Why "a (transformational) fandom platform of our own" is not about writing down a list of features
My qualifications: Hello, I'm so-called Ms Boba, a software engineer that's been working on a fandom-oriented social network for a couple years. When Tumblr's Absolute Porn-Banning Betrayal™ happened, I got so pissed I decided to learn all I could about entrepreneurship (from actual classes, to seminars, to books), and figure out what it would take to build better online social spaces.
The backstory: someone asked @olderthannetfic about features for a fandom platform, and she decided to nerd-snipe me into ranting about the topic. Please enjoy.
Since time immemorial, the question of "which features would a (transformational) fandom platform need" periodically makes its resurgence in our corner of the web. While this is a totally cool and fun exercise to do, I want to take some time to explain why this is the wrong question to ask—at least unless you know how to ask it.
Note that none of what I say is set in stone, and there's many nuances this post will be too short to contain. But, while you should take all I say with a grain of salt, I hope these points will be a good trampoline to bring the "fandom platform of our own" discussion to a more productive place.
So, lo' and behold: a collection of platform-features-related "basic startup wisdom" gems I've collected during these years.
Basic Startup Wisdom #1: Successful products are not about adding more features
One of the very first things they teach you in any "building successful startups" class, is that adding nice-to-have-features on top of products people "mostly enjoy" is a horrible strategy for deciding a product roadmap. This is true even when people tell you they would 100% move to a platform that does everything their current favorite does, if only it would fix the glaring problems, add a couple of absolutely-fundamental-can't-live-without features, and get rid of all the annoying bugs.
While one might think this belief comes from a place of condescendence ("clearly we can't trust people to know what they want"), it's not up for much discussion: the fact that people are bad at discerning what would get them to use a product is just a reality of how humans work, and has been proven over and over by people studying how to build successful ones.
In fact, reality goes even further: believing that people will jump ship if you add more of the features they ask for is the #1 mistake any wannabe entrepreneur makes before reality teaches them better. That's why they teach it to you first.
Basic Startup Wisdom #2: To build a successful product, build a "pain killer" not a "vitamin"
So, if it's not about "adding more features", what is it about?
A good metaphor people use is the idea of seeing products (and features) as "vitamins" vs "pain killers".
Vitamins are nice to have, and, when all their basic needs are met, people will gladly use them to improve their current lives. Vitamins might "sweeten a deal", but won't (on their own) be enough to motivate most people to switch to your product.
Pain killers, on the other hand, solve unmet, fundamental needs of those they're designed for. When a product solve a real pain that potential customers actively seek to solve, it's a lot easier to get them to use, and—most importantly (sorry)—pay* for it.
So the big questions here is not "what features does fandom want?". The big question here is: what is the greatest pain fandom people face right now? And what is the minimal set of features that we must build to address it?
*If transformational fandom people are not the ones paying for a product, they're not the customers of the product. While this is a too-big topic to enter into in this post, I want to stress: no matter how much we all love the idea of building a platform for "transformational fandom", the customers vs users separation must be taken into account if we hope to have a space that focuses on our own pains and needs.
Basic Startup Wisdom #3: Directly asking people which features a platform must have yields meaningless results
Going to fandom people to directly ask them what their pains are and which features to build to solve them is an entirely meaningless exercise—unless you know exactly how to do it . When talking with people about what features they would use (and most importantly pay for), there is a simple guiding rule:
Of course, I'm being a bit silly. But, as I mentioned before, this is such a well known issue that I even have a favorite book on the topic: The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick.
While I could go deeply into it, I instead suggest you read some quotes. Here's some choice, relevant ones:
They say that startups don’t starve, they drown. You never have too few options, too few leads, or too few ideas; you have too many. You get overwhelmed. You do a little bit of everything.
The world’s most deadly fluff is: “I would definitely buy that.” It just sounds so concrete. As a founder, you desperately want to believe it's money in the bank. But folks are wildly optimistic about what they would do in the future. They’re always more positive, excited, and willing to pay in the imagined future than they are once it arrives.
When you hear a request, it’s your job to understand the motivations which led to it. You do that by digging around the question to find the root cause. Why do they bother doing it this way? Why do they want the feature? How are they currently coping without the feature? Dig.
Truth is, it's very easy to ask for features. After all, asking is free. There's nothing in the way of people asking for more: they are—rightfully so!—not thinking of the constraints, the costs, the trade offs needed to actually deliver the feature. If someone asks, "hey, do you want the product to also do this?", users have nothing to lose by replying "yes".
But will people eventually use the feature? Will they pay for it? As the book says, "[people are] always more positive, excited, and willing to pay in the imagined future than they are once it arrives". Unless you know how to ask the right questions and interpret the answers, the conversations are bound to give back a ton of confusing, likely misleading noise.
Basic Startup Wisdom #4: Build as few features as possible
Speaking of "The Mom Test" quotes, let me paste another one:
We want to believe that the support and sign-off of someone we respect means our venture will succeed. But really, that person’s opinion doesn’t matter. They have no idea if the business is going to work. Only the market knows. You’re searching for the truth, not trying to be right. And you want to do it as quickly and cheaply as possible.
The "you want to do it as quickly and cheaply as possible" is where the real catch is: money (and time) are not infinite; what you think are the answers might not be the actual answers. As I said before, the questions is: what is the minimal set of features one must build to address the customers' real pain? The only way to know for sure whether your answer is the right one is to put your product out there before spending too much time and effort on it, and test your hypotheses against reality. A long list of features is of no help here.
In this sense, the classic wisdom of how to build a product is this:
To keep it short, what's hard is not getting the bottom part of the pyramid filled, but making sure that you build that vertical slice and slowly keep expanding it to the right. After two years building BobaBoard let me tell you: that is really, really, really hard, time-consuming work, especially when you have a limited amount of resources. A list of features expands the actual surface of the pyramid horizontally, but doesn't do much in terms of moving that colored part in the right direction.
(Entire books have been written about Minimum Viable Products, so I invite you to google the name if you're curious to read more.)
Ok, but: where do we redirect this "features discovery" energy?
I hope by this time I've convinced you that, while a list of features needed in a fandom platform would be a fun, it's generally not that impactful of an exercise. Still, the last point did give me an idea.
If you do want to do an impactful exercise in this space, here's what would be useful: take a feature you know people want in a fandom platform, and research what a good user experience would look like. Don't think about it in terms of adding features, but think about it in terms of researching:
Which platforms already implement similar features? How are they structured?
What aspects of these implementation do people like? What aspects do they hate?
How do people use these features? Why do they use them?
How do fandom people get around the lack of them in platforms that don't offer them?
What are the possible pitfalls one should be on the lookout for when thinking about this feature? Which disasters loom at the horizon?
What would a V0 of the feature look like? How small can we make this feature before it stops being useful? What would incremental progress look like?
What sequence of inputs would a user need to give when using this feature? What would be the constraints of each input? How do we explain the user what to do next? What are the possible error states we should take into account?
How would this feature impact the rests of features you know a fandom platform would need? What are the edge cases? How do existing platforms solve them?
An abstract set of more stuff to build is not the problem. But how to build features that are the right slice of functional, reliable, usable, convenient, pleasurable and meaningful is.
The harsh truth is that writing all of this down in a way that's well-specified and thought-out enough that one theoretical, overworked fandom entrepreneur could pay someone else to implement it without making more problems for themselves is an extremely hard, sometimes boring, and overall time consuming task. But at the end of the day, if we want a theoretical fandom platform to have features that are delightful to use, someone will have to think more about the how than the what. That exercise is very much worth doing.
(Alternatively—but no pressure, really, this is not why I wrote this—you could also consider "subscribing to my Patreon" so I can one day afford to pay others for the parts I'm overqualified to do, and have more space to do the work I'm talking about myself.)
Brazil: Rio's residents garden their way out of hunger
Not too long ago, Fernanda da Silva was going hungry, like millions of other Brazilians.
The 40-year-old mother of three was out of work and money was tight. Her husband's monthly earnings as a doorman - 1,300 reais ($250), just over a minimum salary - kept their family afloat. "It was really difficult for us," recalls Ms Silva. "I had no income, I was hungry."
Then, just over a year ago, Ms. Silva started planting fresh produce on a patch of land not far from Cajueiro, the Rio de Janeiro favela where she lives, as part of an ambitious project aiming to create the world's largest urban garden.
Now, Ms Silva puts her green fingers to use - along with 34 other gardeners - in exchange for a monthly stipend of 500 reais ($95, £79) from the city, as well as heaps of fresh food that she can take home at no cost.
"I bring home healthy food to put on the table for my children," she says as she crouches among the vibrant rows of lettuce, beetroot, cassava and carrots, and tugs on the occasional weed.
But the garden's impact has reached much further too, says Ms Silva. "We are bringing food to the tables of many people."