The New Early Adopter Trend: Shilling for Startups

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In the last month or so, I’ve noticed an irritating trend in the startup world: After adding my email to a launch page, I get asked to submit a few of my friends’ email addresses in exchange for a higher place in line or earlier access. This has happened at least twice when I’ve checked out a startup after meeting an entrepreneur, and two or three times after I’ve spoken with a friend about a cool company and gone to check it out. I find it annoying, but it’s a trend that has blossomed, mostly because it appears to work.

Damian Kimmelman, founder and CEO of DueDil, a financial information startup that’s shutting down its social invite program as it opens up its beta to more people, said the company saw its invite pool swell by a third thanks to folks sharing email addresses of their friends. But most important was the psychological effect Kimmelman felt it has on the invitees. In an IM conversation, he said it helps prioritize users when you can only let a few people into a beta at one time and he added, “[A]lso you are a free service, but you kinda want people to value the service from day 1.”

He added that it was a short-term thing and only four or five people seemed upset enough to complain about the process.

Apparently, his experience may become the norm. Justin Britten, founder of Prefinery, a company that helps startups manage their beta process, said via email that at this time, 45 of the companies using its software have turned on social invites since the company released the functionality in February. The feature encourages applicants to share news of the beta they just applied to on social networks including Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. They can also pass a unique link generated for them via email. Britten writes:

In this time, 45 betas have enabled the social sharing feature, and of these 45 betas, a total of 2,125 testers across all 45 betas have shared their unique share link with their friends for a total of 28,214 unique clicks. These same 45 betas had a total of 6,827 testers over this period, meaning that 31% of all testers (2,125 of 6,827) were willing to share the beta with their friends on their social networks! This willingness is huge!!

Of these 28,214 clicks, a total of 789 people actually applied for access to the said beta after clicking on their friend’s unique share link, yielding a conversion rate of approximately 2.8 percent.

This was so successful Prefinery has elected to enable its sharing feature by default; few betas choose to disable the feature, according to Britten. Another way to look at this, however, is that in attempting to beta test an app, the tester is willing to sell out his friends in hopes that almost three people out of every hundred that he or she shares it with will also be interested enough to also try to sign up.

I’m in the cranky camp on this one, but since it’s driving value for entrepreneurs using it, I suppose I should just get used to being asked to fork over my friends in exchange for earlier access to the next hot startup. I don’t have to do it, but I do worry that an increasing part of being an early adopter seems to be a willingness to shill. I’m not ready to live in a world where, as Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook employee and entrepreneur, said in a BusinessWeek article, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” This viral world makes me somewhat sick.

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