One is the Magic Number

Mistake #15: Needing an Army

In all the pitches I’ve heard and all the funding proposals I’ve read, it’s surprisingly rare to hear anyone talk about how many users their site will get. It’s almost as if the only thing that matters is the technology, and not the people who’ll use it. Sometimes this is the Field of Dreams Fallacy (“If you build it, they will come”), and often it reflects the all-too-prevalent misapprehension that the whole world cares deeply about the same issues as you do, and are waiting on the edge of their seats for your site to appear so they can finally make their society better. But no matter the root cause, the closest we usually get to any theory of user dynamic is a section on PR and marketing. If pushed for targets or expectations in this area, a classic hockey-stick graph usually appears, or we get some discussion on how to scale the site if it grows too quickly.

I’m much more interested in the question of what it means to not get enough users. Or, from a different angle, how many people need to use your site for it to be successful. This isn’t simply a worse-case scenario disaster planning exercise — the answer to that question cuts right to the heart of your strategy, and should shape not only your marketing but also your development, release, and maintenance approaches.

If you’re trying to build any kind of social network, the answer to that question is likely to be quite a large number. Sites that involve users having to come together to do something, whether that’s an auction site, or something that helps you find a tennis partner, follow the same sorts of power laws as trying to introduce the first fax machine: there’s close to zero value for the first few users, so you want to get as big as possible as quickly as possible. Generally, as I’ve mentioned before, this is a really bad strategy, unless you have clever way to bootstrap or millions of dollars to spend1.

A much better approach is to make the Minimum Acceptable Users number as low as possible — ideally one. was successful the first time someone bought a book. was successful the first time someone came along, reported a problem, and got it fixed. It was irrelevant to those people who else, if anyone, was also using the site.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you want to only ever have one user. I’ll bet Jeff Bezos was ecstatic the first time someone he didn’t know ordered a book, but I suspect that would have been short-lived if no more customers had ever turned up. No, what I mean is more subtle than that. When you finally help someone achieve something, that’s a key inflection point. Your dream has become a reality, you’ve succeeded in making the world that little bit better, and now you can concentrate on replicating that again and again and again, helping an increasing number of people have increasingly better experiences.

It’s easy to sucked into thinking that to change the world you need to make a huge impact all at once. We all love the stories of millions of people coming together to make a difference, and we dream of being able to orchestrate something like that ourselves. And sometimes to make something important happen you really do need to be able to harness a large number of people all at once. But for most of the things that improve society, it’s simpler, cheaper, less risky, and, often much more satisfying to simply help one person. And then another. And then another. And another. And another, ad infinitum, one by one by one.

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  1. and if there’s already an existing competitor, make that billions of dollars []
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