Nikita Bier is the founder of TBH and Gas, two social apps that were acquired by Facebook and Discord for millions of dollars. After 10 years building consumer apps, Bier has invaluable insights on what it takes to create a hit.
In a recent Twitter thread, he shared his top tips on building, testing, and growing social products. Here are 11 tips from Bier's thread on how to build successful social apps.
Bier stresses the importance of having "a reproducible testing process" as "more valuable than any one idea." As he puts it:
Innovate here first. All things equal, a team with more shots at bat will win against a team with an audacious vision.
He argues that most ideas fail because "the conditions to derive value are impossible to orchestrate." Getting a critical mass of engaged users is difficult but essential:
Getting 7 adult friends to install an app on a reproducible basis is non-trivial. If you can figure out how to do that, that's a bigger idea than your original concept.
The team's ability to quickly test and iterate is more important than the originality of the idea itself. Build processes to turn ideas into prototypes rapidly and gather user feedback. Progress depends more on effective testing than sheer vision.
Action: Establish a regular cadence for testing product ideas with a small group of engaged users. Rather than relying on a large beta test, iterate rapidly with a trusted group to validate assumptions.
Question: What are the 1-3 key value drivers that must be proven for this product concept? Identify the riskiest parts of the idea and focus tests on validating those.
Contrary to some advice, Bier advocates for starting niche instead of mass-market:
Don't be embarrassed to have a narrow target audience. All big things grow from small wedges in the market.
He warns not to "launch nationwide to test your product" since you'll "prematurely exhaust your audience's attention."
If your product works in one community (like a high school), it should work in all of them. If your products fails in three communities, it should fail in all of them.
When launching a new product or service, it's often better to start by targeting a specific, niche audience rather than trying to appeal to a mass market right away. Going narrow allows you to refine the offering, build word-of-mouth, and make efficient use of limited resources.
- Question: What tight-knit community or specialized group of potential users could serve as an ideal initial market for my business idea?
The goal is to gain maximum traction and learning focused on a beachhead segment first, before expanding more mass market.
Bier stresses the importance of well-designed tests that provide actionable data:
Nothing slows down teams more than inconclusive tests. If you're walking away from tests & saying "maybe we needed more downloads" or "people needed more friends"—then your biggest priority should be fixing your testing tactics so you can decide to pivot with conviction.
Inconclusive tests are a waste of time and resources. They do not provide clear data to inform decisions about product development. Teams should design tests that have clear goals, metrics, and success criteria.
Action: Research and learn from successful examples of testing tactics in similar domains or contexts. Use tools like A/B testing, user feedback, analytics, etc. to measure and validate our assumptions. Define and communicate the expected outcomes and thresholds for each test. Review and analyze the test results and decide whether to pivot or persevere.
Question: What are the key assumptions that must be validated for this product concept? What are the best ways to test these assumptions?
According to Bier, "the people and content on an app always trump slick design & novel interactions." He advises entrepreneurs to "focus more on getting network effects and solving the "cold start.""
You should be filtering your product ideas by whether you have a distribution channel and if they can grow.
The value and success of an app depend largely on the quality and quantity of its users and content. Entrepreneurs should prioritize building products that can attract and retain users, and facilitate interactions and engagement among them.
Action: Identify and target the most relevant and potential users for our app. Provide them with a clear and compelling value proposition and a smooth onboarding experience. Encourage them to create and share content, and to invite their friends and contacts to join the app. Use feedback loops, gamification, personalization, and social proof to increase user satisfaction and loyalty.
Tip: Focus on building a product that can attract and retain users, and facilitate interactions and engagement among them.
Question: What are the key value drivers that will attract and retain users? How can we encourage users to create and share content, and to invite their friends and contacts to join the app?
Bier notes that "excessively long sign up flows are fine if it leads to higher activation rates" since "most people don't bail after installing something."
The length of the sign up flow is not as important as the quality and relevance of the information collected. A longer sign up flow can help filter out low-intent users and increase the activation rate of the app.
- Question: How can we optimize our sign up flow to collect the most valuable and necessary information from our users? How can we measure and improve the activation rate of our app?
4 Ways to Optimize Sign Up Flows:
- Analyze Variations: Test different sign up flow variations to determine the most effective number and type of fields.
- Clear Communication: Ensure the language used is clear and concise. Provide feedback and guidance throughout the process.
- Incentivize Completion: Offer incentives and highlight benefits to encourage users to complete the sign up.
- Track Metrics: Monitor the activation rate and other relevant metrics, and use this data to refine the sign up flow.
Products need "recurring organic exposure on other networks" to drive habit formation, Bier argues:
Habit formation requires recurring organic exposure on other networks. Said another way: after people install your app, they need to see your content elsewhere to remind them that your app exists (e.g., Instagram photos on Facebook, TikTok videos on Instagram).
He also advises designing apps for distracted mobile usage:
If you can't use your app from the toilet or while distracted—like driving—your users will have few opportunities to form a habit. There is a graveyard of live video apps that didn't make it because of the attention they require.
Habit formation is critical for the success of any app. Design products that can be used in short bursts and provide recurring organic exposure on other networks.
4 Ways to Build Habit-Forming Products:
- Short Bursts: Design products that can be used in short bursts and provide recurring organic exposure on other networks.
- Recurring Exposure: Provide recurring organic exposure on other networks to drive habit formation.
- Distracted Usage: Design apps for distracted mobile usage.
- Feedback Loops: Use feedback loops, gamification, personalization, and social proof to increase user satisfaction and loyalty.
What underlying needs do successful apps meet? According to Bier:
People download apps to solve core human needs (1) finding love, (2) making or saving money, and (3) play. People rarely take time out of their day for anything else.
In particular, he warns:
Never build an app to "meetup with friends."
Successful apps solve core human needs like finding love, making or saving money, and play. Avoid building apps that don't meet these needs.
- Question: What are the core human needs that our app meets? How can we ensure that our app provides a clear and compelling value proposition to our users?
4 Ideas for Solving Core Human Needs:
- Finding Love: Help people find love by connecting them with potential partners. Examples: Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, etc.
- Making Money: Help people make money by providing them with opportunities to earn income. Examples: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, etc.
- Saving Money: Help people save money by providing them with opportunities to save money. Examples: Honey, Rakuten, etc.
- Play: Help people play by providing them with opportunities to have fun. Examples: TikTok, Snapchat, etc.
Bier advocates clearly targeting a specific audience instead of trying to appeal to everyone:
The only way to push through the noise of the App Store is to be unapologetic about marketing to your first users. If your first users are Berkeley students, go ahead & call the app Berkeley Memes. It's hard enough to get the flywheel spinning without being obnoxiously relevant.
Most apps fail because they try to appeal to everyone instead of focusing on a specific audience. Be unapologetic about marketing to your first users and clearly target a specific audience.
Here's a look at how some apps could be positioned for a global audience vs a specific audience:
|Todo app for students studying for exams
|Dating app for people in their 30s
|Tech news for developers
|Best laptops for students in 3D design
|Fitness app for postpartum mothers
|Budgeting app for couples
|Language app for digital nomads
|Meditation app for busy professionals
|Music app for classical music lovers
|OG image generator for developers
|SEO tool for content marketers
|AI Girlfriend for NSFW chat
|Social media for teens
|Gradient Wallpapers for iPhone 14 Pro
Great products "take off by targeting a specific life inflection point, when the urgency to solve a problem is most acute," says Bier. He cites examples like:
Facebook ➝ Starting at a schoo Linkedin ➝ Getting your 1st job Slack ➝ Starting a company"
More than just targeting a specific audience, great products target a specific life inflection point when the urgency to solve a problem is most acute.
|Life Inflection Point
|Starting at a school
|Getting your 1st job
|Starting a company
|Moving to a new city
|Entering the dating scene
|Planning to travel abroad
|Planning a vacation
|Starting to commute
|Developing a reading habit
|Starting a weight loss journey
|Managing finances independently
|Seeking stress relief
|Joining a book club
What early adopters exhibit the most obsessive behavior to kickstart growth? Bier advises going after "gamers, teens, and hobbyists" since you "need this obsessive engagement at the beginning to get the flywheel spinning."
He also notes that "the number of social products that took off among older audiences can be counted on 1 finger. Our habits become immutable as we exit our formative years."
Ideas: Go after gamers, teens, and hobbyists since you need this obsessive engagement at the beginning to get the flywheel spinning.
Despite the dominance of big tech companies, Bier sees plenty of opportunities for startups:
Don't worry about Facebook: incumbent advantage is frequently overstated. Well-crafted products that harness unique distribution channels can take the world by storm—sometimes in a matter of days. And if the product is retentive, investors will line up to bankroll your growth.
Despite the dominance of big tech companies, there are still plenty of opportunities for startups. Well-crafted products that harness unique distribution channels can take the world by storm. You have to be creative and find ways to differentiate yourself from the competition.
In summary, Bier provides invaluable tips for optimizing your chances of app success by focusing on testing, targeting niche audiences initially, and solving real human needs. His thread shows that opportunities still exist for smart entrepreneurs, even in Facebook's shadow.
Here are 5 final key takeaways from the article:
Focus first on testing and iterating rather than original ideas. Establish processes to rapidly prototype and get user feedback.
Start by targeting a specific, niche audience rather than mass market. Refine the offering and build word-of-mouth with a tight-knit segment first.
Design tests that provide clear, actionable data to inform product decisions. Leave no room for inconclusive results.
Optimize signup flows for activation rates over length. Collect only the most valuable user data upfront.
Build habit-forming products that solve core human needs like finding love, making money, and having fun. Features are less important than recurring organic exposure.