Fastest Growth Sites Are Built on User Generated Content

One of the most powerful ways to develop web site traffic is to enable your users to share their content through your web site with others–to create community around user generated content.

Many of the fastest growing web sites of all time did this (or do it now): MyFamily.com, eBay, GeoCities, Xoom, Homestead, MySpace, Epinions, Hotshots, LinkedIn.com, Meetup.com, Friendster, and more.

A recent company which admits they stumbled into this user generated content model is Flickr. Flickr is a phenomenal photo sharing site. Check out its traffic growth on Alexa. With no marketing dollars it has become one of the fastest growing sites in 2004. Read this great interview with its founders in Fast Company.

There were many super fast growth photo sharing sites in the late 90’s. Some were acquired; some went out of business. At MyFamily.com we had tens of millions of photos from our users but these photos were not public–so we didn’t get the kind of “free traffic” effect that comes when search engines indexes all this content.

But we did get this effect on Ancestry.com where we hosted enormous amounts of genealogical content submitted by our users. Our message boards had more than 10 million posts and our Ancestry World Tree with more than 350,000,000 submitted names was among our most popular databases.

When I advise companies on fast growth strategies, I tell them that to survive you have to have a real business model but to thrive you should also take a page out of the 90s playbook: create a user generated content strategy that is related to your business.

I don’t have time to give specifics right now, but imagine getting your customers to blog, use message boards, upload photos or reviews

With open source software (for message boards, blogs, uploading photos, and more) and with the cost of hard drive storage a tiny fraction of what it was five years ago, the time has never been better to try a user generated content strategy.

One of our companies, iCount.com will embark in the next few weeks on a user generated content and social networking strategy in the political arena which I hope will give it a place in the fast growth companies I’ve listed above. In a few weeks or monthly I’ll tell you how this goes and what lessons we have learned.

Universal Access to All Knowledge

I’ve never met Brewster Kahle, inventor of WAIS, co-founder of Thinking Machines, founder of Alexa and digital librarian for the Internet Archive. But I’ve watched his contributions over the years and have admired his Vannevar Bush-like vision. (If you have never read the 1945 Atlantic Monthly article by Vannevar Bush titled “As We May Think”, you’re missing out on the original “access to all knowledge” brainstorm.)

I recently bought a biography of Bush entitled “Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century” but haven’t read it yet.

Brewster spoke earlier this month at the Library of Congress on the topic of universal access to all knowledge. I am planning to watch the video of his lecture.

I played around with some new features of the Internet Archive the other day and was very impressed that they not only index web pages but they also index audio and video recordings. For example, here are the results of a search for “roosevelt” in the presidential recordings media type.

Google may have the means (and the business model to sustain it) to do more digitization of the world’s knowledge than all other efforts combined, but the efforts preceding it, like Michael Hart’s Project Gutenburg, a 20-year effort to create free digital version of all public domain texts, should be warmly regarded.

(When Google announced its massive scanning project in five major libraries I wanted my next blog headline to read “Goodbye Project Gutenberg; Hello Project Googleberg” but I didn’t get around to it.)

I have never been more excited about the prospect of knowledge flooding the earth than now, with this Google announcement. And I’m not worried, as some are, about information overload.

To me, public domain content is a lot like open source software. The more freely available content or code there is, the more opportunity there is for companies to add value to the raw content — like writing application software on top of the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack which is available for free.

In the case of the full text of millions of books, imagine that kinds of search engines and software that can be built on top of the freely available text.

The opportunity for individuals to build software or services around the knowledge core has never been greater. As open source matures and as these massive content projects proceed, knowledge workers and entrepreneurs will have more powerful tools at their fingertips than ever before.

The Original Multi-Language Blogger

I am happy to report that I have offers from entrepreneurs to translate my blog and resource pages into Polish, Portuguese and Italian. In searching for translators, I also learned about a software programmer named Joel Spolsky who started a blog called Joel on Software in 2000. His blog is translated into more than 30 languages. His Alexa ranking is excellent, and astonishingly there are more than 682,000 pages in Google that contain the phrase “Joel on Software”. (I guess there will now be 682,001 when Google indexes this page in a day or two.) That is amazing.

I hope Joel will give me advice on how to do a multi-lingual blog. I want to automate it as much as possible so that translators know when I post something, and I know when they have translated something, and links are automatically generated when there is new content to link to. I’m using Radio Userland for my blog and will probably call CEO Scott Young to see if he knows of any add-on tools that might make this easy to do.

One benefit my translators will get: they can ask me to blog about topics that they are most interested in and they can ask me for advice about their own startup companies. I generally do research for hours each day and would love to cover topics that are of interest to my readers and translators. Let me know if you can help with one of the remaining languages.

International Yellow Pages

I heard a great story on NPR a couple weeks ago about a woman who was born in Afghanistan but raised in Australia. She visited Kabul earlier this year and discovered that there was no phone book or at least no yellow pages. (That kind of blows my mind–the population is more than 2 million!) She decided to do something about that and apparently is now publishing the first Kabul yellow pages, with more than 100,000 phone numbers listed (almost all cell phone numbers) from businesses and merchants.

I think every community and every developing nation needs a yellow pages phone directory. (Although I think there are too many in my neighborhood–I don’t know what to do with them all.)

I know people who have done very well with yellow pages and directory publishing. It’s a highly profitable business model (one cached article in Google says it’s close to 50%) and a great catalyst for economic growth. I wonder how many other highly populated world cities don’t have a yellow pages directory. I also wonder if any company has ever been formed to act on this opportunity.

Maybe I’ll hire a researcher to determine how many of the world’s largest cities (population over 500,000 for example) do and how many do not have a yellow pages directory.

If someone has already done this, please let me know.

2 Million Blackberry Users

It’s nice to see a great Canadian company hitting the hockey stick part of their growth curve.

Research in Motion added almost 400,000 subscribers last quarter to reach 2 million, after getting to 1 million in February of this year. The company generated more than $90 million in profit on sales of $366 million. The market cap today is $15 billion. Executives say the company is focusing on reaching 5 million then 10 million subscribers.

One of the co-CEOs was on Kudlow and Cramer the other night. He said they now have an application development platform and that next year they will be offering location-aware services.

I already use my Blackberry for Google phonebook searches, using the integrated web browser. (I also use Google SMS). But the thought of location aware Google Local or Yahoo Local searches on my Blackberry really gets me excited.

I’ve gone through 4 RIM Blackberries since they were introduced and absolutely love them. The thumb key pad is awesome–I can type more than 50 words per minute now. And I can take notes everywhere without pulling out a laptop and booting up. (At church I always feel a need to explain to church goers around me that I’m taking notes–not playing games.)

Until I saw a news release a few months back about Lexis data being made available to Blackberry users, I hadn’t consider that the Blackberry could be a development platform for all kinds of third party software and data services. But since I consider it the most usable of all the portable computing devices I have used (because of the thumb keypad, the scroll wheel, and the integration of cell phone services with the address book and email), I’m definitely going to investigate their application development environment further.

I have said this before and I will say it again–the single best productivity investment an entrepreneur can make is to purchase a Blackberry and stop using desktop computer time for email. I seem to get an extra 1-2 hours of productivity each day from my Blackberry.

Providing Relief in Southeast Asia

I am deeply saddened by the devastation and loss of life from the earthquake and tsunami which struck southeast Asia on Sunday morning. The New York Times reports the death toll is more than 23,000 with one third being children. It is hard to think about anything else today. I just learned that a close friend left a Thailand resort with his wife and children just two days before it was wiped out by the tidal waves.

The Southeast Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog has been set up to give people ideas on how they can help with donations and to make them aware of various relief efforts and the latest news. Paidcontent.org’s author Rafat Ali is safe in India; editor Staci gives good advice for those wanted to help with donations.

May God bless all who lost loved ones in this tragedy and may He strengthen all those who are providing relief to those who are suffering.

Telling the Story–Why Startups Need PR

The first thing I do when learning about a new company is check its Alexa ranking. The second thing I do is visit the web site and click on Press Room. I want to see what the company has been doing lately. Then I often look at the In the News section to see what media coverage they might be getting and I like to read about the management team and investors.

But too many companies don’t even have a Press Room section on their web site. Literally every company that I work does a sub-par job of telling their story through press releases. I think too many PR firms have led us all to believe that press releases alone are not worth anything. They want us to believe that the only thing that matters is their relationships with the media which can lead to getting our news releases published and stories being written about us.

While the value of well done PR is enormous, it is often very expensive–way too expensive for most startup companies, which is why, I believe, almost all of them neglect it. (Except for SearchGuy.com, a publicly traded search engine company with few employees, very little revenue, almost no site traffic–but somehow they try to maintain their market capitalization by issuing a press release every couple of weeks–but that’s another story.)

I see huge opportunities here.

We are starting a company to address this issue. We want all CEOs of small companies to be able to afford our PR service. We are designing software that will make it easy to choose a PR template (from hundreds or thousands), fill in some blanks, create some quotes, and have a press release prepared. The best part of this is the release will show up automatically not only on the company’s own web site (which is important!) but also on several other web sites including Google News! (That is the “secret sauce” that I won’t be disclosing.)

Some of my readers have wondered if disclosing our ideas and plans too early might be costly to us, and in fact, might create competition for us down the road, and thus lessen our company’s valuation.

In this case, if another firm starts offering turn-key press release creation and distribution services that small businesses can afford then we may skip this opportunity and instead focus on training and encouraging all our portfolio companies to use such a service. But we haven’t found such a service yet.

A consistent stream of press releases that contain significant announcements about products, customers, partnerships, trends, statistics, and good news can help a company gain momentum with, generate interest from, and reinforce the company’s value to several different audiences:

  • Potential employees
  • Current and potential customers
  • Investors or potential investors
  • Strategic partners
  • And of course, the media

If you are aware of startup PR firms that are affordable please let me know. If you find this concept interesting and want to be considered as part of our startup team, please contact me.

Blogging in Other Languages

I added Italian and German to yesterday’s post “Blogging for the World” and already have a reader who is willing to do the Italian translation. Now I need to find a blog spot for each language and figure out a scheme for knowing when each translation is posted so that my site can automatically add links as the translations appear. I think this can be done with RSS feeds and some simple coding.

I think this is a job for Phil Windley, IT guru and blogger extraordinaire (or one of his CS students.) Phil, what do you think?

More Powertools for Entrepreneurs

I’ll be updating my Powertools for 21st Century Entrepreneurs page soon and I’m considering adding some of the following (after I have investigated them more fully):

  • Credit.net

  • Jigsaw.com (sales leads)

  • Gotomeeting.com

  • Rentacoder.com

  • Netmechanic

  • vFinance (venture funding emails)

  • Xenu (free link checking software)

I also need to add X1 (a desktop search tool) which is better than Copernic but costs $99 (until Yahoo starts distributing a free version of it early next year.)

I also need to list a few more key internet marketing tools that I have used for years.

One of my readers said MarketingSherpa should also be listed on this page. The free MarketingSherpa newsletters are the single most important resource available for internet marketers and they should be carefully read and studied, but I classify this as content not necessarily as a tool. However, I should also publish a list of all the critical publications that 21st Century Entrepreneurs can most benefit from. I’ll be working on that list as well.

More on Wireframing

I received this email about my post on wireframing from a friend:

Paul, I read on your blog that you wanted to know a program for wireframing. Visio by Microsoft is the “professional standard”, but there is an open source replica called Dia http://dia-installer.sourceforge.net/

I personally like the simplicity of Macromedia Fireworks. I know it isn’t free, but it is easy, and the vector graphics makes it great for beginners and has a much smaller learning curve then Visio or Dia. But if you want to go open source then Dia is the way to go.

Meanwhile, I took the suggestion of one of my readers and tried Microsoft Publisher for wireframing and quickly abandoned that. Then I downloaded a free trial verion of SmartDraw, which looks very promising, not only for simple wireframing, but also as a multi-purpose tool for doing org charts, flow charts, and dozens of other types of visual charts. I’m working on my first wireframe site design and so far the tool is easy to use.