How Starting Where I’ve Been Is The Best Mistake Craig Ulliott Ever Made

by Tim Jahn on December 17, 2010

Craig Ulliott started the Facebook app Where I’ve Been as a side project while he was working as a freelance web developer.  In a few days, the app’s use exploded and Craig had a problem.  Within a month, Craig had to figure out how support his growing user base of around a million users.

Today, Where I’ve Been is approaching ten million maps created, is one of the most popular travel apps on Facebook, and is partnering with leading companies in the travel industry.  I interviewed Craig to learn how he built a wildly successful Facebook app and how starting Where I’ve Been is the “best mistake” Craig ever made.

Transcript

Craig Ulliott: I’m Craig Ulliott. I’m the CTO and founder of Where I’ve Been. Where I’ve Been is a travel social network. Really on more simple terms, it’s just a map and you can fill out where you’ve been, lived and want to go and then you put that map into Facebook and share it with your friends.

It was created originally as a side project, I was starting another business at the time, and it was a good mistake really because it blew up very quickly. We had about a million users within the first month. Then all my focus turned in to building that as a product and backing into the business model and trying to basically make it to what it is today.

Tim Jahn: And today you have over nine million maps.

Craig Ulliott: Yeah, we’re about to hit ten actually.

Tim Jahn: You’re about to hit ten million maps?

Craig Ulliott: Yeah.

Tim Jahn: And like you said it’s blown up insanely, but it’s just a map like you said. What caused this popularity?

Craig Ulliott: I think really it’s – being a derivative product of Facebook, is what’s — I mean Facebook’s success is our success and their growth is obviously funneled in to our growth. So, in many ways that’s a bad thing I suppose because you can make sub-par product on Facebook and they have so much traffic and so many users coming in and they’re all exploring and they can find, they can find the map and then we just grow with them. So there’s benefits and disadvantages to being a derivative of their platform.

Tim Jahn: I imagine it must be scary being a derivative product. Because we were talking before the interview, at any point they could do something and tell you or not tell you and they could destroy your whole product.

Craig Ulliott: It does. And it’s happened in the past, like the main premise behind Where I’ve Been was to put that map on to your profile and they took the profile boxes away and this is what 2008 now? It’s good for that eco-system. It makes the product Facebook and Facebook’s users happier and it progresses the whole social web. So that there is a big benefit there.

It also gets rid of a lot of the smaller apps. Back — I think now 500,000 apps that are being created and published there. But really, no one’s using 99.9% of those applications. So, if forces us to build better products and to promote them in intelligent ways and I think it’s good for the eco-system in general though it’s hard to say that because it is a constant back and forth, oh they’re changing this.

But they also bring out new things, like new channels and new ways. Plus if they didn’t make the eco-system better, it wouldn’t have grown so quickly. That’s we wouldn’t have grown so quickly, so —

Tim Jahn: So you mentioned you started Where I’ve Been kind of on accident that was the best mistake you ever made.

Craig Ulliott: It was, yeah.

Tim Jahn: How was it an accident or a mistake?

Craig Ulliott: I have traveled around the world myself, I love to travel. I created the map to literally show my friends where I’ve been and that’s where the name came from and I thought — I did see an opportunity there because the application platform was, their platform was only a couple of days old and I thought – what if I make this so people will use it and I get it, I can put it on the profile tabs and other people will see it and there was a big button that said “edit” or “create your own.” So I did have an idea but it really wasn’t this scale.

I thought some friends and family will see it and then we’ll get them. And I guess that’s the premise behind social media, its — you’re making something and sharing it and then your friends see it. I hadn’t really anticipated the viral effect of that and that’s what made it explode. It was an accident in the sense that I didn’t think it would get this big, but it was also planned. I think it can grow like this, I did see an opportunity.

Tim Jahn: So you said you were starting a different business at the time, at what point did you know that this was the new business?

Craig Ulliott: About two or three days in, I think.

Tim Jahn: Two or three days?

Craig Ulliott: Yeah, I think it grew so quickly. The — if you look at — go back to the beginning of Facebook platform and look at some of the success stories, it’s just — I mean you would just “phew” shoot straight up and Facebook tweaked their systems a lot to make sure that couldn’t happen.

There were a lot of apps that were very spammy, like basically abused some of the channels of Facebook opened up a lot of sort of poking idea where you would — you could throw like a — I won’t give any examples but there was one with — it was a Christmas app, you could throw a frozen wet ball of something and the idea was that you throw it to a friend and then they throw it to three more friends and it was just basically — I mean it was almost a joke, like let’s take the idea of a viral application and that’s all it does. Like a huge hockey stick growth and then after Christmas, it disappears entirely. And Facebook didn’t really see value in those kinds of applications. They want to see really utilitarian stuff that basically brings content in, because content’s what Facebook’s all about.

Tim Jahn: Lots and lots of content.

Craig Ulliott: Lots and lots. Yeah, and people.

Tim Jahn: So two to three days in, you decided this is a real business opportunity here, what did you do?

Craig Ulliott: Well, I panicked a little bit in the beginning. It was on the company I was working with at the time and they basically gave me some free hosting space, so I felt like, well I’m going to outgrow that pretty quickly and I’d never built anything to this scale before so that was a challenge too. Really the idea of money and business, I was very young at the time.

It was — it became a third company but also very inexperienced and really relied on other people, so made a partnership with a partner in the company I was working at, Michael Delasandro, he’s now the CEO and my business partner. So, he basically helped me understand the ins and outs of the business side of the business. It took us a long time to find any kind of business model though because we’d created an application before a business plan, so lots of challenges.

Tim Jahn: Looking back, would you have changed that? Or, was that the way to go? Grow and then figure out the business?

Craig Ulliott: I think it was the only way to go. It’s definitely not something I’d recommend. At the end of the day, especially engineers that are entrepreneurs they’re very driven by the product they want to make and they’re like, this is a cool thing to build. Very rarely is that cool thing going to monetize well and turn in to a big success story like “groupon” for example.

You’ve got to find the balance of a business plan and focus and then at the same time you’ve got to build a cool product and I think it focuses really, a big part of that you’ve got to know exactly what you’re doing and you’ve got to stick to that plan. Especially for engineers, there are shiny things everywhere that I want to build this, I want to add this, or look at this new thing that’s open and you just kind of — you don’t really get anywhere if you do that. So, believe in your idea, stick to it, and if it doesn’t work, fail very quickly and then move on to the next one.

Tim Jahn: It sounds like finding Mike was in a sense finding a mentor early on to help you figure this out. How important do you think finding a mentor was to your success?

Craig Ulliott: The most important — like it would never have worked without that. I would probably have just run around in circles and ended up selling — and it wouldn’t have been for the value that it should’ve been. Yeah, it’s so important.

Tim Jahn: What else do you think was important? In terms of — I know a lot of your success is in a sense riding on Facebook’s success, but like you said there’s thousands and thousands of other apps who had that opportunity. How did you actually harness that opportunity and grow?

Craig Ulliott: I think part of it was just — travels a good vertical to be in. People are very passionate about travel, so picking that was a very good move. I said picking it was again kind of an accident. Then it’s really trying to provide as much value as possible and then trying to keep up with what Facebook’s doing. Actually I forgot the question, what were you saying again?

Tim Jahn: Well, I was saying Facebook, you’re riding on the success because there’s millions of other apps out there too that have the opportunity to ride on their success, but they’re not nearly as successful as you. So what factors did you find?

Craig Ulliott: The biggest one for us would be the right place, right time thing. Being there in the beginning gave us the advantage to grow to the size we are. And once you’re at critical mass, it’s very easy to — I mean, I’ll give an example if Facebook changed something and we need to re-energize our users, we have lots of email addresses, we have lots of — we have a bit of branded entity and things like that and so we can wake those users up and be like come look at this new feature and things like that. So, the initial growth was very important. Getting all of those people right away.

Second to that, it’s just making sure you build the features that they want and then there’s this whole idea of you basically tune these features to the max and this idea of virally tuning them, so this is a feature that a user uses — how do we make it social? And how do we make it that interaction basically touch another user?

We spent a lot of time doing that, we have a question of the day feature, where you can basically answer a trivia question every day and we spent about a month tweaking every part of the UI to make that more viral. So we went from 3,000 questions a day, tweaking the interface up, to 50,000 a day. So that’s people just an easy way of them going back and forward and suggesting other questions. We had a calendar for the different days. Once we’d done that, we started bringing in this idea of basically publishing your scores to Facebook.

Because we have so many people doing it, we can publish these score summaries, more people come back in. So, it’s a mixture of building a really valuable product and then building something that’s very clever so that it — people use it and they don’t get addicted to it, but get addicted to it and then they push it out to their friends.

Tim Jahn: You mentioned that at the beginning it was kind of right timing because you were one of the first, you got that hockey stick growth. Is there a way to figure out what the right timing is or were you just 100% luck?

Craig Ulliott: I think that was luck, but ultimately a good entrepreneur doesn’t miss an opportunity. You — and saying that, it’s been very hard for me to be focused on this and see other opportunities go by. And this idea of failing quickly and often, it’s a great sort of path to follow. You want to just keep going, keep finding the next thing and if you do try lots of things, you’re going to find one of those opportunities.

And they’re there, social media is still quite new, there’s plenty of space there to build more be to be stuff I think at this point because it’s so misunderstood. They go out there and teach people how to do it and things like that and that’s just one opportunity, but there will be another one. People — you don’t want to be on the tail end of all this stuff — but you can at the same time, it’s very hard to invent the next thing. So, just hang out there, read a lot and just look for opportunities and track.

Tim Jahn: What’s one piece of advice you’d give someone, an aspiring entrepreneur to create the next Where I’ve been?

Craig Ulliott: Let’s think. I mean, the focus is the biggest one and especially if you’re a technologist. I think if you’re not a technologist, there’s a lot of people like me who are like I really want to build this thing, where can I find the engineers? It’s not really as simple as that, a good engineer who has a entrepreneurial spirit isn’t going to just be answering Craigslist ads.

You’ve got to really find someone that you work well with and you’ve got to partner with them and make a good team. I think this is preconception that really talented engineers who are a bit entrepreneurial, they don’t want to partner, they want to do things their own way, but that’s not really true. You need a good finance guy, you need a good business guy so that you can put your head down and focus.

So, there’s also partnerships to be made, so I think it’s basically align yourself with the right people and then just every opportunity that you see, just try it. If it doesn’t work, fail very quickly and then go in to the next one and don’t give up. Work very hard, 60-70 hour weeks are probably not enough, it’s probably more like 100.

Enjoy it as well, I think you’re probably born an entrepreneur. I know that sounds very conceded but you know, a bit more stubborn, a bit more gung-ho about life. If you feel that you have that, just go for it, take a risk. There’s no big — the other thing is, if you’re that talented, there’s plenty more jobs. So, fail, think of a job. Then get enough money to go do the next one, it’s fun.

Tim Jahn: You mentioned that finding good partnerships or finding the right finance guy, finding the right business guy, how do you go about finding the right people to fill those things that you’re not necessarily as good at?

Craig Ulliott: Yeah, it’s enormously difficult, you — I mean we’ve gone through a lot of people who — just employees at Where I’ve Been and it’s — there’s a lot of good people out there but then you’ve got the personality mixes as well. It’s very difficult and you’re not going to find them on Monster or Craigslist — like partners no, employee’s maybe.

I think just go to lots of events, like hang around, like if you’re passionate about technology, there’s a lot of events in the city, there’s a lot of — just stuff going on, like there’s the new incubators coming up like in the middle of December, which is fairly new and I think we’ve got this Syncubator and then obviously LightBank and they’re in and around the place, they’re doing stuff and I just align yourself up with those kinds of people.

They always want to talk about what they’re doing and what you’re doing and just get out there, just be social and meet them. They’ll make lots of interest to other people. I know that’s kind of a vague thing, but get yourself out there and it kind of happens.

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