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Taking your small business mobile

It seems that anyone can turn out an iPhone application nowadays, even my local curry restaurant. But for those looking to create a viable business, going mobile is more complicated.

However, as we learned, even with a great product, you are never going to make it big without exposure.

Advertising campaigns, brand-building and all kind of expensive activities can help, but as a small start-up we simply did not have the means to invest in such expensive activities.

So, seeing the increasing saturation of the online greetings card market, we decided to move to mobile.

This time, we wanted to make sure we took advantage of being first.

We trusted our instincts on product, we had been right before, and we focused on getting in front of consumers. The most effective way to do this on mobile? Have your application on the phones when they are purchased.

The following article covers the lessons that we learned about developing an application and working successfully with Sony Ericsson, Microsoft and Palm to distribute it.

Finding a developer
Assuming that you are not coding your application yourself, you will need to start by hiring a developer.

We quickly learned that finding a developer is very different from finding a good developer. Every college student who has knocked together a game thinks he is an iPhone developer.

It is hard to identify the professionals.

For some platforms good developers have simply not had time to emerge.

Android is less than two years old. Windows Phone 7’s latest incarnation is only months old. Symbian, though around for eight years, is complex and has a lack of developers.

Designing your app
Once you have found a developer that you trust, be aware that mobile design is different.

We came to mobile from the Web and initially we tried to create small Web sites as applications. This was a mistake.

Applications are self-contained and should not replicate the sequence of distinct pages that you find on a Web site.

You also need to bear in mind that with a touch interface users need constant feedback that they have pressed what they intended.

Buttons need to be large and simple. The whole application needs to be fast and responsive.

You need to let users achieve what they want to achieve as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

Do not try and be clever, look pretty but keep out of the user’s way.

Choosing your features
Everyone will say this, few will actually apply it. Work out the minimum number of features that your app needs to be effective and only incorporate these. Your app should perform its key function as effectively and effortlessly as possible.

This is not about being cautious when adding new features – it is about scrutinizing those that you already think you need.

Go through your features list and cull. Take out that social network integration feature. Remove whatever it is that your product manager added because it was featured in TechCrunch this week.

It may seem painful, but it will result in a more focused, better performing product. You want to end up with simple, focused functionality and a great user interface. That is what works.

Things to bear in mind
What about analytics?

Web analytics are ubiquitous. Every site has them. Mobile analytics are just as necessary.

What are users doing when they use your application? Where are they leaving the application? Which functions are they using?

You need to embed analytics into the application from the outset, and this is something that is easy to overlook.

Another thing to watch out for is payment methods.

Assuming that you have got a freemium model for your application – perhaps the application is free and users have to pay for a service – you will need a payment method within the application. This is a big problem.

Apple’s iPhone will not let you have in-application payment for physical goods and Android does not have in-application payment at all.

This means that you have to redirect users to a Web site to pay for stuff. Web from mobile is slow and painful, and you are forcing users to use it just at the point when you want to close their purchase.

And do not forget testing
Once your application is built you will need to get testing. Testing a mobile application is hard. Allow more time than you expect – at least one-third of build time.

Testing is complicated by things such as multiple handsets with slight variations, the need to handle a loss of network coverage, peculiarities that different wireless networks introduce and you never have enough test phones and end up having to buy more.

Securing distribution for your app
Once you have got an application, you need distribution. Time to start talking to the mobile manufacturers.

Mobile manufacturers need you
Mobile manufacturers want to sell phones. They are always looking for ways to show-off the expensive hardware they have packed into a new phone, or to extend the life of an existing model by dressing it slightly differently or to more clearly differentiate one phone from another.

In the good old days – couple of years ago – manufacturers could incorporate ever more impressive hardware to make a device stand out.

However, doing so is increasingly difficult and expensive.

Another megapixel on a phone camera piqued consumer interest at one time. Nowadays, an adequate camera is a given.

This makes applications increasingly important.

The absence of certain ubiquitous applications can be actively damaging. Their presence is assumed, their absence a frustration. No Facebook application? You do not have Angry Birds? Oh dear.

On the flip side, new and novel applications are a means to be cooler than the competition and a cheap way to tailor a phone to specific demographic.

Mature mobile player seeks fresh young app company
If they need an application, mobile manufacturers are prepared to offer distribution in return. Get into partnership and you can suddenly see your user base increase thousand-fold.

But before you start chasing a partnership, bear in mind that if you are targeting the most trendy and glamorous area in the mobile industry, everyone else will be, too.

Mobile is illusory in that the manufacturers selling the highest volumes of phones are not necessarily the ones receiving the greatest attention in the media or showing the highest growth figures.

Those manufacturers not currently receiving plaudits may be easier targets – they are likely to be looking for new ideas.

Also, be aware that phone manufacturers are not application wholesalers.

You will not get them handing over several million dollars to license an application across a portfolio of devices. While this might have happened once upon a time, it is now extremely rare.

Budgets are tighter and the advent of app stores means companies do not need to pay for your applications – the consumer can do it directly.

If you are angling for a deal that will see your application pre-embedded on a phone – that is, your application will be on the phone when it is sold – you need a viable business model.

It is that model and a distribution deal with a phone manufacturer that will get you in front of millions of users from whom you can set about making money.

Working with a big company
If you do enter partnership, as a small company working with a big company, at times the process can seem opaque and protracted.

As a small company we turn things around in days and like to see an immediate impact. It is hard for us to justify work that will not see a return within three months. Big companies work on very different timescales – quarters, halves, years and more.

An eternity to a small company is a brief moment to a big one. Going through the process of agreeing and signing-off a contract can take a painfully long time.

Another problem with big companies is their sheer number of employees.

We have one person for every job, sometimes one person for several jobs, and everyone in the company knows everything or can find it out quickly.

With big companies we often do not know if we are talking to the right person.

We might be contacting an account manager, but there may well be nine other account managers, each with a tightly defined area of focus – one of whom would be more appropriate.

To complicate matters further, when personnel change within a big company you might not find out about it. Your link can suddenly be lost.

Finally, be aware that partnerships with big companies carry real risks. You will be tied and exposed to a company’s strategy and its shifts.

Operational nitty gritty
One noteworthy aspect of working with big companies is the financial and operational robustness that they enforce. It can be painful, but ultimately such rigor is extremely beneficial.

We were fortunate. Most of our systems and controls were already robust thanks to our Web business – meeting the requirements of big companies has not been a problem.

But it is worth listing the areas we modeled and audited to ensure readiness.

These included ensuring that our payment and reporting systems could handle a massive spike in load, that our Web site was secure and that our testing process was thorough and robust.

Big companies are extremely sensitive about bugs in the software that they ship.

Their testing cycles are incredibly thorough and have strict deadlines. Some of their tests may be normal for a large organization, but are time-consuming for a small company.

For example, we would not normally test whether an application can cope with a user repeatedly switching back and forth between Chinese and English whilst in the middle of sending a postcard.

Build app. Get distribution. Succeed – we hope
How to summarize what we have learned about creating a mobile business?

Your application has to have a business model – and then it is all about distribution. Having a great application goes a long way, but getting in front of the user is the most important thing.

To reach huge volumes of users you either need to have a massive brand, be one of the tiny minority of applications that just take-off, or start pursuing distribution partners.

Raam Thakrar is CEO of Touchnote, a London-based retailer of personalized greeting cards online and on mobile. Reach him at [email protected].