In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits that success is as much about good timing as it is hard work and raw talent. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of this theory than the Shorty Awards, which launched in December 2008 just as "Twitter was on the cusp of getting really big," noted cofounder Greg Galant. To attribute the success of the Shorty Awards to timing alone would be shortsighted, missing one of the most instructive cases for entrepreneurs in the brave new world of Social Media 3.0. Here are six insights I gleaned from my interview with Galant.
1. Identify an Unmet Need
Back in late 2008, Greg Galant and his partner Lee Semel at Sawhorse Media , a fledgling media company, recognized both the potential of Twitter and an inherent shortcoming. "The thing which made it unique was that all the content was public and people were creating media, but there was no easy way to figure out who's doing good stuff on Twitter by topic" Noted Galant, adding "so we had this wacky idea we would create the first ever directory of Twitter and what better way than to crowd source an awards program." Wacky or not, within 24 hours of its launch on December 10, 2008, Shorty was one of the top trending terms on Twitter, a position it held for the next two months. And as a result of the Shortys, all the Twitterverse had a real source for the best of the best.
2. Build It Fast AND Build It Smart
Often software entrepreneurs are faced with tradeoffs between speed to market and quality of performance. Offered Galant, "We came up with the name Shorty Awards, registered the domain and built the whole system in two weekends." Despite the speed, it was brilliant in its use of the very medium it was acknowledging and, according to Galant, was "the first system ever to use public nominees." The entry form was literally just a tweet like "I nominate @DrewNeisser for #Shorty for marketing brilliance ... " and the Shorty site, "would just automatically suck that in, parse it and figure out what the nomination is for, and then create a leaderboard out of all the nominees." That would be like a movie actress nominating herself for an Oscar in the middle of the film!
3. Make It Competitive and Transparent
Awards by their very nature are competitive, but part of the genius of the Shorty Awards is that nominees see how they're doing in real time. This level of transparency sets the Shorty Awards apart from its advertising brethren. Explained Galant, "there was tons of campaigning, people were tweeting to get people to vote for them--the leader boards were really a strong thing in that people want to be on a top ten list." The leader board also had the added value of giving people a reason to constantly come back to ShortyAwards.com. In fact, and most notably, traffic to the Shorty Awards.com Web site according to Compete.com  (see chart ) during its first two years was higher than that of the better known Effies, Clios, and even the coveted Cannes Lions.
4. Bake the Marketing Into the Product
One of the more remarkable aspects of the Shorty Awards, is that the brand was built with "zero marketing dollars." A true social media phenomenon, the Shorty Awards garnered 50,000 nominees year 1 and over 300,000 year 2 without spending a single dollar on advertising. As Galant explained it, "We thought about marketing at the product design stage, focusing on every little angle: how it would market itself, what kind of viral actions will it create, what's the viral loop, what about it's really going to resonate with users--that matters far more than how hard you pitch it and everything like that." Entrepreneurs out there would be well advised to embrace Galant's conjecture, "That much of marketing today is done before the launch. It's in the product design."
5. React to the Road, Not the Map
Every entrepreneur will tell of the importance of "reacting to the road, not the map" when rolling out a new product or service. But few in my experience were as good at observing the changes in the road and reacting accordingly as Galant and Semel. First, there was the matter of awards categories. By allowing people to make up any category they wanted, they'd watch for a particular user generated category to achieve critical mass, and then they'd make it official. Noted Galant, "When we started, It never occurred to us to have a video game category for example." Then there was the ceremony. Launched without a real business plan, Galant noted "We hadn't yet lined up any plans to actually have the ceremony. We didn't have a sponsor, we didn't have a venue, we didn't have a host--yet two months later, we pulled the whole thing off."
6. Deliver Genuine Value Across the Board
Before the Shorty Awards became a real business, Galant and his partner had the simple goal of delivering value by "showing the who's who of social media." Once it became clear that there were a lot of people who shared Galant's desire to "know who's actually good, who the stars are, who's mastered the media," the challenge shifted to creating value for potential sponsors. This value came in multiple ways depending on the sponsor. During the nomination periods, traffic to the Web site and PR about the awards reached millions. At the events, sponsors were able to mingle with top tweeters from around the world, the first of which was the largest gathering of its kind. And because Galant had the foresight to video tape the event, live streams (+20k) and subsequent plays on YouTube (+100k) increased the value for sponsors even further.
The Shorty Awards were profitable in both its first two years, enough so that Galant is now talking to investors about expansion plans. Not bad for a couple of guys who just wanted to figure out who to follow on Twitter.