MindValley is a San-Jose based company run by Vishen Lakhiani and Mike Reining. Yesterday, they launched SocialRank, along with 30 niche websites. The websites run the gamut of possible content, from more obvious niches like gadgets (GadgetRoll.com) and celebrity news & gossip (GossipStrip.com) to the more obscure, including MathBloggers.com, ChallengeReligion.com (for atheists), BikingCircle.com, TheLibraryShelf.com (hot stories from librarians?!?!) and KnittingFriends.com.
I’m particularly interested in StartupSignal.com because it’s focused on entrepreneurship and startups. But they’re also launching a number of related sites that tie very well into this blog, including: ProductivityZen.com, MarketingLens.com and MightyBlogger.com.
The folks at MindValley asked me to participate early on with StartupSignal and vote for my favorite startup-related blogs. As a result, I was able to interview Vishen Lakhiani about SocialRank, how it works, what their plans are for taking over the niche blog aggregation world and a bit more. The interview follows.
1. In a nutshell, explain SocialRank? What’s the core need?
Part of the idea came from reading the book “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson.
Anderson writes about how the Internet has a caused a surge in content and choices for anyone seeking information in a niche area.
Looking for articles on Entrepreneurship? Well there are hundreds of blog posts going up daily on the topic.
But this causes a problem…YOU have limited time. Out of the hundreds of new posts on entrepreneurship that went up today, which ones do you pay attention to?
Surely, they can’t all be good? With limited time, you only want to focus on the hottest stories.
Chris Anderson noticed this problem. In the Long Tail he writes that people get overwhelmed by the huge array of choices, and the way to solve this dilemma is to ensure that filters are in place to help people choose well. There should be a way for anyone to instantly see the top 10 entrepreneurship stories in the blogosphere today, without having to waste time shifting through thousands of blogs.
We wondered if we could solve the problem with math. And that’s how SocialRank emerged.
Now if you’re looking for today’s top news on Entrepreneurship – just visit StartupSignal.com and it acts as a filter to make sure that out of the hundreds of new posts on entrepreneurship – only the best ones get to you. It helps you seek out the most relevant and important info – faster than before.
2. You’re launching a lot of niche sites based off of SocialRank. Is it fairly easy to launch the niche sites once you’ve got the technology of SocialRank behind the scenes?
Yes. We have various processes in place to launch a new niche site in a very efficient way. We can spot a niche and have a site rolled out within 24 hrs.
Our goal is to identify the top 1,000 niches on the Net and launch sites to cater to each of these blogger communities. Often we get surprised at the niches we discovered.
Did you know for example that knitting and scrapbooking were among the top 50 hottest niches? We launched a site for knitting called KnittingFriends.com and one for scrapbooking is to follow soon.
3. There are many social media and social bookmarking sites out there; big ones like digg, reddit and propeller that cover broad niches and then smaller ones like DailyHub or Sphinn. All of these are based on voting from the community, but yours is not. Is that the key differentiator?
Here’s why voting is problematic.
On big sites like Digg – very very few people actually vote. I’ve read some studies that say only 3% of viewers bother to cast a vote.
Now Digg is so big that this 3% is still a large group of people and hot stories do emerge.
But on smaller niche sites like DailyHub, this becomes a problem. Anyone can launch a mini-Digg or Reddit for their niche. But once you go into niches, your audience is simply not large enough to make the votes count. As a result, these sites struggle and never really end up with solid enough data.
It’s a catch 22 situation. Without the audience, you can’t get good data. And without good data, you can’t get an audience. So we pushed our engineers to devise a solution that would not require voting buttons. SocialRank was the result.
SocialRank-powered sites like StartupSignal.com or MarketingLens.com have good data even before the first visitors arrive.
4. You start a niche site by asking a select group of people to name their top 10-20 blogs in that niche. Does this not just result in tracking of the same blogs that everyone in a niche is already following? Will people interested in Marketing, Professional Blogging, Motherhood, Coding, or any of the niche sites you’re launching find something new?
Actually, just the opposite.
From the initial seeding we typically end up with 50 to 100 sites depending on the niche.
But then this grows very rapidly. We’re opening up the system to allow anyone to contribute a site.
5. Along those lines, how do you handle cases of less popular blogs that have killer content? It happens all the time in the blogosphere (for any number of reasons). So if I were to submit such a blog to one of your sites, will it get recognition somehow?
This is exactly what we do. SocialRank studies only the content on your blog and does not take into account any metrics that come from how long you’ve been blogging.
Think of this as a form of “Brand Dampening”. We dampen the influence of brand-name bloggers from skewing the data.
For example, we know that long established blogs tend to score better in terms of Bloglines subscribers, Technorati rank, Google Page Rank etc. If we followed just these criteria, a new upstart blogger with some great content but little history in the field would have a hard time gaining attention.
Let’s say you just started a blog about startup advice. And you just wrote a great post that got tons of backlinks from Digg and Stumbleupon. It’s slowly being picked up across the Web.
Now let’s say in that same day, Guy Kawasaki, the preeminent blogger on startup advice, wrote a post about going on vacation for a week – interesting to his readers perhaps but not anything to do with startups.
If we just looked at the usual criteria (Bloglines subscribers, Technorati rank, Google Page Rank) Guy’s post would score higher than the new blogger with the great article.
But we take this into account with our math and dampen the value of Guy’s brand in unfairly influencing the quality of the content on StartupSignal.com.
The new guy – is now playing on a level playing field.
So we don’t care if you’re The New Guy or Guy Kawasaki. All we care about is your content.
6. Can you tell me the basis for how SocialRank measures the value of a blog and a specific blog post? I know you can’t tell me everything, but what are some of the things you’re looking at.
There are a large number of factors, and we constantly tweak the algorithm to make it better and better. But here are two of the biggest:
- First, backlinks. How many other bloggers in your field point to your post? This is usually a sign of a good post.
- Next, comments. We actually “read” your blog and make a note of how many comments you’re getting in a given time period. The comments are a good indicator of quality content.
There’s a lot more to it than that of course. But we have to keep the actual algorithm a secret to avoid spammers gaming the system.
7. Do you think the lack of community-participation — i.e. I can’t vote or comment on Startup Signal or any other niche site — will negatively impact what you’re offering? You’re aggregating the content, but I could just grab the RSS and never come back. Are you looking at more ways to make the sites sticky and community-focused?
Yes we are.
One of the big ways where we have not followed convention is in the use of comments.
One thing that often annoyed many bloggers about Reddit and Digg is that comments end up on their site and not your blog.
We did not want to take comments away from blogs. We encourage users to leave comments on the actual blog and not on our site. Bloggers appreciated this.
But this left us with a gap. How do we get our own original content?
We have something very novel coming up. You’ll hear about it in a few months.
8. How many niche sites are you expecting to launch?
Our goal is 1,000. We really wanted to challenge ourselves.
9. From a business perspective, is the focus on building up traffic, collecting eyeballs and selling advertising? What other business/revenue models are you looking at?
The obvious one is eyeballs. But we have a secondary plan in place. We’ll be unveiling this in perhaps a year.
10. SocialRank is really a product, whereas your company is MindValley. Previously you launched BlinkList, which looks very much like a predecessor to SocialRank. Can you give me a brief history on MindValley, how the company was started, funded, etc.?
It started in my bedroom in New York with a shoestring budget of $500.
We became profitable in our first month and then reinvested profits over and over again.
This year, we launched 4 new web businesses. Our scope is really broad. The businesses range from marketing to technology. We pursue ideas that we think we’re going to have a lot of fun working on and will have quick paths to profitability.
In addition to SocialRank, our other business that launched this month is TheAmericanMonk.com.
Both Mike and I have a strong interest in meditation and wanted to launch a site on this topic. TheAmericanMonk became profitable in its first month too.
Our whole strategy is to turn MindValley into a business-building factory. From 4 web businesses launched a year we want to push ourselves to launch 1 a month. And to have each of these businesses do $1 million in revenue in their first year.
So by 2008, we want to launch a new business every 30 days; each earning $1,000,000 in revenue in its first year.
11. What’s your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?
I’ve been a broke, struggling entrepreneur and a successful entrepreneur that could fund his own ideas. Trust me the difference is huge.
I hated the entrepreneurial life when I was broke, and I loved it when I made money. But it really depends on where your business is.
The best part about it though, and this is consistent whether you’re struggling or successful – is the amount of growth and learning you gain during your entrepreneurial stint.
I feel like I’m back in school. And I love it!
12. For an entrepreneur just starting out, what would be your top 3 suggestions?
- First, understand that ideas mean nothing. Anyone can have an idea. The key is execution. How you execute the idea is all that matters. I get dozens of proposals each week. I always ask up-and-coming entrepreneurs to look back at their idea and ask themselves these 4 questions on execution.
- How to make money off it so you don’t need VCs?
- How to build a barrier around your customer base so you don’t lose them?
- How to get cheap/free publicity and marketing?
- How to drive user adoption?
Apply these four questions to your idea and you’ll make huge strides towards ensuring success.
- Teach yourself sales and marketing. I believe this is the single most important early skill for an entrepreneur to have. I failed at a lot of my early business ideas simply because I did not know how to sell or market them.
I looked down on sales and marketing as baser skills. I was a product designer. Not a “salesman”. But then, while broke, at the height of the dot-com crash in the Valley of 2001, I was forced to take a lowly job as a commission-only salesperson. It was the education of a lifetime. And when I started my new venture a year later, I was able to make it profitable within 1 month. All because of a newfound ability to sell and market.
Never, ever underestimate the importance of sales and marketing skills.
I now run a free newsletter offering sales and marketing advice to web entrepreneurs. Your readers can sign up here – www.MindValleyLabs.com.
- Look for hidden niches. Too many entrepreneurs want to build the next Facebook. They dive into “hot”, well publicized fields like Social Networking. But the reality is – these fields are overcrowded.
It’s the same with brick and mortar entrepreneurs. Avoid the glamorous opportunities like running your own bar and restaurant because too many people want to do the same.
Instead – seek out hidden niches.
I know guys who have made a mint selling granite, or specialty dining tables or informational products online. Who would have though that these were million dollar niches?
I made a mint selling personal development products online. With that money I was able to go into more glamorous fields like social media. So forget the glamorous niches for now. If you’re just getting started, seek out a “hidden” niche. Be a big fish in a small pond first. And once you’ve gained experience and have enough capital to back yourself up, then try to be a big fish in a big pond.
There’s no question that the volume of blogs and content available is overwhelming. People are tackling this problem from a number of angles, from new RSS readers to data aggregators. Sites like digg and similar clones on niche topics are still gaining in popularity, while established content aggregators like Techmeme continue to thrive.
And we can be sure that social network fatigue and social network overload will get worse before it gets better.
MindValley will face some challenges. People will routinely try and game the system, or people won’t bother if they see it’s not driving traffic to the blogs already being listed. Blogs that cover multiple niches may end up feeding into one of the niche sites with irrelevant content. For example, this blog is being listed on StartupSignal.com, but what happens when I write something not related to entrepreneurship that gets very popular? Will it show up too? Will they filter it? (I suppose I could have asked that question, but the interview was already long! And Vishen can comment here too…)
We’re going to see more and more companies trying to tackle the issues of attention and social network overload, with varying approaches. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
Where do you think things are going?