Too Many Apps for That

You're as likely to win the lottery as create a winning application for the iPhone. Serial tech entrepreneur Gabe Zichermann explains.
  • Transcript


Question: Did you have an initial marketing plan?

Gabe Zichermann: The marketing plan for beamMe really was organic and focused on the virility of our product. I’m also a big believer in traditional PR in quotes and I think that includes getting blog coverage and getting media coverage. If you make apps for mobile devices, probably the most meaningful coverage that you can get is being featured in the app stores for whatever platform you’re working on, so for us early on in beamME’s lifecycle we were featured on the iTunes app store. We were written up in The Times and through a bunch of syndication and we were actually featured on the start page, so we got a bunch of initial momentum for the product that way. Then we found a generally pretty good kind of PR air cover and viral ground cover for the distribution of our product.

Question: How does one compete with all the existing iPhone applications?

Gabe Zichermann: Whenever a new platform launches—and I’ve been really fortunate to be around for right on the cusp of the launch of the internet really, the launch of Facebook for example and the iPhone and been involved at Cisco Systems and then my last kind of focus and then now this new startup and each one of those things—you realize that in the very early days [a] handful of developers with good ideas and the right focus take a disproportionate... have a disproportionate success out of the launch of a new technology platform and that is pretty consistent. It’s very unusual for those early succeeders to get to the next stage of the game, and typically the real money is made by the people who come immediately after that first group. The first group is kind of big land grab and then there is some shakeout and then it’s the second group who really seems to make a big go of it. What I would say is especially if you’re developing apps today I think the opportunities are still tremendous. However, the likelihood that you’ll make an amazing single $1 application that will make you millions of dollars, I think, is pretty slim. Those were always corner cases. That was not the norm, even at the dawn of the iPhone. That has never been the norm. That will never be the norm. A handful of people win the lottery effectively by being at the right place at the right time and with a great app. It doesn’t take anything away from that, but the rest of the people, we got to slug it out. Just like any other platform, you got to make great product. You got to excite your customers. You have to market that product well. You need to know what your customers love and keep iterating against that, you know that vision of really solving a customer problem every day.

Question: Looking back, what is one mistake you made during your career?

Gabe Zichermann: I make a ton of mistakes. I mean I’m going to be honest with you. I make an absolute ton of mistakes. I make mistakes every single day. I make mistakes multiple times a day and if you listen to my business partner or my life partner or my parents they’d probably have an even better list of mistakes they could share with you. I’m so hypercritical of myself and the world around me that it would be difficult for me to really single out one thing I did wrong. One thing I can tell you though is that in the context of a life full of mistakes, the smartest people in the room are the ones who know they’ve made a mistake and without hubris turn away from that, acknowledge it, move on, close that door, open a new door when they need to do that without getting stuck somewhere like Afghanistan or Iraq. At some point you have to say I made a mistake, this was the wrong thing to do and I’m moving on. If there is one, well it’s not really even a mistake, but if there is one experience in my past I think is interesting... you know I like to be liked, I suppose everybody likes to be liked... I remember in Trymedia, which was my last startup, I had one business meeting with someone that I thought was a pretty good meeting, maybe tough, but a pretty good meeting. Afterwards I heard back that that person, who was a client we were trying to close, the president of that company had said: “Under no circumstances will I do a deal when Gabe is around. He needs to never be there. I never want to see him again. I just think he is terrible and obnoxious and I just don’t want him involved.” At the time I was crushed. I mean I did all this business development. I’m a fairly well-known figure in the games industry and I’m like this is crazy. What did I do to piss this person off? I was probably really fractured by that for a long time. I would say certainly that I took that much more personally and much more to heart than I probably should have and it turns out this person doesn’t remember that at all and now I know him and we talk and it’s all cool and he is like, “What are you talking about?” It’s sort of funny in retrospect, but I’m still carrying it around and it’s been a solid ten years and I still think about it sometimes like gosh, that was a terrible moment. The mistake that I really made in this case was to harp on somebody not liking me when being liked is really not that important. You hear that a lot. You hear that from self help coaches. Your parents tell you that when you’re in school. “It’s not that important that you be liked.” You should be respected. That is what is really important, but of course everyone wants to be liked, so we’re deluding ourselves if we think we don’t want to be liked. When you encounter a situation in which somebody has expressed a dislike for you in a business context, I think the best thing to do is turn away from the situation. Move on in a different direction. Stay away from it. Don’t harp on it. In the end they’ll get over it. That’s what I’ve learned.

Recorded on October 22, 2009