Serial entrepreneur in social media
With over 550,000 monthly visits and 2.1 million page views, Dutch social media startup Twitter Counter has become the top statistics site for Twitter users.
Simply stated, Twitter Counter is a site where Twitter users can track the number of followers they have and then post a button on their website or blog showing this number. They can also install a widget that tells them which Twitter users have clicked through to their stories.
It sounds a simple idea, but it has made Dutchmen Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Arjen Schat very well-known in the social media world.
I follow you on Twitter
It all began in May, 2008. Boris and Arjen had organised a conference and were chatting to one of the visitors when Boris got the idea:
“I asked him if he was subscribed to our RSS feed. 'No,’ he said, ‘I follow you on Twitter because all your articles are there.’ When he walked away I said to Arjen, ‘This is a trend. People are going to start getting their news via Twitter instead of RSS feeds. We should build a service where you can add a little button on your website that shows how many followers you have on Twitter and if you click it, it will show some statistics.
Arjen thought it sounded fun, but didn't have time to start on it right away.
Knowing a little coding myself, I spent my weekend working on a prototype. Less than two weeks later I showed a working model to my partners. Arjen loved the idea and we dropped what we were doing to start polishing the service. Only two days later we decided that Twitter Counter, as basic as it was, was good enough to launch. So we did.
Everybody wants more followers on Twitter and likes to show their statistics, so it became a viral hit. People were tweeting it a lot - even the Twitter founders tweeted it.”
Within two months, Twitter Counter buttons were displayed on 18.6 million websites and blogs. A little over half a year later, the company passed the 100 million mark.
Cash flow positive
And then somebody wrote and asked to be on the front page of Twitter Counter. And suddenly they were making money.
“He said, ‘I’ll pay you $50 for a week.’‘Ok,’ I said, ‘it’s a deal.’ And I tweeted: I just sold a week on the front page of Twitter Counter. And then 3 other people said they wanted a week too. And suddenly we were cash flow positive. And then we doubled the prices. And then we doubled them again. And doubled them again. Within a few weeks we were at a $1000 a week to be featured on the front page.”
Now Twitter Counter runs on a pay-per-view model – fifty thousand views for $150 – and those are regularly sold out too. “Today if you buy a featured spot, it takes about four weeks before you’re actually on Twitter Counter because we’re always sold out. And in a good month we do $60 or $70k in revenue.”
It’s clearly a successful business model, but is buying followers the best way to build a Twitter audience? According to Boris, “the best way is to do it organically. Say something interesting and you’ll get more followers.” But there are exceptions. He gives the example of an internet consultant who has to advise a company about their Twitter strategy in two months. “If theyonly have 500 followers and they don‘t think that’s enough to be credible, then fine, buy followers. Or if someone just wants more followers than their competitor. We don’t make a moral judgment if more is better, all we do is graph how many followers you have and how that’s changing over time.”
So how many followers is enough? That depends, says Boris.
"If you have only one follower but you have the most meaningful conversations ever, then that’s fine. And if you have 100 followers and they’re all loyal fans and they reply to whatever you say, that’s fine too. So there’s no right number. What you could do is compare to others similar to you. So if you’re a hip-hop star and you have 100,000 followers and all the other hip-hop stars have a million followers, then you should probably get some more followers. But there’s no right or wrong amount of followers."
That said, even Boris admits to getting caught in the trap of believing that more followers = more interesting. “It’s a bit like looking through a restaurant window and seeing that nobody’s there. It’s just a bit less attractive than seeing a restaurant that’s full.”
The Netherlands is well-known around the world for being a centre for tech development. Boris says he still hasn’t figured out why startups like Twitter and LinkedIn see traffic spikes in Holland, but he says, there are some advantages to being a Dutchman in the world of social media entrepreneurs.
“The story is that the Netherlands is the worst place in the world to grow tulips. But because it’s the worst, we got really good at it, because we had so many hurdles to overcome. It’s a little like that with entrepreneurship – the rules for starting a company, the laws you have to abide by, they’re awful. If you explain it to somebody in the US, they say it’s just insane, nobody would be an entrepreneur there with those rules. So the fact that you are able to be a successful entrepreneur makes you really strong.”
As for the future of social networking, Boris says that’s anybody’s guess, he’s just sure it won’t stay the same.
“The social networking you see today isn’t going to be the same as we’ll to have in five years. I think a lot of people have the impression that Facebook is here to stay; it’s got 500 million users, it’s never going to go away. But I remember when Hyves started and I told them they were crazy, they were too late because Friendster already had 10 million users. And then Facebook came around and I thought it would never work, because MySpace already had 300 million users. But it’s like the hottest bar in town. It’s only the hottest bar because all your friends are there. And if that small subset of your hippest friends say, ‘Hey, there’s a new bar, it’s smaller and it’s hipper, let‘s go there’, then you and all your friends are going to go there."
Join Boris’ 15,000 other followers on Twitter at @Boris. You can find his partner at @ArjenSchat.
You can also find Boris and Arjen at The Next Web conference, April 27-29, in Amsterdam. "Bringing together the best people and companies from Europe and the US to discuss the future of the web and mobile". There's even a special Radio Netherlands discount code.