Caitlin Winner (right) is co-founder and CPO at Amen, international hotspot for sharing opinions (also known for inspiring guerilla marketing campaigns and attracting Ashton Kutcher as an investor). Amen started up in Berlin in September last year, now hosts one million posted opinions and is close to releasing a new iOS app.
In life before Amen, Winner studied economics and studio art and worked at MIT, Plum and Nokia. She aired these five lessons at Berlin Geekettes @ Google last week:
Before I started Amen, I had this idea that a startup meant having a really cool idea and not much more. These are five things I learned are just as important, if not more important:
I knew hiring would be important but I underestimated this one. Netflix CEO Reid Hastings says, “Your company is a pro sports team not a family. The goal at Netflix is to hire and cut smartly so we have stars in every position.” I heard him say this at a conference last October and it really resonated. You work with these people all day every day and become very close to them but the analogy is not quite that of a family. Everyone has to be proud to be in the game, in harmony and excited to play.
Execution is everything
A cliché, but Paul Graham puts it nicely: “If ideas were the key, a competitor with the same idea would be a real threat but it’s usually the execution that matters.” We have a folder called “inspired by Amen interfaces”. Who knows if Amen was really the inspiration but it’s exciting in any case – it’s validation that we are on to something.
Press does not equal success
Another preconception I had before I started a company was that success was a necessary precursor to press coverage. But often press is not merit-based. To quote my co-founder Felix, “journalists are lazy and bloggers are cheap”. With the right connections you can get anything printed and, depending on your business, press is probably helpful to varying degrees. For us, as a new social network, press coverage has not affected our bottom line.
Online communities are mysterious
I’ve worked for other social networks… they were arguably not successful social networks because we never saw users behave the way they’re behaving on Amen. Clay Shirky thinks that “people that work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political scientists than they are to making compilers”. Which is good news, because I have a degree in economics, though sometimes I think I need a degree in psychology and one in government, too. Each time we build something new we have expectations about usage and it’s never exactly what we expect.
When we first launched, we had a core group of users who were using Amen lists kind of as chat board. At that point we didn’t have any chat or messaging built into the service – all you could do was post “amen” or “hell no”. Our users figured out how to use “hell no” as a “poke” feature combined with a comment. They were creating long threaded lists that were really just a dialogue about the sun setting or picking your nose, which was frustrating from a content perspective. The lesson learned there was people like to communicate. Not a huge surprise but something we didn’t anticipate.
Growth hacking is a real thing
It is possible to hack your own growth. It’s not a hard science yet but getting there. Building an awesome product is really only one small part of being a successful company. If no one uses it, you still can’t win. This is especially true for social networking services where the number of users is the main metric for succes. Growth hacking (aka social voodoo magic) is something we’ve just started taking seriously at Amen but so far we are seeing exciting results.