Much-hyped startup About.me  boasted some 400,000 users when it was acquired by AOL in December--only four days after its public launch. The service, which integrates all your online networks into one convenient personal profile, has been touted  as having "mass-scale potential" by co-founder Tony Conrad, and has already grown to nearly 500,000 users since its acquisition. With such a promising product in hand, why would About.me ever choose to sell?
For About.me , this isn't about second-guessing the decision to sell out. It's a question of whether doing so will help the company fend off competition, which comes in the form of a Winklevoss -like competitor. Flavors.me , a nearly identical service that launched in January of 2009 (About launched in December of that year), claims to have a half-million users as well. Will AOL's acquisition tilt the table in either startup's favor? Or will Flavors end up as the ConnectU to About.me's Facebook--the one left hooting and hollering about being first?
"We were aware of Flavors early on, but as we were building About.me we worried less and less about it," says About co-founder Tim Young. "You can find instances where the first to market ultimately wins, and you can find cases where it's better not to be No. 1. Microsoft is the biggest example of following other people's taillights and still becoming dominant. But on the social web, it does seem that, in most cases, the first to achieve scale or velocity typically appears to be the one to win most of the market, if not all of it."
Young hopes AOL will provide this scale. The acquisition, he believes, will enable the service to "piggyback" on the company's large userbase.
Not surprisingly, Flavors feels differently about the acquisition--and quite strongly so.
"They've played out their endgame extremely early," says Flavors founder Jonathan Marcus. "It calls into question the amount of growth that they purport to have. This acquisition adds more questions than it answers in terms of how successful they were. They said they had quite a lot of users, but if you look at how many pages were actually indexed in Google, it was really not a very high amount. The idea that pairing with AOL's assets is going to benefit them--I can't really see it. Had About been acquired by someone like Google, we would've been nervous. But AOL is really the perfect home for About, from our perspective--it allows us to continue to play the Apple versus Microsoft angle, though obviously neither of us are that big."
About.me CEO Tony Conrad disagrees with Marcus's criticism and disputes his facts. In addition to providing exact usership numbers--a figure he says is growing by about 5,000 users a day--Conrad explains at great length why AOL is the right fit, ticking off benefits of the acquisition including possibly integrating About with AOL's email service, which has tens of millions of users. Conrad says he "profoundly struggled" with the decision to accept AOL's offer, but considers it the right move strategically for his co-founders and shareholders.
"I don't know what [Marcus] is talking about--I think he's a little jealous perhaps," says Conrad.
Marcus see things from the opposite perspective, and argues that About.me is more focused on Flavors than the company would like to admit.
"About tried to acquire us before they launched--they won't tell you that," Marcus says. "Literally the day we launched our beta, they made an offer to either acquire us or take what we had and combine teams. Then they proceeded to spend the next year copying us--if you look at any of our server logs, they were on the site more than we were. They've been looking to take a lot of shortcuts, whether it's acquiring us, copying our product, or flipping really quickly."
Conrad flat-out denies Marcus' claims. "We did not make an offer to buy those guys--absolutely not," he says.
"I mean, come on--is he serious? Did MySpace steal from Tribe? Did Facebook steal from MySpace? Did WordPress steal from Six Apart? Did Six Apart steal from Blogger? It's just silly. Honestly, I think we're going to get copied by everybody. Do you think LinkedIn is not going to do something like this? What is he talking about? I'm baffled--of course we use their product. Why wouldn't we? If you're starting Facebook, do you think you've never spent time on MySpace?"
Though an acquisition offer for Flavors was never made, the idea was broached by About.me. Material provided to Fast Company shows About approached Flavors in 2009 and expressed interest in combining efforts or possibly buying Flavors.me and its talent. The teams exchanged brief emails and phone calls about joining forces, but ultimately, those talks never got off the ground. It was all very informal and casual.
This back-and-forth could likely go on forever, but neither company's success will be determined in a public pissing contest. The web isn't big enough for two such similar services--one eventually must win, and one must lose. For Flavors, that means focusing on its business model--the site offers certain services for a fee--which they argue makes the startup more viable than its competitor. And for About.me, winning means focusing less on its front-end product, and more on the back-end, distinguishing the service through its unique user data and dashboard analytics.
Assuming these products actually have "mass-scale potential," the war between About.me and Flavors.me is far from over.
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