That’s what we did with Hi, I’m.

Jonathan and I came up with the idea for Hi, I’m during a brainstorm at Koombea‘s Silicon Valley office one afternoon.  Jonathan had found the domain (which is a sweet domain, btw) and we were trying to figure out what to do with it.  We decided that it would be a great short URL for a personal page, but what to put on it?  We started looking at what links people used in their Twitter profiles.  Most people used their blog.  Robert Scoble used his FriendFeed page.  There was a smattering of YouTube or Vimeo channels for people who produced video content, some company homepages, and some Facebook pages.  A few people even got recursive and linked back to their Twitter account.  What if there was a page you could easily create that would grab all of the content from all of your networks and put them on one page?

We shared the idea with a few people to get their thoughts.  One common refrain was, “Doesn’t FriendFeed do that already?”  Well, sorta.  FriendFeed weights everything the same.  So if you spend a lot of time on an epic blog post (like this one) and then tweet 10 times about your cat, your magnum opus gets pushed off the bottom of the page.  We wanted to create a page about you that had all of your content and we wanted to give you the ability to highlight things that you thought were really important for people to see when they came to learn more about you.

So now we had the idea, but needed to figure out how to build it.  For our day job we run Koombea, a web development company that focuses on building initial products for early stage startups.  We needed to keep our focus on our client work so Hi, I’m was going to be a nights and weekends thing for us.  Then we heard about the Rails Rumble.  Rails Rumble is a competition where teams of four have 48 hours to build a new web app from scratch.  You can’t write any code or create any digital assets until the competition starts and then 48 hours later, you have to stop.  It was the perfect opportunity to build Hi, I’m.

We put together a team of four guys from Koombea and registered.  Since I don’t write code, I wasn’t part of the team.  But we spent a few days leading up to the competition planning our product and our process for building it.  We were going to focus on the profile page, the registration flow, adding a few key networks to your page, and that was it.  There wasn’t time to do anything else.

On Friday night, August 21 at 5pm PST, the gun went off.  Jonathan went to work on the servers, Max started designing, and Bebeto and Jose starting writing the code.  Max did a post-competition write up over on the Koombea blog if you want to know how it went.  The guys coded and designed and deployed for 48 hours straight and we made our last commit just a few minutes before the final deadline.

There were 161 apps completed in the 48 hour time frame.  From there, a panel of expert judges cut the list down to 22 finalists.  Those finalists were then voted on by the public.  After a few days, and some tense vote watching, Hi, I’m was named the winner.  Woo hoo!  Then…uh oh.

When you build an app in 48 hours, there’s a lot that doesnt’ get done.  And there are a lot of bugs.  Most startups spend weeks or months getting an initial product ready to be shared with the public, but we didn’t have that luxury.  And because of the rules for judging, we couldn’t deploy any features or bug fixes until the contest ended nearly two weeks later.

In that time, we saw traffic skyrocket.  There were blog posts on Mashable and Read/Write Web about the competition and the judging was also sending a ton of users our way.  People were creating their pages and sharing their links on Twitter which drove more traffic.  We were totally unprepared for the onslaught of users we had coming to us overnight.  And our hands were tied to fix the bugs people were reporting.

Since then, the initial burst from the competition traffic has died back down to normal levels.  And we’ve had some time to re-do some of the things we didn’t like as well as fix bugs and incorporate some of the user feedback.  We’ve rolled a few minor patches and a big redesign of the page where you add your networks.  All of these decisions were based on the feedback that we got during that first wave of new users.  It’s also great to see people using their Hi, I’m URL as the link they use for their Twitter profiles and their other profiles on the web (thanks Brett, Allan, Todd, Gustav, and everyone else!).  It’s exactly what we were hoping for.

So now what?  We still struggle to find the time to work on Hi, I’m that we’d like to.  Our clients still come first which means that Hi, I’m sometimes has to take a back seat.  But by being forced to launch in 48 hours, we learned some important lessons that have helped not only us, but the startups that we work with.

  1. Figure out your Minimum Viable Product. For Hi, I’m, this was registration, adding your networks, and your profile page.  Focus on this, and nothing else and then ship it.  As soon as you can.
  2. Your plans will change. What we thought we were going to do next wasn’t what we ended up doing next.  By getting the product out early, we were able to see what worked and what didn’t and get feedback about what our users really needed.
  3. Do your Customer Development homework. By talking to users before we built anything, we were able to get a good idea for where to start.  Scoble was really helpful for us in thinking about this.  We identified him as an alpha user and he helped us think about what would be helpful for someone who is on the extreme side of creating and publishing personal content on the web.  We worked backwards from there.
  4. Focus on what’s the immediate next thing you have to do. Sometimes, we see startups thinking three or four steps down the road.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to know where you’re going, but when you’ve got a time crunch, the most important thing to do is to know what you’re going to do today.  And then recalculate that for tomorrow.  And then again for the day after that.
  5. Don’t worry too much about small bugs. They happen.  And the first people to use your product will help you find them and determine which ones are most important to fix and which ones you can save until later.
  6. You’re never done. For startups, “done” is a concept that doesn’t exist.  There is always something to do next.  If you try to define a “done” state, you won’t get there.  Get just as far as you need to and then launch.  Figure out what’s next from there.
  7. Grab the opportunity when you have it. This is one area I think we could have done better.  Because our ability to work on Hi, I’m was limited after we launched, things have been slower than we would have liked.  Ideally, we’d have been launching more features and fixing more things sooner and faster.  I think we could have better leveraged the post launch hype.
  8. Be ready for the trough of despair. Typically, most of your hype comes when you launch.  You’ll get written about, see huge traffic spikes, people will talk about you on Twitter…but it goes away.  Your traffic will die down.  Do not worry about this.  It happens to everyone.  Expect this and embrace it because it will give you a chance to take what you’ve learned and get on your way to the light at the end of the tunnel.  We were actually glad once traffic started to dip back down because we could breathe again and reset our focus.
  9. Learn. Everything you do gives you an opportunity to learn something new.  This could be about your internal process for building, about how users are really using your product, about what your customers need, or about yourself as an entrepreneur.  The key to success is taking every event in the launch of your startup, learning something from it, adjusting, and then using that do whatever comes next.

So now what?  We’ve got some great feedback on what people want from Hi, I’m.  We’ve got plans in place for how we’re going to make some money off of it.  We’ve got our next steps figured out in terms of what we think we should build for our users.  We’ve got some ideas for breaking into other markets.  As part of our prize for winning the Rails Rumble, we get to spend a week at Techstars in Boulder, CO meeting with entrepreneurs, VCs, CEOs, and startup mentors.  We’re going to use that time to focus on refining our plans and working on developing some new features.

For now though, we’re focusing on consistent iteration and improvement.  We’re trying to work on small tasks that add the most value and learning from each thing we do based on our users’ behavior and feedback.  Launching a product in 48 hours is a huge challenge and we learned a lot from it.  Hopefully these lessons learned will be helpful for other startups who are working on their initial launches.

And if you’re curious now, you can get your own Hi, I’m page here.  There are plenty of good names left, but they’re going fast 😉  If you do, feel free to introduce yourself like this:  http://hi.im/ryan

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