Knowing when, and how, to pivot (or, why didn’t news apps work?)

I’ve been beating my head against a wall for the last two years trying to make a news app experience work, and despite great reviews, I’ve failed.

So, we’re giving up on the App and focusing 100% of our efforts on a medium that’s resulting in much better engagement — email!

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Why News Apps Failed

Very few people seem to want a dedicated news app, and while my team poured their heart and soul into building what I think was one of the two or three best news app experiences ever, we couldn’t get traction.

We got exceptional reviews, great press, featured by Apple, and tons of glorious feedback from users — but we didn’t have breakout success.

Neither did Circa, Zite, Trov, or Pulse.

Some readers that are part of big companies are still chugging along, like Facebook’s Paper and Yahoo News Digest, but even those well-constructed products are solid but not breakout hits.

News apps failed because social networks succeeded.

People want to get their news filtered through their social network. It’s just easier and more fun to click on news links your friends are sharing than to open a separate app.

Intellectually, you would think that people would have a unique app for each experience in their life: photo sharing, news, shopping, socializing, watching video, emailing, chatting, etc. It turns out that with these social platforms surging, many things are consolidating into them.

Lesson Learned: Social is eating the world. Photos, video, news, and messaging have folded into social, and we all know that Facebook and Twitter desperately want to pull ecommerce into their platforms (but have failed thus far, even though it has worked in Asia).   

The App Business is Hard

To build a truly modern app startup at “reasonable scale” you need to have about a dozen folks: two developers for each platform (iOS, Android, and web), a product manager, designer, a CTO, growth/marketing, and a couple of business folks (CEO, COO).

A dozen people means you’re spending around two or three million a year in San Francisco. My back of the envelope math in guessing how much a startup spends is $12k a month ‘all in’ per person in the Bay Area, $10k outside the Bay Area.

A great hack is to start on just one platform (like most of us do), and spend half that amount. No reason to replicate a product across three platforms before you have one dialed in. That’s one thing I would change if doing an App company again: do just one platform until you’re growing wildly.

Lesson Learned: Master wild growth on just one platform before you launch a second.

How to Pivot

A couple of months ago, I looked at everything we were doing and said “what’s working best?” It turned out that people were opening our email alerts but not our app. So, we looked at the 180,000 emails we had grown over the past couple of years and decided to take the App experience and put it in an email (essentially, what we did with

We segmented our list into people interested in this product and the top 10% of the audience seemed really excited about it. Those people have been opening 50% of the emails we send — and we’re sending two summaries a day.

In month one of the experiment (January), we added 800 emails to our list.

We are almost halfway through month two and we have added 3,900 emails to our list.

My thesis is that, while people like to get news through their social network, a significant portion of people would like to have someone write them a high-quality, top-level summary like the Presidential Daily Brief (which is why we’re calling it the Inside Daily Brief).

The insane thing about this business is that it takes three people to run, not 12 (a writer, a CEO, and a growth/marketing hacker). I’ve got the first two of those positions filled and I’m looking for a growth/marketing person right now.

If you know someone who wants to help me build the Inside Daily Brief to 1m emails, ping me. They need to understand how to do contests, Mailchimp, social media, metrics, and perhaps some paid marketing. (We’re thinking of doing Facebook signups.)

Email me at and answer the subject line “How I would grow”

When to Pivot

If everyone trying to do what you’re doing dies, and you’re still alive, that means one of two things: you figured it out and they didn’t, or you’re about to die.

When examining the market, it became clear to me that, while we were proud of our product, we, like our fellow news apps, were not growing.

In startups, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

It’s really that simple.

So, we were not growing and our competitors were dying — it was time to get out of Dodge!

In Summary
  1. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.
  2. If your competitors are all dying, and you’re not growing, you’re about to die.
  3. If your competitors are all dying, and you’re growing, congratulations — you won!
  4. If you’re going to pivot, look at everything you’ve learned and put everything into the most promising, simple piece of your failed business (in our case, our email list).
  5. Don’t try to do more than one platform at a time; make one work and then go to the next platform.
  6. Please sign up for the Inside Daily Brief and tell me how to make it better.

best, @jason

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