How to Retain Clients, Zuckerberg Style

As Facebook's success demonstrates, staying out of the way of your customers is a balancing act

Written by Ian Bell

Flash back to the ’90s: as a lowly product manager, new to the team and barely old enough to shave, I was asked to comment on a megaproject undertaken by my employer, a large Canadian telecom company. We were spinning up our province-wide launch of residential ADSL, the first mass-market high-speed Internet service in the region—and not a moment too soon for our customers who were growing increasingly fed-up with dialup Internet.

Management had commissioned a large networking vendor (with a price tag so high I’m ashamed to reveal it) to design an authentication service that forced every high-speed internet user to sign on with their user ID and password when accessing the internet. Even more millions were spent developing “high-speed” content such as web videos, animation and simple online games.

The process was similar to how a patron accesses Wi-Fi at a hotel today, except this was in your own home, potentially several times a day. Only once you were logged in and forced to view our delightful “high speed” content could you then fire up your email client or check your favourite search engine.

If you think this idea sounds stupid, you can probably imagine how I, a 25-year-old hacker, reacted when my adult colleagues were explaining it to me. The word I used that day was “friction”—why were we adding so much friction to something that would otherwise benefit users as a completely seamless experience?  In effect, we were dousing the flames of customer enthusiasm with a big bucket of administrivia. And for what, exactly?

Suffice to say the project was soon abandoned and today you and I are able to access the Internet seamlessly from all the devices in our home without having to remember an otherwise useless identity and password. The reality is that if I hadn’t helped kill this very bad idea preemptively, the marketplace would have done so with much greater brutality. My employer would have had egg on its face and may have lost the market to cable competitors.

If you’ve seen the movie “The Social Network” you know that Mark Zuckerberg confronted a similar dilemma. He instinctively realized that imposing an advertising-based business model early on in the evolution of Facebook would be bad timing, calling the idea “uncool.”

In his youthful shorthand he was describing the idea of user friction. Customers were just growing to love Facebook, learning what to do with it and figuring out how it integrated into their lives. Interrupting new consumers with widespread advertising may have been deadly at this stage, potentially killing the growth dynamic that sucked increasing numbers of users—and their personal information—into the service.

Of course, by the time Facebook began to insert ads, that dynamic had taken hold and the company had already blossomed with exponential growth. A little friction nowadays is acceptable because ads are seen as an insubstantial proportion of customers’ overall experience with Facebook.

The first step in avoiding friction is to understand and articulate the core value proposition of your product or service. Why is the customer going to patronize you and not someone else? What is it that you present to the user that is unique and exciting? Whatever the answers to these questions, your job is to eliminate any friction that obstructs or obscures that value proposition.

Friction can come from anything, whether a pricing model, a complex user experience or the interruption of your Facebook timeline by ads. Every successful product or service offers an acceptable balance of value and friction; those that don’t usually fail.

Unless you run that certain big company I used to work for or another monopolistic company like it, people don’t have to spend their money with you. Customers are not, by default, bought into your entrepreneurial vision of the future. Yes, you need to be persuasive. But you also need to ensure that you’re not playing traffic cop, handing out speeding tickets to random strangers attempting to navigate the path to becoming your customer. After all, it just never pays to be seen as uncool.

Ian Bell is a Vancouver-based entrepreneur with 13 years’ experience in building and helping technology startups in the U.S. and Canada. He most recently founded Tingle and RosterBot. A former Apple Research Fellow, he worked at Cisco Systems and Telus before going rogue. He blogs about the industry at

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