What the Whatsapp deal can teach all Product Managers

There are lots of lessons behind the curtains of the $19 BN Whatsapp acquisition by Facebook. There’s lessons about the scale and value of social, about the continually evolving mobile platform. There’s of course the rags-to-riches story of the founders going from food stamps to being billionaires in just a few short years, and a casual reminder that investment bankers are greedy.

But a few layers deeper there’s another lesson. It’s simple:

Whatsapp was not the first mobile messaging app.

When talking with Product Managers at lots of different companies I often hear sentences like these:

  • That’s not ‘new’ enough.
  • No, there’s already an app that does that.
  • If we could just find a completely new idea…

The problem is:

“There are no new ideas under the sun.”

Whatsapp was not the first mobile messaging app, and Facebook was not the first social network.

So what is the lesson? You don’t need to be first to win.

In fact, often not being first is an advantage. Look at Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg was able to learn from the failings of all the social networks that came before him. He learnt the importance of scaling from the failed Friendster, whose incredible pains scaling under rapid growth ultimately killed it. He learnt about network interactions from MySpace, which was still the biggest social network in 2006.

Another particularly good example: look at the category of To-Do List apps. There are literally hundreds in the app stores, and more pop up every month. Some are more successful than others, but the most successful ones, such as Wunderlist (currently #44 on the iOS store, and #29 grossing app), have only been around a relatively short amount of time. There were countless To-Do list apps before Wunderlist, and there’ll be countless more. What makes Wunderlist successful?

The value in a new product or service is seldom that it finds a completely unmet need. The value is often solving a known need in a new and innovative way.

When looking at product opportunities, the question is not if there is another product that solves the problem you intend to solve. The question is: can we be different? Can we be better?

The unbundling of Facebook and the evolution of mobile

Last week Facebook announced the new Paper app – an app that turns your Facebook news feed into your own personal newspaper. At the same time they announced Facebook Creative Labs and promised further small, single-purpose apps.

This is all part of a growing trend from Facebook to un-bundle their core mobile product/service into smaller, focussed single-purpose apps that solve specific problems. The first move here was Facebook Messenger, which was designed to compete head-on with the growing number of successful messaging apps that are growing incredibly in the marketplace (Whatsapp, Line, WeChat, Snapchat, etc).

When the giants of the desktop web era (Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and so on) moved to mobile, to begin with their service architectures stayed more or less intact. On the web, a single product has a single URL, a single brand and a single interface and structure. Facebook on the web is an entire product service that exists behind the facebook.com URL.

It turns out on mobile, however, that there are different dynamics driving user behaviour and expectations. On mobile, how users interact with apps, and how they choose to create and consume content, is very different than it was on desktop.

The structure of apps and the multi-tasking abilities of modern smartphones makes changing apps really easy. It is nearly always easier and quicker to press the ‘home’ button on your smartphone and open another app than it is to navigate the menu structure within the app you’re already in to access a different function.

This dynamic is driving the un-bundling of Facebook’s offer. Others are following. Yahoo already has offered a variety of mobile products since Marissa Mayer joined as CEO. Others, such as LinkedIn, will surely follow. (LinkedIn experimented with an email application, which they have since pulled. I predict they will release a news reader, similar to Paper, some time soon).

On mobile, users prioritise simplicity and speed over flexibility and broad functionality. Apps have a single use-case or purpose, as opposed to web products, or pre-mobile software in general, which cater for maximal different use-cases and functionality.

This is all a further acknowledgement that the paradigms that drove software and user behaviour in the pre-mobile world don’t fit completely to mobile, and the platforms are still evolving and changing.

Benedict Evans has posited that we really don’t know what it even will mean in 5 years to say “I installed an app on my smartphone”. So very little is settled – which means big opportunities – and also big risk – for mobile players.

The users lose

When the giants of the tech world play the game of thrones, it’s the users who pay the blood price.

About two weeks ago Twitter removed the Instagram inline preview of Instagram photos, meaning Twitter users can no longer see Instagram photos their friends have posted directly in the twitter stream: users now need to click the Instagram link, and open the Instagram site in another browser tab to view the photo.

Why? Due to hostilities between Twitter and the now Facebook-owned Instagram that can most likely be traced back to bad vibes stemming from some sneaky dealings during the company’s acquisition.

This is just the latest example of the user’s experience suffering as successful and loved products start to feel the investors’ pressure to focus on monetisation and revenue. LinkedIn users felt a similar blow when tweets stopped appearing on people’s user profiles as Twitter tightened up access to the API back in June.

The very open philosophy of APIs and data exchange that helped to build companies like Twitter is slowly getting left by the wayside in the search for sustainable monetisation strategies for “Web 2.0” products.

Where does this leave users?

Application experiences are increasingly taking place behind walled gardens – meaning that all, of the majority, of user’s interaction with the service is taking place within the proprietary application interfaces (twitter.com and the official twitter apps, in Twitter’s case, for example). This will lead to less choice and fewer options for users in terms of where and how to consume content and interact with the service.

Moreover, the products and services created by 3rd party developers leveraging APIs such as twitters have heavily driven innovation in the core products and the surrounding ecosystems.

When the first web mashup was born seven and a half years ago when Paul Rademacher reverse-engineered Google Maps to put craigslist rentals on a map it set a precedent that influenced, maybe more than anything else, how the web would develop for the following years. The social web as we know it today, led heavily by product companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Tubmlr, Foursquare, WordPress and many others have been built on a philosophy of openness, hacking and mashing up diverse data assets into new and compelling experiences.

As more and more of the power on the web is drifting toward more closed and walled-up product ecosystems like Facebook, Google+ and others, we need to call on these companies to remember the philosophy of openness that built the web that allowed them to succeed. Data should be becoming more, not less, available and sharable, and the pillars of the modern social web are in the position now to set the precedent for the next 7 years of innovation on the social web.

It’s ok to be second

Facebook was not the first social network. As early as the first dot com boom in the late 1990s companies like sixdegrees.com had launched with services similar in theme and purpose to what Facebook became. When Facebook launched in 2004 from a dorm room at Harvard there were already a number of competing products: Friendster and Orkut were already successful online social networks, and mySpace already had millions of users. In fact, MySpace continued to be the largest social network in the world until 2008 when Facebook finally overtook it.

The iPad was not the first tablet, nor was the iPod the first portable MP3 music player. Google wasn’t even the first web search engine.

What Facebook, the iPad and countless other products like them did was take something that had been done before, and did it better.

Facebook took the concept of online social networking, and added real meaning: your real identity, your real-life friends, and a completely new (and naturally addictive) way to share your life with your network. (It also managed to solve the hardware scaling problems that had hamstrung competition like Friendster).

The iPad took the long sought-after but elusive tablet computer and built a beautiful, functional and elegant device that refused to compromise. A device that rejected the assumption that a tablet was a normal PC with a touch-screen, and had the courage to create a whole new form factor.

The point is: it’s okay to be second. Or even third. New product opportunities often lie in re-thinking existing concepts or products: it’s about seeing what can be done better, and having the courage to take the next steps the others won’t.

Steve Jobs one famously quoted Picasso when he said: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”