Should Your Startup Go Mobile First?

Founders League Series

Allan Tear is the co-founder and managing partner of Betaspring, a top-15 ranked startup accelerator based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Founders League and Verizon have teamed up to produce a series of blogs that feature startups and leaders from Rhode Island's entrepreneurial community. The series touches on technology, techniques, and ecosystem developments that are transforming our local, regional, and national startup communities.

2014 is the year when mobile took over the internet. Industry projections for both the number of users and overall Web users show that smartphones have overtaken the desktop for good. Social network usage and engagement is mobile-dominant; Facebook alone sees 68 percent of its usage via mobile devices.

Yet many startups still launch their products for desktop users first, leaving mobile as a product add-on to be developed later. Startups make this choice because the desktop is more mature and has widely known development tools and third-party services that accelerate early product development.

Often, a startup will choose the desktop-first path because it hasn’t deeply explored  customers’ needs and behaviors. Often, this is costly mistake that not only adds unnecessary development and maintenance costs, but causes a startup to miss its initial market altogether.

Here are some questions to help you figure out whether your startup should go mobile-first, or even mobile-only.

Where do your customers encounter their problem today?
Are the target users of your product on the go when they tangle with the problem you are trying to solve? Are they in between meetings, in an airport, at a coffee shop or in the back of a taxi? Increasingly, customers are trying to be productive, entertained or connected away from their desktop. If your customers encounter their problem on the go, think mobile first.

Are your customers’ behavior changing?
Customer behavior isn’t static, even in industries that seem slow to change. Watch for the way that subgroups of customers are changing their behavior in response to business needs or consumer trends. For example, the shift of digital photo editing from the desktop to mobile happened after consumers began storing and managing large amounts of photos on their smartphones. If leading groups of your customers -- early adopters, new or nonexpert users, youths or seniors -- are changing their behavior toward mobile, you should go where they are going.

Is there a larger group of potential customers who could use your product?
In every market there is a group of potential customers who have either tried the current solutions and stopped because they were dissatisfied, or who simply never thought that today’s products were right for them. Often these potential customers may prefer a mobile-first solution because of age, income or other demographic factors. If there is a large group of potential customers who would be better served by a mobile solution, consider designing for them instead of designing for the customers of today’s products.

What external waves can you ride?
Technology and consumer behavior are changing faster than ever before, and these oncoming waves are powerful forces for a new product to ride. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007; over 500 million have been sold to date. A decade ago, virtually no one had heard of social networking; today there are over 2 billion social network accounts globally. Most of the oncoming waves are tied to the ubiquity of mobile and the increasingly mobile, global consumer, and you should be riding a wave to give your product momentum.

You’ll see that only one of these questions had to do with technology because the shift to mobile is now a consumer behavior change, enabled by technology. Small businesses and enterprises eventually follow the behavior of consumers because their employees are a reflection of the larger consumer market.

If you examine the behavior of your potential customer groups and see that their behavior is trending mobile, or if there is a significant external wave coming that will change the technologies that your customers use, you should seriously consider a mobile-first strategy. For most new products today, don’t ask “Why mobile first?” Ask “Why not?”