#4: Be Authentic

This is part 4 in a series on startup lessons learned.

People are very, very good at smelling authenticity. Without this ingredient you will fail to create a self-sustaining community, be it online or in the real world.

I think we did well on the authenticity front with 5 Blocks Out. Our community members added real tips and real photos of real places they really cared about. Many business owners added their own content too, which was great, save for the few times someone was not up front about their identity.

We encouraged folks to use their real names on the site, and almost everyone did. We also gave everyone a publicly visible profile page, which helped a lot in terms of accountability. (There was no ability to comment anonymously.) I think we could have gone even further down this track by using mobile phone numbers or physical addresses as more weighty means of confirming identity.

We suffered a spate of spambot user account registrations for a while, and fought that back to a standstill. Painful. Days wasted.

The real test would have been our ability to maintain a high degree of authenticity at the scale of millions of members. That’s a really hard problem, and I don’t envy search engines and sites like Yelp and CraigsList in having to fight that fight every day. I wish a white knight would come along and provide a better authentication solution so that little sites wouldn’t struggle to reinvent the wheel on user identity and authentication (poorly) every single time. I’d pay for that!

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