BranchOut‘s story is a brutal lesson about the risk of derailment when you build on someone else’s platform. After raising $49 million and growing to 33 million users, Facebook changed its viral channels leading BranchOut to starve. Now the “LinkedIn within Facebook” wants to throw in the towel.
Sources confirm that BranchOut is in discussions with several acquirers in the recruiting space for its main team, product and data, though that may take a little time and the main product will run until then. Right now, it’s in late-stage talks with the Hearst Corporation to sell its mobile team that built enterprise chat app Talk.co. That info is backed up by the fact that Talk.co, which it launched a year ago, was quietly shut down today, and its apps have been removed. BranchOut could find another buyer for Talk and its team, though, and the leak of this news could impact the outcome.
BranchOut’s Talk.co would potentially work for Hearst on mobile apps for delivering content from the corporation’s magazines and TV channels. That part of the deal is being shopped for “multiple-millions of dollars,” which might range into the tens of millions said one of my sources, so not a big win. The price for the rest of the team, product, and data is unclear. I’ve contacted BranchOut and it refused to comment.
[Update 9/20/14: Hearst announced that it has acquired assets and the team from BranchOut, just as I said it was in talks to do. Hearst has formed a new “Silicon Valley digital product development group to accelerate its high-growth, multi-screen digital media offerings…Rick Marini, formerly CEO of BranchOut, and the product, UX and engineering teams from BranchOut will be forming the core of the new group.”
Pivots Gone Pear-Shaped
Started in 2010 by Tickle co-founder Rick Marini, BranchOut’s Facebook desktop app was designed to help people find jobs and figure out where their friends worked. It used spammy Facebook wall posts to grow to huge numbers of sign-ups in its early days, eventually reaching 33 million users after adding mobile apps. The chance to compete with LinkedIn and its progress helped BranchOut raise money from Accel, Floodgate, Redpoint, Norwest and Mayfield Fund. A $25 million round in April 2012 brought it to $49 million in capital. But then things went pear-shaped.
Few of BranchOut’s users were truly engaged, and the recruitment search tool it planned to make money with never got serious traction. When Facebook banned the spammy wall post method, BranchOut’s churn quickly outpaced its growth and the company deflated. The train tracks were stripped out from under it.
In late 2012 it tried turning into more of a feed-focused social network about work accomplishments, but no one felt like bragging about their day’s meetings and milestones. Its core use case was usurped in January 2013 when Facebook launched Graph Search, making it easy to natively see where friends worked. In August 2013 we got word that BranchOut would pivot to workplace chat, which it launched as Talk in October of last year. The cross-platform app let you sign up with a work email address and see a buddy list of your coworkers. You could ping them with one-on-one and one-to-many instant messages, or set up chat rooms. Unfortunately, Talk.co failed to pick up much steam either, as Slack became the new darling of enterprise communication.
Now BranchOut is cutting its losses by trying to find its team a new home and sell the data people gave it about where they worked and studied. Overall, entrepreneurs should take away the realization that if you’re dependent on another company, you’re vulnerable. While Facebook supercharged BranchOut’s initial growth and made it easy for people to hand the app their professional data, that reliance turned into an addiction. When Facebook forced BranchOut to go cold-turkey, the withdrawal wasn’t pretty.
Building on someone else’s platform requires a tough balance of opportunity and risk, and startups always have to be ready to stand on their own two legs.
OVERVIEWBranchOut is the largest professional networking service on the Facebook platform. The service leverages users' social graphs and networks to help them find jobs, sales leads, and new hires. Users can search through more than 800 million professional profiles on BranchOut. The company was founded in July 2010 by Rick Marini.
Not a single state has officially recognized the Free Republic of Liberland, the world’s newest self-declared country. But with a bright yellow flag in the ground, the Czech politician and former financial analyst Vít Jedlička staked his claim on a 7-square-kilometer (2.7-square-mile) patch of no-man’s land between Serbia and Croatia andfounded the micro-nation on April 13. Over 250,000 people from around the world have applied for citizenship since.
But even if the legal premise of Liberland is shaky, it is looking more and more like a legitimate state, thanks to its well-developed nation-branding. In fact, the prospective nation is now essentially a design rendering, a mockup of what a brand new nation looks like, on the page and the screen, in 2015.
Jedlička, now the country’s president, along with three fellow libertarians, conceived Liberland (a portmanteau of “liberty” and “land”) as a state that would operate with voluntary taxation and maximum personal freedom. The start-up nation launched with its core state symbols in place: a flag, a coat of arms, and a motto—“To live and let live”—fortifying a trompe l’oeil of legitimacy.
Following the trajectory of new nations such as South Sudan, or even fictitious lands such as the Empire of Zubrowka, Liberland is relying on a brigade of designers, artists, and architects, many of them volunteers, to visualize its territory and identity. “There are a number of artists from different spheres who are taking part in this, and the number is increasing every day,” says Jedlička, who spoke to Quartz by phone.
Here are some of the elements of Liberland’s branding assembled so far:
“The yellow stands for capitalism or free market, the black stands for rebellion,” Jedlička says referring to the Euro-skeptic ethos of his project. “The bird is for freedom, which is an important aspect of our flag. We also have a tree that means abundance; the sun for energy; and the river refers to the Danube River, where we are located.”
The coat of arms
Jedlička explains that the coat of arms and the flag were designed before Liberland’s territory was settled upon. “To be honest, we had this before we knew where Liberland was going to be,” he said. “Somehow the place which we found worked with this design. I really like how it fits together with Serbia and Croatia’s coat of arms.”
The territorial map
While Liberland’s official cadastral map is being prepared to denote its borders, the micro-nation’s presence, at least in the virtual space, is established. The area that was once listed as Gornja Siga, on the west bank of the Danube, is now recognized as “Liberland” on Google maps (official coordinates: 45°46’N; 18°52″E).
The city plan
Jedlička says that major architectural firms from Prague have offered to help with Liberland’s urban planning. “You will find interesting architectural concepts in the near future,” he says, though he declined to reveal details. “Prague is a center for world architecture from many aspects. We have people who designed Dubai here, for example. I will reveal their names soon.”
Seifeddine Abbassi, a Tunisian product design student based in Poland, built a Liberland Design fan page, and he hopes to become a citizen of Liberland and to join its official design department.
He is already pondering design solutions for thousands of new Liberlanders who will potentially inhabit a land area about size of 60 city blocks in Manhattan, New York. “Liberland it’s a small country, so it would be better if most things will be multifunctional,” Abassi explains. “For example, multifunctional furniture [built for microapartments] is a possibility. Liberland will be built from zero, so its design must be unique.”
These are artists renderings showing how one might parcel out the micro-nation’s limited terrain:
A well-designed website translated into four languages is arguably Liberland’s most valuable asset right now. It contains basic information about its unfolding history, a draft of its constitution, its laws, a donation page, and a link to the application for Liberlander citizenship.
Banknotes and currency
Bitcoin has been declared Liberland’s official currency, which will eliminate the need for a central bank and minimize regulation, true to its libertarian spirit.
Just a day after its launch, a musician had composed a national anthem for Liberland overnight: “Victory March to Glory Land,” composed and conducted by Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer.
“It’s our preliminary anthem,” Jedlička tells Quartz. “It’s a very nice song created for us by a professional musician but we haven’t decided if this will be our official anthem. [We welcome] more proposals for our national anthem.”
More design work to do
Still on the to-do list are road signs, official forms, diplomatic papers, stationery, a country-level internet domain name (.li is already taken by Liechtenstein and .lb is Lebanon), and an international dialing code (proposed as +422) to be filed with the International Telecommunications Union. (When we dialed Jedlička’s mobile, his number was still appended by Czech’s +420 country code.)
But Jedlička may have found some help from the fledgling country’s Facebook followers. Whether parody or earnest proposals, Facebook fan pages are helping flesh out the possibilities for this emergent state.