I took this piece of copy directly from the 37 Signals blog. When it comes to websites, it’s what often the one thing we really need to break through. I also think it is why ‘free’ on the web just wont go away. It’s something web startups just can’t ignore.
The Network Effect: The network effect occurs when the value of a particular good or service increases for both new and existing users as more people use that good or service. It can also occur when other firms design products that compliment an existing product, thereby enhancing that product’s value. For example, the fact that there are literally millions of people using eBay is the thing that both makes eBay’s service incredibly valuable and makes it all but impossible for another company to duplicate its service.
It’s no secret I own and run www.rentoid.com – but here’s a story you don’t know. The story of how I got it off the ground and got people to use the website.
Rentoid had a classic chicken and egg problem when it first got launched. People wont list items until we have willing customers waiting to rent their stuff. Conversely, people couldn’t rent things until people willing to rent their items put them up for rent. It’s a bit like asking two people who don’t know each other to fall in love. To solve this problem I decided to ‘Invent Demand’. This is how I did it.
I went out and got myself a copy of the Harvey Norman and all the major department store catalogs. Scan through and them and picked off what items I thought would be suitable to rent. For the purposes of rentoid that meant items that were ‘hot‘ in market (their placement in the catalogue was proof enough of that), items which had a purchase value of over at least $200, and had a low likelyhood of damage. I then proceeded to gather photos of the specific items off Google images and listed each of them on rentoid. The rental prices I placed at 5% of item value for a week, and 10% of item value for a month. The bond I made 50% of the cost. I made sure I listed items from varying categories. I did it in 3 suburbs across Melbourne (North, West & East). The listings also said ‘as new, never used’ – how true. It also assisted with our SEO because people do ‘item & location’ specific searches.
When people rented the items, I went out and bought them, first hunting for the lowest price on line. Then rented it to the new rentoid member in good faith and gave them an exceptional user experience. After the rental I sold the item on ebay for around about 80% of the retail price. I pretty much re-couped my costs doing this. Some items kept renting out often enough for me to keep them including my Nintendo Wii and Guitar Hero which have paid themselves off more than 3 times over. The cool thing is the experience I gave people and the live demonstration it gave me to the system I built. It really helped me iron out many of the bugs in the system when it comes to usability and transacting on-line.
You may think this is slightly deceptive, but it isn’t, simply because the rentoid member got what they wanted from the site and the process was completely transparent. When they’d come over the pick up the item up for rent I’d tell them I own http://www.rentoid.com. I’d ask questions like how they found the site and what they think. In fact, they loved the idea and were stoked to transact with the founding entrepreneur.
It was a great process to not only to invent demand, but also gain some brand evangalists and supporters. And yes, I still list a lot of items on rentoid – espeically if it’s new and cool and we don’t have it on the site yet.
As entrepreneurs, we need not be afraid of how we can build demand and momentum with our start up. We must do this because action creates reaction and often people simply liking our idea isn’t enough. Instead we must show leadership and belief in our own product and embrace it and use it as our own ‘in house evangelist’. If we don’t believe, how can we expect them to?