A Long Interview with Path CEO Dave Morin

Below is the full, slightly edited text of my December 11, 2012 interview with Path co-founder and CEO Dave Morin. See this profile of Path for a summary version of Morin’s remarks.

Xconomy: Imagine we’re speaking in front of a crowd of people who have never heard of Path. Which you probably have to do once in a while, though not here in Silicon Valey. What is it? Why would they want to use it? What does it bring to the mobile world that’s unique and valuable?

Dave Morin: We designed Path for I guess two very simple reasons. One, my cofounder and I wanted a simple way to create a journal of our lives. So one of the core components of Path is this ability to capture important moments in your life. And so we provide you with a bunch of unique utilities to do that. Then the second big part of Path is sort of sharing that with the people who matter to you in your life. So, we really focus a lot on close friends and family at Path.

The analogy I like to use is that, you know, we call Path a more personal social network. The analogy I find fits best is if Twitter built the news network and Facebook built the cities then Path is trying to build the homes. When you think what a home is like, it’s a trusted place. The conversation that you have around the dinner table with your family is a much different conversation than the one you would have out in the public square or in the workplace or on a news channel. And so, we really try to focus on creating that kind of sense of very personal, very intimate environment where people can trust that the information they share, the photos they share, the other information they share, is only going to be going to the people they trust the most and care about the most.

X: Right. There’s an aspect of Path that wouldn’t have been possible, though, until fairly recently, right? You couldn’t have built it, in its current form, before 2007, certainly, because that was when iOS came on to the scene.

DM: Well, yeah, I guess that’s the third thing, which is that Path is mobile only. And a big reason why we actually focused on close friends and family was that as we began to study mobile very closely what we found was that people only communicated with a very small number of people using their phones. If you look at somebody’s favorites list on their iPhone or their Android people have to have five to 20 favorites on their list, at the very maximum. We thought it best to design specifically for that set of people, rather than all the people that you know in your life. So we find a great sense of focus out of that.

Thinking about how people use their mobile phones—most people’s real lives with their real friends, when you leave work on a given day, you will actually pick up your mobile phone, and you will open up text messaging and you’ll send a message to your close friend and say “Hey, what are you up to.” The world of close friends is lived in real time. Nobody schedules a meeting with their closest friends. So we kind of think of Path as being this completely real-time, completely personal network for your personal life. We think that’s a really valuable thing to be building in the world.

I guess our macro vision is that we can focus on mobile, and we can focus on a more personal social, network, and we can focus on helping people capture all these moments, but if you tie it all together what we are really trying to do is just bring people closer together. And we think that by building this, families, close friends, people that care about each other will become closer to each other. We think that’s really valuable.

X: Is there one of these components of the vision that was sort of the driving thing, or uppermost in your mind when you were starting out? Were you mostly concerned about how to build an intimate social network, or were you more interested in the personal journal aspect? Because a journal isn’t necessarily about sharing, it’s more about capturing.

DM: Yeah, I think that, I suppose the network aspect was the most interesting to us, because without it people have no incentive to create a journal or to really share anything. We think there’s value in a pure utility, there’s value in having a nice place to put all your memories and stuff, but if you add the component of the people that are your support network—the people that you trust the most—then sharing all the experiences of your life and getting feedback and having this intimate conversation with you all the time, in your pocket, seemed like a really powerful thing. So we look at it as a yin and a yang. There is not one without the other and they kind of perpetuate each other.

The idea that you have this sort of path through life, all your experiences in your life in one system, and the people you experience things with and the people you care about most deeply, shared experiences are what bond people, they are what build relationships, it’s really what brings people closer. So the two together, we think, really are what make the system work. Without one or the other it wouldn’t work.

X: Did you come at this with a pre-existing theory about the ideal size of a social network? Obviously there is all of the scholarship, the anthropology, the Robin Dunbar stuff, so there are ways in retrospect to justify having a limit of 50 or 150 or whatever it is. But did you have a theory about that, or was it more like instinct?

DM: A combination, I guess. I had worked in social networks for long enough that there was some sense of instinct. I actually used myself as a guinea pig for many years, while building Facebook and the early days of Twitter. I used to go to different sized friend groups and share very personal information, and not personal information, and all these things. I would do a lot of testing and I guess I spent enough time doing that that a lot of this has become instinct.

But I would say that my general theory, since you asked, on Path and what we’re trying to do here, is that less is more. That is something you will hear quite often, and you can talk about science and all those things, but I think if you ask any human how many close friends do you really have, how many deep relationships do you really have, even with like certain parts of your family or close friends network, which people are you becoming close to, if you ask that question, it’s pretty easy for most people to give you the answer. So it’s really true that the people who are close to us in life, there is really not a lot of them. It’s really hard to scale that.

However, I do think that it’s possible for technology to deepen those connections. That’s really our endeavor here. We believe that yes, the march of technology and now social technology has really enabled us to use these tools to communicate with more people than ever before. But that it must be possible to deepen relationships too. We think there are not enough people or companies focused on that in the world. That is the thing that drives us.

X: Let’s switch gears just slightly and bring in the element of design. Can you tell me about this room? We’re sitting here with all sorts of cool artifacts of design, like the first iPod. So how long have you been immersed in design thinking?

DM: Oof. I don’t know. My whole life? My grandfather gave me a Mac Plus when I was like four years old. I have my original Mac Plus sitting on my childhood desk at home at my mom’s house. And I kind of was lucky in that my grandfather was the vice president of the International Ski Federation like for 20 years or something when I was growing up, and he used to go to Zurich all the time. He would go to Switzerland and Germany and he’d bring me back things from these countries which I don’t think most other kids from Helena, Montana, would have access to. He’d bring back Leika cameras and Swatch watches and other watch brands. Porsche cars and Audi cars. Things you wouldn’t see in Montana. That Polaroid SX-70 camera there. My grandfather gave me that. I’ve had that since I was a kid.

So, you know, I think because of my grandfather I sort of had access to this world of design that you wouldn’t otherwise have crossed paths with. Oh, Braun clocks and these types of things. So I was exposed to designers like Dieter Rams really early on when I was a kid.

So I think that that spurred a lifelong interest in design and design thinking and just trying to understand design and what makes a great product. What makes a product not just beautiful but functional. I think that that’s a pretty important thing.

I guess how that ties into this place and this room and things, when we started the company, Dustin and I and even Shawn were interested in starting a company that had a true appreciation and respect for design, and making decisions design-first. Because we felt that there weren’t really enough companies [doing that]. There’s companies like Apple and there’s companies that stand for design and have really pushed design forward over the years. But in our generation, especially on the consumer Internet, there just weren’t that many. So we had this deep desire to at least put a stake in the ground as a company that really cares about design and doesn’t just care about it from an aesthetic perspective but really cares about it deeply in a way that would drive the entire company. So both Dustin and I are design-first people, primarily and it kind of permeates everything.

This room is my conference room so it’s got a lot of stuff related to design and how we think about things. There’s some design, there’s some social psychology. Morality. These types of things. Happiness.

X: How do you leverage your sense of design and the contribution design can make to function, to build a more effective social network? Maybe call out some of the things you did and thought about.

DM: Fundamentally we believe that we are just barely getting going in technology’s ability to make our interactions with other humans more interesting. If you think about where we are, for the last, whatever, you could argue about when social networking as a technology came around, you could say that it was early bulletin board systems, you could say that it was AOL, you could say that it was ICQ or IRC, there are all these different social systems through the ages, but if you look at current social technology, it’s been the last eight to 10 years, right, that we really have been experiencing some of the more intense networking technologies? And what’s interesting is that if you look at the personal computer revolution, eight to 10 years in we were still using DOS. So I think we fundamentally believe that we are still in the era of social DOS right now. And that if you look around at a lot of the most popular social network technologies, it’s still a fairly basic form of communication and language. We’re still using simple buttons and simple keyboard and mouse related feedback to interact with each other.

So we are kind of trying to take design, and mostly, actually, take the touch interface. One of the questions people ask is, “Why don’t you have a website?” I think when they ask that question [what they’re asking is] why wouldn’t you do that, everyone has a computer? It turns out everyone doesn’t have a computer. And only about a billion and a half people in the world ever had a personal computer. Five billion people have mobile phones. And as many people have touch devices as have computers. This interface is so different from a keyboard and a mouse. The fact that you can touch the screen, you can do different gestures, you can do a lot of interesting things.

So what we try to do is approach this platform and what you can do with these devices—not just the screen, but they have sensors in them, they are with you every hour of the day—we like to think that with mobile, life is the platform now, rather than just your desk. It used to be you would come to a desk and there was a glowing rectangle with this weird keyboard contraption and a mouse sitting next to it. And you’d sit and your desk and the computer would make your desk interactive. And that was it. Then you’d have to go on with your life. And most of the experiences designed for the computer were very asynchronous. I’m going to set up this event, I’m going to invite some people to it, people will show up, then they need to have all this information when they get there. If I meet someone new at that event, I need to come back to the computer to look them up in this directory. So all of the experiences built for the computer are very specifically designed for a world where you don’t have a computer all the time.

X: Real life was going on outside the computer.

DM: Right. Now all these things are intertwined. Not just with everyday life. They are near your head when you’re sleeping. On path, our third most popular type of content is sleep. People share when they go to bed and when they wake up every day.

X: What are the first two most popular?

DM: Photos and text. We call them “thoughts.” And music is the fourth. So it’s this amazing device that’s with you all the time and it’s part of your everyday life in ways that computers just never could be. So I guess what we try to do with design is, we really try to think through that fact. That it’s with you every hour of the day and there’s different reasons you might be opening it at different times. We know that people’s close friends and family mean a lot to them, and so, given the choice of what information to consume, or navigating their life every day, having information that helps them make those decision and helps them understand what experiences their friends are having in the world, these things are really important. But I guess what we try to do is kind of map the design to that, and we try to delight the user in ways that you only can with a touch interface. So we do a lot of things with animations and the way the app interacts when you touch the device. You just couldn’t achieve that kind of delight using a keyboard and a mouse.

X: So, this radial menu—whatever you call this thing. I’ve seen plenty of examples of radical user interface experiments out in the world and usually they are more for show or for novelty. This is one of the first examples I’ve come across where it actually makes sense. From an ergonomic perspective, even, because you’ve placed the thing in a corner of the screen where you can actually use it with your thumb. So, that, plus the really cool clock here that scrolls with your posts. Were those cases where you started with a design concept and tried to find an application, or were you thinking about the application and decided, hey, this would be the perfect solution for it?

DM: I think that, well, they are two slightly different cases. The first version of Path was entirely focused on photos. And the reason we chose photos was that people were taking a lot of photos with their phones, and those photos describe experiences in their lives, and if you were to ask someone “What do you do with all of those photos?” they would say, “Well, I put one or two up on Facebook, but I don’t really do anything with the rest of them.” And if ask people why, they would say, “Well, because they’re way too personal.” So we said, wow, there are these thousands of photos on people’s phones, what if they had a place to go? What if they had a place to live?

So we started with photos, but what we found was people were actually uploading more than photos. They were screenshotting different applications that they really loved, that described experiences in their lives. They would screenshot a running application with a map that showed where their run was. They would screenshot an application which showed their sleep pattern. They would screenshot the iPod app to put album art into their Path. They would screenshot book covers. Or take a photo of the menu at a restaurant. So we began to realize there were some core things that people really wanted to contribute to their Path, which we were kind of getting in the way of.

We knew we wanted to provide very simple interfaces for these key things that people were doing all the time. And we wanted to make them one button. And so, really, the endeavor of creating the radial menu was sort of an endeavor in reduction and simplicity.

If you think about it, if I were to say to you, let’s make a new app that has the ability for you to capture five different types of posts and post them to a feed, your initial thought would be, let’s put them in a grid. Right? Let’s have a menu on the top that slides down and let’s have an icon for each one and let’s put a title next to each one of them, so that people understand what they are. And we did all that. We actually did like 20 different versions of that interface. And we kept using it and thinking that every time you’d hit the button, the cognitive load would increase on your brain, every time you’d hit the button. And it just felt like we were getting in the user’s way. We kept going after, how do we reduce this down to something that’s more simple, more ergonomic, more sensible from a touch perspective, that doesn’t get in the user’s way and in fact delights the user and leads them into posting rather than getting in their way. So we just spent a ton of time on that. So that is how we ended up with this.

We also learned some pretty interesting lessons about touch and animation in trying to do this. For example you will notice that when the menu moves, it actually moves backward before it moves forward. So when you watch the, when I click it to go on, they will actually go out before they come in.

X: They bounce a little bit, then they start spinning.

DM: So they move in a very human way. And you see this used in animation and cartoons all the way back to Disney and the Road Runner. We actually got some cues from people we know at Pixar on how to do this. And so, you know, the point being that we wanted to make the interaction as human as possible, and also get out of the user’s way, in such a way that all that it is, is really enabling the contribution rather than being in the user’s way. That is kind of the idea here.

The other thing is that we wanted to reduce it down to one button, rather than the whole menu on the bottom. So that was our other goal. We wanted a single button. We found that giving users multiple buttons, it just doesn’t work—I think it’s probably kind of the same reason Apple does a single button for going back Home on the iPhone.

The clock was a different but similar question. We found that in our first version, the feed was very simple. It was all photos. And we had a really awesome animation which I’m kind of bummed that we don’t use anymore. We would fold up the photos into a row, and they would open up. There was a pretty great animation. But we found, again, it was one of those things where the animation was great, but the form wasn’t doing the function of just getting the user the photo information. So we went down this road of okay, we want to do larger photos. We are going to do different types of content now. How do you design this screen so that when you’re doing differnet kinds of posts, they all sort of fit together. How do we design a feedback unit?

In social systems feedback is incredibly important—the feedback that you’re getting, the conversation around each post. These things are really important. And so, how do we design feedback so when you’re looking at a screen like this, you have a photo, you have some feedback, you have another post, all of these things fit together really nicely. And the button here doesn’t get in the way. One of the things we found was that time stamps were this thing that was constantly in the way of simplifying the design.

If you look at any social system, not even social but e-mail, chat, time stamps are this thing that exist universally. And it’s really funny—when you take them out, your brain really starts to freak out. You lose where you are. You don’t understand where you are in time. For us, since Path is a completely real time system, when you open path you are usually seeing something that your friend is still doing right now. So understanding where you are in time is a really important thing in Path. So we kind of had to figure out a better way to do it.

And so we actually started with the clock smack in the middle. It would show up on top of each post and tell you where you were in time. Then we kind of started to dive into it and try to figure it out. We came up with the idea of this clock that floated along with the scroll bar, depending on how much content there is in the feed. The clock itself has Swiss movement, kind of a throwback to my grandfather. The idea being that the time stamp is such an important thing, but it’s not important unless you are in the mode of moving through the feed and understanding where you are in time. Once you have slowed down to appreciate something, it doesn’t matter that much and it can go away. This is one of those things where, it seems like something small to focus on, but it turns out that time is one of the most important things of all.

X: I wanted to ask you about how you use Path and how your average user uses Path. With the introduction of Path 2.0 in 2011 at some point, it became a more elaborate journaling tool. You could use it for capturing more kinds of stuff. Do you have people who use it for capturing stuff regardless of whether their friends might be interested in it—just documenting their own lives? With less of a question as to whether anyone will ever see it? And are there other people who are obsessively broadcasting their location or the meal they just had for the benefit of their friends? What’s the balance there?

DM: We have a few different very interesting cases. We have done a bunch of research in the last few months. I would say that our strongest use case, well there’s two. We have a very premium Internet user, sort of, I would describe them as a very discerning Internet user that has probably used all social networks ever, and is a discerning quality-centric Internet user. They want a very high-quality experience. They appreciate Path for its quality, and its design. And they actually appreciate it also because of the philosophy of less-is-more. They have experienced everything under the sun, all the different social networks throughout time, and they have now come to Path and said, “I get it. I want a place where less is more, that I have only the people I really care about, where the experience itself is really high quality and feels like a premium experience.”

So we have a big set of those people. And those people also tend to be very privacy-centric. They are sophisticated Internet users but I think that also makes them sophisticated business people or content creators. So we end up with quite a few celebrities and journalists and CEOs, venture capitalists, people who are very privacy conscious and they have a public life and a private life and they really want Path to be the thing for their private life. So we have like quite a few of those very sophisticated users.

X: Are those people tending to upload content that’s really carefully framed, beautiful photographs?

DM: No, they actually use it for their personal life. That is what’s so fascinating. I like describing that user’s evolution through time—they have gone through using Facebook and using Twitter and using Instagram or whatever to share these personal moments, and they felt that intimacy in these other networks, and then it went away. And so they come to Path and they say, “I get it. This is the place that’s going to stay that way.” That’s one type of user.

The second type—and I would say these two are equal—is the family user. These are people who really believe that, they really love this kind of place which is completely private, just for their family. They probably have family dispersed all over the country, all over the world, and they really want to stay connected and become closer to those people they don’t get to be with every day. They might want to share photos of their newborn, or just share everyday life. We call it celebrating the ordinary. They want to share the mundane every day. By doing that together as a family, the whole family becomes closer.

I would say the most emotionally interesting -mails that I get from our users are those. I get an e-mail probably every day from somebody who says “I never had anything in my life that has brought my family closer together than Path. Please never let it leave the world.” If not once a day, at least once a week. That hits us pretty hard, because both Dustin and I are from northern towns. He’s from northern British Columbia, across the bay from Alaska, I’m from Montana. Both of our families are there in these remote places. And building Path was as much an endeavor of building it for ourselves as it was building it for the world. So it brought our families closer together from the first beta, the first version. We knew that use case would be very powerful for people.

So we have a lot of family users, and in fact a lot of our investors, a lot of the people who are our biggest supporters, through the ups and the downs, whether it’s a press cycle or something else happens that is sort of a down period for the company—like, our first version didn’t work very well—it has always brought families closer together. We have quite a strong vein in that.

X: Are there any other really interesting categories of users?

DM: Yeah, there is this one really interesting category, which we haven’t talked about very much, but there is this interesting user, I don’t know how much I want to talk about it—you can write about it if you want—but this user also believes that less is more and they run businesses that are sort of in that category. We did this study, we had this really big spur of users in Florida, in Miami, so we did this study, and one of the categories of users was real estate agents, and they were actually using Path to share photos of the homes with their small list of clients that they wanted to have an everyday interaction with. So we have a set of users who are using Path for business reasons, in a very limited context.

X: Like art dealers or personal shoppers.

DM: Yeah, we have heard art dealers and real estate. I have not heard personal shoppers, but yeah, it’s sort of, the folks that like a small client list. We have actualy heard from teachers, from doctors. Anything where the context—if it’s a classroom with 30 kids in it, a doctor who has a small set of clients and wants to keep them up to date on the latest health information but doesn’t want to be broadcasting that on Twitter. There’s a whole set of businesses which are very privacy-focused which, for some reason, we’ve hit a vein there. It’s actually not something that we build for, but people are using it for that.

X: Because you guys are so focused on the mobile platform, I’m imagining that that came with its own set of challenges, from the beginning. Especially when it relates to the unique ecosystem around Android and Apple phones. The development life cycle is very different from the Web life cycle. How have you adapted to that over time? It must be something you only learned gradually, how to iterate. Especially if you are really focused on design—that slows iteration down even more.

DM: It’s been an excruciatingly painful process. Most of us came from the Web world. I would say, we all grew up with desktop software. Dustin and I used Hypercard a lot when we were kids. In the desktop software world, when you were developing desktop software you would put it in a box, and ship it to people, right, which is pretty interesting. The Web came along and that enabled this really rapid iteration, as you said, and on the Web you were able to move things forward really quickly. If there was a problem you could fix it overnight. You could just be always shipping. At Facebook we would ship every day.

The difference in mobile is that you really have to have these things tied up in a bow when you put them into the App Store. If you don’t you risk two weeks of your users having a buggy experience, which can reduce your App Store rating, which reduces your distribution, and causes press stuff to happen. So it’s a really interesting, major difference from the way you approach Web software. And it slows down the iteration cycles. It causes you to have to take a much more careful approach to not just packaging up and finishing up a release, but in considering the priorities for each release, how much you are going to put into each release.

We found many things that we didn’t expect in the beginning. For the first six months we would do a release every week, just like we would on the Web. And we found actually that users were getting burnt out on receiving a bug fix update every week. So we started packaging up larger releases. Because when we found that when that little update thing comes up on the phone, users get really excited and they hope that something really awesome is in there when they go to look at the Path icon in the update, so we found that putting in one big awesome feature and then a few fixes and things that people have been asking for, turns out to be a really good way to do updates. Or you go full blown and you go for a big dot release like we did with 2.0 and you overhaul the whole thing. And you drop a whole bunch of new stuff on people. But we found that, packaging things up in a much more considered and deliberate way is the way to go.

And I will tell you, as I said, it has been a painful process for us to learn. Our first version, we released it in a very, in the traditional Web way, that if you are not embarrassed by your first product, then you waited too long. So we put it out there. And it wasn’t super great. It was definitely a minimum viable product. We didn’t even have comments. I remember journalists asking me, when we launched—“Really, you’re launching without comments?” So we did what we do on the Web. Of course we are going to add comments. But we found that it was really hard to get those iterations in, on a fast enough cycle that the market understood that new things were happening.

So our first version was, I don’t call it a complete failure, but maybe a 70 percent failure. And so we have kind of learned over time how to package up features and things that are substantial improvements in a way that doesn’t tax the team too much, doesn’t make the consumer wait too long. But I will honestly say, we are still learning. We are doing some big releases here in the next few months. Some of them, I think, we wish we could have gotten them out earlier. Maybe we would have shipped pieces of them earlier if we didn’t have to package them up into once nice thing.

So I would say that on mobile consumers are receiving things much later than they otherwise would have because of the processes that you have to use to develop them. But I think that developers who take the time to put in really high-quality work, that is what you have to balance against. You have to take more time. Consumers are getting things less often. So in between, you have to have a really disciplined focus on really adding a lot of value between each one. Sometimes we do well, sometimes we miss. But we have gotten to a pretty good cadence now.

X: On that subject, since we’re talking about the mechanics of product management in the mobile world, there are related challenges. It’s not just about how often you push a new dot release. It’s also about things like onboarding and retention. So, I wonder what you’ve learned about how to break through all these barriers. One barrier is just making sure someone opens the app after they’ve downloaded it. Then the next barrier is trying to get them to come back every day. Those are all things you can measure, but things it must be really hard to influence.

DM: Yeah, that’s a big question. I’d say the hardest of all of those is the new user experience. We call it the NUX. Immensely hard on mobile. For a very simple reason, because mobile is like the old world of software in that everyone goes into a store and downloads the app. And everyone comes into the app in a totally new state. We can’t pass any data into that. We don’t know who you are. When you first open up the application we have no idea who you are, where you came from, why you are there, no friends, nothing. It’s not just hard, it’s impossible to personalize the experience for you when you first land on the first screen.

And so, designing an experience that’s completely universal for every kind of user, coming through the new user experience, it’s as close to impossible as a problem can get. We’ve gone thorugh hundreds of iterations of what our new user experience looks like. You know, for us, because we’re a social product, the real key thing that you have to achieve is to help the user understand why this new social product exists. For us, it’s setting a lot of context. We tell the user this is a place for family first, close friends second. And here, we’ll help you find those people, and if they’re not here we’ll help you invite those people. Then we teach them about the journaling aspects and the value we can add there. If the user doesn’t get connected to anyone, our chance of losing them is close to 100 percent. Because we can’t figure out who invited them, where they came from, it’s very hard to close those loops through mobile. I anticipate that it will probably get better, but right now we are still in 1999 on mobile.

X: How will it get better?

DM: I don’t know this but what I hope for is, Apple and Google are the two big platform providers in mobile right now, and what I hope is that as their platforms evolve they sort of create ways for developers to personalize the new user experience. And do linking between the experiences and things. The one way that mobile is very different form the Web today is it’s very hard to link data between two apps. It’s a very hard thing. Whereas the Web was built on this fundamental principle of linking between pages and documents and data. And so, it’s still very hard to do that on mobile. There are ways to do it but there are no standards, there’s still a lot of work today. This is a key problem for everyone. It’s a real distribution blocker. There are all of these things that could be done to improve it. I think that they will. It seems like something that would be important. But it makes it very hard.

So that’s one piece. To your second question on retention and this type of thing: I think mobile actually is really quite amazing, because it’s with people more you actually have more time with people than you had [on the Web]. The sheer volume of time that people have their phones with them is much higher than you ever had on a computer. Which is really nice. And your ability to activate users is much greater as well because you have these notification channels. You can pop up things on the screen. You have to be very careful with it, because if you do it too many times or for the wrong reasons, just like with anything on any platform, people will get rid of you.

But I think if you can add value to people’s days in unique ways you can actually pop open your application for the user and do some things for them. There are some nice things there. I also think because users are spending so much time with their phones, there is an opportunity to actually have a lot more engagement than you can achieve on the Web in some cases. Users are opening applications many, many times a day, which is pretty amazing, and spending pretty long session times each time.

And so, there’s a lot of opportunity there. I think the neat thing about mobile is, fundamentally the reason we call it a “phone” is it’s a device made for communication. You open it to interact. So the best place to build products is usually in a place where users are already used to doing things. We pick this up so that we can interact with people. If you can create new ways to interact, that really sort of, not just new ways but more efficient ways and more fun ways and more personal ways, then people will use your application. The battle for retention is all in that realm. Or retention and engagement, I guess. I guess everything I said was more of an engagement thing. Retention in a social system is one of those things where it’s completely dependent on the number of people you have connected the user to.

X: The more friends you’ve got in your network, the less likely you are to leave.

DM: It depends on the network. Every network has a marginal utility curve. At some point, the number of friends stops mattering. But also, for a short period of time, the number of friends really matters. If it’s zero, then 99 percent you’re gone. If you have one friend, 80 percent. Two, for us, it’s about 10. If you have 10 friends on Path, you are in pretty good shape and people stay. In a social system it’s very hard to retain anyone if you can’t help them get to that place. Different networks are different. If you were to go ask Facebook, I think it’s much higher than that. If you were to ask Twitter, it would be different.

X: A quick question about the Web, and then back to this retention question. Can you imagine a future where Path is more of a hybrid entity, where it’s not just mobile but there is a larger Web component? You’ve already got these landing pages for social updates—if you post to Facebook, there is a link that sends you back to a Path page on the Web. So, why can’t we curate that experience more? Why can’t we post directly to the Web?

DM: Your question is, could I imagine a world? Yes. Look, like I said, our vision is to build the best product in the world for bringing people closer together. I think if we can find a way to do that with the Web, that is similar to what we’ve been able to achieve on mobile, then we might do it. Right now we don’t think that we can.

A big reason why is actually because mobile—this thing is not just a consumption device, it’s a creation device. Everyone’s got a camera. If you think about it, if we were to shift a big percentage of our user base over to computers, they would basically not be contributing to the network the same way. Our number one type of content is photos. Our number two is text, which you could do from a computer. We also have this feature called “Ambient,” which automatically updates your Path for you based on your movement. So let’s say 50 percent of our users aren’t on phones; that type of content isn’t being generated. So the composition of the network changes. It’s not to say that we couldn’t figure it out, but it would actually change the nature of the content, so that’s something we would want to consider pretty intensely.

We just moved to the iPad, within the last month. Perhaps this is an interesting side tangent for you. In terms of development processes and things. Honestly one of the hardest things about doing these mobile companies is that we have to run parallel teams for each platform. Which is something that I think honestly I completely underestimated the complexity of.

X: By platform, do you mean iPhone versus iPad, or iOS versus Android?

DM: iPhone, iPad, and Android. We have to have different teams on different version numbers working on the same features. It’s incredibly hard to build both at once. You have to choose which you are going to build first, and then move it over here. Then move it over here and vice versa. It turns out to be this incredibly complex process. You also have to take a different approach to each one. What works on the iPhone doesn’t necessarily work on Android. Each one has a different human interface guideline.

And then iPad is a completely different thing—we have to build a completely native tablet experience for the iPad. And so, you know, we did some interesting things where we did a horizontal, landscape view on the iPad which is completely different than anything we’ve done anywhere else and is designed entirely for a tablet experience. So, each one of these requires the entire focus of a team. We have to staff that resource and manage it. That’s a different level of complexity than just building one Web app, which deploys across all these different screen sizes.

X: It must make you a little nostalgic, once in a while, for the Web.

DM: It does, but it doesn’t. I actually really love this. It’s just kind of amazing how much more—you know, I spent a lot of years personally writing front-end code and designing stuff for the Web. I spent a lot of years on the Web. But the kind of stuff you can do with UI, especially on iOS with Cocoa and UIkit and all this stuff, the speed and the tactile nature of the interface, you just can’t pull this stuff off on the Web, and it’s a totally different UI world. It’s super fun.

X: Going back to the retention question, I wanted to ask what kind of company this is supposed to be—in terms of the number of people you have to have on Path before it becomes a real business. I don’t know what the actual numbers are, these are the only numbers I could find, but you’ve got something like, in total, you are in the millions for sure and maybe past 10 million. In terms of your daily and active users, according to sites like App Annie and AppData, it’s a tiny fraction of that. AppData says you have 830,000 monthly active users and 200,000 daily active users. What do your daily active users and monthly active users need to be for you guys to have a convincing story? I know you’ve talked about how this isn’t a fast company, this is a slow company.

DM: We just hit five million registered people. Our last public number was three million; we just hit five million last Friday.

X: Congratulations.

DM: Yeah, it’s super awesome. I don’t know what App Annie says, but all the stuff based on Facebook Connect is off by a factor of four, because we actually have a very small number as a percentage of our user base that is connected to Facebook. It is about a quarter. It’s kind of a bummer. There is this amazing company called Onavo that does data compression—it’s an app you put on your phone, and they squish the data down so it doesn’t use all of your data plan when you’re abroad. I don’t think they’ve done it publicly but they have this product that’s like Quantcast for mobile, which I am excited about because finally people will stop looking at Facebook for data on mobile apps. Because it’s totally off.

So, of our monthly active users, 50 percent are weekly active. And of our weekly actives, 50 percent are daily active. So we have a very high number of engaged users. It’s pretty amazing actually. Our engagement is very high.

So to answer your question, we are not an advertising business. So the number of users we have doesn’t make as big of an impact on our business as, say, some of the other people in the social networking realm. The necessity of their business being driven by advertising is that they must be at the largest scale possible. So, for us, our business is based on two things right now. One, virtual goods—we actually sell lenses and filters, effectively. We are going to be rolling out more of that stuff next year. We’re also, I’ve talked about this publicly a lot, but we are working on a premium services offering. We want to be much more on the Evernote, Dropbox, consumer premium services side of the game than we do on the advertising side. We approach our entire business through that lens. Spotify, Evernote, Hulu—there are a bunch of businesses that are building a premium brand in addition to their core offering.

X: If you were advertising-driven, you’d have to be either growing faster or having even higher daily active users, right? The only way to get permission from your venture backers to stay free forever is to grow much faster.

DM: Absolutely. If you are in the advertising business, your job is to get as much audience as possible and as much attention as possible. We don’t want to be in that incentive game. For us, our mission is to bring people closer together. So we want to always be doing things to add value to your life. We want to be building utilities which bring you closer and make you happier. We focus on the success of the product in that realm. We don’t look at the number of minutes that you spend inside the application. We don’t want to take all of your attention. We want to add the most value to your life. That is how we define success. That matters much more to us than your standard advertising-based-business numbers.

And those things—it’s actually, I would say, back to your very first question, one of the core principles at the founding of Path was that we want to be in business with the customer first, and principally. We want to be in business with you, and no one else. We don’t want to say we’re in business with you but actually be in business with advertisers. We actually want to be in business with you. If I can’t figure out how to say “Wade, something we have made is worth your dollar, we haven’t done our job.” That is what we are shooting for. And look, we are still a baby company, we have barely started walking. So we’ve got a lot of work to do, but that’s our dream.

X: You mentioned a couple of companies that I definitely admire, like Evernote and Spotify. Those are companies where the model is to convert a certain small percentage of their free users over to a premium product. At Evernote it’s down in the one to three percent range, but that’s enough for them to have a very sweet business. So, you probably can’t talk about the details yet, but what kinds of experiences could you offer that would be of value to convert people to a paying plan?

DM: The user that I described to you, the premium Internet user, those are the same kinds of users who have converted over entirely to Path as their social network. They’ve got a lot of friends on Path, they’ve posted a lot of content, they’re using all of our filters. Their thirst or desire for Path-related content and services is very high. We have a lot of conversations with those users. We have done a ton of research. The user that is utilizing the Path network to a very intense degree would really like to have certain features.

If you look at premium services in general, those are kind of the things that you focus on. Like you go to that one to two to in some cases 10 percnet of your user base that is really intense utilizers of your product and you say what is it you want the most and what can we provide that a new user wouldn’t want, but if you are a sophisticated user of the product, you definitely would want. That is the realm we look in. So we have done a bunch of research there and we are still finalizing a lot of the details but it’s something that we are pretty excited about.

X: I’ll look forward to that. I pay $45 a year for Evernote. It’s a no-brainer for me. I am already using Path so much that if you gave me some incentive to go to a higher level in exchange for some cash, for me it would be a pretty low barrier.

DM: What we want is to give you this great place to put your life, right, and then to have the most important people in your life, and to have services that make all of that better. I think what we’re going to do is going to be exciting.

X: I wanted to ask you to talk about the ups and downs of Path. For better or worse, there’s been a spotlight on you from the very beginning because of your Facebook connection. So, I imagine that’s made things a little more difficult. I wanted to ask you whether you feel like some of the mistakes you guys made were really good mistakes in a way. With the whole address book controversy, for example, you guys got singled out for a practice that probably a lot of mobile companies were engaging in, of sucking up data from people’s contact lists. That attention may not have been fair, but it did highlight an interesting issue for a lot of people. So what do you feel like you’ve learned from being in the spotlight.

DM: That’s an interesting question. Look, I think that whether it was my background, Shawn Fanning’s background with Napster, we had a lot of intense spotlight. I think that with that comes some responsibility. You can do two things with that. You can either go try to do something again and try to make something new in the world. Or you can stay focused on the past and not move forward.

The last day that I worked at Apple, Steve Jobs was doing this town hall meeting, and he repeated a quote that he had said in some interview, and they’ve actually got it on the wall at Apple now, which I love. They put it up after he died. But this quote has stuck with me since the day I left Apple. It was that if you do something and it turns out pretty great, don’t dwell on it too long. Just move on and do the next thing.

So the definition of a spotlight is that you’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be part of something that was successful in one way or another, so people know about it. Really what you’re talking about with the spotlight is people’s expectations that the next thing is going to be pretty great. I think that one of the things that a lot of the former Facebook folks go through is kind of this, the next thing you work on, people expect it to be the next Facebook or a similar scope or scale. The thing is, it took eight years to get Facebook to how big it is today. A lot of people don’t remember that in the first year of Facebook we didn’t even have a million users. And in the second year we barely had two million users.

So I think that one of the nice things about being from the Facebook world is that we all remember when we didn’t have a lot of users and people didn’t believe that this social networking thing was a good thing. And no brand was willing to experiment. And users in college thought it was pretty cool but everybody else was on MySpace. So, I think that you benefit a little bit from the experience that you’ve had, at least those of us who came from Facebook, because Facebook itself was actually a fairly slow-growing business. Which most people don’t think of it that way. That’s one thing.

But I guess, coming out of that, you have this responsibility. When you have the spotlight, or whatever you want to call it, you sort of have a responsibility to give it a shot, again. And try to build another great product. Try to do something. Whether or not it works or not at least you gave it your best try.

I think the hardest part about it is going through the wall of expectations upon launch. So, like I said, with our first launch of Path 1.0, we really put a minimum viable product together. We thought photos was an interesting place to focus. When we launched, about 10 other photo sharing things launched the same week. We launched the same week as Instagram and we had no idea they existed. So there are all these amazing things you don’t expect. We put out a minimum viable product. Some people loved some pieces of it, some people hated some pieces of it. A lot of people said, “Oh, the spotlight is too intense, these guys will never succeed, they’re going to fail.” And I think that all that matters is that you go and you try and you take the feedback that you get.

One of the ways we benefit is that we get a lot of feedback from very passionate people! I think all they really expect is, “I know you can do better. I want a better product!” They know there is value to be had. That is all they are really asking for. So I think that our endeavor here has always been to listen really carefully and closely to what people say and what they want and what they think they want, and then take that and apply design thinking to it, and apply our sort of rigor to trying to create great products and make it better and better and better.

We spent the first year trying to make Path 2.0 happen. I talked you through some of the simplicity that we had to go through. I also thnk that a big part of creating a big product, or just starting out creating a great product, is taking something where your first version is usually very complex, and distribution is a function of simplicity. The more you can simplify things and make it easy for people to understand, the more people will use it. So a big part of Path 2.0 was just taking the time to simplify and making it easier for people to understand what exactly we are trying to put into their lives.

As we put more out this year, it will be the same kind of thing. We’ll get closer and closer, where hopefully somebody like you that uses the product all the time, we’re going to give you some things this year that being a longtime user you will say “Wow, I had no idea that was coming, but oh my God, I’m so glad I was a long-term user.” There are things like that that now we get to do, because we’ve kept going. I guess you pointed out—did you learn a lot from each of these things? Absolutely. Without each one of these incredible challenges, we wouldn’t I think have been able to produce the product that we’ve got today. Crises are these great things. Whether it’s a crisis like the address book thing we went through, or a crisis of product where we put out a version that was maybe too minimally viable. You never want to waste a crisis.

X: With the address book thing, you guys very quickly went to the extreme response. You did exactly what the harshest critics were asking for, which was sort of like a no holds barred apology, and you deleted all the data.

DM: We did the apology, then we deleted all the data, and we went one step further and now we encrypt all address book data coming onto our servers. We can’t access it. Nobody can access it. It’s fully encrypted.

X: Did that response grow out of your awareness that you were in the spotlight and that you had this greater responsibility?

DM: Yes, I would say greater responsibility. Because of the spotlight, maybe. But greater responsibility because of our values, yes. We are building a personal social network for your private life, so we really deeply care about privacy here. We’ve got a whole depth of thinking around privacy and how we’ve constructed the privacy rules inside of our product. What happened there was something where we were interfacing with a platform, and we were doing something that was a best practice, and it was one of those things where we stepped on a land mine and we didn’t even realize it. Because that value matters so much to us, we can go out, we can apologize, we can say we really didn’t mean to do this, but to us actions speak much louder than words, so we went and we deleted everything and now we’ve encrypted everything. For us, making that commitment to building trust with society and with our users, really matters. You can say things, but you have to do in order to really communicate, I think.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

Trending on Xconomy