What I Learned From 2 Billion Downloads

Paul: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it’s Paul Kemp. We have one of the most amazing guests we’ve had on this show, because in the past we’ve had apps that have achieved 660 million downloads, we’ve had apps that have achieved several hundred million, but this is a gentleman who had built app businesses that have in total achieved a billion plus downloads. It’s amazing, his name is Narry Singh, and he calls himself a passionate builder of digital businesses. He’s currently the managing director of the digital business strategy at Accenture. Narry, welcome to The App Guy Podcast.

Narry: Thanks so much, Paul. Delighted to be here.

Paul: So in the time that we have with you now, I would love to know, in your journey with the Talking Tom apps — which is over a billion downloads — how did all that come about? Have you got anything we can learn from you during that whole time with Talking Tom apps?

Narry: I would say a couple of things. I think the first thing which most of us that were involved with the journey. By the way:

Talking Tom and Friends exceeded two billion downloads not too long ago

…and we are probably in the top ten apps downloaded of all time.

I think that Talking Tom and the initial series of apps were started by a very capable set of founders, of Outfit7, who came up with the idea of Talking Tom and the idea of actually having a character that wasn’t really a game, but something that could help kids express their own creativity, and make them sound and look cool. I think one of the things that our co-founders very insightfully pointed out was that most kids might get tired of games, but they’ll never get tired of a reflection of themselves. I think that that very subtle, but not so obvious observation on children and what is perceived to be cool, and quite frankly the monotony of playing the same game time and time again has contributed to the success. And then of course, most importantly, I think Talking Tom is probably — I am, of course, biased, but I think some of our characters are probably some of the most exquisitely animated and interesting to see animations on a phone that I’ve seen.

Paul: We’re a bunch of app entrepreneurs ourselves, you’ve been extremely successful — was there a breakout period where you just knew it was going to be this huge success? For example, did you point a PR agency to get publicity, or has all this come about through word of mouth and sort of an organic download trajectory?

Narry: I think when I was at Outfit7, the parent company that created Talking Tom and many other apps, I think in the four years prior we had probably spent about 60,000 dollars total on PR, and I think 50 of that might have been a mistake. Our user acquisition strategy… We had initial success with Talking Tom — the very first Talking Tom — about six, seven years ago, but we built upon it, and I think what we did was a couple of things. I think the timing was also good, the app store wars weren’t as competitive, but I do think that there were a couple of things. Number one was we created some very interesting game in social dynamics, where the more you shared what you did and created with Talking Tom, the more interesting it became to you. I had my nieces at the time do a duet with Talking Tom, and Talking Angela, over a song with Nicki Minaj. Of course, she published that on all her family’s walls and Facebook posts, and things like that. So there was an inherent virality in Talking Tom, and its entire franchise.

I think the second thing is that one of the things we realized early on, there were about 18 apps when I was with the company at the time: Talking Angela, Talking Tom, Talking Santa… The talking genre, if you will, on the AppStore was created by Outfit7 and a few of us, but what we decided to do was rather than focus on individual characters at that time, we called them Talking Friends, and we created a kind of a sense, if you will, of collectability, very much like Pokémon, where if you had one, you actually wanted to have the rest of the collection. I think that dynamic also helped create some additional downloads. I would say the third is we experimented, not always successfully, but very early in our transition focused on China, and we had — keep in mind, this is about five, six years ago… It was very unclear that the Chinese download market would be as much as it was, or the monetization would be ever figured out, but we made a pretty big commitment in Asia and China, and that contributed massively to some of our downloads.

Paul: It’s such an amazing journey. Let’s get straight through some of these then. I want to ask you, if there’s one thing a startup can do to get noticed, what in your opinion could they do? This is in the app startup business — what one thing can they do to get noticed?

Narry: Paul, it’s a very tough market out there. You and most of our app entrepreneur friends know that it’s a brutal marketplace. It’s highly consolidated towards the top hundred apps, but what I would say — and I know this doesn’t sound the most helpful — what I would say is be obsessed with the product, and be very clear on what are the one or two primary motivations for someone to open your app. Not three, not four, not five, one or two. We obsessed about the most excruciating details of the user journey. So a lot of people would open up our app — when would they open it up? Would this be standing in a coffee line? What would the dynamics be? So I would say the one thing you can do to get noticed is — and it depends on category, of course; I’m talking about the entertainment category, the gaming category, which is where we belong — be obsessed about the product, and understand what that one motivation is, that your users have to open that app the first time, and is there a reason for them to come back. This is maddening advice for most app entrepreneurs because it’s so simple, but unfortunately, it happens to be true.

Paul: Very, very valuable. Now, the other thing I want to touch on is that normally on this show we have founders that have quit corporate jobs to go and start running their own company. In a way, you’ve gone about in reverse, because you’ve built very successful startup businesses yourself, and now, in fact, we’re due to cut this off because you’re rushing to a client meeting. I just wondered was has it been like to go from running your own thing to then now being part of a very large corporate like Accenture?

Narry: It’s been mostly good, it’s been different, and I was quite prepared that it would be different. The way I look at it is kind of our job and my team’s job at Accenture, in a way, is to actually build a new business, and a new practice within Accenture, that leverages all of the assets that Accenture has and, of course, a breath-taking distribution network of clients. In a way, in the app world, if somebody gave you an embedded distribution base of a hundred million monthly active users, you’d be quite delighted. That’s the analogy of one of the motivations for Accenture. There’s a massive, global scale, there are some assets, there are people, but yes, it is different. I think that for most of us entrepreneurs, I think you have to be very prepared, to be patient. There are definitely differences in speed, in terms of getting things done, but I think you would trade off speed for scale. And as I said, it’s been different, but for the most part, it’s been a wonderful trade-off.

Paul: That’s terrific. The other thing we wanted to ask you — this is from the listeners of this show — when you’re evaluating an idea — and that can be for a digital business, or maybe even a tech idea from a client — do you have a framework to weed out the weaker ideas?

Narry: You know, Paul, having made quite a few investments and, of course, being in Silicon Valley for so long, you see the quest for ideas to be evaluated a lot, and I have to say, I don’t have any magical, silver bullet that makes it guaranteed, but there are just a couple of very simple, common sense rules that I apply. I think that the first one is the market need big, which is obvious. I think the second one, which is perhaps a little less obvious, is it’s urgently required. I think even most great entrepreneurs usually get the product market fit right; what most of us don’t get right very often is timing. So what I look at and focus on a lot in terms of good or strong ideas is not just if it’s a good idea, but is it an idea whose time has come. I would say time and time again, what has become clear to me is that timing might be one of the most important factors for your success. You can be right too soon.

Paul: Yes. Have you got an example of something you’ve done that has probably been a bad timing?

Narry: I would say… I think there’s a series of companies. In fact, I would actually argue that perhaps in the late ’90s I was involved with a company called Cronos One, which was one of the very early B2B marketplace companies; it was a darling of Wall Street and then it wasn’t. I think as I look back somewhat more objectively over the last 13 or 15 years, I would say that our vision for marketplaces, our vision for transparency and liquidity of pricing, our vision for connected supply chains was mostly spot on. I think what we got wrong was the openness, and the adoption, and the readiness of large enterprises to buy into that vision. I think it’s becoming more and more clear right now, as you look at some of these large marketplaces that enterprises are using right now, that there’s a chance we might have been a decade too soon.

Paul: Right. So this is very selfish for me, because I’m a broadcaster here… I’ve got a setup which is less than a thousand dollars, and I’m competing with all these companies that are old radio stations, that have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars investment in equipment, so broadcasting is obviously changing… What are your views on digital broadcasting, podcasting — do you have a view on the adoption of it? How is it going to look going forward?

Narry: Paul, I have to admit, I’m no expert in broadcasting; I would love to broadcast my messages more. Look, honestly, I couldn’t even venture an intelligent answer. What I will say is, as a user, for the most part… You know, most of us follow great content, no matter where it is. And I think to the extent that — and it certainly sounds like you have a wonderful curation of different kinds of speakers and backgrounds, again, I think great content wins every time. It doesn’t have to be the size or the nature of the equipment, as YouTube and many other open media platforms have shown. I think it’s all about the content.

Paul: What sort of content or audio shows, or stuff are you reading online? Maybe you can give us one or two places to go and get the content that you’re looking at.

Narry: I think it varies depending more on mood. I wish I could be more absorbed in deeply intellectual and thoughtful stuff…

Paul: Okay… You are behind Talking Tom, remember?

Narry: Yes, that’s what I was going to say… I have no problem and I do not apologize for silly tastes, that’s what made Talking Tom successful, people being unapologetically silly. But I will say there are a couple of things… I find Feedly incredibly important and useful in my life, I find it a wonderful way to summarize, and I like the user interface at Feedly; I think the design is clever, I think the latency of the screens in-between our flipping is wonderfully done. So I’m a fan of Feedly as a way of getting my news digested every day. I think in terms of specific content, for most of us in tech, Recode.net — which used to be Decode — by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, is one of the most insightful and, quite frankly, breaking stories you can get in tech. So there’s a series of things like that that I listen to.

Paul: Great. Actually, there seem to be not enough app entrepreneur shows; I mean, I’m one of the few. It looks like we’ve got about five minutes or less, so what I’d love to know is if you had some free time and investment — so just imagine that you had a lot of free time and unlimited investment — what massive world problem would you try and solve now?

Narry: That’s a great question, Paul. About one of them I’ll tell you: it’s baffling to me that with all of the information there is about what makes a good diet, that we don’t teach our kids more about food. It’s baffling to me that there are not mandatory classes in curriculum all over the world, that talks about what good food is, what is carbohydrates, what are proteins, why do they matter. I just think that, at a very fundamental level, something that’s so critical to the quality of individual’s lives… And this is one, but I would say that I’d focus a lot on education about food and, quite frankly, make it more fun to be healthy.

Paul: Actually, one of the founders of Fit Men Cook will be listening to this… I was involved in the launch of that, helped out a little bit, and it reached number two in the AppStore, beating Minecraft, and it’s constantly featured by Apple. So it does show that recipe apps, and trying to do the right thing, eating well — there’s a demand for it. Would you agree?

Narry: I’m delighted to hear that. I didn’t know much about the show, but I’m delighted and I certainly will check it out.

Paul: Okay. Finally then, just to squeeze another one in… Have we still got enough time? I know you have to rush off to a client meeting, Narry.

Narry: I do, in fact I just got to the door of the building; that’s very kind of you.

Paul: This is wonderful. I mean, we’re broadcasting and you are rushing to a client meeting. Can I squeeze one more question in?

Narry: Absolutely.

Paul: Do you see large organizations partnering more with lean startups? How do you see that whole integration, because you talked about the large resources of big organizations, but the nimbleness of startups — do you see more collaboration?

Narry: Definitely, and I think that’s one of the more exciting areas of work that our team does — helping large companies get the best innovation from startups, but at the same time also helping startups to have scale, and leverage the distribution, the assets, the brand, the local geographic knowledge of large companies. I mean, look, I think large companies have struggled, for the most part, to get the best out of startups and vice-versa; these are different worlds, different cultures, different speeds, different urgencies, different motivations, quite frankly. But I think the time is upon us. There’s a plethora of large companies doing everything from hackathons, to accelerators and corporate venture capital funds, and what have you. So we spend a lot of time figuring out what is the right engagement model for startups, but I’m very bullish about the idea that, for a certain species of startups that are at a certain stage where the technology risk is not that high, large company partnerships and, in fact, large company exits could be one of the most interactive things over the next five years, as the public markets dry up and as funding certainly seems to be getting a little bit more sensible in evaluations.

Paul: That is wonderful. Well, I’ll let you go then… The last thing, how can people reach out and connect? Do you have any social media accounts that we could post in the show notes?

Narry: Absolutely. I would say the easiest thing is @Narry_Singh on Twitter.

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