Fred Wilson wrote two posts in 2010 that were very influential with the startup community.
If you’re in the minority that never read these posts—you should.
I know that they really impacted an entire cohort of startups, because every company that was coming to pitch me businesses was (is) saying, "I’m a ‘mobile first’ company."
Part of the beauty of blogging that in two sittings Fred was able to influence what was built over the next 12 months.
I loved the idea of "mobile first" but something always bothered me. Kind of like a law firm (or VC firm) with four partners but shortened to just two, people dropped off his second two words. People forgot that Fred also wrote "Web Second."
So I’ve had to encourage an entire cohort of startups that I’ve met not to ignore the power of the web.
I’ve wanted to write a blog post called "Mobile Second" for a long time to make this point more forcefully. But it never quite sat right with me because that wasn’t my point. I’m not trying to argue that mobile should be an afterthought but rather that the web shouldn’t be either.
So I thought I’d try a different approach and reword Fred’s title and call it "Web Second, Mobile First." Maybe people could shorten that to "Web Second" as a reminder to not give up on the power of the tethered web. The power of large-screen real estate. The power of a keyboard.
Here’s my view:
I support a "mobile first" strategy for many (not all) companies
Fred’s post was right. The world is adopting smartphones and for many young people and many people in the developing world, this will be one of their first computing devices.
Mobile has many attributes that are critical:
- The devices are individual, not shared
- They are location aware, which is important in personalizing the service offering
- They are more likely to be the "bottom end of the sales funnel" or in other words close to "point of purchase." If I am looking at movies on my mobile phone there is a higher chance I’m out-and-about and ready to buy tickets. I have talked with people in the industry who tell me that mobile movie sites convert ticket sales much higher than desktop websites.
- They are limited in size. In some senses this might seem like a disadvantage. But I’ve talked to a number of eCommerce sites that also report much higher conversion rates than standard web. The hypothesis is that the limited real estate forces less choice and therefore less distraction. This increases conversions of items shown to you.
- They are often one click away from buying. It’s not pleasant handing over 30% margin to Apple when you sell stuff through the App Store. But on the other hand, if you have a product with a very high gross margin (software, virtual goods, etc.) then this is often more than made up by higher conversion rates versus asking somebody for a credit card.
- They occupy a lot of people’s leisure time. Therefore if your app is geared toward leisure activities (games, communications with friends, etc.) then mobile is awesome.
But, (and this is a big but …)
I believe in integrated products. Thus I endorse web second.
I think many recent companies make the mistake of not investing enough in web products, if they invest anything at all. I mostly use Twitter on my mobile devices. But there are some things you just can’t do with mobile app. Most notably following many conversations at once the way can do with TweetDeck.
I love using Yelp’s mobile product. If I’m traveling in an area I don’t know well, I love to set up a filter to say I want, "Chinese food, 3 stars within 2 miles" or if I’m walking it’s great to filter based on distance to where I’m at. But the killer feature for me is "open now." I use this all the time. Where can I eat at 3 p.m. nearby? Which restaurants in L.A. serve past 10 p.m. (turns out not many on the west side of L.A., unfortunately).
You couldn’t have the same impact with your desktop Yelp.
But try doing proper restaurant research on a mobile device. Try reading a bunch of reviews, checking 5 different restaurants to try and compare the differences. Try writing long reviews of a restaurant. That’s why Yelp is effective. They do both well.
So when I talk to the numerous photo sharing websites that I’ve met I always encourage them to think about all of the awesome Mobile Second features that they can build to supplement their product. Mobile is great for capturing images and quickly and easily sharing them. It’s great for quickly scrolling through photos. That’s why I love Instagram. It’s fun social entertainment that without words helps me feel connected to people that I’m close to or whom I want to follow.
But photo sharing sites ought to have web tools that allow me to create "collections" of photos—mine or otherwise. They ought to feel more like Pinterest, where discovery is awesome and integral to the service itself.
Mobile First photo sites ought to integrate with other services that might let me send postcards , create photo albums to print, create blog entries or other similar features. I know that many third-party apps are stepping in to do much of this...but that’s the point. It’s a hole that isn’t filled by the initial applications.
I also love Batch. I think it’s a beautifully designed product that is also tremendously useful and focused. It allows me to upload a bulk set of photos that I can then more easily share. But I’d love it 100x if it had a complementary web product that better let me organize my photos into batches, view other people’s full collections and integrate more seamlessly into my social sites.
I’ve been saying this "Web Second" privately for long enough to not feel like I’m just getting on the bandwagon of Pinterest’s success (just ask any team at a company in which I’ve invested). But Pinterest’s success really proves the point I’ve been making.
My wife (and it seems every woman in America) is now addicted to Pinterest. It’s the new magazine. I think it’s replacing time spent on TMZ. It’s graphical, beautiful, simple to consume, and has a wonderful layout. But that product is the perfect example of perfectly suited for the web given the real estate available. What if Instagram had a beautiful collage of images like Pinterest. How awesome would that be?
Pinterest seems to have conquered the "normals" before it captured the attention of the tech elite. Perhaps that should be a lesson to us all to think more broadly than our echo chamber? To think about how the masses use computing devices in 2012?
I would love to see FourSquare double down on web development and market it harder to its user base. It seems that FourSquare’s strategy has appropriately broadened from "check ins" to "discovery" of great places to eat or visit. This is a product feature that is easier to consume AND to create on the web.
For example, everybody should easily be able to follow Holger’s top sushi spots in San Francisco. That’s a list I plan to work through. (by the way, Holger, Kaygetsu should be number one, other than ambiance.)
FourSquare in the future? Web Second, Mobile First. I hope so.
I’m digging LinkedIn’s new mobile product. I use it more than the web version (although it certainly could use some performance improvements). But I would never want to do my recruiting search campaign on mobile. I need more real estate for that.
I recognize there is an issue with resource scarcity
Come on, Mark. We only have 5 engineers, how can we do all that?
I know. I get it. But once you’ve launched your iOS product and finished your Android roll out, you need to do a strong push on an integrated web product before you double down on your next generation of iOS features. MVP on mobile then hit web.
Try to think about how leveraging the web will do the following:
- Create a differentiated product versus your mobile-only competitors. Use that as a source of competition.
- Have the ability to enable "content creation" and "content curation" in a way that makes all of the mobile consumption by other users a better experience. If you have a fashion-sharing product, wouldn’t viewing collections of outfits on mobile devices be a richer experience if there were more content and deeper content because your web product enabled your power users to more easily create it?
- Conversely allow your mobile products to shine on the web. Using the fashion-sharing example, imagine turning your shared fashion photos into beautiful magazine-like collages that can be scrolled through, Pinterest style.
- Build features that make using native-phone apps pointless. Case in point: Text messaging. If you use the native device your messages get purged eventually on most devices. You also lose them if you lose your actual phone. Having a web product abstracts the text message from the device and makes it a truly cloud service. When consumers realize this – who in their right mind would keep their text messages locked on their mobile device?
Web also allows you to become a funnel for converting more users of your mobile app. Obviously.
I’ve starting thinking more about tablets. They are clearly an important part of our future computing fabric. They are somewhere between web & mobile. I think starting as an extension if your mobile strategy makes sense due to resource scarcity. But as your business grows I think it warrants consideration of how your table product will differ. It’s clearly a larger real estate which makes increased features possible. The larger real estate also makes content discovery different.
Again, tablets are the new magazines in some ways. My wife loves to scan her iPad and look at Pinterest. While Pinterest is not yet a commerce platform, what if commerce companies created similar looking products rather than just their traditional catalogs? What if they made their products more interactive? Not as a replacement for the catalog but as an alternative way to interact with their products.
I know that Pinterest has been driving sales in the Suster household. Tania found a hilarious onesie (it read: "All Mommy wanted was a back rub") for a dear friend who just accidentally had his fourth baby. They thought they were going to stop at two. Doh.
I don’t yet feel strongly enough about tablets to encourage entrepreneurs with whom I work to put too many resources against it with few exceptions. Tablets are huge video consumption devices. So anybody building "second screen" TV apps or even "primary screen" TV apps needs to think seriously about their tablet strategy independent of their mobile strategy.
Customer First, Experience Second!
Cookie Morenco made some astute observations in the comments section below that accurately reflect my true feels on this topic. It’s "Customer First, Experience Second."
"I sometimes feel that we’re being forced into a Mobile First strategy by the developers rather than by what some customers want.
I’m sensitive to this issue because I Ok’d my developers to have a Mobile First, Web Second strategy on a product where our analytics didn’t match consumers actions (in our case, less than 5% use mobile).
Our developers wanted Mobile more than our customers did."
This is so perfectly said I won’t add to it. Whenever I see mobile pitches I always start by wondering how normal users would want to use the product.
What’s Your View?
What do you guys think? Do you think Mobile First companies have taken the web seriously enough? What examples do you have of mobile products that would be greatly enhanced by a better web product?
Or do you think most mobile developers should concentrate their resources on being MEMO (Mobile Excellent but Mobile Only)?
I’ve got strong views on this topic. But I’ve love to hear yours to refine my thinking.
I know that "Mobile First" has become engrained in developers minds. And that’s a good thing.
I hope I can at least etch in a small number of developers minds the ending—or starting—of that sentence: Web Second.
Reprinted with permission from Both Sides of the Table
Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. Follow him at twitter.com/msuster.
[Image: Flickr user Florin Hatmanu]