Startups: Why TechCrunch Traffic Can Be Too Much of a Mediocre Thing

May 16, 2006

 There has been a lot of discussion over the past week about the value of the 50-whatever-thousand users that are readers of TechCrunch and how meaningful this is for new startups (particularly web startups). 
Note:  I'm not suggesting at all that TechCrunch is mediocre (I'm a regular reader and the "1" in 53,651).  Just that the high volume traffic it generates for you in the first 48 hours is likely of mediocre average value.  Read on...
The discussion started originally (I think) with Josh Kopelman’s article about the 53,651 subscribers to the TechCrunch RSS feed.  The argument basically goes that though the TechCrunch readership can generate 5,000-25,000 beta users for a startup very quickly, that these users do not represent mainstream users.  As such, it’s the same uber-geeks, VCs and other early-adopters that look at all new interesting stuff, that wind up on your site, and they are not necessarily interested in yours.  What startups need is to find “real” users that are more representative of their ultimate market. 
I agree with these points, and with all the echoes of these same points over the web on this over the past several days.  But that’s not what I want to talk about.
What I want to discuss is pacing.  One of the biggest fears I have as a startup is founder that I “use up” the early curiosity that is inevitable with most new products too early.  
So, here are my thoughts:
Why You Don’t Want TechCrunch To Blog About You, Just Yet (If Ever) 
  • I am a really, really big believer in the “get the product out there” mantra.  This is one of the most important things a startup can do, and I often judge the future success of a startup based on how committed they are to getting their product “out there”.

  • The second most important thing to getting a product out there is responding to the feedback you get from it being out there, and making the product better.  On my latest startup (HubSpot), which is approaching this “get out there” date, I do not sleep unless the software has gotten better somehow *today*.

  • Now, the issue with a flood of new beta users and trial people it is that is nearly impossible to respond effectively to the feedback from all of these people.  This feedback will come from any number of channels.  Emails, people writing bog articles, comments to blog articles, logging in your “feedback” system (if you have one), etc.  It is simply impossible to be able to manage this for a 2-5 person startup.  If you’re anything like me, you have hard enough time keeping up with the feedback you’re getting now (just from your limited circle of beta users).

  • Further, much of the early feedback you get from your user-base is going to be similar, and will have many, many “patterns”.  They’ll find the same issues and often have similar requests for missing functionality.  So, instead of getting 25,000 beta-users worth of feedback, you get 25 users worth of feedback – 1,000 times.  Spare me the argument that this kind of data is priceless because it is helpful to know that “5,000 of our beta users want the same stumfabulation feature in your product”.  You’re likely astute enough to figure that out even with a smaller sample size.

  • If you don’t have a good mechanism (or the resources) to actually respond to the feedback, which is often the case, you may have missed out on some opportunities as well.  The early-adopter crowd is fickle (or should that be “fickl”) and will likely have moved on to some other shiny new toy by the time you have your software/website/personnel/capital issues figured out.

So, let’s look at the alternative, where you remain a little more in control of your destiny:
  1. You get to “sprinkle” information about your product on more focused channels (specific blogs, email to colleagues, etc.) and learn a lot more about real people.
  2. You get something like 10-100 users that express interest, sign up for a beta, and give you feedback.  You may even talk directly to a few.
  3. You respond to that feedback (even at this volume, this will not be easy).  You improve your product daily, then work on more visibility.  Lather, rinse, repeat.
  4. You go through a few rounds of this until you are ready to cast a wider net.  With each iteration, the product is getting better, you’re retaining parts of your sanity and your “lock-in” rate (people that stay on board and become “real” customers, however you define that) will be much higher.

Summary of My Point:  The biggest value you get from your beta customers and early-adopters is feedback about the product.  However, you’re much better off, where possible, trying to “stage” this adoption – to the degree you have control over it.  Too much visibility, too early has a few problems:  You don’t have a chance to respond.  You only have one chance to make that proverbial first impression and the product is likely not ready for that kind of onslaught anyway.  Once you’re ready (have been through a few round of this stuff), by all means, get crunched on TechCrunch.

Written by Dharmesh Shah


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