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]