Culture Archives

One Tactical Path Into Working On Product

I don’t know why, but I get this question a lot: “How do you get into a product role?” Well…

I am not the most-qualified person to answer this, yet I’m receiving this inquiry now about 4-5x per week, so I’ll offer my two cents on what I’d do:

  1. First, find a product, or few products, that you truly love. True love means that you use them daily, or at least 3-4x per week.
  2. Start taking notes on each product, especially the elements you love and the elements that frustrate you and/or you’d change.
  3. Start collecting feedback from other people outside the company that makes the product, and try to record it in some structured fashion. For instance, this means going through how others onboard in the app, what pieces may be broken, or confusing, and so forth.
  4. Unify this information and take it to the company, so that you can structure your conversation (or interview) with them around the product. This is critical because it will help differentiate you from others who just want a job, it will help filter out companies or people that don’t value this kind of engagement, and you’ll learn through the process, even if you don’t get the first or second gig.

Ultimately, the reason #4 is important is because it sets the tone for a conversation that is not about you or what you want, or about the company or the person you’re talking — it’s about the product. In that discussion, if you can’t show a mix of enthusiasm and depth about digging into the specifics (even just from a user’s perspective), it means you need to do more investigation. I was able to shortcut this because I had the fortune of being at a venture firm for six months and invited mobile founders to come in and pitch all day, nearly every day. Without that, there’s no way I would’ve been able to talk to the Swell folks about radio and podcasts, and to start building a relationship with them around product feedback. That’s how I’d answer the question, but take this with a grain of salt. Good luck!

Thank You, NYC, From 35k Feet

I’m on the plane early headed back to SFO, and now that I’ve shifted my airline loyalty from United to Virgin America, treating myself to some WiFi while the seat next to me is unoccupied. This was a very quick trip to NYC. I wish it was longer but it’s hard to be away from a certain little critter at home. As I’m half awake and preparing to dig back into email on this flight, I can’t help but reflect on how much fun I had on this trip to NYC. For the past few years when I visited NYC, it was always around a holiday or during some rushed event. This time, my goal was just to hang out with a few people and enjoy myself, hang out with family, and have a bit of time to myself. What I can’t get over is just how open and inviting everyone was in NYC. I used to live in NYC years ago, but was in a different world. So, I’m always comfortable in NYC and on the subways (but not super-crowded areas), but on this trip, all of my friends went out of their way to accommodate me and make me feel welcomed, almost as if I was going home again.

In no particular order, thanks to David and all the entrepreneurs from the Columbia network for our breakfast meeting earlier this week; a big thanks to Shai for putting together a big interactive mobile meetup with Steve, Sarah, and Jordan, and thanks to Ryan, Chris, and many more for attending and participating (aside: here’s a terrific, detailed summary post on the event by Cezary Pietrzak, good details for mobile founders in here); was great to just hang out with Zach, Albert, Andy, and Brian, and to Steve for bringing even more great people into the fold last night for drinks — I had a blast, and I’m already planning my next trip to NYC in my head. Thanks for making me feel like it was home.

Language And Leverage On Twitter

If you’re reading this, you know I tweet often…a lot. I’m approaching 60,000 tweets, after opening my twitter account in mid-2008. Despite the noise I create, twitter has been critically important for me to shape and test my ideas, to share my ideas with others, and to meet other people across networks interested in technology, startups, and investing. Recently, I found that I made a list — I know what you’re thinking, “Lists are silly.” They usually are, but this one seemed different. It was created by a startup called PeerIndex. They picked about 75,000 accounts in the space of technology, startups, and venture capital, and then monitored how all 75K accounts shared content and interacted with each other in order to find which accounts drove the most attention and influence. [Click here to see the full PeerIndex list and methodology.]

The list is below, and while I did come up on the list, I thought it was a better exercise to show how the top accounts stack up in terms of number of tweets and number of followers — note, the study did not take into account the number of followers a person has, so that anyone can move up (or down) on the list over time.

For me, that was the insight, that despite the noise I create on twitter, it is an important medium to participate in — it is through twitter that someone like me, with very limited experience, was able to learn, interact, and be a small part of the conversation with some of the most-respected minds in technology and investing on the medium that commands everyone’s attention today.

And, as someone who loves language and words, I wanted to list out the Top 10 accounts and briefly unpack the style in which each person uses this medium to their advantage. Naturally, nearly everyone on here is a current investor, analyst, writer (some all of the above), as most operators wouldn’t have the time to do this — Levie being the exception. As you’ll see, the styles are very different — of course, this isn’t a list of real “influence,” it’s only looking within twitter so it’s imperfect but fun nonetheless:

Aaron Levie (~2,700 tweets, 94,000 followers)
Levie has won twitter through humor, mixing the timeliness of pop culture news with a smart brand of nerd swagger. His tweets are so funny and/or insightful that they’re retweeted and favorited at a high rate each time. He focuses on broadcasting, using interesting images, and doesn’t engage in @replies or conversations.

Marc Andreessen (~12,000 tweets in less than 4 months, 96,000 followers)
Out of nowhere this year, Andreessen decided it was time to tweet. And, wow, he’s extremely active and engaged. He also replies to many and favorites tweets all the time, each time firing a signal to the creator as if to say “Marc Andreessen is listening.” He’s almost branded his signature “1/…, 2/….” tweetstorms (which are mini blog posts), and naturally, everyone pays attention to him because of his extremely high influence based on outstanding career contributions (Netscape, a16z, etc.).

Hunter Walk (~20,000 tweets, 61,000 followers)
Walk smartly mixes links to his site and firm (which contains his original content) with fast-paced, news-driven @replies with nearly everyone in the community. As Levie uses humor to cut through the noise, Walk uses transparency.

David McClure (~49,000 tweets, 207,000 followers)
McClure is high-volume, with brash tone, and lots of conversation. Oftentimes, it can feel as if he’s sharing his inner-most thoughts, fuck-ups, controversies, and all highs and lows with everyone. He’s also cultivated a truly global audience through his global firm, 500 Startups, which helps him have a broader network (geographically speaking), which help him spread his ideas. You could say McClure wears his heart on his tweets.

Benedict Evans (45,000 tweets, 31,000 followers)
Evans is a long–time mobile thinker, consultant, strategist. He’s expert at thinking about the mobile technology landscape, so good that he was discovered by Andy Weissman, and investor at USV in NYC. In turn, Fred Wilson wrote about Evans regularly, and Evans grew his tech readership, and has now been hired by a16z. Evans uses twitter to think out loud, as if he’s forming his next blog post in his head, a deeply analytical feed which engages selectively.

Om Malik (~37,000 tweets, 1.38M followers)
Malik is the experienced, old-school journalist, gumshoe, reporter, and now investor, a long-time tweeter with a big audience, the former head of an influential blog and series of conferences around the world. His feed is mainly about curation, about using his experience to signal what is actually important in a noisy world.

Paul Graham (~1,400 tweets, 161,000 followers)
Perhaps one of the truly most influential people in the space, online and everywhere else. Anything PG tweets or links to is analyzed. He has generated a movement and uses twitter to curate a few things, share notes about companies in YC that are doing well, or use his influence to share thoughts about the ecosystem, especially through his blog.

Brad Feld (~25,400 tweets, 168,000 followers)
Feld is an OG entrepreneur and investor, and is very active on twitter, sharing links to his ideas, books, blogs, and more. He’s built up an engaged audience online, but also offline through his evangelism of the power of offline community building, which in turn translates into more attention online.

Fred Wilson (10,300 tweets, 327,000 followers)
Again, OG investor and tweeter, one of the original investors in twitter and a board member there. Like Paul Graham, a must read for everyone in the industry, though he doesn’t tweet often, choosing instead to link to his posts daily — and less of a broadcaster.

[no title]

I don’t know why, but two unrelated ideas/themes have been on my mind…no title to this post, because I can’t think of a good one…

The first is about “entrepreneurial journeys.” I know, that is a cheesy term. Believe me, I cringe writing it. Anyway, semantics aside, this term came up in an interesting conversation I had with a close friend. We were discussing how we both haven’t seen a close mutual friend recently. This friend is building his own company, his first time in a founding/CEO role. The conversation ended with something like this: “Well, Semil, I guess he’s on an entrepreneurial journey.” I don’t know why, but that phrase has stuck in my head. It’s slightly different than saying “he’s building a company,” or “he’s really busy,” or “entrepreneurship is all-consuming.” As I’ve been thinking on this, it struck me that everyone in and around technology startups are on journeys of different speeds, directions, and arcs. Even though so many of the people we know best who are all crammed living in proximity to each other can actually drift apart because the trajectory of the journeys each person can be very different. It’s like a diaspora, of sorts, excepts the physical distances traveled aren’t great — but in the mind, those distances can feel vast.

Now, next, unrelated…

The second thing that’s been on my mind is about the word “empathy,” particularly in the context of what I hear (and read)  founders discuss they want in their investors. Disclaimer, I’m no expert here and have limited experience. Caveat out of the way, it seems most people equate empathy with having been a founder/CEO of a startup before. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s true in practice. In the dictionary (Merriam-Webster), “empathy” is defined as the feeling that one can “understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” The ability to share understanding is important, but longer-term investments seem more like business partnership, and the good ones seem to be more driven by an honest alignment of interests among both parties versus whether one side is empathetic or not. Empathy may help in the sales process of investing, when an investor courts a founder. And if empathy is important (to a point, right?), it can be gained in different ways in and around startups. Some investors with deep operating experience (but no founding experience) can breed their own style of empathy; some investors without any real experience whatsoever can build empathy as they continue to invest; some people pick up empathy by doing something hard and getting their butts kicked, repeatedly, and surviving; and some investors who have been founders even more than once may not be empathetic as investors. On a different plane, empathy can also be gleaned from trying, difficult experiences.

And while empathy may work up to a certain stage or maturation of a company, after a while it may diminish in utility — think, for instance, of entrepreneurs who have shepherded their company through a Series A round only to be stuck without Series B offers — at that point, “empathy” doesn’t really creep into those conversations. Of course, people are human about those discussions, and some of those discussions can be hard, but empathy only goes so far. Empathy is something folks to should ideally show to everyone — not just investors in a sales process with founders, or founders managing their key employees. Empathy is cheap to deploy. It’s quite cost-effective. What isn’t cheap is a partnership where parties’ interests are aligned. Sometimes that means difficult conversations. Sometimes empathy may take a back seat to the truth — even a harsher truth the investor may need to hear from a founder. Anyway, I know everyone talks about “empathy” and I know it’s generally important on an interpersonal level (way beyond startups), but it has lately struck me as an abstract word people think they want or need, perhaps distorting reality — a reality we all need — as a cost.

Five Years And Seven Bets Made By A16Z

Some people are not going to like this post, but it’s on my mind and I have to write it. Don’t worry, it will be short. Let me state up front that I have many friends at a16z, I’ve interviewed for a few positions there, and they’re a small early investor in the company that I work for, Swell. With that out of the way, I’ve been thinking about a16z’s model and performance of late. Now, I know they engage in lots of PR (smartly, I may add), but I wanted to peel back those PR layers and look at some of the fundamentals in their model. Keep in mind that this summer, a16z will mark its 5th birthday. Here are seven (7) bets the firm made as a matter of strategy, and how those bets may set them up for true success and reinvention of the venture category:

  1. Bet #1 – The Rising Tide Of Technology: The initial thesis of the firm was that, following the 2008 recession, technology was approaching a mainstream inflection point with strong fundamentals and without the trappings of what occurred during the Dot-com bubble. The public markets for tech have roared back and show little sign of stopping. There’s a new floor.
  2. Bet #2 – Technology Valuations, As A Result, Should Be Adjusted: The rising tide of technology would therefore render early-stage valuations of private companies to be readjusted to this new reality. If a firm has conviction about a startup investment, paying over the market price is OK because of Bet #1.
  3. Bet #3 – GPs Must Be Startup CEOs To Sell Executive-to-Executive: GPs sell the a16z vision and brand, as well as the services underneath, which creates a clear bar for LPs and future GPs in the fund, which in turn leads to Bet #4…
  4. Bet #4 – Agency Model Of Services In Venture: In order for GPs to focus on courting new investments, they’d build a services network underneath to (1) serve companies they’ve invested in and also (2) to help build up the firm itself.
  5. Bet #5 – Over The Air Marketing From Day 1: Almost from its origin, the firm rooted PR and a strong, bold new media presence as central to its strategy, going over-the-air with a mix of marketing messages that communicated the new model, the brand, and so forth.
  6. Bet #6 – Building An Engineering Recruiting Graph: Technology companies win by building the best products in the best markets. While the firm can evaluate markets from a distance, in order for those products to exist, the best builders must build them — hence, the firm invested in and built two types of databases for engineers (college, experienced) and use double-opt-in techniques to pair interested engineers with their companies. They’re creating a long-term relationship with engineers, not just companies. (As a commenter pointed out, the firm also does this for design talent, which is also critically important at the early-stages of product-building.)
  7. Bet #7 – Seed To Learn The Market, Shift To Fast-Follow Series B To Capitalize: The firm began investing at all stages, but eventually (recently) moved to a focus on later-stage deals, what I’d call “Fast Follower” after A rounds. This is what Greylock perfected in the mid-late 2000′s, and now a16z in pumping even more money into those winners who emerge from the A rounds and make it over the Series B Crunch. This fits their strategy as they have a big fund and need to deliver big returns. Oculus to Facebook after four months and a $75m check epitomizes this approach, and they played it masterfully.

Again, there’s a ton of PR and noise around a16z’s activities (it’s a full-court press), and this activity generates adoration (as we see on Twitter and in the press in general) as well as jealousy (as we see on Secret). As someone who is interested in investing and venture capital, I’m taking a more historical evaluation of what they’ve done in five years and wanted to present this as my own personal observations of the bets they made and how they’re on a track to be right on all of them. I have no skin in their game, I just wanted to look back on the bets they made and reflect on how prescient (and disruptive) those moves have been and may be as 2014-15 unfolds. I know some people will not like this post, but I think the facts are the facts. Yes, there’s a long way to go, but their early bets are proving to have been pointed in the right direction.

Top Referrers To Haywire

Screenshot 2014-03-21 20.49.27I was inspired by the reaction to my earlier post called “Narrowcasting,” which shared stats on the average daily views my blog has seen in nearly two years. The discussion in the comments motivated me to dig deeper into the stats, this time looking at the overall top referrers to Haywire. No surprise here, but the overwhelming majority of people who visit this site come through Twitter. I set this all up on WordPress because of the customizability of their CMS, as well as “search,” but people rarely come to my site via search. TechCrunch obviously refers a bunch of traffic, so I’d consider that inorganic because it’s kind of unfair I have access to it. Then there’s Facebook, Disqus, and Hacker News — I rarely post my stuff there, but this all got me thinking — should I be syndicating this stuff more and more? I know how to do this — it just feels spammy, as people on Hacker News don’t really care about the topics I write about, nor do folks on Facebook. Maybe I’m not thinking about this the right way. What do you all see and infer from this data? Should I change my approach here?

Narrowcasting

Screenshot 2014-03-19 16.02.39

For some reason, people approach me about something I’ve written — recently or in the past — and often assume whatever I write is “widely-read.” They assume what I write here is influential, by some measure. I respond by dispelling these beliefs. Usually, the other person doesn’t believe me, but it’s happened so often recently, I wanted to look at the data and see for myself. And, it’s true…not even 1,000 people, on average, visit my site (and about 450 subscribe via email). That’s kind of pathetic when one considers how many tens of thousands of people visit Hacker News or AVC on a daily basis. (I also write a weekly column on TechCrunch, every Sunday morning. Usually those don’t generate much traffic, either.)

Look at the chart above. I redesigned my blog to start on July 1, 2012. A few things are apparent. One, traffic is pretty low! Two, the first spikes are only the result of a very famous investor who linked to one of my posts and it went viral on his recommendation. Three, what I write isn’t evergreen stuff — it may be relevant for a day or two, and then decreases in value — some of it may not have value to begin with. For the amount of time I do put into it, the ROI is pretty bad.

That’s OK though. Despite what others may perceive, I have never written blog posts here “to build an audience.” I write because I have to, because if I don’t, my brain will go into a frenzy and eventually rot. And, when I write, I try to think of just one person who’d want to read it. That’s all that matters to me. A friend told me this was “narrowcasting” — kind of like broadcasting, but to an extremely narrow segment. I’m cool with that. In fact, I prefer it. Thanks for reading!

Looking In The Rearview Mirror For Mobile App Inspiration

Rearview Mirror

These are my recipes for building breakout mobile apps. I’d love to meet people building products with these categories in mind…

Every Sunday, I try to write something about mobile that’s relevant today or tomorrow. This week, I thought it would be fun to briefly look back in time. When it comes to mobile (and this doesn’t include gaming), the apps that have proven to breakout either harness the phone’s most important sensor (the camera), tap into a network effect (mobile messaging), or use mobile to aggregate consumer demand, which is then fulfilled offline (services). The opportunity for new startups is very large, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime window, which results in challenging, fierce competition and apps littered in deadpool folders across our phones. The good news is that you’ve all been focusing on the right areas — below, I’ll repost a few (potentially embarrassing) snippets from my older columns I’ve written about these categories specifically, which will remind us just how many apps are vying for our attention, how the eventual winners were right in the mix, and how enduring these categories will be in the future.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite, photo-sharing apps: Despite the chorus of people who reflexively decry photo-sharing apps, this is just the beginning. Photo-sharing is the consumer interaction that people get tired of because of all the apps doing this, but this misses the larger point — that the camera has always been and will continue to be the most important sensor on the phone. (Yes, GPS is important, too, and will grow into itself over time.) In December 2012, right around the time the world starting hearing about Snapchat, I wrote a column titled “It’s Early Innings For Digital Pictures,” with the following opening:

In the few years I’ve been in Silicon Valley, if someone asked me to sum up — in one word — what defined and dominated consumer technology applications during that time, I’d have no choice but to answer: “Photos.” Now, it’s easy for others to sit back and roll their eyes at the thought of it. “Why not solve big problems?” an aggravated chorus might wail. Looking back over this time period, the big events touching on digital pictures gained outsized attention: The launch of iPhone 4, with its incredible camera; the meteoric rise and acquisition of Instagram; the technical achievement unlocked by Lytro; the influence of the Pinterest design on nearly every e-commerce site; our narcissistic addiction to Timehop or delight in depositing checks through our bank’s mobile app; today’s fascination with exploding pictures, courtesy of Snapchat; and on the horizon, one of the most anticipated interface advancements: Google Glass.

Next up, apps that leverage classic network effects: To say that the ease of mobile distribution (for the right apps) at this moment in time is attractive would be a huge understatement. In the same manner venerable companies were built on the network effects of the web, we’re beginning to see what these effects look like on mobile. No analysis is needed, because after some major acquisitions, we all know these network effects are immense. Three years ago this week, my column for the week was titled “Mobile Messaging March Madness,” largely written as such because I was trying out two to three new messaging apps per week and couldn’t keep up. Yet, despite all the noise of that competition, it turned out everyone listed was working on the right problem — it’s just that everyone can’t win. I ended the column with this closing, which if read today, may (unintentionally) shed light on some of Facebook’s thinking:

Mobile and group messaging is attractive to investors, entrepreneurs, and users alike. If designed well, they could leverage network effects to amplify participation and enable the application of proven revenue models. This is a new class of social company, built entirely with mobility in mind from Day One. They are designed within a post-PC/laptop mindset. These companies will begin by drafting behind the lead cars in the social networking race. The most recent entrant into this red ocean — Color Labs — may have just made the waters a bit more red. We oftentimes take for granted that all of the established social networks will persist over time and satisfy most of our needs. Some realize building seamless, easy-to-use systems will create significant value for larger players because they weren’t originally built with mobility in mind. And some will perhaps break through and create their own lasting social experience.

And finally, we have the apps which aggregate consumer demand on mobile devices, but fulfill that demand through offline services: The shining example here is, of course, Uber, which has demonstrated people worldwide expect to download mobile software, sign up quickly, tap a few buttons to place an order, which then arrives within a reasonable time. The model works so well it has spawned scores of new companies who will deliver your groceries, send you deliveries, pre-order items for you, and much more. Yet, the devil in these details is that local service models take real work to scale geographically. About a year ago, I wrote a column called “Lessons We Can Draw From Cherry,” the car-washing service which I used and liked, but ultimately folded. I closed that post with the following:

It’s easy to mock Cherry as a small idea, but I give them credit — and hey, they could still do something new and interesting. They went out, delivered a service, and while there were some hiccups, their shutdown creates a learning opportunity for the ecosystem which is especially timely given the companies I’ve mentioned above, and the venture capital (and time) needed to make these things spread offline with real margins. In the past few months, I’ve grown concerned that these offline, non-technical, and operational elements aren’t taken into humble consideration or waved off as being “easy” to execute on. Too many people think to themselves, “Hey, we’ll do what Uber did, no problem. Well, what Uber did and is doing is really, really hard, and they still have a long way to go. It’s also important to recognize that Uber is mostly a marketplace and doesn’t handle labor as much as some of the other companies. Managing and training labor is time-consuming and expensive, and can negatively impact all three dimensions listed above. When Uber was raising their early venture and growth rounds, some investors still passed on the deal because while they liked the transaction volume and offline scaling proof points, some questioned the robustness of margins. To each his/her own. That said, if Uber had such a tough time and fought through it, I’d imagine everyone else in this broad category will go through as much pain or more in order to get a peek to the promised land in the horizon. Yes, it’s a fight worth fighting for, but as we see with a company like Cherry, which probably had enough cash to keep going for a bit longer, there should be no illusions in how hard it will be to get there.

So, what’s the point of all this reflection regarding consumer mobile apps today?

My interpretation is that these are all good reminders for all of us who play in the mobile ecosystem — founders, operators, investors, and reporters — that when it comes to breakout mobile-first companies, the breakout categories are quite clear and any entrant should expect fierce competition. That said, there are lessons to learn from what previous companies have done right as well as those who didn’t quite make it. And, many of those lessons have a longer shelf-life than we may like to admit. We live in a world with two relevant mobile operating systems built by companies with lots of influence, power, and cash. We live in a world where we expect everything to be mobile tomorrow, yet only a few categories produce these breakouts today. We live in a world where we expect new mobile software to be pretty, with slick designs, yet some of the biggest apps appear to have very simple user interfaces. We live in a world where we expect mobile software to scale effortlessly with a few clicks and some well-timed PR hits, but to bring an Uber-like model to other locations requires dirt-under-the-fingernail tactics that are mostly executed offline. Every now and then, I like to make sure we all look at the forest and the trees, because we could potentially already be using the next big thing, or have used some version of it before.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Regan / Creative Commons Flickr

Well Done Versus Well Said

Do you ever hear a phrase, unattributable to anyone specific, and then it just rattles around your brain over and over again? Well, it happens to me all the time (unfortunately). And, when something rattles around my brain too long, I need to write it out. Until it’s written, the thought isn’t crystalized. A few days ago — I can’t remember where or whom — but I either heard or saw this line: “Well done is better than well said.” It didn’t register at first, but then it took root.

“Well done is better than well said.” In today’s culture, “well said” gets most of the attention. We judge potential political leaders on how they debate, their stump speeches. We listen to talk radio, television news shows, and more, judging people on what they say. In the startup world, the competition among investors to differentiate capital and gain mindshare with founders is so intense, some investors are turning into little media brands, full with books, conferences, and other media assets.

In today’s startup world, many things are “well said.” But, what is “well done”?

As someone who keeps an active blog, engages often on Twitter, and speaks at events, I too am a small part of the “well said” crowd. “Well said” has its advantages. It is not a bad thing. For instance, it opens doors that once may have been closed. However, “well said” does not directly generate or accrue market value. In order to generate market value — or, put another way: what does the market truly value? — something has to be “well done.” I don’t mean this in the sense of being fully-baked, or cooked through, or over-cooked. I mean, it has to not only be done, but done well.

Done well.

What is done well? Uber, which started in one location, now seems to operate in nearly 100 cities worldwide. Dropbox has made, at scale, a seamless cloud-based storage service that could power the world’s next killer applications. Snapchat handles close to 500 billion images shared across various networks per day. Those are jobs done well. Investment firms like Sequoia and Benchmark, who have resisted today’s era of VC marketing/blogging, deliver some of the best returns in their investment classes. And, the market responds to it. When something is “done well,” it usually has nothing to do with that thing being “said well.” Yes, using clear language to communicate within, across, and outside of a company is very important. No doubt. The distinction I’m trying to make here — as someone who may say things “well” — is that things that are well-said are nice and have value to some degrees, but things that are “done well” are, at the end of the day, where value rests. It’s something I’m reminded of every day as I slog through the Valley.

How Secret May Uncover A New Secret To Mobile Growth

Secret remains a very interesting app. Some people love it, some hate it. Either way, it’s still here, and just got funded…

Greetings from a rainy (but always fun) Austin, TX. As is the case leading up to every SXSW, many wonder what will be the breakout app. As someone who works in, invests in, and writes about mobile, the app that’s come up the most in conversation, offline and online, is no “secret.” It’s not too surprising given Secret launched publicly at the right time (a little over a month ago), received both critical acclaim for its design and ability to motivate people to create original content (it’s a very clever app) as well as criticism for the potential negativity and bullying which could take root inside the app (which are very valid concerns), and has updates key features at the right time — most recently adding location (nearby secrets) and the ability to share secrets to the web and, thereby, spread information to an even wider audience. Most recently, it’s been reported that Secret closed a larger round of funding.

For a number of reasons, Secret is a fascinating app. It emerges during a time when many new apps allow for (relative) anonymity and aren’t built from online social graphs but, instead, from a mobile phone’s address book. It transforms the passive-aggressiveness of a subtweet into a product, creating a space for people to speak their minds with less of the filter required by traditional social networks. It created a new type of newsfeed — the SecretFeed — which is not bound by being presented the traditional, reverse-chronological manner, which allows secrets to resurface over time. Personally, while I see the concerns, I do like the app and open it about once a day because the content is so new, fresh, raw, different — despite the fact that I stumbled across a secret where my name came up negatively in the comments from a variety of users (see picture).

Like any new product that has people buzzing, questions remain. In Secret’s case, I find those big, unanswered questions to be fascinating. In my opinion, here are the big open questions about Secret:

What Will The Company Do To Control Abusive Behavior? The top concern seems to center around the app’s potential to be used as a bullying tool, especially among young folks. My belief is the founders and investors are well-aware of these unsavory risks and will build tools, as well as empowering their community, to flag, report, and trace repeated mean-spirited behavior. I prefer to take the founders at their word and the thoughtfulnessaround exposing their hashing techniques and other statements leads me to believe they won’t take this lightly. (Along similar lines, how “anonymous” is identity inside the app?)

When Will The App Be Used To Break Big News? This is an exciting one. We all assume news breaks on Twitter and Facebook, but if we pause, often someone has to leak that news to a source who then puts it online. With an app like Secret, a user could post an original photograph and write a post about it, and people connected to that user can help the secret propagate through the app’s network, as well as through the web. Of course, people will also report fake news, misreport news, and other pranks. Yet, I do think Secret will be used as a whistleblowing tool and  to break news and could be an interesting growth-driver as it expands, as journalists outside of tech could see it as a place to mine scoops (see below).

How Will Secret Scale Across Platforms? I’ve noticed Secret is a bit slower to load every now and then. It’s a great problem to have. While the images and posts that load appear to carry a bit of weight (which may impact load-time), I’m sure the team is working on making the system faster, as today’s mobile users have come to expect the speed of zippy apps like Snapchat. I’m sure the team is also working on their Android app, but I wonder if they’ll release it soon (to increase their user base and activity) or wait a bit. I’m also curious if they’ll ever allow user interactions through content shared from the app to the web, though that seems doubtful given the network is built from users’ mobile phone address books. (I do expect them to offer each secret on the web to be embedded as content elsewhere.)

Will Brands Find Affinity Inside Secret? I spoke about mobile at an event yesterday where many brand managers of large, international, recognizable consumer brands were in attendance. While we didn’t discuss Secret specifically, they all mentioned to me that mobile networks like Instagram and Snapchat, among others, provided a tremendous amount of interactivity with consumers. They seemed most concerned about where attention was focused. Some have tried to release their own mobile apps only to learn, after the fact, that the majority of mobile app attention is not siloed by brands, but rather through news streams and communication networks where users often opt-in to specific brands or marketing messages. If Secret grabs more and more attention (and if it grows, see below), I do think brands will pay attention and dollars will follow.

And, The Big Question: How Will It Grow? I have often argued (perhaps incorrectly, time will tell) that mobile apps which truly achieve breakout status come from one of a few buckets. There’s gaming, of course. After that, it’s apps that leverage the phone camera in some way (Instagram, Snapchat), or apps that benefit from network effects (Whatsapp and other messaging apps), or apps which aggregate consumer demand through the phone but fulfill the demand offline (Uber). Otherwise, most apps that do well have an influential “parent” with a web audience that helps move that audience to another platform.

Secret, today, doesn’t have these elements. Of course, it could (and likely will) add private messaging, as well as the ability to take pictures directly within the app. The question remains then — how will it grow into a breakout? Perhaps it grows simply on the power of lightweight web sharing combined with strong word-of-mouth. That was certainly the case during my conversations with people around the country here at SXSW. As it has done inside the Valley and tech circles, gossip seems to drive attention inside Secret, so it’s plausible to think the app would do well inside other chatty networks addicted to insider information, such as Hollywood and the Washington DC beltway.

It’s too early to call this one, and while the odds seemed stacked against Secret breaking out, any analysis is ultimately rendered moot because it will — like most things — come down to the product, to whether or not the app changes many peoples’ behavior and creates a space for people to share the things they wouldn’t in traditional manners or networks. So far, just a few months in, I’ve read Secret posts and rich comment threads on a range of topics — some trite, some thoughtful, some heartbreaking, some hilarious, and nearly everything in between. In a limited sample, people do seem to have bottled up thoughts for too long, either afraid to share them or not having the place to do so. One way or another, with all the publishing tools and sharing networks available to all of us, those secrets will eventually come out — it’s just a matter of time. It will be interesting to see this trend powers Secret’s growth outside of the echo chamber. On paper, it shouldn’t — but it just might anyway.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus