What Socialwok’s Private Beta Taught Founder Ming Yong

9 Mar 2011 in Interviews

Welcome back to the 4th (very noisy – sorry!) segment of my interview with the Founder and CEO of Socialwok, Ming Yong! Socialwok is a collaborative social feed built on Google apps.

This is a story about what Socialwok learned from its private beta, and how it changed the way they thought about their initial product. During the aftermath of winning the 2009 TechCrunch50 Demopit Award, Ming Yong met with some some of Silicon Valley’s heaviest hitters. He discussed Socialwok with two of the most revered investors in the history of Silicon Valley: Ron Conway of SV Angel and Paul Graham of Y Combinator.

Before unpacking how Socialwok reevaluated its initial product based on the private beta, I was curious how aligned Ming and Paul’s philosophies were around launching a startup.

PAUL GRAHAM’S PHILOSOPHY FOR LAUNCHING A STARTUP

Paul Graham believes that there is only one way for founders to understand what adjustments they need to make in order to achieve product/market fit: listen to feedback from real users. So, his philosophy is for startups to launch at the moment their product has reached a “quantum of utility”. At Y Combinator, speed-to-market is of the essence.

At first glance, Ming’s advice in one of the previous segments of our interview seemed slightly different. He said that the best way for startups to leverage launch-specific events like TC50 is to remain in stealth mode for as long as possible; keeping product releases hidden from the public.

*Side note on launch events: Conferences like TC50 prefer to build hype around their event by keeping the startup launches as mysterious as possible. You can read/watch how Socialwok gained the attention of TechCrunch here.

MING’S ADVICE FOR LAUNCHING YOUR STARTUP

Ultimately, Ming agrees with Paul. He believes startups ought to work on building their product for 2 months and then quickly start getting feedback by testing it with people. Even if you’re letting some users play with your product through a private beta, that doesn’t mean you can’t remain in stealth mode. You don’t have to necessarily announce it to the world.

Ming and Paul’s worry? That most startups will take 6 months to ship their beta product and then wait another 6 months before launching publicly.

SOCIALWOK’S PRIVATE BETA REVEALS A KEY LESSON

So, here’s what Socialwok did. They built version one of their product quickly and went into a closed beta. The product was a microblogging platform that was independent of any workflow. They had 20 companies testing the beta at the beginning of the first week. By the end of the week, only 3 companies were still using it.

What was the problem? People are already consumed by email, and Socialwok was trying to get them to adopt yet another workflow. The extra hassle was made worse because version one of their product was not high-value. This is why Socialwok suffered from such an abysmal drop-off rate after their first week in beta.

SOCIALWOK ADJUSTS VERSION ONE, ACHIEVES PRODUCT/MARKET FIT

On their second iteration, Ming and his team determined that they needed to adjust their product to somehow improve the workflows that most people were already accustomed to. They recognized that a lot of their targeted users’ workflow involved Google Apps. So, Socialwok decided to offer sharing, microblogging, and collaborative features on top of Google Apps.

The difference?

Suddenly, Ming’s team wasn’t ‘forcing’ customers to use Socialwok purely for Socialwok’s sake. Instead, Socialwok was helping customers do what they were already doing better; adding value to their Google Apps workflow. If not for the private beta, Ming doesn’t believe they would have recognized the opportunity to incorporate Google Apps as a means of distribution.

DON’T MISS…

In the end of the interview, Ming provides some pretty cool tips for getting the most out of private betas. Having thousands of users of your early version product can lead to a high volume of feedback. It’s important to determine which of it is important to your future, and which should be set aside. Ming uses a rather entertaining analogy to explain how Socialwok distinguished relevant feedback from not-so-relevant feedback during its beta.

He also points out that the most important feedback is often unavoidable because scores of users will start telling you the same thing. If you want to know the origins of Socialwok’s story, you can read about it and watch segment one here.

THANK YOU TO…

Once again, I need to thank my French-Canadian friend Johanna Mortreux for her awesome help with the camera and for watching the time. Also, big thanks (and a belated happy birthday!) to Ming for his stellar interview. It’s a pity the venue was so noisy!

As part of my ongoing internship with Syncables, I’m currently working on a beta product called LivePlay. Got any advice to share on running an effective beta? Drop your insight in the comments!