Offline first, mobile enabled

One of the major trends in tech startups what Fred Wilson calls “Mobile first, web second.” Instagram is a great example of mobile first. They barely had a website – it was all about the mobile app.

The excitement over mobile-first apps is justified. Smartphones have unleashed a wave of creativity, resulting in entirely new categories of applications. But to me an even more exciting trend is what people have been calling (for lack of a better phrase) ”offline first, mobile enabled” apps.

For example, Foursquare is primarily about improving your offline experiences (meeting friends and finding new places to go). And it couldn’t exist without smartphones (ok, Dodgeball existed on feature phones but had a fraction of the utility). Similarly, Uber couldn’t exist without smartphones. The Uber apps (one for drivers and one for customers), while essential, are all about enabling for the car service. Square is about making payments more convenient and giving small businesses better analytics. The mobile app is just an enabler.

It seems natural that the first wave of mobile apps would be about improving core smartphone apps (e.g. photo apps) or porting apps from other devices (e.g. games). And there is probably a lot of interesting innovation remaining there. But the really massive opportunity is dreaming up new ways that the little computers loaded with sensors that we carry around with us everywhere can improve our real-world experiences.

Increasing velocity

Two common discussions in the startup world right now are 1) the increasing speed at which new apps/websites can gain mass adoption (Instagram, Pinterest, OMGPOP’s Draw Something, etc), and 2) the rise in seed stage valuations. These two trends are real and related.  An investor with a broad portfolio of companies might rationally invest at an average valuation of, say, 10m (which is historically considered very high for that stage) if they have a chance for one of the investments to become the next Instagram or Pinterest. A billion dollar hit pays for a lot of misses.

The increasing velocity has implications for the valuations of incumbent tech companies. Users have limited time, and while web and app usage are growing, hit startups are growing much faster and therefore gaining adoption, at least in part, at the expense of incumbents. It’s not clear this risk is priced into the valuations of companies like Facebook (P/E expected to be ~100) and Zynga (P/E ~31). In other words, faster velocity should lead to a narrower distribution of valuations from seed to late stages. We’ve seen the seed stage adjust but not the late stage.

The current posture of big VCs seems to be to wait to see what takes off and then chase the winners. Tons of investors tried to invest in Instagram’s A and B rounds, and I’m sure VC interest in Pinterest is intense.

The problem with this model of Series A and B investing is that, in reality, many of the companies with big hits weren’t overnight successes. Pinterest, OMGPOP, Twitter, and Tumblr were around for years before taking off and all benefited greatly from having patient investors. In the current financing environment, a lot of good companies won’t live to get Series As and Bs and big VCs will pay valuations on hits that are priced to perfection.

Increasing velocity is great for users and for the winning companies and investors. But when good companies aren’t getting follow on rounds because they aren’t yet “hockeysticking”, the long term health of the startup ecosystem suffers.

Building products from improvised user behaviors

For a long time, there were niche communities of “lo-fi” camera enthusiasts: people who shared photos taken on old cameras that had interesting ways of filtering shots. The iPhone app Hipstamatic popularized lo-fi filters, selling over 1M copies. Because Hipstamatic lacked sharing features, many users took pictures with Hipstamatic and then shared them using other apps. Then came Instagram, which combined lo-fi filters and easy sharing. Instagram has been downloaded 15M times and has apparently crossed over to mainstream users.

Instagram built a product devoted to a job that users were previously performing improvisationally using multiple products. This is a common pattern for popular software and services. Before Twitter, people shared interesting links through email or “link round-up” blog posts. Tumblr’s short-form blogging/re-blogging was inspired by an “unintended” use of long-form blogging platforms like WordPress. Before Foursquare, power socializers sent out mass text messages with their locations (in fact, Foursquare’s predecessor Dodgeball did exactly that).

New startup ideas are all around you, in the improvised behaviors of people you know. It takes a keen product eye, however, to notice these improvisational behaviors and recognize which ones are worthy of being developed into standalone products.