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The 3 Lessons of RebelMouse for Startups
Posted on August 23rd 2012
There's some confusion out there regarding startup RebelMouse. What is it? And what does it want to be when it grows up?
But there's no denying it's hot, with an A-list of tech titan early adopters participating in the rebelmouse.com/yournamehere land grab and singing its praises.
The appearance of success (buzz and traffic growth) is actual business success' conjoined twin, so congratulations are due to founder Paul Berry, former CTO of HuffPo and his team of used-to-be HuffPonauts.
The rest of us, who are not founders of anything as cool as RebelMouse, will have to be content with the few simple learnings it offers:
Lesson 1: Copy Pinterest--then take it one better
The word-to-picture exchange rate is a weary cliche. And though Pinterest was not exactly the first company to grasp how compelling the visual medium could be, it did have the unique insight that consumers were looking not for an heir to file cabinets and scrapbooks, but for a way to say "I luv shopping!" in two clicks (Snap! Pin!), and then to share that luv with everyone.
In the wake of the Pinterest tsunami, the world--and more importantly the VCs that live in it--are hyper-sensitized to the next leap for social imagery. Well played, RebelMouse.
Like Pinterest, RebelMouse is fundamentally visual, with the same image-dominated look and pinboard motif. The RebelMouse share bar insists upon a visual component to your shares and urges you to "Stick it," so initiating the inevitable exhaustion of suitable synonyms for "pinning" that will end with a lawsuit over who owns the term "Scotch tape it!"
But Rebelmouse differs from Pinterest in an all-important way. Pinterest is for users that carry a camera. Rebelmouse points the camera at you. And it often feels like a hidden camera when you see the visual manifestation of your daily online activities spread across your page--some delightful, some surprising, some puzzling. Yes, there are the photos you took on instagram. But there are also photos from things you shared that you didn't even know had photos associated with them. Your Rebelmouse page is in some ways the picture you didn't know you were painting.
This technique of plumbing the extremities of your social graph, slinking along your shortened URLs seeking pictures, is in itself not new--it's the same thing Facebook or LinkedIn or any network (except Tiwitter--wtf?) does when you share a link. But RebelMouse appears to have a richer algorithm for finding interesting images than other services, and appears to care more about picking good ones without your help.
If the quality and ease of that selection process is indeed RebelMouse's singular quest, it's a laudable crusade. That methodology, refined over time, will make a potent (and lucrative) secret sauce.
Lesson 2: User experience is the difference-maker
I can't emphasize this strongly enough: unless you are discovering some new market fresh from the womb of a recent technological innovation, success is a function less of what you do than how well you do it.
RebelMouse is a case in point. Even the most interesting features of the product are evolutionary, not revolutionary. But I can't think of another product that let's you create so much with so few clicks. Screen options are limited, setup is linear, and the interface is an elegant joy. You'll want to install its share widget just for the feel of dragging that sucker across your screen.
The magnificently spare decor may be attributable to RebelMouse's youth--they haven't had time to junk up the interface the way certain other hoary, hoarding social networks have. But anyone who has been part of the software design process knows that successes like RebelMouse's don't happen by accident. Therefore: huge props.
It's worth noting that with simplicity of interface come limitations to user control. Your page is public and the options for configuring your individual feeds are more useful for controlling the quantity of what is returned than for guarding your privacy. If you, like me, tend to use different social networks for different audiences--personal or professional--the collage that RebelMouse regurgitates when you've given the service 360 degree access to your networks can be a trifle disconcerting. But it's hard to blame RebelMouse for optimizing for exhibitionism. That's never the wrong call in our culture.
Lesson 3: Steal every ounce of data the old social networks will give you
By now we know that Twitter is having second thoughts about giving away the store. Facebook is feeling the icy grip of the market for the first time and may soon start thinking hard about the proportion of incoming versus outgoing traffic via its API's wide-open barn doors.
These old soldiers have invested years and millions cajoling me into handing over my content and my networks. And in an effortless instant of OAuth, I handed the entirety to an upstart, giving me the chance to start life afresh with a beautiful young newcomer while still keeping in perfect touch with my children and old friends.
That RebelMouse's intent is for me to move in permanently seems clear. Tools for sharing content directly through RebelMoouse, for inviting my friends to join, and for managing multiple accounts are all in place, minimalist in implementation, but muscularly direct in purpose. The business imperative is plain as well--I will be worth much more to RebelMouse as a resident than a visitor.
But that doesn't mean that RebelMouse will play St. George to Facebook's dragon.
First of all, we'd all better put up our umbrellas, because it is going to be raining Pinterest imitators and innovators in here soon. And the same low barriers to entry that RebelMouse strolled through are still agape. Anybody can grab the social graph.
Perhaps it's just wishful thinking on my part, but maybe RebelMouse is not the next leviathan-in-waiting, but a harbinger of an age of social network balkanization. The unlimited market scale that makes software businesses so potentially lucrative also--paradoxically--threatens to commodotize even relatively exotic products, because imitators can arise so quickly and there are no geographic barriers to competition.
If the trends for open and standardized APIs hold, we could be headed for a world of apps that can be classified as just readers (tools that display and filter data), writers (cameras, geolocation check-in widgets), and the exchanges that serve them. If you think that portends a future of drab sameness, think again. It would instead be liberating, freeing developers from time-consuming wheel-reinvention and allowing them to focus on designing delightful interfaces and creating marginal features that address the appetites of niche markets.
How businesses get built amidst such a micro-market florescence is an open question, but it's not like there are easy answers to that conundrum in our current state of affairs either.
Got thoughts? Sure you do.