Multi-Hit Wonders: Embracing Apps With Short Shelf Life
In today's consumer app landscape, aiming for smaller, fleeting hits can be a winning strategy
This post first appeared in Li’s newsletter.
The rise of scaled social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok has made it increasingly challenging for newcomers to compete directly.
Per network effect theory, any innovation a startup can create, an existing network can quickly imitate and distribute to its own scaled user base. This is evident in the fact that it’s been years since a new consumer social application has scaled, even though their product innovations have propagated across existing social giants (e.g. live audio rooms and ephemeral stories). As a result, startups have shifted their focus toward more intimate formats, where their smaller user bases give them an advantage over incumbents.
Simultaneously, consumer app success has become more transient, driven by accelerated news cycles and algorithmic feeds that constantly reshape users’ attention. New consumer apps may burn bright for a few weeks or months, only to be replaced by a newer “it” social app. In a sense, consumer products now resemble entertainment, with users regularly wanting to try out the latest thing and then quickly moving on. I’ve been investing in consumer startups since 2016, and in that time I’ve amassed screens filled with social apps on my iPhone—BeReal, Poparazzi, Fam, and Dispo, to name a few. All were once popular but now are mostly forgotten.
As apps predicated on smaller use cases gain traction and start to scale, they can actually erode their core value proposition of intimacy, creating an opportunity for still-newer newcomers to take their place. Furthermore, the novelty of a new, narrow social experience quickly wears off before the app can iterate and expand, making it difficult to compete against incumbents that offer many more options and formats for social interaction.
In light of this, I sense that an alternative path to success in the realm of consumer apps lies beyond the well-worn model of building a “kitchen sink” social giant. An alternative, less obvious, and likely more fun route is to create a series of smaller, transient hits. Rather than building something that can one day scale to a billion users, the goal is to launch a series of quick-hit apps that capture attention fleetingly.
This concept mirrors the venture studio model: build and launch successive products that share operational resources such as user acquisition and personnel. In the casual gaming studio model, exemplified by Zynga, Supercell, et al., developers release numerous titles that share core gameplay elements but introduce incremental innovations for differentiated experiences. In the gaming context, fast-following with similar apps and cross-promoting between them becomes essential to retaining user attention and maximizing revenue.
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With thanks to Eugene Wei, Patrick Rivera, Willem Simons, and Variant team members Alana Levin, Mason Nystrom, and Jack Gorman for their feedback.
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