Immediately after it was apparent that Apple's App Store was a hit, dreams of dollar signs and rave reviews have danced through the head of many an entrepreneur.
After a few years, the dust has settled and it has become clear that luck, timing and a targeted launch strategy are among the many keys to success. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of the handful of perserverant entrepreneurs who took his vision all the way to the App Store.
I am honored to bring you an insiders view of the pitfalls to avoid on the road to app fame and fortune. Marcos Acosta just launched momentreel on the AppStore and like a restaurateur preaching "location, location, location!", Marcos exclaimed "Ruthless, Ruthless, Ruthless!"
Be Ruthless -- Part I
Monetizing an app is much like monetizing a website. You have a couple of avenues: sell product, sell data or sell eyes. Given that Marcos' chosen path to monetization was based upon brand sponsorship, Marcos chose a dual headed strategy of courting both consumers and brands. This, Marcos explained, was his first mistake.
Marcos' product and vision for how it could be valuable to marketers of brands was powerful enough to get him meetings with directors across the fortune 500. Each time he met with a marketing department, the story would unfold in three stages:
Stage 1 - Possibility Centric Exuberance
In each and every meeting, Marcos would pull out his iPhone or iPad and demonstrate how easy it is to create brand-centric campaigns designed to increase engagement with users. The reaction was always the same. Mouths agape and looks of amazement fill the room. Marketing leaders are stunned by the potential of his platform and how it could be of value to their brand.
Stage 2 - Audience Centric Question
After the uproar dies down, the first question is "How many users do you have?"
Stage 3 - Risk Centric Decision
They might ask a few other feature-based questions specific to their own engagement use-case, but it always came down to the same thing. Twitter and Facebook have perfected the cycle -- Brands follow eyes so that eyes can follow brands.
The lesson: Be ruthless in your focus on audience development. Don't waste your time trying to court two audiences. The second audience will slow you down in acquiring your first audience. Rely on your first audience to bring you your second audience.
Be Ruthless -- Part II
Marcos and his collaborators were well versed in the MVP (minimal viable product) model of product development. As the design and implementation began to take shape, several could-be features turned into nice-to-have features. One thing led to another and the nice-to-have features found their way into the first release -- and out of the founders' pockets in terms of dollars.
The lesson: Be ruthless in your focus on the minimally viable part of MVP. There is a reason that "nice to haves" are called "nice to have" rather than "necessary to have". It is because nothing is free and everything takes time. In the product design and scoping discussions, all the conversations revolve around "making awesomeness" and "not compromising on user experience". The problem is not that the team is too passionate. The problem is that, in order to be successful, you have to make compromises in order to gain speed. Make ugly compromises and launch. This gives you room to make frequent and incremental updates which help to drive app-store popularity and engagement. Your early compromises are all part of starting the virtuous circle of a product life-cycle.
Be Ruthless Part III
Having personally worked in the agency and consultancy space for more than a dozen years, Marcos has more than a few connections in the design and implementation of apps business. With each of his partnerships, Marcos did the usual series of interviews. In each one, the potential vendors sang the expected song, and danced the expected dance. The song and dance of "Yes! Of course we can do that! Let me show you some examples!"
Once the initial enthusiasm of starting something new wore off, browser and scripting issues settled in. Being a good guy (i.e., not ruthless), Marcos likes to see everyone succeed and was reluctant to pull the trigger on letting go of vendors who had implementation troubles. In the same way that one nice-to-have feature became one first-release feature, every delay became a reason and excuse for another delay.
Eventually, the broken commitments, became too much for Marcos to bear and he switched implementation vendors to take him across the finish line.
The lesson: Be ruthless in your trigger finger. When someone finds a reason to delay the project, that is the prelude to what is to come, as there will always be a reason to delay yet again. The hard truth is that many development resources from free-agents to established shops often struggle with execution.
Many independents will never find the time to complete product development to the standards of the business owner -- this is why they sell their services at a discount -- and established shops often staff their team with B players -- this is how they make money. This does not mean that great independents and great implementation shops are not out there. This means do your diligence and get multiple references for each vendor and still be ready to fire away at the first sign of dispassionate or lackluster delivery.
Don't Kill the Fun
Before you go away and say that the secret to success is to be a jerk, there is something important to note here. A large part of the reason that Marcos made it to the finish line, with a truly remarkable product that gets people excited, is that Marcos is a tremendously fun guy to work with. His long list of satisfied clients and teammates from his consulting career is truly top-notch.
Hitting the exact right balance between fun and driven is a really tough target. If, at retirement, Marcos' lone regret was "I could have been meaner", I think that is an enviable place to land.
Editor's Note: Interested in more of Stephen's How To's? Check them out here: How To: Overcoming the Rogues Gallery in Workshops, How To: Adding Depth to User Experience (UX) with Generalists and Hybrids and How To: Getting Started in User Experience (UX)