Why Mobile First is not the Right Strategy!

Startup events and Investor talks today have this catch phrase – ‘Mobile First’. Its actually started two years back when Fred Wilson wrote a post that says “Mobile First Web Second.

I recently tweeted, “Can write a post why ‘Mobile First’ is not a right strategy!”. The response to that made me write this post.

Why I said 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 in 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 a entrepreneur, your startup has to fight with over 699,999 competitors on 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 they will install it again!

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

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

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

Marketing the Product
Turn around and look at 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 is very flexible, you can do it all.

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

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

So how does one get Mobile Strategy right?
Glance through the smartphone and check the apps you are most actively using. Its 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 iOS app in Sept 2011; Android App a full year later in Sept 2012.

As a product manager, 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, its 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 1000s 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 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 –

  1. A proven team or experience entrepreneurs (at least 1X entrepreneurs)
  2. 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 remarks: “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 a 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.

  • kshitijagrwl

    First thing that came to my mind on reading the heading was “what about Foursquare, Instragram etc” but on reading below, I was glad to notice that you have addressed that. This leaves me no option but to accept your view point! Good work I’d say!

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

      Thanks Kshitij.

  • Arjun Ganesan

    Mobile First is more often about design. Designing starting with mobile helps you focus on key elements, and hence enhances web design as well.

    As far as building products goes, “Mobile First” in itself obviously doesn’t apply to all categories. Nor does “web first” apply to all categories. So no point made in arguing mobile first vs not.

    “Mobile First” is often a good move since users are spending more time on their mobiles and there are large audiences that are also turning into “mobile only” internet users(especially if your focus in developing nations like India). If you fit into a category that someone searches for, of course it makes sense to be present on the web first.

    The only real justification for web first in some categories suited for mobile is that opening a website on a browser requires less commitment and decision making than downloading/installing an app. Its not as much about discovery as it is about commitment required.

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

      Arjun, building a mobile app because users spending more time in mobile is logical. That is exactly what is driving entrepreneurs towards it without realizing how difficult it is to drive adoption.

      Facebook, Twitter, Gmail are essentially web products. We use mobile to stay engaged with them. I’m assuming the commitment you mention is towards products. I call that engagement, and its the engagement itself that will drive users towards downloading that particular app.

      • Arjun Ganesan

        Engagement is different from commitment. What i mean is, it requires less effort to try a new service on the web, as compared to on the mobile (open webpage vs install app and evaluate whether to keep or discard). Hence, some classes of products are more suited for trial on web and move to mobile once you have bought into the product. Indeed quora, twitter, etc are good examples for the same as you mentioned.

  • http://lighthouseinsights.in/ Prasant Naidu

    you have nailed it mate and i like what you have said in your concluding remarks. you also took the mobile examples and said why they are mobile first. so be on mobile but when you have a user base. again there is no point in being all platforms and not be able to manage it all.Loved it.

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

      Thanks Prasant.

  • http://twitter.com/saurabhgoel77 Saurabh Goel

    So rightly stated. The dilemma of building mobile app and then trying to people download it and then use it and then reuse it. Its difficult if your product is just utility based.
    You keep on promoting your apps on various mediums but as many people join the bandwagon, same number leave it, every day.

    At the same time, the mobile traffic is definitely showing growth day by day so the right mobile strategy is must. Even the parameters of success on mobile need to be very very different.
    Attention span on mobile (free time) is very less for a single app.

    Its just getting interesting and a costly affair.

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

      Thanks Saurabh!

  • http://twitter.com/jigeshshah05 Jigesh Shah

    completely agree with your PoV. Written well.

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

      thanks Jigesh

  • http://twitter.com/giris Girish

    So, finally it depends on the type of product/service whether to be Mobile First or Web first.

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

      Yes. I guess should avoid force-fit mobile first strategy.

  • http://twitter.com/CSharpDFlat Omkar Mishra

    Awesome post…Changed my perception about going mobile..:)

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

      Glad it helped you Omkar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/htaunk Harshit Taunk

    Awesome post and very true.. Infact I have experienced this myself for my startup. I had initially thought of mobile first strategy but backed-off because of the very reason of discoverability issue.
    Keep up the gr8 work..!

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

      Thanks Harshit

  • Akash

    Great article! My personal stance is on “Mobile first”, said that I would prefer having same application, if possible, for Web + Mobile and it goes with great design and with innovative approach.