A Tale of Two Apps

Mon 04 November 2013

Different successes

For checkthis, I worked on two different iPhone apps: checkthis for iPhone and then Frontback. Despite the fact that both apps are essentially social networks where you share stuff (blog posts on checkthis, images composed of pictures of you, and of what you see on Frontback), the two apps have known very different fates in the App Store.

The most successful app is not the one that required the most work: Checkthis took a little more than one man-year (on the iOS side only, the backend work is not accounted for here). Frontback is now at about 6 man-months.

The current Frontback app is catching up quickly (and for some aspects, like the camera options, it already went further) but it still only offers a subset of the features of Checkthis, and at launch it was really minimalist: you had no feed per user, and you could only follow people that you already knew on other networks.

The list of features currently present in the checkthis app and not in the Frontback app is still quite big: comments, hashtags, mentions, a list of notifications, a settings screen, disconnecting your account, a repost mechanism, drafts management. Not to mention that the basic unit, the post, is way more complex in Checkthis than in Frontback (you can have multiple paragraphs, photo legends, polls, customize fonts and colors, etc...)

Nevertheless, Frontback has about 30 times more downloads in the app store, with around 300 000 downloads, in half the time of presence in the App Store. You cannot argue success with this kind of numbers. What made the difference? Obviously, the size of the feature list has not been and advantage for checkthis.

Attempted explanation

I would guess that the main advantage of Frontback is to offer something much more clear to the user. It is a photo sharing app which uses the front and back camera, it shows "You and what you see".

We were never really able to define the checkthis app so briefly: "It's an app to share stories" is the clearer that we ever got. "It is a kind of social network centered around mobile blogging" is the way that I used to describe it, but it really hits too many blocks in the Bulls* Bingo cards to stick in the mind of normal users.

Another important point is that, while doing less things at first, Melvyn, who worked alone on the app for the three first months, focused on getting just right the few things that the app did. The Frontback app has been very smooth from day one.

Finally, and this might be the most important point, I have heard countless times Fred (Fredd, founder and designer of checkthis), mention that the easiness of publication was very important. The fewer taps to get something online, the better. And Frontback, with its simpler formats, requires almost half of the user interactions of checkthis. As Fred puts it: "It just takes a moment, and then the phone gets back to your pocket".

I really think that this simplicity of concept and the smoothness of Frontback are the main explanation of the different successes of the apps. Actually, in terms of launch, Checkthis was rather well covered at first, not way differently than Frontback. Checkthis even had the advantage of this nice little video that Fred spent quite some time to perfect.

But despite a similar launch, and the advantage for checkthis to have an existing user base through the original checkthis.com web app, Frontback went on to a much bigger success, generating more downloads in two days than checkthis in 4 months, all this through nothing but word of mouth and good press. It attracted the attention of celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Jack Dorsey and the company is now moving to San Francisco to optimize its chances to go really big. And it seems well on its way.

Honestly, on a personal note, I did not believe that a simpler concept would be the key to success here. At first, I thought that the idea was even too simple to be taken seriously...

What was probably better for Frontback too is the story around it: the story of a startup that almost died and raised from its ashes with a pivot. Indeed, just before releasing Frontback, the checkthis company was about to go belly up. This makes for a very likeable comeback story, which seems fitting, since checkthis has always been about "Telling stories".

As for me, I have always only been a freelancer for checkthis, despite being emotionally very involved. So it is a bit painful to state that I will soon stop working for checkthis, as they want to build their team in San Francisco in the medium term, and I am neither able nor willing to relocate. So, I had better move on to new things. I understand their choice, but will miss working on this fun project with these interesting people. Thanks Fred, Melvyn, Yannick and all other people involved for the great adventure. In the short term, I will continue contracting work, since exciting new projects have popped up, but as you might know if you read this blog, I also have my own little projects to try to make successful.

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