Rethinking Mobile First

I wrote the Mobile First Web Second blog post a few years ago. In that post, I talked about apps that were designed to be used on mobile primarily with the web as a companion.

There have been a number of startups that have taken that approach and done well with it. Most notably Instagram, and also our portfolio company Foursquare. It has become a bit of a orthodoxy among the consumer social startup crowd to do mobile first and web second.

But is it the right thing to do? Vibhu Norby, co-founder of Everyme and Origami, wrote one of the most thought provoking posts of the past month arguing that mobile first is a recipe for failure for most, if not all, startups.

Vibhu makes some excellent points:

All in all, mobile service apps turn out to be a horrible place to close viral loops and win at the retention game. Only a handful of apps have succeeded mobile-first: Instagram, Tango, Shazam, maybe 2 or 3 others.

and

You have an entirely different onboarding story on the web. You can test easily, cheaply, and fast enough to make a difference on the web. You can fix a critical bug that crashes your app on load 15 minutes after discovery (See Circa). You can show 10 different landing pages and decide in real-time which one is working the best for a particular user. You can also close a viral loop: A user can click an email and immediately be using your app with you. You can’t put parameters on a download link and people don’t download apps from their computer to their phone. Without the barrier of a download + opening the app to try your product, you can prove value to the user immediately upon their first impression, as is with Google. In addition, the experience of signing up for a service is superior in every way. Typing is easier. Sign-up with OAuth is faster. Tab to the next field. Provide marketing alongside sign-up as encouragement. Auto-fill information is a feature in every browser. The open eco-system of the web and 20 years of innovation has solved many of the most difficult parts of onboarding. With mobile, that kind of innovation is lagging significantly behind because we create apps at the leisure of two companies, neither of which have a great incentive to help free app makers succeed.

and

I use my phone more than anything else. I just don’t think that an entrepreneur who wants a real shot at success should start their business there. The Android and iOS platform set us up to fail by attracting us with the veneer of users, but in reality you are going to fight harder for them than is worthwhile to your business. You certainly need a mobile app to serve your customers and compete, but it should only be part of your strategy and not the whole thing.

Vibhu also takes a stance against the ad-supported, privacy challenged, free consumer app world. I respect that stance and every time I upgrade from a free ad supported app to a premium version (advertising free) via the in app upgrade on mobile, I express my solidarity with him on that one. But as a business person, I have and will continue to advocate for a free tier with a premium upgrade (or just entirely free) because as I have written many times on this blog, I think that is the value maximizing approach and it also allows the greatest number of users to access your product or service.

But I don't want to focus on business model in this post. We are at the start of what will be a long MBA Mondays series on business models and will be talking a lot about that.

What I want to focus on is the paradox that mobile is where the growth is right now and that mobile is very very hard to build a large user base on. Everything that Vibhu says in his post is right. Building an audience on mobile is a bitch. I talked about that in my what has changed post:

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

But just because something is hard doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do it. I am convinced the next set of large and valuable consumer facing services will be built with mobile as the primary user interface. You can see it in the success of Uber and Etsy this holiday season. That's where you users are most of the time. And if you don't design your products and services for what is rapidly becoming the dominant UI, you will not maximize the success of your business in the long run.

So do I disagree with Vibhu? Not at all. I think he makes some great points on why you might not want to go mobile only unless you are in the games business. But I differ in two important areas. First, I think you can't abandon mobile. It is the future like it or not. And second, I think it is critical to design for mobile first and then build a web companion. If you design for the web and then port to mobile, you will find that it is really hard to fit your UI onto the small screen. Better to design for mobile first and then build a web companion. Mobile first, web second. But as Vibhu points out, the web can't and should not be ignored. It is valuable in many many ways.