Ten Times Better
Better engineering isn’t enough. Be sure you’re solving the most important problem.
It is often said in the startup scene that if you want to compete in an established market — as we are doing at Cuddli — you need a solution that is 10 times better. And this is pretty much true. However, there isn’t often a lot said about why you need to be 10 times better (to break through inertia), or where you need to be 10 times better (the most important problem for your users). When we founded Cuddli, we made a lot of incorrect assumptions about both of these, and this hurt us badly. In fact, we invested so much chasing the wrong assumptions that it nearly killed our company.
Without any question, our technology is at least 10 times better than any of our competitors. Cuddli is a location-based dating app. Our app breaks new ground in a lot of places — we’re the first dating app you can actually use to not just meet people, but also plan dates in safe public places. We did this by deeply integrating Foursquare and we also fully integrated our app with Google Calendar. We built a ton of safety features, mostly invisible, for a user experience that is second to none. And we have a new and innovative approach to profiles. Users mostly describe themselves with pictures rather than text. It’s easy to talk people out of meeting you in a dating profile, so we only give users 140 characters. Most importantly, our app is designed to be more effective. Everything about the design gets people together in the real world as quickly as possible.
“We’re easily 10 times better,” we thought. “Probably closer to 20 times better. What could possibly go wrong?” So we shipped, and the complaints started rolling in from our early adopters. Review after review on our Play Store page lamented the lack of users. One example review:
Shame! Good app. Nicely done. Easy to use. Fresh and tidy. But and its a big but. There are simply not enough users on here. I found 2 people within 500 miles of me. Thats poor. Real shame coz i like the app itself. 2 stars.
This is the sort of thing that, as an app developer, makes you want to bang your head against the wall. But it’s a really valuable lesson. Users don’t actually differentiate the technology you built from the overall user experience. In a dating app, the killer app is people to meet. If you don’t have that, only a tectonic shift — such as the shift from Web to mobile — will overcome it. And there is really only room in the marketplace for one or two big players when it comes to mass-market dating apps. In dating apps, for the mass market of millennials, Tinder has more or less locked that up in North America, and Badoo has more or less locked that up in Europe and Asia. Why? Inertia.
Even if there isn’t any switching cost to adopt your product (such as from switching from one free app to another), inertia is an incredibly powerful thing. How powerful is inertia? Powerful enough to overcome “You Had One Job!” situations like the case of Ashley Madison. Think about it: an absolutely core part of Ashley Madison’s value proposition was strict confidentiality. And yet, after not only the utter failure to maintain this (through negligence that borders on criminal), and despite the exposure of Ashley Madison as essentially fraudulent (full of fake profiles and chat bots), their user base actually grew when the incidents were exposed. “But TProphet,” you might say, “Ashley Madison isn’t representative. Its users are clearly a lot dumber than average.” And yes, this is probably true, but by the same token, Amazon users are probably smarter than average. And despite Jet making a huge splash, undercutting Amazon on essentially every item they sell (which actually isn’t hard to do these days; Amazon prices have steadily crept up), it hasn’t mattered. Jet is not even close to meeting expectations. Inertia doesn’t just rule our dating habits, it rules our banking and purchasing and online shopping habits as well.
How do you break through? Well, once we learned that people are the killer app in a dating app (it seems so obvious now, but we take comfort that it must not be given the proliferation of dating apps making exactly the same mistakes we did), we went for a segmentation play. This made sense. We’re geeks ourselves, we do geek stuff, geeks were the ones mostly using our app, so why not go after the geek market? In the geek dating space, where we’re currently playing, we could — with only a little exaggeration — have shipped a ham sandwich and been better than the sum of the existing competition. Cuddli has a pretty formidable technical moat at this point, we’re free (while the competition charges), and our app is full of geeks while Tinder isn’t. So while we’re certainly not guaranteed success, we’re 10 times better than anything else. We’ll maintain that advantage when we (finally) ship on iOS, hopefully by the end of this month. And we can do the same thing with the same technology platform for dozens of other under-served and niche communities. You can, after all, fill a tank with a large funnel, or a series of smaller ones. Cuddli is now growing (although not as fast as we would like), and we now have a hope of salvaging at least some semblance of a business out of it.
The adage of needing to be 10 times better is true. But it’s not just that. It’s where you need to be 10 times better. It’s whether the value you create is enough to break through the power of inertia. And even if you do all of that, timing is everything. If you’re too early or too late to a given market, it doesn’t matter what you built; you’ll be lost in the noise. If you’re an engineering-driven company building a consumer play in a market that you don’t really understand very well, don’t get caught up in the features you’re designing. Don’t convince yourself that if you’re 10 times better from a feature perspective, it’s going to be enough. It isn’t, and this almost killed us.