August 4th, 2014

Techstars Kaplan Accelerator

I’m excited to announce that be I’ll be mentoring the newest class of companies in the Techstars Kaplan Accelerator. The program, which runs overs the course of three months, provides twelve startups in education technology with advice and access to top entrepreneurs, investors and industry influencers, as well as cash and office space. The companies range from classic SaaS products to ecommerce and hardware businesses.

One of the unique aspects of the program is its focus on helping startups to build functional capabilities for their business. To achieve this, Techstars has invited a small group of mentors to meet with all companies on a regular basis and and work with them to implement ideas, processes and frameworks from several discplines. I will be focusing on marketing and growth, while my colleagues Chris, Lindsay and Andrew will cover customer development, user experience and analytics, respectively.

Below is the presentation I shared with the companies last week during program kickoff. In the spirit of education, I outline my philosophy on marketing, my plan to help them build core skills as well as the frameworks I will use to organize their thinking.

May 22nd, 2014

Themes from the M1 MobileFirst Summit 2014

Billed as the “black diamond” of mobile conferences, the very first M1 MobileFirst Summit on May 20th in New York was an epic affair, featuring 94 speakers, 28 panels and 700 attendees. The event was organized by Nihal Mehta of Eniac Ventures and Gary Moon of Headwaters MB, with the goal of bringing advanced-level conversations to the mobile community. While it certainly delivered on this promise, it also achieved much more. Over the course of the day, a high-caliber roster of mobile experts and top execs like Ken ChenaultMark Suster, and Shiv Singh shared their thoughts on the current state of the mobile industry as well as its future. A wide range of topics were covered in the conversations, ranging from mobile discovery, engagement and monetization to wearable technology and connected devices.

imageA full house at the M1 MobileFirst Summit

At times, the diversity of topics and fast pace of the panels made M1 feel a bit overwhelming. But this also made the conference special, as panelists were quick to share their opinions and engage in debates.

I had the opportunity to experience the M1 Summit from start to finish (minus the afterparty), attending numerous panels and live-tweeting the event. Not only did I build on my existing thinking on mobile, but I also had the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of people and a wide range of opinions. Below are the seven key themes that emerged across all of these discussions, as well as my thoughts on their implications.

1. Beyond mobile awareness
2. Moments as the currency of mobile
3. Owning the customer journey
4. Anticipating future needs
5. Holistic app distribution
6. Data-driven content
7. Wearables as an experience

Nihal Mehta and Gary Moon introducing the M1 Summit


Since the late 2000s, the mobile industry has been claiming that it’s finally “the year in mobile.” Each year, it has used this rallying cry to spur marketers into action, as many still underinvest in the medium despite data showing mobile is now the second most-important marketing channel after TV. At the M1 Summit, several panelists suggested that the phrase should be discontinued, as it does not help the industry to further its cause. In fact, there was consensus that awareness of mobile is not problem in the market; rather, it’s the complexity of the medium that makes it difficult to fully embrace.

In the panel on the Next Frontier of Mobile Advertising, Stephanie Bauer Marshall of Verizon mentioned that mobile still feels very chaotic for marketers. They are very much overwhelmed with the industry vernacular, technology choices and rapid pace of change, and need a guiding hand to navigate the channel.

imageJohn McDermott of Digiday hosting the panel on mobile advertising

In her fireside chat, Esther Lee of AT&T echoed the same sentiment for consumers, noting that they, too, are overwhelmed by mobile technology as much as they are empowered by it.

The key takeaway here is that industry needs to do more to educate its audience, rather than riding the wave of unprecedented growth and assuming that change will happen by itself. This includes providing ample resources to for teaching and training, as well as a high-level perspective on key industry topics. The Mobile Marketing Association has done a good job in the area, but more help is necessary. Even as companies are hiring a growing number of mobile marketing managers, the change of pace in mobile is simply too quick for them to keep up.


Mobile is often viewed as an asynchronous set of activities that happen in short bursts and on the go. The erratic nature of these usage patterns means that marketers need to focus on “moments” - or specific points in time and space - to engage their users. This was the theme of Brian Wong’s afternoon keynote, in which he explained how Kiip thinks about customer rewards for brands.

Mark Ghermezian of Appboy also spoke of “moment engagement” in the Analytics, Data and Engagement for Mobile Publishers panel. He used the term in the context of understanding mobile users based on their behaviors and finding specific opportunities to engage them via notifications and messaging. 

imagePanelists speaking about mobile engagement and analytics 

Even Forrester Research has jumped on the moments bandwagon, including the concept in its upcoming book and even promoting the #MyMobileMoments hashtag. The company describes moments that are critical to many different professions, from sales and marketing to product usage and office work.

Mobile moments are not new per se. In fact, the concept has been used in the discipline of communications planning at advertising agencies for many years now to identify ways to reach consumers. But a growing recognition of the concept in mobile is a welcome sign, given the industry’s skew to technical rather than human-centric solutions. 


Related to mobile moments was the idea of owning the customer journey. Ken Chenault referenced the topic in his keynote, arguing that companies today should strive to become a trusted partner of their customers at each step of the decision-making process. Given that mobile provides 24/7 access to people and is always within arms’ reach, this is a highly desirable and differentiating position, but also a very tall order to execute.

imageKen Chenault, CEO of American Express, discussing mobile

To help the M1 audience think about the customer journey, Shiv Singh presented a simple framework in which cultural context and social pressures drive key insights behind the product experience and inform the way companies interact with their audience. This, in turn, creates strong customer relationships

Insights (cultural context + social pressures) >
Experience (product + actions taken) >
Consumer relationship 

On Twitter, Darren Herman suggested that mobile forces companies to think about interactions outside the transaction. This, of course, requires knowledge about what they do in between purchases as well as the motivations that drive their behavior.

It’s becoming clear that successful mobile companies create multiple customer interactions prior to a sale, and that these moments facilitate their path to the register or shopping cart. 


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One of mobile’s greatest strengths is that it provides marketers with a variety of signals about people’s mindset and context, including their location (GPS), motion (accelerometer, gyroscope) and a view of the outside world (camera). While marketers should use this information to satisfy people’s current needs, they should also anticipate what the may want in the future.

Shiv Singh of Visa spoke on this topic at length, underscoring the need for marketers to map out customer journeys and actively search for ways to surprise and delight them. He referenced a few examples of this in action, including Visa’s 360 Cam at the Winter Olympics which gave fans access to a first-person view of athlete training.

Tom Philips of Dstillery has a similar perspective on the Cross-Platform Advertising panel. He spoke about the need for predictive analytics to understand customer behavior across multiple screens, so that marketers can get proactively anticipate their audience’s behaviors.

Rich Wong of Accel further echoed this sentiment, speaking about the rise of smart apps which do much of the thinking on behalf of mobile users.

I’ve written on the topic of anticipatory computing at length and can attest to its importance in the broader context of mobile. The reality is that smartphones today are still much too difficult to use and have an unbalanced ratio of effort to value. The more mobile companies can take the burden off users by identifying patterns in behaviors and capturing intent, the the higher their chances of creating long-term engagement. Apps like Google Now, Cover, Sunrise and Foursquare have found success on this very premise, and many others are following in their footsteps.

If building sophisticated algorithmic predictions is not feasible, mobile companies can still invest time understanding their customers to identify unmet needs.

imageNetworking breaks between M1 panels


As I wrote in my summary of the recent NY Mobile Apps event, there is a growing need among apps to look beyond app stores for distribution. App store optimization (ASO) is not enough to outshine large incumbents, budgets for paid advertising are never sufficient, and getting featured by Apple or Google is highly unlikely. According to panelists at M1, it’s therefore important to supplement app store efforts with other marketing channels, both digital and traditional. 

In an early-morning fireside chat, Mark Suster referenced the ongoing importance of his classic post, Web Second, Mobile First, to industry thinking in 2014. He reminded the audience that “mobile first” means leading with mobile, but it does not mean ignoring other marketing channels.

Many companies have discovered this truth the hard way, per Erin Griffith, moderator of the Mobile Trends Among VCs panel. As a result, they have adopted web-based tactics which would have been even more valuable in earlier stages of growth.

There were also multiple references among M1 panelists about cross-promotion as a new channel of mobile distribution. Fred Wilson recently coined the phrase app constellations to describe how companies like Dropbox (Mailbox, Carousel), Google (Search, Maps, Drive), Facebook (Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram) and Foursquare (Swarm) have built portfolios of apps by unbundling their services. In doing so, they’ve also amassed a collective audience which can be used to jumpstart a new app very quickly, thus solving the distribution issue.

But even app constellations come with a caveat, per Semil Shah. New companies cannot afford such a strategy because they lack an existing app audience to draw from. As an alternative, however, we may see the rise of niche app networks created by a complementary group of apps who want to help each other build an audience.

In either case, everyone agrees that app distribution is becoming increasingly complex and requires a big-picture view of marketing. Apps today need to be more creative than ever before and allocate a significant chunk of time (~20-30%) to marketing experimentation outside of app stores.

imageM1 brochure and swag


Another rising theme in mobile is making use of the bevy of data that is collected by mobile devices. Privacy concerns aside, most companies are actually doing very little with this information to add value to the customer experience, which often results in low engagement rates and abandoned apps.

Steve Rosenblatt of Foursquare believes that mobile data needs to be paired with smart, relevant content. The new Swarm app, for example, sends people notifications when their friends are making plans nearby. This not only captures moments of social serendipity, but also gives people the opportunity to connect with their friends at convenient times and places.

Data-driven content is just in its infancy in mobile, but it has a bright future. As apps deal with the constant risk of fatigue and rely increasingly on messaging to engage their audience, they will continue to seek ways to keep their user experience fresh and interesting. To drive these results, they will need to employ data scientists on the quantitative front to make sense of information from hardware sensors and in-app behaviors, as well as editors and content marketers on the qualitative front to creatively articulate this information. I can see data-driven content becoming an important function in the app marketing process.


Last but not least, M1 featured several conversations about the future of wearables. The key takeaway from these discussions was the evolving definition of the term. To many companies on stage, wearables no longer connote hardware, but rather the entire experience built around these products.

This makes a lot of sense, given the shallow nature of the first wave of wearables to hit the market. As companies rush to build devices for every body part and use case (including wearables for dogs), they are forgetting to deliver real value to the experience. People are not excited about basic data on their movements and actions. They need products that fit their style as well as compelling, real-world reasons to put the technology on their bodies, like changing bad habits or improving health.

Wearable Tech: The Next Fashion Frontier panel

In the words of Margaux Guerard of Memi, wearables are challenging because they are often considered fashion accessories. Fit and feel become a prerequisite to the actual technology, turning people off to poorly designed products (or, the vast majority of the market).

Deepa Sood of Cuff adds that wearable are a true extension of a person, which ties them closely to their personality, feelings and emotions. Often, these factors are completely neglected.

When thinking about wearables as an experience, a big opportunity for companies becomes content and community, according to Andrew Mitchell of Brand Foundry Group. Great wearables will not only be great products, but also connect like-minded people and provide them with relevant content to enhance product interactions.

Wearables should therefore include foundational marketing thinking into the product development process and adopt a human-centric approach to design.


There were many other interesting moments at the M1 Summit which this article did not capture, like Mark Suster’s comparison of Apple to ChinaBrian Wong’sassertion that mobile advertising does not work, and Chieh Huang’s suggestion to mobile commerce companies to think more like gaming apps.

I also wasn’t able to attend all panels, including the ones on health and wellness (ft Tracy Harris of Personal Zen + Brian Wang of Fitocracy), million-user mobile apps (ft Michelle Tobin of Rovio) and mobile advertising (ft Jonah Goodhart of Moat), as well as the keynote by Omar Hamoui (Sequoia Capital), but heard positive feedback on each one.

Nonetheless, my experience at M1 was overwhelmingly positive, and it was a pleasure to interact with so many great minds in one place. I have no doubt that the conference will be back again in 2015, and I look forward to the rapid changes in mobile over during the upcoming year.

I’ll wrap up this post by summarizing the M1 MobileFirst Summit in four words, per moderator Seema Mody’s suggestion:

Double McTwist of mobile

imageOver 20 people helped to organize the M1 Summit 

So there you have it, a roundup of the M1 MobilFirst Summit in 2,600 words. See you all next year!


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For further reading on mobile, see the following articles: 

The rise of mobile cards
Anticipatory computing
Touch-free mobile interactions
Lightweight engagement
Unifying app discovery

May 1st, 2014

The rise of mobile cards

It’s hard to experience mobile these days without using a card interface. In just a short period of time, cards have proliferated across the medium. Popular apps like Tinder, Jelly, Swell and Secret have used the design metaphor to define their entire products, while companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have integrated cards into their UI. Many other apps and mobile websites are also embracing card-based thinking, sold on the promise of a better user experience and higher engagement.

Cards are taking over mobile

The problem is that few people can articulate what makes cards special and why they’re so popular. In order to understand the concept, I’ll examine:

  • The broader context of mobile which led to the creation of cards
  • The key characteristics of cards
  • The benefits cards provide to end users

At the end of the post, I’ll present a simple definition of mobile cards. My hope is that this will establish common language around the concept for existing discussions and shed new insights on how the design convention may evolve in the future.

Despite the immense promise of mobile - 24/7 access to people, a bevy of sensors and contextual data - smartphones are still quite difficult to use. Think about how long it takes to wake up your device, input text, search for information, find apps, share content or make purchases. Then think about doing this on the go and in a hurry. It’s often frustrating and inefficient at best.

While most people blame the physical dimensions of the smartphone for a bad experience, that’s only part of the story. An arguably bigger issue is that many apps are not really built for touchscreen devices. They often force too much information into a small screen and don’t fully utilize native interactions like taps, swipes and flicks.

Cards solve the challenges of mobile presentation and interaction. They build on a metaphor that’s already understood in the physical world, giving it a natural and familiar feel, while also embracing mobile for its unique capabilities.

Cards have emerged at an opportune time. As people spend more and more time time on their devices (162 minutes per day at the last count), their frustrations with mobile will continue to grow. It’s unacceptable to think that value derived from mobile is only slightly higher than the effort required to extract it. Something must change, and cards appear to be one of the solutions.

So what exactly is a card? In the physical world, the idea is fairly simple. We can all relate to sitting around a table and playing cards with friends. Most of us also have credit cards and business cards, and some of us have sent postcards or collected trading cards while growing up. Merriam-Webster defines a card as:

Card (n.)
A flat stiff usually small and rectangular piece of material (as paper, cardboard, or plastic) usually bearing information

When it comes to mobile, however, this definition feels both vague and generic. While many of the characteristics of physical cards are transferable to the digital environment, mobile has its own special interpretations. Let’s take a closer look at what defines a card.

  1. Cards are rectangular containers. Per the dictionary definition, cards are often squares or rectangles. In mobile, cards also have four sides and clear boundaries. One of the elements that make them different from news feeds - a competing mobile design pattern - is the presence of vertical constraints (upper and lower borders).

  1. Cards are small and portable. Cards have a size limit that enables them to be both accessible and portable. In the physical world, this is typically defined by their ability to fit inside a wallet or pocket, while in mobile, the constraints are defined by the dimensions of a device’s screen. Mobile cards should also be comfortably accessed with one thumb - the most common way to interact with a touchscreen - and hence also cannot be too small.

  1. Cards house information. Cards can house a wide range of information, from credit card numbers and personal data to playing card suits and athlete statistics. Content on mobile cards can be even more diverse and includes both static media (text, images) and rich media (videos, embedded content).

  1. Cards present information in a structured way. Given their physical limitations, cards can only present a finite amount of information at one time. Therefore, they must contain only the most important information required for a particular context. On mobile, determining what information to include and how to structure its presentation is a big challenge, given the many possible options. It’s no surprise that a larger movement around “single-purpose apps” has emerged to reflect this emphasis on focus.

  1. Cards can be manipulated as a single entity. Cards exists both as single entities and individual pieces of information. This means that a card can be interacted with as a whole, separate from the content it houses. For mobile, this means that certain interactions will be global (entire card), while others will be local (specific buttons on card).

  1. Cards can have multi-directional movement. Because of their inherent flexibility, cards can be moved up, down, left, right, diagonally and everything in between. In mobile, this bucks the general convention of vertical movement and opens up the doors to various interactions based on the natural movement of our fingers.

We can see that cards are a very close reflection of mobile technology in general.  They’re small, portable, rectangular, single-purpose and built for our fingers. In fact, cards may be the most native manifestation of the mobile experience, mirroring both the constraints and possibilities of the medium.

Let’s now shift our focus to understanding the popularity of cards. To do this, it’s necessary to examine the benefits that they bring to end user, or the millions of people who use smartphones. I’ve distilled these benefits to the following descriptors.

  • Glanceable. The structure of mobile cards allows key information to be viewed in a single glance. Viewers can quickly determine the relevance of content and to take action on it, rather than panning, zooming or scrolling just to find what they want. The term “glanceable” is becoming more popular mobile circles, especially as wearables place an even greater constraint on screen sizes and lend themselves to hyper-relevant, contextual bursts of information.

  • Fast. Taking action on information presented in cards is fast and easy, because well-designed cards have built-in controls. Whether it’s tapping, swiping or flicking, the desired result is only a split second away. Speed, as we know, is paramount in mobile, which is often accessed on the go and with one hand. Cards eliminate the friction of web-native interactions (eg typing, scrolling) by using the touch interface to a greater potential.

  • Shareable. One of the biggest challenges of mobile, in the words of Benedict Evans, is “passing things around,” because the medium lacks the URL structure of the web. Cards solve this problem by atomizing content into a shareable object, making it easy to distribute to others. This increases the chances of content spreading virally and gives it greater value over time.

  • Monetizable. Another challenge of mobile is poor conversion rates for transactions. Cards can solve this problem by creating a more streamlined checkout process within their borders, or by simply becoming a digital equivalent of credit cards (eg storing financial information in “mobile wallet”).

In many ways, cards are a new lens for viewing web content. Through their simple structure, they deliver a more natural, intuitive and interactive mobile experience, allowing people to achieve their objectives (find, share, transact etc) more quickly and efficiently.

This brings us to the definition of mobile cards. How can the concept be explained in a simple way, and convey both its key functions as well as its underlying benefits? I’ve used the insights above to synthesize it as follows:

Mobile card (n.)
A small, rectangular container of information that is glanceable and interactive

The first part of the definition explains the functional characteristics of a mobile card. I’ve purposely stayed away from vague terms like “unit” or “canvas” as they leave too much to interpretation. The second part of the definition explains the benefit of cards. I believe that glanceable is one of the defining characteristics of the design pattern in mobile, and also carries connotations of speed. Interactivity, on the other hand, is robust enough to embrace both sharing and transactions.

Born from the frustrations of using a smartphone, cards have quickly become the go-to design metaphor of mobile. They’re simple to understand and visually appealing, and they perfectly accommodate the interactive nature of the medium. While cards won’t always be the appropriate design pattern for apps, they’ve already disrupted several industries and are even influencing the underlying architecture of the web. That’s an exciting proposition, and one that every mobile company - big or small - should heed.

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I'm a founder, marketer and mobile consultant. These are my thoughts on building and growing technology startups.


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