More take-aways from Chris Hughes

Yesterday, I did sort of an entrepreneur-focused piece on Chris Hughes' visit to Syracuse. I went into the office (I work for syracuse.com, so the "we" and "our" refers to what we do there) and wound up re-writing from more of a company perspective, and I think everything's still relevant, so I wanted to share it here. Some of it is repeated, some of it is new, all of it is reworded in a different voice. I think these messages are relevant to many businesses, even bricks-and-mortar shops getting into social media for the first time.

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.

Lessons from a young entrepreneur. Or whatever he is.

You might not recognize Chris Hughes' name (of course, you might). Even if not, you've heard of his work. In 2004, he was a sophomore at Harvard when, with a couple of three classmates, he launched a campus-wide social network called, um, Facebook.

Yes, that Facebook. The one I don't even have to link to, because you know where to find it.

He graduated in 2006, and in early 2007 took a leave to help launch my.BarackObama.com.

That makes him kind of a rock star in the new media world.

He spoke at Onondaga Community College Tuesday night as part of the Famous Entrepreneurs Series, bringing some insights into entrepreneurship, businesses in general and the future of the Internet.

Entrepreneurship

None of the Facebook founders thought of themselves as entrepreneurs. Which shouldn't be surprising, since they were 19-year-old college students. Hughes said they were young, curious, and wanted to do something important.

Entrepreneurs, he said, want to make an impact. It doesn't matter whether that's for a big profit, a little profit, or a non-profit. It's a way of thinking.

Facebook succeeded, Hughes said, because of trust and privacy. It's a useful product, and they were able to build it out by crowdsourcing. [I'll handle crowdsourcing in another post in the near future, but let's just say that Facebook is in over 70 languages and a professional translator has never been on the payroll.]

» Read Jill's take

Successful Businesses

So, apart from the crowdsourcing, what makes a successful business?

Focus on the product What do you do? What is your focus? If you have an idea for a new feature, how does it affect your core product? If you react to some customers and not others, how does that affect your product.

When on the Obama campaign, Hughes said a group of people – and people were the product for the grassroots campaign – used the campaign tools to put down some of the then-candidates' policies. The campaign decided to let it ride, to let people know they were being heard, they weren't going to be shut down, and that Obama just didn't agree with them.

We know how that campaign turned out.

Don't worry about the formalities There are rules to building a business, and then there are "rules." The "rules," Hughes said, say start with a board of directors, get investors on board, and build something big and wonderful and hope people show up. If they don't, start marketing the hell out of it.

On the other side of the coin, if you start small and see if your idea works, you haven't lost a whole lot if it flops. Build a little, let it succeed; build a little more, let it succeed. Build it out, then get your board of advisers and investors together, before you get too big for your britches (my phrase, not his).

Analyze everything Break everything down to its smallest bits and analyze the heck out of it. Get numbers, find out who, what, where – measure whatever you can and use it to your advantage.

Hire smartly Make sure the person you bring on board is passionate about the business and the product as you are, and that they're a good match for your team.

Think long term Hughes said Facebook has turned down eight- and nine-figure offers for the company, and they haven't sold because they felt they've only scratched the surface of what they're doing or where they're going.

What else? Persistence and luck also play a big role.

What's Next Online

Going forward, what's the Internet going to be like? Hughes said we're entering a new era of participation – but not one of chaos.

» People will be their friends' filters, which means that (a) the content will be more relevant, but (b) the content will be less diverse. This doesn't mean that the truth filters will be missing – Hughes doesn't see the New York Times shutting down, but he sees it changing.

» "Transparency," Hughes said, "is good." But – and you should already know this if you're on Facebook or Twitter or any other sharing service – you need to be smart about what you're transparent about and who you're transparent to.

Lots to think about here. Would love to hear your thoughts if you went last night. You can also see what other people have to say by checking out the #fescny hashtag.