In the journey to launch our CityCircles beta site, we encountered many bumps in the road that turned out to be valuable lessons, and important opportunities. Below is some of what we’ve learned.

And for those not familiar with our project, here’s a description of what we’re building:

CityCircles is a collaborative platform where users and journalists work together to create and share information around each light-rail stop in the Phoenix metro area. That includes news, events, promotions, classifieds and social networking. There’s even a community improvement tool that helps our users create, join and accomplish projects that make the city a better place for everyone. Think of us as the context that makes your urban experience more meaningful, your digital sidekick in the city.

Listen More Than You Talk

In order to start building awareness and spread the word about CityCircles, we hosted a few “community preview” events in Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Needless to say, we were humbled by the turnout at these events. These events gave us the chance to discuss our project with people and potential users in a more intimate setting. We gathered meaningful feedback that helped us prioritize and develop the features and functions we would soon roll out on the site.

It was very interesting to observe how different target groups got excited about different features and functions. For example, Arizona State University students were most interested in the events and promotions going on around each light rail stop. Citizens living around the rail were very intrigued by our “Fix It” function, which allows users to post community improvement projects and organize groups around those projects.

We also began to realize how crucial it is to develop a mobile version of CityCircles. We are now focusing our efforts on making that happen. A smartphone app is definitely in our plans as well. However, we’re not as concerned with that right now because our market research showed that nearly 80 percent of our target audience does not yet have a smartphone!

Learn From the Competition

When we first started out, over a year ago, we didn’t notice anyone else doing what we were setting out to do: deliver geographically-based information and build communities around that information.

Now it seems that competitors and substitutes are popping up everywhere. From FourSquare, to the smartphone app Where and CityVantage, we started to get intimidated! However, we are doing things differently from what’s currently out there. We need to focus on what makes us different — such as our team — and continue to foster the relationships we’ve been building with our constituents. We also need to learn from what these sites are doing right and follow their example.

Ours is still very much a work in progress, and we are constantly learning — that’s the exciting thing about starting a new venture! We welcome any advice and feedback from anyone else who has gone through the process.