When I was a Stanford undergraduate in 2012, everyone seemed to be building apps. The sexiest tech startups—Snap, Uber, Facebook—were almost synonymous with the word “app,” and that the world was moving increasingly towards “mobile-only” software. Mobile fever was everywhere, and software = apps.
Now it’s 2019. App obsession has calmed down. In the meantime, I’ve worked at Google and started a video editing website called Kapwing, so I have more perspective on what it’s like to launch a startup. In this post, I’ll share my opinion on why founders should *almost* always build a website first instead of a native app in the early days of a startup.
Last September, my co-founder and I noticed that video memes were hugely popular and that there were several meme native apps, but there were no websites that helped people make video memes online. So, we built the web’s first video meme generator. Within weeks, Kapwing had hundreds of meme creators using the website daily thanks to the magic of SEO. Soon, our users were begging us for other video editing tools for the browser, and Kapwing was born.
The pressure of bootstrapping helped us discover the power of the web. As we scrambled to get traction, we learned a lot about SEO, the affordability of cloud storage, advancements in web technology, blogging, and the growth of web productivity platforms. Ilya Fushman, Dylan Field, and Clark Valberg all got involved as investors. Now, we built an iOS app to facilitate video downloads, although almost all product development is focused on Kapwing’s web platform. Based on my experience in Startup Land over the last 15 months, here are some things you should consider when bringing your startup to market.
Consumer usage: Mobile apps vs websites
According to research from the Chrome team at Google and others, people spend more time on mobile apps than they do on mobile websites. Apps account for up to 90% of time spent on a phone and 77% of the time on tablets. But app usage is heavily concentrated in a few favorite apps (eMarketer). More than 50% of consumer app time is taken by a Facebook or Alphabet app (Apptopia), and 90% is spent in a person’s five top apps.
Alternatively, time spent on the web is more evenly distributed across providers and publishers. In the browser, people visit new websites they find on Google, explore links from existing apps, and browse content without the barrier of app installation. As a result, it’s easier for an unknown startup to reach users for the first time with a web presence vs a native presence.
4 reasons to first build a website instead of a mobile app
Based on my experience as a founder, the web is an easier starting point than native. I recommend that aspiring entrepreneurs test out their ideas with websites instead of native apps because websites are easier to build, distribute, and monetize. Here’s why:
1) Building the MVP
When a web developer pushes changes to their site, the changes are deployed immediately, and every user sees the update. In contrast, mobile app users must install an update to get changes you’ve pushed, which leaves a long tail of users with buggy or outdated versions. Kapwing is more agile because we push updates quickly—even daily—without gating changes behind a release version or interrupting our users. Last December, right after Christmas, an API Kapwing depended on broke unexpectedly, and we shipped changes the same day to get our service back online. Since we could deploy immediately, the unexpected outage was only a small hiccup. If Kapwing was an app, it would have taken a week for the new version to get approved, go live, and rollout to users through app updates—that would have been a huge loss.
Independent launch review
Both Apple and Google have revised their developer policies in the last 18 months, adding stricter requirements for what is allowed in an app that’s featured on their Store. The App Store and Google Play’s approvers reject app submissions more often, especially from unknown startups they don’t have a relationship with. Every time a native app developer pushes an update, they risk delays and setbacks due to review requirements.
When we first launched the Kapwing iOS app, it took nearly 2 weeks to push through review due to issues unrelated to the product. For example, Apple rejected our app because we used an iPhone 8 device frame in our App Store preview images instead of the iPhone 10, which falls short of Apple’s requirements to match the images with the user’s device. Responding to the “big company” nitpicks delayed the app and distracted our progress. In contrast, web developers can push any change without external roadblocks or opinions.
An App Store developer license costs $99/year, whereas a Namecheap domain is less than $10/month. These are small numbers compared to development costs down the road but are important for a bootstrapping founder to keep in mind.
2) Getting users
Ease of distribution and expansion
No one wants to download apps anymore. The barrier to convincing someone to try your product is a lot higher for an app than a website. URLs can be easily shared and show up in Google search, and new users don’t need to install a software package that takes up space on their phone.
With our mobile web app, thousands of users who would rather upload a video and download the edited output than install a new photo editing app on their phone. As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to expand into other editing verticals since users can try out new tools without needing to install a separate app. Our users share the links to their output videos and links to the Kapwing tools, propagating organic entry points across social media and the web.
Since we launched the Kapwing meme maker last September, we’ve acquired new users for free through SEO, a channel that is super accessible to bootstrapping founders. In the early days, when founders are still validating ideas, they can save themselves pain and money by leveraging organic acquisition through search.
Works on all devices
At a startup, engineering resources are scarce. It’s expensive to spread your engineering expertise across different platforms, so it’s better to focus on one in the beginning. Building for the web means that users on mobile, desktop, Chromebooks (which have become the most popular EDU hardware in the US), and any other internet-connected device can use your service, whereas a native app is specific to iOS or Android.
If you build a successful mobile-friendly website with plenty of mobile traffic, you can push your mobile users to native apps eventually. Millions of active users have installed the Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Yelp, Reddit, and LinkedIn apps after getting a prompt on the mobile version of the website. But a successful native app will have trouble developing a similar offering for the desktop since the technology and user behavior is so different. It’s lower-risk to build out a responsive web interface then move to native once you validate your idea than to start with native on day one.
Browsers automatically translate text, so web developers don’t need to do much extra work to reach foreign users. Kapwing was designed by English speakers, but, without any additional work from us, the site serves tens of thousands of non-English speakers monthly. Web products get internationalization for free, which is important for a small, cash-strapped team. Native app teams need to figure out how to translate and launch in international markets.
4) Making Money
Desktop users pay a higher price
When you’re trying to monetize, you won’t be able to extract subscriptions fee from mobile apps like you can on a desktop. Professional users expect their software to work on their work computer but don’t usually swipe the corporate card for native-only apps. As a result, the website price can be higher than the same service in an app. Kapwing charges $20 per month for the Pro no-watermark plan, while similar apps like Flyr TV charge only $5 per month for their premium package.
Preserve your margins on payments
Building an iOS or Android app means you’ll have to give Apple or Google a substantial cut of in-app purchase and subscriptions (generally 30%). In contrast, Stripe only takes roughly 3% of the payments we collect on our website. There are more options for web payments, so you can preserve your margins when you charge users directly instead of through the iOS.
Exceptions: When you should build an app over a website
Like every decision in Startup Land, the choice between a website and a native app has its tradeoffs. Founders should decide on a case by case basis; there are some ideas where native apps have a big leg up:
If your app’s major value proposition is related to location awareness or transit, your app is essentially mobile-only and needs to be baked into the OS to get fast access to location data and sensors. Examples: Lime, Bird, Uber, RunKeeper, Maps.
2. Tight integration with native components
If your value proposition is closely tied to local component (accelerometer, moisture sensor, camera, barometer, gyroscope, etc), a native app will have better performance and accuracy. Examples: compass and camera apps, heart rate monitor, audio recorder, Strava.
3. Frequent small transactions that require a sign in
If you’re building a low-touch experience that the user does every day or multiple times a day, a native app removes the burden of a regular sign in and browser navigation. Examples: Habit trackers, dating apps, Venmo, Telegraph.
E-commerce companies, productivity platforms, discovery sites, organizational tools, and data aggregators don’t fall into these categories. Most startups don’t. Even if yours does, you can start with a website and see if your users beg for a native app instead. You can always make the shift towards native. In that case, your website will still be valuable for marketing and acquisition.
Kapwing started as a website, and we’ve invested heavily in SEO, content marketing, and browser-based tech. Although we dream of making Kapwing viral apps, we can build powerful, accessible productivity tools in the browser thanks to recent developments in HTML5. If we can scale to millions of creators, our user base might be loyal enough to attract app downloads. Until then, it isn’t, and we’re focused on the net.
Hopefully, this article helps young developers reframe their approach to ideation and iteration. As a student, indie hacker, or side-project hustler, it’s fun to experiment with new ideas and launch concept quickly. But, in my opinion, starting those projects on the web will be faster and more likely to succeed than starting with iOS or Android.