The DailyBooth Story: A Social Network That Almost Worked

On roughly the 10-year anniversary of DailyBooth’s launch (and with the launch of its spiritual successor a few months away), I figured now would be a good time to tell the story of DailyBooth. My only project with a a Wikipedia page.

I think it’s a pretty interesting story. Highlights include getting banned from the US, raising $7m, winning 2 crunchies, and embodying a robot.

Some DailyBooth themed “booths” from the community.

The Inspiration

I’ve always found the concept of time fascinating. I only realized this recently, but it has been an accidental theme of my work over my “career”.

In the late 2010’s a handful of videos started popping up from people who had taken a picture of themselves every day for several years and turned those pictures into a little flick book style video.

Source: Noah Kalina

They seemed to hit a nerve with people. You get an eerie feeling watching people visibly age in front of you. There’s something about seeing styles and features changing over long periods of time in seconds that I found fascinating. I loved the concept, and I wanted to try it myself.

The Product

DailyBooth was a social network designed around this concept. The idea was to create a website that made it really easy to take a picture of yourself every day, and the website would in turn generate a little flip book style video.

Some screenshots of the website.

Although initially intended it to be a single player experience, it quickly became obvious that we needed to add the ability to follow people. Every day users would share a picture of themselves, along with a blurb about what happened on that day. You could follow friends or people who looked interesting and stay up to date with what was happening in their lives over time.

Picture Comments

A feature that was originally added almost as an after thought. Some of our early beta testers started communicating back and forth through their daily photos. Without giving it much thought we added the ability to reply to a picture with another picture as you were posting your comment.


An example of a picture comment thread.

You can capture so much emotion in a picture (including things that can’t be put into words), the ability to pair that picture with a comment gave you a snapshot of what the poster was thinking and feeling in that moment.

This simple feature spawned countless interesting use cases and viral threads. Like:

Watching World Cup Games Together



A big group watched some World Cup games together. People would dress up and post picture comments throughout the game. Celebrating and reacting to each goal or notable event.

#DBFilmClub

At an agreed upon time everyone who was participating would press play on the same movie at the exact same time. Then watch along and discuss what was happening in real time. I remember people actually dressing up as different characters and acting out different scenes, through pictures.

The High Five Flash Mob

I ran a @highfive account that would select a user every day to target. Everyone following the account would post a HIGH FIVE picture comment on their latest picture. It was pretty wild being on the receiving end of this. Within a few minutes you would receive 100s of picture comments of people trying to high five you.

The @highfive account served as an invaluable tool for when we wanted to give high profile users a warm welcome.

The Live Feed

Another defining feature of DailyBooth was the live feed. A real time feed of everyone posting pictures to the website. Watching the live feed felt like people watching in a café. People would leave the live feed open in a tab throughout the day to watch people as they pass and engage with anyone that caught their eye.

An amazing side effect of this was that almost every time you posted something, even if you didn’t have any followers at all, you’d have people welcoming you and talking to you in the comments. We eventually added a “new user” badge to anyone posting for the first time, increasing their chances of being welcomed by the community.

The first user experience on DailyBooth was nearly always extremely positive and welcoming. Which leads me nicely on to….

The DailyBooth Community

The community that developed around DailyBooth was something special. Putting a picture of yourself next to every comment you make seemed to make people a lot friendlier. Unlike Facebook where adding people as friends that you don’t know can come off as a bit creepy, on DailyBooth it was a normal part of the experience and totally accepted by the community.

To this day there’s still a somewhat active DailyBooth Facebook group, and I’m still friends with many members of the community 10 years on. I’ve had multiple people tell me that they met on DailyBooth and have since gone on to get married and are still happily together. Someone even got a DailyBooth tattoo!

  

    
  

The community was truly what made DailyBooth special, and if anyone reading this was a member of the DailyBooth community back in the day… thank you. Thank you for making DailyBooth what it was.

Strangers on the Internet

With the help of my then Internet-friend Ryan Amos we launched the first version of DailyBooth and found that it resonated with people. Early on it was embraced by the then new and growing YouTube community. YouTubers loved being able to engage with their fans and subscribers in a new and interesting way.

Being able to see your subscribers faces in photo comments was quite a jump from faceless youtube comments or tiny twitter avatars. YouTubers with large audiences would go out of their way to plug their DailyBooth profiles in their videos and other social channels. This really helped fuel the initial growth.

Things were difficult at first. We maxed out two credit cards just trying to keep the website online. On a whim we applied to Y Combinator (YC) and we got an interview!

I flew to Ohio to meet Ryan in person for the first time. Ryan was about to graduate with a Computer Science degree, but if we were going to build DailyBooth together he was going to have to drop out. A pretty wild decision at the time.

The YC Interview

After learning how to play beer pong with Ryan’s college friends (feeling like a true American), we flew to CA to pitch DailyBooth.

I posted my DailyBooth picture for that day during the interview. Some members of the community went to extra lengths to make some “Good luck!” signs, with many of them popping up during the interview. It was a perfect demonstration and PG and Jessica were seemingly intrigued.

This was the picture I posted demoing DailyBooth to PG during the interview 😂

Of course after the interview was over we spent an agonizing couple of hours over analyzing every detail of what was said in order to figure out what our fate would be. We knew that either we would get an email explaining why they were rejecting us or a phone call letting us know that we got in. Every time I got an email, my heart sank. Luckily we got the call— we were in!

Coming To America

Getting into YC was the best news ever. I was finally going to be able to fulfill my dream of spending time in the US, and more specifically in Silicon Valley! Growing up in a small town on the south coast of England, I had always dreamed of living in the US. And now here I was getting the opportunity to come here (albeit only for 3 months) and work on a company that I wanted to build. It was a dream come true.

The plan was to fly home, grab some stuff, and then fly back for the YC batch. The US has something called a “Visa Waiver Program” that makes it easy for people to stay in the US for 90 days which just so happens to be the length of a YC batch.

I packed my bags and got on a flight to San Francisco. Everything was going according to plan.

Border Trouble

When I got to the border I was “flagged” for several reasons and taken into a second interview room. They said that I didn’t have enough luggage to support myself for 90 days. I replied, “But I have everything I own in this suitcase!” Later I learned this was the worst possible thing I could have said as it implied that I was planning on staying in the US indefinitely. Strike one.

They also said that I didn’t have enough money to support myself for 90 days. Although this was true, we were going to be getting the YC check in a few days, which would more than cover my time in America.

To be fair, the person interviewing me gave me every opportunity to solve this problem. “Do you have any credit cards or anything?” they asked.

“Nope”, I said, “I have a couple hundred bucks and that’s it.” They found this very suspicious, and now I had raised a few eyebrows. Strike two.

I was then pulled into a scary interview room where they documented everything I said. At one point I asked a clarifying question, and I remember watching as my clarification was slowly typed out word by word by the immigration officer interviewing me. By this point I had missed my connecting flight, was very confused about what was happening, and was beginning to worry that things might be going wrong.

It was then that the immigration officer asked me a question along the lines of, “Are you planning on talking to an immigration lawyer at any point during this trip?” Although I hadn’t been, the way he asked the question made this sound like an excellent idea. After missing my connecting flight and getting pulled into this long and serious interview about my intentions and what I was doing, it sounded like the best idea in the world. So I agreed. Strike three.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was his “Gotcha!” question. Based on my response, he believed I was trying to seek full time citizenship under the visa waiver program— something that’s expressly forbidden. It was at this point that I was officially refused entry into the US and put on the next flight back to London.

The Aftermath

The worst part about getting refused entry under the visa waiver program is that you’re banned from ever traveling under the visa waiver program again. For all intents and purposes, I could never even visit the US again unless I got a full visa. This was made worse by the fact that I had decided not to go to university so that I could work on DailyBooth instead, and the only way of getting a work visa is to either have a degree or a degree level of experience (3 years’ work experience for every year normally spent at university).

This was a real low point for me and I only had myself to blame. I hold nothing against anybody for this situation. After all, the immigration officer was just doing his job, and I think in hindsight my story was just strange and suspicious. “I’m the CEO of a new tech company where you take a picture of yourself every day!” says the 21-year-old kid in skinny jeans. The only side effect from all of this is that I now greatly value my American passport!

We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to go through YC with one of the two founders of DailyBooth stuck out of the country, but PG and Jessica were extremely accommodating. They found a solution from the company that YC shared office space with— a telepresence robot company called “AnyBots”. They suggested that I could attend all of the YC dinners as a robot being controlled by me from my cupboard/office in England. And with that, I was back in the game.

The Robot

The robot ended up being one of the coolest parts of my experience with YC. With the robot I could drive around anywhere and talk to people, controlling the head, neck and body. At one point I thought it would funny to quickly jerk the robot’s head/body when I had to sneeze. I didn’t realize but because my robot’s back was right next to a wall the robot ended up lurching forward and confusing everyone. That was the only time I made that joke.

If you get the chance to be a robot… be a robot.


Robo-Jon & Ryan

I actually think the robot turned into a positive thing, as I was known colloquially in the batch as “The robot”, something that I think made me (and in turn DailyBooth) a lot more memorable. We even initially planned for me to pitch DailyBooth on demo day as a robot, but unfortunately at the last second we decided to play a pre-recorded pitch due to the sound limitations of the robot.

Gathering Steam

DailyBooth was growing quickly throughout YC and we managed to put together a great round with some amazing investors with the help of YC. Brian Pokorny, who was one of our earliest investors, joined the company as CEO. We started building a team and renting an office in San Francisco. This was a really strange situation for me. We had a team of amazing people (that I mostly hadn’t met) and were renting a really cool office in SF (that I couldn’t visit, in a country I was banned from). It almost felt like a different world. It almost didn’t feel real.

At this point I had been working with an immigration lawyer to help me get back into the US. Because of my lack of degree, we didn’t have many options. The only real option we had was a visa called an “O-1”, called the “Alien of extraordinary ability” visa. This experience made me realize the value having great investors, as we had to jump through an insane amount of hoops— national awards, press with specific phrasing, letters from industry legends, etc.— to make the case that I was that “Alien of extraordinary ability”. Our investors helped with all of it and it definitely wouldn’t have been possible without them.

At the time we didn’t know if it would even be possible to get this visa. It was a long shot, and the entire time I was faced with the fear that I may never be able to visit the office of the company that I started. After over a year I eventually got the call that I had an interview at the London embassy, and things began to move very quickly. I got the green light, and within two weeks I was on a flight to the US. My dream was back on track!

I still have the screenshot of the DailyBooth company Yammer feed 😂

Back In America

I landed late at night and took a taxi to the DailyBooth office (this was before the days of Uber). Everyone had hung around after work to meet me despite it being almost 9 or 10 o’clock at night. It was such a strange and surreal experience. I had looked at hundreds of pictures of the office and dreamed of what it would be like to be there, and now here I was. My dream of being in America and working on a business I had helped create was turning into a reality.

Left: Ryan. Right: Brian at the DailyBooth office in SF.

For a few weeks it was very surreal. I was the new kid at the company I had started. Having to ask where the bathroom is at a company you founded is a very strange experience!

Brian and I awkwardly accepting a “crunchie”

Not enough steam

Although we got some great initial growth, we weren’t growing fast enough. DailyBooth never truly broke through to the mainstream, and we ultimately had to close down. The interesting behaviors that were happening around picture comments we’re mostly hidden from the outside and hard to find.

Looking back, I think our fatal flaw was how we communicated to the outside world all of the interesting things happening on the platform. We were also a bit too early, designing the network around the laptop webcam vs the iPhones front facing camera and app store. Both of which didn’t exist when we started.

Snapchat would later go on to emulate similar “picture talking” type usage with much more success.

Our team was ultimately acqu-hired by Airbnb and DailyBooth shut down. It was a sad day when we closed down DailyBooth, made just a little bit sadder by the mail merge issue that marred our goodbye message to our users. Millions of people got an email that we were closing down DailyBooth with the beginning line, “Hello {name}”. (I think Ryan hates it when I tell this story…. sorry Ryan 😬)

We got roasted for this on twitter.

It was a sad day, but I am incredibly grateful that we got to try. For a few years, we managed to put something out into the world that brought a lot of people some joy. It was easily worth it, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The spiritual successor

Well maybe a bit longer than a heart beat. That was 10 years ago. I’ve day dreamed about what I would do differently if I had another chance. I’m happy to say I’m now working on a spiritual successor called Stopwatch. It’s much more ambitious, and by far the coolest thing I’ve ever worked on.

If you’re interested in checking that out, you can sign up to the private beta on stopwatch.com. We’ll be launching before the end of the year.

Can I email you sometimes?

I occasionally send out emails about stuff I’m working on. Invites to try new products, new blog posts, youtube channels worth binge watching, and other stuff like that. Drop your email below if that sounds interesting.