Killer Apps

March 26, 2020

In consumer tech products, the holy grail is often referred to as the “killer app.” Of course, in this phrase “killer” means that an app will break the mold and have hockey-stick levels of adoption and user activity. This leads many to ponder the question…

What is the formula for a killer app

Well, there is a man who wrote a formula. I am grateful to have spent some time with Eyal Herzog over the past two years. He is a brilliant guy who is obsessed with killer apps. Eyal has been building products for almost 40 years. Before co-founding Bancor, way back in the early days of the internet, he built (a precursor to LinkedIn that raised $50M in the early days of the internet) and he also built MetaCafe (a popular video platform that was precursor to YouTube).

Eyal made this video about the evolution from 2-tier to 3-tier ecosystems with the growth of the superuser. Essentially, his thesis is that superusers are the ones who create and curate content. It’s a very interesting perspective about the evolution of online products as it relates to capabilities of the platforms. The most powerful concept of this video is his formula for mass adoption (aka “killer app”).

Eyal’s formula is: Killer App = low cost of failure + high value of success + free marketing Let’s break this down a little bit.

Low Cost of Failure

The concept is from Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. This is not very complicated, but it didn’t make sense to me immediately. Users have almost no patience at all, so an app has to have the lowest possible barriers for users to be able to experiment at success on a platform. Therefore, users must be able to test something quickly (low cost in time) and cheaply (low cost in money). Even if they fail, maybe they will try it again. One thing we cannot change the likelihood of failure - most users are going to - for example - fail at creating virality. We can lower the cost of failing.

A very good app can integrate even a single small contribution into the value offering of the app itself. Take Reddit for example, it’s one of the most successful platforms ever in terms of engagement. On Reddit, you can be a moderator of a thread, submit a link, comment on links, or simply vote on links or comments up or down. Even a simple task builds value on the platform in numbers. Eventually, those little upvotes add up to one of the most visited sites on the web.

High Value of Success

Secondly, that success must be valuable. If it’s not clear what success looks like and what it’s value is - then why would I try to use your app at all?

Free Marketing

Apps build ecosystems when users generate content and the platform helps promote that content to other users - thus makking Eyal’s “superusers” even more super. This benefits the app because it increases engagement and rewards people who are able to create and maintain engagement.

The Killer Formula

Eyal’s formula for the killer app can be summarized as “make it easy and quick for people to experiment at what it takes to win on your app, and show them what prizes they will get for winning.” The juice has to be worth the squeeze. I’m sure that this might seem really obvious to some people, but you would be surprised how many apps get funding and years of people’s time without having this figured out! Of course, this is not going to result in success every time, but it will increase your likelihood.

One thing that is missing from the killer app formula is timing. Timing is of course, incredibly important. There are many examples of startups that were years ahead of their time.

Another factor is determination. Just a few years ahead and you might not survive if you don’t have enough funding or you also may exit and/or move on too quickly to the next.

The Battle for Eye Time

One of the ways I like to think about apps is that each app is fighting a battle for the users’ “eye time” or attention. Every time a user picks up their smartphone and opens an app - a developer somewhere is grateful. It’s one of the most important metrics for app developers - Daily Active Users (DAU).

Meanwhile, users are always looking to protect their time. After all, time is our most valuable asset. Winning the battle doesn’t take too much time - for and app to become a killer app it only takes a few minutes of time from each of a few million users…

The Killerest App of All

In the end, the killerest app is the App Store / Play Store themselves. Building an app on iOS or Android meet’s Eyal’s formula - it is open and free for anyone, the value of success is very high, and there is tons of free marketing.

In a very self-referential and fulfilling way - the greatest consumers of the killer app are the app developers themselves. All it takes is the right idea, at the right time, with the right execution, and all of the other considerations to make something that people really love and want to use. Sounds easy right?

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