There’s nothing we tech bloggers love more than a new crop of startups plotting to “take on” or “go after” an incumbent player. It’s a classic David and Goliath story line that’s too good for us to pass up.
It’s so common that the cycle is shrinking. LinkedIn only graduated from startup status a year ago with its IPO and already countless new guys are claiming to do professional networking and recruiting better. (See: TalentBin, the recently shuttered Workfu.) Same for Pandora and the likes of Songza, Slacker even Spotify Radio.
The problem with this story line is that it assumes the incumbent leader is too dysfunctional or lacks the innovation to fight back. In the cases of old industry stalwarts that haven’t innovated in years, sure. But even publishers like MacMillan realize they need to do something about the innovator’s dilemma.
Startups “taking on” other young tech companies face an even greater challenge.
That’s why, after looking at the fourth “social homepage” startup to launch in as many months, I reached out to About.me. The company, which provides a simple, clean web page for users, faces new competition from the likes of Rebelmouse, Glossi, Hypemarks and Vizify. The new players pull in and spit out social streams in their own unique ways. They are dynamic, they sort and curate, they use infographics, they use magazine elements, they have follow and embed functions. Their missions are all slightly different but can be boiled down (more or less) to building a better one-stop-shop for a person’s online identity. In short, a better About.me.
It would be easy to say that, since its sale to AOL (four days after it launched) in 2010, the company has languished. “Big Company Deflates Cool Startup” is another story line we bloggers love. In reality, About.me offers most of the same profile functions its new competitors do, just presented in a different way. CEO Tony Conrad is very clear to say he does not believe About.me has direct product overlap with the new services, which is probably true. But they’re still tackling the same use case.
About.me recently asked its members what they’d use if the service wasn’t available. LinkedIn topped the list by far, followed by Tumblr, a personal website, WordPress and nothing. Facebook isn’t mentioned–people clearly do not want Facebook to represent their identities online–and neither were any of the new services (which I would argue haven’t had much time to gain any steam; Vizify and Rebelmouse are still in very limited beta).
There is an emergence of a couple of talented and well-funded teams lining up to deliver on the promise of ‘the next About.me,” trying to compete in the scant room between us and Facebook, either choosing to bolster something very similar to About.me with an expanded or differentiated display of service data, or coming up with something completely novel in terms of display and betting the house on that approach.
RebelMouse, Glossi and Hypemarks compete by building one’s online identity passively. If “you are what you tweet,” then they will accurately represent you identity online. Vizify does something similar but with fun infographics, aggregated info, and more editorial control.
The problem, though, is that the incumbent, About.me, is no longer just a static homepage. The buttons that previously led to one’s Twitter or LinkedIn profiles now pull up a social “modal,” which allows viewers to toggle through Instagram photos, Trippy trips, Tweets and Tumblr posts (Tumbls?). There are also pageview analytics if you care about how many people visit your profile, as well as “compliment” and notification features that allow users to interact with each other. All of this functionality has probably been live for awhile; I haven’t noticed because the company isn’t soliciting coverage from tech blogs on a weekly basis. It already sold to AOL, after all. (About.me did get a Nick Bilton writeup when it rolled out a mobile app that chased the whole network-with-strangers-nearby fad of March 2012.)
The company has two million users who have no compelling reason to abandon their current page for a slightly one that’s slightly more optimized for social media content. RebelMouse, Glossi and Hypemarks’ selling points include a following functions similar to Tumblr’s dashboard. Those functions might bring existing users back more often, but About.me seems to be tackling that stickiness issue with its communication tools.
That’s always the challenge of the “Davids” in this situation–the more acute the problem is with incumbent solutions, the more important and awesome and compelling their new solution to “take on” the big guys will be. In this case, the incumbent solution isn’t egregiously bad, nor is it causing any pain to its existing users that might cause them to abandon it.
The flip side of a profile that’s easy to create, though, is that once you build it, you don’t have much of a reason to value it or remember its there. With analytics and interaction features, About.me is trying to give users a reason to return to their profiles. Under AOL’s roof, it does not have the buzz and allure of the newest social profile players. But it’s got the users. It just needs to fight to keep them.