An Open Letter to Third-Party Twitter App Founders

Dear Aspiring Twitter Speculators,

Congratulations on your new idea. You’ve come up with, and perhaps already built, a product that is genuinely useful to almost every Twitter user, filling one of the many feature canyons left open by the Twitter product team. Perhaps you’ve already gathered a respectable following on the interwebs, with a few thousand people using your service on a regular basis. All that, and it only took you a couple weeks to build on the side.

Now you’re waiting for the big moment to happen: the call from Ev or Biz or whomever. You’re sure they’re going to want to purchase your product for loads more money than it took you to build it. It fills a clear gap, after all, and there are already people using it. They bought Summize, right?

Unfortunately, gentle reader, there are a some significant differences between Summize’s situation and yours. Let’s take a moment to consider them:

  • Summize was not simple. Summize was a largely-original search engine based on technology the Summize team had been working on for many months for a different product. There was a lot of significant technology behind what seemed like such a simple product.
  • Summize scaled. When Twitter was failing, Summize’s search kept trucking along. Many users adopted Summize as an ad-hoc Twitter client during the dark days of abysmal uptime.
  • Summize had some sick engineers. Twitter didn’t just buy the search engine, they acquired the company. Of the six Summize employees, only the founder and CEO moved onto another project — the rest moved to the left coast and joined the Twitter team. This was an acquisition of talent as much as it was of product.

Summize didn’t just fill a product gap, it filled gaps in Twitter the company, and that’s an enormous factor in why they were acquired. Does your product, and your team, do that?

Let’s look at an example. Up until last week, when it stopped working, Twimailer was my single favorite Twitter-based product. It allowed me to get a much more detailed follower notification, with the follower’s bio information, recent twitter messages, and stats. It was also implemented in a smart way: they give you a special email address, you tell twitter to send notifications to that address, and Twimailer parses the notifications, creates the nice ones, and forwards them along to you. A couple friends of mine assumed they would be ripe for an acquisition.

Here’s why not:

  • It’s down. It’s been down for a while now. Maybe it’s dead. That certainly hurts its chances, but even if we ignore this…
  • The tech is worth nothing to Twitter. Sure, their implementation was reasonably slick, but that was necessary to work around the fact that Twimailer was an external app. All that email parsing shenanigans is completely unnecessary to Twitter.
  • It’s easy. If you’re the Twitter team, implementing the Twimailer feature set takes a few hours or days, not weeks or months.
  • There’s no real IP there. The idea of a more useful email isn’t novel or unique in a sense that Twitter would be buying patentable IP or anything like that.

An acquisition of Twimailer, TweetCC, or many of the other eleventy-billion Twitter-based webapps just doesn’t make any sense. And so it probably doesn’t make sense for them to acquire yours, either. Maybe you are indeed the next Summize, but the road is uphill and only one has been chosen thus far.

But don’t be discouraged. You’ve made a service that is valuable to thousands, hundreds, or even dozens of people, and that’s a good thing. Perhaps you can modestly monetize it and have it contribute a tidy sum to the lifestyle to which you’ve grown accustomed.

After all, the journey is the reward, no?

M. Jackson Wilkinson

Posted in Article Category: #Design & Content