Saturday, January 29, 2011

4 Tips for Business Success | Getting Your Mobile App to Top the Charts

What does it take to build a successful technology startup? Is it about a great idea? An amazing group of people? Being in the right place at the right time? There are as many answers as there are entrepreneurs, yet it's a question on the mind of anyone who has ever decided to take the plunge and work on a startup.

Last week at a Startup Grind meetup hosted by Derek Andersen of Vaporware Labs, Jeff Smith, co-founder and CEO of Smule shared his formula for business success. Smule, if you have not heard of it, is the creator of some of the most popular, chart-topping social music-making applications for the "i" platforms (iPhone, iPad, etc).


As history teaches us, best technology does not always win in the marketplace. Jeff argues, however, that the best product does win!

But what about the best marketing? What about a really well-funded company that beats out its competition by flooding the market with advertising? (Anyone else thinking of LivingSocial versus Groupon?)

Here's Jeff's point: the best product is one that prioritizes the user's experience. Having identified the core group targeted by the product, the development for such a product is focused on (1) how likely they are to use the product, and (2) how likely they are to recommend it. Word-of-mouth, after all, is a tremendously powerful distribution channel. But this word-of-mouth, viral marketing will only work well for the product that really grips the customers.

And it is a much more mature market now in mobile apps than it was just a few years ago. If customers were blown away by Smule's first app, the Sonic Lighter (a virtual cigarette lighter), today's customers won't be as easily impressed.

In working on a new product, Jeff's team tests the premise by asking itself, "What's the 20-second YouTube teaser for this product?" or "What's the 20-second demo?" If the teaser or the demo doesn't grab the user in those 20 seconds, viral distribution will not work.

Is a teaser or a demo really a good proxy for the product, you might ask. Isn't this exactly the case where great marketing wins? Though Jeff did not elaborate on this point in his presentation, I think he would say that the teaser or the demo is the product essence, not a clever marketing reel. And the main reason for that is that with viral distribution, the majority of the time the 20-second demo is not going to come from the company, but from a fan showing the application to a friend off his phone.

"The best products," says Jeff "are developed by developers who are close to what the user is doing."

Cumulative Value

Jeff's next point was very straight forward--don't let your developers convince you to start from scratch each time, for each new iteration. Build on the existing code, even if it seems like it would be easier to start from a clean slate, even if the existing code looks convoluted and messy. Whatever its other failings, existing code works! Build on that. Don't let that value slip away.


"Empower your customers with all their creativity," says Jeff. Take a look at this YouTube video posted by one of the fans, using Smule's app Ocarina. Amazing, isn't it? This video, being a fan video, cost Smule nothing to produce and nothing to distribute. But it has been viewed almost 500,000 times. According to Jeff, Smule has been able to map a direct correlation between traffic for YouTube videos featuring an application and application sales.

Listening to the customers, hearing and acknowledging what the customers want, is key. The biggest mistake, says Jeff, is to think you know better than the customer. Everyone in the company has to be thinking about the customers. Making the customer the focus, lowers customer acquisition cost, and allows those funds to go to product development and enhancement.


Simply put, the company's ability to recruit and retain top people is going to be directly related to the company's success. I doubt there is anyone out there who would dispute this correlation.

Jeff focuses on building Smule's culture around creativity, not discipline. This has its own drawbacks, to be sure, but it works to help create chart-topping products. In hiring, says Jeff, they aren't looking as much at the skill set. First and foremost they care about the attitude.

Thank you, Jeff, for a great, insightful presentation. Your PowerPoint was inspiring! [For those who weren't there, there were just the four words spread out over the four slides: product, cumulative value, customers, and team.] ;)

Inna Efimchik

Emergence Law Group  Emergence Law Group, specializing in assisting emerging technology companies in Silicon Valley and beyond, provides incorporation, financing, and licensing services as well as general corporate counseling.


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  2. Money and effort are the two prime factors that startups are always seeking. But the great success mantra for startups is to create a solution to one's problem.


  3. I really appreciate your efforts into building this 4 tips for business success mantra. These are very important to develop a success startup company.


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