Scaling up Pic4U

A dashboard showing metrics
Photo by Stephen Dawson / Unsplash

Last summer, in a frenzied evening of writing, I outlined my thoughts for a better type of social network, which I named Pic4U. If you missed that post, you should consider reading that post before digging in to this one, as today, I'll be talking about how I would take that idea and scale it up, hoping to make it the next social media sensation.

Pic4U isn't intended to be the next blue site or bird app; the addressable market here is far smaller than either of those networks, and that is part of the point. Pic4U's intent is to bring joy, where the other services focus on content that can be made to go viral, and that is typically driving outrage. The entire concept of Pic4U is different, so the audience will be people who are looking for a place that isn't full of virality. Its more intimate, more friendly and just more pleasant.

With that in mind, let's dig in on the plan.

T-Minus Some Time

Building a Quality Beta

The initial post outlined what would be several years of work for a single person developer, to fully realize that initial vision. Waiting until that is entirely built would be difficult for anyone, given the need to cover off living expenses, if nothing else. That leads to the consideration of what are the minimum features required for the first customers to use it, and the additional features then required to begin scaling it. Even prior to customers using it, there would likely be a smaller group of friends & family that would be invited to provide feedback on a very rough early draft of the app. Let's name these phases Private Beta, Public Beta and Launch Day.

Private beta would require a few things to be ready: users creating an account, taking a photo, uploading the photo to the server, receiving a photo from the server, a photo gallery of all photos received, enough logging to identify issues,  simple analytics to discover what is and is not working for the users, and a feedback submission mechanism. Nothing fancy here, just the basic give and take features that are core to the experience. The number of people using the app at this point would likely be in the dozens, and come thru invite-only means.

Who would those people be? Besides the friends and family mentioned earlier, this initial group would be drawn from a few different places. Invites would be offered to individuals in well known photography enthusiast communities and potentially among reporters who cover photography news or social media applications. For those in the media, the intent would be to follow something similar to the FriendDA process, where they're asked to simply be a good person and not disclose what they're seeing, as it isn't done yet.

Besides the direct feedback mechanism in the app, its worth taking a moment to talk about analytics a bit more. In order to remain compliant with things like GDPR, no personally identifiable data will be collected centrally. Usage metrics will be consolidated on the device and then uploaded to a central server only once each day, representing any usage from the prior day the app was used. Key usage metrics to track would be:

  • Time spent in the app
  • Number of times the app was launched
  • Number of photos taken before the daily upload
  • Days since the app was last launched
  • Days since the last photo was shared
  • Time to upload the sent photo
  • Time to download the received photo
  • Number of times the app crashed

Those metrics would then be aggregated and averaged on the server to get a general sense of how the app is performing, both from a user standpoint and from a technical standpoint. Likely during this period, additional metrics would be added as new features were added to the private beta.

Once those core features are in place, reliable and fast, the broader public beta phase would begin. Key capabilities that would need to be in place prior to this phase are basic moderation and the profile pages for each user. Also in place would be a basic website annoucing the app as coming soon and a way to apply for the public beta. Getting at least 1,000 daily active users would be the goal, with around 5,000 total users on the service.

Attracting those users would start thru the networks of our private beta users, asking them to spread the word to people they think would provide meaningful feedback and enjoy using the service. From there, we open up new rounds of public beta users as we have new features and ensure that the service can handle the load of that many users.

Timing of the public beta phase will require a good amount of finese, to ensure that we keep it long enough to get enough quality feedback, ensure the service will scale well, and not so long that people wanting to join the service get tired of waiting. Two months is likely a minimum time for this beta with a maximum of four months.

The key features developed during this final beta before launch would be the addition of the initial paid features, the limiting of the number of pics per week, and finally, the more advanced on-device photo processing for automated moderation. With those in place, it will be time to launch.


Aiming for outer space

With all the pieces put together, it's time to execute on the plan to publicize the app. You only get one chance to introduce your app to the world, so it needs to count. During development of the app, a parallel effort must be undertaken to create the plan to publicize and drive awareness of the app. That plan will include a number of things to be done:

  • Updating the website to convince prospective users to download and try the service.
  • Compiling a list of reporters who might consider writing about the app.
  • Joining existing enthusiast groups on other social networking sites, with the intention of using your participation in those groups as a way to inform and attract new users.
  • Contact podcast hosts and website owners in the photography space, to see if they would like a free trial of the service, in exchange for the possibility of being on their show or featured on their site.
  • Activating our private beta users to share the app with their social circles

The biggest challenge here is reaching enough of the right people to get the app to reach a critical mass of users. Because the app is built on user submitted content, and not meant to drive lengthy engagement periods every day, the threshold to reach a critical mass of users is far lower. Estimating this critical mass is significantly more difficult.

A quick search on the internet shows that in excess of 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook daily, so there is a clear desire of people to share the photos that they take. Given it would be a challenge to estimate adoption of the app due to the unique nature of the value it would provide, instead lets consider what it would mean to make the app a success.

The intent is to build the app in such a way that it could provide a minimally sustainable living for a single app developer (me). Bootstrapping the app would mean building it without taking outside investment. Assuming that our paid users are spending $50/year for the service, after fees and business expenses are removed from that revenue, it would take around 5,000 paying users for the service to be sustainable with one person doing all the work.

Most users would not be paid users, however. If we conservatively assume that 1% of users are paying, then we need at least 500,000 total users of the service to be able to sustain building and maintaining it for a year. This would make the service relatively large in terms of user base, but not massive.

Adding in features for sponsored photos from brands (effectively advertising), users gifting additional photo uploads at a cost, and similar capabilities, then the number of total users and total paid users could come down into the 300,000/3,000 realm, which is definitely in the realm of possibility. If the paid user % increases, then the total number of users decreases rather quickly, as well.

Without paying to advertise the app to potential users, it would be a challenge to reach even the above modest scale without the app being an instant viral hit. Becoming the next Flappy Bird would be nice, but highly unlikely. The full revenue for the first months post launch would need to be spent purchasing advertising to drive downloads and trial, until the app reaches critical mass enough that additional users would join the platform from social network effects. Even then, a substantial amount of revenue per month would need to be put back into advertising to cover the account churn of people who cancel the paid service. This would likely require doubling the estimates of paid subscribers to reach 6,000-10,000 yearly subscribers to just cover costs.

Building Engagement

Other tactis for sustainability

Building engagement thru beautiful photos
Photo by Rubén García / Unsplash

The best way to build a subscriber base is to build a service that your users love. If they see great value in it, then they will be willing to pay to use it more, and will be more invested in seeing it be a success so it continues. Given the point of the service would be to promote joy, it should inherently fulfill that need in its user base. Still, even the best app can use a little help along the way.

As the accounts are all real person accounts, tied to your device, it would be simple to give customers a means to opt in to an email newsletter as part of the sign-up or account management flows. Building a good CRM email list, that provides tips on taking good photographs, how to take full advantage of the app, new feature announcements, and other useful information on a regular basis, provides even more value for a minimal cost. It also is a way to promote additional paid services inside the app, driving more revenue.

As the service is entirely app based, giving users a way to opt in to push notifications is another easy way to drive engagement. Receiving a push any time someone favorites a photo, sends you an extra upload, or that you haven't yet uploaded a photo today, are good ways to remind the users that the app is there and they'll find a little bit of needed joy just by launching it.

Our mobile devices provide fantastic ways to share content outside of the network as well. Allowing a user to share a received photo out to Messages or another social service, tagging that photo discretely with the Pic4U site URL & logo at the bottom, gives a cheap way to do organic advertising that doesn't incur a direct cost. This activates a user's own social network in a minimally intrusive manner that passionate users of the service will not likely mind.

New features and major releases of the app will also be good times to return to the enthusiast groups and news media with requests to cover the improvements to the app. As an app matures in its lifecycle, opportunities for this type of coverage become fewer and harder to obtain, so the features need to be of substantial scope to be considered newsworthy. Maintaining relationships with the staff at these publications is a key to unlocking this channel.

Continuous improvement of the app, adding features users love, making it easier to use, more stable and faster, make it more likely to be used regularly, converting more unpaid users to paid users. Using milestone releases, holiday periods, and other big social events are good methods to entice users to pay by offering lower introductory rates, with the thought that what is lost in initial revenue will be made up for in a larger number of user conversions and when they pay full price in future periods.

As the device is already reviewing all photos taken prior to upload, searching for images that violate the terms of service, it would also be possible to use those same machine learning algorithms to categorize the content within the image, too. This could allow the app to then understand what types of photos that the user prefers, as a means to prioritize types of photos they receive from others, further improving their love of the service.

Lastly, reviewing your analytics is keeping the service in great shape. Looking for areas of improvement, not just in the app itself, but in things like push notification & email open rates, helps you see what types of messages your users are attracted to and how you can segment them into different types of users, making your communications even more strategic.

Measuring Success

How to know if we made it

In the first post on Pic4U, the five principles for the app were clearly defined:

  • Maximize joy.
  • Build meaningful connections.
  • Give away something of yourself.
  • Minimize time spent.
  • Receive gratitude from those who love the service.

In the simpliest sense, if the app does those things, then it achieved its goals. Regardless of if it is a commercial success, it did what it was designed to do.

Going further than that, how many people experienced those five principles? If it is capable of achieving those goals, but no one knows it exists, then success becomes less obvious. Yes, building this app may have been a success to its creator from a personal satisfaction standpoint, yet it didn't have the impact on the world that it could have done.

If users love it and it doesn't meet the threshold to support its creator full time, but still provides enough revenue to cover its costs and maybe provide a little additional revenue to pay for the time spent to enhance it, that is also a success, in that it is loved enough by a dedicated following who might not be numerous, but whose lives are materially enriched enough to make sure the idea survives.

Full success would be to reach the paid user base estimates in the Liftoff section, allowing the creator to work on building the service full-time, without requiring income from other sources. Beyond that, providing enough revenue to support a small team of developers, designers, and support representatives, to continue to build, grow, and support the service would be a wild beyond imagination success. The ultimate goal would be assembling a team who is passionate about the idea, bringing it to life in new ways every day, and pushing forward on those five key goals which started it all.