Clutch interviewed Sanjay Malhotra, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Toronto's Clearbridge Mobile, a leading app development firm. He offers advice on everything from brainstorming to launching a mobile app.
When Clearbridge Mobile launched in 2011, they were one of the few app development companies prepared to deliver mobile apps that could handle the scale of enterprise companies.
Sanjay Malhotra, Clearbridge Mobile’s Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, recently shared his observations of how mobile app development has evolved. In this lightly edited interview, Malhotra offers advice into how to make an app, as well as how companies should approach monetization, marketing, and new technology.
When you co-founded Clearbridge Mobile, what did you want to do differently compared to other companies?
In the beginning, customers wondered, “What’s possible on mobile?” and “Why should we be thinking about mobile?” Today, they wonder how they can integrate mobile into their business to drive value for customers, drive down costs, and create a great mobile experience. We saw an evolution.
Mobile apps can drive value for customers, reduce costs, and create a great experience for customers.
Does Clearbridge Mobile require a discovery phase when working on a new project?
We do require a discovery phase. We see a huge amount of value in it.
Enterprise customers tend to believe they’re agile and that they’ll launch a mobile app quickly. But budgeting is not agile, and it’s not infinite. The discovery phase allows us to get all the stakeholders in the same room to define what they want to do. At the end of that two- to four-week process, our customers have a good idea of what the project will cost, as well as dates and deliverables--tangible things that they know they’re receive on a schedule.
Software delivery is always trying to be more flexible, and it works in certain situations. Internally, we are an agile delivery company. We run our engineering and planning sprints according to an agile philosophy, but from a customer’s point of view, planning is really key.
The discovery phase allows us to get all the stakeholders in the same room to define what they want to do.
What have you found to be the most effective strategy for monetizing an app? What factors should companies consider?
The ROI of building an application can be focused on two sides of monetization. One is to drive revenue of the actual app usage. It may be by selling products through the app. It might be through ad revenue or impressions. The other side of it is monetizing by reducing costs of operating the business.
Apps monetize in two ways: through actual app usage and by reducing operating costs.
I’ll use two examples. We have a large media customer. Today, they monetize the app through ads just like they do on linear television. They think about monetizing not by how many ads they play, but by how they keep users in the app longer and whether they’re seeing banner ads or video ads. They thought about it in reverse: They drive monetization by keeping users engaged longer. They’ll create an experience, and then they’ll figure out how to monetize.
In the beginning of a project, it is critical that we know the goals of the application so that we can design an experience that’s great for the end user. That way, we ensure that the mobile app aligns with our customer’s business strategy. We want to make sure that we understand what the business wants to do, and if the goal is to generate revenue from the app, then we should be thinking about that. It’s probably step one as opposed to ‘let’s build this widget and figure out how we’re going to get people to buy it.’
What is your best advice to companies going through the app development process for the first time?
We have enterprise customers who think of a mobile app as a website. A CEO might say, “I want a mobile app,” so it gets put on someone’s plate and they go off and start doing something to build a mobile app.
To successfully launch a mobile application, you have to build a business case and marketing strategy. The advice of “build it, they’ll come” is not true. If you don’t spend any money after you launch the app, you’re one in three or four million apps in the App Store. No one’s going to know that you’re there unless you drive awareness.
A mobile application is very different than a website. Mobile is the hub for your organization. For example, we built an application for a large enterprise customer, and it touched every aspect of their business, from marketing to technology, branding to operations. Normally, marketing wouldn’t talk to operations, but now they have to be in the same room.
My advice would be to make sure that you start off with a small project that you can launch and market successful, grow your user base, and then have measured incremental growth of that product.
That evolution might start with an app that is similar to a client’s website. Then they may add engagement features like push notifications. Next, customers might be able to buy a gift card in the app or pre-order a meal through the app. It’s those incremental steps that lead to success.
There has to be a global goal that needs to be accomplished, and then we put that into finite deliverables.
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How do you recommend companies market a new mobile app to their potential users?
If I had my way, I would ask every company to come up with an omni-channel approach while meeting their customers’ needs. In this approach, a business ties together all the digital aspects under one umbrella to focus marketing the key features, functionalities, and benefits of the mobile app to customers.
Companies should market the key features, functionalities, and benefits of the mobile app to customers.
A challenge most organizations face is that they have silos that generally don’t speak to one another. For example, they launch a mobile application, but if someone visits their website on their mobile phone, nothing informs them that there’s a mobile app available. Or, they’re not speaking to each other to come up with a strategy to market the brand. They might be thinking about how to get more impressions on the website and more users on the mobile app, but they’re not talking to each other to drive each other’s value proposition.
Mobile is new to many enterprise organizations. It’s been quite disruptive, because it’s not like a website, where you can fix it once and it’s out there. With a mobile app, you’re introducing additional processes like launching into the App Store. You have an iOS app, you have an Android app. It introduces a whole slew of additional workload on a team that is still currently stretched on doing web. From a marketing perspective, companies need to make sure everyone is aligned in driving the app.
At the beginning of the process, we usually ask our customers, “What does success look like?” Many do believe that if you build it, they will come, and they don’t have goals. If I say to them, “Six months after launch how many users do you want?” If their reference point is to get 1 million impressions on the website a month, we might make a goal of getting 10% of web visitors to download the mobile app.
You need to set those goals and find a strategy to get to them. If you’re going to get 100,000 people to download your app, you’re going to have to have a budget that supports that goal.
Are there any common misconceptions you have observed when it comes to the app dev process?
Many businesses believe they can launch a mobile app without making any fixes or adding features or functionalities. That is a misconception. The other misconception is around the experience. Because many of our clients are focused primarily on web, they think the mobile experience should follow the web experience. We are always looking to break that mold so that people understand that a mobile app should always provide a distinct experience.
When someone launches your app and wants to do something, you should be able to do it in a period of five seconds. The rationale is that if my mom calls as I launch the application, I might forget that I’m in the application. You can’t develop a process flow that requires too many steps. If it takes eight clicks to accomplish something on a website, that doesn’t mean it will also work on mobile. We are always trying to break that misconception between mobile and web. Overall, you have to think about mobile differently.
If you’re not willing to accept that you’ll be constantly tweaking to make that experience better, you’ll end up with a failed product.
We also encourage our customers to launch a mobile app and then measure its success. Once you launch a mobile app, you can measure its success using analytics and know if you’ve done the right job. It’s a challenge to build something perfectly the first time, and if you’re not willing to accept that you’ll be constantly tweaking to make that experience better, you’ll also end up with a failed product. Measurement is the key to any success in whatever you end up doing.
How do you think app development has changed, and where do you think it’s heading next?
My team and I stay motivated by focusing on the breadth of clients and the problems we’re trying to solve. The exciting part is that we never solve the same problems twice. Every customer comes to the table with a different set of challenges. That’s what keeps the business and the team engaged.
We’re also excited by how rapidly the industry is changing. If we had this call 6 or 12 months ago, building AI [artificial intelligence] into my mobile application would have been extremely difficult and costly. Today, for pennies on the dollar we can incorporate Microsoft cognitive services, Google services, or Amazon services that use AI to make a mobile experience more intelligent, anticipate users’ desire and needs, and present information in context that we couldn’t do 12 months ago.
We see an ever-increasing pace of change. The folks at Microsoft put out press releases, but the only way to know what’s happening is to keep up with their blog. Even the people we work with say, “I didn’t know that service launched last week.” Things are happening so quickly. That keeps our customers highly engaged.
We see technology moving much faster than any enterprise is ready to adopt, but it’s our job to make sure our clients are aware and educated. When they’re ready, we can demonstrate the value in the next wave of transformation for mobile applications.
Is there anything else you have learned that you wish more clients knew?
I think that mobile is still the driving force for many businesses, and that number is increasing. The value that an enterprise customer or an SMB customer gets from their mobile experiences is increasing faster and faster. We don’t really see a stop to it.
Many people have said mobile is going to die, and everything is going to the web. They say there will be fewer apps, and people will be browsing responsive websites. We don’t see that. What I see is still the first or second inning of what’s possible on mobile.
We see people who want very targeted, engaging applications. AI is peeking its head through, and we see it helping our customers build better mobile applications. Voice is the next interaction point, with Google Home and Amazon Alexa. All these things are keeping everyone on their toes as to what will be possible.
We're in first or second inning of what’s possible on mobile.