To prepare for the event I wanted to get inside the heads of a successful mobile app development team. HighFiveLabs is it. They’ve published more than 10 mobile apps on the iPhone platform and just shipped a new app that got the coveted “featured” position on Apple’s iTunes store. What does that mean? Their new “Mario Batali Cooks” app sold about 15,000 copies at $4.99 each. Not too bad for a startup with five employees.
But there’s something bigger going on. They are a representative of a whole new industry that’s popped up in the past few years — mobile publishing houses. These folks are being courted heavily by the big phone companies. Microsoft, in particular, with its Windows Phone 7 is pushing companies like these to port its apps over. Next week I’ll have a sneak preview of Zagat’s new app, for instance, that is quite nice.
Almost every developer I’ve visited lately says they’ve had a visit from either Nokia or Microsoft or RIM or all three. Why are apps so important to these companies? Well, lets say you are a fan of chef Mario Batali (he has lots) will you buy a new cell phone that doesn’t have his app on it? No way. Repeat that question over the thousands of apps that exist on Google’s Android or Apple’s iPhone and you can see why their sales are growing while those of RIM or Nokia or Microsoft’s platforms are stagnant at best.
But that’s only one way to look at this interesting team. In this 48 minute interview with HighFiveLabs’ team, CEO Kiran Bellubbi, along with its head geek and designer we cover a bunch of other topics.
1. What makes for a great mobile app. Their apps have a rich aesthetic that get them onto Apple’s featured list. How do they do it?
2. How they see themselves as a publisher, similar to a book publisher, but how their world is different. Multimedia and interaction design being the biggest ones.
3. Their predictions for what’s coming from Facebook today (He thinks they will come out with a hardware device). What they are hoping for, and how their team might be randomized by those announcements (they are looking for ways to add more social interactions into their apps, for instance).
4. How they built their team for productivity and some of the programming hacks they built to get updates out in minutes, rather than days.
5. Why iteration is so important for mobile app developers.
6. Angst about how they’ll make money on non-Apple platforms (they are porting to Android, but other developers that they listen to tell them that Android users don’t buy apps at the same rate that Apple’s do).
7. Talk about the slate market. They’ve been courted by Amazon, for instance, who want them to build apps for a slate that Amazon is working on.
Anyway, this conversation is long, but there’s lots of interesting insights into how mobile developers think and how they make their development decisions.
Eric Ries once told me a story of something he screwed up. He told me he built a website, which took six months of his life, and no one ever visited it. Taught him a valuable lesson: test your ideas to see if anyone will care BEFORE you spend six months of building time (he’s famous in San Francisco tech circles for coming up with a methodology called “Lean Startup” and I was lucky enough to sit down with him to understand that. My video with Ries is here: Part I, Part II).
But how do you do that? Well, Eric’s idea was to measure how many of his friends would actually visit a prototype website before building it out. If none of his friends were interested, then he’d refactor until he could get some of his friends interested enough in the idea to click over.
Today Zurb has a better idea. They built a testing tool, called Verify, that lets you upload pictures of websites, or even wireframes or roughly-sketched out site ideas. Then you can ask your Twitter or Facebook followers, or even your friends, what they think or, even better, whether they are finding what the purpose of the website is.
The end result is a heatmap of where people clicked and how long it took them to figure it out.
Zurb’s founders, for instance, did one test while we watched. They knew that Rackspace was famous for having fanatical support. So, they took a capture of Rackspace’s website and posted that on Verify while asking their users “tell us where you’ll go for support on Rackspace’s home page.”
This is invaluable for helping increase conversion ratios. You can test lots of versions to see if putting the “buy” button, for instance, on top left, increases conversion over putting it at bottom right.
Oh, why is Zurb qualified to build such a tool? They do user interaction design for all sorts of companies from eBay to Facebook. They use this tool to help them convince their clients that their designs have value and are the correct way to go.
You don’t need to just test website designs, either, in Verify. You can test logos. Imagine if the Gap did that before trying to roll out an ugly new logo! Anyway, if you aren’t using tools like Verify to really find out if your website is working you’re missing out on one of the best new marketing tools around.
(This is a note to Lars Rasmussen, who just left Google to join Facebook. While at Google he developed Google Wave, which I hated, but which I did see brilliance in. I think it’s sad that Google didn’t invest more in it).
But at Facebook please don’t stop doing that weird drug you were doing half way through the project. It’ll go better.
Let me explain.
Google Wave +was+ brilliant. It was obvious you did something new and fresh (hence why I said you did +some+ weird drug). Here’s what you invented that was very cool: you brought the world an infinite strip where people could write, put videos, photos, or do other things. Anywhere on the strip. All at the same time.
That’s where your project derailed. Next time don’t stop doing the weird drug.
See, email is one of the least productive tools we have. Yes, everyone uses it. That doesn’t mean it’s very productive. For instance, I still have to wade through tons of spam. Guess what? On Facebook they don’t have spam. Why not? Because, unlike Google Wave, only people who I’ve friended AND who friended me back can send me messages. That’s how Wave should have worked.
When I started Wave I had tons of Waves I didn’t ask for.
Noise control is our NUMBER ONE CHALLENGE. Be part of the solution. Do more of that weird magical drug. Don’t do another environment that works as badly as email, OK?
But, now, you also made some other significant mistakes with Google Wave.
You voted against sharing. That’s cause you stopped doing that weird drug and started thinking all corporate like. Stop studying those users who still think Windows XP is a modern operating system, OK? They will mislead you. Instead, keep doing the drug and learn the webby way to do things.
Everything we do needs to be shared. Everything.
If you think there’s something that we won’t want to share in the future, question whether you are doing the weird drug or whether you are back in the normal world again.
Google Wave didn’t have permalinks. WTF?
I sat next to a VC at the Defrag conference a year ago and watched him use Google Wave, along with dozens of other people. It was magical. It was like we discovered a whole new world. One because you discovered some weird new drug.
Then I saw him write something interesting that I wanted to share with my readers. My Facebook friends. My Twitter followers. My Google Buzz buddies.
But I couldn’t. You had stopped doing that weird drug. You had started thinking that your world was an enterprise world that looked like the one that Sharepoint or Word cohabit. Please don’t make that mistake again or else I’ll have Mark Zuckerberg take you on one of those famous walks around the building he does. Only when you get back you’ll find the doors locked and your security badge turned off.
Please go back to the ideas that brought us that infinite strip. It was magical. It was like you had a new vision, based on some weird drug we all weren’t doing.
Next time, don’t stop. Keep going and don’t look to the past for ways you’ll get adoption or acceptance.
And Google? Shame on you for not recognizing the brilliance that was in Wave.
Can’t wait to see what you do at Facebook Lars. Just keep doing the magical stuff and build it in the web way. If I see signs that you’ve returned to the world of normal people again I’ll be very sad. Please do more of that weird new drug. Thanks!
Oh, and if you have some extra next time, can you share? Love the new world you saw a glipse of, hope to see more of it soon.
But 24 hours later I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth.
1. Pirates steal, but don’t create value.
2. He just told his team to earn his respect by starting a company and not working anymore for him. Is that good strategy for someone who wants to build a lasting brand?
3. He was made rich, at least in part, by the efforts of others. AOL bought Techcrunch, in large part, because of his great conferences. Those were done by other people. Plus, I’ve seen the hard work others put in behind the scenes at Techcrunch. Mike hired well, but now seems to be spitting at people who’ll work for other people.
4. Great things require teams. While Arrington is praising the “pirate” who leaves normal society to “run a company” he forgets that a baseball team with only a coach isn’t very interesting at all.
Believe me, I know what he’s talking about. I left a nice cushy job at Microsoft to join a small startup (Podtech) that no one had ever heard about. It’s the fourth startup I’ve been a part of in my life.
I remember the thrills of closing deals, and hiring people, but I also have lots of battle scars after that, too. Guess what, the scars tend to stick around long after the wine celebrating the successes has been drunk.
But there is something in Michael’s post that rings true. I like people who build things. I don’t call them pirates. I call them innovators. Inventors. Geeks. Coders. Developers.
My favorite memories are when I get to hang out with them and study what they are building. I remember that lunch where I invited Albert Lai and Michael over to have lunch with Bill Gates. It’s one of my favorite memories. Why? Because Gates had already built an interesting company and I knew Arrington and Lai would do something interesting in their futures. Why? They are builders. Not pirates.
I love how he says entrepreneurs don’t need to be rewarded for risk, because they get utility out of the risk itself. That’s bull. I don’t see Mike handing back his check from AOL, for instance. If there were no possibility of getting freaking rich there would be far fewer people who’d take the leap.
It is a hard leap to take, too. On my wall is a poster from the latest Techcrunch party. It is by my friend Hugh MacLeod. It says “I’m not delusional. I’m an entrepreneur.” The act of leaving a cushy job at a cushy company like Microsoft or Google or Facebook and heading somewhere that there’s not a certain outcome +is+ delusional and it’s not done for any one reason.
But there are some good reasons.
1. You want to build something that your company isn’t letting you build. I’ve heard this over and over. Steve Wozniak told me how HP and Atari didn’t let him build the personal computer that he wanted to build. Look at the pain that drips out of the reasons that Lars Rasmussen gives for leaving Google and joining Facebook. I think this reason trumps the “living the pirate’s life” that Arrington gives.
2. You want to have a bigger impact on the industry. Let’s face it, if you stay at a big company the chances that you’ll get to somewhere you can control a big budget, thousands of people, etc, are pretty small. Yes, it happens. But usually it takes decades, a lot of hard work, a lot of luck, and probably a good pedigree (you’ll note that most of the people at Microsoft in power positions actually started companies at some point in their past). If you join a startup that gets big you’ll have a bigger impact on industry. Here, who has more impact? Tristan Walker, who’s doing business development at Foursquare? Or someone at level 51 at Microsoft (that was my level, seven levels down from Ballmer)? Believe me, it’s easier to become the next Tristan Walker than it is to get to level 54 and usually it’s the level 60’ers who have a world impact at Microsoft. Yes, I know, I broke the rules, but how often has that happened at Microsoft in the four years since I left?
3. You want a better lifestyle. Believe it or not, I’d rather work at SmugMug than at ANY big company. Why? Dogs are allowed (watch my video tour of the company). They have hand-made meals every day. And everytime I visit there folks are having fun. Or, go around the corner from my house to GoPro. Now THOSE guys have fun! They take their cameras surfing and skiing and their founder started the company out of a VW van. Most of the small companies I’ve worked in were more fun (for both the pirate reasons that Arrington gave, as well as the other ones that Rasmussen talked about) then big ones.
4. You want to work with people you LIKE. Ask Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, about this one. He sold a company in the 1990s because he hired people he didn’t like. They all went to Microsoft. When Tony started Zappos he made sure he hired people he liked. Would he last long at a big company where he didn’t have control over who he dealt with? No way.
5. Control of your destiny. This doesn’t come automatically, even at small companies. At Podtech I and another executive had huge disagreements over strategies. One of us was wrong and one of us should have gotten fired. But those disagreements caused life to not be fun for either of us. In the end I think they contributed to the lack of success that company saw. At great companies I see everyone rowing in the same direction. I now look at strategy of companies I join and look for whether everyone is pulling in same direction. It’s a HUGE quality of life decision and worth leaving any company over if you can’t have it.
Anyway, back to the question I posed. Entrepreneurs, is Michael Arrington really the guy who want cheerleading you?
1. He’s had great success. I can’t argue with his bank account.
2. He’s built a great team and a great company.
3. He changed the world.
4. He got to work with people he liked and got to get rid of people he didn’t.
5. He kept control of his life and his strategy.
1. Pirate is a horrible metaphor for someone trying to build something of value. Pirates steal, the best entrepreneurs build.
2. Changing the world takes a team, not just a leader.
3. I know many entrepreneurs who find a way to balance real life and their work, Pirates can’t.
4. Entrepreneurship isn’t an elitist club. I joined that club in high school in Junior Achievement (I was so happy I met the CEO of Junior Achievement at Davos — aside, great organization that helps tens of millions of kids get into entrepreneurship). Arrington makes it sound superior to other career choices. It’s not. It’s just different.
5. Risk should be faced as a team. Pirates face risk alone and force their teams to deal with the consequences of that risk. The best entrepreneurs I meet face risk as a team. Jim Fawcette, for instance, asked us all to take a salary cut one year to help avoid layoffs. He took that too. A pirate’s approach would have been to cut staff and damn the consequences.
6. Pirates don’t work with other ships, but entrepreneurs do. Think about all those folks working in big companies. Foursquare did. They just got picked up by Zagat’s and Starbucks. By folks working in non-pirate modes. How? They worked as smart entrepreneurs, looking for win-win. Great entrepreneurs don’t denigrate the efforts of those who didn’t make the same career choices they did. They celebrate them, in fact. If no one was working at big companies there wouldn’t be anyone to make deals with.
7. Pirates hide their loot under ground. Great entrepreneurs look for ways to put money back to use to help make their companies bigger, better, or to invest in other companies and people. I’d rather hang out with Chris Sacca, for instance, than someone who wanted to be a pirate.
8. Great entrepreneurs want to build great companies and look to successful companies as models. I’ve walked around great companies with some great leaders and I notice the most successful ones take notes. Listen to Rackspace’s chairman, Graham Weston, talking with Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, after Graham got a tour of Zappos. Guess what? Success is usually big companies. Pirates poopooh studying big companies, but great entrepreneurs don’t.