Mobile Startup Exec Shares 5 Tips for Early-Stage Mobile Startups

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By Lauren Bigelow (COO, WeeWorld)

During my career, I’ve been around the mobile block a few times. Currently I am Chief Operating Officer of WeeWorld and our core offerings are online but recently we’ve successfully translated our iconic brand onto mobile as well.

Before I joined WeeWorld, I held executive positions at a range of emerging technology companies some that were involved in mobile including picture recognition and mobile advertising products. I’ve attended and spoken at many conferences and like most people I enjoy hearing frank discussions on what people have learned by both their successes and failure.

Here are five tips based on what I’ve learned that any mobile startup should consider:

  1. Consider your timing because you can’t move a market. The story: The year is 2000. Everyone is saying it’s the year of the mobile web and WAP phones are proliferating like mosquitoes after a hurricane. I joined a startup dewy eyed with the thrill of the always on, personal device that was going to revolutionize the way we interact online. We ran a groundbreaking study with 1,000 consumers simulating a world where you could get personalized, local and national offers tailored to you. We had flagship participants including Visa, Catalina Marketing and Procter&Gamble. Courtesy of the web, you can still read about it online (with the irony that you can LIKE the release today even though Facebook didn’t even exist when it was released.Fast forwarding a bit: we built an innovative platform, the study was a huge success and we learned a lot. However, the U.S. market wasn’t ready, and we ended up selling to JPhone, a Japanese carrier, and working in Asia where the market was more mature. I went back to more traditional online pursuits for awhile.

    Now it’s 2011, the mobile market is completely different and much riper, but some of the challenges linger… there are still significant challenges with platforms, device sizes and shapes that can display mobile content… and controversy on fundamental issues like how native apps vs. mobile web will sort out.

    Ask yourself: What ways can I gauge the “ripeness” of my offering for current mobile customers?

  2. Look for key partnerships – In the early days of a startup the right partner can be a key differentiator and major growth accelerant. It’s worth the time and resources to look for and find that exceptional fit. WeeMees are an example from my own experience. Currently, there are 53M individual WeeMee avatars created by individuals around the globe. A primary reason for this large number is due to our early partnerships. The partnerships work because we each find value — AIM, and Windows Live Messenger get free, engaging content for their users, and we get access to new markets. We’ve had similar success with Motorola — they get appealing content to differentiate their handsets, and we get exposure to their customers. Don’t get distracted by every opportunity that comes your way. You need to ruthlessly focus on finding the select few that are worth your team’s time to cultivate because they have the potential to make a significant difference and if there’s a fit for both parties, you will reap the rewards.
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    Ask yourself: What win-win partnerships can I create to help me accelerate my growth and differentiation?

  4. Beware of industry changes – The mobile industry is evolving rapidly with smartphone numbers going up, engagement rising and everyone trying to take a piece of the pie. However, the landscape can change rapidly. For example, in the past few weeks alone… Apple shut off incentivized downloads and changed its ranking algorithm. Google is buying Motorola and suddenly the platform provider owns a handset manufacturer. Apple decided publishers can’t have access to UDIDs because of privacy concerns. Each one of these events could have a significant impact on your startup, so you need to be prepared for the inevitable and be willing to adjust to the new market.
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    Ask yourself: How will I stay on top of rapidly changing industry developments that will affect my goals?

  6. Get the word out – It can be expensive and time-consuming to advertise your product, so first make sure you’ve done what you can with the app or mobile site itself. For example, in the thrill of getting your product out, startups often overlook the fact that the best built-in advertising opportunity you have is your existing customers. Make it easy for them to tell others about you by building virality into your mobile experience. Encourage them and reward them for rating your app or referring friends and you will reap word-of-mouth growth.
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    If you have multiple apps it’s also worth the effort to add cross-marketing. At WeeWorld, we’ve implemented a “collect them all” upsell that has been very effective.

    Ask yourself: Have I maximized virality and cross-marketing in my products?

  8. Adapt to the medium – One of the easiest things to say, but often the hardest to do well, is to adapt successfully to a new medium like the mobile device. What consumers do on a full-size computer screen is not what they can necessarily do on a pocket-size device, or even a tablet. Each screen/device has different advantages and disadvantages and everything from connection speed to development tools available have to be taken into account.
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    While the temptation is often to recreate existing experiences –- like trying to put a magazine on the web –- it is almost always the wrong move. The true magic happens when you hit on the new experience that delights or is useful. Startups need to be aware of the consumer discovery phase. What’s possible with a personalized device that lets you read, listen, talk, touch the screen, watch color video, use geo-location, etc. without ever leaving your side?

    At WeeWorld, we didn’t just take our website and try to put it on mobile devices. Instead, we’re experimenting with brand new apps for smartphone users that include things like the ability to swipe, touch the screen and record your voice. Similarly, our core site WeeWorld is mostly accessed from desktop devices but sometimes from mobile devices when our users are on the go. For that reason we are in the process of customizing that experience by detecting whether they are on a mobile device or not and customizing the experience accordingly.

    Ask yourself: Am I doing something fresh and thinking about what I can do uniquely on mobile or am I recreating old paradigms?

I hope my five tips will help you in some way. The mobile market is ready for continued innovation and expansion – if you are ready for the ride, get on board, buckle up and enjoy every minute of the ups and downs.

I hope to see you at the App Developers Conference (October 26-27 in Santa Clara) where I am speaking, and at other industry events.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Lauren Bigelow is the Chief Operating Officer of WeeWorld, has extensive experience pioneering interactive media companies that push online content, self-expression and marketing to the next level. From mobile and Web-based models, to virtual worlds and social networking communities, Lauren has a proven track record in emerging technology and currently leads WeeWorld’s North American growth strategy, as well as product management and marketing worldwide. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenbigelow.