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An Open Letter to Third-Party Twitter App Founders

Dear Aspiring Twitter Speculators,

Congratulations on your new idea. You’ve come up with, and perhaps already built, a product that is genuinely useful to almost every Twitter user, filling one of the many feature canyons left open by the Twitter product team. Perhaps you’ve already gathered a respectable following on the interwebs, with a few thousand people using your service on a regular basis. All that, and it only took you a couple weeks to build on the side.

Now you’re waiting for the big moment to happen: the call from Ev or Biz or whomever. You’re sure they’re going to want to purchase your product for loads more money than it took you to build it. It fills a clear gap, after all, and there are already people using it. They bought Summize, right?

Unfortunately, gentle reader, there are a some significant differences between Summize’s situation and yours. Let’s take a moment to consider them:

  • Summize was not simple. Summize was a largely-original search engine based on technology the Summize team had been working on for many months for a different product. There was a lot of significant technology behind what seemed like such a simple product.
  • Summize scaled. When Twitter was failing, Summize’s search kept trucking along. Many users adopted Summize as an ad-hoc Twitter client during the dark days of abysmal uptime.
  • Summize had some sick engineers. Twitter didn’t just buy the search engine, they acquired the company. Of the six Summize employees, only the founder and CEO moved onto another project — the rest moved to the left coast and joined the Twitter team. This was an acquisition of talent as much as it was of product.

Summize didn’t just fill a product gap, it filled gaps in Twitter the company, and that’s an enormous factor in why they were acquired. Does your product, and your team, do that?

Let’s look at an example. Up until last week, when it stopped working, Twimailer was my single favorite Twitter-based product. It allowed me to get a much more detailed follower notification, with the follower’s bio information, recent twitter messages, and stats. It was also implemented in a smart way: they give you a special email address, you tell twitter to send notifications to that address, and Twimailer parses the notifications, creates the nice ones, and forwards them along to you. A couple friends of mine assumed they would be ripe for an acquisition.

Here’s why not:

  • It’s down. It’s been down for a while now. Maybe it’s dead. That certainly hurts its chances, but even if we ignore this…
  • The tech is worth nothing to Twitter. Sure, their implementation was reasonably slick, but that was necessary to work around the fact that Twimailer was an external app. All that email parsing shenanigans is completely unnecessary to Twitter.
  • It’s easy. If you’re the Twitter team, implementing the Twimailer feature set takes a few hours or days, not weeks or months.
  • There’s no real IP there. The idea of a more useful email isn’t novel or unique in a sense that Twitter would be buying patentable IP or anything like that.

An acquisition of Twimailer, TweetCC, or many of the other eleventy-billion Twitter-based webapps just doesn’t make any sense. And so it probably doesn’t make sense for them to acquire yours, either. Maybe you are indeed the next Summize, but the road is uphill and only one has been chosen thus far.

But don’t be discouraged. You’ve made a service that is valuable to thousands, hundreds, or even dozens of people, and that’s a good thing. Perhaps you can modestly monetize it and have it contribute a tidy sum to the lifestyle to which you’ve grown accustomed.

After all, the journey is the reward, no?

Update (5/7/09): It looks like exactly this has happened. Twitter is now sending html follow alerts that have more information about the person following you. It’s not quite as detailed as Twimailer, but I suspect that’s due to database considerations. Twimailer is now a slight evolutionary improvement to Twitter’s practice, rather than revolutionary.

By the way, since you've made it to the bottom:

  • You should subscribe to my RSS feed here.
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Avatar of M. Jackson Wilkinson

I'm M. Jackson Wilkinson, a technologist, designer, speaker, educator, and writer in San Francisco. I'm the Founder of Kinsights. I'm from Philadelphia, went to Bowdoin College in Maine, root for the Phillies, and love to sing.

Entry posted from Viget Labs

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  1. Well stated. If you are creating a service with the hopes it will be purchased you are creating it for the wrong reasons. Acquisition alone is a bad business plan.

    Thanks for the summize info, I was unaware of that.

  2. Just to tack on another point to why Summize was important as an acquisition: data mining. While Summize served up search results to users, they were maintaining a database of the searches and returns for understanding user behavior in a way that Twitter didn't have.

    Many apps are merely sitting on top of the API instead of building from it. The quality of the data you can assemble through usage is what ultimately creates business value.

  3. @Adam: Hmm, I'm not sure that I agree that acquisition is necessarily a bad business model. There are plenty of businesses that have good reason to target an acquisition by a bigger player. However, I think it's important to have a viable plan-b for those businesses, since you're chasing a smaller bulls-eye.

    @Michael: Can't argue with anything there. I'm still eagerly awaiting the moment Twitter really starts using Summize's core sentiment analysis technology, which is pretty sweet (disclosure: they were a client of mine at one point). I can only guess that use of that will be a part of Twitter's revenue strategy once that actually comes to light.

  4. Mostly valid points here. Plus Twitter, despite all of their denials, is very likely looking to get bought by either Google or MSFT in the next few months. Adding additional features (by acquisition or otherwise) is likely far down their list of priorities.

    And if they do get bought, one of the big guys can easily sick a team of dozens of developers and limitless server/etc. resources on the problem. If you are developing Twitter-based apps, do so as a way to gain mindshare and credibility. Your back-end is cashing in on THAT, NOT some kind of fantasy exit.

    Everything about Twitter could change tomorrow (and some things already have). Question is, have you built YOUR brand?

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