Is Facebook a Black Hole?

June 14, 2008

I had a really interesting conversation today with a couple folks who know a lot about social media and technology. John Della Volpe is founder of SocialSphere, a consulting firm that helps big corporations figure out how to capitalize on what John calls the “collaboration economy,” and Paul Gaffney is COO of Desktone, a desktop virtualization company that is doing some very cool things.

We were talking about what SchoolPulse needs to be to get traction with the 45 million parents of school-aged kids in America. Ours is very much a GenX crowd — we are targeting parents aged 35-50 — and very few of those people are using Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, or the other big social networking platforms that attract the GenY crowd. While LinkedIn has pretty good penetration (20 million users averaging 41 years old and $110,000 income according to the Industry Standard), that is about professional lives, not family lives. These GenX parents are a tricky crowd to attract and retain. They are incredibly busy, they didn’t grow up using technology to network, and they aren’t going to engage with something that doesn’t deliver tangible value. If you’re a parent you know what I’m talking about.

John’s view is that Facebook has the mass and momentum to evolve into the only social networking platform. All others beware: Without a tight connection to Facebook, you won’t survive. Paul used the analogy of a black hole, drawing all matter into its center. Can this really be true? Does social networking really have the same dynamics as the search business?

I don’t buy it. Facebook may work for GenY, a demographic that has grown up in a very different technology context and is comfortable in that medium. The rest of us — anybody over age 30, really — aren’t looking for social networking. We are looking for ways to improve, simplify, enrich, organize, extend… our real lives. A generic social networking platform built to serve tens of millions can’t do that.

Which brings us back to SchoolPulse. We’re not a social networking company, and we are not a web site. We are creating a resource to help parents organize and streamline their busy lives. To help them keep up with their kids, really. The design, the language, the tone, the user experience all have to be consonant with that mission. We threw up our alpha site in January, a beta site in April (we are big believers in rapid iteration informed by market feedback) and have learned a lot, but we have a very long way to go. But every day, we understand more clearly what we need to be to engage a million happy members. It amazes me how quickly we are learning.

I’ll share more details of our version 2.0 platform in a future post.

Is GenX Social?

May 28, 2008

Question of the night: Which social sites are most successfully catering to the needs and interests of GenX?

I just finished creating a slide showing the top 10 social sites and the demographic audiences they serve. There are no sites in the top 10, and few others of scale, that appear to serve an audience that is primarily in the 30-50 year old range.

A couple come to mind: Jeff Taylor’s Eons and Tom Gerace’s Gather. Both are Boston-based and having a hard time pushing through the half million user threshold. Maybe if more people followed my articles on Gather the site would have more traffic!

What’s up with GenX? I’d love to hear your opinion.

Are We Crazy?

May 27, 2008

Today I was talking to a venture capitalist named Elliot Katzman whose last gig as an entrepreneur in the 1990s involved launching, a community site focused on little league baseball.   They sold the company to the Active Network, a company that has rolled up several other sports-oriented sites, in 2001for an undisclosed price.  It looks to have been a decent financial exit, though Elliott would say that they didn’t achieve their initial goal.  His opinion:  It is extraordinarily difficult to succeed in businesses that target education communities.  “It’s a hit business” like movies or music — meaning you can have a great product but cannot control whether the public will love it.

I had a similar conversation with Jon Carson, currently CEO of cMarket and previously the founder of the Family Education Network.  He has a similar story to tell — successful exit in a sale to Pearson Education, but failure to achieve the strategic vision on which the company was founded.

I’m beginning to get the sense that a number of experienced people are looking at what we are doing at SchoolPulse with a certain amount of skepticism.  “Sure, it’s a noble idea, but do you really want to commit years of your life to making it happen?  Is it a smart career investment?”

So here’s the question:  Are we crazy?  Elliot Katzman asked me why SchoolPulse will succeed when so many others have failed.  I have three answers:

  1. We know the need personally.  As an engaged father of four young kids, I experience the need for a product like SchoolPulse every day.  Like everybody else’s kids, ours play sports and instruments, have play dates and birthday parties, juggle homework with screen time, and leave their parents with almost no time for themselves.  It’s a wonderful, amazing, and chaotic circus but it’s a hell of a challenge to hold together.
  2. Our audience is primed.  Concepts like web 2.0, social networking, and blogging did not exist when Elliott and Jon were starting their previous companies.  According to Forrester, 53% of U.S. adults aged 27-50 are active users of social media.  That’s over 53 million people!   92% of GenXers are using email and nearly 20% post to or maintain blogs.  That wasn’t the case 10 years ago!
  3. The technology is easier and cheaper.  I can’t quantify the decline in technology costs, but I can say that the cost of designing and building a really good social media site is a fraction of what it would have been 10 years ago now that almost every killer social media app is embedded in open source content management systems.

If you construct a map of the top 10 social sites, you will notice that they all draw their core audience from the GenY cohort.  GenX is an opportunity ripe for the picking.

I’ll ask again:  Are we crazy?