The question that keeps bugging me is that maybe this guy is blaming the platform, but the real problem was that they built something people didn't really need.
Look at http://any.do, these guys launched mobile first and hit millions of users in an extremely crowded market(todo lists) because they've created a great product a lot of people want and use daily.
In the end, it sounds like(and I don't know their story from close, only judging from things written in this post) they raised too much money early on because they are a YC company(raising a lot of money actually makes you much slower), launched a product with a shitty signup funnel and took a lot of time to fix that.
Apple taking their time to approve new versions isn't new, anyone(especially a YC company surrounded with top mentors) knows that a/b testing in a mobile app is a problem that should be tackled upfront.
Personally, I'm tackling that problem by testing everything I can BEFORE I even start to write code.
I'm running ads on FB/Google, testing CTRs for different value propositions/positioning, driving users to a landing page where I'm testing different mockup ideas I have for each value proposition, testing the icon, testing price, testing feature list.
I'm talking with as many customers in my customer segment I can not only to understand their needs and problems, but also to create an initial user base that likes me enough to agree to install my app BEFORE I launch it in the appstore using TestFlight.
This will enable me to discover a lot of UX problems upfront and to test a very very very important question - Is what I've built a painkiller or a vitamin, which is the most important question (I think) mobile app devs should ask since it's clear that most apps are downloaded and then forgotten in the abyss of unused apps.
If someone has read this long reply and has more ideas on how to test this question before launching, I'd love to collect more ideas.
A thousand times yes. The market is way past saturation. It doesn't need yet another social network that will never ever be as successful as facebook.
* Churn is high, optimising user flow is mediocre at best, and iteration speed is slow, on mobile.
* Free is bad because of privacy blah blah blah.
I personally view the first issue as kind of un-solveable. Life is hard, etc. What are you going to do, make a HTML5 mobile application? good one.
The second, ehhhhh. Users don't give a shit about privacy. Really. Really. Like, really. Hell: I'd rather use Facebook for free and let them "sell my data" versus pay $50 a year.
Anyway, I'll reiterate my #1 learning of how startups grow into businesses. There are two ways to build a $100M company:
#1 Your users have a high LTV (=$5k+) and you can afford to spend significant (=$100+) capital on acquiring the user.
#2 Your business is massively (=10) viral, allowing you to acquire users insanely cheaply.
The reason why it is – always – very questionable to charge for a B2C user is that it's generally rather difficult to have a story that makes individual people = high LTV, ironically, without having millions of them.
You need to wrap your legs around one of these two approaches and never ever stray from it.
In any case, they are related in my mind. In order to justify why we are switching to a paid model, I bring up privacy because I think you are trading the loss of privacy for that of cash when you choose between ad-supported and a paid model on a consumer app. As for going web-first, I think I made the reason clear.
But I think you need to pay attention to what others are saying. If you can't get users to complete a series of tasks to get to your value proposition, either the (expected) value you're offering is too low, or the expected probability of getting that value is too low.
In other words, with a high enough value proposition, you should theoretically be able to get someone to do something EXTREMELY difficult.
The issue is not that mobile screens are too small to show more than one step at a time. I've done many landing page experiences on the web that would have only fit on a mobile screen and seen upwards of 75% conversion (for a 16 question onboarding process) and often find that multiple steps convert much better than a single step (asking for email first, then asking for a password, for example). The key is to get buy-in, which is a combination of value proposition and the give-and-take nature of whatever signup flow you are developing. You can't just ask the user for things over and over, give nothing back and expect 50% conversion. You have to make the process feel like a game, get buy in, ask for a bit more, give value early then ask for more. This is hard if you have a social product because you have to have strong social pressure to signup or a good "single player mode" (http://cdixon.org/2010/06/12/designing-products-for-single-a...) or you are dead.
If the user is bouncing because they think "this is going to take a while" then you either don't have a strong enough value proposition or you're making the user think too hard. Most things can be reduced to simple, one-decision steps, and when you do that things will generally convert better for you.
I think it is critical make the subtle distinctions. We are in the business of serving doctors. For most doctors, having a native app makes very little sense. And yet, having a responsive mobile-friendly website is becoming more important than the desktop websites they presently have.
Another kind of strange comment was about how ad/virtual goods companies make most of their money from poorer, less informed clients. That's simply not true. Often half or more of the profit is from the whales in freemium games and a lot of stuff is put into the game just to support these whales. In one game with virtual goods that I write, I make a heck of a lot more money from the diehard fans that buy multiple $5 coin packs compared to the free users who slog it out earning those coins through play, or the cheap tourist who just uses the starting coins or maybe buys once and never again to try out playing with full bonuses for a bit.
More seriously: It is a given that app stores primarily generate free content for the platform-owner and enhances the value of supported platforms. (Additional outlays for dev+test hardware+licensing+developer-hours add insult to injury) Surprisingly not many developers seem to care or account for. With the amount of free noise in there, it is not surprising that you guys experienced what you did. Thanks for confirming what we had deduced indirectly.
Our startup launched deliberately as a web-app even though it would've been easier to get more (initial) eyeballs with a mobile-first strategy. For reasons you develop (and more), mobile apps aren't part of our current road-map (although we do address form-factor related nuances). We did consider expending resources to go mobile a few weeks ago but it made more sense to focus on creating new "content".
Last, the level of control gained (as you allude to) by owning A-Z of the product+distribution is truly empowering. That said, there is an undeniable development and eyeball cost associated with it. We should acknowledge this.
Sorry for the word overdose. I have a degree in philosophy and computer science; just the right combination to produce overly lengthy and verbose blog posts.
2. A huge fraction (imo) of the apps available in the app-stores did not need to go native mobile.
Mobile app-stores have mountains of apps that really have nothing mobile specific about them. This astounds me. Yet developers spent serious time/effort building these native apps. Why? I suspect it is the web-noise that continually dangles stats about gazzillion smartphone app downloads that triggers a greed hormone in philosophers and scientists alike, which begins to make them see mobile everywhere.
I am not suggesting that there's no need to address the form-factor issue. Only that "native mobile" of the app-store variety is frequently not a good strategy. Certainly not, as you point out, as a first-option.
Aside: You state "you need to be where your customers are". Yes, but if you define customers as those that play a role in generating revenue (either by paying directly for services rendered, or by permitting you to arbitrage someway), is mobile the place to be? This is obviously only a rhetorical question...you address this in your original article. I am just a bit outraged that the ios store has a million deluded worker bees building apps for it when they won't see a penny. Instead, they could've leveraged their work by owning the entire stack.
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Sure it's a bit unfair as all countries have spammers. In fact, US and UK outrank Nigeria for scams, but those are two huge places and have a lot of other notable things, and Nigeria is #3.
So I think if Nigeria boosts its economy and provides alternatives for people to make money then the spam dies down and people forget all about it.
As punishment I ask you to go check out the tech hubs and the start up scene there http://cchubnigeria.com/about-cchub/
Nigeria has 175m people, GDP grew 6.5 pct since last year. They have huge amounts of oil money and they are the financial hub of west Africa. Large middle class, skyscrapers, online shopping, massive film industry.
One day soon you will probably be trying to optimize your on boarding of Nigerian middle class users.
and 419 scams are an old tradition dating back to the 60s when they would write letters. So don't knock traditional culture ;)
I actually joke about it sometimes but it is really messing things up for legitimate people.
The fact we do not have other renowned stories makes the spam one stand out so much.
But unfortunately the 419 jokes are too often funny, so it's going to be hard to ever get rid of them.
I hope to visit the Lagos tech scene / hub some day soon.
Sometimes when a brand goes sour, or it no longer fits with long-term goals, it's better to walk away from the old and create a new one.
I've always been skeptical of mobile-first, but so many people love their phones, I'd say if you know how to solve any of these problems (or the others listed in that paragraph), then that's a business right there. What an amazing list of pain points for anyone who wants to sell shovels!
Are you sure? I used to think that, but I wrote a chrome plugin to test the hypothesis and found I clicked at least 1 or 2 ads most days.. I do 30+ searches per day. As a heavy internet user, you may click less on a particular ad, but you see a lot more because you search a lot more.
It is hard to take someone seriously when they begin by claiming that ads are not useful to any party, and then gives a treatise on ads. But what's most offensive the fundamental assumption that only stupid people click on ads. (see references to "lower income" and "lower education"). Not to mention switching between the personal and the accusative ("We retain 5%" / "you're really paying $20").
My summary, I continue to be amazed at how important advertising is to the Internet economy, but that said, I understand it very well. Smart people click on ads. Smart people buy ads. Smart people build ads products and smart people measure and validate their effectiveness. If you go in to the ads or an ads-funded business with these assumptions, you will not attract good ads, and will get the incredible low RPMs you believe exist.
If OP reads this I would like to challenge him to count how many ad supported sites or apps compared to paid he uses and from the free ones how many would he stil use if they all become paid.
Also this comes from someone that has not run an ad based business. I wonder what happens if paid app model doesn't work out and they pivot again. Suddenly free becomes the greatest model ???
Things are never white and black when it comes to internet business, every business model has it's own place. Let's not forget that the no.1 web company uses ads for monetization. Would people pay to have google ads free? Do you think they feel taken advantage off because of the ads?
My guess is the next big wave of mobile-first startups will be charging monthly subscriptions through IAP to small, but loyal users. Like 37Signals, but mobile.
Separately it looks like this argument carries more water when talking about digital-only/communication products? Because when considering apps/services such as Uber, HotelTonight and Cherry (I hate picking exceptions) that provide an offline product or service, mobile first seems to have worked just fine. Perhaps the true underlying argument is that mobile first works best when the LTV of your customer is massive.
That said, mobile-first companies are certainly unchartered waters compared to their traditional web brethren. I think they're a bit ahead of their time.
One distressing thing I can see happening: traditional web going the way of the newspaper industry. We're already seeing it with Google. They took a hit in this past quarter's earning's report because their traffic skyrocketed via mobile, but advertisers wouldn't pay the same CPM they were paying on the traditional web.
Sound familiar? Newspapers hit the same dilemma. They went from getting easy $30k tickets for single-run full-page ads to $3k/month online ads (to $300/month mobile-only ads).
Of course, this is a pure advertising model, which is separate from the OP. So... I'll stop here :)
But this very first step (I'm talking about choosing a nickname and password, not the social connection step) is clearly something derivated from what we do in browser apps. We could do that better on mobile apps.
For example, launching an app for the first time could generate some random login and password, and let the user instantly play with the app. When we consider he had enough time to get the picture, we notify him he must choose a password to be able to login from other devices, and he should probably choose a nickname to customize his experience.
That would be way more mobile friendly to me.
The tools for building mobile web apps aren't as good as they should (and hopefully will soon) be but it's certainly possible and gives you the flexibility to rapidly iterate, get the user up-and-running as fast as possible, etc.
Mobile first design is designing core functionality og websites for small screen, big target devices first and using techniques like progressive enhancement / responsive design to scale up for desktop experiences.
Mobile first already means web. Are they going from mobile first to desktop first?
Or do they mean mobile apps to web apps?
These terms have established meanings. By sticking to them we help simplify our discussions.
My company (PicDigest) is betting on a paid web-first model and planning a mobile app as a companion, even in the crowded space of photo sharing where incumbents supposedly have the market sewn up. Yes, it's a long-shot play, but the wager is based on the assumption that many people will pay a little money for what I'm offering.
As others have been pointing out feverishly on Twitter: the problem wasn't them betting too much on HTML5. Their problem was developing piece of shit apps that happened to use HTML5. They tasked amateurs who didn't know what they were doing into building a hybrid native app container which in turn embedded HTML5 content. Plenty of other developers (Instagram and LinkedIn come to mind) have figured out how to do that right, and in a way where it is seamless to the end user and for all intents and purposes feels exactly the same as a native app.
I'm not saying that it's an easy problem. You have to find the right balance between which components should be native or not. It's clear from the other problems that Facebook's been able to solve that they know how to hire top-notch developers. They just failed to do so for their mobile efforts, which just reinforces the stereotype that they don't "get" mobile.
I've also viewed "mobile first" as thought/design methodology that doesn't mandate you must then "build" mobile first.
I think I've seen it used more often on HN in the last month than in many years before that...