Startups: Build Websites, NotĀ Apps

By Gabor Cselle

Startup spend way too much time and too many resources on building native mobile apps for iOS and Android. In this post I want to convince you that you should be pouring resources building for web and mobile web instead, especially if you’re a startup with limited resources.

Building apps is sexy. But building websites will make your startup more likely to succeed.

Your parents think of startup as apps, so you can tell them about it. Maybe Apple will feature you in their next WWDC video. Then surely users will find the app and you’ll be on the road to riches.

Yet more than half of users download 0 apps per month:

51% of smartphone users download 0 apps per month. — Source: comScore

But most startups have already built apps, with tremendous sunk cost. In fact, the Apple App Store now has 2.1M apps on it, while on the Google Play Store you’re competing with 2.6M. This has led to an escalating battle of modal dialogs trying to get you do download the app. These are super annoying, and not what users came there to see.

“Please download our app”

If users came to a website, you likely went there to see the content they searched for, not to download their app. These type of product experiences feel like someone desperate to seal the deal on the first date.

If you’re a startup founder, you that you should be building for web instead of building apps. Maybe you’ve just raised angel funding, you have limited resources, and you’re trying to prioritize. You know that raising your Series A will require impressive traction.

Unless you’re building a ridesharing or scooter app which requires persistent background location (which the web doesn’t have), you should build for web.

At work, I get some amount of good-hearted ridicule for writing listicles such as these. But I couldn’t resist — here are 9 reasons why you should build a website, not an app:

As the two platforms has become more complex, building both iPhone and Android apps most often requires hiring two separate engineering teams. Developing on the web means you’re only building on one platform.

It can take weeks to get your app through the Apple App Store, and you’re often subject to random nitpicks because you missed a detail in Apple’s guidelines. Back in the days of my first startup reMail, an important bugfix got delayed by days because Apple rejected the update due to me including a dollar amount in the product description. If you’re a mature company with resources for Q&A and documented release processes, that’s fine, but man it sucks as a startup to be twiddling your thumbs while a critical bug is destroying your metrics.

In contrast, web products can be deployed to the server with the push of a button.

People still mistakenly believe that the web doesn’t have crucial capabilities relative to mobile apps. But that’s often a misconception:

Capabilities of native mobile apps vs. web apps

You can do a lot on the web. On Android and in Chrome, you can send users notifications. With the user’s consent, you can request their location. Similarly, users can place your app on their home screen on both iOS and Android.

If your product is an app, your users are going to have to go through a pretty long funnel to actually get value out of it. Here’s an example funnel for social apps:

Funnel completion rates for apps like Twitter, WhatsApps, Instagram, or Facebook

The math of app store installs is brutal. The App Store download process is annoying and long-winded. Just by building an app, you’ll already have lost 30%+ of the potential users, before your slick app even had a chance to impress them.

Every page on the Internet has a URL. Users know what to do with URLs, and know how to share them viaemail, iMessage, IM, and so on.

If your mobile web has interesting content that users may want to share, they will share it! They’ll just send the URL. That makes your app viral.

You’re a startup. You don’t have the money it takes to hire a team to translate your product into even the top 10 languages on the Internet today. On the web, Chrome gets the job done for you.

Chrome “Translate this page” dialog

Sure, it won’t be as good as if you had hired a professional i18n/l10n firm, but at least it won’t cut out a potentially valuable audience from using your product.

It’s a well-worn cliche that users spend all of their time of phones these days. And yes, mobile has taken the lead in terms of time spent on websites — but the majority of time is still spent on sites on desktop web:

Mobile web vs. Desktop web: Total visits v time spent — Source: Stone Temple

But desktop isn’t dead. In fact, the majority of total time spent on the web is still happening on desktop. By building a web experience instead of apps, you’ll benefit from serving users who are on desktop. If you have an e-commerce site, that will help your business, since people are more likely to complete purchases on desktop.

Web apps have far lower CAC than mobile apps:

  • According to my informal stats, it costs $4 in CPI (cost-per-install) to acquire an app install for a well-reviewed app, but it only costs around $1 in CPC to get a potential user to a web. Assuming equal monetization of both apps and web, your startup would be at a massive advantage in terms of unit economics to build a web app, and this is the kind of advantage that will let you become a valuable company.
  • SEO: Content on the web is searchable and discoverable in search engines like Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo.The content inside mobile apps isn’t indexable, so you can’t really rely on search engines pointing to you. If you have great content on web, it will be found, and you’ll acquire new users for free.

For example, one the projects here in Area 120 for which I’m the partner is Touring Bird. When the team initially came to me, they wanted to build an app, with the argument that they are skilled iOS developers. I told them all of the above, and they decided to build a mobile web app instead.

Their whole use case is that if you search for things to do in Paris, you’ll find Touring Bird. This can help you with anything from finding the cheapest ticket for the Eiffel Tower to amazing off-the-beaten path experiences that you may have heard of. That may sound interesting if you are about to head to Paris, but if I now told you to head to the App Store and install an app, you’d nod and smile, but you wouldn’t actually do it. Instead, you can just head to touringbird.com — on iPhone, Android and desktop. Try it.

Building apps is sexy, and it’s hard to overcome that. The lure is especially strong for app developers: There’s a lot of pride that can come from building the next great app. But you can be even prouder for building a successful business.

If your startup wants results, build websites. Websites can do almost everything that apps can. Your front door will be bigger and more welcoming. You’ll have cheaper ways of acquiring your users, and your unit economics will be better. Better unit economics means you’ll have a more successful company.