In a sea of over 1 million apps on the Appstore and the first ever quarterly decline in app downloads, many people are left wondering whether the golden age of apps is over. And, with more and more tech unicorns positing sustained losses, it seems that even the most successful apps are facing headwinds. In such a tumultuous environment, how can people with a great idea ever hope to see it to fruition? In this post, I discuss 5 key principles to scale your own app startup, using my failed startup as a sobering case in point.
For context, Tasten was a mobile travel application that showcased the world’s best places through the sensory power of photo, video and music. It was based on an innovative sharing and discovery platform that brought the world to the palm of users’ hands. The app was founded by myself and co-founder Adam Albarghouthi (read an interview with Adam here). Despite spending more than a year developing the idea and the product, and winning multiple awards along the way, we could never scale the app.
It was clear that the idea was a good one (remind you of something else?), but the go-to-market strategy and execution set us up for failure. We learned the hard way that the essence of scaling a startup can be distilled into 5 key principles, all of which we failed to adhere to with Tasten.
1. Be in tune with the product (i.e. the tech): Working on Tasten, we had no clue how code worked, let alone how to build an app. This resulted in some costly mistakes and hindered the app’s scalability. Firstly, we overpaid app developers for a code that took many shortcuts and was not scalable (incurring a large technical debt). Moreover, we made some fatal IT architecture decisions on a whim and, when Facebook’s Parse “backend as a service” product was shutdown unexpectedly, we were left without a backend. As a founder, you must be in tune with the product to the extent that you can make informed product decisions. This doesn’t mean that you need to code yourself, but you should be able to understand your product’s appropriate technical stack to guide the overall product strategy and to scale to your business aspirations.
2. Focus on the “who” before the “what”: We focused so much on building a great business plan, developing the idea, and testing it with customers, before even putting a technical developer on the team. Thus, when it was time to hit the ground running and develop the app, we grossly underestimated the effort required to build a team that is competent, passionate and aligned with our goals. As a startup founder, your first task should be on building an all-star team, before devoting precious time and resources on strategy and business plan development.
3. Build an MVP as fast as possible: Not much to be said here, as this is at the core of the lean startup approach. It took us almost a year to get Tasten on the App Store, as we wanted to make sure that it had all the necessary features for the best user experience. This was another lethal mistake which, in hindsight, could have easily been resolved by focusing on 1–2 core functionalities and bringing those to market in an MVP as soon as possible.
4. Don’t worry about monetization; instead focus on acquiring users: When pitching our idea to investors, we had all the wrong success metrics in mind. We were overly concerned about monetization and potential revenue models rather than customer acquisition strategies, which was a direct impediment to Tasten’s growth and scalability. When scaling a business, focus on metrics like customer lifetime value to customer acquisition cost ratio (CLV/CAC), rather than revenue and profitability. Moreover, make sure to consider the product holistically and not just through a business or technical lens (see figure 2 below for the UX “sweet spot”).
5. Do not get bogged down by bureaucracy: Time and time again, I see founders spreading themselves thin by allocating their energy to too many different tasks. At Tasten, we spent a great deal of time incorporating the company as a legal entity, developing copyrights and trademarks, and bolstering data privacy and security, which really slowed us down. When starting a business, segregate tasks and prioritize those which are essential to your goal of launching and scaling the product. Once the product has proved its concept, then worry about legal, data privacy, security and other concerns.
By adhering to these 5 principles ceremoniously, I have found much greater success in my latest startup, Stavros Ascots, which I was able to grow from concept to worldwide distribution in less than 6 months. Put them to use when scaling your next idea, and you might be surprised by the results.