The Indian start-up ecosystem has had its share of innovative successes. We have e-commerce giants like Flipkart and Snapdeal catering to a teeming population that is increasingly discovering the joys of online shopping; we have the likes of InMobi taking on a giant like Google; we have Zoho, a first-generation Indian company that is making serious ripples in the world of enterprise software. There are a slew of companies working to solve local problems as well.
But there is a category of companies that has remained elusive to the Indian ecosystem. What's common across Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, other than the fact that they have been the most impactful companies in the last decade?
They are all driven by communities.
Community businesses are very hard to pull off, but if successful they can be the most powerful. Such businesses are hard, because beyond a certain point the success of the company is not dependant on the product but on its large-scale adoption by users.
"To get users you need already existing users, but how do you create a large enough critical mass that other users will come to you?"
In enterprise businesses, the product is the king -- you build a good product and customers will follow. In marketplaces, availability of goods and services is the critical factor -- ensure that and users will follow. Communities are very different; the biggest attraction for a new user is the presence of other users on the platform, something that the platform has no control over.
The problem is straightforward -- to get users you need already existing users, but how do you create a large enough critical mass that other users will come to you?
To have an answer to this problem we need to understand what drives the growth of communities in their early stages. Every community, at least in its initial days, has a set of users that can be referred to as "supernodes". These users are not only the early adopters of the product, but also attract others on to the platform.
Look at Facebook, how it grew in its early days. It targeted colleges. Colleges were an easy, closed ecosystem and it was easier to catch their attention. Once Facebook was popular in the top US colleges, every other university wanted to be part of the network.
Twitter struggled a lot in the beginning to find large scale adoption, but it gained popularity by successfully getting influencers on the platform. Twitter literally went off the charts when Barack Obama used it for his political campaign. Today people use Twitter to stay up to date with popular personalities and news.
LinkedIn has a similar story too. On the face of it, LinkedIn is nothing but an online resume, with a connect button on it. There were many reasons for LinkedIn to fail, but it didn't because most of the early adopters of the platform were people who other people want to connect with. Most of the first 1 million users LinkedIn acquired came because they wanted to connect with the influencers on the site.
It's not rocket science to figure out that the most critical factor for the success of any community is to not only have early adopters, but to have early adopters who have a following of their own -- because they are going to get you your critical mass. Do whatever it takes to get those early adopters on the platform and ensure that they talk about you.
"Every community has its own 'aha moment' and you need to figure out what's yours."
Once you have critical mass on the platform, you need to start scaling up the community. Every community has this "aha moment" that a new user needs to experience within the first few days of signing up. This can obviously vary from company to company, but without this a community would never scale up.
For Facebook, the "aha moment" was very simple. They knew if a user was able to find seven friends in the first seven days of signing up, he or she was going to be a committed user and they put their entire focus around ensuring that would happen.
Similarly, if a Twitter user is able, in the first week of signing up, to find a set of people who they would like to follow, then they are never going back because that's what they came for.
Every community has its own "aha moment" and you need to figure out what's yours.
Once you have your idea in place, there are just two things you have to do right -- find the initial set of supernodes who are going to help you create your critical mass and make every possible effort to ensure that each new user who signs up gets that "aha moment" you've strived to create.