Don't Fight Your War on Two Fronts

One of the most common things I hear from first-time founders is, “we need to launch our new product on every platform at once.” iOS, Android, and web, and maybe mobile web for good measure. I’ve rarely seen this pan out well, especially if launch timeline is a priority. The problem with this strategy is that it’s akin to fighting multiple wars at the same time, each with their own dynamics. In the short-term, it seems somewhat invigorating to solve for multiple platforms at once, and multiple platforms theoretically increase your total user base, but you end up exhausting your resources at a geometric rate. As an early-stage startup, you have extremely limited resources with which to execute your vision. Your most valuable resources are your time and attention, and launching multiple products is going to compromise both of those. Even if you happen to be flush with cash from a monster seed round, you probably have a limited supply of engineering/design/product management, so developing for multiple platforms will take significantly longer than for one. And, if you do manage to successfully build two products at once and get them out the door with no issues, you still have to support and enhance them over time. Which is never as easy as one would imagine.

Ok, you say. “I’ll build a mobile web version. That’s almost like the web version.” Or, even, “we’ll just build a responsive version that works on all screens.” And it’s sort of true, but you are still responsible for building and maintaining multiple separate products. In the case of the responsive app, you have to optimize it for each screen size that you intend to support (go media queries). It’s easier to support two web versions than iOS and HTML5, but only marginally so. I’m currently going through this one myself. After inheriting a product midway through development, it became clear that the customer needed a mobile version. If I were building it, I probably would have gone mobile-only, but the desktop version existed, so I hacked together a mobile-optimized app. But now it comes back to bite me every time that I want to add a feature. I need to setup two different sets of pages, and the UI often needs to be rethought to work on mobile. Each time that I hack together a new feature and it’s ready to go on desktop, I realize that I need to build it on mobile as well (lest the mobile users complain). For some reason, that mobile web version always takes longer than the desktop version, perhaps because I’m resentful about it.

So what’s my recommendation? Pick one - either iOS, Android, or web, and make the experience great. Then, ignore all requests to support an additional platform until you have succeeded on the first platform (with success being defined as having enough resources to focus on the new platform without sacrificing attention on the existing platform). A mobile-only strategy is making more and more sense as smartphones become the dominant platform (if they haven't already become it). A number of hugely successful apps sacrificed desktop support to keep their focus on mobile. For example, Instagram was iOS-only for the longest time (they were acquired before Android launched), and even now, their front page is basically a redirect to the app store. It’s ok to pick iOS OR Android - although potential users will be pissed if their platform isn’t supported, it’s better to provide a great experience for fewer users than to launch a half-baked product that no one really wants. So, resist the urge to branch out - really, and focus on the things that will lead you to success.