Flipboard: The product is great, the hyperbole is grating

flipboardFlipboard is a creative and beautifully crafted iPad app that performs something you can do dozens of ways (use RSS, APIs of Twitter and Facebook, et al and content scraped from websites to deliver a flow of news and information), but Flipboard does it in a new and beautiful way: in a graphically rich, smartly engineered and refreshingly serendipitous fashion. The metaphor they use for this display is “magazine” but unlike many online website publishers who use the magazine metaphor, but with little in common with the paper-based medium, Flipboard actually captures some of the essence of a magazine experience (but it won’t find a place on your coffee-table).

But there is a “flip” side to the recent launch of Flipboard that has the potential of derailing the app as envisioned with the first generation version the founders and backers used to launch the company (note to those who will misinterpret what I just said: I didn’t say the company could fail, I said specifically that the current concept of what the product Flipboard “is” and “does” could be derailed).

The creators of the well-received and impressive product blundered right out of the gate with a strategy that seems influenced and engineered by experienced and deep-pocketed “veterans” who are convinced the only way to succeed is to instantly create a market for something the market didn’t know existed, and to instantly capture 100% of its market-share before others figure out what’s hit them. That’s the way people who have been around the block a few times think. (And, frankly, who am I to argue with their billions?)

However, I have seen lots of great web-based and media ideas come and go, and almost always, the big ones started out small and work out the kinks at the stage of a product’s life where you’ve stopped limiting its access to those who are pre-disposed to tell you everything you want to hear. Flipboard failed technically on its first day of wide release by not anticipating the scale necessary to respond to a multi-front tsunami from early “tire-kickers” (never, never confuse people who sign up after a Scobelizer post or TechCrunch article with “adopters” — they’re love-em-and-leave-em early “sign-uppers”).* I’ll skip a sidebar on this topic, and simply encourage you to read Rework.

Another trap the company is falling into is trying to talk its way out of the scrutiny and push-back that comes with massive hoopla by responding to it with well-rehearsed but remarkably unbelievable verbage. Here’s what I mean: In an interview that appears on the website Business Insider, the company’s co-founder and CEO was asked the following, and provided this response:

Flipboard pulls in a lot of text and a lot of photos from online publishers. What do you say to people who say you’re stealing content?

Answer: Actually, there have been probably about 130 publishers that have reached out to us in the last 4 days or so, and unanimously the reaction has been very positive. People want to work with us, partner with us, do Flipboard-optimized content and feature their content in our sections. It’s been universally positive. These publishers basically include all the big guys. If any publishers are at all concerned about the way were using Readability to get the content, or if they feel were showing too much content, it’s very easy for us in a server file to dial that down and do something that they’re more comfortable with.

First off, anyone who has ever talked with — or even heard of — 130 publishers know there is no such thing as a “unanimous” and “universally positive” response to anything, much less to a product that is even remotely associated with something they may be working on, say, an app on which they’ve bet the future of their company. Such bold-faced hyperbole does nothing but sink ones credibility with companies they must work with over the long run.

Secondly, anything that smacks of implying that you know better than the publisher what can “help them” or “save them” may have worked 15 years ago, but forget it today. (The dilemma of trying to use a playbook from a game played a couple of seasons ago.)

The last thing is this. If you don’t think big publishers are going to react negatively to the way Flipbook is trying to draft off magazine brands and content, then you haven’t seen such “recommended sections” as the one pictured above: “New Yorker Writers.” Collecting feeds and content posted on a wide array of websites by writers who have had their work appear in the New Yorker, and then packaging it up in a “social magazine” section called “New Yorker Writers” is not the kind of approach that will receive “universally positive response” from publishers. (See photo above.)

Good luck, guys. I think your app is wonderful. But your key to success will be how you pivot away from the “scraping” practices and “we’re here to save publishing, not compete with it” BS. Your success will come from being honest with publishers, working with them in ways that do something more than hollow-sounding decade-old spin.

*At last count, that sentence mixed about 3-4 metaphors.