8 Lessons from ‘Planet of the Apps’
‘Planet of the Apps’ is an original content TV show on Apple Music. It is a twist on the familiar concept of ‘Shark Tank’, where entrepreneurs pitch iPhone app ideas to celebrities, and venture capitalists from the firm ‘Lightspeed’.
Some reviews of the show have questioned the entertainment value of it. For me as a software developer, I’ve especially learned from the dialogue between the app creators and the venture capitalists.
In fact, as someone who works on a young cloud platform, it makes me appreciate the wider journey of an app, that much more.
So far, there have been 8 episodes. Here’s a lesson from each of those episodes.
Episode 1: Pair app, and passion
The Pair app uses augmented reality to let us see how a piece of furniture would look in our home. The concept is a useful one, and maybe one of the more obvious uses of AR. The demo seemed to work well, but problems surfaced during the pitch in explaining the app.
The entrepreneur had a couple of ambitions. One seemed to be about making an app for visioning furniture in your home. The other seemed to be about using the app for building 3D map information, which he believed was ‘a billion dollar play’.
He confused the venture capitalists in explaining his app, and I think made an error in telling them that it was hard to understand. Lightspeed VC Jeremy made it clear that their job was in understanding technology — they happened to be good at that, so if they were not understanding, then it probably wasn’t being explained well.
Jeremy’s excitement about the concept ebbed and flowed, eventually settling on the conclusion that ‘it wasn’t what I thought it could be’.
They declined to invest, and advised the entrepreneur that he had to get better at explaining his idea.
The lesson I learned from this is about the importance of passion for an idea. The entrepreneur even admitted after the pitch, that had he prioritised the home furnishing concept, the outcome may have been different.
Here’s the thing … the confusion came across more than any concept. If the developer was uncertain about the concept he wanted to pitch, how could he expect four experts to invest money in it.
Episode 2: Dote App and authenticity
The Dote app shrinks a shopping mall into a single app, providing an easy and consistent way to find, monitor, and buy clothes from multiple store brands in a single app.
The app succeeded in winning a multimillion dollar investment, which really surprised me, I have to admit. I was surprised that a mall experience is something people want on a phone. For me, I typically stick to a few brands when I buy things and actually really like working with the individual apps. As someone who runs and does yoga, I value how focused the Lulu lemmon app is, for instance.
However, Lauren, the co-founder of dote was the real deal. Nicole, one of the VCs, pointed out that Lauren was exactly the target demographic of the app. Lauren was very clear about explaining the app, how much stronger it was than their competition, and the usage and growth analytics and projections. Her drive, passion and authenticity was very clear. Even her conviction of her value and her company’s value, in negotiating a fairer structure for the investment.
The lesson for me here is that there is no substitute for working software and an authentic advocate for it.
Episode 3: Olivia AI, and effectiveness
As a natural language experimenter, my ears especially stand up when an entrepreneur brings a new chatbot, or machine learning technology.
Olivia AI tackles money management. I really like the concept, and feel sure there is a future for some kind of AI alerting us to bad habits, or/and enforcing better ones with money and all kinds of other life choices.
Yet the VCs were not sold on Olivia. Jeremy used a phrase that I’m going to think about a lot in the future when I’m considering apps, projects, purchases, career choices …
… he asked if Olivia AI was a ‘vitamin or a painkiller’. Was it something a user would be gasping to use all the time, because they have a burning pressing headache. He noted that in their experience, it was much harder to scale products that were vitamins, rather than cures.
It makes sense. It’s a simple way of testing the effectiveness of a product.
I guess they assessed Olivia AI to be a vitamin, rather than a cure. It was questionable how much AI was actually in there.
My take away lesson is to use this acid test ‘vitamin or painkiller’ more in my work.
Episode 4: Clark, and the future of work
I think in another post, I’d like to break down some of the themes around the culture and technology of the app ideas presented.
One recurring theme in this series was around work, contracts, payments and (self) improvement.
Clark is an app that formalizes tutoring … providing a way of managing teaching and learning, and payments, in the apparent growth of the tutoring approach.
It is clever in that it allows parents to gauge the effectiveness of tutoring over time, and I imagine, if it grows, will offer very valuable insights to the founders, and potentially maybe even for school boards down the road.
I think the data around the growth of tutoring helped sell the app to the VCs. They could see the potential in the numbers.
The lesson for me is in thinking more about the ‘future of work’, smart contracts, automating measurable results, and self organization. I’m becoming fascinated by some of those topics as I study and work with blockchain. I liked seeing this definite example.
Episode 5: Poncho, and personality
Poncho attempts to humanize weather forecasts, and I guess, engage a user as a first port of call on their phone.
Although my feeling is there are concepts to mine in this area, I’ve recently become pretty reliant on Siri for stuff like this, and find that spoken direction more interesting personally.
Jeremy provided my lesson in this episode. He often has just tiny phrases that somehow to me, feel pretty profound and get my mind spinning about some of my own projects and, for want of a better word ‘journey’ in software development.
This time he talked about ‘Personality versus utility’ — angling on the definite, deliberate ‘engineering’ of personality in the Poncho app, almost as a feature of it.
In the book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ Susan Cain notes that we live in an era of personality — where personality seems to reign over character. I mean, without wishing to be political, we see that in the choice of US president right now. We see it too in other areas of pop culture.
So, thinking about personality in apps is fascinating to me. Especially with AI, and with chatbots for instance — the balance of AI — or as Jeremy puts it, personality versus utility.
For me, I have less interest in an app impressing its personality on me strongly, than I have about it learning and teaching me about my own personality. I’ve been experimenting with the potential for that a little, analyzing David Bowie’s personas through his lyrics ( and soon sharing another analysis of the musical ‘Hamilton’ ).
So, the lesson from this episode is to ask about the balance of ‘personality versus utility’ in an app, and what that means.
Episode 6: Mend, and inflection points
Mend is a chatbot that helps you mend a broken heart. Although I’m not saying I have a broken heart, Mend is the only app from the series that I’ve downloaded so far!
I downloaded it mostly because I’m working on my own app idea that uses natural language in a self learning way, so I wanted to understand Mend’s approach.
Mend’s chatbot, and user experience is lovely, I have to say. The tone she speaks with is calm and caring. I really admire the integration between conversation and interaction … how Mend almost disguises instruction, and input through self reflection. I like the angle.
I really like the poetry in that phrase. I like it for the intention here, thinking about a turning point in the business. But I love it for the idea of there being a human inflection point with an app like ‘Mend’. I’m so hopeful ( as I think I’ve been with software my whole naive career ;) that it will one day do more good than harm at a personal level for us … that it’ll help teach us more about ourselves.
I liked his phrase too about ‘grokking the benefits of the habit’ in the app, through self reporting.
Nicole from Lightspeed was concerned about the churn of the userbase … when hearts were mended, users would stop using. Success for Mend might mean a lack of users. I was sort of speaking to her across my iPad as I watched, that if there was one resource that won’t be exhausted, it is probably broken hearts!
Also, the creator of Mend showed a slide with a list of actions to help mend a broken heart. Things like journal, exercise, listen to music … these are natural antidepressants and things we should consistently do for our mental and physical wellbeing. There’s an argument for Mend to be a life app, rather than a heartbreak app.
My lesson here is to think about inflection points in the economics of an app, as well as the user experience and habits of an app.
Episode 7: Evolve, and maturity
Evolve uses voice capture to log the food that you’ve been eating, and instantly breaks down the calorie content of a meal. I like the idea, as another example of the growth/’normality’ of speech as a fast user interface. It’s really handy for lists of food that might otherwise be bothersome to type in on a phone.
There seemed a lot of friction between the Evolve engineers, and Jessica Alba, their mentor. I really admired how resolute Jessica was with them about making sure the app targeted young women, as well as guys that seriously work out.
The big lesson for me in this episode was when Jeremy quickly estimated the developer months of work it took to create the app. It took 9 developer months, which provided another new measurement of value that I didn’t really think about.
The implication was that the app used stock APIs and took little time to create, so was vulnerable to be copied and surpassed.
To me the flaw for the theme was immaturity — the developers seemed admirably single minded in building a working app that people could use quickly, but immature in the wider picture of who those people would be, and I guess light on the content beyond the immediate logging of food.
Episode 8: TABu, and battle scars
TABu is a digitized approach to bar tabs. It didn’t receive funding — yet was another app that I thought had real potential.
The reason why it didn’t receive funding was really around the legwork for the grass roots adoption of it that would be needed. Jeremy, one of the VCs had ‘battle scars’ from attempting to build a business that way in the past.
I had mixed feelings about Jeremy’s conclusion. I have to trust his instincts, after all, this is his job AND he has had direct experience … yet I sometimes wonder if one person’s experience, motivation, and drive is equal to another persons. I wonder if our time now is different from his time then.
In part I see TABu as another ‘future of work’ type deal. I mentioned that I’ve been studying and working with Blockchain in one of my earlier summaries. Blockchain is all about transactions — all about the peer to peer exchange of ‘value’.
TABu is just a transactional exchange of value — I could see this be a global platform ( fostering an international wave of drunkenness ;)
For me, one of the killer features of Uber is not actually needing cash, or transacting cash physically with the driver. I see TABu as a similar thing.
But the battle scars are a huge barrier. Another VC firm may not have those scars in their ranks. It’s great to have scars — they’re marks of healing, of survival, and lessons. But it is interesting too … do we build on our lessons by adjusting next time, or by avoiding?
The lesson for me in this is to think about other people’s battle scars. To think about my own — to be prepared to question them.
Here is a summary of my lessons:
In thinking about development, design, apps, pitching and building a system you want to share … have genuine passion, and authenticity, make sure the app is effective, think about the future of work, consider personality, recognize points of inflection, strive for maturity, and be ready for battle scars :)