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What’s your Facebook strategy? Are you a barnacle? Plankton? Or remora?

As a tech startup we often discuss our Facebook strategy.

There is no way around it. Facebook has grown to be such a WHALE in the business world (its 165m US based users average 8 hours a month on the site!) that it is necessary for every company – tech and otherwise - to have a Facebook strategy. However, it seems like most firms believe the only way to build web-based tools is to build them on top of Facebook.

Our question is: Is the “barnacle strategy” the only solid, business approach?

When it comes to whales, barnacles are along for the ride. Although they do no harm to a whale, as they grow in number they slow the whale’s speed through the ocean. But here’s the thing, it’s not bad to be a barnacle.

In fact, several people have suggested to us that instead of building our own site, we simply build a Facebook app. The typical wording that most startups use is “we’re leveraging the social graph”. But the social graph is not something that exists on its own. Its not a government sponsored vehicle that is free to everyone. It’s not NPR, its not the US Census information. The social graph is the vast data that is owned lock stock and smoking barrel mainly by Facebook.

And, in all honesty, I could not imagine building my business solely on the back of another business. That entails relinquishing a lot of control to another party. And I don’t know if I would want to add another layer of worry onto those that come with being an entrepreneur.

What layer of worry is that?

It’s:

What happens when Facebook decides to change the rules of the game?

Or charge for access to the social graph?

Or get into the same game you’re in?

Then your role goes from barnacle to plankton in the blink of an eye.

Of course, the new danger in this world is always “What if Facebook decides to do what I do?” It can happen to app developers who go the barnacle strategy route. And it can happen to firms that decide to swim on their own. For example, Foursquare has had to contend with Facebook introduced Places. And Groupon has to know that at any moment Facebook might decide to flex its data power with the mass coupon game (although frankly, I don’t know why it would want to).

So I’ve thought about this long and hard, and I think that from our perspective we’re going to go with a strategy I have seen few firms use: The remora strategy.

Remoras are agile, adaptive fish. They can attach themselves to whales, sharks, even boats. But they also swim well on their own, and often dart away to gather their own food. Because the actions of the remora benefit their hosts (whales, sharks, etc) they are not preyed upon.

One tech firm that successfully uses the remora strategy is Zynga.

They have their own site, outside of Facebook, but they have made their Facebook partnership work in such a way that both firms succeed together. However, Zynga’s focus on staying independent and maintaining its ability to dart away to feed when necessary will continue to help the firm grow as more and more platforms take shape.

So next week when we go into meet with our development team regarding the way we want to develop Facebook apps I will be keeping a keen eye on leveraging the platform and the access it gives to a firehose of potential data. However, I will also remember that our goal is also to be able to dart away when necessary and still take care of ourselves.

Filed under Zynga Facebook strategy remora apps entrepreneur startup