At Neon Roots, we think a lot about strategy. It’s takes up a bulk of our discussion in Rootstraps, and ensuring that we have a sensible strategy as a company is one of our core foundational principles. Strategy is the essence of real growth and progress at a company – time and again, we’ve seen startups fail because they didn’t have the foresight to plan a cohesive, data-informed strategy. To us, it’s largely about the difference between management and leadership.
There’s a parable, which we got from Stephen Covey, that illustrates this dichotomy perfectly.
A team of explorers is heading through uncharted jungle territory, trying to get to a lake they know is nearby. They’re very good at clearing a path through the brush – they work together well and are efficient in moving forward. But one of them has the foresight to ask: are we actually going the right direction? She climbs up in a tree and looks around, only to discover that the lake they’re trying to reach is in the opposite direction of where they’re going. She calls this down to the other explorers, but they respond back saying that “no, things are going fine – we’re making so much progress!”
In this parable, the explorers mindlessly chopping away are managers. They’re very good at accomplishing a task – in this case, clearing a path through the forest. They work together efficiently, and they’re effective in creating a path. But the one who climbed the tree is a leader. She had the foresight and critical thinking to ask the fundamental question: are we actually headed in the direction we want to be headed?
That’s the difference between management and leadership. Managers are great at accomplishing tasks quickly and efficiently. A leader’s job, though, isn’t just to accomplish a task – it’s to make sure the group or company is accomplishing the right tasks in the first place. And in the world of mobile app development, this crucial distinction is often the difference between successfully launching a mobile app and heading straight towards failure.
As an entrepreneur who wants to create and launch a successful mobile app, it’s imperative that you practice leadership instead of pure management. Having a manager as the product owner for an app is asking for trouble. Why? Because they won’t ask the question of whether something is actually worth accomplishing, they’ll just try to accomplish it.
This may not seem like an issue. After all, if you’re accomplishing things, then things are going well, right? In the world of mobile app development, that’s not always how it works.
Let’s think about this in terms of the features of a mobile app. Many of the entrepreneurs or startups we talk to come to us with an idea of what they want their app to do. While it’s sometimes vague, we often see people who’ve built out detailed feature lists. These lists can grow pretty quickly – between social logins, location tracking, messaging services, API integration, and a whole host of other popular features, feature lists can easily grow into the dozens or even hundreds.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a long feature list, but if the product owner is more of a manager than a leader, it can be a death knell. A manager’s first instinct would be to try to create an initial launch of the app with all of the features implemented – after all, the feature list lays out the tasks quite nicely, so the manager wants to accomplish them.
The problem is that features aren’t free. Every feature you add to an app increases its development costs – sometimes by very significant amounts. And while a big long feature list might seem like a good thing, the reality is that not all features add value to the app – and some actually hurt more than they help.
This touches on a core concept for successful mobile app development: separating the features of the app from its benefits. Features are what they sound like – the functions the app is capable of performing. Benefits, on the other hand, show the actual value the app creates: benefits are how the app makes life better for its users.
Let’s take Uber. Uber has a lot of features: you can log in through facebook, pay securely within the app, call a car to your location, and track your driver’s location on a map. But none of these are the core benefit of Uber, which is that it gets you from point A to point B quickly and inexpensively. Everything outside of that main benefit is extra.
So what does this have to do with leadership and management? It takes a leader to ask what features of the app are actually contributing benefit to the user, and it takes a leader to delay the extraneous features and focus in on what matters most to the users. Leaders make sure that the group is headed in the right direction, and when it comes to mobile app development, that means being prudent on what features make it into the app and cutting out as many extraneous features as possible, a process called backlog grooming.
The costs of neglecting this can be huge. Creating unnecessary features can extend the development cycle by months and add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the development cost, making it even more difficult to create sustainable growth. Furthermore, an app bloated with useless features can confuse and alienate users – and any mobile app’s first priority is gaining usership.
In Roostrap sessions, backlog grooming is something we spend a lot of time on. In essence, it’s just applied leadership: it’s about focusing in on the few things that are really generating growth and pushing the app in the right direction, then saying “no” to everything else.
Time and again, we’ve found this to be a successful strategy. In just an hour we’ve worked with startups to reduce their feature list by half – and that means we’re also cutting development costs by half.
The beauty of it is that by applying principles of leadership and asking the right questions, we’re able to do this without sacrificing meaningful functionality. Through market and user research, detailed analysis, and a strategic approach to critical thinking, we’re able to cut down the feature list without harming the app.
This relentless commitment to focusing on what works has had great results, and it’s probably a big part of why Rootstrap alumni are 2,600% more likely to get funded than traditional startups. After Rootstrap, an entrepreneur understands what the actual benefits of their mobile app are, which allows them to pick only the necessary features and build an app that’s leaner, more helpful to its users, and less expensive to build. That’s something investors love to see.
Ultimately, though, the mindset of leadership is about more than just backlog grooming. That fundamental question – are we going in the right direction – should apply to everything you do as an entrepreneur, be it with a mobile app company or any other kind of startup. Ask it of your marketing outreach, of your operations, and even of the core concept and product offering of the business.
Every aspect of a business – particularly a startup – is negotiable. You can pivot any and every part of the business at any time. Accepting anything as a constant is both wrong and dangerous to the health of the business. So as a leader, you have to learn to question everything.
Chances are, if you learn to ask the question of “is this taking us in the right direction,” you’ll end up pivoting a lot of things pretty frequently. And that’s a good thing. If you can adopt that mindset – a mindset of leadership – and apply it to every part of your business, you’ll be ahead of most other startups out there.
Trust us – we see it work every single day.