Referly and Gumroad: Cash, Money, HTTP

In his recent retrospective In Memoriam: Even In Losing, How Digg Won, Om Malik waxes endearingly about Digg and the young team that “put the ‘me’ in media”.

One statement in particular was especially salient to me: “Links are and will always be the atomic unit of the web”.

It wasn’t the first time I heard this sentiment but it struck a chord. Taken alone, there is something aged and faded about the sentence, describing a technological relic. Taken in light of recent trends however, the link has become increasingly powerful.

Links used to be just an endpoint. A file on someone’s server that you could traverse to if you knew how to get there. Google made the blue links universal and for a while they were a commodity.

Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, Flickr and others rejuvenated the link. It became associated with status and ownership over pieces of content. If yours got upvoted, in effect you were being praised. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, attached identity to the link and the sharing of links blossomed even further as a new and widely accepted and encouraged societal behavior. Each link represents some part of you that exists within the context of all statuses, pictures and comments — each itself linkable.

Recently the link has started to take on increased purpose. Two young startups in particular are using links in different ways: Referly and Gumroad. Both are using links to drive financial transactions and commerce.

Referly is a service that brings together brands and their fans (“brand champions”). Let’s say Alice shares a link to a new book she loves on If one of her friends clicks on that link and ends up buying the book, Jen gets a percentage of the purchase. Just like a referral fee. Get paid by Amazon! Cool.

The details of how this transaction goes down is where it gets interesting. Alice first gets a unique link from Amazon that contains information about the transaction like her unique UUID, the product UUI D, and the desired end user action (click/purchase/sign-in). If Alice’s friend performs the desired action, the aforementioned percentage is automatically deducted from Amazon’s Referly account and deposited into Jen’s Referly account. All of this tracked by the unique URL.  I think Referly’s on-boarding process needs to become even more seamless, but this is a great start.

This is the next level of social sharing: Actual commerce taking place based on identity, trust, influence, relationships and networks, made possible by powerful links.

Gumroad uses links in another way. Instead of using links to get paid to refer a product, Gumroad uses links to allow you to get paid for selling your own product. It’s a service that enables anyone to sell any digital work (image/video/blog post/e-book etc) using a uniquely identified URL.  Their tagline is ”Sell like you share”. This line may evolve over time but it effectively introduces new users to the product, drawing an analogy to an activity that has become very common and accepted.   Recently they’ve introduced a way to accept shipping information so you can sell physical products as well. All through one URL.

As the tagline implies, just as anyone can share, anyone should be able make money from the things they create — the democratization of the store front. I think big box stores like Walmart and Best Buy will always have their place. But Gumroad has eliminated the need for sellers to set up an online store front or any type of secure financial infrastructure, thereby empowering the long tail of creators to distribute their products around the world with a single click*.

I’m not sure if Gumroad will become wildly successful. I hope they do. But I do believe this is part of the future of the web — making financial transactions and commerce as seamless as possible so that people can distribute their creations around the world.


* I could go on about the grassroots, small-biz economies and startups encouraging this sector: Etsy, Kickstarter, Square, Louis CK, etc. Etsy’s CEO Chad Dickerson recently gave a great talk at the US Senate that underlined the importance of supporting the me-conomy**. I’ll leave this as the subject of yet another post.

**me-conomy. Self-explanatory term I think. This just came to my head while writing this post. Clearly I’m not the first though.