Series V

Not another post about mobile apps

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

One story you could tell about mobile is that the smartphone ‘ate up’ all the single-function physical devices around us. From the calculator, to the calendar, to the notepad, and so on, each one became reduced to a logo on a home screen. In 2008, Apple started promoting this idea with the slogan, “There’s an app for that!”. The implication being that every service that could be delivered via a mobile app, should be delivered via a mobile app.

In developing countries, things are less straightforward. Mobile data is still expensive, and many users manually turn off internet access when away from WiFi. Power supply is not as reliable as it is elsewhere, so battery-draining services are a public enemy. Low-cost [smart]phones have limited storage, so every new app installed must earn its place via a complex economic calculus in the user’s mind. Money transfer apps compete with Facebook. Lending apps compete with Xender. And so on.

This creates a quagmire for product owners looking to reach a large audience. On one hand, app stores are a beaten path to billions of mobile phones on earth. On the other, the owners of said mobile phones are incentivized to install *fewer* apps. Meanwhile, each one increases in size as it gains functionality (total available storage does not). Meanwhile, every development dollar spent must return itself and a dollar more. Companies can goad users to download their apps — yay, growth hacks! — but may soon find them unused and uninstalled. Something has to give. But what does?

Ben Horowitz has a simple but effective framework for thinking about this:

f(p,t) = c

That is, the distribution channel, c, is a function of the product, p, and the target, t. (Of course, this is a post about distribution.) The product, p, is not the app. It is the solution to the user’s identified problem. It is the ‘job’ your company is built to do. Target, t, is whoever will take the decision about adopting the product. What contexts do they exist in? What do they most care about? Where do they spend most of their time? Viewing the options through these lenses might lead to different conclusions than “let’s build an app!” You might decide, for example, that your service is best delivered through USSD. Or you might decide it works best as a YouTube channel (much like the MVP for IrokoTV). Or you might decide it works best as a WhatsApp number people can text to access the service. Or you might decide that your digital service is best distributed offline!

Through all this, the most important thing to do is test and stay agnostic about the outcome. Design for the consumer, not yourself. Prioritize their preferences, not your own. Following that rainbow might lead you to a pot of gold.

Links from the Internets

  • Strive Masiyiwa on the importance of understanding business models for entrepreneurs and policy makers. [Link]
  • Bill Gurley advises against obsessing over the LTV formula. [Link]
  • Maintaining first mover advantage is not as easy as you think it is. [Link]
  • Building a repeatable, scalable, & profitable growth process. [Link]
Series V

Series V, Episode 3.

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“Mobile First”

(…because, one dare not write about mobile in Africa without including a photo of a member of one of the Maa tribes smiling and holding a mobile phone. This is known.)

When you put a computer in the hands of everyone on the planet, often fitted with a camera, a gyroscope, GPS, multi-touch display, and so on, what becomes possible?

In a sense, the entire African startup ecosystem is organised around providing answers to this question. Each founder pushes forward their opinion about what the future looks like, now that “everybody is coming online”, hoping that others buy into it and it becomes reality.

It has become common knowledge — that is to say, everybody knows, but also expects that everybody else does — that one must “build for the next billion”, and make their web apps and experiences translate well from desktop to mobile. Pfft. Obvious.

But there is some tension here. First, as Ben Basche argues in his 2016 essay, “Ghost in the Machine”, it is not enough to be “mobile first”. That is to say, it is not enough to take functions that already exist on desktop and present them as if they will be consumed on mobile — vertical orientation, light data consumption, et al.

The services of the future will likely be *authentically mobile*, meaning they do old things in new ways that would not be possible without mobile phone, or even better, meaning they do entirely new things, in entirely new ways. One example of the former is Mobile Forms (VP C1), who are enabling consumer data collection at scale. (It would be … challenging to have 100,000 agents haul around huge HP Pavilion laptops to conduct surveys or collect data for a FMCG company.)

In the same way, Uber, which requires a “location-enabled computing device always on our person”, could not exist without mobile. This, in turn, has effects far beyond transportation, into delivery, nutrition, and even healthcare. One would be wildly wrong to estimate Uber’s potential market size using the taxi industry.

There is another side to this coin, though. Nanjira Sambuli, a researcher at the Web Foundation and VP mentor, has argued that bar social media, “mobile-first” services are designed primarily for consumption not creation. We risk creating a new digital divide, where the “haves” all have powerful computers and shape experiences for everyone else, meanwhile, the “have-nots” must consume those experiences without participating in their creation, and more importantly, any of the economic value that comes from it.

What we’re reading

  • Transsion Holdings, the Chinese firm that produces TECNO, Infinix, and iTel phones, is plotting an IPO-but-not-really. Link
  • Andrew Chen on forecasting growth for new products the right way. Link
  • What did they do before you came along? — designing your marketing and sales pitch. Link
  • Lessons from Spotify. Link
  • The Veni, Vidi, Vici of Voice. Link
  • This Apple HomePod ad by Spike Jonze is the best thing you’ll see today. Link
  • Everything you ever wanted to know about artificial intelligence. Link
  • Justin Irabor, on user acquisition tactics for startups. Link
  • “If everyone loves your idea, I might be worried that it’s not forward thinking enough.” — 12 things I learned from Chris Dixon about startups. Link
  • Four steps to forecast total market demand. Link


The VP team on a rare night out. (SABOR makes a mean cocktail)
Osarumen, delivering a talk to entrepreneurs in Benin for the Accelerate Labs program by The Future Project, Microsoft, and Sabihub.


Accounteer has partnered with invoizPAID to provide invoice financing to Accounteer users. Their users can now forward their invoices to invoizPAID and get money in their bank account within 48 hours. + check out the new version of their mobile app.

Sayonara. Till next time,