Thinking back on 2010, the smash hit of the iPad and the continued proliferation of great iPhone and Android apps was one of the most striking aspects of the year. As a user, I have fallen in love with five apps and find myself using them almost daily. Millions of others are discovering these apps – and others like them.
But the gap between product success and business success is a large one. There's an old saying in the venture capital business: "Fund great companies, not great products or great features." The key question for 2011, therefore, is whether these great apps will mature into great companies. Will they cross the chasm and move beyond the early adopter market into the mainstream market? Will they build sustainable business models? Twitter and Facebook were in a similar position a few years ago – great utilities that initially felt niche, and are now on their way to becoming great companies (OK, some of you will argue that Twitter still has a ways to go, but you have to admit, turning down $1 billion from Google in April 2009 is looking like a good decision in retrospect given the latest round of financing, led by Kleiner Perkins, at a $3.7 billion valuation).
So, here are my picks for the Top 5 Apps of 2010 that will face the challenge of becoming great companies in 2011:
- Flipboard. If you aren't addicted to the Flipboard app on the iPad, you can't consider yourself an information junkie. Beautiful graphics and layout characterize this app, but what makes it brilliant in my opinion is they way it turns Twitter and Facebook into curated content channels. I am naturally interested in reading the articles the editors of the New York Times and the Economist think I should read. But I am also interested in reading the articles my friends are linking to in their tweets and posts – they are also relevant editors and curators for my interests. The Flipboard business model is obviously still evolving and the leadership and backing of this company suggest they need to be taken seriously as a next generation content curation cum general information browser.
- FourSquare. I have long admired FourSquare and as part of my part-time duties at Harvard Business School, I decided to co-write a case on the company, which I will be teaching in a few months. As part of this effort, I had the opportunity to interview the management team and learn more about the company's history and future plans. The vision for the company is compelling and what appears in the application today is a fraction of the possible (Dennis Crowley observed that he has only implemented something like 20% of his 2004 NYU thesis on location-based services). 2011 will be a pivotal year for the company to turn some of their business model experiments into something scalable.
- Instapaper. The only one on my top 5 list that isn't venture-backed (as far as I know), I love this app. It allows users to bookmark things to be read later and then turns those links into an attractive content layout – in effect, your own newspaper. The benefit is immediate and obvious. The long-term business model isn't immediate and obvious to me yet, but perhaps it will emerge in 2011.
- TweetDeck. I am totally addicted to TweetDeck. This leading Twitter desktop and mobile app claims to have millions of subscribers. When I am visiting start-ups, I often notice employees have three apps open and running at all times – Google Chrome, Facebook and TweetDeck. I use TweetDeck to pull in my Facebook updates so I can keep track of my friends and those I follow on Twitter in one app. Again, 2011 will be a critical year for them to begin to scale their business model. Twitter hasn't yet tipped mainstream but is well on their way. TweetDeck is following close behind.
- Disqus. Another quirky pick, perhaps, but I think Disqus is awesome as a blog response tool. I use it for my own blog and I love when I see it on others' blogs as it makes it so easy for me to respond via email off my mobile device and track feedback. I don't know how they make money and I presume they're still in lean start-up mode given how little they've raised (only $500k according to Crunchbase), but as a user I'm finding myself as dependent on Disqus as I am on my blogging platform.
So those are my picks for great apps in 2010. What are yours? Will any of them become great companies in 2011?