I first started working on Weebly in February 2006. I worked for about a year on it with Dan and, later, Chris' help, and we launched a (very) early version of Weebly in mid-November 2006. We were TechCrunch'ed a few days later, and accepted into Y Combinator the same day. (On the morning of our YC interview, we woke up to discover we were on TechCrunch).
Weebly has been growing ever since then, gone through two complete visual redesigns, added numerous features, and doesn't even resemble the product we launched with at all.
Here's two of our graphs from May 8th 2007 -- five months after we moved out to San Francisco and had been working on the product full-time:
The first is a graph of our new signups per day, and the second is a graph of our total user count per day. I've annotated the top graph with what events caused the major spikes.
There's actually two very interesting things to note about the top graph: First, we had already closed our angel round at this point -- looking back, our investors placed a huge amount of confidence in us.
Second, the new users per day looks like it might actually be declining a little bit.
At this point, I'd been working on Weebly for about a year and a half, and we'd been launched for over six months. Judging by the graphs, you might think things weren't looking spectacular. This is the type of situation when people give up.
I've seen it quite a bit among startups -- they spend more time developing the product than they do running it after they launch it. Several have followed the same pattern: build, build, build, launch, quit.
But you've got to keep with it to gain momentum. It doesn't usually just build overnight, it takes time. Keep building your product, and eventually you gain momentum and a critical mass of people who know about you and tell others about you.
Now, here are the graphs from a couple weeks ago:
These graphs look a hell of a lot better. There's 2 things I'd like to point out:
- First, the "build it and they will come" mentality is a fallacy. You need to build something great and have distribution in order to succeed. And distribution is hard to get.
There are many ways to get distribution. One of those is through press. If you have a great product, the more people that find out about you, the more people will know about you. And they'll tell their friends, who'll tell their friends, etc.
Another subtle press benefit: you're getting links from a bunch of very highly-regarded sites, and this helps out your rankings in search engines quite a bit, which builds more traffic.
There are plenty of other good ways to get traffic too, such as engineering for viral growth, but press can have huge benefits for the right product.
- Second, in order to get people to use your product, you have to stay alive. This sounds obvious, but a ton of people spend 6 months building a product, launch it, and give up within 3 weeks.
Plain and simple, it's going to take time for people to start using your product -- there are exceptions, but it's generally not the norm. So you need to expect that, and be willing to give it time. If you give up within a month or two, your product definitely won't be successful.
Once you launch, people start to know about you. If you launch early, you can start earlier on the process of acquiring users. Don't launch with a crappy product -- launch as soon as what you have is better than what is out there. But don't wait for a perfect product -- launch as early as you can, get user feedback, and keep improving the product.
The most important of them all (unless you're trying to get launch press): Be launched. We have spent $0 on press for Weebly, but we've gotten some big mentions (Newsweek, Time, NBC, BBC). Half of the battle is having a product that people can write about -- if you're not launched, people won't know you're there. If you aren't launched and people are still trying to write about you, although it feels good to be exclusive, you're missing out on an opportunity that might not come again.
Here are ten guidelines on how to make your story interesting for the tech blogs/press and successful in general:
1) Make your story worth writing about. First, make sure you have an angle that is really exciting. If you need to, tailor your message into something that fits with an industry trend. Make sure you have a jaw-dropping demo and a clear value proposition. Basically, make sure your startup is legitimately newsworthy.
2) Launch your news on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. There's too much news coming out on Monday, so don't try to compete with that. But make sure not to launch on the weekend, because there's so much less web traffic on the weekend than on the weekdays. Tuesday or Wed is generally the largest blog traffic day, so those are preferable.
3) Put together a short list of bloggers that are appropriate for your product. Put in some time to research this. Don't include bloggers that wouldn't normally write about your story. Add three types of bloggers to this list, in equal proportion: The large blogs, that you'd love to get coverage from, the medium blogs, that might cover you, and the small blogs, that will probably cover you because nobody really approaches them for a story. It's like applying for college: no matter what, you should at least get accepted somewhere.
Even if you don't get on the large or medium blogs, the medium bloggers generally read smaller blogs, and will pick up good stories they find there. Likewise, the larger bloggers read a certain amount of medium blogs, and the story can bubble up if it is newsworthy.
4) Contact the people on your list a week or two before the launch. Make your email very personable, from the founders, but straight and to the point (their time is valuable). Your goal is to meet with the blogger in person. If that's not possible, you want to talk to them on the phone. If that's not possible, as a last resort, let them have an online demo of your product. Why? An idea and mission is much more convincing when delivered in person or over the phone by a passionate founder. You'll also have adequate chance to rebut any of their arguments against it, and you're much less likely to wake up to an article that completely missed the point of the company, or where the reporter ran into some bug in your system.
If you're just starting, though, and don't have any connections to get de-facto attention, you'll want to make it as easy as possible for the blogger to try out your software: this means you should have a direct link that requires no log-in or sign-up with pre-populated data that the blogger is able to play around with in 5 minutes or less.
5) Set a clear embargo date. We've found that sometime in the morning works best for blogs, like 10am PST. What is an embargo? It's a time after which the press is allowed to write about a story, but they're forbidden to write before then. Why set an embargo? If you don't set one, you'll end up with the grave shift post on Friday at 11pm, where no one will see it. The goal is to keep your post on the front page as long as possible.
Embargoes are actually a solution that works well for bloggers (even though some love to hate on it). Nobody likes to write about a story that is old news -- and old news can mean just a few hours old. You need to set an embargo to co-ordinate all of the major blogs, so that nobody scoops anybody else, and they all post about you (instead of just one). The way that Techmeme works, they all get to ride on the coattails of the story this way, too.
Don't feel the need to volunteer an exclusive -- if your story is newsworthy, everybody will write about it. Either way, you're much better off with coverage from 4 blogs than coverage from just one. Your goal is to pop up in every feed people read: then they can't miss your story.
6) Make yourself available. Before the launch, make yourself as available as possible. Give out your cell phone number, and always answer it -- even late at night or early in the morning. You might not get another chance to catch up with this particular blogger/reporter.
7) Make sure your product is ready. It's difficult to tell when a product is ready, but now that you're going to be receiving all of this press attention, make sure it's ready for the load. It's very likely that if your product isn't up to par, you won't get a second chance for coverage or attention. Not to say that you shouldn't launch early and often (you should), but as Paul Buchheit says, "launch your product if it's better than anything else out there."
8) Sit back, relax, and enjoy the attention. Congratulations! A large portion of the tech world's attention is focused on your startup. Expect to get emails from ridiculous people, and a few thousand sign-ups.
9) Don't panic when the attention dies. It's always tempting to fantasize that the traffic spike will stay. Except for in rare circumstances, traffic will die down and form a spike. That's ok -- you should at least have more people/day signing up than you did before the attention.
10) Cultivate relationships for next time. This is good life advice in general. If you meet with press people, work on cultivating a relationship at the personal level. A good friend doesn't only talk to you when they need something, and treats you like a normal person. I'm not advocating being fake with people, but showing a minimum level interest in them personally, sending emails when they change jobs, saying "Hi" when you bump into them at social events, etc, goes a long way. At best, you might become really good friends with them.
The pages hosting this Apache module seem to have gone dark, but I managed to grab a copy through archive.org. It's a very easy way to get rid of the ugly Basic Authentication prompt and replace it with a web page login form.
I created a new home for the module at http://modauthcookie.weebly.com/.
Hopefully, other people will find it useful too.
Since their concert in San Francisco a few months ago, I've been getting more and more into Justice. Stumbled across both of these sets -- a bit rough around the edges, but I've been listening to both non-stop for the past two weeks.
Update: and while I'm at it, here's two more Justice-themed tracks. The first is a remix of Justice's D.A.N.C.E., and the second is a remix by Justice of Love Stoned.
There's one thing I can guarantee any new startup is going to be worrying about when they launch: "Is my one (or less) web server enough?"
I've heard the question quite a few times. When we were in that stage, it was one of my biggest worries (so much so, that we initially launched a private beta). Seeing as it's a common worry, this post will address two related issues: how scalable is one web server? and should you launch a private beta?
How scalable is one web server?
More scalable than you think. I'm going to qualify that by saying that if you don't program with scalability in mind or are an idiot programmer, this might not apply.
Although we were lucky to have an awesome clustered infrastructure set up from the beginning (that I had spent a year developing for a separate venture), we actually ran Weebly off of one web server for a very long time. In fact, we can still run Weebly off of one server, total, if needs be. We currently have over 300,000 users, over 10 million page views a month, and are ranked about the top 6,000th site worldwide on the internet, and can still run off of one web server.
Plan for scalability, of course. Program with scalability in mind. But intelligently used, for most web apps, one web server can last you a long time.
Should I launch a private beta?
Short answer: no, launch public. Longer answer: probably not, launch public.
Everybody (including, initially, myself) thinks about launching a private beta when launching their product. But after seeing quite a few companies and advising another few, I think it's a bad idea.
Why? I understand the reasons for: You're scared that your product isn't ready -- or, you're positive that your product will be too popular. Opening in private beta will create an air of exclusivity. And you don't think you can scale. Et cetera...
1) Your product may or may not be ready, but it won't be that popular.
2) Your private beta won't be exclusive. In fact, nobody will know about it.
3) You can probably scale with a little effort, if things do actually go really well.
4) If you don't open up completely, you are losing users.
Think about things from your users point of view. You literally have about thirty seconds of their attention (if you're lucky). They want to like your product (they read about it, and it sounds cool). BUT, they can't try it out. It's not that they want to forget about it, but they have so many other things grabbing at their attention. Even if you ask them to submit their email address (most of them won't), you'll still convert less than 50% of those to users when you email them. It's not that they're idiots or trying to ignore you, it's just that you don't have their attention any more. The worst thing possible is if somebody wants to try your product, but can't immediately, while you still have their attention.
Basically, you're losing users. You can't afford to do that.
Even worse: if TechCrunch or any other large press source posts about you during this time, you've lost all their readers that might sign-up. And very likely, you might not get that coverage again.
There's only one reason I've ever advised anybody to try a private beta: if you (and other people around you) think that you aren't ready yet, and you need a small (read: 50 or less) group of people to try things out for you.
Occasionally, it seems to work out for some people, but I think this is more the exception than the rule -- and their product probably wasn't ready yet.
What can I do about it?
Ok, so you don't want to be like that new Yahoo! life casting thing that was down the entire couple days after it launched (even a worse way to lose your audience than a private beta, but not by much).
What can you do? Set the bar for a minimum level of service, and give that to as many people as possible, automatically. If you think your system can handle 2,000 signups, create a limit at 2,000 signups, and display a nice friendly error message after that. Make sure you'll be notified, and then put the rest on a waiting list. But don't set the limit too low. And make sure that if you hit the limit, you'll be working nonstop to increase that limit as fast as possible, to let as many people in when they want to get in as possible.