For most startups, getting acquired represents the end. The product is shut down, the team is put to work on other projects, and the founders quit just as soon as they’re contractually allowed to. But for identity service About.me, which AOL bought just four days after its public launch, getting acquired led to an unusual new beginning. After two years at AOL, its founders bought it back, raised nearly $17 million, and brought in an influential designer to lead the product team. Today, after a year of reimagining its simple personal profiles, About.me is rolling out an elegant redesign focused on making the pages genuinely useful.
Until now, it hasn’t always been clear why someone would want to create a page on About.me. From the start, co-founders Tony Conrad and Ryan Freitas argued that most people should have a public profile on the web, just as they once listed themselves in a phone book. Profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn are hidden in their walled gardens; it can be difficult to get a sense of someone reading their posts on Twitter. The goal of About.me, Conrad says, is to create "a product that ensures everybody can present themselves in the best manner possible."
"What do I do with my page?"
But while the service has made it relatively easy to create a kind of digital business card, it wasn’t always clear what the point of such a card was," says Conrad, who is also an investing partner at True Ventures. "I would always get beat up: what do I do with my page?" The company built features to let users give one another compliments and organize themselves into Pinterest-like collections. The features helped to keep the site humming for roughly 4 million users, but the founders came to believe the mechanics weren’t very meaningful. "They weren’t creating value," Conrad says.
Profiles before (left) and after.
The new design was led by Jeffrey Veen, a well-known designer and user experience expert. Conrad had previously invested in Veen’s company Typekit, a service for bringing custom fonts to websites and apps, which was acquired by Adobe. Veen had previously been a founder at Adaptive Path, an influential design consultancy, and later did a stint at Google, where among other things he led the redesign of Google Analytics. Conrad asked Veen to become a design partner at True Ventures, spending the next year focused on renovating About.me, and he agreed.
The result is a much simpler design: a single page with one prominent button and a few other outbound links. This isn’t a social network: there’s no friending, or following, or connecting. Instead, there’s a button its creators call the "spotlight." It’s a single call to action meant to get visitors to actually do something with the page they’re visiting. Every person who creates a page has to pick one. Photographers might choose "view my portfolio" or "view my photos." Airbnb hosts would choose "stay at my place." For authors there’s "buy my book"; for musicians, there’s "listen to my music." The link points wherever you want it to.
As before, you can also link to your other social profiles across a huge range of services from the obvious (Facebook, LinkedIn) to the less common (Etsy, GoodReads, Wikipedia). Taken together, the spotlight button and the social links make clear that the About.me profile now exists almost entirely to drive visitors elsewhere — to wherever might have the most value for the person who created the page.
40 percent of Americans will do freelance work
That’s particularly interesting at a time when freelance work is becoming more popular. About.me says a third of professionals in the Bay Area and New York are already part of the 1099 economy, and that 40 percent of all people nationwide will be doing at least some freelance work within the next four years. And 76 percent of college students expect to turn one of their hobbies into an income stream, the company says.
It’s in this world that About.me looks like a compelling play for your online identity: a place where people can spend a few minutes building a simple public profile on their phones, then let the profile direct visitors’ attention wherever they wish. Conrad expects that people will change their spotlight button regularly throughout the year; he starts the year pointing to his blog and plans to end it soliciting donations for his chosen charities. The company will initially make money by selling domain names to people who want to park their page at a custom location.
It remains to be seen whether About.me’s current users stick around after the changes to their profiles — which are mandatory. Anyone who signs up from now on gets the new design; all other profiles will migrate to the new templates over the next few weeks. "A lot of people will be upset, because we’ve taken away some fundamental things," Conrad says. The old design gave users much more control over how their pages look; the redesign requires them to choose from a small handful of templates and colors. ("We sort of de-Myspaced it," Veen says.)
Perhaps About.me profiles won’t be as effective at generating leads for users as its creators believe it well. But given how little data the site asks from you, I expect lots of people may want to give it a shot. The best thing I can say about About.me’s new profiles is that I felt compelled to make one.