King Ludd #23: If You Build It, Will They Come?

The grass is always greener for companies big and small

Having now spent significant parts of my career either in big companies lamenting their lack of agility and inability to do anything without causing a PR incident, and seeing small ones desperate to get attention for whatever it is they’re doing, it’s very clear that the real value of marketing gets drowned out by a lot of noise.

Many tech people subscribe to the “If you build it they will come” ethos, which is absolute nonsense. It is one of those things you can be told is nonsense, agree is nonsense, but somehow think it doesn’t apply to you. Tangentially, the other one that some people manage to escape learning the hard way is that growing revenue always beats increasing efficiency, but back to marketing…

Making mobile or web apps seems particularly appealing to this mentality, since they generally don’t involve dealing in anything messy like contracts and can be set up relatively fast. Three months after any launch the small players will be complaining about “The Discovery Problem,” meaning that their app isn’t being displayed to users on either iTunes, the Play Store or whatever else in preference to whatever other products are on there. The stores run a catch-22 arrangement, where to be popular you must be visible, and to be visible you must be popular. There are ways to short circuit that, but they are incredibly expensive. Additionally, spending to improve position means you’re missing on tests to validate actual demand for the product. It’s quite possible to get stuck spending just to maintain position because retention isn’t good enough.

This all leads to the vicious question, which is in the current environment what is a small mobile app or game maker to do to get attention? The stock answer here is some sort of PR, ideally with a larger partnering entity (or IP license owner) and go from there. It’s now widely understood in the industry that the opportunities for doing this have become much harder to find, and consequently much more expensive to pursue. It will be very curious to see just how any new players manage this trick.

But spare a thought for the Facebooks, EAs, Gamelofts and so on. If they make the tiniest of changes they’ll get more complaints in a few hours than most people will see users in a year, even if it’s not particularly offensive. As the size of your audience goes up so does your tendency for risk aversion as you have so much more to lose. Many small companies would practically kill for the amount of attention even a relative stealth product from a larger one generates, and this is a fact underappreciated on both sides.

There is another well beaten road, which is to seek out the new gold rush, accounting for the popularity of smart watches with phone platform makers and apparently no one else. Rationality has a habit of going out the window when this is concerned, and any developer involved would need to be clear that their first customer is actually the platform owner and not an end user, leading to a real distortion of priorities. There is a large contingent searching for the next iPhone type opportunity, but maybe we should face that there isn’t going to be one for a while, and instead focus on ensuring a healthy economy for the current platforms that actually exist.

This problem extends into the open source sphere, where just last week GnuPG experienced a rush of donations after the world learned what a financial disaster it has been for the developer. Any programmers reading: don’t be that guy, it’s not worth it. You can do that when you’ve made enough to retire, but not before.

Nigel Birkenshaw runs Atomirex