Multiple times, we discovered the value of real, external deadlines, despite the added stress and workload they bring.

By Michelle Norgan (Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer, Kismet)

A year and a half ago I founded Kismet, a social discovery app that connects you to your existing friends in the real world by simplifying getting together face to face. In that year and a half, our product went from virtually unknown to one of the most frequently cited examples in the very hot ambient social networking/social discovery space.

Multiple times, we discovered the value of real, external deadlines, despite the added stress and workload they bring.

Here are a few strategies that helped us make that transition.

Find a Forcing Function

Kismet was part of AngelPad’s winter 2011 class. One of the great intangible benefits of an accelerator like AngelPad is that at the end of the 10 week program, you present your company to a group of more than 200 investors to kick off the fundraising process. Having a definitive, looming deadline drove us to develop a timeline and to stick to it. Had this been an internal deadline, the temptation to say “Let’s push back a couple of days” would’ve been there, and that’s invariably a recipe for scope creep.

We found an even better forcing function when we were chosen to present at Women 2.0 PITCH Conference & Competition in February of this year. We were contacted about the opportunity in early January, about five weeks before the event. Up until that time we had only released alpha versions of Kismet to small, select numbers of users. We weren’t planning on a full, public launch until just before SXSW.

Once we were invited to present at PITCH, we decided that standing up on stage and saying “Coming Soon” just wasn’t an option. The only option was to tell the audience “Download Kismet now!” Once we made the decision, it became a deadline that we couldn’t change. We couldn’t delay it a day or afford one single slip. We pulled many all nighters to make it happen and launched our product in front of PITCH’s 1000 attendees.

As a result, we got a huge spike in downloads over the next week as people who had attended the conference shared the app with their friends. That, in turn, gave us some much needed user data that we’d been lacking before. We developed a number of learnings that were key to our product and we set a new goal due to our next forcing function: SXSW – only 3 weeks away.

Even more, PITCH led us to one of our key features: group meetups, which has produced the biggest interest and activity from users to date.

Each of these deadlines were very public events where the penalty for missing the date was extreme embarrassment at best, complete failure at worst, but having them led us to make hard decisions on our feature set and stick to our timeline.

Build a Story

Having a forcing function is great for making progress on product, but to make our message take off, we knew we needed to build a detailed story that fans – our users, investors, the press – could easily tell again and again.

The ambient social network space got red hot just before our launch at PITCH conference. Telling the story of an app that helped you find new friends nearby suddenly wasn’t enough to stand out from the crowd. What we did have was a story that we knew would resonate not only with PITCH’s largely female audience, but with the press that was eager to talk about the space.

This began with our ethos. From day one, we’ve been about making sure that we solved the social problem of the Ambient Social space as much as the technical one. Ambient social networks rely on users sharing their location in the background even while the app isn’t open. This naturally brings up numerous privacy questions, for example: What happens when I’m at home? Will strangers be able to find out where I live?

Early on, we built features like “Hide at Home,” which automatically detects where a user’s home is and hides them completely when they’re there. In a space where “creepy” is the most frequently used adjective, the press, reviewers, and the audience at PITCH frequently praised Kismet for being the only app of its kind that allowed users to maintain their privacy while still being able to gain use from it.

Going into SXSW, we also touted our group event feature while our competitors pushed one to one meetings. Many ambient social apps work on the premise of connecting people through friends. We believe that there’s far more value in spending time with friends in the real world and making those new connections face to face. Think of all the cocktail parties, happy hours and other events where you’ve met someone through a mutual friend that invited both of you.

That was the premise behind our events feature, and it was different enough from the competition’s one to one meetups that it made a great story that was easy to tell. Our users loved it, and the press did too. More important, they could easily articulate it.

All this led to coverage in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, and numerous other national publications. Nearly every time an article about the space is written, Kismet is mentioned.

We can’t understate the value of what finding forcing functions does for the development of our product, and building a compelling story that could be easily retold helped solidify Kismet as a leader in the ambient social network space.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Michelle Norgan is the Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Kismet. Michelle was previously a founding team member at a social startup where she designed and launched the company’s Consumer Mobile and Web products. Michelle holds a BS from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Follow her on Twitter at @mnorgan.