Why doing a mobile app start-up is a bad idea

“You have to be in mobile,” venture capitalists will instruct you.  “We have to be in mobile,” tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo will echo.  Obviously, it’s because we’re living in a mobile-first world.

Yet, becoming the next Instagram or Snapchat is insanely difficult and increasingly so.  A hit app is a rarer unicorn than a hit website.  Why?  Unlike websites, apps aren’t linked to each other; you can’t click on a link to discover a new app, you have to purposefully search and download it from the app store.  Then you have to learn how to use the app before finally getting some value out of it.  Some apps — especially on Android but even from bluebloods like Facebook — behave badly and mistreat your phone’s battery or privacy settings.

The result of the above is that, according to Nielsen, most people use only 30 apps on their phone.  What are the chances your mobile app can make a person’s top 30?  Let’s break down how difficult a threshold that truly is.  What are the 30 apps you’d typically use?

  1. Phone
  2. Calendar
  3. Contacts
  4. Clock
  5. Maps
  6. Mail
  7. Browser
  8. Music
  9. Camera
  10. Photos
  11. Calculator
  12. Weather
  13. Flashlight
  14. Messaging #1 (e.g. SMS, Snapchat, Whatsapp)
  15. Messaging #2 (e.g. Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime)
  16. Facebook
  17. Instagram
  18. Youtube
  19. Yelp (or similar)
  20. Banking or finance app (e.g. BoA, Citi)
  21. Reader app (e.g. iBooks, Amazon Kindle)
  22. Photo app (e.g. VSCO, Camera+)
  23. Notes app (e.g. Evernote, OneNote)
  24. News app (e.g. Flipboard, Feedly)
  25. Sports app (e.g. ESPN, Yahoo Sports)
  26. Car app (e.g. Uber, Lyft)
  27. Shopping app (e.g. Pinterest, Fancy)
  28. Game #1
  29. Game #2
  30. Game #3
  31. feecha (I wish!)

Assuming the average person plays only three games a month is already too conservative.  And we haven’t even included big names like OneDrive, Dropbox, Twitter, Vine, Spotify, Shazam, Pocket, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Office (or Office equivalent) and the Holy Bible.  Or the dozens of specialist apps — like Day One, comiXology, GolfLogix, Pleco — that certain audiences love to use.

Is your app so indispensable that it belongs in the average person’s top 30?

I don’t know.  It’s a tall order, and why building an app business is an uphill battle.  Not just for entrepreneurs but for big brands too.

It also calls into question the wisdom behind the app unbundling trend.

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