With the recent release of Byte, I was reminded of the summer I spent working at a video social network called Viddy. I wanted to share some of the stories from that summer, and the lessons that I learned.
I came across Viddy in February 2012. I was working on my own mobile app (what would eventually turn into Shmob, a story for another time). I was working on embedding and synchronizing videos, but couldn't figure out how to stream youtube videos within the app. Viddy seemed to have solved it, so I reached out to the info@ address with our question.
To my surprise, Ken, the cofounder and CTO, responded with a detailed explanation and a few links to put me on the right path. I was pretty blown away by how generous he was with his time to respond to a pretty noob-ish question. It never hurts to ask.
So when I was looking for something to do for the summer, I reached out to Ken to see if he'd be willing to take on an intern. It was a pretty big long-shot. They were a small team, they'd recently raised a large Series B and were growing like crazy. They were also based in Venice, California, and I was not in Venice, California.
But after a call with Ken, I got the greenlight. I'd be working at Viddy for the summer and started making arrangements to move out to LA for my first-ever job in tech.
I remember showing up for my first day. I'd moved in with my Aunt's apartment in Santa Monica, and she let me borrow this old bike from the '70s that she let me ride to the office in Venice. The sun shining down as I biked between the palm trees on Ocean Avenue, as I headed to my job at a tech startup. Felt like I'd finally made it.
The office was pretty bare bones, a few tables strewn about a nondescript concrete building. My first project was building out the QA/Testing process. I knew very little about QA and Testing Automation, so it was a lot of upfront research. I started with a simple checklist, running through tests manually. Then I started writing Selenium QA scripts to automate it away.
We needed docs for a new public API the team was shipping. I didn't know much about API documentation (or much about APIs). I researched and wrote them. Marketing needed a daily...Viddy... so I'd go out and film something around Venice with the other interns.
I was setting up a pop-up canopy for a Viddy influencer event we were throwing on the beach when I had this realization. Building a company requires work. The Viddy user base was growing at a blistering pace, and the team was sprinting just to keep up with that growth. There was an ever-growing list of things that needed to get done. Docs that needed to be written, events that needed to get thrown, campaigns that needed to be run, bugs that needed to be fixed.
Early-stage companies require work. That work can be incredibly humbling, outside of any job description. There are no roles, just things that are broken that need to be fixed and opportunities that pan out to not be opportunities and those that will change the company's story. You gotta do the work to find out.
The next few years after my internship would turn out to be pretty rough for Viddy . They ended up getting squeezed by larger social platforms, as Twitter introduced Vine and Instagram added support for videos. Facebook changed its policies to prevent Vidd-ies from going viral. They rebranded, and eventually got acquired.
Startup life is inherently volatile. The swings can be massive, from hitting massive growth targets to successfully closing a round to unexpected upticks in churn or bad press. Viddy experienced it all.
There are a lot of lessons to be taken from Viddy's meteoric rise and dramatic fall. That startups are fragile. That building a social network or b2c app requires a lot of luck. That platform risk can kill a business.
But the biggest one for me is that hype — the buzzy TechCrunch articles, massive fundraising rounds — is very different from building a long-term, sustainable business. Hype can help build momentum, attract employees and interns and investors, and rally the team. But it can't be a replacement for repeatable growth or healthy business fundamentals.
At the time, riding that rusty bike down Santa Monica Blvd, I had no ability to disentangle the two.
One day Nir Eyal — the author of Hooked — came in to the office to run a product brainstorming session with the team.
He walked us through the framework he uses to design products that users will keep coming back to again and again.
First, before the user takes any action, you need a trigger to pull the user in. It could be an email notification, or a link shared on social media, or an app icon on a home screen. Something that alerts the user to the
Then you have an action. A series of steps that a user takes. Open the app.
Then there is a reward. Something that let's the user know they've achieved their goal. This could be other users liking and commenting on their video, or seeing new photos from a distant friend when you log in. Rewards can be variable (unpredictable) or fixed (predictable). Variable rewards max out dopamine levels in our brains as we're unsure if we're going to be rewarded, which increase the likelihood that a habit will be formed.
Finally, there's the investment stage. This is where the user is asked to put in some work. Shoot your own video. Share video. Comment and like. By investing in the habit, the user is more likely to return next time and that investment can be used to improve the loop next time (e.g. stated preferences for what content the user likes to view when they launch the app).
There were two things that I found interesting about this framework. The first was that to be a product builder requires a deep connection with human psychology and how people work. Our products can influence our behavior, both for better (gamifying a workout/diet) or worse (endless scrolls on Instagram).
Second, specific to Viddy (and b2c social networks)...the problem that Viddy was "solving" wasn't super clear. Perhaps it was Boredom, or yearning for Community, or a drive to Create short films. But it's not clear what the internal trigger is that eventually brings users back to their social networks. And if you can't develop one, you won't have very engaged users.
So, what did I learn from my summer at Viddy?