Running a startup can drive you crazy. I know we can’t succeed without the focus and execution to be the best in the world at something. But we have to quickly branch out to adjacent markets and products to grow large and achieve our dreams. In a competitive or fast-moving space, this can happen in a matter of months. These truisms are somehow opposing: losing focus to land-grab — or focusing without signaling — can break a fast growing startup.
IDEO’s Tim Brown created a concept called The T-Shaped Person, an employee who is strong in one particular vertical (their specialty), but knowledgeable and dangerous in many related fields (the horizontal part of the T). Many others have applied this to many different disciplines (marketing , for instance) for different types of employees, but I think it can be extracted and applied to organizations as a whole, especially startups.
The most successful startups can focus on the single core piece of the puzzle in a deep, meaningful way better than anyone else in the world. They understand their customers, solve a pain, and build the best experience. But they also lay the foundation for the future by explicitly signaling pieces of their intentions. Building a better product than anyone else is the vertical line in the T, and laying the foundation of their intentions is the horizontal line.
We’ll never win by going too wide too fast. That just ends up with a poor product in every aspect. The product has to be stellar. Branching out too early leaves our product a mess, our organization fragmented, our code base scattered, and our sales process disjointed.
Branching out too late, on the other hand, leaves room for competitors to come in and own an adjacent market before we can.
Branching out at just the right time, sending the right signals and building the right foundation, gives our customers confidence to get behind us, tells investors we have big plans, and helps keep competition at bay.
Take Facebook, which started as a digital replacement for Harvard’s pic book of new students. Mark Zuckerberg built a hugely useful utility for his college (which is why FB saw a massive adoption rate in a short time at Harvard). With an initial market of, perhaps, 10,000 students, Facebook was laser focused. But he quickly showed off his long-term intentions by opening up to just a few other schools (the Ivys, Stanford, UChicago, NYU, etc). He was telegraphing the future: we want to own the social graph, but we won’t compromise the product by doing so too early. By 2006, it was clear Zuckerberg and Facebook had grand plans, even if they hadn’t begun to attack them yet. They were diving deep into solving the problem, but laying the foundation for the future.
Uber is another example of a company executing on this idea. Uber began as a high-end towncar service built on mobile. The solution was absolutely killer and users love it. Towncars are still the core of their business (the vertical line), but they’ve also shown some of their future intentions: car sharing (Uber X) is just one example, but some of their other, one-off, initiatives are even more interesting. For instance, what they’ve done on Valentine’s Day or with ice cream trucks shows that they’re actually building a mobile platform for anything on-demand. That’s them signaling the horizontal line on the T.
Meanwhile, at MobileDevHQ, we’re deep on App Store Optimization (App Store SEO) and Inbound App Marketing (organic downloads), but we’re quickly signaling our intentions around app intelligence and workflow management, with Competitive Intelligence, download analytics, and app portfolio management. We think there’s a huge business to be built giving enterprises access to data about the app ecosystem, with our beachhead being around ASO and Competitive Intelligence.
About a year ago we spent a few months deep in customer development understanding what enterprises need and want from a solution for their app management. Our product, at the time, was hard to use, not extensible, and focused solely on App Store Optimization. So we had a product that was lacking and not wholly solving a core problem yet, but at the same time we were spending time with enterprises who were telling us what else they wanted. It was so easy for us to just bolt on another feature, disjointed from everything else we already had.
We did this a couple times before we realized how shallow our product was quickly becoming. Meanwhile, sales weren’t as easy or fast as they could be because we had some features for marketers, some for product owners, and so on. The sales cycles lengthened, product demos became less compelling, and our pricing was confusing. We found ourselves with an entire mountain to mine, but were only digging a foot deep anywhere.
About 3 months ago we refocused, redesigned our product, condensed features, and built a coherent solution for enterprise app marketers. The result is a product we’re proud of and one that resonates with customers. But that was only the first step. We had to dive deep, making the new core as deep and amazing as humanly possible.
We focused on our core Keyword Research product: what keywords should you be targeting as a marketer of an app? Previously we had volume (how frequently is this term searched for in the app store?) and difficulty (how hard is it to rank for this search term?) metrics for a term, but that was it.
We dove deep, real deep, on both the backend and frontend. Our volume metric is better than ever, with new and better data sources. Our difficulty metric is calculated differently to expose true differences between terms. We added a relevance metric to ensure marketers know which are the most relevant search terms for their app. And all our customers know that games are a huge percentage of apps (and searches), so we added a category breakdown — do I really want to focus on this keyword if I’m a Productivity app but all the results are Games? That’s a lot of data for a marketer to make a decision from, but we knew just adding those new metrics wouldn’t provide too much value; we had to break it down into a single score for marketers to know, at a glance, which are the best keywords.
We’re committed to being the best place in the world for App Store Optimization and Inbound App Marketing and we’ll continue to dive deep on this. But the tension is tough and branching out is tantalizing. We have limited resources on our small team and making decisions on whether to dive deep or signal our commitment to building a big business and showing customers our potential is not an easy task. It’s one we’ve struggled with, will continue to struggle with, but will continue to get better at.