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Being invited to try "Circle - The local network" didn't just make me angry, it made me think about a lot other stuff.

It's been 3 months since I launched the proof of concept for LampNote, my platform for sharing and discovering local information. During that time it's become apparent that in its present form the site is unlikely to achieve the kind of exponential growth that will result in it becoming “the next big thing”, though it has achieved some modest success reuniting missing cats with their owners.

Since LampNote went live I've come across several sites and mobile apps which endeavour to accomplish something similar. That doesn't usually bother me. “Tell my neighbours about X” and “what's happening at Y” are still problems that haven't really been solved using the internet. It's no surprise that other people are trying their own approach with varying degrees of funding, traction and quality. Something odd happened yesterday though. I was invited via a Facebook notification to join Circle “the local network”. As I researched Circle I was simultaneously appalled and amazed, for this was a product which had decided to do everything that I had chosen not to do with LampNote. Discovering Circle challenged almost every assumption and decision I'd made throughout the development of LampNote

##A brief history of LampNote

LampNote initially started life as a hackday project using data provided by Manchester City Council. The data available for the hackday included planning notices which, in the UK, are still publicised by sticking pieces of paper onto lampposts. My quick and dirty solution to this was a twitter mash up I called virtual lampposts. The result was frankly a bit bizarre, and didn't impress the judges much, but it was clear to me that I had at least identified a problem.

Over the following months the idea of LampNote took shape as a kind of background task. I had a long standing ambition to start my own web application and software development business, and by May of this year I was in a position to do that. Since I would be starting without any customers I decided that I should develop an idea of my own as a loss leader. LampNote was the idea I was closest to personally, so that's the one I went with. Early on I established a number of key design goals:

  • This was a platform for public information, the content should be available to anonymous, unregistered, users.
  • It would respect the privacy of registered users, there was no need to know the exact whereabouts of users at all times
  • Communication would be polite and unintrusive

By the time I learned of NextDoor (which we still don't have in the UK) I had already decided that LampNote would not be a social network. The notices should and would be public. An advertisement for a jumble sale is not a private matter, and allowing Google to index it doesn't compromise the security of your neighbourhood. I also decided that a concerns about surveillance and instrusive marketing would be major obstacles to user adoption.

The idea eventually resembled Tumblr with simple geo targetting. Users could discover content by searching for their postcode, or by using their present location. They could then optionally sign up for email alerts. That's more or less what I built. Shortly after launch I added features that allowed users to print PDF posters of their LampNotes, but that's essentially the product I've produced.

##Vicious Circle review

Circle requires a dedicated app install, it describes itself as "The most beautiful Android App there is. Period." When you install it it asks for access to things I didn't even know an app could request access for. Basically everything. I agreed, deciding that I would uninstall it once I'd had chance to evaluate it. Unfortunately I didn't get much further. I pressed the “connect with Facebook” button and was asked for access to what I imagine is everything the graph api can possibly give access to.

I suspected at this point that it would spam all my Facebook friends so I just gave up. Like any programmer in this situation I imagined I would be contributing a geotagged record of everything I ever did using my phone to a massive Hadoop cluster. I felt it ridiculous that I would grant such access based on the promise of a “beautiful” app.

Of course the differences between LampNote and Circle aren't just limited to their different attitudes towards privacy and user acquisition. Circle is a "proper" start-up founded by Palo Alto whiz kids with $6 million investment, and counts Ashton Kutcher amongst it's investors. LampNote is mostly the work of a 36 year old software engineer from Huddersfield, and has received a total investment of £1200, from me. I was fortunate to be friends with a good designer who was happy to provide the design and a chunk of the CSS as a portfolio piece. I also outsourced some copy-writing work. I did all the programming, and everything from the AWS setup to the SEO strategy myself. Circle has a reported 10 million registered users, LampNote has 300.

I'm sure that some readers will think it ridiculous that I can compare LampNote with this super hot app. I don't think it's ridiculous. I'd set out with a blank sheet of paper and could have decided to build something like Circle, at almost every key decision I'd decided to do something different.

##Pride and prejudice

The comparison with Circle also dredged up a number of other thoughts that had bugged me throughout the development of LampNote. These largely relate to the public perception of the project and it's creator.

It's a fact that not many internet success stories have been produced in the UK outside of London. My previous job was with a cloud storage start-up in Leeds that had just been successfully acquired, so it can happen, but I know of few others. This is not, as is often embarrassingly misreported,due to a lack of skilled people.

A large proportion of the general public simply believes that the really important stuff on the internet happens “somewhere else”. I remember telling a neighbour what I was trying to do a couple of months ago, from his reaction I might as well have told him I was building my own helicopter. My local rag, The Huddersfield Examiner, didn't run my press release. I expect they believed I was a helpless dreamer, or a complete nutter.

Then there's me. I've had a decent career and worked on some really good stuff with some talented people. However, I don't think many people who know me would say “this guy is a lot like Drew Houston”. I'm generally self deprecating and have aimed to advance my career through hard work and solid results, rather than by building a public reputation.

I don't think these stereotypes about who can make exciting stuff on the internet would matter too much to larger investors. If you've got some real traction then those people wouldn't care. I do think it has a big effect on the initial buzz you can generate. Without support from local media and tech scenesters you have to do an awful lot of work to get any users at all. Link building, social marketing and advertising are all time consuming, potentially expensive, and somewhat unnatural activities for a technical person. You can't prove, disprove, or tweak your concept if nobody has ever been exposed to it.

The regional digerati, especially around Manchester, talk the talk about some kind of hot start up scene, but they're too cautious about which horses they back. Money isn't the only thing people need to develop an idea. A few good inbound links and the right kind of captive audience can make all the difference when it comes to getting your "minimum viable product" in front of people. I got over that hump in the end, but it's work that others could easily help with. I'm sure your LinkedIn 500+ status will remain intact if you occasionally draw attention to a brand new venture which may not succeed.

I know what you're thinking, did he fire six shots or only five

Well in all this excitement I've kind of forgotten what I was actually writing about.

The main conclusion I've reached from the LampNote proof of concept is that it hasn't adequately solved some of the main problems faced by other hyperlocal platforms. It's difficult to get users to subscribe or contribute in areas where there isn't already content. The missing cat notices do sometimes go viral. As a consequence there are LampNotes in other countries, even though the site has only been promoted in the UK, and there is evidence of clusters of content developing in parts of the UK. However it's simply not happening fast enough for the site to become ubiquitous. It would still require too much dedicated promotion to properly infiltrate fresh geographic areas and user niches.

Circle may have solved those problems. It appears that their users are so smitten with the experience it provides that they're willing to tell it everything they do and where they do it, and also allow it to spam all their friends. If that works then it really can spread virally with virtually no marketing. It's almost unbelievable that a product like this can flourish in the post PRISM climate, but apparently it can. Maybe Circle's obvious stalking will prevent it from ever attaining the ubiquity of Facebook or Twitter, but it's probably already collected enough personal data to mean that Ashton will get his money back, and then some.

LampNote will continue. I think I really would be a helpless dreamer if I made it my main focus in the immediate future. It has been a successful loss leader for Red Anorak Ltd, and I've been able to secure work I don't believe I would have got without it. It's certainly got me an audience I didn't have otherwise. There are also a number of other possible related projects in the pipeline. Development will continue as and when I get the opportunity. Last week I added support for Little Printer notifications, a fun niche feature which I developed for my own personal enjoyment.

As for developing THE platform for local information, I'll put that dream to one side. For Now. This isn't a case of coulda woulda shoulda, I'd make most of the same choices again and I'm really happy with the product I've produced.

ottonomy commented Dec 9, 2013

Nice post. Rolling through the days's hackernews headlines, just got off reading another location-based story ( ), and now yours.

A Foursquare critic quoted in that article thought that location based services made sense as part of a larger application (that does more) rather than as small or standalone services. Certainly the battery drain on the devices that they mentioned is an issue if you're going to be using more than one location-aware passive app. But I can't shake the feeling that one big top-down "solution" is not going to meet the needs of most users.

My idea for a location app (that I don't have enough time to build) is for collecting the wisdom of your neighbors and creating discussion without needing to go back and see where you started the conversation. Basically, print a page with a question and a QR code linked to an online space where people can view the conversation submit feedback (without an account, public.) Then, your neighbors who join the conversation can get relevant updates without needing to all be in the same space.

Good luck on LampNote!

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