go big or go home

a blog by joel j rodriguez


Business & product-oriented entrepreneur and tech enthusiast.
Former cofounder & CEO of acquaintable (acquired by LikeBright), VC @ Commonwealth Capital Ventures, and strategy consultant @ Bain & Co.
I live in New York.
Recent Tweets @joeljrod

We’re happy to share some big news: Acquaintable has been acquired by LikeBright. 

For the last year and a half, we’ve worked hard to build Acquaintable into a site that has connected friends-of-friends, made people smile, and influenced lives. It’s been amazing to watch the Acquaintable community grow as you tirelessly liked, passed on, matched with, and messaged new people in your networks. We sincerely thank you for supporting us throughout the journey, providing invaluable feedback along the way, and being a part of the Acquaintable community. 

LikeBright and Acquaintable have a similar vision – to enable people to easily meet friends-of-friends online. Now, we plan on helping LikeBright realize that vision in the coming years. Joel Rodriguez, Cofounder and CEO of Acquaintable, will be joining LikeBright in a limited capacity as an advisor.

The LikeBright team has created a great product that is easy to use, fun and effective. We encourage all Acquaintable users to check it out today! As part of the transition, we will be no longer be supporting acquaintable.com. 

We are so grateful to the many people that help us build Acquaintable – you know who you are. Thank you to our amazing team, investors, mentors, advisors, contractors, beta testers, friends and family. We couldn’t have done it without your unwavering support and guidance. We hope you shared in some of the fun we had creating Acquaintable.

Sincerely,
Joel Rodriguez & Peter Boling

Big news! Acquaintable was selected from hundreds of applicants to be one of ten companies that constitute the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator (ERA) Winter 2013 class. ERA is a top NYC incubator that provides funding, mentorship, office space, and access to the ERA network to 10 promising startups two times a year. The 4-week intensive experience culminates in a “Demo Day” at the end of April where the startups in the class pitch their companies to a room full of investors. We could be happier to be working with ERA’s Murat Aktihanoglu, Jon Axelrod, Charlie Kemper and the rest of the ERA team. We also are excited to be working alongside nine other promising startups that are also a part of the forth ERA class.
ERA logo

First, thanks to everyone who helped as I was looking for a technical co-founder for Acquaintable. You know who you are and I REALLY appreciate it.  I’m happy to announce that I found a incredibly talented engineer that is a great fit for Acquaintable - Peter Boling. Peter has been working with Acquaintable for months, but officially joined us full-time as Co-founder and CTO at the beginning of December.

Peter is an expert Rails developer, and respected open source contributor. He has led rails development for massively scaled websites, like “A Small World”, and “Bible Gateway”. He successfully launched startups single-handedly, and most recently led development of a new personal wealth management tool at Bloomberg called Bloomberg Black.

Check out his blog, Rails Bling
Find Peter on Github
Follow Peter on Twitter
Connect with Peter on Linkedin

Peter Boling

Instagram is my favorite iPhone app and has been for a while.  There’s clearly been a lot of talk about Facebook’s $1B acquisition of Instagram around whether or not it was worth the extraordinary price tag, its value to fb, etc.  I’m not going to go there.  What I want to talk about is why Instagram is so incredibly successful. In retrospect, here’s my take on the key aspects that drove it’s success:

1) Mobile first: Instagram is a fantastic mobile experience. It was built as a mobile experience because it makes sense as a mobile experience (you take pictures when you are NOT sitting at a computer). We are going to see more and more successful consumer internet businesses will take this route as entrepreneurs capitalize on the platform/paradigm shift from web 2.0 to mobile/tablet. We’ll see this first with businesses that depend on mobility/location (Foursquare), but also where the experience is more intimate because it is relegated to a mobile device (Path), where the mobile UI/touch screen is better suited for the app (Draw Something), and where convenience/immediate accessibility is paramount (Words With Friends). The other benefit of a mobile-only strategy is it allows startups to focus, something I ardently believe is key to running startups as entrepreneurs are forced to do the near-impossible with scarce resources.

2) Instagram’s web experience as a brilliant consumer acquisition mechanism:  Just because you can’t use the Instagram app on the web, doesn’t mean Instagram doesn’t have a web experience.  In fact, Instagram’s web experience touches millions more people than its app, and is why Instagram has grown to tens of millions of app users. Yes, I think Instagram’s web experience is the biggest reason why they were able to acquire users. “What??”, you may be thinking, “if you go to Instagram.com the only thing you can do is manage your account settings.” That’s NOT Instagram’s web experience. Instagram’s web experience (for the majority of not-yet-Instagram-users) is as follows: see cool Instagram photo posted to fb newsfeed/twitter, say to themselves “wow, how do I get that/see more Instagrams by that person?!?”, click the Instagram link in the post, and be taken to a page were you can’t do anything but see that one photo, tweet or like the photo (driving more customer acquisition), or download the app. At this point, the person can’t help but download the app - because they wanted to create/view more awesome content, but couldn’t get their fix on the web. So the person downloads the app, and becomes a user, enabling that then-passive viewer of content to now become a creator of content, and further drive the cycle of acquisition. And there you have it – Instagram’s lack of web functionality drives mobile user acquisition.

3) Easily-personalized and cool sharable content units:  People share for a number of reasons, two of the main reasons people share are vanity (“I’m awesome!”) and self-expression (“I’m unique!”). Filters allow users to create super-lightweight personalized content that plays into both of these. With a few taps, you get a sharable piece of content that is both cool and differentiated from ‘normal’ content/photos. Brilliant.  

4) Great design: If Instagram wasn’t well designed/easy to use then consumers wouldn’t use it. There are a few design choices I think are key to highlight:

  • Focus and simple of the app / ease of use:  It’s incredibly easy to use Instagram. There are two main things you can do – create Instagrams and view Instagrams.  Focusing on the functionality that mattered and not allowing feature creep makes the UX great.
  • Require as few actions as possible to create and share content: As with any conversion funnel, Instagram does a good job of making it as frictionless as possible to create and share a piece of awesome, personalized content – 3 clicks and you’ve taken a photo, added a filter, and shared an Instagram. I think they can do even better with this by suggesting the best filter based on picture lighting/characteristics, but they still make it very quick to create/share content. Creating product for Acquaintable, I’ve seen firsthand how incredibly important to optimizing conversion it is to make it as frictionless as possible for a user to do the desired action (often challenging myself to see if there is a way the desired action can be done in one click/swipe).
  • Sharing / public by default: To use Instagram is to share Instagram. It’s core to the experience. Brilliant.

5) The right vision / positioning from the start:  I had Hipstamatic, which was 1st to market and allowed me to create basically the same content as Instagram.  But Instagram cleverly positioned themselves between Hipstamatic and Facebook – a social network for sharing awesome pictures.  Without this broader vision, the few of us that were using Hipstamatic might still be using it.

——————

I want to thank/credit the bloggers below for inspiring some of the ideas above:
Don Dodge, Google, “Why Instagram is worth $1B to Facebook”
Kim-Mai Cutler, Techcrunch, “From 0 To $1 Billion In Two Years: Instagram’s Rose-Tinted Ride To Glory”
Ted Summe, Discovr.ly

Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of Facebook as relayed in an interview at Y Combinator’s Startup School: “I think the story that we look back will be the apps and things that are built on top of Facebook. The past five years have been about being connecting people and the next five to ten years are about what are all the things that can be built now that these connections are in place.”

http://techcrunch.com/2011/10/30/facebooks-zuckerberg-if-i-were-starting-a-company-now-i-would-have-stayed-in-boston/

About Acquaintable

Acquaintable is an exciting social, consumer-oriented startup that enables people to discover and meet friends-of-friends. Acquaintable was founded earlier this year by Joel Rodriguez and Casey Gibbons, who both have worked in the venture capital industry and have prior entrepreneurial experience. Acquaintable is currently being incubated out of the offices of Commonwealth Capital Ventures, an early stage technology venture capital fund. Acquaintable is looking for a Software Engineer that wants to be a part of a company from the ground floor, is a stellar problem solver, can architect a product, and can navigate the waters of a startup. We are passionate about disrupting the online meeting space and believe that we have a unique approach to this attractive market. Acquaintable is currently in Beta - our users love us, and our metrics are pointing in the right direction. For more information on why we think there is a large opportunity in the online meeting space, check out my earlier posts on my blog posts herehereherehere and here. If you think you might be interested in getting to know us and what we are up to, please email me at joel@acquaintable.com.

Role: Senior Software Engineer

You will be getting involved at the ground-floor of a rapidly evolving startup. Your input, creativity and problem solving will have a direct impact on the direction and success of the company. You will be working directly with Matt Jones, a rock star developer and leader previously at ARRIS, who you can read more about here or on his blog. We’re developing code and features at a fast pace and are always constantly iterating and pushing releases into production. There will never be a single boring day at Acquaintable and we’re looking for people who thrive in a fast-paced and exciting environment.

Desired skillset(s):

  • Programming Languages/Frameworks:  Ruby on Rails, HTML, JavaScript, CSS, SQL, and familiarity with various web technologies (REST, AJAX, etc.), Facebook API experience is a plus.
  • Server software: Nginx, Passenger, Mongrel, Apache
  • Database: PostgreSQL

Compensation:  Competitive. Combination of cash and equity.
Location: New York, NY 

If you know any friends that might be interested in a conversation, please pass this post on to them or share with your followers on Twitter. Thanks!

Now that the Acquaintable Alpha is in the rearview mirror, I figured I’d share a few thoughts and reflections on what I’ve learned from the Acquaintable Alpha. I endeavor not to be didactic; my goal is to hopefully inspire a few entrepreneurs to think about and consider the lessons below.

1) Users are dumb (and I mean this in the nicest way possible, my beloved Alpha Testers):

Thanks to the likes of the amazingly brilliant entrepreneurs and technologists that paved the Web 2.0 and mobile revolutions everyone is god-damned spoiled (I’m looking at you, Google and Apple)!   Users expect things to be drop dead easy, simple, and intuitive.   We quickly realized that we undoubtedly would be (and should be!) held to the same standard as the best in the business. While we are innovating to create a novel user experience and a completely re-imagined way of social networking, we strive to make our user experience inherently intuitive as possible.  One of the phrases in Apple’s genius marketing campaigns for the iPhone and iPad is the phrase “and you already know how to use it”.  We are far from this, but usability has come a long way thanks to your help!

2) It’s not rocket science, it’s just science:

I went to a math and science high school, and 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, and 3.5 years of biology every weekday ingrained the scientific method in the way I develop knowledge.   Product design is no different.  The Alpha was all about developing well-reasoned hypothesis, testing them, and determining whether they were valid or invalid.  There are a few things here in agile development that weren’t obvious, that I’ll attempt to explain:

  • Isolate variables:  Just as in science class, if you don’t isolate variables, you can’t meaningfully prove or disprove your hypothesis. This is why it’s good to iterate frequently, change one or a few things at a time (hopefully, that are not related to each other), so you can determine the effect of the changes without diluting the efficacy of the experiment.
  • Quickly change the experiment: However, unlike science class, the pace of agile development, especially when you are just starting out and proving different ideas, should be fast – so the whole process needs to speed up accordingly.  The faster you can draw conclusions and quickly and change the experiment the better. You don’t have to be right (there is no “right”), you just have to be closer to the right answer than you were before, then on to the next one.

3) Visibility/metrics are key:

Jack Welch famously said “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”   What is true for a Fortune 500 company, so is true for a 3 person startup.  We are addicted to metrics – I mean addicted.  When I wake up, before I go to sleep, whenever my mind is not occupied by some other pressing task, I’m pretty much checking metrics and trying to glean insight from user data.  I don’t just look at metrics every so often, I watch them to see how they are changing as we push code, and every day.  I think it’s crucial to develop a “feel” for how users are using your site by monitoring usage and endeavoring to understand how and why metrics are changing over time. 

4) Engage and listen to your users!

Just as I have one finger on the pulse of the metrics, I have the other on the pulse of the user – actually talking to users every day.  Further, getting real-time feedback is key – I mean on the phone, or sitting next to users as they experience the application. It’s important to not only ask questions, but to watch people use the product and to have them speak out loud to describe their thoughts as they use the product.  I’ve learned more from the knee-jerk, stream of conscious thoughts of users than I could have ever doing post-experience interviews or surveys.  It’s easy to engage 25 Alpha users, but I aim to weave the theme of “engaging and listening to our users” into the culture at Acquaintable.

5) Leverage your development team:

Engineering time is the most scarce and valuable resource in most tech startups.  My goal every day is to make our development team as good and efficient as possible.  It’s the first thing we talk about when we meet, it’s how we prioritize tasks, it’s the basis of how we run the business.   Development efficiency is close to Gospel at Acquaintable.   If you are a business person working with a technical team – simply refuse to be the bottleneck.  A whole bunch of work has to be done thinking through the vision, listening to user feedback, designing features, wire-framing, prioritizing tasks, etc., upfront – but this NEEDS to get done, and done well, in advance of the development team’s task queue being empty or being filled with incomplete or unimportant tasks.  It’s a colossal disaster if development time is idle, or worse, wasted because a feature wasn’t thought through enough, not enough feedback was collected, or a test was not designed well.  I can’t understate how important planning and prioritization is to enable this process to happen efficiently.  No matter how talented and hardworking you are, if you are not working on the right (and most time-sensitive) tasks, then your work is futile.  Bottom line: Whatever you can do to make your engineering team more efficient, do so.

6) Ship at 80%, then iterate and test:

“Ship at 80%” quickly became a mantra at Acquaintable.  When designing features, we realized that getting to 80% was easy, and that the last 20% to get to “perfect” (I say that quotes because there is no such thing as idealistic “perfect”) would take twice as long as the first 80% and be totally useless given the rapid pace of iteration.  Classic 80%/20%, but a great application of it.  Don’t strive for perfection, strive to get to 80% as quickly as possible, and iterate from there.  Which leads me to my last point (a related notion)…

7) Go with your gut: In any startup that’s early, there is never enough data, so you have to shoot from the hip.  More importantly, you have to get comfortable doing this.  I’ve heard Elliot Katzman, a General Partner at Commonwealth Capital Ventures, advise some of his portfolio companies by saying  “Making the wrong decision is sometimes better than not making a decision at all.”  I think this rings even more true with companies in their “startup” stage.  You have to pull the trigger, make a decision (any decision!),  and if your testing/iterating process is honed, you’ll get to the right answer sooner than you would have if you had just thought about a bit more.

 

I realize that many people smarter than I have written about similar things. I have not had time to properly research and cite competing or complementary posts or arguments.  If you know of any blog posts, articles, etc. that touch on early testing & development and incorporating user feedback through rapid iteration, please post them in the comments and participate in the discussion. It would be great to have a few different viewpoints on the topic. Thanks! 

That’s right – two weeks ago we officially graduated from our 25 person Alpha to private Beta!  Thank you everyone who helped participate in the Alpha – for your time, your insightful suggestions, and your honest feedback. You were key to enabling a very rapid, interactive feedback and development cycle (we pushed code every few days in the two months!). At Acquaintable, we strongly believe in agile development and the “lean startup” mentality. We definitely would not be as far along as we are without your support.

The Acquaintable Alpha was a huge success (the beginning of a long road, but a big milestone nonetheless) for the Acquaintable team.  I’m happy to report that we hit or surpassed all of our “goal” metrics, and proved many of key underlying hypotheses about the Acquaintable business model that we are still doggedly working to validate.  As we look to our Beta, we plan on slowly growing the user base to learn more about user interaction and virality. We plan to continue our relentless focus on user experience, and to making Acquaintable a better tool for you to use to meet friends-of-friends. 

If you are interested in participating in the Acquaintable Beta, go to acquaintable.com and click “Connect with Facebook” to apply. 

Single adults turn to online dating sites because they are looking to meet potential romantic partners, whether casual or serious in nature.  Meeting is the essential first step in the lifecycle of any relationship, and is the step that an online experience can most efficiently address.  Meeting is distinctly different than dating; it is only after two individuals meet online that they can then date, which I believe is best accomplished through an in-person experience.  In other words, the problem single adults have is not that they are meeting too many quality prospects, and are not doing enough dating; it is that they are not meeting enough quality prospects and therefore not doing enough dating. Accordingly, I believe that the number one thing singles can do to improve their dating lives is to meet more quality potential romantic partners. (note: if a person is meeting the right potential romantic partners, and is not able to date them effectively, then he or she has a problem that an online dating website can’t solve.  Also, it is critical that the potential romantic partners that the single person meets are high-quality prospects. Else, the adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies.) 

Aside from stepping onto campus for the first time as a college freshman, meeting people online, or “online meeting” is one of the most effective ways and efficient to meet a large number of potential quality romantic partners.  The only alternative is to meet lots of people in person (I’m assuming meeting people by phone would have taken off already if it was an appropriate solution). However, there are some natural barriers to meeting in person that makes it relatively difficult to do on a large scale.  For example, it requires two people to be physically co-located and requires one person to courageously approach the other (with no other qualification than appearance most of the time). On the other hand, the internet, or more specifically, online dating, enables a person to be virtually co-located with a large number of people and to interact with them in a more efficient manner.  This approach is better for a few reasons:

  • Size of dating pool:   The potential number of people one can meet online is magnitudes greater than in-person.  While in-person potential interactions are limited by the amount of people that can fit in one location, such as a bar, online interactions are only limited by the number of people using a particular service – potentially millions.

  • Efficiency/Transparency:   Online dating also lets users more rapidly evaluate the people they meet since there is usually some information, like a profile, that the user can view before interaction. This turns out to be very helpful in screening hard criteria, such as age, religion, etc.  Further, algorithms can be employed to further expedite the evaluation process by narrowing and prioritizing the prospects users are shown.
  • Anonymity:   Online dating also allows people to evaluate people they meet without having them know they are being evaluated. Most people are more comfortable with reading an online profile rather than striking up a conversation face to face with someone they have never met before.
  • Accessibility: People can meet others online anytime, anywhere.The mobile platform allows online daters to meet people wherever there is 4G or wifi, at any time of day, rather than having to be co-located with the people they are meeting at a specific time.

While I believe there are certain advantages to meeting people online, I am not suggesting people should or will only meet people online.  Instead, I am suggesting that “online meeting” is the right viable supplement to a healthy “analog” dating life.  

 

The Solution: Socially-Qualified Online Meeting


We are planning on addressing the aforementioned shortcomings of current dating sites and building a community where, for the first time, people can meet others in their extended social circle online.  

meeting. friends-of-friends.

Or follow us on twitter @acquaintable or go to our website acquaintable.com to get an invite.

Stay tuned for more…


This is the final post in a series of five posts on the current opportunity to disrupt online dating. Read the rest of the series by clicking the links below.   

  1. Going big in the online dating space
  2. Problem #1 with current online dating sites: They ignore the role social context plays in facilitating relationships
  3. Problem #2 with current online dating sites: The user experience is time-consuming, inefficient, and unpleasant
  4. Problem #3 with current online dating sites:  The subscription business model creates perverse incentives that further degrade the user experience 
  5. In favor of online meeting; the solution: socially-qualified online meeting

The current business model paradigm for dating sites is subscription-based; users pay a monthly fee for access to most functionality on a dating website. While subscription is not inherently a bad business model, the way it is implemented in the context of online dating is reprehensible. I explain below the characteristics of the subscription model which create perverse incentives that further degrade the user experience.

  • Poor user experience:  While I covered in a previous post how the design of online dating sites results in a low-quality user experience, the subscription business model exacerbates this. Using eHarmony as example, less than 7% of eHarmony’s user-base is comprised of paying subscribers 5. Because only subscribers can use eHarmony’s messaging system, this means that less than 7% of profiles on the site can respond to messages sent to them. The remaining 93%+ are non-paying, inactive users 5. Online dating sites chose to not remove these users’ “dead profiles” in hopes that paying members’ solicitations will galvanize inactive users to pull out their credit cards. The result is that much of users’ time is spent reading dead profiles and fruitlessly messaging inactive users. Further, the low response rates to solicitations incentivize users to cursorily spam a large number of users in hopes in getting a few replies, which leads to a poor user experience for those getting spammed.
  • High churn/short user lifetime:  Because of the poor user experience, online dating sites have abysmal renewal rates. An eHarmony advertisement ironically boasted that “[eHarmony] sees full audience turnover every 6.5 months” 5. Match even offers the Match guarantee (“Find someone special in 6 months or get 6 months free!”) if a user purchases a 6 month subscription to compensate for this drop-off. Though dating sites would like people to think that users churn because they find romantic partners, this is hardly the majority of cases. High churn results in more dead profiles, further degrading the user experience.
  • High customer acquisition cost:  Because of the high churn, current online dating websites need to constantly spend big dollars advertising to even maintain their user bases. In fact, eHarmony spends as much as $80 million a year on advertising 4, much of which is untargeted TV ad spend. Who pays for this expensive, never-ending marketing budget necessary to replace churned users? Customers, in the form of expensive subscriptions.
  • Blind, expensive subscriptions:  Most people sign up for an online dating site, create a profile, and never pay to become an active member. This creates dead profiles that degrade the user experience. The minority of users that do pay are forced into committing to an expensive and lengthy subscription before they can evaluate the utility of the website. When they discover that the user experience is not as they were led to believe from idealistic television advertisements, they become inactive, creating more dead profiles. Lastly, high subscription prices act as a barrier to potential quality users that otherwise might have joined the site; a user’s perfect mate might not have $30 a month to spend on a bad online dating experience. Requiring newcomers to pay for blind, expensive subscriptions is clearly not in the best interest of current users.

Exhibit: the self-perpetuating downward spiral of the online dating subscription business model


This is the fourth post in a series of five posts on the current opportunity to disrupt online dating. The next post will explaining why online dating meeting is a great solution for the single adult.   Posts will be released on my blog at gobigorgoho.me every Wednesday from April 27th to May 25th.

  1. Going big in the online dating space
  2. Problem #1 with current online dating sites: They ignore the role social context plays in facilitating relationships
  3. Problem #2 with current online dating sites: The user experience is time-consuming, inefficient, and unpleasant
  4. Problem #3 with current online dating sites:  The subscription business model creates perverse incentives that further degrade the user experience 
  5. In favor of online meeting; the solution: socially-qualified online meeting

——-
Notes:
4: eHarmony Case Study http://hbr.org/product/eharmony/an/709424-PDF-ENG
5: “Why You Should Never Pay for Online Dating”, a OK Trends post by Christian Rudder on April 17th, 2010 (note: this post was recently taken down after the acquisition of okcupid by Match)