Key challenges

Delivering value before reaching critical mass

The value that people derive from a social utility is from the members of the network. In other words, the more people who join the network, the more valuable it is to its members. This is what is called network effects.

A good example of this is the telephone system. If only one person has a telephone in their house, and it’s the only telephone in the world, it’s useless. But, if another person gets a telephone, you can now make a phone call. Enter a third person with a telephone: you now have the option of calling two people. Once a hundred people have telephones, the telephone becomes even more valuable. The more people who get telephones, the more valuable each individual telephone becomes.

The same is true for your social utility. Which makes the key challenge at the outset making the service valuable, without the benefits of scale.

Convincing people that they have the problem you’re solving

Many social utilities face the problem early on of convincing people that they have the problem you’re solving. For example, when Dropbox started out, people didn’t necessarily know that sharing files online was such a pain in the ass. They just shared files within the limitations that they currently had. Similarly, at Slack, early testing found that most people relied on a service already -- either IRC, HipChat or something of the sort. Yet those platforms had limitations that Slack was deliberately trying to address. The pain of communicating over such a wide variety of channels didn't become real until Slack came along and told them how painful it was.

Starting as a non-technical founder

Oftentimes the value of a social utility comes from the technology “behind the curtains.” And many founders and founding teams of social utilities are technical. As a non technical founder, this might put you at a disadvantage. However, there are a number of tools and resources here that will help you prove the viability of your concept and recruit the people you need to get your social utility off the ground.


Strategy

Leverage the power of small, committed groups to learn quickly

Your goal in experimenting with a social utility is to prove that people do have the pain that you’ve identified. As such, the best way to approach building a social utility is to go back to basics of building product that solves a specific pain for a specific group of people.

So keep in mind that the outcome of the experiment you design should tell the following story:

  1. People do in fact have this pain

  2. I have a group of people who have this pain

  3. They agree that the solution I’m providing resolves the pain

Hypotheses in hand, non-technical founders will need to leverage the tools available to them to hack together an initial solution. The tools you’ll want to leverage are listed below along with more information on how to make the decision about which tools to use when.

Once you’ve designed how the initial experiment will work to address your audience’s pain, keep in mind the following principles:  

  1. Test and onboard groups at a time. Because a social utility is inherently about connecting people, it’s best to onboard groups of people together to understand their behavior as a group.

  2. Launch in closed beta. Not only does this make the experience feel exclusive, it will prevent you from shipping a product to a large group of people that just doesn’t work. Keeping your initial testers as a small, regulated group, allows you to make mistakes and learn without the results being catastrophic.

  3. Create content based on what you learn. Listen closely to your beta users: what are they telling you? Given that many social utilities aim to solve a pain that most people don’t yet know they have, it’s important for you to listen to and understand how others talk about your product. It can be especially valuable to listen to how users explain your product to other people. Take that learning and create content around it to hammer home the value you’re delivering.

Convincing people that they have the problem you’re solving is a tough challenge. As is creating a valuable experience for your first users without having critical mass. But like almost every social utility has done -- Facebook, Dropbox, Slack, and more -- if you clearly identify your first audience and their pain, test and onboard groups, launch in a closed beta, and create content based on what you learn, you’ll be well on your way.


Tools

 

Squarespace is a great place to start from day 1 if you’re looking to build up supply. Setting up a page here is an easy way to communicate your value prop to the initial supply side users and give them a place to sign up. The rest of the work then happens behind the scenes or offline once they’re in touch with you.

 

Similar to Squarespace, but with a bit more bells and whistles if you’re into that. One advantage to Squarespace in the near term is the ability to allow users to sign in and create their own content; in the longer term, Wordpress is also easier to customize.

 

Typeform is one of the tried and true tools of experimenters. Use Typeform on its own or embedded in other pages. One magic trick with this one is that you can use Typeform to capture information from a user, process that information in the background (e.g. manually), then deliver it back to them or on some other page. Huge benefit before you have the engineering bandwidth to actually build something fully custom.

 

Facebook groups most likely has all of the features you need to build a community from the start. Remember that community is about the people and the common purpose; technology is second. Once you get the interactions going, you can think about building your own thing. In many cases, however, Facebook groups is all you need even at scale.

 

While Facebook is the world’s largest social network, LinkedIn is the largest professional network. So, when considering which tool to build your community on first, consider the context of your community. If work or professional-related, you might want to start out with LinkedIn.

 

Mightybell is a great out of the box community tool with some fancy bells and whistles. Our advice is to stick with something that your users know first (like Facebook or LinkedIn), then you might want to think about graduating to something like this if you need more functionality.

 

If the value of your utility relies on returning information to users quickly (or instantly), then you’ll need to find a way to automate your solution. We recommend IFTTT and Zapier as simple and powerful ways to automate workflows.

Examples

 

From the start, Slack begged people to use their product. They asked specific teams to use the product and give them feedback. They realized that the more people used the product, the more value they got out of it. And in fact, Slack was replacing the huge number of disparate channels that teams use to communicate, consolidating everything into one channel. Read more here.

 

Venmo started with two friends at the University of Pennsylvania hacking together a bunch of ideas. Their first idea was to allow people to download an mp3 from a concert they were attending right from the concert venue. What started as a way for musicians to accept payments for songs and merchandise became Venmo -- a way for anyone to accept payments for anything. Read more here.

 

Most of us know the founding story of Facebook as it was immortalized in the movie The Social Network. It’s still worth noting: Facebook began as an experiment to connect college students with each other online. What started as a simple profile and a way to connect with other people became the world’s largest social network.


Experts