A piece of startup advice I’ve been hearing a lot lately is, “do things that are very unscalable when you’re first starting out.” Airbnb is the quintessential example: CEO Brian Chesky said he was “literally living with our users” in the early days, asking feedback and ensuring he was building a site that they loved. This is obviously not possible once you grow to 550,000 listings.
Another startup, Quibb, a link-sharing community for professionals, got its start that way, and has no intentions of changing as the site scales. Founder Sandi MacPherson, a former climate change scientist, convinced Quibb’s first users to join by personally meeting with people she wanted on the service. “I could only meet with like three people a day, it was just me driving to meetings,” she says.
Since then, Quibb has grown to thousands of users, by rejecting the majority of sign-ups. Quibb is currently available by invite only, and MacPherson personally vets each applicant. You read that right — there is an actual human on the other end of Quibb’s sign-up form. She has “lightly cyber-stalked” each of the site’s 7,000 users (as well as the 20,000 or so she’s rejected).
Quibb’s exclusivity is a clever psychological trick. With every step of the sign-up process, you’re reminded that Quibb only has a 34 percent acceptance rate (the figure is live and fluctuates, but usually stays below 40 percent). At first it’s an automatic turn-off: Do I even want to be a part of this group? I’m not the kind of person who cares about making it past the velvet rope. But after filling out two or three different sign-up pages, I realize I actually do. I don’t even know why, maybe it’s just curiosity about the site. What awesome exclusive thing could possibly be behind a sign-up process this involved?
Once I was accepted (whew), I found a flourishing community. (Note: I signed up before talking to MacPherson.) Not only was I immediately shown links and discussions that were relevant to my job, I was quickly able to interact with high profile people from my field who were already there. Influencers, if you will. Because Quibb is built around Twitter contacts, I’m constantly getting updates from people I follow and admire. There is recognition and credibility from the getgo. Yes, I’d like to participate in a community that counts Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, Josh Kopelman, founder of First Round Capital, and countless startup CEOs among its users.
Naturally this is no accident. MacPherson realized that context is important for building a worthwhile community, particularly when it’s a community meant for professionals. “It actually matters who you are and where you work and what experiences you have,” she says. Content becomes more relevant when its shared by a certain person, with a certain job title at a certain company.
“No offense to, like, my brother, but he doesn’t know anything about the new Twitter APIs, so why would he come into this community and talk to people about that?” she adds.
Quibb is currently focused exclusively on tech-related content but MacPherson will eventually expand to other subject matters including climate change, her prior area of expertise. For now Quibb is a bootstrapped one-woman operation and will stick to one subject.
MacPherson sees Quibb becoming a Reddit or Tumblr for professionals. Platforms like these are the new distribution hubs for content on the web. But professionally-focused ones, like LinkedIn, are only beginning to get into the content game, and Twitter is filled with lots of other non-professional noise. Quibb is carving out a place between the two.
That Quibb would become one of the toughest doors in town was not on purpose. MacPherson just wanted to ensure her community was actually useful to people. “It was never intended to be this velvet rope effect, that’s just kind of what happened,” she says.
She’s letting people in as quickly as she can manually sift through sign-ups, trying to limit her bouncer time to 30 minutes a day. She looks for social signals that a person is a tech professional with some relevant interests to the community, be it their employer, title, or whether other Quibb users follow the person on Twitter. That’s the only key to getting past the velvet rope — social signals and proof that you actually work in tech. Oh yeah, and don’t be a bot. Bots don’t add much to the conversation.
Will Quibb ever drop its exclusivity as it scales up? Naturally, there’s a vibrant discussion happening about this very topic on Quibb. Andrew Chen, an advisor to Quibb, writes that if the site were invite-only forever, “I think it would be a good thing :).”