Movers & Shakers
Getting 10 Million Users in Less Than Two Months and Combating Cyberbullying
Ade Olonoh , Founder and CEO at Formspring
Sitting down with Ade Olonoh, CEO and founder of Formspring, for his soapbox was like shooting the breeze with an old friend as he gave insight into how the social Q&A site hit 10 million users less than two months after it launched in November 2009. To put that number into perspective, it took Pinterest nine months to get 11.7 million users.
Ade was candid about the challenges Formspring faced in the early days of the company, such as dealing with that rapid growth and the difference between a user and an engaged user. When it came to a 2010 cyberbullying controversy, Ade was very upfront on how Formspring dealt with parents, teachers and the media who accused the site of opening the door to cyberbullying. Ade also touched upon when a company can retain good talent and when it can’t in the wake of Formspring’s COO departing the company for BitTorrent.
Feel free to listen to the podcast below as you read through some of the highlights of the event below.
“It’s 3AM and I Need A Nap”
Formspring started out as a side project for Ade, who at that point was still hard at work with his first company, online form builder Formstack. Ade had noticed that people were hacking the form building tool to create something that no other social media site had done yet — a “ask me anything” form for users. That sparked Ade on the idea of a social Q&A site. He let the idea gestate for a few months before he started working on a prototype for what would eventually become Formspring.
After tinkering away on the prototype in his spare time, Ade launched Formspring on Nov. 25, 2009. The day before Thanksgiving. And it was a hit.
[I] watched the numbers and saw 400 people sign-up on the first day and thought, "Wow, that’s incredible!" On Thanksgiving day, [I was] at the table, looking at the numbers … 500 … and like, "Holy crap, people are leaving Thanksgiving to sign up.’ And it keep growing from there."
On Thanksgiving and the day after, Ade spun up new servers to deal with the deluge of users. In the months that followed, Formspring dealt with a "lot of scaling issues," largely in the first month, said Ade. There came a point that so many people were using it that the servers went down. Ade was still moonlighting on Formspring and there were days when he just couldn’t keep up with the technical issues. Or as he joked:
It’s 3 in the morning and I had to take a nap … so screw it.
Soon the site hit 10 million monthly users. Ade did the math, realizing that the growth couldn't practically continue. If Formspring had continued to grow at that same rate, after three or four months it’d be bigger than Twitter, he said. However, Ade said he realized that a lot of peolpe were checking out the product to check out the product. They weren’t engaged.
It was "I should check this out because everyone else is checking this out."
An Engaged User vs. Just A User
One of the earliest lessons Ade learned was the difference between an engaged user and just a user. He said that Formspring uses a lot of internal metrics to determine the difference and ferret out those who are just checking out the site, but not really doing anything on it.
One thing that Formspring looks at is the core mechanics of the site of posting a question. How engaged are users when it comes to that content? Is it good content? Does it generate responses? How many responses does a post get per day? These are the questions that Formspring tries to answer when measuring the difference between those who come back often to those who come back every few months … or never.
While Formspring continued to grow, hitting 25 million users in June last year, the site has tapered off a bit and leveled out. The Q&A site had its ups and downs when it came to user growth since its launch and it’s now at a smaller user base than it was at its peak, said Ade. When it comes to keeping users engaged, Ade said it really boils down to:
Really comes down to building a good core product and understanding what people want in the world and the Internet and creating that in some fashion.
Another aspect of Formspring that keeps users engaged is its appeal to fulfilling a very basic human psychological need. The need to talk about ourselves.
We really are all narcissists.
Don’t get Ade wrong. He didn’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that people like to talk about themselves when talking with other people, said Ade, who has an interest in psychology. For instance, there is conversational narcissism, where we try subtly turn the conversation back to ourselves. Take a conversation about a girlfriend, Ade gave as an example. We may sympathize with the other person telling us about his problems with his girlfriend. But we’ll steer the conversation back to us by saying, "You know what my girlfriend did the other day … "
Psychology plays a key role in how Ade approaches product design. From a core product aspect, Ade thinks about what are the psychological triggers that are foundational to the product. How often do you trigger notifications? It really comes down to the core product and whether it meets those needs, said Ade.
Of course, another way to keep users is to keep iterating on the product, refining and improving it. Or as Ade put it:
A lot of times you don’t know until you ship something.
He said you can come up with the theory, but you won’t know until you put a change in front of users. Also, you have to eat your own dog food as well.
It’s very easy to eat your own dog food when you’re a social network.
A Perfect Recipe For Cyberbuylling
When Formspring started, it skewed toward a younger, teenage audience. Unfortunately, some users abused the Q&A form to bully other teens. In 2010, parents, teachers and even the media accused the site of having the "perfect recipe for cyberbullying."
The controversy was tough to deal with and react to, said Ade. The site spent a lot of time working with those in the safety space to combat cyberbullying. The Q&A site also instituted quick changes to make it harder for users to abuse other users. It also built up an enormous support team to respond to user issues. Formspring also worked with other social media platforms, such as Twitter, on how best to address cyberbullying.
But one valuable lesson Formspring learned the hard way was to communicate on what the site really was and what it hoped to achieve.
"Why Are We Here"
At the time of the 2010 controversy, Formspring didn’t have an about page. The press didn’t even hear of Formspring until the bullying incidents. Cyberbullying then became the entry point for a lot of people — parents, teachers and journalist — to hearing about Formspring.
It was a lesson in really understanding on how to talk to the press and your audience and make it very clear upfront on "why are we here." If people were using the site the say it wasn’t intended, making that clear.
Since a lot of these folks weren’t active participants on Formspring, it was really hard to see what the Q&A site was all about and what the team was trying to build. For instance, Ade said, if a cyberbullying incident occurs on Facebook, parents and grandparents might not associate the entire site with being a cyberbully's paradise because they use the site themselves and know it’s also the place where they can post pictures of their kids.
Eventually, Formspring was able to weed out some issues surrounding cyberbullying by building subtle features into the product. Some are positive controls, or "do do this," while others are negative, such as banning abusive users. The product, Ade said, has shifted and that it’s much harder to abuse.
Because of the controls, Formspring has also seen a shift in its user base, completely flipping to what it was when it became. Now the audience is older rather than younger. When the site launched, 25% of new users were over 18. Now it’s more like 65%, said Ade.
Retaining Talent is Hard
Retaining talent is hard and attracting talent is tough.
With Formspring’s COO Ro Choy recently jumping ship to BitTorrent, the topic came up of how do tech companies retain good talent. Ade was candid about Ro’s departure, saying there were no hard feelings and that the parting was amicable. It came down to what Ro wanted to go in his career no longer being a perfect match to where Formspring was going, said Ade.
When it comes to retaining talent, Ade said:
I don’t have any secret sauce. Everybody has to ask themselves, "Do they believe they’re doing. Do I love what I do?”
Sometimes a CEO is able to adjust an employee’s situation to reignite their passion. Ade said he can sometimes move the organization to fit more in line with a person’s passion and what they want to accomplish in their career. Other times he can’t. But he likes to have open conversations about those things with his employees. He said it’s not best practice to keep someone around if they don’t love being there.
Our conversation continued with Ade as he answered questions on Formspring’s marketing effort and how that played a role in attracting users. Ade also touched upon what separates Formspring from other Q&A sites like Quora and Stack Overflow. We’d like to thank Ade for dropping by and giving us insight into social Q&A’s.