Sandi MacPherson, Editor-in-Chief at Quibb

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Great post, Sandi!

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Editor-in-Chief at Quibb

Great comment, Andrea! Thanks for contributing :)

Rough Draft Ventures, General Catalyst

Absolutely excellent post @sandimacpherson, loved the data from AppAnnie & multiple perspectives (and from the Quibb community no less!)

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Founder at Stagename

Good article. Based on my experience, it works when you have a "connected" user experience that goes beyond just a single login connecting users to an app portfolio. In our case, it's News -> Weather Two different types of content, but definitely related because they are timely content and warrant a connected UX. Many companies don't even think about a the connected UX strategy, and then it simply becomes a cross-promotion effort.

A couple of questions: Would you consider that the big games companies who use their apps to cross market each other are "constellations"?

What is the actual success within Facebook of it's apps? I think that you hit the nail on the head that there is more here that "get another app on the home screen". Other goals for constellations are brand extension, experimentation on UI and features, UI real-estate (AFAIK, this was the original reason for unbundling Messenger - it just didn't fit in the main app anymore), feature stripping (e.g. Swarm).

Partner at USV

I am not ready to say this is a tactic that does not work. I do think, however, that constellations can and do work as a strategy, but maybe looking at it from another angle. Most of the examples above are larger (or large-ish) services that are attempting to unbundle themselves into functional parts.

Another place to look is services that from the beginning do not assume there is one app that will cover the needs (or desires) of every user, though the functionality may. This, obviously, happens on the community side mostly, but also on the media side.

Two examples - Amino Apps (USV) which have mobile interest communities - over 30 apps right now, interest specific - will probably have 60+ by the end of the year. And doing quite well.

Another - VSporto - mobile sport radio - 15-20 apps so far.

In both these places, the apps are interconnected, but in a light touch (and evolving) way. And the "constellation" approach for both of these is, in a way, an offensive strategic imperative, and not a tactical defensive one. Maybe that is the difference.

Early days, but these are two examples where it looks like the multi app approach works.

CEO and Co-Founder at Fetchnotes

Great point about separate-first strategies. I think those are starting to happen much more often as the cost of building an app is falling precipitously. Now, I've talked to a lot of people that say things like, "Yeah, when we go after that group, we'll just build a different app for them." It's kind of similar to the Web 1.0 enterprise sales strategy of building a separately skinned product, landing page, and on-boarding experience for each vertical, but with the same underlying product backbone.

Amino's a good example - I got to know one of their early marketers via Techstars and it seemed to be working for them.

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VP Product at Sittercity

If we classify installs / adoption as the primary metric of success, then there are only few examples of "success" and more of "failures". However, I think we should look at this a bit differently, in the context of where we are in mobile (vs. the web). Perhaps a more apt terms than "constellations" is really "app families", where you have "parent" apps (the main one to get traction) and "children" apps (the additions to the family over time).

In this context, I can see two primary approaches as to why companies "start a family" each with different goals, and therefore success metrics:

1) UNBUNDLING: In this case the parent app spins-off functionality from it into a standalone app (or very linked). For the most part, since the *primary* acquisition channel is from parent -> child, we can assume that in the dominant case, both parent & child apps would coexist on the user's device. Examples here are Facebook & Messenger, Foursquare & Swarm, Instagram & Layout, Twitter & Periscope, etc. The rationale here is to break off the specific use cases from the parent app to either optimize them (i.e. make it more frictionless in the main app), and/or to let them take on a life of their own. So, it is highly unlikely that the child app will *ever* gain the traction of the parent app, and instead we should look at whether existing users of both apps are more engaged / retained than just the parent app users alone (based on either time spent, frequency, or activity depending on the use case).

2) EXTENSION: Here, is where the "child" app is usually acquired (e.g. Facebook & WhatsApp, Dropbox & Mailbox) or as a new line of business (think of a new "tab" or "section" on the homepage in the web world). The strategy here is to test & enter new markets and use cases, so by definition this strategy will never go away, in my opinion. With this strategy installs could be an acceptable metric; however, when testing new markets / opportunities, or warming them up, where more internal metrics (e.g. revenue) may be a better yardstick. One additional overlooked case is where these extensions span different geographic markets, or completely different customer segments, rather than multiple apps to the same user.

So bottom line, I think it's way too soon to say to judge winners & losers of app constellations yet -- especially if we judge by installs. Moreover as businesses scale, acquire companies, and enter new markets, I believe that these "app families" become inevitable -- especially the "extension" strategy.

Good points all around. The most historically-successful constellation is Microsoft Office (apps didn't start with mobile phones :) ), and I think there's a lot to be learned from what has and hasn't worked there.

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Head of CX at Holler

The conversion reminds me of a Marc Andreessen quote, "My old boss, Jim Barksdale, used to say there’s only two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is unbundle."

I think that's what we're seeing here. Unbundling is unlocking a certain amount of value - Facebook purchases Instagram and gains access to a different audience to their core. Then they gain value by bundling the media platform sitting behind their different apps ala an ad server with people's identity powering the targeting.

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Director of Digital Strategy at Superior Group

Good article and insight. It will be interesting as small and midsize organizations mature into mobile -- as they won't have the same resources as big organizations to unbundle. This might extend or evolve App Constellations.

What was most surprising for me was the difficulty Facebook had trying to create an original social property. Conventional wisdom tells us the crux of creating social apps is distribution. Internal Facebook products have the license to leverage unfathomable distribution as quickly as a product can uptake.

So the mystery: why isn't Facebook producing a new Instagram every year? Given an endless stream of talented product people hacking on thousands of projects, it's hard to believe we wouldn't see moderately successful properties that provide novel social gratification.

In that same vein, how does Pixar spend a few years to invent an entirely new property with novel characters, arcs, and backdrops with high reliability of succeeding?

A few observations:
- The Facebook brand inexorably taints the neophyte brand.
- It's incredibly difficult to craft a novel, self-sustaining social behavior to the point where distribution is a moot point.
- Taking a look at Pixar's approach of decomposing art into a reliable process is a worthy endeavor.

Twitter's strategy of buying out novel social behaviors that work (Vine, Periscope) for 20M-80M is brilliant. It eschews the lottery of inventing new property and allows them to jump directly into plugging in their massive distribution engine. It's akin to Hollywood buying rights to superheroes with storylines and characters proven to work and churning out movies by the bucket.

This is in contrast to Facebook's strategy of hiring thousands of novelists with the hopes that one of them writes the next East of Eden or purchasing gigantic franchises (1B+) that are well on their way to maturity.

Given these observations, how should founders working in this space position themselves?
- Finding a self-sustaining social behavior is very, very valuable. Just discovering it is enough to pique the interest of the bigger players. Opportunity is measured by the quality of your behavior compounded by their distribution network.
- Finding a self-sustaining social behavior is very, very rare. There are tens of thousands of very smart people trying to perform digital alchemy, a large number of them already working for the big players.
- Thinking very carefully about your process to artistry and taste is important. Pixar cracked what is arguably one of the rarest phenomena in the world: reliable creativity. The fact that this process happens in such a large organization means the magic is in their process, not a solo genius at the helm.

Should the extremely low a priori probability of discovering a novel behavior demoralize founders working in this space? These founders need some measure of irrational esteem to believe they will make a fundamental discovery that deals with our entire species.

Believing that social is done is absurd as Mozart lamenting that Baroque music was complete at the hands of Bach and Hayden. The curious thing about the human mind is how social behaviors are fractal-like, revealing promising leads each time a new behavior is established.

From the fragments of Baroque, Mozart went on to single-handedly popularize the Classical piano concerto, which displaced Baroque and became a mainstay of music even two centuries later.

Andrew Goldner, Quibb, GrowthX, Kauffman Foundation Andrew Goldner
Quibb, GrowthX, Kauffman Foundation
Andrew Chen, Quibb, Uber Andrew Chen
Quibb, Uber