Starting a Social Network
I've looked at a lot of social network companies over the past few months. Many of the ideas sound great once there are a lot of members. But, getting to a lot of members is really, really hard. So, I tend to think about strategies for getting a social network started.
As an entrepreneur in this type of company, you have to ask yourself why the first person, or first 100 people, would join your social network. Since you don't have a lot of users yet, it can't be because they'll interact with a lot of users. Perhaps you have some unique content that gives them benefit as an individual. Perhaps you have an application that is useful to them stand-alone. Maybe you have a functionality that is so unique and cool that people will try it just to see it. If you think you are in this category, you are probably fooling yourself.
I've given several entrepreneurs advice lately about micro-targeting their initial user acquisition. Since these social networks only have value to users if the users have something in common, make sure that your initial target ensures this. Maybe you should target a very small geographic area (like a neighborhood in a city). Maybe you should target specialized clubs or existing special interest groups. But, think small, smaller, smallest.
Targeting a very small group and trying to get deep penetration into that group will give you valuable feedback about the true virality of your social network. Most entrepreneurs greatly overestimate how viral an application will be. It really has to be in a user's interest for them to invite their friends in order for them to do so.
If you can't get an existing group with quite a bit in common to use your social network, why would the masses find it useful? And, now you have to compete with the massive social networks like Facebook and MySpace. A new social network has to be more specialized and targeted. Grow it from the bottom up rather than targeting things widely.
Another benefit of this is that you can get started on less capital. You can spend a small amount of money very wisely on guerrilla tactics (like handing out paper flyers on the street, attending a special interest group meeting in person, or becoming a live participant in an existing online community). You won't prove scalability with this approach, but you will find out exactly what real users want, how they use your application, and why it does or doesn't work. Once you have some real data on this, it should be easier to raise more money to broaden out your approach.
I was thinking about social networks as I developed this, but it applies to lots of different businesses. You need to get very close to your initial customers. Most companies which target enterprises don't hesitate to have a very small initial beta customer set. They want to dig deeply into each customer and learn how to get it right. I just haven't seen enough of the social networking start-ups think about this the same way.