April 24th, 2015
Just Keep Building. 8 Lessons From Our Mobile App Company Story.
There is nothing quite like the feeling that a product you’ve poured your heart into is not working. It’s a terrible, helpless thought that permeates every part of your life and can quickly cause paralysis. You’ve spent months perfecting every detail and pixel, only to find that a fundamental premise that you built the product on is flawed. Maybe it’s only desired by a small subset of the market or maybe the value proposition isn’t high enough change user behavior.
Unfortunately, this by far the most common outcome when you set out to build a company or product, and how you deal with it will determine your fate. The only solution that I’ve found to work is the title of the article, and moral of the story. You have to just keep building.
It was the summer between our first and second year of graduate school. I pulled together a team out of their existing, high paying internships to go wageless while we focused on building a product from scratch. We dove head first into building Kindred Photo Books, a mobile app for Android and iOS that lets users make physical photo books from their phone. Our original premise was that photo books should be as cheap as a cup of coffee and even easier to order. Through this, we believed that we could bring photo book making to the masses, expanding the market beyond the midwestern mom segment.
Of course, the excitement of a new idea that doesn’t exist in the market is always alluring. You feel like you are the only person in the world to figure it out. Then, as you learn more, you start to see the carcasses of other companies that have tried and failed to build the same business. “That’s all right, their user experience was awful” or “It’ll all be different on mobile” are common excuses to settle the cognitive dissonance.
Don’t fall into this trap. Take these companies seriously, and spend some time learning what happened. Try to get a hold of their product or better yet, their founders. Talk to them and learn everything you can.
We launched the app and were featured on the App Store homepage and in TechCrunch on the same day. Soon after, Google featured it as one of the best apps of 2013 in their Play Store. One of our team members, Mike, had an app on his phone that would play a “cha-ching” sound as soon as a successful credit card transaction completed. The Friday that the feature and article hit, he had to delete the app because it was making too much noise.
It felt like we were on a rocket ship and nothing could stop us now. Money was rolling in. The numbers were looking great. Congratulations from friends and family abounded. What could go wrong?
After the press and App Store feature excitement died down, we started to take inventory of the business. To our dismay, order volume had dropped significantly. Our sales volumes could barely buy the team lunch every day and there was absolutely no growth in the app. But the product was incredible! Where were all the customers? This wasn’t playing out like the stories about how an app store feature launched a company into orbit.
The realism was setting in and we were getting desperate. All of our business was being driven by our existing customers, who were dwindling in number. Our margins were so thin that we could not afford to acquire customers via paid marketing.
We still believed in the product, so we turned to the only thing we could do, which was to keep building.
From our perspective, our main challenge was growth, we decided to focus on features that would let our existing customers invite friends and family. Looking to the market, we had heard so much about how businesses like Dropbox and Zynga grew primarily through their referral programs, so we wanted to give it try. There is nothing ready-built for mobile, and no services to help enable a customized program, so we had to build it from the ground up. Fine.
After three weeks of solid work, testing all the edge cases and infrastructure, we launched the referral feature and watched the metrics carefully. Within a week, we saw 300 referral links shared, driving 2000 potential new app installs to view an email entry page. Unfortunately, only 200 people entered their email and only 40 people clicked on the email link we sent which took them to the app store. Of these we tracked 2 new photo book orders.
We continued to iterate on the referral program with more than a dozen updates. Then we refocused on sharing and other channels like Facebook auto-tagging. We even built an SDK for other digital photo apps to sell our printed photo products that end up reaching 6 million devices through integrations with other apps. Unfortunately, while we touched a lot of users, actual sales volume remained low. We had tried everything to convince people to buy our product and it just wasn’t working.
A functional customer adoption and sustainable growth strategy is absolutely necessary for success. Don’t just plan it; build a minimal version of the product and test it. Figure out if the invite channel is going to convert at the rate you need to see continued downloads or if enough new users will click on shared content from your app to drive a new download. Figure out if there is enough value add that the user that you’ve worked so hard to get will be motivated enough to reopen your app regularly. This is the hard part that kills so many products. This is what makes the difference between success and failure.
Through continued building, we started to break our problem down into testable hypotheses. The initial launch hypothesis was that when users heard about our new approach to photo books, they would immediately open up their wallets. After realizing that this growth strategy was flawed, we moved on.
Our second hypothesis was that users weren’t downloading and purchasing because they didn’t know about us. Through testing every possible growth mechanic we could and even getting a “print” button in front of millions of users, we still saw print volume far below the level where we could sustainably operate a business.
We were out of ideas and began to fundamentally question our initial value proposition. By process of elimination, we were forced to conclude that our mobile printing service was just a bit before its time in the market, and there was nothing more we could do.
The first thing we did after realizing our mistake was to spend a few days thinking through every feature or product we had built and every problem that we had faced over the last year. We must have created something of value or stumbled upon a universal problem that no one had tackled.
Breaking down the challenges that app developers face, there are three universal problems: growth, retention and monetization. Of these, growth was what we as a company spent the most time thinking about. And the biggest growth issue we faced in our mobile app was the fact that Apple doesn’t let you track users and pass context through the install process. To break down this barrier would mean making the mobile app ecosystem more like the functionality we’re used to on the web.
We set to work creating a universal deep linking toolkit for mobile developers that would let context pass through upon app install. A few weeks later, when I finished the first build of the iOS SDK, we emailed it to a couple of friends working on apps and saw immediate adoption. We’ve been off to the races ever since. That was 11 weeks ago, and we now have enough partners committed to push our SDK to over 25 million devices. It’s an exciting time to be in the space, and we’re even more excited about tackling the problems ahead.
My biggest takeaway from the last few years of building our company is that no matter what problem you’re faced with, the only way to move forward is to keep building, trying and experimenting. Sitting around debating the path forward is unproductive as it’s impossible to predict what’s ahead. Just build it.
Whether you resolve the problem, or find that there is no solution, you’ll have learned something entirely new that will open doors you never could have anticipated.
Alex is the CEO of Branch Metrics , a full service, deeplinking solution for mobile apps. Branch links have the power to deeplink through app install and open, allowing the app developer to deliver a personalized post-install experience. Branch links can be used to build full user-to-user referral programs with automatic install attribution and rewarding, or to allow automatic deeplinking to content post-install. The Branch analytics dashboard gives insights into where organic installs are coming from, as well as interesting metrics like install conversion funnels and k-factors of growth features.