Flipboard: A startup’s first bad day or success?

Flipboard's team

I’m seeing lots of tweets saying I caused Flipboard to have a bad first day. Why? Because its servers were overwhelmed and it wasn’t letting new users sign up properly and even existing users, like me, were having trouble getting to the service and getting utility out of it.

Is that my fault? Yes and no. If I were the only one hyping it and if the product didn’t resonate after I hyped it they would have only gotten a few hundred visits. The problem is that Flipboard is the real deal. If you can get in and get it to work it’s a revolutionary product and hundreds, if not thousands, of people on Twitter and blogs said so. The reviews still are coming in and they almost all are positive. That I didn’t do, even if I was the first to tell the Internet about it.

What’s funny is I just hit the Twitter fail whale three times. Twitter is a company that has been around for three years and continues to have scalability and reliability problems yet we all keep using Twitter. It has gotten so commonplace that we sort of accept it, too, even in discussions with venture capitalists who helped fund Twitter, like the conversation I witnessed yesterday with Fred Wilson. He said Twitter was never built right to start with.

I see on iTunes that Flipboard is getting some bad reviews because of this reliability issue. Is it fair to judge a startup badly based on 24 hours of extraordinary growth? Yeah, a little. They could have been better prepared — I sent them plenty of notes telling them they were the best startup I’ve seen so far this year and I kept telling them about reactions of influencers — all which matched my observations.

In fact, when I showed it to famous actor Ashton Kutcher he was so excited about the product (said it was “a revolution in publishing”) he turned to me and begged to be introduced to the company. “I want to invest in this,” he told me. A week later he was, indeed, an investor.

The former head of MTV had the same reaction this weekend.

So they had some warning that their first day would be incredible and see an much larger amount of hype than they would otherwise see.

What’s my failing? I tried to get them to use Rackspace for hosting their service. I failed, they are using another cloud provider. I failed so badly that I couldn’t even convince them to change providers a few months ago when their provider was down when I visited them to get an early look at this company. I think I must take some sales lessons and get retrained. Sigh. But even with Rackspace’s help would we have been able to keep them up? I would like to think so. After all, Rackspace hosted YouTube for its first few years of life and has helped many startups scale.

But this is a world we’ve never seen. Things get faster, bigger, than any time in human history.

The number of people who’ve worked at companies that have seen this kind of growth — all in 24 hours — are almost non-existent. Even experienced entrepreneurs, like Flipboard’s CEO, who started TellMe, which sold to Microsoft for $800 million, have never seen this kind of growth.

I remember back to 1996. ICQ that year released November 1 to 40 people. It took six weeks to get to 65,000 users. I bet Flipboard got close to that in just their first day (I don’t know their numbers, but, heck, a few weeks back I had a VIDEO watched by half a million people in a week, so I bet Flipboard is seeing those kinds of numbers based on the hypestorm that I see continuing around this company).

It is a new world and this new world is bumpy.

Anyway, just my way of saying to cut a team of 10 people who’ve done something extraordinary some slack. No one else has launched a company to this kind of hype, er, adoption, and stayed up as well as Flipboard has. At least none that I know of. Do you know of someone who has had a better first day?

Onward for all of us. Flipboard is working hard (its developers are on Twitter and I can see them responding to customers as to what they are doing to get and stay up) and I’m back on the street looking around the tech industry for the next hot startup.

Got one? Email me. scobleizer@gmail.com

Update. I just added a photo of Flipboard’s team to this post. Left to right (forefront folks):
co-founder, Evan Doll
engineer, Troy Brant
engineer, Charles Ying
engineer, Gene Tsai
co-founder, Mike McCue

UPDATE 2: PC Magazine has an interview with Flipboard’s founders, asking for patience.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

49 thoughts on “Flipboard: A startup’s first bad day or success?

  1. I would simply click to flip through pages. That seems effective enough? We've seen that before with Flash/JavaScript apps of catalogs.

    It would open up to a much wider audience. I'm sure they won't stay limited to iPads…

  2. I don't think it gets any better than Flipboard's first day: The rumor was (with all of us who hadn't heard of Flipboard before) that there was a red hot new service out there, but it was so successful that it was not even reachable. AND you could only access if you had one of those other hot topics, an iPad…

    How great marketing is that? People had to eagerly wait until Flipboard sorted out the hosting topics.

    And then once you finally peruse Flipboard on a well curated stream, you stand there in awe and say 'Wow, I just witnessed the future of the news industry'…

    I just wonder why I can't get Flipboard in a standard browser on the PC? I'm not a mac user and will have to wait for the advent of competing android tablets 8-(

  3. Actually, these companies are doing better than before. At least, they are catching up on the demand and making everything go into place. Thanks for sharing the news by the way. Ashton getting involved is a good factor as well….i think.

  4. Good things, are in the eye of the beholder, and can easily become monuments to hyped-up irrational exuberance.

    But happy to oblige… :)

  5. I would love to read your blog about what YOU are excited about! You continue being as wrong as ever, but that's cool. Good things need haters.

  6. And now, time for my snarky input, being that everyone is wolf-packing over the latest shiny toy.

    iPad app that does HTML tricks, the web-as-magazine-meme 1992 Pointcastsy redux, and you people go gah-gah? It's a pretty picture thing, it's not a communication tool, just refrying your beans without giving you anyway back out. Where's all that belly-aching about closed networks? It's just a remix Web 2.0 big mess of glunk, and gosh, sure is a beast to load. And where's my history? And whoa, it's all mixed up, chronological order please.

    And wow, a richie washed-out blubbering bad-romcom throw-money-at-starups Hollywoood “actor” likes it. Mark of quality already.

  7. Your post is the first I've heard of Flipboard. I couldn't, though, from your post, figure out what Flipboard is. So I went to their web site, and, well, I still don't know what it is. In fact, their web site is so bad, my impression is it can't be a good product with such a bad web site.

    What I see on the top part of the page is the logo, a picture, and text that says “This is Flipboard. It's your personalized” then over the last part of the text is a button that says “Free Download.” Below that, 2/3's covered by the grey rectangle at the bottom is what appears to be “Watch the Video”.

    Then the grey rectangle has “Home Help Press Contact Jobs @flipboa” then the rest covered by a button that says “Available on the App Store.” Similarly the second line ends “Terms of servi” with the rest covered by the button.

    What I really want from random web sites offering a product or service is an “About” link with text telling me useful information about their product/service. Without that, well, I'm not interested. Throw in a awful web site… doubly not interested.

  8. Any company that does not have the knowledge of how to scale their services has little or no chance of lasting in the longer term, other faults will eventually surface and their developers will be on the back foot. The fact there is already a updated release with numerous bug fixes shows the company is happy to release buggy software to their principal clients not a good start.

  9. Don't get me wrong Robert, I'm not here to bash Rackspace. But I want to make two points clear. Firstly, fanatical support <> uptime. The fact that the Rackspace is willing to go to extremes to obtain their business is great, but it has little to nothing to do with their ability to scale using the service. These cloud services still require intelligent software to handle horizontal scaling. That doesn't come built in with either service. The fact that Flipboard struggled even with the potential of AWS behind them is proof of that. Second, you've made it clear that you think the team at Flipboard is brilliant. That brilliant team choose AWS over Rackspace, despited your stated efforts to obtain their business. That decision had to be based on any number of reasons that, at least at the time, they thought the AWS offering was better. I won't pretend to understand the reason behind their decision, but things like API robustness or market dominance come to mind, but it could have just been brand allegiance. Whatever the cause, remember that the same brilliant people that developed Flipboard also evaluated Rackspace and went another direction. Maybe they are regretting that decision now, who knows.

  10. Heck, the CTO of Amazon yesterday was confused about whether Amazon even hosted Flipboard. Sure doesn't seem like Flipboard has the full attention of its hosting partner the way they WOULD have had the full attention of executives at Rackspace. The offer is still there, too. Flipboard is my favorite startup of the past few years. Would love to be their hosting partner.

  11. TED is hosted on us and they said, on video, that they have never had downtime with Rackspace. The downtime issues we had several months ago only hit 10% of our users. That's too many, yes, and I can't guarantee we'd get Flipboard up either but we have a team experienced in dealing with huge amounts of scale. Did anyone from Amazon visit Flipboard and offer that company the full support of an organization that launched, or hosts, Mashable, TED, or YouTube? I don't think so.

  12. It isn't fair or accurate to make claims that their outages were related to being with a specific cloud provider, vs. not being with the company you so clearly represent. Their failures were almost certainly related to architecture flaws and scaling decisions they made. AWS would have allowed them to scale almost indefinitely, but they obviously didn't utilize it to its fullest potential. This post is in poor taste as it isn't objective. Rackspace has had some serious downtime issues in recent months, you didn't mention that.

  13. I think if they can deliver QUICKLY now and capitalize on the buzz, they will be in good shape. Of course though, if functionality is an issue, people will jump ship to something else as I'm sure some copycats will be emerging.

    Either way, I think it is incredibly impressive and I'm enjoying using it.

  14. “No one can possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time.” – James Baldwin

    My tendency is to give startups the benefit of the doubt; how they respond to challenges is important in itself.

  15. So Flipboard is an iPad app, and I can see why the magazine format suits iPad.

    But surely, what they’re doing here, can be done purely as a web app, and reach so many more people. So why not?

  16. I disagree. Have you met Ashton? He's very smart and has invested in a number of tech companies, including Foursquare. He also represents something to companies that no geek can bring: the mainstream. My niece, for instance, loves Ashton and couldn't care about anything any of my geeky friends says.

  17. They had a first day of launch every entrepreneur dreams of. They'll be stabler, and maybe even consider Rackspace. Tyler got a chance to meet Rackspace's CEO yesterday :)

  18. I was sort of with you until you used Ashton Kutcher's endorsement to lend credibility to the marvelous-ness of Flipbook. No offense to Mr. Kutcher but he isn't exactly a great thinker or analyst of these things. Its a reasonably nice app with potential and I don't know how the endorsement of Demi's Moore husband and the creator of 'Punked' and 'Beauty and the Geek' is supposed to convince us its more than that.

  19. Robert, I'm curious – has a startup ever begged you NOT to write about it because the startup was afraid that they couldn't handle the traffic that would result? And how would you respond to such a comment from a fearful startup? (Other than noting the service your employer provides, of course.)

  20. Giving a startup so much traffic they can't handle it on the first day? I think you should be taking all the credit and not apologizing for anything.

  21. I'm going to buy an iPad tomorrow (if Apple Cork Ireland has enough supply) because of Flipboard. It's the straw that broke the camel's back. Until I read your review yesterday, I has lurking on the edge of purchase. Your writing – which praised and identified development areas for Flipboard – led me to move forward – embracing the iPad era.

    It's how you recover from a customer service failure that shows whether you have the mindset for survival. Nothing is better for you than a bad decision – provided you see it as an opportunity to improve your swing.

    On behalf of my brand, I thank you all.

  22. I must also add tho that could this be a case study for how prepared the cloud is? I've been hearing for two years now that cloud services are perfect for startups like this because of scalability and elasticity. It all comes back to knowing your service provider I guess… but the promise of the cloud is based on answering the demand Flipboard had. That's where you need to look to see what happened.

  23. A startup in any form of business can get caught out at the start. Should they have spent 3 times the money on preparing extra servers etc for a rush that may not come when money was tight???? Should a new food restaurant have double the food stocks on opening night which they know wont last as they use fresh ingrediants. Should a new book shop have 10 of every book you stock – how many Twighlight or Harry potter books should you stock??? 10 or 10000 Its all a matter of balance based on many factors. The reality is i doubt this would be a perfect launch from day 1 but the thing they did get right was the product, so i can only wish them the best of luck

    1. That’s not an apples to apples comparison. When you host in the cloud, you should have the option to scale to whatever level of traffic comes in, and just pay more for higher traffic. If you’re getting that kind of traffic, then theoretically you should be able to afford it. That’s one of the whole POINTS to hosting in the cloud. This doesn’t seem to be a problem with Flipboard, but with wherever they’re hosted. Unless they chose the wrong type of cloud hosting that doesn’t allow that kind of scaling.

  24. I would rather have a kick-ass product that has some potential reliability issues in its first day than have a company spend all their time and money whirring up servers and preparing for user numbers which might not come.

  25. Only issue that I have is no connection with facebook. Not a deal breaker at all. I'm connected to twitter and can say that it is THE WAY that twitter should be read. Well, as soon as I figure out how to add my lists……
    There is still plenty of great info there until everything is set to go. What a great problem for them to have!

  26. The content still has to be better curated for me to find it useful. I find it too busy, and the good content for me there comes from you and I can get that elsewhere:-) Maybe when I can connect Twitter and Fzb to it, where my curators already are, I will find it more useful. They should have had a more limited beta.

    1. all very good points – for me, human curation of my person content is out of the question for privacy reasons. ultimately, these app developers jumping on the “magazine format” aggregation model need to solve the noise reduction and relevance ranking problem in an automated way.

  27. Startups dream of this kind of a problem on their first day. Flipboard has done an amazing job of keeping up with the demand, both by being straightforward about it and by quickly implementing fixes.

    1. Well, an amazing job of keeping up with demand would be satisfying the demand. This is an amazing demand that overwhelmed them and they didn’t do a good job. It’s still a great problem to have, and I’m looking forward to trying it once they can make it work.

  28. I was astonished at the execution and thought that what happened was a good problem to have. I mean twitter has been having issues as of late because of a huge rate or growth. Anyone who spent 10+ minutes with flipboard got it and is excited about the future.

  29. It wasn't you. I am really excited about using Flipboard once it's usable. I stayed up to watch the announcement and I was late to work the next day(i'm only 28 and I go to bed at like 10:30). So here is to hoping Flipboard gets straight.

  30. This isn’t the year 2000, FlipBoard didnt have to go out and buy 50k in servers to avoid this problem. The cloud can handle this load (or any other) if it is architected properly. Both Amazon (EC2) or MS (Azure, AppFabric) could have helped them avoid the scaling issues. You only have one chance to make a first impression…

  31. I don’t understand why the app needs to hit their servers in the first place. Why can’t it get my facebook content from facebook? Is my FB content flowing through their servers? What’s the deal.

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