Guest Post: How we built secret London in a weekend

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This is a guest post by Tiffany Philippou who started the Secret London Facebook Group. Two weeks after launch the group had amassed over 180,000 members, propelling its 21 year old creator into her first startup – see our previous coverage.

The website build weekend drew to a close two days ago and it is only beginning to dawn on me that we might just have achieved the impossible. Building a website for £3,000 and in only 48 hours.

One week ago, secretlondon put the call out on its blog, Facebook wall and Twitter feed for volunteers to help us build a site for the rapidly growing ‘Secret London’ Facebook Group and migrate the existing content across to a new home. We had more than 100 responses from across the London tech community, and over 40 people committed their weekend to make it happen.

The challenge we were trying to solve was simple enough. The Facebook Group in just a few weeks had already attracted over 195,000 users, and completely outgrown its Facebook home. In particular the group features don’t allow people to search through the content. Insights and suggestions were getting buried in the discussion boards and wall. Members were telling me that there was too much information for them to possibly trawl through. We had to find somewhere for this restless and growing crowd to go before they lost interest, and quickly.

The problem was there were only really four of us (me, plus the guys at onefinestay), and we had almost no money.

What’s amazing, though, is how much you can do cheaply if you are working on a project that inspires people. As well as the incredible talent we got on board, we also got a printer from, brought some equipment from home, and borrowed the rest. The folks at the Finsbury Centre in particular were really generous with their time and help.

Including the domain names for us and future secretcities, catering and all the other out of pocket costs, our total cost for the entire process have been less than £3,000.

When I went round the room on Sunday night and asked all the contributing designers, developers product managers and editors what motivated them to give up their weekend they said it was the feeling of being part of something amazing. They astonished us with their enthusiasm and talent.

secretlondon has shown the power of the community. The group has always been about engaging its members every step of the way. We ran a logo competition to get a logo design, and then asked members on our blog to vote for their favourite. We sought the opinions of the community on the functionality of the site and tried to incorporate as many of the ideas as possible into the launch site.

As with any new website, we may stumble across a few problems along the way (and should that happen, we have own answer to the fail whale!). There were also a couple of hairy moments. Tim had a particularly tough time on Friday night when we realised that Amazon’s RDS service was still only available in the East Coast.

But, with a little help from our friends, we did it. And that community spirit is one of secretlondon’s strongest features. Your browser may not support display of this image.

Since this is an ongoing project, anyone who wants to get involved to take the site to the next level – whether that’s helping Tim maintain the code, or making improvements and widgets – is extremely welcome. We’ll be building an API shortly, so if you’re an iPhone developer and want to work on an app to access the thousands of secrets then we want to hear from you. We also want to cluster data for better recommendations and make recommendations based on places your friends have liked. Get in touch if this is something you can help with.

Meantime, we hope you enjoy the new site:

  • Tim

    Yeah, I’m loving the new site. The error message is great.

  • Will Jenkins

    Or “how to build a broken website with under 3000 GBP”.

    • Mike B.

      Astonishingly great work!

  • jblondon

    looks really good to me.

  • azeem

    This is a great model. Prove the demand, get the followers and get going. Site looks great.

    But most importantly: emotion and passion are the new mantras for consumer businesses. Hard to guarantee your products will do that, amazingly innovative to KNOW THEY WILL

    best of luck

    • Martin

      Totally agree with u – congrats to everyone involved – be good at story telling and crowdsourcing the rest will follow!

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  • Tim

    This seems a case of “better left as it was before”. Great idea, I am a member myself of the group and check on it daily as a newbie to London. But the website is faulty, it’s not easy to access and search through the secrets, which was the purpose of building the website, and where is the business model?

  • Sam Mathews

    Great start on the site, heres some points to take into consideration:

    – You will need more of an explanetory intro to make sure people actually GET the site, not simply focusing on how you got here.
    – the secret sharing needs some work, you will probably need to add a one line description preferabley less than 140 chars so it can be shared on twitter easily, a sort of catch phrase for the secret
    – As soon as possible allow some sort of top secrets module, most amount of agrees in a day/week/month/all time, you decide, also the secrets should probably gets some categories if they dont already as your going to need to structure the data. Especially so when inputting a secret so as not to actually be inputting a secret multiple times, it should simple go into agrees.

    Your going to face issues with what is the product focus? Is it answering questions, or is it a community driven yelp/qype clone. If so then your really going to need find a differentiating factor…

    I love that its a community project, but i would still like to know more about the nuts and bolts of the product, especially if we were to offer any man hours.

    In anycase, keep up the good work. Love many elements of the UI, who did that?

  • Michael Boyd

    “£619 for domain names”
    Is that a joke??? I almost threw up.

    • Blogging Tips

      I thinks its a popular domain which already have some backlinks

      • joe

        I found a secret-london dot com, but I think its different. Should they copyright their name?

    • Khalid

      This would be the key part:

      ‘Including the domain names for us and future secretcities, catering and all the other out of pocket costs, our total cost for the entire process have been less than £3,000.’

  • Bart

    Uhm… What is this article about and what it SecretLondon??

    • josh

      I second that. Browsed through a couple of articles trying to figure out what SL is. But nobody seems to care about what it does. Just how it got there.

      Just like that multi-level marketing cousin of mine once said: “Don’t worry about the product, just join us & start selling”

      • josh

        Is it really a startup if its just a website?

  • john

    Stupid domain – .us for a london site? I’m gonna get

    • Andrew MacDonald

      Completely agree with this.

      Why the hell get a .us domain name, when the whole point of the website is about London, in the UK????

      Great idea, ridiculous domain name.

  • Emre Sokullu

    Congratulations Tiffany. You could also build your new web site on – which is already integrated with facebook. That would not just cut your costs but also give you a lot of other monetization opportunities (just c/o the site to see what I mean) as well as the same customization flexibility of starting your own site. Cheers,

  • chris swallow

    You spent more money on biscuits, chocolate and crisps than on yr logo. As a professional designer and brand consultant (and manager of marketing budgets) I’m wondering whether to get into the junk food business.

    • Shane

      99 designs drink your milkshake

      • steve

        the logo they chose is horrrrrible compared to some of the other ones in there.

    • drigbye

      looks like less than half of the above budget was spent on work related items.

      • Monkey Dance

        yeah i noticed this. I mean, if I had given up some money I’d be a bit pissed. They’ve dodged the key costs of development etc, by getting those guys to re use their site code and build a new front end for it… so no need to go wasting money on wall art or £600 takeaways.

        – the interesting thing is, on the facebook group the additions has slowed a lot, and on the facebook annoucement of ‘we’ve gone live’ – only 3 people commented…

        Without these style news posts talking about it, i think it’d of died.

    • josh

      Great trend. So, there *is* hope for humanity. About time to reign in the madness of these snake oil salesmen.

      “if you succeed, that’s thanks to us; if you fail, it’s your product that sucked beyond redemption to begin with”

      Just ask Julie Roehm.

    • James

      Perhaps drinks would be a more appropriate venture?

  • Ben

    Searching for secret london in facebook search, I get no result. Is it just me?

    I’m asking not to access the site (I know it’s linked up in the post) but because I’m surprised. Is FB Search that faulty?

  • CCSH

    is the questions + answer software developed in house?

  • dave

    why the heck would they use domain name? nobody thinks of .us as a term for us or we, everyone knows it stands for usa.

    such a dumb domain name, get a for petes sake.

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  • Ron

    OK, there is a bizarre phenomenon happening right now on Facebook with these “Secret City” groups and I can’t explain it.

    There is a similar one in Los Angeles called “Hidden Los Angeles” that had the exact same explosion of fans over the course of Jan-Feb, growing to 126,000 in a matter of weeks.

    You can go through other cities and find identical patterns. Somehow these groups about hyperlocal content are undergoing a mass fan-grab (guessing recently becoming more effective due to the new FB layout) they’re amassing ridiculous member counts in very short time with people posting things every few minutes.

    Hint to TC writers, there is something interesting going on here with the weird meme-like group patterns in different cities. Worth looking into…

    • Monkey Dance

      question is… how many of them are active users?

      People like to join a group that mentioned where they live… their mates then see they’ve joined (your mates generally live in same area) and then follow suit…

      You end up with 193,000 members just for the novelty of saying you belong to your locaitons group.

      How many are active members? how many will make the switch to the website?…

      hmm, we’ll see.

  • John

    I just registered a ton of good secret / hidden city related .com & .net names. I can’t believe they picked such a bad name.

  • Charbarred

    Good start.
    I’d personally divert some of that crisp money towards an interaction designer. The site is a bit confusing at the moment.

  • Robert Gaal

    What’s the reward for the group of volunteers that helped you do this? Are they just happy contributing, or will they also profit from your uh… profit?

    • Davis

      Likely there’s no financial reward for the technical/creative support that went into this. We’re in the age of payment by crisps, slices of pizza and a couple of beers as opposed to money. As one poster pointed out above, when their budget to design a logo is less than the amount they spent on pizza and sandwiches, their financial priorities are not real world thinking. And yet there are people — usually young, starting out in their careers — enthusiastic about working for these projects. I’ve seen enough to know better.

      Maybe these guys can pay their landlord in pizza slices.

  • Sarah Chapman

    I think this is a nice idea but I’ll be interested to learn what the business model will be.

    It strikes me that display ads or partnerships might conflict with the ‘secret’ premise/values of the product.

  • Timmeh

    So…. they spent all weekend building an ugly forum… hmmm… great.

  • Tim

    £619 for domain names?! At £12 per domain for 2 years, that’s about 50 domains or likely many more if their all .us

    OK fine, they have a bunch of other domains like and and plenty of others I’m sure but why oh why .us for a London-centric website?

    • Adam Bell

      Why on earth would you buy a domain name per city – that’s insane. What if I wanted to develop the site whereby a user can integrate an itinery between City visit. Why not or some such URL. £619 – there’s no value in a URL – the value’s in the content – noone gives a crap what the name is – you could call it anything. Have they registered secretparis – but using the translated “secret” so local users would want to use it.

  •, ελληνικό online media για την τεχνολογία, τα games και την επιχειρηματικότητα

    Το SecretLondon γνωρίζει τρελή επιτυχία, εξελίσσεται σε startup…

    Το SecretLondon ξεκίνησε στις 19 Ιανουαρίου ως ένα group στο facebook το οποίο καλούσε όλα τα μέλη του να μοιραστούν τις δικές τους προτάσεις για “μυστικά” μέρη για ποτό και φαγητό στο Λονδίνο. Μέσα σε λιγότερο από ένα μήνα το group έχει ή….

  • Michael Murdoch

    Over priced to be honest. And why spend soooo much money on a domain like that? .us ?? Who uses that. Surely a .com of sorts needs to be top priority.

    They released this too early and now might burn out. Would have been better to hold for longer, create more buzz and excitement and then launched a cracking new website that’s ready! Even a private Beta would have been better. Nice idea but poor marketing and design.

    Now this is what they should have done!

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