Question: exactly when is someone going to use your app/service?

We’ve been talking about the “attention economy” for a few years now but largely live in denial of the implications. Instead you’ll find entrepreneurs seduced into trying to build something awesome that solves some problem or other and often they will build something awesome that does solve a problem only to find that they can’t find enough traction to get more funding or build a business.

Here’s the thing that people want to avoid talking about: there are only 24 hours a day!

To build something that becomes a mainstream consumer product, you need to fit into some aspect or routine of the “states” that we experience during those 24 hours.

Now, about 8 of those hours aren’t easily addressable because they are allocated to sleep (market opportunity!).

For our “waking” hours, the vast majority of us traverse a sequence of “states” that might look like: waking up, orienting, eating, transiting, exercising, arriving, leaving, observing, working, studying, idling, procuring, breaking, relaxing, reflecting, returning, winding down, going to bed. We can get more granular and we can build up contextual scenarios (e.g. vacations) but the general idea is that for a piece of technology to become significant it must be accessed during one of those states. In the best case, an app/service can own one of those states for as long as possible until it is displaced.

Here are some examples. Lots of people exercise, and when they do, they are primed to use an app like Strava or MapMyRun. These apps provide important benefits to the user like tracking and recording but more importantly they are tied to an existing state (exercising) with which the user was already familiar. This allows those apps to be triggered and top of mind.

Pokémon Go splash screen actually depicts the state!

Lets look at something less obvious. Pokémon Go has enjoyed phenomenal success and unprecedented adoption despite omitting traditional viral hooks or growth hacks like notifications. In addition to leveraging a massive consumer franchise the app takes advantage of a state (“moving around”) that had no incumbent dominant player. When millions of people now leave their house, without prompting, they open Pokémon Go.

How about the crazy idea for Uber? Impossible to find a cab in San Francisco. Build an app that sends out a request to available cars and one picks me up right where I am. Out of the gate, Uber looked like a very narrow market — it had a higher price point and a lot of convenience so the brand initially had a luxury feel to it. If you asked early users, they’d remark about how simple, reliable, and frictionless (your account is billed) the service was.

Now, if you step back just a bit, you’ll see that Uber has won an enormous opportunity because nearly all of us nearly every day are in a “state” where we have to physically get from point A to point B. This is one reason why many investors underestimated Uber because the initial “pain point” and go-to-market vastly undersized the number of people who might someday avail themselves of the service. Uber owns “getting from A to B” and they don’t need supporting reminders, notifications or marketing to maintain that mindshare.

Until a few years ago and the ascendancy of mobile, nearly all of consumer software could fit under the “working” state which is to say we sat down at our desks and made use of various services for various needs. Remember the bloodbath around becoming someone’s default “home page” for a web browser? In the late 90s, early 00s, I was fortunate enough with a prior company (Webshots) to own the state of “returning to your desk.” Our wildly popular screensaver software would start cycling photos whenever someone left their computer for a minute or two!

For a time, TV could co-opt some of our states!

Back then, outside of “working” we largely made use of TV for media consumption and we can now look back at the very efficient way that TV was designed to carve up our time into perfect time slots. Who can forget Thursday night “Must See TV!”

Mobile devices have completely upset that rigid matrix because we can now consume anytime anyplace. So, what is the most common state for using Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et. al.? Smartphones have opened up an entirely new state that we can call “idling” where we all make use of assorted apps at unpredictable times. People grab their phones upon waking up, tote them to the restroom, and pull them out in line at the grocery store, the dinner table, etc. The “idling” state is the most competitive and difficult state to find traction.

With the sheer volume of people and media competing for your attention, you should think of building an app for “idling” like opening a casino on the Vegas Strip. You are forced to compete on novelty, shininess, attention getting, addictiveness, and pushed to keep people in your app at all costs. And despite your hopes and dreams, you aren’t actually on the Vegas Strip because it is already full. The biggest casinos have a tremendously unfair advantage.

One final example because I like its boldness. ESPN has a campaign around “live” where they argue that their app’s notifications are the only ones that matter. They are making a bid to own the state of “being interrupted.” This is clever and actually resonates for sports fans who watch shows where part of the show is literally being interrupted by highlights. It remains to be seen if they can really diffentiate from the notifications sent from all the others (i.e. the neon lights and promotions of the social media Vegas Strip).

So, for everyone out there trying to change the world, think hard about those 24 hours. By all means solve a hard problem. Design and build something beautiful. Make sure that your app or service makes its users awesome. But sit down and before you think too hard about the types of people who may someday use your app, think about that specific moment in someone’s routine when they are going to be compelled to choose what you have built.

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