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Mobile app startups are failing like it’s 1999

Stop the madness
The long cycle times for developing mobile apps have led to startup failures that look more like 1999 – it’s like we’ve forgotten all the agile and rapid iteration stuff that we learned over the last 10 years. Stop the madness!

Today, seed stage startups can now get funded, release 1 or 2 versions of their app spread over 9 months, and then fail without making a peep. We learned the benefits of how to iterate fast on the web, and we can do better on mobile too.

How things worked in 1999
How’d we get here? Back in 1999, we did a similar thing:

  • Raise millions in funding with an idea and impressive founders
  • Spend 9 months building up a product
  • Launch with much PR fanfare
  • Fail to hit product/market fit
  • Relaunch with version 2.0, 6 months later
  • Repeat until you run out of money

This was Pets.com, Kozmo, and so on. Maybe you’d fire your VP Marketing in the process too, out of frustration.

Between 2002-2009, we learned a lot of great ways to work quickly, deploy code a few times a week, and get very iterative about proving out your product.

How things work today
Then, with the arrival of the big smartphone platforms, we’ve reverted. It looks like 1999 but instead of launching, we submit into the iOS App Store.

It looks like this instead:

  • Raise funding with an idea and impressive founders
  • Spend 6 months building up a product
  • Submit to the app store and launch with much PR fanfare
  • Fail to hit product/market fit
  • Relaunch with version 2.0, 6 months later
  • Add Facebook Open Graph
  • Try buying installs with Tapjoy, FreeAppADay, etc.
  • Repeat until you run out of money

Not much different, unfortunately.

The platform reflects its master
We’ve gotten here because the App Store reflects Apple’s DNA of great products plus big launches. They are a 1980s hardware company that’s mastered that strategy, and when developers build on their platform, they have no choice but to emulate the approach as well.

Worse yet, it lets people indulge in a little fantasy that they too are Steve Jobs, and once they launch a polished product after months of work, they’ll be a huge success too. The emphasis on highly polished design for mobile products reverts us back to a waterfall development mentality.

Don’t burn 1/2 of your funding to get to a v1
Startups today have a super high bar for initial quality in their version 1. They also want to make a big press release about it, to drive traffic, since there’s really no other approach to succeed in mobile. And so we see startups burn 1/3 to 1/2 of their seed round before they release anything, it becomes really dangerous when the initial launch inevitably fails to catch fire. Then the rest of the funding isn’t enough to do a substantive update.

What can we do?
How can we stop the madness? What can do we do to combine the agility we learned in the past decade with the requirements of the App Store?

If we can answer this question, we’ll be much better off as an industry.

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