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Apple’s Minimum Viable Product

I always hate when designers talk about how Steve Jobs is so amazing and how he’d never settle for anything but the best, blah blah blah. Yes, that’s true, but they’ve been a public company since 1980, they’ve had billions of dollars and 1000s of amazingly talented people on their team.

Before the IPO, at the very beginning when it was just the founders, their first product was the following:

The Apple I, Apple’s first product, was sold as an assembled circuit board and lacked basic features such as a keyboard, monitor, and case. The owner of this unit added a keyboard and a wooden case.

It was a motherboard. Not even a computer- just a motherboard.

I think it’s important to remember when we’re all trying to start something from scratch that you have to start at zero, and the first product will probably suck. It’ll be a motherboard, when what you really wanted to build was an all-aluminum Macbook Air with a Retina display.

But you gotta start somewhere.

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Quora: When does high growth not imply product/market fit?

Answered originally on Quora here.

Question: For online/mobile consumer services, in what scenarios does high organic user growth not imply product-market fit?

There’s been a bunch of recent examples of products that grow quickly but have little to no retention/engagement.

The reason is that in this context, you can think of products as having 2 main components:

  • Distribution tactics:┬áThis is the viral loop – the flow within the site that generates invites, embeds, links, or otherwise exposes new users to the product. Example, for Skype, you can through to a process of inviting and build your addressbook – this generates invites.
  • Product experience:┬áThe actual usage patterns of the product. For Skype, that’s chatting or talking over VOIP.

In the case of Skype, the viral loop easily flows into the product experience – as a result, you have a nice product that’s both viral and engaging. This is the good case.

Let’s talk about the dysfunctional cases though:

Viral design patterns that don’t make sense for a product
Sometimes though, you end up with a viral loop that’s pretty different/weird compared to the core product experience. For example, there’s a few design patterns that have been viral in the past:

  • Filling out a quiz and comparing yourself to others
  • Sending a gift or a poke to a bunch of people and then asking the recipient to poke/gift back
  • Finding friends and sending invites
  • Getting a notification saying that someone has a crush on you and making you fill out email addresses to guess the crush – these emails then generate the next batch of notifications
  • … and newer patterns like the Social Reader design pattern on Facebook, or something like spammy low-quality SEO content, which isn’t viral but is the same kind of idea.

(Note these are less effective these days since they’ve been played out – I write about the idea of people becoming desensitized to marketing here)

Because finding a really effective, working viral loop can be rare, sometimes people build a viral loop and then bolt a product onto it. This can be done in a haphazard way that shows a lot of top-line growth but fails on retention/engagement.

Disjointed viral + product experiences
The problem that sometimes, after completing the viral actions, the experience of then using the product is too disjointed, and users bounce right away. For example, you couldn’t put a “find your friends” invitation system in front of a search engine. It doesn’t make any sense. Search engines aren’t social.

The way you could validate this was happening is just to look at the underlying stats past the top-line growth:

  • After signing up, how many users are active the next day? Or the next week?
  • How many users bounce after the initial viral flow?
  • How aggressive is the viral loop, and do you allow the user to understand and experience the underlying product?
  • How well does the viral loop communicate that it’s part of a larger, deeper product?
  • Does the viral loop makes sense within the context of the product? Does completing the viral loop make the resulting product experience better?

I would look at any new product and ask the above questions to understand what’s going on. In the success case, you have a lot of retention and engagement, and the more viral the product, the stickier it gets. And ideally the design of the viral loop is very “honest” as to how it fits into the rest of the products.

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War of the platforms: Facebook, Apple, Android, Twitter.

For the first time in decades, the choice of what platform to build for is not obvious.

Back in the 80s and 90s, it was obvious: Build on Microsoft. Then from 2000 to 2008, the closest thing to a platform was Google, where developers would work with SEO and SEM tactics to get traffic. Then all of a sudden, the Facebook platform got big- really big. Then came mobile.

The last time this happened was in early 1980s
All of a sudden, you can actually pick and choose what platform to actually build upon. Weird. This is a historic event – the last time there were this many choices, we were choosing between Windows, OS/2, or the original Mac.

For those with deep pockets, of course you can build on all of them – yet if you’re an early startup, you really have to double down on one and go multi-platform as you pick up traction.

Evaluating platforms
To evalute which platform is best, here are some thoughts:

  • Which offers access to the most relevant users?
  • Which one is the most stable?
  • Which platform is most unlikely to build a competing app and try to replace yours?

Ultimately, I think distribution is where platforms really help. As Apple’s demonstrated, you can make developers learn a whole new programming language, a new technology stack, if you can give them access to millions of users. Contrast that to many generates of Google and Yahoo APIs which allowed for data access, but not distribution – much less useful. The biggest problem with Apple is that their leaderboard system is rapidly filling up with winners and it’s harder to break in.

Facebook is much more of a free-for-all, and new apps can break in, but they are pretty unstable and are constantly changing their platform. The plus side is that their constant changes introduce new windows of opportunity for an adventurous developer to jump in.

Twitter as a consumer product is so simple, there aren’t many marketing channels to even take advantage of. They don’t have an app store, they don’t have an apps page, and it’s hard to discover. Right now, as a platform Twitter’s not that great.

Android seems like a potentially great platform to develop for, but there’s so much opportunity in the iOS world that most developers have overlooked it. Perhaps it’ll turn into the contrarian bet and we’ll see some Android-first apps succeed. Of course, the fragmentation is a real problem, and there hasn’t been an existence proof of an Android-first app that’s had the same level of traction as, say, Rovio or Instagram.

More platforms upcoming?
Let’s also not count out Windows Mobile, or maybe even a resurgence in native applications as Microsoft and Apple build out their desktop app stores. There’s also interesting emerging companies like Pinterest or Dropbox, which may not be in the 100s of millions of users, but may quickly get there.

I predict that marketing channels will loosen up in the short-term
Lots of interesting choices here – there’s a ton of opportunity and I think we’ll see that the competition between platforms will lead to a loosening of distribution channels. Facebook will hopefully open up a bit more, and provide a bunch more traffic, rather than see all their social gaming developers sucked into mobile, for instance. Will be great to see.

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