Why Underdogs Are Winning the Mobile App Game

Why Underdogs Are Winning the Mobile App Game


Lately, I’ve heard concerns from a number of entrepreneurial friends in the development community about the influx of big companies into the mobile app space.

Enterprises are naturally clamoring to take advantage of a new multi-billion-dollar market; just as naturally, smaller developers fear that they will be crowded out by much bigger, richer, better-established operations.


Well, here’s a little secret I’ve been sharing with these friends to soothe their nerves when such concerns arise: Independent developers have nothing to worry about. In fact, they may be better positioned to succeed than are the behemoths.


That may seem like a reckless claim. It’s not. App development – unlike … well, almost everything else in our economy – is at its essence a small man’s (or woman’s) game.


Why is that? For starters, there’s a remarkably low bar to entry. Anyone can publish an app, from anywhere on the planet. And apps (at least some of them) can be much less technologically sophisticated than computer software or video games, meaning that a single talented, hard-working developer with a simple but innovative idea has every chance at creating a winning product.


Add to this the fact that the market for new apps still appears nearly insatiable, with plenty of room for fresh offerings, and you might arrive at the conclusion – as I have – that independent developers operate from a position of strength practically unrivaled by their peers in any field.


Sure, the big companies will claim their share. But in an environment that rewards risk-taking, speed, and flexibility, independents have advantages that corporations – which tend to be more bureaucratic and are generally slower to respond to the market – simply can’t match.


For one thing, small developers have more room to experiment, thanks to the absence of shareholders to please and payroll obligations to meet.


For another, when an independent operator comes up with a new idea, that idea merely has to travel from her brain to her fingertips – rather than wending along the circuitous chain of command it would come up against at a big company. In a market as fast moving as mobile app development, this represents no insubstantial advantage.


The attributes that give corporations such a big leg up in other circumstances, meanwhile – namely more money, a bigger workforce, and brand recognition – are greatly diminished in a field that privileges fresh ideas and elegant design over such things as complexity and market reach.


Relieved? Good. Because now that we’ve put some cracks in the myth that independent developers are at a disadvantage in competing with bigger companies, I’m going to share another secret that may seem even less intuitive. Here it is: Far from dreading direct competition from big enterprises, app developers should consider themselves lucky to have a behemoth or two in the market.


Here’s why. In the ever-expanding mobile app space, large companies are like whales that scare up schools of fish for everybody else. In many cases, they don’t take away opportunities from their smaller competitors. Rather, they create new chances for everyone. It follows that small fish that want to get something to eat generally do well to swim in the whales’ wake, rather than seeking out open ocean.


I learned this lesson firsthand when my startup was developing its natural language interface. As we were fine-tuning our app, another company released a similar one. You might know her by the name of Siri. Plenty of people predicted that our little app would be obliterated by Apple’s new offering.


But that’s not what happened. Instead, interest from investors in our venture only increased. Competing with Apple, we got way more to eat than we would have had we been out in the ocean alone. Rather than facing the daunting task of trying to create a market ourselves, we merely had to claim a piece of one that was already pretty sizable – thanks to Siri. Of course, success in app development ultimately depends on a number of factors – not least of which is coming up with a good idea and executing on it. Just because the arena is favorable to small developers doesn’t mean that every developer will succeed. Indeed, most don’t.


Independent developers do, however, have a real shot at thriving in the mobile app ocean. And they’d be foolish to let the big fish scare them away.


Ilya Gelfenbeyn is the CEO of Speaktoit, which develops natural language virtual assistants for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone.

Ilya Gelfenbeyn


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