3 Lessons from a Serial Entrepreneur and Mobile Product Manager

How Circa Revolutionized Mobile News

Why do we still consume news like it’s 1899?

Serial entrepreneur Matt Galligan first heard this question in a presentation by Cheezburger (yep — the cat videos) Founder & CEO Ben Huh. It piqued his curiosity. As he started collaborating with Huh, refining his own ideas on media and news, Galligan realized he had the makings of a solution. That solution is now the mobile app Circa.

AllThingsD gives us an idea of Circa’s success: according to Flurry, users stay 50 percent longer in Circa than in other news apps. Of users who open the app more than once a day, more than half return twice daily for their breaking news. Galligan even mentioned in an interview with Jason Calicanis that there are users who, between Monday and Friday of a given week, had opened the app more than 100 times. That’s a whopping 20 times per day.

Prior to starting Circa, Galligan had already sold two previous ventures — Socialthing to AOL and Simplegeo to our friends at Urban Airship. Having raised $1.65 million in funding, Circa is looking to change the way breaking news is consumed on mobile devices.

Digg co-founder and Google Ventures partner Kevin Rose interviewed Galligan on his Foundation series. Galligan shares his mobile product expertise with Rose:

Stay Focused with a True North

While brainstorms and whiteboarding sessions stimulate creativity, they can also overwhelm you with potential features and ideas. Stay focused by keeping the original problem in mind. When Galligan was building Socialthing, a solution that would connect disparate social networks together, he would refocus his team with this tactic:

“I think that a good formula to building a company is solving a problem; but constant repetition of that problem. So at my first company, we literally wrote it on the board: ‘Does this make social networking easier?’” If the answer was a No, then the idea would not make the cut.

As interviewer Kevin Rose observes, this question served as Socialthing’s product equivalent to the “True North.” Former chair and CEO of Medtronic, Bill George, originally used the term True North to describe a business leader’s inner compass; by repeatedly asking your team whether a certain feature helps solve your overall problem and benefits your audience, you are effectively aligning them to the direction of the product.

So at my first company, we literally wrote it on the board: ‘Does this make social networking easier?’ (Click to share.)

Use this True North to guide the product in the right direction and filter out unnecessary and overwhelming tasks.

Make Use of Warm Networking

Unlike many entrepreneurs, Galligan rarely cold e-mails people. Instead, he always networks through mutual friends. (The exception to this rule was when Galligan cold e-mailed Jack Dorsey when he was trying to integrate Twitter into Socialthing, and both companies were similar sizes. Galligan and Dorsey chatted on the phone for an hour.)

“By going through warm introductions and having qualifying statements…the person vets you and says, ‘Hey, I think these guys have a great idea,’ or ‘I like this guy but I’m not sure about this idea but maybe with a little work it’ll get there,’ and in almost every circumstance that I’ve ever had a warm introduction, something has turned out good about it. Either that has turned into a business relationship, or a personal relationship, or something like that.”

…in almost every circumstance that I’ve ever had a warm introduction, something has turned out good about it. (Click to share.)

Not all of this was planned; Galligan found the CTO of his first company when his softball league teammate (and fellow Best Buy Geek Squad agent) offered to help out Galligan’s side project for free.

Remember, your network is your net worth. If you’re looking for initial team members or co-founders, consider the people you already know. Take networking seriously — and don’t feel restricted to building relationships just at formal “networking events.” Build relationships everywhere, from your jiu jitsu class to random family friends…or even your teammates at softball league.

Turn Off Marketing (Occasionally)

Solving a problem is crucial to telling a compelling story. And telling a compelling story is a prerequisite for getting press coverage. Although Galligan had a pretty wide-reaching team of investors who connected him with press, he wouldn’t have been able to secure it if his product wasn’t interesting.

A week after the initial launch, Circa was featured on the iTunes App Store as the Editor’s Pick. For the entire week, it was widely exposed to users and featured on the front page. (Later, Circa 2.0 would hit #1 on iTunes App Store’s top carousel — one of the perks of a high-quality product.)

At this point, Galligan decided to hold off on marketing. He’d already gained a significant amount of users because of the press push and the App Store exposure; now, he wanted to remove the marketing so he could see if users would sign up organically. He also wanted to shift his focus to retention; without marketing, would new users desire this app, and — more importantly — come back to it?

While Galligan was about to find out whether users really liked this product, this maneuver was risky because Circa would experience a slower growth period and Galligan could risk losing users without acquiring new ones. Fortunately, it worked out well; with “good growth and amazing retention,” Circa resonated with users and kept them coming back for more.

Closing Thoughts

Using these techniques, undoubtedly amongst many others, Matt Galligan has created an undeniably engaging product that resonates with a wide variety of people.

Apple put Circa in the spotlight as the best News app of 2013. Likewise, Circa was chosen by Google as one of the best Android apps of the year. As VentureBeat points out, even Yahoo!’s ‘News Digest’ app — recently unveiled at CES — borrows product elements from Circa. Although it’s still early in its life cycle, Circa is hooking in and engaging users and disrupting media through news.

Cover image: Silicon Prairie News

Matt Galligan is not affiliated with Pivotal Labs. We just thought he had some interesting insights on mobile product.

If you’re interested in learning more about Galligan and Circa, watch the full Foundation interview, read our recap when Galligan spoke at LAUNCH Conference, or check out his interview with Jason Calacanis in This Week in Startups.

Matt Galligan and Kevin Rose just showed you how news is changing. Now, learn more about how TV is changing with our whitepaper on next-generation TV.

Article written by Herbert Lui and edited by Megan Wheeler.