What If God Were An App?

John Vars
John Vars
Jun 14, 2018 · 6 min read

A playful way to look at what apps/startups need to do to thrive in the next business cycle. Based on a talk I gave this April at Industry: The Product Conference in Dublin. (Note: this is not religious, but meant to be a fun, perhaps useful, thought exercise.)

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Last fall I was remembering my college days as a Badger at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In particular, I was remembering my Philosophy 101 class. In this class we were studying enlightenment philosophers such a David Hume, George Berkeley, and John Locke. They were attempting to solve a big problem of the day: proving or disproving the existence of the Judeo-Christian God through logic. As I recall (and it’s a bit hazy, it was college after all), they converged on four distinct qualities of God.

At the time I was enjoying this memory, I was going through a product roadmap process and helping put together Varo’s Series B fundraising pitch. The college memory and the work situation intertwined in my mind. This led to a little epiphany, namely–those same qualities that God must have (according to those philosophers) are the same qualities that a startup must possess in this coming business cycle. Behold, a new product management framework!

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Without further ado, the four qualities are: omniscience (all knowing), omnipotence (all powerful), omnipresence (everywhere) and benevolence (all good). Let’s dig in.

Omniscience

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God knows everything that can be known. God knows the past, present and future. The bible says God knows the name of each of the 100 billion trillion stars in the universe by name! Well, for today’s apps and startups you need to know as much as you possibly can about your users (without being creepy!). Being omniscient is all about treating data as one of your most precious assets. It means using the latest and greatest data science to leverage that data into real customer value. For example, take the time upfront, even when under delivery pressure, to instrument your app for analytics. It’s one of the only ways you’ll really be able to understand customer behavior or why a certain metric has gone sideways. Oh yeah, omniscience also means fighting the good fight for proper data security, privacy and stewardship.

Omnipotence

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Being all powerful is quite a super power! If only your startup could part the Red Sea or turn water into wine. Those kinds of miracles may be possible only by the divine, however, there are lots of miracles we can achieve at startups. A true miracle in the startup world is solving a real, meaty customer problem in a way that works so well it seems like magic.

One way to think about your omnipotence is the ol’ UX framework of utility, usability, and delight (or desirability). Utility — are you solving a real customer problem that aches so bad the customer would rob a drugstore to relieve? Have you considered both extrinsic and intrinsic needs? Usability–have you removed all the cognitive and physical friction? Is your app intuitive? Delight- are you exceeding expectation and creating a magical experience? Forget the 5-star app store review, what would it take to get a 7-star review?

Omnipresence

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Oh, to be everywhere at once! There’d be no more FOMO. Just like God is at every Academy Award speech, alongside every baseball player digging into the batter’s box, and with each gambler on his last roll, your startup needs to be omnipresent as well. You need to be with your customers all the time. They will no longer come to you, you must go to, or better yet, always be with them.

Right now this means, at least for consumer apps, that you are truly smartphone first. There are nearly 3 billion smartphones in the world and people are spending more and more time staring at them. Don’t ask people to come into a branch to open a bank account. Make it happen on their phone.

New platforms are coming on strong and to be truly omnipresent, you need to be there too. Ambient, always-on, voice assistants like Alexa will be everywhere soon. Natural language processing (NLP) continues to improve. Soon they’ll have solid identification and security protocols. When the privacy issues can be worked out, these will become a major part of our lives. Keep an eye on this.

BTW I believe omnipresence also means world class customer service. I don’t care whether it’s AI or human, but it needs to be able to quickly solve customer problems 24/7.

Benevolence

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God is good and this whole mess is part of a lovely divine plan. Thank goodness! While that all pans out, we’ve got to do our part. Companies for too long have gotten a free pass that all is fair in capitalism. I believe (and hope) that is changing. All startups–all companies for that matter–in this next business cycle will have to have a positive social impact. Even Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock said, “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” This is a huge signal coming from the largest asset holder in the world.

It’s also refreshing to see new venture capital funds focused on both social impact and financial returns. TPG’s The Rise Fund recently co-led Varo Money’s Series B (I work at Varo). Rise invested in us because they believe, as do we, that fee-free, technology-forward, smartphone banking with tools normally only available to wealthy will have a positive impact on many users’ financial lives (and be highly profitable). Funds like this are wonderful but also quite an anomaly still. This will soon change because consumers are demanding something greater from their brands and this preference will move up the proverbial food chain to the investors. And so be it. To quote my friend, former co-founder, and expert in profit-from-purpose business, Ted Rheingold, “profit-from-purpose businesses aren’t here to stay, they’re here to win.

I am going to resist the temptation to remind you about a certain 90’s song with a similar title and instead wrap this up. Look, there are a lot of ways to think about apps, startups and companies, but I would encourage you, even if just for kicks, to think about whether yours is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and benevolent. After all, we can all strive to be more God-like.

Like this? Please clap, share on social media, and/or follow me here or on twitter @johnv.

Thanks to Derya Rose and Jon Woods for feedback on this post and becky buck for the cool graphics.

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