I was recently asked by one of the Dopplr team members to answer a series of questions regarding Ye Olde IRC-Galleria strategy stuff for a master's thesis she is currently writing.
www.irc.fi is commonly known as one of the clear success cases in the local market here in social media. I have been writing a few blog entries about that in the past. I haven't been with the company since about mid 2007, after the tradesale to Sulake Corporation. Current strategy is being shaped by different folks than myself, but yet still much of what's visible now was part of the plans and known back then - thou I'm sure with their dedicated and competent team the future will be even more bright for them.
I thought of posting the answers to the thesis questions here on my blog
.. so I did ;)
1. What was the idea behind IRC-gallery?
IRC-gallery is IRC-Galleria in it's "proper" original-language form, so I'm using that in my answers here.
IRC-Galleria's idea is quite simple: share your photos, blogs, stories and comments among friends (and strangers) and discover new ones through active communities and shared interests. Basically the classic kind of hub of social media and social activity online. IRC-Galleria has a heavier emphasis on the groups, interests and communities than is immediately apparent. IRC-Galleria is also very different from Facebook: it's a place to really actively encounter new interesting people with similar hobbies, sense of humor, or what ever - it very strongly isn't just a place to be active with people whom you already know.
2. How did you start the company? Closed betas etc.?
The company was started as a hobby originally. Then it ran as a non-profit organization, and finally became a company after that. It had its "beta" (if you can call it that) with a group of the founders' friends. They were pretty much dragged in and forced to try out the service, which they liked and found simple and fast to use. The usability and focus on the ease of the experience was there from the beginning, and the service jumped into immediate growth mode.
3. What was your growth strategy?
IRC-Galleria's growth strategy was moderate (as opposed to explosive and out-of-control) growth with strict control on quality (quality of both; people and content). For example: IRC-Galleria has never just openly accepted memberships. It takes bit of an effort to register into the site: you either have to have a reliable verified email (like a corporate/school email), or verify your cell phone number to the site, or have one of the admins to check you out manually and approve you. This is quality control and ensures that the kind of people who become members are more likely to actually be active and positively contributing part of this much-loved hyperactive community. IRC-Galleria grew through word of mouth and through spreading school by school, class by class. The growth has always been fast - but linear, never quite exponential. Since the beginning the service has placed heavy emphasis on moderation, clear understandable guidelines and active administration. Quality really helps to produce good activity levels and maintains a great service experience for everyone.
4. How did you build the strategy?
The strategy was build as an intuitive consensus-decision pretty much. People who directed the future of the service strongly felt that this was the right option to take. And you can argue in hindsight that it was. It's a group of smart people who really know their product inside out. So; it was built by talent and vision.
5. How was the strategy implemented in practice?
Growth strategy was implemented in practice by couple of things: The summary of them really being; emphasis on quality and on the unique product, with these components:
1) high quality screening of new members joining the service,
2) active moderation and administration that also frequently removes content and people from the service if necessary,
3) all the employees of the company are very active users of their own product, including all the new and latest features of it. Helps maintain a clear grasp of what's going on and focus on the quality again.
4) IRC-Galleria's personnel growth was also moderate; the company has always generated plenty of positive cash flow, but has still hired based on a conservative growth strategy and getting quality instead of quantity. The aim was always to reach to become the largest and most active Internet site in Finland; the "most active" part was already passed years ago when in 2006 TNS, the large multinational that measures different websites, announced in a press release that IRC-Galleria is the most active and frequently loaded site in all of Scandinavia - surpassing such as Aftonbladet and Lunarstorm (successful back then) in Sweden. The jury is still out on the "largest" -part thou ;)
CC Attribution: TheScream@Flickr
6. Did you have to make changes to the original strategy plan? If so, what kind?
The biggest change IRC-Galleria had to make to the original strategy was the addition of more products to the company portfolio and the opening up of the internationalized versions of the service. The original growth strategy proved day after day constantly that it DID work and there was no need to make drastic changes - growth was strong, linear and steady. Instead the strategy was amended to include other products based on the same tech-platform and international versions of the service.
7. When did you reach the goals / milestones of the strategy? In advance, in schedule, late?
The goals and milestones of the strategy were reached quite precisely on schedule regarding the Finnish primary service the company was running. However on the international versions growth was more demanding to obtain and the company was a bit late in meeting targets. The international versions were never projected to grow as fast as the finnish one had one - so there was no unrealistically high optimism around, but still success was lukewarm. Now, in December 2008, this looks quite different; the company is taking on foreign markets strongly.
8. What could have you done differently? Lessons learned?
IRC-Galleria is the kind of case that is widely known and recognized as a success. Thus hindsight is not 20-20 in this particular case; it is sometimes hard to point out what could have been done better. Naturally there's still a bunch of stuff and I could go deep into details with this, allow me to pick just a few:
1) Internationalization could have started earlier and with a more iterative-adaptive approach. This might have resulted in teaching the company the stuff it needed to learn a bit faster and with less effort.
2) IRC-Galleria has almost (but not quite yet) reached the saturation point of its current target group: it is after all being used very actively by just about the entire finnish youth, so it would need to extend beyond the youth: doing this with the same service or coming up with a separate one for a different target audience is the kind of strategic game you have to play here. The company might have done good with starting to plan all this a bit earlier and as a result possibly end up with an even stronger position in the marketplace. However do not underestimate how strong they are now: they are absolutely the top youth media in Finland, and they outsell every other website in advertising - especially sponsored campaigns with high yield results. That's not an easy (nor bad) position to end up in.
9. What is your growth startegy at the moment, different from the previous plan?
IRC-Galleria's growth strategy at the moment is better known by people who actually plan and execute it; like Mr. Ville Mujunen, senior vice president of Sulake Corp who is now responsible of the IRC-Galleria business. However I do know something about where they are headed and its twofold: 1) keep and strengthen their current top position in the domestic market, and 2) really seriously go for the international markets (or should I say: certain international markets). That's it in brief, the rest you will have to ask from the executives there directly. I'm sure they are also keeping the product unique and high quality.
10. Did you involve users in the development and if so, how much? How have the users enabled the growth?
IRC-Galleria involves (and always has involved) users in development very much. First off: all the employees are very active users of the service themselves. So they frequently test out pre-alpha stuff and just raw ideas that come from the developer team. Once something is excellent enough to get into actual production then the generic public steps in: IRC-Galleria has multiple test-groups which are used as a kind of continuous closed-beta.
New features are being constantly introduced to the test-groups, sometimes all groups get the same version of the feature, sometimes they all get different ones, etc. They all have a chance to participate, comment, test and post ideas about the stuff - also have discussions amongst each other in a special sub-community group within IRC-Galleria that's dedicated for that purpose. Besides the contributions they can directly make they are also being measured and "tracked" on the usage of the new features; this is very much necessary in order to see if it really is a successful new product or not.
Once all testing is done the new product/feature gets released into the service for everyone to enjoy. IRC-Galleria tests features, technical things etc by this process, but they also test revenue models and highly conceptual ideas. Sometimes the idea ends up as far as the test-group trials only to be taken back to the drawing board when it doesn't really quite fly yet. I would say that the users have absolutely enabled the growth, yes.