Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned by Starting a Web Company
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Two years ago, we started Ning to give everyone the opportunity to create social networks.

At the time, we called them social applications, but for us, our “eye on the prize” was to put social networks in the hands of anyone with an idea. We’re just about there with Ning v2 which we’ll release tonight.

Given this milestone, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of the things we’ve learned so far.

1. Build your product on your own terms.

From the beginning, we dreamed big and knew it would take us a while to get here.

The pressure today to build something fast and cheap is enormous. A lot of times that’s the right approach, but along with everything else in software and life, it also depends on what you are trying to do.

Feedback is fantastic and critical to creating something from nothing, but we were roundly criticized by pundits for not delivering on our big idea three months after we had launched the initial beta. The irony being, of course, that we were taking too long to create a platform to enable people to create their own social networks in minutes for free.

Speed is critical, but it has to be looked at in the context of what you are trying to create. In a two year stretch, we (1) released 24 simple social applications running on a completely programmable platform, (2) expanded the underlying programmable platform, (3) streamlined and improved the applications, (4) got lots of feedback on what people wanted from the service, and (5) pulled it all together to create Ning v2.

In Internet time, two years seems interminable but creating a platform and a killer application simultaneously with 27 people in two years is no small feat and we are really happy with the results.

2. Underhype your service and see how it stands up.

We believed from the beginning that the service had to stand on its own. Good or bad, we wanted to know if and how people would discover and use it. This was part philosophy, but also part necessity.

Like most start-ups, we were a team with a lot on our plate. For every conference any one of us would attend, it meant a feature had to wait. We wanted to keep adding to, updating, and improving the service, so conferences, interviews, and blogging took a backseat to product development.

The results were fascinating. It was interesting to see who found Ning on their own. This was not the Alexa toolbar crowd. There were subversive artists in North Carolina, eBay sellers in New York, bead store owners in Maine, aspiring hip hop artists in New Jersey, college professors in Germany, Houston high school art teachers, and even a few big media companies in LA.

Many had started groups on MySpace or Facebook and wanted more. Others just loved the ability to quickly create a Google map mash-up. The range of possible uses people were finding for their social websites was totally invigorating.

There’s a time and a place for tirelessly marketing a product. In fact, we plan to do just that in the coming months with Ning v2. We believe it’s the right time because we have something to talk about – the creation of social networks by everyone.

For the past year, however, we chose to throw everything we had into the service and see what happened. We learned a ton and wouldn’t trade this education for the world.

3. It’s a small world, but it’s filled with a lot of people.

If you were to ask me the most surprising thing we saw in the past year, I’d say hands down it’s been our adoption outside the U.S. From the beginning, half our community has been from around the world and this has stayed steady even as our page views have grown rapidly.

As part of Ning v2, we’ve internationalized everything and will spend the next few months rolling out Ning in various languages. In hindsight, it’s never too soon to localize in as many languages and locations as you can.

4. Be obvious.

When we started Ning in 2004, we wanted to create a platform to enable people to connect, communicate, and organize online in entirely new ways. The problem was we didn’t know what to call it. “User-generated content” made us want to barf.

Originally, we called the social websites we offered “social web apps”, a term with which those comfortable with technology are familiar. However, it wasn’t an obvious term to the non-technical people for whom we created our service in the first place. In parallel, social networking came to describe what we were doing and it was a term people came to understand and embrace.

In the two years since we started, what we were doing got a name and became mainstream.

With Ning v2, we can say with confidence Ning offers social networks for everyone.

You choose a combination of features (videos, blogs, photos, forums, etc.) from an ever growing list of options, you customize how your network looks, add your logo if you have one, and automatically give the people on your network the option to create their own custom personal profile pages.

The product had to get there first, but when choosing what to call our service we have learned to let obviousness guide us.

5. It’s about you, not us.

Sometimes it’s really easy to follow the crowd and use the “well, this service did it…” school of product design, even when it goes against what you stand for.

We stand for the creation of social networks by everyone. Not just developers, start-ups, or big media companies, but everyone. For us, we see the goal as the freedom to make your social network whatever and whomever you decide it should be.

Even though this has been our guiding mission from the start, there are still places in Ning 1.0 where we could and should have gone farther to make it for and about you, not us.

I think many new web products are far too focused on getting people to do something for them, and join their world. Flickr did this brilliantly for all the right reasons and there’s been a rush to follow their lead.

Our goal is different. Not better or worse, but different. We want to enable you to create your own world – your own social network – based on your collective ideas, creativity, mojo, and brand, not ours.

Ning v2 is designed to give everyone the freedom to create their own social networks together in new, interesting, and hopefully unexpected ways.

There will still be places where we can take it further or make things easier for you to customize. We’ll strive to relentlessly reduce the number of these things as quickly as possible. From here on out, however, we plan to err on the side of freedom and customization for everyone.

6. This is only the beginning.

When we think about where we’re at in the development of social media, social software, and social networks, it’s still incredibly early.

I believe that we’ll look back in five years and be astounded by the ways social networks and social media democratize everything.

Compuserve, AOL, and Prodigy in the early nineties provide a great example of this same inflection point. Like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, these too were one-size-fits-all walled gardens that had a fixed view of what people could do with them.

But before they were blown away by the web, they were also tremendously important in bringing a critical mass of people online and getting them comfortable with a few key features, like chat rooms, bulletin boards, and email.

These services were a crucial first step in priming people for the freedom, flexibility, and sophistication that eventually evolved as a result of the web as a platform.

Like the web before it, the freedom social networking as a platform creates means they will work their way into every nook and cranny of our lives.

I, for one, think it’s going to be one wild ride.