A tale of resourcefulness from the little-guy economy.

How to start and grow companies.
July 30 2010 6:40 PM

How a Failed App Became a Business

A tale of resourcefulness from the little-guy economy.

In early 2009, Foursquare's CEO sashayed out of South by Southwest with  2,500 users  and enough  chatter  to launch a rocket. Social Bomb's founders, meanwhile, left deflated after the launch of their product, Paparazzi—another mobile location app, with a photo-sharing tool—which delivered on the promise of its maker's name: It bombed.

A little more than a year later, Social Bomb boasts a groundbreaking module that spans a panoply of networks and devices, has a regular revenue stream from a Fortune 500 company, and a new deal to create a social-media platform for HBO's True Blood. The start-up is also in talks with Sony.


Like many in the little-guy economy, Social Bomb's dreams have been beset by more twists and turns than a spinning top. The failure of a lean and nimble app-based start-up is as familiar as a summer heat wave. Social media is still in its infancy, and there are just a handful of concrete success stories beyond the massive networks that have changed our work and play. The  fledgling  industry is a low-risk marketplace where ideas can take shape fast, but frequently yield little tangible value. And failures often occur when the concepts aren't mined for other uses. But Social Bomb's trajectory shows how plain old resourcefulness can be a remarkable weapon in the little guy's arsenal.

After the South by Southwest debacle, Social Bomb's founders scrambled. In spring 2009, investors were either were cash-strapped or guarding their reserves. So Scott Varland, Mike Dory, and Adam Simon stopped taking paychecks and freelanced on the side, juggling up to five jobs each. They argued and considered parting ways.

But instead of walking, they retired their dreams of a killer app and returned to the technologies underlying Paparazzi and Tagnic, their Twitter app. As Facebook and Twitter grew, the trio began thinking about apps that would span more than one network. They had already built Paparazzi for the iPhone and Facebook. But if they wanted to extend their app's currency in the social-media landscape, they would need to harvest information on many platforms. So the team created a module to monitor user activity and bounce back and forth between relatively proprietary networks and custom Web sites. Their infrastructure, it turned out, was the killer app—and their willingness to see this was their ace. "That ability to bridge different kinds of networks is what's special," said board member and author Clay Shirky, who taught the founders in graduate school.

This wasn't a newfound perseverance. Social Bomb's short history had already been replete with fits and starts. In 2007, the founders entered the business-plan competition at New York University's Stern School of Business, thinking they'd get bounced in the first round. They took home the $50,000 in prize money. The 40-page plan helped Social Bomb send a clear message while raising funds in 2008. But in December of that year, they lost $100,000—one-third of a funding round from a backer who had second thoughts.

Social Bomb's triumphs so far are also unusual because its founders, who had backgrounds in design and theater, made the leap from a failed app to a viable enterprise. Creating an app is nothing like building a business that requires a mastery of sales and product management, among others. "These are radically different skill sets. It's easier for young Net natives to go after the consumer market, but the odds of success are quite small," said Brad Burnham, managing partner at Union Square Ventures.

With money in short supply, the team continued down the road of reinvention familiar to denizens of the little-guy economy and targeted large corporations eager to leverage brands online. It took months to sign a deal, but in October 2009, Social Bomb contracted with Mattel's Fisher-Price, which became its first Fortune 500 client—and the source of recurring revenue—to create a social-media campaign. Four months later, Facebook fans descended onto the toy company's new "Moments to Share" platform, which features a scrapbook for mothers to upload photos and videos of their kids. The page has about 36,000 users.

Social Bomb's about-face wasn't pain-free. Three hipster bachelors who were recent graduate students at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program were now devising a social media campaign for moms and kids under the direction of a set-in-its-ways entity founded in 1930. While Varland, Dory and Simon had spent years thinking about social media, corporations like Mattel were just waking up to it.

Little-guy entities like Social Bomb also operate differently. Large companies are known for being buried in paperwork and overexecuting. Often, an outsider who introduces something new is suspect and beholden to layers of bureaucracy, from the marketing department to IT. Social Bomb's saving grace was its patience and flexibility, which would pay off when its trajectory shifted again.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.