Thursday, July 26, 2007

Networking at SFBeta/OnMyList: A Case Study in User Unpredictability

On Tuesday, I finally went to my first official networking event, SFBeta. A batch of freshly baked companies demo their wares to a horde of spring roll chomping tech geeks. Powerset, the buzzable company du jour was showing their stuff so it may have been more crowded than usual. Who knows.

All I know is that I had no idea why I was going. I'm not trying to raise money. I generally find organized networking to be stifling. And it's always a sausage fest. Always. But I went all the same.

So as I sat there sipping my water on a bar stool, surveying the crowd of short guys with bad haircuts and blazers and little yellow founder badges(which sadly, describes me perfectly), I searched for a purpose. Then I hit upon it, I'd pretend to be Mike Moritz and try and find a single company worthy of investment. Which for me means a company with an idea that actually going to affect millions of people for the better and fundamentally change how they interact with the world. Oh, and make over a billion in revenue by year 5.

Case Study - OnMyList: Users Do Whatever the Hell They Want

OnMyList is not one of those companies. However, they do offer a useful case study. The lesson: how you think the user is going to use the product is not going to be how the product is used. It's a fundamental lesson that every startup has to learn.

OnMyList started as a simple way to create lists online and share them with others. The intention was that if you wanted to create, say, a grocery list, and share it with you roommates online, you could. (i.e. very practical stuff)

Of course, the users had other ideas. People have been using OnMyList to create random pop culture inspired musing, such as, "10 reasons why Paris Hilton is a skank", or "the hottest personal sex blogs", or "Things Men have Yelled to Me While Walking in Oakland".

So there it is in a nutshell, a product transforms from utility to self-expression completely independent of the company. And as it usually the case, the change will probably result in the company succeeding. After all, there's at least six other companies doing online to-do list, but OnMyList appears to be the only Flickr for far.

I hope for their success. The founders were supernice, and even offered me a t-shirt, and not one of those Hanes hairshirt. American Apparel, baby. The quality stuff.

So as you may have guessed, I did not find a company that set my checkbook ablaze. I was pretty underwhelmed. But as Teck Chia, serial entrepreneur and overall great guy, told me and OnMyList proved, you never know what's going to succeed, so you might as well take a bunch of small risks. After all, today's shared list app might be tomorrow's enterprise CMS.