Web Second, Mobile First

Posted on Jan 28, 2012 | 146 comments


Fred Wilson wrote two posts in 2010 that were very influential with the startup community.

The titles were:
Mobile First, Web Second
Mobile First, Web Second (continued)

If you’re in the minority that never read these posts – you should.

I know that they really impacted an entire cohort of startups because every company that was coming to pitch me businesses was (is) saying, “I’m a ‘mobile first’ company.”

Part of the beauty of blogging that in two sittings Fred was able to influence what was built over the next 12 months.

I loved the idea of “mobile first” but something always bothered me. Kind of like a law firm (or VC firm) with four partners but shortened to just two, people dropped off his second two words. People forgot that Fred also wrote “Web Second.”

So I’ve had to encourage an entire cohort of startups that I’ve met not to ignore the power of the web.

I’ve wanted to write a blog post called “Mobile Second” for a long time to make this point more forcefully. But it never quite sat right with me because that wasn’t my point. I’m not trying to argue that mobile should be an afterthought but rather that the web shouldn’t be either.

So I thought I’d try a different approach and reword Fred’s title and call it “Web Second, Mobile First.” Maybe people could shorten that to “Web Second” as a reminder to not give up on the power of the tethered web. The power of large screen real estate. The power of a keyboard.

Here’s my view:

I support a “mobile first” strategy for many (not all) companies

Fred’s post was right. The world is adopting smart phones and for many young people and many people in the developing world this will be one of their first computing devices.

Mobile has many attributes that are critical:

  • The devices are individual, not shared
  • They are location aware, which is important in personalizing the service offering
  • They are more likely to be the “bottom end of the sales funnel” or in other words close to “point of purchase.” If I am looking at movies on my mobile phone there is a higher chance I’m out-and-about and ready to buy tickets. I have talked with people in the industry who tell me that mobile movie sites convert ticket sales much higher than desktop websites.
  • They are limited in size. In some senses this might seem like a disadvantage. BUT … I’ve talked to a number of eCommerce sites that also report much higher conversion rates than standard web. The hypothesis is that the limited real estate forces less choice and therefore less distraction. This increases conversions of items shown to you.
  • They are often one click away from buying. It’s not pleasant handing over 30% margin to Apple when you sell stuff through the App Store. But on the other hand if you have a product with a very high gross margin (software, virtual goods, etc.) then this is often more than made up by higher conversion rates versus asking somebody for a credit card.
  • They occupy a lot of people’s leisure time. Therefore if your app is geared toward leisure activities (games, communications with friends, etc.) then mobile is awesome.

BUT (and this is a big but …)

I believe in integrated products. Thus I endorse Web Second.

I think many recent companies make the mistake of not investing enough in web products, if they invest anything at all. I mostly use Twitter on my mobile devices. But there are some things you just can’t do with mobile app. Most notably following many conversations at once the way can do with TweetDeck.

I love using Yelp’s mobile product. If I’m traveling in an area I don’t know well I love to set up a filter to say I want, “Chinese food, 3 stars within 2 miles” or if I’m walking it’s great to filter based on distance to where I’m at. But the killer feature for me is “open now.” I use this all the time. Where can I eat at 3pm nearby? Which restaurants in LA serve past 10.00pm (turns out not many on the Westside of LA, unfortunately).

You couldn’t have the same impact with your desktop Yelp.

BUT … try doing proper restaurant research on a mobile device. Try reading a bunch of reviews, checking 5 different restaurants to try and compare the differences. Try writing long reviews of a restaurant. That’s why Yelp is effective. They do both well.

So when I talk to the numerous photo sharing websites that I’ve met I always encourage them to think about all of the awesome Mobile Second features that they can build to supplement their product. Mobile is great for capturing images and quickly & easily sharing them. It’s great for quickly scrolling through photos. That’s why I love Instagram. It’s fun social entertainment that without words helps me feel connected to people that I’m close to or whom I want to follow.

But photo sharing sites ought to have web tools that allow me to create “collections” of photos – mine or otherwise. They ought to feel more like Pinterest (photo at the top of post) where discovery is awesome and integral to the service itself.

Mobile First photo sites ought to integrate with other services that might let me send postcards , create photo albums to print, create blog entries or other similar features. I know that many third-party apps are stepping in to do much of this … but that’s the point. It’s a hole that isn’t filled by the initial applications.

I also love Batch. I think it’s a beautifully designed product that is also tremendously useful and focused. It allows me to upload a bulk set of photos that I can then more easily share. But I’d love it 100x if it had a complementary web product that better let me organize my photos into batches, view other people’s full collections and integrate more seamlessly into my social sites.

I’ve been saying this “Web Second” privately for long enough to not feel like I’m just getting on the bandwagon of Pinterest’s success (just ask any team at a company in which I’ve invested). But Pinterest’s success really proves the point I’ve been making.
My wife (and it seems every woman in America) is now addicted to Pinterest. It’s the new magazine. I think it’s replacing time spent on TMZ. It’s graphical, beautiful, simple to consume and has a wonderful layout. But that product is the perfect example of perfectly suited for the web given the real estate available. What if Instagram had a beautiful collage of images like Pinterest. How awesome would that be?

Pinterest seems to have conquered the “normals” before it captured the attention of the tech elite. Perhaps that should be a lesson to us all to think more broadly than our echo chamber? To think about how the masses use computing devices in 2012?

I would love to see FourSquare double down on web development and market it harder to its user base. It seems that FourSquare’s strategy has appropriately broadened from “check ins” to “discovery” of great places to eat or visit. This is a product feature that is easier to consume AND to create on the web.

For example, everybody should easily be able to follow Holger’s top sushi spots in San Francisco. That’s a list I plan to work through. (by the way, Holger, Kaygetsu should be number one, other than ambiance ;-))

FourSquare in the future? Web Second, Mobile First. I hope so.

I’m digging LinkedIn’s new mobile product. I use it more than the web version (although it certainly could use some performance improvements). But I would never want to do my recruiting search campaign on mobile. I need more real estate for that.

I recognize there is an issue with resource scarcity

Come on, Mark. We only have 5 engineers, how can we do all that?

I know. I get it. But once you’ve launched your iOS product and finished your Android roll out, you need to do a strong push on an integrated web product before you double down on your next generation of iOS features. MVP on mobile then hit web.

Try to think about how leveraging the web will do the following:

  • Create a differentiated product versus your mobile-only competitors. Use that as a source of competition.
  • Have the ability to enable “content creation” and “content curation” in a way that makes all of the mobile consumption by other users a better experience. If you have a fashion-sharing product, wouldn’t viewing collections of outfits on mobile devices be a richer experience if there were more content and deeper content because your web product enabled your power users to more easily create it?
  • Conversely allow your mobile products to shine on the web. Using the fashion-sharing example, imagine turning your shared fashion photos into beautiful magazine-like collages that can be scrolled through, Pinterest style.
  • Build features that make using native-phone apps pointless. Case in point: Text messaging. If you use the native device your messages get purged eventually on most devices. You also lose them if you lose your actual phone. Having a web product abstracts the text message from the device and makes it a truly cloud service. When consumers realize this – who in their right mind would keep their text messages locked on their mobile device?

Web also allows you to become a funnel for converting more users of your mobile app. Obviously.

Tablets Third

I’ve starting thinking more about tablets. They are clearly an important part of our future computing fabric. They are somewhere between web & mobile. I think starting as an extension if your mobile strategy makes sense due to resource scarcity. But as your business grows I think it warrants consideration of how your table product will differ. It’s clearly a larger real estate which makes increased features possible. The larger real estate also makes content discovery different.

Again, tablets are the new magazines in some ways. My wife loves to scan her iPad and look at Pinterests. While Pinterest is not yet a commerce platform, what if commerce companies created similar looking products rather than just their traditional catalogs? What if they made their products more interactive? Not as a replacement for the catalog but as an alternative way to interact with their products.

I know that Pinterest has been driving sales in the Suster household. Tania found this hilarious onesie for a dear friend who just accidentally had his fourth baby. They thought they were going to stop at two. Doh.

I don’t yet feel strongly enough about tablets to encourage entrepreneurs with whom I work to put too many resources against it with few exceptions. Tablets are huge video consumption devices. So anybody building “second screen” TV apps or even “primary screen” TV apps needs to think seriously about their tablet strategy independent of their mobile strategy.

Customer First, Experience Second!

Cookie Morenco made some astute observations in the comments section below that accurately reflect my true feels on this topic. It’s “Customer First, Experience Second.”

“I sometimes feel that we’re being forced into a Mobile First strategy by the developers rather than by what some customers want. 

I’m sensitive to this issue because I Ok’d my developers to have a Mobile First, Web Second strategy on a product where our analytics didn’t match consumers actions (in our case, less than 5% use mobile). 

Our developers wanted Mobile more than our customers did.”

This is so perfectly said I won’t add to it. Whenever I see mobile pitches I always start by wondering how normal users would want to use the product.

What’s Your View?

What do you guys think? Do you think Mobile First companies have taken the web seriously enough? What examples do you have of mobile products that would be greatly enhanced by a better web product?

Or do you think most mobile developers should concentrate their resources on being MEMO (Mobile Excellent but Mobile Only)?

I’ve got strong views on this topic. But I’ve love to hear yours to refine my thinking.

I know that “Mobile First” has become engrained in developers minds. And that’s a good thing.

I hope I can at least etch in a small number of developers minds the ending – or starting – of that sentence: Web Second.

  • http://domainbark.com/ Kurt Varner

    Since the launch of Instagram I’ve always wanted a web version. I understand the importance of mobile for generating photo content, but from the consumption side I personally never want to browse my friends photos on my 3 inch iPhone screen. If I’m sitting at home, I will always prefer to be on my 21 inch Mac, not my phone.

    I’ve always been baffled with why Instagram hasn’t developed a web version yet. What do you think their reasoning is? 

  • Irving Fain

    Great post as always Mark. I think the right answer really is product & market dependent. For instance, if you’re building something for consumers (particularly where location can be a benefit related to relevancy – i.e. yelp, foursquare) then this approach makes perfect sense. I wholeheartedly agree that the web can be effectively used to create a better experience overall. I’d add that people often have more time to spend when sitting in front of a computer vs. on their phone. Usage patterns themselves are different.

    The market you didn’t touch on, however, is B2B where I’d argue web still has the pole position. Sure, there are plenty of use cases where mobile products & apps can work with the b2b market, but so much of business is still done on a PC. In this case, I’d say mobile can be used to enhance the experience of a web-based product (quick contacts added to salesforce when you’re in the field, etc.). This may change eventually, but for now seems to be what I see in the market.

  • http://twitter.com/brianmwang Brian Wang

    One thing I haven’t seen brought up yet is the fact that in many ways, web still beats the pants off of mobile when it comes to building community. Self expression, customizing profiles, generating rich content, and long back and forth discussion threads are still almost always best served on the web right now. These activities also happen to be some of the stickiest, most engaging aspects of social experiences and so those who ignore the ability of the web to facilitate these activities do so at their own peril.

  • SD

    One other observation – for legacy companies, it is often useful to build a “mobile first” experience as a standalone product, then transition the legacy pc site to incorporate the mobile first features later on.

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/114718778524214371963/114718778524214371963/posts kidmercury

    mobile is overhyped. yeah it’s the future but so is teleportation, free energy, and interdimensional travel. sadly, the future is not the present. 

    mobile will really get started outside of the US. the same place where solar energy technology will get significant momentum. the US and most of the western world is still laptop first for most stuff. those who want to keep their ear to the street on this stuff need to check out what is hot there. 

    two truths i will leave you with: technologists always innovate way faster than customers can adopt. bubbles always misdirect capital and accelerate innovation too quickly.

  • Eric Meizlish

    Amen.  As seems to be the case way too often, startup founders (and followers) are looking for a certain formula, but rather than evaluating what fits the problem that they are trying to solve most appropriately, they do what they think the community wants them to do, without actually thinking through it first.  Guess that’s natural when things get a bit frothy…

  • http://twitter.com/route2digital Paul Levy

    Mark, thanks for this post, you hit the nail on the head particularly when it comes to photo/video sharing for the “normals.”  The normals need a web experience that seamlessly compliments their mobile experience.  The web creates opportunities for an awesome consumptive media experience (yes, Pinterest – like)…and mobile-only does not currently deliver that.

  • http://twitter.com/TurekTomas Tomas Turek

    Hi Mark, great topic as usual, very relevant today. Long discussion, I’ll stick to offer some input to Trading Apps, I know you have partners invested in the financial sector.

    Currently I consult for a FOREX broker bank in Switzerland, one of the top in terms of volume traded, its sort of a start-up and its growing immensely every year.

    We are finding, the trend is, a lot of people going mobile (and tablet) as the technology improves (latency, control-ability are/were major obstacles).

    So I agree with Eric, in finance sector, it must be an integrated experience. Customers demand to have an ability to control their accounts at all times, its growing addiction/ perhaps worse than Twitter and similar.

    Trading is, when taken seriously, sophisticated process where lot of analysis (heavy lifting back end and smart web platform) is needed.

    Any trading apps (largely due to possible richness of the trading ‘options’), in your and Fred’s terminology: Web First, Mobile/Tablet second.

    Hope this is relevant

  • alexdschiff

    Hi Mark,

    We went with a bit of a different take at Fetchnotes (a note-taking service for short notes, think Twitter meets Evernote). We rolled out our web app first with an integration with SMS so that people could text in their notes — an instant differentiator that our beta crowd loved. Deleting, editing, viewing and otherwise managing those notes was pushed on to the web app entirely. While a lot of our users are clamoring for a mobile app and we know we need to push them out to gain mainstream adoption (we’re actually releasing them next month), going web first with a mobile access point (SMS) provided enough uniqueness for us to really gain a foothold and pick up steam. That’s mostly because it meant that anyone could use it, not just smartphone users, and we weren’t limiting our audience out of the gate. Plus people really liked the simplicity of texting.

    Anyway, just wanted to pass on our experience as a contrast!

  • Reddy_s

    Great post Mark,  totally agree with you .

    Here is my guess with internet application categorization between ‘Mobile’ and  ‘Web’ experiences  AT THIS TIME.

    a)  15% of applications specially  suited for Mobile heavy User Experiences such as  ‘Instagram’  , ‘FourSquare’ 

    b)  30%  of apps  needs both  Mobile and Web experiences with Equal weight 

    c)   55% of apps need  ‘Web heavy and Mobile light ‘ experiences

    These are the percentages 
     AT THIS TIME . 
    This will change over time , in next 3 years when Smart Phone penetration is  80% in  US/EUROPE  and   50% in  ASIA and rest of the word  , we will see more tilt towards Mobile .

  • JamesHRH

    Consumer internet is a brand marketplace. Traditional development chain for any consumer brand requires you to connect 1-2-3 here, leaving platform priority out of the money in fourth, IMHO:

    1) core attribute / positioning
    2) concept / brand promise
    3) core usage scenarios / required UX performance

    4) platform priority

    Flipboard going mobile then web then tablet seems wrong, no?

    Comes down to understanding your value and aligning it with the market, I think.

  • JamesHRH

    The point would be that they are early adopters for that concept. Pinterest knew the market they were after – very impressive.

  • axvonsydow

    Great post Mark and certainly very relevant for many businesses including my own startup. The question has actually occupied my mind for the last six months. 

    After one failed startup which was too product development oriented, we concentrate on the customer entirely when building our app and the customer’s perceived problem..”.Provide the customer with his solution to the problem blabla…”

    We are building a competing (or alternative) product to Poker Texas Hold’em. We have an existing market (with a very influential following – sports stars play this game “on the road”) which is starving for a solution to their current problem. Instead of playing with physical cards and pen and scoresheet the players will use our mobile app that makes the game quicker and more convenient.

    However, I look at the game and see the potential of playing large tournaments and multiplayer gaming (a dimension which never has been explored for this game). These opportunities makes me very split because I believe the gaming experience is much better and with more gaming possibilities as a web app than mobile app.

    As mentioned we have decided to put our resources into building the iOS app since we believe it is the first step for us… I still doubt it. What is your first reaction Mark? Right or wrong decision?

    I would like to add: For games, I believe the mobile trumps web as an initial distribution channel in order to get early traction.

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  • http://3monthstartup.com/ Product Dude

    I completely agree with “API first”. We’re building a cross-platform mobile app, and web dashboard app, but the first thing we had to build (and are still iterating upon) is the API. Both the mobile and web apps are essentially views and interfaces to the API, which serves JSON. While also acting as the hub, the API also allows us to slam messages into social services such as Facebook and Twitter.

  • http://www.coefficientinc.com/product sbmiller5

    You specifically addressed the increased discoverability an app can provide to it’s user on the Web, which is extremely important, but applying that principle of web-discoverability to increase user adoption is equally important.

    Personally, I spend a lot of time on my mobile, but often will bookmark or save something on my phone to later check on the web – where I find it’s easier (leaving tabs open or bookmarking to go back until I’ve found value or lost interest) to discover new services, leisurely.

    The perfect example is twitter, where I often will “favorite a tweet” and then use that favorite to read or discover the link on the web.  (to be fair I do more and more of this on my phone, but I’d estimate 70% of my time actually testing new services is on the web).

  • Joe

    mobile is becoming the primary access method for most users, but a mobile only focus is a red herring. it isn’t about mobile fist, it is, and has been, a user first issue.  just give users what they want, however they want.

    pinterest gave people what they want. it isn’t about a boards, or pins. it is about connecting with what makes a person happy. it isn’t about mvp, y combinator, or tech crunch.  they created a pleasant experience for people other than themselves. 

  • Mark Vanderbeek

    Many good points, but I’m leery of any blanket statements.  For some apps, an immersive experience is going to be the most critical aspect.  For those, the best approach may be Tablet First.  Following the above advice, Flipboard would only just be getting around to an iPad app now. 

    The Customer First point is extremely good.  But a corollary of that is the target audience may have no use for a web app.  There is a whole generation that is no longer PC-centric.  For instance, my teenager loves YouTube, but never watches it on our Macs or PCs.  He watches it on our iPad, on his iPhone, or on the big screen TV (courtesy of our wireless Samsung DVD player that has an app for that).  He never uses their website.

    Oh, and about Text messages…if you’re using an iPhone, it’ll backup those messages to iTunes.  There’s products that make it easy to view them on your PC.  I use MobileSyncBrowser as a handy way to monitor my teenager’s texting.

  • http://twitter.com/ungerik Erik Unger

    I think it comes down to the following 2 questions:

    1. What’s the screen your users spend most time on
    2. What’s the screen through which your users spend their (or their company’s) money

    Why not only concentrate und on the second one, the money screen? Different screens may be at different positions of your sales funnel. Having more than one screen may dramatically open up your funnel.

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  • Kunal Vaed

    Very interesting analysis. I couldn’t agree more with you that MEMO, per se, is not enough. Companies need to recognize the additional monetization opportunities that the web affords for them. Facebook’s candid observation that they still cannot make money on mobile only reinforces that the web-based advertising model is a lot more mature. Two examples within mobile financial services where companies can differentiate their offerings:
    1) Mobile payments — the ability to make payments, view recent transactions and receive shopping offers are best suited for the mobile form-factor, however the ability to compare your shopping habits with your peer group and plan your budget for the month are best suited for the web
    2) Mobile advisor – Mobile is a better channel for a financial advisor to view recent developments in the market, a performance summary of their book of business and critical client details, however opening an account and correcting trade errors is better suited to the desktop channel.

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  • Tam Le

    Mark – 
    Completely agree with you that both web and mobile (or mobile and web if you prefer) are necessary.  However, I think both need to happen at the same time, if not close to one another. Regardless of which path you take first, you have to remember that they’re all related. Take Evernote for example. They do a great job of providing a wonderful experience no matter what device I’m using, and ultimately allowing me to use whatever device is most convenient at the time. This persistent persona/experience that they’ve created for me is very liberating. 

    To sum up: don’t believe which device you start with, but must have a strategy for all of them.

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  • http://twitter.com/AshleyAitken Ashley Aitken

    If “Web Second” means (firstly) tablet Web then I am all in.  As others have said elsewhere, I think most people will be using tablets rather than PCs in the future (except us truck drivers, of course).  And with HTML5, we can hopefully get near “app look-and-feel” across all the tablet platforms.

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  • RapidCloudSolutions.info

    Working in software development I have to say… Write once, run anywhere!
     
    In other words, customer first. Because the customer doesn’t care about the difference between mobile and the web. In fact they don’t focus on the difference, unless it gets in their way. They want what they want and they want it now.
     
    So, internally IT may worry about writing different code for different platforms. But, don’t let the worries show outside the company. Make sure the customer can get what they want when they want it.

  • http://twitter.com/BrandonCWhite BrandonWhite

    In short, I agree with you Mark. Great points.

    A longer discussion. Lots already covered here, but I’ll add my opinion based on my own experience that adds or builds on a lot of great feedback that people have already contributed. When I read Fred’s article a year ago I thought it was insightful from a development perspective because I think the mobile platforms allow you to get something up and running fast and start learning. Having said that, the mobile first mantra as an end all did not feel completely right to me. Honestly at first I thought it was because I was an “older” web guy. I come from web 1.o launching my first company back in the middle 1990’s. Back then the core was the web and that is all we really focused on. Since that first company I’ve always believed the web was core and I still think it is today.

    I also think that the web, as you Mark point out, allows a product to really come alive. There are plenty of examples where the web just allows things to spread their wings. 

    While I said I think the web is core, I think mobile is a well, as well as the tablet and whatever the next screen size device that comes out is called. I think it is core to assure you have an experience for a user on all devices and that experience be persistent in real time regardless of the device. 

    Indulge me to explain, I look at it from a usage/building a business perspective. I do not worry about getting people to pay for a good product that solves a real problem, I worry about getting users using it and continuing to use it over the long term. Only then can you really build a sustainable business with one product, unless of course your “business” is turning out apps. If someone sits down at his/her desk I want that user to be able to use my product. If it’s only mobile I have probably lost a users attention or usage for at least 8 hrs. To me that is a lot of time to not grab or have a chance of grabbing. Someone might say that not everyone works at a desk, fair, but take a look at the workforce today and see where they are, in an office using some form of a “desktop”. I have a better chance at getting them to use my product if I can give them an experience on the web when they are there. All the apps that are only on my iPhone and Android phone sitting next to me right now as I am typing have no chance at getting my eyeballs right now. Those that provide a web experience have a chance because the ones I like and solve a problem have an open window or tab on my computer. I think about that a human is going to look at a connected screen for x hours a day. During that time there is all sorts of competition for attention to different products. I want 100% chance of getting their attention out of the x hours. I also see the mobile connected screen as a cliff notes to the larger  web experience. Not that the cliff notes are not great and work, they do, but reading the whole book can be a much richer experience that better allows you to appreciate the book and author and develop a deeper connection that keeps you following that author.  For the company that we are building now we approached it from exactly the perspective I have outlined, we developed a web and mobile experience all at once. I’d argue that building them in conjunction did not slow things down all too much. We managed to build a MVP with a complex problem in a short amount of time. Now this MVP will need to get rebuilt on a more scalable backend, but at least our MVP can be used across all connected experiences as we use it to learn. We’ve already begun rebuilding to scale and we’re developing a “connected” experience all at the same time.I understand as an entrepreneur with a lean start up team we only have limited resources, but think about it from building a business perspective. I lived through a few cycles of the web, first as an entrepreneur, then as a VC, and back to the entrepreneur side. I’ve always been what we now call a lean start up guy getting something out there to start learning, but I think the trend to get something out there as fast as possible has skewed some of the business side of things. While we as entrepreneurs want to build a cool product, we also, or at least I do, want to build a business. Taking a little extra time to build something that is going to provide a better experience giving our product a better chance I think is the best thing we can do for ourselves and the investors that invest in us.  Our real estate for our products is a connected screen, I want to be on every connected screen a user uses so I can get their eyeballs all the time. Brandon

  • Aigerim

    This is a great topic that we have debated for a while early in 2011, before designing our product. After surveying our users though, we realized that they need a solid web version first and could use mobile as an extension of their online experience. I think it all depends on what problem you are trying to solve and in what industry. For instance, mobile is great for location based businesses (and, presumably travel), but only when traveling domestically… It is very expensive to use your data plan internationally and wifi access is very sporadic when traveling. So it makes extremely hard/impossible to use many location based apps.

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