How VC money can change your product

Josh Williams, founder of Gowalla, has written Play by your own rules., which offers many insights on the Foursquare vs. Gowalla wars. Williams describes how Gowalla got sucked into a “check-in” war with foursquare after raising VC money and so were playing a game they didn’t want to play. The check-in wars redefined Gowalla’s product…they started focusing everything on getting more check-ins.

Williams says:

“Truth be told, we didn’t really care about Check-Ins either. It was just the action verb we put on the orange button that performed our app’s primary function. What we really wanted was for people to see the world through the eyes of their friends.

…It turns out there was another app that shared a similar vision called Burbn. They were building yet another check-in type service loaded with every feature but the kitchen sink. But early user feedback, coupled with a desire to avoid the check-in battle shitshow already in progress, led them to drop everything to focus on one simple feature: Photos…

They made their own rules. They called it Instagram.

That whole “see the world through the eyes of their friends” thing? Turns out Instagram did a pretty good job of this.

I’ve heard stories like this before…and they don’t usually end well. When you find yourself reacting to the market instead of driving forward with your vision of what can be, you lose not just momentum but clarity in your product design. Instead of “I can imagine something better” the routine becomes “we have to do what they do, just better”. This kills designer happiness quickly, and leads to a less-than-inspired product.

Advice like this, from someone like Williams, is priceless for anybody who wants to build visionary products.

Published: February 24th, 2013