Going Against The Grain

When talking to entrepreneurs at the very early stages of their companies, I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency to give a fairly long product roadmap. “And then we’ll add this. And then this. And then this.” That type of thing.

And I think that’s fine; it’s good to be thinking ahead, and it’s even better to have a vision for where you want the product to go. But it’s just as important to be realistic. And the likelihood of things going exactly to plan from day one is basically zero.

But that’s all obvious. What may not be so obvious is what happens when a product actually hits, takes off, and establishes itself. Because it feels like there’s a trend emerging here, at least in the world of apps, that is worth noting.

Look at Instagram and Snapchat, two hugely successful apps each with tens of millions of users. Both of those services added major new features last year in the form of Instagram Direct and Snapchat Stories. Both features are well done and nice additions to the services. And yet, no one seems to be using them.

That’s anecdotal, of course. Perhaps there are a lot of people using both features1, but I know a lot of people who are addicted to both Instagram and Snapchat, and none of them seem to be using Direct or Stories.2

It seems to me that this is the case because both of these new features veer away from the central purpose of each app. And it’s that purpose which established both apps and garnered them millions of users. These new features, again, while nice in their own ways, go against the grain of the apps in which they reside.

Instagram Direct allows you to send pictures (or videos 3 ) to smaller groups of users, rather than all your followers. Snapchat Stories allows you to send snaps to all your followers, rather than just a smaller group of users.

In the old days 4, startups like Facebook not only could get away with cramming new features into their services, it was what users expected in many cases. “Why doesn’t Facebook offer instant messaging yet? Why doesn’t Facebook have events yet? Etc.” But the world is evolving. The time of the big, all-encompassing social networks of the web is yielding to the smaller, single-purpose social networks of mobile.

This seems to be mainly good news for startups. We’re seeing over and over again now that the behemoths can’t simply add an startup’s funtionality into their own app as a feature and kill said startup. But it’s equally important to note that if you are able to establish your startup, especially those in apps form, it may be hard to get your users to do anything other than what they originally came to do. Especially if the new funtionality is against the grain in any way.

  1. It strikes me as entirely possible that new users to both services could find the added funtionality both obvious and useful. It may simply be that original users aren’t using them because that’s not how time has “trained” them to use the app. 

  2. Beyond testing them on day one, of course. 

  3. I can’t decided if Instagram Video itself is a good example of “going against the grain” or a good counter-example. I don’t really use it, I still prefer Vine, but I know a lot of folks who do (unlike Instagram Direct). 

  4. "Old" meaning seven or eight years ago. 

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    Kids, the moral of the story: [Do One Thing...
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    Features are now apps are now start-ups.
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