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Startup Secret 39: Go where your users take you

If its feels like your users are fighting your business plan, you're doing it wrong.

"There's more than one road to the destination."

-- Dan Kurani, CEO, Thumb

You have a road map? Prepare to rip it up. You can still get to where you're going, but the route might be the scenic one.

When Dan Kurani started Opinionaided (now Thumb), the original plan was to get people to ask others for advice on products they were thinking of buying. He saw a nice built-in revenue stream attached to consumer opinions on products (category sponsorships, product ads, etc.), and Dan and his team wanted to focus users on those products so the business model would work out.

The users had different ideas. "They went off a different direction," Dan says. They started putting up posts asking about boyfriends, or vague concepts, or religion. "98 percent of the posts were not aligned with our monetization strategy."

So the company adjusted, right?

Nope. "We went into panic mode," Dan says. For a few days, they actively deleted every post that didn't fit into their plan.

"We did everything wrong. We didn't know we were looking at a pivot."

They eventually saw the light. "We began to see what users really wanted." And he and his team began to understand that the Opinionaided users were, in fact, offering the company a path to profits. Just a somewhat more roundabout one than originally planned for.

Dan says that the team, "stopped banging our heads. We started to pay attention to every feedback, comment, and complaint, and we began to lean into them."

The thing was, the product posts were still there. The opportunity to sell sponsorships was still there. Yes, the company was getting tons of user-generated content that was completely non-monetizable, but the emphasis there is on "tons." There was a lot of consumer opinion traffic flowing through Thumbs, enough that Thumbs actually could generate more revenue by sprinkling sponsor posts into the stream than it could ever have before.

The company began to focus on growing the audience for the product, and Dan put the initial monetization plans on hold. Not for too long, but long enough so he could make sure the product worked the way users, not he, wanted.

"The growth and business is coming naturally now," Dan says. It took a year and a half to get to this point. But the company's reluctant shift to supporting its users, instead of fighting them, is paying off.

Startup Secrets is based on personal interviews with people building companies and from their blog posts and news stories. Subscribe to Startup Secrets on Twitter or come back to Rafe's Radar every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new one. See all the Startup Secrets.