Zamzar was launched in October 2006 and in this special series of blog posts we look at some of the biggest startup successes who also launched in 2006 and how they came to be.
The next story in this class of 2006 series is the story of Goodreads.
Goodreads can best be described as a social network for book lovers. It allows readers to discuss books, write reviews and discover potential books that could be of interest to them. Now one of the biggest sites in the world, just how was it started and was it always an inevitable success?
The story of Goodreads begins with its founder Otis Chandler. Chandler originally broke into the startup scene with a little known site called efundit, which was a website for mechanical engineers; of which Chandler was one. This got him into coding and made him realise he could create his own site. For Chandler, learning how to code was like learning a “super power”.
Chandler had taken what he learnt through evening classes and efundit to go and work at another startup at the turn of the Millennium. That startup was called Tickle.com which was essentially a personality testing company. Chandler was not originally impressed with the idea (which began as emo.com) but he was impressed with the people who were working at the company and he credits them, rather than the idea, for the fact four years after joining Tickle it was sold to Monster.com for $100 million. This allowed Chandler to take six months off and build Goodreads.
Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Chandler was an avid reader. When studying to be an engineer he found that he didn’t have time to read as much as he liked and resented the fact he hadn’t read classics such as “Sherlock Holmes”. Chandler wanted to give himself an excuse to be able to read more. Before creating Goodreads, he’d get his book recommendations through friends and add books to his Amazon shopping cart and build up a reading list but he missed the fact he couldn’t then interact with the person who’d recommended the book, he couldn’t pass back a recommendation to them and the finishing of the book was the end of the experience. In his own words:
“If I know what my friend is reading, or has read, that gives me a basis for conversation around that. And plus it’s more fun for me because I get to discover books, etc. So I realized that a niche social network around reading, much like a social network around photos, would probably work.”
Chandler also noticed that communities were exploding on the Internet. He saw, for example, in the dating world that people started going away from generic sites such as Match or eHarmony and started drifting towards community based ones. For example, if someone was Jewish they’d go to JDate, and if they were Christian they’d go to ChristianSingles. He thought social media was going to follow the same pattern; that people would drift away from generic social media and go much more to a niche/community based ones and so Chandler took a punt that a social network around reading and books would be popular.
It took Chandler six months to code and launch the site. The site was originally called Goodreadz.com until Chandler persuaded the owner of Goodreads to sell him the domain name. This purchase would cost Chandler thousands of dollars and he agonised over it for weeks but now credits that decision as his best ever.
Chandler originally designed the site himself but did a “terrible job of it” so asked one of his friends at Tickle to design it and it’s barely changed since.
How did it take-off?
Chandler credits his wife, who he views as the co-founder of Goodreads. She took English as her Degree and so really bought into the product. So much so in fact that she sent an email to everyone she knew – 800 people – recommending the site. This meant the site got out there and started being passed around a little and then just a month after launch Goodreads got covered by Mashable which took the site from 5 users a day to 100 users a day.
Once the site was getting 100 users a day it just kept getting featured in blog post after blog post and then Matchbook featured Goodreads and that’s when things really exploded. All of a sudden Goodreads had gained an enormous tail, which was a very deliberate ploy. When a user signed up to Goodreads they’d be asked for access to their address book so that an email would then be sent out to their friends asking them to register for Goodreads. This in built virality led more and more people to the site and commenting about the site online. So much so that in the end someone would type some sort of book quote into Google and Goodreads would invariably come back as a result because of the sheer volume of blog post mentions it had received.
According to Chandler the key has always been the combination of reading and then wanting to share that experience with friends.
“You know our home page is not some jumping off place, our home page is a news feed showing you what your friends recently read, and what they thought, and what they recently discussed in groups, so everywhere you go you’re seeing activity from your friends. And, if you’re on the site and you have no friends, then everywhere you go it’s saying you have no friends who’ve read this book, add some friends. You have no friends who are discussing this right now, add some friends. So you know this idea is kind of built into it, and everywhere you go on the site you’re kind of getting this reminder that there’s stuff happening here and your friends are talking about it, and that just kind of helps get the concept across that hey, I should add friends. Any good social network does that well.”
The first 650,000 registered users were achieved without any funding what so ever. Three years after it launched Goodreads took a Series A funding round of $2 million which took it to a whole new level and enabled Goodreads to create fruitful partnerships with big Publishing houses which is the main source of income for Goodreads.
Goodreads is a great news story of the Internet. One man who wanted an excuse to read more went off and built a site that allowed him to do exactly that. In the process he created one of the biggest sites on the web whilst never overhauling the design and keeping the product very close to Chandler’s vision from the outset. It’s certainly one of our favourite sites and we think it will be around for a while longer yet!