Technology

The Downsides of Awesome Apps

By / Dec 22, 2015 (iStock Editorial/Thinkstock)

That cool app you downloaded the other day may seem like a huge productivity boon for you or your association, but before you get too excited, remember: If you want something to stick around for a while, you should consider paying for it.

Hi, my name is Ernie Smith, and I have a problem. I’m obsessed with apps. Big apps, small apps, apps that make my life easier, apps that make me think in new ways, and apps that totally waste my time.

Because of that, when I go to ASAE events—such as last week’s Technology Conference in National Harbor, Maryland—I generally make a point of hitting the app-finding sessions by Beth Ziesenis, who has become the maven of all things apps in the association space.

She’s nerdy in a completely different way from me. Her sessions are generally a lot of fun, and I think she does a great job getting people thinking in terms of the myriad small “helper” tools that can save the day. Some of these tools—Evernote, Trello, Dropbox—are pretty mainstream at this point. Others are a bit younger, and still waiting for their big moment. From my point of view, these sessions are often good for getting a read on how people are embracing these awesome apps in the association space.

I’m probably as crazy about apps as Beth is, though her schtick is way better than mine. I read Product Hunt daily, and I’m always looking for alternatives to the tried-and-true. Sometimes, the results blow my mind. (A personal favorite at the moment is the social bookmarking tool Refind.)

When Awesome Apps Falter

But these apps, awesome as they are, often have a big problem.

Just because a new tool gets a lot of quick buzz does not necessarily ensure its survival.

See, just because a new tool gets a lot of quick buzz does not necessarily ensure its survival. In fact, many of these platforms—reliant on investor money and the hope of an eventual exit—will likely fail, and it’s not clear which ones will survive. A series of recent platform shutdowns highlights this issue pretty well:

Mailbox, the email app that launched with much buzz a little less than three years ago, was a major acquisition by Dropbox in 2013, which bought it for roughly $100 million. But Dropbox changed direction, instead putting more energy behind a revamped version of another one of its acquisitions, Hackpad, which it is turning into the excellent Dropbox Paper. Despite the huge amount spent on Mailbox and its cult of popularity, Mailbox was the odd man out—and Dropbox announced it was cutting it off earlier this month. Start to finish, it had no business model.

Prismatic, a company that had ambitiously used machine learning to surface relevant news stories, was a personal favorite of mine, and a tool I personally used daily to find stories relevant to the world of associations. Problem is, the business model it relied on—the use of affiliate links to monetize the content it was providing—failed to reach the necessary level of scale to make the platform sustainable. Earlier this year, Prismatic announced it was pivoting to a business-to-business model that took its machine learning skills and applied them to specialized realms like financial research and revenue optimization. Earlier this month, the company announced the news reader was shutting down entirely. (Boo.)

Topsy, a social search tool that was particularly useful for resurfacing old tweets, was bought by Apple back in 2013 for $200 million. It survived for roughly two years, until last week when Apple unceremoniously shut it down. The problem with Topsy, which had a business model in the form of a pro version of its analytics suite, was something of an external problem: It had extremely valuable data, but Twitter wanted to have more control over that data, so it bought Topsy’s biggest competitor, Gnip, last year. That meant that Topsy was eventually destined to lose access to that firehose. For those who wanted that access, it was endlessly frustrating.

Endless frustration is potentially the name of the game when you’re relying on an app without a future that’s spelled out.

The key factor in all of these situations—even if the circumstances differ—is that these startups were all, in one way or another, living on borrowed time and/or investor money. No matter how good their technology was, there was some sort of factor, usually funding-related, that ensured they would struggle to stick around past a certain expiration date. Companies that we rely on daily, like Facebook and Evernote, each had similar problems at various points in their existence.

But the problem is, too many startups don’t ever solve the problem of sustainability. And the reason for this, quite often, is the fact that we, as consumers, don’t value their tools nearly enough. Actually, that’s half-true—we totally value their tools. The problem is, we often don’t put a dollar value behind that value as a way of backing it up.

Sometimes, it’s because we’re not necessarily given an option to do so. An example I brought up a while back on this front was Editorially, an editing tool that, frustratingly, shut down before anyone had a chance to pay for it.

In the case of Mailbox, this was part of the issue, but not the whole enchilada. Dropbox bought it for a huge sum, then failed to deeply integrate it with the rest of its offerings, essentially treating it as a good idea without a home.

This state of affairs is so common that there’s a Tumblr dedicated to startups that shut down, mocking the often-overwrought language used when these startups disappear.

Invested? Be Willing to Pay

Let’s compare this state of affairs to how associations deal with their major vendors, who often have tens of thousands of dollars invested in a single system. Often there are contracts involved with vendors, putting them on the hook for a certain level and quality of service.

And there better be—because your association is spending tens of thousands of dollars per year essentially to ensure that product continues to exist, and that vendor will support it (and you). If it disappears, it could disrupt your workflow, your services, even your income.

There’s a good reason you wouldn’t start using a single platform to run your organization’s internals that you saw on a site like Product Hunt, no questions asked. There’s a level or research needed before you go with any solution, and you ultimately have to do your homework.

Part of that homework is knowing you’re not dealing with a fly-by-night operation, no matter how cool its offering is.

Keep Yourself Safe

That said, there’s always a chance that even a well-established service is going to die, no matter how fundamental its offering—something I highlighted last year when archivists attempted to save data from the faltering Twitpic.

The way to keep yourself safe if you rely on a vendor’s assets is threefold:

1. Ensure that the startups you use allow you to export your data, preferably in an open format. Startups sometimes may offer feature sets that may be unique, but most of the time, you’re working with companies that offer approaches slightly different from or at least compatible with other platforms. Do your research and ensure that you can take your data elsewhere if needed.

2. Know your rights as an end-user. Most app providers will have legalese on their sites or elsewhere—in the form of end-user license agreements (EULAs). Those documents regulate the way that they deal with you as a consumer, and if you’re relying on their product, it’s probably a good idea to understand how it affects your usage.

3. If you’re willing to pay for a service, say something! Too often, startups try everything under the sun to make money except directly asking their users to pay money for their services. If you think there’s a business case for putting money in a startup’s pocket, tell them. They listen to this kind of feedback.

Now, this is not to say that every app you download on your phone or plug into your browser needs to have a legal strategy behind it—by all means, there’s nothing wrong with dabbling!

But if it turns out to be something more than dabbling, more thought has to go into the process. Someone has to pay for it—if it’s helping your organization, why shouldn’t you?

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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