The untold story of Posterous

Sachin Agarwal on left

There are a lot of blogging sites out there – WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, and then there’s Posterous.  Sachin Agarwal, founder of Posterous, told a story which seemed to be a collection of happenstances.  At a talk last Friday, Agrawal talked publicly for the first time since Posterous spaces launched.  He started by saying that he will be talking about things that he hadn’t shared before.

Agarwal describes himself as a backend engineer guy with no frontend and web programming experience and not a product guy.  So how does a former Apple Final Cut Pro developer start a blogging website?  Now comes the problem and the solution.

He wanted to easily upload photos to his blog via email.  So he developed the function just for him to use.  Eventually, his friends and family liked the function and it caught on.  This led to him getting into Y Combinator and then launching at TechCrunch.

People were calling Posterous blogging by email or easy blogging.

The 3 main innovations that made Posterous unique:

  1. The ability to email one email address to post to your Posterous site.  This came about because he didn’t know how to set up an email server.  Unlike other blogging sites, you did not have to send emails to an obscure email address like 123abc@WordPress.com.
  2. It’s very easy to set up a new Posterous account.   He didn’t want (or maybe didn’t know how) to create a registration page.  If a sender email address is not recognizable by Posterous, then it will assume it’s a new account and create a new Posterous account.
  3. When you post to Posterous, it’s easy to post to other social accounts.  No story here.

Posterous had two main products – sites and groups.  It started to confuse people especially new users.  Also, over time, Posterous team started to notice a lot of people creating private blogs and add contributors.  The idea for spaces came from this.  It is a way to simulate how people share privately through email, but with Posterous hosting the site and archiving the data.  Unlike Google+ and Facebook, Posterous sharing is symmetrical, everyone in the posterous space can share with one another equally not just sharing by fanning out to contacts (asymmetric).  Tip: Monitor how your users interact with your product.  There may be an opportunity to capitalize on unforeseen patterns.

Posterous had a lot of design debt and they were faced with keep the old or go with the new.  For every new feature, a button would appear.  Existing customers were happy with this approach, but new users didn’t feel the same way.  Tip: Top talent do not want to work with outdated technologies (e.g., older versions because of technical debt) and confusing code.  Tip: Technical debt will make your website slow “like Friendster”.

In a bold move, Posterous decided to scrap everything and start from scratch.  This decision was mainly driven by the technical debt that they had accumulated over time.  For 6-8 months, they  spent time building a new Posterous focused on mobile, email, and controlled sharing.  Nothing was sacred, any feature can go if it didn’t make sense.  The entire company can participate in the redesign.  Tip: The whole company / team must be onboard for such a dramatic change to be successful.

The strategy was to redesign the mobile site first.  The goal was to complete one screen a day for 30 days (total 30 screens).  Someone would make the screen and send out for immediate feedback.  At Posterous, the mobile and web developers are on separate teams.  It just so happened that while the mobile team redesigned the mobile site, the web team built the backend APIs.  Agrawal said it was an accident in terms of efficient resource allocations.  After the APIs were completed, then the web team worked on the website leveraging much of the mobile redesign work.  Agrawal believes that the mobile and web sites should look and act the same.  Tip: Consider developing the mobile site first before the website so that you focus on simplicity and performance.

During the process, Posterous spent a bit of time getting user feedback.  To get users, they posted ads in Craigslist, vetted out candidates using Wufoo forms, and compensated them afterwards.  Twenty-four hours after a user session, they would whiteboard a new design and get a working prototype 3 days later.  They saw trends pretty quickly with just 3 users.  One thing that Agrawal wished that they had done was bring in more existing users for feedback.  Tip: Don’t alienate your existing user base who made your company.  Well the only exception to the rule is if you are going after a bigger, different market and abandoning the existing user base.

When they finally rolled out the new “spaces” Posterous site, it had already been running internally and for select users publicly.  It was just a matter of turning on the switch for everyone.  Tip: Many companies do the best practice of testing company-wide internally before launching publicly.  Employees get the benefit of learning the new product and the company gets user testing by different types of users.

I admired Agrawal for being candid about the things that led up to Posterous and then to spaces.  I got the feeling that they were unsure about many of their decisions, but took the risk to see where it would take them.  Good job!

Other tidbits:

  • Agrawal said that “Y combinator is awesome”, it’s good for people who don’t know the business side of starting a business.
  • VCs/Angels want to either see you get a certain number of users by a certain time or a particular revenue number by a certain time.  It’s not always about the money, it can be about user growth too.
  • Posterous uses Mixpanel and Rackspace.

From ZURBsoapbox website:

A Bit About Posterous
The concept of Posterous was decidedly simple: email is the gateway for sharing any content online (be it text, photos, or videos). Instead of logging into Facebook or WordPress to post photos, videos or writing your thoughts down you simply email post@posterous.com and Posterous figures out the best format for the content and publishes a blog post for you automatically with the content you emailed.

In the summer of 2008 Sachin Agarwal received $15,000 from YCombinator and launched the first version on TechCrunch shortly after.
Posterous has taken off since then. The service currently has 35M+ pageviews a month from 15M+ unique visitors to the site. They have a consistent traffic growth of 20%-30% every month. They have also raised a $4.4M round from Trinity, Redpoint Ventures as well as one of our upcoming speakers Ron Conway.

Posterous has yet to turn a profit. The revenue idea which Sachin has talked about is a premium plan they can sell to big businesses using the service. Posterous has also been facing tough competition from Tumblr a very similar service.

A Bit About Sachin
Sachin has been named by Inc magazine as 30 under 30. He has worked on designing Final Cut Pro at Apple for 6 years before getting an idea for a service to make it easier to share pictures, videos and stories with others. Since then he has grown Posterous to 35M+ pageviews a month.

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