single player modes for Facebook).

* Products with so-called networks effects get more valuable when more people use them.  Famous examples are telephones and social networks.  Network effects can be your friend or your enemy depending on whether your product has reached critical mass.  Getting to critical mass in network effect markets is sometimes called overcoming the “chicken and egg problem.”  More here.

Facebook, Zynga, and buyer-supplier hold up

The brewing fight between Facebook and Zynga is what is known in economic strategy circles as “buyer-supplier hold up.” The classic framework for analyzing a firm’s strategic position is Michael Porter’s Five Forces. In Porter’s framework, Zynga’s strategic weakness is extreme supplier concentration – they get almost all their traffic from Facebook.

It is in Facebook’s economic interest to extract most of Zynga’s profits, leaving them just enough to keep investing in games and advertising. Last year’s reduced notification change seemed like one move in this direction as it forced game makers to buy more ads instead of getting traffic organically. This probably hurt Zynga’s profitability but also helped them fend off less well-capitalized rivals. Facebook could also hold up Zynga by entering the games business itself, but this seemed unlikely since thus far Facebook has kept its features limited to things that are “utility like.”

The way Facebook now seems to be holding up Zynga – requiring Zynga to use their payments system –  is particularly clever.  First, payments are still very much a “utility like” feature, and arguably one that benefits the platform, so it doesn’t come across as flagrant hold up. It is also clever because – assuming Facebook has insight into Zynga’s profitability – Facebook can charge whatever percentage gets them an optimal share of Zynga’s profits.

The risk for Zynga is obvious — if they don’t diversify their traffic sources very soon, they are left with a choice between losing profits and losing their entire business.  But there is a risk for Facebook as well. If buyers of traffic (e.g. app makers) fear future hold up, they are less likely to make investments in the platform. The biggest mistake platforms make isn’t charging fees (Facebook) or competing with complements (Twitter), it’s being inconsistent.  Apple also charges 30% fees but they’ve been mostly consistent about it. App makers feel comfortable investing in the Apple platform and even having most of their business depend on them in a way they don’t on Facebook or Twitter.

The tradeoff between open and closed

When having the “open vs closed” debate regarding a technology platform, a number of distinctions need to be made. First, what exactly is meant by “open.” Here’s a great chart from a paper by Harvard professor Tom Eisenmann (et al).:

(Eisenmann acknlowledges the iPhone isn’t fully open to the end user – in the US you need to use AT&T, etc.  I would argue the iPhone is semi-open to the app developer and mobile app development was effectively closed prior to the iPhone. But the main point here is that platforms can be open & closed in many different ways, at different levels, etc.)

The next important distinction is whose interest you are considering when asking what and when to open or close things.  I think there are at least 3 interesting perspectives:

The company: Lots of people have written about this topic (Clay Christensen, Joel Spolsky, more Eisenmann here).   In a nutshell, there are times when a company, acting solely in its self-interest, should close things and other times they should open things.  As a rule of thumb, a company should close their core assets and open/commoditize complementary assets. Google’s search engine is their core asset and therefore Google should want to keep it closed, whereas the operating system is a complement that they should commoditize (my full analysis of what Google should want to own vs commoditize is here). Facebook’s social graph is their core asset so it’s optimal to close it and not interoperate with other graphs, whereas marking up web pages to be more social-network friendly (open graph protocol) is complementary hence optimal for FB to open.  (With respect to social graphs interoperating (e.g. Open Social), it’s generally in the interest of smaller graphs to interoperate and larger ones not to – the same is true of IM networks).  Note that I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with Google and Facebook or any other company keeping closed or trying to open things according to their own best interests.

The industry: When I say “what is good for the industry” I mean what ultimately creates the most aggregate industry-wide shareholder value.  I assume (hope?) this also yields the maximum innovation.  As an active tech entrepreneur and investor I think my personal interests and the tech industry’s interests are mostly aligned (hence you could argue I’m talking my book).  Unfortunately it’s much easier to study open vs. closed strategies at the level of the firm than at the level of an industry, because there are far more “split test” cases to study.  What would the world be like if email (SMTP) were controlled by a single company?  I would tend to think a far less innovative and wealthy one. There are a number of multibillion dollar industries built on email: email clients, webmail systems, email marketing, anti-spam, etc.  The downside of openness is that it’s very hard to upgrade SMTP since you need to get so many parties to agree and coordinate.  So, for example, it has taken forever to add basic anti-spam authentication features to SMTP.  Twitter on the other hand can unilaterally add useful new things like their recent annotations feature.

Here’s what Professor Eisenmann said when I asked him to summarize the state of economic thinking on the topic:

With respect to your question about the impact of open vs closed on the economy, the hard-core economists cited in my book chapter have a lot to say, but it all boils down to “it depends.” Closed platform provides more incentive for innovation because platform owner can collect and redistribute more rent and can ensure that there’s a manageable level of competition in any given application category. Open platform harnesses strong network effects, attracting more application developers, and  thus stimulates lots of competition. There’s some interesting recent work that suggests that markets may evolve in directions that favor the presence of one strong closed player plus one strong open player (consider: Windows + Linux; iPhone + Android). In this scenario, society/economy gets best of both approaches.

Society:  I tend to think what is good for the tech industry is generally good for society.  But others certainly have different views.  Advocates of openness are often accused of being socialist hippies.  Maybe some are.  I am not.  I care about the tech industry.  I think it’s reasonable to question whether moves by large industry players are good or bad for the industry.  Unfortunately most of the debate I’ve seen so far seems driven by ideology and name calling.