Yesterday, I did sort of an entrepreneur-focused piece on Chris Hughes' visit to Syracuse. I went into the office (I work for
Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's
3 4 founders and one of the brains behind my.BarackObama.com, spoke in Syracuse last night, and he had some good take-away messages.
A little background on Chris and Facebook
Facebook was founded in 2004 by three Harvard sophomores. They wanted a way to share essentially what they were doing with their friends in a more passive way – they didn’t want to have to pick up the phone or email people or find them in the dining hall to see what they were doing that night or that weekend. So they wrote some code and they were able to set their statuses and in three weeks, 6,000 people on campus had started accounts.
They opened up the platform to a few more schools, and found lots of interest, so they opened it more and more and now they have 325 million active users. Active users.
They were college sophomores in 2004, so at 19, that makes them in their early teens when the dot-coms when bust – they didn’t experience it the way other entrepreneurs and investors who are venturing into online did, so they look at the business model a lot differently than someone even five or ten years older than they are.
A side note: "Unfriend" is the word of the year. Chris said he and his friends have primarily used the term "defriend." Also "unfriend" appears in literature during the 17th century, but seems to have faded from vernacular use around 1659.
Focus on your product
One of the most important things a business can do is focus on its product. What do you do? What are you good at? Why do people come to you? Once you have that figured out, you need to make sure that for everything that comes in front of you, ask, "How does this affect my product?"
Our product is current, local, relevant information – news, entertainment, sports, classifieds, etc. – so Chris's suggestion would be, for every partnership opportunity, for every chance to build a new page, figure out how it enhances our core product. If the answer is, "it probably doesn't," don't do it.
Build a little bit at a time
A lot of companies spend a lot of time – and money – building something huge. They bring in advisers and investors even before anybody knows what they do, and then when they launch, they hope people come. If they don't, the companies then turn around and spend a lot more time and money. On marketing.
Try it the other way. Build something small. If nobody comes or if it's not as good as you thought it was, you've lost a few weeks and a little money, and you can scrap it. If it catches on, great. Then build the next little piece, and eventually it will grow into something big and great. It may be entirely different from what you initially planned, but your customers will have bought in at every level along the way.
We're not starting companies here, but we do roll out a lot of projects, some big, some small, and sometimes, we build too much at once. This is a good lesson.
What's next online: Participatory Web, transparency, crowdsourcing and filters
We're entering a new era of participation, that's for sure, and Web users are only going to get more participatory. Before Facebook and Twitter, there were other ways to participate – blogging platforms, Flickr, Geocities – and that's going to continue. Heck, our forums have been around since the stone age in Internet terms.
We're going to see that grow, and tools like Facebook Connect and OpenID are going to help. Any schmo with a domain will be able to implement a couple of lines of code and have people post stuff in a community format and have the fact that they're posting to schmowithadomain.com appear on their Facebook pages.
And while we're going to get more participatory, things aren't going to get chaotic.
"Transparency is good," Chris said, but you have to be careful with what you're transparent about and who you're transparent to. That shouldn't be news to any of you, but it's not just about people being transparent, it's about companies being transparent. Let people know what's going on – to some extent, of course. Don't give away your secrets, but don't hide in a dark corner away from the world.
He also cited an example from his work on the Obama campaign. Some people were using the platform created for support to oppose the candidate on some issues, but rather than shut them down, Obama addressed them, saying he disagreed, and the campaign let them keep using the platform. They let the people know they were hearing the dissent, but didn’t just turn it off. [There might be a lesson there for our comments.]
Crowds tend to be right, eventually. Facebook is available in over 70 languages, and has never hired a professional translator. They asked users to have at it, and users who knew both English and the other language voted for the best ones, and eventually those wound up "winning."
Chris didn't mention this, but earlier this year someone did a study and found that Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Wikipedia have roughly the same error rate. He also didn't mention James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds – essentially, if you get 50 people together and have them all guess the weight of a particular cow, some are going to be way high, some are going to be way low, but if you average all the guesses, 19 times out of 20 you wind up within a couple of pounds.
Filtering of information is one of the things we're starting to see, and that's going to get deeper. Your friends and the people you're interested in professionally are filtering information for you – you're going to increasingly get your news from social networks. This is going to increase the relevancy of information you get, but it's going to decrease the diversity of the information you get.
The mainstream media model is going to change, but it's still going to act as a truth filter. If you want to find out if Kanye West is indeed dead (the Internet definitely killed him a few weeks ago), you're going to check in with The New York Times, or some other trusted news outlet.
Some commentary on filtering
I think this last bit on filtering is important for us. We are a truth and information filter, and if we also put on some personality, we're going to become not only that truth filter, but also a friendly, relevant filter for people as well. Our staffs – whether we're out in the community evangelizing the product or not – are the face and personality of the company, and if we all bring a little something to what people see, they're going to like us.