Mobile-First or Web-First? Why Mobile Isn’t the Best Choice for Most New Startups

Martin Shen

June 18, 2013 · 3 minutes read

Uncategorized

Mobile is growing like a weed. Apparently, by the end of this year, there will be more mobile devices on Earth than people. Look at the super growth of Instagram and Snapchat. Mobile is only going to get bigger and more badass. Obviously, my startup should be mobile first!

Hold up.

“Mobile-first vs. web-first” has been a topic of discussion for some time now, with both the startup and VC community chiming in. Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures has suggested his affinity towards mobile-focused startups both in his writing and in his portfolio. Others have explained why budding entrepreneurs should consider web first instead. The true answer, as suggested by VC Mark Suster, is that mobile first works for some companies and not for others.

I’d like to add to that though: If you’re inexperienced, do web first.

When I say inexperienced, I mean a few possible things:

  • This is your first startup.
  • No one on your team has ever built a good mobile app.
  • Your startup has not figured out product/market fit.
  • You have less than $200,000 to spend on ads.

Although there’s a lot of potential in mobile, it’s far more challenging than web. Everything is harder and more expensive. Typical mobile-first startups spend at least 4 months developing their app, using TestFlight to send to a hundred or so people, beta test in Canada, and then launch to the US. The amount of time before even getting it into the end users’ hands is absurd, so you better get it right the first time around.

Worse yet, after launching you can’t easily make changes on the fly to improve conversions. A/B testing is practically impossible. Acquiring users is near impossible, as non-spammy viral loops and retention are especially difficult. The only proven way to get more users is to be in the top charts, which costs big ad bucks to do. This also means that to sustain growth, your startup needs to have its business model completely figured out (see: Foursquare’s debt round of financing).

At the end of the day, mobile-first is not newbie friendly. Inexperienced entrepreneurs should spend the early days of their startup getting early adopters and learning as much as you can about them. Many startup folk forget that even Instagram learned its first lessons and acquired its early adopters through its first product, Burbn. Use the web first (or even email-first) with lean startup methodology until you can find product-market fit. If your mobile makes sense, then do it.

At our event discovery startup, we decided to have a mobile presence but focus primarily on the web. It’s allowed us to optimize iterate on the product to market fit. Nearly every day, we can push changes to the website that increase our conversions, improve retention, or push our k-factor.

There are certainly exceptions (such as gaming or serving mobile developers), but I’d encourage inexperienced people to not go mobile first. Startups are already risky. Why increase your chance of failure by starting with mobile?

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