About Ade Olonoh
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.
Ryan: Less than two months after Formspring had started in 2009, they hit 10 million users. That's faster than Pinterest, which took nine months to reach 11 million and they've seen amazing growth since then. They hit 25 million last June, however, the road to that rapid and amazing growth didn't come without a speed bump or two.
In 2010, Formspring was the center of a controversy involving cyber bullying and was criticized by press, parents and school administrators in regard to that. Formspring's founder and CEO Ade Olonoh.
To get started I kind of want to go through this amazing growth to 10 million users. What were some of the challenges that you guys faced as you guys went viral and then what were some of the biggest factors in your getting to that 10 million and tell us where you guys came from and how you got there.
Ade Olonoh: Yes. Tons of challenges and I'll tell a brief story and I'll kind of talk through each of these challenges. Formspring really started as a side project within my previous company, which is called Formstack. Formstack is a set of tools that allows people to create web-based forms, surveys, other forms, things like that.
It'd been going well. They got those submissions via email and then would take the submissions that they thought were most interesting, copy and paste that into any blog post and then respond to that blog post.
As I kind of watched this happen, with a handful of users, and not just with Formstack but people were using Survey Monkey for this and other things and I just thought, "This is a really interesting idea and concept" that, basically, they're kind of hacking these tools that aren't meant to do this as a way to fulfill a need that, really, no social media platform was doing.
I had lots of interesting ideas and kind of sat on it for a few months because Formstack was doing well. It was profitable, making money, growing and the idea of me as CEO of that company, distract the team to create this silly little social network was Ludicrous. I really waited for a few months before doing anything with this idea.
Finally it just got to that point where I was like, "Well, let me create this little prototype, if you will. We'll launch it. It'll be this fun thing." I spent a few weeks kind of building it, on my own, kind of secret from everybody else within the company because I didn't want to distract them.
Two days before Thanksgiving, in 2009, it was sort of a slow week, a short week anyway and I kind of unveiled it to the team and said, "Hey, this will be a fun team building thing. We'll kind of finish up the last few things on this product, build kind of a front end website, with messaging, market it to people."
We launched it the day before Thanksgiving and thought, "This is this fun little thing where we'll see a few hundred or thousand people flock to it but still not kind of be the big, big thing." I say that, to say the challenges that I faced and we faced in the first few months came from the fact that part of me was really enamored by the idea and thought there was a lot of opportunity but I didn't expect to see anywhere close to that amount of growth.
I've launched many things before that have flopped. [Laughter] I was lucky to have a few dozen people sign up and that sort of set the bar of expectation. We launched it the day before Thanksgiving, watched the numbers and saw 400 people sign up the first day. I thought, "Wow. Incredible."
Thanksgiving day, at the dinner table, I'm checking out tweets and looking at the numbers and "500 people". I'm like, "Holy crap." People were leaving Thanksgiving to sign up. It just kept growing from there. So, very quickly, Thanksgiving day and the day after, I was frantically spinning up new servers and things like that to handle the growth.
A lot of scaling issues from a technical perspective happened within, definitely, the first few months. Largely, for the first month or so, it was just myself working on all the technical side of it because, again, the company focused on real customers and all that stuff.
There were times in the first couple of months where the site was just down. It was 3:00 in the morning and I was like, "I just have to take a nap for an hour. So, screw it. It's down," you know, that sort of level of dealing with things.
There were other challenges too. You know, you mentioned in the beginning "cyber bullying" and that was part of it, in the sense that creating this fun side project, there were a lot of things around community that weren't really built into the product to begin with. Then, even broader than that, I would say one of the [things], and I'm sure we'll talk about it in a little bit, is this meteoric rise, in terms of traffic.
Part of that, in the first few months was just . . . It was one of those things where . . . And you see this a lot with . . . Whether it's Pinterest or Draw Something [SP], things like that where there's this meteoric growth and that, itself, becomes this phenomenon where everyone's saying, "Well, you have to check this out because they're growing fast," and so that makes it grow even faster.
Some are able to sustain that and if you are ever able to keep that hockey- stick growth at that trajectory or else they'd have everybody on the planet using the service.
That was the same thing with us, where I would look at the numbers and every day it would just amaze me how much higher we were then before but I would do the math and say, "This practically cannot . . . " I think, two months after launch, we would've been, if we had continued at the same rate, in three or four months, we would've been bigger than Twitter and I was like, "Maybe that can happen but that's just not going to be the case."
One of the things that we really suffered from was that there were a lot of people checking out the product just to check out the product. They weren't really engaged. Maybe they would sign up but it wasn't really ... You know, they weren't coming to it. They were captured by the idea of the product itself. It was more like, "Well, I should check this out because everybody's checking this out."
One of the lessons that I learned very quickly was there's a big difference between engaged users and just users. What we've done with the product over the last couple of years, especially, is try to catch up and build a lot more engaging things within the product itself in order to sort of support that growth. (inaudible 07:48)
Ryan: Oh. No. No. No. That kind of brings up a question because that's something that everyone has to deal with, like, how do you engage users? What, for yourself and for Formspring is the difference between that engaged user and just that user who just checks out the site?
Ade Olonoh: Yes. We look at all different types of metrics, internally, to try to help answer that and I think it falls into a couple of broad buckets, the way we look at it. One is just consumers and the other is creators. There are metrics we look at on either side to see how engaged the user is. The core mechanics of Formspring is, I post a question. Either it's all my followers or to people individually.
They receive those in an inbox and then they go through and pick and choose what questions they want to respond to and respond to those and post them to their followers and then other people can comment and smile and things like that. From a content creator's standpoint, we look very much at how many people are responding to questions, the average number of responses that they post per day. Then similarly, on asks and smiles and comments and kind of all those core things, to try to understand, put users into those buckets to understand, "OK, who are the people who are really participating in the site?"
Then, it all comes down to really measuring the difference between somebody who comes to the site once and then never comes back or may come back once every few months, versus the person who's coming every day and trying to figure out how to balance those two things.
Ryan: Right. And I was kind of curious and you kind of answered it a little bit, already, but how do you actually keep users engaged. How do you kind of keep them for the long-term because Q-and-A sites all have their own different means, but how does Formspring go about it?
Ade Olonoh: Hopefully this doesn't come across as too much of a non-answer but it really comes down to building a good core product and understanding what it is that people want, in the world, and what people want on the Internet and being able to create that in some fashion. For Formspring, really,I mentioned to you some of the origins of the ideas but it really came down to two key concepts for us. Everybody likes to talk about themselves and I was joking about that earlier.
Ryan: I know I do.
Ade Olonoh: Yes. And not to sound . . . That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but we really all are narcissists. If you study kind of the psychology around how we think and communicate, even as we're talking to other people. I'll give you an example that's always pretty interesting to me.
I stumbled across this concept called "conversational narcissism" and, basically, the core of it is if we're talking and you say something like, "I'm really having this problem with my girlfriend. She did this, this, this," and I may nod and my response would be something like, "Yes. You know what? My girlfriend did that the other day, too, just like that." If you see in that example, I've really switched the conversation to myself and am pretending to empathize with you and I may empathize with you a little bit but, really, I'm talking about myself and I want to keep talking about myself.
This sounds bad, to say that were all narcissists and all that. It's not necessarily evil but if you study us, if you really watch how we talk and just how we think, the reality is we all do like talking about ourselves. We all have an opinion about stuff. We like to share stories, our ideas about things, even if we're not subject matter experts about it.
Like, I have no platform to really set up here and talk about politics and anything, but if you ask me a question about politics, I'd say, "Oh. Blah blah blah," as if I knew, and that's just how we are. If you asked somebody the right question about something they're interested in, they'll respond to it.
That was really the key psychological concept around Formspring and the second is, we all like to interact with each other. It's one thing to talk about yourself in a room alone but the reality is we all like to talk with others and interact with other people and that's just kind of the core behaviors here on any social platform. All this, to say, really, from a core product aspect . . .
One of the things I think about a lot and we talk a lot about internally is, what are the psychological triggers or behaviors, if you will, that really are foundational to the product and are there things that we kind of build into it to get people to essentially build something that they naturally want to do, in a way that they naturally want to express and talk and relate to other people.
Again, that's a very broad answer to your question, "How do you get people to engage?" but it really does start there. There are all sorts of things around, how often do you trigger notifications and how do you connect people with other people and things like that but it really comes down to kind of that core. Are you building something that meets the needs of people?
Ryan: How do you test for that? You mentioned some metrics but how do you guys actually test that you're actually meeting a need?
Ade Olonoh: Yes. It's both qualitative and quantitative. We've done all sorts of things. Part of it ranges from us internally and me just saying, you know, gut like, "This make sense," and there are things that we work on that we can't really test well until we release it to the wild. You have to start with that part gut, part history or just the more educated guess but then we do . . .
Another lesson that I definitely learned early on, and we had put in practice pretty quickly is that we measure everything, pretty much. Sometimes we may measure too much or it's messy and things like that but the reality is, a lot of times you don't know until you ship something and one of the maxims, internally, is "Ship daily". Part of that is just that all the theory and kind of whatever that we could come up with, the reality is, we put it out there and users are like, "No," and you just have to measure that.
We look at things like, do people do this particular action, do they use this feature, how often do they use it do they come back and kind of look at the cohorts around users and see, do they do this, daily, weekly, monthly, etc., to really understand what our people are getting out of the product.
Then, we use all sorts of things, as well, around... We've sent out surveys to users. We've brought people in to kind of talk about how they use the service. You know, we have kind of a User Advisory Council that we kind of go to, sometimes, to talk about things and then, as well, we're all very active on the site.
One of the best things about working on something like Formspring versus other things I worked on... You know, it's really easy to eat your own dog food, when it's a social network. Basically, every employee is on it every day and sometimes a little too much. You see grumblings sometimes when it's like, "I'm waiting for this from this guy," but he's posted like 20 things on Formspring and it's kind of like, 'Yes. He's just testing the site, right?"
When you're participating in the community, and using it a lot there's the advantage of being kind of close to how people use them.
Ryan: OK. Got you. And how are you guys still capitalizing on that early momentum and that early growth and that growth, as it continues? Have you reached a point where you're trying to level it off or are you trying to gain more?
Ade Olonoh: There've been, as you alluded to, many peaks and valleys in the history of Formspring. It's been about two and half years now since we launched. The general traffic around Formspring has shot up really quickly, in early 2010, and then we leveled off for a number of reasons and then traffic declined. Kind of up-and-down in late 2010 and in 2011 to where, now, we're at a base that's smaller than where we were at our peak but, again, we're smaller in terms of overall visitors to the site.
In terms of engagement, I think what we're really left with is, again, that core group of users who are using the site on a regular basis, versus that kind of more phenomenon-type engagement, but we still have a very healthy base and we've been growing that from where we were over the last six months or so.
Ryan: Where are you guys at now?
Ade Olonoh: Right now, in terms of traffic, we have about 20 million monthly uniques on the site, versus a peak of about 45 to 50.
Ryan: Focusing on the user, your demographic, when you started, were teenagers and Formspring tended to skew toward a younger audience. How has that target audience changed or how is it today, from what it was before?
Ade Olonoh: Yes. It's changed dramatically and it differs, too, depending on geo', but, roughly speaking, especially in the US, when we launched, we saw about only 25% of new users who were over 18, that were joining the site, and today it's pretty much flipped to where it's more like, I would say, 65/35, almost flipped around. It's really a much older audience and it's just a different type of audience that's on the site.
Ryan: Was there a reason for the flip that you guys could tell?
Ade Olonoh: Yes. Some of it was deliberate, in terms of things that we've done. Again, going back to . . . We'll talk in a little bit more detail about what we faced around bullying and things like that but part of, when we were struggling with that, the reality, unfortunately, 13-year-olds, 14- year-olds, 15-year-olds in the US, especially, behave poorly on a lot of social media sites.
One of the things we had to do to to really build a solid base was, in some ways, we were able to help shift behavior and change behavior but then, in other ways, we just had to kind of take away a lot of things that brought them to the site in the first place and, kind of, in subtle ways, get rid of that audience. That's part of the flip.
Ryan: We're already transitioned to it, so let me ask you, with that younger audience, parents and teachers and even the media came out and said that "Formspring had the perfect recipe," if you will, "for cyber bullying". How did you address that criticism and some the accusations that Formspring was playing a key role in the cyber bullying of quite a few teenagers?
Ade Olonoh: It was tough to react to and deal with. I think cyber bullying is a very complex issue and it's something, we have and I have, spent a bunch of time with people who work in that space, the safety space, day-to-day, tried to understand how to combat the problem and kind of the scope of the ecosystem.
The reality for us, in terms of responding to it, we work with people who've done a ton of things in terms of those product changes, to help address the issue, to give people more controls and settings and report things. We built up an enormous team of support people to address that issue.
We have a team in the Philippines that responds to requests 24/7 and we have people in-house to do that. To compare, in March of 2010 or when I hired our first all-time support person, they came to a ticket queue of 10,000 unanswered tickets. That was the amount of volume. At that time, we were a team of five people and this is around the time when I'm taking naps instead of fixing the site.
In terms of that scale of dealing with issues all across the board and being able to respond to users in a timely manner and things like that, frankly, we just failed at it. Part of what we've done is just built up the team to be able to address that and be able to respond to that.
Then, some of it is messaging, as well. It goes a long way to set the right tone on the site in terms of new user experience when they do contact support and things like that. Again, we get a lot of help from people who are in the space.
That said, the reality is, again, I think, there are a lot of problems with young teenagers, middle school-age, on the Internet. Twitter faces the same issues. Facebook faces the same issues. Actually, we sat down, especially the team at Twitter, has been very helpful in getting us up to speed in sharing resources and things like that. The reality is that all social media sites are facing those problems, in terms of how to deal with it.
One of the things that was interesting about our situation, not to sound like a victim here but, it was intriguing because a lot of the press articles had never heard about Formspring before and, again, we had only been about two or three months old at this time. A lot of the stories are very slanted towards, "Wait, I'm hearing this report about bullying happening on this platform that I hadn't heard about before. It must be a platform designed for bullying." That was sort of the tone in some of the early articles.
I mention it because it was an interesting lesson in terms of really understanding how to talk to the press, how to talk your audience to make it clear, upfront in terms of, "Why are we here?" At the time, we were hiring our first support person. We didn't even have an "About" page on the site. You know, we had our own page.
There wasn't enough literature out there. I was busy building the company without speaking about it. It was a very important lesson that I learned, in terms of telling the audience, upfront, "Why are we here?" and people were using the service in a way that you didn't intend to make it clear that that's the reality of it, not that this was built for bullying or otherwise.
Ryan: Did you find that that changed the way that you guys had to shape your story and communicate that story?
Ade Olonoh: For sure. Yes. Yes. It did, again, because that was the entry point for a lot of people into hearing about Formspring. So, that's much different than you hear the horrible story about how people behave on Facebook and you're like, "Well, that's tragic. That's terrible, but I also know Facebook is a place where I see pictures of my grandkids and so those don't mesh in my mind."
But, if you're not an active participant on Formspring, if you don't see what the team is trying to build, then it's really easy for that to shape your perspective.
Ryan: Right. In terms of that, and you've already alluded to it, how has the product evolved and how do other social networks, as you said, working with Twitter, kind of face this issue? Facebook, itself, is starting to lower its target audience, it's age.
Ade Olonoh: Yes. Facebook, it's interesting the moves they're kind of making and they're getting some criticism for it already but I think they'll be able to build the right infrastructure and tools that can support that.
In terms of what we've done, or on the issue, again, it came down to core product, the team that can respond to issues, working with the right people in the space to understand, to basically bring everything up to best practices and understanding how to respond to the issue along that spectrum, from product perspective to messaging and how we talk to the community and how we work with the community. Did I answer your question?
Ade Olonoh: OK.
Ryan: Yes. I Wanted little bit more of the detail of how you actually talk and communicate this to the community and how do you alleviate parental concern?
Ade Olonoh: Talking to the community comes at a lot of different touch points. The first touch point is just within the product itself. Part of that is being upfront and some of it is just basic messaging like on the website and with the product itself around why Formspring exists and what the use case of Formspring is and highlighting the positive use cases.
The users we like and the users who are using it as we intended and showcasing that. Some of it is subtle but some people pick up on the subtleties in ways that you may not think. Otherwise, in terms of what features we build, what things we make easy to do, what things we make hard to do.
Maybe it's best to say there are two ends, the positive way, where we're basically . . . Rather than saying, "Don't do this," were saying, "Do do this." I guess that's part of what I'm saying.
Then, there is the negative way, as well, where, basically, the team that we build have banned people. We put plenty of controls and settings in place to say, "If you see this, report this. Do react in this way, if you see that content," so, messaging touch points in the product, the product we do create . . . Then, yes, it's . . .
Ryan: Just putting in those levels of security within the product.
Ade Olonoh: Yes.
Ryan: Got you. Do you find that you still have any issues, now that the product is different and time has passed?
Ade Olonoh: There certainly are still issues in the sense that when you have any social media site where people are talking to each other, where there's user-generated content, there are going to be issues. Essentially, it's understanding that whether you're us or Facebook or Twitter or tumblr or whoever, you're going to have issues and so you have to react. You have to understand what infrastructure and what people to put into place to react to that.
There are still issues but it's dramatically different. The tone on the site is much different and, again, the user base has shifted and the product has shifted in ways that, yes, you can still abuse Formspring but it's, maybe, much harder. It's just much different. The community is a lot different than it was two and a half years ago.
Ryan: Right. Right. I have just a couple more questions and then we'll pitch it to the audience here, so we can get you out of here on time. One of the things that have become quite a, not a dilemma, but kind of a concern in the Silicon Valley space is retaining talent and, I hate to mention it, but you, Formspring, recently lost its COO . . .
Ade Olonoh: Yes.
Ryan: ... Ro Choy. I don't know if you can address that but my main question is, especially for site that saw such amazing growth and is still growing, how do you retain talent? Because I know that's a concern of a lot of startups and a lot of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
Ade Olonoh: Yes. Retaining talent is hard and attracting talent is tough. I mean, it's an amazing time to be doing business in the sense that, in many ways, it's kind of the Golden age of the web and technology and what that means is there's tons of, lots of things to do as an employee and as a founder, as well. Whether that's going to other companies or starting your own thing, stuff like that, it creates a very tough dynamic in terms of hiring and retaining.
What I'll address briefly is, great relationship. It was very amicable. He had been at Formspring for a year and the reality is, kind of . . . I feel fine speaking for him that he loved the company and wanted to stay but the reality is, in terms of where he wanted his career to head and what we needed internally, it wasn't a perfect match. We talked through that over the course of a month or two, and basically ended up with him leaving but no hard feelings and no regrets on either end. That's just the reality of what happens, from time to time.
In terms of retention, just more broadly, I don't have any secret sauce or anything like that but I think it really comes down to . . . I think everybody has to ask themselves, "Do I believe in what I'm doing here? Do I enjoy, do I love what I do?"
I've had, not just at Formspring, before in my career, I've had conversations with employees where we've been open about that and they said, "I do," or "I don't," and, basically, as CEO and Founder I always tell all my employees, "Let's have an open conversation about that." There are times when I can change somebody's role or the situation around them, to where it can kind of help re-ignite the passion. Then, sometimes we can't and we just have an open conversation about it. The reality is, yes, sometimes I can move the organization in a way that fits your passions and it will be aligned and, other times, I can't.
I think it's up to me to be honest about that and not be resentful. In terms of the employees, that's what I think about in terms of retaining them. Can I create an environment where they love what they do and if they don't love what they do, just personally . . . And also it's not good practice, as CEO to want people to be here if they don't love being here.
Ryan: Right. It's almost as if you have to get them to believe in the things that you believe in and have the same passion for the things you're doing and trying to mesh that with what they want to achieve personally in their careers.
Ade Olonoh: Right. Well said, and we tend to have different goals, in the sense that an employee may be working at Formspring because it's their first job at a startup and they really want to kind of get that under their belt before they go and start their own startup.
Definitely people who are working at Formspring and Formstack and elsewhere, we had conversations early on where they're like, "I want to be an entrepreneur but I want to work here to kind of both pay the bills but also kind of learn a few things before I go out."
There have been some employees where, while there working there, I talked about, you know, we had conversations about how they find co-founders, how to get funding and things like that until they go do their own thing. I would rather . . . If our goals can align, for a short period of time, and the employee gets what they want to get out of the job and I get what I want to get out of them, for that short period of time, that's great.
I think difficulty comes when I want this and they want that. It's just horrible if we're going like this for a prolonged period of time. None of us are happy inside.
Ryan: OK. Thank you very much. I want open up to audience questions. Who wants to go first? You raised your hand first.
Questioner: What kind of marketing efforts did Formspring have to do when it launched?
Ade Olonoh: Around the launch, there was really no big promotion around it. What we did, practically, is, again, as I was saying at the beginning, I was seeing some people use the product itself to kind of . . . The bloggers that kind of solicited questions from readers or tried to figure out, tried to get a list of those people using Formstack in that purpose.
The reality is it was pretty hard because everybody can do their own thing. I think we came out with a list of about 1000 people who we sent an email to and said, "Hey, we've launched Formspring.me. Check it out." That email didn't convert nearly as well or anything like that. It didn't lead to millions of users. It was really more, kind of viral marketing that was built into the product.
Just briefly, the core way that we found virality within the product is, basically . . . Again, people were going there to kind of answer questions, questions about themselves. They're very naturally inclined to take their profile and share that with other people. You'd see people post on twitter, post on Facebook, YouTube, wherever and basically say, "I created a Formspring. Come asked me questions." It was something where, again, kind of back to that psychology, it was a viral mechanic that users wanted.
It wasn't like, you know, "Check this", "Share to twitter" and we're trying to like trick them into sending content to other social networks. It literally came from people who would use our built-in tools or they would just copy and paste. They would send emails. They would talk to people. So, it was just this inherent thing where like you didn't get that much out of the service unless you got questions.
As a user, you're very wired to say, "I'm going to share this as much as possible, so I get more questions." Then, that was just, basically, a very powerful viral channel. It's kind of built into the product itself.
Ryan: You had a question.
Questioner: Can you give us some specific examples of the marketing that Formspring did?
Ade Olonoh: The vast majority of the success we've had in terms of getting users, has come from [what's] built into the product itself. Now, that's not to say that there haven't been other marketing efforts to date. We tested a bunch of different things. We worked with some celebrities and notable users, to bring them onto the site and help promote them and try to get their fan base on the site and that's worked to varying successes.
We've done things like try to do some sponsorships around an event and things like that but, the reality is, the core of it, and really what were focused on today, is the product itself and communication to users. We're using email as a channel to both reactivate and message to users, using our blog, using the Formspring account, on Formspring itself, using Twitter and things like that, as well.
Questioner: The question was, you had an interest in psychology. Did you do any additional psychology research into motivations of users?
Ade Olonoh: Yes. I would hate to call it research, in the sense that that's probably an insult, but I, just personally, love reading about things around psychology and whether that's books or articles, things like that, it's always been a fascination to me, but, yes, it's not like . . . I didn't study psychology. I mean, I had one psychology class and I loved it but it's not anything where I would hold water against any psych major, much less a PhD or anything like that.
I think it's really more of, again, this broad . . . And again, it feels just basic and simple to say that anybody who's building a product, what you really have to ask yourself is . . . People don't use products just because they're cool. One of the problems in our industry is that you see things being talked about a lot that are cool and sexy but really don't have any core.
They're just cool for cool's sake and they showoff technology. You really have to ask yourself, "Would my mom use this and why?" It's just kind of that inherent understanding of the person on the other end of the computer screen.
Ryan: There's a gentleman there.
Questioner: Two-part question. First of all, you described the ups and downs of the company. What is your vision to getting to 50 million users? The second part was could you describe a little bit about the dilemma in either building internally or going out to get some ready-made products, particularly as the company scales?
Ade Olonoh: Yes. In terms of the first question, the vision for Formspring is really, basically, I think, there is a lot of room in the social space in terms of facilitating conversations between people about things they're interested in. I think Formspring can be that platform.
To say that Facebook and Twitter and everything that's out there today has perfectly solved the way humans interact and will always interact and will interact for the next 50 or 100 years is just ludicrous to me, in the sense that I think those all have a good place in the world, but the reality is we are complex people, with complex relationships. There's no one social graph, in terms of, these are the people who I interact with and I interact with them equally.
These are the types of interactions I always have with people, so online it will just be perfectly this one niche. I think for Formspring, really it comes down to . . . What we really found a lot of success in, recently, and what I think will propel us to the next 20 million, is really capitalizing on bringing people together to have conversations around their interests.
To the second question, really we've . . .
Questioner: You've seen that? I mean, is that validated? I mean, you see growth in 20' . . . I mean, growth . . .
Ade Olonoh: Oh. For sure. Yes. Just briefly, basically, we've made a lot of shifts in the product over the last six months and are actually on the verge of a much bigger release in the next few weeks and all that has come from, basically, studying the user base and finding ways that people . . . In some ways, it's funny. It's similar to how seeing people use Formstack, leading to how I created Formspring, is that people are using Formspring to do what I'm saying even though the product hadn't been built for that.
Formspring was originally more focused around friend-to-friend interactions and, basically, people were kind of pulling in their social graph from Facebook and interacting on Formspring in just a different way than they were interacting on Facebook, but I don't think that was sustainable. I think that had a lot of inherent problems to it and, really, what we've seen is people using Formspring in a way that many people used bulletin boards and message boards of old, which are all kind of . . .
That behavior and conversation is shifting to other places, but I think we have a product where if you want to talk about the last episode of Mad Men or you want to talk about the passion around the band or musician, some of that conversation happens within your social graph.
Then part of it is, you just want to see what other people say and you also want to voice your opinion. Again, back to that, "Everybody likes to talk about themselves". If you watch Mad Men and I asked, "What do you think about Pete Campbell?" Everybody will have something to say to that and we're just wired to want to respond that way.
To the second question, really we built everything that's kind of core to the product in-house. We haven't outsourced any of the product development, itself. The only thing we've outsourced . . . I mean, we've outsourced things that are non-core like, legal, finance, HR, stuff like that and then, from a technology standpoint, AWS, Amazon Web Services is powering all our infrastructure because it just makes sense to, in a lot of ways, financial and otherwise. Everything product has been in-house.
Ryan: Very good. One last question and then we'll wrap up.
Questioner: Do you equate the social media space with the search engine space, particularly in how certain search engines are no longer used and do you believe that there will be a consolidation of social media in the future?
Ade Olonoh: It could. I haven't thought about the parallels between the social graph and search engine behavior before but my first reaction to that is, my beliefs about the social graph really come from just . . . The social graph is built on how we interact just normally as people and how we interact off-line has to be an analogous to how we interact online, in a lot of ways, who we want to talk to and how we talk, etc..
Search doesn't really have the same off-line analogies in that way. I mean, again, I haven't thought about those two together. Maybe you browse for things at the mall where you may like go to the hardware store and buy a particular thing and if you call those things "search," those are different.
When it comes to the social graph, again, it's like, I don't think anybody in here would look at the list of Facebook friends and say, "Yes, I want to interact and talk with all these people equally. This is a good representation of who I socialize with." If you had to cut off all off-line communication and interaction and only use Facebook, would that work? Definitely not, it's a bad analogy for some interactions.
For other interactions, perfect, and Social Graph on Facebook is extremely powerful in a lot of ways. I don't believe that that's it, that 100 years from now that's the only, I don't believe that's the only graph today, in terms of our graph in our head and the right model for how we(inaudible 46:33).
Ryan: Very good. Well, thank you very much Ade for coming down to ZURBSoapbox. Thank you everyone for coming. Let's have a round of applause.