Tumblr and Posterous are the two most prominent “tumblogging” sites, i.e. sites that make blogging more straightforward by making it easier to post media. Both were launched within six months. (Actually, Posterous was started later than Tumblr.)
But now Tumblr has been an Alexa Top 100 site for a while and is still growing strong. Meanwhile Posterous has about 4 times less uniques. Yet Posterous has everything to win: it’s a Y Combinator company with top-tier investors like Chris Sacca and Mitch Kapor. Its founders are experienced software engineers with computer science degrees from Stanford. How come it’s eating dust from a small startup started by a high school dropout?
The answer is as easy as it is counter-intuitive: Tumblr is a New York company and Posterous is a Silicon Valley company.
Or, to put it another way: Posterous is an engineered product, while Tumblr is a designed product.
Posterous is extremely well engineered. There’s nothing wrong with it. Every single thing about it is well thought out. But it’s not just that it’s less pretty (though it is). It’s just not designed as well as Tumblr is.
Look at Tumblr’s landing page:
That’s it. Sign up is dead simple. Can you imagine the conversion rates they get out of that page? Moreover, they have one of the best taglines of any service: the easiest way to blog. What else is there to explain? They don’t brag about features like “like”, “reblog” or (ugh) “tumblarity.” Tumblr is the easiest way to blog. Anyone, your mother included, can understand that.
Meanwhile, look at Posterous.
Oh sure, it’s a nice landing page. But, “the dead simple way to post everything”? Sure, it sounds nice, but it’s hard to say what that really is. Is that like Facebook, where you can share all sorts of stuff (videos, links, pictures) with your friends? Is that like Twitter? Or is it like a blog. The “just email us” pun is nice, since all you need to do to sign up is to send an email, but to a distracted user it’s like “What? I have to email them to get an account?”. Then you read all the stuff after that. There’s so much stuff there! A step-by-step explanation, a “who’s it for” (if you have to explain, you’re not doing the right job), a bunch of links and pictures.
In fact, that sign-up-via-email feature: engineering feature. When Posterous came out, that was the thing that set it apart: it’s so simple you don’t need to sign up, just send something via email! Cool! Except — who really does that? Very long signups can discourage users, but if you have only a few forms to fill, is there a single person who wants to sign up for a service, can’t be bothered to fill out a three-item form, but by God, pulling up their email client, finding a picture or a video to post, attaching it, and emailing it to firstname.lastname@example.org (or is it email@example.com? firstname.lastname@example.org?), that’s easier! It’s exactly the kind of thing where an engineer thinks “Oh, nobody does that, I’ll do that, that’ll be cool!” but in real life it’s useless. I mean, posting by email is a nice feature. But it’s not a killer feature.
I will give 5-to-1 odds to anyone that Tumblr has higher conversion rates on their homepage than Posterous and 1-to-1 that they’re twice as high.
In fact, everything about Posterous is nice. It’s very nice. I’m not here to bash Posterous, I think it’s a tremendous product and I wish them the best of luck.
But everything about Tumblr is better designed. I used the landing page as one example, but there are tons of features where Tumblr shines by its gorgeous design.
Meanwhile Posterous is typical of the Silicon Valley engineering mindset where everything is measured, ranked, weighted. It’s like Google. And having terrible design like Google is great if you have a technology edge. But if you’re in a market where what matters is design edge, that’s not enough. There needs to be great design, by which I don’t mean looks (though they’re important), but how it works for the end user.
Meanwhile, Tumblr is typical of the new New York startups, that have great engineering talent, but care about design, UI and UX.
Again, I don’t mean to bash Posterous, but to me Tumblr and Posterous are just picture-perfect examples of two very important trends.
The first is that New York has truly come of age as a startup hub, with its own “style”, its own way of doing things, its own mindset, which can sometimes — not always, but sometimes — kick Silicon Valley’s ass.
The second is that for consumer web apps today, design matters more than technology. Much has been written about how the cloud, accessible web frameworks, etc. have dramatically lowered the cost of getting a startup to market, and that’s certainly true, but it also means that since everyone is on EC2 and Ruby on Rails, technology is no longer what differentiates most consumer web apps. What does is design. UI/UX design. Social design. Business model design as well (Groupon and Gilt Groupe, the two tremendous e-commerce success of the past two years, are in Chicago and New York respectively). To be sure, technology is and always will be very important. I don’t want to go back to the startup where the MBA bosses around engineers. And some of the best designers will be engineers (like David Karp, or Mark Zuckerberg). But you can’t just engineer anymore. You have to design.
Tumblr’s success shows that.
EDIT: It’s been pointed out to me in the (interesting) comments at Hacker News that Posterous has been growing faster than Tumblr. While that’s true, Posterous is growing from a smaller base and Tumblr is still much, much bigger, and their growth has barely slowed, so I think unless something unexpected happens, Tumblr is still going to maintain a strong lead over Posterous.