AllThingsD reported yesterday that Kevin Rose and the Milk team have been acquired by Google (note: Kevin has now confirmed via Google+). Many of the columns filled on this story will speculate on Kevin and Milk’s new role at Google, why the team didn’t choose Facebook and how this will help the search giant in their social push. But why speculate when you can deal with the hard facts? This news puts Wednesday’s abrupt culling of Oink into clearer context. Whatever Google and Facebook were offering, it’s clear that Kevin Rose and Milk didn’t have enough faith in Oink to see it through.
But Oink was a 5 month old product that had solid financial financial backing, developer and design pedigree, and quickly jumped to 150,000 users. So why pull the plug so quickly? Because Milk skipped a necessary step in its push to create a ‘foursquare for things’, and it doomed the app.
Rob and I touched upon this in our inaugural episode of Where’s The Money? last month. While we agreed that there were a variety of ways Milk could monetize the app if they reached a big enough user base, we were pretty certain that was never going to happen. Why? Because to build the user base to get the data needed for monetization, developers have to first provide an essential service that users enjoy. Otherwise, users won’t stick around long enough with the service for it to make an impact.
Facebook and Twitter both did this, but perhaps the best example in this case is foursquare. foursquare started as a great way to share your location and know where your friends were. As the user base, check-ins, and tips grew because of this, foursquare got the data needed to make its app a great way to learn about cool locations around you. Even as the percentage of foursquare users regularly checking-in drops as the user base grows, foursquare has amassed the volume needed to provide rich and useful data. This is (eventually) how they will monetize the app.
Milk attempted to skip this step, asking users to tag all of their favourite things with the promise that once enough data had been inputed into the system, Oink would would a valuable tool for finding cool things near them. I will concede that had Milk been successful in filling Oink with that data, it would have been an amazing app. The problem is that in providing users no real incentive to put in the needed effort, Milk had created an inert app. Where Instagram and foursquare act like candy for our mobile-obsessed brains, Oink felt like work. Most people aren’t willing to put in work for vague, long term benefits – they want immediate return on their time investment. Epecially when there are hundreds of other great apps vying for their attention in the App Store.
One final thought on Milk’s gambit with Oink. You can’t blame startups for taking a shot at an app or service, even if it is fundamentally flawed. It’s also hard to blame startups that recognize when something isn’t working, and quickly pivot their offering. But the short time between Oink’s launch and its demise rubs me the wrong way in light of Milk employees’ constant references to the app as an ‘experiment‘. If I were one of the few Oink users that had stuck with the app, being told that the work I put in was all part of an experiment – or perhaps an audition for Google – would make it unlikely for me be be an early adopter on Milk’s next project. If Milk’s heart wasn’t in the last experiment, why should I believe that it will be in the next one?