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Why Mobile First Is Not The Right Strategy


Pravin is an entrepreneur and blogs infrequently about Product Management, Startups, Entrepreneurship & Digital Media Trends on beingpractical.com. He is the founder of social discovery platform – Wishberg. Follow Pravin on @beingpractical. This post originally appeared on his blog on 26th November.

You  just can’t visit startup events and investor talks without coming across the latest catch phrase – ‘Mobile First’. It actually started two years ago when Fred Wilson wrote a post titled “Mobile First Web Second.

But I feel that – Mobile First is a right approach by logic, but not a right go-to market strategy.

Why did I say that?
There are some brilliant mobile apps created by startups in recent years, the biggest challenge for all of them is discovery. Few startups are working towards solving this problem too – helping users to discover your mobile apps. The problem is – these startups themselves are struggling in getting users to discover them first.

Google’s Android has over 700,000 apps in Play Store. Apple’s iOS App Store has over 700,000 apps. Assuming these were unique, as an entrepreneur, your startup has to fight with over 699,999 competitors on the user’s smartphone, who on an average has only 65 apps installed. Another trend, many users regularly uninstall apps they do not use; once uninstalled – it is very unlikely that they will install it again!

Building a successful startup requires two skills – building a product and marketing it. I tweeted a few days back that – “Building a product is one thing. Marketing it is another. Remember that!”

Building the Product
Product development in startups is not easy. Everyday there are at least 3-5 updates to the live web application. Even before users realize, they are using the latest version of web app.

On mobile this is tricky, it’s impossible to send 3-5 daily releases for your mobile app everyday. It’s even more trickier to get your users to download and upgrade to the latest version of mobile app every time.

Marketing the Product
Turn around and look at the web – what are the ways you can get your start up discovered – Natural Search, Paid Search, Display Marketing (Advt based or Behavior based targeting), Social, Email Marketing and so on. Most of these are very flexible, you can do it all.

On mobile, there is only one mode of discovery that works – Mobile Advertising. It’s still not an easy mode of advertising; far expensive; spray and pray approach as it’s not intent driven (remember – no one is asking for your app!) like Google Adwords and extremely less efficient since the end result is not a landing page with a one-click sign-up, but is downloading the app, registering the user and retaining him as well.

By the way, I am a believer in products that are driven by value to customers; and not through marketing.

So how does one get the Mobile Strategy right?
Glance through the smartphone and check the apps you are most actively using. It’s Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Evernote, Quora and so on. These are essentially web first, mobile later products.

Effective Mobile Strategy is simple – get your product right on the web, acquire initial users, iterate your product (fast), get it right quickly, ensure engagement is in place. Once you have users engaged on the web, they will see value in your product to download your app and stay connected.

Hint – Look at Quora. It was valuable to its initial set of users who were so engaged with the product that they were screaming for getting a mobile app. Quora launched an iOS app in Sept 2011; an Android App a full year later in Sept 2012.

As a product manager, I know that driving adoption and driving engagement for a product are two different things. Don’t try to drive adoption of your product through mobile, it’s extremely challenging and next to impossible. Instead use mobile as a extension of your product to drive engagement.

Then what about WhatsApp, Instagram, FourSquare, Pulse, Angry Birds and others?
I don’t think anyone has defined this yet, so let me say what are truly mobile first verticals -

Communication – If core of your product is deep integration with phone address book. (Eg, WhatsApp)
Location – If core of your product starts with location awareness. (Eg. FourSquare)
Camera – If core of your product starts with ‘taking’ photos. (Eg. Instagram)
Free Time – If core of your product is being valuable to user on the move or leisure time. (Eg. Games, News aggregation services like Pulse). Again extremely difficult category – you compete with Facebook, Twitter and thousands of apps in this segment.
Yes. These products are not exceptions – they are truly mobile first products.

Wait, will VCs invest in my startup if I dump the Mobile First approach?
Next time anyone suggests you or advises you to go Mobile First, just ask them tips to hack app discovery and drive adoption.

The games of investing are simple. VCs will invest only if -

There’s a proven team or experienced entrepreneurs (at least 1X entrepreneurs)
If consumer startup – then traction; if enterprise startup – then revenue.
I don’t think any VC will invest in your startup just because you are Mobile first. Take any strategy – web first or mobile first; as long as you get the above two things right for your product – VCs will chase you!

Concluding Notes:
While I was drafting this post, two interesting posts related to this topic came up.

Fred Wilson wrote following in his post “What has changed“, – “Distribution is much harder on mobile than web and we see a lot of mobile first startups getting stuck in the transition from successful product to large user base. strong product market fit is no longer enough to get to a large user base. you need to master the “download app, use app, keep using app, put it on your home screen” flow and that is a hard one to master.”

Cristina Cordova put up some interesting stats about User Retention in her post – “The Biggest Problem in Mobile: Retention.”

Restating it again as concluding remark: “Mobile Strategy is simple. Get your product right on the web, acquire initial users, iterate your product, get it right, ensure engagement is in place. Once you have users engaged on the web, they will see value in your product to download your app to stay connected.”

Update: I received few notes from startup founders to also include an important note in this article which I missed – ‘Even when you build a web application, design your product as a responsive web design’. I completely agree.

This post was reproduced with the author’s permission from his blog which features coverage of Product Management, Startups, Entrepreneurship & Digital Media Trends among other topics.

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(c) 2012 Pravin Jadhav. Disclaimer: The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of MediaNama.com.  

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  • http://twitter.com/pacificleo Prashant Singh

    Interesting post I agree with your hypothesis that not every service is fit for “Mobile First” . However things are not as bleak on discovery front. there is some method to this seemingly random process.  May be i should write a post about it .  

    Thanks for sharing. 

    • http://www.beingpractical.com/ Pravin J

      Look forward to that Prashant. Would be a great read.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sheth-Raxit/692059765 Sheth Raxit

    Why this article links  strategy of mobile first with VC! Bijness is more than VC, Isn’t it?

     

    • http://www.beingpractical.com/ Pravin J

      Exactly Raxit! Focus on right things, at times investors pass wrong signals. Earlier it was for Ecommerce, now for Mobile First.

  • Anonymous

    I would agree with this essay if its title were renamed as “Why Mobile Apps First Is Not The Right Strategy” rather than “Why Mobile First Is Not The Right Strategy”

  • Han Boon Kiat

    I believe in Mobile First, but Mobile Web first. 

    Most of these arguments are addressing people that jump into getting attention using iOS apps and failing to make a proper piece of software following.

    This is a shallow interpretation of ‘mobile first’
    We should start with Mobile because this is where a large part of the world gain access to the Internet, and for the developed countries- an ‘always on’ part of their work/play lives, but the best part is : design for a small limited screen experience, you gain a lot of focus on what the important content is, fulfil important functions first before littering the screen with needless stacks of data.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Bulbuka Raluca Licău

    You make some interesting points there. Mobile shouldn’t be the only one in the spotlight, there are also other things to be taken into consideration, but without it we believe that one would be left behind. To back this up, maybe you and the ones that still need to take business decisions as such will find this e-book useful. Download it from here: http://www.thinslices.com/resources/why-you-should-think-mobile/