Five Lessons Every App Startup Should Learn


Mobile devices create plenty of pitfalls for entrepreneurs.

The nuances of nailing not only the on-screen user experience, but the broader experience of integrating a piece of software into one’s everyday life dramatically increases the risk of failure. As a mobile entrepreneur, you have more variables that you need to test and control in your race to find a product-market fit before your company is out of runway.

For those investing time and money into building a mobile app startup, here are five important lessons that could be a game-changer for your startup.

1. Hire small teams of good people

Mobile app startups should approach the hiring process with caution— you simply cannot afford to waste time on unnecessary recruitment or bad hires. Early on, a good rule of thumb is to wait until it is excruciating NOT to hire someone, then pull the trigger. By really understanding the need you must fill, you’ll be much more likely to hire the right person for the right job. Otherwise, if you hire too quickly, your headcount will eat up cash and you’ll be more likely to have the wrong people in the wrong roles.

Assuming you’ve created the right roles, how do you find the right people? It’s nothing new to use your culture as a means of attracting the right people and forcing the wrong ones to seek employment elsewhere. What most companies fail to realize, however, is that culture is not just a ping pong table in the office or a mission statement on the wall. It’s an emergent quality in the people that you hire. The goal is to hire good people who have personal experience with the problem you are trying to solve. Early on it’s important to have at least a few key team members that need and want your app to solve a real problem in their lives. The key to building a great app is to hire a committed group of good people and let them create the solution to the problem at hand. Small mobile teams can accomplish huge feats quickly.

2. Don’t put scalability above market fit

Finding and then fine-tuning product-market fit is a never ending process, particularly for mobile app startups. The biggest mistake you can make is to build a huge scalable system for your app before understanding where it fits in the market. And in an age where VCs are more inclined to invest in platforms than apps, you have to be particularly aware of the tip-of-the-iceberg problem: The customer never sees the part of the product that requires 90 percent of the engineering work.

An example: In its beginnings, Twitter wasn’t overly concerned with scalability, which meant that the site would crash on occasion. The Twitter “fail whale” displayed during difficulties, eventually becoming a quirky and beloved symbol of the company’s meteoric rise. Periodic crashes aside, Twitter focused its efforts on building a super simple product that people all over the world loved to use. Today, they are a multibillion-dollar company that can afford to invest in scalability, unlike brand new startups who have yet to convince the world that they need their app.

3. Speed is a startup’s greatest resource

In the app business, timing plays an important role in finding product market fit. As a mobile startup, your job is to get found fast, which increasingly means looking for ways to reach customers outside of the app stores. To do this, you need an incredible amount of speed and agility.

When a mobile app startup begins to enter into partnerships, it can lose some of the agility that put it in the position to sign a big customer or pursue a joint venture in the first place. Don’t sacrifice speed or ignore iterating on your product on the promise of a big deal.

The key to success is to make sure that you are constantly moving forward. Large opportunities should be seen as accelerants to your core business; they shouldn’t slow you down. The last thing you want to do is spend all of your time chasing a whale that might get away.

4. Self-reliance should be your true north

No partner is going to make your business an automatic success because no one cares about your startup as much as you do. Even if you’re venture-backed, the bootstrapping mindset can and should prevail. That kind of mindset gives the company resiliency and allows you to scale a team up at an organic pace.

So how do you become self-reliant? Make sure that you have a solid business model for your app as soon as possible. This will take some experimentation, but remember that very few companies grow so quickly that they have the luxury of figuring out monetization after they acquire hundreds of millions of users. If you can’t acquire customers for a less than they are worth, you are not in control of your own destiny.

5. Never underestimate the cost of good communication

From an operational standpoint, startup founders will do all kinds of things to improve efficiency. But almost nobody thinks about the operational impacts of communications.

Mobile app startups—and startups in general—are at an advantage in that communication can occur quickly relative to industry incumbents. As a company grows, it will have to develop new communication channels—and too often the default is to adopt the well-known practices of larger organizations. But there’s a huge gap between the whole company “stand-up” and corporate intranet. Working long hours is the entrepreneurial norm, but just how much of your day is spent on communication? If you find yourself working long hours, chances are you can streamline and improve your company’s communications. Time is your most important resource and intra-company communications are a great place to look for savings.

Ultimately, mobile consumer app companies benefit from a rapidly evolving industry and technology. This environment of constant change provides ample opportunities to those companies nimble enough to take advantage of them.

Matt McDonnell is the chief operations officer at Famigo, a family-focused mobile app that lets parents find and manage other educational and entertainment apps for their kids to use. Follow @mmmcdonnell

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