Monday, December 24, 2012

Pmarca's Guide to Startups for Kindle

I made a Kindle version of Marc Andreessen's "Guide to Startups" so I could read it on a long-distance flight. You can download it here.

(Use Amazon's Send to Kindle application to get it on your Kindle. Or email it to your Kindle's email address which you can find in > Your Account > Manage Your Kindle > Personal Document Settings.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Startup Naming Stories from the Guy you Saw on Bravo TV

You may have spotted me today on Bravo TV's "Startups: Silicon Valley". Cast member Kim Taylor has just left Ampush and invited Lauren Jacobson, Mike Ihbe, and me over to have a brainstorming session to come up with a name for her new fashion startup.

Prime time TV doesn't really allow for an in-depth look at startup naming strategies. For example, one thing that the show left out today is that I came prepared with this Google spreadsheet of possible names for Kim's startup - but I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.

Instead of giving you a bland “10 Tips for Startup Naming” blog post, I decided to tell you 3 stories from my personal experience: A bad name, a great name, and one that’s somewhere in the middle.

A Bad Name

When I was in grad school in 2005, Google released its Google Maps APIs, which would allow people to show Google Maps on their own sites. But it wasn’t easy to just make a map with your own locations, so learned Ruby on Rails and built a site that let you do that in 2 weeks of caffeine-fueled late night sessions (I managed to attend all my classes at the same time as well). All I was lacking was a name, and I was thinking that this site let you make your Google Map, thus I named it That name is really bad for a bunch of reasons:
  • it’s hard to read (3 consonants packed up right next to each other)
  • it’s hard to parse (where do the words begin and end)
  • it’s confusing (is it “my” map or “your” map?)
The site is still alive, and gets a bunch of usage and traffic, but I’m not very proud of the name, which had clearly emerged from the clouded judgement of late-night coding.

A Great Name

The company I sold to Google was called reMail, and we got I think it was pretty much the perfect name for a startup with the goal of reinventing email:
  • it fits the business (the word "email" is in the name)
  • it's short (6 letters, two syllables)
  • it’s the .com (very important because that's what people are trained to type in)
  • it's pronounceable
We were working out of a Foster City apartment at the time - we had holed up in suburbia to avoid the distractions of the city. We had raised money from YCombinator and some angels, but we didn't really have a name yet. We came up with a list of 10 email-related .com domain names that were available, and sent them to one of our angels, Paul Buchheit. Paul, of course, is famous not only for inventing Gmail, but also for not holding back on his opinions. He told us he didn't like any of them and that we should go back to the drawing board.

If there is one universally acknowledged truth about domain names, it's that all the good domains are taken. I made a list of ideal domain names for an email startup, and started reaching out to the owners of each domain. (You can find out who owns a domain using a service called WHOIS.) One day I need to write a post about negotiating for domain names, but it comes down to this: If you reach out to 32 domain name owners, 16 of them will respond, 8 of them will be willing to talk about selling, 4 of them will be actually serious, 2 will agree to a price, and 1 of them will actually sell. That’s exactly what happened with, and we bought it from the previous owner, a gentleman in Tennessee  for $4000.

A Compromise

After I left Google a few months ago, I decided to team up with a former co-worker and a UI designer and work on a fun mobile app together. The most fun idea we could come up with was an app where you could chat with drawings. That sounds fun because it is. We named it DrawChat, but couldn’t get, because it was already taken. Instead, as a domain name, we got - a compomise because:
  • it’s short (two syllables, 8 characters)
  • it’s related to what the app does (you would “draw-chat me”)
  • but it's not the dot-com
For mobile apps, you don’t necessarily have to get the dot-com, because most people will find your app on the App Store, not the web.

As an aside, we didn’t initially know what we were going to build. But one thing about building apps for iOS is that in order to get a company account for the Apple App Store, you have to go through a complex process of incorporating the company, getting a tax ID number, and getting a Dun & Bradstreet number to prove that your company is legit - a process that can easily take a month. Because we didn’t know what we’re going to do, we decided come up with a name for the company that was so bland that your eyes would barely register it when you saw it in the App Store. We called it Watermark Studios. See, it barely even registered in your mind.

We recently sold DrawChat to mobile development company Handmark - futher proof the name wasn't half bad.

The Scientific Approach

Let’s get back to Kim’s startup and our powwow on Bravo TV. I did a little bit of homework before we met up with her and followed the scientific approach of startup naming:
  1. I came up with a list of words related to fashion. I walked into a Walgreens, bought a stack of fashion magazines, and leafed through them, writing up words that caught my attention.
  2. I cut the list down to shorter words that could work as prefixes and suffixes.
  3. I put the list into a domain name generator (my favorite one is the DomBuddy generator), and got a list of available combinations.
You can follow this approach in this Google spreadsheet I put together for Kim. If you’re starting a fashion startup, and are looking for a name, feel free to use any of them.

The domain that Kim ended up with - - is one that she, as a former gymnast, had a personal connection with. Yelena Shushunova is the gymnast’s gymnast, and inspired a move that is shortened to Shonova. Here’s how it scores:
  • it has a personal connection (and Kim does a great job of telling her personal story on Bravo TV)
  • it’s short (three syllables, unambiguous pronounciation)
  • it’s related to gymnastics, which her audience fashionistas would care about
  • it's unique, which allowed Shonova to already take the top spot on Google for that word
It’ll be an exciting journey for Kim. I have signed up for a beta invite and you should too!

Beyond App Stores: Weaving Apps into the Web

The most annoying thing about the mobile web today are the interstitial pages that ask you to download an app instead of visiting a website. They look like this:

Publishers today need to build 4 different versions of the same content: Desktop, mobile browser, iOS, and Android.

On your phone you can read the same content in the mobile browser, and through the publisher's app. Here’s an example with a piece in the New York Times:

The web version of the content allows you to freely navigate and explore in your browser, and visit external links without losing your history. But the mobile app is still superior to the mobile web experience. Apps cache content for flaky mobile connections, and reformat content to be more enjoyable to read on phone and tablet form factors.

No man is an island, but every app is. The New York Times app is completely disconnected from the New York Times site. You can’t just open the app and pick up where you left off in the browser. As a subscriber, you need to log in once in the app and once in the browser. You can’t find an article on Google and have it open in the app: You’d need to manually open the app and type its title into the search bar.


What if we married the best of browsing the web - the fact that you can freely move around - with the best of native apps - the fact that native controls, native caching, and scrolling are better on each platform?

My proposal would be to let mobile browsers download small apps and execute them within the browser window. [1] If the browser encounters a specific <meta> in the HTML page, it would download an .apk or .ipa up to a certain size, maybe a few hundred kilobytes, and display the content inside that app. If the user liked what she saw, she could bookmark the app, which would make it show up on the home screen, and optionally download a larger app package with more functionality.

The app could access browser cookies from the affiliated webpage. [2] This would allow zero-step login on mobile apps - something that is painfully lacking today.

Let’s imagine you found the article above with a Google search on your Android device. Below is what the result would look like:


Weaving apps into the web would have significant advantages over the status quo. 

For one, every major website already has a corresponding iPhone and Android app. This would free publishers from having to make a mobile-optimized website in addition to their desktop website.

Users would get to try out an app without the heavy cost of installation. Today, installing an app on iPhone today involves finding it in the app store, clicking a button, entering your password, and waiting for the download and install to complete - a process that can easily take a minute or more. Users would be more likely to install apps, and more likely to use them.

Allowing the app to access browser cookies would solve onboarding problems: If you’ve already signed into the website, you don’t need to do so again. Making users type in an email address and a password on a mobile device causes user flow breakage rates of 20% or more. If the app was already installed (which is most often the case), you’d only have to download the pure content.

Allowing apps to be accessible via URLs makes app discovery more like the familiar pattern of browsing sites on the web. All the apps you install today end up cluttering up your home screen. What you get is endless screens of apps, once downloaded, never discarded. 

Apps today are pretty disposable and yet they get backed up and restored as if they were priceless childhood memories. They should be more like websites: If you like it, you better put a bookmark on it. (Apologies for the terrible pun.) Giving an app a permanent spot on the home screen should work like bookmarking a site.

Lastly, a nice side effect of this scheme is that content in apps is connected with the web. A lot of great content is locked away in apps like Instagram. Imagine that you could find content on Google or Reddit or Digg, and clicking on the link would navigate you to a high-definition native experience inside the Instagram app, rather than showing you a degraded web page.


Many apps you have on your phone today display content from the web in a mobile-optimized way. But apps are isolated and not reachable from the web - they live on their own separate islands. Allowing the browser to download and display small apps from the web would get rid of the tall hurdles of heavyweight app store-based installs, and make app discovery more like browsing the web. This would benefit publishers and consumers alike.


Check out the Hacker News thread on this article and enjoy the controversy around this proposal.


This post is the latest in a series of posts about the shortcomings of today's app store model. Read more:
  1. Every Step Costs you 20% of Users
  2. The Biggest Problem in App Discovery
  3. Rethinking the App Model
  4. The Two Hurdles of App Adoption
  5. Getting People to Use Your App

[1] User webXL on Hacker News makes a good observation: "Take out that automatic nonsense and I think he makes a good proposal. A URL can currently load a local app rather than a page in webkit. Only in this case, there would be some markup that would tell the browser to check for the installed app, perhaps the browser would present some unobtrusive indicator that a hybrid app was available to download. Just keep the address bar and the rest of the browser chrome there, swap the webkit frame out with the app's window, let the app access some of the history APIs, and you'd have a good portion of this figured out."

[2] There are various DNS and cryptography based ways to prove that both the app and the site are from the same publisher, but I'll leave it to the experts to figure out the details.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Letterpress Deconstructed

The iPhone game Letterpress is incredibly popular with my friends. Games usually only make it on the iOS platform if they're very polished and have elaborate graphical detail. Letterpress is a different kind of polished. Its look is sparse, strict, and minimalist.

Because Letterpress is lacking gradients, drop shadows, and other embellishments, the Google Product Manager in me decided to take it apart and analyze what makes it a great experience. I found no bells and whistles, just carefully executed transitions and animations at every step.

I present to you Letterpress, deconstructed.

If you haven't heard about Letterpress, it's a word game where you have to form words with letters on a 5x5 grid. When you use a letter, that turns it blue. When your friend uses a letter to form a word, those letters turn red. Once the entire grid is covered in red and blue, the letters are counted up and if there's more blue than red, you win. It looks like this:

The Story Behind Letterpress

I would have expected a bit more of a back story on the app's website, but it only provides two sentences about the origins [2]. I found this Mashable piece that provides a bit more background. Letterpress was made by Loren Brichter, whose previously worked at Apple, and then built Tweetie where he invented pull-down-to-refresh. He sold Tweetie to Twitter where it became Twitter for iPhone. He recently left Twitter and started "atebits", the company behind Letterpress. Atebits is really atebits 2.0 - the first company that made Tweetie had the same name. He developed the Letterpress idea when he and his wife were playing SpellTower in single player mode side by side.

Why It Works 

Competitive element: Competing with your friends is addictive. There are enough games like Scrabble and Words with Friends that make it feel familiar. This makes the rules of the game easy enough to understand and get started quickly, and hard enough to master to feel challenging. [4]

Unusual navigation: Any other developer would have put a navigation bar on top of the app with its name on it. This is what we did with DrawChat - trying to burn the name into people's memories. Yet you can't find the name of the app anywhere in Letterpress. The little back arrow on the top left feels exciting and new, yet familiar enough to be useful.

Animations: There are a handful of really well-executed animations in the app. Despite the relative dryness of a grid of letters, this conveys to the user that the app is well-executed and fun.

Wait spinner: Since Letterpress has to load the current game state from the web, a user will see the wait spinner pretty often. The Letterpress wait spinner is the company's logo. This has long-term brand benefits. But also it's cute and well-executed. Every 8 turns, it randomly spins backwards to give it some personality. This is apparently in reference to the company's name (atebits = 8 bits).

Zoom into game: Clicking on a game zooms into the current game, rather than just opening it in a new page in the traditional iOS style. Note that all of the table view cells get animated at the same time, not just the one you selected.

Last word played: After opening a game, the last word played in the game gets popped up.

Dialog animation: Dialogs come in top-to-middle and fade out middle-to-bottom. At the very end, they get a little shake before they disappear.

Clear animation: Clearing the word in a game makes the tiles animate back to their original location.

Sounds: The most recent version of the app (V1.1) adds sounds to almost all actions in the game. The developer notes in the upgrade notes that he spent a lot of time on these. The sounds of selecting letters, clearing your word, and receiving a word from your opponent are very satisfying.

Game Center: I'm undecided on whether this is a benefit. Game Center allows Letterpress to piggyback on the existing social graph of iOS. Thus it doesn't have to deal with the messiness of integrating with Facebook directly to match you up with friends. But two things speak against it: First, Game Center is ugly and soils the look of Letterpress. Second, Game Center's screens are a bit too complicated for the average user to understand and thus cause a bit of churn: For example, what does "Invite up to 1 player" mean in the friend selection screen? You should just click on one and the game should start. In addition, Game Center's design is uncharacteristically kitschy for a core iOS app and going between this and Letterpress feels jarring.

Purchasing Flow The prompt to purchase the game comes in at exactly the right point: You've already played a game, so you know how the app works and that it's fun. You're prompted to purchase the $0.99 multi-game upgrade just as you hit the "New Game" button. It's clear to you what you're buying and why you should buy it.

Not Rocket Science

Overall, none of this is rocket science. I'm pretty sure that all of this could have been done with UIKit, but it turns out Brichter implemented his own animation engine in OpenGL [1]. What sets Letterpress apart is that there are few screens and little complexity, every screen in the app is thoroughly executed, and every transition is carefully animated. Nothing you or I couldn't do. "Modern art is when you could have done it, but you didn't," the saying goes, and it is also true for Letterpress.


Conversation on Hacker News


Notes and Corrections

[1] The original version of the article stated "This is all UIKit", but the animation engine is actually implemented in OpenGL (thanks to wallflower on Hacker News for the tip)

[2] The original version of the article said that "the app and its website play the mystery card", but the website actually provides some background about the origins. I changed the post to reflect this. (thanks to pflats on Hacker News for the tip)

[3] The original version of this article said that "Sometimes the spinner randomly spins backwards", but xuki points out on Hacker News that it's actually once every 8 turns.

[4] Great point by nbashaw on Hacker News on the game mechanics of Letterpress: "I love how letterpress is really a territory game disguised as a word game. Instead of rolling a dice like you do in Risk, you find words to form your attacks. Rather than trying to pick up words with obscure letters, or lengthy words, you try to capture strategic tiles and expand your controlled area. Once you cover a large area of dark blue tiles, you choke out your opponent's ability to score points, and the game slowly snowballs further in your favor. It's really fascinating."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Selling DrawChat


On Saturday, I was at the SF Ferry Building Farmers Market and was nibbling on some of Primavera's Chilaquiles. That's when I got the email.

[Pusher] Your account is getting close to its usage limits

We are using Pusher for DrawChat to send chat messages to their recipients in near-real-time. Pusher's Sandbox plan allows for 100k messages a day. This seemed to have been some sort of bug.

When I got home, I started investigating. I looked at Flurry and Localytics, and it looked like our numbers were just through the roof. But there was no press, no email from Apple, no explanation. I tweeted out my puzzlement, and a follower replied:
And there it was:

When I pitched DrawChat at Founders Den Demo Day, I jokingly added a handdrawn hockeystick curve as a slide at the end of my presentation. My whole performance was more standup comedy real pitch, and I figured I would add this as an homage to the idealized startup pitch deck.

This hockeystick curve had now become reality. For comparison, here is the Parse graph from that day:

DrawChat is something fun that we built after Jeremy and left Google. With UI designer Chloe Bregman (and iOS contractor Thorsten Blum), we literally sat down and said, "what is the most fun thing we can build in a month."

Because of this, we've already moved on past working on DrawChat and are focusing on the next idea. 

Yet we feel there is still a lot of potential in DrawChat, and we think that we could probably spend some time building in monetization - think charging for backgrounds or drawing tools. One app that does a great job at this is Paper.)

This is why we've decided to sell DrawChat. 

Find the listing on Apptopia. Apptopia is a Mark Cuban-funded startup specializing in buying and selling iPhone apps.

Our reserve price is $10k and our buy-it-now price is $200k. Bidding ends on Wednesday Nov 21, 2012 at 9:00 am Pacific time. The price includes 2 days of Jeremy's and my time so we can help out the buyer with taking over the app.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

One More Way of Getting People to Use Your App


Something suprising happened right after I posted my last blog post about getting people to use your app.

Apple featured DrawChat, an app I wrote with fellow ex-Googler Jeremy Orlow and UI Designer Chloe Bregman, in the UK App Store.

It's there, right next to Clear and Evernote.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Getting People to Use Your App

Chances are, someone has already thought of your app idea. Whether it's ridesharing, travel guides, ordering food, housecleaning, shopping guide, video discovery, photo editing, action game, puzzle game: I guarantee you're not the first person to come up with the concept.

Instead of focusing your effort on what your app is going to do, think about distribution first. How are you going get people to use it?

The big guys have a big advantage. If you already have a brand on the web or offline, people are going to find and use your app. Everyone has the Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp apps installed.

Without this advantage, and without millions of dollars in financing, two strategies remain.

The first is to make your app extremely high quality. Hike up production value. Make it really good. Apps like Paper by Fiftythree, Where's my Water, Squrl, and so on fall into this category. The effect you're looking for is that you get featured in the App Store and Google Play, and hopefully the press will sing your praises for long enough for early adopters to install the app, and that the app will then spread through word-of-mouth.

Don't underestimate the importance of word-of-mouth. I am a fairly well-informed mobile customer. But the last two apps I installed - Photosynth and Letterpress - were both apps I heard about though friends over brunch.

Still, this is a high risk strategy. Developing a high quality app is expensive, so you'll have to start with building a small number of screens, and hope that those screens are the right ones.

The second strategy is to make your app viral. Users create content with your app, and then share it with others who don't have the app yet.

This worked pretty well for Snapchat, an app that lets you send self-destructing photos to other Snapchat users. An even better example is GroupMe and other group messaging tools - the spread through the power of SMSes sent by friends. An app I wrote with some friends, DrawChat, works the same way. Viral content worked amazingly well for Instagram: Photos with filters didn't solve a stated user problem, but Instagrammed photos started popping up in feeds around the world, leading to brand recognition and ultimately a large install base.

The takeaway: When brainstorming your app, don't just come up with a vision of what it will do. Come up with a strategy to get user adoption.

Either chop away until you have an small feature set that you can implement at very high quality. Alternatively, come up with a way for users to create content they're proud to share with others.


This is my latest in my series of posts about the app ecosystem - see also:
  1. Every Step Costs you 20% of Users
  2. The Biggest Problem in App Discovery
  3. Rethinking the App Model
  4. The Two Hurdles of App Adoption

Reactions from my Twitter and the discussion Hacker News:

eloquence writes on Hacker News: "It seems like the simplistic ideas are the ones that go viral the most quickly."

I could not agree more. People have limited attention spans and the elaborate app install process already strains it. Simpler app means easier to understand means higher chance of getting people to use it.

potatolicious writes on Hacker News: "The devil is in the details. I think a lot of devs realize they need a very polished app and substantial viral value - the trouble is that you can't just will either of those things into existence, or even buy them.

Executing a good app is really hard, and people who can do it consistently are very rare still. Getting a really cohesive, well-built app done is more than just hiring the most expensive ObjC coders and designers you know."

NeoNacho responds on Twitter: "I don’t agree that being high quality is optional."

Of course. A crappy app won't get you anywhere. It's about how you spend your chips. When I write about the "quality strategy" I mean making something that would look great in an Apple keynote. Think Paper. I don't mean just well done and pretty and and no bugs.


PS: Timed perfectly to prove my point about how you're not the only person to come up with your app idea, there is a DrawChat clone on TechCrunch today.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


My plan was to depart New York City on Tuesday morning, but Sandy didn't want me to leave quite yet. I spent Monday night safe and sound in Long Island City, but saw the flash of the 14th street power station transformer explosion followed by Lower Manhattan's plunge into darkness.

Looking out of the window, it seems like only the Empire State building has power below 42nd Street. 

Looking out the other side of the building, here's a submerged construction site in Long Island City.

Water had gotten into power lines running underground, touched hot copper elements, and turned into steam.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Two Hurdles of App Adoption

To get users onboarded onto your app, you have to overcome two hurdles:
  1. Get people to download the app, which takes annoyingly long.
  2. Get people to sign up inside the app, which they may not complete.

On the web, these hurdles are much lower.
  1. You don't install a website, you just visit it.
  2. Websites can set a cookie to remember you. Facebook's social plugins are beginning to show how to avoid lengthy signup processes by relying on a central source of identity.
I believe that removing or at least lowering these two hurdles on mobile is incredibly important. It will lead to better apps and a level playing field: Right now, the most popular apps are mobile versions of already-popular websites. But these are not the apps that are the best-executed and the most useful. It will also lead to a better mobile web, rather than the one cluttered with "download our app" interstitials.

In the next few posts on this blog, I'll lay out a genuinely new approach to solving app adoption and thus improving the app ecosystem. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rethinking the App Model

The difference between Hacker News and this blog is that tomorrow, you're going to visit Hacker News, but you're not likely to visit this blog.

This distinction does not exist in mobile apps.

Mobile apps are downloaded and installed in an elaborate multi-step process. They're backed up and restored when you get a new phone. No effort is spared to make sure they stick around forever. Each app is treated like a box of childhood photos, a permanent possession.

What you get is endless screens of apps, quickly sampled, never discarded.

Your browser is aware of this distinction. There are websites you visit often - Gmail, Facebook, Hacker News. Maybe you have them bookmarked, but if not they autocomplete in your browser after you hit the first key. Assets and Javascript are cached. Fresh content gets loaded from the server. Sites you visit less often eventually fall out of the asset cache and the autocomplete list.

Mobile apps should move toward the browser model. You hear about something new. A shell of the app is installed and downloaded in one click. Assets are lazy loaded. Each app joins an unforgiving LIFO queue that wipes them out when they're not used for a while. You can pin apps that you want to stick around forever.

The big winners in mobile apps tend to be the companies that first won on the web: Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Pinterest, and so on. A great website can win because every other site is only one click away.

Websites are easy to get to, and easy to leave. In contrast, mobile apps are hard to get to and hard to leave. They shouldn't be.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Biggest Problem in App Discovery

In my last blog post about the funnel of viral mobile apps, I wondered about a strange phenomenon: "only 90% of of the people who download your app will actually open it - I'm guessing that people are stockpiling apps for the impending apocalypse."

A reader on Hacker News pointed out that maybe this isn't irrational behavior on the part of users, but attention-span slippage due to the long time it takes to load and install an app. This led me to make this little chart. Experiencing new products on the phone - not just iOS as shown here, but also Android - takes an order of magnitude longer than on the web. It's a problem that we should fix.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Every Step Costs You 20% of Users

In a consumer mobile app, every step you make a user perform before they get value out of your app will cost you 20% of users.

Here's typical consumer app funnel. It applies to apps that do messaging (like GroupMe or DrawChat), but also posting content (like any app that ends with "-gram" a la Instagram and Cinemagram):

Your exact numbers might vary. With DrawChat, we found that 90% of people that land on the App Store page will install the app. The next step is to actually open the app, but only 90% of of the people who download your app will actually open it - I'm guessing that people are stockpiling apps for the impending apocalypse.

Sign-up is a much bigger hurdle than the previous steps: DrawChat's signup verifies your number via SMS which will get you completion rates around 70%. A startup I've talked to has seen completion rates as low as 50% with forced Facebook logins, while another one allows signing up with different methods (username/password, Facebook, LinkedIn) claims completion rates of 90%. Exact specifics may vary depending on what permissions you ask for.

Depending on the length of your funnel, you end up with 20-30% of the original users actually contributing to your ecosystem by creating and sharing new content.

What to do? There's not really much you can do until users get to the point where they've opened your app. But once a user has signed up, make sure you take them by the hand along the funnel. Make signup simple and unobtrusive. Make content creation easy. Come up with the simplest possible sharing experience. Because of the shape of the graph, you need to get each user to share with 3-5 friends for your viral coefficient to go above 1.


Updates / Reactions

1. mikebo asked on the Hacker News entry for this post how I know the number of App Store page views - it's not something that Apple provides. Excellent question. The answer is a bit involved.

People that don't have DrawChat yet get invited with an SMS that contains a link to a page on our server. That page redirects you to the App Store. So we know how many people see our App Store listing. On the other side, Apple provides you daily download numbers, which you then compare to the "first app open" counts on Flurry, Localytics, or your analytics provider of choice. We can also differentiate people who came to DrawChat organically vs. through invites by seeing if they had an invite waiting after sign up.

2. Shenglong asked on Hacker News if it's not better to start users in an "Explore" type experience instead of asking them to sign up immediately. This can be beneficial, but on the other hand, having an sign-in-less "Explore" type experience may actually hurt your signup conversions. Users get a feel for the app, decide that they'll sign up later, close the app, and never come again. I might be hallucinating but I think Instagram used to have an "Explore" screen with interesting pics pre-signup, and in the latest versions they got rid of that. Does anyone have data on this?

3. udit99 suggests that the 90% download-to-open ratio is not due to people stockpiling apps, but rather "attention-span-slippage caused by slow app downloads." I believe it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tablets are for Games and Email

There's an interesting new paper out by some folks over at Google that explores how tablets are used in the field. The top activities by frequency and reach are games and email, followed by social networking, looking up information, watching videos, and shopping. Here's an graph to illustrate this (click to enlarge):

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Social Vocab 101

I scribbled down this graph with common nouns and verbs in social products:

Almost every social site and app has equivalents of these: Pinterest says "repin" instead of "reshare". Facebook lets you "friend", but also "subscribe".

The basics: Like, Comment, Reshare, and Create. These are roughly in order of occurrence  The dropoff can be up to an order of magnitude with each step: The average Facebook status has far more likes than comments.

People are passive, and creating content is hard. The more creativity it requires from the user, the less likely they are to do it. Write a status? Easy. Snap a photo and apply a filter? Medium. Write an eloquent blog post? Hard.

Great user retention strategies rely on new, useful reasons to notify people. Circa 2007, you used to get an email when someone messaged you on Facebook. In 2012, Instagram notifies you when a Facebook friend of yours has joined. Quora sends you a digest of answers to questions that are relevant to you.

The holy grail: The elusive invite. That glorious moment that pushes the viral coefficient towards 1. Everything has been tried: Gmail brought us the exclusivity of being one of the selected few. Some sites plainly invite you to "invite 5 more friends". Rare is the site like Eventbrite that wouldn't work unless you shared with others. That's the kind of product you want to build.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Chart: 40% of iOS Users upgrade to iOS 6 in first week.

Here's a fascinating chart I got in the mail today: The adoption of iOS 6 in its first 11 days.

Two highlights:
  • Within the first week over 40% of users had upgraded. 
  • Almost all upgrades came from iOS 5 users. There is a resistant core of about 11% of iPhone users that remain using iOS 4.

Source: Velti's State of Mobile Advertising Report September 2012

NYC Revisited

I've decided to spend another month in New York City in October and I'm working out of WeWork's offices in SoHo West. Building improvements to DrawChat and working on a couple of ideas I've been developing.

Loving the energy of this town.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Whirlwind Tour of the Berlin Startup Scene

I just spent a few days in Berlin. I occasionally get nostalgic for Berlin - I lived here in Reinickendorf as a kid from 1988-1990, and remember that it felt like something important was happening when the wall came down during my time there.

I asked my friend Douwe Osinga, co-founder of travel startup Triposo, if I could stay with him for a few days and he said yes.

I reached out to some folks for intros in Berlin and had breakfast with Marguerite Imbert, editor of Berlin-based blog VentureVillage. I expected that 2, maybe 3 meetings in Berlin would materialize.

Not so: In the last 72 hours, I've visited Triposo, Amen, ResearchGate, DailyDeal, Moped, ItsPlatonic,, EyeEm, PhoneDeck, Piabo PR, Earlybird, and Startup Bootcamp for a total of 12 stops. Turns out people here like visitors from the Valley.

Three takeaways:
  1. Berlin has excellent quality of life: Great public transit, excellent infrastructure, beautiful and affordable apartments and office spaces.
  2. Good engineering talent is easier to find and less expensive than in the Valley. No H1-B hassles either here for getting smart people from Eastern Europe.
  3. Series As are hard to get.While there is now an abundance of seed capital sources in Berlin, you'll have to look to London or the Valley for your Series A and beyond. More and more Valley firms are willing to invest in Berlin though.
I was impressed with the quality of the founders and their thinking here. Lots of smart people doing interesting things - far from the clone factory that BusinessWeek likened Berlin to when they wrote about the Samwer brothers a few months ago.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"If you are not ashamed of your product when you launch it, you launched too late.”

I keep playing this Reid Hoffman quote in my head.

As an entrepreneur, I've always found it really hard to balance my perfectionistic tendencies (for which I blame my German and Swiss upbringing) with my impatience (for which I have only myself to blame). I feel like so far I've followed Reid's advice to the letter.

On the other hand, I find it extremely hard to point to a single entrepreneur who's happy with the product in its current state. The product you have comes from the ideas two weeks ago that you implemented last week. Your thinking is always ahead of reality.

Here's my method to avoid being torn apart by the dichotomy of perfectionism vs. impatience: First, you cut features until it hurts. Then out of the remaining features you choose one or two that deserve your perfectionism. The rest can be good enough.

Fewer features, few of them great, most of them just OK.

Avicii on how to Become Successful

I was driving down the freeway listening to a dance music radio station, and an interview with Avicii aka Tim Berg came on. The interviewer asked him what his advice would be for amateur DJs making music in their bedrooms in America.

Avicii's advice was to work really hard. Before he became famous, he would spend many hours a day just creating and fine-tuning his music. Working hard enabled him to find his own style that he was comfortable with. He reached out to bloggers, they featured his music on their blog, his manager found him, and got him signed to do remixes and later solo stuff. His breakthrough track "Levels" came a bit later.

His advice could be right out of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Find something you're passionate about, put your 10000 hours in, and luck will find you.

The music and tech industries both have outcomes with exponential distributions. I'm happy that even in the field of electronic music, the major factor in getting to the top is the amount of work you put into your product - not how much time you spend networking, or what school you graduated from, or what your father does for a living.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Dating Advice for a Newly Single Friend

"Trying to find a guy who is both ambitious and attentive is like trying to find a great shampoo-and-conditioner-in-one. It's not going to be a great shampoo. It's not going to be a great conditioner. Here as always, the price of stability is mediocrity."

-- me in response to her complaining about the lack of guys who are both ambitious and attentive

Friday, August 24, 2012

Big Company vs. Small Startup

If you work at a big tech company, then on any given day there's nothing you can do that will move the stock price.

If you work at a small tech startup, then on any given day there's nothing you can do that won't move the stock price.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Magic of Cities

"The thing that attracts us to the city is the chance encounter. It's the knowledge that you'll be able to start here, end up there, go back there. But that something unexpected will happen, that you'll make a discovery. That, in a way, is the magic of cities."

-- Sir Norman Foster in Urbanized

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

That feeling

That feeling when your product hits a million users.
That feeling when you get the first rave review.
That feeling when you meet someone at a bar and they've used it.
That feeling when you see it on a stranger's laptop screen in an airport.
That feeling when you think that all those late nights have paid off.
That feeling when you know you've made people's lives better.
That feeling when you became one of the people that have built the world around us.

That feeling is the feeling of startup success.

It is the most addictive, most exciting thing you will ever feel, and you will do anything, everything to get it back.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Being Mocked is Better Than Being Ignored

Check this article in Time Magazine's Techland blog about what being acquired by Google and Facebook really means.

I would also claim that I invented the 5-point formula from that article.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Google Now

Google Now is one of the projects I worked on as a Product Manager on Android earlier this year. I think it's an amazing and futuristic concept. As more and more of your data moves into the cloud, it gets easier for machines to assist you and predict what information will be useful to you right now.

Zero query is the future.

Check out this video explaining Google Now - coming to your phone in the Jellybean release of Android.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

An obligation to spend our time doing great things

"The thing is, we still live in a world that's filled with opportunity. In fact, we have more than an opportunity -- we have an obligation. An obligation to spend our time doing great things. To find ideas that matter and to share them. To push ourselves and the people around us to demonstrate gratitude, insight, and inspiration. To take risks and to make the world better by being amazing."
-- Seth Godin, The chance of a lifetime

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Return to San Francisco

I've been back in San Francisco for about two weeks now, after spending a month in New York where I was working on prototypes in the offices of Tumblr and Betaworks.

The space I'm working out of now is Founders Den in SOMA (at Townsend and 3rd). They're a coworking space for experienced entrepreneurs. The former mayor of San Francisco and now-lieutenant governor of California Gavin Newsom works from the space while in SF - that's quite exciting, especially since my desk is right across from his. Founders Den feels relatively quiet compared to the spaces in New York - maybe second-time entrepreneurs know that the road to winning is typing, not talking.

The biggest change from my previous life at Google has been that both in New York and San Francisco, I was able to walk to work rather than having to ride the Google Bus for an hour each way. I suspected that getting those two hours back would be a big change, but the added creativity and productivity has far exceeded my expectations.

I'm still very much in stealth mode and will be for some time. I've brainstormed on my ideas with trusted advisors and potential coworkers, but I'm keeping them close to my chest for now. Unlike reMail, which was a build-a-better-mousetrap play in a niche market, the ideas I'm working on are far more consumer-oriented, and far more competitive.

The contrast between New York and San Francisco couldn't be stronger: In my last week in New York, I was hanging out at Betaworks in the meatpacking district. Walking to work, I would encounter people that looked like models and were talking about fashion. Helmut Lang's design studio is in the same building as Betaworks and you can imagine what kind of people walk in and out of there.

In contrast, on my 2-block commute in South Beach, I walk by nerdlings talking about intricate details of server and mobile technology stacks. Generally, the New York tech scene seems much smaller - and it seems like everyone knows everyone else in the industry. San Francisco has much tech going on - so much that it's hard to interact with people not in the scene.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New MacBook Air 11" supports two external displays

Earlier today, my new MacBook Air's Software Update icon started bouncing and announced that “Mac OS X Lion Update (Mid-2012 MacBook Air)” was available with "external display support improvements." I've been longing for dual external display support for a while, and just for fun, attached two Thunderbolt displays to the Air.

Lo and behold, it worked! Here's my MacBook Air 11" running its internal display and two external Thunderbolt displays at full resolution.

I sent the picture to popular Mac blog 9to5mac and they decided to write a story about this. (It's interesting to see your name on a Mac rumors site.)

This is a developer's dream come true. If you want two large displays - one for code, another for documentation - you no longer have to lug around a 15" MacBook Pro.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Productivity Hacks

I've been spending my last two weeks prototyping. A couple of productivity boosters I use these days:
  1. Meetings only on Thursdays.
  2. Pomodoro technique - I try to get in 6 uninterrupted blocks of 25 minutes every day. I recommend Apimac Timer for this if you don't have a physical timer.
  3. Website Blocker Chrome extension to block Facebook, Twitter, and other time wasters.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Be the First to Know what I'm Building

A surprising number of people have reached out to me to inquire what my next venture is and does.

I'm in stealth mode for now and not quite telling yet.

But if you want to be the first to know when I have something to play with, I shamelessly built a LaunchRock page for my new startup. I realize it's a bit goofy to build this, but it greatly simplifies things.

Go to my LaunchRock page and type in your email address:

Thanks to hendrik for the suggestion.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New York Update

I landed in New York City last Tuesday and have been working from Tumblr's offices where David Karp kindly offered me a desk to work from for the next few weeks.

This is quite a break from working in Google's Building 44 which is home to the Android team. Instead of a classic 70s Silicon Valley lowrise, I'm sitting on the 6th floor of an office building in midtown Manhattan. There is a great sense of excitement in the office - Tumblr has been growing tremendously in part due to their recent $85 million fundraise and the fact that all the graphs here are pointing up and to the right.

I don't usually believe in stealth mode. Yet the project I'm working on is in a competitive space with some well-financed but poorly executing startups - some of them are failing on product, others are failing on distribution. I'm confident I can execute better than them but I don't want to alert them of the possibility of an attack. So I've been quietly working away on a prototype.

I'll be back in the Bay Area in July.

Friday, June 01, 2012

"I thought people had an idea first before leaving"

This comment about my departure from Google got me thinking. The cultural stereotype is that of a guy frustrated with his office job who dreams up a better widget, quits, and starts building it the next day.

But that's not how it works.

For web and mobile products, the act of building or prototyping is where you do most of the learning. I believe that you can't come up with great ideas in a vacuum. You build some mocks, you write some code, and you discover a bunch of things that you could improve on. That's how you come up with the 10x improvements that startups need to succeed. reMail was a great example for this: It took 3 iterations around the same space to come up with a product that got attention and users - it was almost a year into the company when it hit me that you could store and search all your email on your iPhone. No one talks today about the two products we built before the one that succeeded.

Ideas are easy[*]. Give me some smart friends to brainstorm with and we'll come up with several great ideas today that will be $100M+ businesses in a few years - and a lot that won't be. It's about finding the good ones and the ones that you're passionate about working on for a long time.

There's another common thought I hear voiced often: That you have to come up with an idea that no one else has done before - a green field idea. That's wrong. Competition in a space is often a sign that there's something valuable there. Competition is energizing. A lot of the ideas I'm thinking about exploring already have established players or startups - it's just that I think I can execute much better than them.


[*] This used to say "Ideas are dime a dozen" but that upset some people and I changed it to a phrasing that more accurately states what I mean. In the next sentence, I added "- and a lot that won't be" for the same reason.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Next Step

Exciting news! I'm leaving Google to start another company. My last day is tomorrow.

Google has been a great experience and I’ve learned a lot working on Android and Gmail in the last 2.5 years. My golden handcuffs aren’t off quite yet, but I’ve been longing to get back into startup mode and build a product from the ground up with a small team.

I haven't yet decided on an idea or team and will spend the next few weeks in exploration mode. I'll be spending the month of June in New York, and will be back in San Francisco in July where I’ll be working out of Founders Den in SOMA.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The 3 R's that Matter in a Startup

Reach, Retention, Revenue

I loved Tom Tunguz's post on "Your Startup's Top 3 Priorities": Distribution, Engagement, Monetization. But Alan Wells of Zynga gave it the extra zing of alliteration in this follow-up post.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Eight Experiences Every User Enjoys

Users primarily remember how products make them feel. As you're building your application, service, or website, try to evoke these emotions and users will be more likely to return.
  1. Immediacy - Speed is addictive because speed is power. Remember how powerful you felt when you first used Google in 2000? 
  2. Looking at Faces - Humans are highly evolved to analyze faces and like doing it.
  3. Learning - The feeling you get when you're watching a great TED talk. Easily digestible, well paced, clear insights. The majority of media and blogs cater to this emotion: Think about how coming back to TechCrunch each day makes you feel like you just got another piece of candy.
  4. Showing Off - The sense of pride you feel when you post your run to Nike+, get a "Player" badge on Foursquare, or post good looking party pictures to Facebook.
  5. Influence - You got retweeted, or your post gets reshared on Facebook. Your expertise was appreciated. Klout, your follower count, and Coderwall all cater to this.
  6. Simplicity, clarity, efficiency, safety - All of these are correlated sensations. Everyone loves a product with these properties. Yet this is pretty hard to hit, especially in older products that have gone through more development cycles and have become more complex.
  7. Controversy - Humans love drama. Think Huffington Post - huge headlines mixed with animosity attracts attention.
  8. Checking Items off a list - Few things are as stressful as an unread email counter or a todo list with unchecked items. Checking them gives you a sense of accomplishment.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Distribution First

I used to be in the "build a better mousetrap" camp. reMail's product was better email search for your iPhone. Very constrained. Most users found reMail through tech blogs or by word of mouth. It was a cool product, but growth was decidedly non-exponential.

When you look at the most successful startups of the last 5 years, one common property is that they built not just a polished product, but a great distribution strategy that was a natural fit. In some cases, it was a viral marketing scheme like Dropbox's - sign up your friend, get free storage. In others, it was that the creators had identified a segment of potential users that would immediately adopt the product - think about how Facebook forcibly created an account for all Harvard undergrads on day one. Gilt came to own New York by spamming women in their core age and income group.

In a way, coming up with distribution ideas is more fun than coming up with startup ideas, partially because it is more constrained: You have to invent a scheme that's not too expensive to operate, socially acceptable, and targeted to the demographic that would use your product. I encourage you to think distribution first.

Four Types of Mobile Apps

I like this blog post by Chris Dixon that talks about the four kinds of mobile apps: Time wasters, core utilities, episodic utilities, and notification-driven apps. I think these four relatively narrow definitions cover about close to 100% of what people actually do with their phones.

Phone makers often talk about how with today's technology, you have a supercomputer in your pocket. Yet no one wants a supercomputer in their pocket - none of the app categories require large-scale processing. The games that need fancy 3D graphics are often not that popular - they take too long to load and are too complex for the small screen.

It's the simple, vertical apps that solve well-defined immediate problems that work best.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Much more left to do

"Probably the biggest secret is [...] that there are many important secrets left. This used to be a convention forty or fifty years ago. Everyone believed that there was much more left to do. But generally speaking, we no longer believe that. It’s become a secret again."

-- Peter Thiel in Stanford's CS183

Monday, May 21, 2012

reMail now builds on iOS 5.x

I know some of you folks are still following this blog from the days of when reMail was open sourced.

While I haven't added a lot of features to reMail since then, I've been trying to keep it up-to-date and buildable. The changes that happened in iOS 5.0 and XCode 4.2 broke the build a while ago, and a variety of downloadable zip files sprung up with forks of reMail that build on iOS 5.x.

The good news is that I just pushed a patch that builds reMail on iOS 5.x flawlessly. Many thanks to Matt Ronge who put this patch together. He helped a lot with reMail even back in the day: reMail uses the MailCore framework he built.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Android Location Best Practices

Android location is complex: You have to register with different location providers, listen for their updates, derive the phone's location - all this while you're watching for battery consumption.

I've found myself pointing a lot of people to this excellent tutorial by Android's very own Reto Meier: Deep Dive into Location on the Android developers blog.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

"And for other purposes" - the Four Words that Created Modern Investing

I'm reading Finance and the Good Society by Robert J. Shiller who came to Google earlier this month. Here's a fascinating story from the book about how our contemporary model of investing in companies came about:
"Investment banking received further impetus […] in 1811 with the passage of a corporate law in New York State that made it clear that anyone who satisfied minimal requirements could set up a corporation, without special action by the government, and that clearly established limited liability for corporations. […] By clarifying that shareholders would never be held liable for the debts of the corporation, the law made it possible for the first time for an investor to hold a diversified portfolio, consisting of stocks in many companies."
Prior to this law, investing in a company was far more risky: in case a company went bankrupt, investors could be held liable beyond their investment.
"The framers of the New York law probably did not see themselves as the inventors of a brand new kind of market. Instead they thought of themselves as merely responding in an imaginative manner to an economic crisis. The US Congress had imposed an embargo on trade with Britain starting in 1807, citing grievances related to British behavior toward the United States as Britain fought a war with France. By 1811 the extended trade embargo was causing massive economic pain at home, for America had been an exporter of cotton and other fibers to British textile mills. There was a need to finance US textile mills, but few wanted to start a local mill, thinking it would be hard to compete with Britain when the embargo was lifted. The provisions of the bill were thought of merely as expedients to deal with this crisis. The bill followed a 1784 measure granting automatic incorporation to religious congregations, and similar measures for colleges and academies in 1781, municipalities in 1788, libraries in 1792, medical societies in 1806, and turnpikes in 1807. Yet only by 1811 did general business have the status within New York society to win the same right. Equally important, the bill clarified that stockholders in these new corporations had limited liability: They could not lose more than the money they had put in in purchasing their shares.
The full name of the act was 'A Bill to Encourage the Manufacture of Woolen Cloth, also Cotton, Hemp and Flax, and for other Purposes.' As it turned out, it was the 'other purposes' that would have lasting importance. Once again, dealing with a short-term crisis led to a financial innovation that would change the world, for the New York law became a model for new corporate law all over the world."