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How To Build A Billion Dollar A - George Berkowski
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A must read for anyone who wants to start a
mobile app business’ – Riccardo Zacconi, Founder and CEO King Digital (maker of Candy Crush Saga)
‘The first book to take a detailed, insightful behind-the-scenes look at the mobile app world. A must read
for anyone who wants to know what it takes to build an app into a successful business’ – Hugo Barra, VP,
Xiaomi and former VP Android Product Management, Google
‘George Berkowski knows from the front line how to build fast-scaling digital businesses. Don’t start one
of your own without taking his advice’ – David Rowan, Editor, Wired magazine
‘A fascinating deep dive into the world of billion-dollar apps. Essential reading for anyone trying to build
the next must-have app’ – Michael Acton Smith, Founder and CEO, Mind Candy (maker of Moshi
‘I loved this book. It provides an entertaining and rigorous yet very practical guide to success in the brave
new world of mobile technology. I will never look at apps the same way again’ – Bill Aulet, Managing
Director of The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship
‘George has combined his own experience at Hailo with a thoughtful study of the iconic mobile companies
of this era to provide a helpful guide to entrepreneurs and investors trying to understand the emerging
mobile economy’ – Adam Valkin, Managing Director at General Catalyst Partners
‘Distilling lessons from the leading mobile internet startups, George offers unique insight into the app
economy, the biggest and fastest wealth-creating opportunity in history’ – Paul Forster, Co-Founder and
former CEO, Indeed
‘In his new work, George Berkowski delivers a compulsively readable business book; it’s a rollicking yet
rigorously detailed ride through the process of creating a breakthrough app-based business. Berkowski’s
engaging account of the rise of the app economy provides an insider’s view on entrepreneurial best
practices, as illustrated by first-hand insights into the people – and their ventures – who have triumphed by
exploiting the mobile revolution. It’s a richly rewarding read’ – Jeffrey F. Rayport, Faculty, Harvard
Published by Piatkus
Copyright © 2014 George Berkowski
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
To my parents, and Kasia
Part I: Think Big
1 The View from the Inside
2 Mobile Genetics
3 A Billion-Dollar Idea
Part II: The Journey
4 It’s Bloody Hard
Step 1: The Million-Dollar App
Building a Founding Team, Validating Your Product and Raising Seed Funding
5 Let’s Get Started
6 Solving the Identity Crisis
7 Getting Lean and Mean
8 App Version 0.1
9 Metrics to Live and Die By
10 Let’s Get Some Users
11 Is Your App Ready for Investment?
12 How Much is Your App Worth and How Much Money Should You Raise?
Step 2: The Ten-Million-Dollar App
Achieving Product–Market Fit and Raising Series A Funding
13 HMS President
14 Make Something People Love
15 New and Improved Version 1.0
16 The Metrics of Success
17 Getting Your Growth On
18 Dollars in the Door
19 Seducing Venture Capital
Step 3: The Hundred-Million-Dollar App
Tuning Your Revenue Engine, Growing Users and Raising Series B Funding
20 A Colorful Lesson
21 Tuning and Humming
22 Getting Shedloads of Users
23 Revenue-Engine Mechanics
24 Keeping Users Coming Back
25 International Growth
26 Growth is a Bitch
27 Money for Scale
Step 4: The Five-Hundred-Million-Dollar App
Scaling Your Business and Raising Series C Funding
28 Shifting Up a Gear
29 Big Hitters
30 Scaling Marketing
31 Killer Product Expansion
32 Scaling Product Development and Engineering
33 Scaling People
34 Scaling Process
35 Financing at a Big Valuation
Step 5: The Billion-Dollar App
The Promised Land
36 Unicorns do Exist
37 People at a Billion-Dollar Scale
38 Advice from Billion-Dollar CEOs
39 Getting Acquired
About the Author
I’d love to thank the following people for all their help, input, opinions and support throughout the process
of creating this book: Tina Baker, Niqui Berkowski, Samar Chang, Brad Feld, Jay Bregman, Steve
Brumwell, Poppy Hope, Michael Varley, Matthew Osborne, Dominika Dudziuk, Anthony Gell, and my
editor Zoe Bohm.
In early 2011, I had just completed the sale of my startup (a video-dating site called WooMe.com) and was
relishing the chance to take a few months off in the sun, when I saw a cryptic post on a tech website from
the entrepreneur Jay Bregman and couldn’t help but get in touch. I shot him an email, met him in person
and found myself intrigued by his idea for a new mobile startup – an app that allowed passengers to hail a
taxi from their smartphone. But his approach was fresh and disruptive (and in this book I’ll be using
‘disruptive’ to describe something that brings about a step change, shakes things up a bit). It directly solved
the problem of how to build up a community of drivers before any passengers were using the app.
From my very first conversation with Jay I realised that his vision for the company was global – an app
that any person could use in any language to catch a taxi in any city in the world. I was sold. Jay needed
someone with my experience to translate his great vision into a concrete business strategy, to refine the
business model – and build the technology and software to turn it into an app. And so, in early 2011, only a
few weeks after the company was incorporated, I joined the tiny startup as the Head of Product. The
company was named Hailo.
Since then it’s been a meteoric trajectory, growing from a handful of people on the HMS President (an
old warship transformed into budget office space which bucks, rolls and creaks with the River Thames
traffic) to more than 250 people in 7 countries and hundreds of millions of dollars in taxi fares.
My experience at Hailo taught me a huge amount about what it takes to achieve success on a huge,
global scale and proved that anyone with a great idea for an app-centric business has the potential to turn
that idea into reality – and a global success. This book is the first step to making that happen.
The View from the Inside
‘Until 1916 we didn’t even have any billionaires’
Why This Book Is Different
This book will help you get inside the head of people who have built billion-dollar apps.1 It will help you
to see the world as they see it – and take you on the journeys that they have been through. It will share my
insider’s view of this world with you – along with the interviews and conversations I have been so lucky to
have with these amazing ‘mobile’ entrepreneurs.
As an entrepreneur – and an engineer – I want to tell you the way it really is. I want to talk about what
happens behind the scenes and behind the computer screens. I’ve read enough stories about the glamorous
side of technology startups, where billionaires are created overnight as if by magic – but, to hit billion-
dollar heights, there is a huge amount that goes on behind the scenes that your ultimate success will depend
I have been lucky enough to work with and meet some of the most talented, passionate – and lucky –
entrepreneurs out there. I have also had the chance to work with some of the most experienced mobile-
technology investors in the world – including Accel Partners, Union Square Ventures, Atomico, Index
Ventures and Wellington Partners. This book is a distillation of countless late nights, years of hard work
and a great adventure.
Whether you’re a newcomer to mobile technology, a gifted developer, seasoned entrepreneur or just
intrigued by what it takes to build a billion-dollar company in this day and age, this book is for you.
It’s not just a theory
My bookshelves are piled high with books brimming with great advice about how to build a great business,
about how to cross chasms and be an effective executive. Biographies of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs,
investor Warren Buffett, Google cofounder Larry Page, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and
businesswoman and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg peer down over my desk. But, as I
reread these books, I keep finding business strategies that no longer work, or principles that, although only
a few years old, seem to be already outdated in the fast-moving world of mobile technology.
Today, the most successful new technology businesses are rewriting the rules in real time. A new wave
of companies is rocketing to success in mobile technology, and a new type of entrepreneur is driving them
towards billion-dollar valuations faster than at any point in history.
I’ve read numerous accounts of how to build a world class technology company – but no one has yet
attempted to package practical, actionable advice about how to build an extraordinary, billion-dollar,
mobile-centric business into a single book. Over the last few years building up my own mobile startups, I
yearned for such a resource, something that would aggregate all the best lessons, and pitfalls, of fast-
growth mobile startups. I found nothing. But I did start collecting all the information I could. I asked for
introductions to other mobile startups, and I talked to and interviewed countless people. That formed my
own personal guide about how to build a mobile company today.
How to Build a Billion-Dollar App is not based on theories. It is not an academic research paper. It isn’t
a collage of pithy business stories crafted by a journalist. And it is certainly not a guide that promises
success and happiness for a four-hour-per-week commitment. It is about reality. It is based on hard data.
The advice and information is based on what it took for a select group of entrepreneurs – a group of people
not unlike you – with varied backgrounds and experience took to transform their ideas in global, billion-
dollar companies in just a few short years.
Combined with my own experiences at Hailo, this book will also capture the very best thinking,
experience, insight – and mistakes – from that select group of entrepreneurs who have followed similar
billion-dollar paths in the mobile world. My journey building Hailo has given me amazing access to some
incredible people and has been indispensible in guiding the decisions that will open the gates to the Billion-
Dollar App Club. Now I want to share that information with you.
In writing this book, I wanted to draw on advice and insights from only the best companies and the best
entrepreneurs. While advice from any source can be useful, the best and most powerful advice is from
those people who have actually achieved billion-dollar success in the mobile-app world.
But getting meaningful inside information from entrepreneurs is exceedingly difficult. There are two
main reasons for this. The first is that the people building great mobile businesses today are spending every
moment of their time doing just that, leaving no time for anything else. The second is that many great
entrepreneurs (but certainly not all) are rather coy about sharing too much information about their
businesses in case they divulge something that might help their competition gain the upper hand.
Personally, I think there is a lot more insight to be gained by actively sharing and soliciting advice than
protecting any individual insights I’ve come across. It’s hard enough building an average company, let
alone a billion-dollar one.
What I’ve sought to understand – and distil into this book – is what differentiates the truly great
companies from run-of-the-mill, good companies. I focus on the most spectacularly successful apps – those
that have achieved billion-dollar exits, or have undisputed valuations at the billion-dollar level.
If you’re an Android or iPhone user then you’ll already be an avid user of some or even all of them:
WhatsApp (the messaging app), Viber (another messaging app), Square (the payments service), Angry
Birds (the now ubiquitous game), Uber (your on-demand chauffeur), Instagram (the social-photography
app), Waze (the mapping and social-traffic app), Clash of Clans (the ridiculously popular game from
Supercell), Candy Crush (the ‘sweet’ game from King), Snapchat (the messaging app where your messages
disappear after seconds), Flipboard (the app-based social magazine) and Tango (yet another messaging
This list is growing all the time, so for the most up-to-date information, visit mybilliondollarapp.com.
While their missions, businesses and stories are very different, they do share a remarkable number of
similarities that have propelled them to great success.
In this book I focus primarily on mobile-first companies – ones that have pure mobile DNA. Why?
Because being mobile-centric is a different and entirely new way of thinking – and is possibly one of the
biggest business opportunities in history.
That being said, there are a number of other billion-dollar technology startups that began as websites or
even desktop applications. There’s clearly a huge amount to learn from them, not only from the way that
they have adapted to the mobile world, but also because they are great examples of modern companies that
have grown from ideas to billion-dollar powerhouses by developing better products, great leadership,
constant innovation – and, above all, superb execution. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Skype,
PayPal, eBay, Amazon, Pandora, Dropbox, Box, Groupon and Evernote fall into this category.
The world of mobile technology is exciting – and daunting. The mobile landscape is constantly changing:
every week seems to herald the arrival of a new mobile device – from smartphones to smart watches, to
tablets, to phablets (that’s a combination of phone and tablet).
We’re also bombarded with new flavours of mobile software – Android’s candy-store options include
KitKat, Jelly Bean and Froyo. Apple’s iOS software is yet different and based on numbers – iOS 5, iOS 6 –
and the latest one (at the time of writing, anyway), iOS 7, seems to adopt a rather candy-coloured colour
scheme as well. It’s all a bit much to keep track of.
No need to worry, though. I’ll lead you through all the things you need to know.
Part I starts by exploring what has caused technology to become so mobile so quickly, and why the
biggest, most exciting opportunities in commerce, communications and gaming are happening on mobile
apps. I’ll look at why this shift was inevitable – and the social, cultural and psychological impacts it will
have. It will demystify mobile technology so that you can grasp why these changes are happening – and be
in a better position to anticipate what the near future will look like.
Part I will also consider what it means – and takes – to think big. Entrepreneurs don’t trip over and fall
into billion-dollar businesses: they see big problems, very big problems that frustrate lots of people, and
then create elegant solutions. They do this through a combination of disruptive thinking, solid execution
and management of complexity. These solutions are the basis of businesses with huge potential. This
section will give you the tools you need to validate whether your idea has billion-dollar potential (and how
to adjust it if it falls short).
Part II will guide you through the journey of building a billion-dollar app. There are five key lifecycle
steps. The steps map to challenges that need to be met and solved to create a great product, a great team, a
great business model and a great company overall. I loosely align these steps with valuations and funding
rounds to help you along the journey as, in its broadest sense, the model I’ve used reflects how venture
capitalists have been looking at technology companies for the last decade.
The model I’ve used is not meant to be perfect – or definitive – because the trajectory of every company
will be different. However, it is meant to provide clarity and structure – and distil the key challenges you
will meet. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in the world of mobile startups, but, by following, or at
least being aware of, the steps mapped out at each stage, you will make sure that all the foundations
necessary for building a great, billion-dollar company have been addressed. Let’s look at the steps in more
STEP 1: THE MILLION-DOLLAR APP. Now that you’ve got your head around a billion-dollar idea, how do
you get all the basics into place? I’ll walk through defining and designing the app you’re going to build,
finding a cofounder and core team and thinking about how to raise the funding you need to get to the next
STEP 2: THE TEN-MILLION-DOLLAR APP. Your top priority is creating an app that is going to wow
people. This is when you focus manically on building the best product for the right audience – something
called product–market fit. This is a tough stage, but, once you have created an app that people are happy to
pay for, your business will take off.
STEP 3: THE HUNDRED-MILLION-DOLLAR APP. Now that you have product–market fit, it’s all about
attracting users, and refining your business model to ensure you’re a proper, profitable business. It’s also
time to get a proper company structure in place – including seasoned management – as your business
STEP 4: THE FIVE-HUNDRED-MILLION-DOLLAR APP. Armed with a great app and a reliable way to make
money, how do you grow your company quickly and profitably? How do you keep users coming back?
And how do you attract users from the four corners of the globe? This stage is all about scaling your
STEP 5: THE BILLION-DOLLAR APP. The Promised Land. I’ll talk about exits and acquisitions. I’ll also
talk about how it doesn’t get any easier – in fact, now that you’re at the top, you’re a target. And retaining
pole position is a different game entirely. I’ll also talk about how every single path to a billion-dollar app is
It’s a Really Big Number
Before I tell you something about myself, let’s just look at this monster number that we call a billion.
One thing that I find difficult to get my head around is how big a billion really is. It is a modern number.
Up until the turn of the last century it was left to the domain of astronomers. Until 1916 we didn’t even
have any billionaires – John D. Rockefeller inaugurated the club on 29 September 1916.2
The world population hit 1 billion in 18043 – that clearly took a while. We hit 2 billion people in 1927, 3
billion in 1960 and the magical 7 billion in 2011. While it took 123 years to double from 1 to 2 billion, it
took only 12 years to go from 6 to 7 billion.4
If you think about 1 billion minutes – well that’s equal to 1,900 years. If we rewind 1 billion minutes
we’d be at the height of the Roman Empire. If we think about 1 billion hours – that’s around 114,000
years. At that time we were living in the Stone Age.
Our brains function in the billions: we have 100 billion neurons – or the key cells in the brain. And there
are at least 100 trillion (i.e. 100 billion multiplied by 1,000) connections between all those cells – called
But let’s have a look at something a little more relevant to our billion-dollar app. At the beginning of
2014 Facebook had 1.23 billion active monthly users,5 with an astounding 757 million logging in every
Facebook needs between 180,000 and 200,000 servers (the computers that run their website and apps) to
support all those users, according to one professional estimate.6 Think about what this costs to run. Well,
according to one of Facebook’s financial filings, it invested more than $1 billion so far in server hardware
But, if you think that number is big, wait for it. Google is spending a few billion dollars – every quarter
– on supporting the computers it needs to run all its services.8 In total it has spent over $21 billion on its
So success is definitely about understanding – and managing – numbers at a billion-dollar scale.
One of the core themes in this book is that not only is building a billion-dollar app possible, but that
opportunity is everywhere and open to everyone, irrespective of their background or experience.
With that in mind, I want to share with you the rather uncommon path that has taken me to this point in
my life, and why – above all – I have tried to teach myself to focus on trying to see the opportunity that
every situation presents (and having fun along the way).
My journey towards a billion-dollar app was that of a rather normal, at times dysfunctional and at times
difficult child. My parents were neither rich nor poor, they didn’t have any interest whatsoever in business,
and had little grasp of technology (and for years even resisted having a VCR).
I was born in 1977 in Warsaw, Poland and when I was two, my family moved to Australia. I was a rather
demanding child, in constant need of feeding. I showed no early signs of ambition or activity (preferring to
eat rather than talk, and sleep rather than walk).
When I was seven there was a glimmer of hope. At a kindergarten bake sale I managed to persuade my
mother not only to bake scores of cupcakes, but also to buy matching chef attire for my friend and me. The
combination of two cute little boys with matching outfits, brimming with energy and big smiles, led to a
cupcake sellout. Profits were made, and a salesman was born. My mother is still upset that I haven’t
bothered to learn to cook.
The summer of 1989 started off wonderfully, but my father had an alternative view and said I had been
loafing about for too long. It was only the second week of my vacation and I was about to turn 13. Then he
dropped a bomb: ‘Son,’ he said, ‘I bet, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t find a decent-paying summer
job by the end of the day.’
A challenge is a challenge and I accepted. Though I do admit, I was petrified at the idea of getting a job
(a wildly alien concept at the time). A full day of going from store to store with nothing but rejections
landed me at the greasy counter of a local BBQ chicken restaurant. Less than 15 minutes later I was
wearing an ill-fitting, stained apron, wiping down the counters and learning what it meant to earn an hourly
wage. That evening I brought home 12 hard-earned dollars and enjoyed my father’s incredulous
expression. How did I finally land that job? I bypassed my limited CV and opened the conversation with
my would-be employer with the tried and tested TV shopping-channel line: try my work right now, and, if
you don’t like it, then you don’t have to pay me.
My high school prom in 1994 taught me a powerful lesson. I wasn’t one of the popular or cool kids (my
mother insisted on cutting my hair until I was 16), nor one of the sporty types (but I could give you a
decent rally on the tennis court). Prom rapidly approached, and I, naturally, was dateless. Then a funny
thing happened. The resident hot girl at our tennis club inexplicably started up a conversation with me after
one training session. Words were exchanged, a question escaped by mouth, and somehow she accepted my
feeble invitation to the prom. On the big day – and I still remember it all too clearly – we made a
spectacular entrance at the venue. Mouths dropped. People were perplexed. As it turns out, she desperately
wanted to come to our Prom but not a single guy had had the courage to invite her. I was the exception. To
this day people comment on that night. From that moment I knew that the potential upside of asking the
question you’re afraid to ask always outweighs the chance that you’ll hear the word ‘no’ in response.
Somehow, in 1996, I was admitted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with
the ambition of becoming an astronaut. Despite less than perfect SAT results (SAT is the standardised test
for college admissions in the USA), I managed to slip in under the radar. I suspect I was the token
Australian – admitted to maintain the broad quota of nationalities on campus (that or they really enjoyed
the essay I wrote about my senior-year summer working as an extra on the Aussie television soap Home
and Away). My four undergraduate years flew by quickly, while slowly, in the background, the Internet
bubble continued to expand.
The year 2000 was the pinnacle of tech silliness. Internet startups seemed to be a sure-fire path to
becoming a millionaire, stock-market launches (or IPOs – initial public offerings) blossomed left, right and
centre and investment-banking jobs were being handed out like frozen-yoghurt samples at a shopping
centre. I ignored the pleading of my parents to join the Wall Street brigade, and jumped on board the
startup train by joining Trilogy, an automotive and telecoms software startup.
Working first at the company’s headquarters in Austin, and then the European head office in Paris, I
witnessed massive demand for our software. Straight out of college, I was leading teams selling cutting-
edge software solutions to companies such as Renault and France Telecom. The company experienced
explosive growth – adding around 700 people in 18 months – then, through a combination of a largely
inexperienced management team and a massive contract failing to materialise, the company imploded.
More than two-thirds of the company was fired overnight. It was an intense – and eye-opening – welcome
to the world of startups.
After I had done a stint at a French business school, the spectacular story of MirCorp caught my interest.
MirCorp was the company that tried to turn the Russian MIR space station into the first commercial orbital
hotel. (In the end the hotel bit didn’t work out, but MirCorp did deliver the world’s first space tourist –
Dennis Tito – to the International Space Station in 2001.) I hunted down the MirCorp founders, and
cornered them at a conference in Amsterdam. A couple of weeks later I had a job. I used my tried and
tested strategy: try me out for free (I offered to make them the subject of my business-school research
thesis) and, if it doesn’t work out, don’t pay me. I ended up running the company’s marketing and
partnerships, as well as their online activities, and, with our Russian partners, delivered a wide range of
space-tourism experiences to customers all over the world.
In 2005, I decided to get serious about the Internet, and found a job in the e-commerce team at a big
telecoms company. I was lucky enough to work for a very talented boss who made it easy for me to excel
and assume more responsibility very quickly. I had the chance to build and launch numerous new online
products – including advertising solutions, commerce solutions and even various new communications
tools. It was exciting to work with a team of designers and developers to put my products in front of
millions of users – and get instant feedback. It really whetted my appetite for building my own Internet
In early 2007, I was working on advanced, peer-to-peer, video-chat technology in my day job when my
boss saw an opportunity: what if we used this super-fast, high-quality communications technology to
change the face of the billion-dollar online dating industry? And so I quit with my boss to found
WooMe.com – the world’s first video speed-dating platform.
Over the course of four years we built our startup between London and Los Angeles with more than 50
people and 10 million users. Early in 2011, Zoosk.com, one of the biggest dating sites in the world at the
time, acquired us. It was a wild ride – and a great outcome. All that time we were watching websites go
mobile, and had dabbled with creating our own mobile site, but never quite made the leap to a mobile app.
I was keen to take some time off after WooMe was acquired. Just a few days before I set off travelling
around southern Europe, I answered a cryptic online post from Jay Bregman, who had just founded Hailo.
Jay explained how his approach to creating a single, global app to hail taxis in any city in the world was
different from the handful of small competitors already operating. He loved my experience of building a
multimillion-user community in the video-dating world – and creating an acclaimed product. Once he’d
finished outlining the broad experience of the Hailo founding team I was pretty much sold. And so my
journey to delivering my own billion-dollar app began.
Breakfast with three taxi drivers
So how was the idea for Hailo born? Well it all started with breakfast on Charlotte Street in London with
three taxi drivers.
Jay Bregman had previously started eCourier – a courier startup armed with advanced algorithms that
decreased the time and cost of deliveries, making the entire process much more efficient. While the
company was successful, it couldn’t displace the massive incumbent courier companies. But Jay still had a
burning hunger to build a highly successful technology company.
Jay knew two things all great entrepreneurs know: first, you need to focus on what you know; second, to
build something enormous you need to disrupt and reinvent a service that millions of people around the
world use on a daily basis.
As eCourier struggled, he focused on figuring out how he might transfer the allocation technology he
had developed for eCourier – matching people who wanted to send packages with couriers who could both
pick up those packages and deliver them in the most efficient way – to another market. And, most
importantly, to a market needing disruption, a good shake-up.
After some research, the taxi industry popped up as an interesting candidate. People use taxis all over the
world, in big cities and small cities, and, interestingly, 25 cities in the world spend $1 billion or more on
taxi fares annually. On top of that, it turned out that taxi drivers were terribly inefficient – spending up to
half their time driving empty cabs, searching for fares.
Jay cofounded the company with Caspar Woolley (the former chief operating officer at eCourier) and
Ron Zeghibe, a seasoned executive with experience in private equity and outdoor advertising. Ron had
even taken a company public.
And so back to Charlotte Street – and what would turn out to be the genesis of Hailo. Jay, Caspar and
Ron were there to meet three entrepreneurial taxi drivers called Terry, Russell and Gary (affectionately
known as ‘TRG’), who were trying to get their own business, called TaxiLight, up and running. TaxiLight
aimed to match drivers coming in and out of London’s suburbs at the beginning and end of their shifts,
with passengers looking for rides in those directions. The strategy was to discount these longer rides and
allow the drivers to earn some incremental income, while passing on a good deal to passengers.
Jay loved the idea, but even more than that he loved the fact that TRG had already signed up 700
London cabbies who wanted to take part in the programme – despite the fact they had no product or app to
offer them. It was at this meeting that Jay presented his idea – one bigger and more ambitious than
anything the drivers could have possibly imagined – of a truly global taxi-hailing app. The app would
launch in London first, and then it would expand globally. Everyone around the table loved it.
Hailo would have six cofounders – three seasoned entrepreneurs and three experienced taxi drivers. The
team possessed great collective experience – deep sector expertise, tried and tested technology, years in
finance and even a previous working relationship. It was a powerful cofounder mix.
For drivers, by drivers
What became clear from those very early stages was that having the involvement of drivers at the very core
of the business was indispensable. As the Head of Product for Hailo, my role was to figure out what we
needed to build – and how to go about building it. I, along with our designer, would work closely with
drivers to determine what features should be included in the app, how the pricing should be structured and
even the best way to message the drivers. We wanted to create a service that drivers would love. Hailo’s
key strategic difference would be its ability to build up a supply of keen drivers well in advance of having
any passengers by creating an app that would make drivers’ days better and their work more efficient. The
app would provide free traffic information, driver-sourced information about where people are requesting
cabs, the ability to securely process credit cards via their smartphones with no additional hardware and
comprehensive stats and reporting on the fares they were picking up – all for free.
With TRG’s input we started work confident that we were taking the right approach. The core of my role
was to understand what drivers really wanted – and how to design that into an app they’d love using every
day. I also needed to build a product and engineering team that could actually build a robust mobile
platform to support thousands of drivers – and millions of passengers. And I had only a few short months
in which to do it.
The year 2011 marked another key turning point, before which a mobile-centric solution to the problems
of the taxi industry just wasn’t possible. The penetration of smartphones was becoming significant – with
broad mainstream adoption. Smartphones were no longer just for early adopters: more and more people
owned them. This was the very first wave of BYOI – Bring Your Own Infrastructure. From the onset, we
knew that, if we had to buy smartphones for taxi drivers, then our profit margins would be a lot lower –
and we’d have to get into the business of maintaining all that hardware.
By carefully modelling where smartphone prices were going, we could see that it would be very realistic
for Hailo to focus solely on creating the app software – and leave it to drivers to buy their own
smartphones. This was a critical decision, as it would allow us to invest more time and money not only
developing our software but also focusing more on expanding Hailo to more countries and cities.
Had we instead focused on providing the hardware to drivers (as some of our taxi competitors did) we
would have burned through a lot more money more quickly, which would have come at the cost of
expanding to additional cities. So it was a decision well made.
Today this decision has resulted in further benefits for Hailo. In most cities – because of Hailo’s scale –
it is able to negotiate great deals on both smartphones and airtime packages on behalf of its drivers. This
has actually become a selling point to drivers thinking of joining Hailo, since they can now get better
phones, cheaper, and with better packages.
It was this focus on building an app that drivers loved which would allow Hailo to get incredible initial
traction. And it was extending that same strategy to understand people’s behaviour that would lead us to
design a similarly great app for passengers. But ultimately it was predicting the way smartphones – and the
apps on them – would shape daily human behaviour, combined with the massive reach of app store
distribution, that would really accelerate Hailo’s journey to becoming a billion-dollar app.
‘A typical smartphone user looks at their phone about 150 times per day’
In early 2014 the number of mobile phones exceeded the number of people in the world today: 7 billion.1
The number of smartphone users will top 1.75 billion in 2014.2 In 2013 people spent a whopping $25
billion on apps – an increase of 62 per cent on the previous year.3
In the face of these eye-watering statistics, it seems bizarre to think that smartphones didn’t even exist in
2007, and it’s amazing to think that apps (just a cuter word for ‘applications’) appeared only a year later in
2008 – launched on Apple’s rather revolutionary iPhone.
So why is the mobile sector growing so fast? And why have both the rollout and the usage of the mobile
Internet grown so much faster than the desktop Internet? In this section I’ll dive into how the last few
decades of innovation have converged to deliver history’s most powerful computers, in the smallest forms,
and at a price that an increasing proportion of the world’s population is able to afford. We’ll cover
everything, from the operating systems used by the two smartphone giants Google and Apple, to the most
popular activities on smartphones, to the underlying technologies that make apps so powerful.
Let’s get geeky for a moment. Mobile technology didn’t become huge overnight. It was a long time in the
making – it was just that most of us didn’t notice (and frankly didn’t care that much). Think about this for a
second: the smartphone in your pocket today is about 15 times faster than a Cray-1 supercomputer (1979
vintage), and as powerful as the most powerful computer in the world in 1987.4
But it’s not just about the hardware. A Cray-1 couldn’t make phone calls, or tell you where in the world
you were standing, or tell which direction was north, or even allow you to read your email. All it offered
you was a keyboard and a screen – and the ability to perform millions of calculations per second.
Before computers became mainstream they needed to address a number of issues. They needed to be
friendlier to use – the only way you could communicate with them was by a command line interface and
complex instruction sets. The advent of the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and its rapid adoption in the
1980s was a huge step forward. The mouse, even though it first appeared in the 1960s, only really gained
broader traction in the 1970s and 80s. But the market was still fragmented with IBM, Commodore, Atari
and Apple all creating competing hardware, and software. Computer mice, printers and other peripherals
didn’t play well together.
It was Microsoft who pioneered a huge change in the mid-1980s with the arrival of Windows. Windows
was a new operating system – or OS (we’ll use that term from now on). An OS is simply a big chunk of
software that is the glue of any computer: it manages all the hardware on the computer (such as the
keyboard, screen and processor) and manages all the other programs that run on the computer (such as
email, the Web browser, your calendar). Windows exploded in popularity because it was simple to use and
provided a visual interface, and banished the command-line interface to the annals of history.
The Windows OS was launched in November 1985 and in just three years it was running on 25 per cent
of all computers. In addition to making computers more accessible to users, it also provided a powerful
platform for developers. As Windows dominated more and more desktop computers – it ended up running
on 96 per cent of the world’s computers from 1998 to 2005 – developers could write a software program,
and then easily distribute it and have it run on all those computers (no matter who manufactured the actual
With the Windows OS now managing the complex interface of dealing with any type of computer
hardware, software developers were left with the much easier – and interesting – task of building software
that could do cool things such as browse the Web, manage your email, generate visual maps and play
Over the course of 20 years, the Windows OS allowed hundreds of millions of people to learn to use
computers, and millions of developers to create innovative software programs that would generate billions
of dollars of value.
Around the early to mid-1990s, mobile phones started to hit their stride. Mobile-phone handsets – along
with mobile services – were now affordable, and a mobile infrastructure that enabled people to make calls
and send text via SMS was rolling out rapidly around the world.
There was, however, no clear mobile operating system. All the leading handset manufacturers, such as
Nokia, Motorola, Sony and Ericsson, had their own proprietary – and closed – systems. As a result there
was no simple or effective way for developers to write software that would work on handsets from
different manufacturers. There were a few attempts to try to create common platforms – but none managed
to get traction.
The opportunity to develop an OS for mobile phones was there. There was an opportunity to dominate
software on mobile phones, just as Microsoft’s Windows OS had dominated the desktop. But it would be a
few years before a winner emerged.
We’re going mobile – and there’s no turning back
On 29 June 2007, Steve Jobs dropped a bombshell on the world. That day he unveiled one of the most
highly anticipated consumer technology devices in history: the iPhone. Over the preceding years Apple had
been clawing back its reputation as a true leader in product innovation. The iPod – along with iTunes – had
changed the way people discovered, listened to and stored music, displacing CD and MP3 players and
providing consumers with a new way to purchase music. The iPhone would continue the disruption: it
collapsed the power of a desktop computer into a device that fitted into your hand; it integrated wi-fi and
mobile Internet access; and it allowed virtually anyone to write software that would operate on it – all
within a beautifully designed handset.
The iPhone delivered such a punch because it combined a number of very significant innovations. First,
it packed the power of a desktop computer into a mobile phone. Why was that critical? Because all that
computing power would allow it to run a powerful operating system – or OS. That opened the door for
Second, Apple introduced the concept of the App Store. It was a centralised place where Apple would
manage and distribute all the mobile computer programs (which would be called ‘apps’) created by
developers all around the world. The iPhone was no phone: it was a true mobile computer – and developers
were encouraged to create cool apps for it.
Third, the iPhone set a new benchmark for mobile hardware. Not only did Apple do away with the
clunky method of entering letters via a numeric keypad, but they also replaced the pokey BlackBerry
keyboard with a virtual one, thus freeing up more space for a larger screen (and more engaging apps). They
also filled the iPhone with sensors such as GPS (Global Positioning System, to tell you where you are), a
magnetometer (to tell you which direction is north), and accelerometers (to detect whether the iPhone is
moving, and, if so, which way).
It was through the combination of all these innovations, launched at the same time, that Apple was able
to set the stage for what would be a multibillion-dollar-per-year app industry.
Over at Google, co-CEO Larry Page watched the iPhone launch and realised that mobile was going to
become a dominant force. Since 2005 he had been talking to a developer called Andy Rubin about a rather
secretive project called Android – a new mobile OS. After only a handful of meetings Page was so
impressed by Rubin – and the technology – that he was ready to buy the fledging company and inject
massive internal investments into the project. Rubin joined Google in July 2005 and, three years later,
Google launched the first smartphone running the Android OS.
Android mirrored Apple’s entire ecosystem, but with one key difference – and ultimately a massive one.
Android would run on open-source software. That meant that anyone in the world – from an individual
developer all the way to a giant smartphone manufacturer – was allowed to use the Android software and
tailor it to their own specific purpose. The Android OS could therefore be used, adapted and optimised for
use on smartphones produced by competitors such as Samsung and BlackBerry. Apple, on the other hand,
had taken a highly controlled, walled-garden approach with iOS (its mobile operating system). Apple
would not allow anyone else to use the system, and iOS would run only on Apple-made hardware.
The diagram below shows how dramatically things have changed. When Microsoft launched Windows
in the 1980s, it took 12–15 years for it to dominate 96 per cent of all desktop computers.5
And yet, when you look to the right of the graph, you can see that iOS and Android have destroyed
Microsoft’s near-monopoly in a mere five years. People have adopted mobile computing more than three
times faster than they did the desktop.6
This points in a fascinating direction: people don’t want to be artificially stuck behind desktop or even
laptop computers. In fact, the data suggests that people want their computers to be as mobile as they are.
And herein lies the massive opportunity with mobile – and, more specifically, with mobile apps.
Global Market Share of Personal Computing Platforms by Operating Systems Shipments, 1975–
Mobile is winning across the board. China ended 2013 with 618 million Internet users, of which 500
million were mobile Internet users.7 Eighty-one per cent of Chinese are now accessing the Internet via
mobile.8 Mobile Internet browsing as a percentage of total Internet browsing had reached 23 per cent by
January 20149 – that’s an 83 per cent increase in just a year.
If the above trend continues, then mobile is going to represent the majority of all personal computing
platforms by 2016.
In 2015, the number of smartphone users is expected to hit 2 billion.10 The lower cost of mobile devices
combined with the growth of mobile broadband networks will actually see the next billion people who
come online bypass desktop computing entirely and go straight to mobile. This makes for a huge
momentum shift towards mobile.
What are we doing on our smartphones?
It’s clear that the demand for more intelligent mobile devices is huge – but what is driving it? One way to
understand this accelerating trend is to investigate exactly what we’re using our smartphones for.
A typical smartphone user looks at their phone about 150 times per day.11
That seems like a ridiculous number, but, when you break it down by activity, it suddenly seems a lot
more plausible. Try ruthlessly logging your own smartphone activity for a couple of days. I tried it, and
was astonished when I exceeded that number.
All this activity means that we are spending an incredible amount of time interacting with our
smartphones. In 2013, the average US consumer spent an average of 2 hours and 38 minutes per day on
their smartphone and tablet. That accounts for a whopping 17 per cent of their waking hours12 – that’s
almost one-fifth of the time we spend with our eyes open. Wow!
Even more exciting is that those consumers spend 80 per cent of that time (that’s right – 2 hours and 7
minutes) using apps and only 20 per cent (31 minutes) on the mobile Web. Apps offer the better mobile
experience – and as a result hold four times more of our daily attention than the mobile Web.
So, now that we know that people love their apps, the question begs to be asked: which apps are
hoovering up so much of our attention? The diagram below suggests we’re a big bunch of time-wasters,
spending almost 60 per cent of our time on games, Facebook or entertainment-related apps.
Time spent on iOS and Android connected devices
As you can see from this diagram, there are two apps so significant in their ability to capture and retain
our attention that they deserve a direct mention. The Facebook app galvanises our attention so much that it
represents 18 per cent of all time spent by Americans on smartphones. Social is clearly playing an
increasing role our lives, especially on mobile. I’ll dive into the details later in the chapter.
Interestingly, and this is a reflection of the quality of the app as well, in 2013 Apple’s Safari mobile
browser captured 12 per cent of our time, representing more than half of all mobile Web browsing. Given
the rather fragmented and competitive mobile browser space, this is a big achievement which represents
another nail driven into the coffin of desktop browsing.
Generating Billions of Dollars via Smartphones
All this incredible app engagement is already generating billions of dollars in revenue for all the players in
the mobile ecosystem. We’re going to investigate the business models that work – both for individual
developers and for the big companies. As the pace of innovation continues to increase, so do the
opportunities to generate revenues.
In-App Revenues Are Growing Fast
As you can see from the graph above, the first and best-known revenue stream comes from selling apps
through an app store (paid for). This is big business for Apple and Google, who were the middle men for
about 90 per cent of the 102 billion apps that were downloaded in 2013.13 In 2013, global app-store
revenue was $26 billion.14 Apple and Google keep 30 per cent of these revenues as operators of the stores,
meaning that this is the commission that app developers have to pay if they use the inbuilt app-store
payment mechanisms. It’s worth remembering this figure represents just the revenue from premium
downloads and in-app payments; it doesn’t include the transactions from apps where you enter your credit
card information directly.
App stores are so popular with developers because they have built up massive audiences, and they make
it very easy for users to make real monetary purchases with the credit-card details that are attached to their
app-store accounts. That means that getting a user to part with real money is as simple as a single click for
the developer. The app-store owner manages everything to do with accounts, payments and any hassles
associated (such as fraud and charge-backs).
The second major revenue channel is in-app purchases. This has become an increasingly popular topic in
the media because numerous apps have seduced children into spending thousands of dollars via apps,
unaware that they are doing so.15 In-app purchasing is a natural evolution of the pay-before-you-download
model. Effectively, it makes downloading the app free (thus encouraging more people to download it), and
then gives the app developer the opportunity to sell virtual services or products very simply within the app.
One of the star billion-dollar apps, the very clever game Clash of Clans, makes 100 per cent of its revenues
via in-app payments (Supercell, the maker of Clash of Clans, made $890 million in 2013 using this
model16). As you can see from the diagram on page 27, in-app payments are projected to be the main
source of app-store revenues by 2017.
E-commerce via mobile apps is also a huge channel and is a bit trickier to quantify, as this revenue
comes from transactions taking place via apps that go through an app’s own payment system – and hence
bypassing the inbuilt app-store payment channel used for in-app purchases. The top 500 US mobile
retailers – including eBay – turned over $34.2 billion in mobile retail sales for 201317 – up from $21
billion in 2012. That means that mobile represented about 13 per cent of the $260 billion total e-retail sales
in 2013.18 Amazon doubled its mobile sales in 2013 to $8 billion, with eBay pulling in $8.8 billion for the
year as well.19
The third major way that apps generate revenue is advertising. While lots of smaller apps rely on this
revenue stream, it’s very hard to achieve billion-dollar success using this route. But there are two ways.
One of our billion-dollar-app role models, Flipboard, successfully executed an advertising strategy via its
app magazine to reach its billion-dollar valuation – and has now augmented that model with an e-
commerce channel as well. Instagram, the social photography app (purchased by Facebook in 2012), is the
perfect example of a highly engaging app that is now rolling out advertising. I’m not going to focus on the
intricacies of developing massive advertising revenue for your app at this point. Later, we will explore the
risky strategy of building a ‘consumer audience’ – with the goal of being acquired by a bigger company
that can better (and more efficiently) monetise your active users with their own advertising platform.
Apps Make Us Feel Good!
So far, we’ve seen a clear trend: we’re migrating lots of our activities to mobile, using smartphones to
communicate more, to play more games, buy more stuff and consume more content. But our spending via
mobile has not (at the time of writing) yet caught up to desktop levels – suggesting a huge migration that
has only just begun. We are also at a rather fascinating inflexion point: 2013 marked the worst decline in
global PC shipments in history, marking seven quarters of decreasing demand.20 This all results in one
very big – and growing – opportunity. In addition to understanding how apps are affecting our lives on a
practical level, it’s also important to understand the psychological and emotional effects that smartphones
are having on us. In 2013 Facebook completed a study21 of American smartphone users with some rather
fascinating results outlined in the diagram below. Smartphone users were asked, ‘How do social and
communications activities on smartphones make you feel?’ The two strongest sentiments they reported
were ‘connected’ and ‘excited’.
Given how personal smartphones are (they are constantly within arm’s reach), there is a huge role for
apps to play in triggering and maintaining strong emotional relationships. Leading apps capitalise on this
by focusing exceptional effort on design, usability, performance and things like the tone of voice used in
their copy. Given that people want to be ‘excited’ and ‘connected’, it makes sense that anything that is
done to maximise those sentiments is only going to make an app more popular.
Smartphones Elicit Strong Emotions
How do social and communications activities on a smartphone make you feel?
This strong emotional reaction means that smartphones can have a gripping effect on people.
‘Smartphone addiction’ numbers are hard to come by, but in South Korea, where smartphone penetration is
above 100 per cent (i.e. some people own more than one), the teen smartphone addiction rate is estimated
at 18 per cent – that’s double the rate of addiction in adults in that country.22
A 2013 study by Harris Interactive also pointed out that almost 75 per cent of people are always within
five feet of their smartphone, and 10 per cent have used one during sex.23 The question begs to be asked: is
this a sad state of affairs, or a wonderful opportunity? For our purposes we can go with the latter.
What Are Apps, Anyway?
Understanding technology is a crucial advantage, especially in a world where things are changing at an
ever-increasing rate. Companies like Apple have done a brilliant job burying technical complexity beneath
stunningly elegant and intuitive interfaces, thus delivering value immediately to novice and advanced users
alike. After all, Apple pretty much single-handedly created the app ecosystem as we know it today.
This simplicity of interfaces is mirrored on the software development side as well. The barrier to get
your own simple app into an app store and into the hands of users is not very complex – opening the world
of app development to anyone.
But, in order to build a billion-dollar app, we need to dig deeper into the details. By understanding the
very core of what makes apps so powerful, you will possess the insight to develop something equally
powerful. I’ll go through a brief history of how apps came about, and then explore three core reasons that
allow apps to deliver a great mobile experience – things you’ll need to keep in mind when developing your
own billion-dollar app.
A brief history of the app
The term ‘app’ has been around for a long time. An app (or application) and a software program are the
same thing. Thanks to Apple, though, the word has been adopted by the mobile world, and means either a
smartphone app or a tablet app.
This wonderful app ecosystem almost didn’t happen at all, according to Walter Isaacson, the biographer
of the famed Steve Jobs. When Apple was developing the iPhone, Jobs was initially not too enamoured
with the idea that third-party developers should be able to create software to run directly on his beautiful,
sleek device – and potentially mess it up. Instead, he wanted developers to create Web apps that could be
used through the device’s mobile Safari Web browser. Luckily Steve’s preference didn’t prevail, otherwise
the multi-billion-dollar app economy might have evolved very differently.
The challenges with Web apps are numerous, from ensuring compatibility with mobile Web browsers
and all their different versions – which involves a lot of testing – to complexities around mobile Web
browsers being able to reliably access sensors (such as the microphone, compass or accelerometer) on your
phone, and all the way through to how fast the Web app will run if it hasn’t been designed to run
specifically on your phone. Facebook famously tried to pursue Web apps, only to have CEO Mark
Zuckerberg do an about-turn in 2012, stating that it was his ‘single biggest mistake’,24 due to those same
complexity and performance issues inherent in Web apps.
If it hadn’t been for Apple Board member Art Levinson petitioning Jobs, the platform might never have
been opened up. ‘I called him half a dozen times to lobby for the potential of the apps’, but Jobs was
against them, says Levinson, ‘partly because he felt his team did not have the bandwidth to figure out all
the complexities that would be involved in policing third-party app developers.’25 It was definitely a valid
point: Apple does check every single app submitted to the App Store before it’s released to the public,
which has a certain cost and overheads associated with it.
In July 2008, the App Store was finally launched to the public. Among the first apps were the New York
Times news app, BeeJiveIM (one of the first mobile instant messengers), games such as Crash Bandicoot,
Rolando and – one that I loved – PhoneSaber, an app that would make a light-sabre noise every time you
waved around your phone. Needless to say, a lot of progress has been made since.
Why native apps are best
So even the Silicon Valley elite slipped up on the Web-app-versus-native-app debate – but it’s generally
accepted that native apps are a better option. Why?
BEST PERFORMANCE. By running natively on a smartphone, an app has the most direct and simple way
of communicating to the phone’s operating system. That means it renders graphics more efficiently and
accesses sensors more reliably and quickly. Web apps – by contrast – must be built to work with the
‘intermediate’ layer – the mobile Web browser – which adds complexity and inefficiency. To see this for
yourself, compare how well Google Maps via a mobile browser works compared with the native app: the
native app is faster to load and move and easier to interact with, and generally performs better with
complex tasks such as directions.
BEST EXPERIENCE. User experience is key to keeping users happy. Native apps are generally easy to
arrange and access on a smartphone (Web apps are clunky to manage). And, depending on the type of
mobile Web browser you’re using, the performance of the Web app could vary significantly compared
with a native app, whether it be the performance of the graphics, the sensors or the touch interactions.
MONETISATION. It is not particularly easy to integrate the various app-store payment systems into Web
apps. So, immediately, you’re missing out on the powerful payment services that you can build into a
native app, enabling users to seamlessly pay from their very first time using your app.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
There are two more geeky subjects that you need to be aware of, because they are key factors contributing
to the accelerating pace of innovation in mobile.
I’ve mentioned open source software briefly before, in relation to Android. Open-source software is
software that has been made freely available not only to use, but also to change, improve and distribute,
and to run your business. On the surface the benefits are clear: it’s free to use so therefore you save a ton of
money by not paying someone to license it. Just that aspect results in about $60 billion per year of savings
to businesses and individuals compared with running proprietary software.26,27
That, however, is not the most interesting part. A huge part of the open-source movement is about
working on computer code in a public and collaborative fashion. Because anyone can access open-source
software, anyone can also improve it. And a lot of people do. As a result, those improvements are pooled,
and the quality and performance of the software improves.
This translates into real benefits for app companies, because it means that you no longer have to build
your app from a blank page. App developers can go out onto the Internet and find freely available code that
allows them to build photo albums, to play music files, to manage user accounts – and, frankly, do a huge
amount of tasks in software that previously took a lot of time to write.
By sharing and collaborating in this way, inexperienced developers can build new apps with features that
have been refined by numerous developers before them. It means that building an app is many times faster
– and more robust.
When you think about the snowball effect this has, it gets very exciting, as it is constantly lowering the
barriers to entry into the software world, and at the same time improving the quality of software.
Mash it up now
The second factor doesn’t sound too friendly: application programming interface (or API for short). In
boring language, this is a common interface that specifies how one computer application can talk to
another computer application in a way that can be understood by both sides.
Let’s look at a good example. Imagine you wanted to include a map in a new app you are building. You
want the app to show the best places to grab a drink in your city. You already have a list of all the great
bars you want to include, but you think it would create a good user experience if you could press a button
and see the location of the bar on a map. Today, thanks to companies like Google, you can use a mapping
API. In a well-documented way, you can have your app talk to Google’s mapping service via the API and
it will create a lovely map for you, show you the address of the bar on the map, and even show you your
current location and directions on how to get there. The whole process takes a few hours to integrate. And
– shazam! – it works!
But what if that mapping API didn’t exist? Hmm. Well, the only option would be to create your own
mapping software. That – actually – is a gargantuan task. So large, in fact, that only a handful of
companies have even tried. Google, Apple, Microsoft and even Nokia have all invested billions of dollars
in research and development as well as acquisitions and taken years to get their respective services up and
And yet this is only one example of communication between apps and other computer applications made
possible via APIs.
Billion-dollar apps are increasingly depending on APIs: the Uber and Hailo apps use mapping APIs to
show you where your driver is, and payment APIs to securely store your details and charge your credit
card; Flipboard uses the Facebook and Twitter APIs so that you can log into their app and share content via
those sites with a single tap; gaming apps such as Angry Birds, Clash of Clans and Candy Crush rely 100
per cent on the app-store payment APIs to generate their revenues.
And, naturally, apps can take advantage of APIs in other ways. With Instagram’s API you can create a
new website or mobile app that automatically grabs your Instagram photos and does cool stuff with them,
such as have them printed on demand and delivered to you as postcards, or create a specialised website full
of puppy-only photos, or an app that shows Instagram photos by the location they were shot in. The
possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
So I hope you can see that understanding the details about the underlying technology can not only save
you time and money when developing an app, but can potentially make your app, and the experience it
offers users, a lot more creative and attractive.
An Eye for the Future
So far in this chapter we’ve learned that mobile adoption eclipsed desktop usage by a factor of three, that
smartphones are in the hands of a billion users who are spending 20 per cent of their waking hours
interacting with them, and that apps are by far the most powerful way we interact with those smartphones.
So, as you play around with your own app ideas, it’s important to have your finger on the pulse of
what’s coming around the corner in mobile. If history is anything to go by, mobile is going to evolve even
faster than any of us could imagine, which makes it even more important to watch your blind spot.
The future of mobile is already here. The immediate future is about much better, less intrusive, more
intelligent, better-integrated ‘interfaces’. The last few decades have laid a robust foundation: smartphones
– massively powerful, affordable computers that fit into a pocket – are close to ubiquitous; unimaginably
powerful services – from global positioning, to voice recognition, to instant knowledge search – are
available for free; and people have invited this technology into the most intimate part of their lives –
relationships and financial transactions.
We are finally at a point in history where technology is adapting to the way we live our lives. No longer
is a computer a desk-centric destination: it is a mobile companion. With services like the personal-assistant
app Google Now, technology is starting to anticipate what we need and want, rather than merely reacting
to a request.
As the miniaturisation of technology steadily advances, the age of powerful, helpful, life-changing,
wearable computers is upon us. Samsung launched its Galaxy Gear smartwatch in September 2013.
Despite dismal reviews – and low sales projections – the company announced it had sold 800,000 devices
in the first two months.28 This is not so much a testament to Samsung’s great product design (the reviews
are unanimously poor) but it does suggest that consumers have a huge latent desire for a device of this sort.
While the media and blogosphere speculate about a vastly superior ‘iWatch’ in the offing from Apple –
one that will incorporate all kinds of clever non-invasive sensors that may measure all kinds of things,
including heart rate, oxygen saturation, perspiration and blood sugar levels in addition to the already
commonplace step- and calorie-measuring sensors – other companies are already profiting from wearable
technology. The fitness-bracelet market – where devices like Fitbit, Nike’s Fuelband and the Jawbone Up
lead the market – delivered $2 billion in revenue in 2013. And that number is expected to triple by 2015.29
But all those technologies pale in comparison with one. Say hello (or OK) to Google Glass. Google
Glass is 63 grams of hardware – a modern-looking set of glass frames (without lenses) sporting a
microdisplay that projects an interface (which appears as a floating 27-inch display) into your field of
vision. Think of it as an advanced – and heavily miniaturised – version of the Heads Up Display (HUD)
systems that fighter pilots use. The device cleverly integrates a video camera that can record videos or
photos and an Internet connection, so you can send those images and videos anywhere you like – and it all
runs on a version of Google’s Android operating system. On top of all that, Glass works mainly via voice
controls, so all you have to do is to talk to it; it’s science fiction – today. By the end of 2013 over 20,000
people were using it. It is slated for broader public release in 2014.
This is what I meant by interface. What was once a heavy screen confined to the desktop became a
smaller screen able to be carried in your pocket, which will now become a screen and voice-control system
so light – 63 grams – that you barely notice you’re wearing or carrying it. And it gets spookier. There are
projects under way that will enable features like Google Glass to be packed into a contact lens.30 The
implications of such an unobtrusive – and powerful – interface are simply jaw-dropping.
If we go back to the beginning of the last technology cycle – that of the smartphone, kicked off by the
iPhone in 2007 – we can see how quickly a touchscreen interface, a powerful operating system, integrated
sensors and a ubiquitous mobile Internet connection changed our lives. It was just a matter of years. When
the next technology cycle begins – and it will undoubtedly be something more wearable – it will begin
with huge swathes of the ecosystem already in place. The time to get 1 billion active users of a gizmo like
Google Glass will be a lot shorter than the eight years it took the smartphone to smash that milestone.
While Google Glass has received a lot of attention because of Google’s profile, another equally
fascinating, and potentially even more disruptive, technology company has captured headline. It is called
Oculus VR and it might just be the first company to bring virtual reality to the masses.
The company’s founder Palmer Luckey is a self-proclaimed virtual reality enthusiast and hardware geek.
He launched a campaign on crowd-funding website kickstarter back in 2012 to build the Oculus Rift – a
groundbreaking virtual reality headset for immersive gaming. The campaign was beyond successful and
raised not only $2.4 million in funding, but also won the support of three huge gaming companies: Valve,
Epic Games and Unity. That success attracted some of the gaming world’s best talent, almost $100 million
in venture capital funding and the acquisition of the company by Facebook in March 2014 for $2 billion.
While virtual reality headsets are very desktop-centric today, the experience they could deliver in a mobile
environment, combined with the pace of miniaturisation, might see them become part of the mobile app
ecosystem more rapidly than anybody might expect.
The more you know about what is coming, the better you can make sure your app idea is perfectly
placed to take advantage of what’s next.
A Billion-Dollar Idea
One big reason I wanted to write this book is to encourage people to think big. But I wanted to help you to
think big in a structured, realistic way. We can all certainly imagine how we’d spend a billion dollars, but
it’s a lot harder to put a plan together about how to realistically generate a billion dollars. There aren’t any
guides out there about how to think at a big – a truly huge – scale from the beginning. I’m going to change
No matter what happens in life, you probably won’t hit your precise goal, but the higher you aim, the
higher you are likely to hit. So it makes complete sense to start with the biggest possible vision, so that you
stretch yourself from the very onset. Why not shoot for a billion-dollar idea, and then have reality thrust
you back to a $500 million one?
‘You will only have one great idea in your life – make it count!’ wrote Eric Jackson in a Forbes article.1
While I’m not sure if Jackson has ever run a company, he is right: truly great ideas don’t come around that
often. So, when your number is called, make sure that you’re so well equipped and prepared that you can
really belt it out of the park. That’s the goal of this book – to prepare you for your chance to build a billion-
Start with Big Problems
Any big idea is going to take a while to get there. By definition, if it’s big, and no one has done it
before, it’s not going to be 1-2-3, ‘We got it!’ There is going to be a dark period in there, because
you don’t know what the key to getting there is. You have to be willing to be in some murky
territory, and be prepared to invest, if you really want to do something different.2
– Evan Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium
That’s pretty good advice from someone who invented a new format of human communications. During its
early days, Twitter was massively criticised because people didn’t understand it. It’s a great example of the
intersection of perseverance and luck – but it’s not the best mobile-first example.
Let’s dig into the ideas that have borne real mobile-first, billion-dollar apps, and then let’s try to build
that into a framework from which similar quality ideas can be built.
Jack Dorsey, the cofounder of Twitter and friend of Evan Williams, explains the story of how his mobile
app Square came to be. It starts with a friend – glassblower Jim McKelvey – who had a customer interested
in buying one of his pieces for $2,000. The buyer then asked whether he accepted credit cards.
Unfortunately, Jim didn’t. And as a result he lost the sale. In Dorsey’s mind this generated a huge question:
why couldn’t anyone with a smartphone become a card-processing merchant? After all, smartphones had
way more processing power than typical credit-card terminals; they also had superior screens and already
had mobile Internet connections. The only component missing was the actual card reader. And so the idea
for the Square app – along with its card-reader attachment – was born. We’ll investigate Square further
later on in the book.
Jan Koum was a ten-year Yahoo! veteran. In that time he developed a deep distrust of how ads corrupt
the relationship between a company and its users. He believed that advertising was so invasive – and
disliked by consumers – that he wanted to build an app that would allow anyone in the world to SMS for
close to nothing. Koum wanted to shun advertising entirely, and focus exclusively on utility and user
experience. And so he built a simple – but powerful – messaging app called WhatsApp, initially asking
users to pay a one-time charge of $0.99 for unlimited text messages (it subsequently changed its pricing
and charged that amount per year, as we’ll see later). Within five short years, in early 2014, WhatsApp had
450 million users across just about every country in the world. It was clearly solving a big problem in way
that users loved. Facebook acquired them for a brain-melting $19 billion in February 2014.
Niklas Hed didn’t so much address a big problem as fill a big hole. When the iPhone arrived and started
changing our mobile lives, gaming companies took time to adapt. No one was focused on developing a
game tailored for the touch interface of the iPhone. Sure, there were successes such as Tap Tap Revolution
(co-founded by Andrew Lacy, a fellow Australian and friend), but the market was lacking something truly
novel, international and just plain great. Angry Birds was very specifically designed to scratch that itch. It
took advantage of the iPhone as a brand-new gaming platform and became a global phenomenon.
Mike McCue and Evan Doll wanted to make content on the Internet more beautiful; they wanted to
consume it more as one would a beautiful, visual magazine. When Apple launched the iPad in early 2010,
McCue and Doll knew that this was the platform to realise their vision. Everything snapped into place, and
they rushed to build a gorgeous social magazine platform: Flipboard. Named iPad App of the Year later in
2010, the app is flipping some 10 billion pages per month, generating big advertising revenues and was
valued at $800 million at the end of 2013.
Noam Bardin, Ehud Shabtai, Amir Shinar and Samuel Keret were all sick of sitting in traffic. They
wanted a real-time, reliable way to report and share traffic information when they were stuck in the middle
of it. They created a clever app that allowed users to do just that. Within a few years their app, Waze,
amassed 30 million super-engaged users around the world, and developed its own unique mapping
technology. Despite the fact that they were making zero revenues, Google acquired the company for a cool
$1.1 billion in 2013.
Privacy and anonymity have more or less gone out of the window with our increasingly online lives.
Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy created an app whereby you could share annotated photos with your
friends – but, once read, the messages would disappear for ever. The app is called Snapchat. A lot of
people dismissed the idea – but then something happened. Teenagers found the idea brilliant. Suddenly
they could be themselves, share whatever photos they wanted, and rest assured that each photo would be
seen once and then disappear in 10 seconds. In just a couple of years the app attracted millions of users
sending hundreds of millions of snaps every day. It’s become so popular that Snapchat turned down
acquisition offers of $3 billion from Facebook and Google, according to the Wall Street Journal.3 We’ll
talk more about Snapchat later.
All these are great examples of apps that tackled big problems felt by millions of users. They all
pinpointed a real need – and then went ahead to address it. While each app started with a single user, they
all built large, engaged user bases by focusing on one major issue.
What People Love, What People Need
One approach to coming up with a big idea is to understand what people love to do, and what people need
to do. It’s true that this varies wildly by geography, personality type and a myriad other factors. But,
according to Donald Brown, a professor at the University of California, there is actually a common
denominator to all human civilisations – a certain set of ‘attributes’ – which makes us fundamentally
human. Brown has termed these the ‘human universals’.4 Let’s use this as a starting point.
According to Brown, the human universals ‘comprise those features of culture, society, language,
behaviour and psyche for which there are no exception. For those elements, patterns, traits, and institutions
that are common to all human cultures worldwide.’
There are 67 universals in the list that are unique to humans: age grading, athletic sports, bodily
adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organisation, cooking, cooperative labour,
cosmology (study of the universe), courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination (predicting the future),
division of labour, dream interpretation, education, eschatology (what happens at the end of the world),
ethics, ethno-botany (the relationship between humans and plants), etiquette, faith healing, family feasting,
fire making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift giving, government, greetings, hailing
taxis,* hairstyles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship
nomenclature (the system of categorising relatives), language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage,
mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, pregnancy usages (childbirth rituals), penal sanctions (punishment of
crimes), personal names, population policy, postnatal care, property rights, propitiation of supernatural
beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status
differentiation, surgery, tool making, trade, visiting, weather control, weaving.
My point here is that if your idea resonates with a human universal, you will maximise the universal
appeal of your app. Solving a ‘universal’ problem creates a much bigger market opportunity than solving a
geographically specific, language-related or generally niche issue not shared by a huge number of people.
On the flipside, not every human universal maps to a billion-dollar idea. But the list of universals does
provide a great checklist, so it’s worth checking to see if you can match apps that correspond to each one.
When I was doing this exercise, I came across a fascinating example. I discovered a free app that,
despite having more than 129 million downloads5 and massive daily usage numbers, has garnered very
little media attention. It is called YouVersion.6 It’s a free Bible app that offers 600 translations of the Bible
in 400 languages. It’s a billion-dollar opportunity that maps directly to the ‘religious ritual’ universal. It
doesn’t earn much revenue today, but that just may be a matter of time.
A Hundred and Fifty Times a Day
We should thank Tomi Ahonen for what he’s done. He publishes an annual Mobile Almanac, and one of
the most interesting things he uncovers is precisely what each one of us is doing on our smartphones.
According to his research, the average person checks their mobile phone an astounding 150 times per day.7
Let’s have a look at what those interactions and activities are, and let’s see where the potential billion-
dollar ideas exist, or are still waiting to be uncovered.
MESSAGING-RELATED, 23 TIMES PER DAY: Messaging is a fiercely competitive space. Everyone from
Facebook to Google has a messaging app. But, as a number of players have shown, it is an area ripe for
disruption. WhatsApp, Tango and Viber have both built billion-dollar propositions here. Asian apps – such
as Line and WeChat – have created massive multi-hundred-million user bases here. And in just a couple of
years Snapchat turned messaging on its head – and turned down billion-dollar buyout offers – by making
messages more interactive (you can scribble and comment on your photos and then send them to friends
and, as we saw earlier, they disappear after 10 seconds – all for free).
The takeaway here is that, if the app offers an experience that hits a nerve – a latent psychological or
behavioural need (I want to be anonymous with my messages) – then it explodes. If Snapchat can disrupt
the market, then clearly so can others.
VOICE-CALL-RELATED, 22 TIMES PER DAY: Mobile carriers still carry the vast majority of calls over
non-data networks, but plenty of apps have come to eat more of their pie. Skype is a leader in voice calls
with its mobile app (200 million active users and $200 million in annual revenue), as is the Viber app,
which amassed 300 million active users by early 2014.8 Like Skype, it uses instant messaging and a voice-
over-Internet protocol (VOIP). Google has its own Hangouts app, and Apple has its Facetime app built
right into the iOS platform. As mobile carriers realise that their future lies in data, they have offered
unlimited national calling packages, removing revenue opportunities for apps that want to compete. The
majority of the opportunity here is in international voice calls, but that domain has been rich with
competition for decades, so the opportunity is no longer clear-cut.
What is clear, though, is that voice calls are becoming absorbed into the broader messaging category,
with people sending SMSs, chat messages, photos, MMSs, video and audio calls, and even recorded voice
CLOCK, 18 TIMES PER DAY: No one has yet innovated on the basic clock in a way that makes money in
any serious way. What would make the killer clock app? There is clearly a captive, global audience here.
MUSIC PLAYER, 13 TIMES PER DAY: This is a tricky area and there are many opportunities for innovation
beyond a straightforward music player. Music lives as a larger ecosystem – from the discovery of good
music to the purchase, to the playback and organisation. It’s a very fun space and attracts a lot of attention,
but it’s also very competitive for that precise reason. iTunes, Spotify and Pandora have all become billion-
dollar leaders in the space, but not without long, gruelling stories to tell.
Is there a big, new, fresh opportunity here? Probably. But having to deal with record labels and
international licensing agreements is going to be a challenge.
GAMING, 12 TIMES PER DAY: Gaming has been one of the most responsive and successful sectors on
mobile. It has a long history of working with new and mobile platforms, from consoles to the Nintendo
Game Boy, the Sega Game Gear and the Sony PSP, so it was no surprise when the industry jumped on
board iPhone so quickly. Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, and Puzzles and Dragons are all
billion-dollar-app franchises. Supercell, the maker of two of these hit games – Clash of Clans and Hay Day
– made $892 million in revenue in 2013 and profits of $464 million.9
There is undoubtedly huge opportunity in app games but, with an increasingly competitive marketplace
and gamers with higher standards, it’s still going to be tough to create the new billion-dollar hit.
SOCIAL MEDIA, 9 TIMES PER DAY: Currently, this space is dominated by the likes of Facebook, Twitter
and newer players such as Pinterest. There are also huge players in Asia, with the likes of the Chinese
microblogging site Weibo owning their own markets. Given that the dominant social media have been
increasingly integrated into the operating systems at a native level, displacing these guys will be hard. But
as new players keep springing up – and blurring the lines between messaging and social media – there is a
good chance this will be disrupted.
ALARM, 8 TIMES PER DAY: This is a big opportunity. There are lots of alarms apps in the market – and it’s
clear we all use at least one of them on a daily basis. One innovation that has appeared in this sector is
sleep-related alarm apps, such as Sleep Cycle, which attempt to wake you at the most optimal moment. But
no single player seems to be dominating the market at the time of writing, and there is no single must-have
app (partially because Apple’s native app is pretty good). Personally, I think there will be a big winner in
this space. It won’t be anything obvious and I suspect it will be a very clever mashup app that takes us all
CAMERA, 8 TIMES PER DAY: As of early 2014, we’re sharing more than 500 million photos a day.10 That
is on track to double what we shared in 2012 – and that growth is accelerating. Taking photos is universal,
and, with more than 5,000 camera-related apps in the App Store alone, the competition is fierce. From the
built-in Camera app on iPhone to Camera+ to Instagram, it’s a bit too easy to make a camera app – but this
is a huge and fast-changing market. If I were a betting man, I’d bet there’s another billion-dollar app here.
NEWS AND ALERTS, 6 TIMES PER DAY: This is another great – and massively fragmented – sector,
although you could argue that Flipboard is breaking into this space and has already built a billion-dollar
head start on the competition. And, strictly speaking, it’s not just news or alerts, since it is taking a broader
magazine approach. There’s also already a mass of other news-reader and news aggregation apps, but none
have caught the attention of the public as much as Flipboard.
CALENDAR, 5 TIMES PER DAY: I believe someone will launch a billion-dollar calendar app in the near
future. Calendars are inherently social, since we do things with colleagues, friends and family all the time.
Calendars outline where we want to be at given times, and we expect, and want, them to prompt us with
alerts. It’s an indispensable app that attracts a lot of attention and is crying out for disruption!
SEARCH, 3 TIMES PER DAY: This refers to actually searching the contents on your smartphone rather than
searching the Internet. Trying to compete with a native function that is built into the OS is a big battle and
there’s no clear problem to solve here, since the existing solutions are great. And, while I’d love someone
to challenge Google at its core business, well, let’s say that’s a pretty tough ask for a new mobile startup!
OTHER RANDOM WEB BROWSING, 3 TIMES PER DAY: It’s clear from the data that smartphones are
currently highly app-centric for a combination of reasons, ranging from apps’ ability to deliver individual
tasks better than a Web browser could to the simplicity and clarity of having a single act best execute a
single task. The big question is how this will evolve, and how the next generation of mobile browsers will
challenge the current, rather simplistic, app architecture.
CHARGING PHONE, 3 TIMES PER DAY: The market for charging solutions and devices has exploded with
smartphones. Whether they be simple battery packs or multi-device chargers, solar chargers or even the
very cool inductive wireless charging pads (which have yet to catch on in any significant way), there is a
clear demand by users to keep their devices full of juice. Given that this is outside the realm of apps (for
the near future), I’m not going to focus on it too much.
VOICEMAIL, 1 TIME PER DAY: People don’t like checking voicemail – I don’t know anyone who does. As
behaviours have changed – triggered by the prevalence and convenience of numerous messaging apps – the
relevance of voicemail has diminished. Apple delivered a serious improvement to the voicemail experience
with ‘visual voicemail’ (a visual interface that downloads and allows local access to your voicemail
messages), whereby an audio file of your message is conveniently downloaded and can be accessed with a
single click. Once again, that is integrated into the OS, and took significant effort on Apple’s part to make
it a reality (think negotiations with every individual mobile network operator). The last serious attempt at a
voicemail startup was Spinvox. Despite blowing through $100 million of venture capital,11 everything
ended in tears when it was discovered that its speech-to-text technology was little more than overworked
call-centre employees transcribing the audio messages themselves.12,13
Voicemail as we know it is probably not a great opportunity, but the broader messaging arena is where
the action is proving to be.
OTHER MISCELLANEOUS USES, 10 TIMES PER DAY: This catch-all category represents a good 6 per cent
of all interactions with mobile phones. So, while the above opportunities are clear and have attracted lots of
competitors, there is still big opportunities around not-yet-invented apps, which have the chance to capture
our attention in new and novel ways.
As humans, we love to share. It is part of our nature; it’s been ingrained in our psychological makeup. On a
practical level, sharing makes sense because we often need the support, skills and insights from others to
help us through our day, our jobs and our lives in general. But sharing also just feels good because of the
way our brains are wired. According to Harvard University professors Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell,
sharing information about ourselves is intrinsically rewarding and gives us a few squirts of dopamine every
time we do it.14
When coming up with your big idea or big problem to solve, think about whether it is inherently social,
or whether it could be made social, thus rendering it a lot more disruptive and a lot more powerful.
People love to share rich content – such as photos, news and magazine articles – and this builds very
strong network effects. A great example is Instagram. One of the main ways it drove growth from the very
first day was by allowing users to simultaneously share their photos on Facebook and Twitter from the
moment the photo was taken using the Instagram app. This massively increased the reach of the new app to
big social networks – with very compelling photo content. This promotion of the Instagram app on Twitter
and Facebook led people to its website to download the app. The success of Flipboard – the social
magazine app (see earlier) – is completely off the back of this premise as well.
What is disruptive, however, is taking something that was not social and shareable – and reinventing it
completely. Let’s take the example of Groupon. When it launched, its premise was simple: if you want to
buy a great product at this 50–75 per cent discounted price, you need to get 100 other people to buy it too
within a certain timeframe. Suddenly, Groupon created a very selfish – and social – incentive for people to
tell others about their sales. Today, more than half of Groupon’s revenues come from its mobile app. And
the social component is going strong.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into how much people share. The chart below gives us a great idea of how much
different countries like to share. The results are fascinating. Up-and-coming markets such as Asia and the
Middle East are sharing a lot more than the UK and the US (11 per cent and 15 per cent respectively) and
compared with a global average of 24 per cent.15
Percentage of Respondents Indicating They Share ‘Everything’ or ‘Most Things’ Online
In China about 33 per cent of the population is sharing just about everything online. You can see why
we’re seeing massive growth and interest. This is more than double the rate of sharing in the United States.
Why is this important? It means that big ideas have the ability to spread and take off a lot faster in some
parts of the world – and that means very lucrative windows of opportunity.
Disruption Comes in Many Flavours
So we’ve already had a lot to think about in terms of getting to a big idea. And, unremarkably, size is not
everything that matters. To cut through the noise and capture attention, it’s about being fresh, innovative
or, better yet, disruptive. It’s not trying to create something slightly better, with marginal improvements
(current apps are well positioned to do that – and will). The key is to have a disruptive idea.
A disruptive idea is one that delivers a step change – an idea that is hard for an existing player to copy.
This is the wow factor. Wow is going to play a big part in this book, because an idea, a product that wows
its audience, is one that can rise to the top and truly stand out. People talk about wow, and people keep
using something that wows them.
Rethinking how to solve existing problems is how people disrupt. Our stellar apps have been able to
disrupt their own markets – and then create their own perfect storms. The press love to paint a picture of
serendipity, with stories of an average person who was ‘in the right place at the right time’ and how ‘you
too could build a billion-dollar app with $1,000 and no programming skills’. These superficial, romantic
treatments rarely capture the true story.
The best disruptions appear simple – they are best because they are the simplest to communicate and the
simplest to understand by the largest number of people. Mass appeal is a core component of far-reaching
disruption. Unsurprisingly, the apps with indisputable billion-dollar status embrace simple propositions.
Despite the veneer, simple ideas are rarely simple to execute.
Great, disruptive entrepreneurs need to understand the capabilities of the technology available to them,
the necessity of building new platforms, how to integrate virality into their products and, perhaps most
importantly, the power of timing.
Don’t get me wrong: there is almost always an element of luck involved (and often significant
opportunity cost). But being an entrepreneur is not for the conservative. Nicholas Nassim Taleb (author of
The Black Swan) would question the viability of betting on low-probability, high-impact events, what he
calls black-swan events, but that is the business of entrepreneurs: manufacturing opportunities that are rare
and complex and ultimately yield huge returns.
So let’s take a deep dive into the key disruptions delivered by our billion-dollar apps, and expose the
critical factors that you need to take into account.
Why hating advertising pays more
Jan Koum and Brian Acton both hate advertising. Both were long-time Yahoo! employees who, in 2009,
amid the aftermath of the financial crisis, founded a messaging service that aimed to be the biggest cross-
platform one in the world. Three years later, they were bigger than Twitter; just five years later Facebook
acquired the app for a staggering $19 billion.16 Jan Koum, WhatsApp CEO, grew the app from 200
million17 active monthly users to more than 450 million18 during 2013. That’s the fastest growing
company in history; in comparison, after four years Facebook had 145 million users.19
WhatsApp is a cross-platform smartphone app that lets you send text and picture messages for free,
using your data allowance. There are numerous apps and services like this – but WhatsApp is the biggest.
As of January 2014, WhatsApp was processing 50 billion messages every single day.20 That number is
more than all the SMS messages sent around the world on a daily basis21 – it’s incredible.
What differentiates WhatsApp from the other players is its business model. It does not rely on
advertising, nor does it force you to buy virtual goods. Initially it focused on iPhone users and charged a
mere $0.99 per download for unlimited use, but the company moved to a $0.99 per-year model in late
2013. When it launched the app on Android, it discovered that those users were not willing to stomach the
$0.99 price (more on this later), so it made the app available for free for Android. Even so, the company
has hundreds of millions of dollars of recurring revenue still coming in.
After ten years working at Yahoo!, Koum developed a deep distrust of how advertising can corrupt the
relationship between a company and its users. ‘The user experience would always lose, because you
always had to provide a service to the advertiser.’ That’s even more acute on mobile. ‘Cellphones are so
personal and private to you that putting an advertisement there is not a good experience,’ he said. Given
that we’re using these devices 150 times a day, and given the app’s great success, this argument is clearly
valid. And, sure enough, this was a rather amusing discovery on the company’s blog, when it quoted the
Brad Pitt character Tyler Durden, from the movie Fight Club, as saying:
‘Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t
People want a messaging app that is simple, fast and useful. They also want all their friends to be using it.
WhatsApp delivers on all those fronts. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, it is poignant to see
Koum focused more on talking about optimising server code to ensure messages are being moved more
quickly, more efficiently and more reliably than other hot topics (such as valuations and buyouts). It is
impressive that the company still has only around 50 employees in 2014. That is a testament to its clinical
focus, and to the calibre of the people it is hiring.
Koum points out that WhatsApp has become a key sales proposition for mobile carriers in some
countries: people come into stores asking for a new phone, specifically because they want to use
WhatsApp. In some markets carriers have even created specific packages that allow users to roam and still
use WhatsApp – sending unlimited messages and pictures via the app for just $5.
WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in February 2014 after a fierce bidding war with Google. The $19-
billion-price tag represented almost 10 per cent of the market capitalisation of Facebook at the time of the
acquisition. Jan Koum’s vision is to put the app on every single smartphone in the world22 and this goal is
definitely one of the reasons that it was such an attractive acquisition for Facebook. WhatsApp is a simple
– but very disruptive – company that generates hundreds of millions in annual revenues. It raised only a
small amount of funding (for strategic reasons) and has been profitable from the very beginning. As a
result it has been able to write its own destiny.
Anonymity is worth a lot
This is a story about Evan and Bobby. They were students at Stanford University. In April 2011, Evan
Spiegel presented an idea for his product-design class: an app ‘where friends could share photos that would
disappear – forever – in a matter of seconds’. That app, as we saw earlier, was called Snapchat.
It was launched in September 2011 in Evan’s dad’s living room.23 ‘Everyone said, “That is a terrible
idea,”’ Spiegel remembers. ‘Not only is nobody going to use it, they said, but the only people who do will
use it for sexting.’
By 28 November 2012, users had shared more than a billion photos on Snapchat. By December 2012 it
was being used 30 million times a day, with users sending more than 20 million photos per day. In late
2013 this number reached 350 million per day.24
The Internet has changed. Spontaneity is now a punishable offence. Instead, ‘People are living with this
massive burden of managing a digital version of themselves,’ says Spiegel. ‘It’s taken all of the fun out of
communicating. The main reason that people use Snapchat is that the content is so much better. It’s funny
to see your friend when they just woke up in the morning.’
And that is how Snapchat disrupted communications. It has made an entire generation – a much younger
one – feel liberated again. While the mainstream media continue to struggle with this concept, the app
attracts masses of users – and keeps driving eye-popping numbers month after month.
You could argue that Snapchat is just a feature. But, goddamn, it’s a great feature! It’s amusing that by
June 2013 this company was valued at over $800 million25 – but that’s because at the time it had 5 million
users sending more than 200 million snaps26 (messages), photos and videos every single day – that’s up 25
per cent from 150 million announced by their CEO in April 2013.27 That’s ridiculous growth. More
recently, they turned down acquisition offers of $3 billion and $4 billion from Facebook and Google
On average, a user uses the Snapchat app 34 times a month. That means by the end of 2013, Snapchat’s
350 million daily snap number matched the number of photos users uploaded to Facebook.28
In the true spirit of a lean startup, at the end of 2013 the team was still only around 40 people. Snapchat
is still a story in progress. But the lessons are clear: it focused on a universal need, messaging, mixed it up
with a true innovation, anonymity, and then focused on a great experience and performance.
Designed to be touched
Angry Birds is one of the most popular games – and brands – in history. It rocketed to billions of
downloads, and similar revenues, because of two things: design and touch.
The game was the product of Finnish design studio Rovio. The team had been working in gaming for the
better part of a decade, making games for other companies, trying their own titles as well, but never
making it big.
When the iPhone came along their eyes lit up – here was a new platform. That meant a new opportunity.
They dreamed of designing a fresh, new type of game that everyone in the world could play. They wanted
to exploit the opportunities offered by the big, touch-enabled screen of the iPhone by focusing their user
interface on visual, audio and touch elements. They wanted to seduce users with interaction and animation
– not with words or text. They wanted to create a game that would resonate with basic human psychology.
They took a gamble and wrote Angry Birds specifically for this new amazing mobile platform.
A shiny white square
Mobile also introduces opportunities for hardware disruption. Smartphones have spawned not only a world
of apps, but also an entire ecosystem of accessories, plugins and add-ons. One of the most amazing was
created by Jack Dorsey, a cofounder of Twitter, and now the CEO of Square, the payments service.
Square, as we saw earlier, was born out of frustration. Given that smartphones have more computing
power than any cash register or credit-card-processing machine, surely they could become a device to
accept credit cards?
Dorsey was a seasoned entrepreneur and found the right people to help build a hardware prototype.
White, shiny and in the shape of a thumb-sized square, the Square accessory plugs into the headphone jack
of (most, but not all) smartphones. The user can then swipe any credit card through their device, and – hey
presto! – their credit card has been debited.
Square tackled a big problem, enabling anyone to simply, easily and cost-effectively, become a credit-
card-accepting merchant. By the end of 2013, they had empowered more than 2 million small businesses to
accept credit-card payments, and had processed over $15 billion in transactions.
Things are moving very quickly – and it’s clear that they’re moving in the direction of mobile. As human
beings we prefer to be mobile. Advances in hardware, sensors, batteries, operating systems and platforms
are now adapting to our lives and the way we prefer to do things. This is a huge shift towards convenience,
usability and utility – and it’s a shift that will only become more pronounced.
At the same time we’ve seen that you need to focus on big universal problems or needs – combined with
a disruptive approach – to kick-start a billion-dollar app. As we’ll discover in Part II, founders of
groundbreaking apps don’t just stumble into something great: they have fantastically ambitious visions
from Day One. It is a combination of this vision to solve existing problems in novel ways, the refusal to
take no for an answer and persevering in the face of scepticism that has launched apps that have changed
You’re now in a great place to understand what the characteristics of a disruptive, billion-dollar idea are.
You’ve seen some ideas about how you can develop your own. And, most importantly, we’ve seen why the
best chance of achieving success is riding the mobile wave.
It’s Bloody Hard
‘0.07 per cent of funded startups become billion-dollar companies’
Let’s start with some depressing news. It’s pretty obvious that the process of building a successful
technology startup – let alone an app – is terribly difficult. But how tricky is it? It’s worth looking at the
From 2004 to 2014 at least 43 companies have hit a billion-dollar or greater valuation (either by venture
capital firms or the public stock market) with some experts putting the number closer to 70.1,2 This number
will always be approximate, since private companies don’t really share their valuations publicly. It’s pretty
tough to estimate how many companies have actually been funded – again, because the information is
inherently private – but, if you estimate that about 6,000 tech companies are funded in any one year, you
get a number of about 60,000 from 2004 to 2014.3
So that generates a rather interesting number: 0.07 per cent of funded startups become billion-dollar
companies. In other words, you have a 1-in-1,538 chance of reaching the Billion-Dollar App Club, once
you have secured professional investment.
There are of course many other scenarios – other than hitting the billion-dollar mark – that constitute
success. And, once you have broken through the tough early stages, the numbers definitely shine a positive
light on things, with the likelihood of success increasing throughout the lifespan of your startup.
The Rest of Us
What happens to the other 99.3 per cent of startups, though?
According to the database Dow Jones VentureSource, about 11 per cent were acquired or went through
an IPO. If we focus on the data about US startups (which is most reliable) we see that the average
successful startup that exited since 2007 raised $41 million in funding at a value of $242 million.4 There is
a correlation between the amount of money raised and the company’s value at exit – suggesting that raising
more money does indeed generate more value.
In terms of companies that exited by being acquired, they on average raised $29.4 million and sold for
$155.5 million. That’s a pretty healthy return for entrepreneurs and investors. It takes about seven years on
average to build a company to that level.
On the other hand, for the companies that exited via an IPO, it takes substantially longer – just over eight
years. It also takes a lot more funding. The IPO startups raised $162 million on average before going
public, generating an average of $467.9 million during the IPO process.
Of all these startups, about 60 per cent make it to the grand old age of three, with only 35 per cent
making it to age 10.5 Then there are the startups that fail. If we take failure to mean the liquidation of all
assets (i.e. investors lose all the money they invested), then about 25 to 30 per cent of US startups will end
up falling into this category, according to the National Venture Capital Association.6
Then there’s the middle 40 or 50 per cent of startups that are profitable enough to keep going, but not
doing well enough to become targets for acquisition. But it is from these ranks that great companies also
emerge over time.
Failure is Great
We constantly hear that investors – especially American ones – love entrepreneurs who have failed. It
means that they have tried, not got it right, and then dragged themselves back up again to have another go
at it – this time with the benefit of hindsight.
Failure can be helpful, a real eye-opening experience – but with a big caveat. The big question is
whether it was a business or personal failure. Take, for example, an entrepreneur who pulled together a
solid team, raised money from good investors, built and maintained good relationships and built a great
product – but perhaps their timing was off. Or perhaps they were lacking a core person in the team (and the
technology failed). These kinds of failures are business failures – and can provide some harsh but useful
lessons. Entrepreneurs in this category tend to attract teams and investors a second time.
Take another kind of entrepreneur. This guy is more aggressive. He takes big risks, both with the
business and personally. While everything is going well, investors and employees tend to stand behind
him. But if things get rocky, and some real challenges appear, then people tend to distance themselves. If
that business ultimately fails, there’s a much lower chance that people will work with him again.
It is worth remembering that there is a bit more to business than just financial success, and, in an
interesting echo from a company fraught with a history of difficulty, how important human relationships
‘Failure of your company is not failure in life. Failure in your relationships is.’
– Evan Williams, founder, Twitter and Blogger
Billion-Dollar Secret Sauce
But let us go back to the 0.07 per cent of companies who have achieved billion-dollar success over the last
10 years. Is there common ground that binds our billion-dollar apps and Internet companies together? Is
there something those entrepreneurs know – or do – that makes them different? There definitely is.
I’ve pulled together research from a number of studies. I’ve based this on a dataset of all kinds of
Internet companies7 from all around the world, from a number of data sources, that have a value of at least
$1 billion, in either the private or public market.
I chose to focus on consumer – and enterprise – companies to provide a fairer, and broader, view of the
possibilities. Apps, after all, are not only focused on consumer markets but are increasingly invading big
enterprises and changing the way we work.
I have also included billion-dollar tech companies as well as apps. Why is that? Because, as well as
building a billion-dollar app, you’re also going to be building a great technology company. Appcentric
companies have a number of mobile-specific challenges – and opportunities – compared with those of just
Internet or technology companies. But at the end of the day, high-growth technology companies face a lot
of overlapping challenges – so let’s see what we can learn from our billion-dollar brothers.
IT’S A SMALL CLUB. As we saw on page 63, there are only 43 companies that are members of this rather
exclusive club – and only 12 app-centric companies breathing that rarefied air. But I am going to focus on
the number of consumer ones.
IT TAKES SEVEN YEARS. It’s not easy to build a billion-dollar company and it doesn’t happen overnight.
On average it takes seven years to reach a billion-dollar valuation (and either an IPO, or merger, or
acquisition), so you had better be in for the long haul. The minimum was just under the two-year mark
(Instagram and YouTube) and the upper end was eleven years (Pandora). As the inside stories show, this
path is never smooth. Perseverance – and a belief in the long-term vision of your company – is key if
you’re going to make it all the way.8
FIVE BUSINESS MODELS THAT WORK. It turns out that five business models underpin so many billions in
value – and, interestingly, each model seems to contribute equally in terms of value. The first is gaming,
where users pay for a virtual service or good. The second is e-commerce / marketplace, where users pay for
a real world good or service. The third is advertising (or consumer audience building in the case where the
company has not yet switched on the advertising). The fourth is Software as a Service (SaaS), whereby
users pay for cloud-based software (typically via a subscription model). And the last is enterprise, whereby
companies pay for larger-scale software (again, via a subscription-type model). So there isn’t a huge
amount of reinventing the wheel here. If you want to make it big, it’s pretty clear what business models to
EXPERIENCE MATTERS. Despite all the media hype, most billion-dollar companies are not founded by
youngsters in their twenties, but by people of an average age of 34 (that makes my 36-year-old face smile).
Fortune also favours those who have known or worked together for many years – in fact 90 per cent of
founding teams fall into this category. Thirty-five of the companies had several cofounders, the average
being three. Four of the companies were founded by individuals. What does this mean for the average
person? It means get out there and start your first company – that’s the best way not only to get the
experience you need, but also to make the contacts and find the cofounders for your next business.9
In addition, all but two of the companies had founders with previous experience working in technology.
Also, only three companies did not have a cofounder with technology experience, which seems to make a
lot of sense when founding a technology business. Eighty per cent of the billion-dollar companies had at
least one cofounder who had previously started a company – often the founders had started several
previous companies.10 So, once again, you should be encouraged by this. Hardly anyone is incredibly
successful first time – it’s about persistence.
MOST CEOs STAY FOR THE LONG HAUL. I was quite surprised to learn that 76 per cent of founding CEOs
stayed with their company all the way through to either an acquisition or IPO, with 69 per cent actually
keeping their CEO role. This is a strong reflection on the calibre and experience of the founders who are
building these billion-dollar companies – a formidable amount of staying power, vision and perseverance is
required.11 In the companies where the founding CEO did change role, that change, on average, was
positive, generating a higher value for the company. Enterprise companies changed CEOs in 40 per cent of
cases, while only 25 per cent changed in consumer companies.
EDUCATION GIVES YOU AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE. Even though eight billion-dollar companies were
founded by college dropouts, the vast majority went to top universities. Stanford leads the charge with 33
per cent of the cofounders. Eight founders went to Harvard, five went to the University of California at
Berkeley and MIT had four. The majority of founding CEOs had technical degrees from university. While
this may seem a little daunting, you can now get an MIT, Stanford or Harvard education essentially for free
via great online course programmes such as OpenCourseWare (from MIT), edX (from MIT, Harvard and
Stanford, among others) and from iTunes U.
LOCATION. It’s clear that not only does the network and connections gained from going to a top
educational institution help, but the network combined with the thriving geography of San Francisco makes
for a killer combination: 27 of the billion-dollar companies are based in the Bay Area. New York is a
distant second with three. I suspect that, over the coming years, international hubs such as London, Berlin
and Paris will play an increasing part as well.
ENTERPRISE IS HOT. This is something very exciting – and ripe for opportunity. The characteristics of
billion-dollar enterprise startups lean towards raising a lot less capital (typically, they require only 40 per
cent of the investment that a consumer-focused startup does), thereby increasing returns not only for
investors but for founders and employees. On the downside, it does take a little longer, on average, to see
an exit event. So, for those of you with deep corporate experience, take that knowledge and those
connections – the sector is ripe for innovation.
IT’S ABOUT GOING PUBLIC. Of the 10 companies that have been acquired, the average valuation was $1.3
billion. For app companies this amount was $1.67 billion (not including Whatsapp’s outrageous acquisition
amount as it skews the average). This represents the lower end of valuations, which makes sense, since
acquirers want to get them at a lower price. So the majority of companies are exiting via an IPO. This is a
great sign, because it means that entrepreneurs are focused on building companies that last – rather than
just building and flipping them for a quick sale.
What Does This All Mean?
There is no easy way of building a billion-dollar app; there is no single path. Your app will have to find its
own path and determine its own destiny.
But the good news is that there is a relatively systematic way to approach your path to success. Start
with a big problem, a novel solution and a huge market ready to adopt it. Then build a great product that
users love, and then prove they love it with data showing they are willing to pay for it. Combine that with a
robust strategy that attracts users systematically and at a cost that is less than what users will potentially
generate in revenue for your app.
Combine all of this with a diehard team sprinkled with people who have built companies before, and
you’re going to maximise the chances of building an app business that is going to last. The formula is not
magic, it is simple, and it’s about how religiously you adhere to the tactics and the calibre of people you
attract to join you on the journey.
One of the most amazing things to appreciate – and what is a huge driving force behind billion-dollar
success – is these entrepreneurs not only possess ridiculous long-term vision but also have the ability to
learn on the spot, be constantly aware of their surroundings and then adapt to the market nimbly.
Before we get stuck into the deals of how to do it, let’s look at the inside story of the very first member
of the revered Billion-Dollar App Club. It’s a window into a rather unique journey – but one that has
already been repeated a number of times.
Instagram was the first billion-dollar app – and one with a fascinating journey. I admire Kevin Systrom,
Instagram’s CEO, for possessing such a clear vision and such an ability to build a singularly brilliant app
on a single platform. The final twist to the story – doubling Instagram’s valuation in a mere four days – is
the stuff of Silicon Valley legend.
Instagram marked a turning point in Internet history: it was the first billion-dollar acquisition of an app.
It led to speculation that Mark Zuckerberg had lost his mind and that Silicon Valley crazy-think was back
in full force. Were people deluded into thinking it was 1999 all over again? On the surface, Instagram was
just a group of 16 developers hacking some software in a poky office above a pizza shop in Palo Alto.
They hadn’t made a cent in revenues. But they had attracted more than 30 million users in record time.
And, unlike those of most of their competitors, those users were actually sticking around.
A few years after the acquisition there is hardly a soul in the business world who would disparage – or
even vaguely question – Zuckerberg’s decision. Instagram had well over 150 million active users12 by the
end of 2013 and the momentum hasn’t stopped. It launched an advertising product for brands on 1
So let’s take a moment to dive into the details of Instagram’s famous journey and understand a bit more
about how Silicon Valley thinks, and why the billion-dollar acquisition of the company by Facebook
actually does make sense.
The face of Instagram
Instagram has two cofounders. The first is Kevin Systrom, who is the app’s best-known public face.14
Systrom grew up in a rather nice Boston suburb called Holliston. He was a pretty smart kid, fascinated by
computers and photography, which led him to enrol at Stanford – but Silicon Valley had always been on
his mind. While at Stanford he snagged a summer internship at Odeo, the company that would later evolve
into Twitter. It’s there he made friends with Jack Dorsey, who sat at the neighbouring desk. Dorsey and
Twitter would play a fascinating – and tense – role in the future of the photo app.
Systrom graduated from Stanford in 2006 with a double major in engineering and management. He then
pulled a two-year stint at Google working on Gmail, Google Reader and then eventually worked for the
Corporate Development team.15 Next he worked at a travel site called Nextstop (not long after he left
Nextstop it was acquired by Facebook). But Kevin wanted to do something of his own.
Whiskey and Burbn
In early 2010, Systrom launched his first tech startup on his own, and, because he was a programmer, he
was able to get away with it. He saw the potential of mobile and the huge explosion of apps focused on
location-based check-ins (this was when the Foursquare app was the hottest thing around), and got
He jumped on the bandwagon with a social check-in mobile website called Burbn.com. Systrom had a
fondness for fine bourbons, so he followed that mantra of building something that you truly love (in name
Kevin raised half a million dollars in seed funding from two venture-capital firms: the prestigious
Andreessen Horowitz and Baseline Ventures. He seemed to be off to a good start. However, despite his
efforts, he knew he was pushing a boulder up a mountain with his me-too site and he had a limited runway
to prove himself. Its tagline was pretty uninspiring too: ‘A new way to communicate and share in the real
world’. I think it could apply to anything.
But the story of Instagram is not just of Kevin Systrom.16 As often happens, there is another cofounder, in
this case Mike Krieger. According to Kevin, despite being invisible to the public, Mike was very much the
soul of the app.
Mike grew up in Brazil, and moved to the United States in 2004 to study engineering at – you guessed it
– Stanford. He was the more conservative-engineer type, but possessed a strong creative and design edge.
After he graduated from Stanford he joined the super-hot startup Meebo, a clever browser-based chat
platform that would explode in popularity.
But what Mike really wanted was to branch out and do something new and different.
Systrom knew that he had to break out of a rut with Burbn – and turn it into something amazing. He also
knew he needed a cofounder to help him to do that. Having both attended Stanford, he and Mike Krieger
knew of each other but had never clicked. However, given how small the community – and coffee-shop
scene – is in Palo Alto, it wasn’t much of a surprise that they would frequently encounter each other.
And so, on one normal caffeine-fuelled day in 2010, he approached Krieger to join him at Burbn: ‘Hey,
this is going to be a real thing – are you interested in being my cofounder?’ Krieger was immediately
It was a bit of a risky strategy because Kevin knew he was about to do a ‘bait and switch’. Kevin was
planning to do something completely different once Krieger was on board: a perfect time for the greatest of
Silicon Valley euphemisms – the pivot. Pivoting your business is admitting the failure of your current (and
currently funded) idea, clinging on to whatever remaining investor money you have, and trying your next
new idea. Funnily enough, investors (at least in the Valley) aren’t too upset about this strategy. At the seed
stage it’s much more about investing in people, and accepting that adjustments to business models or core
product strategies are inevitable (and may, as in this case, lead to a great ‘new’ idea).
The only remaining issue was that Systrom didn’t know precisely what he wanted Burbn to become
When you have a passionate cofounder, magic can happen. Kevin’s risky strategy paid off, and Krieger
was not massively surprised that he wanted to re-evaluate everything that was currently Burbn. Together
they began to rip their business idea to pieces. Now was the time to be ruthless. They needed to find
something new, fresh, clear, different – and something they fundamentally believed in.
So they dissected the mobile website they had – and reviewed the user proposition and features from the
ground up. Given that their focus was entirely mobile, they jettisoned their mobile website strategy and
opted for building a native iPhone app (their mobile website was very slow to load, and provided a pretty
average user experience). Their decision was made easier when Apple launched their iPhone 4 which was
markedly faster and better than the previous-generation iPhone.
But they still needed to figure out what their app was going to do. At the time, mobile and location-based
check-ins were synonymous.
And then something happened. According to Systrom, something clicked: ‘Instead of doing a check-in
that had an optional photo, we thought, Why don’t we do a photo that has an optional check-in?’
That one small idea would completely determine a new tack – and a new focus on photos. But it still
didn’t feel perfect. During summer 2010, when they were rushing to rebuild their service as an iOS app for
the iPhone, Kevin took a short trip to Baja, Mexico, with his girlfriend, Nicole.
During a walk along the beach, Nicole told him she’d be reluctant to use the new app because her photos
would never look as good as the ones taken by one of their friends. Systrom dug a little deeper – realising
that Nicole thought this friend’s photos were fantastic because he was using another app that would apply
cool filters and effects to the photos he was taking. It was a bit of a Eureka moment as it dawned on him
that filters could make a huge difference.
That night Systrom went back to their hotel room and began searching the Internet to find out how to
build a photo filter. That night he coded X-Pro II, Instagram’s very first filter. He and Nicole started using
the filter and posted the first Instagram photo – a little Mexican dog lying next to Nicole’s foot. They knew
they had the beginnings of something great once the filters were in place, receiving further confidence once
they had shown the app to Jack Dorsey, who was glowing in his praise.
The app was officially launched in the Apple App Store within a couple of months.
Instagram launched on 6 October 2010. On its first day, it garnered around 25,000 users. Within a few
months, in May 2011, it hit 3.75 million.
By February 2011, fuelled by their strong growth, Systrom and Krieger were looking at $7 million
investment from Benchmark, a prominent venture-capital firm, valuing the app at $25 million. A number
of other investors contributed to the round, most notably Jack Dorsey, angel investor Chris Sacca and
Adam D’Angelo, who joined Facebook in its early days (he was good friends with Zuckerberg, who had
been his roommate in high school) and went on to start a company called Quora.
Systrom and Krieger continued to execute and focus – they were laser-focused on a single platform, the
iPhone, and doing a single thing, sharing photos – really well. This tunnel vision translated into very
impressive ‘stickiness’ for the app. Not only were they able to attract new downloads and new users at a
phenomenal rate, but those people were sticking around. Too many new apps would see a ‘pop’ or surge in
usage, and then users would get bored over time and stop coming back. Instagram bucked the trend.
In early 2011, Roelof Botha, of Sequoia Capital, reached out to Kevin. ‘A lot of hot startups were losing
users as quickly as they get them, like people who get on a bus and then get off in the back,’ said Botha.
‘But they retained their users.’17
Botha was ready to invest $50 million in Instagram to further turbocharge its growth. It was now looking
like the app was being valued at $500 million.
An attractive target
No social photo app – or site, for that matter – had had this kind of traction before and it was this incredible
stickiness, and fresh1app was a breakthrough; it had understood the formula of photos, filters and social,
and people couldn’t get enough of it. As seasoned investors know, there are typically only one or two
companies that end up dominating these types of spaces. Once consumers have decided the winner,
competitors have two options: either acquire them or build their own.
Both Twitter and Facebook had been following Instagram’s growth with great interest – and concern.
Such growth could pose a threat if left unchecked. The Twitter connection was very close, through Jack
Dorsey, Twitter’s executive chairman.
There was also a historic relationship between Zuckerberg and Systrom. Not only had they met a number
of times at various events in the Valley and at Stanford, but, during his undergrad days, Zuckerberg had
even tried to get Systrom to drop out of college and join Facebook.
On top of this, Zuckerberg saw early potential in the photography app, having invited Systrom over to
his home in Palo Alto a number of times after Instagram’s launch. The groundwork for an acquisition had
been covered from the early days.
Here comes the Easter Bunny
It’s hard to appreciate how small the community is and how few key players there are in Silicon Valley.
Relationships clearly play a large part. It was the investment interest from Roelof Botha at Sequoia that put
a $500 million valuation on a company with 13 employees and no revenue, and caused interest to intensify.
In April 2011 things started to hot up for Instagram. In the previous few months its user base had
doubled to 30 million, and the Android version was about to be launched (when it was launched on 3 April
it added another 5 million users overnight).
Early that April, Systrom was having drinks with Jack Dorsey, and Twitter’s CFO Ali Rowghani.
According to Twitter, the company made a formal offer to buy Instagram for an all-stock deal that valued
the app at around $500 million (which was logical) – but there was no cash component.
Dorsey and Rowghani claim that they handed Systrom an actual term sheet, something that is disputed
by Systrom, who claims the conversation did take place but no formal documentation changed hands.
Systrom called the then Twitter CEO Dick Costolo on 4 April to tell him Instagram was going to accept
investment from Sequoia and remain an independent for the time being.
That was precisely when things changed. Systrom communicated the same news to Facebook CEO Mark
Zuckerberg – but this CEO wasn’t ready to take no for an answer.
The final chain of events is fascinating, and demonstrates how quickly everything moves. The final
negotiations would start on Good Friday and end on Easter Sunday.
At this point, Kevin was just hours from signing a deal for a $50 million investment from Sequoia, and
Facebook was only weeks away from an IPO – one that was poised to value it up to $100 billion. Given the
context, it’s particularly impressive that its CEO was able to respond so quickly and decisively to make the
deal happen. Here’s how it transpired.
On Thursday, 5 April, Zuckerberg texted Systrom, saying he wanted to talk further. He wasn’t taking no
for an answer.
On Friday, 6 April, Systrom went over to Zuckerberg’s house in Palo Alto. Zuckerberg was adamant that
Facebook was the perfect home for Instagram, and that he would do everything required to make the deal
work – something that would be sealed with a huge offer. Systrom was equally adamant that it would be
best for Instagram to remain independent, but still put an opening number of $2 billion on the table.
Zuckerberg then reframed the negotiation. He was planning to pay for Instagram mostly with stock, and
asked Systrom what he thought Facebook could be worth. If he believed Facebook could one day match
the valuation of, say, Google at $200 billion (or more), then valuing Instagram at 1 per cent of Facebook
would be the right way to think about it. It was this strategy that led to the offer that Zuckerberg would
eventually put on the table.
Deals happen quickly in Silicon Valley. Even though Zuckerberg owns 28 per cent of Facebook’s stock,
he controls 57 per cent of its voting rights, which means he can act independently, and, more importantly,
very quickly. Systrom also owned about 45 per cent of his company, which gave him the sway to nail the
deal without too many issues.
On the Saturday, Systrom was back at Zuckerberg’s place to negotiate the final details (with their
lawyers). Apparently the process was interrupted by a party Zuckerberg was throwing for Game of Thrones
– apparently his favourite show.
On Sunday morning, 8 April, Zuckerberg, alerted his board of directors that he intended to buy
The final number – agreed on the Sunday – was $1 billion. It was a combination of Facebook stock and a
dangled carrot of $300 million in cash. The staggering offer was double what Sequoia and Twitter were
valuing the company at. Though the numbers the two talked about were eye-watering to any normal human
being, the real deal clincher was centred on the fact that Instagram would be able to operate independently
within Facebook – something critically important to Systrom and his team.
‘I’m not sure what changed my mind, but he [Zuckerberg] presented an entire plan of action, and
it went from a $500 million valuation from Sequoia to a $1 billion [one from Facebook]’
– Kevin Systrom
Clearly, both the sheer amount of money and the natural fit with Facebook swayed Systrom.
On Monday, 9 April, Instagram’s deal with Facebook was made public. Both Jack Dorsey and Twitter’s
CEO Dick Costolo were left wondering why they hadn’t even been given the opportunity to put in a
counter-offer. Systrom closed the funding deal with Sequoia before Instagram was acquired by Facebook.
That gave the venture-capital firm an instant return on its investment.
‘I have to give Kevin a lot of credit for keeping his word,’ said Botha.19 Apparently the two had had
only a handshake agreement – one that cost Systrom a personal fortune to honour.
When Facebook did finally IPO, the final value of the deal was $736.5 million because of the initial drop
in Facebook’s stock price, but, in the period since the IPO, Facebook’s stock price has bounced back to the
IPO level and proceeded to rise even further, so Kevin Systrom did indeed make a fantastically good deal.
Andreessen Horowitz, the firm who invested the first $250,000 in Burbn, made a return of $78 million
when Facebook bought the app. That’s a rather healthy 31,000 per cent return. Nice.
The Million-Dollar App
Building a Founding Team, Validating Your Product and Raising Seed Funding
Going from Nothing to a Million-Dollar App
• You have a big idea and you’ve validated that millions, if not billions, of people will love it. Get out
there and test your great idea for an app, put it on paper, and start getting feedback. That is the first
• Figure out how your idea – your solution – translates into an app. Sketch on napkins, sketch ideas in
Photoshop, do whatever you need to do to make your idea real and communicable to others.
• As you flush out a great design, start prototyping it. Your goal is to get it into user’s hands quickly,
so that you can get as much feedback as possible. Your goal is to get to drive towards delivering
• No matter what happens, you’ll need to have an app ready for real users’ hands. If your business
model is simple (gaming, Software as a Service) expect to be operational, at least in a basic way.
• If your model is more complicated (marketplace), then you have a solid proof of concept. Use that to
secure investment to build it out.
• You should not use the excuse of not having a cofounder to slow your progress, but finding a partner
in crime who shares the vision and has complementary skills will make the journey more enjoyable.
• Earmark key people you need in your team to make it work – and do everything you can to get them
on board. Recruiting will be your number-one job throughout the life of your app.
• Three key roles need owners: someone must lead the product vision; someone needs to build the
technology; and someone needs to be focused on getting users and generating money.
• Your mum promised to use your app – so make sure she does. Persuade every friend and family
member to download it, use it – and give brutal, honest feedback.
• Figure out your target user group early, and find out how to target them and get the app in their
• Aim to get feedback from hundreds of real users, if not a thousand (if you’re a marketplace model a
couple of hundred will be good going).
• Gone are the days of not having a business model on Day One. There are only five business models
that power all billion-dollar apps – make sure you know which one will power yours.
• Think about analytics and how you’re going to measure the performance of your app, and therefore
the performance of your business.
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Date Posted:15:52:50 11/17/21 Wed
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