TwitApps on 37signals' blog

I was recently asked to answer a few questions for the 37signals' blog, Signal vs. Noise, and it just went live.

The post summarises the reasons a number of startups are no longer around. I never really considered TwitApps to be a startup, but I was honoured that Matt wanted to include it in the post.

Matt didn't use all of my answers to his questions, so in case anyone's interested I thought I'd post them here.

Why didn't TwitApps take off the way you hoped? Or did it?

It did, far more so than I'd hoped. When I shut the service down there were over 4000 active users and was growing every day.

If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?

I wrote TwitApps Replies in response to Twply (see here and here for more info).

It was a technical exercise for me, not an attempt to create a product. The second tool, TwitApps Follows, was written in response to the bad press Qwitter was getting for being unreliable and essentially useless. I considered the whole thing to be a toy project for a long time and it took me a while to realise that people were starting to rely on the service.

So what I'd do differently is to either treat it like a proper product from day one, or make it clear to users that it was just a toy and should be used as such. A lot of the code I write outside of paid work comes under the heading of toys or technical exercises, and it's rare that any of them gain the number of users TwitApps was fortunate to attain a relatively large number of users in a fairly short amount of time but it definitely taught me to be more careful in future.

Other lessons you learned?

Once you've established a free service, and that service has other free competition, it's very difficult to monetise it.

It's not easy to come up with unique features for something as simple as a notification service for new replies and follower changes.

It's also very hard to change people's impression of what something is once they've decided for themselves.

Why did you grow tired of developing for the API?

There were a couple of reasons, the first of which was the constantly changing rules. I developed TwitApps during a period of great change in the API, especially around the social graph parts. Keeping up with the changes, both in the API and in the access policies, made maintenance of the tools fairly intensive for a toy project.

It became difficult to juggle the time demands of supporting TwitApps with the requirements of a full time job, several contracts and the need for downtime. In the end something had to go and it was clearly going to be the bit that wasn't earning any money.

What advice do you have for those considering starting a startup?

Make sure you know what you're getting into, and what commitment your users are going to expect from you in terms of continued service.

If you want press coverage, do something worth being covered. The original version of TwitApps Replies was written in about 4 hours following my reading a post on TechCrunch about Twply. Once completed I emailed them to let them know it existed, and because it was a hot topic that day they covered it. If what you're doing is not noteworthy don't expect anyone to note it!

Anything else surprising/interesting about the whole TwitApps experience?

Twitter is a fantastic service, a platform with awesome potential, and a fundamental conflict between internal goals and the desire to support a rich developer community. I'm amazed Twitter themselves have not implemented some form of email-based replies notification, and I wouldn't be surprised if it arrives at some point in the form of a paid upgrade.

The Follows tool is definitely going to arrive at some point, but probably in a less granular fashion. They have already hinted that follower analytics form a significant part of their upcoming commercial offering.

What do you think is the best way to finance a startup?

Personally I would not take any money from anyone else to start a company, but that's probably because I'm a control freak! Seriously though, I would approach any project from the view that if I start small and prove the concept, then I can develop it further. I'd wait as long as possible before bringing more cooks into the kitchen than absolutely necessary.

What are you working on now?

Right now I'm contracting for a number of companies and looking for interesting projects to get involved in. I'm also working on launching myself as a professional photographer.

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