Spoiler warning - Discussing full episode ahead
Note - If you've watched the episode already, you might want to skip to my comments section for each app that was showcased. Everything before that is mostly a recap with some of my feelings added.
After a fairly enjoyable first ever episode of Planet of the apps, I was sold on the premise. I added it to my "allowed list of distractions" and signed up for Apple Music to watch episode 2.
For those of you who don't know what planet of the apps is, it's shark tank for iOS apps. Developers make an "escalator pitch", they literally ride down an escalator for 35(?) seconds and pitch their app. They get a yay or nay from the judges and if at least one judge says yay, they get to complete their pitch for a chance at scoring an incubation with one of the judges. This ultimately leads to final pitch with the investment firm Lightspeed ventures where things really heat up.
Episode 2 felt like a step up from 1 now that the show's concept had been explained to the viewers. It gave the show some breathing space to focus on the pitches and the incubation period rather than the gimmicks and the judges. There were three pitches that were shown to us this episode and I'm going to break things down idea by idea and add my own thoughts to how things went.
Popeye is an app built by a father-daughter team (John and Violet) that allows you to doodle something on your iPhone and send it to your backpack. The backpack shown had an E-Ink display fitted to it which then displayed the doodle.
This was an adorable if not very convincing pitch where Violet had an idea for having a different design on her backpack as often as she wished. The father brought the idea to life with an e-ink display in the backpack which was connected to an app. The judges assessment of this was pretty accurate. While it seemed useful and almost nifty in terms of functionality, there were some core issues here:
- At the end of the day it's a gimmick. In the state that it was presented in, it would likely become that "thing" the kids use for 2-4 weeks and then gradually forget about.
- More importantly, in it's current state the bag/app combo felt like something that was very "clone-able". The father described the main issue being money required to make it to mass market. The judges surmised that there's nothing stopping a big company with much more resources jumping into this market and taking it over if money was the only factor.
After a short debate, the final verdict was in and the father daughter duo was out. It was a hard moment to watch but it is what it is.
Comments on Popeye
In general I agreed with the judges on their concerns. I was sad that as people pitching to be potential mentors, no one attempted to ask some harder questions to see if the idea could be pushed in a better direction. Breaking it down by concern:
- It's correct to say that this is a gimmick but what could be done to push it out of that zone? Children do latch on to trends and stick with them. It's not like everything lasts only a few weeks. What's the element that needs to be brought in here? Drawing with friends? Playing hangman on the bags? I feel like the base tech was there but just needed some magic Will.I.Am feature creep (more on that later) to really push it forward.
- This in turn breaks away the concerns of making it "clone-able". When the bag was presented all it was was an EInk display and an app that transferred drawings to it. That's basic and can be reproduced by anyone. Network effects are both harder to reproduce and makes it even harder to get people to switch.
Verdict: While I felt the judges dropped the ball on a potential idea here, I still wonder how the market would work in the long run for something like this. History has taught us that toy trends run in relatively short cycles. Tamagotchi, Furbees, slap on wrist bands, are all good examples of trends that came and then dwindled into niche communities. A company like this would need to grow fast, and sell or pivot soon after. I reiterate; with close guidance this could have been a chance to create a new business around "social drawing" which is much greater than the idea of "draw your own different backpack design everyday".
Tracks is primarily an app for the Apple watch. It features a virtual fox that is your pet and he trains with you. The more you train, the stronger your fox becomes. The motivation behind the app was that while all the fitness apps exist out there, none of them are effective in pushing you to go start training. With an avatar that constantly reminds you to train and one that can only be maintained BY training yourself, the hope is you'll want to go train.
There were some interesting moments around the Q&A session of this app
- The app has not been released because Sunny, the creator of the app, wanted a perfect launch. I found it curious why Gary decided to fight for the app later on when he has been vocally negative about people not getting out there. 1>0. Also, episode 247 of the daily vee show.
- Will.I.Am. quite rightfully pointed out that without social, there'd be no stickiness to this app. I feel his intuition on making the fox into a truly iconic brand was an important choice.
After a brief fight between Gary Vee and Will.I.Am (WIM from here on) Sunny went with WIM. I think that was the obvious move given that WIM was in from the start and Gary Vee bounced between his decisions.
This moved Tracks into the mentorship stage which was full of WTF and cringe with some good moments to offset that. The entire mentorship stage seemed to be full of WIM suggesting more and more ideas as Sunny looked on despondently. At the end of the day Sunny and his team mate moved at ridiculous speeds. I find it hard to accept that they accommodated so much change and added so many new things before the pitch. That is a disturbingly massive amount of features to build. Some features suggested/built
- An entire social layer.
- Armour and other decorations for the fox character.
- Fox characters' ability to battle each other.
- Fox's being able to converse, as in talk, with the owner.
- The fox marking its territory in areas while you walk around.
At one point Sunny was shown balking at the numerous ideas but after a candid-ish discussion with WIM, WIM made it clear that these features would make the app "complete". And complete was the only thing WIM would accept. I rewatched this section and WIM's thoughts can be boiled down to this:
If you pitch to investors with an "incomplete thought", where you say sure you'll have all this in the future or you can think about it, you end up leaving it to the "judges". WIM wanted to 'flip the script', and present a complete thought. He compared chatroullete to Snapchat saying that Snapchat was the completed thought that Chatroullete had. I found this comparison hard to take in but I get what WIM is driving at here.
At last they made it to the pitch and they scored a 1M USD investment but not without some interesting comments from the investors.
- The most intense point of focus was that WIM seemed to bring all the ideas to the table. WIM put on some admirable support for Sunny but the judges didn't buy it. The investment was made with the condition that WIM becomes cofounder. Young Sunny, all starry eyed accepted with glee.
- The investors sticking point was the social aspect.
Comments on Tracks
- I'm glad Sunny got WIM as a co-founder and all, but if the show depicted the full picture, there's a strong chance it's not going to be a good partnership. Sunny felt a little meek almost in the face of WIM's persuasions. Which by itself isn't a bad thing. It just depends on where the duo want the balance to lie. Who gets to make the final call? This is important because there are countless examples laying around in post startup burnout stories where the founders incompatibility led to ruin.
- This point was further highlighted where Sunny took his need for help and WIM's success and said that made it hard to say "No". One only needs to look at Lauren from Dote (next section) to know that that's not true.
- The real issue above is that Sunny took Will's ideas but I never felt like he got the concept that Will was driving towards. This idea of a virtual, social pet that would constantly capture you and your friends' attention throughout the day. This felt even more clear to me in the pitch where Sunny listed off feature after feature when queried by the investors about the social capabilities. Which is why I think it became apparent that he wasn't the one driving the vision. No matter how good Will was about it, the vision was all WIM.
- I want to take a moment to share thoughts about WIM's concept of complete and incomplete. This is a 20/20 hindsight and slightly revisionist mentality speaking. His examples of incomplete vs complete thoughts were "Chatroullete vs Snapchat" and "MySpace vs Facebook". I wonder what he thinks of Instagram vs Snapchat then because even with a lesser experience than Snapchat, Instagram blew past the competition with ease. Maybe it won't always be that way but the point is, more than being "incomplete" thoughts initially, the products he mentioned earlier never progressed beyond a certain point. They left themselves wide open to disruption. WIM conflates ideation with disruption theory and is trying to play the entire game now. There's a real danger here which has any number of examples to prove it: building shit that nobody wants. Dilution of product. This isn't to say all is bad in his ideas. But the concept of you can have a "complete idea" is dangerous in the world of software.
Verdict: If this works out it'll be great. At the same time, my first thought was that this app might ultimately fall into the category of gimmicky where it'll have high traction early on before tapering off into a niche community of passionate users. That's not a bad thing. From an investors perspective however, it's not brilliant either.
I'm going to drop a comment here that I'll drop again later. Lauren, the woman behind this was lit af. She kicked everyone's asses. I swear, it didn't matter who challenged her, she did not back down.
So what was Dote? Apart from being the idea with the most clarity by far, you can think of Dote as a shopping mall app. Instead of having to visit Nike, Adidas, or other brands on their separate sites, you can visit Dote and shop for all the brands in one place. On its own that doesn't sound remarkable but then she demonstrated the checkout process. Traditionally you might have been taken to Nike or Adidas' site to complete the purchase. In Dote's case, she had built proprietary tech that would complete the transaction behind the scenes for you. That was dope. Strangely though, Gwyneth was the only judge who swiped right, giving the chance for the best part of this show to happen.
Gwyneth's team at Goop gave massive support to Lauren with ideas on how to increase sales and reach. Some of the points raised:
- The more context you can give around purchases, the better they perform. So seasonal trends should be capitalised on as opposed to making the shopping experience purely passive. If that's not clear think of it as if every time you walked into a physical mall, instead of seeing the same layout, it would have changed depending on whether it's christmas, or valentine's day or even based on what you've preferred all this while.
- Lauren stressed the importance of continuing growth but also increasing/maintaining retention of existing customers.
- Gwyneth brought in the CEO of Shoprunner to chat with Lauren about her product. His main takeaway was that Lauren's vision of bringing the shopping mall experience to mobile was wrong. He opined that it was a waste of the power of the mobile device to replicate that experience of going into one shop and coming out to go visit another. Lauren listened but stuck to her guns because screw that. I was really taken up by the conviction here in case no one noticed.
Come investment day, here were all the stats dropped between the first pitch and the investor presentation.
- In app checkout with proprietary tech. The tech would not require any work from the retailers end to setup
- 2 year old business
- 70k Monthly Active Users (100k total active users)
- 50k USD raised
- 150K USD a month of revenue with 10-20% commission per sale.
- Over 130 major brands signed up
- Conversion rate 3-4 times greater than that of traditional mobile commerce
- Average active user comes back to the app 15 times a month
- An average of 80 products would be viewed per session
- It's currently in the brands for women only market but that was simply a launch strategy. Expanding it to other verticals would be extremely easy because it requires no integration from the retailers end.
Every investor looked at this as a no-brainer. The ask was simple. 500k USD at a 16M USD valuation. The business was such a no-brainer that The judges decided that the ownership percentage wasn't enough and upped the ante. 5M USD for 16M USD valuation (31% ownership). This was when Dote's founders iron will really kicked in. She disagreed and with the valuation and challenged for a 5M USD offer at a 30M USD valuation. She was even questioned about it quite strictly.
"what sort of firm do you think would do 5M at a 11% ownership in a series A? Do you think you can get a top tier Silicon Valley firm to do that?"
She did not back away. Lauren stood her ground and justified her position. Eventually they settled at 25% ownership with a 5M investment at 20M valuation.
Comments on Dote
This is easily the app I'm most excited about so far. It's unique. It's useful. It doesn't have any questions around the business model. And it has a high barrier to entry if some big corp wanted to clone it. And to top it all off, the founder displayed the highest level of conviction in her idea from everyone else so far in the show. So here are the thoughts I had:
- First up, it was pretty disappointing to see none of the judges switch even when they had obviously realised the value of it. Didn't matter that the word "Dope" was thrown around so much. The two people in particular I'd have expected to switch would have been Jessica, and Gary. Gary is all about being a branding powerhouse and something like this would have been great for him.
- That said, Gwyneth being in the fashion retail industry easily makes her the best person for this. So it really did work out well.
- While it was dope to watch Lauren believe in her idea when presented with a contradiction by the Shoprunner CEO, it was still a question worth taking time to answer. Is the user experience optimal? On one hand you have a brand centric approach which emulates walking in and out of a store. And on the other hand you have a suggestion of curated products. I'd venture to say that the hybrid approach suggested by Gwyneth's team is the best. The demography targeted by Dote is brand conscious (even if they are fickle) so making that a top level browsing experience works well. Within that though, being able to tailor products intelligently to surface relevant items is probably a better approach. That said, part of the fun of shopping for clothes is discovering stuff that makes you think "ha! That is really nice". Provided the algorithms don't build anything too clinical, the experience should be great.
I don't really have much to add here. Dote was dope in many ways and it's the app I'm really interested in seeing how it progresses. If Dote can get its foot in through the door and become the officially supported app of any of these brands/retailers it'll be a huge market advantage.
And that's it! Now that I have this review format down, I'll be able to push it out much quicker next time (and with pictures too). The episode should be airing in a few hours and I'll aim to have a review out in a couple of days.