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Startup Lessons From The Formspring Shut Down, Or Not!

Formspring,Startup Tips, startups,startup news, Silicon Valley startupFormspring, the very popular, anonymous, question and answer site, was supposed to shut down on Sunday March 31st. We went to see where they were in the shut down process and saw the note above. So it looks like it’s possible Formspring could have one last reprieve.

The service has millions of users and billions of questions, asked and answered. It was a great tool to ask anonymous serious questions too, and also became a very abusive tool among younger sets. A  young, openly gay, actor in Atlanta said he used to love getting critiques and questions about his local theater performances and some of his tv appearances, but at some point he became inundated with requests for naked pictures, before turning 18.

It was things like that, that made Formspring flirt with safety to the point where some of their staffers stomachs turned.

Anonymity is one of the things that Cap Watkins, a former lead designer for Formspring highlights in this personal blog post.

He recaps his time at Formspring and the wild ride of one of the quickest rising startups in the country. Now sites like Quora, and to a point Cha-Cha (which is rumored to be running out of money), carry the bulk of the question and answer flow.

Watkins shares three things that could have “steered the product to a more successful outcome”.

Watkins shares:

We protected anonymous content to a fault

Formspring’s initial success was, in large part, due to giving our users the ability to ask each other questions anonymously (even without a Formspring account). In under a year, we skyrocketed to our first billion questions answered and showed few signs of slowing down. Yet even as we celebrated these milestones, we were all discussing how anonymity would or wouldn’t play a part in the future of our product. On the one hand, anonymity was a really popular feature (duh). On the other hand, we saw a lot of bad and abusive content come through that channel (double duh). A fact that we wound up being pretty infamous for.

But man was it hard to let go of anonymity as a core feature. We tried workaround after workaround. We prompted for sign-up after asking an anonymous question. We started pushing privacy settings for users into our on-boarding (which they never changed, of course). We started setting up elaborate filters to catch bad or abusive questions and put them behind a “Flagged Questions” link in users’ inboxes.

We spent a lot of time on anonymity. It was our sacred cow. Looking back, we should have spent that time finding ways to gracefully degrade that feature instead of finding ways to keep it alive. When you find yourself constantly giving a feature CPR, you should stop and consider whether or not it’s worth saving (or even possible to save).

Our opaque follow-model shot us in the foot

In a way, this lines up with our stance on anonymity. Following on Formspring was, for years completely anonymous. You couldn’t see who followed you and others couldn’t see that you were following them. This meant that we gave people a microphone and they kind of had to hope people heard what they were saying. And until we eventually launched our Smiles feature (akin to Facebook Likes), there was no way to know that your content was being consumed. We debated this a lot internally and came to the conclusion that the Twitter public-follow model was broken in that it put unnecessary social pressure on users to follow back. We felt we could build social features on top of the content (like Smiles) that let our users receive feedback and let their followers out themselves purposefully.

Formspring eventually allowed public following (not as a default, and after I left), but it was too little too late. My takeaway from this has been to always double check to make sure you’re not designing toward your own biases instead of what’s best for your product and users. Formspring had clearly struck a chord with people aching to share more about themselves with their friends. And instead of making it apparent that they were achieving their goal, we put an artificial barrier in place and prevented them from knowing if Formspring was working for them or not.

We skated toward the hockeystick

The biggest sin of them all from a product perspective, but also the hardest to avoid (and one that I see companies make over and over again).

Our initial graphs at Formspring, as you probably know, all hockeysticked up and to the right. Nearly straight up. That part was totally awesome! We were super popular! We could be the next [insert gigantic company name here]!

Oh wait, the graph has peaked and is starting to slowly (very slowly) trend downward. What do we do? Make big bets, right? Try to recapture that crazy growth!

And so we tried. The first big project we worked on was a Formspring button that sites could embed at the end of blog posts or other content. We had millions of users, so we figured it wasn’t a stretch to imagine they browsed other web sites and would gladly click a Formspring button at the end of a post (which asked “What did you think?” and allowed them to post a response to their Formspring page). This was just as the Facebook Share and Twitter “Tweet This” buttons were appearing, so we figured it made perfect sense to follow who we viewed as our closest competitors at the time.

We literally spent months on that system. We had to make sure our servers could handle a potentially huge influx of traffic (we based our estimations on our main site’s traffic, which was honestly insane), had to design and implement the feature, make sure the implementation was easy for publishers, make deals with publishers, etc. We bet huge. On someone else’s (Facebook and Twitter’s) plan.

 

 Continue reading at Cap Watkins blog

A note form Formspring founder Ade Olonoh on the Formspring web page on Sunday March 31, 2013 indicates that they may have a hail mary deal in the works. Stay tuned for more.

Lucas Rayala, founder of Altsie, shared this when his startup failed gracefully

 

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