A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, something called Birdly Mobile used to exist. It was a mobile app: something you could download on an App Store and use on your smartphone just by tapping on an icon.
The app did something really cool: You only had to take a snap of a receipt and tap a button to export all the data into a beautiful Excel expense report. You could even pair your expenses with events from your calendar. The idea was innovative at the time, and thousands of people would try it.
But what happened right after was a bit strange to the makers of Birdly mobile: People had the opportunity to gain so much time using it, but they didn’t. They forgot about it. Here are the questions we asked ourselves:
Did the app offer value?
Yes. People using our app were saving on average of four hours per month using our app, but that didn’t seem to matter much in the equation.
We first thought it was a product problem and started adding cool features, like mileage tracking. You only had to enter your departure address and your destination, and the app would automagically define how much you could expense. Didn’t work, they still forgot about it.
We also enabled users to forward their digital receipts to the app, so that they could have an exhaustive list of their monthly expenses. Didn’t work, they still forgot about it.
Was it loveable?
Only users could tell if it was loveable, but we did our best to be so. We have a mascot, Bill, that guides people through the whole process. We put a real focus on the UI. It was very different and more refined than any other expense reporting app.
Was it intuitive?
At first, it wasn’t that much. So we tested and added an onboarding, tool tips, and a support feature so people could chat with us directly in the app. But the app was mostly quite easy to use: Just take a snap, get an Excel.
Had it been done a million times?
Nope. There were a few competitor apps doing similar things, but they mostly weren’t doing it as well as us. Apart from a few exceptions, other apps felt heavy and complicated. Still, nobody wanted our app.
Maybe we weren’t asking ourselves the right questions? So we started thinking differently, and a whole new set of questions came to mind.
Did it provide enough value to be on someone’s phone?
This was a bit hard to accept, but the answer was no. Given the monthly periodicity of our app, people would open it only once a month, leaving it in the clutter the rest of the time. And what do you do when you don’t open an app? You forget about it, or you trash it.
Here are the some of the most popular app categories, in no particular order:
Messaging (SMS, WhatsApp, Messenger, Slack…)
Camera / Photos
There’s a reason they are popular on mobile: They are highly contextual and take advantage of the phone’s main functionalities, be it geolocation, camera, or just voice and sound. They are also aimed at repeated use in small chunks of time. How many times did you open Messenger or your email app today?
We weren’t part of any of these categories, and we weren’t leveraging people’s context (be it spatial, temporal, or personal) enough. All in all, we didn’t stand a chance as we were fighting with both our competitors and other apps for a few more MB of room inside people’s phones.
Could our target market get it easily?
Nope. We were targeting small businesses and figured out CFOs and office managers would hardly get everyone inside the company to download it. The app would take room inside their phones. And we were mobile-only, which is not always ideal regarding expense software.
So that brought us to one last question:
Was the juice worth the squeeze?
No, it wasn’t. We spent so much time updating our app to comply with the latest OS released by Apple or Google, debugging the app, developing new features, ensuring our UI was well-integrated in the global OS, explaining to CFOs how they could get everyone to download the app, etc.
And then again, yes, it was. We’ve made many mistakes, and learnt a lot from them. The first conclusion we have is: When you have the right answers to the wrong questions, you’re doomed. So start by asking yourself: Did you get the problem right?
The bottom line
Either you’re part of a category for which presence on mobile seems natural, such as a news app, a messaging app, or a game, and you’ll have to fight fierce competition and reap big rewards if you manage to beat Whatsapp and Snapchat …
… or you’re part of the B2B world and you’ll have the hardest time finding your target from the app stores if you only have a mobile app. We’ve made up our minds, and for now it looks like one of the best decisions we ever made.
Sorry, App Store and Google Play, but we won’t play with you anymore. We’ve pivoted.
Jean-Baptiste Coger is Chief Product Officer of Paris-based Birdly, a company striving to make expense reports less of a pain.