Why Oink Failed

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?

About the author

Douglas Soltys

Douglas is the former Editor-In-Chief of Inside BlackBerry, BlackBerry Cool, and QuicklyBored, which he launched as a mobile gaming industry site. His knowledge of mobile and social media led him to a job at RIM (BlackBerry), where he got to travel the world and do lots of cool things. He is often left-handed, but rarely sinister.

  • I loved watching Kevin and Alex on Diggnation podcasts. They talked about cool things that were being “Dug” by other people and they made me laugh. But to be 100% honest when ever Kevin opened his mouth to talk about “wouldn’t it be cool if we did”, “that would be so fin cool” I shook my head and thought, are you serious? Do you actually run a company that makes money? He sounds like he has no clue what is cool, and is just grasping at straws for the next big idea. I think Kevin’s biggest problem is that there are to many yes men around him. Everyone holds him to some high statute because he was on TV and founded Dig. It’s kind of why I liked Alex on the Diggnation show because he would just be like “Are you freaking retarded!!” to most of his ideas because they were just seriously stupid. To me Kevin is like the dog from the movie Up that keeps seeing squirrels. Seriously I think if he didn’t run Dig or was famous from the ScreenSavers he would have not got any backing at all for this Milk endeavor. I hear what he tried to do with app Douglas I really do but who the heck told him that it was a good idea?

    But I guess I am somehow wrong since Google bought him for some reason…. they must see something I don’t!

  • Well to be fair, the Oink app is pretty and well executed. The problem is more that what they were trying to execute on wasn’t sustainable for growth.

    I think the bigger issue is that they weren’t willing to stick with Oink or Milk (although who knows on the latter part – they might operate as an independent team within Google). A lot of the support in early startups comes from the knowledge that they’re working hard on something they really believe in. When that isn’t the case, why bother to commit to a service that isn’t committed itself?

    PS. the dog in Up was named Doug. =D

  • What I mean was this was just a squirrel for Kevin, something shinny that keeps his interest for 10 minutes. It may be pretty and well executed but it means nothing like you mentioned if it does not have a path to follow that will create growth for it’s own echo system. But in my opinion an app is built from both, the execution of a plan as well as the app itself. If either fails they both fail. It might have been the best idea in the world but without that plan Kevin just threw money at an idea they wanted to see come to life. And this was my point before that he does not do a ton of thinking on his ideas sometimes…

  • We will start seeing more and more of these things happening: Celebrity entrepreneurs with a little success behind them trying new things – nothing wrong with that. The difference is that they come with an entourage and expectations while the average tech entrepreneur just setting out doesn’t. They have to be aware of that.

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