Better Decisions Faster: Analyst vs. Executive

The problem with objective data is it isn’t always fast. The problem with subjective data is it isn’t always right.

Let’s say you were to ask a few dozen executives how they make decisions. Some will tell you that they look to data; some will tell you that they go with their gut. Some will have an answer that addresses both data and instinct. But throughout your interviews, it will become clear that decision-making is far from an exact science. And yet, the ability to make and follow through with decisions is arguably one of the most important skills an executive develops.

Now let’s say you were to ask a few dozen business intelligence and analytics practitioners, a burgeoning field of increasing importance to business strategy and direction, how decisions ought to be made. Certainly not all, but many will get hung up on objective data, as if it is the only valid input to decision-making.

I am by no means anti-analytics. On the contrary, I built a marketing analytics company and helped steer dialogue on data-driven customer experience over the past five years. Data-rich customer environments are my playground.

It’s just that as both an analyst and an executive, I know that the messier truth is that every decision is informed by some ratio of objective and subjective data. The simple problem with objective data, from an executive viewpoint, is that it isn’t always fast. The problem with subjective data, from an analytics viewpoint, is that it isn’t always right.

A friend who was an officer in the Navy told me that her unit used to do a training exercise where each person ran up a set of stairs on the ship, and at the top of the stairs, they were forced to turn right or left immediately without looking in either direction first. They had no way of knowing what they would face if they turned one way or the other; they simply had to choose and contend with the outcome, whatever it was.

The value in this training for an officer or an executive is where the corollary to decision-making comes in: dealing with change. Change is a constant over which we often have very little control. Cue Darwin: our ability to adapt is the key to our survival.

It is completely possible to be rational about subjective data. Just because your decision is informed by something other than numbers and charts doesn’t mean you’re not informed.

For example, when you dress each morning, more than likely you consider the temperature, which is objective data, and you probably also think about what meetings you have during the day and what kind of an impression you’d like to make on the people you meet with. Your assessment of what impression certain clothes will have on the people you meet with is subjective, but informed by experience.

So how does a data-savvy executive incorporate objective data into a fast-paced decision-making environment?

There must be a rigorous yet adaptable framework for hypothesis-driven leadership that utilizes available knowledge, adapts to change, and assesses the outcome. This must be straightforward enough to be a routine and consistent enough to benefit from iterations that lead to insights. At the very simplest level, this could be depicted as a cycle:

change-outcome-decision-outcome iterative

Gathering and analyzing data is a meaningful part of improving ongoing operations. The more aligned the intelligence-gathering is with the strategy and direction of the business, the more likely there will be relevant objective data available to inform decision-making.

The imperative to executives is: involve your analysts in strategic planning so that they can help model the business in the data they collect and assess, and provide increasingly more value to you with each iteration of the process.

The imperative to analysts is: recognize the limitations of reactive and objective data in timely executive decision-making, and strive to build predictive models that provide at least relevant directional insight about the company’s strategy. This will reinforce your value and the value of business intelligence, and will strengthen the process for future decision-making.

Go forth, collaborate, and be relevant.

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Is the Knight News Challenge finished? Five suggestions for the future

How would you spend $5 million a year?

Yesterday, the ninth set of Knight News Challenge winners were announced. However, rather than the traditional excitement that accompanies one of the world’s largest journalism innovation awards, there was instead an injection of uncertainty brought about by these words: “It may be finished.”

Speaking at the announcement in Cambridge (and here I’m thankful to Joshua Benton’s great Nieman Lab round-up), Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen said, “What have we actually achieved? How have we changed the way people receive their information? How have we affected the existing news community?…They take, I think, comparatively little notice of the things people in this room do.”

Taking stock

“What would you do if you had decided to invest $5 million a year in figuring out how to best get news and information to communities? What would you do?”

Here are five quick suggestions on how the Knight News Challenge could move forward.

1. Emphasise discovery

Ibargüen’s question could perhaps be the wrong one. Perhaps it shouldn’t be the job of the News Challenge to find ways to get news out to people. Perhaps it should be to find better ways to get news. Discovery, rather than dissemination?

The most succesful Knight News Challenge projects are those that have focused on helping journalists do their jobs better. ScraperWiki, Overview, PANDA and Ushahidi are a few of my favourites. What’s the link? They’re all about research, search, archiving, data and visualising connections. All required by journalists, every day.

The next step for the challenge (and I think this has already begun with the latest round of awards) could then be to allow communitites to begin this discovery and aid journalists by unearthing potential stories.

2. Money, money, money

Is enough focus being placed on revenue models, on innovations that are helping newsrooms become sustainable? And, should all the entries require detailed income and scalability plans? I’ve recently been working with Ashoka and this element is greatly emphasised. Without scale, there is less chance of success (and acceptance from the journalist community at large). Are enough safeguards being put into build businesses.

When grant-winner Behavio was acquired by Google, many saw this as a failure. Should it be percieved as such? Spin-offs and start-ups could be the answer to newsroom sustainability.

3. Open to ideas and collaboration

2012’s News Challenge saw the open source requirement for the programme dropped. It was still encouraged, but this decision caused much debate. One of the key issues in newsrooms at the moment is technological silos; organisations working in isolation on very similar projects, at great cost.

News organisations don’t just compete with each other any more. They’re competing with the internet at large. Therefore, it makes sense for them to relinquish some of the traditional secrecy that cloaks the profession and open up to working with each other. Knight should encourage them to open up and not reinvent the wheel. The first question before awarding a grant should always be, does something like this already exist? When built, how can other people engage, connect and extend? Open source makes all this easier.

4. Don’t reinvent the wheel

DocumentCloud is one of the Knight News Challenges success stories. It’s also a two-times winner. Coincidence?

Perhaps more multiple awards could be made, or more mature projects should be awarded development grants. To paraphrase Wolfgang Blau at last week’s GEN Summit, newsrooms are not lacking in visions. It’s the execution that they need support with. Does innovation have to start with an entirely clean slate everytime, or can we stand on the shoulders of giants?

5. Go global

While I understand the U.S. focus of the challenge, it’s time to go global. FrontlineSMS, NextDrop, and Ushahidi show that this approach can work.

I lead Citizen Desk, an African News Innovation Challenge winner based in Maputo, and it’s clear to me that a huge amount of innovation is happening in the global south. The need is greater, the legacies are fewer and the risk is smaller. The next world-class mobile, data and networking projects will come from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent or Latin America.

I’m interested to see what the Knight Foundation come up with next. It’s vital that they are transparent about their ideas for the future. Innovation requires failure, so a critical review of the impact and success of previous challenges would be really interesting. In the meantime, take a detailed look at the next round of exciting winners.

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Work between technology and journalism. @Ashoka adviser. #hhber initiator. Formerly at @Sourcefabric & @transmediale.

Updated July 1, 2013

Silk Road 2 Hacked, Over 4,000 Bitcoin Allegedly Stolen

Next Story

Silk Road 2 moderator Defcon reported in a forum post that hackers have used a transaction malleability exploit to hack the marketplace. The hackers stole over 88,000 4474.26 bitcoins worth $2,747,000, emptying the site’s escrow account.

UPDATE – Fixed estimate.

The site used a central escrow service to send bitcoins from buyers to sellers. The hackers exploited the transaction malleability bug – essentially a way users can mask transfers and ask for the same amount of BTC multiple times – to clean out this wallet. This is the same bug that forced Mt. Gox to halt all withdrawals and recent updates have made average bitcoin wallets secure against this sort of attack. According to the site, hackers used the Silk Road’s automatic transaction verification system to order from each other and then request refunds for unshipped goods. Hackers were able to use the transaction malleability bug because the Silk Road used only transaction ID to confirm the transfer of bitcoins. You can read more about the problem here.

They supposedly run an automated refund system for their vendors that relies on the TXID to verify transactions. Their claim is that six vendors colluded to exploit that system by ordering from one another and then submitting circular refund requests.

Defcon is calling on the hackers to return the bitcoin. “Given the right flavor of influence from our community, we can only hope that he will decide to return the coins with integrity as opposed to hiding like a coward,” the moderator wrote.

The site’s users are currently attempting to track down the thief. Writes Defcon:

# Attacker 1: (Responsible for 95% of theft)
Suspected French, responsible for vast majority of the thefts. Used the following six vendor accounts to order from each other, to find and exploit the vulnerability aggressively.
## Usernames used:

News of the theft has driven the price of BTC down by about 50 points and it’s currently hovering at 600. We’ll post more information on the hack and the exploit as we get it. Defcon, for his part, is calling for further decentralization of online markets and currency.

“No marketplace is perfect. Expect any centralized market to fail at some point. This is precisely why we must unite in the decision to decentralize,” he wrote.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 4.39.57 PM
via DeepDotWeb

With Super Bowl ad, Coke trolled the trolls

The brand’s commercial was no gaffe. The Twitter backlash against it was planned, and the advert was a brilliant marketing stunt.

If you live in the United States and want to drink cola, you basically have two options: Coke or Pepsi. So note that Coke has two ways to get a comparative advantage over its rival. It can try to make itself look good, or it can try to make Pepsi look bad.

A few hundred xenophobes badmouthing Coke and pledging allegiance to Pepsi instead certainly makes Pepsi look bad, and it does so without cannibalizing Coke’s core audience. Because it takes an incredible amount of energy to hate pretty much anything, you’ll find the “batshit xenophobe” demographic is pretty small. This is why neither brand wants to be the one every racist turns to for a cola fix. There isn’t much money there.

Enter the Coke Super Bowl ad, a tame commercial statement that documented a company’s desire to have lots of different people buy what it sells. This somehow provoked an angry reaction, as seen in early posts that used the #fuckcoke hashtag.

There is consumer marketing lore of brands saying or doing dumb stuff on purpose in order to drag over-performing or better-positioned products down with theirs. When Coke rushed to market Tab Clear as a deliberately unappealing soft drink in order to destroy Crystal Pepsi, for instance, it took this principle to the extreme. But that isn’t what happened Sunday. Coke’s Super Bowl play was more nuanced. It baited humanity’s lowest common denominators into criticizing a pretty noncontroversial subject, all with the advanced knowledge that their criticism would be relentlessly mocked by other viewers and provoke days of exasperated coverage by professional opinion-havers.

People generally post criticism, not admiration, online, and Coke used this knowledge to extend the duration of its media buy. Racists criticized it’s commercial; the rest of the internet criticized the racists.

The brand successfully trolled the trolls.

It used things it did not create and thus has no responsibility for fixing — a divided political environment, a resentment of other cultures, and a paranoid suspicion that everything has underlying political motivations, all of which are generally coming from an extremely small portion of conservative Republicans — to simultaneously promote a message of inclusion and place a competitor in an uncomfortable position. Neither cola company is a super PAC. They have only the responsibility to profit as much as possible by using any legal means available. Coke has concluded one way to do that is to use morons with internet connections as pawns to generate press coverage for an advertisement — to generate earned media off of paid media by using owned media as an amplifier. It didn’t spark a debate; it exploited an opportunity. Does anyone think the Coke ad triggered thoughts these racists weren’t already having on their own?

Pepsi could’ve countered by taking to Twitter or another owned-media channel to praise Coke’s commercial and distance itself from the xenophobes, but it didn’t. Pepsi’s corporate blog just sucks, and its Twitter feed isn’t much more than marketing nonsense. One could have looked at those assets and concluded Pepsi wouldn’t be too quick to optimize their potential value. This was probably something Coke researched in weighing the pros and cons of its Super Bowl strategy.

Correctly predicting that Pepsi would fail to react in any meaningful way is what made the ad really work. Pepsi could’ve trumped Coke with a clear, elegant response that would be generating positive media coverage today. But it missed that opportunity.

The commercial itself was nothing terribly memorable. But the strategic approach behind it was a classic.

I like feedback. (Really, for serious!) Tweet me (@andrew_graham) or the media agency (@AgencyClear) I co-founded. And if you like this post, click the “Recommend” button below.

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Genesis Rounds vs. Institutional Seed Rounds

The evolving landscape of very early stage financing

Over the past couple years, there has been an emerging bifurcation in the seed investing market. We’ve noticed this both in the industry broadly, as well as in the companies that we have invested in or seriously considered. Essentially, there are 2 flavors of seed rounds that are emerging (EXCLUDING seed extension rounds, which are a whole other story). We’ve come to describe these as “Genesis Rounds” and “Institutional Seed” rounds. Basically, “Genesis Rounds” look like this:

  • <$600K, and sometimes, substantially less
  • Pre-product
  • No team aside from founders
  • Mostly angels with occassional participation from small/seed funds
  • Usually convertible note
  • Runway <12 months

“Institutional seed” rounds on the other hand tend to look like this:

  • >$750K. More often these days, there are more like $1.5M or even more
  • Post-product, early customer data, somtimes real revenue
  • Several employees in addition to founders
  • Institutional seed investors or larger VC funds
  • Often priced equity, but often convertible note
  • Runway >12 months

Sometimes, companies only need to do one of these two rounds. But I’m finding that more often than not, companies need to raise both of these sorts of rounds before being able to raise a “traditional” VC-led series A. What I am finding interesting is watching the way valuations and difficulty of raising has changed for these different flavors of seed rounds.

8+ years ago, the “Institutional Seed” rounds didn’t really exist. There were only a handful of funds doing seeds for a living, and thus, cobbling together enough angels to invest $1.5M in a round was very challenging for most. Most seed rounds tended to look like “genesis rounds”. This market gap, coupled with the capital efficiency of software brought on the rise of seed funds. This led to a period of seed stage exuberance, and that led to higher valuations, larger rounds, etc.

Over time, many seed rounds started to look like “institutional seed” rounds, even for companies that were very very raw and frankly, were not deserving of so much capital at such high prices. But ultimately, this has come to roost over the past several years as the series A Crunch has pummeled a bunch of these companies and their investors. As a result, many seed funds have pulled back, started making later stage investments, and even focusing more on mini-Series A’s with a syndicate of seed funds. What I’m seeing now is that “institutional seed rounds” tend to be bigger, and go into companies with much more meat on the bones. These rounds also tend to get done on pretty high valuations (although lower than in the last couple years).

What this means for entrepreneurs today is that the “genesis rounds” are much harder to raise, especially if you are a relatively unproven founding team. Yet, most companies need “genesis” capital to get off the ground, recruit your first couple team members, and start building something interesting. As a seed investor, I think this actually has led to “genesis rounds” becoming more attractive. Valuations are better, there is less competition, and if you knock it out of the park, the potential for a meaningful valuation step-up at the next round is much higher (which leads to less overall dilution for founders). I would say historically, the risk/reward of genesis rounds were not very good. The risks were not commensurate with the valuation relative to institutional seed rounds. But I think these might be coming closer into line, and I’m personally taking a closer look at more earlier and smaller rounds.

On top of all this is just personal preference, because I think the most rewarding part of VC is being part of the genesis of great companies. That’s why I really try to never “pass” on an investment because it’s “too early”. If it’s too early for a seed fund, then who the heck is it NOT too early for?

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On Location with Foursquare Matt Hantz

There’s going to be a hugely successful company that builds the location layer of the Internet. I still think it’s going to be Foursquare.

There’s a great, deep story by Austin Carr in Fast Company today giving a broad overview of where Foursquare is headed, as a product and as a company. I was quoted a few times in the piece, and spent a good bit of time talking to Austin, and I thought it might make sense to explain the non-obvious parts of my perspective on Foursquare.

It makes sense to start at the end:

Crowley is a rare breed of founder obsessed with the problem he’s trying to solve. “The thing I fear, which would be devastating for the industry, let alone Dennis, is that he gets rushed and Foursquare can’t monetize, they can’t raise [another round], and they have to sell to Facebook or Google or whoever,” Dash says. “And then at 40, Dennis has to start over. Because he’ll do it again—there’s no question. But then the world will have to wait another goddamn 10 years for this thing.”

This articulates what may be the two most important points underpinning my opinion of Foursquare:

  • There’s undoubtedly going to be a location layer to the Internet. It’s too powerful of an idea, and too valuable of a technology, for it not to come into existence in the next few years.
  • Dennis Crowley has incontrovertibly been obsessed with this idea for over a decade.

Now, simply being a person obsessed with a particular class of problem doesn’t always mean that someone will be the one who brings it to large-scale adoption — just ask Nikola Tesla. But my bet is that Foursquare cracks the code on this before anyone else. To understand why, let’s take a look at what Foursquare really does today.


Foursquare’s initial story was about the trappings through which it encouraged engagement — its badges and leaderboard, and the broader concept of recording one’s location in the quantified self sense. Though I am happy to count both Dennis and Naveen as friends, I’ve never spoken to the company’s cofounders about Naveen’s departure from the company. My take on it, separate from any discussion they may have had within the company, is that Foursquare switched from primarily being concerned with the game-based rewards around engagement and the recording of people’s whereabouts to a broader mission that builds on that base to be about location as a core capability of the Internet.

With Naveen building new projects around the smartest parts of what’s considered “quantified self”, that leaves Dennis leading Foursquare to focus on that location layer. [Update: Naveen and others clarify that both cofounders worked on each of these aspects of what Foursquare does.] And in that regard, they’ve accomplished something no one else has done before: Almost every important app that uses location connects to Foursquare.

The major apps that are defining mobile sharing all connect to Facebook.

When you post an image to Instagram, you tag its location using Foursquare’s venues data. Put up a video on Vine? Foursquare locations. Share a story on Path? It’ll prompt for a Foursquare venue. Even Flickr, Yahoo’s venerable photo service which popularized geo-encoding on the web in the first place, now lets you tag uploaded photos with Foursquare’s venue data.

Keep in mind, Instagram is owned by Facebook and Vine is owned by Twitter — Foursquare is acting as the neutral third-party here that’s trusted by both of these otherwise-constantly-battling social giants. Only Google, Apple and Microsoft, which each have invested hundreds of millions in location, don’t rely on Foursquare on an ongoing basis for location. And countless independent third-party apps build on Foursquare as well. (Incidentally, this is why I think Yelp board member Keith Rabois’ public petulance about Foursquare is so foolish — there may be some great value Yelp could get by connecting to Foursquare, but the product team there probably can’t consider it for fear of earning the scorn or antagonism from their own board.)

The trick, then, is whether Foursquare can capture some value from this network of apps connected to its data. My gut sense is that the “Powered by Foursquare” branding within these apps is a little bit like looking at search results on Yahoo did around the turn of the century: There was a little logo link, all the way at the bottom of the search results, which said “Powered by Google”, and it became pretty obvious very quickly that something important was going on.


To turn its network of client apps into a web-scale business, Foursquare will have to create a two-way exchange of value with the apps that are currently getting a one-way deal of data for free. What could be worth the exchange? The obvious idea is that Foursquare could expand its current advertising offerings in a way that they might be embedded within other apps, perhaps along with some sort of revenue sharing. More broadly, there might be ways of connecting commerce offerings such as Foursquare’s deals in a way that was exposed through third-party apps. To extend the Google analogy, this is going from simply powering search on other sites to delivering text ads along with those search results.

Of course, partners like Facebook and Twitter already have their own self-service ad platforms, so what would it take for Foursquare to convince them to enable a more reciprocal relationship? Probably two things: value and credibility. The issue of value is straightforward, if not simple: Foursquare must provide a form of monetization that improves the experience for end users of mobile apps, whether its own or from a third party. That’s clearly what the Foursquare team must be hard at work to do.

But the second requirement, credibility, is where I think people underestimate Foursquare. They’ve simply done more work, at a deeper level, to really understand the problems around location and location-enabled apps. Astoundingly, for all the public paranoia about online tracking, Foursquare’s never made any mistakes that have caused a panic about the way they collect and share data. And its team is respected by other startups and media companies as being authoritative on nearly every important aspect of location-based technology on the Internet. Perhaps most importantly, its position as a neutral third party offers all of these partners an option which doesn’t empower the competitors they actually fear.

The truth is, aside from simple mapping apps, nobody has truly built a large-scale consumer technology business around the potential of location. As I noted when discussing the importance of public traffic data, there is enormous value to be created by understanding how people move around: Both Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey’s first companies were based on data about how people move around through cities. If Foursquare’s given enough time to keep iterating on the incredible success it’s had as a platform, and its first few steps toward driving revenue through ads make it stable enough financially, there’s no reason it can’t be the company that taps into the value of being the location layer of the Internet.


Back in March, I interviewed Dennis as a keynote interview at SXSW. Though the conference seems to have never posted the video, there’s a pretty good fan-shot video of the session. (See part two of the interview.)

Based on that interview, Wired offered a brief overview of where Foursquare’s headed:

Shoot a video in Vine, scribble a reminder in Evernote, make a post on Path, or snap a photo in Instagram, and you can place-tag it. When you do, you’ll see a little banner pop up that says “Powered by Foursquare.”

Any app developer can pull from this vast collection of place names. The company has become a powerhouse data provider to the internet at large, a sort of utility service for geographical information.

“That place-data that’s baked into those other apps — that’s Foursquare’s ‘Like’ button,” says Dash.

Similarly, TechCrunch wrote its take on the interview which focused on the potential to upgrade mapping for everyone:

At the end of the day, the data that Foursquare has is the ability to provide more personalized maps than what is available today. Crowley said that maps haven’t really changed that much since people started making them, but now that we have certain amounts of trending data or interest data, Foursquare could help make the places that people see more meaningful to them.

This column I wrote for Wired last year actually addresses the point of founders being obsessed with a particular kind of problem by quoting Dennis:

“The love for the space should manifest itself through the product,” Crowley says. “Artists do this all the time: pick a theme, explore it, reinvent it, explore it again. When you look at art in hindsight, you can usually see a linear progression through the work.”

And almost a year and a half ago, I named the company the best-executing startup. I still maintain that the quality of the software and design shipped by the company are a model for others to follow — we never hear about users in an uproar about changes, and even the introduction of advertising has been handled without the frustration or contentiousness that nearly every other platform faces with these types of launches. It’ll be interesting to see if that remains true as Foursquare begins to extend its reach to the network of apps that connect to its services.

Further Reading

Will Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley Finally Get It Right?


It’s 2 a.m. and Dennis Crowley is wired. We’ve just left Foursquare’s South by Southwest party at the Hype Hotel, a warehouse-size space …

On Location with Foursquare


There’s a great, deep story by Austin Carr in Fast Company today giving a broad overview of where Foursquare is headed, as a product and …


a personal API i’ve long been a follower of the quantified self – even back before we started calling it that and started building all th…

Foursquare: Today’s best-executing startup


About two years ago, Fred Wilson and I were talking about which startups we found interesting and I mentioned offhandedly that Foursquare…

The Importance of Public Traffic Data


Today a number of folks are talking about the importance of public transit data as Apple tries to shift from Google’s historic integratio…

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Success on Google Play: Not Just a Matter of Development – Part 1

How multi-tasking can help indie Android Developers succeed on Google Play

A lot of indie mobile developers think that the fact they’re able to develop an app will be the key to an undisputed success on mobile App Stores.

Of course, one of the most important things to possess as mobile developer is fluency with the programming language. Just like you can’t write a novel without knowing the alphabet or the grammar, having a strong knowledge of the system and its APIs will help you buid apps faster and better.

Multi-tasking is the key for success on App Stores

However, from my experience as an Android Developer, success on Mobile App Stores, and on Google Play in particular, is all about multi-tasking.

I’m not referring to “multi-tasking” as a synonym of “doing multiple things simultaneously”, what I mean is “being able to do multiple things”. The success of a mobile app is driven by a very large number of factors, so an indie developer needs to be aware that his application needs to fulfill multiple requirements.

In my opinion, the most important thing to keep in mind is that apps will be available to millions. So, the dev needs to be conscious of the common denominator between users, and in particular of the user base of his app (the people that, after a while after installing it, keep using the app).

This needs to start even before the app is developed; indie developers need to scratch the surface of mobile App Stores, and try to understand what’s going on, what is trending. There are plenty of web services that monitor App Stores on a daily basis, returning statistics on app installs and comments (for example, for Android and Google Play there’s AppBrain, or the App Stats app). Statistics are some of developers best friends. Use them.

UI of the App is really important

The app needs to be clear and clean. Users should understand how to use it without too much effort, and don’t want to feel dumb using your app. The best way to accomplish this task is follow the development guidelines of the system you’re working on; this way the app will have a look & feel users are already used to work with, and you don’t have to instruct them on how to use most common features.

Graphical assets are important. Really important. You don’t have to be a Photoshop hero, but you need to know the basics.

A great app icon is the best Graphical asset to provide

A great app icon will be what lures users to your app on the App Stores, so don’t understimate it. If your icon looks bad, or not interesting, or unprofessional, users will not click on it: they just won’t. So be careful and provide the best icon you can come out with.

Screenshots are a great tool to make a good first impact on people. Keep in mind that an app (in particular Android apps) are meant to work on multiple devices, with substantially different screen sizes. So, provide the most meaninful screenshots to show off your app features, but for multiple screen sizes (from 3” to 10” displays).

There are literally hundeds of phones and tablets form factors

This brings up one of the most important tool to develop and test a great app: test devices. A good developer needs to provide a decent number of app tests in order to claim to have developed a good app. The best way to accomplish that is to phisically run the app on multiple devices. As a developer, I own more than 15 Android devices, all with different form factors and a bunch with older versions of Android. This really helps testing out the features of apps and how they performs on older devices. Emulators are a resource too (if you’re an Android dev, check out Genymotion), but they definitely can’t fully replace how a real device perform.

Testing your app on multiple devices will really help you with one of the most important things you have to consider when dealing with mobile app stores: your customers’ ratings.

Customer Support really helps you improve your app ratings

Customer support is one of the best way to drive traffic and users to your app. Users are always very clear about what they expect from your app. Usually, customers ratings and comments can be split in some macro-categories:

  1. Enthusiasts (“5-star” ratings): users that are really happy with your app and give it an amazingly high rating on the App Store . A good way to interact with this users is answer with gratitude to their good comments and ratings, and ask how can you furtherly improve your app. They already showed that they love it, so usually they’ll be happy to cooperate, and also will feel “considered” by the dev, which creates a good virtuous circle. If you’ve done a very good job with your app, “5 star ratings” will rappresent the majority of your app ratings.
  2. Happy Users (“4-star” ratings): if you’ve done a decent job with your app, you’ll have plenty of 4-star ratings. These users appreciate your app, but not enough to give it a top-notch rating, so here’s where you have to be careful. These people are “ready” to turn into Enthusiasts, so keep in mind that you have to carefully consider their advices/requests, because they are usually also ready to change their minds and abandone your app if you don’t improve it. 4-star rating customers often leave accurate comments on the reason they appreciate yor app and what it need to go the extra mile to gain that “fifth star”. Take care of what they suggest!
  3. “Meh” users (“2-3 stars” ratings): usually, people who have found serious issues in your app. It can be everything: missing feature, performance glitches, force close, ugly graphical assets… Your app is not doing what they supposed it to be doing. So you, as developer, did something wrong, somewhere. Be aware: since 3-stars are in the middle of possible ratings, some of 3-stars ratings are given by people who consider 3 stars an average good rating (like in european hotels)!! So, pay attention to differentiate between users who are not happy with your app and customers who are giving you what they think is a good rating. A good approach is to get in touch with them in order to understand better their rating.
  4. Unhappy users (“1 star” ratings): they have found major issues in your app. These is the category you have to watch more carefully, because it will be the litmus test of your app: if you see a bunch of 1-star ratings showing up all of a sudden, it means you’ve done something really wrong with your app or latest app update. This is also a customer category where interaction is a panacea: get in touch with these users, and try to understand the issues they’re experiencing. You’re going to get a lot of 1-star ratings, no matter what. Be careful to separate unshappy users from…
  5. Haters (“1-star” rating with really bad comments): Haters gonna hate. You’ll always get nonsensical comments, users shouting against your app claiming it has broken their devices, people that say they can’t download your app (if so, how can you rate it?!?) and so on. Deal with it, there’s nothing you can do/say to make this people remove or change their comment. Fortunately, it’s just a small circle of users, and they show up more often on free apps than on paid apps. If you think their comments are really impacting your overall app rating and downloads, there’s always a handy “Report this comment” button.

In general, keep in mind that you have to monitor your customers feedback in order to have a good impact on mobile app stores, in particular on Google Play. Interact with your customers, don’t be shy and ask them what they think of your app. Try not to be oversensitive on your app and be open to new possibilites, sometimes your users will come up with ideas that are definitely better than yours: embrace them.

Finally we can say that good knowledge of the system, practice in creating good and consistent graphical assets, understanding of development guidelines, app testing and customer care are some of the fundamental skills needed by a good indie developer.

That’s why, in my opinion, being able to perform multi-tasking is what allows a developer to really start growing in mobile app stores. All the described skills need practice to be accomplished in the right way, so take your time, don’t be scared, don’t get mad, focus and try.

After all, we’re always learning, aren’t we?

In the next episode we will discuss other peculiarities that make an app impactful: What are the best development tools? How can I measure the impact of an app over time? How can I get my app under the proper spotlight? And so on! If you have suggestions or comments, please share them!

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