Chris Dixon, serial entrepreneur and investor in Kickstarter, recently wrote a post entitled “An internet of people,” where he asks why companies like Etsy, Kickstarter, and AirBnb are succeeding now when others like them have failed before.
One of my most popular posts is on why Collegeclub.com failed when Myspace and Facebook succeeded and in that post I propose that the reason was bad management and the high cost of technology at the time (Leslie Perlow argued that Collegeclub was ‘Saying yes when they really meant no’), but when Chris Dixon asked Roelof Botha the “why now” question regarding web-based marketplaces, “He said something I thought was really interesting: marketplaces depend on trust, and trust requires knowing the reputation of a prospective counterparty. Today, for the first time, you can get background information on almost any prospective counterparty by searching Google, Facebook etc. Or put more simply: we finally have an internet of people.”
Google’s authorship markup verification process has helped make the web less anonymous and so has Google+, which doesn’t allow pseudonyms, only real names. Brian Manning commented that, “eBay has been doing this successfully since the 90s. In the beginning their key hurdle to success was a lack of trust among buyers and sellers. At the time, they built extremely innovative tools that helped make users comfortable that they weren’t going to get ripped off; ratings and recommendations, slick complaint process, good customer service, etc. This was critical to their success. I recall reading that as trust among users increased so did eBay’s site usage and revenue. ‘Trust’ was their key revenue driver,” to which FAKE GRIMLOCK responded for the need for a “REPUTATION SYSTEM FOR INTERNET”. I agree, which is why I started YourSCOR, which was supposed to use metrics from eBay, Facebook, and Twitter to create a new type of credit score that people could control instead of corporations. It was supposed to be the “FICO for the Masses!”
CollegeClub.com was registered on April 4, 1996 and by 2000 had around 3 million registered users. I was one of those users who used it to find friends at other colleges online. On August 22, 2000, CollegeClub.com announced bankruptcy and said it would be acquired by Student Advantage, an Internet educational content and commerce specialist, for $7 million in cash and 1.5 million shares of its stock. Almost exactly three years later, in August of 2003, MySpace.com launched. Less than a year after that Facebook.com began as a social network for colleges on February 4, 2004, but eventually opened up to the general public on September 26, 2006. What happened to College Club? What made it different from Myspace or Facebook?
Why did MySpace and Facebook succeed when CollegeClub failed?
All of a sudden what seemed so hard for CollegeClub.com to do seemed easy for others. Was it the curse of the “first to market first to fail” concept that’s befell such greats as Palm, Netscape, and Tivo? Or was it something else? EDIT: since writing this initially in September of 2009, MySpace may not be the best comparison, but Facebook is still doing just fine. 11/4/2011.
CollegeClub.com’s Business Model
Lets take a look at the business model. CollegeClub.com allowed users to sign up for free, create profiles, communicate with each other, and post pictures online. Once it attracted a certain number of users, the site was then able to sells advertising to businesses looking to sell to this highly impressionable market with loads of free time and disposable income. Marketers know that if they can hook a customer in college, they may have them for life. Both MySpace.com and Facebook.com used this same model so why did CollegeClub.com fail?
CollegeClub.com was getting funding at the tune of $15 million from a group of investors that included Convergence Partners and France-based Viventures as well as $40 million from Seligman Technology Group via the group’s investment fund and additional money from previous investors Convergence and Sony. Later deals included partnerships with Ericsson and General Motors, with a planned IPO in the offing. The old addage of “it takes money to make money” wasn’t making CollegeClub.com any money. Why?
I have two reasons why I think this site tanked:
The first reason is bad management and the second reason is the high cost of technology at the time.
Infoworld said at the time, “While one source close to the company traces the financial difficulties to some unorthodox spending practices by management, [new owner, Student Advantage] said it believes that problems stemmed from the nature of the site’s business model.” I think Student Advantage was wrong. We now know there was nothing wrong with their business model (because it worked for both Myspace and Facebook) and this next statement from Infoworld backs this up:
In the recent past, Student Advantage has shown less than stellar financial performance itself. Since the beginning of the year, the company’s stock price has plummeted from a high mark of just over $20 to its current price, which is hovering just above $7. In addition, Student Advantage has continually met analysts’ predictions of red ink, and the company has suggested that losses will continue throughout next year.
The company went from bad management to worse management – and technology costs were adding up.
“The business model works.” said Monte Brem, senior vice president of corporate development at CollegeClub in said in 2000 – and he was right – but he noted that with nearly 3 million users, the back-end costs for the site ran high and needed multiple rounds of financing for success. “It requires a tremendous amount of scaling to be profitable,” Brem added. And back then, scaling cost much more than it did in 2003 and 2004 for MySpace and Facebook respectively. Moore’s Law has two effects. Not only does technology double in speed or capacity each year, but the price almost always shrinks by half every two years. For example, a Pentium III desktop PC with 128 MB RAM and a 40 GB hard drive cost $1800.00 in 2000. In 2003, the price of a desktop had dropped below $1000 for over twice the power. Multiply that over all the equipment needed to run a large social network. In April, 2008 Facebook expanded the number of servers it uses to 10,000. The more CollegeClub.com added users, the more technology they had to add on back-end to support the load. Their revenue simply could not overcome their expenses.
So why did CollegeClub.com fail?
Primarily, it was ahead of its time. It had a good idea, but no one had really succeeded with it before. Bad management decisions were made and the implementation of the idea did not match up with the cost of the infrastructure at the time. Had they waited until 2002 to launch, they could have superseded either MySpace or Facebook, but there is another reason why they may never have made it: their name. Names like MySpace and Facebook are not associated with a specific group like CollegeClub.com is. Eventually CollegeClub.com started HighSchool.com to address this problem but even it has the same problem of locking it into a specific group. There were also privacy and age related problems on the site, much like MySpace ran into in 2006 and Facebook has ran into almost every year of it’s existence.
What can we learn from CollegeClub.com?
There are three things they could have done differently:
They didn’t pick a scalable name that was generic enough to be applied to almost anyone, anywhere. Sometimes it is good to be niche, but you take on more risk if you’re running your own equipment. Sometimes is pays to have a name that can be used broadly, even if you start off small within a specific niche.
Take the time to develop a good business plan and don’t be afraid to change the business plan as you go. Create metrics for success, track them, and change course if necessary. The businesses that are most successful are the most agile.
Avoid debt if possible when starting a business. It always catches up with you. And the more debt you have the less your’e able to (as in #1) scale or (as in #2) change course. One of the most important things in any business is cash flow.
When You Say Yes but Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies…and What You Can Do About It
“Saying yes when you really mean no” is a problem that haunts organizations from startups to big businesses. It exists across industries, levels, and functions and is inflamed by a sour economy, when the fear of losing your job is on everyone’s mind and the idea of allowing conflict to surface or disagreeing with others seems inherently risky. Too often, the conversation at work bespeaks harmony and togetherness, even though passionate disagreements exist beneath the surface. Is this what really happened to CollegeClub.com? Read the book to find out.
CollegeClub even had email by phone. It was pretty advanced for its time.
CollegeClub “The world’s largest college community” FREE E-mail you can also hear through the phone! FREE voicemail, with your own 800 number! FREE discount card! FREE Web page builder! TONS of ways to meet people like you! (Chat, Interest Groups, and more!) LOTS of other cool stuff! (Including online games and music videos!)
Suprise. CollegeClub is no longer offering free email.
In 2007, Alloy Media, owner of the CollegeClub.com trademark, discontinued the CollegeClub email service rendering all “@collegeclub.com” email addresses defunct. Their website (http://mail.collegeclub.com), simply said:
“Oops! Sorry about that! These CollegeClub applications are no longer in service.
If you are trying to access your old emails so that you can forward them on to another address, use this url: http://legacy.collegeclub.com/mail.
This Service will only be available until Friday, March 16th, 2007.
Here is what the email login screen last looked like in March, 2007:
CollegeClub.com Where Are You Now?
If you type ‘http://www.collegeclub.com‘ into your browser you will be taken to Teen.com, which is, according to their web site the, “ultimate online destination for teens on celebrities, entertainment, music, and fashion.” I think what they mean to say was that they are a ‘destination for teens’ that covers ‘celebrities’, not “teens on celebrities,” which has an entirely different meaning.
Teen.com is owned and operated by Alloy Media, LLC, which is a New York based media company that is partners with Alloy Marketing and Alloy Entertainment. Alloy Media also owns Channel One News, which most know is a 12 minute news program for teens broadcast via satellite to middle schools and high schools across the United States.
The Internet is not a friendly place. Things that don’t stay relevant don’t even get the luxury of leaving ruins. They disappear.” -Facebook’s Little Red Book
For those looking for other ex-CollegeClub.com members, check out ExCollegeClubbers. The ‘tribe’ is “for everyone who wants to meet new friends, but in particular for ex members of Collegeclub.com…It used to be cool like Tribe and we have all lost contact with each other. So non-ex members and ex- members alike are invited to join.”