You might have a great product when the world’s not ready for it (the Apple Newton) or drop the ball when your competitors are cleaning up in a burgeoning sector (the Blackberry). Success is a nebulous blend of getting your engineering and programing right and hitting the mark in a fickle, ever-changing market.
How have those select few companies and online services stood the test of time as the world’s shifted around us all? Consider the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com). Launched in 1990 as a series of database scripts distributed through bulletin boards, today it’s the go-to site for everything movies and TV. Founder and CEO Col Needham attributes early growth to the increasing mainstreaming of the web itself in the mid 90s – at the time the number of users was doubling every two weeks.
Originally shared with 20 users, today imdb.com content has 160 million unique monthly visitors, and the various mobile apps for iOS, Android, Kindle and Windows Phone have been downloaded 40 million times. So just how does an online service like imdb.com keep growing after 20 years, since before the web even existed?
Mark Little, principal analyst at Ovum, says innovation is so common and switching costs for users are so low there’s only one way to engage with an audience; “a compelling user experience.”
In the case of the imdb.com, it’s all about the content. With 100 million pieces of data about more than 2 million shows and movies, there’s simply no better source for anything you want to know about them.
But what makes IMDb.com the go-to source isn’t original content – you can get it all from other sources. It’s the ease of accessing it in a compelling, digestible form. “As more service providers access the same content, the point of difference moves increasingly to user experience and brand equity,” says Little. “Content may be king but it’s also just the base requirement the consumer expects from all services.”
Iowa-born Ben Silbermann, the 29 year old CEO and co-founder of the particularly female-friendly Pinterest, digitsed what many people already loved – the pinboard – instead of inventing something completely new. With 5,000 users invited to the open beta version in March 2010, in January this year Pinterest had 11.7 million unique users.
“The whole idea of early adopters has changed,” Silberman says. “A few years ago if you were into technology you had a smartphone before anyone else or you paid more for faster internet. Now everyone has a really nice phones and Facebooks on their app store.
“[To be successful] products will find their markets a lot and more smoothly and the idea that it’s gated through Silicon Valley isn’t the case anymore. The average exposure people have to the primary distribution channels is really different. You’ll see products that come from very different beginnings rather than just the Valley mindset and that makes a lot of sense.”
Silbermann’s priority – with a small initial team – was to make sure Printerest’s grid pattern scaled gracefully between different device screen sizes. As he puts it; ‘Over-invest in one thing people really notice.’
And of course, it’s watching what your users are doing, and following them. Facebook country head and director of commercial development and sales Liam Walsh says the last 5-10 years has been about getting everyone connected, something he says was a mission rather than a company. “The years ahead are going to be about the apps and experiences,” he says. “[It’s] about taking advantage of the opportunity mobile presents. 600 million people who use Facebook are connecting from a mobile device and … mobile users are around 20 per cent more likely to use Facebook on any given day.”