Gotta focus on the small group to get the big group

A few weeks ago a bunch of us were talking about web services and social communities.

My friend John Borthwick was there (we are co-investors in Tumblr and Covestor). John said something at the meeting that has stuck with me ever since. John said one of the important lessons they learned at Fotolog was focusing on the core users to get big. By successfully contracting and getting tighter around that group the product & user experience will become better and start to snowball.

I’m seeing this “focus on the small” everywhere.  Saul Hansell’s post in the NYT today offers this as the key reason why Yelp is doing so well:

What Yelp did differently than these others, as Jeremy Stoppelman, the site’s co-founder and chief executive describes it, was to spend most of its energy attracting a small group of fanatic reviewers. It didn’t try to pay for reviews, as some sites have. It didn’t subordinate the users’ contributions to professional reviews, as on Citysearch, or to directory information, as on yellow-pages sites.

Instead, it structured the site to motivate people through the praise and attention that their reviews receive from others. “Yelp is about the reviewing experience,” Mr. Stoppelman said. “It is like a blog with a little bit of structure.

I love this notion and it makes sense. At the end of the day, when (if) you are lucky enough to find/delight your core group of passionate users – you need to keep focusing on that group and remember what you do better than anyone else. And adding more value to that community will actually widen your appeal ultimately.

It’s very tempting to add a bazillion features and expand to vertically integrate all sorts of bells & whistles. 

But to go big it’s sometimes critical to focus on the small.