It all started as a harmless addition to the Product Hunt feed, a little lightweight mobile app which just does one thing — we all know what that is now. But, it can be so much more, and the sheer ridiculousness of the app’s simplicity somehow managed to generate a high level of chatter about the app “Yo” to the point of it being comical. Underneath the jeers and laughs, however, lies something worth paying attention to.
First, we must consider how frustrating Yo’s rise is to others. Think of all the other technology entrepreneurs and investors who are building complex systems for mobile devices. It’s very hard work. And, then, a couple of folks not only have their dead-simple app explode, they also capture the scarce attention of the major tech blogs and influential people on Twitter.
Second, speaking of distribution – mobile distribution is a bitch. I’ve written about this too many times. See here for more details, but TL;DR, only a handful of apps get to experience true mobile distribution, and this is one of them. Additionally, a smaller handful of apps touch on the zeitgeist of consumer word-of-mouth, and Yo was able to do that.
Third, we’ve been beating a dead horse about apps needing to do one thing, and to do that one thing well. And, well, Yo takes that to the extreme. But, then again, why not? A step further, there’s the well-known post about big breakthroughs initially looking like toys (by Chris Dixon). It’s worth reading that post again.
Fourth, push notifications and the notification screen are becoming increasingly important. Most people who mock Yo likely do not have any clue about the changes afoot on the notification screen, how younger users tend to view notifications as media (versus in-app experiences), and how the mobile gatekeepers are planning to modify their operating systems to allow for a range of actions within push notifications themselves, removing the need of opening an app entirely.
And, fifth, we have all seen this movie before. In late 2012, a little app called Snapchat was growing fast, and people couldn’t understand why this simple app with a gimmick built around expiring images could fetch millions in venture capital. Even when I wrote this column a few months later, it generated an unusual amount of feedback for something I write, and to this day, is the most popular post (by traffic numbers) I’ve written. Only now with hindsight do more and more people understand how Snapchat provided a channel for people to share mobile photos without the fear of having recipients “Save To Camera Roll” on their phones. Dead simple, and now, genius. Most recently, the folks at Betaworks have joined a small group to invest in Yo. If there’s one group who understands native mobile consumer products, it is Betaworks. Rest assured they all see a larger opportunity, and not a “simple, stupid app.”
That which is dismissed or overlooked can often hold deep, insightful meaning. What looks simple and not valuable could, actually, be the first step in a more complex architecture and, over time, accrue real value. The line between uselessness and usefulness can be razor thin. While critics pen premature obituaries, it is the builders here who get to write the future. Yo has distribution, has the right location, and now the right timing with push notifications poised to change dramatically. Maybe, we should think of Yo, to date, as a very, very, very v1.0 product. The future may hold many versions.
At the end of “The Dark Knight,” Batman traps The Joker by a cable, dangling his enemy, upside down, from the top of a large skyscraper. The Joker, floating in the air, face to face with Batman, muses, “Madness, as you know, is like gravity…all it takes is a little push [notification].”