Tech startups: heed this warning

It’s a fact that we’re going to witness an explosion of tech startups again, led by those offering stand-alone social media applications — or plugins for platforms like Twitter and Facebook — that reach huge audiences. In fact, VC firm Kleiner Perkins recently started a fund worth $250 million to capitalize just this particular niche.

I have been getting in early on a lot of private and public betas recently. I’m seeing some fantastic ideas with the potential to change communication. Some tools are going to do this by simultaneously simplifying and broadening the networking reach of individuals and corporations. I’ve got some ideas of my own, and have begun to secure the domains and sketch out the plans.

But tech startups: if you have a concept with the potential to connect people, please do yourselves and the world a favor and heed a simple piece of advice.  I believe with every fiber of my being that you need to do one thing before you launch: make absolutely certain that your tool is available from as many Internet-enabled devices as possible.

One Case Study
If you’re lucky, you already know that your startup must offer something that’s available on mobile. Okay, wonderful. Do you have any idea how many portable platforms are currently available to the world’s connected users? I’m sure you can name iPhone, Blackberry, and Android, and a couple of others off the top of your head. I’m just going to take one example, so please set aside any personal bias about any one OS.

Next week, we’ll see the release of Windows Phone 7 (WP7), which I believe is an innovative, attractive, and easy-to-use mobile operating system.  But it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters that millions of people will adopt the device. Heck, Microsoft gave 80,000+ people Windows Phones (okay, those were MS employees).  Home Depot is already all over a WP7 adoption, and Dell’s waving goodbye to Blackberry while giving 25,000 Windows Phone devices to its employees.

Guess what?  It doesn’t matter that the scale of WP7’s adoption is smaller than the iPhone or Blackberry or Android, so I don’t even want to hear about market share. If you’re a startup founder, your mind is already working on the thought of whether you want to give up millions of potential users due to not being ready for a platform.

Let’s assume we have very little time, a very small staff and budget, and let’s examine some options. And I’m begging you again, please do not let your bias influence this one theoretical case study:

  1. Forget the Windows Phone users. I’ve got my developers already building an iPhone app, an Android app, and a Blackberry app.
  2. Okay, I’ll find someone who knows WP7 development already, and I’ll get on with making a WP7 app a priority.
  3. I’ll create a very lightweight m.[mystartup].com site that’ll work for any device.

It seems simple to me. The investment of time and money in taking approach 3 is minimal. You might even be able to code the site yourself. You also thereby ensure that your potential customers can access your product from any Internet-enabled device.

How to change the world
Many great eConcepts have started with a full webpage, optimized the page for mobile, and THEN thought about apps. Unless you work for — or want to sell directly to — Microsoft, Apple, RIM, etc., then I urge you to get your paradigm in order and work from the simplest to the most difficult. Do not alienate any potential customers. Trust me: your customers will understand when you tell them that a WP7 app — heck, even an iPhone app — is on the way! 

But your customers will NOT understand when they get a link to your concept from their buddy, and they can’t read it or use it on even the best mobile browser. In 2010, you might get their eyes when they get to a desktop. In 2011, you’re done if they don’t see it on mobile the second they first get the link. This behavior is pervasive today, because there are a lot of concepts based on an existing CMS or framework, and no quick plug-in exists to display the site well on mobile.

If you’ve got an app for every device in the world, great. Apps are wonderful, and I download them constantly. But there are 300,000 available for iPhone and 100,000 for Android. How do folks find yours?

And ponder this. Will Sony release a PSP phone soon? Will your customer’s next car come with decent touch-screen Internet embedded in its entertainment system? How about that Microsoft “slate” that might come out? It doesn’t matter what devices you can name right now or even what you can visualize in your head. Have you already heard the whispers that HTML5 might eliminate the need for all apps?

I know you’ve read the word Microsoft in this post more than you thought you might have. I don’t work for Microsoft. But food for thought: Microsoft Sync has rave reviews for voice recognition, and it’s in more Fords every day. We’re going to see an evolution in voice technology in cars and on phones (like WP7). Could your social app be activated and used with a few words, like “invite” or “intro” or similar keywords (like Hashable)? Then tomorrow, someone who just got done with a meeting will be asking themselves whether they can use Microsoft Sync to activate the lightweight version of your app while driving:

“Intro @JayInAtlanta and @IngridIrby and cc @Hashable.”

I’m a trained filmmaker, so I grew up with the idea of “High Concept.” Change the world. But change it with a High Concept tool, with a lightweight version fully accessible and ready to go when you open the doors.

UPDATE – Check and MocoSpace is a browser-based gaming platform which is going the direction I described, away from phone-specific apps, and it appears to have a hit on its hands:

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