Early-Stage Startups And Suites Of Mobile Apps

There’s been lots of chatter around “mobile app cross-promotions” and “constellations of mobile apps” lately, largely driven by the fact that one of the most influential technology investors (Fred Wilson) recently wrote about it — and, as usual, cleanly spotted something before other people were able to put definitions around it. Regarding “App Constellations,” however, I do feel there’s a key caveat that needs to be pointed out and debated (as people will disagree with this) — specifically that for early-stage companies, executing a “constellation” strategy for native mobile apps might not be realistic despite various attempts to ride the trend.

For big companies like Apple (which can preload its own software), Google (which has many products many consumers want and the resources to build and distribute them), and others like Dropbox, Amazon, and so forth, each of these larger companies has enough cash and/or talent and/or marketing budgets to leverage their user bases and deep links to bounce users in and out of apps. Take Dropbox — I fully expect my mobile Dropbox experience to have me bounce, via deep links, in and out of Mailbox, Sunrise (when they acquire them), and maybe even SoundCloud (which is a more natural fit than going to Twitter — but that’s another blog post.)

So, sure, this will work for larger companies reach a certain size and have the resources. But what about early-stage companies — is this viable?

I’m writing this today because I’ve heard competing opinions from smart people. On the one hand, just building a loyal user base for one app on one mobile platform is an arduous task, so building even just one extra app puts a burden on small teams who often spend extra cycles ironing out network or OS bugs which arise out of their control. On the other hand, people were quick to point out apps like Triposo (travel guides by city) and a host of others that took this approach, releasing slightly-tweaked shells of their core app for specific audiences. In these cases, I can see how it wouldn’t be a total operational nightmare to submit these to the App Stores and blanket a category, as well as to optimize for App Store search (ASO).

The reason I’m stuck on this is that, years ago, I was helping a news-related app company that — go figure — launched 3-4 separate iOS apps targeted to a vertical — gaming, entertainment, sports, and general news/politics. The goal was to spread the technology out to verticalized audiences, see what sticks, see how users behave, and eventually “unify” everyone under one brand. Well, that didn’t go so well…which is not to say it’s a flawed strategy for an early-stage company, but unless those pieces of matter grow into larger stars, the idea of a constellation spawning off from them seems remote. From where I sit, constellations most certainly make sense for the big players, but I’m not sure if they work for the upstarts — for them, the immediate issue is how to breakout in the App Store and grow fast, to actually find the elusive escape velocity to get into interstellar space, where they can hopefully one day become their own star and have smaller planets orbit it.

That’s my view, but I really wrote this to hear the other side, so please comment and reach out if you disagree.