Posted by: goalpath | October 26, 2009

The Real Secrets to Building a Billion Dollar Web Property – Secret Number Two

Last week, I began this series on the secrets to building a billion dollar web property by giving a brief analysis of the early development of Facebook and Myspace. I discussed how their visions and value propositions morphed over time. I stated that the number one secret of their success was user engagement. And yes, your vision and value proposition will determine the level and frequency of user engagement, but not always on the first implementation of your concept. You have to continue fine tuning that vision until your growth becomes viral and exponential.

Neither Facebook or Myspace became successful based on the founders’ original target market, value proposition and vision. And they are two of the most successful web sites in the history of the internet. So lesson Number One is: If your site design does not truly engage your users day after day, month after month, and year after year, then regardless of how brilliant your original vision or concept might be, you’ve got nothing.

Neither Facebook or Myspace would have been able to accommodate the exponential growth they experienced had they not considered scalability in the overall design of their sites. There are those who still think that building a successful web property is only about offering your visitors content, media or engagement they can’t get from another web site. Without scalability, your site will crash often and die an early death once exponential viral growth overwhelms your computing resources. Hopefully, if you are in the process of starting a web community, scalability will be a major consideration.

For you non technical readers, scalability covers four critical areas. These critical areas include development platform and language, development talent, hardware and hosting, and last but not least, caching. Skimp or minimize resources in any one of these areas and you will never make it to the next level. Over time visitors don’t return to sites that can’t deliver on the promise of their functionality and content availability. It even happens to the major players…I just logged into Twitter and got this message: Twitter is over capacity…Too many tweets…Please wait a moment and try again. Twitter can get away with this now, but for how long?

Let’s start with the software platform that was or will be used to develop your site. This includes the language and operating system platform on which your web site is to be built. Bottom line: selecting the right development language and platform is critical to building a scalable startup. If you choose a platform that allows you to get the web site up quickly, but is inherently un-scalable, your gamble will come back to bite you in the butt. If your site engages the users, you will also need a scalable database backend to maintain all the information about your membership and their profiles. If you don’t have the technical expertise to understand scalability, then hire a web developer or partner with someone who has that expertise.

That brings me to the second critical factor in achieving scalability. Scalable web startups are willing to make the necessary investment when it comes to securing talent. Hiring and/or seeking advice from a web developers or web architects in the early stages of your site development is absolutely essential to your success down the road. You might counter by telling me that you can’t afford such high level talent. My suggestion would be to seek out a web developer or developers with the required expertise and offer them equity in your startup. If you don’t have the funding to pay them as regular employees, then maybe getting in on the ground floor will entice them.  If your vision and value proposition have merit in their eyes, then they will be satisfied just to work for a piece of the company.

Since my primary target audience is non-technical, I don’t intend to get bogged down in the technical details of hardware and hosting scalability, so I will give the briefest of summaries on those issues. We have already discussed the development platform and talent required, but there are some additional areas that haven’t been covered. It is essential to understand bandwidth requirements with respect to your server connections to the internet.

Suffice it to say, through the use of web hosting services, you can scale your bandwidth up over time as needed to accommodate the traffic on your site. Whether you use the hosting site’s servers or your own, that should not be an issue. The primary difference has to do with costs and your web developers will help you make those determinations.  If your site really takes off, then you will have to transition to your own in-house server farms.

The last critical factor I will mention has to do with caching. Your development guys will understand the importance of caching and should have it as a very high priority from the beginning. Basically, caching takes the load off the disk drives and processes the routines and requests through temporary memory (mem-caches) which will speed up those processes. Speed and performance is critical to a successful web site and poor performance will have a very negative impact on your traffic. Users tend to stay away from sites that are difficult to log into or navigate.

So there you have it. Secret Number Two is: Scalabilitiy. From concept to launch, scalability has to be a major consideration when developing your site. The best web concept in the world won’t make your site successful if you can’t provide your users 100% availability and functionality.

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