So, here's the question: does your company attract users with any of these things?
- an inherently viral idea
- search engine optimized content that grows naturally with usage
- the ability to spend money to acquire users with a very fast payback
- none of the above
There's also a group of startups who think they have passed the multiple choice test, but that's because they have misunderstood the answers. This blog post is my attempt to clarify them.
1. An inherently viral idea
Very, very few sites can correctly offer this answer because very few concepts are inherently viral. You may have a great site and may rightfully think users will tell their friends about it, but you probably don't have a viral site. You're not benefiting from a viral idea, you're benefiting from word of mouth. Word of mouth is nice, but it's not nice enough to form the foundation of a business. To be viral, the utility of your site/service needs to grow substantially as your friends use the service. Great examples of inherently viral services include Skype (with no friends to call, it's useless), Facebook (you can't trade messages with your friends if they're not on the site) and LinkedIn (you can't access your business network if you haven't established it on the site). Bessemer had one fantastic investment success with Skype and is hoping for a second with LinkedIn. Too bad we missed out on Facebook.
Viral ideas are the most powerful of all because they grow exponentially. Skype had 500,000 users less than a month after beta launch in the summer of 2003 and has reached more than 100,000,000 people since.
2. Search engine optimized content that grows naturally with usage
Almost everything starts with Google and its search engine brethren these days. If you can build a service with lots of web pages that get indexed by Google and show up naturally as top results for a large number of searches, you will get a lot of free traffic. It sounds simple. But it's not.
There are dozens of techniques and tricks to building search engine optimized (SEO) web sites, and there are countless firms who will sell you advice on how to do it correctly. Most importantly, though, the idea underlying your site must lend itself naturally to SEO. First, consumers have to be doing a lot of searches for content on your site. Second, your content has to grow -- ideally through contributions from users. Bessemer had a very successful investment in Site Advisor (acquired by McAfee) that leveraged SEO distribution. Several of our current investments -- OLX, Wikia and Yelp are SEO-driven.
3. The ability to spend money to acquire users with a very fast payback
If you can spend money to make money, you can control your own destiny. Generally, you have to be in the business of selling something to consumers. Online retailers are great examples of companies in this category. If 2% of visitors complete a purchase and if the average purchase is a $50 with a 30% gross margin, then you can afford to spend $0.30 for a visitor. Assuming a small fraction of the eventual purchasers will become repeat buyers, you will have a profitable business. Retailers and subscription sites like Improvement Direct and Match are great examples. In fact, most of the IAC properties fit in this category. Online media properties that monetize through advertising can rarely spend money to make money. It just costs too much to acquire a customer.
There are a few companies like LinkedIn and Yelp that benefit from more than one of the user acquisition techniques mentioned above. LinkedIn is primarily viral but leverages SEO through its personal profile pages. Yelp is primarily SEO driven but has a viral element among its core contributors who invite friends to the service to share and compare reviews.
There may be one other compelling customer acquisition strategy for consumer Internet companies, but in my mind, the jury is still out. This fourth technique leverages the open APIs for widgets offered by MySpace and many of the leading social networks. Although it's clear you can drive tremendous usage through widget-based distribution, I'm not yet convinced that these widget companies will develop viable business models.