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Product Development

Developing a business, not just an app, requires a different approach

By: Tallwave

How often do you use Twitter? What about Uber? Or Slack? Or Mailchimp?

If you answered “daily,” or even “a lot” to any of these, then you already intuitively know what makes these apps so useful, popular and addictive. Conversely, if you’re a startup founder and looking to develop an app of your own, you also know that these companies have set the bar ridiculously high.

Even if your startup doesn’t compete directly, in today’s environment of limited attention spans and fleeting customer loyalty, you have to be on par with these apps to succeed. Long gone are the days of launching with a mediocre or barebones product and competing in the market. You can start with an MVP, but it better grow up quickly. After all, you’re not just building an app. You’re building a business.

Today, your product has to acquire, sell, retain, and build a relationship with your users -- all on its own.

Companies like Slack, Uber and Mailchimp understand this well, and have built their apps with branding, growth and retention in mind. In doing so, they’ve also tapped into a fundamentally different and smarter approach for developing apps -- one that bakes in branding and growth at the start of the development process rather than as an afterthought.

To understand why this is important, let’s dive in deeper:


In case you haven’t heard, branding is the new differentiator for companies (see here and here). But to understand why it’s so important for apps, let’s quickly recap how software has evolved. It used to be that your product simply had to be functional. It had to work. Then, it had to be intuitive and easy to use. In recent years, the golden standard is that your app has to be “delightful.”

Well now, Slack and Mailchimp have upped the game one more time. Your product is now a person, too. Or at least it needs to act and behave like one. In order to be successful, your product has to have personality and be capable of building a relationship with users. Why is this important? Two main reasons:

It Drives Engagement

When Slack's Slackbot tells you "You look nice today." or uses deprecating humor, it's not just being nice or cute. It's building a relationship with you. It's like a co-worker or a buddy making you feel good about yourself. It's cleaver and fun, and strikes an emotional chord, which encourages users to continue to use the app.

Also consider Mailchimp’s playful and encouraging messages when you accomplish a task or do something well: “High fives! Your list has been imported.” or “Fine piece of work! You totally deserve a raise.” In contrast, the tone and voice is a bit lighter and more empathetic when a user commits an error: “Oops! Looks like you forgot to enter an email address.”


These messages are light, well-timed and appropriate for the setting, but more than anything, they are surprisingly human. I always feel like Mailchimp somehow “gets me” or can relate to me when I receive one of their messages. It’s these micro-interactions with the brand that make users fall in love with the product and keeps them coming back for more.

One last example is Twitter, which shows you can use branding to show empathy and take the edge off of otherwise tense situations when things go wrong with your product. In Twitter’s early days, the site would go down frequently as they struggled to keep up with user demand. Rather than use plain, boring error messages, they employed playful, cartoonish humor to keep users from revolting.



Who can get mad at the Twitter Failwhale, or a cute caterpillar and ice cream cone having a conversation? Someone awful, that’s who.

It Creates Loyalty

Just as important as it is to keep users coming back, it’s equally important to keep them from ever wanting to leave. This is especially true today, with so many new products popping up. Just search “task manager app” or “to-do app” in the app store to see what I mean.

One way to drive product retention is to build loyalty. A great product wins users over through a journey that looks something like this:

Skepticism (is this worth my time) → curiosity {hmm, this app seems interesting) → amused (wow, this app gets me and is so useful)” → attached (I love this app)

To see this in action, look no further than GitHub’s beloved Octocat to understand how carefully crafted branding can create customer loyalty.


You see Octocat when you join the site, when you start creating and forking repositories and also when you ask for help from customer support. To say that GitHub users love GitHub’s mascot is an understatement. Users love Octocat so much so that the company created the Octodex, the repository of all the user designed variations of the Octocat. This one, the Where’s Waldocat created by JC is probably my favorite.



As you can tell, users on the platform have grown attached to this little guy. So much so that choosing a GitHub competitor doesn’t just mean leaving GitHub -- it means breaking up with Octocat. This layer of attachment can’t be measured, but there’s no question that it’s a competitive advantage for GitHub.

Bottom line is that having a great product is not enough. The brand, tone and voice of the company has to be built into the product to capture hearts, inspire and create an experience.  It’s the only way to create advocates, and keep them coming back for more.


Similar to how your product has to build a relationship with your users, it also has to acquire, convert and retain customers on its own. This is especially important for startups, who have little to no marketing budgets early on, yet have to get new users.

Advice I commonly give founders is to think specifically about three things:

  1. How is your product going to drive more eyeballs and remove friction to start using your product?
  2. How is your product going to increase engagement? i.e. more frequent use or longer sessions
  3. How is your product going to facilitate sharing and organic referrals?

Let’s break each of these down.

How is your product going to get more new eyeballs and remove activation friction?

Social sharing is everyone’s default answer, which is a good start. Facebook’s and Twitter’s social graphs lets other startups post their users activity back to the social networks. Done well, you can drive a lot of activity and attention back to your product. Meerkat and Spotify, for example, did this extremely well by tapping into Twitter and Facebook’s social graphs respectively.

See Spotify’s integration below:


Other great products make sharing and joining a core and innate part of the product experience. Take AngelList, for example. They’ve made every field on their company pages editable, allowing anyone associated with the company to join the company’s page with very little friction.

How is your product going to drive engagement?

Again, the most obvious answer is by simply delivering the value props and benefits. But the best products have built-in ways to increase engagement and cement the bond with their users. A good example of this is Wunderlist. Yes, it’s useful to keep track and manage my tasks. But what keeps me going back is the DING! that I get anytime I cross off a completed task.

Lastly, how does your product promote sharing and organic referrals?  

The classic example is Dropbox, which allowed users to earn more space for each referral. The beauty of this feature was that not only did it make referring easy; it also got gave users more space, which got users to add more files to their account and further invest in the product.



So far we’ve talked about the importance of integrating branding and growth measures into your product. This not only changes the final product, but also fundamentally changes the product development process itself.

Here’s what a common development approach looks like:


This may be okay if the end goal is to simply launch a product. But if the goal is to build a business, this approach won’t cut it. While there’s fundamentally nothing wrong with MVPs, only thinking about the minimal value-delivering features and functionality will hamstring a startup in the long-run.

Developing products like Slack and Mailchimp requires a more holistic approach from day one that takes into account customer feedback, the tone and voice of a product’s microcopy, and user acquisition, retention and growth hooks. And this should begin at the start of development rather than as an afterthought.

Here at Tallwave, we refer to that integrated approach to software development as Honeycomb.


It’s been argued that the honeycomb is a masterpiece in engineering – “absolutely perfect in economizing labor and wax.” For bees, efficiency and minimum waste is a necessity. Similarly, the hexagon is a tightly integrated structure that is foundationally sound and built to scale effectively.

So what the heck do bees and honeycombs have to do with software development, you might ask? Well for one, like bees, startups must maximize efficiency and eliminate waste to be successful, especially early on. Any wasted effort quickly diminishes a startup’s chance of success. Similarly, startups must think about their product holistically and not in isolation from the other parts of their business. This means building with the brand and business goals in mind.

The Honeycomb approach does just this. Conceptually, it looks a little something like this:


In practice, it means having UX and visual designers, branders, content writers and growth specialists in the trenches with developers, in scrums and feature prioritization sessions.

Don’t get me wrong, my point isn’t that a startup needs all these roles. In fact, early on, most startups won’t have that luxury to hire all these people. My point is that someone needs to be thinking about the branding and growth, even if the growth specialist, branding expert, product manager and content writer are all the same person. It may, in fact, be the founder or a company’s first product manager playing all roles.

Without an integrated approach, though, startup teams are working sequentially and siloed to fit one piece to the next. If they wait until after the product is built, a startup will work harder to build in the other elements – sales, marketing, design – around the existing ones, likely increasing their risk and time to market; two things a startup simply can’t afford.

Learn more about the Honeycomb approach here.

Written by Tallwave

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