Formspring was the king of social media platforms, drawing ten million new users in two months – This is how Ade Olonoh did it

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 13, 2024 11:33 AM EDT
Ade Olonoh. Photo credit: Ade Olonoh

Popular with teens, misunderstood by adults, and highly sought after by venture capitalists, Ade Olonoh‘s Formspring was the “it” app of the 2000s. Its popularity has been compared to Snapchat today. An immediate success, Formspring gained more than ten million new users within two months. Olonoh created the site, built it up, monetized it, and it was wildly successful – for a while.

In an oversaturated tech market, this is how Olonoh drew users to his social media site.

Before Formspring, there was a lot of trial and error. Olonoh double-majored in Computer Science and Mathematics at Anderson University and paid his way through college by writing Perl code. His freelance work culminated in developing a software consulting company Bottled Software in his senior year. Olonoh created a lightweight content management system for the university called WebTwist. Unfortunately, he was unable to continue with his projects due to slow sales caused by the dotcom bubble.

Olonoh took a break from entrepreneurship and began working for Gannett at the Indianapolis Star. Although he started as a software developer, Olonoh quickly transitioned to management. His experience leading the team that was in charge of the technology for the online, production and editorial systems proved to be invaluable. In 2006, he quit his job and started a consulting company called Recursive Function. He ultimately shut down the business to focus on his web-based form creation website Formstack.

“The most important insight was that as a manager it’s your job to really understand everybody individually. You need to understand where they want to head, what direction they want to go in personally and professionally, and what their goals and objectives are. Then you need to figure out how to align the organization’s or team’s objectives in the same way,” Olonoh said about how the impact his managerial position had on Formspring’s success.

Olonoh founded Formstack with the intent of allowing users to create web-based forms online without the need for additional software. He soon realized that users on other websites were using Formstack’s software to ask people direct questions. Consequently, Olonoh spent a few months creating a prototype social media site built around the “ask me anything” model. He launched the site in 2009 under the name of Formspring. It was one of the pioneering forms software.

Formspring was an immediate success. It launched on Thanksgiving and had 400 people sign up on the first day. Within 45 days, the social media site gained ten million new users.

However, Olonoh soon realized that many people were checking out the site but were not engaging. Formspring therefore had to differentiate between a user and an engaged user. This required a lot of internal metrics to uncover those who are just checking out the site from those who actually use it. By focusing on Formspring’s core Q&A mechanics, Olonoh ensured that users engaged for the long term.

“One of the things that we really suffered from was that there were a lot of people checking out the product just to check out the product. They weren’t really engaged. I have learned that it really comes down to building a good core product and understanding what it is that people want, in the world, and what people want on the Internet and being able to create that in some fashion,” Olonoh noted about what inspired a different strategy to attract users to Formspring.

Formspring’s popularity ultimately came down to a good core product that understood and catered to the internet needs of people. The site appealed to a basic human psychological need – the need to talk about oneself. Its social question-and-answer model allowed users to ask questions, give answers, and learn more about their friends. Olonoh understood what people wanted and approached product design with this mindset. He created a successful product by integrating the psychological trigger to be heard into Formspring.

Nevertheless, the company’s rapid growth was accompanied by challenges. Formspring came under public scrutiny as a perfect avenue for cyberbullying in 2010. Olonoh and his team gave users a clearer sense of what the site was for and worked extensively with experts to create a safer product to mitigate the negative PR. He sold the company in 2014, having raised $16 million in funding and grown its user base to 30 million active users.

Today, Olonoh’s Formstack is a leading workplace productivity platform. It enables organizations to create digital workflows without any programming or software skills required. The company serves over 25,000 organizations worldwide.